In June I’ll be traveling to Italy for three weeks. Except it’s not a vacation. It’s work. Really.
Well kinda. I was invited to chaperone a group of college students for a study abroad class that the university I work at was offering. Of course I said yes! I’m helping out the professor with the administrative tasks and will be the keeper-of-time, stipend distributor, and chief head-counter, etc.
The course is a great one: all about travel writing! We will primarily be based in Florence, but will have daytrips to:
Also on the itinerary is a two-night stay in the Cinque Terre–something that’s always been on my bucket list.
While in Florence, we will do guided tours of Palazzo Vecchio, Galleria dell’Accademia, the Uffizi, the Duomo, and cooking class will be added to the mix, too. Our schedule over the 21 days is fairly jam-packed, but the students (and I) have three days to explore on our own. The only rule: you must remain in Italy.
I’m not sure where to go during this free time. Some of the students are renting an Airbnb in Rome. I’ve been to Rome before–had a wonderful time–but think I should go somewhere new. I might take the train up to Milan to see the Duomo and walk on the roof. I’m also interested in doing a Tuscany daytrip in the Val d’Orcia region. Maybe even a trip to San Marino to cross another country off my list?
In the meantime, I’ve been religiously reading my Lonely Planet Italy guide, my Rick Steves’ Florence guide, and I’ve re-read Under the Tuscan Sun. The Visit Tuscany and Visit Florence Instagram feeds have given me my daily inspiration! Also to prepare, I’ve downloaded all of the delightful (and free!) Rick Steves’ Italy podcasts and having been brushing up on my Italian with the free Duolingo app on my phone.
If you have any travel suggestions, especially for the Tuscany area of Italy, let me know–I’d love to hear it!
I’ve now lived in Wisconsin for almost 7 years. I grew up in the Midwest, so it’s not a huge change, but thing I hate is winter. Yep, I know I’m in the wrong state. But here I am.
For the past few years we’ve taken a warm-weather vacation when it gets colder here. Last year, we went to Orlando–and managed to miss the first big snow storm of the season! In 2014, we did Key West and had a blast.
After our first-time cruise experience to Alaska last year, we thought a warm-weather cruise in the winter should be next on our cruising list. We’re using it as a little thank you gift to me for completing my master’s degree!
I looked at itineraries on Princess, Celebrity, Holland America, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and MSC. I was tempted to do Princess again because we sailed with them to Alaska and loved the experience, but decided to focus more on itinerary and price, as opposed to loyalty.
We knew we could swing 7 days, but no longer–and the shorter 3-4 day “booze cruises” don’t really appeal to us.
In the end, we selected Celebrity Cruises. It’s similar in profile to Princess and they happened to be offering a good deal for December. When we cruise we don’t need water slides or rock walls. We just want to relax and explore the ports–so Celebrity is a good match for us.
We’ll spend a couple days pre-cruise in Miami Beach. I’m still thinking about shore excursions. In San Juan, we’ll be happy just strolling through Old San Juan. I’m an airplane enthusiast, so St. Maarten will probably include a trip to Maho Beach to watch the planes come in. I’m not really familiar enough with St. Kitts yet, but the volcano hike sounds like a challenge worth taking!
If you’ve been to any of these locales and have suggestions, please let me know! I’d love to hear about your experiences. But for now, I’m just going to enjoy summer here!
Happy New Year! I realized that from this past summer, I did a day-by-day account of our Alaskan cruise, but I never wrapped it up with a trip review. Since this was our first cruise and first time to Alaska, I thought I’d write a little bit about the experience.
I’ll be honest, up until now, I never had a strong desire to go on a cruise. Some of it was bad PR (like the Carnival Triumph “poop cruise”), some of it was outdated thinking on my part (like doing “forced” activities–hey, no one is actually forcing you to do anything!).
But Alaska was on the travel bucket list and we thought doing a cruise sounded like a good way to go!
Selecting our cruise
We ended up choosing Princess Cruises’ round trip from Seattle, primarily for their expertise in Alaska–and Glacier Bay National Park was on the itinerary we selected. I would have loved to have done a land tour too (like Denali) but we couldn’t spare the extra time (hey that gives me an excuse to go again!). Plus, I’d rather do Denali on my own and really spend some time there.
So we opted for the round trip so we could fly into and out of the same place. We chose Seattle as opposed to Vancouver for cheaper air fares. It’s easier for us to get to and we have family in the area.
We booked last Fall and then I spent the rest of the time eagerly reading the Cruise Critic forums and Alaska travel books. It seemed such a long stretch until June. But then, it was time to sail!
