Category Archives: Travel in the US

New Mexico – Land of Enchantment

“This land is your land, this land is my land.  From California to the New York island.”  That song always goes through my mind when I am traveling across our vast country and see the many differences.  This is our land and we need to spend time exploring and getting to know it. Foreign travel is exciting but traveling within our own country allows me to see the grandeur of our country and many spots that are very eyeopening and educational.  I think that sometimes I have preconceived ideas of what areas should look like or what I will find there. Most times I have been proven wrong. Sort of like judging a book by its’ cover and we all know that we shouldn’t do that.

As we sat by the window traveling through New Mexico it somewhat reinforced in both of our minds what we thought the landscape of New Mexico would be – somewhat flat with mesas, buttes, orange/red soil or clay and small little bushes popping up here and there.

When we arrived in Albuquerque, ending our epic Train Trek, we took a cab to pick up our rental car at at the airport, then we got some lunch (at Twisters – a delicious semi-fast food restaurant) and then began our drive toward Santa Fe for our first of five nights in New Mexico.

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We had been told that there are two ways to drive to Santa Fe and we chose the more scenic route which is known as the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway.  This is off the main highway and takes about an hour to travel between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.  This trail was well known as a site for the rich deposits of turquoise, gold and iron ore.  You can find in this area the rare blue green turquoise names after the town of Cerrillos.  There are a few towns on the Turquoise Trail and they tend to be more artist’s havens.  Stop in some of the cafes along the trail for a bite to eat, go in the gift shops and look at the silver and  turquoise jewelry.  One shop that we stopped in at Madrid had turquoise that the elderly owner mined herself.  How many shop owners can say that?

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P1050675IMG_1074IMG_1075Santa Fe has some wonderful restaurants restaurants and a preacher on our train from Albuquerque advised us to eat at Tomasita’s for authentic New Mexican food that is family run.  Of course we had to obey the preacher.  Fairly easy to find and like all good restaurants, there was a line.  Food was delicious though it was a bit hot for this northern girl – even the green salsa.  They waiters wanted to make sure that I enjoyed this experience and with their help, I did.

Santa Fe has the most charming plaza of all of the cities that we visited.  I had looked forward to the Georgia O’Keefe museum which is only a couple of blocks from the center of the plaza.  I was able to get the last ticket to go on a docent led tour of her work and learned about her background – fascinating.  I think we all know her for her famous red poppy painting (which is only about 7 inches) but did you know she was also an abstract painter?  She painted many landscape scenes though they were of two themes familiar to her – the area around Lake George area where she would spend her summers with her husband and those of Texas and New Mexico with the beautiful colors of the mesas and skies that she grew to love.  Her personal story is very compelling as  well and you learn about her personal life at the museum.  I would highly recommend this museum.

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Walking to the Georgia O’Keefe museum we passed by shops that had animal sculptures along the street.  Blogger Hubby and I loved whimsical and fun sculptures.  What do you think of these?

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P1050840P1050838P1050843P1050839The Palace of the Governors  is within the Santa Fe Historic District along the plaza downtown and it served as the seat of government for the state of New Mexico for many centuries. The Palace of the Governors is the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States. Outside the building on the portico you’ll find native Americans selling their pottery, jewelry, metal work, drums, leather items, drawings, paintings and so much more. My word of advice, if you choose to purchase, which I did, pay in cash and do not bargain – it is an insult to the Native American vendors whose prices are very fair and less than what you would pay in one of the shops along the plaza.  They also have exquisite workmanship on all the wares that they sell.

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We also went to the State House, a few blocks from the plaza area.  This is the only state house that is round.  It also has four wing entrances, designed after their state flag.  The four wings represent the four cultures in New Mexico – Angelo, Spanish, Mexican and Native American.

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Across the street from the State House was a sign telling us about the Santa Fe Trail  and how it was a main thoroughfare .

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We stayed outside the downtown/plaza area at a Holiday Inn using our points.  It was fine – nothing special.  In hindsight, I would have preferred to have stayed along the downtown plaza area.  There is a lot of traffic in this area, parking is tight and it is just a vibrant place to walk around and be.  We would have gone there our first night except for all the traffic.  Learn from my mistake and stay by the plaza.

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AMTRAK’s South West Chief

We were finally on the last leg of our three part train trek around parts of America.  We enjoyed almost all aspects of the trip so far, perhaps with the exception of one of us having to climb into the upper, narrow bunk bed and the train whistles at night when going pass a crossing.  The South West Chief was originally  operated by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway until AMTRAK took over passenger rail service in 1971.

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Los Angeles, along with Chicago, has a lounge of first class passengers and we took full advantage of it.  When you enter the front of Union Station, walk straight back and near the rear, turn right and then go up the escalator.  There are chairs, a few tables and chips and soft drinks as well as coffee. There is an attendant sitting at the desk to help us with any questions you might have.

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As lounges go, or at least as compared to airline lounges, this wasn’t too much but it was a nice place to hang out and eat the few snacks that they had.  Because of the way that the station and tracks are laid out, when it was time to go to the track to board our train, we were driven there in multi-row golf carts.  If we had chosen to walk, we would have had a long way to go including going under a tunnel to get to the other side of the tracks.

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We weren’t sure if we would get dinner since we weren’t scheduled to leave Los Angeles till 6:15.  As we boarded we found out that we would get dinner and as the attendant came around, we signed up for one of the first sittings at 7:00.  Same menu that we had on both the Empire Builder and Coast Starlight.  Blogger Hubby was quick to let our table mates know how good he thought the seafood cakes were, which he had again!

We went to bed early because one of the stops in Arizona, early in the morning around 5:45 AM was Winslow, Arizona.  It seemed like I was humming the Eagles song” standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” all night while I was trying to sleep.  Unfortunately, I woke up about 5 minutes after we passed it.  At breakfast we met a couple who had just gotten on the train.  The did the option of going to the Grand Canyon through the Grand Canyon Railroad.  Although they had a good time, they were exhausted because they had to leave their hotel at 3:  AM to be at the train station at 4:00 AM – unfortunately, the train was late and they had to wait about an hour for the South West Chief to come by.  Although they loved the canyon, they wouldn’t recommend going by train other than the convenience of being very close to the rim.

For us, we enjoyed seeing the change in scenery across America.  Here are a few scenes that we passed on our last day on our train trek.

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IMG_1042As I mentioned, our train, unbeknownst to us, was running late but what we found out on every line is that they build time into the schedule so they very rarely arrive late at the station at the end of the line.

Our final stop was Albuquerque.  Our train trek was over but now our New Mexico part was beginning.  It was 11:00 in the morning, the sun was shining and we were excited.  We gathered our bags, left the train and walked out front to get a taxi to the airport to get our rental car.  Problem was – there were no cabs.  I tried calling one cab company but no answer.  I tried Uber but it was surge pricing very high.  Finally got a cab company who would send a cab out to the train station in 10-15 minutes but no guarantee that we would get it.  After half an hour, one came but there was a little disagreement on how got to ride.  The other couple and us came to an agreement that we would share it since we were both going to a car rental at the airport.IMG_1047

We closely examined the car, loaded our bags and headed north to Santa Fe.

Would we do this again – yes!  We’d like to do the California Zephyr route which is San Francisco to Chicago traveling through scenic Colorado and the Rockies.

This entire train trip took 65,000 of my Ultimate Reward points that I had transferred over to AMTRAK (no longer available to do it) and remember, traveling first class included all of our meals.  I used points to stay at the Holiday Inn and Suites in Chicago the night before our train trip, also for the Weston Bayshore in Vancouver, points for our night at the Hilton Doubletree Checkers hotel in Los Angeles.  We paid for our night at the Seattle Grand Hyatt and used a Diamond upgrade for our Emerald Suite.

Up next, Land of Enchantment – exploring Santa Fe, Taos, Albuquerque and its environs.

REMINDER: I’m getting together a group for a cruise around the southern tip of South America.Come join us on March 5, 2018 (that’s right – 2018) on Holland America’s Zaandam, a vessel with about 1450 passengers as we board in Valparaiso, Chile as we cruise among the fjords, through the Strait of Magellan, Beagle Channel, visiting the southernmost town in the world, Montevideo, Paraguay and disembarking in Buenos Aires, he home of fine leather and the tango.  With a group, basically in name only, we received the lowest rates and amenities. .  Leave a comment and I’ll respond privately to you about this cruise or contact my travel agent, Michelle, at michelle@mccabeworld.com and tell her you are in Jane’s group!

All Aboard – AMTRAK’s Empire Builder

This trip was booked last December transferring points from my Ultimate Rewards account to AMTRAK.  This is no longer available.  You can read about it here.

We left the Holiday Inn and Suites and walked directly to Union Station going in the entrance that I described in my previous post. Inside the lounge is a checked bag room where we ditched our bags so we could still walk around the city and get some breakfast. You do need to show your ticket once you enter the lounge.

Entrance to the lounge
Entrance to the lounge
early morning at the lounge in Union Station, Chicago. It will get much more crowded the closer to departure.
Early morning at the lounge in Union Station, Chicago. It will get much more crowded  closer to departure.

The lounge that we used will be closed in a few weeks and a new lounge will be opened, probably around the second week of June. The new lounge will have showers, more seating, and will be located in the Great Hall. In the lounge were hot and cold drinks and snacks like potato chips, pre-packaged breakfast rolls and nachos.  Here is a link to the new lounge.

After checking our bags, we left the station and headed to the French Market which we had discovered the day before. I had one of the best breakfasts that I’ve ever had – a freshly made crepe filled with fresh strawberries, crème fraiche, and almonds. Delicious !  Blogger Hubby had the crepe with lox, cream cheese, tomatoes and red onions. There were tables at the back of the market and outside for you to sit and enjoy your food.

The best breakfast ever!
The best breakfast ever!

With no bags and still a few hours before we needed to be back at the station, we walked around the city more. We walked over the to canal where tourists boats took passengers on a city tour.

IMG_0574We found the Chicago Cultural Center and went in – free admittance is always an incentive. They have two beautiful rotundas and one was by Louis Tiffany. This building was the former Chicago Public Library.

IMG_0577Close by was Millenium Park and the Chicago Art Museum – both worth walking to and through.  Throughout the park we saw a number of fountains, sculptures that we found very unique.IMG_0585

 

IMG_0591Did you know that the famed Rt. 66 begins in Chicago?IMG_0593

Throughout the city were beautiful tulips in bloom as well as other sidewalk arrangements in concrete planters – some with pussy willows which I hadn’t seen in a long time.   Another building that we saw was the Board of Trade building – very unique with huge eagles at the top corners of the building almost looking like gargoyles.

When we returned to the lounge, it was crowded and difficult to find seating. There are two screens on the walls – one for arrivals and one for departures. You will see the same name of trains so be sure you know what you are looking at. For example our train, The Empire Builder was arriving at 3:00 yet our train, the Empire Builder was leaving at 2:15.

Traveling in a sleeper, we had priority boarding. They will call you and open the door to the track. Everyone stops at the first car to see if it is theirs. If you are going to Washington State, keep moving. Our train splits in Spokane during the – the cars at the end are going toward Portland and the cars in front of the dining car are going to Seattle. That clue will tell you where your car will be.

Our Room – To get to our room, we entered the train and had to walk up a narrow stairway. If you have a large suitcase that you won’t need in your room, you can leave it on the first floor in the luggage area. We had the larger bedroom and they were denoted with a letter – we were in “D”. The smaller rooms had numbers. That tip might get you in the correct corridor since you can go left or right at the top of the stairs.

The lower level had rooms as well though I think they were smaller rooms, community showers and extra toilets (we were warned that there is no ventilation in the community bathrooms). Yes, train bedrooms are small. We knew that and expected it. The bathroom is a combination toilet/shower. To take a shower, put down the lid on the toilet and turn the water on. Since there is a lip to get into the bathroom, the water stays in the bathroom. You do have the option of using one of the community showers if you want something larger. Tip – put down the lid to the toilet to prevent it from crashing down in the middle of the night when you hit a rough patch of tracks.   We propped open the bathroom with a backpack so we could see the blue nightlight in the bathroom. Again, we didn’t want the door slamming in the middle of the night.  To get more air or less air, look to the ceiling to open or close the vents.

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Tip: If you are charging electronics, you might want to bring an extension card as one outlet is on the wall by the sink mirror and the other is on the wall by your head. You don’t want your electronics dangling as you recharge them.

We didn’t sleep well the first night because the train was always blowing their horns due to all the train crossings that we were passing.  You’ll get to know the whistle – 2 long, 1 shorter and 1 long.  Sometimes it seemed as though when the first set of whistles ended, the next one began.

The top bunk, which I had, was doable.  In the fact that there isn’t much turn around in and the ceiling was about 2 feet (or a little less) from my bed.  Getting up wasn’t a problem but getting down was (for me) as trying to turn around to come down the ladder was difficult since there wasn’t much room to turn around in.  I ended up putting my foot on the corner of the vanity and then the other on Blogger Hubby’s bed.  Not pretty but I did it.

We both brought carry-on luggage and a backpack. I would not bring anymore than that as they only place to store the luggage is under the bench sofa and chair in the room and a very small shelf above he chair. The rooms are small and compact and for just two nights on the train (or longer for us since we are continuing on) you really don’t need much. My concern in packing is whether the train ran hot or cold – I found this particular car on this particular day ran right in the middle. I have on a sleeveless top with a lightweight sweater and long pants though in the evening it did get a little cooler but never, in my mind, cold.  We’ve been told the Super Chief runs very cold.

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OBSERVATION CAR – had both seats and booths with a table. Downstairs was a lounge car where you could buy snacks as well as sit at one of their few tables. On our train were two Park Service Trails and Rails volunteers that gave a small narrative when we were going by a few things. If you brought your National Park Service passport book, they will stamp it for you (I had mine). Tip: there are some seats with 110 volt plugs so you can charge your electronics there as well. TIP – I turned on my Google Maps app while in the observation deck to see where we were and what we were passing.   There is no train wifi so I was careful how much cellular data I was using.

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DINING CAR – When you first board, stay in your room because a dining steward will come by and you can make reservations for dinner. Dining is about on par with airline food. For dinner I had the signature steak which was okay, baked potato and very overcooked medley of veggies. The salad was very fresh and served with packets of Paul Newman salad dressing. Second night I had the herb chicken which was much better and Blogger Hubby had the seafood shrimp/crab cakes and he thought they were very good.  Dessert was a good portion, neither too large or too small. All of this is served on plastic plates rather than the china that AMTRAK used to serve food on. Your first class accommodations include your meals on board and a drink. Beer and wine are a separate charge and they are available in the dining car. One thing to remember, although your meals are included in your accommodation if you are a first class passenger, you need to remember to tip the wait staff in the dining room. It also appears that the menu is the same on all the trains with a dining room. TIP: your first night when you leave Chicago, sit on the right side of the dining car as you are going forward and sit so you are facing forward. We had the 7:15 dinner and you could see the sun setting over the Mississippi – a bright orange ball and it was beautiful. Unfortunately we were not sitting on the correct side or facing the correct direction to get a picture but it was beautiful

Two rules that are strictly enforced on AMTRAK – no smoking and you always must wear shoes when walking around the train.

NOTE:  If you do plan to experience the Empire Builder, I strongly encourage you to download this PDF of the train route.  It gives you information on the train as well as the stops that it makes.  It’s interesting to know a little information about the cities that you are stopping or passing through.

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We have met very interesting people on this journey so far either at meal time (4 to a table) or in the observation car.  We were the only ones doing a train trek.  Many were going to or from vacation, family celebrations or just as a means to travel.  I was very pleasantly surprised at how much room there was in the coach section with leg rests and room between the seat in front of you – so unlike air travel.

More to come tomorrow.  If you have any particular questions, drop me a line and I’ll try to answer as soon as  can.

All Aboard…..

 

Nashville Rocks! Halloween at the Grand Ole Opry and Gaylord Opryland Hotel

I have a confession to make. I am not a country music fan.  I blame that on not being exposed to it while growing up.  I mean, back in the days when I grew up in Boston we didn’t have a country music scene.  We had one place in Boston called Hillbilly Ranch (true name) and it was somewhat of a joke.  Even its location was a place that you didn’t want to go into – The Combat Zone.

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Photo:  Getty Images/Boston Globe

While I was in college, we were all listening to the current pop music. Then I moved to Virginia and there was a lot of bluegrass music which was too twangy for me.  Honestly, I didn’t know the difference and thought it was all country music.  So I shied away from that genre of music and stayed away.  I just was never interested in it.

You’re probably wondering why I am telling you all this and it’s easy.  I was going to visit Nashville – home of country music – on our Road Trip. We would be arriving on Halloween and wondered what we should do on that night.  There was only one answer – go to The Grand Ole Opry. Yes, I was going to listen to country music.  We looked at the schedule and believe it or not, I had actually heard of some of the performers like Vince Gill, Charlie Daniels and his band, and the Gatlin Brothers were the main performers with others also on the show.

We first called the Opry box office ten days before we would arrive and realized that the only tickets left were behind the nose bleed sections.  Not what we wanted to hear.  We put our two great minds together and we came up with an idea.  What if we called the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and inquire if they had any packages that included tickets.  Gaylord hotels are part of the Marriott chain and although I did have a few points in my account, they weren’t enough to get us anything.  The operator found what we considered very good tickets, on the floor, off from the center a little bit and on an aisle. Cha-ching.  We booked the package even though it was expensive  but we figured that it was a unique experience.

After we made the booking we heard from several different people what a fantastic property it was – large, gardens, a river runs through it and that it would take us a few days to go all through it.  In my mind, it just didn’t make sense that this large hotel that would be minutes from the Grand Ole Opry because in my mind the Opry is in downtown Nashville.   Confusion reigned as we drove up this long driveway in the outskirts of Nashville.  We pulled in at 5:30 and elected to do valet parking at $32 per day (yikes, don’t tell Blogger Hubby) because we needed to get to our room, do a quick shower and be at the appropriate door to ride the shuttle to the show.   Still thinking that the Opry was in downtown Nashville, we knew we had to hurry or we’d miss the shuttle and we didn’t know how expensive a taxi would be.  The show began at 7:00 and here it was at 5:30 and we had to be at the door at 6:00.  First tip if you are going to the Gaylord Opryland Hotel:  unless you are with a convention, ask to be in the Cascades section of the hotel.  We were initially booked by the desk clerk in Magnolia, next to the Convention Hall on the opposite side of this large hotel even though she knew we were in a rush.  That is one heck of a long walk; same goes for Delta. Our bellman, seeing that we were in MagnoliaCascades was able to change our room to make it easier to reach.  Cascades, where we ended up,  is where the main lobby is, where the concierge is where you are parked, and where you get your car from valet parking.

We met our shuttle and had a 3 minute ride to the Grand Ole Opry – not downtown but very close by.  We knew where to meet the shuttle for the ride home.  We walked in, and since we hadn’t had dinner, we were able to get drinks and popcorn to bring into the theatre with us.  Great seats awaited us.  IMG_2159

There was an Mistress of Ceremony warming up the crowd but shortly the show would begin.  We noticed there was a large screen over the stage of the Opry as well as a few other screens throughout the theatre.  As we were reminded, this is a live radio show and there are commercials about the sponsors of the Opry with the announcer standing near the edge of stage left.

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The show was divided into four acts with each act having their own Master of Ceremony who would introduce the performers in the acts.  Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers opened up the show welcoming us and then proceed to sing.  P1040912

The second act was a led by a substitute MC – Jeanne Seeley.  She was the only one dressed in a costume with a boa of dollars bills over her witch’s dress.  She characterized herself as a Rich Witch.  Singing during this act was Ricky Scaggs.  P1040918

A surprise guest during this time was  Florence Henderson aka “Carol Brady”.  The third act was MC’d by Charlie Daniels and his band and boy, can he fiddle.  We overheard from the row behind us that they had just heard him about a week or so before and he was really putting on a performance this night.  Charlie was given a standing ovation after singing and playing “Devil Went Down to Georgia”.  It went something like this.  P1040955

The evening ended with Vince Gill and a clip of him during his early years playing at the Opry, or as he liked to call it – 50 pounds earlier. Also performing in the final act was Mel Tillus.  It was a country music star studded evening – what a way to spend Halloween night!

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We really enjoyed our Halloween night at the Opry and I hope to enjoy a repeat visit to this house of music.

BTW, the Grand Ole Opry was downtown Nashville in the Ryman Auditorium but moved out to its present location in 1975.  If you are interested in tickets, follow this link.

 

 

 

 

 

My Planned Cross Country Trip on AMTRAK using Miles

As some of you may remember,  I attended the Chicago Seminars last month.  One of the seminars that I sat in on was a talk by Bike Guy who told us about the trip he and his family did on points.  Now, that’s not unusual at all, particularly with this group of travelers,  but how he did his trip was – by using points to book his trip on AMTRAK.  He was able to get  AMTRAK points by transferring points from his Ultimate Rewards account (points you receive by using your Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink ) to his AMTRAK account.

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This sounded interesting to me since we had done some train travel this summer while in Italy and we were  anxious to try it here in our country.  I had done a fair amount of long distance train travel when I was twelve years old and younger but not much since there.  I was even more excited about a possible trip when we found out that there would be changes to the AMTRAK reward program as of January 24th  When changes come to reward programs they are usually never for the best and this one is the same.  Additionally, the last day to transfer points into my AMTRAK account is December 7th.  Luckily Blogger Hubby and I work well together in planning a trip with each of us working on different aspects and then coming together with a plan.

