Before I Die…

I’ve been taught that the best way to achieve your goals is to write them down. Having a written record of things you plan to do is the best way to keep yourself accountable. Many people choose to accomplish this by creating a “Bucket List”, or things that they plan to do/accomplish before they pass away. (have you seen the movie? total tearjerker).
Being that this is a travel-oriented website and blog, I figured I’d create my own list of travel goals. I can revisit this and update it as I knock things off the list. With that said, here we go!

Bon Voyage by Barbour’s

Travel Bucket List

Sigh.

1. Visit the Ancient Pyramids in Egypt

(would’ve been done this month, but then THIS happened…)

2. See/Snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef

3. Cruise the Panama Canal

4. Take a Gondola Ride in Venice, Italy

5. Visit Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

6. Attend the Summer Olympic Games

7. Toss a coin in Trevi Fountain

Done! 11/20/12

Done! 11/20/12

8. Visit the Acropolis in Athens

Done! 11/24/12

Done! 11/24/12

9. See the Grand Canyon

10. Go white water rafting

11. Climb Dunn’s River Falls (Jamaica)

DONE! 5/24/13

DONE! 5/24/13

12. Visit Machu Picchu

13. Zip-Line in Costa Rica

14. Kayak in a luminescent lagoon in Puerto Rico

15. See the Sydney Opera House in person

16. Ride a bullet train in Japan

17. Lounge on a beach in Thailand

18. Cruise the Galapagos Islands

19. Drive Highway 101 from Los Angeles to San Francisco (or vice versa)

20. Take a photo of London from the top of the London Eye

21. Visit the top of the Eiffel Tower

22. Take a River Cruise in Europe or Asia

23. Visit The Door to No Return in Ghana

24. Go on safari in Kenya or South Africa

25. Cruise down the Amazon River

26. View Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Done! 11/21/12No photos allowed inside

Done! 11/21/12
No photos allowed inside

I strongly advise you to take some time to complete a similar list. Mine is by no means finished and I will be adding to it as time progresses.

So my people, what would you add to your personal Travel Bucket List?

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Packing: The Bane of My Existence

I LOVE to Travel. This is the reason I became a travel agent. Leaving home to explore some new, unknown and exciting location gives me LIFE.

But I HATE packing. I hate it with the fire of 10,000 suns. I hate it more than Apple hates Samsung.

This is how packing makes me feel.           It sucks.

I have MASTERED the art of packing a carry-on bag for brief trips; for me, weekends and 4-5 day trips are a piece of cake. Even a one-week vacation doesn’t cause me much anxiety. But this two week adventure we are about to embark on? Whoooooole different story.

We have a number of challenges that are making this particular packing task a bit more formidable, such as:

1) The climate in our destination cities is pretty different from the one in Florida. We are accustomed to vacationing to the tropics, so to go to another destination with a more temperate climate is causing us stress. Although we were both raised in the Northern US, we don’t exactly remember how to dress for “upper 50’s/lower 60’s”. So we have a lot of sweaters, long sleeve shirts, short sleeve shirts and confusion thrown into our wide open suitcases.

2) The logistics of our journey are proving to be a challenge. We love that British Airways offers one free checked bag per passenger, but that does not bode well for our need to navigate through Termini train station in Rome, where thievery and pickpocketing already run rampant. For this reason we are trying to pack as light as possible. Reason #1 is making this whole idea of “packing light” not work so well.

3) Toss in the fact that we are cruising, and a whole other world of wardrobe opens up. Thankfully we are cruising Norwegian, who  is all about Freestyle Cruising and doesn’t stress the idea of a formal night, but still…it’s nice to have something to change into at night. On the other hand, the fact that we are cruising eliminates the need to unpack/repack multiple times which is great, since I hate packing sooooo much.

I am eternally thankful for Travel Fashion Girl and her packing lists, which have proved to be a God-send during this process.

Check this out!

Europe Packing List

But I still need help. So my people,  I am curious: how do YOU like to pack for a vacation? Do you have any tips you’re like to share with someone who hates packing as much as I do?

Touring the “Disney Dream”

Last year, before becoming a travel agent was anywhere on my life radar, I had the rare opportunity to spend a day aboard a brand new cruise ship, the Disney Dream. One of my childhood friends is employed by Disney and therefore has the ability to invite family and friends aboard the ship, either for a tour (such as we did) or to actually cruise. It’s a pretty wonderful and generous perk provided by Disney Cruise Line!

Disney Dream

Disney Dream

Disney Dream cruises from Port Canaveral, Florida on 3 to 5 day itineraries to the Bahamas. You can combine your cruise vacation with several days at Walt Disney World resort, as they are only an hour apart.

