The Ring of Kerry: sometimes those “Best of” lists have it right

Any search of “things to do in Ireland” will undoubtedly include a tour of the famous Ring of Kerry.  It’s often cited as one of Ireland’s top sights to see: #6 on this list,  2nd on this one,  and at the top of Frommer’s “best scenic drives in Ireland”.  What is the ring?  It’s a driving route around the Iveragh peninsula, hugging the Atlantic coast closely and circling through the towns of Killarney and Kenmare, as well as Killarney National Park.

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It’s also offers breathtaking scenery including the ocean, mountains, cliffs, lakes, waterfalls, fields, domesticated animals, and wildlife.  And although I’d been to Killarney before, I had never driven the full Ring around the peninsula,  only the bit near town and the Killarney National Park.  Here is a preview of a few of my photos from the area:

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See? breathtaking!

So you know I’m a planner,  but my plans usually leave a bit of flexibility. I was planning to drive the 111-mile Ring myself;  many tourists do it every day, and although there are  harrowing stories involving oncoming buses,  I figured my approximately 20,000,000 hours of commuting time spent on Rt 287 in New Jersey leaves me well prepared for just about anything.  I even made a map with scenic pit stops and approximate drive times. But, as the day approached, and as I spent as a passenger on the “wrong” side in Scotland, I realized that if I drove myself,  I would not be able to fully enjoy the scenery.  So when Dave, our Corporate Transfer driver from Dublin, offered us contact information for his friend Aidan at Killarney Chauffeur,  I took him up on it.  We booked a day with Aidan and never looked back.

Aidan arrived around 9 am in a beautiful BMW 5 series, which was a nice upgrade from the rattletrap I had been driving. The day started out a bit overcast, but the gloom added to Kerry’s atmostphere (and we eventually found the sun once again). After a brief stop at the Aghadoe viewpoint just outside of Killarney, we drove through the tiny town of Killorglin.

In the center of Killorglin is the statue of a goat,  named King Puck.  Aidan explained that the goat had warned residents of the approach of Cromwell’s army, earning himself such a royal title. There is an annual “Puck Fair” in his honor as well. A very accomplished goat!

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King Puck!

Just beyone Killorglin, we stoped at a roadside display of crafts that Aidan recommended, and once again came upon the sight of a dog… sitting on a donkey.  I guess this is a thing in County Kerry?

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Dogs + donkeys.  Why?

Next, we stopped by the beach in Rossbeigh,  which looks across to the Dingle Peninsula.  Somehow I’m still surprised to see beaches in Ireland.

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checking out a portion of Rossbeigh beach

Aidan offered us an educational tidbit here and there, including a brief explanation of common town name origins around Ireland:

Kill = church

Bally = Town of

There are a number of ancient ring forts around Kerry,  and we had told Aidan we were interested to see one.  He took us  to Cahergall Stone Fort, which we were able to climb and take a few fun photos:

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I’m the King of the World!
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Please don’t fall

Just outside the fort, I took one of my favorite photos of this trip.  This home is so peaceful looking,  I think I could live here, very happily:

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Serenity Now

Valentia Island was our next stop,  offering dramatic, steep cliffs and views back to the larger island.  Aidan took us by the Valentia slate quarry, bored deep into a mountain:qjs+mnnfqvyncme8hvdmua

You may or  may not have noticed in the photo above, but Mary watches over it all:

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Beyond the quarry, we stretched our legs by hiking up to Bray Head on Valentia:

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Skellig Michael, filming site for Luke Skywalker’s home in “The Last Jedi”, in the far distance
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Looking across toward Portmagee

After a stop in Portmagee at The Moorings for a very pleasant lunch, we arrived at the Kerry Cliffs.  By now, Aidan had figured out that we like taking photos on cliffs.  We worked off our lunch hiking to the top, which was only about 2/3 mile from the parking lot, but fairly steep. Also, the sun came out while we were at lunch!

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Skellig Michael, closer now, in the distance.

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On our way to put those calories back on at the Skellig Chocolate Factory, I spotted an abandoned cottage that I tried photographing from several angles.  I thought the sky, clouds, and shadows seemed almost surreal.   I do need to photoshop out the antennae, but I love these photos.  You tell me which is best:

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We completed our trip around the Ring with stops in Caherdaniel:

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Mary is very popular in Ireland
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Somehow, we will pass that car, and no one will fall off a cliff

The bright little town of Sneem:

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Just the cheeriest looking pub ever

And a few views across Killarney National Park:

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An overlook known as Ladies’ View, where Queen Victoria’s laides-in-waiting visited in 1861

Now, 111 miles may not sound like a lot –  here in America,  barring traffic,  it’s an easy 2 hour drive. But attempting the ROK in anything under 6 hours is a foolhardy endeavor,  due to a combination of low speeds; windy, narrow roads; and the absolute compulsion to photograph nearly everything in sight. My iphone says I took 133 photos on our trip around the ring –  and it wasn’t enough.  Guess I need to go back!!

 

Dingle All the Way

From our base in Killarney, Oldest and I next headed to one of my favorite spots in Ireland:  the Dingle Peninsula.  While it’s definitely worthwhile to spend more time here by staying in Dingle Town, about 1/2 way out the peninsula, it would have been too many overnight destinations for us on this trip. The drive from Killarney was a surprisingly easy and uncomplicated day trip.

Just past Inch Beach on the R 561 (“R” roads are very  narrow,  twisty, and “interesting!”, only to be surpassed in treachery by “L” roads),  we had to slow down for this lovely lady and her baby, who can barely be seen behind mama:

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Farmers mark their sheep with different shades of paint

Since my primary goal was to show Oldest the Slea Head Drive, at the peninsula’s tip,  we set our Google Maps directions straight for Dingle town, where one of the first sights we came upon was …. a dog … sitting on top of a donkey. Hey, why not?

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We wandered around the busy town for a bit,  enjoyed an early lunch, and downed a pint of Crean’s, the local beer.  Crean’s is named after Tom Crean, an Antarctic explorer who hailed from the Dingle Peninsula.

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Heading to the Beer Garden at Danno’s
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Glad it wasn’t Monday, but this sign is cute!

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Only one, though,  because I was back to driving –  and now the roads became quite narrow.  While it’s possible for two cars to pass,  it’s not necessarily advisable:

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Oldest took this one from the passenger side.

Slea Head marks the end of the peninsula, and, like many points on the west coast, the locals will tell you when looking east “The next stop is America!”.   We continued to benefit from nice weather, so we were fairly active in our exploration of the peninsula,  first walking from the parking area down to Slea Head Beach, at sea level:

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View of Slea Head Beach, from above. The “arrow” in the sand must be pointing to buried treasure.  Right?
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This sign did not stop the swimmers

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Then we hiked back up,  and further up, to Dunmore Head promontory. Nearby signs told us that some filming for Star Wars took place here, although it is not the more famous Skellig Michael island,which is off the coast to our south.

