Literary England: Warwick Castle, Stratford and Oxfrord

For us, as Americans, England is a many faceted place of fairie tales, age old stories, castles and dreams. In many ways, England, and the British Isles are our mother country. Our legal system, our culture, even some of our cuisine are all rooted in Britain. We may have rebelled in 1776 for good reason, however, it could be argued that we never stopped loving our mother country. Consider our current fascination with Britain’s Royal Family if you doubt our love for all things British.

If you love literature, as I do, England is a place of enchanted castles and timeless tales of heroes. For a lover of literature, there is no better place than England. Jim and I stayed in London for a week, and because we don’t have children, we were able to explore the museums, the castles and the pubs where history happened. We were fortunate to take a side trip out through the Cotswolds to Warwickshire, Warwick Castle, Oxford and Stratford.

While we walked through Warwick Castle, we could see the different periods in English history as it was first commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1068 and underwent several renovations over time. The great hall had been left as it had been during medieval times, but the upstairs was refurbished in the 1800s. We continued to the man made mound at the end of the castle which is belieed to have been commissioned by Aethelflead at the end of the 800s. It is certainly the remains of an old baily. I had read Bernard Cornwall’s series, The Saxon Tales, with my father, in which Aethelflead and her father, Alfred, play a large role. It was a surreal experience to stand on a mound perhaps created by a formidable woman who lived so long ago during the Anglo Saxon Period. I found myself texting my father that I felt like I just stepped into a Bernard Cornwall novel. From the mound, we had a breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside. For me, standing on Aethelflead’s Mound, as it is still called, was a real life connection to the Anglo Saxon period and Aethelflead, the Lady of Mercia as well as the Bernard Cornwall books.

Next, we went on the Stratford to tour Shakespeare’s house. Yes, the house of the Bard himself still survives. I found out that it was to have been demolished in the 1800s, but for the efforts of Charles Dickens and his friends who worked to see that it was preserved. Walking through the house where the Bard was born and raised made him seem that much more real. At one point, I touched a door frame with my fingertips and whispered to Jim, “He was here. Shakespeare was here.” I almost couldn’t breathe as I walked the same steps he had walked so long ago. I had hoped to also see the first folio, which is often on display in the house, however it was not on display while we were there. It was still more than gratifying to walk the steps that Shakespeare walked. Much of the rest of Stratford is touristy, and there is a large outdoor market with all sorts of trinkets to buy. We bought handheld pastries with bacon, leeks and cheese and walked through the market with them. Delicious! Stratford is also where the Royal Shakespeare Theater is housed. Sir Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard, Star Trek the Next Generation) Sir Ian McKellan (Gandalf in Lord of the Rings) and Dame Judi Dench (M in several Bond movies) were all well regarded members of the Royal Shakespeare Theater long before they became famous in Hollywood. If you are there when a play is happening, it’s a definite must. After all, the play is the thing.

We then went to Oxford and toured the parts of the campuses open to the public. We couldn’t go in, but we saw Exeter, the school where J. R. R. Tolkien taught. The medieval architecture of Oxford is stunning, and exactly what we Americans envision it to be, maybe even more beautiful. Oxford has an incredibly old library, but we chose to go into the local bookstore instead. Oxford is, of course, the home of the Oxford Press which published most of the books I read for my college courses, so the bookstore was extensive. Then we had to hunt down the pub where J. R. R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis met their friends, the Inklings, to talk about their literary ideas, the Eagle and the Child, or the Bird and the Baby, as locals call it. We drank a pint in honor of Tolkien and Lewis. I had to investigate the entire place, and told Jim that I couldn’t believe we were drinking where Tolkien and Lewis drank. I think I pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

You don’t have to love literature to love Oxford, Stratford and Warwick Castle, but I felt as if my love of literature and history gave me a deeper appreciation of the places. I felt the literature I loved come alive as I walked the steps that my favorite authors walked long ago. For me, Oxford, Stratford and Warwick Castle were not just touristy places for photo ops. These were the places where my favorite authors lived, wrote, and history happened. Go to Oxford, Stratford and Warwick Castle for the history, the architechture, the literature, and of course, the pubs. Have a hand held bacon, leek and cheese pastry while you are there.

In this picture, I am standing on Aethelflead’s Mound at the end of Warwick Castle. This mound is believed to have been commissioned by Aethelflead, the Lady of Mercia and the daughter of Alfred the Great at the end of the 800s. Read Bernard Cornwall’s books, The Saxon Tales.
This is Shakespeare’s childhood home in Stratford Upon Avon. Here is where his father made gloves for people in the village. The Bard’s home was almost demolished but for the efforts of Charles Dickens and his friends who fought to preserve it.
Warwick Castle from the vantage point of Aethelflead’s Mound. This castle was commissioned by William the Conqueror and believed to have been finished around 1200. It has been in use ever since and has undergone many renovations.
The town of Oxford with all the affiliated colleges which are a part of Oxford University. The oldest pub in the village lies just beyond the small lovers’ bridge.

Saint Augustine, Florida, The Penny Farthing Inn

Florida offers a plethora of wonderful beaches, golf courses, resorts and theme parks, but one of my favorite places is Saint Augustine. Saint Augustine has one of a kind offerings that make it special and unique. As the oldest city in America, the area offers historical treasures such as the fort, St. George Street museums such as the oldest school house, and the Saint Augustine lighthouse. In addition to the history, Saint Augustine boasts beautiful beaches and eateries like Harry’s and the Columbia. My husband and I have visited St. Augustine several times and have never been disappointed.

