Saturday, December 17, 2016

Christmas in New York City!

Skating rink and tree at Bryant Park
I've been to New York City several times, and I love it. I haunt Broadway, eat my fill, and snoop through the world-class museums. But in all my years of visiting, I'd never visited at Christmas.

Business had me nearby in mid-December this year, and I decided to fly in a few days early and see what all the fuss was about.

I'm so glad I did! NYC at Christmas IS cold. And it IS crowded. And it IS expensive. But there's just something so Christmasy about it that I can't help but love it.

I arrived a little after lunch on a Saturday and checked into the Bryant Park Hotel. This is one of my go-to hotels in NYC, mainly because of its unbeatable location and super-friendly staff. As a bonus - During the Christmas season, the park the hotel sits on transforms into Winter Village, complete with food vendors, an outdoor Christmas market, a beautifully lit tree, and an ice skating rink!

Once I got settled into the hotel, I headed to Winter Village to check it out. I started with a Nutella waffle from Waffles and Dinges and a lovely coffee. The market was absolutely packed on a Saturday afternoon, but I did manage to find a pair of gorgeous earrings for a friend and a pair of texting-friendly gloves for myself! It was fun to watch the skaters and admire the tree, as well!

Live nativity at the Christmas Spectacular at
Radio City Music Hall
After warming up back at the hotel for a bit, it was off to The Lambs Club for my dinner reservation. I arrived at around 5:30 p.m. and perched at a banquette in the bar area upstairs. For the next hour and a half, I paged through my Time Out magazine, munching buttered bread, fish, and vegetables in between sips of red wine. I liked this restaurant. They had a mix-up with my reservation, but it was quickly righted. The food is delicious (I would call portions "right-sized," not overly large.), and service is very quick and friendly. Prices are mid to upper range, depending on what you order.

After I paid my bill, it was off to catch a performance of Avenue Q at New World Stages! I'd tried to see this show on previous trips to NYC, but the planets had not aligned. I either got better tickets to another show, or, during one trip, visited during the show's one dark week moving from Broadway to off-Broadway! At any rate, I found the theatre with no trouble and settled into my seat.

Macy's windows!
The show was a HOOT, and I'm so glad I went! Featuring puppet characters operated by performers in full view, the show follows a naive college grad who moves to NYC and the relationships he builds with his neighbors. Funny and racy, the show delights in skewering society and its constructs. I thought that Jason Jacoby as Nicky/Trekkie Monster and Grace Choi as Christmas Eve were standouts, but the whole cast was good.

After the show, it was back to the hotel and to bed, admiring how the city had dressed up for the season along the way.

The next morning, I was up and at 'em early and headed to Herald Square. I couldn't wait to see the Macy's windows! They were as elaborate as I'd hoped, with interactive elements, animated characters, and plenty of holiday cheer! (At one window, you put your hand to the glass, and a machine activated to tell you if you'd been naughty or nice this year! Luckily, I was deemed "nice!"At another window, you played an interactive pinball machine! So fun!)

Breakfast at The Harold, on Herald Square
After enjoying the displays a bit, I walked across Herald Square to have breakfast at The Harold. I didn't have a reservation, but I was quickly seated at a table facing the window onto the square. I munched a benedict, sipped my coffee, and watched New York City buzz by outside. I really enjoyed this place. Good food, reasonable prices, and great service. Plus, the view was nice!

After breakfast, I was off to see more windows. I found Lord & Taylor (a fun woodland theme!), and then headed down 5th Avenue. I pressed my face to the glass at Sak's (a take on the Nutcracker, with lots of animation) and braved the hustle and bustle at Rockefeller Center to see the tree and the skating rink! Further down 5th, I caught the displays at Tiffany's (small and exquisite), Bergdorf Goodman (rich jungle layers), and Barney's (modern and . . . odd).

All kinds of lovelies at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art
By this time, my legs were frozen! I decided to spend the rest of the day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I hadn't been in a few years, and I LOVE the place. A tip - Don't go in the main entrance at the top of the steps. Buy your ticket online ahead of time (I always buy a ticket to support the museum.), and then enter through one of the ground-floor doors. (Lines for entry and coat check are much shorter there.)

I spent the next several hours poking through the first floor of the museum. I love the Temple of Dendur and the Egyptian collection, and I usually go there first. Then, it was on to the armor and weapons (because if you're going to get stuck with a sword, I think it should at least be a beautiful, jewel-encrusted sword). After that, I browsed the medieval collection, which, during the holidays, includes the towering Angel Tree. Such a meaningful sign of the season!

By this time, I was getting hungry again, so I headed to the Petrie Court Cafe. I was a single diner, so even though they had several tables available, they were going to make me wait for a small table. However, I noticed another woman who was also dining singly, waiting. On a whim, I asked her if she'd like to dine together so as to be seated sooner. She happily agreed.

I spent the next hour or so getting to know Margot, and she was a delight!! She was in town for a friend's 80th birthday, serves on a museum board, and is originally from Louisiana. We had so much fun chatting, and we exchanged cards before the meal was over. As Margot wisely said, "There's no such thing as a coincidence! We were meant to meet today!" I couldn't agree more!!

Even the lions at the New York Public Library
get into the holiday spirit!
After lunch, I toured most of the first floor before popping out to freshen up for the evening. By the time I left the hotel again for my dinner reservation, it was snowing!! I walked to cozy db Bistro Moderne for dinner, where I was welcomed and immediately seated. I ordered a glass of red wine and a rare steak frite. The service was so, so friendly and attentive, and the food was so very good. I took my time and savored each bite as the snow fell lightly outside the door, feeling very grateful to be in NYC on such a night! When I was finished with dinner, I got a cup of hot cocoa to go and made my way to Rockefeller Center again to see it all lit up. Gorgeous. I also stopped in a St. Patrick's Cathedral, as I hadn't seen it since the restoration was complete.

Then, I headed to Radio City Music Hall. I had tickets to the Christmas Spectacular (featuring the Rockettes), and I didn't want to be late! I showed my ticket at the door, got my 3D glasses, and settled in. What followed really WAS spectacular, a brilliant mix of live orchestra, singers, the precision dancing of the Rockettes, some 3D effects, and a live nativity that blew the doors off the place. Of all the things I did in NYC during my visit, this was the most amazing. I just can't recommend it enough. If you leave this show without feeling the Christmas spirit, you must not have a pulse.

The beautiful reading room at the New York Public
Library. Because I can never visit it enough.
After the show, I made my way back to the hotel. The next morning, I got a quick breakfast and spent some time wandering around the New York Public Library (They have two free exhibits open now - one of Alexander Hamilton and one of the prints of Geurard.) and Grand Central Station (with a decorated train set in the transportation museum - so cute!). Festive decorations and hustle and bustle everywhere! (The only bad news? The Campbell Apartment is still closed for renovations. Boo. Hiss.)