We had to send my friend our credentials (names, birth dates, drivers license numbers, DNA samples) to her prior our tour date. That way, getting through security would be easy peasy.

Oh – and I’m just kidding about the DNA sample.

We arrived to Port Canaveral and were in awe. There’s just something about being in a cruise port and seeing these massive ships en masse – and PC isn’t even one of the busiest ports! (Ever been to Miami?)

Disney Dream is a lovely ship. It’s a LARGE ship. We were welcomed onboard and were instantly in awe with the decor inside the main atrium. It’s elegant. Opulent. Disney truly pays attention to detail.

The Grand Atrium
from avidcruiser.com

She showed us around the public areas of the ship, pointing out the framed photos that actually changed as you stand in front of them. I’m a full-grown adult and was completely mesmerize, so I can only imagine how much a kid would’ve freaked out about this really cool feature. These paintings and photos are strategically placed throughout the ship.

We then headed to Cabanas to grab some lunch. Okay, we already know that cruise ship eating is the LIFE, and Disney did not disappoint! I wish I could tell you what we ate…just know we had plates full of food and stuffed ourselves silly. I want to stretch out and say I had shrimp or crab. All I know is my belly was happy after that meal. And dessert? Don’t even get me started. YUM.

Dessert Bar at Cabanas
from allears.net

Our tour guide tried to take us to some of the other restaurants, but they were closed as people began to arrive on the ship for their vacation. I really wanted to see the Enchanted Forest, which apparently TRANSFORMS as guests dine..but the doors were locked. (insert sad face)
Next she took us to the nightlife area of the ship. Most of the bars and nightclubs are located in close proximity to one another; although this is a Disney cruise, there is PLENTY of adult playtime available too. We were completely blown away by these venues. We checked out the nightclub, Evolution, and wished a DJ was there so we could dance! (The rhythm is always gonna getcha) The champagne bar, Pink, had such an appealing decor that we had trouble leaving the spot; it feels like you’re inside of a champagne bottle. No lie. This led us directly to Skyline, another bar with a backdrop that changes to a different cityscape while you relax. Loved it.

Skyline Bar
from disneycruiseblog.com

At this point it was time to visit the restroom. I wouldn’t normally mention the bathroom, but these public bathrooms were like none I’d ever seen before. They were so different that I had to take a picture. (which I’ll have to find later)

Finally we made it to the Lido Deck and did we REALLY wanted to do: got in line to ride the AquaDuck, Disney’s first at-sea water coaster. We changed into swimsuits and ascended the staircase into the funnel, where boarding for the AquaDuck occurs. There already was quite a line! We climbed into the two man rafts and took off! Chutes of water propel you throughout the ride, over small dips and bumps, around the top of the ship. It wasn’t the most exhilarating ride I’ve ever been on, but it was a lot of fun. Not to mention, we were doing this on a cruise ship!

AquaDuck

From there, we headed over to Senses Spa to check out the Rainforest Room. This included 4 or 5 different “shower pods”, where you could tailor the type of shower you experienced. They had shower options that gave you hot water, cool water, sideways water, water from below…crazy stuff. Naturally, since I was still in my swimsuit I was the guinea pig. Everyone stood around and laughed as I was attacked by water. Glad I could be of service, people…

This was an adventure...

Unfortunately we weren’t able to see any staterooms or suites, as this wasn’t an “official” ship tour. We were able to see crew quarters and man…please don’t ever complain about the size of your cabin again…the crew lives in cubbyholes! Our tour guide was fortunate enough to have her own room, but some folks aren’t so lucky.

One thing that really struck me was the manner in which guests board the ship. As you step off of the gangway onto the ship, your name is read aloud and everyone applauds. You feel like royalty! (advice: don’t cruise Disney Cruise Line if you are trying to be covert..because your name is announced to EVERYONE).

All in all, it was an amazing day aboard a beautiful cruise ship. I would LOVE to sail on Disney Dream one day in the future. There is so much to offer couples or families of any size!

For more information about booking a Disney Cruise, contact Bon Voyage by Barbour!

Travel Tuesday: When Your Cruise Itinerary Changes!

For the past 10.5 months, Mr. B and I have been extremely excited about our 10 Day Mediterranean Cruise booked on the Norwegian Jade. We chose this vacation based on the price and itinerary; it embarks from Rome – which is one of my top 5 places I want to visit – and had an overnight port-of-call scheduled in Alexandria, Egypt. Mr. B has been fascinated by Egyptian culture as long as I’ve known him, and seeing the Pyramids is a dream of his. I wasn’t arguing with the idea either. We had a great overnight tour planned with Ramses Tours that would take us to the Giza Plateau to see the Sphinx and Pyramids, along with a dinner cruise down the Nile River. I was also determined to get a pic on top of a camel in front of a Pyramid, no matter how much they may stink or spit.

