Sunday, July 23, 2017

Timing Your Travels

A great many people travel to Europe in the summer but I prefer the spring and fall, commonly known as the shoulder seasons. Why? For one, thing it is much cheaper. If you want to know how much cheaper, just take a look at the tour schedules and prices on the CIE Tours site or the Avalon Waterways site. You will instantly see the difference between the peak and the non-peak seasons. You will enjoy the same savings whether you are traveling with a professional tour group or out on your own.

There are many other advantages to traveling off-season:
  • The outdoor temps are more comfortable. I’d rather wear a light jacket and be comfortable than be sweltering on the hot pavement when sightseeing.
  • The crowds at airports, restaurants and attractions are smaller. You can avoid standing in long lines at the museums and historical sites. When we toured the Roman Forum one fall, we didn’t ask for the private tour but there was only one other couple in our little group, so it felt very much like a private tour. When we took a CIE tour early one spring, there were only 6 of us on a bus designed to hold about 30 people.
  • The service level increases because tour guides and service people aren’t as stressed as they might be during peak travel season. 
  • I like my fall clothes better for travel. It’s easier for me to pull together a polished look by layering fall clothes than it is to pull together a outfit that I won’t melt in during summer.
  • Most people and places smell better in cooler months. Many Europeans, while very clean, do not use deodorant as we Americans do. For that reason, I’d rather enjoy their company during the cooler months. The same goes for enjoying the streets of Europe. Trash cans don’t emit the same aroma in March or December that they do in July or August.
  • There are fewer weather related travel problems. Going in the spring and fall helps you to avoid the flight delays that frequently occur in peak hurricane and/or snowstorm season.
  • The availability of hotel and B&B rooms increases, while the price goes down.
  • The scenery is usually much prettier. Just to prove my point, here are a few off-season travel shots. 

Ireland in March

Pompeii, Italy in Autumn

Rome in Autumn

Westport, Ireland in October

I’d make a list of the disadvantages of off-season travel but I can’t think of a single one. I know that some people have work schedules that get in the way or they can only travel when the kids are on summer break, but if you can go during the shoulder seasons, I highly recommend it.






Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Getting Comfy in Economy

Is getting comfortable at all possible on a long-haul flight in economy class? I think it depends on your attitude and your definition of comfort. It also heavily depends on how well you prepare. Everything from the seat you pick to how you pack can affect your in-flight comfort.

SEAT SELECTION
Many travel experts say to avoid seats near the toilets because of noise and traffic but I find that area to be my favorite place to sit. If you do have to get up during flight, your walk to the facilities is shorter, plus the noise isn’t any more noticeable than the roar of the jet engines.
I prefer an aisle seat because it is easier to get in and out of, plus I can stretch my legs out for a few seconds whenever the aisle is clear. My travel companion prefers the window seat because he likes to lean against the wall to sleep but I find the window seats to be much colder on long flights, so I avoid that option.
The row behind the emergency exit row is good. On some airlines, the exit row seats don’t recline so you won’t have the seat in front of you too close to your face. In addition, some planes now only have two seats in the emergency exit row so if you sit in the window seat just behind it, you might have some glorious extra legroom.
PACKING
Here are a few things that I like to keep handy in-flight. All of these items are available through Amazon. If you want to learn more about each item, click on the links provided.