I didn't spend too much time in NYC over the holidays, but it was enough to make me consider a trip there next year! Lights, snow, cocoa, skating, trees!! If I did it, I'd fly in on Sunday and do my sightseeing during the weekdays, as I noticed considerably fewer crowds out and about on Monday than on the weekend. What a wonderful time of year to be in the city!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Bradshaws Take on Fabulous Florida! (cont.)

Sunrise over the Atlantic, as seen from the 20th floor
The next morning, we took our time waking up, having breakfast, getting ready, and packing. Then, we picked up our rental car at the handy Hertz desk in the lobby of Cabana Bay. After checking out, we loaded into the car and drove a little over an hour to lovely Daytona Beach! When planning our trip, we'd decided that after three full days at theme parks, we'd be in need of a bit of decompression. Daytona Beach is one of the closest beaches to Orlando, so it was an easy choice!

By the time we arrived, we were jonesing for lunch, so we stopped at Ocean Deck, where we feasted on fried shrimp with a lovely ocean view. You can sit in or outside, and the restaurant is right on the beach! Portions are generous, the shrimp was delicious, and prices are reasonable. Clay loved that his meal came in a frisbee he could keep!

This boy loves the ocean.
After lunch, we headed to our condo. We'd booked a one bedroom (with a fold-out couch for Clay) with an ocean-facing balcony at Ocean Walk. This development was lovely, and so convenient! First of all, it's right on the beach. Take the elevator down to the lobby, walk out through the pool area, and you're right there. Secondly, it has oodles of pools - one with a fun water slide, another one sans slide, a big splash pad for the smaller set, a lazy river, plus two indoor pools and two outdoor spas. Third, it's also on a really nice boardwalk. You can stroll down past a shopping/dining area that's connected to the development, markers about the area's racing history, other resorts, and then a small amusement park area with a couple of rides.

In addition, the resort's pool area has "take a toy, leave a toy" for beach and pool paraphernalia, a small bar, and plenty of free beach towels for resort guests. Not only that, they have small indoor putt putt course and arcade. Needless to say, Clay was in heaven.

The water slide at Ocean Walk!
That first day in Daytona Beach, Clay and I spent an overcast afternoon on the beach. Clay loves the ocean, and so do I. After a relaxing afternoon with the waves, we walked next door to the shopping and dining development and had happy hour appetizers (chicken tenders, spinach/artichoke dip, and some sweetly spicy  shrimp) and drinks at Mai Tais bar and restaurant. They had a beautiful outdoor seating area with a view of the ocean. Tuckered out from a long day, we headed back to the condo and snuggled into bed!

Because of the time change, Clay and I were awake at sunrise the next morning. We wrapped blankets around ourselves and watched the sun peep up over the ocean from our balcony, then returned to bed to cuddle. When we got hungry for breakfast, we decided to try out some local spots. We first tried the Starlite Diner, which is right across the street from our development. Sadly, it had been ravaged by Hurricane Matthew a few weeks before. I think it will be a long time before it re-opens. Then, we tried Donnie's Donuts. Ditto, though that building did look like it was in better shape. We settled for IHOP, where I chose the nutella and banana crepes, and Clay got waffles.

The boardwalk at sunset
Sated, it was time for more fun in the sun. They day was bright, so we hit the beach and the pools! Clay and I played in the lazy river, frolicked in the waves, and took turns whooshing down the water slide! (It really was fun, even if I WAS one of the only adults enjoying it!) After a morning of play, we all walked down the beach to eat a late lunch at Crabby Joe's. I had their yummy crab cake sandwich with onion rings! (This place was so convenient. It sits out on a pier over the water and offers great views. The food is good and not too pricey. They also have great cocktails!)

After resting a bit at the hotel, we decided to catch a movie in the theatre next door to Ocean Walk. We reserved fully reclining seats for Marvel's Dr. Strange. Very cushy! We enjoyed the movie and headed back to the condo for showers and bed.

The next morning, after another glorious sunrise, we decided to get in the car and find a real, local breakfast. We ended up at Dancing Avocado Kitchen, which became a fast favorite! First of all, the place has this fun, quirky vibe. It's decorated with kitsch (There was a shark head with a sombrero on it hanging on the wall.) and TONS of personality. Secondly, the menu is varied, and the food is GOOD. I had the mushroom swiss omelette with breakfast potatoes and toast, and it was filling and fabulous! Clay chose the chocolate chip pancakes. Service is sweet and friendly, and the restaurant is in this really cute downtown area with other shops and attractions, across the street from a green space.

Chocolate making!
After breakfast, we browsed in the magic shop a few doors down, buying Clay a beginner magician's kit with some rope tricks and other illusions in it. Then, we strolled into the Angell & Phelps Chocolate Factory, where we got a short, free tour on how they make delicious small-batch chocolates. (They showed us where they make taffy and brittle, how they create chocolate covered cherries, and pointed out the vats of melted chocolate. We even got to see the moving belt on which hand-placed pretzels get enrobed in chocolate, cooled, and collected! Fun!) The tour ended with free samples, and the candy was delicious!

After our tour, we got back in the car and returned to the resort. We walked up and down the beach and played with Clay's free frisbee a little bit! (For a klutz, I thought I did remarkably well!) Then, we got a special visitor! Hubs' little brother, Steven, drove into Daytona Beach to see us! He lives a little over and hour away, and it had been AGES since we'd seen him! It was so good to see his sweet face and catch up with him! Late that afternoon, we all walked back down to Crabby Joe's, where we ordered drinks and big steamer buckets of crab, corn, and potatoes. Seriously yum, and the company was fabulous! We finished up at around 5 p.m., when the pier closed, and watched the little amusement park at that end of the boardwalk spring to life as the sun started going down.

Steven stayed and chatted with us for a while back at the condo, and then I took Clay to the indoor putt putt course so Steven and hubs could catch up a little. Then, it was time for him to go home, and time for us to hit the showers and the hay.

It's hard to beat steamer buckets at Crabby Joe's!
The next morning, we took our time waking up and getting packed. Then, it was off to the Dancing Avocado Kitchen for one more delicious breakfast before making our way back to Orlando. The Hertz agent at Cabana Bay had convinced that it was more economical to return our car there and catch a cab to the airport. Since we were still a bit early, we played games in the arcade for an hour or two before setting off for the airport. Two flights later, we were home!

On this family trip to Florida, we planned for a good balance of go-go-go excitement and relaxation. I really enjoyed Universal Studios Orlando, and Ocean Walk in Daytona Beach couldn't be beat! I can't wait for our next trip!

The Bradshaws Take on Fabulous Florida! (cont.)

Ready for adventure!
On Day 2 at Universal Studios, we were again up and at 'em for early park entry. After breakfast at Bayliner Diner, we hopped the shuttle and got to the park gates before the line got very long. On the way in (and to Diagon Alley), we noticed that Despicable Me Minion Mayhem was already open. We stopped for a no-wait ride. It was so cute! It's more of a 3-D show with moving theatre seats and some additional effects than a ride, but we loved it!