St. Augustine has many hotels large and small, as well as many bed and breakfast lodgings. For families, I would recommend the Holiday Inn or the Hampton Inn on the beach, but if you plan to travel as a couple and want to avoid places with large numbers of children for a quiet or romantic time away, there are many bed and breakfast accommodations. For a wonderful couples experience, often bed and breakfast inns are the best choice. On our last visit to the country’s oldest city, we chose the Penny Farthing Inn. The inn was located around the corner and a short walk from St. George Street, which is our favorite hangout. The building had originally been built in the late 1800s, and had been decorated in Victorian era style with a particularly British feel. The grand piano in the living room and vintage furniture, lamps as well as porcelain dolls gave the inn an elegant feel. Our room was quaint with a hardwood floor, antiques and a small bottle of brandy.  I had to wonder where one of the doors led, however, as it was locked from the other side.

The Penny and Farthing is not only decorated in Victorian style, but the owners offer a hot breakfast each morning such as eggs benedict or pancakes, which was far nicer and more delicious than a continental breakfast. They also offer tea and cookies or wine and cheese in the afternoon, and guests gathered on the covered porch to talk and enjoy the goodies. One of the things I love about bed and breakfast inns is that guests usually congregate in the common areas mid afternoon for interesting chats, and I always make new friends.

What I didn’t know until breakfast Saturday morning, is that the Penny Farthing Inn is supposed to be haunted.  Remember I wondered about the door in our room that we could not open?  The owner told us that there was a set of stairs in the middle of the house that had been sealed when the house was turned into a bed and breakfast.  Former guests who had stayed in our room had heard children running and playing up and down those steps on many occasions.  I think I turned pale, and my husband, Jim, burst out in laughter. I tend to despise horror movies and stay away from places that are haunted. I think Jim was hoping something strange would happen while we were there. All was quiet, much to his disappointment.

There may not have been any ghosts around, but since the Penny Farthing is a short walk away from St. George Street, we wandered around at our own pace and visited some of our favorite restaurants and some new ones as well. We have always loved the Columbia and Harry’s Bar and Grill. The Columbia specializes in cuisine that is a fusion of Spanish and Cuban and always spectacular. I haven’t had a bad meal there, and it remains one of my favorite restaurants. The seafood is always fresh and the sangria is homemade in an atmosphere that is elegant and fun at the same time. Harry’s offers some bar food with a New Orleans twist. Patrons can dine inside, but I recommend the outside area which is lined with trees and landscaped with tropical plants. I opted for the seared tuna salad. The tuna was seared perfectly and the vinaigrette dressing only enhanced the flavor. I was shocked at the size of the salad and the amount of tuna for $15.00 and change. Absolutely incredible. If you love fresh cuisine in an enchanting outdoor atmosphere, Harry’s is a must.

We also tried Prohibition Kitchen for the first time. It’s located on historic St. George Street and the atmosphere is that of a 1920s speakeasy, which was so much fun. A band was playing, and there were seats available to watch the band or tables to order food. It was crowded so we sat at the bar. Prohibition Kitchen, I found out, is not the place to order wine. It’s where you want to order mixed drinks. I am a wine drinker and usually defer to Merlot, so I asked the bartender what I should order. After an initial snarky response, the bartender declared she had been “shitty” with me and specially mixed a drink with tequila, vodka and berries which was delicious. As we enjoyed drinks and dinner, a live county rock band played. My husband and I agreed that the dinner we ordered was not anything special, but the music and drinks were a lot of fun. My recommendation is to head to the Columbia or Harry’s for dinner and then to Prohibition Kitchen for drinks and music afterward. You won’t regret the experience.

Spend the day at the beach or roaming St. George Street, and then head to Harry’s or the Columbia for dinner and Prohibition Kitchen for the evening. Of course, if you are up to the challenge, there are plenty of ghost tours available after dark.  After all, St. Augustine is America’s oldest city and there are ghost stories just waiting to be told.

This is Harry's, a must when in St. Augustine
Harry’s in St. Augustine.
Prohibition Kitchen in St. Augustine.  This joint is jumpin'!
Prohibition Kitchen, St. Augustine This joint it jumpin’!

Update- Celebrity Cruises

 

Jim and I just returned from another Celebrity cruise, this time on the Silhouette.  We can now say we have traveled on all five Solstice class ships in Celebrity’s fleet.  As usual, Celebrity did not disappoint.  The ship was beautiful, a wine tower in the main dining room, lounges where you could hang out and talk or read, a library that was old world elegant, and of course, the iced Martini Bar and the Sky Lounge.  Live music abounded from the pool band to a jazz band, one of Celebrity’s hallmarks.

I admit that this time I was nervous.  I had read reviews of the Silhouette that weren’t all favorable, certainly not what I’ve come to expect from Celebrity.  One of the main complaints in the reviews was about service.  I remember that on our last Celebrity cruise, the food had been good, but not the stellar quality we normally expect.  Now I read complaints about the service.  So, would Celebrity live up to the reviews I already wrote, or would we be looking for a new favorite cruise line?

