Cozumel, Mexico: Horseback Ride through Mayan Ruins & Port

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Horses for waiting for the Mayan Ruins ride

Continuing from last week’s blog post, today I have the first port and excursion of the Norwegian Dawn spring break cruise: at Cozumel, Mexico. When I found an excursion that included a horseback ride through Mayan ruins I was sold – I love horseback riding and Mayan ruins! So I thought I’d hit the jackpot there!

The port at Cozumel is huge! There is a lot of shopping, a pool, lots of restaurants, fish pedicures…(!) The downside is that it feels a bit like a tourist trap and feels extremely commercial. So, while I had fun walking around, and definitely had fun listening to the Mariachi band welcoming people off the ship, I didn’t partake in the shopping here.

 

Of course, the real highlight of Cozumel was the horseback ride excursion. Admittedly, the Mayan ruins were somewhat underwhelming in their size, but still very interesting. They consisted of ruined buildings, statues, caves, and similar artifacts. The wooded area was peaceful and, other than the ruins, untouched nature. The horses were very friendly and well-behaved (for the most part…!), and the ride lasted a very satisfying hour. My horse was more interested in food than the Mayan ruins… he was quite the gourmand and intent on giving me the “culinary” tour! Once the ride finished, we returned to the stables for some very rainbow color inspired shopping (at better prices than the port) and a trip to a beautiful rocky beach with a small bar and very relaxing hammocks.

 

There are a lot of activities to enjoy in Cozumel. This was my second visit, and, again, I had to make a decision between many, many choices of what to do. (I visited the Mayan ruins at Tulum last time.) I would say the Mayan ruins (the BIG ones!) are definitely a must on the first visit – but the horseback ride was a very fun second choice! One thing I would not want to do in Cozumel? Stay at the port (for the reasons discussed above!)

I posted a vlog on this visit to Cozumel on my YouTube channel:

 

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More coming from Mexico next week, this time from Costa Maya!

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It’s a New Dawn for the Dawn – Norwegian Dawn Cruise 2018

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Atrium of the Norwegian Dawn

We are fresh back from a thrilling 7 day cruise to Central America out of Tampa, Florida on the Norwegian Dawn, and I am glad to be able to share another boots-on-the-ground travel blog with you after the past couple of posts. This was our second cruise on the Dawn – we sailed the Dawn to the Southern Caribbean back in December (2-part blog post from January is available related to that trip – click January 2018 on the sidebar to find them.) I’d like to provide a review of the Dawn here.

The Dawn went through an extensive drydock in 2016 – and consistent with the title of this post it looks incredible! The ship is extremely well maintained – I noticed absolutely no sign of wear and tear, and there is nothing outdated about the decor which was very fresh, trendy, and modern. There is a dizzying array of dining venues to choose from (5 of which are complimentary!) as well as bars. I felt as though the food in the main dining rooms, Aqua and Venetian, wasn’t as good as it was back in December, but that was okay because we had Bamboo (an Asian restaurant) and O’Sheehan’s (an Irish pub) to dine at instead on the remainder of our free dining nights. There is also a buffet – but I generally do not partake in buffets on cruise ships at all with the exception of breakfast (on any cruise line) because I am not comfortable in huge crowds and found that I’ve liked the food in the dining rooms far better as a general rule. But if you do like buffets, the Garden Cafe on the Dawn has magnificent views, a large selection, and comparatively nice decor for a cruise ship buffet.

One of the greatest benefits to booking on Norwegian are the promotions they offer in their “Free at Sea” program. With an interior cabin you choose one perk, and as you upgrade in stateroom category you get more to choose from. We usually start with the unlimited beverage package for our first perk, and the 3 nights of free specialty restaurants as our second perk (excursions, extra people in your cabin, and wi-fi are some of the other perks). We had an oceanview cabin and were able to book both of these perks, and the specialty restaurants we visited were outstanding. We returned to the Italian restaurant, La Cucina, and the steakhouse, Cagney’s, because we enjoyed them so much last time. We also decided to try Teppanyaki for the first time – where the chefs prepare your meal entertainment-style right in front of you (which you can watch in the YouTube video below!) We also visited Los Lobos again, the Mexican restaurant, for specialty margaritas (the best drinks I had on the whole ship) and homemade guacamole and chips. We really enjoyed Le Bistro – the French restaurant, last time but we didn’t have a chance to return this trip. So many options, not enough time!