After enjoying this ride, we made our way to Diagon Alley, where we caught a no-wait performance of the wand-choosing ceremony at Ollivander's. Then, we went into the wand shop and let Clay pick out an interactive wand. Ollivander's sells two types of wands - non-interactive ($25) and interactive ($50). The interactive wands can be used to make magic within the parks. Clay picked out one similar to Dumbledore's wand from the movies, and we were off to make magic! This is so fun! The wands come with maps to where you can cast spells in both Harry Potter parks. Over the course of that day and the next, we worked every spell marked. Clay made feathers levitate, opened up boxes full of chocolate frogs in shop windows, and had big fun exploring the dark corners of Knockturn Alley. (At one spell station, an eye appears in a door when you cast your spell. If you then try to OPEN the door, a blast of air shoots out at you! A fun surprise!)

After doing a good bit of magic, we realized the rest of the park was opening up. We backtracked to Revenge of the Mummy, checked our wand in a free locker, and rode it twice, back to back, with no wait. This ended up being one of my favorite rides in the park! So old school and fun! Fire on the ceiling, mummies that jump out at you, and plenty of spills and chills! While we were in the area, we also rode Transformers: The Ride-3D with almost no wait. I really liked this one. It's more in the vein of Escape from Gringotts in that it combines some motion, 3-D, and other effects to create a full experience.

Watching a baby raptor hatch at the Jurassic
Discovery Center.
We decided to take the Hogwarts Express again to the other park. This time, there was almost no wait (YAY!), so we were quickly on our way. Also, because there was no line this time, we got the chance to film and take pictures of ourselves "disappearing" into Platform 9 3/4. This is a really cool effect!

Once we got to Islands of Adventure (the other park), we practiced our magic a bit. We next checked out the Jurassic Park Discovery Center, where we heard all about how they care for their baby triceratops, explored what fossils lie beneath the rock wall, looked through the eyes (and roared through the vocal chords) of dinos, and watched a baby raptor hatching.

Hubs and I needed to sit a spell, so we let Clay loose in Camp Jurassic. He LOVED this place, but came out dripping wet!! It was about 11 a.m., so we grabbed lunch al fresco (and in the sunshine) at Thunder Falls Terrace (OUT of the splash zone). I'd heard that this place was really yummy and served real food. It didn't disappoint! We had delicious ribs, chicken, corn on the cob, and salad.

Ok, so maybe we got a *little* wet in
Camp Jurassic . . . 
Clay was still pretty damp, so we took him to one of the people dryers near Ripsaw Falls to dry him out. (I didn't want wet socks and shoes leading to blistered and painful feet.) Full of good food and nice and dry, we popped back over to Hogsmeade to catch the Hogwarts frog choir performance and walked out of the park through Seuss Landing, riding the Caro-Seuss-el and snapping goofy pictures. We were pretty pooped that night, so we didn't return to the park. We stayed in, had lunch at Bayliner Diner, and walked around the resort.

On our last day at Universal, we started by riding Gringotts again, with almost no wait! (Now that we had our wand, we had to check it in one of the free lockers. Just know that you can't take the wand on some of the more fast-paced rides.) Once we'd done that, we explored Diagon Alley and bit more and then backtracked to the front of the park to ride Shrek 4-D. (This one was really fun! Similar to the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem attraction.) While Clay and I did that, hubs rode Rip Ride Rockit twice, with no wait. (Clay was *just* tall enough for this one, but it looked too scary for him. So, we went to Shrek while hubs got in the very short single rider line.)

After that, we crode The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman Ride in 3-D! We hadn't spent much time in the Marvel Super Hero Island part of the park, and Clay loved this ride. Very similar to the Transformers ride - some motion, video, and special effects to create the illusion that you're fighting bad guys all around the city. The wait time, too, was really cute and entertaining, as you wind through the newspaper offices and get your assignment from J.J. Jameson.

Lunching at Three Broomsticks!
The whole time we'd been at Universal, we'd been trying to ride Skull Island: Reign of Kong. But there was always a 60-90 minute wait. A quick check of the app showed the wait time at 25 minutes, so we went over and got in line. The line moved really quickly, and we were very close to the end of it when the line just stopped moving. A voice came over the loudspeaker that the ride was having a malfunction. (Sad face.) They shut it down, giving all of us express passes to come back when it opened later in the day. It never did, so we missed this one. (Shoot.)

By this time, we were getting hungry for lunch. We popped over to Three Broomsticks for fish and chips, cottage pies, chicken tenders, and butterbeers. Afterwards, I sneaked into Honeydukes and bought Christmas candies! They will deliver purchases to your on-property hotel or hold them for you at the front of the park so you don't have to lug them around all day.

Then, we chatted a bit with the Mystic Fountain and headed in to The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad Stunt Show, which features live action stunts, fire and water effects, and really corny comedy. (The more groan-worthy the jokes, the better Clay likes them! I'm rolling my eyes, and Clay is typically laughing like a mad man! Heh.) This was a fun way to cool our heels for a bit. The stunts are cool to see, and you get a little wet if you sit in the splash zone! (Note: Poseidon's Fury, another show, was closed for renovations during our visit. Visiting any park during off or shoulder season usually means that some rides/attractions will be closed for maintenance or repairs. The trade-off is lower prices and less crowds.)

Taking aim at Bilge Rat Barges riders from The Olive
We explored Seuss Landing, where we rode Cat in the Hat and the Seuss Trolley. (These rides are for the smaller set. But Clay loved Dr. Seuss when he was little, and I am trying to hang onto his baby years! Don't judge me!)

Still going strong, we popped back to the super hero side of the park. Brian wanted to ride The Incredible Hulk Coaster. While he did that, Clay and I rode Storm Force Accelatron twice (no waits at all!) and got pics with Wolverine!!  Then, we met back up and explored the nearby play area  Me Ship, The Olive, gleefully spraying folks riding on Popeye and Bluto's Bilge Rat Barges ride with those handy water cannons!

Winding down for the day, we stopped by Reign of Kong again to see if was re-opened. No dice. So, we used our express passes to ride Forbidden Journey again, and then took the Hogwarts Express BACK to Diagon Alley. (We hadn't done this so far, and I recommend it! The show is different each way, so you get a new experience!) Back on the other side of the park, we walked out slowly, saying goodbye to Universal!

As we were leaving, we noticed that the E.T. Adventure ride had no wait time! We walked right in, and I'm so glad we did. I LOVED this ride. You sit on old-school bikes, and tears nearly sprang to my eyes when we rode out over the city all lit up at night, crossing the moon along with Elliot and E.T. (This made me think of the Peter Pan ride at Disney World. A very powerful illusion.) This story was one from my generation, and the ride hit me right where I live.