It seems Celebrity paid attention to the reviews.  Service was impeccable.  We travel concierge class, which I recommend, and our cabin steward was very attentive.  He made sure he delivered canapés every day and made sure we had anything we wanted or needed.  One night, his assistant forgot to turn down the bed.  He apologized it seemed a million times and gave us each a Celebrity tote bag.  Room service was wonderful and right on time.  One morning, when we weren’t in a hurry to get off the ship, we sat on the veranda in our robes and drank coffee as we watched the boats around Key West. We had breakfast delivered in Cozumel as we needed to be off the ship early for an excursion.  I was amazed that they could deliver soft boiled eggs done just right with gluten free toast, but they did.  The eggs were perfect, and the toast was tasty even though it was gluten free.  The staff in the dining room were wonderful and accommodated my gluten free diet.

The cuisine was fabulous.  They offered fish dishes for me and beef for Jim.  In the buffet, they even offered gluten free pizza made to order, which is hard to do.  Most gluten free pizza has a hard, cracker-like crust.  I had some of the best gluten free pizza I have ever eaten aboard the Silhouette.  We had onboard credit, so we indulged in three of the specialty restaurants, Murano, Tuscan and Sushi on 5.  All three specialty restaurants were delightful.  The calamari was fabulous at the Tuscan.  Jim is normally not a seafood person but he loved it.  Murano, the French style restaurant, was elegant and of course rich and flavorful with goat cheese soufflé, lobster in cream, and of course, dark chocolate and Grand Marnier soufflé’ for desert.  Sushi on 5 was fresh and innovative.  I had a spicy tuna roll with avocado which was fresh and delicious.  I am from Florida so I refuse to eat any sushi that isn’t fresh.  Jim had a Kobe beef slider on a bed of fried ramen noodles which he said was ingenious.  The cuisine exceeded our expectations.

As we are Captain’s Club members with this being our fifth Celebrity Cruise and eighth cruise overall, we were treated to a cocktail party with a live jazz band and champagne on the helicopter pad as we sailed away from Costa Maya, a wine tasting, and a high tea.

In addition to the cuisine, there was always live music, from the pool band to the nightly shows to the jazz band. The jazz band played during the dinner hours in the atrium and in the evening.  A classical string duet played in the ensemble lounge.  The jazz band on this cruise and the last was particularly good.  There is nothing quite like drinking a martini and listening to a good jazz band.

Celebrity Cruises did not disappoint.  Music, cuisine, and service was all phenomenal.  Jim and I are eagerly awaiting Celebrity’s new ship, the Edge.

 

What Kind of Vacation is Right For You?

If you are reading this blog, you already know you don’t want to travel where there you are going to share the space with a ton of kids.  But exactly what kind of vacation do you want?  There are many different kinds of vacations.  There are the eco-vacations, the trips that involve the outdoors such as hiking camping, and sailing adventures.  There are the destination vacations that explore new places including the sights, museums and food such as visiting parts of Europe a traveler hasn’t experienced before.  Then there are what I like to call the relaxation vacations where travelers are pampered and do as much or as little as they wish such as resort or cruise ship vacations.  There are even study abroad or teach abroad journeys that allow people to study or teach in other cultures such as teaching in China for a year.

I have done all of these types of trips.  When I was growing up, my father was the outdoors type who loved camping, sailing and fishing.  My mother, who grew up in the Big Apple, was always up for the adventure.  We camped at many state parks, sailed Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence Seaway and docked at the Canadian Thousand Islands where there often weren’t any restroom or water facilities.  (I still remember bathing in the St. Lawrence River.)  For my Dad’s 60th birthday, my sister arranged for the whole family to go white water rafting.  At 78 Dad insisted the whole family climb Dunn’s River Falls in Jamaica and was hauling my 71 year old mother through the falls.  He’s still a bad ass at 80.

I’ve done the study abroad trip too.  In 2004, I received a Hays-Fulbright scholarship to study in India for 2 months.  The University of Central Florida professor who led our group was a Brahmin and took us all over India, including places most tourists don’t get to go.  We studied at both the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai and Anna University in Chennai.  There was no rest as we trekked through India.  We had all of two half days to rest in the two months we were there.  Phenomenal journey of a lifetime, but exhausting.

I have also done the destination trips.  I’ve done Vegas a number of times as well as many places in the United States.  I’ve done Spain, France and Italy and took in the Vatican Museum and did tapas tasting on the island of Mallorca as well as investigated the cathedrals.

I’ve also done the pampered relaxation trips where I just relaxed, and had drinks on the beach at a Sandal’s resort or the cruise ship deck on our favorite cruise line, Celebrity.  On the relaxation trips, I have indulged in the spas, especially at Sandals.

The question now is, what kind of vacation do I really want now?  What kind of vacation do I need now?  When you plan your next vacation, these are the same questions you must ask yourself.  You also must ask yourself who else is going on vacation with you and what their needs and wants are.  Maybe you are in great shape and nothing makes you happier than being outdoors, and you have a partner who is up for the adventure.  If that’s the case, go for it.  Maybe you’ve been working too hard and you’re exhausted, and so is your partner.  If that’s the case, then maybe a cruise or a Sandals vacation is what you really want right now.  Maybe you want to explore new places and you’ve got the money and the time to plan a destination vacation.  The point is, think carefully before you schedule a trip.   One person’s ultimate vacation could be someone else’s nightmare.  A perfectly good vacation for someone else, might not be what’s right for you.

