Monday, March 5, 2018

What Destinations Are On Your Bucket List?

I was curious to know what destinations were on my friend's and family member's bucket lists.  These are the people who have traveled as far as Japan with us.  They have hiked in a couple of national parks and camped in almost every state on the east coast with us.  We have traveled as far west, in the US, as Seattle, Washington and have cruised together.  We traveled so much together that, years ago, we decided we needed a group name.  We called ourselves the Rockland Rollers.  (Most of us live or lived in Rockland County, NY.)

I asked the group for the top 3 destinations on their bucket list.  It is a big world out there,with many places to discover, so I was ready for a very varied list.  But there were eight places that made many of the lists.  I had to find out more about these places just in case one of these destinations turned into another group vacation adventure! 

The Rockland Rollers Top Eight Bucket List Destinations

1. Greece - was on the top of at least half of the group's lists.  Because of it's many islands, when we think of Greece, we think of beautiful beaches and gorgeous weather.  There are too many islands to choose from, though, so I think one trip here would not be enough.  The most visited island is Corfu where you can enjoy elegant Italian architecture and walk the many romantic pedestrian-only streets.  The most dramatic island is Santorini with it's clifftop towns of Fira and Oia.   They are both considered romantic destinations and are popular for weddings and honeymoons.  Swimming at the black volcanic sand beaches sounds like a wonderful way to relax.  The most glamorous island is Mykonos where you can stay in boutique hotel, eat delicious meals at classy seafood restaurants and enjoy the many live music venus.  If we stayed on the mainland we might want to discover Delphi built on the slopes of Mt. Parnassus.  This was a sacred site where people came to worship Apollo.  We could explore the ruins of many temples, a theater and stadium all dating back between 8th century BC and 2nd century AD.  Or would we want to see the symbol of Greece and Athens, the Acropolis, a rocky mound where the Parthenon stands.  Yes, one trip here would definitely not be enough.

2.  Thailand - was almost on as many lists as Greece was.  I was really surprised and curious about this choice because I have never thought about ever going to Thailand.  The more I found out about this exotic country, the more I thought I needed to get there one day.  But one day or one vacation would not be enough time to explore Thailand.  I found one adventure after another when I started researching this very interesting place.  Some of the must-sees here include the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok where we could see royal residences, throne halls, government offices, Buddhist temples and priceless works of art.  Wat Rong Khun or White Temple is both a place of worship as well as an art piece.  It looks like one of those things that a picture of it wouldn't do it justice.  You'd have to see it for yourself to really take it all in.  Damnoen Saduak Floating Market sounds like a  really unique, not-to-be-missed experience where you board a boat and go shopping to buy food, souvenirs, clothing and fresh produce from vendors who are in their boats.  Another fun shopping experience can be found at Chiang Mal which hosts a night bazaar every evening but the best night to go is Sunday when there are more arts and crafts for sale and local musicians and street performers show up.  There is definitely lots to see, do and experience in Thailand that I really could keep going on forever about it.

3.  Australia - is on lots of lists and is on my bucket list mostly because I would love to get a chance to see the cutest wildlife on earth, in my opinion anyway!  In a recent post (see other must-sees here), I researched a city where koalas could be seen sitting on people's lawns.  That would be a sight to see!

4.  Africa - People who had Africa as one of their top destinations, immediately added because they would love to experience an African Safari.  There are many safari's to choose from.  How awesome would it be to join the safari that takes you view the migration of wildebeest and zebra.  This migration is called the "greatest wildlife show on earth".   Or maybe one around the Ngorongoro Crater which is a massive depression that serves as a protective enclosure for over 25,000 large animals.  You are guaranteed to see each of the Big Five of Africa.  I know, from teaching about them when I worked in a pre-school, that they are the lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo.  The animals are a big draw for wanting to explore Africa but how amazing would it be to see the largest  body of falling water at Victoria Falls in Zambia.  It's twice the height and many times wider than Niagara Falls.  I thought Niagara Falls was powerful!  I can't imagine falls more than twice the size.  Chrissy crossed Africa off her bucket list when she was asked to go as a representative of the company she works for, Vitamin Shoppe.  Not only did she get to go on a safari, she also was able to experience the people and culture.  The stories she came back were amazing and are wonderful memories she will have forever.