It was Spring Break (mine too!) so the crowd was rowdier than last time. “Party hardy” is not our favorite atmosphere – despite my college student status I prefer peace and serenity on my cruises. I didn’t spend much time on the lido deck (despite the good Caribbean band that performed there often) but found a great quiet spot on the promenade deck to relax and contemplate the view. We didn’t need the lido pool because we reserved the Thermal Suite at Mandara Spa. There is an extra cost – but it’s worth every penny. The thermal suite includes a sauna, steam room, pool, 2 different jacuzzis, heated loungers (with an amazing view), and relaxation rooms. (The men’s locker room apparently also has 2 plunge pools that are not included in the women’s locker room – which I was disappointed to discover!) It’s quiet, relaxing, and there’s rarely a crowd. At night we often had the place all to ourselves. The jacuzzis and heated loungers were exactly what I needed after walking and exerting myself all day on excursions and getting around the big ship. I slept so much better after my blissful visit to the spa, all of my tension lifted and my sore muscles soothed!

Another benefit to booking with Norwegian is the stateroom upgrade bid program – where you can tell them what you’re willing to pay to upgrade your cabin and if they have one they can bump you up to they will. We got upgraded from an interior to a balcony last time, but we didn’t have any luck this time (probably because they were fully booked with Spring Break), but we were very pleased with our oceanview cabin nonetheless. It was comparatively roomy for a cruise cabin, had bright, cheerful decor, and lots of storage space. Our steward did an amazing job taking care of our room twice a day for us.

The entertainment was spectacular! Norwegian has our favorite shows for a cruise line. There was a great variety on this trip, from acrobats, to a Vegas-style production show, to magic, to comedy. These were some of the best shows I’ve ever seen – not just on a cruise ship but also on visits to Las Vegas and Atlantic City. We enjoyed spending our nights going to a show, the casino, and relaxing at the bars after dinner.

Staring at the incredible views out at sea, particularly the spectacular sunsets, is another of my favorite pastimes on cruises, and this trip did not disappoint. We sailed through the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea to Cozumel, Mexico, Costa Maya, Mexico, Roatan, Honduras, and Harvest Caye, Belize.

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Sunset View from the Promenade Deck

Service was excellent, and highly exceeded expectations. It was friendly, courteous, and efficient throughout the ship. We were extremely impressed that a couple of the servers even remembered us from 3 months ago!

This time I filmed a complete stem-to-stern tour of the Dawn for my YouTube channel which I have to share with you:

The next several blog posts will cover my adventures at the different ports. I wanted to try some new things this time on excursions, and had an absolute blast! I look forward to sharing these experiences with you over the next few weeks. And two weeks from now we will be sailing again – this time on the Carnival Pride out of Baltimore on a back-to-back to Bermuda, the Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, and Princess Caye, so I will have a lot more cruise travel coverage coming in the immediate future!

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Sensational Travel: Traveling with All 5 Senses

More travel experiences are coming next week (on my way back from the latest adventure right now!) In the meantime, I want to share my greatest tip for getting more out of your travel.

The term “sightseeing” is synonymous with travel. Unfortunately, “sightseeing” is only one fifth, and possibly even one sixth, of the optimal travel experience. We need to remember to really immerse ourselves in our travel experiences by tapping into and noticing all of our senses.

Sure, seeing is the first (and sometimes the only) sense we think of when we think of travel. The sights to behold on this spectacular planet have a way of distracting us from our other senses. But these sights will be enhanced if appreciated in cooperation with our other senses. An obvious example would be watching native dancers. Of course, the dance makes a lot more sense when you are listening to the music. But even when the connection is less obvious, it is still an important part of the total experience, whether it is the blaring of taxi horns in Times Square, the bells of the slot machine ringing at a casino, the crashing of waves against the shore at a remote beach, or the cracking sound as the bat hits a home run ball at the baseball stadium. We often only notice these things as an afterthought. But what if they became part of the forethought? Enjoy the sound of the birds. How many different birds do you hear? And that foreign language people may be speaking – do you hear the rhythms of it? The world is full of interesting sounds, and these sounds can often even tell us a lot about the place they are originating from rather than just being irrelevant background noise.

Smell and taste are often linked, because when we think of aromas we often think of foods. But what if we took a deep breath on the beach and smelled the salty air? Or took the time to smell the flowers in the park? Does one neighborhood smell different from another in this new city?