This year, I have to admit, my husband and I are both overworked and tired.  Adventurous vacations are out.  Considering I have psoriatic arthritis, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to do white water rafting or even another climb up Dunn’s River Falls, even though I might do those things again.  Camping in a tent is certainly not happening!  I really want to do a destination vacation, but I don’t really have the proper time to plan a trip to Germany and Austria, which was my ultimate goal, plus I’m not sure we’ve wracked up enough miles on our Capital One Visa to get there.  I want to be money smart about our vacations.  So, Jim and I decided that this year, it might be best to relax.  We have a spring break cruise scheduled on the only Celebrity Solstice class ship we have not been on yet, and another Sandal’s resort this summer.  We put money down last year when we were at Sandals to reserve a vacation, but have over two years to use that vacation.

In the meantime, there is a possibility that I can apply to teach for a month in China this summer.  I found out about that opportunity through another local professor who did it last summer.  As tired and overworked as I am, I am so intrigued that I don’t think I can help applying if the Chinese university needs any composition instructors.  It’s hard to know what to do sometimes, because like so many other travelers, I want to do everything.  In the meantime, Germany and Austria will certainly happen next summer.  What is your ultimate vacation?  What is right for you right now at this point in your life?  What is right for the others traveling with you?  These are important questions for all travelers to ask.  So now I ask your advice.  What advice do you have for other travelers like me who want to do everything?

 

 

 

 

Spain Episode 2: Barcelona

Barcelona suits my style.  If I had the opportunity, I’d move there in a moment.  The pace of life is different in Barcelona, not harried and hassled, not lazy.  Just right I’d say.  The day we arrived in Barcelona, it was 11:00 or so in the morning.  There were people still having breakfast in the cafes.  Granted, it was the weekend, but I couldn’t help but already like the place.  I’m a night owl, so breakfast before 11:00 on the weekend is painful anyway.  Work happens in the morning, and then in the middle of the day, about 2:00 in the afternoon, stores and restaurants shut down and then open back up again at 5:00.  Everyone takes a break.  Dinner is late.  I asked a cab driver if people ate dinner at 7:00 and he laughed, “Only tourists”.  Most Spaniards in Barcelona don’t eat dinner until 9:00 or so, and that meant that everyone was out at the local cafes during that time.  I love the pace of life in Barcelona.

Besides the overall appeal of the pace of life, there are lots of things to see and do in Barcelona.  There are terraced gardens on the edge of the city that were designed by Gaudi.  The gardens are unique patterned steps up the mountain. I have never experienced gardens like that anywhere else.  There was also supposed to be a castle on the same mountainside, but we kept climbing through the gardens and then further up the road and never found it.  I kept asking locals in Spanish how much further the castle was.  They would answer, “Cinco minutos”, “Five minutes”, but we’d climb on and still not arrive at the castle.  The next local would give us the same answer.  The elusive castle remained five minutes away.  In addition to the gardens, Gaudi also designed a cathedral, La Segrada Familia, which is still under construction.  It’s architecture has been handed down from architect/artist to architect/artist since Gaudi’s death in 1926.

In addition, the Gothic Cathedral in the Gothic Quarter is a must see.  The cathedral, which was finished in 1448, is of Medieval construction and breathtaking in size as well as detail.  My husband, Jim, was much more impressed with the Gothic Cathedral than La Segrada Familia.  I even stayed for a mass because I am Catholic, and I felt as if was watching something out of a movie about the Middle Ages, complete with incense.

We walked through a local neighborhood to a market to buy olive oil, and noticed all the Catalonian flags flying from apartment balconies.  The people there are proud of their Catalonian heritage and were quick to tell us when the food was a local specialty.

Much as I loved the gardens and cathedrals, I loved the food.  We had fish for lunch at a seaside café one day and paia at several local places including a paia house.  Paia always seemed to be served with sangria.  Usually paia and sangria was 16 Euros per person with a two person minimum.  I didn’t have any paia or sangria in Barcelona that I didn’t like.  It was all good, all delicious, all the time.  We wandered Las Ramblas at night.  Yes, the Ramblas is touristy, with almost a carnival like atmosphere with all kinds of street vendors selling things like toys and treats, but all the shops and cafes were locally owned and the tastings delicious.  There is a store/restaurant on the Ramblas that specializes in Iberian ham.  We had the ham with local cheese and bread prepared the Catalonian way with tomato and olive oil.  All the varieties of ham we tried were delicious.  If there had been any way to bring some Iberian ham back to the States, Jim would have.  We bought some Iberian ham when we got back home, but of course, it wasn’t the same.  Spain is a true culinary adventure.  No wonder that on the travel channel, Anthony Bourdain, has said that some of the best chefs are coming out of Spain.  Viva Espana indeed!

Spain Episode 1: Ibiza and Mallorca

Ibiza and Mallorca are both Spanish owned islands that embrace the essence of Mediterranean culture.  The port in Ibiza is dominated by a 16th century fortress, Almundaina,  which is on a high hilltop overlooking the water.  Of course Ibiza is also famous for its beaches and its nightlife.  Since Jim and I are geeks, we were fascinated by the fortress.  We walked up the hill to the fortress around the outer walls to the chapel at the very top.  The chapel is a good representation of Renaissance architecture and style with paintings and works of art dating to the 1500s and 1600s.  We then walked back down the hill through the original village inside the fortress walls.  Small shops and apartments, including a couple tiny bars just big enough for a bar with a few seats lined the winding cobblestone streets.  The few cars that drove through the village beeped so anyone walking could jump into doorways and let the cars pass.  As Americans, we were fascinated by the narrow cobblestone streets and giggled every time we had to jump into a doorway to allow a car to pass.

