Monday, November 22, 2010

Sunset Jamaica Grande Resort--Ocho Rios

WOW! That is my description of the Sunset Jamaica Grande Resort Ocho Rios. I was pleasantly surprised.

The Sunset Jamaica Grande Resort is an all-inclusive 3+-star hotel. But from what I saw, you wouldn't think that. I was very impressed with the cleanliness of the hotel and resort area, the friendliness of the staff, and the improvements that are under way. Yes, I was a travel agent visiting for the day, so of course you would think that the staff would go out of their way to be friendly. But I had an opportunity to talk to a couple of guests, and they concurred that the staff was very friendly.

The resort has a great pool and beach area. There are 3 pools--one that is adult only--and the other is a huge pool that has a waterslide going into it--and the third has a fantastic waterfall.

The travel agent tour included seeing 4 different rooms. All of the rooms had a balcony and a view of the water, even the "mountain view" (Wow, what a view that was!). Some of the comments for the first 2 rooms we viewed were about the simplistic, outdated decor. However, the hotel is undergoing a multi-million dollar renovation where they are painting the walls, changing the carpets, and installing new contemporary furniture. The result will be beautiful!

Here is a picture of the "old room":

And here is a picture with the new decor:

The Sunset Jamaica Grande also has family suites that have 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a living area, and a small kitchenette.

Yes, there are nicer resorts in Ocho Rios, but what is great about the Sunset Jamaica Grande Resort is the VALUE. For a budget-minded traveler, this is a great option because of the location, price, and amenities. You would easily feel that you were staying at a 4-star resort. It truly is a beautiful resort and I wouldn't hesitate sending my clients here.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Riu Montego Bay and Riu Ocho Rios

I’ve decided to write my review on the Riu Montego Bay and Ocho Rios together, as the 2 properties are very similar.

At both properties, I was very impressed with the warm, welcoming color scheme and d├ęcor in the lobby area. The entire lobby area was well designed, with a seating area, bar, and a board with the daily schedule of events. All Riu resorts are All-Inclusive.

A short walk from the lobby there is a open-air theater, bar and lounge. This is the site for the resort’s nightly entertainment.

The Montego Bay property, which opened in August 2008, is slightly smaller with 681 rooms. It has one very large pool, a beautiful sandy beach, a spa and work out facilities, and a kids club for ages 4-12. Riu Montego Bay has a main buffet restaurant, Rose Hall, as well as 3 a la carte restaurants.

The Riu Ocho Rios Resort opened in 2005. It has 856 rooms in 3 buildings. One building is the “Deluxe Wing”, which has 300 Junior Suites. Riu describes this as a “hotel within a hotel.” The perks include 24 hour concierge service, an ocean view balcony with every room, as well as exclusive access to the on-site Japanese Restaurant.

This Riu property has 2 beautiful pools and a very nice sandy beach. Riu Ocho Rios has a main buffet restaurant, along with 5 a la carte restaurants. At the a la carte restaurants, reservations must be made early each morning (the day you want to eat there).

Although there are no “connecting rooms,” both Riu properties give you the option of having 2 side-by-side rooms turned into a “family suite.” This is a great option for those traveling with small children, and giving parents and kids to have their own room.

My first experience with Riu—in Cancun—made me think this was a “Party Chain” and I have been hesitant to recommend the chain to clients. The reason behind this misconception is I was in Cancun around Spring-break time, and I heard guests of the Riu bragging about the Liquor wells in the rooms. Yes, I saw the liquor wells in each of the rooms I inspected in Jamaica. However, the management will remove it upon request, especially when children are staying in the rooms.

Now, granted I was visiting these two resorts during the slow, hurricane season. The hotels were at minimum capacity, so there wasn’t a “party atmosphere.” Could it be different during high season? Of course. But what really struck me about both Riu properties is that the staff and management sincerely want you to have a good time and enjoy yourself. There was a certain warmth at both resorts. And the grounds are beautiful, well-laid out with lots of activities, beautiful pools and beautiful beaches. I would have no problem recommending Riu resorts to my clients.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Jamaica, Mon....Grand Palladium

I recently went on a 4-day trip to Jamaica sponsored by the Jamaican Tourist Board (JTB). The trip was a "Fam Trip," which in travel-agent speak, is a Familiarization Trip. The JTB held 8 Fam Trips during the month of September, and over 2000 US Travel Agents participated. Over 10 Montego Bay resorts hosted the travel agents during their stay. On each Fam Trip, the JTB scheduled several resort inspection sites--typically 7 or 8 in a 2 day period. This trip was a wonderful learning experience--both from seeing the resorts and the island, but also by networking with other travel agents.