Photo Credit: Sophia Billikopf, Vitamin Angels

Photo Credit: Sophia Billikopf, Vitamin Angels

5.  Iceland - made many of the Rollers' bucket lists.  Most added that they would love to see the Northern Lights.  I can imagine that this would be the most sensational light show we would ever witness in our lives.  So what else could we see or do in Iceland?  Iceland sounds like the perfect place to go whale watching.  We have a pretty good chance of seeing the Blue Whale here, the largest animal ever to live on earth.  Another interesting animal to see here is the Icelandic Horse.  We can choose to go horseback riding on these short-legged, muscular animals.  If it's glacier we want to see, it sounds like Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon is the place to see them.   We can watch, as well as hear, them crashing into each other.  We can do this on a boat or just watch them from the shoreline.  An added treat would be also watching the seals here playing around us.  It takes a bit of luck, and a very knowledgeable guide, to be able to see the Northern Lights.  If we ever get to Iceland that would be the hope, but there are so many different and interesting things to see and do here that a trip here would be worth the trip anyway.

6.  Alaska - The natural beauty and delicious seafood are only two of the many reasons we would want to visit the largest state in America.  It is on mine (see the rest of my list and read more about Alaska here) and Soko's lists as well as a couple of others.  I'm sure we would want to visit one of the National Parks, but which one.  Denali National Park has the highest peak in North America.  We can marvel at the glaciers, grizzly bears and "drunken trees", trees that have tilted because the frozen ground is melting around them.  Glacier Bay National Park is where we would want to go to enjoy many outdoor activity opportunities like hiking, kayaking and fishing.  Or would we want to get a glimpse of whales breaching or eagles soaring at Kenai Fjords National Park.  And when we are in Alaska we would definitely have to check out the glaciers.  Heidi and Frank were lucky enough to make a trip to Alaska and checked out the Mendenhall and Spencer Glaciers among others.  Although, Heidi has been able to check Alaska off her bucket list she still dreams about going back again to explore more of the interior of this beautiful state.

7.  Hawaii -  I can definitely understand why Hawaii was a top 3 on the Rollers' lists.  Me and Soko honeymooned here and loved it.   Diamond Head in Oahu was one of the sights that were on our must-see list when we went.  If the Parthenon is the symbol of Greece, then for me Diamond Head is the symbol of Hawaii.   We took a trip to the island of Maui and it wouldn't have been complete if we didn't take the Road to Hana.  Amazing!  We also enjoyed watching the very talented hula dancers at a luau and tasting authentic Hawaiian food like poi.  (I'm not sure that I would try poi again though!)  The beaches were amazing and our hotel was across the street from the International Market Place in Waikiki which was a definite thrill for me.  I loved shopping at all the little kiosks.  I had to bring home one of the beautiful carved candles that were a popular buy there.  I heard that the Market Place that I remember has been completely renovated but is still a must-see.  Even though we have visited Hawaii, I would go back in a heartbeat!

8.  Bora Bora - After traveling around the world, we may need a place to relax.  Bora Bora sounds exactly like that place and was the top choice of a couple of the Rollers.  Whether we are relaxing on the deck of our floating bungalow, wading in the water of the lagoon surrounding Bora Bora or taking a leisurely bike ride around the island, this island sounds made for relaxing.  There are sights to see  on this French Polynesian Island, after a lot of relaxing, like Mt. Otemanu for one.  I heard that the best way to see and enjoy this magnificent dormant volcano is by taking a boat ride around it.  On the top of almost every "best things to do in Bora Bora" list is a visit to Matira Beach.  Who wouldn't want to lounge on the white sand and swim in the calm turquoise water.  And, last but not least, snorkeling in the warm, clear water in a lagoon filled with beautiful coral gardens, sounds heavenly.

I have now added more places to see on my bucket list after seeing theirs.  I hope that one day I will be posting my story and adding my pictures of the adventure I had in one of these exciting places.  Even better would be having stories and making memories on these trips with the Rockland Rollers!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Entertaining Our Snowbird House Guests On A Budget

It has been a rough winter in the north this year.  The temperatures have hit record lows and there's been lots of snow everywhere.  In fact, my brother-in-law sent me a picture of his snow filled backyard in New York just yesterday.  Meanwhile, I am looking at it in my snowbird home in Florida and my air conditioning is on.  Needless to say, I have guests from the north who are looking for some sun and fun.  We are in central Florida so the beach is an hour away, not too bad, and we are only steps away from our community pool.  We are also only about an hour away from all the major theme parks and minutes away from Legoland.  We are in a great area for any of our family and friends who want to get out of the snow, enjoy a fun-filled vacation and save on a hotel bill.