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Walking up to the Head required climbing over an old stone fence,  which didn’t work out so well for yours truly,  who lost her balance and skinned my knees in a pretty gruesome way (I’ll spare you the yucky photo).   It was still worthwhile, though, just for these photos, looking back at the peninsula.  It was my 3rd trip to this spot, and each time I want to lie down and never leave these soft, rolling, green hills.  Although I imagine I might feel differently in, say, December.

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Oldest with one of the two “Devils Horns” at Dunmore Head
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Beautiful, even when seen with bloody knees

In three trips to Ireland, I have managed to make it to the Slea Head drive on the Dingle peninsula every time.  It is truly one of the most peaceful places I have ever visited, and I truly enjoyed sharing it with Oldest.  I have no doubt I will return again.

Top o’ the Morning from Killarney!

Time traveling back to Summer 2018, I’m with Oldest in Ireland.  After pretending to be part of a medieval adventure with Game of Thrones Tours,  it was time for some real,  2018-style adventure:  driving in Ireland.   That’s right, I’m getting behind the wheel, on the “wrong” side of the road.

First up:  I heeded the advice of the Tripadvisor forums, and rented the smallest car possible. I think a well-fed horse might have been bigger.

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I hired Corporate Transfers to take us from our Dublin lodging to the Hertz Dublin City Centre South location on Circular road;  their Transfer & Pilot Service includes a driver who we would follow out of Dublin city onto the main highways.   I have had the pleasure of meeting Corporate Transfers’ proprietor, Fintan Murray, on previous Ireland visits.

The Hertz location was packed and although we had a reservation, we waited in line for a good hour, while Dave from Corporate Transfers waited very patiently outside.  If you rent a car in Ireland, be prepared for long waits: many people do not do their research and do not understand the insurance options for driving in Ireland (hint: buy it all), which lengthens the process.  Finally,  off we went toward Killarney,  following Dave around busy city streets (eek!) until we reached the M7, a major, divided highway where I felt very comfortable driving. If it’s your first time driving on the left,  I highly recommend this service, as navigating tight one-way city streets is unlikely to be an easy baptism.

The drive from Dublin to Killarney takes a little over 3 hours.  The drive was surprisingly uneventful, and we were thrilled to find a tiny parking spot, to fit our tiny car, right in front of our hotel, the International Hotel Killarney.  This was our biggest lodging splurge of the trip;  I figured that after 9 days of traveling, we were due for a full service hotel experience.  The hotel is well-located in the center of town, and we found the beds to be extremely comfortable.

 

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Killarney’s High Street. It think that dude is checking me out ;)!

After checking in, we began to make our way into Killarney’s afternoon/night life.  It was the weekend of the annual Ring of Kerry charity bike race,  so Killarney, as the largest town on the Ring, was full of very fit revelers.   We spent most of the evening in and out of O’Connor’s and Tatler Jack’s –  the, uh, fuzzy/crooked nature of these photos hopefully assures my readers that I was having a GOOD time.

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Tiny car trying to drive through the alley outside O’Connor’s.  Those guys don’t look like they’re getting out of the way, do they?

 

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Fun, mixed-age crowd (who might have had a few drinks?) at Tatler Jack’s

Killarney is an excellent base for touring beautiful southwestern Ireland:  the Ring of Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula, and other beautiful landscapes.  While not a large city,  there are plenty of lodging and dining options from hostels and pubs to upscale resorts and 5 star dining.  And look:  other Cubs fans visit here too!  Hi Dave & Alex! Go Cubs!

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Planning a trip to Costa Rica: A very wordy explanation of how (and why) I plan trips

Are you interested in hearing more about how I plan my trips?  If so,  read on, and I’ll describe the next major trip I am taking with Dearest Husband.  I’ll let you know when and how I initially researched each trip,  what and when has been booked, and what my next steps will be to complete my trip planning process.  By the end,  you will be certain that my blog name should be CrazyBankerChickTravels.net.   If not, cheers and Happy New Year, you just got 30 minutes back!   I’ll be back to writing about actual travel experiences shortly.

Timing

The seeds of my 2019 travel plans were planted well before 2018.  For several years,  I have maintained a list of most-wanted destinations, on a spreadsheet that also includes whether I see the destination as best with a group,  with kids,  with  husband, and what months/seasons would be best to visit  (generally:  I prefer the “shoulder seasons” unless a destination is really weather dependent).  However, I also need to factor in our kids’ schedules;  for example,  this summer we will be sending one off to college, but we won’t know the dates for several months when she decides which school to attend.  Hence,  the entire month of August is off the list for major trip planning in 2019.  Other key dates such as graduations, weddings, Husband’s trade shows, etc.,  can also be a factor in choosing travel dates.

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Since I’m still tied to an office,  I also need to plan out my time away from work –  unfortunately, I haven’t figured out how to travel as much as I want and still have my banking career.   Generally,  I allocate between 13-17 annual vacation days to up to two major trips.    There are typically a few long-weekend,  1-2 day trips as well,  but these are handled a lot more spontaneously.

When I Book Flights and Lodging

Since I’m a confessed “obsessive travel planner”,  my significant trips are generally booked, at least on a skeletal basis (required flights, maybe a hotel or two),  9-12 months in advance.   I then utilize the intervening time to plan an actual itinerary.

So right about now you are probably saying  “OMG Banker Chick  you must be kidding me!  I don’t know what I want to do or if I’ll be available that far in advance!  So many things can happen!” While this is true,  I’ll attempt to make my case in a Q&A format:

Q: Why should I start booking so early?

A: Three reasons:

  • In my experience, the best opportunities to book a long-haul flight, hopefully using points,  is just after a flight becomes available.  On most airlines,  seats are released  11-12 months before travel.  I only pay actual $ for an overseas flight if it’s an exceptional bargain (which is tough to do at the last minute, for a popular destination, in a nice weather season).
  • While it’s unusual for hotels to fill up that far in advance, for certain destinations and timeframes,  choices become limited as the date approaches.  I like choices,  so knowing my dates early means I can research and choose from literally any lodging.
  • I’ve found that committing to the dates early makes it more likely that I’ll actually travel. It is far too easy to talk about a trip,  discover that the price is prohibitive or the best hotels booked, and say “eh, maybe next year”.

Q: But what if something changes and I can’t make the trip?