I visited Jamaica once before--13 1/2 years ago, on my Honeymoon. I am so over-the-moon that I had the opportunity to return! The island has come a long way over the past decade. Jamaica now boasts a modern airport, modern roadways, and new shopping centers. I remember the bus-ride from the airport to our Honeymoon resort, the Sandals Royal Caribbean, and it seemed long--on a narrow (dirt?) road, with poor shanty-towns around. Well, there is now a new, smooth "highway", the "Hip Strip" (containing Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville and a Harley-Davidson club), modern houses, more hotels/resorts, and shopping plazas dotting the road. In fact, it is now a very quick 20 minute bus ride from the airport to Sandals Royal Caribbean!

Because this trip was a "Business Trip" and not a "Leisure Trip," I ended up looking at each property with a critical eye--Would I send my clients here? What are the positives of this resort? What are the negatives? What can be improved? People use travel agents for their expertise and hopefully, first-hand knowledge. Each travel agents reputation depends on this. If I were to suggest what I consider to be a decent property, and my client goes and feels that it didn't meet his/her expectations, they probably might not use my services again.

My plan is to write and post pictures about a each Jamaican resort I visited.

The host hotel for my Fam Trip was the Grand Palladium, which opened in 2008. The Grand Palladium is a 45-minute bus ride from Sangster Airport in Montego Bay. It is roughly half-way between Montego Bay and Negril. The ride from the airport hugs the coast, and can be very beautiful and scenic. Once you arrive at the resort, you notice there is nothing else in the surrounding area. If you like a vacation where you go to a resort and stay there, by the pool or beach, then this resort would be great for you.

From first glance, this is a beautiful resort. Beautiful large reception area, with a beautiful marble staircase leading down to the grounds level, a clean, shimmering pool that seems to go on forever--this resort gives a very good first impression.

The Grand Palladium has over 1000 rooms—all Jr Suites and Suites--in 28 buildings. The main building hosts the lobby, a la carte restaurants, buffet restaurants, lounges and bars, and gift shops. The complex is divided into two "resorts." To the right is the Jamaica Resort and on the left is the Lady Hamilton Resort (I really couldn't see any difference in resorts). Each building is painted a faint pink, yellow or green. Each building has 3 floors, with 8 rooms per floor. There are no elevators in the buildings.

Each side has approximately 450 Jr. Suites and 60 Suites. The Jr. Suites are a wonderful size with large bathrooms. My bedroom had 2 double beds, and a sitting area, as well as a balcony with an ocean view. The bathroom had a tile shower and a large Jacuzzi tub. Each room has a flat-screen wall-mounted television, as well as an alarm clock with an iPod dock, a coffee maker, and a small refrigerator with complimentary beverages.

This all-inclusive resort has 13 bars, 3 buffet restaurants and 7 a la carte, but depending on the season, not all are open. I ate at the only buffet restaurant open during my stay—the MoBay—for breakfast (3 times) and dinner (once). I was very impressed with the selection for both meals—it is a very large buffet. Everything was nicely laid out and organized. Each morning there was a little bit of variety in the offerings. I especially liked how each selection had a placard in 4 languages describing the dish. The restaurants do try to buy local.

On my last day, because I had time before leaving for the airport and because the sun had finally come out, I was able to spend some time by the pool. I can honestly say, the pool at the Grand Palladium is probably the biggest and prettiest I have every seen. It is gorgeous! The staff takes immaculate care of the pool. The pool is definitely the resort’s best feature.

Despite opening in 2008, there are signs poor workmanship. At the giant rotunda in the lobby, there are water stains, cracks, and peeling paint--not a nice sight when you are trying to impress your guests. I also read several reviews on Trip Advisor where former guests complained about "unfinished" bathrooms or cracks in walls. I experienced this not only in my room but also another room (both in Building 16) that I entered to use the phone (and take pictures since I forgot to take pictures in my room).