Well, if you’ve watched the news in the past few months, you’ll recall that there was a lot of unrest in Egypt, Libya and other predominately Muslim countries in September, all of which stemmed from a viral video that made a mockery of the Prophet Muhammad. (this is a no no). The video led to an outbreak of violence in the region and, unfortunately, the loss of several American lives due to misguided Anti-American rage.
We kept a close eye on the situation, as our cruise was rapidly approaching. Royal Caribbean ended up cancelling their scheduled stop in Alexandia for Mariner of the Seas as a direct result of the protests and violence. That was probably a good call, as it was in the heat of the protests. In the meantime, my fellow cruisers and I remained in communication. Once it appeared the worst had passed, we all breathed a collective sigh of relief and continued our Cairo planning.

But not so fast. In early October, one of my fellow cruisers received an email from Norwegian that included the following statement:

We believe the ports in Egypt remain viable ports of call at the present time. However, because of the situation in the region and the feedback from guests, the company is cancelling Norwegian Jade’s scheduled stops in Egypt from November 21, 2012 to April 17, 2013 and will call in Istanbul, Turkey and Naples, Italy instead.

Upon reading this, I may or may not have collapsed onto the floor via a well-executed “wall slide”…

This is a Wall Slide

We understood that Norwegian did what they felt was in the best interest of its passengers. We understand that Egypt is unstable. We also understand that we are getting two new ports instead of the one we are missing. But we didn’t LIKE it. Especially since three earlier sailings are still docking in Alexandria.

While chatting with Mr. B and my fellow cruisers, I realized that we were all coping with this sudden change very similarly; we were all experiencing the Five Stages of Grief, as identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. (and yes, I used Wikipedia as a resource. Please don’t judge)

1. Denial

When I first saw that email, I refused to believe its authenticity. In spite of how detailed the information was – complete with a new itinerary – and the option to switch to one of those earlier sailings, I couldn’t accept that it was real. I checked NCL.com the next morning and our online itinerary still showed us going to Egypt. It wasn’t until I actually called and spoke with a human that I understood that we were no longer going to Alexandria.

It took Mr. B about two more days to realize that we were no longer going to Egypt.

2. Anger

Oh we were MAD. Some of my fellow cruisers cancelled their trip, either having been to or having no interest in our new ports of call. Others wrote strongly-worded letters to Norwegian or posted on their Facebook page. Others promised to never cruise NCL again. We just skulked about, really. I couldn’t see anything shaped like a pyramid without getting mad. When our Welcome Aboard kit arrived in the mail, Mr. B. smacked it to the floor. Just angry.

3. Bargaining

At this point, I attempted to change our sailing. Once Norwegian ensured that we could swap to one of the earlier dates, we spent the next several hours emailing our supervisors to confirm that we could get the earlier dates off instead. However, once we checked the cost of changing our flights, we realized that we couldn’t handle the $1300 increase in our fare (which didn’t include change fees). So much for that plan. (I’m a travel agent not a miracle worker!)

4. Depression

This stage didn’t last long. We were bummed for a minute, before realizing that we still had an AMAZING opportunity to cruise the Mediterranean, which is not an experience afforded to many. What was there to be sad about?

5. Acceptance

I’m here…I don’t know if Mr. B is just yet. I finally began researching our new ports of call, and you know what? We may not be going to Egypt, but we ARE going to some pretty interesting places! I’m looking forward to exploring Sultanahmet in Istanbul and taking pictures of the Amalfi Coast. Cairo isn’t going anywhere (God Willing), and hopefully we will have a chance to get there some day. We WILL enjoy our vacation, no matter what!

Travel Tuesday: Visiting Universal Orlando

Post UPDATED for 2014!

My goal with these Tuesday posts is to highlight a specific location or element of vacationing; there is so much to cover and I feel that I’ve been dedicating a lot of time and attention lately to cruising. As you can probably tell, cruise vacations are what I know best and are therefore my niche, but that’s not the only thing I know.
Today, I’m going to focus on an extremely popular family vacation destination that isn’t Walt Disney World: Universal Orlando resort.


First things first: Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World are owned by different companies. Some of you may know this, but many do not. There is no business relationship between the two parks, so if you go to Orlando with plans to visit both parks, expect to purchase two separate tickets.
Universal Orlando resort is comprised of three different elements – two theme parks (Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios) and their entertainment complex, Citywalk.
Universal Studios Florida is the original component of this now-vast theme park resort. The park opened in 1990 with the promise of letting its visitors “ride the movies”. And that it does. The attractions at Universal Studios are heavily based on both classic and contemporary films, with featured attractions such as “Revenge of the Mummy” (my personal favorite), “Twister”, “Shrek 4:D”, “The Simpsons Ride” and “Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem”. Over the years, they have redesigned and updated some of these rides to appeal to more contemporary audiences – for example, “The Simpsons Ride” used to be “Back to the Future”. They also added the park’s only bonafide roller coaster, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, in 2009. The park itself is split up into 6 different areas: Production Central, New York, San Francisco **, World Expo, Hollywood, and Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone.