A: Yep, this is a risk.  There are two ways to manage this risk:

  • Carefully read the terms & conditions of all travel bookings. In most cases,  points-based flights can be changed or cancelled with very minimal change fees. The airlines don’t mind getting that free seat back to sell.  Similarly,  most hotels do not require upfront payment, or if they do,  may offer free cancellation up until a certain date closer to travel.
  • Buy trip insurance.  While certain travel uncertainties, such as trip delays and lost luggage, are covered by a good travel credit card, full trip insurance packages such as those offered by Insure My Trip also cover cancellation of a trip due to illness of the traveler or a primary family member, and medical costs while traveling.   Many policies also offer a “cancel for any reason” or “cancel for work reasons” rider,  for an extra cost.  Per the bullet point above,  carefully read the terms & conditions.

Costa Rica, March 2019

Costa Rica has been on my “most wanted” list for years.  It’s billed as safe, friendly,  and most of all, beautiful with a diverse landscape that is dramatically different to my own.  So,  why now?

This one came down to timing.  Husband and I will celebrate our 10th Anniversary in March, 2019, and want to spend this special day in a special destination.   March can be chilly in most of the Northern hemisphere,  and anticipating time spent in a sunny climate is the best antidote to a chilly East Coast winter. We also considered Aruba (where we own a timeshare), but decided we would rather explore a new locale;  Hawaii,  where we spent our honeymoon in 2009; and Australia,  but decided that this year, we didn’t want to dedicate the full 2 -3 weeks really needed to justify the long flight and expense.

Step 1: Initial planning and Research for Costa Rica

Once I’ve identified a likely destination candidate, it’s on to my bookmarks menu.  As I research trips or come across interesting travel sites pertaining to my “most wanted” list,  I make sure to bookmark interesting sites under a detailed “Travel” menu, by country.  Once I decide to book a trip,  the destination gets its own top billing on the bookmark menu until the trip has taken place (then, the bookmarks return to the general “travel” category).

For Costa Rica,  two travel/blog sites stood out:   Pura Vida, eh? and Two Weeks in Costa Rica,   written by avid travelers who have permanently relocated from North America to Costa Rica.

Step 2: Determining what we want to see, possible overnight destinations, and booking flights

Utilizing these sites and others, the next step was to determine exactly where in Costa Rica we might want to go.  Quickly recognizing that the country’s climate and topography is extremely diverse, and that we would be comfortable driving our own rental car, I realized that we would want to stay in more than one overnight destination. Whenever this is the case,  and when there is more than one major international airport,  I look into the possibility of an “open-jaw” flight:

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Sample open jaw flight

Open jaw means flying into one airport, and out of another.  Although there is a cost of transportation between the two airports (in this case,  a one way car rental fee),  I like the possibilities and time savings of not having to backtrack.

At this point,  I spend a lot of time with my favorite mapping tools.  I look at the various destinations mentioned in the travel sites I’ve previously saved,  as well as Tripadvisor, Fodor’s, and other general travel sites.  I Google images of various towns and cities to see if they look like they match what I’m looking for.   I print a map and mark potential destinations,  to get a sense of their proximity to the various airports.

Since booking the flights usually comes first,  I determined that an open-jaw itinerary utilizing two  Costa Rica’s major airports, Liberia,  and  San Jose,  which are about 3 – 4 hours apart by drive time,  could work.   Then,  I research the best flight options. Into A, and out of B?  Into B, and out of A?  on what dates?  Can I cover a weekend?  Two weekends? In this case, we wanted to enjoy Costa Rica on the actual date of our anniversary,  so I worked around that.  I was able to secure First Class seats from our local airport, Newark,  to Liberia,  returning form San Jose to Newark. We are paying for the flight down,  with a very reasonable mid-3 figure fare,  and utilizing points for the return. Happy with the overall travel cost and getting some First Class pampering for our big anniversary, I booked these flights in early June 2018.

Step 2 1/2: Buy Trip Insurance.  If I’ve paid for flights,  presumably utilizing a nonrefundable fare,  now is the time to buy the trip insurance. If all flights are booked using points,  this can wait until I’ve made a significant cash payment for some element of the trip, for example, an AirBnB stay.

Step 3: Finalizing overnight destinations and # of nights in each place

OK, phew.  Flights are booked.  Now,  I take another look at my potential destinations.  What is there to do in each place? How far is it from each airport, and how far are the destinations from one another?

My definite preference is a minimum of 3 nights in a given location,  with the small exception of an airport hotel sleepover prior to an early flight. 3 nights give you two full days where no travel is required, to fully explore a destination.  Of course,  more can be better,  but I start with 3. I also prefer to keep travel time between overnight destinations to about 1/2 day. This gives time for a leisurely pace.

In Costa Rica, I realized that while we will never be able to enjoy the whole country in the 10 days we have allotted to the trip,  we should be able to spend time in two of Costa Rica’s most reknowned climates:  the Pacific coastal beaches,  and the Arenal Volcano/ rainforest region in the northern central part of the country. My goal on a first trip is to sample some of the more popular locales first.  Who knows when we will return? Highlights and generally highlights for a reason.   Maybe that’s not too adventurous of me, but I also want to make sure that I’m spending my hard earned money, and 10 precious travel days, in a worthwhile manner.

Once I’ve centered on my overnight destination(s), I begin researching hotels or other lodging options.  To choose a hotel,  my primary sources of information  are direct hotel websites and TripAdvisor.

A note on TripAdvisor:

While I utilize its “Traveler Rankings” as a general guide,  I do not believe that a hotel rated #2  of 20 is infinitely better than one rated, say, #9 of 20.   It’s probably a better choice than the ones rated 19 and 20,  so to save time I generally only dig deeply into the top 40-50% of ranked hotels for my desired destination, and within that group,  the ones that fit  my budget.    I look at price,  overall star rating,  and then I do the real dirty work:  I read traveler reviews.  The most important thing here is not to let any single review make your decision.    Here are the types of reviews I make sure to read:

  • Most recent –  here I quickly look at the most recent 15-20 reviews.  If more than a couple are less than 3 star,  that may be a bad sign. But not necessarily.
  • Worst reviews –  those with 1 and 2 stars.  How recent are they?  What are the actual complaints?
    • are they extremely subjective? (i.e. the food stinks, the beds are too hard)
    • is it clear that the traveler had reasonable expectations ? In this category are those complaining that their Costa Rica resort was “too hilly” and it was hard to walk around.  Um,  did you look at a map/ photos?
    • typically at least 30% of these are related to booking issues:  “they didn’t have my reservation”.  Unless this is a frequent complaint,  I tend to believe that in the age of computers,  resorts that are otherwise well-reviewed do not just “lose” a reservation.
    • Another 30% or so are typically dedicated to a service rant regarding a particular individual.  I usually disregard these, unless it’s a frequent or recently repetitive complaint.  But if it was that frequent,  the hotel wouldn’t have an overall 4 star rating.
  • Reviews from the season I intend to travel – for obvious reasons
  • “Average” reviews:  those with 3 stars.  I find that these reviews usually include a lot of good information and “pros and cons”,  and are generally not written by someone with an axe to grind.   Your con, might be my pro  (ie, “it was too quiet, and there was nothing happenning at night”  or “too many children”).