To sum up our adventure in Universal Studios, I'd say that the Harry Potter parts of each park are both wonderful, especially when you can experience them at low-crowd times. Other favorites included Revenge of the Mummy and Ripsaw Falls. Looking back, I don't know if staying on property was worth it for us on this trip, because (as I mentioned before) the WHOLE PARK doesn't really open early. Perhaps if we'd stayed at one of the pricier properties (which include express passes), this would have been a more valuable benefit. (But, Lord, it does rankle to pay extra for an express pass at Universal when Disney provides fast passes for popular rides for FREE, letting you maximize your time in the park. When I compare Universal to Disney in this regard, there's no contest. Disney has come up with a better way to control crowd flow in its parks. Which is genius, really, because the time you spend standing in line isn't revenue-generating time. You aren't browsing the gift shop or getting an ice cream or otherwise spending any dollars. It's smart for the park to minimize your wait time as a customer.)

That night, after dinner at Bayliner Diner, it was sitting around the fire pit and taking a dip in the sauna before packing up for the next part of our adventure - Daytona Beach!

More to come . . .

The Bradshaws Take on Fabulous Florida!

During the past year or so, little man has read all of the original Harry Potter books. He'd read a book, then watch the movie. Then read the next book, then watch the next movie. And when he was done, he also read Tales of Beadle the Bard, which is the book of wizarding fairy tales that Dumbledore bequeaths to Hermione. He loved the fantastical, magical world of Harry Potter.

So, hubs and I decided to enchant him a bit further with a trip to Universal Studios Orlando, which features two Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme parks. A quick consult of the park's crowd calendar told us that early November was a low-crowd time to visit, and our friendly hive mind on Facebook let us know that three full days at the park would allow us to take a "deep dive." Off we went!

We decided to stay at one of the park's official properties. We chose Cabana Bay because it offered good value, featured a free (and frequent) shuttle both to and from the parks, and allowed us to access at least one park per day early. (More on this later.)

We flew through Atlanta and arrived at Cabana Bay shortly after lunch on a Saturday. We'd decided not to visit the parks that first day, opting instead to settle into our hotel and relax after our flights. This was a really good decision! First of all, our hotel - Cabana Bay is a HUGE property. It offers a variety of rooms in different styles (traditional, suite-style, rooms with kitchens, etc.), and they are clustered around two large, beautiful outdoor activity areas. In one area, there's a lovely pool, a lazy river, a spa, a small bar, a small splash pad, and a large sandy beach area with lounge chairs and games. There are also two fire pits in this area. In the other area, there's a really large pool with a fun water slide, a larger splash pad, a spa, a bar, a green lawn where evening movies are shown using a projector, and a fire pit or two. We really enjoyed spending time in both of these areas during our time at the resort. The pools are amazing!

The aesthetic of the hotel is mid-century modern, and it is beautifully executed throughout the property. Cheerful colors, Eames-style chairs, modern light fixtures, and palm trees reaching skyward in the lobby.

The goblins at Gringotts regard interlopers
rather severely.
We arrived shortly before our room was ready. First things first - I traded our park ticket vouchers for actual tickets at the guest services desk. That done, we checked our bags and stopped for lunch at Bayliner Diner, the big cafeteria-style eatery at the property. We LOVED this place and ended up eating there often. You can choose several different lines: salad bar, pre-packaged to-go foods, grill (hamburgers, hot dogs, etc.), pizzas and sandwiches, and then more "real food choices" (think meat and three). You could also pick up desserts, snacks, s'more kits (for use at the on-property fire pits) and more.

You got your food FAST, it was very reasonably priced, there were plenty of healthy options, and it was delicious! Perfect for families and large groups! By the time we finished lunch, our room was ready. We picked up our bags at the front desk and checked in.

We'd chosen a traditional room. Nothing fancy, just two double beds and a bath. The room offered plenty of storage and mirrors for getting ready in the mornings (smart).

After we'd rested a bit, we headed out to the pools! Clay donned his suit, grabbed his swim goggles, and off we went. We first tried the pool on the lazy river side of the development. The side we sat on is zero-grade entry, and Clay happily played with the other kids in the pool for an hour or two. Then, the two of us played some beach games for a while. (Giant versions of Connect Four! What fun!) After that, we checked out the other pool. Clay loved the water slide! Not too scary, but plenty of thrills and spills for a 9-year-old! After an afternoon of fun in the sun, it was back to the hotel room to freshen up for dinner.

We went to Universal's CityWalk shopping/dining/entertainment development to take a look around and rustle up our evening meal. We hopped the free shuttle to CityWalk right outside the hotel, and within 10 minutes, we were going through the quick security check. The buses let you off in front of escalators and stairs. Up those, you go through security, then take two moving walkways to CityWalk.

There's so much to see at CityWalk, especially when it's all lit up at night! They have tons of restaurants and shops, a movie theatre, and some entertainment venues. We walked around a bit, then popped into Emeril's for dinner. Even though we didn't have reservations, because this restaurant is at a higher price point than most of the offerings in CityWalk, we were able to be seated quickly. I had a specialty pasta with a glass of red wine, hubs had lobster bisque and salad with a cocktail, and Clay had chicken tenders. We had great service, and the food was delicious. After dinner, it was back to the hotel for bed!

The next morning, we were up and at 'em early. Guests at Universal Orlando properties get early admission (1-hour early) to one park of the resort's choosing each day, and we didn't want to miss it! (All three days we were there, we got into Universal Studios, where the Diagon Alley portion of the Harry Potter theme park is, one hour early.) We had a big, delicious breakfast at Byliner Diner, which opens at 7 a.m. Then, we caught the shuttle to CityWalk/the parks at 7:45. A little after 8 a.m., we were in the mid-sized line to get into the park.

A word about the early-entry benefit - Though Universal may say the park opens early, it really doesn't. In reality, most of the park is still closed when it "opens" to on-property guests at 8 a.m. The only thing that REALLY opens early is the Harry Potter portion of the park. So, of course, all of the on-property guests pack in there. I thought this completely defeated the purpose of the "benefit" of having extra time in the park. If the WHOLE park (Revenge of the Mummy, the Simpsons, ET Adventure, Transformers, etc.) really HAD BEEN open early, at 8 a.m., this "benefit" would have helped me as an on-property guest. But most of that other stuff didn't open until 9 a.m., or sometimes 10 a.m.! So, in reality, the whole exercise kind-of defeated the purpose. We were in the park early, but it wasn't any less crowded, because we were all in the only part of the park that was actually open early.

The fire-breathing dragon atop Gringotts is soooo cool!
Anyway, we got in and headed straight for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley. The theming in this part of the park is intense. You walk through a passageway in a brick wall on a "normal" London street (You can dial MAGIC in the red telephone booth just outside to hear a message from the Ministry of Magic.), and suddenly, the wondrous alley is revealed to you. (Very dramatic.)