To explain what is happening in case you also want to take a trip, let me explain what the reward program is now.   Currently, the United States is divided into three zones and there is a redemption fee for traveling within the zones. Traveling in one zone is 20,000 points for a bedroom for 2 people. The points are for the accommodation and not per person.  The change will be that no longer will  AMTRAK have zone based redemptions but rather based on ticket price.  What we were planning to  to book would require almost double the points after January 24th. We knew we needed to act fast.  Here is a link to the current redemption rates.

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First of all, we needed to determine what kind of accommodation we wanted on the train.  You could travel coach (not for me for this distance); roomette with two seats during the day  (size is 3.6′ x 6.6′ ); bedroom with a couch and a chair in the day  (size is 6.6′ x 7.6′); a bedroom suite which is two bedrooms opened and combined ; or a family bedroom (size 5.2 ‘ x 9.5’).  We knew we wanted the bedroom as it was a little larger than the roomette and had the toilet and shower within the room.  All tickets booked with sleeping accommodations include all your meals while you are on the train.
Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 9.26.02 PMNow that we knew what our accommodation need was, it was time to plan our itinerary.  As you look at the map, you’ll see some cities are on the border of two zones.  You can use those cities to your advantage and they will be in whatever zone helps you the most.  Some of the cities are Detroit, Toledo, Atlanta, Denver, Albuquerque, El Paso, Wolf Point, Port Huron and Cincinnati.  Knowing that, we planned our trip to take advantage of those cities where it was practical for us.

After a few itineraries, we came up with the one that we liked.  Blogger Hubby is going to fly to Chicago from our summer home in Michigan and I will fly there from our home in Virginia.  We’ll get in the night before just to give us some peace of mind.  I don’t want to worry about delays, etc that would prevent us from boarding our train.  From Chicago’s Union station we will take the Empire Builder train through the northern part of our country through Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana including through Glacier National Park, Idaho and Washington.  We’ll travel along major portion of the Lewis and Clark Trail.

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Not content to end this portion of our trip in Washington, we will continue on using AMTRAK bus to Vancouver, British Columbia. Using our Starwood points, we booked  a Westin Hotel along the seawall and opposite of Stanley Park, the 1100 acre park that cruisers see when they are entering the harbor in Vancouver.   Following two nights in Vancouver, we will get ourselves down to Seattle to spend a night there before boarding our next train.  We could have used the AMTRAK bus again but that only gave us 35 minutes between the bus’ arrival and the departure of the train – too close for me.

AMTRAK has a partnership with the National Park Service and on select routes and select day they will have a ranger on board presenting different programs depending on the day of the week.  I wanted to ensure that we would have a ranger on our train but the 2016 schedule had not come out yet.  Even though we are going to travel mid May, that might be too early or we may be just in time.

Once we get back to Seattle we’ll board the Pacific Coast Starlight train to Los Angeles.  AMTRAK states that it is “widely regarded as one of the most spectacular of all train routes, the Coast Starlight links the greatest cities on the West Coast”.  We’ll go along the Pacific Coast during a stretch while in California.  Again, this has the ranger program and we will find out later if we are in time for this program as well.

When we reach Los Angeles we’ll have a overnight before boarding the Southwest Chief train the next morning for Albuquerque.  We chose Albuquerque since it is on the divide between two regions and it only costs us 20,000 points since it is in one region.  I’ve also never been to Albuquerque so it seems like a great place to spend a few days.  Perhaps Blogger Hubby will get me up in a hot air balloon – you never know.

All this, not including our hotels and meals while not on board the train, only cost us a total of 65,000 points. This is a great redemption of our points.  If we had to pay for our fare, this is what we would have paid:

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 10.54.29 PM Is this something you are considering?  Would a cross country train trip entice you?  Obviously it does us and we are very excited about this very relaxing, unplugged time viewing the majesty of our country from the comfort of our room and observation car.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memphis – Ducks, BBQ, Civil Rights Museum and Dr. Ben Carson

I love children books – particularly well written ones that tell a good story.  One author, Patricia Polacco, moves me with the way she tells a story, usually based on her family but not always, as well as with her illustrations.  When I worked in the school system (upper elementary grades) I always seemed to gravitate toward this author’s books and I was always surprised that a few of my special ed students “got it” – the subtle meaning of some of her books.  One of her books, John Philip Duck, told the story (fiction based on fact) about how the ducks came to the Peabody Hotel in Memphis.  Since reading the story I have wanted to go see the ducks walk to the fountain or from the fountain back to the roof where they resided.  The ducks come down at 10:00 and return at 5:00.

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Knowing that, going to the Peabody Hotel in the morning became our first priority.  We were shocked that parking was very easy to find and relatively inexpensive in Memphis as was the hotel.  We entered the lobby at 9:35 and already people were lined up along the velvet roping to view the ducks.  Children were sitting on the floor along the red carpet so they could have an unemcumbered view.  Hotel guest were fortunate that they, and only them, could sit in the lounge around the duck fountain to view the duck walk.  Excitement was building and then the elevator doors open.  Led by the Duckmaster, the 5 mallard ducks (one male and four females) waddle on the red carpet to the fountain, walked up the ramp and plopped into the water where the swam around.  A few minutes later, the Duckmaster approached the fountain with a silver tray and on it was a silver bowl of duck food.  It was all over in about ten minutes.

Waiting for the ducks to come out of the elevator
Waiting for the ducks to come out of the elevator
Ducks swimming in the lobby fountain
Ducks swimming in the lobby fountain
The 5th Duckmaster ever and myself after the Duck Walk
The 5th Duckmaster ever and myself after the Duck Walk

We then walked down to the Cotton Museum.  It was okay and nothing memorable in my mind.  The museum was basically one room in a large building.  My recommendation would be to skip this museum and save your  time for the Civil Rights Museum.

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One of the displays at the Cotton Museum
One of the displays at the Cotton Museum

Before we visited the Civil Rights Museum we decided that it was time to have lunch and nothing would satisfy my craving other than Memphis style barbecue.  Everyone gave us their recommendations.  Some were too far outside the city, one location – The Rendezvous had been highly recommended but a local woman told us that it wasn’t very good anymore because the owner sold the restaurant and took his recipes with him.  With that little bit of local information and the fact that we were starving, we ate at a BBQ restaurant behind the Civil Rights Museum – Central BBQ.

IMG_2125All I can say is WOW – probably the best bbq that I have ever had.  The ribs, which we had half wet and half dry, were very nicely charred and the meat pulled from the bone.  The pulled pork sandwich was just as delicious, nicely smoked and flavored.  On the counter were various different bbq sauces though my favorite was the vinegar sauce.  Cole slaw was on the side as was the crispy onion rings.  I kept repeating during this lunch how delicious the food was.  If you find yourself in Memphis – do yourself a favor and eat at Central BBQ.

Ribs - half wet and half dry.  They were the best I had ever had.
Ribs – half wet and half dry. They were the best I had ever had.

As soon as you finish eating, walk around a very short corner to the Hotel Lorraine.   The Civil Rights Museum is inside the gutted hotel.  IMG_2127

The Lorraine Hotel with a wreath on the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated
The Lorraine Hotel with a wreath on the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated

I wasn’t sure what to expect but it was much more than what I did expect.  From the capture of Africans to be brought to the Jamestown Colony in 1619 through the current day, you see the struggle of the black population in our country.  The most memorable part for me was the early sixties as I remember watching events unfold on television – the KKK, the lynchings, the Freedom Riders, bombing of churches, Martin Luther King and his famous “I Have a Dream Speech”.

IMG_2135I remember my grandfather writing a letter to President Kennedy as one Boston Irish Catholic to another about how he needed to bring in the military to stop all the killings.  I probably was ten at the time and it still leaves a very strong memory.  Visiting the museum was a very emotional and at times I felt like I was on information overload since there was so much reading in the exhibits as well as emotions for such a dark period in the history of our country and in some respects probably still exists.  I had wished that they had a small cafeteria where we could take a break. Do not miss this museum – one of the best that I had been to including the Apartheid Museum that I visited in Johannesburg.  On our way out, we went by the room that was occupied by MLK, Jr when he was assassinated.  We could not go in but we could view inside the plexiglass wall to see the room just the way it looked in 1968.  Afterwards we walked across the street for more of the museum staying only about 10 minutes.

IMG_2140As we crossed the street to walk to our car, we noticed a very small crowd as well as two black SUV’s with door open.  As we approached, we saw that it was Dr. Ben Carson.  I approached him and asked if I could have my  picture taken with him.  He quietly agreed and I now have a picture of he and I.  After our picture he got into the car and took off.

Dr. Ben Carson and myself
Dr. Ben Carson and myself

Reflecting on our day, we came to the conclusion that it was a wonderful day.  From seeing the ducks, barbeque, the Civil Rights Museum and someone trying to win their party’s nomination for President.  This is why I love Road Trips – you just never know what you are going to do or see and we were very open to just let things happen.

Memphis – Graceland, a Pyramid and Arkansas

We left our hotel that was just outside of Memphis to head to our number one destination – Graceland.  IMG_2059

Yes, we were going to Elvis’ home.  I loved listening to Elvis when I was younger and even more so now that I have gotten older.  I cheered his comeback in the late 60’s and early 70’s and I was sad when he died while I was on my honeymoon in Ireland in 1977.

Elvis' 1968 television special
Elvis’ 1968 television special

Many people have told us that they thought Graceland was overrated, it was small but others have told us how much they enjoyed it.  Whether we were going to like it or not didn’t matter – we needed to go.

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The night before our trip we went on the Graceland website to review the ticket choices – that’s right you have a choice of 5 different ticket options.  We chose the Platinum tour that comes with an interactive iPad with the narration of the house by John Stamos as well as entry into his automobile museum and a few other locations.  We did not have the airplanes as part of our tour.  After we received our iPads and headsets we boarded a trolley to take us across Elvis Presley Blvd to the mansion.

Waiting in line for our iPad and then to board the trolley for the ride across the street
Waiting in line for our iPad and then to board the trolley for the ride across the street

We toured the first floor and the basement – the upstairs private rooms were not part of the tour.   The decor in some rooms was very nice for the time period; other times it was a little garish.  Walking into the dining room we saw a touching photograph of Priscilla and Lisa Marie on the wall.

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Living room
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Dining room
Kitchen
Kitchen
Jungle room
Jungle room

The kitchen seemed out of a time capsule.  Then there was was the talked about “Jungle Room”    The basement looked like a bumblebee to me with the black and yellow decor.  Also in the basement was a pool room.

What I call the Bumbebee Room
What I call the Bumbebee Room but is really a lounge in the basement

In one of the hallways was a collection of his gold records.

Love Me Tender gold record
Love Me Tender gold record

We then went outside to see the back of the home, the building where his offices were, saw the pasture for his horses.P1040801

His racquet ball building which was turned into an area where some of his  stage costumes were as well as several screens that played some of his concerts and television appearances.

P1040824For some reason that I certainly didn’t expect, I found that it was very moving and there were tears in my eyes.  I loved listening to his voice singing some of the ballads that he was so good at and were so familiar to me.  Maybe it was from sadness of seeing what drugs could do to a person.  I don’t know except that it was very emotional to me.  Exiting the building we walked over to the area where he was buried next to his parents and grandmother.P1040830

After touring the house, we took the trolley back across the street and went into the automobile museum.  The number of cars that he had, how he customized many of the cars was amazing.  Also in this museum were some videos of Elvis in clips from various movies where he is in some of these cars.

P1040842We had lunch at the Chrome Restaurant and I would not recommend it. Bring a snack, eat before or after but just don’t eat there.  It wasn’t that bad but in my mind it wasn’t that good.

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After doing a little shopping at the gift shops (some CD’s to play, postcards, etc) we left to continue our first day in Memphis.  Overall, we were not surprised to find that it was not a huge mansion.  We felt that it was more of a family home where he and his wife (later his daughter) could live with additional room for his parents.  This could have been considered a “mansion” at the time it was built by Memphis standards.  We were happy with our stop at Graceland.

As we drove along the river in Memphis, it was our goal to drive across the “Dolly Parton” bridge, so nicknamed because of the shape of the bridge, into Arkansas, a state I had not been to but I missed the turn.  As I was driving up, I spied in front of us a tall pyramid.

Bass Pro Shop pyramid
Bass Pro Shop pyramid

This was the new Bass Pro Shop that I had heard about.  We quickly found parking and walked inside.  We purchased tickets ($10) to ride the 28 story freestanding elevator to the tip of the pyramid where there was a bar/restaurant and an outdoor observation deck.

view from the ascending elevator
view from the ascending elevator

This blogger is afraid of heights but I did go out,  just not on the glass part.  I did hand my camera over to a braver soul than me to take photographs of Mud Island, the bridge and Arkansas.  P1040876 (1)

After we had our snack we went back down the elevator and was able to really look around.

Restaurant at the top of the pyramid
Restaurant at the top of the pyramid

The interior reminded me of a Louisiana swamp town.  There were alligators, “Bait Shacks”, little shops filled with outdoor gear.  I would recommend to anyone in Memphis in taking a drive over to the pyramid and looking around.  It was fun.

We were going to try again to cross the Mississippi River into Arkansas and we were successful.  We went one exit, turned around and drove back into Tennessee.  Isn’t that what you do on Road Trips?

Tomorrow we are planning on going to The Peabody to see the famed ducks as well as the Civil Rights Museum and to find good barbeque!

Lexington. Kentucky

We decided to spend our first night on the “Thelma and Louise” Road Trip Revisited in Lexington, Kentucky.  After driving seven hours through Virginia, winding West Virginia and part of Kentucky we made it to Lexington.  It was a beautiful day for a drive when the leaves in our area were at peak color.

We had made reservations at the Candlewood Suites at Exit 115 off I-64 in Lexington.  I was disappointed that it was in a small industrial park but the hotel was clean, we had a great room and the ladies that worked behind the desk were great.  When we asked where we should go for dinner that would be a local favorite and not part of a chain they immediately said Packette’s.  Sounded great and soon we were headed to the drive-in diner and restaurant that had been in existence since 1951.  They have 72 bays for  cars!  We also found out that it had been featured in the Food Network’s Diners, Dives and Drive-Ins.

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The ladies working at the hotel told us to make sure we had the fried chicken.  Parking out front is for the drive-ins and since we wanted to eat inside, we had to park out back.  We walked in and immediately knew that we had traveled back in time.  Chrome was everywhere, the old leather red booths and Pepsi Cola signs hanging everywhere.  The best part was our extremely friendly waitress Carla who was so helpful to us.  Chicken – well they pride themselves on being the original Kentucky Fried Chicken until a certain colonel came along and claimed that name.  It was delicious and we thoroughly enjoyed our meal.

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Fried Chicken with Hot Brown fries. Mmm good!
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This is where we entered the restaurant but not where we ate. It sparkled and shined with all the chrome
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Red and white booths and walls with the glass Pepsi lights
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The famous Packette’s sign by the highway and a few of the 72 bays for the cars.

We woke up to a cold, windy morning with rain spitting down on us.  We drove over the the Kentucky Horse Park.

Kentucky Horse Park
Kentucky Horse Park

Not knowing much about it I was stunned to see all that was at the Park, which has been owned and operated by the Commonwealth of Kentucky since 1978.  We began outside admiring the different statues of well known horses such as Secretariat and Man o’ War.  A horses body is so interesting to me – how sleek yet how strong and muscular they are.

Secretariat
Secretariat
Man o' War
Man o’ War

We then went inside to the International Museum of the Horse and was able to only look around for about 15 minutes as it was time for the morning guided trolly tour.  We were in a horse drawn trolley and took a quick 15 minute tour around the more visited areas of the Farm.

15 minute trolley tour ride
15 minute trolley tour ride

We departed in time to catch the golf cart shuttle to go to the Hall of Champions where 4 different champions were brought out and introduced to us via television clips of their winning races.

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The horse that I was more familiar with was Go for Gin.  We also saw quarter standard horses that sulkies and another thoroughbred.

Go for Gin, the 1994 Kentucky Derby Winner
Go for Gin, the 1994 Kentucky Derby Winner

When that was over we headed over to the Breeders Barn where they have many different horses from all over the world.  We didn’t stay long as it was very cold, damp and windy and we needed to be somewhere else, but we saw Chincoteague ponies, Fells ponies from Scotland, a Chinese horse, and a Tennessee walking horse.

We wished we could have stayed longer as there is so much to see and do at the Kentucky Horse Park.  If I were to come here again, I would allow at least 5 hours, if not more.  We stayed off Exit 115 which is Newtown Pike and that was the perfect location to get to the Park very easily.

Next up on our Road Trip – Mammoth Caves and the two tours we took.

 

How to Book a United Award Ticket and Save in Two Different Ways

Blogger Hubby received an invitation that he would not refuse a few weeks ago.  Blogger Son #2 went out to Bozeman, Montana from the East Coast with his family the middle of June to begin work on his Masters in Science Education.  Spending some time in the West with his wife and two little children had been something he had wanted to do.  Combine that with his desire to begin his masters and the two ideas were able to come together this summer.  Of course, since he doesn’t live in Montana he will continue to work on his masters online and to go back out next summer for more classwork.

Blogger Son #2 recently took up fishing although he did have some lessons a few years ago from my husband in fly fishing.  Additionally when he was younger we took a family vacation in Montana at the 9 Quarter Circle Ranch and he watched his older brother take an avid interest in fly tying and flyfishing.

Knowing that my husband loves, did I say loves, flyfishing, he invited him to go to Montana and join him for some fishing in the Madison and Gallatin Rivers.  The Gallatin River was made famous in the movie “A River Runs Through It”.  Blogger Son #2’s family would be flying home while our son would be driving the family van back to the East Coast.  The plan was for my husband to overlap with our daughter-in-law and their two children then to spend some time alone with our son after his family left.

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The only airline that made sense for him to fly was on United using our Ultimate Reward points that we earned with our Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card.  Actually, United had good flights out but not any returning.  Instead, he would fly Delta home now that they had one way flights for half the points.  I quickly transferred our American Express Membership Reward points over to Delta and booked the return since we didn’t have many options.

For the flight out there United didn’t have any economy seats so I was forced to consider First Class but since he was only doing it one way, I was going to have to use 25,000 points AND have to pay $80 in fees.  Yikes, I could do the 25,000 but $80 in fees.

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Then I began thinking.  What if I transferred the points over to Singapore Airlines; would that change how many points I would need?  I called up Singapore Airlines and was told that it would be 20,000 points and 7.50 Singapore dollars which I quickly converted to be $5.49 USD.

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Instead of transferring my Ultimate Rewards points to United I would be transferring them to Singapore Airlines.  I called up Chase and it took about 5 minutes to do the transfer since I already had a Kris Flyer (Singapore’s Loyalty Program) account although the points did not show up in my Kris Flyer  till about 12 hours later.  Once in my account I called up Kris Flyer to make the reservation.  The seats were still there luckily but one thing that I didn’t know was that since the points were in my account with Singapore Airlines, I needed to “nominate” my husband to be the recipient of my points.  That was easily done online and then I quickly called up Singapore to continue booking.  I asked for the Record Locator number so that we could go on the United site and reserve his seat.

Final analysis was that I saved 5,000 Ultimate Reward points and $75 dollars.  Sounds like a successful award booking to me.  Remember, even though you might to fly on United, it might be better to book the trip through Singapore or another Star Alliance airline.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC

Living outside of the Washington DC area, we were fortunate that we were close enough to take advantage of all that Washington has to offer.  When we first moved to the DC area from Boston, I didn’t think we would be there for twenty six years so we made an effort to do it all.  We went white water rafting in the Shenandoah River in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (the town made famous by John Brown capturing the federal armory).  We took our children to roll Easter Eggs on the front lawn of the White House.  There isn’t a museum that we haven’t been too in DC and for many years we were FONZs – Friends of the National Zoo.   Being a Bostonian, to me there was nothing  as spectacular as being on the Esplanade for the 4th of July listening to Arthur Fielder or John Williams leading the Boston Pops in the 1812 Overture with the Howitzer cannons firing across the river that is until……we stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial watching the fireworks that were illuminating behind the Washington Monument.  The booms of the fireworks reverberating against the buildings, flags flying and all many of our country’s landmarks all around us.

I could go on and on about Washington but that is not the purpose of this post.  Rather, there is another event which doesn’t garner as much attention but is a favorite of our family.  It is the National Folklife Festival sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute.  This cultural and educational event  is held outdoors on the National Mall the last week of June and the first week of July.  The festival is ever-changing since they choose a country, a state or even one year The Silk Road to highlight.  The day is full of demonstrations of cooking, traditional crafts (woodcarving for example), living traditions  and usually some type of entertainment.  There will also be events and exhibitions at other Smithsonian museums and it is recommend that you will allow time to visit those.

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This year Peru will have the honor and distinction of being the main focus of this festival.  Due to some construction on the Washington Mall, the event will be held in front of the National Museum of the American Indian, one of the Smithsonian museum’s.  According to their website “visitors to the Peru Festival program will experience these unique connections through cooking and craft demonstrations, music and dance performances, moderated discussions, ritual and celebratory processions, and other participatory activities. In addition, there will be robust involvement with Peruvian American and diaspora communities.

