Monday, December 12, 2016

Trees for Charity

Triangle Christmas Tree Challenge

While my sister Mary and I were in North Carolina this past weekend for a visit with my parents, we went to Downtown Durham to see the Christmas trees at the Triangle Christmas Tree Challenge display. The Christmas Tree Challenge is a fund raiser for non-profits. Dozens of non-profit companies compete for prizes by designing and decorating trees that represent their mission.

We discovered the trees a few years ago when we’d gone to Downtown Durham for dinner and ice skating. The trees were beautiful at night, lit up in different colors. But I think I enjoyed them even more in the daytime when I could see all the details. Each tree was so creative. The tree for Teach for America was decorated with pencils while the ornaments on Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina’s tree were made from plastic forks and spoons. We got a laugh out of the tree for First Tee of the Triangle, which had stuffed toy gophers (think Caddyshack) nestled among the golf balls and flags. Hee hee :-)

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Swimming with Manatees at Homosassa Springs

Two manatees at Homosassa Springs

Last week instead of fighting the Black Friday crowds at the mall, Ron and decided to do something completely unique to Florida – swim with manatees. Although manatees look fat, they actually have very little body fat and can’t tolerate cold water. So in the winter months when the temperature of the Gulf of Mexico drops into the 60s, manatees make their way to the warmer waters of Crystal River and Homosassa Springs. Since it had been a warm November, I was a little worried that there wouldn’t be many manatees at the springs yet. But before we’d even finished launching our boat at the boat ramp, I spotted a couple swimming up the river. A good sign!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Key West 2016

Key West sign


This trip couldn’t have come at a better time. My tooth was still hurting from the root canal I had a few weeks ago, and all the ugliness dredged up by the election was really getting to me. I needed a few days of sunshine and mojitos in a city whose philosophy was “One Human Family”. If there is any place where people embrace each other’s differences, Key West is it!

We didn’t do much on Friday since our flight didn’t get in until mid-afternoon. By the time we’d settled into the house and made a run to the grocery store for beer and perishables, it was getting dark. We walked down to the waterfront and ate dinner at Schooner Wharf Bar, sitting on the upper deck where there was a nice breeze. I had my first mojito of the trip and my tooth was feeling better already. :-)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Pumpkin Safari at Safari Wilderness Ranch

Safari Wilderness Ranch entrance

On Sunday, Ron and I spent the afternoon at Safari Wilderness, a 260-acre ranch located in Florida’s Green Swamp near Lakeland. The ranch is home to over 50 species of exotic animals from Africa and Asia, including antelope, deer, water buffalo, Watusi cattle, zebras, llamas, and even a wart hog. In 2012, the ranch opened to the public for tours, but it is not a zoo or a theme park. The animals roam and graze freely around the natural Florida landscape.

Most people visiting the ranch take the Vehicle Safari tour, which is offered twice daily for $75 a person and lasts about two hours. But this month the ranch is celebrating its annual Pumpkin Safari with shorter tours leaving every hour from 1 PM to 6 PM on Saturdays and Sundays for $39. The Pumpkin Safari also includes a free pumpkin to carve or give to the animals for enrichment.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Our All-Inclusive Weekend on Norwegian Sky

Norwegian Sky


We booked this cruise just two weeks before the trip. We were stuck at home during Tropical Storm Hermine, bored and dreaming of sunny skies, so Ron started searching around on the internet and found a good deal on a 3-day cruise on Norwegian Sky. We sailed on Sky a few years ago, but since then it had become an Open Bar ship, meaning that alcoholic beverages were included in the price. No need to sign for drinks, no 3-page statement at the end of cruise. Sounded great!

Since Ron didn’t want to deal with driving, we flew to Miami on Friday morning. It was a quick cab ride to the port using the new Port Miami Tunnel and we were onboard by noon. Our first stop was to drop off our carry-on bags at Captain Cook’s Lounge. This is a great feature on Sky – you can bring your bags onboard with you and check them in the lounge until the cabins are available. I loved not having to leave our luggage with a porter, wondering how many hours it would be before it showed up outside our cabin. It also meant that there weren’t 2000 people dragging their suitcases around the buffet. :-)  I wish every ship had this option.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Maui 2016 Part 4

Thursday – Waihe'e Ridge Trail

The plan for our last full day on Maui was to hike the Waihe'e Ridge Trail with Jenny. Jenny had been trying to get me to go hiking for a while, and I was looking forward to doing something together even though I was a little nervous about keeping up with her. I hadn’t been exercising much lately and was definitely not in my best shape.