I love this set because the mask is molded in a way that doesn't rub against my eyes and ruin my make up but also because it also comes in a neat drawstring bag that keeps it clean and easy to find in my purse.
Take an empty water bottle and fill it up after you pass through security. You'll want sips of water throughout the flight and it is nice to have your own in hand.
Three little puffs of air are all it takes to blow up this magnificent pillow. What the picture doesn't show is that it rolls up to the size of a burrito and can be attached to a purse or luggage strap. It also has built in wrist supports so that your arms don't go flip-flopping about while you sleep.
Load your Kindle up with books, movies and games before you leave home and you need never be bored. I used to take magazines and books along but they add unnecessary weight to your load.
Wisps
On long flights, brushing your teeth with a Wisp before and after you sleep will help you feel refreshed.
Travel can be dirty and gross. See the "Settling In" section below.
Ok, I am old. If I'm going to read or watch a movie on that tiny little entertainment screen, I'm going to want my readers close at hand.
I don't know why but take-offs and landings make my sinuses go nuts. I can go through an entire travel pack of tissues on a single flight.
You never know when the dry cabin air will give you a killer headache. It's better to have Ibuprofen and not need it than to need it and not have it.
Put these things in a bag small enough to stash under the seat in front of you because you will definitely want easy access to them in-flight.
WHAT TO WEAR
One of the most effective ways to ensure your in-flight comfort is to dress for it. Thank goodness that the short-lived trend of wearing pajamas to the airport has passed, along with the equally unattractive wearing of obvious yoga pants.
You can dressy comfortably and still be reasonably stylish.  Opt for soft knits with no zippers or fussy fastenings. Leave the belt at home or in your suitcase, if possible. I have a Wearever suit from J. Jill that is as comfy as PJs but that can be dressed up or down to suit almost any occasion. No matter what I wear, I always top my outfit with a black pashmina for extra layer of warmth.
Footwear can make big difference in your comfort before and during your flight. Don flat, easy slip-off shoes, such as Sperrys or Lands End driving mocs.
SETTLING IN
I sit on my coat to provide easy access should I need it and also to save space in the overhead bins. Just don’t drape your coat or any part of it over the headrest.  You don’t want to block access to the tray or the in-flight screen for the person sitting directly behind you.
Once I am seated and waiting for everyone else to board, I clean the seatbelt buckle, the armrests and the fold-down tray with sanitizing wipes. Seatmates often snicker until they see how black the wipe is when I’m done cleaning. At that point, they often ask if I can give them one so that they can wipe down their own area.
I take the airline pillow and place it behind the small of my back. It’s usually way too small to serve as a decent head pillow but tucking it behind your back provides welcome extra cushioning. I’ll generally put the blanket the seat back pocket for later use.
IN THE AIR
Reclining your seat is never a question on international flights because everyone does it. Just avoid doing so during mealtime. You’ll be less likely to spill if you are fully-upright while eating. Plus, you don’t want to cramp the dining space of the person sitting behind you. Once the meal is over and the trays have been collected, feel free to recline.
After dinner is a good time to make a trip to the restroom. I brush my teeth with a Wisp and freshen up in general. If you like, you can use a baby wipe to clean your face. I prefer to travel wearing Estee Lauder Double Wear makeup and I leave it on until we land. It still looks fine when I deplane and I can always freshen up when I arrive at my hotel.
Once back in my seat, I cover my legs and feet with the airline blanket and cover my upper half with my pashmina. I blow up my pillow and settle in to watch a movie until I fall asleep. I’ll keep my sleep kit handy and put it to good use just before I drift off.
What works for you might differ but this routine works for me. I’ve been able to sleep this way on every long-haul flight that I’ve been on.
Above all, watch your attitude and your manners along the way. Getting into a petty disagreement with a fellow traveler will only make everyone angry and uncomfortable for the duration of the flight.
If you’d like a few laughs and some examples of how not to get too overly comfy on a flight, I suggest you visit Passenger Shaming on Instagram.
Most important, try to keep your sense of humor. After all, even the most uncomfortable flight in the world consumes only a few hours of your life. This too shall pass.
Happy travels!

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Travel Tips: Fact vs. Fiction

It’s been a long time since I last updated this blog.  Over the past three years there have been a lot of changes in my life that have kept me quite busy. I have been blessed with a third grandchild, started a new day job and gone back to school. I also took some time to write and publish my second novel, Uncle Imblay’s Fortune.

Now, however, the baby has become a toddler, I have settled quite happily into my job, I have graduated from school and the book is on the market. I once again have the time to do regular blog posts.

I have been reading travel stories on the web in stolen moments here and there, and I am bothered by the amount of bad information that some of these stories contain. Some seem to be written by people who write but apparently who do not actually travel. Some of the information they post is inaccurate and some of it is just plain wrong. Their ideas get picked up and reused by other writers who likely don’t travel either but have decided to write travel stories anyway.

So, in my return to blogging, I am going to expose some of these erroneous tidbits and speak the truth as I have learned it from my own travel experiences.

MYTH ONE
If you freeze your bottle of water, you can get it through security because it is now a solid and not a liquid.
THE TRUTH
No, no, no. Even though it sounds logical, it does not work. I have seen that trick attempted at least four times and each time it has failed.
WHAT WORKS
Buy a reusable water bottle and fill it after you pass through security. I bought this one from Amazon:  Water Bottle.
It rolls up quite neatly and clips onto a purse or luggage strap. Many U.S. terminals have water bottle filling stations available and if the terminal you are in does not provide them, many of the terminal restaurants/bars will gladly fill your bottle for you.

MYTH TWO
Dressing up improves you chances of a getting an upgrade to a better seat.
THE TRUTH
Dressing up has absolutely zero effect on the chance of getting an upgrade.
WHAT WORKS
Check the availability of upgrades 24 hours prior to departure when you check in online. If your flight isn’t completely booked, you might be able to fork over a little bit of cash and move to a better seat. In fact, sometimes if you check back just a few hours before your departure, you might find that your airline offers last minute upgrades at a steep discount.