* UPDATE: 2013 saw the addition of “Transformers 3-D” and a full expansion of The Simpsons region, complete with Springfield-inspired restaurants and shops.

Universal Studios is the home of some pretty great annual events that you don’t want to miss! Mardi Gras runs from February to April and features a nightly parade – with beads! – and a “free” concert every weekend by a national recording artist. Mardi Gras 2012 featured Kelly Clarkson, Diana Ross, Cyndi Lauper and Boyz II Men, to name just a few. (The concert is included with the cost of admission.) Another extremely popular event is Halloween Horror Nights, which runs from late September until early November. The park is transformed with haunted houses and random frights designed to scare the pants off of its visitors; for this reason, this is not the place for the kiddies. Halloween Horror Nights is NOT included with the price of admission; expect to pay a separate entrance fee.

Islands of Adventure is the sister park to Universal Studios Orlando. It opened in 1999 and is heavily focused in thrill rides and your typical “amusement park” atmosphere. This park is also home of the wildly popular Harry Potter attraction – “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” – which opened in 2010. They went so far as to completely reconstruct Hogwarts, which is truly a sight to behold! While Islands of Adventure has attractions that are film-based (Jurassic Park, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey), the goal of most of the rides are to get a scream out of the park’s guests (just check out The Incredible Hulk Coaster, which is my favorite ride in the park!!). Islands of Adventure also has Seuss Landing, with several rides designed for the little ones in your family.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

** UPDATE: 2014 will see the Diagon Alley expansion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which will be situated within Universal Studios and has replaced the San Francisco/Amity region of the park. A real life Hogwarts Express will link the two components together, however a park ticket granted admission to BOTH parks will be needed to experience them both!

Universal Citywalk is the third component to Universal Orlando Resort. The area is filled with restaurants, shops and nightclubs and charges no separate admission price to explore the area. Once you park in the garage, you will be directed into Citywalk before you arrive to the theme parks, which are connected to Citywalk on two different ends. After 10pm, the nightlife at Citywalk begins to pick up and the 8 nightclubs and bars on the property start jumpin’! At this point, the clubs begin charging a cover for entry. If you plan to bar hop, you can purchase a Citywalk Party Pass for $11.99 (which, in my opinion, is completely worth the cost).

In addition to its multiple attractions, Universal Orlando Resort offers three hotels that are located on the property: The Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel and Loews Royal Pacific Resort. Two MAJOR benefits to staying at one of these hotels, in addition to your proximity to the theme parks, are the fact that you will earn a FREE express pass with the purchase of park admission (express pass = skip the lines) and early access to” The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” at Islands of Adventure.

*** UPDATE: Universal’s newest resort, Cabana Bay Beach Resort, opens on March 31, 2014. This is a moderate and value priced resort that will allow families to enjoy the on-site amenities of Universal Orlando Resort in family suites or standard rooms.

 

Wet ‘n’ Wild Waterpark is also owned by Universal, and is located just down the street from the resort. This park is the home to some of the CRAZIEST waterslides you’ll ever see including the Bomb Bay, which will literally drop you 76 feet, almost vertically. If you prefer less action, there’s always the lazy river or the wave pool!

So there you have it – a comprehensive overview of Universal Orlando Resort. Interested? Here are the all-important details about pricing, as well as my personal recommendations on when to visit:

Ticket Prices (for 2014 season):

1 day, 1 park ticket : $92 (adult), $88 (child ages 3-9), 0-2 free

1 day, 2 park ticket : $128 (adult), $122 (child)

** admission to both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure

2 day, 2 park ticket: $146.99 (adult), $136.99 (child)

** admission to both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure

When to Visit:

Peak tourist season runs, understandably,  from June until September. Additional peak seasons are Spring Break (usually during March or April) and in December around Christmas/New Years. Kids are out of school and many working adults take vacation during these periods, so expect large crowds and long lines. In the summer, also be prepared to melt in the central Florida sun.

Being a Florida resident, we know to avoid theme parks during these peak seasons. If you want a less chaotic and more comfortable vacation, I strongly suggest you think out of the box. If possible, plan your vacation during January/February, or September through November. If this is not realistic for you and your family, aim for the early summer. Many international groups arrive to Orlando in July/August, making the parks unbearably crowded (in my opinion).