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The public will have the opportunity to learn, to eat, to dance, to shop, to witness these vibrantly connected cultures and create their own connections with Peruvian artists and specialists on the National Mall and beyond.

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Don’t forget to stop at the Marketplace to view and possibly purchase unique gifts and at the same time support artists and artisans from around the world.  Some of the items you’ll find for sale are

  • Jewelry
  •  Music CDs
  • Textiles
  • Books
  • Baskets
  • Toys
  • Pottery
  • Sculpture
  • Clothing
  • Paper arts

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This is a great opportunity to combine two events at the same time in the Washington DC area – the 4th of July and the Folklife Festival.

It WILL be hot and humid in DC at the time so be sure to bring water with you and take it easy.  There are many things to do inside as well as outside.

IHG and Club Carlson Hotel Promotions – are you in?

As I have mentioned before, we tend to stay at more moderately priced hotels and it doesn’t bother us.  Most times we are out enjoying the area we are visiting in.  Sometimes these more moderately priced hotels have fantastic hotels in great locations.

Since this is the way that we travel (for the most part) I have enrolled in two hotel promotions for the Fall.  The first is the IHG “Into the Night” promotion.  IHG is the parent company of many well known hotels – Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Holiday Inn and Suites, Crown Plaza, Intercontinental and many more.  Like their promotion last year, the bonus will vary by individual.  You need to log into your account, register for the promotion and find out what your bonus is.  Last year I completed the entire promotion and received about 70,000 points.

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The other fall hotel promotion that I am working on for Club Carlson members.  It is the  Take Off with More Miles offer.  Once you register by October 15th  and complete two Eligible Stays at participating Radisson® hotels by December 15, 2014, will earn 7,500 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles in addition to your Club Carlson miles and the night/stay toward elite status.  If you are interested in this promotion, you can register here.  This must be competed by December 15th.

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Are you working on any promotions?

My Secret Weapon for Cheap Hotel Rooms

While Jane is away, she invited me to submit a guest post.  I blog over at Fishing4Deals, about how to travel cheap, save money, and have fun.  My focus is on budget, domestic travel, and I fancy myself as the Priceline Queen.

Priceline is my workhorse for finding cheap hotel rooms.  I usually have pretty good luck booking rooms at half the going rate.  I love the thrill of the chase, and the suspense of wondering if my low bid will be accepted.

There are some times though, when my best efforts on Priceline have failed, and I need to find a room for the night.

Last Minute Rooms with HotelCoupons.com

If you like to do road trips, you’ve probably seen those hotel coupon magazines they give away at highway rest stops, gas stations and fast food joints.  They used to be called RoomSaver, but they have rebranded as Hotel Coupons, and they are online at HotelCoupons.com.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking:  those coupons are just for one star hotels like Rodeway Inn, Days Inn, or Econolodge.   Not so.

Not Just One Star Motels

To be sure, you will find many offers for roadside motels that cluster near the exits on the Interstate, but you can also find coupons for last minute stays with solid mid-range chains like Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn, or Fairfield Inn.

You can also find coupons in some markets for upper-mid-range hotels like Crowne Plaza, Embassy Suites, or Homewood Suites.

But what may surprise you is that you can sometimes find coupons for independent hotels, at rates far below the regular walk-in rate.  When we were exploring the Oregon Coast, for example, we found lovely beachfront hotels in Seaside and Newport through the  coupon guide.  These were not cookie-cutter chain hotels, but nice places with real local flavor.

Would you believe that one of the most vaunted hotels in Washington, DC, the historic  Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, is also listed on HotelCoupons.com?  The Willard is a five star hotel!

Needless to say, you should always shop around to make sure you are getting the best possible rate.

Be aware, also, that the hotel will not always honor the coupon rate.

Earn IHG Points on the Coupon Rate

If you book rooms with most online travel agencies like Hotwire or Priceline, you will not earn loyalty points for your stay.  HotelCoupons.com has an arrangement with IHG properties:  you will receive the IHG Best Rate Guarantee and IHG Rewards Club points for rooms booked via HotelCoupons.com.  The IHG family of hotels includes Staybridge Suites, Holiday Inns, Crown Plazas, and Intercontinental Hotels, among others.

Have you scored any deals with roadside coupons?

If you enjoyed this article, you can find more stories like this on my blog, at Fishing4Deals.com.

The Result of our Home Away Weekend Rental

As you might remember from this post, Blogger Hubby and I decided to rent a seven bedroom home on Lake Anna in Virginia for a long weekend to celebrate his BIG birthdays as well as Mothers Day.

The landlord and I had several emails in the months leading up to our rental – did I need to bring linens?  what about paper goods?  did they have kayaks for our use?  what was I expected to do before we left?  and many more questions.  I felt confident leading up to our weekend.  It was in a great location for those who were flying in since they flew into Richmond and it was only 75 minutes from the airport.  We had our children take care of lunches and dinners and Blogger Hubby and I took care of breakfast.  What was also great about this rental is that there was no check-in or check-out time.  We could have 4 full days there.

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We arrived first and from the street it looks like a small two story home with a three car garage.  From the back it was an impressive three story home.  We excitedly begin exploring. The first plan had the open floor plan that encompassed a large and well stocked for crowds kitchen,  six stools around the kitchen bar, the living area had a two story stone fireplace, a large kitchen table, a screened balcony with table and six chairs and another open aired balcony.  There was also a dining room that we never used.  The master bedroom was on the first floor as well and what a bathroom it had with six shower jets.  We too had our own balcony that overlooked the Lake.  In what should have been the office, held two twin beds with a bathroom in the hallway.  Upstairs there were three huge bedrooms with one of them another master suite with en suite bathroom.  The other two bedrooms shared a large bathroom.   In the basement were two more bedrooms with one having a queen bed, a double bed and two twin beds.  The other bedroom had a queen bed. The huge game room was well equipped with a ping pong table, Wii, a poker table and chairs for 6 people and many more games and activities.  This was a very family friendly home and we appreciated the high chairs, trucks, legos, etc that was available for our use.  We also utilized the sliding door to walk to the dock.  As we walked out there was a huge gas grill (with a spare tank in the garage) for our use.

The land did slope down to toward the Lake but there was a flat enough space for a game of Spite Ball and for our Family Photo Op.

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The dock was huge – the owners told us it was the largest on the Lake.  The children were able to fish off the dock or walk down the few steps to get into the water.  There were so many fish that one of the grandkids actually caught over 100 fish – mainly sunfish and catfish though he did catch a large carp that “got away”.

Our children took turns cooking dinners.  One night it was a hamburger bar with all the fixings, another night it was barbecued pork butt that we turned into pulled pork sandwiches.  Our daughter and her husband did tacos with all the great toppings.  Lunch and breakfasts were casual with an assortment of cereals, fruits, yogurts, lunch meats and leftovers.  We didn’t want anyone stressing over meals and Blogger Hubby and I thought we would “take a break” from meal duty.  We were happy to pass the torch to our very capable children.

All and all it was a great family filled time and I would highly recommend that you stay a vacation close to home with activities and rooms for everyone.  This home and vacation fit our family like a glove.

Museum Day Live! – September 27th, 2014

Last year while Hubby Blogger and I were in Hawaii we were able to take advantage of entry to two museums thanks to the Museum Day Live! Promotion and  we didn’t pay anything.  We did need to sign up the month prior to our museum visit, and to request the tickets via the internet.  We were able to download the tickets and take them with us to the museums.  If we had not applied for these tickets  I know that we would not have visited museums while we were in Honolulu but as a frugal traveler, I couldn’t let a good deal pass us by.  Going to the museums really enhanced our trip to Hawaii and we were able to learn about the history of Hawaii and the royal family as well.

Museum Day Live! will be happening again in 2014.  This event, sponsored by The Smithsonian, is an annual event where many museums across the country will give you free admission provide you present a Museum Day Live ticket (downloaded from the internet).

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Follow this link to see what museums are participating in your area or where you might be on September 27th.  I guarantee that you’ll be happy you did.

Bonaventure Cemetery and Tybee Island, Sightseeing in Savannah, part 2

I never know when I am visiting a city if I should go to the “popular attractions and sights” or to be a little freer and see what else is out there.  I try to do both – the attractions that a city has is what draws me to it but I know there is more out there.  As we met people and traveled around, we would ask “what should we see before we leave Savannah”.  Everyone wanted to help us enjoy our time and the consensus was that we had to go to Bonaventure Cemetery.  We already knew that we were going to Tybee and this was somewhat on our way, at least according to my trusty Garmin GPS device.

After the free breakfast in the lobby, we got the car out of the garage under the hotel and we were off.  We tried to time it so we would miss rush hour and we did pretty good.  I wasn’t sure if the Garmin was correct because we were in a residential area that didn’t seem to me to have a famous cemetery but it did.

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As we pulled in we walked a little bit but unsure what we were seeing or where we should be going.  We did find the Administration Building that we went into (door on right side) where we could pick up a map of the cemetery.  We were given advice by the employee as to which section we should visit and walk around.  There is also restroom at the front of the building.  We were in awe at the beautiful sculptures of the various tombs.  I will say it was hauntingly beautiful.  This is a 100 acre cemetery that can be lush due to all the Spanish moss and its location along the Wilmington River and the marches.  I’ll let these photos speak about this cemetery:

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We weren’t the only ones here.  There was a tour taking place.  A van pulled up with a trailer carrying bicycles.  There were about 10 bicyclists who got their bikes off the trailer and biked around the cemetery.  I never thought about this being a destination for cyclists.  if you are interested, this is the van with their logo.

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The cemetery has among its section the Jewish Chapel and Circle, the Colonial Monument Garden, Order of Railroad Conductors, American Legion Field, Spanish American War veterans.  Four time Academy Award winner Johnny Mercer, born and bred in Savannah, is also buried here.  After we walked around around the cemetery, we decided to continue on with on day’s tour.  Time to head to Tybee Island.

I had been to Tybee before but never driven around much.  One of my excursions going to Tybee is to eat at the Crab Shack.  We had found it about ten years ago when when we stopped at a Visitor Center on I-95 and was told taht we HAD to go here by the woman working the counter.  How can you not do it  when it was so strongly suggested.  Well, she was right and every time we have driven by the area, we always make it a point to stop for a meal.  Now I would be introducing “Louise” to the Crab Shack.  She was somewhat concerned because it was still cold and she thought that the only seating was outside…surprise, they also have indoor seating with heaters around.

As we drove in and parked, there were lots of cages and fenced in area where there were lots of baby alligators, some larger.  It is a fun and eclectic place.

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Of course I ordered shrimp and it was delicious as was the corn, cole slaw and hush puppies.  After our meal we walked around.  It seems that most times I’ve been here has been at night so it was good to see it in the daylight.

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Wrapping up our visit to the Crab Shack, we headed toward Fort Pulaski, a National Park Service Monument.  We pulled in and saw that there weren’t many activities going on,  We got our of the car, looked around and then got back in the car.  We probably should have gone in but we were anxious to get to the Tybee Island Lighthouse as well as drive around the island.

The lighthouse has been guiding sailors to a  safe entrance into the Savannah River for over 270 years. The Tybee Island Light Station is one of America’s most intact lighthouses having all of its historic support buildings on its five-acre site.   I napped, oops meant sat, in the car while “Louise” climbed the steps into the lighthouse.  She was happy to add this to her growing list of lighthouses visited. If you look closely you can see “Louise” walking around the lighthouse walkway.

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We drove back to the hotel to get ready for our last night in Savannah before we turned our car northbound.  Once again the concierge directed us to another fantastic restaurant for us.  Since we had a big lunch at the Crab Shack, we didn’t want a huge meal for dinner.  She thought Jazz’d, a tapas restaurant with entertainment.  Once again she was right.  We had a leisurely stroll to the restaurant which is down a flight of stairs.  It somewhat reminded us of a speakeasy.  Lots of tapas for us to choose.  They even had a special where you could choose two tapas and a soup with dessert.  More than we wanted but who could resist.  While we ate there was a singer singing in the style of Sinatra with all the old classics.  A very enjoyable restaurant.

The next morning we said goodbye to our Spring Road Trip.  A trip that was fun for both of us.  I think next year we’ll do St. Augustine and Amelia Island.

Have you ever gone on a Road Trip with your best friend?  I’m so glad we did it and it has already given us such fun memories.  Hope you enjoyed traveling along with Thelma and Louise

 

 

Sightseeing in Savannah, part 1

Once again we were very close to the Visitors Center.  We walked around and acquainted ourselves with the exhibits.  In the parking lot next to the Visitors Center is where we boarded our Old Town Trolley for the tour of the city.  This one was recommend by the concierge at our hotel because there would be a surprise for us on the trolley.  It was similar to a Hop On Hop Off tour that you will find in many large cities.

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The original city of Savannah was built around 4 open squares.  As the city expanded, so did the number of squares.  There were originally 24 squares throughout the centuries though two have been lost.  As our tour guide told us, this is Savannah’s living room where everyone would come out with a drink, sit on a bench and converse with each other.  They take great pride in their squares and what it represents to their citizens and their way of life.   Savannah is such a pretty city that I would recommend getting out and just wandering around, walking the streets and visiting many of the squares.  It seems that each square has a piece of history attached to it.   I heard a story that people from Savannah instead of asking “how are you” will ask “what would you like to drink?”  After all, Savannah is known as the “Hostess City of the South”.

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All the tours guides were very informative and we enjoyed seeing the city, learning the history and folklore as well as some of the scandals (“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”).  When we stopped at the Lucas Theatre, an actress came on board our bus and acted as a southern antebellum lady.

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We elected to get off the trolley along the River for lunch and our boat tour to follow.  We had a great lunch at The Shrimp Factory.  Although I had been on a shrimp quest and eating as much as I could I couldn’t resist the fried green tomato BLT.  I like them both and together it was a great lunch.

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After lunch we had plenty of time to walk along the riverside.  This was a very, very cool day – bordering on cold.  I think the temperature was around 45 degrees and we had not dressed for weather this cold during the third week of April.  As much as we were looking forward to our river cruise, we didn’t relish the thought of sitting outside on the deck to view the sights.  We finally found a spot that allowed us to sit in the sun until, a few minutes before we left the dock when an announcement was made that the smokers could sit and smoke exactly where we were sitting.  Gesh…we had to find another seat and there were very few to choose from.  We actually went inside for a while due to the wind and cold.  There was not a lot to see and I would not recommend this cruise.

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After the cruise ended, we had an opportunity to walk around some more on River Street.  They had the most amazing candy store.  Several different sections all connected inside.  There was one “room” that was for making taffy; They were also making in other sections fudge, pralines, chocolate covered rice krispie treats on a stick…..so many treats.

We hopped back on the Old Towne Trolley and finished our tour of Savannah.  On the way back to the Visitor Center we went past the Thunderbird Motel and saw this cute hotel sign – guess it sums up the New South.

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Of course we couldn’t leave  the Visitor Center without some souvenir shopping.  Be aware, there are two shops inside the Visitors Center and only one of them supports the Museum inside the Visitors Center.

Back to the hotel where we rested a bit, actually rested our feet and legs.  For dinner that night, we walked a few blocks to Mellow Mushroom and brought a fantastic pizza back to the hotel.

The next day’s adventure – Bonaventure cemetary and Tybee Island.

 

 

 

Savannah, Georgia – Our Arrival

We left Charleston in the rain and that is how our spirits felt after such a great time in the Holy City, the nickname for Charleston, yet we were excited about what Savannah would show us. On our way out of Charleston we drove by Battery Park and Rainbow Row, the sights we didn’t see while on the carriage tour.  I’m sure it would have been great with a narrative on the carriage ride nevertheless, we were glad to see this part of the city.  We had intended to take a scenic tour to Savannah but with the rain, we decided to stick to the main routes.

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The drive didn’t take long, about an hour and we stopped at the Cider Market along the roadside for some great treats and drinks.  Once again, we decided to bite the bullet and stay in the historic district.  This time we stayed at the Country Inns and Suites, part of the Radisson chain and a hotel where I could earn Club Carlson points.  I thought I was being smart in making a separate reservation for each of the three nights we were there and doing it on the internet (2,000 points for internet booking if you are a Gold Elite; three stays since they were separate reservation numbers).  I found out later that Club Carlson revamped their elite program earlier this year and no longer gave points for booking online – oh well.  I still got credit for three stays though.  There was parking for about 15 cars under the hotel and we were lucky enough to find a space. If no spaces are available, there is a city parking lot  across the street where you will be given a pass by the hotel to park there for $10 per night payable to the hotel.

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There was nothing special about our room except for the gift basket of goodies because I am a Gold Elite courtesy of my Club Carlson VISA card.  We appreciated the snacks.   I thought we might have given a better location be cause of my status.  The room was directly across from the vending machines which were in the hallway as opposed to a room off the hallway).

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We went downstairs to speak with the concierge and she gave us maps as well as booked us on a trolley tour of the city and a boat tour on the Savannah River for the next day.  We then asked about a place to have dinner she swore by the Crystal Beer Saloon.  It didn’t sound like our type of restaurant but we decided to trust the concierge and perhaps have an adventure and what an adventure we had.  It is a bar when you walk in but the next room was the restaurant portion of the building.  It reminded me of an old Italian restaurant with black and white old time photos and red and white tablecloths.  We had an amazing meal – shrimp for me again.  The portions were quite large, so large that my friend “Louise” couldn’t finish her meal.  The manager came over thinking something was wrong with the meal.  She kept insisting that she just couldn’t finish, that the food was very good but he wasn’t buying it.  He decided to comp us their famous peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream.  This was by far the BEST peach cobbler I ever had.  The crust is what made it so delicious because it wasn’t soggy but instead crunchy, flavorful and delectable.  I asked for the recipe but it is a secret so no luck.  If I was to rate this restaurant, I would give it  5 stars.  It was just what we were looking for and it exceeded expectations.

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When we returned to the hotel it was “homemade cookies time” in the lobby which we thoroughly enjoyed as we sat by the fireplace watching television on the big screen.  Finally we went back to our room to rest up for our day of sightseeing.  I will say that I might not stay at this hotel again.  They seem to cater to tour buses – which I understand is probably their bread and butter but it is a little annoying when at 6:30 ish in the morning you hear all the luggage being rolled down the hallway to be loaded onto the waiting bus.  Additionally,  some nights the “cookies” were just for those getting off the tour bus and checking in – not for us regular guests.  Finally, since this hotel is in a city block, there is only room for two cars to fit in the area that was cut into the sidewalk for loading and unloading guests and luggage.  On our departure, a tour bus was sitting in this area and I had no place to put my car (I was in the public lot at this time).  The bus wasn’t idling;  the driver was just sitting on a step waiting for luggage.  In the half hour it took me to load my car, check out, etc not a single piece of luggage was brought down.  In my opinion, it would have been far better if he had waited somewhere else and then come to the hotel once the luggage actually made it down the stairs and the passengers were ready to move on.  It made it very difficult for those of us who were not with the tour group.  I became so frustrated with the situation that I complained at the hotel and then followed it up with a call to Club Carlson.  The end result – they gave me 5,000 points.  Still not sure if I would return to this hotel.

Next up – our tours of Savannah.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sightseeing in Charleston, South Carolina

After we woke up at the Embassy Suites in Historic Charleston, we headed downstairs for our made to order eggs and breakfast.  This is one of perks that Embassy Suites has to draw people to their hotel – and it is worth it.  Other hotels claim a hot breakfast with a make your own waffles, or a casserole dish of rubbery scrambled eggs but Embassy Suites takes your order and cooks your eggs just the way you like it with any of the veggies you want.  I am not a scrambled egg person but I do love my fried egg with some sauteed onions so after having this breakfast, I was good to go.

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The Charleston Visitor Center was the block behind our hotel, one of the reasons we chose the Embassy Suites.  We walked over and looked at the many exhibits they had including a woman making a sweetgrass basket.  Her work was beautiful and worth every dollar she was asking for it (except that I couldn’t pay that much).  I do appreciate her workmanship and the skill level it takes for those fine row of sweetgrass and pine needles.

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Next we paid our $2 for the movie at the center about Charleston, the history and the geography.  I was a little surprised that we had to pay for a movie since most of the visitor centers I have been to show a movie without a charge.  While at the visitor center we purchased tickets for a harbor cruise and a horse drawn carriage ride through Charleston.  We decided to take the 1:30 cruise.  Since we had a few hours before the cruise, we took the trolley  to the city central area.  Yes, we could have walked, and we did walk home last night, but it was rainy and at times raining pretty hard.

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We went first to the City Market  where we were protected from the rain.  This was where we could find everything we wanted and things we didn’t know that we needed.  I bought my sweetgrass basket, freshly made Pralines, a pair of earrings that is a design from one of the very many wrought iron gates around the homes in the city (intertwined hearts was my design).  Before we knew it, it was time to walk to the wharf to catch our 1:30 harbor cruise.  We were told it was only a 5 block walk but it took us 45 minutes and we were not walking slow.  While we were walking we passed a Carnival Cruise ship that was in port disembarking and embarking new passengers.  Traffic was crazy!