Once we had walked back down through the village, we had a lovely lunch and white sangria with a stem of rosemary at a local café.  The white sangria was refreshing and flavorful.  I decided that we just had to see the beach, even though beaches are not Jim’s favorite.  We found some local people who were really friendly and were headed near one of the closest beaches, so we shared a cab and went to the beach nearest the port.  Considering I live in Florida and frequent beaches there, I was curious about the famous beaches in Ibiza.  The view was certainly different, with rocky hilltops lined with colorful buildings.  Sangria was the drink of the day, and Jim and I each had a couple of red sangrias on the beach as we enjoyed the view.  Other than the fortress and the beaches, Ibiza is famous for it’s nightlife.  It’s a haven for famous DJs and parties, and the parties go all night long.  While we were there, Paris Hilton was going to DJ at a club at 3:00 a.m..

We went on to the island of Mallorca and we loved that island even more.  We went on a tapas tasting tour and tasted the food and sangria at three places.  We ate seafood tapas at a restaurant where the fishing boats were docked.  Men were busy nearby mending their nets.  Tiny fish were breaded and fried whole like fish fries, which I liked, but Jim wasn’t so sure about.  Then there were fish croquettes and octopus.  Jim liked the octopus better than the fish.  Next, we went to a place where we were served a potato and egg frittata and bread and sausage along with swirled bread with powdered sugar on top again with red sangria.  I later learned that my Latin friends in Florida call those pastries Mallorcas.  At the last stop, we had two different kinds of breads, one with soft cheese and another with smoked salmon and more red sangria.  The seafood and pastries were all delicious, and the sangria was all fantastic.  You just can’t go wrong with sangria in Spain.  It’s all good.

After the tapas tasting, we toured Mallorca’s cathedral, which was built in 1300.  We were both fascinated by the flying buttress construction, and the stone work outside.  Inside, self guided tours were offered with a device and headphones.  Multiple languages were offered, which is helpful.  We took our time and enjoyed perusing the priceless artwork, gold goblets and crosses that are now on display, but had been used in masses there for endless years past.  The vastness and richness of the cathedral was amazing to us as Americans.  For anyone who loves history, the cathedral is well worth a visit.  We also stopped by a castle high on a hilltop overlooking the town, and were also fascinated by the arches and stonework there as well.

Ibiza and Mallorca are two islands well worth visiting.  Should you be near Barcelona, there are high speed ferries that go between Barcelona and the islands under the Balleric Company, so they are not hard to access.  We would love to go back and visit Mallorca again.  When you visit, be sure to drink as much delicious sangria as possible.  To do anything less should be illegal!

 

The Disney Question

We are ringing in the holidays here in Orlando, and inevitably, everyone wants to go to Disney.  I’ve been asked many times how often I go to Disney, and if Disney is worth a trip for those of us who are childfree or empty nesters.  How to do Disney if you are childfree has been discussed in childfree groups online.  Just because you don’t have kids, or your kids are grown doesn’t mean you can’t still love Disney.  Last I heard, there is no law against it.  Lots of people do, and lots of people hate it.  It’s your choice, your taste.

This time of year, Disney is beautifully decorated, and there are special celebrations.  There’s Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas at the Magic Kingdom and the Candlelight Processional at Epcot.  There is also a light display at Hollywood Studios.  Local choirs and choruses are auditioned to sing in the parks and at the hotels.  If you are traveling childfree, I would recommend Epcot and the Candlelight Processional.  The Candlelight Processional  is well worth experiencing.  It takes place in the outdoor theater by the American Pavilion, which is all lit with white lights.  A choir of 300 people consisting of Disney cast members, the Voices of Liberty, and auditioned choirs from around the country make a grand procession into the outdoor theater holding candles as a full orchestra plays.  A celebrity narrates stories from the Bible, and after each story, the choir sings.  I have seen Trace Atkins, Neil Patrick Harris and Whoopi Goldberg narrate.

For Jim and I, and my parents, Epcot is our pick because the Candlelight Processional is beautiful and a lot of the kids are going to be at Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas.  (Mickey’s Very Merry is definitely for the kiddos.)  We also enjoy all the food at Epcot.  If you love sampling the food form all over the world, Epcot is the place.  There are all kinds of dining options ranging from less expensive to very expensive.  At Epcot, the main restaurants in Mexico and France are our favorites.  We love the presentation of the all the countries as well as the fireworks at the end of the day.  Animal Kingdom is always fun and I love the exhibit with the tigers as I have been to India and the Disney artists did a phenomenal job reconstructing Mogul India in that area of the park.  You can also dine at the Rain Forrest Café, which is casual, but the fare is fun and tasty and there are storms and moving animals.  We avoid the Magic Kingdom at all costs.  That is little kid land, and there really is nothing of interest there for most adults.  The food in the Magic Kingdom is also geared toward kids, so unless you really enjoy hamburgers and hot dogs, there really isn’t much else unless you want to pay for the highly rated restaurant at Cinderella’s Castle which is going to cost you, and reservations are booked very early.