Although I love Disney for its nostalgia, I have to say that Universal Orlando is my favorite theme park in Florida. We’ve been there more times than I can count – thanks to annual passes – and have a wonderful time each visit. This vacation is fun for a family with kids or adults who just love having a good time!

A Guide to Cruising: Choosing Your Cruise

So it’s time to plan your next vacation and someone suggests the option of a cruise. If your cruising knowledge doesn’t go beyond the three hours you sat watching Titanic, don’t worry! There is a valid reason why this style of vacationing is so popular, and I plan to spend the next several minutes providing you with some basic information that will alleviate some of the concerns you may have as you plan your cruise vacation.

Choose Your Destination. For many first-time cruisers, the primary motivation behind planning a cruise is based on where the ship is going. Do you want to visit Jamaica? The Mediterranean? Alaska? Your itinerary will most likely guide your decision making process. Some first-time cruisers opt for shorter trips (3- or 4-day sailings) to make sure that cruising is right for them. These trips will typically take you to the Bahamas (from the East Coast of Florida) or Cozumel, Mexico (from the Gulf Coast). Or, if you are feeling confident, you can explore some of the longer itineraries that will take you to several different islands in one sailing. There are a wide variety of itineraries with different durations that might work for you!

Choose Your Cruise Line. Likely the secondary factor in choosing a cruise (especially for first-timers) is the cruise line. There are a number of companies out there, many of whom sail to many of the same destinations: how do you choose?

Each cruise line has its own personality, and its own price point. You want to ensure that you match your personality – and your budget – to the appropriate company. This will ensure that you not only enjoy yourself on the ship, but you have a vacation that you can afford (and possibly repeat, if you wish). Some examples:

First Tier/Commercial:

Second Tier/Upscale:

Third Tier/Luxury:

Pick a date. Now that you know where you’re going and which company you’ll be using, it may be time to figure out WHEN to go (if you haven’t done this already). Although most of the cruise lines travel year-round in the Caribbean, you should know that hurricane season runs from June 1 until November 1. Cruise prices may be lower at this time, but you may also run the risk of being diverted due to a nasty little storm. (Buy travel insurance). On another note, many Alaska cruises only operate during between May and November. These are factors you’ll certainly want to consider when planning your vacation!

Choose Your Cabin. So many decisions; so many cabins…how ever will you choose? The cruise line will help narrow this down for you. First things first; the price you see advertised (“7 DAY CARIBBEAN CRUISE FOR $499!”) is typically quoting you the price of an inside cabin. What’s that? Never thought you’d ask.

Inside Cabin: Located on the interior of the ship from the lowest deck to (sometimes) the highest deck. Price varies based on the location of the cabin. These cabins can sleep up to 4 people and are completely enclosed – no windows, porthole, or balcony.

Oceanview Cabin: Located throughout the ship, these cabins have a porthole or window to allow passengers a glimpse of what’s happening outside of the ship. Sleeps up to 4 people

Balcony Cabin: Each of these cabins comes with a private balcony, complete with deck chairs and a table. Allows passengers to enjoy the ocean from the privacy of their cabin. Can sleep up to 4 people.

The Suite Life

Suite: Typically located on the upper decks of the ship, these cabins are larger in size and have an included private balcony. Suites also include additional amenities to make passengers feel like VIPS, including express check-in, butler service, private breakfast, private courtyards and even a grand piano in the suite. Suites can sleep up to 8 people. (Amenities and occupancy vary, depending on the cruise line.)
You may also wish to consider the location of the cabin on the ship, when making your selection. Cabins located on the Forward of the ship tend to feel the “motion of the ocean” a little more and may not be advisable for those prone to seasickness. Passengers in Mid-ship and Aft cabins are less likely to feel the movement of the ship.

There! All of the pieces of the puzzle are together! Once you are ready to book, you will need to make an initial deposit to hold your cabin. For a standard cabin, this amount is usually $250 per person or 20% of the total cost of the cruise. If you’re booking a suite, the deposit will be more. You will typically have until 3 months before your departure date to make final payment.

My hope is that you will be working with a travel expert to assist you with this planning process. There are many pieces to consider and it can be overwhelming at times…but it doesn’t have to be. Planning  a vacation is supposed to be FUN and it can be, if you’re linked up to the right person!

Happy Travels!

C

Travel Tuesday: The Best Shore Excursion EVER

In honor of this week’s #Travel Tuesday , I decided to highlight one of the most AHH-MAZING cruise shore excursions I have taken to date: The Extreme Canopy Adventure in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I purchased this excursion during my 2006 Mexican Riviera cruise on the Carnival Pride. The experience is also offered on Norwegian Cruise Line under the same name, although the actual vendor (Vallarta Adventures) calls the excursion the “Outdoor Adventure“.