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The harbor cruise was great – one of my favorite things we did in Charleston.  It was a two hour tour.  We sailed up the Cooper River, around Forts Sumter , Moultrie and Johnson, the USS Yorktown, and many more places.  A relaxing time on the Cooper.  We even met a local celebrity (though we didn’t know it till he was announced).

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We decided we didn’t want to walk back downtown  and took a pedicab back downtown and had him take us to the Palmetto Carriage Tours part of our sightseeing package we purchased at the Visitors Center.  The interesting thing about this horse drawn tour is that there are about 3 different tours of the city and you have no choice in which tour you get – even your driver doesn’t know.  Once in your carriage, you stop at a city booth where through the luck of the bingo ball, you are given your route.  I was disappointed that we didn’t get Battery Park but instead got the homes and church route.  Not sure if I want to go on the carriage ride again since I could see the same sights.  Apparently the city does this to help with traffic flow but it still was a disappointment.

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With the ride over, it was time to eat again.  All through we day we asked many people where we could eat good seafood that wasn’t going to cost us an arm and a leg.  Of course some people loved Hymans, others thought it was too commercialized and really not that good.  Finally we came to a consensus with Fleet Landing – the only restaurant on the water n Charleston, or at least so we were told.  The wait was about 45 minutes, not bad.  We had a delicious meal of shrimp and hush puppies, and cole slaw.  Just what we wanted.

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To finish our evening, we took a pedicab back to the Embassy Suites and crashed in our room.  We had a wonderful time in Charleston and would visit it again, particularly north and south of the city along some of the beaches.  I’ve heard so much about Folly Beach and  Kiawah Beach that I would like to visit them on another trip to this Holy City.

 

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Plantations Along the Ashley River, Charleston, SC

 

After we had our breakfast at the Holiday Inn, we decided it was time to hit the road and visit a plantation.  We had narrowed our choices down to three – Magnolia, Middleton Place and Drayton.  It was difficult to narrow down which one we wanted to pay to visit but we finally chose Middleton Place.  Nevertheless, we wanted to stop in and see what we could of the other two plantations.  We first arrived at the closed gate of Drayton.  It was a beautiful entrance and the historical signage gave us some background:

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With the gate closed, we drove down a little further to Magnolia Plantation.  We would have paid to visit this plantation but it had no period furniture in the plantation.

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We were able to park, walk around, see the dazzling azaleas in full bloom.

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We were also able to see, from a distance, the manor home.  On the grounds is the Audubon Swamp Garden, which we didn’t visit.  If we had more time, we would have walked through the Swamp Garden.

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We continued down the road to Middleton Place:

P1000276We opted to purchase admission to the grounds ($24), a horse drawn carriage ride and commentary ($16) and admission to the home with a guided tour ($15).  As soon as our tickets were purchased, we went over to wait for our carriage ride.  You are assigned times and we had a wait of about 15 minutes.  We enjoyed getting an overview of the lands and gardens and hearing some of the history of the plantation.  When that was over, it was lunch time.  We chose to eat at their restaurant.  The choices were either their buffet ($18) or choices of salads.  We both chose the buffet and it was a very good choice, one we kept thinking about for a few days.  They served fried chicken, corn casserole, squash casserole, hopping johns, fresh salad with homemade salad dressing and a few more items that I have forgotten.  The chicken was lightly floured and not greasy and it was totally prepared on site.

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The house was furnished in period furnishings, many from the family.  This home has survived three major hurricanes in three different centuries, close to the epicenter of the famous earthquake of 1886 as well as being the staging grounds for both the northern and southern armies during the Civil War.  There are rice fields (different from rice paddies) on this property and we learned what hard work it was – much more difficult than any other work that was done on plantations.

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The tour guides were so knowledgeable that they added immensely to our time at Middleton.  All in all we had a great time there but now it was time to drive in Charleston and find our hotel, Embassy Suites.

Took us less than thirty minutes to make the drive.  The hotel is in the block next to the Visitors Center, which for us, was a great location.  It was also a pinkish-coral color hotel and the former site of the Citadel, which explains its architecture.

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The service was outstanding.  As soon as we pulled up in our car, a bellman was there to unpack our car as well as to valet park it.  We were in awe of the central atrium within the hotel.  It seems as though the rooms are in a ring around the atrium – we didn’t see any hallway although I am sure there were probably a few rooms that were in a hallway.

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Unfortunately for me, the room didn’t live up to the usual Embassy Suites that I have stayed in.  The bedroom had two queen size beds and they were basically against the wall.  Our room had two windows but with the architecture, only one window had a view and since there was only a few inches between the bed and the window, we could never enjoy the view.  The furnishings appeared to be dated though that didn’t prevent us from having a good nights sleep.  In the atrium, there were beautiful fountains, couches and chairs and had a very open feeling.  When I go again, I might look at the Hampton Inn or the Marriott and compare them to the Embassy Suites.

Next blog – carriage ride, harbor cruise, city market, dinner

 

 

 

 

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Epic Road Trip – driving to Charleston, SC, part 1

Thelma and Louise (names changed to protect the guilty) headed out recently on their Epic Road Trip from the DC area to Charleston and Savannah in a VW Jetta  Wagon.  No convertible, no souped up car, no music blaring forth but still, lots of fun.  Lots of logistics were involved…how long would we stay in each city, which city first, which hotels, whose car, etc.  With all those decided we thought we were ready to go until I noticed I had booked hotels in the same city for different nights and one of those bookings was non-refundable.  Oops.  I quickly went to the hotel booking site and cancelled and then quickly found a hotel for the correct dates in the correct city.

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Before we got on the interstate, we had to go by our local bakery for some freshly made doughnuts – every girl needs a snack for the road.  About two hours from home, we hit a traffic backup.  Seemed we went very slowly for about 6 miles and then…..nothing.  As we were passing through Fort Mill, South Carolina we saw a sign for Blue Rose Pottery.  Since we hadn’t stopped in about 30 minutes, we felt like we needed to stop and stretch our legs, or so we told ourselves that we did.  It looked like nothing on the outside but inside….it was Polish Pottery.  I felt like I hit a gold mine.  We probably spent about 45 minutes looking at the many different patterns.  I ended up purchasing two bowls and the knowledge of where to stop off I-77 when I need to “stretch my legs”.

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Our plan was to go to Charleston first for three nights.  We knew that we wanted to stay in the historic district and that it would be pricier than staying outside and then driving in.  We also thought it would give us more flexibility in case we wanted to come back to our room at the hotel.  In looking at the charges, we saw that staying Saturday night would cost us over $300 and then it would drop for Sunday and Monday nights.  We REALLY didn’t need to stay in Charleston for that price.  We knew that on Sunday we wanted to visit a plantation north of the city.  We quickly changed our reservation, again, to reflect only two nights.  In its place, we made a reservation at a Holiday Inn Express in Summerville, South Carolina, about 20 miles north of Charleston.

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I hate to be picky but there were a lot of little things wrong with our room and I did all that I could to remedy it while I was there.  We checked in around 5 PM and took the elevator to our floor.  As soon as we got out of the elevator there was constant barking and it was about 4 doors down from our room.  I personally like dogs but I do not like barking dogs in a hotel room.  We walked into our room and about 4 steps in from the door was a large RollAway bed.  We couldn’t get around it very well because of where it was and how large it was.  I put my luggage down and went to the desk to see if we could have another room.  The person working the desk tried calling the room where the barking dog was and there was no answer which is against Holiday Inn’s rules.  Apparently you cannot leave a dog unattended, which really isn’t realistic since you most times go out to eat dinner.  I was worried about the dog’s barking and how long it would bark.  I asked if we could have another room and they said that they were fully booked up.  I knew that they were full but was I REALLY the last person to check in…I don’t think so.  About half and hour later someone came to get the RollAway bed out of our room.  We went to dinner.  Came home and found our room hot and stuffy.  No matter how low I turned the thermostat or high high I turned the fan, it remained the same speed and temperature.  When we went to use the bathroom, we discovered that the wastepaper basket hadn’t been emptied from the previous guest and it was quite full…YUCK!  The next morning I again went to the desk to complain about the night (barking dog was not a problem) and they offered me $25 off my $139 room.  Hmm, that was not sufficient for a poor night’s sleep.  She asked what I wanted and I asked points.  She told me to “name my price” and I suggested 25,000 knowing that it would be too much but it would give us a place to begin talking about compensation.  This young woman wrote “Guest DEMANDS 25,000”.  I objected to that word since I had been very nice (even my friend will say I was nice and polite).  Nevertheless we left with no firm offer.  In fact, they never called until I received a survey online and I reiterated everything that I had told them at the hotel in person.  I ended up with the guarantee that next time I check in we’ll have it personally inspected by the manager and that the night will be on them.  She indicated that I “might” find some points in my account to help offset the problems that we had in our room.

Summerville has a charming historic downtown area.  Apparently it is the P1000237birthplace of Sweet Tea, the elixir of southern women.  There is a Sweet Tea Trolley Trail – and if we had more time, we would have gladly taken the tour.  I realize that I would like to stop in this city again particularly when the prices for a hotel in Charleston were so high.

 

Next up – Middleton Plantation

 

What to Do in Rincon and the Surrounding Area.

Spring Break #1 – Rincon, Puerto Rico

Our Home Away Rental in Rincon, Puerto Rico

2nd Rental Home in Rincon, Puerto Rico

What to Do in Rincon and the Surrounding Area

 

el faroEl Faro, as it is known, is the Punta Higuera Lighhouse  It has been lovingly restores and is surrounded by a park with a snack shop.  This park is one of the few passive whale watching parks in the world.  Additionally, we were able to watch surfers ride some of the waves in.  In other areas, many people were snorkeling.  On your way to the lighthouse, you’ll pass lots of snorkel and dive shops.

 

 

Arecibo Observatory – the world’s largest radio telescope which is used to

aceibo fathom the sounds of the universe.  This site is so impressive that Hollywood has used this observatory in many films including Contact (Jodie Foster) and James Bond’s Golden Eye (Pierce Brosnan).  This is about an hour away from Rincon.

Camuy Cave Park – Caverns  – Rio Camuy Cave park is the third largest cave system in the world with 16 entrances and 7 miles of passages that have beencamuy 2 mapped to date.  The park has picnic areas, walking trails food facilities an exhibition hall and souvenirs (of course).  When you arrive you see a 12 minute film then walk to the open air trolleys for a ride to the bottom of a 200 foot ravine.  You’ll have a 45 minute guided walk through the caves.  This is about 45 minutes from Rincon.  I am saving this excursion for when I return with Blogger Hubby.

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La Paguera – the phosphorescent bay makes an interesting trip after dark particularly when there is no visible moon.  Boats leave for the one hour trip to the bay beginning at 7:30 PM.  Smaller boats can be rented for a closer view.  This is about 40 minutes away.  The owners of our rental suggested using Aleli Tours at http://www.aleitours.com and to task for Ishmael.  We did not do this but when I return we will.

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Other sightseeing venues:

  • Guanica Dry Forest Reserve – designated a World Biosphere by the UN; 1600 acre forest.  Located on the southern coast off Rt. 333. dry forest
  • Gilligan’s Island – just south of the Guanica Dry Forest off Rt. 333, a 5 minute ferry ride to a coral reef cay with unique currents and vegetation.
  • Maricao – this is for coffee lovers since you’ll be in the heart of coffee country.  A great road trip through the mountains in the Cordillera central
  • Mayaguez Zoo – great for the kids when you need a day away from the beach
  • El Yunque  – the only tropical rain forest in US Territory located east of San Juan.  I’ve been here twice both times on guided tours.  The first time was riding horseback through the lower levels of the forest; the second was in an air conditioned SUV where we could get out and hike around.
  • and finally, Old San Juan.  Although I wouldn’t stay here more than one night, it does need to be visited.  Some of my favorite spots The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist where Ponce deLeon is buried.  El Morro, which is part of the San Juan National Historic Site (U.S. National Park Service) is amazing.  Park Rangers talk about the life of the Spanish conquistadors and really make history come to life.  Another favorite spot is the Bacardi Visitor Center where you can take a tour of their factory, learn the history behind how the bat became the logo of this brand.el morro

 

Our Home Away Rental in Rincon, Puerto Rico

1.  Spring Break Trip #1 – Rincon, Puerto Rico

2.  Our Home Away Rental in Rincon, Puerto Rico

3.  2nd Rental Home in Rincon

4.  What to Do in Rincon and the Surrounding Area

The Nitty Gritty of Our Rental

Our homes were located right on the beach in a neighborhood made up of rentals and residents. We were in one side of a duplex. They day after we arrived, the other tenants left so we had the entire yard to ourselves. Even if they had stayed, there was no need for worry as the yard was HUGE.   We had about 12 chaise loungers and 12 chairs in addition to the fold up beach chairs.

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We also had 2 hammocks.

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One of the great things about the yard is that there was a sunny side and a shady side. I like the sunny side and Blogger Hubby likes the shady side. We also had two enclosed outside showers to wash the sand off and a water bucket to wash our feet off before we went in the house. The yard was fenced in and we only had to walk 4 steps down to be on the beach.

casa serena deck

When we were there, the back yard was all grass except for a concrete walk way.  The beach itself was about 15 feet of sand before we actually went into the Caribbean. Little bit of trivia here – Puerto Rico sits by a trench where there are two moving tectonic plates. The eastern side of the island is in the Atlantic while the western side is in the Caribbean.

casa serena beach

We entered into the water and as you walk out you’ll notice that there is a rock shelf with some small growth on it. It was not slippery to us though the rock does have deep cracks in it. Do not step into the crack. The water is clear enough that you can see these cracks. After you pass the rock shelf, you have sandy beach again until you get to the drop off. Our family liked to snorkel here at the drop off where they saw all different types of fish. Our guest home provided boogie boards, noodles, sand toys, inflatables, a high chair, a booster seat and a pack and play. That made it so much easier for Blogger Daughter.

The home had 2 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms, a combination kitchen, dining room and family room. It wasn’t a large space but then we weren’t there often. It was large enough for what we needed. No central air but there were fans and window a/c units in each room.

We were within walking distance of a grocery store though we did use our car to go to that one as well as another grocery store.  Great bakeries and pastry shops were nearby as well.  We found a fruit/vegetable vendor by the side of the road and every day we would get ripe, delicious pineapple, large avocados, fresh mini bananas still on the stalk (or is it called hand), freshly picked cilantro and so much more.  Our owner even gave us the name of a local fisherman would bring us fresh fish if we wanted it.

Next – Blogger Son #2 rental

 

 

 

Spring Break Planning 2014

You might think that I am a little too old for spring break but truthfully, I’ve grown very accustomed to it after working for the school system for over two decades.  A good friend of mine is still working for the school system and has asked me to go on a spring break trip with her.

We looked at several possibilities.  We both like cruising though we didn’t have too many choices that fit entirely within her time off. Additionally, the air fare would be more expensive because this was prime time.  We quickly scratched the idea off our list.

cruise in caribbean

We then looked at taking a road trip.

road trip 1

We thought of Branson, MO only because neither of us had been there before.  After looking at the drive, we decided we didn’t want to drive 1,000 miles spending two full days on the road.

branson

Now we are thinking about staying on the East Coast but heading south for  warmth.  We are thinking about driving to Charleston, South Carolina for a night or two.  We’ll have low country boils, southern charm and hospitality, visit Ft. Sumter, take a carriage ride and enjoy what the city offers.  I’d love to pick up another sea grass basket at the famed City Market.

charleston sc

From there we will drive to St. Augustine, Florida which is the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement and port in the continental United States.  We’ll be following in the footsteps of Ponce de Leon looking for the Fountain of Youth!  We’ll visit the fort and walk around the historic area.  This will be the furthest that we’ll go.

st. augustine

We’ll turn around and begin our trek north stopping off at Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island, take a boat ride on the river as we sail past some of the barrier islands.

amelia island

Continuing north we’ll spend the night in Savannah where we hope to get a bite to eat at The Lady and Sons Restaurant.  Regardless of what your feelings are about Paula Dean – she is a good cook!We’ll explore the river area and hopefully get to drive out to Tybee Island stopping at the Crab Shack on our way out there.

crab shack

Eventually we’ll have to come home.  If you have any suggestions for our Road Trip, please send them my way.

 

Passport DC – Visiting Embassy Row, May 2014

If you visit Washington DC in the spring time then you might want to take part in Passport DC 2014.  According to About DC this is an annual celebration of international culture that showcases embassies and other cultural organizations with a wide range of performances, talks, and exhibits. In addition to embassy open houses and events, several Washington, DC museums participate in Passport DC with special programming.”

photo credit: washington.org
photo credit: washington.org
  •  May 3 from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm is an Around The World Embassy Tour that highlights embassies in Africa. Asia, the Middle East, Oceania and the Americas
  • May 10, 2014, 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. will be the Shortcut to Europe: European Union Embassies’ Open House. The Embassies of the European Union and the Delegation of the European Commission to the United States will open their doors to the public
  • May 17, 2014, 10 a.m.-7 p.m  Asian Heritage FestivalThe festival offers a variety of activities including musical performances, a multicultural marketplace and art exhibits.

Participating embassies are:

Embassy of Afghanistan
Embassy of the Argentine Republic
Embassy of Australia
Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan
Embassy of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh
Embassy of Barbados
Embassy of Belize
Embassy of the Plurinational State of Bolivia
Embassy of the Republic of Botswana
Embassy of Brazil
Embassy of Chile
Embassy of the Republic of Cote d’Ivoire
Embassy of the Commonwealth of Dominica
Embassy of Ecuador
Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt
Embassy of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
Embassy of Ghana
Embassy of Guatemala
Embassy of the Republic of Haiti
Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia
Embassy of the Republic of Iraq
Embassy of Japan, Japan Information and Culture Center
Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan
Embassy of the Republic of Korea: KORUS House
Embassy of the Kyrgyz Republic
Embassy of Malaysia
Embassy of Mexico: Mexican Cultural Institute
Embassy of the Republic of Mozambique
Embassy of Nepal
Embassy of the Republic of Nicaragua
Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan
Embassy of Peru
Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia
Embassy of the Republic of South Africa
Embassy of Serbia
Embassy of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
Embassy of St. Kitts and Nevis
Royal Thai Embassy
Embassy of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago
Embassy of the Republic of Turkey
Embassy of Ukraine
Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
Embassy of the Republic of Zambia

For a complete schedule of events please click here.

Renting a Vacation Home for a Weekend

Blogger Hubby has a BIG birthday coming up in May.  What we enjoy most is spending time with our children and our grandchildren.  My father-in-law will also be joining us.  We thought we would try do a family reunion/birthday celebration all in the same weekend.  We had several constraints that we needed to work with.  Since it would be a weekend, we wanted it to be in a location that most could drive to and for those that were flying in it would be within two hours of an airport.

We looked at Smith Mountain Lake but for Blogger Son #1, who would be driving from Washington DC, we felt that a 4 1/2 hour drive would be too far.  For those flying in, they could have flown into Roanoke, VA but the cost would be more than flying into a larger airport.  We looked into Williamsburg, VA but couldn’t find a place for all of us.  Finally, we looked at Lake Anna and that location seemed perfect for us.  At the most, it was only about one hour and forty minutes from the furthest airport and an hour from the closet airport with two other airports in between – lots of options for those flying in.

With three children ages one and under who take morning and afternoon naps and a 2 year old who takes an afternoon nap, we decided that we wanted to rent a house.  That way all the parents who have napping children can be together and find things to do.  We had looked at cabins and lodges at another location (Cacapon State Park in West Virginia) but then the mons or dads would be in a room with their sleeping babes without much to do.

Now, to find a house that had 7 bedrooms.  Yes – that was how many we needed.  We looked at airbnb, vrbo, vacation rentals and home away.  We found several that sounded great through vrbo, homeaway and vacation rentals.  We struck out with airbnb.  We reviewed what their minimum nights would be; how many could sit at the dining table; what amenities they had like kayaks, foosball, png pong table, pool table, etc.  We also read the reviews and if it was a negative review, what the response was and if it was only one bad review.  Finally we reviewed the costs.  Some charged tax, some charged a booking fee, most charged for a cleaning fee though some were more than others and the security deposit.

The home we chose seems perfect for us – always something to do no matter what the weather is.  We have room to be together, as well as our private rooms.  There are two grilling areas and I can smell the steaks and ribs cooking.  You can fish from the dock which we know that the grandchildren love to do.  The home is only about 45 minutes from Kings Dominion Amusement Park.  Additionally there is a state park on Lake Anna and they might have weekend activities.  Finally, the closest airport is an hour away and the most anyone has to drive is 90 minutes.

Want to see what we are renting.  Here it is:

Screen shot 2014-02-16 at 7.52.29 PM

 Screen shot 2014-02-16 at 7.59.21 PM

IHG Rewards: POINTBREAKS for Jan. 27 – Mar. 31, 2014

As you might have gathered from previous posts, I am a big fan of IHG – the loyalty reward program for Holiday Inn, Candlewood, Staybridge, Crowne Plaza, etc.  During their promotion of last quarter I earned over 150,000 points by meeting their promotion requirements – I could earn as little or as much as I wanted  within their parameters of their promotion.  Currently another “The Big Win” promotion is happening now and you too could earn many points.

ihg

Getting back to why I love IHG is simply because they run these Pointbreak specials throughout the year where you can stay at some of their hotels for just 5,000 points per night.  What a savings that is.  They have hotels that are participating throughout the world.