If you want to go to Disney and not be overwhelmed with crowds and kids, go during the week while school is still in session, and stick to Epcot and possibly Animal Kingdom.  At all costs, avoid going near Disney between Christmas and New Year’s.  I made that mistake once and the parks were packed.  There were strollers everywhere blocking the walkways so people were constantly jammed trying to get around them.  I felt like the proverbial sardine all day and came home aggravated and irritated.  Consider yourself warned!  Even if you go to Disney while school is in session, you can’t expect that there won’t be kids there.  It’s Disney.  You will have kids running around and very possibly encounter kids having meltdowns and tantrums.  It’s up to you whether you love Disney enough to visit anyway.  My mother and I will go for the Epcot Wine and Food Festival and the Candlelight Processional, but my husband and father usually want nothing to do with “the parks” as they are referred to here in Florida.  The answer is different for each of us.  In the end, the answer to the Disney Question is totally up to you.

 

 

 

 

Sandals Royal Plantation Resort

I have been away for a while busy with my position of choral director, but I am updating my blog so I will have several posts soon!  This summer, before the madness of  directing a large choral program began,  my husband Jim and I relaxed at our second Sandals Resort, and I am so glad we did.  As much as we loved Sandal’s Whitehouse, now South Coast, we loved Royal Plantation Resort even more.  It is Sandals smallest and most intimate all inclusive resort.  It is truly all inclusive as the room, food, alcohol, water sports, gratuities and transport from the airport to the hotel and back again are all included.  No children are allowed at Sandals Resorts.  That’s what their counterpart Beaches is for.  Sandals Royal Plantation has 74 rooms, and each room comes with a pair of butlers.   One of our butlers, Marvin, greeted us with a glass of champagne upon our arrival and took us on a tour of the property while our bags were delivered to our room.  Royal Plantation sits on a hill overlooking the ocean.  Outside the lobby is a porch with comfortable furniture, a coffee bar, and games such as chess.  In the afternoon, a wine bar is set up on the porch.  Beyond the porch has a wide black and white tiled terrace with a small pool, and a large spa that threads around it at the edge of hill.  The terrace has a restaurant at the end.  There is inside seating and outside seating as well as an old-fashioned white bandstand.  On the second floor of the lobby is a formal drawing room and the French restaurant, Papillion.  A large staircase on each side of the terrace winds down to the beach.  On one side of the beach is a restaurant with a patio. That restaurant turns into a seafood restaurant at night.  On the other side of the beach there were more tiki huts and chairs available plus the watersports.  Sandals offers paddleboards, kayaks and Hobe Cat sailboats for guests’ use.   Royal Plantation also boasts it’s own spa with full service facials and massages as well as pedicure and manicure services.  While the Royal Plantation resort is small and intimate, it sits next door to the new Sandals Ochi Resort which is a large resort.  Royal Plantation guests have reciprocal privileges at Ochi which boasts huge pools with swim up bars, the Ochi Beach Club and 16 restaurants as well as night life such as the Rabitt Hole Speakeasy.  There is shuttle service to and from the Ochi resort that is easily accessible.

Jim and I had never experienced butler service before, so we weren’t sure what to expect.  Our butler team was Marvin and Orren.   Often one would be on duty during the day and the other would be on duty in the evening until 10:00 p.m.  They offered to unpack our suitcases.  They brought us breakfast in our room each morning.  All we had to do is put a placard on the door with our order and what time we wanted it delivered and our breakfast was there on time, with a smiling Marvin or Orren.  No matter which one delivered breakfast, they covered our in- room table with a white table cloth and presented me with a flower.  During the day, if we wanted anything, a drink, or something from our room, they would provide that service.  They retrieved one of Jim’s books from the room when we were on the beach one day and Jim wanted to read.  One night after we closed the bar down, we came back to our room to find flower petals from the door to the bed.  Towels were made into two swans surrounded by more flower petals on the bed.  Battery operated candles were placed strategically around the room.  Another night, a bath had been drawn with flower petals and candles.  By the end of the week, I nicknamed them, Marvin the Marvelous and Orren the Outstanding.  We couldn’t have asked for better service. They truly provided us with a relaxing and pampered stay.

I spent most days lazing on the beach, swimming and sailing.  At Whitehouse (South Beach) there was a lot of beach area, but since that resort is in a protected cove, it was thick with seaweed and not at all good for swimming.  Royal Plantation’s beach area is smaller, but beautiful and the water was gorgeous for swimming.   There was always a beach butler nearby to bring a drink from the restaurant.  They even brought me lunch in my tiki hut a couple of times.  One of the advantages of a small resort was that the watersports guys, all young guys in their 20s, were not busy so they had time to go sailing with me.  Jim refused to sail with me after I tipped the Hobi over last year and the watersports guys had to come get us.  (Hobe Cat sailboats are designed to do that.  It’s okay, but Jim was not amused.)  The weather was a bit rough this summer and Royal Plantation does not sit in a protected cove, so sailing there means sailing on the open sea.  I thought it best not to go it alone, although I sailed the boat most of the time.  Obrien, one of the watersports guys, and I raised hell out on the waves and Jim was content to watch from shore.  This time, I didn’t take a knockdown, although that still surprises me considering the heavy weather we sailed in.  Our last two days I took advantage of some of the points we were awarded for rebooking and went to the spa for a massage and a facial.