Let me start with a disclaimer: Despite my love for travel, I am not overly adventurous (read: scaredy-cat). I didn’t ride my first roller coaster until I was 16 (and now I love them), and the thought of bungee-jumping or skydiving makes me tremble to this day. I’ve had a habit of doing things conventionally, a tendency I am slowly trying to break.

I’m saying that to say, booking this particular excursion was a big deal for me. I was on a family cruise with three other family members, and when I pitched the idea of a “Canopy Adventure” to them, they looked at me like I had just slapped them all in the mouth. Open-handed. So I knew I was on my own.

I found myself, alone, at the Shore Excursion desk on the Pride getting ready to book the Canopy Adventure for $89.99. Reviewing the excursion brochure and speaking with the employee behind the desk, I realized that I could upgrade to the EXTREME Canopy Adventure for $50 more. The word EXTREME scared me, but I was already about to be flying through the rainforest on zip lines, so why not?

That decision to upgrade was one of the best I’ve ever made.

The morning of the excursion I was nervous. I followed instructions and packed an extra pair of clothes for after the tour. I kissed my family good-bye (I think; they may have been at breakfast) and headed to the pier where I met the tour group. I was the only person who was alone. (cue sad violin music)

We set off from the pier in the fastest boat I’ve ever ridden, bouncing over waves for 20 minutes until we arrived to our destination. My knuckles were white after that boat ride, but it was exhilarating!

Once we arrived to dry land, we all jumped in Unimogs and rode 15 minutes up the mountain to the tour site. We had to use grips on the roof to stabilize ourselves – bumpy roads and no seat belts! That was a very UNIQUE transportation experience, to say the least.

Unimog by Mercedes-Benz

We arrived to the “base camp”, as I’ll call it, where we were debriefed on everything we needed to know to survive the next three hours: how to use the zip lines, BRAKING (some people should’ve recieved extra time with this step), the logistics of riding a mule and how NOT to get kicked. (I should’ve received extra time with this step).

Yes, mules. I didn’t mention this part. After our Unimog ride, we then rode mules further up the mountain until we had to dismount them to hike to the first zip line. The only four-legged animal I’d ever ridden to that point was a carousel horse, so this was a BRAND new experience. Rule #1 that the staff members gave during our briefing was “do NOT walk behind the mule – they kick”. Rule #1. So the first thing I did? Walked behind the mule. Various Vallarta Adventures employees started fussing at me and I quickly realized my mistake. My bad. My mule showed mercy to me and did not kick me, so I think it was a successful day in all.

We dismounted our mule and continued the trek up the mountain. It was a tallll mountain, and I’m pretty sure we lost one or two companions along the way – this was a pretty strenuous and tiring hike. But once we got there…wow. The view was incredible. We were up high. Naturally, I couldn’t take my camera on this adventure so my personal photos from this adventure are quite limited.

Anyway, the first zip line was…intimidating. Long. High. I did not go first. But once I stepped off of that ledge? Wooooooooooooooooooooooooow. The whoosh of wind in my ears, the feeling of flying, the view: it was all incredible. And the excitement of knowing that we had 13 more zip lines to tackle. This experience was just GREAT.

One by one, we flew across zip lines, crossed a rope bridge and even rappelled down a waterfall. Things I’d NEVER thought I’d do, I was doing. And having a blast! The tour guides were complete professionals. One woman didn’t retain her braking instructions and flew right into one of the guides at full speed. Like it was nothing, he popped his dislocated shoulder back into place and kept it moving. O_O. (This must happen a lot. )

At the end of it all, we changed out of our soaking wet clothes, had a snack and reviewed the photos snapped by the professional photographers along the way. We jumped back in the Unimog, back to the speedboat, and re-boarded the ship.

;

…Where I collapsed into a heap of nap.

I shared all of this because I wanted to show how much FUN you can have by simply stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new. This excursion positively affected my perception of Puerto Vallarta and not knowing if/when I’ll ever return, I’m thankful to have this memory to retain for the rest of my life.

It’s easy to go into sticker shock at times when pricing the cost of the shore excursions on your cruise sailing, but if you take the experience into account, it’s more than worth it. Those $139 are gone, but 6 years later I’m still talking about this excursion. That means something.

Travel Tuesday: Visiting Indianapolis, Indiana

This past weekend I had the opportunity to travel to Indianapolis for a family gathering. Although the circumstances of our visit were somber, it gave me the opportunity to spend time in a city that I’d only previously seen blanketed in snow and sub-freezing temperatures. And I do NOT do well with cold weather!

