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.

 

 

 

 

Rome, The Eternal City

We chose to travel to Italy, Spain and France with my parents for our twenty-fifth anniversary.  During our stay in Rome, we chose a hotel not far from St. Peter’s Square, The Leonardo DaVinci Jolly Hotel.  The hotel offered small rooms, but clean and decently appointed.  It also boasted a very nice restaurant with a delicious Italian breakfast buffet included and a bar at night.  We liked that there were many local cafes within walking distance, and we were also able to walk to St. Peter’s Square.  We didn’t see any children at the hotel itself.

When in Rome, you must see the Vatican Museum.  The Vatican’s priceless treasures are vast. The Vatican’s museum boasts Greek and Roman sculptures, Medieval European tapestries, paintings of the masters, and of course, Michael Angelo’s paintings of the Sistine Chapel, and his statue, the “Pieta”.  The Sistine Chapel is painted not just on the ceiling, but on the walls, so there is no solid wall.  Therefore, there is no solid ground for your eyes to give you a bearing.  It’s impossible not to get lost completely in the art.  There is no talking in the Sistine Chapel and a priest is always present to remind the crowd with a stern, “Silencio!”  After the awe inspiring museum and Sistine Chapel, we continued into St. Peter’s Basilica.  The basilica itself is enormous with smaller chapels along each side.  The first chapel on the right holds Michael Angelo’s “Pieta”.

I did not expect my reaction to the Pieta.  It’s a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the body of Jesus.  I am not a mother, nor will I ever be, so I didn’t think it would affect me at all, but it did.  Perhaps because I trained as a classical singer and I love music and art, and have an understanding of artistic expression.  Perhaps, the “Pieta” is the closest I’ll ever get to artistic perfection.  Every muscle in Jesus’ body, every fold of Mary’s robe was so life-like.  The statue emanated heartrending grief.  I can’t quite describe what came over me except that I was overwhelmed.  I had to sit down in one of the pews and have a good cry.  Jim was thoroughly confused by this, of course.  My parents were with us, and my mother understood.  She just smiled and told my husband to give me a moment.  We would very much like to go to the Vatican museum again and spend more time.  While we were there, it was crowded, so we paid to “skip the line” and do a tour.  It was worth the price since lines extended all the way around the walls of Vatican City.

In addition to the Vatican museum and St. Peter’s Basillica, we also visited the church of St. Mary Major and Trevi Fountain.  We did not have time, but on our next visit, will also visit St. John Latern, the residence of the pope before the Vatican was built.  These are only a few of the many old churches in Rome worth visiting.  Even if you are not religious, (Jim is not Catholic) the churches are worth visiting for the architecture and the priceless art works they hold.  Just be aware that in Rome, it is not custom to go into the churches without having shoulders covered or in short shorts.  Jim wore golf shirts and I wore sun dresses and carried a pashmina shawl with me at all times.  At some churches, a priest will be present to monitor visitors.  If shoulders are showing, you’ll be asked to cover with a paper shawl, girls and guys both.  There was a box of paper shawls at the entrance to most of the churches.

Besides the Vatican museum and historic churches, you’ll want to visit Palatine Hill, the Colessum and Forum.  When we visited, we went to the Colusseum first, and walked all the way around reading everything we could and viewing the artifacts.  Then we walked through the Forum, where the Romans had their political gatherings.  Then we climbed Palatine Hill which is terraced.  There are ruins all the way up the hill, much of which archiologists believe was housing and shops for the higher ranking government officials of ancient Rome.  On the top of Palatine Hill are the ruins of the Emperor’s palace.  There is a small museum which encloses some of the palace ruins.  The museum offers not only information about the palace, but a history of the people who have lived in the Eternal City through the ages, and is well worth visiting.  You can easily spend most of a day at the Colusseum, Forum and Palatine Hill.  We found it exciting that there was an active excavation of the hill while we were there.