A few travel agents in my group commented on the lack of management at the resort. I would have to agree--especially at the breakfast buffet. The buffet opens at 7am each day. There should be a check-list of “Things To Be Done” before opening the doors. One of those things should be having all the placards describing the dishes in place prior to opening. One morning, none of the placards were set up--even at 7:30 the workers were finishing--and the second morning, they were still finishing set up. There are a lot of waitstaff milling around at breakfast. But it is hard to get someone to bring some coffee or take a plate. I once stayed at a resort where each waiter was assigned 5-7 tables. That was not the case here. The waitstaff was more interested in cleaning/sorting around the supply cabinet than assisting guests.

Personally, I feel that the resort could do a couple of things that would make its' guests experience more pleasant.

It would be nice to see a real bar in the lobby area. Each and every resort I visited on this trip had a proper bar in the lobby area. The Grand Palladium, instead, had a rolling bar that they brought out when guests were departing/arriving, with the only choices being rum fruit punch and pineapple punch. The closest bar is a short-walk away, out of sight of the main lobby.

Another suggestion is to have a towel area on the "Jamaica" side of the resort. Currently, there are only 2 places to get beach towels--the reception area or the towel shack on the Lady Hamilton side of the resort. It would be *so much nicer* to have an additional towel shack on the Jamaican side, considering the massive size of the resort and the amount of walking required.

I did have the opportunity to speak to a few of the guests staying at the Grand Palladium, to get their opinion on their experience. Each person I spoke with was having a pleasant time and enjoying the entire experience. One couple was on their honeymoon, and complimented the staff for finding alternative activities during a period of bad weather (it is hurricane season!).

Monday, August 9, 2010

Oahu and Big Island, Hawaii

Two years ago, when my youngest son was 3 years old, he asked me if we could go to Hawaii. I found this request odd and comical at the same time. How did a 3 year old hear about Hawaii? Did one of his preschool classmates or a teacher vacation there and talk about it during school?!? His answer "My big brain told me." My husband had been to Hawaii twice before, and I have never been. The idea had merit. I also believed that I couldn't be a true travel agent without experiencing my own "fam" (familiarization) trip to Hawaii. We noodled on it for a while, and thought 2010 would work well for the Thomas family to head West to the Pacific. We also decided to make it worth our while, we would visit two islands: Oahu and Big Island.


Despite all the travel magazines and reviews I read, and conversations I had about Honolulu being a strip of skyscraper hotels and its commericalism, it did little to prepare me for reality. Yes, Honolulo IS a strip of high-rise hotels and a strip of posh stores and restaurants, and there are probably more ABC stores than Massachusetts has Dunkin Donuts. But just across the street (or sometimes, out the door) of these high-rise hotels is this glorious beach. A very crowded beach. But the water is blue, and it is warm. It is full of activity--surfers, body surfers, boogey-boarders, swimmers, people on floaties. It is THE happening place of Waikiki, Honolulu.

But there is more to Oahu than just Waikiki Beach.


Our first excursion from Waikiki Beach, Honolulu was to a Luau. We boarded a tour bus to the Paradise Cove Luau, about 45 minutes from Honolulu. We were greated with leis and drinks (non-alcoholic for the kids). We had our perfunctionary "welcome" picture taken with a Luau girl and guy, and then headed in for the festivities. There was something for everyone!

Flower-lei bracelets, Polynesian bowling and spear throwing (wear kids "win" shell necklaces), outrigger canoe rowing, coconut-opening demonstrations, tree climbing demonstrations (along with showering the guests with flowers), hula demonstrations. It was fabulous!

Then came dinner and the show. The dinner consisted of "typical" Luau fare--Kalua pork (YUM!), fried chicken, macadamia fish, rice, salad, and dessert. All of it was very good. And then the show....a fabulous look at the Polyneisian culture and their dances. Very entertaining!

Polynisian Cultural Center

The next day, our family traveled north to visit the Polynesian Culture Center. Here's an important tip--the PCC is closed on Sundays--the day we originally scheduled to visit. Good thing we found out and were able to change our itinerary around. The bus ride takes about 1.5 hours from Waikiki Beach. To truly experience the PCC, it is best to spend a full day there.

