Spring at the Sand and Sea in Atlantic City, New Jersey!

Atlantic City tourism is usually associated with summertime. But my favorite times to visit are spring and autumn. Ideal temperatures and smaller crowds make a stroll along the historic Boardwalk and views of the miles of public beaches idyllic! Casinos are more eager to please, because there are fewer visitors (specifically on weekdays) and perks are more abundant. And it is easier to find an empty seat on the Boardwalk tram – allowing you to see and do as much as possible – an irresistible prospect!

Caesar’s… a resort fit for an Emperor. Both the public areas and private rooms are dripping with luxury. The main lobby is a spectacular rendition of ancient Rome, down to the depiction of the Augustus of Prima Porta statue. He stands tall next to a fake but convincing palm tree that is home to a family of live birds that, from time to time, will fly along the backdrop of the cloud-painted ceiling, welcoming visitors. Or perch themselves on Augustus’ shoulder, chirping and drawing attention to the great Augustus, poised in contrapposto pose (art history speak for addressing an audience). This lobby is truly breathtaking and easily one of my favorite hotel lobbies I have ever visited. In my room, I enjoyed spectacular views of the beach while I contemplated how I would spend my day in this, one of my all-time favorite cities.

The Quarter at Tropicana’s decor is inspired by Havana, and provides a pleasant and inspiring place to dine in delicious restaurants, explore chic boutique shops, and, if you are so inclined, try your luck at the games. The Quarter is bursting with energy and eye-candy!

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Steel Pier and beach

The Boardwalk trams were back after their winter hiatus, and for $3 ($6 for an all-day pass), you can cover the length of the Boardwalk. I took a ride down to the Steel Pier, enjoying the sites and scents of salt water taffy shops, massage and psychic parlors, arcades, and other bastions of fun along the Boardwalk on the way, many of them just waking up from their winter hibernation. The amusement park at the Steel Pier was not yet open – the one aspect of coming during this season I consider a disappointment. But it’s okay – because I can’t get enough of this place and surely will return in the summer. The Steel Pier is not only fun and exciting, but historic, still standing from the 1890s.

If you haven’t had enough shopping at the Quarter, The Tanger Outlets and the Playground provide additional opportunities for an endulgent shopping binge!  Between the casinos and the shopping, working overtime before your trip to Atlantic City never hurts!

If you have been following my posts and YouTube channel, you may be aware that my husband recently passed away. The most pressing reason of all I wanted to return to Atlantic City at this time was that this was his favorite place to visit. We traveled extensively, and internationally, and whenever a trip was over he would ask, “When are we going to Atlantic City again?” I have so many cherished memories of our time spent together here, and longed to be surrounded by that at this tremendously difficult time. It was a great comfort, and one that I hope, in some way, he was able to share in.

My YouTube video from this trip is posted, which you may view here!:

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Spring in Charleston, South Carolina – and the Horse Drawn Carriage Controversy?

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Charleston, South Carolina is quaint, calm, colorful, clean, and a snapshot into the past, so a horse-drawn carriage seemed the perfect way to experience it. I was informed by my tour guide that a local resident has stirred up a “controversy” involving the horse-drawn carriages in the city, which are operated by several different companies. She asserted that the objections she was making about the life of the horses was a guise for her disapproval of having to share the road with the (slower) carriages. But we “pulled over” frequently to let cars pass, and the tour guide was eager to describe the ways in which her company was making a better life for the horses.

The tour guide explained that their horses are purchased from Amish auctions, where they are rescued from the potential of being bought by others which, in some cases, could result in their cruel treatment and even death. Not all countries regulate the humane treatment of animals, and the auctions generate attention from international buyers. Her happiness in describing the regular “vacations” the horses take, and far, far lighter workload than they had become accustomed to on the farms was very apparent. Horses are rotated on the tours and given plenty of rest, water, and food in between tours, and given regular days off out at pasture.

My tour guide’s explanations were compelling. I looked further into the complaints through a local newspaper, The Post and Courier. An article written by Gregory Yee indicates that the protesters are apparently complaining about five main issues. (Yee, Gregory. “Charleston’s carriage tour companies, animal advocates hold opposing events amid controversy over horse conditions,” The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C., 2017: (https://www.postandcourier.com/news/charleston-s-carriage-tour-companies-animal-advocates-hold-opposing-events/article_e0421270-7a0b-11e7-852f-cb7ebfa7e48f.html).