MYTH THREE
Bring the flight attendants a box of candy and you might score free drinks or other preferential treatment.
THE TRUTH
Flight attendants must abide by strict rules regarding the services that they can provide. They cannot provide first class amenities to economy passengers. Asking for or expecting amenities that you have not paid for puts them in the uncomfortable position of having to refuse your request for special treatment.
WHAT WORKS
When you board, look your attendant in the eye and return their friendly greeting with a friendly greeting of your own. Treat each one with as much respect and consideration as you would like to be treated with and they will treat you in the same manner.

MYTH FOUR
Reserving the middle seat in a row of three may get you the entire row because people traveling together won’t book the other seats on either side, leaving you an entire row to yourself.
THE TRUTH
I almost fell over laughing when I read that one. For one thing, a great many people travel solo these days. Reserving the middle seat will only guarantee that you get the worst seat imaginable.
WHAT WORKS
Book the seat that you truly want. I prefer the aisle because I can sometimes stretch my legs out in the aisle briefly and because I find that it makes getting in and out of my seat a bit easier. My boyfriend prefers the window seat because he likes to lean against the wall when he sleeps and he enjoys looking out the window.

MYTH FIVE
Take a picture of your passport with your phone because if it is lost or stolen, you might be allowed to board the plane with the screenshot.
THE TRUTH
Nope. That is not going to work. Ever.
WHAT WORKS
Do take that picture but don’t expect to use it as a substitute for a lost/stolen passport. If your passport goes missing, take that picture to the nearest U.S. embassy to apply for an emergency replacement. They can process your request using just your vital information, but having a picture of your current passport will help expedite the process.

MYTH SIX
Save money by taking your own liquor aboard in toiletry sized bottles.
THE TRUTH
You can take it aboard but you cannot drink it during your flight. It is against regulations. Some flight attendants may look the other way if you drink your own hooch but others may not. Why risk it?
WHAT WORKS
If you really can’t endure a four or five hour flight without an alcoholic beverage, just fork over the $9.00 or $10.00 for the cocktail of your choice. If you’re flying internationally, many airlines, such as Delta, provide a free cocktail with the main meal.

MYTH SEVEN
It is cheaper to fill small bottles with the toiletries you need rather than buying expensive travel sizes.
THE TRUTH
It can be cheaper to fill small bottles from your shampoo stash at home but travel sizes aren’t expensive.
WHAT WORKS
Visit the travel aisle in Target or Walmart. Travel sizes of shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, cleanser, etc., cost about $1.00 each. Your local dollar store can also be a good source for affordable travel toiletries. For the low cost of $5.00, you should be able to get most of the lotions and potions that you need for your trip.

Reading travel tip articles can be fun, just don’t believe everything that you read. Before you go on any trip, take just a few minutes to review the TSA Travel Guidelines as well as the travel tip section of the site for the airline(s) you are flying with.

Happy travels!  

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Florida Spring Break Tips

This will be a short post for those of you who head to Florida during Spring Break.  There are things that you should be doing now if you plan on visiting the Sunshine State during March or April.
 
Here's what I've been doing to prepare for this year's trip:
  • I've scheduled a major maintenance appointment for my car.  I want us all to be safe and the car to be reliable while we are on the road.  If you plan on renting a car or flying, make those arrangements as soon as you can. 
  • I've "secured my lodging" by informing my mother of my travel dates (we stay at her house).  If you need to book a hotel or condo, do it as soon as you can.  The demand for decent rooms is high in the spring. 
  • I've ordered my amusement park tickets.  I order them on-line and have them held at will-call.  I could have them mailed to me but I prefer to pick them up at the will-call window.  That way I don't have to worry about my tickets being lost or stolen before we get there.  The line at will-call is practically non-existent if you get there just before the park opens
  • If you're going to Disney, make your special dining reservations now.  Those restaurants are completely booked weeks in advance. 
  • I've made arrangements to have my dog taken care of while we are away.  Don't wait too late in the season to make your arrangements because kennels tend to fill up just as quickly as the Disney restaurants. 
  • I bought string backpacks and have started assembling swag bags for the kids (see my 3/21/12 post on this topic).  I've also ordered a couple of Mark Twain audio books for family friendly entertainment.
  • I've started filling a small cup with quarters for the Florida toll roads.  It's not unusual for us to spend $12.00 to $20.00 on tolls while we're criss-crossing the state. 
  • Just before I go, I'll check my credit card that offers cash back rewards in the form of Disney Dollars and I'll redeem those points for gift cards that can be used at Disney restaurants and stores.
  • Last of all, as soon as the neighborhood Girl Scouts start peddling cookies, I'll buy a few boxes and stick them in the freezer until it's time for our trip.  I can't remember the last time I drove to Florida without a couple of boxes of Girl Scout cookies in the road trip snack stash.
We are ready to roll out of here and have a great time.  I hope that I get to see you at the Happiest Place on Earth this year.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Travel Gadgets

This is the time of year when many of us are inspired to get organized and I am no exception.  As I was re-organizing my closet last week, I peered into my drawer of travel gadgets and found quite a few things that haven’t seen the light of day in years.