Visiting the Polynesian Cultural Center is a fantastic way to learn about the various Polynesian cultures--Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, and Aotearoa. The PCC is divided into 6 villages, where you can learn about the history and culture of the native people. It is a very interactive experience. You see the huts and canoes built by natives, as well as traditional ceremonies. In Fiji, we visited a "town meeting" where we were given bamboo drum shakers to participate in traditional Fiji songs. While in Tahiti, all "guests" were invited to learn the traditional Tahitian dance--the ladies got to shake their booty and the men displayed their "chicken" dance abilities. Great fun! We also found some "hands-on" activities to participate it. I made a "fishing pole with a fish" out of a palm branch. My sons tried fishing as well as opening a coconut and sampling some cocount juice. In Samoa, my husband and three sons attempted to start a fire with traditional Samoan tools (sticks!), but with little success. During the day, there is also a Parade of Cultures on the river running through the PCC, where you can see each countries people in traditional dress and native dances.

Our ticket package at the PCC included seeing the production of HA--The Breath of Life, a story of a young man and his journey through childhood to manhood in the Polynesian culture. There were 6 phases of his life, each performed by one of the six cultures at the PCC. Althought there was (what seemed like) a long time between when the exhibits closed and when the show began (also known as "Shopping Opporuntity at the PCC), it was well worth the wait. The colors, the dance, the emotion, the story was all very well done. Even my 5 year old understood what was going on. A brilliant show!

Pearl Harbor

A visit to Pearl Harbor is a "must see" while in Honolulu. It is the location of the "day that will live in infamy," Japan's surprise attack on Americans, which forced us to enter World War II.

I can't even begin to tell you what an emotional visit this was. Whether it is the video presentation at the Visitor Center, of hearing the words of General MacArthur while taking a tour on the USS Missouri, or the solemnity of the USS Arizona Memorial, you will be faced with some stirring, deep emotions and pride for our country and countrymen.

The Visitor Center, though large, is undergoing a remodeling where they are building a new theater. At the time of our visit, the video presentation of the bombing of Pearl Harbor was inside a tent. Visiting the USS Arizona Memorial is free, on a first-come, first-served basis. You must get tickets with an assigned boat time from the ticket window. If you are not with a tour group, it is a good idea to arrive early, as many tour groups get a majority of the tickets, and it could be a while to wait for your scheduled ferry time. For example, we were with a tour group, which arrived at Pearl Harbor at 9am. We were scheduled for the 11:45am shuttle. This gave us ample of time to go visit the USS Missouri, which is now permanently docked at Pearl Harbor. Tickets for the USS Missouri, USS Bowfin are available at the Visitor Center.

Other Activities

You could easily spend a whole two weeks on Oahu with all there is to do. Other activities include taking a tour of the Dole Plantation, visiting the large surfing waves and beaches of the North Shore, hiking to Diamond Head, snorkeling, people watching, and just chillaxin'.....

I have to say my favorite part of Oahu is the friendliness of all the people. Yes, tourism is the biggest industry in Oahu, so they rely on visitors from the mainland. But I feel that their hospitality and happiness was very genuine. Overall, Oahu is a fantastic place to visit. There is history, culture, and plenty of Aloha-spirit for everyone.


On our 5th day, we took a 30 minute flight (on a "real" size plane) over to the Big Island. We landed in Kailua-Kona, on the west side of the island, where most of the resorts are located. We rented a car, which you really should to do anything on the Big Island.

When we drove off the airport road onto the Queen Ka'Ahumanu Highway (Rt 19).....WOW! What a difference!! Gone were the high-rise hotels and the "city" feel. I was looking at the exact opposite---stretches of barren lava-rock fields. It was undeveloped, and to some extent barren. Miles and miles of lava rock on both sides of the road.

There are only about 10 resorts/hotels on the West Side of the Big Island north of Kona. They include the Four Seasons, The Fairmont Orchid, Kona Village Resort, Marriot Waikoloa, Mauna Lai Resort, Mauna Kea Resort, Hapuna Prince, and the Hilton Waikoloa Village (where we stayed).

Although many reviews of the Hilton Waikoloa Village had me all jittery prior to our arrival, it ended up being a perfect destination (considering our options) for a family with 3 young children. Let me start by saying that NOTHING IS INCLUDED--except maybe the free beach towels for use during your stay. But on the other hand, the rooms were large (we reserved 2 connecting rooms--1 with a King Bed, 1 with 2 double beds). The property is immense--it covers 66 acres. There are 3 room towers--the Ocean Tower, the Palace Tower, and the Lagoon Tower. To get around the property, you can either walk, take a tram, or a boat to your destination. Of course, kids will LOVE the fact there is a tram or a boat.