Waihe'e Ridge Trail was on the northwest side of the island, off of a winding road just past Mendes Ranch where we had taken the horseback riding tour in 1999. It was a two-and-a-half mile trail, beginning at 1000 feet and ascending to Lanilili Peak at 2563 feet. We got to the trailhead around 9 o’clock and started up. It didn’t take long for me to realize that being out of shape was not my problem. My problem was that I’m a klutz and have an intense fear of falling, particularly falling off cliffs. :-)

The hike started simple enough, a somewhat steep walk up a concrete path. But once we got into the woods, it was all slippery mud and tree roots. Jenny warned us, “There will be falling. Just accept it.” Sure enough, I quickly slipped and fell on my side with my foot stuck under a tree root, covering myself with mud. Well, at least I’d gotten that out of the way! Fortunately, Ron saved the day and broke off several large branches for us to use as walking sticks, which made the going much more manageable.

Once we got past the muddy woods, we were rewarded with a view of Makamaka’ole Falls, cascading 300 feet down into the valley. Then we rounded a few more curves and I literally gasped, it was so beautiful. We were looking down into a lush, ridged valley with views of Maui’s north shore and Haleakala on one side and the rushing stream of Waihe'e Gorge below. I have to say that God does some amazing work. It was truly breathtaking.

start of the trail

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Maui 2016 Part 3

Wednesday – Haleakala

The first thing we did when we got up Wednesday morning was check the top of Haleakala. No clouds! It looked like a perfect day for a drive up the mountain. We left Wailea at 7 o’clock and made it to the summit at around 9, passing through several different climate zones as we climbed from sea level to the peak at 10,000 feet. First there were the gentle slopes of Haleakala’s upcountry, with jacaranda trees and flower farms. Then we drove through groves of tall trees. And finally we reached the zig zagging switchbacks through scrublands with the clouds below us. The crazy curves were even starting to make Ron feel disoriented. We rounded one turn and there was a nene (the endangered Hawaiian goose) standing in the middle of road! Thank goodness, the car behind us wasn’t following too closely so Ron was able to stop and wait for it to move out of the way. I was very glad we hadn’t had to make the choice of hitting the nene or driving off the cliff. I think the nene might have lost that one.

upcountry Maui

Monday, August 8, 2016

Maui 2016 Part 2

Monday – Cabana Day

The next morning we went snorkeling again, this time at Ulua Beach, which was about a mile walk from the condo along the Wailea Coastal Walk. We’d actually done one of our very first scuba dives from Ulua Beach in 1999. Back then, I remember looking up and seeing snorkelers swimming overhead. This time we were looking down at the scuba divers. :-) The water was just as stirred up as it had been the day before, but we did see lots of fish, including a bunch of humuhumunukunukuapuaas. We only saw one turtle, hiding under a ledge with just his back flippers sticking out.

Ulua Beach
Wailea Coastal Walk

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Maui 2016 Part 1

Friday/Saturday – Getting There

When I said last year that Maui was a pain to get to, I didn’t know the half of it! We actually hadn’t planned on going back to Maui so soon, but then we got the email from Jenny saying they were selling the condo at Wailea Point and it was now or never. Well, that was a no-brainer. We weren’t going to miss our last chance to go to Maui!

So here we were, touching down at the Kahului Airport, 36 looooong hours after we’d left home. The adventure had actually started Thursday night when the phone rang just as we were going to bed. It was American Airlines saying that our flight in the morning would be delayed 45 minutes. Hmmm, that would cut our layover in Dallas in half. I thought we could still make the connection as long as there weren’t any other issues, but I wasn’t sure that our luggage would. Just in case, we threw a change of clothes and some basic toiletries into Ron’s backpack.

