Month: February 2018

Crown Princess Turks & Caicos and Dominican Republic, Anniversary Nostalgia

March marks our one year anniversary, and I am currently swept with nostalgia for the unforgettable experience we had exchanging vows on the Crown Princess, and celebrating in Turks & Caicos and the Dominican Republic. Before we sail again on the Norwegian Dawn to celebrate our anniversary, I am reflecting on all of the fun we have had traveling over the past year, beginning with this cruise on Crown Princess in March, 2017.

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It was a great pleasure to board a vessel as beautiful and well-cared for as the Crown Princess for such an important occasion. What better place than the “Love Boat” to exchange vows?! I couldn’t think of any then, and I still can’t think of any now. Our first sea day was a thrilling experience, one you don’t experience on a cruise every day, as I experienced being walked down the aisle by the Cruise Director, and as we were exchanging vows before the Captain. I felt an intimate connection with the ship and crew as we shared this cherished event together.

After the ceremony it was time to be whisked around the whole ship posing for photographs with one of the ship’s photographers, cursing my high-heeled shoes every step of the way! Of course, documenting the memories of this important day made it all worth while. After a romantic dinner at Crown Grill, bliss-inducing couples’ massage at the spa, and being spoiled by the soothing sight and sound of the water on deck under the moonlight, it was time to become well-rested for two days of exciting excursions!

 

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Amber Cove, Dominican Republic was the first stop. A chance to brush up on my Spanish, become immersed in the brilliantly colored pastel colonial architecture in Puerto Plata, and be surrounded by the friendly atmosphere provided by the equally colorful locals, was a welcome adventure. I was dazzled by the whimsical rainbow of bright color on the buildings of the main square. These buildings were very well-preserved and a joy to behold. It was clear that the people of Puerto Plata took great pride in their cultural heritage and history, and rightfully so.

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After marveling at the historic architecture, we visited a cigar-crafting business which created endless varieties of flavored cigars (something the Dominicans are famous for) and a rum factory that produced rum of several different, interesting varieties as well (tip: the mango flavored rum was some of the best rum I have ever sampled!)

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I was enthralled by the views of the beach and town from the cigar factory, and the views of the lush, tropical vegetation from the rum factory. It was difficult to pull myself away long enough to observe the presentations!

To conclude our excursion, we were treated to a rum tasting and live music and dancing by the locals, a stimulation of multiple senses that provided a fitting end to a fun day docked at Amber Cove.

 

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The next stop was Grand Turk, of Turks & Caicos. Never have I seen such crystal clear waters and powdery sand beaches as I witnessed at Grand Turk. This is an ideal port whether you prefer to take excursions or just explore the port, with beautiful public beaches easily walk-able from the ship, live music, and plenty of delightful shopping. With not one but two excursions planned, we had a full day ahead. We got an early start, spending 45 minutes on this stunning beach, and then headed for our first excursion: an exhilarating horseback ride and swim!

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It would be an understatement to call this a thrilling experience. We first took a regular horseback ride along the beach, riding extremely tame and friendly horses, enjoying idyllic views of the ocean and sand so magnificent I could not even have imagined them. But the moment we were all waiting for was the horseback swim – and it did not disappoint! It was a thrill ride, yet one that felt controlled and safe at the same time. I enjoyed this excursion so much that I am repeating it in a couple of months when I return to Grand Turk.

After returning late from the first excursion and rushing back to the ship to change, it was off to tour the cultural highlights of the island by bus, and yet another rum tasting!

We explored the architecture around town, signature lighthouse, and island museum to learn more about the history. As we meandered from place to place,  waves crashed along the beach that provided an extraordinary back yard to most of these attractions, and wild horses and donkeys displayed their carefree spirit playfully wandering the island. I reflected on our own carefree and adventurous spirits that have us exploring, and I am treasuring the opportunity to spend another year of sharing the joys of travel with my husband and best friend, as well as the new friends I will continue to meet along the way!

Once back on the ship, we enjoyed a tour of the Bridge and more delights in the spa on the second sea day before a (regrettable) disembarkation, and, (not regrettable!) plan to cruise again as often as possible in the coming year!

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New York By Air, Land, and Sea

New York lives up to its name time and time again, because every time I go it is new. It is one of those places that keeps reinventing itself, and that has such an abundance of things to do and see that you could spend a lifetime trying to take it all in. The Brooklyn Bridge invites you into the excitement and energy of Manhattan, and what a grand entrance it provides! Just one of many nostalgic landmarks with a backdrop of ultra-modern – New York City has it all!

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As the buildings tower over you, you feel small, but a part of something so much bigger. As the energy of this massive city flows through you, you feel recharged and renewed. I wandered through the dizzying urban jungle, mesmerized by the wealth of sights and sounds I was surrounded by, wondering what would strike my fancy around the next corner.

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Nowhere is that intense energy and excitement more apparent than in Times Square! Here, all of my senses were overwhelmed by an over-saturation of stimulation, between the forest of brilliantly colored neon lights, to the blaring horns of taxis, to the aromas of the outdoor food stalls… Times Square consumes you.

