Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Holiday Home Tour at Bok Tower Gardens

Pinewood Estate

Bok Tower Gardens is one of Florida’s hidden gems. It sounds funny calling a 205-foot tower on top of the highest point on the Florida peninsula “hidden”, but somehow it is. Close to the busy theme parks of Orlando, it feels a million miles away.

We’d been to Bok Tower Gardens once before, but this weekend’s visit had a different purpose – to take the Holiday Home Tour at Pinewood Estate. Pinewood Estate is a Spanish-style home built in the early 1930’s as a winter retreat for Charles Austin Buck, the vice president of Bethlehem Steel. It was acquired by Bok Tower Gardens in 1970 and is now open to the public with admission to the gardens.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sand Sculptures on Siesta Key

I think November is one of the nicest times of the year in Florida. With the heat and humidity gone (or at least lower), it’s a great time to get out and enjoy one of the many fall festivals. Unfortunately, this year they planned all the festivals for the same weekend! Since we went to the chalk festival the last three years, we decided to try something different this year - the Siesta Key Crystal Classic Master Sand Sculpting Competition.
 
Siesta Key is an 8-mile long barrier island near Sarasota featuring Siesta Beach, which was voted the #1 beach in America in 2011. The beach’s white quartz sand makes it an ideal spot for sand sculpting. We got there as the artists were putting the finishing touches on their master pieces. There weren’t as many sculptures as I was expecting but the artwork was amazing.

Keyless
 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

ME Cancun

We’re back from a long weekend in Cancun, our last hurrah for the year. We stayed at the ME Cancun, an all-inclusive hotel with a South Beach vibe. The modern lobby had a Starbucks-style coffee bar, water fountains and lots of odd black sculptures of either women or cats, I was never quite sure which. Ron said he thought they were aliens. :-)  One thing that a lot of people mentioned on Trip Advisor was how good the lobby smelled. I caught myself taking a deep breath a few times when we walked inside. Very spa-like.

ME Cancun

Monday, October 20, 2014

London Day 4 - Cathedrals

Somehow in Jenny’s previous trips to London, she hadn’t visited Westminster Abbey so that was our plan for the day. The line into the Abbey wasn’t too long and almost as soon as we stepped inside the transept, a priest asked for a minute of silence as he led a prayer. What neat timing. Then we turned the corner into the Quire and Sanctuary, and I was blown away. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the Abbey but that was just as well. My camera never could have captured it. (I had to settle for a post card from the gift shop.) Just as amazing as the 100-foot high vaulted ceilings was the realization that every coronation since 1066 had taken place on this site - almost 1000 years of history.

postcard of Westminster Abbey
postcard of Westminster Abbey

Sunday, October 19, 2014

London Day 3 - Stonehenge and Bath

The next morning we had to get up a little earlier to meet for our Stonehenge and Bath tour with Evan Evans. The drive to Stonehenge was two hours long but our tour guide, Rohan, kept us entertained. She was one of the best tours guides I’ve ever had, presenting lots of information in a funny and easy to remember way.

When we got to Stonehenge, we had a little over an hour to explore, which sounded like plenty of time but wasn’t nearly enough. For one thing, the new Visitor Center was a mile away and we had to take a slow tram ride to the site. We had the option of staying on the tram the whole way or getting off at the half way point and walking. We decided to walk, which in retrospect was probably a mistake since that ate up even more of our limited time. But it was kind of neat, walking down into the valley the same way that ancient people would have approached the mystical stones almost 5000 years ago.