The grounds are a tropical paradise. There are tropical fish in the waterway that carries the boats. There is also a secluded lagoon, with sand, where you can snorkel, swim, rent canoes, paddle boats, or paddle bikes. Our family snorkeled quite a bit in the lagoon. We swam with turtles ("Honu"), angel fish, eels, and other schools of fish. While crossing the bridge one day, we even saw an eagle ray (relative to the manta ray). If you are feeling adventurous, you can even snorkel outside of the secluded lagoon onto the Pacific's lagoon.

There are 2 pools. The Kohala Pool is by the Ocean Tower. It has 3 slides--2 small ones and a "medium" sized waterslide. The Kona Pool, located by the Lagoon Tower, is large and immense (depth only 3.5 feet), and has a waterfall as well as a large waterslide. There is also a kiddie-section with a maximum depth of 3 feet and a sandy bottom.

There are also several restaurants on site---Japanese, Chinese, Steak, Oceanfront, Breakfast Buffet, and Grab-n-Go---but they are all very expensive. On several occasions we went to the Island Gourmet Store (an ABC store in fancy clothing) at the Queen's Marketplace and bought muffins, cereal, fruit, sandwiches, milk to eat in our room. On our last day we discovered a Costco in Kailua-Kona---oh! if only we had found it sooner---we could have had $1.50 hot dogs or pizza or turkey wraps for MUCH MUCH less!

Things to do on the big island:
As mentioned above, it would be smart to rent a car on the Big Island. There are some great things to see, but hey are about 2 - 2 1/2 hours away.

Mount Kilauea:

Our first full day, we drove to Mount Kiluea. The volcano is a 2-2.5 hour ride from the Waikoloa Village area. En route, you will drive through Kona, Kailua, and Keauhou, and Kealia. Kona has a small-city feel. It has a Walmart, Sports Authority, Barnes & Noble. You will drive by coffee plantations, as well as a Macadamia Nut orchard. There are few places to eat once you pass Kailua.

Before going to the National Park to view the volcano, go a little farther to the town of Volcano. There are several restaurants there. We *highly* recommend the Lava Rock Cafe. The prices are very reasonable for Hawaiian standards, and the menu boasts several "local" favorites. TRY THE LOCO MOCO!! It was love at first bite. The fresh, local hamburger patty, with the white sticky rice, covered in brown gravy and egg.....YUMMO! And the waitress has the best singing voice---had us fooled for a little while--we didn't know if it was "live" or the radio.

At the Mount Kilauea Volcano Visitor Center, the rangers hand out maps and information sheets for the best viewing and other tips. Our family stopped by the steaming vents, where we also were able to see the steaming crater from a distance. We took a walk on Devestation Trail. But the highlight was walking through a lava tube.

Per the rangers suggestion, we drove down Route 130--to the end--for what is considered prime volcano viewing. Just one week before us, a big rush of lava flowed from Mt Kileaua down towards the ocean. It took part of the road and destroyed a house in its path. One thing that a lot of visitors didn't understand is that there is no guarantee to see lava flowing. Best chance is at night where you *might* see a glow. But it generally flows underground. The only way to truly see the flow of lava is by boat or helicopter, where you can see it enter the ocean. However, we did see 2 bushes spark into flames while we were there. The other amazing part about this viewing area was the amount of houses set up on a bed of volcanic lava rock!! I talked with the Civil Defense Engineers on sight to answer questions, and they explained that these folks are "off the grid"--they use captured rain water and use solar energy or wind for electricity. Absolutely amazing!

After spending several hours learning about Mount Kiluea, we decided to drive North to Hilo for dinner, and then back west towards Waikoloa Village. After having a faboulous Loco Moco lunch experience, I directed my husband to Cafe 100--the self-proclaimed Home of the Loco Moco. Sadly, it was not as good as the Lava Rock Cafe. The food served was a step above fast-food. A better description, it was home-made fast-food.

My adventurous husband decided to take Saddle Road back to our hotel. Saddle Road is between Mauna Lea and Manua Kea, the Hawaiin islands largest mountains--both over 13,000 feet above sea level. And the road just keeps climbing up and up. We discovered that our GPS has an elevation counter, so we turned it on. We reached an elevation of nearly 7000 feet. We were driving above the clouds. It was amazing!!! We could see the telescopes on top of Mauna Lea.


How can a trip to Hawaii be complete without experiencing the beaches?

I hemmed-and-hawed about staying at the Hilton with their 2 pools and lagoon. I felt that my family would rather sit poolside than go explore the beaches. Boy, was I wrong!!