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The Statue of Liberty is not only the most recognizable icon of New York, but probably of the United States. Gazing at the majesty of her from the New York Water Taxi was a delight, just one of many incredible views that can be had from the ship. It is perhaps one of the best values in town for the person who wants to “see it all.” (“Wants” being the operative word here – I don’t know if it’s even possible to actually see it all… I have heard New Yorkers themselves proclaim such an ambition is a lost cause!) The skyline views from the boat are spectacular too!

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To view the inner parts of the island up close and personal, I opted for a double-decker bus tour. Sure, it’s touristy, but if you want to be whisked around town gawking at amazing scenery and getting off wherever you want for a closer look, it fits the bill. On this adventure, you are exposed to the diverse array of neighborhoods in New York, stretching all the way from Harlem to Downtown.

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But perhaps the most stunning views of all are to be had by air – from the top of the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center observatories.

Fortunately, there is still so much of New York to see, and a return in the near future is in order. “I love New York” is more than a touristy catchphrase, it’s a deeply held sentiment that keeps me coming back for more! Whether exploring by land, sea, or air, New York City does not disappoint!

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Carnival Sensation Cruise with Jamaica: Was Sensation Sensational?

January was the perfect time for a Caribbean Cruise. Trading our snow-blanketed home and puffy parkas for sun, sand, and sea, we were embarking on the Carnival Sensation cruise ship, with scheduled stops in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, and Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands. Was the Sensation sensational?

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Once aboard the Sensation, after a frustrating 2+ hour wait at the Port of Miami (even with “Faster to the Fun”), I was immediately struck by how dated the decor appeared. I began to wonder if I’d stepped onto a time machine rather than a cruise ship. (Think: 1970s-1980s… chic?)

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If you fancy the idea of journeying back in time… or just want a stem to stern tour of the Sensation, watch my full video tour here:

Some aspects of our experience were less than ideal… The 18+ Serenity Deck was anything but serene. People who appeared to be under 18 were partaking in the Jacuzzi, the deck was packed and people were chatting loudly, and one of the Jacuzzis and a third of the deck was roped off, exacerbating the overcrowding problem. In the Dining Room, service was slow, lines were long to get in, and the food arrived lukewarm. Blue Iguana and Guy’s Burgers were my best bets for great meals on the ship, but, regrettably, both closed before or at dinnertime (?!) I managed to get injured by a defective piece of furniture when a glass table top that was not attached to the legs slid off and shattered. I was distraught to experience a bleeding incident on the seas but thankful that sharks had nothing to do with it. The response from Guest Services was egregiously unsympathetic, but the doctor in the medical bay was extremely courteous and friendly and tended to my wounds at no charge. Entertainment on the ship was okay, but compared to other ships I’d sailed on underwhelming. All in all I had a good time on this ship with the exception of the one night I was injured – usually negatives were balanced out by positives – but it wouldn’t be my first (or second, or third…) choice of ship to sail on for future bookings. I can’t give this particular ship a glowing recommendation, but I certainly have no regrets about taking this cruise! I think the worst day on any cruise is better than the best day at home!

Of course, there was more to this cruise than the ship! Venturing on to the ports of call! In the words of Bob Marley, it was “One Love” on this itinerary, because Grand Cayman was cancelled due to weather conditions, and we only stopped in Jamaica. And indeed, I did love it. I booked an excursion from Mystic Mountain: Bobsled Jamaica, which included a rainforest chair lift ride, bobsled jaunt down the mountain, and visit to Dunn’s River Falls. The first activity was the chairlift ride, where I ascended higher and higher into the sky surrounded buy lush green tropical foliage and the enthusiastic chirping of tropical birds. Once high enough, spectacular views were revealed of the ocean, cruise ship, and surrounding rain forest. The ride was both relaxing and exhilarating.

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Once at the top, I was treated to the blissful sounds of live reggae music, the colorful swirling dresses of dancers, and shops and street vendors selling a variety of local wares. Here, I was able to catch my bobsled for a thrilling ride to the bottom of the mountain. The bobsleds were controlled by the driver with acceleration and brake pedals, so this is a great experience for everyone from the most timid to the most adventurous. And who doesn’t want to live an Olympic dream? (Sort of!) It was definitely a “cool running!”

 

After the bobsled adventure it was more entertainment from the live band, this time accompanied by an acrobat, and the trip back down the mountain on the chairlift. From there I waited for the shuttle to Dunn’s River Falls.

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Dunn’s River Falls, perhaps the most famous of attractions in Jamaica, was very different than I anticipated. The description for the excursion indicated that it was “challenging,” however, I didn’t think much of that considering I have completed numerous “challenging” excursions in the past with no trouble at all. But this turned out to be far, far, more strenuous than any excursion I had ever done before. You have two options when you arrive at the falls: hike up the falls in the water or hike alongside the falls by land. I opted for the water – unaware of what I was “diving” into.