Here is the list of participating hotels for this quarter:

ALABAMA

CANDLEWOOD SUITES BIRMINGHAM/HOMEWOOD

ARKANSAS

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES EL DORADO


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS HOPE


CANDLEWOOD SUITES WEST LITTLE ROCK


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES PINE BLUFF

ARIZONA

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES FLORENCE


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS GREEN VALLEY

CALIFORNIA

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS SANTA NELLA


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS WEST SACRAMENTO – CAPITOL AREA

COLORADO

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES LAMAR

CONNECTICUT

CROWNE PLAZA SOUTHBURY

GEORGIA

HOTEL INDIGO ATHENS DOWNTOWN – UNIV AREA

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES DOUGLAS

IOWA

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES LE MARS


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES SHELDON

IDAHO

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES BOISE WEST – MERIDIAN

ILLINOIS

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS CRESTWOOD


HOLIDAY INN EFFINGHAM


CANDLEWOOD SUITES PEORIA AT GRAND PRAIRIE

INDIANA

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AUBURN-TOURING DR


CANDLEWOOD SUITES LOUISVILLE NORTH


CANDLEWOOD SUITES INDIANAPOLIS


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES LOGANSPORT

KANSAS

CANDLEWOOD SUITES EMPORIA


CANDLEWOOD SUITES KANSAS CITY-OVERLAND PARK

KENTUCKY

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS CAMPBELLSVILLE

LOUISIANA

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES AMITE


CANDLEWOOD SUITES LAKE CHARLES-SULPHUR

MARYLAND

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS ABERDEEN-CHESAPEAKE HOUSE

MICHIGAN

CANDLEWOOD SUITES KALAMAZOO


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS LAPEER


STAYBRIDGE SUITES DETROIT-UTICA

MISSISSIPPI

STAYBRIDGE SUITES JACKSON

MONTANA

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES BELGRADE


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES BROWNING

NORTH CAROLINA

HOLIDAY INN GREENSBORO AIRPORT


CROWNE PLAZA HICKORY


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS HILLSBOROUGH (DURHAM AREA)


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS PLYMOUTH

NEBRASKA

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES LINCOLN SOUTH

NEW JERSEY

HOLIDAY INN BUDD LAKE – ROCKAWAY AREA


CROWNE PLAZA MONROE SOUTH BRUNSWICK

NEW MEXICO

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS ALBURQUERQUE SOUTH – BELEN

NEW YORK

HOLIDAY INN MIDDLETOWN-GOSHEN

OHIO

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES DAYTON
-HUBER HEIGHTS


HOLIDAY INN HOTEL AND SUITES MANSFIELD
-CONFERENCE CTR


CROWNE PLAZA CLEVELAND AIRPORT

OKLAHOMA

CANDLEWOOD SUITES BARTLESVILLE EAST


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES EL RENO


CANDLEWOOD SUITES TULSA


CROWNE PLAZA TULSA – SOUTHERN HILLS

PENNSYLVANIA

CROWNE PLAZA PHILADELPHIA-BUCKS COUNTY


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES SELINSGROVE


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES WEST CHESTER

SOUTH CAROLINA

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES SPARTANBURG-NORTH

TENNESSEE

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES ALCOA
(KNOXVILLE AIRPORT)


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES MILLINGTON
-MEMPHIS AREA

TEXAS

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES ALVARADO


CANDLEWOOD SUITES AMARILLO-WESTERN CROSSING

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES CENTER


CANDLEWOOD SUITES CORPUS CHRISTI-SPID


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES ELGIN


HOLIDAY INN HOU ENERGY CORRIDOR ELDRIDGE


CANDLEWOOD SUITES LA PORTE


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES AUSTIN NW – LAKEWAY


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES RIO GRANDE CITY

VIRGINIA

HOLIDAY INN PETERSBURG NORTH- FORT LEE


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS WILLIAMSBURG NORTH

WISCONSIN

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS BELOIT


CANDLEWOOD SUITES MILWAUKEE BROWN DEE

R
CROWNE PLAZA MADISON


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS ST. CROIX VALLEY

WEST VIRGINIA

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES LOGAN

EUROPE

CZECH REPUBLIC

HOLIDAY INN PRAGUE AIRPORT

FRANCE

HOLIDAY INN MULHOUSE


HOLIDAY INN TOULOUSE AIRPORT

SLOVAKIA

HOLIDAY INN TRNAVA

SPAIN

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS CAMPO DE GIBRALTAR – BARRIOS

TURKEY

CROWNE PLAZA ANKARA

UNITED KINGDOM

HOLIDAY INN BARNSLEY M1, JCT.37


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS BRAINTREE
HOLIDAY INN COVENTRY – SOUTH


HOLIDAY INN NORTHAMPTON WEST M1, JCT 16


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS SHREWSBURY


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS SWINDON CITY CENTRE


HOLIDAY INN WALSALL M6, JCT.10


HOLIDAY INN DARLINGTON – A1 SCOTCH CORNER


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS LEICESTER – WALKERS STADIUM

ASIA

INDIA

HOLIDAY INN JAIPUR


CROWNE PLAZA NEW DELHI ROHINI

INDONESIA

CROWNE PLAZA SEMARANG

JAPAN

ANA HOTEL WAKKANAI


HOLIDAY INN ANA SENDAI

CHINA (People’s Republic)

HOLIDAY INN NANTONG OASIS INTERNATIONAL


HOLIDAY INN TAICANG CITY CENTRE


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS SHANGHAI JINSHA


HOLIDAY INN DATONG CITY CENTRE


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS TIANJIN CITY CENTRE

MIDDLE EAST AND AFRICA

EGYPT


CROWNE PLAZA RESORT SAHARA OASIS PORT GHALIB RESOR

SOUTH AFRICA

HOLIDAY INN SANDTON – RIVONIA ROAD


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS PRETORIA – SUNNYPARK

ZIMBABWE

HOLIDAY INN BULAWAYO

CROWNE PLAZA HARARE-MONOMOTAPA

CENTRAL AND SOUTH AMERICA

ARGENTINA

INTERCONTINENTAL MENDOZA

BRAZIL

HOLIDAY INN SAO LUIS

CHILE

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS PUERTO MONTT

COLOMBIA

CROWNE PLAZA SUITES TEQUENDAMA BOGOTA

GUATEMALA

CROWNE PLAZA GUATEMALA

HONDURAS

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS SAN PEDRO SULA

PARAGUAY

CROWNE PLAZA ASUNCION

MEXICO

HOLIDAY INN MEXICO BUENAVISTA


CROWNE PLAZA VILLAHERMOSA, TAB.


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS NUEVO LAREDO


HOLIDAY INN ORIZABA


HOLIDAY INN TUXTLA GUTIERREZ

CANADA

ALBERTA

HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES FORT SASKATCHEWAN


HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS AND SUITES SLAVE LAKE

BRITISH COLUMBIA

HOLIDAY INN HOTEL AND SUITES OSOYOOS

ONTARIO

STAYBRIDGE SUITES GUELP

An AirBnB Success

If you remember from this post, I did not have the best experience with my first time trying AirBnB.  I knew that I wanted to try it again and I had the opportunity to do so last week.

airbnb

I headed back up to Washington DC to visit my son and his wife who had a baby a few weeks ago.  This nana needed some snuggling time with our newest family member as well as helping out the tired parents.

For me, I wanted to stay not too far from them so this limited the number of places that I would be interested in.  I didn’t need to rent an entire apartment for myself and I actually found that I preferred renting a room so that I would have the possibility of meetings others and perhaps having an engaging conversation at night when I would return.

I found one that I liked based on their profile, location and the many outstanding reviews that they got in addition to having a private enclosed parking space.  Unfortunately by the time that I made up my mind when I would be heading up to DC, they had already rented their room.  Back to ground zero.

I began looking at other locations that were on my short list.  Two were in the neighborhood that I was interested in.  I looked at the street view of the neighbor and the map where they were located.

I wrote to both of the owners with a few questions I had.  For one of the homes, I wanted to know if it was a residential neighborhood or where it was partially commercial.  For the other, I had read that it was a one hundred year old home. I wanted to know if it was warm or drafty and cool since I would be going up to DC during one of the polar vortexes that we were experiencing.  Both wrote back promptly.

I chose the one hundred year old home that was being rented by Jacob and Zach, a twenty something professional gay couple with an adorable dog.  They assured me that there wouldn’t be a problem with street parking and if I did have a problem, they had a space in the back of their home.  What sealed the deal for me was they were between the two main streets that my son was and only 4 blocks away.

I made arrangements to go over to pick up the key and drop off my suitcase.  I wanted to go in the daylight so I would know where I was heading when it would be dark.  Lucky for me they had an American flag out front which became my landmark.

Both bedrooms were on the second floor and I had a private well appointed bathroom a few steps down the hallway.  My room had a queen bed, two windows, a flat screen television, towels on the desk for me, three bottles of water, granola bars and the wifi network and password.  What more could I ask for?  Downstairs was the dining room, living room , laundry area and kitchen.  This was a very clean and neat home.  I had two evenings of getting to know Jacob and Zach and we had some great conversations.

Clearly they take their hosting seriously and we are the beneficiaries of this dedication to providing a great experience for those visitors to Washington DC.  For those who do not have a car, you are about 3 blocks from the metro.

If you are looking for a room to rent in Washington DC, I would highly recommend this location.

Winter Getaway – The Mountain View Grand Hotel in Whitefield, New Hampshire

Sorry for not having a post yesterday but I have a great excuse.  Our family increased by one yesterday with the birth of our grandson.  My stepson Mark agreed to fill in with a guest post from his recent family trip to New Hampshire over the holiday break.

Oh so close.  The Mountain View Grand Hotel in New Hampshire’s White Mountains is oh so close to marrying family amenities with a luxury turn-of-the-century grand hotel experience that my family and I can’t help but root for them.   Just a few issues to fix (more on those below) and the hotel would be fully there…except maybe then it would book solid and stop offering the frequent deals that make this extravagant experience financially within reach.  So maybe we won’t root too hard.  If you’re the type who is accustomed to luxury and scoffs at every imperfection, then this is oh so close, but not quite your hotel.  But if you can brush off a few minor issues, you’ll love the MVG, and your kids will too.

mgh3

The White Mountains are a four season draw, and there are plenty of flavorless motels and quaint B&Bs to choose from (if you don’t mind invading the intimacy and calm of a B&B with children).  But if you want to experience the charm and history of the mountains, dine where presidents once dined, and enjoy fireside extravagance, then the grand hotels—leftovers from a bygone era of horse drawn carriages and wealthy families escaping (with staff) for the full summer—stand out.  There are several nestled right in the heart of the mountains: Eagle Mountain House, the Balsams, the famous Mount Washington Hotel in the shadows of its namesake mountain all come to mind.  And then there is the Mountain View Grand, which is not quite in the mountains, but oh so close.  It’s just north of the main mountains and the main towns, perched on a hill with a glorious view spanning the slopes of Cannon Mountain ski resort, Franconia Ridge, and all the peaks of the Northern Presidential Range.  But unlike the other grand hotels, you’re not quite in those mountains; you’re admiring them from a 25 minute drive away.  And you’re not quite near any towns of appreciable size either.  So if you want to get away and stay away, which is what we did, then you’ll be happy.  But if you want the slopes or the trails or the shops and restaurants at your doorstep, keep looking.

mgv1

We spent four days with our two kids, and the kids didn’t want to leave.  The list of what we parents and the kids loved is long:  live piano music in the lobby in the evening; a mini movie theatre with reclining leather seats where you can pick the movie you want and request the staff bring down free popcorn; a good sized indoor pool, hot tub, exercise room, exercise classroom, and sauna.  Wide hallways adorned with oil paintings and stocked bookshelves; a game room with pool, ping pong, air hockey, and foosball; a parlor rooms with checkers and chess.  The food in the restaurant is excellent again this year—two years in a row now, and a marked improvement over earlier years.  There is a barn stuffed with alpacas, lamas, sheep, ducks, and donkeys, with an engaging farmer who provides excellent and educational tours for the kids.  The golf course offers a good hill for sledding.  There are daily activities (ax throwing anyone?) and a fully staffed “Explorer’s Club” activity room if you want to deposit the kids for a few hours of supervised fun.   There are other things too that we haven’t sampled, either due to price or season, among them the spa, golf course, outdoor pool, tennis, mountain bike rentals, and snowmobile rentals.

diningroom mvg

There are also more basic conveniences.  After its heyday in the pre-WWII era, this style of hotel in general, and this one in particular, fell out of favor and repair; the MVG eventually closed in the mid-80s.  But it was purchased, gutted, and redone via a major renovation inside and out before re-opening in 2002, and the results are the little things that make a grand old hotel feel modern where you want it to:  modern windows that seal, modern heating, outlets where you need them, modern bathrooms…in short, it’s still has the grandeur of the old hotel, ornate and with crown molding on the crown molding, but is quite new in all the right ways.

So then what about those imperfections?  Why oh so close?  I mentioned the location—not quite in the mountains, a bit more than a hop skip and jump from the slopes, and at least 20 minutes from any sizeable town.  Good luck trying to run out for a meal.  But there are other little things as well.  Our first year we fell in love with the outdoor skating area, surrounded by a snow covered string of lights for a quintessential New England experience.  But for three straight years now, they can’t quite bring themselves to get the skating ice up and running.  Either they try but forget how to make an outdoor skating area, or claim the weather is not quite right (even though every fourth house in our neighborhood has their backyard rink running smoothly), or they can’t be bothered to set it up in time, or they forget to shovel.  We bring skates each year, and leave disappointed.   Oh so close.  And I mentioned the movie theater…except many of the reclining leather seats are broken and slumped—not a surprise with kids climbing all over them on a daily basis—except the slumping chairs remain year after year.  Oh so close.  Service in the restaurant is prompt and attentive and our breakfast arrives quickly.  And yet there is no syrup with our pancakes and waffles, and it takes repeated requests and ten whole minutes to get some.  Oh so close.  The sledding hill is great but used to send us straight into bushes and a stone wall behind.  Last year they field-mowed the bushes but left the eight inch stalks in the ground like awaiting daggers that made short work of our inflatable sleds.  (Whoops—stupid us.)  Finally this year they’ve taken a bulldozer to the area and cleared out the bush trunks and wall altogether.

The hotel is not inexpensive, and if you go at peak time and pay full price, you’ll be paying full luxury fare commensurate with the ice sculptures and doormen that will great you.  But if you can pick an off season or keep your eyes open for a deal (we found ours through Groupon), and you’re willing to overlook a few rough spots, then you’ll love relaxing and exploring this historical grand hotel.  And your kids will not want to leave.

Thanks Mark for your review.  For those unfamiliar to this area, you are close to the Presidential Range and Mt. Washington.  For the skiers, downhill skiing is available at Bretton Woods, Canon Mountain, Wildcat, Attitash.  If you visit in the spring, summer or fall, make sure you go over to Mt. Washington and take the cog railroad to the top of the mountain or hike up but remember, it is much colder at the peak so be prepared with clothes for a much colder climate.

United Airlines Changes its Unaccompanied Minor Rules

United has revised its rules on unaccompanied minors and now it says it’s no longer allowing children ages 5 to 11 to fly without an adult on flights that include connections. It also says its optional service for unaccompanied minors ages 12-17 will only be offered.

united

United made the changes about  two weeks ago and many parents are not aware of the change of rules.   United charges $150 extra, each way, for children flying alone.

kids flying alone

This new policy for young children on United  is similar to what  US Airways and Southwest have . Delta Air Lines and American will still help young children who are flying alone get to connecting flights.

My First Airline Trip and Student Standby

Back in the 1970’s I was a college student majoring in government in Boston.  I was a member of our college’s Mock UN Team representing Zambia.  We studied the county for months and the issues that the country faced.  To get to the New York, where it was being held, we took AMRAK – an easy trip from Boston.  It was exciting to be in New York sans parents and to participate in this great event.

amtrak

The mock UN was over several days with it concluding on Sunday.  Unfortunately I was going to a big end of the year frat dance on Saturday as was another member of our team.  We decided to leave a day early and to take the shuttle from New York to Boston.  I was truly a flying novice in those days.

For the shuttle no reservations were made, no prepaid tickets – you just got on the plane and the flight attendants (called stewardess in those days) went down the aisle collecting money for the flight.  I’ll never forget the cost – $25.   Times have certainly changed.

eastern

Another thing that I remember from this era was student standby.  We’d go to the gate, register our name and just wait for them to call our name and let us know that there was room for us on the plane  For students, the fare for flying student standby was about half of what everyone else paid.  It was a way for the airlines to fill up their empty seats, a way for us poor students to travel and it introduced many of us to flying.

What memories do you have of your early flying experiences?

Where to Stay during Road Trips

When Blogger Hubby and I are on a road trip, we never know when we are going to feel like not driving anymore and calling it quits.  That reason makes it difficult to pre-book a hotel for us.  Many times, we just want something clean, convenient and close to the interstate that we are driving on.

Years ago Blogger Son #2 alerted us to the hotel coupon books at the rest areas found on the Interstates.  We had seen them but never picked one up.  That piece of advice from him in many ways changed the way that we traveled.

hotel coupon book

Generally there are three things that you can count on with these hotels in the coupon books – 1) you can’t make reservations 2) you will not get any loyalty points for staying at these hotels because the prices are as low as you can go and 3)you will never get a ground floor room.

Along with local hotels, you will find Days Inn, Hampton Inns, La Quinta, EconoLodge, Microtel – all the usual hotels that you’ll find in your travels.  We always look for ones that provide a breakfast in the mornings as well as free wi-fi.

Have you ever picked up these coupon books?

Wrap Up of the Hawaiian Series – My Tips and Suggestions for a Great Trip

Hotels and Points for Hawaii

Update on Flight to Hawaii and Keeping Track of Our Luggage

Planning the Trip with Points and Miles

Timeshare At The Hawaiian Princess

Polynesian Cultural Center

Aloha Stadium Swap, Museum Live, Punch Bowl and Hanauma Bay

Grand Hyatt Kauai

Hilton Waikoloa Beach Resort, North of Kona

Travel Tips and Aids for Hawaii

We found that the book series called “Hawaii Revealed” helped us enormously in getting around the islands, finding shortcuts, knowing where to stop for beaches that have no signs.  We bought ours on Amazon (5 x points with your Chase Freedom card).  We actually bought three of them, one for each island that we visited.  As we were driving up Rt. 19 on the Big Island, we read the narrative and saw sights that we would have missed without these books.

While on the Big Island at the Hilton Waikoloa Resort, we found that we did not eat any meals there with the exception of the Luau (which was really good).  Just before  the Hilton is a group of stores on both sides of the road called the Kings Marketplace and the Queens Marketplace.  In the Queens Marketplace, we ate at a Macaroni Grill.  We also picked up snacks, soft drinks, muffins and breakfast goodies at the Island Gourmet.  Yes, it was expensive but much less expensive than purchasing snacks from the hotel snack shop.
In Kauai, we were on the Poipu Coast.  We found a Gourmet Farmers Market in the Shops at Kukui’ula that was held on Wednesday afternoons.  If you have a chance, stop here.  There are also a number of great little shops and restaurants as well.  We came back here on Thursday night for dinner.  From the Grand Hyatt, it is less than 10 minutes away on a straight road which is Poipu Road.
As you are on this road going back to the resort area, you’ll pass another shopping area – Poipu Shopping Village.  Stop here for lunch.  You want to find the Puka Dog take out restaurant.  A Puka Dog  is an island specialty.  They bake sweet Hawaiian bread and impale it on a rod.  Once the hole is made they insert either a sausage or a hot dog and then it is topped off with your choice of fruit relishes and/or Hawaiian mustard.
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At this same shopping center, they have Tahitian Dancing twice a week.
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If you are headed to the Waimea Canyon, stop in Waimea and go into Ishihara’s market and head to the deli.  They have wonderful to go lunches there.  We had Korean chicken wings, a noodle salad and rice.  I believe the lunch was under $10 and there was more than enough for both of us to eat and to have leftovers as well.  Just past the market you take a right to go to the Canyon.
Two tips about the canyon – you will find a couple of vendors selling palm woven baskets for about $20 each.  If you get them when they only have two left, you can bargain because they want to go home.  I suggested $15 for one and instead, since he wanted to go home, he gave me 2 for $20.  In my mind, I’m keeping an island tradition alive and have a nice momento.  The other tip, when you get to the restaurant and museum with cabins keep going because it is not the end of the road.  Go all the way to the end which isn’t that much further.  You might find some fruit vendors at the lookouts – enjoy the fresh pineapple, dragonfruit, papaya, etc.
Finding a great beach on The Big Island – as you go out onto 19 North from the Waikoloa Beach area turn left at the next paved road on the right.  Go down the road till you see the Recycling Center and turn an immediate right.  Continue down for about 3 miles and you will come to a small parking lot on your right.  Pull in.  As you leave the parking lot to go to the beach, you will see a little meter for non-Hawaiian residents to pay.  From our understanding, the machine is broken and no one came by to check on us or it.  This is a nice little beach, large lava rocks in the water, calm water for swimming and snorkeling.
beach 2
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The second public beach that I want to mention is at the Mauna Kea Resort.  Again, continue up Rt 19 North and you will see the sign for the Mauna Kea resort.  Turn in and stop at the gate house and ask for a parking pass for the public beach.  They only have 40 spaces so get there before 10:00 on weekends.  The public beach was there first and the resort was built up around it.  The deal that they made was to keep 40 parking spaces available for the public.  It is a very nice beach and I would recommend it.
looking at the Mauna Kea resort from the public beach
looking at the Mauna Kea resort from the public beach
Those are some of my Hawaiian tips – let me know if you use any of them or have been to some of the places I have recommended.
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Hilton Waikoloa Resort north of Kona, Hawaii

After our trip to Kauai, we flew into Kona for our final three nights of our Hawaiian vacation.  Kona is a very small airport with limited roofing and sides to the building.  We know this because when we landed, it was a torrential wind driven rain storm.  The pilot had us wait inside the plane for a bit since there are no jetways.  After wading through 3 inches of water and getting our rain drenched luggage, we went to Alamo to pick up our rental car.