I will comment here that I’m less of a TripAdvisor fan now that it seems to be more focused on being a travel booking engine than a traveler review site.  So,  I also read reviews on Booking.com and Hotels.com for good measure. Hey, it’s still better than relying on the hotel website’s own reviews.

Step 4: Exploring destination options and booking activities that require booking.

Now:  I know where I’m staying and for how many nights.  By this point, I’ve also created a running, stream-of-consciousness set of notes on the overnight locations, including activities specific to the hotel.   These might look something like this:

Guanacaste – Papagayo

beaches, small towns  dry & dusty in March

river or national park, wildlife

waterfall or white wtaer rafting a possibility

one small casino in Tamarindo 1 hr drive from Papagayo

shuttle to Four Seasons or sunset catamaran

mixology class

Arenal – La Fortuna –

Mud baths, volcano hike, hanging bridges, hot springs **bring bug spray**

spa, cooking class on site?

zip lining available but bumpy car ride

coffee and chocolate plantations

There’s a lot more –  my notes pages for a 10 day trip are typicallly  4- 5 full Word Doc pages of this rambling, and at the end I include general tips and a packing list.

Again,  for this I utilize TripAdvisor,  focusing primarily on the now VERY HARD TO FIND (are you listening, TA)?  destination forums.  Again,  comments on the forums are taken with a grain of salt,  but it becomes clear pretty quickly who the real destination experts are.

A key at this point:  do any of the activities we really want to do,  require prebooking?

You may not believe me,  but although I’m an obsessive planner, I would rather NOT prebook every activity down to the last minute.   Instead,  I prefer to prebook only activities that meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • can’t miss,
  • unavailable without a reservation, or
  • will have to wait in a 3 hour line

For example,  the Sistine Chapel during Easter week.   Otherwise,  I create a set of options that we can review each day and decide what to do based on the weather,  our energy level, or what someone at the bar told us about the previous evening.

Step 5: (optional) Create itinerary balance view calendar

For long trips,  I think it’s important to ensure that the itinerary includes a balance of busy days,  travel days, and rest / optional days.  As I already noted,  I like to spend several days in a location,  rather than traveling day after day after day,  with a trip that ends up being no more than the view of a car or train window.  I have found the best way to visualize the “busyness balance” of a trip.

A snapshot of an early itinerary balance view calendar from my recent Scotland-Ireland trip (I ended up changing this a bit,  but you get the idea):

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As you might imagine, the color codes have a meaning:  Green = unplanned free time or very minimal time requirements, explore options;  Red = booked;  Blue = travel.

I did not feel the need to create a balance view calendar for Costa Rica, as there will be a plenty of downtime on this trip,  on purpose.   It’s more important for a sightseeing-heavy itinerary.

Step 6:  Create Detailed Itinerary

This is my piece-de-resistance, and the result of all this effort.  For each trip, I create a word document (actually, I’ve been using Pages lately),  day by day,  including every booking:  flights, hotels, reservation #s, contact info, website links, and pictures.

I’m currently finalizing this for my March trip,  and my goal is to have it completed 1 month before travel.

The average document is about 10 pages long, and can be longer depending on the trip length and number of destinations.  I use large font and lots of photos, so this isn’t as much as it seems.  But it allows us to take a quick look, and visually see our days and options.  I also include a list of restaurants in each location, from reviews on TripAdvisor, Yelp, and TA forum mentions.  I don’t always stick to these restaurants,  as I love to stumble upon a place,  but sometimes it’s nice to just say “I’m feeling like pizza” and not have to go to far to find a decent one.

These itineraries function as my own personal guidebook for my trip.  They are uploaded to icloud and downloaded to my iPad so they can be visible even if I’m offline.

Since this detailed personal itinerary document maybe be hard to picture,  I’ve added a link here to the first 5 pages of my Scotland & Ireland 2018 itinerary –  I hope you’ll get the idea!  Scotland Ireland 2018 itinerary

Step 7: Upload Itinerary and reservation confirmations / emails to icloud.

We’re almost there!!!   This is where the excitement starts to really build,  and the trip is close.  During the last few weeks prior to the trip, I will create .pdf documents of all confirmation emails, and related documents.  These go in specific folders in my icloud drive labeled Flights, Lodging, Car Rentals, Trip Insurance,  etc.    If possible,  I carry no paper –  occasionally, though, a reservation will specify that I need a printed copy.

Step 8, which may overlap with steps above:  start planning the next trip.  

This is  arguably the most important step of all.  Step 8 should be started preferably before the prior trip,  so there is ALWAYS something to look forward to, even on the last day of an amazing trip.   In this case:  Prost! to Oktoberfest in Munich,    September 2019!

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my process, and maybe picked up a tip or two.  Maybe you completely disagree with my process, and prefer to just wing it:  if so, more power to you!  There’s room for every travel style –  I just like mine best 🙂 .

 

 

Slothing Around: Western Caribbean Ports

Our Getaway cruise included four stops in the Western Caribbean:  Roatan, Honduras; Harvest Caye, Belize; Costa Maya, Mexico, and Cozumel, Mexico.

First,  a comment on cruise line shore excursions vs. private excursions run by locals. Many cruisers  naturally gravitate toward the cruise line-sponsored excursions.  There is nothing wrong with these options. Not only do they boast easy-to-understand names like “Beach Break” , “Dolphin Encounter”, and “Extreme Adventure Tour”,  they guide cruisers toward appropriate activity levels (not soooooo fit?  Maybe the Superman zipline isn’t for you).  They typically accommodate any size travel group.  You can easily pay for the excursion using your onboard account. It’s easy to find our tour guide on the pier when leaving the ship. They also,  importantly, promise that you will not miss the ship.  All Aboard is generally about 30 minutes before sailing – if your excursion provider miscalculates, or there is unexpected traffic,  you could miss the ship if not on a cruise line excursion.

So what’s the downside?

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That’s right,  money.  Cruise line excursions generally cost anywhere from 30 – 100% more than those that can be found on land.

But money isn’t the only reason I generally choose private, local excursions.  The big one: you get a more private, local experience.  For example, our driver in Roatan took us by the house where he had grown up – and his 91 year old mother waved from her perch on the front porch.

Worried about missing the ship?  Choose one of the larger, trusted landside companies –  these are easy to research on  CruiseCritic.com’s ports of call boards,  or on TripAdvisor.  These companies wouldn’t stay in business long if their guests were missing their ships.  I’ve also found that the tour companies and various guides generally all know one another –  and they communicate about things like traffic.  Particularly in the Caribbean,  cruise passenger activity is a major economic boon.  Everyone is invested in you having a great time and no bad experiences.