The first issue is the way the carriages can stall traffic. But given that tourism is the top industry in the city, and the carriages have become a major part of it, I find it amazing a local would want to jeopardize a big part of the economic prosperity of their city to avoid a little traffic congestion. The second issue has to do with a horse “throwing” a tour guide off a carriage. But my response is that this is to be expected. Tour guides understand and accept this risk. Horses are intelligent animals, and can be stubborn and exercise a “mind of their own” from time to time. Anyone who has spent any time at all riding horses is probably aware of this. The third issue has to do with someone in a T-Rex costume spooking one of the horses. Again – my take is that this is normal and expected for a horse to get spooked from time to time – and has nothing to do with the carriage companies being “inhumane” to the horses in any way. The next complaint had to do with a horse tripping and falling – an accident that I would argue could easily happen to any horse at any time, anywhere. It’s an accident that can happen to even the most pampered horse – just as well as it can happen to even the most pampered human. The last complaint mentioned was that the horses are out in the heat. Yee quotes Broderick Christoff, Owner of Charleston Carriage Works as saying: “We never had a heat-related incident,” and that the horses’ temperatures are taken regularly, including after every tour. (Yee, Gregory. “Charleston’s carriage tour companies, animal advocates hold opposing events amid controversy over horse conditions,” The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C., 2017: (https://www.postandcourier.com/news/charleston-s-carriage-tour-companies-animal-advocates-hold-opposing-events/article_e0421270-7a0b-11e7-852f-cb7ebfa7e48f.html).

After the tour guide discussed the way her company cares for the horses, it was time for some history. As someone who has visited Savannah, Georgia several times I found it interesting the way she described why Savannah has more Colonial architecture, while Charleston more Victorian architecture: due to fire damage Charleston suffered during the Civil War. The architecture is breathtaking, most notably on “Rainbow Row” where a plethora of pastel delights the eyes – both on the buildings and meticulously maintained gardens they hold. Quaint streets are dotted with the Palmetto palm trees the state is famous for, their leaves rustling in the gentle breeze. Inviting cobblestone alleys lure you to linger and get lost among the fine old buildings and luxurious gardens bursting with life and color.

Of course, no trip to Charleston (or anywhere!) is complete without a place to rest and a good meal after a long day of sightseeing. Hyman’s Seafood is a Charleston institution, established in 1890. The walls are covered with signed celebrity photos – customers of Hyman’s through the years, and tables sport placards with the names of who (famous) dined at your seat. It’s very impressive to see how many celebrities have been drawn to this place. I opted for the fried clams and collard greens, and local beer. The dinner provided a very satisfying and delectable finish to a very satisfying day! I wandered through their country store after my meal and could not resist picking up their “To think like a fish you need to drink like a fish” t-shirt, a fine souvenir of my visit here!

I stayed at the Spring Hill Suites – Riverview. They have a shuttle which will run you into the historic district in the evenings and on weekends. I enjoyed a balcony, mini-kitchen, work space, ample room, and a very comfortable bed. The options at the free breakfast had been reduced since my previous visit and I wished the shuttle ran all day on weekdays, but other than that I had no complaints.

Charleston, along with Savannah, is a great stopover for people heading from the mid-Atlantic and northeast down to Florida, as I have often done on my way to the cruise ports. I will certainly want to return again and again! My YouTube video on Charleston is now live:

 

 

Source: Yee, Gregory. “Charleston’s carriage tour companies, animal advocates hold opposing events amid controversy over horse conditions,” The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C., 2017: https://www.postandcourier.com/news/charleston-s-carriage-tour-companies-animal-advocates-hold-opposing-events/article_e0421270-7a0b-11e7-852f-cb7ebfa7e48f.html.

The Back-to-Back Cruise Experience

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As a back-to-back cruiser on the Carnival Pride this month, I wanted to share the process, what it felt like, and tips related to the back-to-back cruising experience. It was tremendous fun, and definitely something I would highly recommend!

We booked two seven-day cruises back to back on the Carnival Pride out of Baltimore, Maryland on April 8. The first week, the ship was sailing to Bermuda for a three-night overnight stay. The second week the itinerary included day stops in Grand Turk in Turks and Caicos and Princess Cays and Freeport in the Bahamas.

Nothing differed from the single cruise experience until four days into the first cruise, when a letter was delivered to the cabin inviting us to proceed to the Atrium on disembarkation day to join other back-to-back cruisers in being personally escorted off the ship, through immigration, and back on the ship again. The letter informed us that if we had the same cabin reserved (we did) that packing was not necessary. (If you were assigned a different cabin, the letter advised that the steward would be happy to help relocate your belongings.) On the last night, we did not pack, and simply relaxed and slept in followed by a leisurely breakfast. We proceeded to the Atrium at the appointed time (after the other cruisers had left the ship) where an employee took all five of us to an immigration officer who checked our passports and released us back to the ship. It took all of ten minutes. (I have to admit, it was a guilty pleasure watching other guests exit the ship and navigate long lines while we relaxed looking forward to the upcoming week!) Once back on the ship, a special “back-to-back” photo was taken of the group and we were treated to free mimosas at the bar. Perhaps the best part of the day, however, was the ability to have the ship to ourselves for about 45 minutes. It was quite a while before large groups started boarding, since VIPs were allowed aboard first in small groups. Rather than waiting until 2:00pm to visit our stateroom, we were of course free to return to our stateroom at any time. We later found out that the back-to-back photo was to be provided to us free of charge.

