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?

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Sandals Resorts Whitehouse

Last July, Jim and I tried a Sandal’s resort for the first time. If you want a childfree vacation where you will be pampered, Sandals offers the ultimate experience. Everything from transportation to the resort, gratuities, use of the sailboats, kayaks, paddle boards, the snorkeling boat, all dining and drinks was included. You truly can leave your wallet in your room. Many of Sandal’s resorts are on the island of Jamaica. Once we landed in Jamaica, we made our way through customs to the Sandal’s lounge where were offered bottled water and Red Stripe beer as well as rum cake. The Sandals employees took our luggage, and we didn’t have to touch it after that. No bag drag here! From the airport, it is almost an hour’s ride over the mountainous terrain of Jamaica to get to the Whitehouse resort. The ride itself was an adventure. When we arrived at the resort, we were greeted with champagne in a beautiful lobby. Our luggage was taken to our room by helpful employees.

Once we landed in Jamaica, we made our way through customs to the Sandal’s lounge where we were offered bottled water and Red Stripe beer as well as rum cake. The Sandals employees took our luggage, and we didn’t have to touch it after that. No bag drag here! From the airport, it is almost an hour’s ride over the mountainous terrain of Jamaica to get to the Whitehouse resort. The ride itself was an adventure. When we arrived at the resort, we were greeted with champagne in a beautiful lobby. Our luggage was taken to our room by helpful employees.

At Whitehouse, we had eight restaurants to chose from ranging from French, Italian, seafood, Japanese, Jamaican, and gourmet European fusion. There was also a coffee shop which offered pastries, made to order crepes, as well as fantastic coffee. The meals at Whitehouse were all delicious. Even Jim, Chef Fussy Pants, enjoyed the dining. The meals were even better than we have had aboard Celebrity Cruise Lines, and that is quite a feat. I truly enjoyed all the fresh seafood, including the huge Caribbean Lobster I dined on one night, and we both loved the jerk dishes at lunch time.

During the day, there is a breathtaking beachfront with tiki huts to read, relax or nap. While we were there, swimming in the ocean did involve a lot of seaweed, but that’s because Whitehouse sits in a cove and recent storms had pushed the seaweed into shore. There were four pools, three of which had swim-up bars, and lots of lounge areas. Two of the pools had DJs playing reggae music and an activity director who offered pool games. In addition to the beach and pool, there were 16-foot Hobi Cat sailboats, kayaks and paddle boards for guests’ use. I grew up sailing so I took advantage of the Hobi Cats. There were always employees watching the pools and the water, so help was on hand if you tipped a sailboat over. (Yes, I did that, and Jim got his first taste of being dumped into the brine. He was not amused.) The employee in charge of the boats even offered sailing lessons. A snorkeling boat with a glass bottom went out three times a day to offer snorkeling or just gazing through the glass bottom. For those who were already certified as divers, a dive boat was also available. All of these activities were included. Sandals’ did have their own dive shop on site and offered dive lessons and certification for an extra fee. In addition, there was also a 40 -foot catamaran that offered sunset cruises. We got a free sunset cruise as part of our package, and it included a bar, DJ, and a chance to jump overboard and swim in a cove with beautiful azure waters and no seaweed.

In addition to the water activities at the beach and pool, Whitehouse has a spa on site that offers hot and cold pools in a lush courtyard garden, as well as massage services and saunas. As part of our package, we were treated to a couple’s massage complete with herbal iced tea and candles. The Sandals employees know how to create the most romantic moods and settings.

At night, Sandals offered homegrown Jamaican music such as reggae bands, steel drum bands and such in a small theater on site. We were there the week before Jamaica’s independence day, and it was wonderful to see people proud of their island culture. We both enjoyed the music, and thought it was well done and a lot of fun. Friday night of that week, we were treated to a white party. All the employees were dressed in white. They set up all kinds of chocolate delights in the courtyard and had a reggae band playing so everyone could dance. What fun! After the evening show, there was always a DJ or karaoke offered at Martini’s, the upstairs late night bar. We met two other couples there and had a good time talking and dancing.

Besides the beach activities and nightlife Sandals’ offers, another part of the resort company that Jim and I appreciated, was that Sandals gives back to the island. Sandals is a part of a program that sponsors teacher training in Jamaica. American teachers come to Jamaica to work with the children and teachers, and in turn, stay at a Sandals’ resort for less than half the average rate. Sandals’ is also part of ocean conservancy efforts.

The best part? No kids. We didn’t hear one whimper, whine or meltdown. Sandals is an adults only resort. It offered quiet spaces if you wanted to relax, beach activities if you wanted to be active, and parties if you were in the mood. Sandals is a top pick for honeymooners or anyone who loves the beach, fine -dining and relaxation with no kids in sight. Sandals’ counterpart, Beaches exists for families. What is not to love about this company? Jim and I are going back this summer to the Grand Plantation resort which will be our first time staying in a room complete with an English- style butler. Stay tuned for new information!

As far as costs are concerned, try to book when Sandals is running one of the 60-65% off sales. We went in July and got the sale price. Of course, if you book another vacation with Sandals, you accrue points. Our price for Whitehouse was $3,200 last year. The Grand Plantation resort with a butler this year will be $3,100 because we booked before we ended last year’s stay.

Celebrity Cruise Lines

Jim and I have sailed on seven cruises using three different cruise lines. We have sailed Norweigan Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity Cruise Lines. Celebrity is far and away our favorite for couples. Of our seven cruises, four have been aboard Celebrity’s Solstice-class ships. We have sailed on 2 Carribean Cruises, one Mexican cruise and one Mediterranean cruise aboard Celebrity’s Solstice, Equinox, Eclipse. We sailed aboard the Reflection in March. Celebrity Cruise Lines is not entirely child-free, however, there are not as many children as on some other cruise lines, and the Solstice class ships are far more geared to couples than kids from the cabins to the solarium and the nightlife.