Would I ever use a cruise line excursion?  Sure – particularly in a destination where few speak English, I would consider it,  because I’m nowhere near bilingual.

Anyway,  a review of our ports (well, 3 of the 4 anyway):

Coxen Hole, Roatan, Honduras

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View of Coxen Hole port from our balcony

We used Rony’s Tours to schedule a private driver for the day on a “Freestyle” tour,  selecting our own activities.  Rony’s website includes a number of group options,  which can be even less expensive,  but for $40pp we thought having our own driver was the best option.  Our driver, Cameron, was born and raised in Coxen Hole.  He had spent a number of years working on cruise ships, and also on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico,  but had returned to home to Roatan and now enjoys giving tours on a flexible schedule in his later years.

Our first stop was the Monkey and Sloth Hangout, which is as cool as it sounds.  The owner, Daniel Johnson, is a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and all of the employees wore Steelers garb, which seemed odd in the steamy Caribbean but we went with it. We were arranged in groups with other guests, and quickly introduced to a two-toed sloth named Snow White:

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Sloths move as slowly as you think they do.  The caretakers did a good job of (slowly) carrying  and letting us hold the sloths –  when they settled into our chests, their long arms automatically tighted around our shoulders like a hug.  And they appear to be smiling and enjoying the experience, at least a little. They do have very long, sharp toes or toenails-  I think the way this place handled the animals was the right way, as we heard from  cruise passengers who went to different sloth encounters,  held them differently, and got scratches.

Next up were the Capuchin Monkeys.  We were warned to remove everything from our pockets, as well as all jewelry, hats, sunglasses, etc.,  as these guys are quite the little pickpockets.

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Monkey stare down

The monkeys liked to jump around their cage and onto guests’ heads –  they managed to scare one little girl in our group, although she was unharmed, she thought the monkey had bitten her ear.  If traveling with small children, remember that they are semi-wild animals, and can seem a little rougher than your pet puppy.

Next we visited the South Shore Zip Line Adventure Park for a suspension bridge eco tour.t7TYLejAT7eNoaTmHN7PSA

We crossed 8 different bridges,  which is harder than it looks as they are very bouncy.  Zipliners whizzed above our heads;  we had ziplined before and decided we didn’t need to repeat the experience.  Our guide spoke fast and walked fast, but we didn’t mind a little exercise at this point in our trip.  The trail is structured to go down the side of a mountain from point to point;  we were glad there was a truck waiting to drive us back up.   We learned a bit about the local flora and fauna, and saw some huge termite nests –   learning that these are literally “shithouses” (pardon my francais) –  termites live in nests built from their own dung.

So that, of course, made us hungry.  It was fairly late for lunch at this point, so we asked the driver to take us to nearby West Bay Beach, where we enjoyed french fries and the best kind of beer, a beaachfront beer:

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As the ship departed from Roatan, local musicians played lively Caribbean music as a sendoff:7%3wV78rRXyzQ6LwOVgQkg

 

Harvest Caye, Belize

Harvest Caye is one of Norwegian’s two private islands. Just off the cost of Belize,  the 75-acre eco-friendly resort was built at a cost of $50 million and includes swimming pools, beaches with loungers, water activities including standup paddle boards, kayaks, and pedal boats, a rope course, zip lines, shopping, restaurants, and bars.  Unlike most cruise line private islands,  food and beverage package drinks are NOT included for ship guests. All restaurants and bars are run by locals, to profit the local economy.

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Long-ish walk to the island; a tram is available

 

Visitors also have the option to take a ferry to the mainland, for additional adventures such as cave tubing, Mayan ruins, and private tours.

We chose to stay on the island for awhile;  it was a fairly cloudy, breezy day so we didn’t stay as long as we might have had the sun been shining.  The families in particular seemed to enjoy the large pool and pool area –  so much nicer than what you find on a ship,  with plenty of room for kids to frolic in the water.

Costa Maya, Mexico

Well, I said 3 out of 4;  this was our dud –  not due to any fault of the island, but due to the weather.  We awoke to stormy skies, but as we prepared to go onshore to visit Maya Chan Beach Resort, which we had read so many positive things about,  I checked my emails to find that the resort was offering optional refunds due to the weather.  Refusing to believe that our day could be ruined,  we made our way steadfastly down the gangway – and promptly got soaked from a torrential, windblown tropical downpour. We won’t melt!, I said.  But Husband convinced me that the prospect of a day at a beach resort in this weather was simply not too enticing.

Kudos to Maya Chan for a great business practice,  allowing guests to cancel when bad weather threatens – I’m sure that’s one reason they get such excellent reviews on both Cruise Critic and Tripadvisor.

We will try again, Maya Chan and Costa Maya!

The skies did clear in the afternoon, and Husband wandered off the ship for this nice photo:

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Cozumel, Mexico

Cozumel, an island off the Yucatan peninsula, is a tourst-friendly place.  Its southern shore is lined with  beach clubs,  roughly a 15-20 minute ride from the ships depending on where you are docked, and which beach club you choose.

Other shore excursion options here include a trip to the mainland to see famous Mayan ruins,  and swimming with dolphins –  an activity we had done with our 4 kids, about 7 years ago.

We chose to visit Mr. Sancho’s,  an all inclusive beach resort with food, drinks, pools, a waterpark, and beach loungers for $55 per person plus the cab ride on your own there and back.   We arrived fairly early, around 9:30 am.  Nothing says vacation quite like guacamole and a beer for breakfast!

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Our cab driver told us there were 7 (!) cruise ships docking in Cozumel that day, but Mr. Sancho’s never became overcrowded.  The cab driver and guards at the gate indicated that no one could enter without a prior reservation;  these are made online for a $5 pp refundable deposit. We were able to easily move from sunny seats to shady seats to a dining table without any trouble;  a friendly waiter brought us drinks and food from the menu wherever we sat, for a nice tip at day’s end.

The Cozumel port requires a long walk through a gauntlet of shops and services, including tour operators, jewelry stores, hair braiding, and Mexican crafts.

We resisted the temptation at most stores;  our only purchase was a definitely unlicensed, black market Mexican-style backpack bearing the Cubs logo for $15 (bargained down from $20).

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These bags were displayed all over the island, with every MLB/NFL/NBA/NHL team represented.  No doubt they’re made in China, but a fun reminder of our trip nonetheless.

Our Getaway cruise was just the getaway we needed.  Captain Roger Gustavsen ran a smoooooooth ship;  almost as smooth as his crooning at the Captian’s VIP party!  He entertained us with “Lady in Red” and “Wonderful Tonight” –  what a treat.   Here’s our sunset finale:

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Sea Days are Me Days: Onboard the Getaway

Cruise lines are quick to advertise all of the fantastic ports they visit.  On a typical Caribbean cruise, there are anywhere from 3 -5 port stops per week;  generally,  the ship arrives in port around 8 am and departs around 5pm,  so passengers get a full day to explore the island, visit the beach, or participate in an adventure such as ziplining or snorkeling.  Just don’t miss the ship –  unless you are on a cruiseline sponsored excursion, they won’t wait for you and you may have to figure out how to catch up with your belongings from a tiny island with sketchy communication.