When we taste in our travels, are we tasting local offerings? Travel is a great excuse to try that local microbrewery beer (or better yet, flight of beers!), that locally crafted cigar, or the local specialty on the dinner menu. That McDonald’s hamburger is diluting your travel experience! Remember how important food is in the culture of a place. The term “comfort food” refers to familiar food in your culture – and emphasizes the importance of the culture your food hails from. What foods comfort the locals in the place you are visiting?

Touch is often not considered while traveling, but there can be many opportunities to do so. Is the country you are visiting famous for their textiles? How do they feel? Are there animals to pet? Is there water, sand, rocks, sculpture, snow, rain to touch? Why not see what it feels like? From the warmth of the sun to the cool breeze brushing across your face, the world feels good!

And what about the sixth sense? Have you ever pondered what your intuition is telling you about the people you encounter? Wonder what that person is thinking, or what they are like, and then ask them! Nine times out of ten I have found locals are happy to talk to visitors. When you can “see” a place through the “eyes” of a local, you are having the ultimate travel experience.

The object or place we are viewing becomes an experience, not a “sight”, when we use all of our senses in our travels. We are completely immersed in a place. That is really the only way to truly “see” the world. If you are not already using all of your senses to travel, give it a try next time and see how it enhances your experience!

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My Polyglot Journey: Language Learning for Travel Top Ten!

 

The start of the new year is the perfect time to re-evaluate our goals, and, along with travel plans, high on my list was my foreign language study for multiple languages, or polyglot journey, both to help facilitate my travel and for the sheer pleasure since language learning is a hobby of mine. One of the greatest feelings I encounter in my travels is when I can communicate with a local in their native language, and their face lights up in delight because it is so unexpected that I have taken the time and effort to learn it. In this article I seek to answer some questions I am commonly asked and provide suggestions of my favorite learning resources that can be used with a variety of different languages, whether you are focusing one or several at once. Bear in mind, my priority is travel – and being able to communicate effectively as a visitor to a foreign country. This differs from common school curriculum priorities (at least in my experience taking 3 languages in high school and 4 in college!)

italian fluenz

Do I need to learn foreign languages to travel? No, not necessarily. English is widely spoken, particularly in heavily touristy areas, not even just among English speakers but between native speakers of two different languages for whom the only common language of understanding is English, since it is so widely taught and learned. However, that should not deter you from learning. Particularly in more exotic locations, understanding the language helps take away some of the culture shock, makes you feel more secure, and facilitates far more engagement with the locals.

Can you learn more than one language at at time? Of course! In a lot of parts of the world not only are people learning more than one language, it is part of the required school curriculum to study multiple foreign languages. Is it more difficult? That depends. I have found that studying very similar languages simultaneously, for example Spanish and Italian, can get confusing. But languages are easy for your mind to compartmentalize when they are very different, and I have found that studying a variety of languages provides for more variety in my learning sessions than focusing on one, making it easier to stave off boredom and keep the commitment!

Should I learn more than one language at a time? That depends on your goals. My primary goal is to study for travel, so I prefer to be able to engage in basic conversation with locals in a lot of different places. Learning multiple languages may also work better for you if you have a short attention span, because it offers more variety to help keep you interested. If your goal is to move to a country, or converse in an ethnic neighborhood that is close to you, you may prefer to work on gaining fluency in one to start with.

But I’m “bad” at languages…! It is not likely you are “bad” at languages. It is more likely that you just haven’t found a learning method that suits you. I hate classroom learning, while others thrive in that environment. When you find a method you can enjoy and that “makes sense” to you, you will want to learn…. and it’s all about practice.

But I don’t have time…! I’m in college full-time, working, blogging, vlogging on YouTube, traveling, and working on languages a couple of hours a day. How? There are 24 hours in a day, 7 days a week. When you subtract your sleep hours and required work or school hours, how many do you have left? But, you may say, “I need to relax, watch TV, unwind!” I have the perfect solution that I will explain in greater detail under my learning methods: foreign language shows, music, and movies. It’s all a matter of priorities, and keeping the time spent on those “time-sink” activities like Netflix (English!) binges, long video game sessions, over-sleeping, and social media engagement to a reasonable level.