Besides the relaxing days on the beach or at the spa, we took advantage of the restaurants offered at the resort.  The main restaurant was the one on the Terrace, called, the Terrace.  The Terrace offered inside or outside dining.  The interior of the restaurant was quaint, but the outside was set with white tablecloths and candles at night. Dining there was excellent.  We had breakfast there only one day, but we were well satisfied with the buffet including omelets to order.  We ate lunch there one day and dinner there three nights.   While Jim ordered beef dishes, I ordered seafood and lobster.  The best meal was during Jamaica Night when the restaurant set up a huge buffet outside on the terrace and served all kinds of Jamaican food ranging from curried goat to rice and peas to lobsters grilled to order.  Jamaica Night sizzled with spicy, tangy flavors that are the essence of Jamaica.  Every night, a small band or a singer would entertain us from the old-fashioned white bandstand on the terrace during dinner.  Another option was the restaurant on the beach.  During the day they served sandwiches and burgers coconut shrimp, jerk shrimp and Jamaican patties.  I loved the shrimp while Jim loved the Jamaican patties.  At night it turned into a seafood restaurant and I ate some of the best surf and turf I’ve ever had there.   The French Restaurant, Papillion, is on the second floor of the lobby and while I didn’t consider the cuisine French, it was fabulous.  I had  a seafood dish one night and lobster another night and it was some of the best lobster I have eaten.  During dinner, Oliver, the pianist, plays softly on a grand piano.  We loved all three restaurants so much that we only ate one lunch and one dinner at the Ochi resort.  We had lunch at Neptune’s there one day and dinner at their hibachi grill another evening with two other couples we had befriended.  While the Jamaican fare at Neptune’s was good, we were not fans of the hibachi restaurant and found it flavorless.  Our new friends shared our opinion of the hibachi restaurant.

After dinner, we were pleasantly surprised at the nightlife.  At eight o’clock every night the main show would start at the white bandstand on the terrace.  There were bands and singers, but the night I enjoyed most was the night when there were acrobats who did all sorts of things like eating fire, contortions and strength poses worthy of Cirque du  Solei.  On Jamaica Night, the show included singers, musicians and dancers who told the story of Jamaica.  We enjoyed listening to the shows either from the tables of the Terrace Restaurant or the porch while sipping wine with our new friends.  After the show, the Wobbly Peacock, which is right between the terrace and the lobby was always open until 2:00 a.m., and they served delicious scotch eggs as well as pub food drinks.  Oliver, the pianist, was there three nights during our stay and he could play anything.  I had so much fun singing old jazz standards with him that we closed the bar down each night he played.  One night we ventured over to the Ochi resort and went to the Rabbit Hole Speakeasy with our new friends.  Our butler had to give us the day’s password to get in, which we thought was cool.  The round door leading to the Speakeasy was guarded by two guys in zoot suits and the cocktail servers were dressed in flapper dresses complete with fringe.  The menu of drinks were all from the Prohibition Era.  The whole concept of the Speakeasy was so much fun.  We went there on a particular night to hear Mama, a singer some other guests had recommended.  Mama came out in a gown worthy of a 20s era torch singer and had a good voice.  The only problem was the Speakeasy wasn’t a large space and the oversized speakers were turned up to blast level.  We all decided to leave as it was just too loud.  What would have been far better would have been Mama with a pianist.  Sometimes less is more.  Take it from a singer and choral director.

We loved Royal Plantation so much that we didn’t spend a whole lot of time at Ochi.  We were so entranced that we booked again for next year.  I had planned a trip to Germany and Austria, but by the end of the week, we couldn’t resist another trip to Royal Plantation.  I can’t wait to swim in the bright blue water, eat more lobster, sing with Oliver, and see Marvin and Orren’s smiling faces again.  We left Marvin and Orren and the beach butlers an extra tip as they were so fantastic and we will certainly request them for our stay next year.  (Butlers are the only ones allowed to receive tips.)  If you want a vacation where you can relax and be pampered, I can’t recommend Royal Plantation more.  By the end of this school year, I am going to need it!

 

 

 

 

 

The Finger Lakes Wine Trail

Perhaps the most underrated of the places I’ll write about is the Finger Lakes Wine Trail in New York State.  The Finger Lakes Wine Trails are in the other New York, not the city, and are well worth visiting.   The hills that rise from the deep cold lakes like Seneca and Cayuga are covered in forests and vineyards.  Seneca, Cayuga and Keuka Lakes are ringed with small family owned and operated wineries that grow their own grapes and produce wonderful vintages that are delectable and affordable.  For me, this is coming home.  I grew up sailing on Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake.  I first learned to drink wine on the Seneca Lake wine trail.  I don’t think I appreciated the sheet beauty of the lakes and the excellence of the wines produced in the small wineries that surround them until I moved away, first to Texas, then Pennsylvania and Florida.  In our travels, we have tasted a lot of wine.  but the wines of the Finger Lakes remain special to us.  My husband and I travelled to Napa Valley eight years ago and France Italy and Spain two years ago and tasted many wines.  While we appreciated the wines and beauty of Napa Valley, the Finger Lakes Wine Trail is a much better experience, and a much better deal overall.  Maybe it’s the deep cold lakes and that regulate the weather around them during the cold winter months and the hot summers.  Maybe it’s that the wineries grow their own grapes with great care.  Maybe it’s that the wineries are family owned affairs with winemakers who are passionate about their craft.  I don’t know what exactly makes me love the wines of the Finger Lakes most, but they have remained my favorite through the years. Chateau Lafayette Reneau, Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards, and Lakewood Winery on Seneca Lake have long been special favorites of my family.