We also had the most entrancing evening at an 1890s Puccini era opera house.  The opera house puts on dinner shows.  Jim was worried that it would be low level like some of the dinner shows in Orlando, but it was not.  We had a choice of regular seats on the floor and small buffet of pasta for 35 Euros per person or our own private box seats with a four course dinner for 70 Euros per person.  Since it was our 25th anniversary trip, we opted for the box seats.  We were treated to a luscious dinner with wonderful canapes of cheese, octopus, and pastries of meat, then two kinds of pasta, salad and a desert sampler.  We split a bottle of wine as we listened to a concert of Italian opera from Mozart, Verdi and Puccini in period clothing.  I am a classically trained singer, so I know what I’m listening to and have sung some of the arias.  I had to admit that the voices were incredible.  The singers and the instrumental combo that accompanied them were fantastic.  I nearly floated back to the hotel room afterward.  Mom and Dad had chosen to do their own thing, as they are not opera lovers.  I told them they really missed it!  There is always opera in Rome, so get on the internet or ask the hotel where you are staying to find out what is available as opera performances will vary by season.

In addition to history and opera, Rome boasts incredible food.  I loved that we didn’t see big chain restaurants.  Restaurants in Rome are small family run affairs where people take pride in making food from scratch.  Pizza, paninis, pasta were available on every corner for lunch.  Dinner was usually pasta, but I had roast lamb one night that was incredible as well.  I can honestly way we didn’t have even one bad meal in Rome.  Mom didn’t find a gelato shop she didn’t want to try either.  She ate gelato every day, sometimes more than once a day.  Interestingly enough, I am normally dairy and gluten free.  In  Rome, however, I ate everything and I was okay.  From what I could find in research, it seems as if the wheat and dairy are both processed differently in Europe than it is here in the United States.  I only know for certain that I loved every bite I ate in the Eternal City.  The average lunch of pizza or paninnis cost us between 10 and 15  Euros.  Dinner cost on average 20 Euros.  Not that much more than here in the United States.

I would recommend travelling to Rome in the Fall or Spring.  We went in July, which is high season for Rome.  That meant that we paid more for plane tickets and hotels.  It was also hot.  By hot, I mean Florida hot.  It was 95 degrees most days. As I am a teacher, we didn’t have much of a choice but to travel in July, but if you have the option to travel another time, it would be advisable.  Rome is definitely worth visiting and for us, it is a definite do again.  I made sure to throw a coin in Trevi Fountain just to make sure.

 

 

 

Planning Your Next Big Trip

As I have watched my parents Facebook posts from the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria, I can’t help but be bitten by the travel bug again.  Right now it’s more like travel fever! My husband and I went to Europe for our 25th anniversary and cruised the Mediterranean.  I loved all of it.  Every island, every port, Barcelona, Rome, everywhere we went held new and fascinating adventures.  Jim and I talked about traveling to Austria and Germany next.  Seeing Mozart’s apartment in Salzburg is a must on my bucket list.

Of course, I am the diva with the dreams of traveling everywhere and going to concerts in Vienna, Salzburg, and Beyreuth.  Jim, the businessman and former soldier, is far more practical.  He wants to know how we’re going to pay for another trip to Europe.  The last trip involved a cruise and 5-star hotels.  So, indeed, how do we pay for it?  First of all, it will help if we accrue enough points on our Capital One Visa to pay for both our tickets.  Secondly, I don’t want to do a cruise next time.  I want to stay in bed and breakfast accommodations or small boutique hotels (These are the best choices for avoiding other people’s children screaming in the middle of the night as they don’t accommodate small kids), eat local fare at small cafes and travel by train.

We looked up train fare on the Eurorail system, and we could travel in four countries for a little over $800 US dollars, less if we stay in two countries.  Bed and breakfast places in Vienna, one of the cities I am dying to visit, range from $100 to $135 U.S. dollars a night.  Lunch and dinner fare range, but many of the bed and breakfast places include breakfast of course.  Lunches are usually simple affairs.  Mom reported that in Austria and Germany brats are the thing.  I can’t see Jim complaining about that.  In Italy it was pizza and paninis.  Dinner, of course, will be more expensive, and we’ll have to look at how much admission to museums will cost.  It’s always a good idea to make sure there is extra money for incidentals too, like needing to buy medicine or extra train fare for an unanticipated side trip.