We love having company and would love to join them at all the theme parks but we have to be frugal living on a retirement budget.  When my daughter, Lisa, recently came to visit we were looking for something to do.  We wanted to do something touristy but not an expensive theme park.  After researching things to do in Orlando, Lisa found a great deal on a combo ticket for three fun experiences.  The Orlando Eye, a 400-foot tall observation wheel, Sea Life Orlando, an aquarium and Madame Tussands Orlando, wax museum.  If we chose to only go to one of these attractions and we bought the ticket online, it would cost us $25.00 ($27.50 at the door).  If we chose two attractions we could get a pretty good deal paying $39.00 but we chose the $49.00 three attraction ticket.  Florida residents, like me and Soko, get a discount and only pay $44.00.  The free parking and the fact that the three attractions were located in the I-Drive 360 entertainment complex sold us on the deal.  We could have a full day of activity and fun and it wouldn't cost us an arm and a leg as they say!

We bought our tickets online and headed to Orlando.  It was not hard to find the attractions we were looking for.   We just headed towards the giant wheel.  We parked easily in the free parking garage.  We exited the garage and wound up in the I-Drive 360 complex.  There were several restaurants, bars and shops here.  We were very excited about Ben & Jerry's being there and since we were on vacation, or at least Lisa was, we had to have a waffle cone.  (Not pictured.  We ate them too fast!)

We strolled through the entertainment complex until we reached our destination.

It was a little cloudy out when we got to Orlando so we decided to do one of the indoor attractions and wait to do the wheel.  We selected Sea Life Orlando to do first.  Because we got our tickets online, we went directly to the entrance line instead of the ticket line which was longer.

I loved swimming with the lionfish.

There were tons of large fish tanks like this one throughout the aquarium.

The 360 degree tunnel was amazing!

The special exhibit devoted to these little creatures was very interesting.

We really enjoyed the Sea Life aquarium.  

It was still cloudy when we left the aquarium but we could see the sun in the distance.   We decided to check out Madame Tussands while we waited for the sun to reach us.  This was the first time the three of us had ever been to a wax museum.  Lisa was worried that I would be scared of the life-like characters because I am afraid of dolls.  I had a great time and I didn't have any anxiety at all.  Now it would have been a totally different story if I had been stuck in there after hours, by myself...!!

Soko helped Donald Trump with some presidential business.

Lisa was thrilled to pose for pictures with one of her favorite artists, Andy Warhol.

Shaquille O'Neal challenged Soko to a one-on-one basketball game

Justin Bieber hired Lisa to be one of his backup dancers.

Jimmy Fallon interviewed Soko on his late night show.

I had breakfast at Tiffany's with Audrey Hepburn.

And Soko saved E.T. 

We never thought a wax museum could be so fun.  We were so impressed with how life-like the figures were.  While we were enjoying the museum, the sun finally peeked out so we headed to the observation wheel.

We entered the capsule which was huge.

We will be the next capsule to be at the top.  It's a long way down from here!

The three of us took lots of pictures and were very happy with the view we had now that the sun was out.

The monitors in the capsule showed us exactly what we were looking at.

We enjoyed a very relaxing 25 minute ride!

I would recommend all three exhibits to anyone and everyone of all ages.  Also, there is another add-on to this deal, a day at Legoland.   Your adult combo ticket will cost $99.00 for the four experiences and $94.00 for kids.  Considering that the cheapest ticket you could buy for Legoland is $79.99 per adult (when you buy two days in advance)  this is a terrific deal.  Extra pluses are that you don't have to enjoy Legoland on the same day as the other exhibits.  You have up to 30 days after you go to the first attraction in your package, to get there.  And if you are staying in Orlando and don't want to drive the hour to get to Legoland, you can take advantage of a free shuttle. 

We are so happy that we found this place and I am sure we will take other guests here.  I would not mind doing this same adventure again.  It was that fun!