We were shortly we were on our way up Rt. 19 to the Hilton.  As we pulled into the Hilton property all we could see were lots of cars.  In fact, they were hosting an event.  We pulled up and we unloaded our luggage while my husband found out that we had to pay $17 per day for self parking or $22 for valet service.  We chose the valet service since the property was so large.

The lobby was extremely busy for after 9 PM.  We checked in, given a room in the Ocean Terrace and told we needed to take the monorail to our complex which would be the end of the line (3rd stop).  There was a boat we could take but they don’t allow luggage.  Since there is one track, we needed to wait about 30 minutes for the train.  Blogger Hubby wasn’t pleased about that!  Looking at the photo below, he Ocean Terraces are the three circles that are interlocking.  There is only one stop at this location and it is at the far right.  We felt like we ended up walking quite a bit to get to our room.

KPC Hilton Waikoloa

This hotel looked dated, no microwave, single sink and for me a big disappointment was no lei greeting like we had at the Hyatt. The balcony was very small with two chairs and a small, short round end table.  There was a coffee machine like the Hyatt had but unlike the Hyatt, they did not offer tea and I am a tea drinker.

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We were woken up very early in the morning and multiple times due to about a million birds screeching.  They did it many times and it lasted a long time.  We met several people who changed their rooms/complexes because of the loudness of these birds.  If I was staying longer or had children with me, we would have changed as well.  The other side of the complex had the dolphins which I’m sure a lot of children would like to be near to see the interaction or to swim with them.

Rather than waiting for the monorail, we walked to the lobby, about a 10 minute museum.  The boat only ran from 2 PM till 10 PM.  It was, in our opinion, very inconvenient to have to wait a long time to go to your room.

The pools here didn’t seem as inviting as the one at the Grand Hyatt Kauai – there was no lazy river and a small water slide.  The “lagoon” where you could rent kayaks, paddleboards did have a natural environment where we saw green turtles swimming with paddleboarders a few inches, or so it seemed, right above them.  There was water around the complex that you could not go into – such as the waterway for the boat.

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We did attend the Luau that they had and it was quite good.  There really is no need to pay for the higher end seats as there is no bad seat at this luau. When you enter you get your choice of two drinks and are escorted to your seat.  The higher end seats did receive appetizers (nachos and chips among them).  The food was very good for being mass produced: short ribs, pulled pork, salads, fruit and desserts.  The show began a little hokey but that was okay.  The entire affair probably took about 2 hours.

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Hilton5We enjoyed our time but would not consider returning to this location.  It really was just too large for us and we felt like we spent quite a bit of our time waiting for the monorail, waiting for our car from valet (everyone on the monorails went to the car valet for their cars).  The hotel, just to give you an idea of how large it is, covered 63 acres!  Too big for us.

We were able to do this because we have the Hilton Honors American Express card where you get 5 times points at grocery stores (buy VISA gift cards there and use for other spending) as well as opening a Bank of Hawaii and Hawaiian Air credit cards.  With a minimum spend of $1000 we earned 35,000 and they each transferred over to Hilton at a 1:2 ration – those two cards gave us 140,000. Rooms went for 50,000 points per night so the points from the Hilton AmEx topped off what we had already earned.

Grand Hyatt Kauai

grand hyatt

I had read about this hotel and was very anxious to see what everyone was talking about.  We were able to stay here since we had opened our Chase Hyatt credit card that came with two free nights at any Hyatt anywhere around the world.  The Hyatt that everyone talk about are the Grand Hyatts in Sydney, Tokyo, Paris and Kauai.  Using it in Kauai was the natural choice for us.  With the free nights and since we have the Hyatt card, we did not have to pay the $25 per day resort fee or the wifi for our room.  There is free complimentary parking or a for charge valet service for your car; we chose the free parking.

In preparation for our stay in Kauai, I emailed the concierge at the Hyatt for a list of suggestions and ideas of what we should do and see.  One of the suggestions was a dinner cruise along the Na Pali Coast.  That sounded like something we would do and since he didn’t say that reservations were important to make ahead of time, we decided to wait since they were having heavy rain and flash floods in Kauai.  More about this later.

We were able to catch an earlier flight out of Honolulu and arrived on Kauai about an hour earlier than planned at 9:00 AM.  As Blogger Hubby was getting our rental car, I called the hotel and inquired if we could have an earlier check-in.   After a few minutes on hold, I was told that we could drive over to the hotel and they would accommodate us.  Before we drove to the airport, we took the rental car shuttle driver’s advice and had breakfast in Lihue at the Tip Top Cafe.  I had macadamian nuts pancakes and Blogger Hubby had oxtail soup.

Hyatt

The hotel is about 20 minutes from the Lihue airport on Kauai.  Very easy to get to.  As were pulled up to the front of the hotel in our rental car, the doorman greeted us, put a beautiful orchid lei around my neck and a black beaded lei around Blogger Hubby’s neck.

Check-in was easy and before we knew it, a bellman had our luggage and as he walked us to our room, he told us a bit about the resort and showed us around.  We were on the first floor with a pool view on the Shipwreck Beach side.  We had two queen size beds, 2 refrigerators and a microwave in our room.  The common bathroom area was quite large with two sinks.  To the left was the bathtub and shower and on the right was the toilet.  Our balcony had two chairs and an eating size round glass table.  Close to our door, was a swimming pool and the pool cabanas.  The grounds were beautiful, multi-level with bridges across the water and pools on different levels.  They even had a lagoon with a sandy beach so you felt like you were in the ocean of which I didn’t see anyone in it.  There is what I call a lazy river that you can float a long way in and even go on a water slide (yes, I went on the slide).  It was a fun way to spend a day.  The hot tub is in a lava rock pool.  I really liked this hotel.

bathroom
                                        bathroom
view from our room
                                                                 view from our room

The Hyatt also has the Anara Spa but it is so much more than just massages.  It is a place to go that is quiet and peaceful with a multi lane lap pool, cushioned lounges around, jacuzzis, lava rock showers, a locker room with a vanity with products so you don’t have to bring your own.  Along the “bar” by the pool they have fruit infused water for he taking as well as a few tables so you can order a meal to eat.  Soft relaxing music compliment the spa.  This is where we hung out after we checked out of our room and didn’t have to be to the airport till 4 hours later.

spa
spa
lava rock shower in the spa
         lava rock shower in the spa

We never made it to the NaPali Coast because when we went to the concierge desk after arrival we were told that we had to pre-reserve the tickets of which nothing was said in the emails that I had received.   We were very disappointed in not having the information early enough to know to make reservations in advance of our trip. Also, when I asked about different luaus on the island, I was only directed to the one sponsored by the Hyatt.  Turns out the concierges are not Hyatt employees but are employeed by Travelocity.  Not sure if this is good thing or not but it is what it is.

I was very pleased with our stay.  They do a lot of little things to make me want to spread the word at how good it is and to come back.  In our room, we had a recycle trash container; nightly turn down service with chocolates and orchids on our bed; our refrigerator had complimentary water and it was restocked twice a day; all the water that was in the pool complex was for our recreation and swimming and not just for show; our room was easily accessible to the main lobby; their beach towels are a very good size, and there was a guitarist each evening that we listened to.  There is so much more about this facility that I could go on and on. Oh, and did I mention that they have a wonderful Camp Hyatt for children.  The ONLY negative that I would say is that there were not enough outlets for me to sit in the very comfortable chair and plug in my computer while using it.

I do want to acknowledge an employee who always had a smile on her face and always seemed to be working at the front desk – Malaika.  I would see her in the

Malaika  -my favorite hotel employee of all time
Malaika -my favorite hotel employee of all time

mornings, afternoons and even the evenings.  She was never bothered with me asking questions and generally wanted me to have a wonderful vacation.  She certainly personifies the hospitality that Hyatt is know for.  If you are looking for a hotel in Kauai, look no further because you should spend your vacation here.

Aloha Stadium Swap, Museum Live Day, Punch Bowl and snorkeling at Hanauma Bay

We had been told by many of you that we just had to go to the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet.  We listened and followed your advice.  We got there in the morning, found the stadium and found that it was CLOSED!  What the heck.  Apparently, the University of Hawaii had a football game that afternoon so there was no swap meet.  Lesson One:  Always check the swap meet schedule since there are other days that it is cancelled.

aloha stadium

We had made our reservations on the Museum Live site that I wrote about earlier.  We held reservations for the Iolani Palace and Queen Emma Summer Home both in Honolulu.  I wanted to visit the palace as it is the only palace in all of the 50 states.  With our tickets, we received the headphones to do a self guided audio tour.  It was fascinating to learn the history and see the portraits of the various King Kamehamehas and to learn about the sad story of what the US government and some American business men did to the last Queen of the Hawaiian Islands, Queen Liliu’okalani in 1895.  I would recommend visiting the palace  There is free parking on the grounds of the palace, you do not need to feed the meters out front on the street.  Lesson Two:  always ask first if there is free parking before putting $2 of quarters in a meter out front.

Iolani Palace
Iolani Palace
coat of arms at the gate of Iolani Palace
coat of arms at the gate of Iolani Palace

Next up was to drive to the outer limits of Honolulu to visit Queen Emma’s summer home.  There wasn’t much there, the women volunteering that day didn’t know much except for one docent who always had a crowd around here.  I would not recommend this site.

On our way back into the city from Queen Emma’s Summer Home we saw a sign on Puli Highway for Punchbowl Memorial.  We decided to go there.  Let me tell you, once you get off the main road, the signage is very poor.  Very small blue signs placed higher than most signs.  The signs also referred to the Veterans Affairs?  We didn’t get that, thought it was a national park or national memorial that would have the brown signs.  I did find out later that it is a national cemetery.  Nevertheless, after a few wrong turns, we made it to Punch Bowl, checked in at the Visitor Center and was told to drive to the top where the mosaics of the different campaigns were.  Blogger Hubby enjoyed looking at all the campaigns; me, not so much as I really don’t know much about the World War II campaigns and battles. Lesson Three: don’t depend on signage, get directions first.

Punchbowl 1

Punch Bowl 2

After the seriousness of the Punch Bowl, we headed for some fun – snorkeling in the famed Hanauma Bay.  It is a sunken crater on the water on the southeastern coast of O’ahu.  It cost $1 to park.  If you want to go to the beach, then it is an additional $7.50 each and then you have to watch a 19 minute video on protecting the coral.  It’s a good reminder for swimmers and snorkelers.  You can walk down the paved road to get to the beach or hop on the tram for $1 to ride down.  They do have rental of snorkeling equipment though we brought our own.  With the coral, there were all sorts of fish to see and swim with.  The sand was gravely, not the type of fine sand that I’m used to.  We elected to ride the tram up for $1.50.

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We got in our car and headed back to go home only the traffic was very backed up.  We turned around again and decide to go along the eastern coast and cut over on the H3 .  Although it is a longer way back, we were moving and we saw some beautiful scenery along the way.  If we were going back to O’ahu, we would definitely stay along the southeastern coast.  We can now say we have been on each single square inch of road along the coast of O’ahu.

Next Up:  Beach Days and flying to Kauai

Polynesian Cultural Center

It took us a couple of hours to drive to the Polynesian Cultural Center on the northeast side of the island, the wet side and that included a stop at several food trucks along the way. If you have the chance, make sure you stop at some of the shrimp trucks – the shrimp is grown locally along the eastern coast of O’ahu. This side of the island is beautiful, more beautiful than I could imagine. Since we were staying on the dry side, everything was brown and very little vegetation. This side was all green, tall mountains and the folds in the mountains covered in greenery was stunning. Photographs do not do it justice particularly mine from inside our car.

Parking at the PCC is $8 but if you stay only 2 hours, present your parking ticket on the way out and they will refund you half your parking fee. We thought for sure that we would be out in two hours but that never happened. I had mixed feelings about the PCC – was it going to be hokey, Disneyland-ish or a real look into the cultural differences and similarities of the various Pacific Islands and the Islanders. Would it be very crowded, something Blogger Hubby would not like and too hot. We were pleasantly surprised on all accounts. Since we booked our tickets through the Travel and Leisure Office at the military base at Schofield Barracks, we needed to go to the “Will Call” office to pick up our physical tickets. There is a savings this way so if you are active duty military or retired, make this extra step and go to the Travel and Leisure Office (formerly MWR) and see all that is available to you and take advantage of it.

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As we entered the PCC we were given a schedule of the various shows. The first one that I wanted to see was the Canoe Pageant along the lagoon. The PCC includes 6 islands of the Pacific: Hawaii, Tonga, American Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti and Aotearoa (New Zealand). As each canoe entered the lagoon area, there were 3 female dancers and 2-3 male dancers. They were dressed in their native garb. Music played and the female dancers danced first. The males would then join them though one male might be beating the drums. Once that canoe left, another came and so on and so forth. It was, in my opinion, very interesting to watch.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom that show we walked to the Fujian (is that a word?) show. Along the way were various huts with an education component to them. The Fujian show was great as they enlisted 3 volunteers from the audience. The main Fujian played his big drum, making loud noises. He then would take one volunteer at a time and have them copy what he was doing. To say that it was hysterical would be an understatement. How he knew that the volunteers from Australia, Tennessee and California would be as funny as they were was remarkable. In fact, at one point during the show the Fujian tried hard to hold back his laughter and finally told the gentleman from Tennessee that he was suppose to be the main performer, not the volunteer!

We next went to the hut in Tahiti where we learned how to play the hollow bamboo stick (one end was covered), how to say “Bula” in Fijian and listened to stories. During the day we also saw a scaled down though still extremely large replica of the sailing catamarans that was used to sail the Pacific; how they navigated the seas; their heritage and commonality of language among the islanders; we tasted fresh poi; visited a mission home, saw the quilts that were made in Hawaii; how to start fire using two sticks and the husk(for lack of a better word) of a coconut; how to crack a coconut very easy; how to get the mild out of the coconut by scraping the meat out, putting it in the husk, twisting the husk and using it as a strainer; how to climb a palm tree and so much more.

catamaran used to travel across the Pacific
catamaran used to travel across the Pacific

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We wished we had gotten there earlier because there was so much to see. Everything was quite walkable and not huge like some parks are. The PCC is owned and operated by Brigham Young University and the employees are students at BYU or former students. They reminded us several times, though in a gentle way, that by our purchases we are helping to offset tuition for those employees who work there. Their college is right behind the PCC. There is a luau at the PCC but it didn’t appeal to us because of the large number of guests that it could accommodate. We walked away very happy with our decision to go to the PCC and would recommend it if you want a feeling of the flavor of the islands then you need to go visit the PCC. I am not sure I would take young children though. As a side note: earlier that morning, Blogger Hubby had seen a strange boat in the waters off of our condo. It had red sails and appeared to be an old fashioned style boat. While we were listening to the talk about the sailing ships of yore, our narrator mentioned that there are 7 of these wooden catamarans and one is currently in the waters sailing around the islands saying goodbye before they head around the world. We went to her after and asked if it had a red sail. She showed us the picture of it and it was what Blogger Hubby had seen earlier in the morning.

Timeshare at the Hawaiian Princess

Friends of my husband gave us their timeshare at the Hawaiian Princess.  I was really excited since I had never been to Hawaii before.  We were warned that it was in a “depressed part of the island” where many of the workers lived.  Nevertheless, it was the impetus for this great trip for us.

OahuMapMakaha

The Hawaiian Princess is in an area called Makaha which is in the  northwestern part of the island, about three quarters of the way up the western coast.   It is a gated high rise with 16 floors, the highest building for miles on a nice beach.  There is a swimming pool and hot tub outside as well as a small park to the left of the building.

hawaiian princess

We were given our key and fob (used to open gates and elevator) and parking pass.  We had a nice one bedroom corner unit.  As we arrived around 5:15 we noticed that the sun was streaming into our unit and it made the unit very hot.  We did have a gorgeous sunset from our wrap around balcony.  The kitchen was well appointed except for the dull knives and no staples except for take-out salt, pepper and sugar.  It did come with a small box of dishwasher detergent, a sample box (like you would buy in a laundromat) of detergent for washing our clothes in the washer/dryer that is in our unit.

We were warned not to go into the park next to us as it was a bit sketchy.  Other than one morning seeing a many who had slept there all night, it didn’t appear to be sketchy but we heeded the warning anyway.

Our first morning we drove to Schofeld Barracks in the center part of the state to get information from the Leisure and Travel office on base.  We booked tickets for the next day at the Polynesian Cultural Center but did not book the luau.   In our travel guide book “Oahu Revealed” it suggested we would do better having a luau on another island as they tended to be smaller. in numbers

After the “housekeeping duties” were complete, we headed up to the North Shore where I had to have a Shave Ice at Matsumoto’s General Store in Haleiwa.  Apparently this is extremely famous and I had actually seen something about it the week before on one of the travel channel.  We also got a shrimp dish at Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck – very good.

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As we drove up the shore, we noticed all the red flags around the beaches.  The surf was breaking right at the shoreline and the water was rough.  No one except surfers and boogie boarders were in the water.  The sand was also a coarse.

After a long drive, we went back to our condo.  Next up, Polynesian Cultural Center.

Staying at an Airport Hotel and Flying to Oahu

Since we had a 6:00 AM flight from Detroit Metro Airport  we decided to stay at a hotel near the airport.  We chose the Holiday Inn Express as IHG has The Big Win promotion going on right now and I wanted to take advantage of it. We were also able to leave our car at the lot behind the hotel for free for 8 days (through the hotel) and then pay $11 per day after that or $8 per day if you have a AAA card or AARP card. We parked our car at the hotel the night we checked in and then moved it that morning to the lot behind the Holiday Inn Express.  The shuttle bus was right there to take us to the airport.

ihg big win

Check in was a breeze as was security this time of the morning.  I took photos of our luggage in case they got lost and I could describe them and show them (yes, mine had the penguin duct tape on it) as well as looking at the luggage tag to make sure they were going to HNL.  The people that work the desk are only human and they can make mistakes – I just don’t want it to happen to me.

I found out that we could not use the UAL Club because we were flying domestically.  It would have been nice but it wasn’t that important.  We flew a CRJ (Canadian Regional Jet) from Detroit to Houston.  We had two of the 6 First Class seats and to be honest, I would never pay extra for these seats.  There was very little recline, no food offered whatsoever though juice/soda was offered.  Additionally this jet was freezing cold.  I know, at times, I’m always cold but when I see men putting on their jackets and trying to stay warm, I know that it is not just me.  The flight attendants did say repeatedly that the pilot was trying to warm up the plane.  I happened to get the ONLY blanket on the plane.  I asked for a napkin and the FA thought I was asking for a blanket.  I took the blanket and still asked for a napkin.  Blogger Hubby and I were huddled together under the blanket.  Hope this gives you an idea of how cold it was on this very uncomfortable flight.

Two and a half hours later we were so glad to get off this plane and get warm at the airport in Houston (IAH).  A two hour layover found us having some breakfast near our gate.  As the time drew closer for our take off we were all notified by the gate agent that the in flight entertainment system was not working and that we should download movies onto our IPAD’s (hmm, do’t have one) or go to a bookstore and buy a book.  She did say they were working hard to fix the problem.  We had plenty of books but still, it was over an 8 hour flight – a movie or two would break up the time if we needed it.  Just before we boarded I ran back to the food court and bought a lunch for myself.  I have not been too pleased with the food on United and had been warned that this flight had terrible food – actually inedible food.  Ran to Panda Express for a chicken dish and lo mein.

We were able to have pre-boarding due to flying Business Class.  Actually there were two business class sections on this plane.  The plane had a 2-3-2 configuration so we chose the two together on the side of the plane.  This appeared to be one of the older planes as the in flight entertainment is on a tiny foldaway screen in your arm rest that you pull out.  Also in the arm rest is the in-flight phone that many airlines had in years (or is it decades) gone by.

After we were seated our cheery flight attendant (FA) came by and asked us what we wanted to drink.  Since this was my first trip to Hawaii, I asked for something “tropical” and sooner than I could blink an eye, Blogger Hubby and I had mai tai’s in our hand.