Once we caught our breath, we got in a pretty short line to ride Escape from Gringotts, which we loved! While you're in line, you get to see the Gringotts lobby, where the goblins are going about their work. Some of the paintings talk to you, and as you wend your way through the areas leading to the vaults, you see shadows and hear conversations through the office windows. Then, you watch a short film that sets up the journey, take the elevators "down" to where you board the carts, pick up your "safety glasses," and board.

This amazing ride combines true motion, 3-D video, and other effects to send you down through the Gringotts vaults. You meet up with Harry, Ron, and Hermione; narrowly escape being toasted by dragon fire; and flee the killing spells of Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange. We loved this ride and rode it twice during our visit!

After escaping Gringotts, we explored Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley. In Borgin and Burkes, we heard a bird tweeting in the vanishing cabinet. The mirror in Madame Malikin's told us we looked fabulous! Nagini spoke parseltongue to us in the glass case behind the magical menagerie, and we caught a performance by Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees on the park's stage. We also checked out the Knight Bus, where you can have a chat with the driver and the shrunken head!

Jurassic Park is lit up beautifully at night!
The rest of the park opening by this time, we popped out of Harry Potter to ride the Men in Black Alien Attack ride (really fun, and similar to the Toy Story ride at Disney). I enjoyed this ride, but as half of it broke down while we were waiting in line (thus halving the number of riders they could accommodate), we waited in line too long for it. We followed that up with The Simpsons Ride (a 3-D affair that I really disliked - not much real movement, closed-in space with no air) and Kang and Kodo's Twirl 'n' Hurl (think Disney's Dumbo ride, but with a different theme, and there was zero wait).

By this time, we were getting hungry for lunch. We headed back to Diagon Alley and bellied up to meals at The Leaky Cauldron. We had cottage pies and butterbeers! Butterbeer is very sweet (almost like a dessert) and very good. We found that you could get waters, then get one butterbeer for everyone to share, and it was usually plenty. Our tummies full, we headed for the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade.

Whew. This line was loooooong, much longer than I expected during low season. We must have just hit it at the absolute wrong time. We waited more than half an hour before boarding, which *I* think is entirely too long. And unlike other park attractions, there's nothing to keep you entertained while you wait. We finally got on the train, which takes you from Diagon Alley (in the Universal Studios park) to Hogsmeade (in the Islands of Adventure Park). It's a short, comfortable ride during which you see the shadows of Ron, Harry, and Hermione (and hear them talking) in the train car, watch London go by out the window, and narrowly miss an encounter with a dementor. Pretty soon, you're pulling into the station in Hogsmeade, which is also wonderfully themed!

We looked around a bit, but we didn't spend too much time in Hogsmeade that first day, as it was crowded. We had other plans! We headed for the Jurassic Park River Adventure. We'd seen on the park's app that lines were really short for it, and we were ready to get wet! (In general, we found the official theme park app very helpful. It's just a little bit behind on wait times. So, for example, the app might say that wait times for an attraction are 15 minutes, but there are in actuality about 20 minutes. It was often about 5 minutes off, but not usually more inaccurate than that.) This ride was so much fun! It's not really scary, but you're always waiting to find out when you'll get soaked! We all loved it! (A note - At the end of the ride, as you're beginning to pass under a bridge, guests standing on the bridge above have the opportunity to soak you. Watch out!)
Soaked but thrilled on Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls!

After this ride, since we were wet anyway, we decided to check out Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls. There was no wait, so in we went! At first, Clay was a little nervous about the big drop at the end, but he loved it! We were completely soaked by this time, so we decided to head back to the hotel room for a break and to dry off.

On our way, we made a pit stop at the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium for a snack. Clay and I split one of the eatery's HUGE sundaes. Delicious! A note - We saw families coming here and getting a sundae or a milkshake for each person. These things are expensive - $10-$13 each. And because they are so big, most folks would eat about a third of it and leave the rest. Don't make this mistake! Plan to share, and you'll waste less money and ice cream!

After a break (and drying out) at the hotel for a bit, it was time for more fun! We came back to the park that night at around 5 p.m., and the park closed at 7 p.m. As the parks were emptying out, we headed back to Hogsmeade to catch the attractions that had been crowded earlier in the day. First, we rode Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which was really fun! The wait in line was really short, but for this ride, the line is really part of the attraction. You are walking through Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. You see the big towers of jewels that measure how each house is doing on points towards the house cup. Harry, Ron, and Hermione explain the world of the ride to you. The fat lady admits you (grudgingly) into the Gryffyndor common room, and you visit Dumbledore in his office, where you can see the pensieve. You even get to see the sorting hat, and it talks to you!
As you wait in line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden
Journey, the sorting hat talks to you!

Once you get on the ride, in many ways, it's similar to the Gringotts ride. It combines video, real motion, and other effects to zoom you all around Hogwarts, encountering dementors, visiting the Chamber of Secrets, and participating in a Quidditch match. So fun! When we finished this ride, we went right onto Flight of the Hippogriff (no line), which is a smaller, not-too-scary roller coaster.

We still had time before the park closed, so Clay and Brian rode Pteranodon Flyers. As this brief, two-person ride is really geared towards the smaller set, they only allow an adult on if they are flying with a child. While they went through the ride, I cooled my heels and explored the Camp Jurassic play area a bit, making a mental note to return here before we left Universal.

After a looooong day, it was back to the hotel for a little grub at Bayliner Diner and a soft bed!

More to come . . .

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Back in DC! (cont.)

A piece of the Berlin Wall. You can actually
touch it!
On my third day in the city, I slept in and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the hotel. Then, it was off to Newseum. I still can't believe it took me this long to visit a museum dedicated to the press and the First Amendment.

First of all, this place is HUGE. I spent pretty much the whole day there to see it all. You enter at the ground level, pick up your map, and proceed downstairs. There, you can watch a free orientation video, view the Berlin Wall gallery (They have actual pieces of the Berlin Wall on display that you can touch.), and explore a rotating exhibit. The exhibit on display when I visited was Today's FBI: Fighting Crime in the Age of Terror. In this exhibit, they had the actual cabin of the Unabomber, Dillinger's straw hat, and, perhaps most tragically, several of the phones recovered from the World Trade Center towers site. (Recovery workers reported that the phones rang for days after the crash as people searched for missing loved ones.)

After the orientation floor, it's recommended that you go all the way to the 6th floor and then work your way down. On the 6th floor, the Vietnam gallery was closed, but I still enjoyed the front pages exhibit and especially the open-air terrace, which features sweeping views of the city. (Now that the scaffolding is off the Capitol dome, you can get some wonderful views of it here!) A Pennsylvania Avenue timeline in this space also walks you through the growth of the area. On a pretty day, you could stay up here a while, taking in the views and the air.