Food at $90 per day for 2 people:     $1350

Eurorail Pass 4 Countries                    $840

B and B for 15 days:                              $2,025

Cash for Musuems/Incidentals:          $1000

Total:                                                       $5,215

Ultimately, once we have enough points to fly to Europe, we can most likely budget this amount to go back to Europe.  I calculated $135 per night for the B and B, but we may find something nice for less.  I also calculated going to 4 countries on the Eurorail, but we might stay within 2, which would also be less. That’s not any more than a Caribbean cruise aboard Celebrity Cruise lines, and a Sandals vacation in one year.  The key here is setting aside that money every month.  Create your own travel savings account and have that money withdrawn every month.  It’s the only way we have found to travel without wracking up those dreaded credit card bills.  Yes, we can do this.  Are you ready Jim?

 

 

 

 

Key West

Key West is a fun, relaxing, zany, and perpetually sunny vacation spot, and one of my top picks for childfree travel.  You can easily fly into Key West.  If you live in Florida, you can also take a road trip, which is what my husband and I chose to do.  We live near Orlando, so we’ve driven to Key West twice.  Once we were past Miami, the scenery was gorgeous.  The Florida Keys are varying sizes and are connected by a series of causeways, most of which are only two lanes.  Some of the keys are so narrow that you have a view of the sea on both sides of the road.  Be aware that the keys stretch far out into the Atlantic, so once you get just past Miami, you still have about three hours of drive time to get to Key West.  From Orlando, it took us over 7 hours in total drive time.

Both times we’ve vacationed in Key West, we’ve stayed in the “Old Town” section at the Mermaid and Alligator Bed and Breakfast on Truman Avenue across the street from the Catholic church, St. Mary of the Sea.  The Mermaid and the Alligator offers beautifully appointed, spacious rooms in the main house.  If you book one of their preferred rooms, they come with a Jacuzzi tub.  There are smaller rooms with a cottage décor in the cottage across the garden.  We have stayed in both the cottage and the preferred rooms in the main house.  Both are wonderful, but I do admit, I liked the spacious room and the Jacuzzi tub in the preferred rooms.  Each room has it’s own balcony or porch overlooking the gardens.  The gardens at the Mermaid and the Alligator are lush and tropical outdoor spaces you can loose yourself in.  There are lots of comfortable seating arrangements where you can relax and read a book, and a plunge pool to cool off.

In the morning, a hot breakfast is served.  When we were there, we were spoiled with egg frittatas and Belgian waffles.  In the afternoon, lemonade is always available, and at 5:00, wine is served.  All food and wine is served in the gardens under shaded umbrellas.  Of course it gets hot in the Keys, but because the gardens are shaded, it’s never too hot there to enjoy breakfast or the wine hour.  We visited when the previous owners, Paul and Dean owned the bed and breakfast.  (I so loved them that I threatened to leave Jim and stay with them!)   Since then, the bed and breakfast has been sold to Jeri, who has been there both times we visited, and is extremely helpful and wonderful.  She officiated a wedding in the gardens during our last visit and did an excellent job, so I am happy that she was the one to become the new owner.  The most wonderful part of staying at the Mermaid and the Alligator is that there are no children.  The owners understand that it simply wouldn’t work for a bed and breakfast to try to accommodate children, so they don’t!  In addition, Key West and the Mermaid and the Alligator are LBGQT friendly.  You can enjoy your stay at the Mermaid and the Alligator in peace.  Jim has truly enjoyed staying there because he finds it restorative and restful.  Just make sure to book ahead.  Rooms go quickly especially during Fantasy Fest.  Last time we stayed there, we booked our trip a full year ahead.