Do you have a set routine? No. I find that “forcing” things, by having a schedule of set languages at set times of set days, doesn’t work. If I’m not in the mood for a language, I won’t learn anything and it will be a waste of my time. I just plan to put in a couple of hours at some point during the day, and study what I feel like studying that day. I try not to ignore any of the languages I’m working on for too long though, because then extra time is required for review. I created this chart with the goal of checking off each language at least twice a week, minimum, if possible. Obviously, I don’t have time every single day – particularly if I am traveling (unless I am practicing with locals!), but I make an effort when it is practical. (the “I” indicates intermediate level and the “B” indicates beginner level. Four is my limit for “B” level languages at a time.)

Master Polyglot Schedule

So, are you ready to get started? Here are my favorite tools for learning!

  1. Fluenz (fluenz.com)

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I have been using Fluenz for years, and it is by far my favorite resource for learning languages, for several reasons. For one, it focuses on what you are most likely to need to know when you travel, right from lesson one, unlike many other programs and classroom instruction which may give you irrelevant vocabulary and grammar structures that will be useless when it comes to basic conversation, asking for directions, ordering in restaurants, and the like. Another great thing about Fluenz is the wide variety of activities you engage in during each lesson, so that you never have a chance to become bored and the lesson never feels stale. The lessons range from dialogues, to teacher instruction, to repeating words and phrases, to listening and typing, to typing translations, to matching pictures with words, to matching English phrases with their foreign language counterparts, to microphone activities.

german fluenz

Perhaps my favorite feature of all in Fluenz is the eye-candy factor. The software is chock-full of beautiful photography, of places specific to the language you are learning, to inspire you even more. I find myself wanting to complete a language drill to see the next picture! It is very motivating, indulgent, and makes me look forward to the lessons.

Fluenz may be purchased on disc for use on your computer, used online through their website, or used on tablets and smartphones (in which case the lessons may be streamed or downloaded). So you can bring it with you on your travels! As for downsides, I can only site two. First, the Mandarin Chinese only offers pinyin, so if you want to learn Chinese characters, you will need to supplement the program with other resources.

chinese fluenz

Second, as of the time of this writing, the languages available are limited to: Spanish, French, Mandarin (Chinese), German, Italian, and Portuguese. Both Latin American and European Spanish are offered in separate courses. Honestly, if the languages I wanted to study right now were all available on Fluenz, I doubt I would utilize any other software programs.

2. Transparent Language (transparent.com)

This is my second choice, and luckily one that offers a tremendous selection of languages to choose from, everything from your Spanish and French to languages like Pashto, Zulu, Mongolian and even several languages you may have never even heard of.

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One of Transparent’s greatest strengths is its ability to teach you unfamiliar alphabets and writing systems, whether it’s Japanese Hiragana, Russian Cyrillic, Arabic script, or Korean Hangul. The drills are very effective in teaching you what ordinarily could be a challenging task. Transparent also offers a variety of activities within each level, keeping you interested and motivated. I also enjoy the cultural spotlights. On the downside, sometimes I feel like I’m being “tossed in the deep end” with long structures that seem out of place for the lesson they appear in. But it’s a very competent program overall, and languages are offered with native forms of writing rather than just romanizations like some books and programs. Be advised: not all languages have the same amount of content! Some are very extensive, and others have very limited content but cost the same. You can find out which are which by trying the free two week trial, which gives you access to all of the languages!

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3. Innovative Language (innovativelanguage.com)

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Innovative is another company that does teaching foreign alphabets and writing systems very well. The teachers are friendly and the visuals are engaging.

On your dashboard, you can “pin” the lessons that are of particular interest to you, based on your level, content that is relevant to you, and whether you would like to receive visual and/or audio lessons, for easy reference. This company puts a lot of video lessons up on YouTube, if you want to give them a test drive. They offer a free month trial of their premium offering. They offer a very wide selection of languages.

4. Fluent U (fluentu.com)

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Fluent U harnesses the power of YouTube to teach by corralling videos in your target language, putting subtitles in the target language and English, and using them to teach you vocabulary and grammar, by training you with interactive tools and  quizzes.

The downside to FluentU is that the number of target languages is currently limited, and content for the beginner level, depending on the language, relies on a lot of childish content. FluentU’s strength lies in the more intermediate and advanced content, with interesting adult news, drama, and music videos in your target language.

5. Online foreign language video streaming services: Viki (viki.com) and Arte (arte.tv)

Remember I said you could trade your English TV relaxation time for a time to be immersed in your target language? If you are learning Mainland Chinese, Taiwan Chinese, Korean, or Japanese (or all of the above!) then Viki has lots of video content for you, including TV shows, movies, and more!

viki

Best of all, it’s completely free. An ads-free upgraded membership with bonus content is also available. There is a huge selection of programs to watch!