Cruise Ship Experience
We were on the Crown Princess, round-trip from Seattle from June 4-11, 2016. The itinerary included Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, Victoria BC, plus scenic cruising through Glacier Bay. We spent 3 nights pre-cruise in the Seattle area exploring around.
Embarkation: Pier 91 at Seattle (Smith Cove Cruise Terminal). A smooth experience! Arrived around 12:30pm. Line always kept moving–no more than 30 minutes to get from drop-off to on board the ship. Our room was ready when we got there.
Stateroom: Inside cabin, Riviera 724. We saved money by booking an inside cabin and have no regrets–we spent most of our time exploring the ship anyway! Great location — aft of the ship. Just a few steps and we were at the Terrace pool and bar which was rarely crowded. The room was situated immediately below the buffet—only the occasional minor noise, but nothing that ever caused us to lose sleep. The room itself was more than adequate for the two of us. I thought I might feel claustrophobic, but no worries.
Service: Exceptional. I’m not one who usually goes for being “pampered,” but I felt like a king (or a prince since this is Princess Cruises?). Our steward was helpful and always seemed to be around…but never hovered. Wait staff was amiable and professional. Top notch all around.
Food: Ranged from average to excellent. Two great meals in the Crown Grill (loved the filet mignon!) and had good food in the MDR (hello salmon! And I’m still having dreams about you, Fettuccine Alfredo!). The buffet was fairly standard and what I expect when you try to institutionally service food to 3,000 people. We did Anytime Dining because we didn’t want to stick to a rigid schedule. Well, we learned it really should be called “Anytime Dining but reservations highly encouraged!” So, we decided what time we wanted eat dinner in the morning and made a quick call to the Dine line for reservations.
Facilities: Loved all the open areas, walking around the Promenade Deck, Skywalkers Lounge, Terrace pool area. The piazza (central atrium) is beautiful. Most of the time, the ship never felt crowded (and that’s good because I’m not a “crowds” person). Some issues finding seating in buffet at peak times (mainly from people taking up tables who weren’t actually eating).
Onboard Activities: Alaska is so port-intensive, we were sometimes too tired. But we did go to several performances (“Magic to Do” musical and 70’s music show) and liked them. Tried our hand at trivia…fun, but wow we felt dumb! Did the “treasure hunt” as a first timer…I won something! Went to one of the naturalist presentations about Alaska and a photo presentation on Alaska…both good!Attended the culinary demo and galley tour…fascinating. Watched the finale of “Voice of the Ocean”—some talented passengers on board!
Disembarkation: A bit of zoo, but I guess that’s usual? We did Express Walk Off and would do it again.
Glacier Bay scenic cruising: One word: AMAZING! Remember to get a good spot out on one the high decks then go down to the Promenade Deck to get a change in perspective.
What I learned as a first-time cruiser is that it’s all about options. Don’t like formal night? Don’t have to do it (just stay out of the main dining room). Hungry at 11pm? No problem: Go to the 24 hour cafe. Want to learn something?: Go listen to the naturalist talk. Want to party? Go to the late night DJ. There really is something for everyone!
So, we’re hooked! Doesn’t mean we’ll be cruising multiple times a year, but as soon as we got off the ship, we both agreed: Let’s go somewhere warm next! So, if you have suggestions, let me know!
If you have questions about my trip, don’t hesitate to ask!
Located downtown, the FWMoA features several nice galleries. When I visited, they were showcasing two exhibitions that I really found interesting.
The first was by Oakland-based artist Brett Amory entitled “Fort Wayne, American Monologue.” Growing up in the midwest, I’m always attuned to people that make simplistic assumptions about the midwest (aka “flyover country”), so I was interested in seeing this artist’s perspective. The story told about Fort Wayne was realistic: its successes and failures, the good and bad, the past and future. I appreciated this multi-dimensional perspective.
My favorite piece was a worked titled “Internet Archive.” As a librarian, I noticed the information and literary component to the piece. I also spotted the old library catalog cards decorating the frame.
The second exhibit was by artist and printmaker Robert Kipniss. His works featured many tree scenes in dark greens, grays, and almost black. A quote from the artist struck me:
No matter what you do some people will like it, some people will hate it, and most people won’t care. Do the work you believe in, the work you have to do, and let that be enough.
I also enjoyed a third gallery: various pieces acquired by the museum in 2016.
Because the museum is small, they rotate artwork for display. So I’ll definitely be stopping in the next time I’m in Fort Wayne. You’ll see something new!
Ahh, the beautiful sunshine and warm weather of Florida was a brief respite from December in Wisconsin.