When we got to the airport the next morning, it looked like things were going to work out. The crew was on the plane, the passengers were on the plane, the doors were closed. But then the pilot came on the intercom and announced that there was some bad weather near Dallas. We were going to have to put more fuel in the plane and take a longer route to avoid the storm. There went our connection. :-(

Friday, June 24, 2016

A Sea Turtle Goes Home

Welcome Home sign

This week I had the opportunity to witness something really special – the release of a rehabilitated sea turtle back into the Gulf of Mexico. This is something I’ve wanted to see for a long time so when I got an email from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium that they were releasing Kreacher, a young loggerhead turtle, from Clearwater Beach, I had to go.
Kreacher was found floating half a mile off of Clearwater Beach on May 8. After being treated at the CMA for gastrointestinal problems, she was well and ready to go back home. Before the release, the CMA partnered with the Sea Turtle Conservancy to attach a satellite tracking device to Kreacher’s shell for research purposes. This was CMA’s second turtle to be fitted with a tracking tag. Ozzy, released last September, traveled all the way up to the Outer Banks of North Carolina before her tag stopped working a few months later.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Key to Happiness - Travel

"We'll always have Paris" - Girls' Trip, June 2011

Have you seen the latest ad from Groupon called “Haves vs. Have-Dones”? I love this ad because I’ve always thought that the most precious gifts are gifts of shared experiences, doing and seeing new things with the ones I love. And it turns out that there is scientific research to back this up. An article by Thomas Gilovich and Amit Kumar titled “We’ll Always Have Paris” shows that people who spend money on experiences (such as a trip or even a visit to a museum) tend to be happier than people who purchase material goods.

One reason for this is adaptation. Material purchases quickly became the new normal and we stop noticing them. On the other hand, we talk about our experiences long after they occur. Experiences stay alive in the stories we tell, and even a less-than-perfect experience can turn into funny family lore. (Remember that insane taxi driver we had on our first trip to Vegas??)

Friday, May 20, 2016

One Love - Sandals Negril Part 3

Henry the peacock


I woke up early and couldn’t go back to sleep so I went out on the balcony to read. I could hear Henry the peacock making his morning cat sounds over at Bayside. It was even breezier that day and the red flags were up. That meant there wouldn’t be any watersports, so when Ron got up we decided it would be a good day to go to Beaches Negril to check out their pools.

It was a quick $5 cab ride to Beaches where we settled in by the main pool. Beaches was a larger property than Sandals and had a Polynesian feel, with dark wood balconies and window shutters. There was a pretty courtyard, a large main pool and a water park with a lazy river and water slides. Of course, my favorite part of the resort was CafĂ© de Paris, the French pastry shop. Too bad Sandals Negril didn’t have one of those. :-)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

One Love - Sandals Negril Part 2

Sandals Negril beach


Another day on the beach. We set up our towels under our favorite palapa and watched the skiers while I worked up the nerve to try wakeboarding in front of an audience. Finally I was ready. I fell down on the first try but made it up the second try. The boat driver was great and went just the right speed, but he took me so far down the beach that by the time the boat turned around, my legs were shaking. I didn’t know if I was going to make it back to Sandals. But I did! I was proud of myself since the water had been too cold at home to practice before the trip.

When ski time was over, the water sports guys brought out the water tube, “Great Big Mable”. A couple from Utah, Jim and Angie, invited us to go tubing with them. We agreed and climbed on. It was a blast! The driver whipped us over the waves and we all hung on for dear life, with me screaming most of the way. I know I was a foot off the seat a few times. When we got back to the beach, the water sports guys asked us who was screaming and Ron said it was him. :-)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

One Love - Sandals Negril Part 1

Sandals Negril

Ron and I knew we wanted to go to a Sandals resort for our twenty-fifth anniversary; it was just a matter of picking which one. Finally we settled on Sandals Negril. Our last two Sandals vacations had been at larger properties (Whitehouse and Antigua) so this time we wanted to try a smaller resort with lots of fun water sports. Plus Negril was one of my all-time favorite places, with its endless beach, gorgeous sunsets and friendly people. We stayed at Couples Swept Away in Negril in 2010 and couldn’t wait to go back. But just as we were packing up the car for the drive to Orlando, Cedric started acting groggy and weak. Since he’d been fine earlier in the day, we decided it would be alright for us to leave, but we emailed Judi to ask her to keep an extra close eye on him.