Monday, February 19, 2018

Must See In Amalfi Coast, Italy - Preparing For Our Mediterranean Cruise

The fifth port of our Mediterranean cruise is Amalfi Coast, Italy.   In parenthesis is Salerno as it the where the port is.  There are a so many interesting excursions to choose from at this destination that it makes it very hard to decide what we want to do.  How are we going to decide whether to explore Capri, Sorrento or Pompei or do we want to choose to enjoy the sights of the gorgeous Amalfi Coast?  How should we do that, by land or sea?  I will research every possibility and then decide.  Our choices range from seeing three destinations in 9 1/2 hours to getting transportation to one destination and exploring it at a leisurely pace.

Port 5 - Almalfi Coast

If we have time we would love to look around the port city.  There are museums, galleries, beaches and parks to explore here.  A highlight of a visit here would be going to Arechi Castle.  From this castle we can enjoy spectacular views of Amalfi Coast, Salerno and Gulf of Salerno.

Capri - The thing to see here is the Blue Grotto.  It is a sea cave where when the sunlight reflects on the water it creates brilliant blue illuminations.  It takes 5 minutes to get through the cave but half the adventure is getting to the grotto.  Another must see in Capri which is actually in Capri's second town, Anacapri is the chairlift ride up to Monte Solaro.  Once we are at the top we can enjoy views of the whole island of Capri, Bay of Naples, the Amalfi Coast and the mountains of Calabria.  We can choose to take the 40 minute hike down but will have to consider if we want to navigate uneven steps, loose rocks and few signs.

Sorrento - is a land of lemon and olive groves.  90 percent of their economy depends on tourism so almost everyone speaks English.  We will take Rick Steve's suggested leisurely walk around Sorrento if this is where we choose to go.  On this walk, we will pass Piazza Tasso, a lively town square where we can find transportation, expensive apartments and top cafes; Statue of Torquato Tasso, was a Renaissance poet and the square's namesake; Via Santa Maria della Pieta, is an old street that dates back centuries before Christ; Cathedral, where we will want to check out the interior doors on which scenes of the town are depicted;  Corso Italia & Old Town, is where we will want to find the bell tower with the ancient Roman columns at its base; Sorrento Men's Club, where we will look for the historical marker that describes this beautiful building; Via San Cesareo, is a pedestrian-only shopping street that leads back to Piazza Tasso, lots of lemon products are sold here; Statue of St. Anthony, is located back in the square and is Sorrento's town saint; Cliffside Square is a square that overlooks the harbor with views of Marina Piccola and the Bay of Naples and the Ancient Greek Gate (marks the boundary between Sorrento and Marina Grande) & Marina Grande, is where we can relax with a drink on the sundeck of Ristorante Delfino before boarding a bus back to the center of Piazza Tasso.