We stayed four nights in Orlando at Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort. Below are some notes on our trip:
- Transportation: Used the complimentary Disney’s Magical Express shuttle service since we were staying at a Disney resort. It’s round trip transportation from/to the airport. Loved not having to worry about a car…that it made it feel like a “real” vacation to me!
- Day 1 (arrival): Relax! Took shuttle to Disney Springs for shopping and eating.
- Day 2: Magic Kingdom
- Day 3: Epcot
- Day 4: Universal Studios and Wizarding World of Harry Potter
- Favorite meal: Monsieur Paul in the France Pavilion at Epcot
- Surprising (in a good way) meal experience: It’s a tie for dinner at Shutters at Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort and Jungle Skipper Canteen ay Magic Kingdom.
- Not to miss treat: Dole Whip at the Magic Kingdom
- Favorite park experience: Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios
- Least favorite park experience: Wait times at the Magic Kingdom, but to be expected on a Saturday visit.
- Things worth noting:
- Christmas time means beautiful park decorations.
- Winter means less daylight and shorter park hours.
- Evaluate the Disney Dining plan to see if it works for you. We did not select it because the value was not there for us. Your situation may be different.
- Helpful Links:
It was time to switch it up after two days doing the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. From our base at Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort, we arranged for a Mears Shuttle to pick us up and take us to Universal Studios Orlando.
It is, in one word, amazing! The attention to detail is spot on. The shops and restaurants have a great atmosphere and the workers are wonderfully in character.
We started with the London street facade with Kings Cross station, the Leicester Square tube stop, 12 Grimmauld Place, and the Knight Bus.
Then we entered Diagon Alley, got some butterbeer, and visited the Leaky Cauldron, Knockturn Alley, and did the exciting Escape from Gringotts ride.
Following that, it was time for the train journey: Hogwarts Express! Having been to the actual Kings Cross in London, it was amazing to get the same type of vibe! The train journey was fun and full of special effects. Movie magic!
The train deposits you at Hogsmeade Village where you’ll find snow on the rooftops. We had lunch at the Three Broomsticks, watched the quick wand show at Ollivanders, and the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride at Hogwarts Castle.
After getting our fill of Harry Potter, we toured around the Islands of Adventure and then took the Hogwarts Express back to tour more of Universal Studios Florida.
Keep in mind, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is divided between the two Universal parks (Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure). You will need park-to-park admission to visit both Harry Potter sites. It’s well worth it! We did both parks in one day. The weekday hours in winter when we were there were shorter. We could have used a couple more hours to do more, but were happy with what we saw. We exited when the park closed at 7pm.
Maybe because this was a new experience for me, seeing the Wizarding World was my favorite theme park experience for Orlando. Definitely a must do!
Below are a few photos, for the full set, check out my Flickr album.
I loved Epcot as a kid. Visiting the world showcase made me want to travel and explore these places in person.
It was Sunday and not too crowded. After entering the park, we decided to line up and wait at Spaceship Earth–not too bad, only about 20 minutes. The ride was pretty much as I remembered, but with the voice of Judi Dench in place of Walter Cronkite (circa 1992!).
Then we explored more of Future World, including the Test Track which reminded me of the Radiator Springs ride at Disney’s California Adventure.
After that, it was off to tackle the World Showcase. We started at Mexico and worked our way around. In Mexico, we sampled some churros and a margarita. We also did the boat ride inside – the Gran Fiesta Tour. I also purchased a Dia de los Muertos skull.
Then in Norway, I picked up some Frozen plush toys for a co-worker’s kid and then in China, we had a quick counter service lunch at the Lotus Blossom Cafe. It’s reminiscent of a Panda Express, but since we were splurging for dinner, we decided to go cheap for lunch (at least Disney “cheap”).
The Japan pavilion was interesting and I was surprised by the large Mitsukoshi department store…definitely some good buys there! Morocco was up next and I think its architecture is my favorite. I love the little alleyways inside.
We had a quick look at France–we would be coming back here for dinner, and then exited the park at the International Gateway to meet some friends that live in the area for some drinks along the Boardwalk.
I had made a reservation for Monsieur Paul and we were not disappointed! Service was excellent and the food was playful, creative, and delicious. I had the red snapper with “potato” scales. Wonderful…a truly gourmet meal!
We loved chatting with the employees representing their countries, getting to browse the imported goods, and learning a little bit about each culture.
Below are a few photos, for the full set, check out my Flickr album.
OK, I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of theme parks. But we were in Orlando to escape some Wisconsin winter weather, so I put myself in the mood!
I had been to Disneyland in California about four years prior. The last time I was at Disney World in Florida was 1991.