Other than relaxing in the gardens, there are many things to do in Key West.  There is the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park where you can rent umbrellas and chairs.  Beware, however, the beach is not sandy.  It’s rocky, so you’ll want to wear swim shoes.  There are some nice picnic facilities there as well, so if you want to pack a picnic, it’s a good choice.  There is also the Southern Most Point.  You can walk there from the Mermaid and the Alligator.  The Southern Most Point is the at the Southern end of Duval Street, the main road through Old Town.  There is a restaurant, bar, and a sandy beach where you can rent umbrellas and chairs.

In addition to the beaches, there’s lots to do in Key West.  We went on a day trip with Sabago Watersports both times we stayed in Key West.  We went on their catamaran to snorkel and kayak.  On the way out to the famous reef, we were served breakfast of muffins and pastries.  We then got to see lots of fish as we snorkeled.  (Just don’t imbibe any of the water.  The Florida Straits are very salty, so you will get sick if you imbibe any of it, a lesson I learned the hard way the first time we went.)  After snorkeling, we were served a lunch of sandwiches, shrimp, and all the beer and wine we wanted.  We then headed to a mangrove island where we kayaked, and were treated to a lesson on the Keys ecosystem.

Other cool places of interest to visit during the day are Hemmingway’s House, Truman’s Little Whitehouse, and Mel Fisher’s Museum which is full of his finds from famous shipwreaks.  I would recommend all of these.

Nighttime brings the other thing key West is famous for- bars on Duval Street!  Captain Tony’s, the original Sloppy Joe’s has wonderful Pirate Punch and is the original location of Sloppy Joe’s, where Hemmingway himself spent a lot of his time while in the Keys.  Sloppy Joes, the second location of the bar, is just around the corner.  Both serve good drinks and have live music.  Who can resist having a drink where Hemmingway hung out?  Little Room Jazz Club is a must for music lovers with live music seven days a week.  Nighttime also brings sunset sails.  If you love the water and sailing ships, you must take a sunset sail or a star gazer sail aboard the historic Western Union.  We did a sunset sail, and it was a thrill to sail aboard such a gorgeous ship as we were served champagne and conch chowder.  The Western Union was the ship used in the movie, Armistad.  You can also enjoy the sunset at Mallory Square and watch fun acts, enjoy snacks and browse local artists’ work.  There are also all kinds of wonderful seafood restaurants and live music at the marinas not far from the Mermaid and the Alligator.  We found some of the restaurants near the marinas even better than the ones on Duval Street.

If you want to travel childfree, love boats and the water, bars and live music, Key West is the place for you.  If you want to make sure you have a childfree experience, make sure to reserve a room at the Mermaid and Alligator.

 

 

Cruise Tips and Tricks

Now that Jim and I have sailed on seven cruises aboard three different cruise lines, we are learning tips and tricks for making the most out of cruising. After all, we want the most bang out of our buck. The first trick is pretty obvious. Look for a sale on the cruise line’s website. You can often find sales during hurricane season which is in the Fall. Yes, of course, there is a risk that you might have some rain or heavier weather, but you can often sail for a reduced rate, and in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, the weather will be more temperate and balmy. Jim advises getting the travel insurance if you decide to travel during hurricane season. Jim and I often travel during spring break or in the summer because of my teaching schedule and believe me, Mexico and Italy are hot as Hades itself in July. I don’t mind the heat, and Jim is impervious to hot or cold, so we are fine, but not everyone is. My parents, who joined us on our Mediterranean cruise, complained that all they did was, “walk and sweat, walk and sweat”.

Even if you can’t travel in the Fall, there are often promotions available. Celebrity Cruise Lines has a pick two or pick three deal which gives you a choice of a free alcohol package, free gratuities or onboard credit. We got a pick three deal on our Mediterranean cruise and a pick two deal on our last Caribbean cruise this spring. We chose the alcohol package both times as one of our picks.