I’d read that if you don’t learn about the history of Stonehenge before you go, it just looks like a big pile of rocks. :-)  So I was glad that I had done at least a little research, but the truth is that there is a lot we don’t know about Stonehenge. The Sarsen stones, the largest stones weighing 20-30 tons each, came from the Marlborough Downs, 20 miles away.  How did these supposedly primitive people move them to the Salisbury Plain? And why? We can only guess. It made me wonder what theories people would have about our society 5000 years from now.

walking to Stonehenge

Saturday, October 18, 2014

London Day 2 - From the Tower to Sherlock

I slept like a rock and woke up refreshed and excited to start the day. Clouds and drizzly rain had rolled in overnight but I didn’t mind the weather since we’d be touring the Tower of London, which was kind of a gloomy place. At the tower, we explored on our own starting with the White Tower, the oldest section of the castle built in 1079. We walked through the Line of Kings exhibit, a collection of armor that had been on display for over 300 years, the world’s longest running tourist attraction. The three suits of armor belonging to King Henry VIII showed the progression of his waistline over the years. The last suit, worn when Henry was in his late 40’s, was very round. It also had a disturbingly prominent codpiece. To quote Shrek, “Do you think he’s maybe compensating for something?”

My favorite part of the Tower of London was the Crown Jewels. The display of crowns, scepters and swords was mind-boggling, both for their monetary and their historic value. These were not fake, replacement jewels. They were the real things, worn for centuries by kings and queens. There was also a large collection of golden plates and a gigantic, ornately decorated punch bowl, humorously described in Mary’s guidebook as “what punch bowls would look like if punch bowls went insane.” :-)

Tower of London
the Tower of London

Friday, October 17, 2014

London Day 1 - A Walking Tour

It was foggy when my plane landed at Gatwick Airport so I got my first view of the countryside on the train into London – rows of white houses with brown roofs and chimneys, church spires popping up from town squares. It was mostly green but the first signs of fall were starting to show in the trees.

I’d been really nervous about traveling on my own for the first time, but I didn’t have any problems navigating the airport and train. It wasn’t until I got to Victoria Station that I got a little lost. Which direction was the hotel? I ended up circling the whole block before someone pointed me towards Buckingham Palace Road. Then it was just a short walk to the Rubens, where Mama met me at the front door. The Rubens was a beautiful boutique hotel with doormen wearing actual top hats! I was able to grab some breakfast from the breakfast buffet before it closed, got a shower and then we were ready to roll.

Rubens at the Palace
Rubens at the Palace

Friday, September 19, 2014

Five Spectacular Sunsets

Every few weeks Trip Advisor posts one of their Best Of lists - “10 Breathtaking Beaches”, “10 Jaw Dropping Hotel Pools”. I always scan the articles just in case they mention a place I’ve been (or would like to visit someday). The most recent list was “12 Spots for Sensational Sunsets”. Here is my own list of favorite sunset spots, which includes two of the places on Trip Advisor plus three others.

1. Mallory Square - Key West, Florida
Sunsets in Key West are a cause for celebration. Every night, hundreds of people gather in Mallory Square to watch the jugglers, magicians, animal performers, and oh yeah, the sunset.

Key West sunset


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Nassau's Fish Fry


If you’re looking for a true taste of the Bahamas when you’re in Nassau, head to the Fish Fry at Arawak Cay. The Fish Fry is a block of restaurants and bars, all serving delicious Bahamian dishes and, of course, lots of Kalik.

Since the Bahamas are made up of over 700 islands and cays, fresh fish, lobster and crab are main ingredients in Bahamian food. But the star of the show is conch, a large mollusk which can be fried (“cracked”) or chopped up into conch salad and conch fritters. Popular side dishes in the Bahamas include rice and peas, fried plantains and baked macaroni and cheese. Tropical fruits are used in drinks and desserts like guava duff, fruit rolled into dough, then boiled and served with a rum sauce.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Carnival Sensation

Sensation was the third of eight Fantasy-class ships, entering service in 1993. Carnival’s ship architect, Joe Farcus, designed each ship with its own theme, and Sensation’s theme was “The Senses”. But other than the Touch of Class piano bar with its giant hands on the walls, I didn’t think the theme was very obvious. Mostly, there was just a lot of purple. :-)

This was our second cruise on Sensation but since the last trip was 14 years ago, it felt like a new ship to me. Especially since the ship underwent a major renovation in 2009 that included replacing the atrium sculpture with a bar, adding the adults-only Serenity area, and creating the Water Works water park at the aft of the ship. The main pool area was also remodeled. I liked the new yellow umbrellas and faux palm trees around the pool. They were cheerful and fun.