We hopped on the shuttle from Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort and were dropped off at the Magic Kingdom. The shuttle was full, but not uncomfortably so.
I know there a lot of people who get into Disney planning mode, but we walked into the Magic Kingdom without a major plan…just planning to amble from one section to another until closing time.
After walking down Main Street USA and past Cinderella Castle, we began in Tomorrowland and did Space Mountain, then over to Fantasyland and the Mad Tea Party teacups, and through Liberty Square and the Hall of Presidents.
We had la surprisingly good lunch in Adventureland at Jungle Skipper Canteen — a table service restaurant that’s a fusion of South African, Asian, and South American dishes. We also got our Dole Whip at Aloha Isle!
While waiting for lunch, we toured the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse and after lunch did the “jungle cruise” and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Then it was over to the Haunted Mansion and It’s a Small World. Dinner was disappointing: a quick counter-service meal from The Friar’s Nook.
Because it was December, everything was decked out in Christmas decorations–the highlight being Cinderella’s Castle draped in dreamy icicle lights. We crammed into the plaza around the castle for the fireworks show…spectacular!
We visited on a Saturday, so it was quite crowded…especially since it was close to the holidays. However, we had a great time and enjoyed the sunshine!
Below are a few photos, for the full set, check out my Flickr album.
I think we could get into the habit of taking a winter vacation to a warmer locale! Earlier in December, we spent four nights at Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort–one of the “moderately” priced Disney properties.
In September I found a good vacation package deal through Southwest Airlines (flight + Disney hotel), so I booked it.
The advantage of staying at a Disney hotel is that round trip transportation from/to the airport is included, courtesy of Disney’s Magical Express. No waiting at the rental car counter. No managing the busy highways. A nice coach bus does that all for you. You can even choose to have your luggage automatically picked up at baggage claim and delivered straight to your hotel room. The big plus for us was when leaving: We were able to check in for our return flight at the hotel and leave our luggage there to be automatically transported for us. Then we hopped on Disney’s Magical Express bus to the airport and proceeded directly through TSA.
Owing to its name, Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort is decorated in tropical colors – lots of pink, purple, and aqua hues. The various buildings are centered around a lake. Check in is at the Custom House and a food court is located at Old Port Royale. Some visitors complain of the property being too spread out, but we found it easily walkable. Lots of good exercise.
Most mornings, we started with breakfast at the food court for a quick bite. We did one dinner at the table service restaurant, Shutters, and had an excellent meal of red snapper with jicama salsa and fried green tomatoes, and a perfectly cooked strip steak.
The Disney parks shuttle were quick and convenient and we used it to get to Disney Springs, the Magic Kingdom, and Epcot. I don’t think we waited over 10 minutes at our stop near our hotel room.
The weather cooperated and we were in shorts and t-shirts for all but our first day. We even managed to escape the first major winter storm of the season in Wisconsin.
In short: The convenience of Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort is a big draw. Easy access to the parks and airport transportation helped to make this vacation go smoothly.
Below are a few photos, for the full set, check out my Flickr album.
Again, we were itching to get off the ship as soon as Victoria came into view. Canadian immigration authorities slightly delayed our docking. We were off the ship just after 7:30pm and we had to be back on at 11:30pm. Another short port. Too bad, because Victoria was lovely!
This was the only port where we didn’t have a set excursion. We only had plans to walk around and eat at a restaurant. We did book a shuttle through Princess Cruises to take us downtown and back. You can also walk, but it’s about 20 minutes and we didn’t want to spare the time.
The shuttle dropped us off at The Empress Hotel.
Then we made our way over to the British Columbia parliament buildings.
After that, we walked along the Inner Harbour.
Feeling hungry, we took the shuttle driver’s advice and headed down Government Street, passing lots of charming pubs. They say Victoria is the most “English” city in Canada and it definitely feels like it.
At Bastion Square, we walked down the pedestrian alley to Wharf Street. There we found The Docks restaurant. The menu looked good, so we went in and had dinner–a lovely piece of fresh wild-caught salmon along with lobster mashed potatoes. Yum!
Following dinner, we retraced our steps along Government Street, did some souvenir shopping, and went back over to the BC parliament buildings to see them all lit up at night.
We made our way to the shuttle bus and back on board the ship at just after 11pm.
Our visit to Victoria BC was much too short. A lot of people on the ship booked the Butchart Gardens excursion. I’m glad we did not since we were short on time. Victoria is a lovely city and we plan on returning someday to do some more exploring.
Here is the Princess Patter for the day:
Below are some more photos. For the full set, check out my Flickr album.