As far as the alcohol packages are concerned, Jim and I only get those when we can get them for free on a promotion. They are not inexpensive if you pay for them outside of a promotional deal. An alcohol package makes the cruise more all-inclusive, and it’s nice to not worry about how much the bar bill is going to be at the end of the cruise. Drinks aboard any cruise line are expensive. In the end, try to get a promotional deal that includes the drink package, but if you can’t, then it’s a good idea to weigh how much you drink against the price of the package before purchasing it.

Another consideration when cruising is ship’s excursions. Which ones to take? How much money do we have to spend on excursions? Ship’s excursions have become increasingly more expensive, so it’s not unusual for excursion prices to be $150 to $200 per person. There are a few factors to think about when considering your excursion options. First of all, be aware that when everyone is supposed to be back aboard the ship at the end of the day, that time is non-negotiable. Ships have a schedule to keep and they leave on time. If you are left at the port of call, it is your responsibility to catch up to the ship at the next port. I never thought people would be late for a ship, but when my best friend and I were staying in Cozumel, our favorite bartender at the Flamingo Hotel told us that it isn’t as unusual as it seems. He claimed to have seen his share of people who were left on Cozumel and needed a room until they could make further arrangements. So, remember, be back at the ship on time, or even a little earlier than last call.

You also have to know the port of call you are visiting. Some islands, like Cozumel and St. Kitts, are very safe and friendly. Some, like Jamaica and Roatan Honduras, are not. We met new friends on our Celebrity cruise this spring who said they ran around Jamaica alone and bought a brownie from some guy in front of Bob Marley’s house. The wife ate most of it. Needless to say, she slept the next two days of her cruise. My response was, “You ate what? From where?! What were you thinking?” Funny, not funny. Do some research online. Sites like Trip Advisor are fantastic. Hotels, resorts, islands, and cities are all there complete with reviews and photos by recent travelers, not just the glossy pictures paid for by the resorts.

If you do your research and find that the port is relatively safe, hire a taxi and do your own thing. Jim and I once hired a taxi driver on the island of St. Kitts and paid him $70 for the day. He took us to the oldest church, the British fort, and a beach and waited for us at the each stop. He even stopped and got us each a beer for that price. In Villa Franche Sur la Mer, France, we walked through the village to the train station and hopped a high-speed train to Monaco for a few hours. Then we came back to Villa Franche in time for a late lunch and walked back to the ship. Even though Jamaica can be a more dangerous port, we hired a taxi driver to take us to Dun’s River Falls. The trick when hiring a taxi driver is to hire them right at the cruise pier. Don’t ever walk into town and hire a taxi on the street. The taxis who are allowed at the cruise pier have to be approved by the cruise line and are therefore far less likely to try any hijinks. Find another couple to share the taxi and you’ll save money on the fare and have more people with you.

If you want to explore anything that will take an entire day, or is a distance from the cruise pier, it’s advisable to then pay for a ship’s excursion. Ship’s excursions are guaranteed to get you back to the ship on time, and if something doesn’t go as planned, the ship will wait. Jim and I took an excursion from Costa Maya on our Mexican cruise that bussed us two hours into the Mexican jungle to explore recently excavated Mayan ruins. The whole trip, including the guide, was vetted by Celebrity Cruise Lines, and we had a once in a lifetime experience. Our guide was a retired teacher who claimed Mayan ancestry and spoke several languages. He provided us with a whole history lesson on Mayan culture as we walked through the ruins. We have also taken cooking and tasting excursions in Mexico and the island of Mallorca. We got to make a three-course meal with an adorable Mexican chef while overlooking a gorgeous beach on Cozumel. On Mallorca, we went tapas tasting at three restaurants which involved lots of foods we had never tried before, such as flash-fried finger-sized fish, as well as three large glasses of sangria. Both were fabulous experiences well worth the excursion price. My advice? Pick only the excursions you really are excited about and can’t do by yourself. The rest, hire a taxi and have at it. You’ll save quite a bit of your travel fund that way.