On level five, you can view up to five short films on the origins of the American free press and rummage through an impressive news history gallery of front pages from throughout history. ("Hitler Dead" was one notable headline.) There were also tons of cool artifacts, including Thomas Paine's writing kit and trunk, Nellie Bly's satchel, and the dry erase board on which Tim Russet wrote "Florida! Florida! Florida!" during the Bush/Gore election coverage. Fascinating. Level four features a 9/11 gallery with coverage, a timeline, and the battered antenna from the top of one of the towers. In addition, a very moving film about a photographer who lost his life that day, and a video that tells his story, will remain with me for a long time. 
The 9/11 gallery at Newseum

Somewhere on the fourth level, my rumbling tummy demanded lunch. I popped out of the museum and crossed the street to The Capital Grille. The man next to me at the bar ordered a sparkling water, a salad, and some seared tuna. I blithely chose a giant cheeseburger with truffle Parmesan fries and a Coke. I ate every bite with absolutely no guilt, and it was FABULOUS! This place was pricey, but the food was delicious. And for Newseum, it's hard to beat the location. 

If you keep up with your entry ticket, you can come and go all day. So after lunch, I headed back inside to tackle the rest of Newseum. Level three features the Journalists Memorial, which pays tribute to those who have perished while doing their jobs, as well as an editorial cartoon exhibit and the Knight TV studio (where you can sometimes catch programs being filmed). Level two features an interactive ethics center, which was really cool (I apparently have very high ethical standards!), the museum shop, and spots where you can stand in front of a backdrop and practice being a reporter. 

Back on the ground level, the Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery will remind you why people say, "A picture is worth a thousand words." It's the largest collection of Pulitzer-winning photographs on public display, and it is tremendous.

Amazing show at the Kennedy Center!
I was at Newseum about 30 minutes after it opened, and I stayed almost until it closed. It is an overwhelming place that will make you glad we have a free press and the four freedoms of the First Amendment. I am so glad I got the opportunity to tour it. 

Afterward, I went to the hotel for a break. When I got hungry again, I walked a few blocks from the hotel to have dinner at Boqueria, a Spanish tapas restaurant. I sipped a delicious white sangria, nibbling sautéed spinach, sautéed mushrooms, bacon-wrapped dates, fried quail eggs and chorizo on toast, and churros with chocolate. Service was speedy and friendly, and the food was DELICIOUS!

The next day was my conference. I had a great day of learning and development, then I joined fellow conference participants for a dine around at Blue Duck Tavern. This place was very close to my hotel, and it was wonderful! I started with a glass of red wine, then enjoyed a quail with whipped ricotta and figs. We ordered a few different sides - onions, brussels sprouts, fries - and shared them amongst the table. Then, we all split two desserts - the Key lime pie and chocolate, pistachio and cherries. Food was incredibly tasty, and service was prompt, friendly, and knowledgeable about the menu. Prices are spendy here, but the experience merits it, I think.

Why, hello there, George!
After dinner, it was off to bed before another full day at the conference. Once the event was over that evening, I hustled off to freshen up at the hotel before another evening at the Kennedy Center. I had a ticket to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, and I didn't want to be late! I'd read the book this show is based on last year, and I found the perspective of the narrator so original and interesting. I couldn't wait to see how the story had been adapted for the stage. I hurried to the Kennedy Center and grabbed a quick bite at the cafe there before settling into my seat.

The show was wonderful! Really good casting, amazing choreography, brilliant use of technology that both added to the show and made perfect sense for the story and characters. Adam Langdon was a revelation as Christopher Boone, and I loved Maria Elena Ramirez as Siobhan. Gene Gillette had some beautiful moments as Ed (Christopher's father), and the rest of the ensemble did wonderful things to distinguish the different characters they played and find the fun in the production. A fantastic adaptation!

Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Art
It was back to bed after the show. I awoke late the next morning, and I took my time getting breakfast at the hotel. I had a late flight out of the city, so I had one more (mostly) full day to explore DC. I decided to spend it at the National Gallery of Art. one of the city's many free museums. Though I'd visited the museum's outdoor sculpture garden before, I'd never ventured inside.

There was so much to see! First, I went to the main floor, where I took in the beautiful rotunda and the garden courts on both the east and west side. Then, I explored the American galleries, followed by the 19th century French paintings (Monets for DAYS! Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cassat). I saw all the tiny little dots on Seurat's Seascape at Port-en-Bessin, Normandy. I poked through the 17th century Dutch and Flemish paintings, where I confronted a self portrait of a very unconvinced-looking Rembrandt. Lastly, I also walked through the 13th to 16th century Italian galleries on this floor.
The Reading Girl, by Pietro Magni.

Feeling hungry again by this time, I stopped for lunch at the Garden Cafe on the ground floor. Fortified with some salmon and kale salad, I examined the 19th and 20th century sculpture galleries with relish. (I love sculpture, and these galleries were divine! WHOLE ROOMS full of Degas and Rodin! An Amazon Preparing for Battle by Hebert, her face fierce. The Reading Girl by Pietro Magni that looked real enough to breathe.) I also spent time in galleries featuring medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque sculpture and decorative arts, as well as those from the 17th and 18th centuries.  Lastly, I took a quick tour of the American decorative arts and paintings.

By this time, I was pooped! I cooled my heels a bit in the sculpture garden outside, then took a cab back to the hotel to pack. Then, it was off to the airport and home to my own sweet family!

I so loved my time in DC! What a wonderful city!!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Back in DC!

Luncheon of the Boating Party
Earlier this month, I was headed back to Washington DC for a conference. I decided to show up a few days early (on my own dime) and explore a few corners of the city that I'd yet to visit. I took an  EARLY direct flight out, and before lunch, I was on the ground!

First, I checked into the Hyatt Place in Georgetown. I chose this hotel because it was recommended by the conference I was attending, and it was a quick walk to the conference activities. It's not exactly the most central location for tourists, but I found it to be an excellent property to stay in. Even though I was in town early (10:30 a.m. or so), they went ahead and checked me in, which was very nice of them. The property has also recently been renovated, and they serve a delicious, free hot breakfast every morning. Plus, they offer an indoor pool, gym, roof terrace, and on-site restaurant. Very nice!

A piece from The Kin Series
I dropped my bags, freshened up a bit, and looked around for something to eat. Luckily, the Hyatt Place in Georgetown is less than a block away from Bread and Chocolate, a delightful bakery and restaurant. I settled into an al fresco table, ordered the brunch (an entree, plus pastries, plus coffee and juice), and prepared myself for culinary happiness. The food didn't disappoint. A lovely spinach and goat cheese omelet accompanied by some of the best hash browns I've ever tasted. A beautiful basket of three pastries, strong coffee, tangy juice. A little bird kept hopping around my table, shooting me meaningful glances and waiting impatiently for me to "accidentally" drop some pastry. A wonderful way to begin my visit!