If your target languages are more of the European persuasion, this is your alternative. With Arte, you can choose which language you want to view the content in, and the videos will show up for that language.

arte

Netflix also has a number of foreign language videos available for streaming.

6. Textbooks and other books

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I have to admit, I have a short attention span for textbooks, but as a supplement to software, video, and audio resources they provide a nice change of pace, and you can dive into them without any particular time commitment, so if you have only a few minutes left in your learning session you can stop when you’re ready. I particularly enjoy these Campus notebooks, which feature a grid rather than lined pattern that is perfect for practicing Chinese characters and Japanese Kanji. It is critical to have your own practice notebooks – the act of recording is a great memory tool, and your writing will look better with practice (especially handy if your target language has a different alphabet or writing system!)

7. Other online resources

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There are a number of other online resources for language learning targeted to specific languages, like this example: the Chinese Grammar Wiki. I like to use Evernote to save my favorites all in one place, with separate folders for each language. A Google search including your language of choice and the topic you need help with should have you on your way to learning success!

8. Music!

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Listening to music in your target language is a great immersion technique. The way that music is packaged in other countries can be very elaborate, and fun to collect. There is also online streaming and digital download, if you do not want to add to your music library right now or just want to sample it.

9. Italki (italki.com)

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Italki is a service that allows you to gain one-on-one instruction with a native speaker. Both professional teachers and native tutors are available at varying rates per hour. Packages are available to purchase multiple lessons at a discount. When you receive your lesson, you will have the instructor’s undivided attention for the length of the lesson, and you are able to request what material will be covered based on your own needs. There is a wide range of price points depending on the language, location of the teacher, how many teachers are available, and whether the instructor is a professional teacher or not. They may even have the particular textbook you are using on hand. This is a great way to get feedback on your accent and get specific questions answered that your other language materials may not have provided the answers to.

10. Last but not least: YouTube!

YouTube hosts a wealth of instructional tools for language learning that are usually presented in a fun, short, format. If I finish with my software or textbook chapter early, I like to fill in the time with some of these videos. There are many great videos specifically geared toward language instruction which you can find using the search bar and the language and topic you need guidance with.

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The other fun way to use YouTube is as a language immersion tool by watching music videos or drama in your targeted language. Create a playlist for yourself of your favorites! (Here is one from my K-Pop favorites playlist, which I am drawn to quite often!)

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Another great way to incorporate YouTube into your language learning is to learn organizational and planning tips from the YouTube polyglot community, which is vast. They have many valuable suggestions to offer for learning materials and schedules, and I find these videos are also inspiring and motivating. It’s psychology – when you see someone else succeeding at something you are more likely to feel as though success is within your own grasp, too. This is “livluvlang,” one of my favorite polyglot YouTube personalities.

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(11). And a note about audio lessons…

I have tried a number of audio resources, including Pimsleur, Glossika, and audio content that is included with software packages like the content included in Fluenz. You will notice that I did not choose audio instruction for my top 10, and I wanted to explain why. Obviously, these systems are ideal for “audio learners” and for people who spend a lot of time in their car because of a long commute or driving job. But I find, as someone not falling into either category, that these programs help a little when I do need to drive but are not efficient ways to learn. For one thing, I become bored with no visual stimulation. Second, without seeing the words or writing the words it is harder to retain them in memory. It’s a matter of personal preference – this may work better for you. I prefer to listen to foreign language music in the car!

(12). Low or no cost suggestions for specific languages…

My goal with this post was to cover options that include a wide variety of languages rather than specific ones, to help as many readers as possible. However, there are a few standout options for very low or no cost I wanted to point out in case you are interested in one of these or haven’t decided yet what you want to study:

Arabic (www.alkitaabtextbook.com):

 

The Alif Baa textbook, and accompanying Al-Kitaab Arabic Language Program companion website, produced by Georgetown University, is an excellent value, for the cost of the textbook purchase plus about $25 for 18 months of website access. This textbook is used in many universities, but you are able to use the book and website as an independent learner as well. I appreciate that the creators of this program acknowledge that classroom instruction isn’t for everybody. My favorite thing about this book is the way that it covers Modern Standard Arabic and two dialects: Levantine and Egyptian. Modern Standard Arabic is very formal, and while you will hear things like news broadcasts in it, it is not commonly spoken in the streets. So ideally if your objective is travel, learning a dialect with MSA will be very helpful. Both of these dialects are widely understood throughout the area because of cultural and media exchange throughout the Middle East. You can supplement this with other options I highlighted in the Top 10 to give yourself greater variety. NOTE: intermediate and advanced levels are available as well – visit the website for details!