Cozumel, Mexico

I have had the pleasure of traveling to Cozumel twice now, once 6 years ago on a cruise with my husband, and then a few months ago with my best friend, Susan, who writes a lot of Trip Advisor reviews as Super Susanita. Cozumel is one of my favorite islands. The food is delicious; it offers some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the Caribbean; fantastic jewelry shopping, and best of all, it’s safe and inexpensive!

The first time I went to Cozumel, Jim and I were on our Mexican cruise. We did a ship’s excursion that allowed us to prepare a three-course Mexican meal with an adorable Mexican chef. We cooked in a room with huge windows overlooking a fabulous beach while drinking margaritas. Then we shopped. Cozumel is a great place to shop for silver or Mexican fire opals, which glitter an orange-red color. As we shopped at the jewelry stores, the shopkeepers plied us with free margaritas or shots of tequila. We sloshed back to the ship with Jim threatening to sacrifice me to the Mayan gods if I bought any more fire opals or silver.

A few months ago, I went back to Cozumel with my best friend Susan Nichols. I was a little nervous traveling with a friend instead of my husband, and Jim was concerned about our safety, but there was no reason to worry. Cozumel felt very safe. Susan and I stayed at the Flamingo Hotel, which is a small boutique hotel on a side street near the ferry dock. The room was not upscale, but it was clean and decently appointed. There was an open air lobby with a bar that was open in the evenings. The bar itself was worth staying at the Flamingo. Ivan the bartender squeezed limes and oranges to create the base of his margaritas and then added his favorite tequila and Grand Marnier. Ivan truly makes the best margaritas I have ever had. Period. The price for one of the margaritas was only $6. Not bad for a hand- crafted drink. Our room was a very decent $70 and included coffee and a continental breakfast. For only $2 more, you could get omelets and pancakes. Overall, the Flamingo Hotel was a great deal. What’s more is that I only saw one child at the hotel during the five days we stayed there.

During the day, Susan went diving during the day with Blue Magic Scuba. She researched getting her dive certification and decided that Blue Magic was the most accommodating shop for the best price. While she dove, I took a short $5 cab ride to another hotel, Playa Azul, where I laid on the beach and read or swam. There was always a helpful employee to bring drinks at Playa Azul. Pretty little hotel, and pretty beach with a tiki bar and an open air restaurant next door. Since it was a bigger hotel on the beach, there were some children. Playa Azul seems to be popular with vacationers from mainland Mexico.

One of the days we were in Cozumel, Susan took me to Sky Reef, a beach restaurant, and bar for lunch and snorkeling. For $15, you get a small drink, tequila tasting, snorkeling equipment and a five-minute chair massage. We paid the $15 considering all it included and had tacos, avocados, rice and refried beans for an additional charge of about $15. Those were some of the most delightful tacos I have eaten in a long time. We had a lot of good meals in Cozumel, most of which were around $15 or under. Cozumel offers a lot of great local food at great prices. In fact, the island is worth visiting just for the food!

As well as delicious food, diving and shopping, there are other things to do on the island of Cozumel. There are small Mayan ruins on the island, or you can take a ferry to Playa del Carmen and journey to the larger ruins of Chichen Itza near Cancun. It’s a day trip which we did not choose to do, but I intend to go back with Jim and visit the ruins. Cozumel also offers golf during the day and dancing at night. Susan and I went dancing at a local dance club called Tic Toc and had a great time dancing to the Latin tunes the DJ played.

We checked out several small hotels while were there, and many of them ranged from quite acceptable to quite nice. If you want to vacation on the island of Cozumel, you can get a hotel for a pretty decent rate on Trip Advisor and have an excellent time tasting local fare at the restaurants and going snorkeling or scuba diving. Although I do love all-inclusive resorts, if you choose to do one of those on Cozumel, you’ll miss tasting the local fare, and you’ll spend a lot more money. Cozumel is my pick for a fun vacation at an affordable rate. It’s not all childfree, but if you pick a boutique hotel like the Flamingo, you’ll reduce the number of children you have to deal with.