Thursday, August 7, 2014

Happy National Lighthouse Day

A fallen lighthouse is more dangerous than a reef.
- unknown
Thank you to all the people who keep our lighthouses standing!

Biloxi Lighthouse, Biloxi Mississippi

Friday, July 25, 2014

Three Sisters - The Sovereign-Class Ships

In 1988 Royal Caribbean launched Sovereign of the Seas, the first of three “Sovereign-class” ships. Monarch of the Seas quickly followed in 1991, then Majesty of the Seas in 1992. With our recent cruise on Majesty of the Seas, we have now sailed on all three of the Sovereign sisters. I thought it would be fun to look back on our Sovereign cruise in 1996 and compare the ships and our cruise experiences.

Sovereign of the Seas portrait
1996

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Majesty of the Seas Anniversary Cruise

Majesty of the Seas

If we knew then what we know now, we wouldn’t have gotten married on July 4th weekend. It seemed like a good idea at the time since we’d met in July and the holiday gave our wedding guests an extra travel day. But every year no matter where we go for our anniversary, it’s hot and crowded and more expensive. So to anyone out there planning a wedding, listen up. Do what we should have done and get married in April! :-)  Fortunately, after some searching we found a reasonable deal on the Majesty of the Seas. It left on July 4th and would be in Nassau on our anniversary. Perfect, especially since our first trip to Nassau was on our honeymoon cruise.

Traffic was light all the way to Miami so we were at the port at 11:30 and onboard by noon. It didn’t take long to find our way around the ship since we’d been on Monarch of the Seas, Majesty’s sister ship, three times. The ships were almost identical but there were a few differences. For one thing, Majesty had two additional casual dining spots - Compass Deli and Johnny Rockets. Johnny Rockets was a 50’s style diner with a $5.95 cover charge. Compass Deli was free and served fresh paninis, wraps and crepes. I was definitely looking forward to trying the crepes!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Lighthousing

I finally updated my lighthouse website. It's been a couple of years since I've had any lighthouses to add, and this year I've added four! I think I need to start planning my next one. Maybe Tybee Island?

Check out the new additions here.

Bodie Island Lighthouse
Bodie Island Lighthouse, North Carolina

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Outer Banks - 696 Steps and One Giant Hill

We got off to a late start leaving Norfolk. The skies were cloudy and gloomy but they were supposed to clear later in the afternoon so there didn’t seem to be a reason to rush. Plus, it gave us the chance to have a nice breakfast with Mary. After she left for work, we packed our bags into Mary’s little Honda and headed for the Outer Banks.

The drive took longer than we expected, especially those last 20 miles driving through Duck, which seemed to go on FOREVER. By the time we got to the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, it was already 11:15 so we didn’t have much time for exploring. We bought our tickets to climb the lighthouse and started up the steps. Despite the clouds, the view from the top was beautiful. We could see all the way to Virginia to the north and the 1920’s era Whalehead Club below. The lighthouse itself was very pretty – a red brick tower with a Victorian lighthouse keeper’s house. One lighthouse down, two to go. :-)

Currituck Beach Lighthouse

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Aruba - Part 3

Wednesday

After breakfast at the Palm Restaurant (which had finally reopened - Yay!), we took off in the rental car armed with two maps and some general instructions from Google. The people who said that there aren’t many street signs in Aruba weren’t kidding! We pretty much had to guess what roads we were on. But we only had to turn around three times, so I thought we did pretty well. :-)  It’s a small island – you can’t stay lost for very long.

Our first stop was the Casibari Rock Formations, a pile of gigantic boulders rising up from the flat landscape. The Aruban government had added walking paths and gardens around the rocks, giving the area a peaceful feel, especially since Ron and I were the only ones there at that hour of the morning. At the top of the rocks, we had a great view of Hooiberg, Aruba’s second highest peak. But the wind up there – EEK! I was too afraid to stand up so I took my pictures sitting down on the rocks.