Chinese – Mandarin (www.youtube.com/channel/UC9RHneALOnf29DgQ5PCyNdg):

 

Integrated Chinese is another textbook popular with universities, and John Wang on YouTube has a video series which covers every lesson in the book. Take your instructor out of the classroom and put them in your living room! Textbooks can sometimes be challenging to use without instructor guidance, but with John’s help you can succeed! This can be used with other methods mentioned above as well, and Chinese is very well represented on YouTube in many other videos. For the cost of the textbook alone you can get a great start into Chinese!

Icelandic (http://icelandiconline.is/index.html):

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The University of Iceland has put a completely free Icleandic learning program on the web. Icelandic learning materials are some of the hardest to find, so to find one that is free is cause for celebration! There are a few textbooks out there you could supplement the program with.

Best of luck in your language learning journey this year! I hope these resources will help you get the most out of your independent language learning ambitions and, in turn, your travel experiences!

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Boston: Revisiting the Past in the Present

 

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Marcel Proust wrote that the “real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” When you return to your hometown after an extended time, you return with a new perspective – one that is shaped both by nostalgia and expectations based on your current frame of reference. Memories are like the Peanuts character Linus’ security blanket – it is comforting to return to find things the way you left them, like time stopped and preserved home the way it remained steadfast in your memory while you were away. Of course, it is more likely that things have changed… Some changes will be welcomed, others may shock and dismay. It can leave you feeling emotional and even conflicted the way a visit to another destination can’t. But all in all, it can be an incredibly rewarding experience revisiting your past in the present. I am able to have that experience when I return to my hometown of Boston.

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Like my memory of Boston, Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market (shown above) are an example of Boston institutions and historic landmarks that seem to have evaded the passage of time. Surrounded by towering skyscrapers, time has stopped here as sure as the time on the clock tower of the Customs House nearby ticks on. In Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, vendors and stores bustle with activity – selling souvenirs, gourmet delicacies, and all kinds of wares while waves of crowds juggle shopping bags of delights. Street musicians and performers display their skills outside while the bars prepare for a rowdy night of feasting, feting, and fanfare in this nightlife-loving college town. It is a place teeming with energy and anticipation for a fun night ahead, just the way I remember it.

One of my favorite aspects of Boston’s landscape is the way that architecture from many different periods of time coexist in dazzling harmony. Above are the Old State House and the new State House, both surrounded by much newer structures, and emphasizing the timeless quality of Boston – grounded in history but modernistic and avant-garde at the same time. Boston is a rich patchwork of the old and the new.

At first glance, Copley Square looked a lot like I remember, surrounded by the old and new John Hancock buildings, Trinity Church, Copley Plaza, the Boston Public Library, and Old South Church. But appearances can be deceiving. I attempted to enter Trinity Church, which had always welcomed visitors through their doors: parishioner and public alike, just as I had done for so many years many years ago. But upon entering I discovered that a partition had been installed to direct visitors through the gift shop to a ticket station where purchase of a $7 ticket was required for admission ($5 student and senior discount). It reminded me of a theme park ride that corrals people through the gift shop on their way in or out – so commercial, and so out-of-place in the setting of a building which had been an inviting sanctuary to so many for so many years. As a matter of principle, and having had the opportunity to gaze at the richly decorated interior in the past, I refused to pay as a matter of principle and left. It wasn’t the place I remembered, and perhaps never would be again. But at least I was still able to behold the magnificence of its exterior design, which had not been tampered with in such a distressing way (yet, anyway!)

The tour trolleys which allow you to hop on and hop off where you wish are a convenient way to explore the city. They take you to divergent neighborhoods such as Charlestown, which houses the oldest commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy and heroic vessel in the Revolutionary War, the U.S.S. Constitution, and Cambridge, home to M.I.T. and Harvard, as well as stopping at the sites that are more centrally located in town. The buses come by the stops every 15 minutes to whisk you off to the next point of interest, allowing you to see as much as possible over the course of the day. Given how much there is to see and do in Boston, this kind of efficiency is welcome!