We drove 10 minutes north to HAPUNA BEACH. Hapuna is routinely named as one of America's Best Beaches. There is beautiful soft white and black sand, great waves for body-surfing or boogy-boarding, as well as the occassional turtle to swim by you. There is plenty of parking, picnic tables, showers and bathrooms.

We then proceeded to explore Puako Bay. It is great for tidal pooling. There are black and white lava stones all over the beach area. There is also a picnic area and bathrooms here.

Both my of my guide books recommended Honoka'ope Bay for snorkeling. Since all of my boys enjoyed snorkeling at our resort, I thought we would check it out. It is located on the Mauna Lani Resort. Follow directions for parking. To get to the water, there is a 10 minute walk, where on the trail you will see some amazing lava fields and are even able to peak into a couple of lava tubes. There is a also a traditional lagoon where fish were once farmed. Please be sure to stay on the trail, and not wander onto the Mauna Lani Resort. Once we reached the water--wow--what a beautiful, shallow lagoon. I can see why it rates highly for snorklers!! But unfortunately, I would say it is best for experienced swimmers and snorkelers--the water would have been a little rough for my 9 year olds.

Hawi, Hilo, and Waterfalls:

On our last full day on the Big Island, we headed north to the little town of Hawi. We stopped to have lunch at the wonderful Bamboo Restaurant. At this place, we rediscovered the Aloha-spirit, which seemed to be missing from the Big Island. Each person was extremely friendly and helpful. The owner kept coming to our table and commenting on our boys, and giving us tips on what to order. She took our family picture, without being asked to. And not only was the service fantastic, but the food was extra-ordinary!! My husband ordered the fish quesadilla and I had the nut-crusted Mahi Mahi. YUM!! Cooked to perfection. And don't miss out on the libations. The Bamboo Restaurant specializes on Lilikoi (passion fruit) cocktails. MMMMM....And luckily, you can take a bottle of Lilikoi drink mix home with you!

From Hawi, we drove Route 19 to the Eastern side of the Island to explore around Hilo some more. Actually, our goal for the afternoon was to find some waterfalls. We headed to Akaka Falls State Park. The drive along Route 19 was pretty amazing--seeing a real rainforest and the large, lush vegetation. There were also some great views of the Pacific.

We arrived at Akaka Falls State Park very easily--the road was well marked. The parking lot was full. There is a little trail there that loops you around to the waterfall. My guess is that the purpose of the trail is two-fold. First, it diverts everyone from crowding the waterfall at the same time. It also allows you to walk within the lush rainforest and see up-close some of the beautiful plants and trees. Unfortunately, this is not one of the waterfalls you can get close too. There is a fence at the "viewing area" and that is as close as you can get. But it is beautiful.

We then decided to find Rainbow Falls, which was recommended in my guide book. The GPS starts taking us right through downtown Hilo. A waterfall in the middle of a city? YES. However, Rainbow falls is located in a small park, and we didn't feel very safe there. It was a "hang out" for a rough looking crowd. The waterfall is much smaller and not as impressive. I'm really not sure why this was listed in the guide book at all.

Our 10-day Hawaiian trip was fantastic! We have so many wonderful memories. I look forward to returning and exploring some more. Aloha!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Las Vegas--a new perspective

From 1997 through 2001, I visited Las Vegas about every other month, as I was living in California at the time and my in-laws lived in a Vegas suburb. My last trip to Las Vegas was December 2002, when my twin boys were 18 months old, and I was *not* in a position to do any sightseeing.

While visiting Las Vegas in the late 1990s, my trips were ususally to local casinos that my MIL would frequent. If a new casino or attraction opened on the Strip, we would go check that out as well.

Fast forward to 2009, and a FAMILY trip to Las Vegas.

My family (hubby, 8 yr old twin boys, a 4 yr old boy) and myself stayed at a timeshare condo a block behind the Flamingo. We were close enough to the Strip to enjoy the lights, attractions, people, casinos, food, etc. But we were also far away enough from the lights, attractions, people, casinos, and traffic. It was the best of both worlds.

I remember one of my first visits to Las Vegas, my FIL asked me if I knew what the Nevada state bird was? I had no idea! The CRANE.....building crane that is! It was incredible to see all the new casino/hotels that were built since my last visit, as well as all the building still going on!