Pompeii - I think it would be so interesting  and fascinating to visit this city that was buried in 79 A.D. when Mt. Vesuvius erupted.  2,000 people died here and the city was abandoned until explorers rediscovered the site in 1748.  They found Pompeii preserved under the thick layers of dust and debris.  The buildings, artifacts and skeletons have revealed what life was like in the ancient world.    I think that it would be so cool to walk on the old streets of Pompeii and so much fun to learn about the people and how they lived many, many years ago.  We will take Rick Steve's self-guided tour here if we choose Pompeii as our destination to explore.
1.   Porta Marina - is where the original town gate was.  We will enter the city here.
2.   Pompeii's Streets - On these streets we will find stepping stones.  The Pompeiians would wash their streets every day by flooding them with water.  The steps were used by pedestrians so they wouldn't get their sandals wet.  When we see two rows of stones, we know we are on a two way street.  Three rows tells us we are on a major thoroughfare.
3.   Forum - stands at the intersection of the city's two main streets.  This plaza was where people would gather and business took place in the many two story buildings that surrounded the square.  There are pedestals here that held statues that are now in the museum in Naples that holds many of the treasures found in Pompeii.
4.   Basilica - was a law court.  We can see the original marble on the side walls of this building.  There are unfinished columns that show the method of construction used here many centuries ago.
5.   Via Abbondanza - is Pompeii's main street.  This was a pedestrian-only street lined with shops, bars and restaurants.  We will see large stones that were placed in the street to keep chariots from entering.
6.   Fish & Produce Market:  Plaster Casts of Victims -  We will be looking for frescoes on the wall here showing what the Pompeiians came to buy at the market.  Also here are plaster molds that were made by the archaeologists who found hollow spaces that were created by decomposed bodies.  By filling these spaces with plaster it recreated the final moments of the person caught in the disaster.
7.   Baths of the Forum -  The first room we enter here is the dressing room.  We will see pegs in the walls which were used to hang clothes.  In the next room, we will find a large tub that the Romans soaked in and on the side of the tub, a fountain that spouted water onto the hot floor creating steam.
8.   Fast-Food Joint - The Romans had tiny apartments so usually didn't cook for themselves so there were a lot of take out shops.  We can see marble counters here with large holes that held pots of food.
9.   House of the Tragic Poet - This is a typical style of Roman home.  At the entryway, I will be looking for the "Beware of Dog" sign which is a picture of a dog made of mosaic tiles.  I also want to see the dining room off the garden decorated with frescoes.
10. Aqueduct Arch - is where Pompeii's water supply was delivered.  The water tanks are hidden in the top.
11. House of the Faun - This is Pompeii's largest home.  We will be looking for the Dancing Faun bronze statue.  This statue is a replica of the original that is in the museum in Naples.
12. Original Lead Pipes - These 2,000 year old pipes supplied water to the town.  One pipe ran water to the baths, one to private homes and one to the public water fountains.  If there was a water shortage, the water was shut off to the baths, then to the homes.  The last to be shut down was to the public water fountains which the residents would use for drinking and cooking.
13. House of the Vettii - is the best preserved home but it has been blocked off for years.  There is a small chance that it could be open and we will be able to see large money boxes anchored to the floor, bronze cooking pots in the kitchen and many other well preserved household goods and decor.
14. Bakery and Mill - Every town had a bakery like this.  Here we will see a brick oven that looks just like a pizza oven and flour grinders.   The flour grinders were stone towers that grain was poured into.  Donkeys or slaves would push the wooded bars that turned the stones and ground the grain into flour.
15. Brothel - We will find beds and pillows made of stone here.
16. Temple of Isis - This small but almost intact temple was one of the first buildings discovered during the excavation in 1764.
17. Theater - This theater sat 5,000 people.  We can see part of the cheap seat section, the box seats reserved for guests of honor and the gladiator barracks.
18. Amphitheater - From the top of this amphitheater we can see Vesuvius in the background.

Amalfi Coast and Town of Amalfi - If we choose this excursion we have a couple of options of transportation to board to enjoy the coastline.  Most options will give us a chance to wander the narrow streets of the quaint town of Amalfi before heading back to our cruise ship.

I am beginning to think that our once in a lifetime Mediterranean cruise might be the first of two trips!  There is too much we want to see and do to do it all in one trip and it is really hard to choose between all these amazing adventures.  Any suggestions?  We can really use some help!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Ten Things I Don't Like About Vacations

First of all, I love vacation!  Who doesn't?  But there are some things that go along with planning, preparing, etc. of the trip that I just don't like.  Is it just me or can you relate to some of these complaints I have?

1.  Planning an itinerary.  Especially for a vacation like our trip of a lifetime to Europe.  I'm pretty  sure that we will never visit these places again.   I get excited about the trip when I'm planning it and that's fun but I also feel worried that I haven't included a great sight to see or food to eat.   To make sure we have covered all our bases in the planning process, first we talk to everyone and anyone who has ever been to the part of the world we are traveling to.   We consider and look into any suggestions of sights we must see.  Then we consult travel books, especially the travel guides recommended by friends and family.  And then the internet has lots of information that needs to be looked at..  Hopefully, after all this, we have come up with the perfect itinerary!

2.  Booking a hotel without seeing it.  Especially when we are booking with fellow travelers and they are depending on us to find somewhere to stay.  We have crossed a couple of hotel chains off our list entirely but sometimes we get disappointed by the chains we have been happy with.   Most times we do not know what we will get until we get there.  If we know someone who has stayed where we are going and they have no complaints we will stay were they did but that rarely happens.  We trusted Rick Steves, whose travel guide we are using to plan our European vacation, when we picked our hotel in Barcelona.  My sister, Sandie, and friend, Susan, planned their trips with the help of his books and say that they were not disappointed.   I feel pretty confident about this hotel selection.  Hopefully it is one that I can recommend to anyone traveling to Spain.