Here’s what was in my gadget drawer:
  • A tiny lint roller.  This is a useful tool and it goes on every trip.  It’s a keeper.
  • An ancient travel hair dryer.  Most American hotels provide them these days but you never know what you will find in Europe.  I also need it when I visit some family members.  I’ll keep this, as well.
  • An outdated, very heavy converter/adapter.  This piece went into the donation box.
  • A flat iron.  I haven’t used a flat iron in years and never really liked this one anyway.  I’ll hand it off to my granddaughter.
  • Multiple cosmetic bags, compliments of Estee Lauder.  While these bags come in handy, I really don’t need a two dozen of them.  They’re out.
  • A travel alarm.  Seriously?  My cell phone is my every day alarm.  Out with that relic, as well.
  • A very nice money belt.  Hmm.  I’ve used it only once but can’t help but feel that it will come in handy in the future.  It doesn’t take up much space, so I’ll keep it.
  • Ten tiny umbrellas. How in the world did I amass so many of these?  I opened each one and trashed those that weren’t in good shape and then kept the rest.  They wear out quickly so I’m sure that the collection will diminish over time.
  • Folding hairbrushes.  I bought these because I thought they would be space-savers but I absolutely hate the way they work on my hair, so I don’t use them.  They are now in the granddaughter stack.
  • Six hotel mending kits.  These are handy but I don’t need six of them set aside for travel.  I’ll stick one each in the guest room, the boat, the car and my desk at work.
  • A cheap corkscrew.  I got this on the trip to Chicago because we bought a bottle of wine to take back to the hotel room.  I never take one when I travel and see no reason to.  I’ll stick this one in the picnic basket.
  • Multi-use tool.  Other people always sing it’s praises but I’ve never used it on a trip.  It’s going into the tool box in the garage.
My travel gadget drawer is so much neater now, thanks mostly to modern technology.  It is no longer necessary to carry heavy travel guides, alarm clocks and power converters.  Lightweight electronics really can lighten your luggage.

If you haven’t thought about all of the best uses for your electronics, or if you’ve simply resisted the change, let me entice you with these suggestions.

Your cell phone can serve as:
  • An alarm clock.  Your phone will adjust to the time zone you’re in.  Most models also allow you to set two or three wake-up times in advance.
  • A nightlight for those middle of the night trips to the bathroom in a strange hotel room.  If you’re using the phone as your alarm, it’s already on your nightstand anyway.
  • Your boarding pass.  Simply download the app for the airline you’re using and pull up your boarding pass.  No more paper passes to fuss with.
  • A communications center.  Email, text and voice can be accessed quite easily from one tiny device.  No Wi-Fi hotspots required.
  • Your financial center.  Keep track of your debt and credit card accounts while you travel.  You’ll know instantly if an unscrupulous waiter uses your card to pay for more than your dinner.  Many restaurants and stores also accept mobile phone coupons, so be sure to download all of the money saving apps you can find before you hit the road.
  • A light-use camera.  I still take along a camera if I plan on snapping a lot of pictures but if I think that I’ll only be taking a handful, the phone is good enough.
In addition to being an e-reader, your tablet can:
  • Hold your packing list. 
  • Keep your travel confirmations close at hand in case there are questions at check-in.
  • Keep you on track with GPS/Maps.  It’s better than being seen on the street with a large map that screams, “I’m tourist and, therefore, a potential crime victim”.
  • Organize conference schedules.  Why lug around a lot paper schedules?
  • Host a PDF of your passport.  It’s much easier and faster to get a lost passport replaced if you can provide authorities with a copy of it.
  • Entertain you.  Fill your tablet up with videos, music, magazines and books before you leave and you’ll never be bored.  Don’t forget to pack earphones so that you can enjoy your entertainment without bothering your fellow travelers.
Kindle Fire tablets are very affordable right now.  I bought this model a few months ago and find that I use it every day, not just while I’m traveling.  However, it is a wonderful travel tool, as well.  It weighs next to nothing and works like a dream.