The falls are very, very steep and the water pressure is pretty extreme. The guides insist that you hold hands with others in your group on the way up to help deter the power of the water pushing you down or off the cliffs. I found out very, very quickly that, rather than getting “splashed” by the water, you are actually immersed in the water – at some points all the way up to your shoulders. The immersion in the water felt like a metaphor for the immersion in anxiety I felt the further we progressed. Not anticipating the depth of my soaking, I wore long pants and a top – no swimsuit (bad idea!). I had a great deal of trouble keeping steady and holding my own against the force of the water – to the point that it was actually frightening. Luckily, there were “exits” all the way up the falls, but it’s a while before you actually reach the first one.

I admittedly wimped out and exited early, thanks to a medical condition, and after breathing a sigh of relief hiked on land the rest of the way. Unfortunately, the views are underwhelming because at no point can you see the whole falls unless you go up in a helicopter. They change direction and there is a lot of foliage to block the view. I probably would have enjoyed this activity were I free of medical ailments or young – many others appeared to be having a good time.

Back at the meet-up points, vendors hounded us relentlessly. Soaking wet, exhausted, and aching, I was not in the mood for that! Honestly, I’m glad I can say I’ve done this once – it’s something definitely worth doing once, but should I book this excursion again (and I would because the rest was so enjoyable), I would skip the falls portion.

It was back to the ship and two sea days – since we didn’t end up stopping in Grand Cayman. I was able to capture these experiences far better on video, and will be posting a YouTube vlog on Jamaica Friday of this week. There you will be able to see video footage from the chairlift and bobsled and an up-close-and-personal look at the falls. Please subscribe to my channel to stay updated!:  http://www.youtube.com/channel/UC91pXs3Ydbrw5Uc3EFSkO5Q?

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Orlando, FL – a Tale of Two Hotels, an Eye in the Sky, and a Trip Around the World!

Orlando is a city of whimsy, fantasy, and wonder. Here are theme parks that indulge your craving for thrills, excitement, and childlike wonder by day, and nightlife and accommodations to cater to your grown-up need for peaceful relaxation and blissful self-pampering by night. At The Castle Autograph Collection Marriott in Orlando, fairy tale fanciful meets trendy chic. This completely unique boutique hotel floods the senses with fairy tale inspired fantasy, including gargoyles, crenelations, and towers on the exterior, and brilliant colors, furniture and decor inspired by nature and luxurious hedonism on the inside.

After an exhausting day of hiking across the globe at Epcot, the outdoor bar, jacuzzi, and heated pool were just what Mickey ordered. Basking in the warm January sun, I had found the ultimate escape. Orlando poses two perplexing decisions: which theme park to visit first, and, with an abundance of competition vying for your business, which hotel to choose. The Castle is definitely one I will be choosing frequently on future visits.

Right next door to the Castle is the breathtaking and imposing Orlando Eye, standing out like an exclamation point over the city as you traverse the highways on your way into town. Towering over a small neighborhood of touristy restaurants, shops, and bars, it is an iconic Orlando landmark. You can ride it for spectacular views of the skyline, theme parks, and more.

After gaining a birds-eye view of the city, I left the pricey tourist area for a strip mall right next door where I found “China Buffet,” a delicious value a short walk back to the hotel. After having some fun practicing my Mandarin Chinese with the staff, I walked back through the garage towards the hotel, which, to my delight, held an extraordinary surprise!

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Orlando is full of delightful surprises like this. It is also a vast metropolis. On another side of town rises another phenomenal hotel option: the Orlando World Center Marriott.

This is a colossal property with a multitude of restaurants, shops, pools, and meeting rooms. A laser show floods the sky with color over the main pool at night. Here, “bigger is better,” and the size of the lobby, pools, water slides, rooms, televisions, and balconies attest to that. This is a dizzying place to explore, and I enjoyed every minute of it!

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But I couldn’t visit Orlando without a stop at the most notorious Orlando icon of all: Disney World. Intrigued by the idea of traveling the earth in a day, I opted for a visit to Epcot.

True to reputation, lines were long – even in January, although admittedly it was a Sunday. There were rides, shows, and exhibitions involving space, the natural world, and miniature villages representing several countries from around the globe. I have a theory that places like this are for adults, not kids… I witnessed numerous children crying and whining while most of the adults seemed to be having a great time! Epcot seems to be a particularly good choice for the adult visitor, because “exploring the world” is something that can appeal to everyone. The scenes and structures are convincingly rendered, at least from a distance, and while it is not a replacement for the “real thing” it’s a fun way to sample a variety of foreign cultures and architectural styles. “Reflections of China” comes with my highest recommendation for adults. This thrilling film surrounds you with 365 degrees of amazing footage of some of the most spectacular sites in China, with no interruption from cartoon characters (like some of the other attractions here.) Other countries represented at Epcot include Canada, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Norway, and Mexico. Regrettably, my camera battery failed fairly quickly (perhaps not regrettably: now I must return!)

Orlando has a tremendous bounty of places to stay and great things to do. It is the perfect city to return to again and again, or for an extended stay. Subscribe to my brand new YouTube channel for upcoming video tours of these hotels, attractions, and more (hopefully getting better and better as I get used to the platform!):

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC91pXs3Ydbrw5Uc3EFSkO5Q?

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