I’ll cover the ports we visited on our Getaway cruise in my next post.  This one, however, is about what cruise itineraries label as “At Sea”.  Most cruises include at least one, and often 2 or 3, of these luxuriously lazy days,  when the only thing you need to plan is when, what, and where to eat.  You can’t get off the ship –   you and your 4000 new friends are going to spend the day together no matter what.  All ship services are open on a sea day, including  the casino and shopping, both of which typically close during a port visit.  Our sea day activities generally went something like this:

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wine + my kindle app = ahhhhh
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Husband loves the hot tub!
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we thought the guy at the table with Husband looked like a chubby Blake Shelton

Our Getaway cruise itinerary included a sea day on Day 2 (the first full day), and on Day 7 (the last full day).  In my opinion, this is perfect.  The first sea day allows passengers to sleep in, unwind and enjoy the ship, without the pressure of feeling like they need to explore a destination.  And the last day is for revisiting favorite activities, exchanging contact information with new friends, tipping the staff, and savoring those last moments of vacation (and packing, but we don’t like to talk about that).  The seas were as calm as a bathtub, making both of our sea days a relaxing pleasure.

Evening Entertainment

In the evenings, we enjoyed the ship’s wide-ranging entertainment.  Throughout the ship, it’s easy to find something to do just by wandering around.  Musical groups grace the atrium and several bars;  the casino is always open at night, and bartenders do their thing throughout the ship.

 

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In addition, there are scheduled entertainment options,  which differ each night. In the main theater, on several nights the ship presents an abbreviated version of  Broadway’s “Million Dollar Quartet”,  which tells the story of an impromptu recording session between Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. We saw this show on our last Getaway cruise and noted that the performer playing Jerry Lee Lewis was different – and we had been incredibly impressed by the one we saw last time –  so we opted to skip it this time.  He may have been just as good, but we wanted to keep our memory.

We did, however, take the time to see the NCL version of “Burn the Floor”,  the self-described “Ultimate Ballroom Sensation”, a “high voltage theatrical dance experience” with “jaw-dropping choreography”. Our description: “beautiful sexy people dancing around the stage with no plot”.  Honestly, both Husband and I took a little snooze during the show –  maybe because we sat in the back of the theater, it just didn’t capture our attention.

We also took advantage of a comedy show, starring Vince Acevedo, a Chicago-based Puerto Rican comedian.  There are up to three comedy shows a night, with the latest, at 11:00pm,  billed as the “adult” show –   in other words, some dirty jokes and swear words.  Vince’s comedy was not particularly filthy but genuinely funny – we had an unexpectedly good time.

Another favorite was “Howl at the Moon”, a dueling piano sing-along show.  The singers are multi-talented,  singing and playing songs by request, and often adding drums, harmonica, or guitar as well.  This show’s success does depend on the crowd, however;  the first time we went,  it was a little slow due in part to some of the song requests.  The second time we went, it was much more rollicking –  we find that people on cruise ships tend to “let loose” a little more than they might at home. On the last night of the cruise,  other performers from the ship’s various shows often crash the party and sing or perform with the Howl at the Moon musicians.

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Howl at the Moon on the Noregian Getaway

Another memorable entertainment experience was the “Ultimate 80s Party”,  held at Spice H2O,  on the top deck/rear of the ship under the stars.  Classic 80s videos played on the huge screen at the back of the deck:  Madonna, Michael Jackson, AC/DC, Cyndi Lauper, Bon Jovi,  etc. while we danced with some of our new friends. Some of the cruise director’s staff, who are responsible for keeping guests entertained throughout the ship,  dressed up in 80s garb and even performed the “Thriller” dance. Husband and I both grew up during the 80s and enjoyed the flashback.

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80s Party under the stars

We missed the “Glow Party”,  which is also held at Spice H2O –  it’s essentially a dance party where wearing white is encouraged, and blacklighting makes everyone look cool even if they are bad dancers.

Towel Animals

I can’t leave a discussion of the onboard pleasures of a cruise without mentioning a quintessential element:  returning to your stateroom to find that your room steward has not only performed a turndown service, but created a towel animal!  Here are a few that graced our room:  thanks Angelo!

 

 

 

Time to Getaway in the Haven!

It’s our second cruise on the Norwegian Getaway, the second ship in Norwegian’s Breakaway class of ships.  Built in 2014,  the Getaway houses about 4,000 passengers and boasts 28 dining venues, 15 bars, a spa, fitness center, waterslides, a ropes course, shopping, and wide-ranging entertainment which I’ll cover on another post –  it’s one of our favorite things about Norwegian Cruise Lines.

Now,   4000 is a big number.  There are also about 1600 crew members on board.  So it is, like you would expect,  a small-16 story floating city.  This was our 3rd cruise in Norwegian’s “Haven”,  a ship-within-a-ship concept that provides a quieter,  less crowded option with a small pool, hot tubs, and a private restaurant –  but still allows access to all the fun available on the entire ship.  The Getaway has about 80 Haven cabins out of roughly 1800 total, so it’s available only to a small percentage of passengers. The Haven costs more, but for me, there is value in the relaxed experience.

Haven Boarding

As Haven passengers,  you get some perks. This includes being one of the first to board the ship.  So,  we arrived at the Port of Miami pier via Uber around 11 am, dropped our bags with a porter, were whisked to a priority check-in (with no lines) , then to a small waiting lounge with other Haven passengers.  We barely sat down when a crew member arrived told us it was time to board! The entire time spent from Uber dropoff to gangway was less than 20 minutes.  An amazingly efficient process.

Once onboard, we were escorted to the 16th floor Haven lounge, where the ship’s Haven Concierge, Hanno Meyer,  gave us a quick talk about what to expect during the week.  The Concierge desk, located in the Haven, can help with restaurant and entertainment reservations, shore excursions and advice, shipboard account questions, etc.  One of Hanno’s best tips was to avoid using the included free, limited internet package for the first day (we were in Miami until 5pm anyway, with regular cell access), because the next day we could access an unlimited package for a very small upgrade price.  Since the internet connection onboard can be sketchy,  having a limited package is very stressful –  how long will it take for that email to load!?

Haven Cabin:

Shortly after Hanno’s introductory talk, we were able to access our room,  cabin 14140, a Haven Spa Suite.