These little electronic wonders will, of course, need to be recharged along the way.  The newest power converters/adapters are considerably lighter than the old ones.  They use USB cords so you don’t have to pack multiple wall chargers.

You might not need to take multiple cords either.  Check your electronics before you leave home.  I use the same cord for my tablet and my phone because they are compatible.  However, my camera requires its own special USB cord.
Anything you can do to lighten your travel load will make travel all the more enjoyable.  Take a good look at your habits and your gadgets, then mull over all of the little improvements you can make to make sure that your next trip is best the one yet.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Cancun

Cancun has long been declared a great getaway spot.  Frankly, while some things there are good, I won’t go back.  Cancun is dated, run-down and way too touristy for my tastes. Still, I think it was worth visiting one time, just to see it for myself.

On the upside, the Cancun airport is nice.  It is small and very well-organized.  The timeshare vendors don’t pounce on you as they do in Cabo.  Transportation from the airport to the hotels is easy.  There are several taxis right outside the airport doors.  The best way to go is to use Super Shuttle.  We booked our ride on-line while we were waiting for our departure flight.  The fare was a quite affordable at a mere $11.00 each way.  It’s a shared van but it was clean and the drivers were very good. 
We stayed at Krystal International.  I’ve read some bad reviews about the place but I disagree with them.  We found the hotel to be clean and the service staff outstanding.  Everyone from the housecleaning staff to the restaurant waiters was attentive and polite. We expected a small room with a kitchenette but were given a two-room condo at no extra charge.  The ocean view was beautiful.  Some reviewers complained that there are no hairdryers in the rooms but both of our bathrooms had wall-mounted hairdryers. 


There is one big draw back to the Krystal and it has nothing to do with the hotel itself.  Just a few yards away sits a large nightclub that plays unreasonably loud music at all hours of the night right out on the beach.  There is no escaping the loud thumping base and distasteful music that goes on until 3:00 in the morning.  The same club sets off a fireworks show from a boat at 1:00 a.m.  As lovely as it was to watch fireworks being shot from the water right off our balcony, it was not lovely to be kept awake at that hour.  If you love the nightlife, this is a great spot.  If you prefer to sleep at night, this is a horrible spot.  I do not understand why the neighboring hotels put up with that extreme level of noise. 
The good news is that the beach and the pool made for good napping during the day.  The wait staff also serve food and drinks by the pools, as well as at the beach cabanas. 

If you go to Cancun, take a bus tour out to Chichen Itza.  In my opinion, it is the only thing that makes Cancun worth visiting.  The ruins at Chichen Itza are just awe-inspiring.  It’s really touristy now but nothing can really mar the magic of those ruins. 

 
There are several tour groups that offer the Chichen Itza package and they are all pretty much alike.  When you arrive at Chichen Itza, the parking lot looks like any other tourist attraction.  There are ticket offices and shops and thousands of people milling about.  Our group was split into two groups to accommodate both English speaking and Spanish speaking tourists, and then led up a long path that cuts through the jungle and that is lined with locals selling all kinds of souvenirs. 


At the end of the trail, you will come a large, flat clearing.  Be prepared to have your breath taken away.  As we got to the clearing, we all gasped at the beauty and wonder of the ruins.  Cameras were snapping away as our guide explained the history of the site and the Mayans.  Some folks mistakenly believe that the Mayans disappeared.  They did not.  They just abandoned Chichen Itza.  Their descendants still live in the area and many still speak the Mayan language, not the Spanish spoken throughout the rest of Mexico. 

Our incredibly informative guide led us around the area for 90 minutes, giving us a riveting account of how the games were played and the sacrifices performed.  At the end of the tour, our group disbanded and we had an additional 90 minutes to explore the grounds and to shop.  I bought several souvenirs there.  Those vendors love American dollars and they also love to bargain. 


Here’s the way the game works:  First they draw you in, “Hey lady, $1.00”.  When you get to their table they will steer you away from the tiny $1.00 stuff and direct you to the larger, more expensive items.  You ask how much.  They quote a price.  You hesitate, admire the item but offer a lower price.  They counter.  Almost every time, you will arrive at 75% of the original price.  Please be compassionate and don’t try to bargain them down too much.  What they sell is inexpensive to begin with and this is how they make a living.  I came away with some very good souvenirs at great prices.

On another day, we took a ferry to Isla Mujeres, commonly known as the Isle of Women.  The streets are lined with fun shops and restaurants on the beach where you can sit barefoot in the sand.   There is also a large public beach there where vendors offer souvenirs and massages.  You can rent golf carts and scooters if you want to explore the whole island.