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Shortly we were in the air and our FA came by to serve the luncheon.  As I had been told, there was only one choice and it was the chicken that I had been warned about.  Hubby took the chicken and said it wasn’t bad.  I was happy that I had Panda Express.  Since we were up at 3:30 AM (EDT)and wouldn’t get to our accommodations till around 11 pm (EDT)  wanted to make sure that I had food in my stomach.

After lunch, we were served sundaes with all the toppings that you wanted.  Sundaes are always a nice treat on a United flight.  I slept off and on, read a complete book and saw a movie.

ice cream sundaes

We landed in Honolulu and found that we had to walk quite a distance outside to baggage claim.  I was glad for the walk since we sat for so long but I’m not sure if some people knew how far it was.  As we were waiting for our luggage, Blogger Hubby surprised me with a sweet scented plumeria lei.  The aroma was heavenly.

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As the bags came off the carousel, ours was easy to find since I used the decorative duct tape that I refer to in this post.  We walked outside and waited for the shuttle to take us to National Car rental to pick up our car that we reserved through Priceline.com  I had remembered to go through the Ultimate Rewards mall and received extra points for booking it that way.

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We picked up our white Jetta, after carefully inspecting it and making note of the scratches and marks on the car, and we were on our way to Hickam Air Force base to buy our supplies for the week at the condo in West Oahu.  Since Blogger Hubby is retired military, we are able to shop at the commissary.  Blogger Daughter, who spent her babymoon here as well went to WalMart where she purchased food for their week here.

We finished shopping and were soon on H1 heading west.  This traffic is worse than DC traffic in rush hour on a Friday afternoon!  For any of you who travel the Beltway or I-95, you know what I am referring to.

traffic H1

Next, our stay at the Hawaiian Princess in Makara.

Planning the Trip to Hawaii with Points and Miles

As some of you know, we recently had an opportunity drop into our lap – a friend of Blogger Hubby offered us their timeshare in Oahu for a week at the end of September.  I have never been to Hawaii and Blogger Hubby had been there a L  O  N  G time ago.  This offer was made to us a few days before Labor Day so we needed to get our act together and fast.

First, since we were still in Michigan we needed to find flights on our points.  None of the small airports near us had flight the times that we needed for a connection in Detroit.  Our next option was to drive the 4 1/2 hours south to Detroit Metro Airport.  I was saving our UR and UAL points for our trip to South Africa for next summer and therefore needed to use our American Express Membership Reward points.  Looking at many of the airline schedules and using the ITA Matrix, United appeared to be our best bet.

American Express membership points do not transfer to United Airlines though they do transfer to Singapore Airlines which is in the Star Alliance with United.  UAL requires 80,000 points to fly in Business Class to Hawaii; Singapore Air, through their award chart only requires 60,000 points.  To me, a frugal point saver, that is a significant difference.  Miles were transferred to Singapore Air (I did it online, you can do it online or by phone).  A quick phone call, once the points were deposited into the KrisFlyer account that I had previously opened, and my seats were booked.  I had spent some time on the UAL award site choosing my flights that had award availability, and those flight numbers were given to KrisFlyer.  Seats were booked!  A tool to help you find the number of award miles needed from many airlines is Milez.Biz

krisflyer

Next up….planning what to do and where to go after our week in Oahu.  We knew we only wanted to go to two islands but the three that came to mind was Maui, Kauai and the Big Island.  Before we made that decision, we needed to see where our hotel points would take us to.  We seemed to have more options for Kauai and the big Island so that made our decision process a little easier.  In Kauai, it was a no brainer for us.  We had opened the Chase Hyatt credit card last fall and when you do, you get 2 nights free at ANY Hyatt worldwide.

I had heard so much about the Grand Hyatt Kauai that I wanted to spend two nights there.  We arranged an early morning flight on Hawaiian Air (7:40 AM) so we could maximize our time in Kauai.  We were able to stay here since we had opened a Chase Hyatt credit card last year and you get two free nights at any Hyatt in the world.  Since these would expire in November, we thought this was a good use of those two free nights.

Next up, where to stay on the Big Island.  As I had mentioned in a previous post, Blogger Son #2 had WWOOF’ed in Kona and he suggested that we stay around that area.   I had lots of Hilton points so we booked the Hilton Waikoloa Village for three nights.  We had arranged a late afternoon flight from Kauai to the Big Island so that we would have almost 3 full days in Kauai and since we were flying home from Kona at 9 PM, we would have almost 3 full days on the Big Island as well.  We used our points from the Hilton American Express card – about 50,000 per night.  I had lots of points as I had just purchased a number of Vanilla Reloads at a grocery store and as most of you know, you get 5 times points at a grocery store when you use this card.  Knowing your bonus categories really help.  I had also opened last year a Bank of Hawaii and a Hawaiian Airline credit card where I received 35,000 from each card.  Nothing spectacular but they transferred over to Hilton at a 1:2 ration – for every Hawaiian mile, I received two Hilton points.  Did all this for a total of 140,000 points.

Next up, it becomes a reality and you’ll read about the flight to Oahu.

EZ Pass – which state has the least expensive rates

Did you know that you do not have to buy your EZ Pass packet from your own state?  Each state has a different fee structure and it pays to know what the fees are.  Some states charge a monthly maintenance fee while others do not.

I had been wondering which state was the most economical so I set about to do a little research.

Looking up in Wikipedia, I found this handy chart:

Delaware –  $0 for email/web statements, $8/year for quarterly paper statements $15 per internal or external transponder (non-refundable) $10 minimum balance (Account charged a replenishment amount based on monthly toll usage.) 50% off cash rates for Delaware SR‑1 when 30 or more qualifying trips are made by a two-axle passenger vehicles within a 30-day rolling period.

Illinois (I-PASS)[52] $0 per month $10 per internal transponder (refundable) automatic replenishment; $20 (refundable) manual replenishment $10 minimum balance (Account charged a minimum replenishment amount of $40 or an amount 10% of average monthly usage, whichever is higher.) 50% off cash rate for all transponders (ISTHA tolls and passenger cars only)

Indiana (formally i‑Zoom) $1 per month/transponder $10 per internal transponder (refundable) $2.50 minimum balance (first 90 days), then $2.50 minimum balance or 25% of average monthly usage, whichever is greater. (Account is charged a minimum replenishment amount of $10 in the first 90 days, after which the minimum replenishment amount is based on the previous three months of usage on your account and is recalculated on the first of each month, the minimum amount being $10.) Discounts available to all transponders. Percentage varies by exit.

Maine –  $0 per month $10 per internal transponder (non-refundable); $17 per external transponder (non-refundable) $15 minimum balance (Account is charged a minimum replenishment amount of $20 when your account drops below minimum balance.) Discounts based on travel volume: 30-39 account trips per month will equal a 25% discount applied to monthly account trips. 40+ account trips per month will equal a 50% discount applied to monthly account trips.

Maryland –  $1.50 per month (waived if 3 Maryland E‑ZPass tolls incurred within a given month) $9 per internal transponder (non-refundable), $33 per external transponder (non-refundable), $40 per internal FUSION CVO (PrePass & E-ZPass all-in-one) transponder, $18 per internal E-ZPass Flex transponder (For use on I-495 Express Lanes) $10 minimum balance (Account is charged a minimum replenishment amount of $25 or an amount equal to you average monthly usage, whichever is higher.) Discounts available to Maryland E‑ZPass users only. 10% discount off the passenger vehicle cash rate at all Maryland toll facilities except the InterCounty Connector (Maryland State Highway 200). Various other plans available for bridges and regions.

Massachusetts –  $0 per month if monthly statements by are sent by e-mail;  $0 per internal transponder;  $20 minimum balance.  Account is charged a replenishment amount whenever the balance falls below $10, replenishing the account to a balance of $20. If usage exceeds $20 in any given month, the account is charged $40.  25¢ discount at Allston-Brighton tolls, 50¢ discount at Sumner and Ted Williams tunnels and Tobin Memorial Bridge.[57]

New Hampshire – $0 per month $8.90 per internal transponder (non-refundable)$15.19 per external transponder (non-refundable) $30 minimum balance.  Account is charged a minimum replenishment amount of $30 in the first 35 days, after which the minimum replenishment amount is based on the previous three months of usage on your account, the minimum amount being $30.  30% off cash rate for NH transponders only. Other transponders pay cash rate.

New Jersey – $1 per month membership fee + $1 bimonthly for print/email statements $10 per internal transponder (refundable) or $0 if credit or direct debit replenishment. $10 or 25% of your replenishment threshold, whichever is greater.  Account is charged a minimum replenishment amount of $25 in the first 90 days, after which the minimum replenishment amount is based on the previous three months of usage on your account, the minimum amount being $25.  Various discounts for NJ transponders only. Other transponders pay cash rate.

New York – $1 per month PANYNJ account service fee (no fee for MTA, Thruway, or Bridge Authority accounts) + $6/yr for monthly paper statements (bimonthly statements are free) $10 per internal transponder (refundable) or $0 if auto-replenish $10 minimum balance Account is charged a minimum replenishment amount of $25 or an amount equal to your average usage in a 90‑day period, whichever is higher. At all Port Authority facilities, E‑ZPass discounts are available. At MTA Bridges and Tunnels, $1.70 off cash tolls. $3.40 off round-trip at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and $1.45 discount at the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial and Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridges. At all New York State Thruway and New York State Bridge Authority facilities, E‑ZPass discounts apply.

North Carolina (Quick Pass) –  $0 per month, $1 per month after 12 consecutive months of no toll transactions. $20 per internal (hard case) transponder $20 minimum balance for first two transponders, $10 for each additional transponder, up to five transponders total.  Account is charged a minimum replenishment amount of $10 or when account balance is 25% of your replenishment threshold, based on the previous three months of usage, whichever is greater.

Ohio –  75¢ per month $0 per internal transponder ($25 replacement fee within first four years) $25 minimum balance per transponder.  Account is charged a minimum replenishment amount based on the previous three months of usage, or the amount needed to return the account balance to $25.00 per transponder, whichever is greater.  Ohio discount available to all transponders. Percentage varies by exit.

Pennsylvania – $3 per year/transponder $10 per internal transponder (refundable) or $0 if credit or direct debit replenishment $10 per transponder.  Account is charged a minimum replenishment amount of $35 whenever the balance reaches a total value of $10 or less ($15 or less for manual replenishment accounts) per transponder. If your account requires more than the allowed replenishments in a one-month cycle (2 times for credit cards and 3 times for ACH), the amount of replenishment will switch to average usage.  25% discount off cash rate to all transponders.

Rhode Island – $0 per month if monthly statements by e‑mail $20.95 per internal transponder (purchase required); $33.04 per external transponder (purchase required) $25 minimum balance per transponder (Account is charged a minimum replenishment amount based on the previous 45-days of usage and is recalculated every 90-days, or the amount needed to return the account balance to $25.00 per transponder, whichever is greater.)

Virginia – $0 per month for transponders issued before July 9, 2012 and if monthly statements by e‑mail. 50¢ per month for standard transponders and $1 per month for E‑ZPass Flex transponders issued on or after July 9, 2012. The E-ZPass Flex transponder $1 fee will be waived for those months in which the Flex transponder is used only on the 495 Express Lanes with 3 or more in the vehicle and is solely for free HOV usage on the I-495 Express Lanes. $35 per internal transponder $10 minimum balance per transponder (Account is charged a minimum replenishment amount of $35 per transponder or an amount equal to your average monthly usage, whichever is higher.)

West Virginia –  $5 per year for “prepaid” plan (Includes free use of the North Beckley ramp on the West Virginia Turnpike.) Flat rate, unlimited use plans range from $5 to $285 for various parts of the West Virginia Turnpike. $10 per internal transponder $10 minimum balance (Account is charged a minimum replenishment amount of $20. No balance needed with annual WV unlimited plan.) 35% off cash rate and use of Beckley WV exit freely for WV transponders only (non-WV transponders pay cash rate)

Based on the information in this chart, I will be making a change from one state to another.  The state that I believe has the best rates is Massachusetts.  When you get the drop down bar it will say Massachusetts, leave it that way but change your address to your state.

Follow-Up – I did indeed purchase from Massachusetts.  They sent me an email before sending out the EZPass transponders to make sure that is what I wanted to do in case there were any discounts from my home state.  The transponder is much smaller that what I had from Pennsylvania.  Which one did you get?

Yosemite National Park – National Park Series

This is another post in the National Park Series.  If you missed one of them, please click on the title and it will take you to the post

Glacier National Park

Great Smoky Mountains

Yellowstone

Before we went to Yosemite everyone, and I mean everyone, told me that it was outstanding, that it was raw, rugged and something so spectacular that they couldn’t describe it any better.   They couldn’t give me enough adjectives to describe it to me.  I just didn’t think anything could live up to these descriptions – boy, was I wrong.

I flew into Sacramento on United the end of June to meet my husband who was doing some work in the area.  He had picked up a rental car earlier when we flew in.  He picked me up and we were off in the direction of Lake Tahoe.  As we traveled through we spent some time in an old western town called Placerville whose nickname was HangTown.  They were doing some type of reenactment with covered wagons, panning for gold in the street in a horse’s trough. This is near where Sutter’s Mill was located where the California Gold Rush began.  I had visions of gold dust in my eyes.  It was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be as the gold was merely specks in the water and to get the swishing motion was not easy.  Regardless, this was lots of fun for us.

We spent a few days at Lake Tahoe driving around, doing some short hikes, seeing Emerald Bay (yes, it really is green).  A trivia fact – did you know that the old television show “Bonanza” was filmed around Lake Tahoe because after all , it was south of Virginia City and near Carson City.  There were advertisements along the road that went around the Lake for visitors to go up to the location, for a small fee of course.

We were going to travel to Yosemite from Tahoe on the Tioga Road but it was still closed due to snow.  We headed south and went in to the park where the Merced River flows through the park – the Arched Rock Entrance.  We had reservations inside the park at Wawona Hotel, a National Historic Landmark.  This was at the southern end of the park and a little of of the way for me.  We were close to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia Trees.  Being this far south, we always seemed to have a long commute to see the famous sites of El Capitan, hiking Bridalveil Falls, Half Dome (no, we didn’t climb it but watched in amazement as others did) as well as going to Curry Village.

Since there was heavy snowfall the year we went, the waterfalls were flowing quite heavily.  I don’t think that I have seen so many waterfalls in one location.  Every turn we took was just as spectacular as the last one.   I didn’t do any of the rugged hiking that our kids did a few years ago.  They were the ones you could see as ants climbing up Half Dome.  There are steel cables going up and you are pulling yourself up.  What made it difficult for them was the sheer number of people who climbed it.  You could never get any good momentum going because there would be people a few feet from them.  Nevertheless, that is one thing that they were able to check off the list of things to do.

Blogger Sons and Blogger daughter-in-law climbing Half Dome
Blogger Sons and Blogger daughter-in-law climbing Half Dome
At the top of Half Dome
At the top of Half Dome

Whether you are going to view the granite monolith, hike to see waterfalls or wildlife, Yosemite should be on your list of must see national parks.

Riding the Rails – AMTRAK

Did you know that you could accumulate points on AMTRAK like you do with airlines and hotels?  Well, you can!  I was happy to read when I received my Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card that AMTRAK is a 1:1 transfer partner of Ultimate Rewards. Currently,  AMTRAK is running a Double Points promotion with travel now through October 31, 2013.  That’s twice the point earnings!  You must first become a member of Amtrak Guest Rewards and then you need to register here for this promotion!

double promotion

When I was a kid, my mother and I always took the train to wherever we were going on vacation because she had a phobia about airplanes. I’ve taken the train to southern Florida numerous times as well as to the West Coast – all from Boston.  Now as an adult, I’ve continued to ride the rails though not as often as I would like – probably a combination of time and the cost.  I found it relaxing to board the train and then just…….relax.  It was the time period between leaving work or your home and the start of your vacation.  I was able to decompress, take a deep breath and arrive at my destination fully relaxed and ready to begin my vacation.  I fondly remember the time we left Boston and went to Chicago on an overnight train.  After arriving in the morning we spent the day in Chicago before we had to go back to the train station to get our train to the West Coast.  The train, the Super Chief,  had the Vista Dome

photo: wikipedia
photo: wikipedia

feature where we could go up the stairs and there would be a glass dome over us so we had an unimpeded view of the countryside.  The interesting part of this trip, and I “think” they still do it or at least a version of it, is that we were in the last Pullman car and in the middle of the night in Arizona, our car was unhitched from the train.  We waited for another engine to take our car up to  the Grand Canyon where we awoke.  We spent the day touring the area and it is a day that I have not forgotten in the decades since. Later that day we boarded our Pullman again and were taken to the same spot on the tracks where we were unhitched the night before.  This time we would be awaiting another westbound train to “pick us up” and continue our journey. Click here for some information on trains in the Grand Canyon.

When was the last time that you rode the rails?

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Walking across the Mighty Mac – aka The Mackinac Bridge

The Mackinac Bridge is an engineering marvel.  It is a suspension bridge spanning across the Straits of Mackinac connecting the two peninsulas that make up the state of Michigan.  According to Wikipedia the Bridge it “is the world’s third-longest in total suspension and the longest suspension bridge between anchorages in the Western hemisphere.  What makes it an engineering marvel is that the design had to take into account the strong unstable winds in the area and the harsh winter conditions.  Lessons learned from the Tacoma Narrows Bridge influenced the way that the Mackinac Bridge was designed and built.  Shoreline to shoreline, the bridge is 5 miles though the length of the main span is 3,800 feet.  The bridge is very high to allow freighters who are carrying ore in the great lakes and other loads to travel under the bridge.

Every Labor Day there is a bridge walk over the two north bound lanes of the bridge.  Leading the bridge walk is the governor of Michigan.  There are many, many school buses taking walkers across the bridge from Mackinaw City to the starting point in St. Ignace, the southernmost city on the Upper Peninsula.

Blogger Hubby has walked the bridge several times but never me.  I’m afraid of heights, afraid of this bridge because a woman in a Yugo car in 1989 was blown off the bridge.  I’m the type of driver that has someone drive me across the bridge while I get in the back seat.

I decided to tackle my fear, sort of, by walking across the bridge with Blogger Hubby and a couple of our friends.  We had a driver take us across the bridge to St. Ignace (the start) at 7:00 AM.  Since the temp was in the low 50’s and their were winds about 19 miles an hour, we dressed appropriately.  I had a turtleneck, button down shirt and a zip up sweatshirt.  In my CamelPak (which you know I just love) I had water to help me when I got thirsty, homemade chocolate chip cookies, camera, phone and sunglasses.  I also wore another favorite product of mine – Smart Wool socks.

what it looked like over the Straits of Mackinac
what it looked like over the Straits of Mackinac

40,000 thousand people were expected to walk today and if there was any indication from our almost two-hour walk, there were many, many people on the bridge.  The Michigan National Guard lined the edges by the rails so no one would be tempted to jump off.  The scariest part for me was walking over the steel grating.  I much prefer the hard top surface.

throngs of people were walking across
throngs of people were walking across

I was so touched to see a woman pushing her elderly aunt in a wheelchair across the bridge.  Also a disabled young man pushing his walker; many parents pushing strollers with their children in them.  I also saw elderly husbands and wives walk across the bridge hand in hand.  What a marvelous morning and so inspiring.

stopping to document that I actually did walk across the bridge
stopping to document my bridge walk

At the end we received a certificate to commemorate our walk.  There was even a finish sign at the end.  We then had to walk about 4 more blocks to meet our friends and get the ride back to the lake where we seemed to immediately fall asleep in our chairs as soon as we sat down.

my certificate
my certificate that I walked the Bridge

I tried to google to see how many bridge walks there are that are four miles or longer and it seems that it is just this one and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge (which is even scarier) though that one has been inconsistent in the past few years.

Have you done a bridge walk?  Which bridge did you walk over and how long was it?  I’d love to hear your experiences.

Hawaii Bound!!!

We just received an amazing offer – a timeshare for us to use for free in Oahu this month!  This month….Holy Cow!   I have to get moving… NOW.  So I have lots of questions and dilemmas.

The first dilemma we have is how to get there.  Should I use my points to go there in Business/First Class since it is a long flight?   Will I have enough for our South Africa trip that we have to book within the next couple of weeks? There are many variables of where we should fly out of as well as where we should  fly home from?

After Oahu, we will fly to Kauai and the Big Island – at least that is the plan currently.  That doesn’t mean tomorrow it won’t be Maui and Kauai.  I have enough hotel points that we can stay for a few nights at each island hopefully.  I’m thinking that this is more like an island sampler – visit a few and then see where we want to go back to in the future.  The Sheraton is only charging 10,000 – 12,000 SPG points per night and I have about 30,000 points.  AmEx co-brands the SPG card and the points are very difficult to come by other.  I also have about 300,000 Hilton points from their co-branded American Express card.  I like this card because of the bonus – 5 x points at grocery stores.  I  found a grocery store up here that sells Vanilla Reloads and there doesn’t appear to be any limits as to how many you can buy.  I bought 4 of them at $500 each yesterday.  That means I spent $2000 and since it is 5 times I just received 10,000 Hilton points!  Score one for the home team.

After spending all day on this, I decided to take the United flights and my head was spinning like the girl from Exorcist though no green pea soup.  I decided to call in the troops and hire a booking specialist after talking with him through email.  My initial thought was to transfer my AmEx Membership reward points over to UAL and book the flights.  He told me, to my surprise, that United is not a transfer partner of AmEx.  My idea came to a screeching halt.  What do I do now?  He came up with such a great idea (and worth his money).  He said that AmEx was a transfer partner of Singapore Airlines and they are a partner of United.