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King-sized bed
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Looking back toward cabin door/ bathroom/closet
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Balcony
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Private jacuzzi in the Spa Suite

 

Haven Courtyard photos:

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Haven pools, private upper deck
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hot tub in the Haven (complete with Husband!)
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seating options in the Courtyard

 

Haven bar:

Next up: get that first drink!  We had the “Ultimate Beverage Package” included with our cabin. There are some limits to the package:  Any drink with a sticker price of more than $15 results in a upcharge of the difference greater than $15.  In addition, while the “UBP” as it’s called was included in our cruise fare, we did have to pay gratuities upfront on the package, about $136 per person for the week. Still, what’s fun about the package (in addition to, um, free unlimited drinks) is that you can try new things without worrying that you just wasted $12 or $15.  Christian, bartender extraordinaire in the Haven, prepares us an “Abraham Lincoln” below.  It’s got similar ingredients to a Manhattan, but the bong smoker he’s using gave the drink a cinnamon-toast taste.  This one was a winner:

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Norwegian’s cruises tend to attract a relatively younger crowd and a lot of families and multi-generational groups, due to the wide variety of activities available.  Our cruise was no exception, although travellng in late November probably reduced the number of school-aged children on board.  The Haven bar was populated regularly by a fun-loving,  young-adult-to-late-middle-aged crowd.  We enjoyed a predinner drink there most evenings!

The Spa

We visited the spa and I signed up for a 3-treatment Ionithermie package.  I’ve seen this advertised on several cruises;  it’s billed as a cellulite reduction treatment that will help you “LOSE 9 INCHES OR MORE!”  It involved algae and electrical stimulation of my chub.  Spoiler alert:  it doesn’t really work.  But we had onboard credit to spend, and I thought it might be worth a try.  Husband was approached by the spa’s cosmetic Doctor,   who offered a free consultation to “help him look years younger!”  Spoiler alert:  we don’t know if it worked, because it would have cost over $4,000.  More than the cruise!  LOL.   Cruise ship spas are lovely,  the people who work there are lovely, and they smell lovely. There are lovely photos of (probably airbrushed) body parts all around. But the spas are expensive, much more so than on land, and they WILL try to sell you something.  Buyer beware and all that.

However, our Spa Cabin did allow us access to a very cool feature of the Getaway:  the Mandara Thermal Spa room.  This room is only accessible by those who book spa cabins, or who purchase a weekly pass for $199pp (if purchased online before the cruise; $259 if purchased onboard). Spa Passes are limited in number.   It contains a large thermal pool with jets,  steam room, sauna, salt room, and a couple of dozen chairs including heated tile loungers that look out over the ship’s bow.  The spa is stocked with oranges and fruit-infused water, towels, and a locker room nearby. A nice place to Getaway, for sure. I didn’t feel it appropriate to take a lot of photos in the thermal spa,  but I did get this shot from a tile lounger looking out the front windows:

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Haven Concierge Desk:

The first day of a cruise is pleasantly busy and hectic,  with checking in, boarding, unpacking, and generally exploring the ship.  But it sets the stage for a great week!  An important first day activity is  revieiwng any reservations made previously, and, if you have concierge access,  getting their recommendations to set up the week.  They hear everyone’s feedback:  they know where it’s worth spending your precious vacation time!  We had met Hanno on our prior Getaway cruise,  but his whole concierge staff was fabulous and we definitely benefited from their advice.

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Hanno & staff at the Haven concierge desk.   You can’t tell here, but Hanno is nearly 7 feet tall and has to duck under the ship’s exit signs!

(not-so-secret note to Hanno:) We know, you like the Baltic itinerary better!  Try to enjoy the warm weather.

We are not cool enough for South Beach (but we had fun anyway)

The day after gorging ourselves on a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with the kids, Husband and I departed LGA to MIA bound for our Norwegian Getaway cruise.  Thanks(giving) to his Million Miler status,  one of our tickets was upgraded to First Class.  This is why Husband is awesome:  he gave me the seat.  Does he know me or what?  Happy wife happy life! The flight was short, so I would not have used miles for a first class seat,  but I have to admit it was comfortable and I enjoyed the flight.     Thanks honey!

We Ubered from MIA to our hotel, the Cadillac Miami Beach, located oceanfront in the mid-beach section of Miami Beach (about 1.5 miles north of the famed South Beach strip).  The hotel was newly purchased and renovated by Marriott as part of the Autograph Collection,  having opened about 8 weeks prior. The staff had a wonderful energy about them.  Thanks to Marriott promoting the new hotel,  we got a fantastic deal on a 2 night stay in an oceanfront room with a balcony.  We immediately enjoyed that ah-I’m-finally-on-vacation drink at the pool bar:

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Cadillac pool deck bar/restaurant
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Husband wears Sunglasses at Night

We’ve both had our share of stress over the past year, and this was our first lengthy getaway in quite awhile. Our cozy room led to a great night’s sleep after a hectic day.  I’m an early riser, and was greeted the next morning with this view:

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We greeted the day with a brisk walk along the oceanfront boardwalk on top of the dunes.  Other than that little burst of activity, we lounged by the pool and beach the rest of the day and were generally very lazy.  The pool was small,  but we had no problem finding a lounger.  We liked the artifical grass – it was less hot & slippery than pool tiles can be.

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We had a 7pm reservation at Gianni’s, the restaurant at the former Versace Mansion in South Beach.  The mansion, now called The Villa Casa Casuarina, has been converted into a hotel,  but anyone can dine at the restaurant in its courtyard.  To give you an idea,  a room at the hotel in January runs upwards of $700/night. This is a high-end experience,  so dress up and enjoy the service – it’s a great place for a special celebration, and we saw no less than 3 proposals take place!  Husband and I?  We’re just celebrating life and getting away from the daily grind!   We made reservations on OpenTable exactly 30 days prior to our preferred dining date – this is recommended during Miami’s winter high season.

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Gianni’s Courtyard with lit fountains in the background.
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Guests mingling in the central atrium of the mansion.

Now we come to the best activity there is in South Beach:  PEOPLE WATCHING. With its latin, party vibe,  South Beach is chock full of beautiful people doing beautiful things.  There may have been some fake boobs,  lips, and tummy tucks involved.

The Versace Mansion was just the start;  we made our way up fabled Ocean Drive to the Breakwater Hotel,  in front of which was a open-air  Cuban cafe with sidewalk tables called Havana 1957. The pictures below don’t really capture the vibe –  music coming from every direction;  open-top Ferraris coasting by;  couples (of all orientations) holding hands; scantily dressed dancers, bright colors and an endless energy.

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street life South Beach, view from our table at Havana 1957

We enjoyed a couple of “Ultimate Mojitos” –  these were very, very large and delicious drinks.  And we had a couple.  So the beautiful night was, shall we say, a little fuzzy  the next day.  We did get a kick out of a street performing magician,  who in addition to some great card tricks managed to remove both of our Apple watches without us even realizing it!  Glad he gave them back 🙂

Tomorrow:  We board the Norwegian Getaway!