I mostly shopped at the Mexican Market (Yes, that’s the name), which was just a couple of blocks from our hotel.  The Market sells every kind of Mexican souvenir you can imagine at fair prices.  The best souvenirs to buy are sarongs, beachwear, chocolate, pottery, leather, coffee and alcohol. 
I can’t say that we had any great dinners while in Cancun but the food was decent nearly everywhere we went.  Dinner at Hacienda el Mortero was fun.  The place was a little bit cheesy with a wandering Mariachi band, a photographer pushing pictures of diners with Sombreros, etc., but sometimes cheesy is fun and this was definitely fun.

What else is there to do in Cancun?  The water is the most beautiful shade of turquoise and crystal-clear, so snorkeling is good there.  Parasailing is popular, as well.
When you go to Cancun, you really don’t need to exchange money.  Most places take MasterCard or American dollars.  However, don’t plan on using your Discover Card.  No place I went took Discover. 

As far as what to wear, beachwear is the norm absolutely everywhere.  I wore a long sundress to dinner a few evenings and felt overdressed.  People appear at dinner in shorts, t-shirts and sneakers.  I saw young girls going into the noisy nightclub wearing nothing more than bathing suit tops, shorts and flip-flops. 
If you go to the ruins, you will definitely want a hat and sturdy walking shoes, as well as a good bug repellent.  Don’t forget your sunscreen because the sun can be brutal.

While I’m glad that I went to Cancun just once, I won’t return.  It was worth the trip just to see the ruins and learn about the intriguing Mayans.  However, should I ever go back to Mexico, it will be to elegant Cabo, not tattered Cancun. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Short Note - Direct Flights from Indy

I just heard that United, my favorite airline, will be offering direct flights from Indianapolis to San Francisco.  Those flights begin in January.  Yay!

Mackinac Island

If you live near the Great Lakes area, you’ve no doubt heard of Mackinac Island in Michigan.  If you live farther away, you might not know anything about this American beauty.  A visit to the dreamy isle of Mackinac is like a trip back in time to another century.
 
What makes this tiny island worth visiting?  The beauty!  The history!  The fun!  There is so much to do and so much to see there.
 
Mackinac sits on Lake Huron, right where it borders Lake Michigan.  There are no bridges from the mainland to the island.  Most people arrive via boat and that boat is usually one of the large commercial ferries that travel in and out of the Mackinac harbor from early morning until sunset.  There is a very small airstrip there but it is used mainly by the locals.
 
Let’s start with the natural beauty of the place.  Every inch of the 3.8 square mile island is now a National Historic Landmark and approximately 80% of the island is now a Michigan state park.  Trees and flowers blanket the isle, as do surprises like this natural rock formation.
 
 
 
As if the natural beauty wasn’t enough, mankind has added a few wonderful touches to compliment nature's striking background.  The most notable site when approaching the island is the Grand Hotel.  Once you disembark, you will come across a darling village full of charming Victorian bed and breakfasts, wonderful restaurants and small shops.
 
 
 
There are no cars on the island.  Only emergency vehicles are allowed and a tour guide told us that there are only three of those.  There are only three ways to get around the island, those being by foot, by bicycle or by horse.  Over 500 horses are kept on the island.  Even the UPS deliveryman uses a horse-driven wagon.
 
 
 
Bikes are absolutely everywhere, too.  Not only do the locals use them for their daily transportation but thousands of tourists rent the two-wheelers every day.
 
WHEN TO GO
 
The tourist season is short, running from late spring through early fall.  Spring temps remain cool well into July.  We went in June, just after the Lilac Festival.  It was a lovely time to go because the lilacs were still in full bloom.  The air was fragrant with the pleasant combination of lilacs and fudge with only an occasional whiff of horse poop marring the experience.
 
WHAT TO WEAR
 
Mackinac Island is all about tourism and traditional tourist gear is what most folks wear.  Most people wear casual shirts and pants.  If you dress up for a day on Mackinac, you’ll be out of place.
 
You can even visit Grand Hotel dressed casually.  While the hotel dictates dressier clothing for dinner, most people wear casual clothing during the day.
 
HOW TO GET THERE
 
If you don’t have your own small plane or a boat, you’ll have to take a ferry to reach the island.  There are several in the area and they run all day long.  The prices and times are similar.  The two main companies are Sheplers and Star Line.
 
WHERE TO STAY
 
If you are a boater, you can sail there and dock at the harbor pretty reasonably, which is what we did.  We stayed for three nights.  Staying on our own boat in the harbor was considerably cheaper than staying at one of the local inns.  The harbor is well equipped with a bathhouse, large restrooms and even boasts a small but excellent coffee shop right at the end of the dock.
 