Casibari Rock Formations

Friday, May 9, 2014

Aruba - Part 2

Jolly Pirate ship

Monday

Monday was our Sail, Snorkel, Swim and Swing tour with the Jolly Pirates. We met at Moomba Beach (about a 10 minute walk from our hotel) at 8:30 to check in. The tour included an open-bar but before we even got on the boat, some people had cups of beer with them. At 8:30! I thought, “This should be an interesting day.” :-)

We sailed north along the coast to our first snorkel spot, the Antilla shipwreck, a German freighter that sank during WWII. There was a strong current and choppy waves at the site so I decided not to snorkel. But Ron got in and said it would have made a better scuba dive.  He could just see the outline of the ship, sitting 60 feet below the surface.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Aruba - One Happy (Windy) Island

When we started researching Aruba we had a hard time deciding where to stay. We love all-inclusive resorts but everyone on Trip Advisor said not to go AI. They said that Aruba has so many good restaurants to choose from and the AIs in Aruba aren’t like the mega-resorts in Mexico and Jamaica. But I didn’t want to have to worry about where we were going to eat breakfast or whether or not I should order that dessert. At an AI, it’s all covered. So we chose the Occidental Grand on Palm Beach.

We knew the Occidental wouldn’t be Sandals and it wasn’t. But it turned out to be very nice, if a little dated. The hotel was U-shaped with a tower of rooms on each side and the lobby and restaurants in between. In the middle of the U was the pool with rock formations, waterfalls and a swim-up pool bar. I liked the rock formations a lot and so did a family of iguanas that came out every morning to sun themselves.

Our room was on the third floor facing the pool. It had a comfortable king-sized bed and a small balcony where we could see a little bit of the ocean over the waving palm trees. My only complaint was that the balcony door was impossible to close from the outside so if we went out on the balcony, we had to leave it open.

Occidental Grand Aruba

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Throwback Thursday

In honor of Throwback Thursday, I thought I would post a picture from one of our past adventures. This picture was taken on our trip to Curacao in 2005. It was our first experience with a desert island so it seemed strange to see cacti poking up from the mountainside instead of the palm trees and lush vegetation we were used to seeing in the Caribbean. But I loved the contrast of the turquoise water against the red soil and the brightly painted Dutch architecture. In a few weeks, we’ll be heading to Curacao’s sister island, Aruba. I can’t wait!

Landhuis Groot Santa Martha
Landuis Groot Santa Martha, Curacao

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Flavors of Africa – Lunch at Disney’s Sanaa Restaurant

Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge
Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge

When we did our DIY tour of the Disney resorts’ Christmas decorations, we ran out of time before we got to see the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Since then, I’ve been looking for excuses to go back to see the hotel. That’s how I discovered Sanaa, a restaurant located on Kidani Village’s Sunset Savanna where you can watch the animals while you eat. Food and animals – two of my favorite things!

Sanaa means “artwork” in Swahili and the restaurant was filled with African artwork – beaded necklaces and lights hand-crafted out of gourds and baskets. The menu was a fusion of East African and Indian cuisines. Ron and I started with an appetizer of Lamb Kefta Sliders and then shared a plate of slow cooked spicy Durban chicken and beef short ribs with basmati rice. Our waitress suggested we add a side of naan, an African flatbread, which was delicious by itself or dipped into the meat gravy. We finished up with the Dessert Trio - Tanzanian chocolate mousse, coconut cheesecake and chai cream.