Celebrity’s crew does a wonderful job of spoiling passengers. The cabins are modern, and if you get a veranda cabin, nicely appointed with a king size bed, a couch, coffee table, a bar, and refrigerator. The beds are quite good. We are spoiled at home with a Tempurpedic mattress, so Jim often complains about any other bed we sleep in while traveling. Not so on Celebrity. Even he likes the beds (Believe me, no small feat). The bathrooms are big enough even for his wide shoulders. If you spend a little extra and go concierge class, you get fluffy robes, a complimentary bottle of champagne, canapes delivered to your room daily, and extra attention from your cabin steward. We’ve never had a bad cabin steward aboard Celebrity. The canapes are normally quite good. We’ve had mini pastry shells filled with cream cheese and caviar in the past. During our last cruise aboard the Reflection, they were generally olives, chips, and guacamole, which was not quite as fabulous.

The main dining room on all Solstice-class ships has a floor to ceiling wine tower. The food is the best we have had on the three cruise lines we have experienced, and the head waiters go out of their way to make sure we are satisfied with our dinner. I am gluten and dairy free (not out of choice either) and I love that the menus on the Celebrity ships are coded so I know which are vegetarian, gluten-free, and dairy-free. The head waiters also make sure that I am always happy with my meals and have gone beyond my expectations to have the chef make me gluten free deserts at times. During this last cruise, they even had gluten free bread that was delicious. Jim doesn’t like anyone’s cooking except my mother’s, but he has been very pleased with the selections aboard the Celebrity ships. If the chefs aboard Celebrity ships can keep him happy, you won’t be disappointed.

During the daytime, there is the usual outside pool, but the wonderful part of Celebrity Cruise Lines is that on the Solstice class ships, there is also something called the Solarium. It is a glassed in area with its own pool and hot tubs. There is also small cafe with salads and fruit and wine located within the Solarium. The spa is right next to the Solarium and offers a range of services from teeth whitening to Botox. Tranquil music is piped in and it’s a relaxing place to read, relax and talk to other travelers. The best part? No kids under 16 allowed! On Celebrity Solstice class ships, you have a place you can relax and be assured that you won’t be disturbed. Jim and I have spent entire sea days in the solarium reading and chatting with fellow passengers.

One of the new trends aboard cruise ships is having an art gallery. Park West Runs the art galleries on many of the ships. They have fun art talks and raffles, and champagne art auctions. Walking through tons of art in the lobby while drinking champagne is a wonderful way to spend part of a sea day. Just understand that in these auctions you will find original Michael Goddard pieces and lots of Peter Max. None of it is inexpensive. If you have the money and the wall space, go for it, but understand that it is best if you know what to look for and how much to pay.

In addition to the art auctions and talks, you will find lots of live music. There is always a good band at the pool in the afternoons, and another band playing in the lobby as everyone comes to dinner. This last cruise, there was a lot of jazz played in the main lobby, which I loved. There was a string duo in Michael’s lounge every night. On past cruises, Celebrity has had a barbershop quartet roaming the ship which I thoroughly enjoyed. The evening shows are usually quite good with one show a Cirque du Solei inspired artsy, high flying affair. Jim and I have seen seven Cirque du Solei shows, in Vegas and Orlando and generally, Celebrity’s shows are engaging and capture the spirit of Cirque. You must, of course, understand that the performers are working in a ship sized theater without all the accouterments of a full Cirque show. What you won’t find are rock-climbing walls, surf -pools and ice skating rinks.

Nighttime also brings fun at the lounges. Whether you go to the casino, the Sky Lounge on deck 15 to listen to the band or do karaoke, or relax in Michael’s lounge, or visit the martini bar, there are plenty of options. Aboard the Reflection, the martini bar was our favorite. The bar is coated in a sheet of ice. There is lots of comfortable seating around it, and they had a DJ there a couple of nights. The chocolate martinis were delicious! The Sky Lounge aboard the Reflection was subject to what I can only call an experiment. Instead of karaoke or a band, they had what they called a silent disco. People would get headphones at a stand outside the lounge. These headphones had three channels, all of which were color coded, so the headphones lit up either green blue or yellow according to which channel the listener chose. There were people on the dancefloor all with the same color shining from their headphones singing at the top of their lungs and dancing. There was, of course, no background music. This little diva couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Jim refused to even give it a go. We tend to choose lounges where we can relax and chat with our fellow passengers, but there were others who loved the silent disco. We ended most of our nights at the Martini Bar having wonderful conversations with other travelers from all over the States and Europe. Whatever suits you, Celebrity has it.

Celebrity remains our pick for the best child-free cruise line so far, and well worth the money. Our last cruise was concierge class and the cost was $3,200. That included a pick two sale which allowed us a free alcohol package and $300 onboard credit. You do, of course, earn points and perks the more cruises you take aboard a cruise line. Since this was our fourth cruise with Celebrity, we got to go to a free wine tasting with one of the head somaliers, a cocktail party with the captain and officers, and sail away party on the helipad on the bow of the ship. We’ve had good luck booking our cruises with our favorite travel agent, although you can book with the cruiseline directly. You can book your next cruise while aboard ship. My parents are diamond members of Celebrity’s parent company, Royal Caribbean, and they did not think booking through the cruiseline directly was any less expensive. See my page about cruise tips and tricks for more information about how to save money on cruises.