After a filling meal, I headed for The Phillips Collection. I'd wanted to visit this museum on my last trip to DC, but I'd missed it. It made for a wonderful morning of discovery! First of all, the collection is impressive, but completely do-able in a morning. I found my Zen in the Rothko room, admired Renoir's soft dream of colors in Luncheon of the Boating Party, tested the acoustics a bit in the music room, and absolutely fell in love with The Kin Series by Whitfield Lovell.  (This temporary exhibit pairs gorgeous drawings based on antique photographs of African Americans. Each drawing is presented with thoughtfully selected objects that speak to deeper meanings about the portraits.) After absorbing the art, I spent a few moments in the museum's back garden, where they display a couple of outdoor art pieces. (You can also order food at the museum cafe and eat it in the outdoor space.) It was a lovely, sunny day, and I turned my face upward in gratitude for a wonderful morning. (For a $12 admission fee, this was a wonderful place to explore. Recommended.)
Mary Pickford cocktail at District Commons

Then, I turned my steps toward Kramerbooks & Afterwords. I love a good bookstore, and I'd heard wonderful things about this one. It wasn't quite as big as I expected, but the space they do have is packed to the gills with treasures. They also have an on-site cafe/restaurant. I found all kinds of must-haves, including my reading for the plane ride back home! Afterward, it was back to the hotel for a rest.

When I ventured out that evening, I started at District Commons for a snack. Hubs and I ate at this restaurant (near the Kennedy Center) during our last trip to DC, and we'd loved it! I got a seat at the bar and indulged in a Mary Pickford cocktail with a fried oyster appetizer. Both were delicious! Sated, I made my way to the Kennedy Center. For my first night in town, I'd booked a ticket to Unelectable You, an improv comedy show based on the dreaded election season. The show is the result of a collaboration between Second City and, and I was catching its last performance in town!
The Kennedy Center!

It was a hoot! I can't IMAGINE how many times they've had to re-concept sketches as the election cycle has progressed. They also had moment where they brought editors on stage for brief conversation, on which they'd then base the next sketch. But the absolute highlight of the show was near the end, when they brought an unsuspecting audience member onstage to turn them into a viable alternative to Clinton or Trump. Cole was so game and such a good sport about it all that I was rolling in the aisle! Fun!

After the show, it was back to the hotel, where I slept like a rock!

Blueberry buckwheat pancakes at The Market Lunch
The next morning was Sunday. I'd heard high praise for DC's Eastern Market, so I hopped in a cab and went to check it out. I'm so glad I did! I started with a short stack of blueberry buckwheat pancakes at The Market Lunch. Delicious! I sat at the long counter aside a group of tourists from Scotland. We talked all about DC and New York City (which was where they were headed next). Then, it was off to explore! Eastern Market is similar to Chelsea Market in NYC, but smaller. The indoor portion of the market is just one medium-sized hall, with purveyors of flowers, fruits and veggies, meats, seafoods and other grocery items. Outside the building, long rows of tents house other merchants, selling everything from produce to coffee to crafts to art. I had such fun browsing! I loved rooting through old political buttons at one booth and laughing over funny handmade greeting cards at the next! I even found a vendor that sold beautiful matted, framed vintage postage stamps! (I bought several of these to give as gifts. Such an inventive idea!) It was an absolutely gorgeous morning, so I took my time, enjoyed the weather, and found some fun souvenirs.
A beautiful day for the market!

After having my fill of the market, I headed towards the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. This museum is free, and they have a bag check, so I entered, checked my purchases, and went to the spot where tours begin. There, I was asked to select a booklet. The booklet is formatted like an identification card, and it tells the story of a real person who lived during the Holocaust. My person was Celia Petranker. She was a Polish girl, the youngest of three daughters.

You explore the Holocaust Museum chronologically, in floors. The first floor tells you about the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party, their propaganda and political tactics. You learn about the slow but relentless way the Nazis stripped Jews of their citizenship and rights. Next, you learn about the relocation of Jews to ghettos and German aggression. Then, finally, you learn about Hitler's "Final Solution" and the industrialization of murder.

As you can likely guess, young Celia didn't survive the Holocaust. She was put to work cleaning Gestapo headquarters in Stanislav, Poland. From the window of the building, she could see other Jews being held in the courtyard, crying for help. One day, unable to bear their suffering, she tossed them her lunch of bread and cheese through the window. A German officer saw her. She was detained, beaten, and eventually executed. She was 17 years old.

You have to be ready for the emotional weight of this place. It will break your heart and suck the air out of your lungs. Graphic photography and video tells the story of the Holocaust and will haunt you after you leave. The faces of those that perished stare out at you from walls of photos and interpretive videos. Their shoes are piled in a mass near the end of the museum tour. The pile of shoes seems endless, but it's only a tiny, tiny fraction that represents a horrifying whole.

It took me a while to get through this museum. And it was tough. But it was both important and meaningful, and I'm glad I went.

Afterward, I was drained. I decided to stop at Founding Farmers, not far from my hotel, for a quick bite and to collect myself. I had the delicious ham and peas mac and cheese, and I savored every bite! (Wonderfully creamy!) I sat at the bar, and I chatted with two other single ladies who were visiting DC. After a good meal and rollicking conversation, it was back to the hotel for a break!

That evening, I had tickets to Sense and Sensibility at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre. I had LOVED their production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead when hubs and I had visited last year. I was intrigued to see what they'd do with the Austen classic. What I discovered was a new adapted script, wildly inventive staging, and a completely fresh and modern take on an old favorite!

A must-see!!
Most of the set pieces are on casters, allowing furniture, windows, doorways, tables and the like to roll in and about both in between and during scenes. This stroke of genius makes an Austen production, which can be a bit talky and slow, feel fluid and paced. The cast is a mere 10 performers, but several play multiple roles, adding to the kinetic energy of the piece. And then, the performers are a HOOT! As Elinor Dashwood, Maggie McDowell is the heart of the show, with her patience and restraint. Erin Weaver is wonderfully warm as Marianne, and Caroline Clay attacked her role as Mrs. Jennings with visible relish. Jamie Smithson, who played both Edward Ferrars and his rapscallion brother, was by turns earnest and gleefully mad. (At one point, he called me out in the audience. I responded, and he bounded to my seat for a little improv with obvious delight. Just as quickly, he was back on stage, enjoying the hell out of it all. So. Much. FUN!)

Also - theatre patrons have the opportunity to tour the Folger's current exhibit - Will and Jane - prior to shows and during intermission. There are some fascinating items on display in this collection, which examines parallels between Shakespeare and Austen.

After what turned out to be the best show I saw on my trip, it was off to bed!

More to come . . .  

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Happy Father's Day!!

This is my sweet Daddy. He was born to a large family in Lebanon. After graduating high school, he legged it around Europe for a few years wearing a suit that was a little too small for him, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. 

Legend has it that he originally thought he'd be a doctor, but he couldn't stand the sight of blood. Instead, he applied and was accepted into the civil engineering program at Mississippi State University. His older brothers stayed home in Lebanon, worked, and sent him the money he needed to fund his education. When he got to MSU, he excelled in his engineering and math classes, but he was failing English. (He spoke Arabic and French fluently, he had a gift for people, and he was a handsome, dark-complected young man. Frankly, you can't have everything.) So, a young Mississippi girl became his English tutor. Her name was Margaret. They fell in love.