I must say, I was thoroughly impressed with all that Indianapolis (a/k/a “Naptown”) has to offer, especially in their downtown area. I’ve always been attracted to the “downtown” areas of cities; even as a kid in Cleveland, if my parents told me that we needed to take a trip Downtown, I would get extremely excited. And as a fully-grown adult, I felt giddy inside when I was informed that we would be spending the day in downtown Indianapolis. Some things never change.

And let me tell you: their downtown did NOT disappoint. One of the most important factors to me when I’m assessing a new city is the “walkability” of their metropolitan area. (I know that “walkability” isn’t really a word, bear with me here!). Some cities, such as New York City,  are known for being pedestrian-friendly while others are much more spread out – Miami comes to mind. Indianapolis has everything you need for a lovely downtown experience right within reach, which is a major plus for city dwellers and visitors alike.

Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis

During our visit, we easily found parking at the garage at Circle City Center Mall, although there was street parking available as well. Parking garage rates were cheap to moderate: $1.50 for 3 hours or less, $15 for the entire day. Not too bad at all. I noticed later that much of the street parking was free on Saturday and Sundays; NICE! From that garage we would have been able to walk to Lucas Oil Stadium to watch the Colts play, the basketball arena, indoor ice-skating rink, shops, restaurants – wherever we wanted to go, we could get there on foot.

There is an abundance of shopping in the city, but we were focused on FOOD. We saw a few interesting-looking restaurants: Weber Grill (based on the Weber brand of barbeque grills), Palomino Restaurant and Bar and Tastings Wine Bar. We chose Rock Bottom Brewery, which is a chain restaurant that has no locations in the southern US (where we live). The menu was so enticing that it took me quite awhile to decide on my meal, but settled upon the Bourbon-Glazed Salmon:

SO. GOOD.

This food disappeared off of my plate. It was delicious. They also offered a sampler of their six specialty beers, all for $6. I’m not much a beer drinker so I didn’t order that, but I think that’s a pretty awesome deal.

The next day, we returned downtown to visit the Canal Walk, which I can’t say enough about. The portion of the Canal we visited is a 3 mile loop segment that starts downtown and heads South. We only walked about 1/2 mile before turning around, but had we kept going, we would’ve encountered the NCAA Hall of Champions (which we definitely need to visit, next time) and the Indiana State Museum. You can even access the Indianapolis Zoo, once the Canal connects with the White River. We saw people jogging, biking, walking their dogs and simply strolling on this beautiful September afternoon. We also saw people in paddleboats and gondolas – which could be a nice, romantic way to spend the day.

The portion we toured was the residential segment of the Canal, and I was very impressed with the real estate down there. There’s something about trendy, downtown living that speaks to me! We saw condos, apartments and single-family homes with some pretty cool Canal views; some with balconies overlooking the Canal. And the cost of living isn’t bad at ALL!

In all, this was a REALLY nice weekend in a VERY nice city. Many times when people are planning their next getaway, they look to the extravagance of the Mexican Riviera or the warm breezes of the Caribbean. Although there is absolutely nothing wrong with planning that big vacation, they take time to plan. In the meantime, there are usually hidden treasures located just a short drive away from where you live, and I feel that Indianapolis would fall into that category. Sports nuts, art lovers and history buffs would all have something to gain from a visit to this Midwestern City.  Just go while it’s warm! (lol)

Your Day In Paradise: Is a Destination Wedding Right for You?

Weddings are big business. Anyone who has planned a wedding or been close to anyone planning a wedding will testify to the thousands of dollars spent on the various factors that make a wedding “successful”;  venue, flowers, attire, food, alcohol, photography…the list goes on and on and onnnn.  According to this recent article in Reuters, the average cost of an American wedding is now $27, 021. Holy crap! It’s no wonder that Destination Weddings are becoming increasingly popular for couples looking to tie the knot without going broke!

If you are unfamiliar with the concept, please allow me to explain: in the purest sense of the term, a “Destination Wedding” is a marriage ceremony that occurs outside of the bride and/or groom’s current city or hometown. Las Vegas and Disney weddings are technically considered Destination Weddings, however for the purpose of this article, I will be referring to weddings held in the extraordinarily popular All-Inclusive resorts of the Caribbean and Mexico.

So what exactly is an All-Inclusive Resort? It’s a vacation concept that seems almost too good to be true!! Its name speaks for itself; packages include round-trip airfare, airport transfers, lodging, meals, snacks, drinks (including alcoholic beverages), non-motorized water activities, and resort activities. Some packages even include tips! Once you pay for your vacation package in full, you will only be responsible for your spending money while on vacation, as well as any spa services or tours you may choose to purchase. Everything else is covered!

Below the photo, I’ve listed some pros and cons to Destination Weddings at an All-Inclusive Resort. I can speak from personal experience on this, having decided to exercise this option for my own wedding. You will definitely need to consider these factors before deciding whether this is right for you.