The interesting thing about Singapore Airline is that their award tickets (even on United) require fewer points than United charges for their award.  Instead of paying 80,000 miles per business class ticket, we are paying 60,000 points – a savings of 40,000 miles.  What you need to do is to become a loyalty member of Kris Flyer, the program for Singapore Air.  Then go to your AmEx , go to membership rewards, click on partners and then link your AmEx account with the loyalty program you are interested in transferring points to.  You can either call AmEx or you can do the transfer yourself  on AmEx’s site.  This is irreversible so be sure before you do it.  They told me the point transfer would take 3-5 business days but less than 12 hours later, they were transferred.  Next was the telephone call to Singapore Air booking the flight – make sure you have the flight numbers so you can give it to the agent.  Next thing we knew we had tickets to Hawaii.

All we have to worry about now is booking the hotel rooms and flying from island to island.

So if you have been to Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island, send me your list of things that we have to do.

National Park Service Entrance Passes

Yesterday was  Free Entrance Day at over 100 National Parks.  How many of you were able to go to your favorite national park to take advantage of this special day?

If you are not able to go yesterday, here is information on the various passes that are available through the park service:

The Senior Pass (formerly called Golden Eagle, Golden Age, Golden Access) is available for $10 for those who are 62 and older and are US citizens or permanent residents.  You can obtain it for $10 at a federal recreation site or by mail using this application form.   If you choose to get this pass through the mail, then the fee is $20.    When I went with a friend recently to get one, we asked “when does it expire?”  We were told that it expires when you do (a little national park humor).

nps senior

For those in the U.S. Military and their dependents,  you are eligible for a free Annual Pass that must be obtained at a Federal recreation site by showing your military ID or a Common Access Card.

nps military

Annual Pass is $80 and is available to everyone.  They are available at any recreation site or online  or by calling 1-888-ASK USGS (1-888-275-8747), Ext. 1

nps annual

Access Pass is free for U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities.  It may be obtained in person or through the mail using this application form.  Applicants must provide documentation of permanent disability and residency or citizenship.

nps access

Volunteer Pass is free for those volunteers with 250 service hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program.  The five agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program are the National Park Service, US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Reclamation.  These site locations issue the passes.

nps volunteer

Now, a trivia question for you….what is the smallest national park in the United States.   Here is the answer.

What is the Most Visited National Park? Read and Find Out!

What is the most visited national park in the United States?  Yosemite? Yellowstone? Glacier?  Grand Canyon?  Here’s a hint….it’s east of the Mississippi.  Give up?  It is also one of the few national parks that does not charge an entrance fee.  It is the Great Smoky Mountain National Park with over 9.6  million visitors in 2012.

Establishing this national park took many years and thousands of volunteers to accomplish it.  On the land that was to become the national park were thousands of people’s homesteads and as well as timber and paper companies.  At the same time  Americans also wanted some place to drive their new possession – the automobile.   It was their auto clubs who pushed for this park as all these new motorists wanted nice roads in beautiful scenery in which to drive their new cars on.

intro GSM

In 1926 President Calvin Coolidge  signed a bill that established the Great Smoky Mountains National Park yet there was no land to be protected by the park service.  What I found out and didn’t know was that the federal government is not allowed, at least during this time, to purchase land to put into the park system.  Since the park would encompass parts of both Tennessee and North Carolina, those state legislatures raised money to buy out the thousands of landowners and companies who were on lands that  would become the park.   With the help of Laura Rockefeller, who donated five million dollars, enough money was raised to begin buying out the residents.  As a side note:  Laura Rockefeller’s son John D Jr established and funded Colonial Williamsburg.  Great Smoky Mountain National Park was officially dedicated in 1940 by President Franklin Roosevelt.

There are two entrances to the park in Tennessee and one in North Carolina as well as two visitor information centers for the park – one at the North Carolina entrance and one at the Gatlinburg, TN entrance.  I have always found the Visitor Centers to be filled with information and exhibits generally about geology and park history.  Just so you know this about me – I’m a history buff!

There are many spectacular hikes to go on including part of the Appalachian Trail that goes through the park.  There are all different levels of hiking trails from easy to more challenging.  Me, I usually choose the easiest and my husband likes the more challenging.  So we compromise and go on the easiest 🙂

photo: nps.com
photo: nps.com

Our family camped when we visited the park.  We spent a few nights at Cades Cove along the banks of a creek.  This area was very family friendly.   We enjoyed the auto tour of the Cades Cove loop where there were a number of historic buildings and barns.  Our oldest son loved the  fly fishing that he did within the park in the many trout streams.   Of course, all our family does is Catch and Release. There are also stables where you can go on trail rides.

photo: cadescove.net
photo: cadescove.net

Close to the park is Dollywood.  This is, as I’m sure you know, an amusement park owned by Dolly Parton.  It has the typical amusement park rides but what it also has that is unique to it are crafts and music that are traditional to the Smoky Mountain area.   Next door to Dollywood is Dollywood’s Splash Country, and the chain of Dixie Stampede dinner theaters.   The park hosts a number of concerts and musical events each year.  you never know when you might get lucky and see Dolly or a member of her family in concert at her park.

Have you been to Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

City Slickers Revisited – The 9 Quarter Circle Ranch in Montana

Get your boots our of the closet, wrap your red bandana around your neck, put on your chaps and make sure you have your cowboy hat on and we are going off to be  real city slickers at the 9 Quarter Circle Ranch in Gallatin Gateway, Montana.

We had taken the family there and it is one of our most favorite and special vacation trips we have EVER done.  Whether you are part of a family or just an adults only trip, this is a fun place to vacation.  This trip can be as active or as relaxing as you want it to be – the choice is all yours!

We knew that we wanted to do a dude ranch vacation but which one to choose?  Which state to choose it in?  Lots of options and lots of decisions.  We quickly determined that we did not want to do it in the southwest where it was very dry and too arid.  We also knew that we wanted to be at a ranch where there would be other children for our children to play/ride/hang out with.  Some of the ranches were too small, some were way too big and we found one that, for us, was just right.  Sounds a little like Goldilocks doesn’t it?  We chose the 9 Quarter Circle Ranch because it had the number of people we were looking for, the types of activities and was in a location that we wanted to travel in – Montana.  This was Big Sky Country and we were ready!

How to Get There

There are several different options for flying.  West Yellowstone, about 30 miles away, is served exclusively by Delta Airlines.  Bozeman, a little further away, is serviced by Alaska, Allegiant, Delta, Frontier, United and US Airways.  Check with the ranch to see what the nominal fee is if you needed to be picked up from the airport.  Another option is to fly into Salt Lake City, rent a car and drive the six hours to the ranch.

We chose to fly into Billings, spend the night there, pick up our rental car and drive to the ranch.  We wanted to take this opportunity to see more of Montana. We stopped in Bozeman to pick up a few things that we needed and forgot to bring with us.  Back in the car and then we turned to head south to the ranch which is located in south central Montana.

Accommodations

We were in a two bedroom cabin that had it’s own bathroom and wood burning stove to keep us warm during the cool nights and to take the nip off the cool morning.  The rooms weren’t large but they were just what we needed as we were barely in our cabins.  Our three kids were in one room that had bunk beds – just like they were used to at home.  The furniture was all made of pine logs that are quite standard for western lodges.  Quilts made at the ranch were on all the beds.  Porches were outside so we could sit and take in the scenery and the environment that we were in while watching the kids play with others.

love these handmade quilts
love these handmade quilts

FOOD

When you hear the clanging of the meal bell you know that it is time to head up to the dining room where all meals are served family style.  Don’t worry about dressing up for dinner, just come as you are as this is informal.  For breakfast you eat with your family.  That’s the one and only time you do that.  At first I wasn’t sure if I liked that or not, but I did grow to understand and appreciate it.  After breakfast it was time to get ready for our morning trail ride and pick up our horse at the barn.  At lunch time the kids eat with their age groups and wranglers.  Adults eat together and can have a conversation without cutting up someone’s food for them or cajoling them to more.  Dinner is the meal that I appreciated the most.  The kids all go up to the dining room when the bell rings, about 45 minutes before the adults,  with their wranglers, babysitters and have a kid friendly dinner.  The adults have a Happy Hour  knowing that their kids are well taken care of.  When the children are finished (and this includes teens) they play outside under supervision while the adults have dinner together without any interruption.  This was heaven.

Meals are plentiful and are good home cooking.  You will not lose weight here and you will notice what a hearty appetite you have particularly after being outdoors all day.  Homemade biscuits, baked goods…mmmm.

Activities

Twice a day there are rides through this beautiful landscape.   You are assigned a horse that you will ride for all of your trail rides.  You get to know your horse and he gets to know you.  Since they are ridden so often by a variety of skill levels, they are very gentle and easy to work with.  The horses are raised by the Kelsey family who have owned this ranch since the 1940’s.  Howard Kelsey, who bought the ranch back in the 1940’s was one of the original Marlboro Men who used to ride horseback through the rugged West  when cigarette commercials were shown on television.  His son Kim with wife Kelly and adult children now own and run the ranch – a true family business.

Our daughter,  who was eight at the time when we stayed at the ranch, was in the 6-9 age group that went off and had their own kiddie wranglers on their twice daily ride through the meadows, across the stream and up Lincoln Mountain which was basically across the dirt road.  Blogger Son #2 was in my group (the average skill group) and we went on the same trails though not at the same time, walking and loping (galloping for those city folks) through the meadows, crossing streams and sometimes jumping over them.  We were thankful that the kids and I took some horseback riding lessons in the month prior to acclimate our legs to being around a horse.  We saw some people who were walking very bowlegged 🙂   Blogger Hubby and Blogger Son #1 were in the more advanced group and I think there was more jumping and more loping involved. The ranch has permission to ride through the Gallatin National Forest so you can imagine how beautiful it was.

astreamcrossing

We looked forward to our daily rides although if you didn’t want to ride, you didn’t have to. Since we were in the area where “A River Runs Through It” was filmed there was great fly fishing.  Blogger Son #1 was enthralled watching some of the men at night making flies to use the next day.  He went out with the fishing guide a few times to learn to fly fish and to this day enjoys the art of fly fishing .  If you wanted to keep what you caught, you could bring it to the kitchen and they would cook it for you!

One of the activities that the ranch provides a an overnight pack trip into Yellowstone.  Blogger Hubby and Blogger Son #1 decided that they were very interested in the over night pack trip and since there were limited spots available, they signed up immediately.  To do this, you do need to bring your own sleeping bag which we sent to the ranch by UPS.  Early in the morning a pack of horses leaves taking the supplies with them.  The riders followed and rode all day through Yellowstone.  At night there was dinner by campfire and games.  The next day they rode back in time for dinner at the ranch.

pack trip going out
pack trip going out

Additionally, the ranch provides a myriad of activities Mondays through Saturday.  Sundays are reserved for check in and check out.  Here is a sample of what they provide:

Mondays – softball game

Tuesdays – s’mores around the campfire

Wednesdays – Happy Hour for the adults at the Log Cabin down the road

Thursdays – Hay Ride

Friday – ride your horse to dinner on the trail.  Ever have a bison burger with bacon wrapped around it?  If you don’t want to ride, a car will transport you.

Saturdays – this is an exciting day because in the morning we sit around the corral and have Gym Khana which means games on horseback.  This is for both children and adults.  Some of the games are barrel racing, going around poles and roping.  Guess who came home with a ribbon for roping – ME!  Blogger Hubby roped me and received nothing other than a kiss from me.  That evening there is a square dance in the loft of the barn.  Make sure you bring your petticoats ladies and men bring your best bolo tie.

9 hay ride

 

This vacation is not inexpensive but you get three meals a day, lodging, two trail rides a day, free fishing lessons, daily activities at night and a barrel full of fun.   I highly recommend having a vacation like this that is electronic free (wi fi is available for those who need it though there is no cell phone reception), quality time spent with your family outdoors and an opportunity to visit a part of our country that many people don’t visit.

Do you think a dude ranch vacation is in your future?  Try it and you’ll have an experience of a lifetime, I promise.  We’d love to go back with our children and grandchildren to experience this wonderful ranch and all that it has to offer again.  I’ve been assured that not much has changed since we were there and that is just the way I like it!

National Park Series – Yellowstone National Park

This is the first in a series of visiting National Parks throughout our country:

When our children were younger and money was a little tighter, we would make a vacation out of camping and visiting our National Parks.   When we lived in New England we didn’t visit many National Parks for the simple reason that we didn’t have many.  In fact, we only had one in all of New England – Acadia National Park in Maine. It wasn’t until we moved to Virginia that we were able to visit more parks.

yellowstone

First a little history of Yellowstone National Park – The first National Park was Yellowstone in 1872.  The Northern Pacific Railroad urged Congress to preserve this land but they had an ulterior motive.  The railroad was interested in making this area a major rail destination and they wanted to prevent the park from being misused as well as to stop the poaching of animals on park land.  Yellowstone National Park was being administered by the Department of the Interior.  They had limited legal authority and resources.  The federal government didn’t do a good job of managing the area and to help it, in 1892 the US Army established a fort (Fort Yellowstone) at the northern entrance to the park at Mammoth Hot Spring.  They set up wildlife policy and management that served as a model of what they do today as well as constructing many buildings , many of which are still in use.  The Army continued their management of Yellowstone until 1918 when the National Park Service was established and control of this Park was turned over to NPS.

There are nine places to stay within the Park but my favorite is the iconic Old Faithful Inn.  I use this Inn in which to judge other park service inns and lodges. yellowstone-notebook.comWith the large log multistory lobby and the massive stone fireplace it truly represents all that is western and rustic and stood as a model for other national park lodges.  In keeping with the rustic nature of this lodge, there is no television, radio, internet or air conditioning.  I am fine with all except the no air conditioning.hearth

The lodge is adjacent to its namesake, Old Faithful Geyser.  Old Faithful is the largest regular geyser in Yellowstone.  Some think that it erupts every hour on the hour but it doesn’t.  The rangers at Yellowstone can fairly closely guess when the next eruption is but that is about as far as they can guess.  Generally it will erupt from 35 minutes to 2 hours and the length of the erupts varies as well.

Driving through the park you see many cars pulled over to view the nativewildlife such as  bison throughout the park.  Do not go near the wildlife particularly bison.  Respect them and their size.  Also, if you are camping in Yellowstone do no leave any food in your car as the bears will rip your car apart to get the food.  The park has special bear proof containers to put your food in.

photo: travel-nationalgeographic-com
photo: travel-nationalgeographic-com

Though this is one of my favorite parks, it is not my absolute favorite.  I’ll write about my favorite in another blog.

What parks have you been to?  Do you have a favorite?  I’d love to hear about it.

Legs Inn, Cross Village, Michigan

michigan.org

Still doing my tour around northern Michigan and we found this very unique restaurant – Legs Inn.  Legs Inn sits at the northern part of the Tunnel of Trees section of Michigan Highway 119.  It is a spectacular drive that begins at the northern end of Harbor Springs, an exclusive resort town on Little Traverse Bay.  The road runs along a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan.  As beautiful as it is during the spring and summer, it is truly majestic in the Fall as trees can be that are found in the cooler, northern climates.  The yellows of the birch trees, the reds of maples trees, it is a kaleidoscope of colors.  If you are a bicyclist, you’ll find this a great place to ride.  Blogger Son #2 and his wife recently rode their bikes through the Tunnel of Trees and are looking forward to doing it again next year.  So by car, motorcycle or bicycle – it is a beautiful ride.

tunnel of trees

Legs Inn is an authentic Polish restaurant.  The restaurant building reminds me of a something that you would find in a national park with the the building made out of river rocks, large timbers and  wood carvings.  It sits on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan with beautiful gardens outside.  You can choose to sit and eat outside or inside.  When the weather is a little cool, they do have heaters they put outside for the comfort of their guests.

legs inn outside

photo: the bigtaxi.com
photo: the bigtaxi.com

The food is authentic Polish food as well as Lake Michigan whitefish.  One of my favorites is the Zurek Soup.  It is a traditional Polish sour soup. There are many different versions for this soup but Legs Inn’s version has a unique recipe in that it’s recipe includes Polish Sausage, hard-boiled eggs and red potatoes in a rich meat and rye stock.  They have three different types of pierogis and if you can’t decide, you just ask for one of each type.

Blogger Son #2, a beer connoisseur, was duly impressed with all the beer that was available at their bar.  I had a great Czech ale that was delicious.

beer

If you find yourself in northern Michigan visiting many of these places that I have been writing about, make sure you drop in at Legs Inn for a delicious lunch or dinner.

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Top 10 Family Resorts in North America according to Budget Travel

One magazine that I really like and look forward to getting in the mail  is Budget Travel. We are not of unlimited income and we do watch our pennies (sometimes more than other times) so this magazine helps me in budget traveling.

They recently wrote about the Top Ten Family Resort in North America.  I’m going to assume and hope that these resorts are somewhat budget since it is Budget Travel that is publishing this list but looking at these photos, I’m not sure.  I will have to admit, I had never heard of most of them so I am sure that I’ll be doing further investigating into these resort.  Nevertheless, here they are:

1. Woodloch Resort in Hawley , PA which is nestled in the Pocono Mountains.  There are activities for kids and adults of all ages and the great thing about this woodlochresort is that it is an all-inclusive resort.  Since we take family vacations every few years, this might be a great option for us rather than going to the Caribbean.  Family Circle and Better Homes and Gardens magazines are also calling Woodloch one of the best family resorts.

 

2. Villa Roma Resort in Callicoon, New York which is in the Catskiills.  Again, they have programs for the kids including horseback riding, a rock-climbing wall, and villa romago-carts (for an additional fee).   Wintertime brings ice skating, skiing, snowboarding, and even a Ski School for beginners.   They also have large enough suites to accommodate 8 people!

 

 

3. Blue Harbor Resort in Sheboygan, Wisconsin where they have an indoor water park which they would have to do in Wisconsin.  They also have a baby/toddler recreation pool.  Adults can swim in a lazy river floating around and around.  Budget Travel calls this one of the nation’s best  water parks.  I think this would be a great family vacation spot.

blue harbor

 

4. Rocking Horse Ranch in Highland, New York is another all-inclusive facilityrocking horse where there is unlimited horseback riding and trail rides for children seven years old and older.  The ranch is on its own private lake so you can go kayaking, fishing and water skiing.  So much for all ages to do.  You’ll also  find tennis, beach volleyball, rock climbing walls, mini golf, and an exotic wildlife exhibit on the resort property. Additionally there’s an entire waterpark- plus an archery range, video arcade, plenty of organized activities.  We have previously done a Ranch vacation when the kids were 8, 10 and 13 and they still remember and talk about what fun it was.

 

5. Tradewinds Island Resort, St. Pete Beach, FL – This resort on the Gulf offers antradewinds activity club for its young guests that include making shark necklaces and meeting Capt. Redbeard and his trusty parrot.  The rooms, which are recently remodeled, will delight parents.  Though this looks very nice I personally want more than just a resort on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

 

6. The Westin Grand Cayman Seven Mile Beach Resort & Spa – this resort offers hilton los cabotwo bedroom suites for families.  Who wouldn’t want to go to a tropical getaway on this island.  You can spend your time walking Seven Mile Island or do an adult only activity while the kiddos are in the Westin’s Kids Klub.    The Kids Klub also has field trips.

 

7. High Hampton Inn & Country Club – Cashiers, North Carolina in the Blue Ridge high hampton Mountains on a private lake where you can go fishing, boating or swimming.  There are a lot of activities planned for the entire family.  This would be a vacation spot that Blogger Hubby would enjoy.

 

 

8. Clevelands House – Minett, Ontario  On Lake Rosseau there are many things to do including taking water skiing lessons from their Ski School.  Adults have clevelands houseover 120 events they can partake of during each week.  Clevelands House has one, two and three bedrooms cottages so your family can all stay together.

 

 

9. Hilton Los Cabos Beach & Golf Resort – Cabo San Lucas, Baja Mexico.  Who doesn’t love Cabo?  You’ll enjoy swimming in the bay of the Se of Cortez or a diphilton los cabo in one of the pools at the Hilton.  Horseback riding, fishing or a walk on one of the nature trails affords your family some valuable time together.  There is also a camp for kids ages 4-18 though I question having a club for an 18 year old.

 

10. Cragun’s Resort and Hotel on Gull Lake – Brainerd, Minnesota – this resort sounds too good to be true.  Even though it is in Minnesota, it has activities for both summer and winter so it is a multi-season resort.  In the summer there are activities around the lake including every imaginable water sport you can think of as well as boat rental.  There are also court games (volleyball, tennis) as well as a program to teach children how to play golf.  In the winter you will make use of the indoor sports facility,  For outdoor activities there is ice fishing, snowmobiling, cross country skiing, snowshoeing and lots more.  This is another type of resort that Blogger Hubby would enjoy.

craguns

With this list I’m sure you’ll find some resorts that were previously unheard of (at least by me) but will meet your needs.  I know that we definitely will be looking at some of these for our next family vacation.  Wondering if you have been to any of these resorts and what you look for in a resort vacation.