 
 
If you prefer more glamorous accommodations go for Grand Hotel.  Many of American presidents and celebrities have visited this historic landmark.  Two movies were made on the hotel grounds.  However, it is not for the budget-minded.  Just walking into the hotel will cost you $10.00 per person if you aren’t checking in.
 
It is cheaper to stay on the mainland and ferry over for the day.  However, if you intend to stay on the island for two days or more, staying on the island will be more cost effective.  There are several nice ones to choose from.  I have yet to read a bad review about any of the facilities there.
 
WHERE TO EAT
 
There is no shortage of good places to eat on the island.  Don’t miss the Grand Hotel lunch buffet.  The cost is $40.00 but the $10 hotel admission that you paid is deducted from the price of your lunch.  It is pricey but the food was very good.  The cocktails are just as pricey but they were among the best I’ve had anywhere in the world.  Lunch at Grand Hotel is worth the price.
 
 
 
There are a lot of good restaurants right on the main street of Mackinaw.  We enjoyed several.  Just ask one of the tour guides or follow the crowds and you’ll find the best ones.  Honestly, we did not have a bad meal during our three day stay on the island.
 
WHAT TO DO
 
First and foremost, take a horse and carriage tour.  You’ll quickly learn the layout of the island along with its interesting history.  Can take a group tour for $24.50.  Private tours also available at a slightly higher cost.  The tours take you all around the island and the guides are very informative.
 
Another fun little activity you can do is tour Fort Mackinac.  It’s not hard to find because it sits on the highest point on the island.  At $11.00 per adult, the self-guided tour is affordable and it is interesting.  The best views of the town can be experienced from the Fort.
 
Shopping is a popular activity on the island.  Like with most tourist areas, you will find cheap hats and tee shirts.  If cheap is what you seek, look for the shop with the yellow bags.  I can’t remember the name of the shop but nearly every tourist in town can be seen carrying those yellow.  That particular shop sells a lot of Kitschy souvenirs there.  If your tastes run are a little more sophisticated, there are plenty of local higher ends shops to sell artwork, clothing and nautical souvenirs.
 
Another popular activity is bike riding.  Bike rental stands are plentiful.  The bikes all have baskets for your gear.  Some rental places even provide you with bottled water to take along on the ride.
 
If bikes aren’t your thing you can go horseback riding.  If you prefer not to straddle a horse, you can rent a horse-driven carriage.
 
If you prefer to get around on your own two feet, there are plenty of places to hike, both on the village streets and on wooded paths.  While you’re out walking, stop in at the tiny public library.  It is just the cutest library I’ve ever visited.  They also offer Wi-Fi and a daily used book sale.  Visitors can also walk the Grand Hotel gardens without paying the entrance fee.  Just enter from the lower end of the gardens where they border a public park.
 
Mackinac Island is a beautiful, fun, safe place to visit.  It is a great place to go whether you are seeking fun activities for your family or a romantic getaway for you and your sweetie.  It really should be on everyone’s bucket list.
 
Oh, and whether you go to Mackinac Island or Mackinaw City, it is always pronounced Mackinaw.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Chicago

A few weeks ago, I took my daughter, daughter-in-law and granddaughter to Chicago to celebrate the young one’s 16th birthday.  Oh, what a wonderful time we had in just two short days!
 
Chicago has everything anyone could ever want in a big city.  Do you seek both high-end and bargain shopping?  The Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue covers both ends of the spectrum.  Are you interested in excellent restaurants?  There are plenty of those within walking distance of the Mile.  Is art your thing?  Great art is everywhere, including in the city parks.  Do you want to take your family to an educational museum?  Chicago has those, too.  Are waterfront views and beaches what you crave?  Good old Lake Michigan borders the entire east side of the city.
 
We started our day by dropping our car and our luggage at our hotel, Mile North on Superior Street.  Mile North Hotel could not be more conveniently located.  It’s just one block east of the famous Magnificent Mile.  When you step out of the hotel and turn to your right, you see Neiman Marcus and Saks.  The location cannot be beat.  Our room wasn’t ready when we arrived but we were able to leave our bags with the bell captain.
 
We started our Mag Mile trek with lunch at the Neiman Marcus restaurant, Zodiac.  It’s a nice white tablecloth restaurant that somehow manages to maintain old-fashioned grace and dignity with a modern, upbeat style.  Neiman’s starts each meal right by providing all diners with popovers, strawberry butter and chicken consomm√© just moments after everyone is seated. The servings were generous and the food was of a very high quality.  Lunch for four people at a cost of just over $80 was a bit pricey for a quick lunch but the food and the atmosphere were worth every penny.
 