A few things haven't changed---there are still lots of free or inexpensive attractions. My children enjoyed seeing the Luxor pyramid with the large Sphinx in front, and the Egyption statues and hyroglyphics inside the lobby, the Excalibur Castle and the city-feel of New York, New York, all of which we toured during the early hours of the day. We also spent an hour or so at the M&M store, which is 4 levels of M&M shopping extravaganza! I won't tell you how much I spent on "mix-n-match" M&M's...but I figured "what the hell, I'm in Vegas!" At night, the Bellagio Hotel/Casino is very family-friendly. The dancing water fountains are a joy to watch. Strolling through the Bellagio Converatory flower garden is absolutely amazing too! There's a snail, ladybug and frog made out of flowers. Plus the Ferris Wheel filled with sunflowers, the giant glass flowers, and the suspended giant watering cans. I felt like I was on a Rose Bowl Parade float!

Another attractions which was free, but was not as family-friendly with small children was the pirate ship battle at Treasure Island. Apparantly, it's become PG-13 since our last visit to Vegas. The show is now called "Sirens of Treasure Island." It was definitely entertaining---a girls (...bad girls) vs. guys battle. But I probably wouldn't have taken my 3 young sons had I known.

We did take the family to "Old Vegas" or Downtown Vegas, as it is also called, to see the Fremont Street Experience. The light show lasts about 10 minutes, and is set to music, and it absolutely incredible.

Las Vegas is an ultimate vacation destination and adult-playground.There are more restaurants than I could possible mention or count. Many of which are owned/operated by some of America's top chefs, such as Emeril LaGasse, Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck , etc. There are so many shows, it is nearly impossible to choose. One's options include Circque de Soleil "O", "Mystique," "Zumanity", as well as Lion King, Jersey Boys, Blue Man Group, Penn and Teller, Donny and Marie. The list goes on and on....

As for gambling, take your pick. I have to say that my luck and my money do much better at "local casinos" rather than those on the strip. Hubby taught me that single/double deck blackjack, dealt by a dealer rather than from a shute, is much more enjoyable. And I agree. With the economy doing poorly, I noticed that table limits have gone down both on the Strip and the Local Casinos.
During the 90's Las Vegas tried hard to turn into a family-friendly vacation destination. On this trip, we sensed they were moving back to the "Sin City" aura that Vegas is originally famous for. However, there are still plenty of "family friendly" destinations and attractions for people of all ages, even if you just sit by the pool all day!

Saturday, June 27, 2009


I had never visited Cancun or Mexico. To be honest, Mexico was never on my list of destinations (partially from hubby's description of his experience in Tijuana while in college)....neither was Ireland ...but I went...and I loved it!

Well, an opportunity presented itself. In January, my mom went on a cruise with some friends. Upon her return, she **INSISTED** hubby and I *need* to get away. Well, ya that was a given! So before she changed her mind (because that was always a possibility) I began researching destinations. The criteria was simple: WARM, CHEAP, and preferably a non-stop flight. Cancun fit the bill--warm, 4-hr non-stop flight with good flight times (i.e. we weren't getting up at 3am to head to the airport), and we paid under $1000 for 3 nights, 4 days, and airfare with breakfast included!

I remember back-in-the-day when hubby and I started dating---his parents lived in Las Vegas then. He would tell me how plane rides to Vegas were always so fun--party planes, he called them. Everyone was in a good mood, drinks were a-flowin, etc. But I never experienced that. THIS FLIGHT TO CANCUN WAS A PARTY PLANE. Everyone was in such a good mood!

On the pane, we met Raul, who was seated next to us. He's originally from Cancun, and was returning for business. He gave us so many tips, and he didn't hesitate to answer any questions we had. Truly a super guy.

At Cancun's customs, there weren't 2 lines (nothing to declare, items to declare). It was all one line. We got to play "The Custom's Game Show." We walked up to the Customs Official, she checked our passports, and told us to "Press the Red Button." The red button determines if you get your bag checked. Green light, you pass through. Red light--over to the table. Guess what we got?

As we were trying to make our way through the airport, a nice man came up and asked what transportation we were looking for. We told him, and he directed us to a desk. Hmm...tourist information. HA! If only we were so lucky! We were directed to a time-share sales crew that only *pretended* to be the "Welcome to Mexico" Greeting Crew. Managed to escape the time-share presentation with only 20 wasted minutes and a free bus map.