The second week proceeded as usual. We were very pleased that many of the staff members we had encountered the first week remembered us and acknowledged us as back-to-back guests. We received our luggage tags and packed with everyone else on the last night, and disembarked as usual. But we were thrilled to have had a full extra week! We had a lot of time to really get to know the ship as well as to explore several different ports. The staff really made us feel special, like pampered, VIP guests!

Of course, we could have simply taken a fourteen day cruise, but it would have been a different experience. That spoiled feeling from getting special treatment, unique from other guests, would have been absent. On the other hand, instead of returning to the home port halfway through we could have traveled further. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. But I recommend the back-to-back experience at least once.

If you decide to book a back-to-back, I recommend these tips:

  • Try to arrange for a back-to-back with two different itineraries, so you are not visiting the same ports twice.
  • Request the same cabin for both cruises so that you don’t need to pack up and have your belongings moved to a new cabin mid-trip.
  • Fully unpack on the first day! I often don’t fully unpack on shorter cruises because I’m not sure if I’m going to need everything and re-packing is such a hassle. But I was glad I fully unpacked this time – I had easy access to everything without worrying about packing again within a week.
  • Enjoy greater flexibility in your activity schedule, but don’t assume the exact same shipboard activities will be available the following week. On our trip, two different comedians boarded the ship for the second week. Some shows were repeated and others were not. The evening movies were the same. If there’s something you really want to do, don’t assume it will be repeated on the second cruise – but if you do miss it the first time around watch for it again because there is a good chance it will be.

I hope you will have the opportunity to experience a back-to-back cruise (or that you already have!) Blog posts related to these cruises will be available in the upcoming weeks.

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Harvest Caye, Belize: Port, and Excursion (More Wildlife “Bore” than Wildlife “Tour”!)

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The Grand Finale port of the Norwegian Dawn’s Western Caribbean cruise was Harvest Caye, Belize. I was amazed by the size of the port and number of amenities available. There are multiple huge beaches with an ample source of brightly hued blue and yellow lounge chairs and umbrellas, a gigantic pool with swim-up bar, the usual (only more of it!) shopping and restaurants, and a number of adventure sporting activities including parasailing and zip-lining.

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We enjoyed a local percussion band while we awaited our excursion. Sold by the description indicating there would be manatees to see on this wildlife tour, I was eagerly awaiting our departure. We boarded a small boat that sailed into an area called the “mangroves,” a kind of coastal swamp with trees forming bundles of dense, tangled roots. Apparently this setting is favored by much of the native wildlife, including manatees.

 

We saw several different varieties of birds, and some creepy jellyfish, but I did not see a manatee. A few poked their noses out of the water – and otherwise stayed submerged. I know – a wildlife tour is no “guarantee” that you’re going to see wildlife… but it’s still disappointing, especially when the brochure shows the full body of a manatee as an enticement… It did not seem as though they liked coming up out of the water. All in all, it ended up being the least enjoyable cruise excursion I’ve ever been on. I think I will probably avoid these wildlife tours in the future, because of the potential for this problem. When you’ve only got a limited amount of time in a place, like at a cruise port, you want to make the most of it and not risk a bust. This was supposed to be a wildlife “tour,” but it turned out to be more of a wildlife “bore.” The only manatee I saw was the carved wooden one outside of the entrance to the tour.

 

That said, I still ended up having an amazing time, because the port had a lot to offer and I had time when we returned to enjoy it (though, regrettably, we did not spend a full day in Belize.) I immediately headed for the beach to soak in the incredible view of palm trees blowing in the wind, a beautiful lighthouse in the distance, people playing volleyball on the beach, and zip-liners and parasailers zooming, and floating, by above. It was a gorgeous day basking in the sun, and listening to the crystal clear water splashing up onto the beach.

 

Like many cruise ports, the shops here were touristy and pricey… but still fun to explore (especially the free tastings at the chocolate and rum shops…) The chocolate was out of this world – especially the chili and coffee flavored varieties. Enough so that I was determined to take my chances and try to make it back to the ship with some, through the 80s degree heat, hoping it wouldn’t melt before I could get back!

Harvest Caye was definitely worth future visits – but next time with a different kind of excursion. In the meantime, I hope they introduce a jaguar preserve excursion, which I was hoping to find this time but no such luck! (I’m sure the other cat lovers out there will completely get behind this request!)

Here’s the YouTube video from my channel covering this port!:

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Roatan, Honduras: Dolphin Encounter & Port Tour 2018!