Banker Chick Cruises

Ahoy!

My travel blog will cover all kinds of travels.  But I believe that cruises deserve a special mention, as they were really my introduction to international travel.

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A bit about my cruising history:

My first cruise was on Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas,  for my honeymoon in 1992 (the first one).  The islands we visited were Antigua, St Maarten, St Thomas, Martinique, and Barbados. The trip was booked through a  travel agent,  and I had no idea what I was doing.  The package price seemed right, that was all I cared about at the time.   But hey, we learn from our mistakes, right? Mistakes included:

  • Flying to Puerto Rico the day after our wedding, to catch the cruise that afternoon.  Only now do I realize how lucky we were that there were no delays.
  • Not spending any time in San Juan
  • Booking an obstructed view stateroom without a balcony / fresh air
  • Booking only cruiseline sponsored shore excursions
  • Thinking we would actually get a chair near the pool
  • Getting married to Husband #1 in the first place  (just kidding – I love my kids! I love my kids! Everything happens for a reason!  yada yada yada!)

Here’s the good thing though:  you don’t know what you don’t know.  I LOVED the cruise.  I’ll be the first to admit that cruising is not for everyone, and that it has its drawbacks.  If you are not a somewhat social person,  or if you need peace and quiet and isolation,  cruising is definitely not for you.  Buffets can be crowded and the food so-so,  you may wait for an elevator, seas may be rough, and casinos smoky. But here are the things about cruising that I fell in love with:

  • Unpack once,  see many destinations
  • Interacting with passengers and friendly crew from all over the world
  • Sailaway drinks,  watching an island recede into the distance while you imagine the next one
  • A friendly, low pressure casino –  $5 tables, and they don’t shoot you if you ask questions or make a mistake
  • The majesty of the dining room experience –  back in 1992,  this included dancing waiters and a set table and time each night, with the same cruise companions  (which could be a good or a bad thing depending on the companions!)  I’ve happily since moved on to “freestyle” cruising,  but still enjoy dressing up for a dinner experience even though dress codes have relaxed.
  • Evenings complete with included entertainment, many bars, and no need to drive home = the occasional hangover
  • Beautifully prepared food, especially desserts and yummy chilled soups
  • The overall friendliness of the cruising public.  Never have I experienced an elevator ride on a cruise ship without some chit chat –  where are you from?  I can’t believe it’s Wednesday already!  Did you enjoy xyz island?   I have yet to travel for any length of time as a solo,  but if and when I do, I think my first attempt will be a cruise.  It’s just so easy to meet people and make conversation, because you are all sharing the same experience.

Since that first cruise, I’ve been on (about) 15 more cruises.  This included a number of cruises with my children,  who always enjoyed the kids’ clubs,  ordering whatever they wanted from room service and buffets, bunk beds, and the arcade.  The majority of my cruises have been on either Norwegian Cruise Line or Royal Caribbean, although I’ve also taken a couple of cruises on RCCL’s sister line, Celebrity.  In the future,  I hope to try a luxury cruise line and European river cruising.

So:  The stage is set.  I look forward to posting about cruises, past and present.  Throughout this blog, I will label cruise-related posts under the category “Cruises”.

 

When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or ….you are really entertained

This was a day Oldest and I had looked forward to for months.  Not long after deciding that Scotland and Ireland would be our graduation trip destination, we also decided that we needed to do a Game of Thrones tour.  In fact,  I arranged our entire itinerary around this highlight.

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Originally, I had thought of spending a couple of days in Belfast,  because the GOT sites are all located in Northern Ireland. Between difficulty finding a direct flight between Inverness and Belfast,  and planning for further destinations in southern Ireland, we ended up flying into Dublin and opting for this tour:  Game of Thrones Dublin Winterfell tour –  as far as I could find, the only one originating in Dublin. I promise to return to Northern Ireland and visit Belfast!  This was a very difficult decision.

Oldest and I are both very big GOT fans.  I initially read the books in 2007-2008, during that dark and dreary winter following the banking crisis that seemed to last a dozen years, like in the novels.  Now,  I am a big reader, but I am not generally a fantasy fan.  While I read an average of 30-40 books a year, I have not read all of the Lord of the Rings trilogy,  nor have I read all of the Harry Potter books.  It’s just not my thing;  I prefer historical fiction and crime/murder mysteries. In fact,  I tried at least 3 different times to start the series,  and couldn’t get past the first 50 pages.  Eventually, though,  I plowed my way through about 1/3 of the book and –  ta da –  I was completely hooked.   Finally, after two seasons of the HBO series,  I ended up re-reading all 5 books to jog my memory about the minor plot points skipped over by the TV version.  That’s how much I enjoy it.

**Rant warning**   Finish the d*mn books, George R.R.! **End rant warning**

So, it was quite a thrill to see the setting for Winterfell:

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Castle Ward, the setting for Winterfell. They use a lot of CGI to make the walls look larger
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The yard at Castle Ward

Dress up like a Stark:

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Oldest trying to look mean
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Getting my Stark on

 

and meet two of the beautiful dogs that played the Direwolves Summer and Greywind in the HBO series.

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BEAUTIFUL, and patient, dogs
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Me and Thor.  He looks a little bored
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Oldest and friend Odin

 

Our tour guide Lady Aenne was extremely knowledgeable about both the show and the settings.

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Lady Aenne showing us THE STUMP that can is visible in the series’ opening scene

She was also a FAST walker.  Winter may be coming, but I was sweating my butt off, especially with the heavy Stark-esque cape I wore.  I ended up carrying it for much of the walking parts of the tour.

We enjoyed lunch at The Lobster Pot in Strangford,  which hosts the tour group daily with this hokey but fun drink menu:

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Pretty much everyone on our bus was also a fan (there are always a few bored but willing tag-a-long partners). We played a GOT trivia game, the winner of which was crowned “King in the North”, to whom we later bent the knee and swore our fealty. Of course!  Oldest and I thought we did fairly well on the 20-question quiz,  but this guy was on a whole different level –  he got all 20 questions right.  Impressive.  I swear fealty, milord.

The tour was a long day –  we met at 7:45 am, and returned to Dublin right around 6:00.  There was a fair amount of time on the bus, but the tour kept us entertained with behind-the-scenes videos,  the trivia game, and,  on the way home,  the first two full episodes of GOT.

I highly recommend this tour and   tour company, Game of Thrones Tours–  offering the only GOT tour choice out of Dublin, literally;  when I return to Northern Ireland I’ll eagerly try one of their “Iron Islands” tours from Belfast.

Next up,  we will return to the 21st century and – gulp- drive on the “wrong” side of the road!