Monday, February 24, 2014

ICEBAR Orlando

Icebar Orlando

On Saturday, Ron and I headed to Mickey Mouse World for a visit to ICEBAR Orlando. We’d bought tickets through Travel Zoo a few months ago and finally had the chance to get away for the weekend. When we checked in with the hostess, we were each given a fur coat, gloves and a token for a drink of our choice. Then we were ushered into the icy bar. The room was actually a lot smaller than I was expecting but it was still very cool (no pun intended). Everything was made of ice, including the bar stools and tables, several ice sculptures and a giant ice throne, all lit with color-changing lights. The drinks even came in cups made out of ice. Ron was a good sport, even though he absolutely hates being cold. It probably helped that they had Fireball Whiskey, one of his favorites. :-)

Monday, February 3, 2014

Boats

Vessels of Freedom
Harbors of Healing
Boats
(Kenny Chesney, “Boats”)
Yesterday was one of those beautiful, unusual 80-degree February days. We took our boat out for the first time in months and it was wonderful to hear the ospreys, see dolphins and feel the sun on my skin again. My “solar batteries” have been recharged.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Carnival Victory - Part II

Cozumel

The ship didn’t arrive in Cozumel until 1 o’clock so we spent the morning in the gym, working off our lobster and Bitter and Blanc. When we pulled into port, we docked alongside Carnival Paradise and Carnival Elation. It was neat looking down at the Paradise’s deck from our deck. We were there last year!

towel animals

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Carnival Victory - Part I

Carnival Victory

Miami

The problem with taking a cruise in January is that you never know what the weather will be like. We’ve been cruising over MLK weekend for the past five years now and for the most part we’ve been lucky. But as our cruise on Victory neared, the temperatures on the weather forecast got lower and lower. On the drive to Miami, we stopped at the rest stop on Alligator Alley and it was 56 degrees with a fierce wind. Everyone was bundled up in scarves and jackets except for a few people in shorts who apparently hadn’t gotten the memo that it was COLD!

When we got to the port at noon, they were just starting the boarding process. We were assigned to Boarding Group 10 so we had a wait a bit but we were onboard and exploring the ship by 1 o’clock. I loved Victory’s theme, Famous Bodies of Water. All the restaurants and public areas were named after oceans or mythological sea creatures, like the Atlantic and Pacific Dining Rooms, the Caspian Sea Wine Bar and the Tritons Pool. I especially liked the Atlantic Dining Room. It was 2-stories high with a dramatic staircase, statues of mermaids and mermen, and wavy blue lights. It was very pretty. Well, except maybe for the mermaid heads lining the walls. They were a little creepy. :-) The Seven Seas Atrium was decorated in greens and blues, with a deep green ceiling that gave the area an underwater feel. And there were seahorses everywhere – on the door handles, on the bar stools, on the stairway banisters. People on Cruise Critic warned about the stairway seahorses. Since the seahorses’ snouts stick out farther than the handrails, they will “bite” you if you walk too close. Fortunately, we made it through the trip without any seahorse attacks.

Monday, January 6, 2014

TECO's Manatee Viewing Center

manatee sign

Florida is one of the few places in the world where manatees are found. Although manatees look fat, they actually have very little body fat to keep them warm. So when the Gulf of Mexico dips below 68 degrees, they migrate to warmer waters like the natural springs in Homosassa or Crystal River. Every few years, Ron and I like to take the boat up to Homosassa to swim with the manatees. But since it didn’t look like we’d have time this year, we decided to spend an afternoon at Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center instead.

The viewing center was created after the Big Bend Power Station opened in 1986 and employees noticed large numbers of manatees congregating in the warm waters of their discharge canals each winter. The center includes an observation platform, as well as educational displays, a nature trail and butterfly gardens.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Oh, the Places You'll Go!

Congratulations!
Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
(Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go”)
The best part about starting a new year is the possibility. There’s a whole year ahead to fill with trips, planning and anticipation. Where should we go this year? What will we see? What new things will we experience?

Ron and I haven’t decided on a destination for our annual Caribbean vacation yet, but we're going on a short cruise in a few weeks. And for Christmas, Jenny gave me, Mary and Mama travel books to London. We’ll be taking a girls’ trip to England in the fall! Lots to look forward to.

So...be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O'Shea,
you're off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So...get on your way!
(Dr. Suess)
Happy New Year and Happy Travels to all!