While we were eating lunch, my girls spotted Topshop from the large dining room windows and wanted to go there as soon as possible.  After exploring all three floors of that store, we visited H&M.  Both of those stores were packed to the walls with young girls lining up to try on clothes and later to pay for those treasures.
 
Once we finished round one of our shopping, we returned to Mile North to check in.  We were thrilled with our room.  I was pleased to see that it looked exactly like the promotional pictures on their website.  It was beautiful, clean and quiet.  I’ve read some reviews about this hotel wherein people complained about noise from the street but we heard nothing from outside of our room.  We stayed on the seventh floor, right above the main entrance.  The bedroom was about the size of a standard American hotel room but the bathroom was quite large.  Everything appeared to be new and spotlessly clean.  The beds were wonderfully comfortable.  There was a refrigerator in the room, as well as a safe.

After a brief rest, we returned to our shopping.  There’s a Disney store on the same corner where Saks and Neiman’s sit, so we did a quick tour through that.  We went on to Forever 21, Chico’s, Nordstrom’s, Nike and several other stores.  My favorite store on the Mile is the multi-story Crate & Barrel.  It’s huge!  I’m a sucker for the C&B bargains and walked out carrying boxes of fun household goods.
 
By the time we finished, the sun was starting to set and we were burdened with packages.  We returned to the hotel to unload our purchases and to freshen up for dinner.  It was great to have our hotel just right around the corner when we needed to rest and refresh.  We were surprised to find that our room had been serviced and our beds turned down while we were out.

Our plan was to go to Giordano’s Pizza (two blocks from our hotel) for dinner.  However, by the time we got there it was nearly 9:00 on and the place was packed.  Even the line to put your name on the wait list was painfully long.  We were told that the wait for a table was 90 minutes.  I know from my previous visits to Giordano’s that it can take as long as 45 minutes to get a pizza after you order because it takes that long to bake from scratch.
 
While Giordano’s pizza is excellent and I highly recommend the place, we didn’t want to wait over two hours for dinner, so we implemented Plan B, which was to have dinner in the hotel restaurant, Ferris & Jack.  We were not disappointed.  I had a fabulous grilled cheese sandwich layered with apples and bacon.  It was not crowded so we were able to enjoy a lovely, quiet dinner.  Dinner for four, plus cocktails for three, came to $95 but that’s pretty reasonable for a dinner in Chicago.
 
We checked out on Sunday morning, once again leaving our luggage secured with the bell captain and our car with the valet.
 
We walked down to Millennium Park, which was a bit of hike but it was a balmy morning and the sidewalks were nearly deserted, so it was a pleasant walk.  We wandered around enjoying the art and taking pictures for most of the morning.  “The Bean”, officially known as “Cloud Gate” drew the most tourists.  You can see the world reflected from multiple angles in its shiny surface.
 
From Millennium Park, we walked toward Navy Pier.  The regular pedestrian walkway to the pier was closed for construction but the detour took us through a high-end residential neighborhood centered around a small park that was just as charming as could be.  We found a nice little coffee shop across the street from the park and stopped in for drinks.  We strolled along the River Walk and crossed the bridge that put us out right at Navy Pier.
 
Navy Pier is a hub of activity on a nice summer day.  It is a family-oriented place and the weather was perfect.  I think every family in Chicago decided to visit the pier that day.  There are plenty of amusements on the pier and several activities going on there all of the time.  This particular weekend marked the end of the Tall Ships show.  On Saturday night, there had been a Taylor Swift concert and countless little girls were walking around sporting Taylor Swift tee shirts and backpacks.
 
You will find no shortage of places on the pier to pop into for a quick bite.  We chose Harry Carry’s.  The food was good enough but not particularly noteworthy.  The service, however, was excellent.
 
The Cirque Shanghai 2:00 show was a great way to end our weekend.  At $132 for four tickets (bought on-line in advance) it was a bargain.  Although it was a great way to end our trip, it would have been better to see the show at night.  Some of the magic of the lighting was lost in the daylight of the pier’s open-air theatre.  Still, the show was incredible and it is a good, inexpensive way to see a Cirque show.  The bad news is that the show only runs during the summer months.
 
When we returned to Mile North to retrieve our bags and our car, a bellman walked by and heard me mention to my girls that we would get the car as soon as I dug the claim ticket out from the bottom of my purse.  Without being asked, he jumped right to service, volunteering to retrieve both our luggage and our car.  Everything about our stay at was flawless.  I will definitely return to Mile North.