Roatan, Honduras was the third port stop on our Norwegian Dawn Western Caribbean cruise. There are multiple ports on Roatan, and this one appeared to be Norwegian-specific. It was a very small port with expensive shopping, restaurants… and excursions. And I would definitely go out on a limb and say definitely plan an excursion of some kind if you are docking here. The port can be seen entirely, at a leisurely pace, in about a half hour. Of course, there’s always the option of just sitting, soaking in the sun, listening to the musicians, or people-watching over a coconut latte coffee (delicious!), ice cold Corona, or giant plate of chicken nachos… (somehow they’re just not the same on the ship!)

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Fortunately, I had an excursion reserved: the Dolphin Encounter. Now I know that objections have come up to this activity. But not all companies that run this activity are created equal. This excursion was run by the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences. The dolphins are not tracked by gps or otherwise, are allowed to swim free, have lots of wide-open space in a rural environment, and return by choice after venturing out. They also are not forced to do anything, and only interact with people when they feel like it. I shared the ethical dilemma some others feel about this activity, and because of that I made sure to visit one which treated the dolphins humanely. If you feel the way I do, you may want to visit this particular one, or one like it, to experience a dolphin encounter.

The other major advantage of taking this excursion here is the fact that you are allowed to use your own camera. You do not have it the whole time – your “one-on-one” with the dolphin is photographed by their professional photographer. But both photography and filming are allowed for the majority of the encounter. Several other companies do NOT allow you to film or photograph. I was very pleased with the photos they took and chose to order them to keep along with the footage I captured myself.

We were divided into smaller groups, each with our own dolphin and trainer to interact with. My group’s dolphin was named “Polli.” It was a thrilling experience to interact with her! She was very talkative and playful throughout the visit. She showed us some fast swimming, jumps, and “moon-walking” on the water’s surface. The trainer told us about the dolphins and how they are cared for. It was both fascinating and exciting! But that was nothing compared to the ultimate experience of the day: petting, hugging, and getting kissed by the dolphin! It was honestly one of the most memorable, cherished experiences I have ever had.

There was also a swimming with the dolphins option, which requires full submersion in the water and the donning of required gear (which is provided). Here you even get to interact with the dolphins underwater. I passed on this due to a shortage of swimming skill and due to the significantly higher cost, but it is something you may want to consider.

You can see video footage of this adventure on my YouTube channel!:

Costa Maya, Mexico: Segway Adventure Excursion, Town, & Port

Stop two on the Norwegian Dawn Western Caribbean itinerary was Costa Maya, Mexico. Though touristy, I was impressed by the size of the port, and the attempt made to emulate the colonial style in architecture and layout. Surrounded by bright, pastel buildings complimenting the abundant sunshine highlighting them, it felt like paradise. Upon arriving at the port, we were welcomed by brilliantly-colored-costumed local performers.

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A warm welcome!

I signed up for the “Segway Adventure” excursion, and it was to be my first attempt using a Segway. Despite poor balance and osteoarthritis, I found the Segway extremely easy to control, and great fun! I wished I’d had more shock-absorbent shoes, because something about the motor under your feet is a little bit of a strain on them, but it did not impede on my enjoyment too much. After a short training session and feeling very comfortable on the Segway, we were off and into town!

We rolled through a long stretch of town parallel to the beach (don’t think I would have wanted to try to walk it – it was very spread out!), lined with alfresco dining opportunities, street vendors, stores and bars, and more masseuses offering massages than I’d ever seen in my life! (Sorry, Atlantic City Boardwalk!) It was the epitome of hedonism, all of this indulgence on massage tables, listening to the waves crash on the shore, sun-drenched skin, and an abundance of blissful smiles.

Others opted for water sports and swimming in the refreshing, aqua ocean waters, glistening in the mid-day sun as if crystals were floating upon it. The beach area did not extend far into land because of all of the other services on the beach, but it was very long so there was room for everyone. The Segway tour included a post-Segway “Beach Break,” during which I wandered up and down the street and beach, greeting locals in Spanish, and getting hassled by street vendors…

The scenery was beautiful, and the Segway was a marvelous way to take it all in. We were able to cover a lot of ground quickly while enjoying the soft, warm breeze on our faces (and a quick getaway from the more aggressive street vendors!)

Costa Maya is definitely a port to which I would love to return. Granted, it may not be the most authentic experience, and I probably saw as many tourists as locals (if not more) during the stop here, but it was fun nonetheless and the amazing scenery provided an excellent explanation why the place has become so attractive to tourists. It is very clean, well-maintained, and abundant with relaxing things to do, and I look forward to my next visit!

Please visit my YouTube channel for video footage of this stop:

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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!

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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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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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)

Spanish4

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.

Japanese 1

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)

japanese2

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)

Chinese1 fluentu

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

grammarwiki

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)

italki

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.

korean youtube

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!)

kpop

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.

polyglot

(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):

icelandiconline

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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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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