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1. PRO: Cost, Cost, Cost and COST.

As I previously mentioned, the average stateside wedding in 2012 costs almost $28,000. Most All-Inclusive resorts have specialized wedding packages; many offer a FREE wedding ceremony if the bride and groom meet certain criteria (i.e. staying a certain number of nights at the resort, a certain number of guests). Additional packages vary based on various factors (number of guests, cocktail hour, indoor or outdoor reception, etc). The beauty of these packages are this: since the resorts are all-inclusive, you will not pay the exorbitant cost of food and alcohol that “European Plan” (ex. Marriott) hotels tend to charge. And many of the wedding packages start at $1,500 – yes…for the ceremony, reception AND flowers. Of course, you can add more details to your package which will increase the price, but the fact that the package can be customized truly speaks volumes to the flexibility of this wedding option.

All-Inclusive vacations, whether for a wedding or just general travel, offer a payment plan option. This feature may also be helpful in your planning. Once you decide where you wish to get married, expect to put down an initial deposit to hold your flights, lodging accommodations and wedding package. You will have anywhere between 30-75 days before your trip to make final payment.

Note: In most cases, wedding guests pay for their own travel and hotel accommodations. The bride and groom are not expected to finance their guests’ trips.

2. PRO and CON: The Guest List

A Destination Wedding will have an impact on your guest list; for some this is a motivating factor to choose this option, for others, a deterrent. People will not be able or willing to fly outside of the country to watch you tie the knot. Some have safety concerns about your destination. Others do not have a passport. Some simply cannot afford it.

On the other hand, there will be guests who have been in desperate need of a vacation and will use your wedding as an excuse. The people who do end up attending are the ones who REALLY want to be there. Either way it goes, in most cases all 200+ guests who would’ve attended your hometown wedding will not fly to Jamaica for your Destination Wedding. (There are always exceptions to this, of course). A smaller guest list is much more budget friendly. Conversely, Grandma may not be physically able to travel and may potentially miss your wedding. This is certainly something to consider in your planning process.

3. PRO: More Time to Spend with Guests

Think about the last stateside wedding you attended. How much time did you really get to spend with the bride/groom? Perhaps you gave them a hug in the receiving line, and they swung by your table at the reception to thank you for coming. It’s proper etiquette and nice gesture, but the interaction tends to be brief.

Not so much with a Destination Wedding. With everyone traveling and vacationing together as a group, you will have an ample amount of time to spend with your guests. You can plan a group tour to a local landmark or attraction, arrange group dinners, hang out at the bar or at the pool. It can truly be a bonding experience for you and your guests, plus relationships can be forged among people who would have never crossed paths in your daily lives.

3. CON: Legalities

Just as marriage laws and requirements vary from state, the same is true for foreign countries. Make sure you do your research before choosing the location of your Destination Wedding. In most countries where Spanish is the primary language, you are required to your citizenship documents into Spanish before applying for a marriage license; this is not free. Mexico requires a blood test before you can marry. Many Caribbean countries do not perform same-sex marriages. You will need to consider all of these factors in your planning process.

Some couples choose to get “legally hitched” in their home state before traveling to their Destination Wedding, therefore making the ceremony at the resort a “symbolic ceremony”. This removes many of the headaches involved with marrying abroad, but feels disingenuous to some couples.

4. PRO: Built-in Honeymoon

If you’re already in paradise, is there a need to take a separate honeymoon? Well, it depends on the couple (we did!); but it’s completely unnecessary! You can extend your stay at the resort, allowing you additional time with your loved ones, or transfer to another resort in the same area for a unique and private experience. This can prevent the cost of an additional flight, another way to save a few dollars and still have an amazing honeymoon experience.

5. PRO: Wedding Coordinator

Due to the distance of the bride and groom from the resort, plus the typical anxiety involved with wedding planning, most All-Inclusive Resorts offer an on-site Wedding Coordinator once you book a package. I can’t speak highly enough of Claudia, my wedding coordinator at the Barcelo Maya Palace in Riviera Maya, Mexico. E-mail was our best friend, and once we arrived to the resort, every minor detail we discussed via e-mail was in her file. The day was executed beautifully. It would be very difficult to plan such an important event without an on-site coordinator.

Now that you are armed with this information, what’s next?

Simple – contact me for a quote! Even if you know you want to have a Destination Wedding and are not sure where you’d like to get married, we can narrow it down together. If you’d like to conduct some independent research, an amazing resource is Best Destination Wedding. By using a travel agent, you can remove the hassle of managing your guests’ travel arrangements and simply focus on creating an amazing wedding day!

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Happy Travels!

Carla