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It was Moon Festival time in Chinatown, and I captured some amazing footage a short walk from my Theater District hotel which is posted in my latest YouTube video.

Dragon-costumed performers and groups of musicians were proceeding business to business spreading good fortune amidst waves of colorful flags decorated with Chinese calligraphy. It is always a boon to arrive in a neighborhood at just the right time to catch a special event that you just wouldn’t get to see every day. It was pouring rain, but getting drenched was a small price to pay for being able to join in on the celebration.

After an exhausting day of sightseeing I stayed at the Courtyard Marriott Downtown in the Theater District, which I was thrilled to be able to experience as a historic building that has been beautifully restored and renewed. Not every historic hotel in town has been so lucky… and I was pleased to have been able to support the preservation approach by giving them my business. I am sure to return here again and again. The decor respected the integrity of the historic building, while still providing modern touches that, brilliantly selected, did not seem out of place. The lobby maintains beautiful old woodwork, providing a grand entrance to this historic building – and historic city. The whole Theater District neighborhood has been revitalized in a major way since my last visit as well – one of those changes I am also happy to witness during this hometown return. So while I wasn’t pleased with all of the changes, and it was bittersweet to see a building here or there gone that I remembered from my childhood, Boston was definitely a place I could fall in love with all over again.

Boston from ship

Sailing in the harbor provides the perfect conclusion to witness this impressive skyline all at once. I look forward to what Boston has in store for me the next time I return!

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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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Savannah, Georgia: Gloriously Green and the Jewel of Georgia

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Savannah: the perfect stop for the southbound traveler to Florida from East Coast locations. Its relaxing pace and abundance of parks provide a welcome respite from the traffic, dull scenery, and exhaust fumes of I-95. This is a favorite stop of mine on the way to the cruise ports of Southern Florida, and a great excuse not to fly.

Savannah is a city of parks adorning square after square and virtually every block in the historic district. Savannah is particularly famous for it’s somewhat spooky Spanish moss draped and magnificent magnolia trees, and the mighty monuments of silent Southern heroes which guard them. Even in the thick of Winter this city is beautiful. Basking in the sunny 70s January weather, it is an oasis of foliage if not blooms (yet). Savannah is delightfully quaint and peaceful.

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The golden dome of City Hall glistens in the sunny skyline, in this, the jewel of Georgia. And its queen might just be Paula Deen, the Southern cook of Food Network fame. I visited her restaurant “Lady and Sons” and partook in the buffet, which abounded with Southern favorite comfort foods like fried chicken, seasoned mashed potatoes, spoon bread, collard greens, black eyed peas, candied yams, barbecue ribs, meatloaf, and more. And as if that weren’t enough, we were offered her signature hoe cakes and cheddar biscuits, and rich, gooey desserts like butter cake, peach cobbler, and banana pudding. We washed it down with delectable, perfectly brewed sweet iced tea garnished with mint. Good thing we were in a city where walking is such a pleasure – dinner was admittedly an explosion of calories! Nightlife in Savannah is robust during peak season, but more modest in the off-season… the perfect time to settle for a relaxing stroll.

There are many good hotel options in Savannah a stone’s through from all of the attractions in the historic district, and off-season rates are excellent. Be prepared, however, to pay a premium for parking (forced valet) or park on the street at meters ($1 an hour and free overnight.) I always approach Savannah with a roll of quarters (although the new meters will accept credit cards as well). We have had great stays at both the Hilton Garden Inn/Historic District and the Courtyard Marriott/Historic District. The Hilton is located closer to the action (practically right outside the front door), while the Marriott is conveniently located right next to a city parking garage (and about a 10 minute walk from it all). We enjoyed the Southern hospitality and comfortable accommodations of both.

I hope you will have a chance to stop by Savannah. The historic district is small and compact, and may be comfortably explored on foot in the course of one day – perfect as a stopover destination.

My very first YouTube post is now live: Savannah, Georgia Vlog 2018! This is a small sample of Savannah which will (hopefully) whet your appetite for more videos, which will be forthcoming! I plan on becoming more ambitious with my videos in the coming weeks. Please give it a thumbs-up and subscribe! You may view it at:

Savannah, Georgia Vlog 2018!

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Thanks for all of your support!

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I am extremely grateful for your generous donation to help keep the site running! This site and individual posts are not sponsored! A dollar may not be a lot, but every dollar counts!

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