I just went wine tasting on the Seneca Lake wine trail this past month, and none of the wineries I visited charged no more than $5 to taste.  Glenora Winery charged $4 for 6 tastings, and the delightful older gentleman who poured our wines was quite knowledgeable.  He gave us two more tastings for free too!  The most expensive bottles of wine I have bought in the last two years was $30.  Most wines run around $15 and all the wineries offer discounts if you buy by the case.  I can’t resist buying Finger Lakes wines by the case!  In comparison, eight years ago, we had a hard time finding any wine for $25 in Napa Valley.  Most were at the $50 range.  We tasted a lot of wine in Napa, but I couldn’t make any claims that the wines in Napa Valley were superior.  The Finger Lakes wines are every bit as excellent, maybe even better because they are made with such care.  Many of the Finger lakes wines have won awards, but since the wineries are small, they don’t produce enough to ship nationally.  If you live in another state, you can order online and have it shipped or, better yet, visit the wineries.

In addition to the wines, there are many accommodations around the Finger Lakes.  I can’t claim to have stayed in any of them because I have always stayed with my parents either on their boat at Captain Bill’s Marina, or in their camp.  I have researched some options, however, and would recommend the Inn at Taughannock. which is an old historic inn, with old lake charm and class.  While it used to be a country style inn, it now offers fine dining and accommodations.  It sits on a hill above Taughannock State Park on Cayuga Lake.  If you are an eco traveler, this is the place for you.  You can stay at the inn, or in a campground at the state park.  There are picnic facilities where you can bring your own picnic.  You can swim in the lake, although it is frigid.  Consider yourself warned!  There is also a gorge which you can hike to stunning water falls.  My family docked our boat and my sister and I played in that park many times growing up and it was our favorite of all the New York state parks.  From Taughannok State Park, you can visit the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail and then go over the hills to visit the Seneca Lake wineries.  Chataeu Lafayette Reneau on Seneca Lake now has its own bed and breakfast as well.  While the wines may be luscious and inexpensive, the bed and breakfast accommodations are more expensive with both bed and breakfasts running around $300 a night.

When you visit Seneca Lake, be sure to visit Captain Bill’s Marina in Watkins Glen and take a cruise around the lake on a old fashioned tour boat or an elegant schooner.  You can always hike the gorge at Watkins Glen as well.  The Finger Lakes offer a lot for wine lovers and eco travelers.  What you won’t get is much night life except possibly in Ithica at the bottom of Cayuga Lake.  It’s the perfect place to relax, get back to nature and enjoy fabulous wines.  Next time you decide to go wine tasting, skip Napa and head to the Finger Lakes in New York State instead.  Trust me.

 

 

The Ritz Carlton Grande Lakes Orlando, Florida

 

Last weekend, my husband and I were treated to a long weekend at the Ritz Carlton courtesy of Park West Galleries, because we bought art from them a couple months ago.  The Ritz in Orlando is a lovely hotel, with many wonderful amenities, fantastic service, and excellent dining.  The room itself was excellent, with a big bath and a Nespresso machine.  The amenities included a spa, which I didn’t check out because we were busy with the Park West art auctions each day until after noon.  The Ritz had a huge pool, complete with water bottles or chilled water with fruit.  There was an open air casual restaurant where you could get nachos, burgers and the like, and a bar conveniently located near the pool.  Guests at the Ritz were allowed to use the facilities at the JW Marriot next door which included a lazy river pool.  The dining options were also pretty decent as they had two restaurants and the pool café, plus the restaurants at the JW Marritot next door.   Even the buffets that the Ritz supplied for the Park West VIPs were very good, and I normally hate buffets.

We had a wonderful time at the art auctions and the previews of the next day’s art at night.  Park West even had a casino night.  They brought out gaming tables and we were given chips.  Whoever had the most chips at the end of the night won $750 towards art, and the person in 2nd place won $500.  Jim and I were convinced we had not won and almost gave our chips to another couple, but we got the second place prize of $500.  As we played blackjack and craps, surrounded by wonderful art, a DJ played Frank Sinatra and lots of jazz.  Park West had arranged for an open bar and the Ritz bartenders were very attentive.  All in all, a fabulous evening.

Here’s the rub, there were kids, lots of kids.  The Ritz even has a Ritz kids club.  I didn’t make it to the lazy river because I was told by others that it was mobbed with all ages of kids, some in diapers.  I was a little surprised.  Jim had looked online and found out the rooms normally go for $300.  (Our room was included in our VIP package from Park West Galleries.)  We bought nachos and iced teas at the pool one afternoon and that was a $30 bill as lunch was not included in our VIP package.  I don’t know how people afford to bring kids to the Ritz and feed them, but there were many there.

In the end, I’d have to say that it was a lovely weekend.  The Ritz is a great hotel with great service and nice dining options, but simply too many kids.   For those of us who don’t want to travel with other people’s kids,  I can’t recommend the Ritz.