Daddy had fun at college. Starkville was dry, so Daddy volunteered to go for booze runs for his friends. If he was ever pulled over, he pretended he was a foreigner who spoke no English and had no idea about U.S. law. They usually let him go with a warning (and his libations), so Dad became very popular on campus. 

When Dad graduated, he asked Margaret to marry him and return to Lebanon with him. She refused. He returned home. But he got to missing her. In the end, he agreed to come to the United States if she'd marry him. He did, and she did. Then, he took a job at the Mississippi Department of Transportation, where he'd spend his career.

During the next 45 years, he helped my sweet Pawpaw, a carpenter, build the pretty two-story house in Clinton, Mississippi, where we'd all live; put a big garden in the back yard (still known as the "Saad Farm"); and raised three girls who are now all productive, tax-paying citizens. He eventually applied for and earned U.S. citizenship. 

He designed bridges and roads. He became a favorite when MDOT needed a civil engineer to testify for eminent domain proceedings, because he had a unique way of explaining things, and juries responded well to him.

When he retired from MDOT, decades later, there wasn't room for all the cars of the people who wanted to visit with him. The vehicles filled the lot and parked on the sides of nearby roads. When my sweet Daddy made a speech about the relationships he'd built at MDOT and what a wonderful country America is, more than one good ol' boy in the crowd wiped tears from his eyes. 

Now, he spends his time hanging out with his grandsons, traveling, and occasionally consulting. I asked him once, and he says he dreams in English now, not Arabic. People still love him, and he still exhibits a sense of adventure and curiosity about the world that I admire. He rarely talks about himself, he's always ready to laugh, and (if I do say so myself) he's still pretty damn good looking. 

Happy Father's Day to Daddy, the first person who showed me how a man should love me. I'm proud to be your girl!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Oh, Canada! (cont.)

The view from the top of the Grouse Mountain SkyRide!

On our last day in Canada, we woke up early and walked from the apartment to 999 Canada Place to catch the FREE shuttle to Grouse Mountain! I'd bought our Alpine Experience tickets ahead of time online, so we loaded up on the bus and took off for our mountaintop experience!

Grizzlies at Grouse Mountain
Just as we did with the Capilano Bridge Shuttle, we drove over beautiful Lions Gate Bridge and up to the mountain. (A note - If you want to do Grouse Mountain in the morning and Capilano Suspension Bridge in the afternoon, you can take the Grouse Mountain shuttle to the mountain, and then it will drop you off at Capilano on the way back to Vancouver. Be advised, though, that they DON'T pick UP passengers at Capilano.)

Clay LOVED the corny lumberjack show!
When we got off the shuttle, we were at the boarding station for the SkyRide, the aerial tram which takes you on an 8-minute ride up the mountain. This was fun!! Views are amazing, and the tram swings a bit as it passes each tower supporting the cables it rides on. (Clay loved this. If we could have swung more dramatically, he'd have loved it even more!) Once we got off the tram, we explored the chalet and took in the views from there. Then, we watched a free, short film about the evolution of birds in the Theatre in the Sky. (Their ancestors are dinosaurs!) After that, we checked out the bees in The Hive, where you can lift coverings to view hundreds of the tiny creatures buzzing about their business through plexiglass. We observed park workers putting in a new bee garden directly adjacent to the hive.

After that, it was off to visit with the resident grizzlies! We walked along a paved path, through tall carved wooden statues, to find them. They were obligingly active, eating fresh grass, swimming in their pond, and coming right up to the fence! Then, we noticed that one of the park rangers was giving an owl talk. He brought out a lovely barn owl with a white face and dark brown eyes. He spent about half an hour discussing owls, answering our questions, and showing off the beautiful bird. It was a chilly day, and by the time he finished, we were getting cold. Hot chocolate from a nearby stand was just the ticket! We each got some (with loads of marshmallows) and explored the Pollinators' Garden while we sipped, talking about plants and bees.

The Lumberjack Show was about to start, so we settled ourselves in front row seats and got ready for some fun! The show was hokey, but the performers were adorable, and their lumberjack skills were real. They threw axes at targets, climbed poles, carved wood into simple statues, and showed off their log rolling skills. Clay LOVED this show (the cornier, the better), giggling like a small blond fiend throughout. I was glad we were right up front so he could take in all the action at close range.

Closing in on lunchtime, we strolled back to the chalet and got a table with a gorgeous view at Altitudes Bistro, where Clay had chicken tenders, hubs had a giant plate of nachos, and I had an Asian shrimp bowl. The service was quick and friendly, the food was delicious, and the atmosphere couldn't be beat! Once we finished, we caught the tram back to the station, then rode the free shuttle back to Canada Place. A short walk back to the apartment, and we met up with my sweet in-laws.
Science World has so much to see and do!

After a little rest, we decided to enjoy one last adventure! My in-laws had a special treat in store for us; they took us to La Casa Gelato! At this bright pink building, they serve up 238 flavors of ice cream, gelato and sorbet, on site at any time. We giggled at flavors like wasabi, olive oil, and red bean. (You KNOW I tried the roasted garlic one. Not bad!) In the end, Clay got vanilla with chocolate chip, and I had the amaretto cherry with chocolate flakes (AMAZING). They also make their cones on site, and they are delicious! A fun stop!

After that, we had about one hour until TelUs Science World closed. We figured we'd explore all we could, so in we went. They had a REALLY cool interactive exhibit on spies and spy skills, and we spent all of our time there. You start with a case file and a notebook you can use to record clues. We tried our hands at code-breaking, phone-tapping, and safe-cracking. We also monitored some satellite transmissions, did some detective work at the scene of a crime, and peered through windows at the bad guys. In the end, we solved the mystery!! This place was FUN, and I wished we'd been able to spend more time there. BUT they closed at 5 p.m., so we had to go.
Tracking down the bad guys in the interactive spy exhibit . . .

To end our final day in the city, we ate dinner at Pacifico Pizzeria, where I had a delightful seafood pasta with a nice glass of white wine. The food here was really good, and the place was PACKED!

After dinner, it was apartment-pack-bed! We caught a cab to the airport early the next morning, and flew all the way back to New Orleans. Tired from traveling, we enjoyed a surprisingly delicious dinner at Don Jose's, a Mexican place close to the airport, and then a restful night at the Radisson Hotel New Orleans Airport. Then, it was HOME! (I dearly love traveling. But I also LOVE coming back home! My own bed! My own sweet pillows! My little garden! Even grocery shopping and cooking feels like a novelty for a while!)

We loved Vancouver, and I'd recommend a trip there to anyone. A beautiful city, fairly compact (walkable), tons of activities (particularly outdoors), and great food! We can't wait until our next visit!