The next day was a long day of traveling from Orlando to Montego Bay to Negril. It was almost five o’clock when we made it to Sandals. We’d booked a Club Level room in the Paradise Building, right in the middle of the resort and about as close to the water as you could get. The building was completely remodeled about a year ago and our room was gorgeous. It was decorated in light colors with turquoise artwork and had the Sandals signature king sized 4-poster bed. Our second floor balcony overlooked the Beach Bistro Bar and the sailboats anchored offshore. Beautiful! The Club Level rooms included a few extra perks like a concierge lounge, room service and a mini-bar, but that’s not why we'd booked it. It was all about the location, location, location.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Carnival's Alchemy Bar

One of the best things about traveling is having new experiences, but after 30 cruises (sometimes more than once on the same ship) it’s becoming harder to find new things to try. That’s why I was excited to discover before our Victory cruise that during dry dock last year, Carnival had added an Alchemy Bar. The Alchemy Bar is a specialty cocktail and martini bar with a vintage-pharmacy theme. Mixologists wear white pharmacy coats, and the drinks have names like “The Remedy”, “The Quick Fix” or “The Antioxidant”. Everything is handcrafted with fresh fruit, herbs and juices. You won’t find any mixes at the Alchemy Bar. (No beer either but you can always go to the sports bar for that.)

This was my first ship with an Alchemy Bar so my goal for the cruise was to order as many different drinks as possible. With only three days, there was no way I could try everything on the menu but between Ron and me, we managed to cover a pretty good portion of it. :-)  I like citrus so I really enjoyed the Antioxidant (grapefruit vodka, Aperol, tangerine, fresh lime juice and a dash of orange juice). But I was also surprised how much I liked the Cucumber Sunrise. It had vodka, watermelon nectar and just enough cucumber to add a little spice. It was really refreshing.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Carnival Victory Spring Break Cruise

Port Canaveral

Last weekend, Ron and I took a 3-day cruise on Carnival Victory. This was our second time on Victory, but since our last cruise in 2014 the ship had moved from Miami to Port Canaveral and had gotten a face lift during dry dock. I was looking forward to seeing what had been changed or added.

Since it was Spring Break season and Easter weekend, the traffic was heavy on the drive to Port Canaveral. I don’t remember ever seeing so many out-of-state cars! I started playing a game to see how many different state license plates I could spot - Kentucky, Georgia, Rhode Island, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Wisconsin, New York, New Jersey, Texas. North Dakota??? The lower gas prices must really be helping out our tourism.

Boarding had already started when we got to the port at 11:30 and we were on the ship by noon. First stop was the Lido deck for lunch. I remembered from last time that the lines at the Lido buffet on Victory were heinous. It was still early so we decided to take advantage of the relatively short lines and get our lunch from the Pizza Pirate and Chopsticks stations (pizza for Ron, Chinese for me). We ate at a table by the Sirens’ pool at the back of the ship where it was peaceful and quiet. Ron and I have discovered that to avoid the chaos at the buffet, you have to keep going back and back as far as you can go. Most people just stop at the first table they see. This works pretty well for the first day or two until everyone learns their way around. :-)

Unfortunately, the Sirens’ Bar didn’t have any limes for my traditional “welcome aboard” mojito. The provisions for our cruise were still being loaded onto the ship and limes hadn’t made their way to the back yet. But they did have them at the Seven Seas Bar in the atrium so we enjoyed a drink there while we people-watched. Of the Carnival ships we’ve been on, I thought Victory had one of the prettier atriums. Yes, it was very green but I liked the Famous Bodies of Water theme and the seahorses on the staircases and bar stools.

Carnival Victory atrium
Seven Seas Atrium

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Breezes Nassau


Day 1

People think of the Bahamas as being part of the Caribbean, but weather-wise it is more like South Florida. Which means that in January, it could be 80 degrees and sunny or it could be 60 degrees, windy and wet. It’s just the luck of the draw.

And so we landed at the Nassau airport on a rainy Thursday morning. The airport wasn’t busy at all so we walked right through customs and immigration, hopped in a taxi and were at our hotel by 9 o’clock. We were staying at Breezes Resort and Spa, a small older property on the eastern end of Cable Beach. We visited Breezes on a cruise stop a year ago so we had a pretty good idea of what to expect – nothing fancy but fun.