Once we were in our shuttle (and melted 5 pounds while waiting) I began to look around, get a feel for the place. My best description--and I think it holds true now that I'm home--is that Cancun is like Las Vegas meets the Carribean (minus the gambling). It's a huge hotel strip on the water. One end, the hotels are a bit smaller, further apart. Then there's a section where the hotels are high rises, bright colors, closer together. This is the PARTY ZONE. Not where we stayed. We were in the "quiet" hotel zone.

Actually, we really liked our hotel, the Fiesta Americana Condessa. Sadly, it didn't have a beach---Hurricane Wilma in 2005 wiped out the beaches in this section--but it had the hugest pool, and the room was nice and large, and the staff was unbelievably hospitable.

One thing I can say about Cancun---go on, order a it....
The tequila FLOWS!!! Each 'rita we had, probably had 3x the alcohol we were used to. Ay caramba!

And the food--wow. We had dinner at La Habichuela, a very romantic restaurant recommended by Raul. He suggested we try the "house special" the Cocochuela--a hollowed out coconut stuffed with rice, lobster and shrimp in a mild curry sauce.

The next day we went shopping to Market 28 in the downtown, where we got to do some haggling for souvenirs. We ate lunch at La Parillo, a restaurant recommended by hubby's friend. It took us a while to find it, but it was worth the walk and the sweat. I really, really wanted chicken enchiladas, but the waiter talked hubby into going for the buffet. And then, he convinced me to have the buffet. Am I glad I did! There was an abuella in the kitchen cooking. And the chicken sopa (yes, it was 90 deg, and I had soup!) was as good, if not better than my mom's. We got to eat real, authentic, cooked by grandma homemade food. And the 'ritas....mmmmmm.

At this point, I decided I was having a 2-fer day. Started out with 2 mimosas, had 2 rita's for lunch, then 2 glasses of wine for dinner.

For dinner...I can't believe we went out for dinner after all we ate for lunch...we hit the Argentinian steak house Puerto Madera. This place really wanted to be a 5 star restaurant. The steak and food was good. But there were too many waiters, and they were zipping about. It was dizzying. And they didn't have bread plates. The waiter brought us 2 baskets of bread, but no bread plate. They also brought sauces, which I thought were supposed to be for the bread, but when my steak came, I realized the sauces were for the steak. An explanation would have been appreciated.

Puerto Madera had 2 things I have to SHARE with you that I had never seen before. First, a purse tree. Every lady was given a purse tree---even if you didn't want one, like me. The second interesting thing were the house special "Potato Pillows." Deep fried potatoes that were HOLLOW. Served in a ruffles potato chip basket, with potato sticks underneath. Too much grease.
Potato Pillows

Purse Tree at Puerto Madera

On Sunday, we did something way cool. We went on a 6 hr catamaran ride. Snorkeling was supposed to be included, but was cancelled due to heavy winds. Parasailing, which hubby claimed he would try, was cancelled too. So we sailed straight for Isla Mujares for shopping and lunch. Did I mention this ended up being a booze cruise? As soon as a cup was empty, they would hand another one over. Ay carumba. Some people were not in good shape. And when we arrived at the "private club" for lunch, water was not an option. Booze was free, water costs money. Huh? Ok..more booze.

It was a great trip! Very relaxing. The people of Cancun were extremely hospitable and helpful. I can see why it's such a popular getaway destination!
Oh, and one word of advice that our friend Raul gave us. He told us not to be afraid of "Montazuma's Revenge." He said the water is safe. He strongly suggested that we wash our hands frequently and before each meal, as the Mexicans have different hygiene practices. I think that was the key to us staying healthy.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Happy Tales

Twelve year ago, I got my first dog, Aspen. I noticed that every time we did something to make Aspen happy—whether it was a walk, a treat, a car ride—she would enthusiastically wag her tail. A Happy Tail! My husband Scott and I decided that if we ever got a boat, we would name it “Happy Tales,” because boats make people happy and there should be a “happy tale” with any boat outing.

We never did get a boat. But I am embarking on a new adventure, starting my own business “Happy Tales Travel.” For over 15 years, I have arranged all my own travel to 39 cities in 10 countries. I have made complicated plane arrangements, bought train tickets in foreign countries, reserved hotels, as well as private apartments, and even chartered a yacht for my 10 year Anniversary. And as you may know, I have 3 young boys, so my trips had to be “family friendly.”

So, here's to the start of a new Happy Tale! (wag, wag)