3.  Waiting for the travel date to arrive.  I get so anxious to put the last of my dresses into my suitcase and get to the airport.  The last couple of days before a vacation just drag by.  It used to be worse, though, when I was working.  Retirement days do go a lot faster than work days!

4.  Packing.  Especially if I'm packing for a warm weather trip in the middle of winter.  First of all I have to hunt down the summer clothes.  Secondly, I have to try everything on to make sure things still fit after all the eating festivities of winter.  Then to decide what the weather might be like at the destination of our trip.  While I am checking the weather, I often see that it got warmer where we are going so I throw an extra pair of shorts into the suitcase.  But wait, there's a cold front coming in, throw in a pair of jeans and take out the shorts!  It goes on and on like that the last week of vacation because I don't like to over pack!   I should just solve this problem by buying a bigger suitcase and packing everything.

5.  Leaving the house feeling like we forgot something.  I run the checklist I have in my head off to Soko while we are still in the driveway.  What do we need to make sure we haven't forgotten?  Passports - check, wallet - check, phones - check.  Did we shut off the...  One time, when we were going on a road trip with the kids.   I was going over the list in my head as Soko was pulling out of the driveway.  We got down the block when I started to  panic thinking that I might have left the iron on.  I needed to go back to the house to check.  With the kids moaning in the back seat, Soko headed back.  Thank goodness, because the iron was on!

6.  Getting to the airport on time.  We spend half the day at the airport because I add two hours to our drive to the airport in case of traffic.  Then I want to be there 2 1/2 hours early and add at least another hour just in case there is a problem and delay checking in.  So usually we are at the airport about 4 hours before the flight is due to take off.  The hard part is convincing Soko that we need to leave for the airport at the crack of dawn for a flight leaving late afternoon!

7.  Finding our way around an airport.  I don't know how many times we have run around the airport trying to get to a connecting flight.   The gate is always a mile away and our first flight is always late taking off.  While on flight one, I study the last page of the In Flight Magazine where the map of the gates are and formulate a plan of how to get to the next flight.  As soon as we exit the plane, I am off and running.  Only when we are sitting in front of the connecting flight gate can I breathe again!

8.  The last day of vacation.  No matter how much I tell myself that I am still on vacation and that I have a full day left, I always have it in the back of my mind that it is the last day.  I don't like the feeling I get knowing it is the last day.  I am never ready for a vacation to end.

9.  Unpacking.   I'm usually too tired to unpack the first day back from vacation and sometimes can't get to all of it by the second day and then something comes up the third day and I am still looking at the unpacked suitcases.   And where am I going to put all the souvenirs?!  Why did I buy so much?!  I remember why once I start unpacking and looking at all the things I brought back.   Because these knick knacks are wonderful and it reminds me of the great time we had!

10. Waiting for the next vacation!

Monday, February 5, 2018

Cruising: A Budget Friendly Vacation

I can't believe we have been retired for 2 1/2 years now.  I have to say that we are enjoying every minute of it.  One reason we are so happy with our new life is that our dream of traveling, when we retired, is really coming true.   Since retiring, we have made several quick road trips that brought us to Washington, DC, Charleston, SC, Columbia, SC,  Gatlinburg, TN and Cherokee, NC.  We enjoyed a vacation in Cancun, Mexico, our first all-inclusive ever.  We spent a week in Vegas with family and friends and just got back from our second cruise.  I thank my kids for gifting a couple of these trips to us and for my sister for inviting us to Gatlinburg to join her and her husband when she was offered a free hotel stay there.  We did treat ourselves to the two cruises though.  Traveling is wonderful but does cost money and being retired means not having the income we used to have.  But we have found that we can enjoy a wonderful vacation on our tighter budget by cruising.

We definitely had to tweak our budget since we retired but when we did, we made sure that we were budgeting enough for vacations.  For a look at how we've been budgeting you can read our two previous posts:  Keeping Track Of Every Penny and How We Save On Groceries To Have More For Vacations.

So how do we make cruising work for us. 

1.  When we cruise for the sake of taking a very nice vacation, we worry less about where the cruise will take us and more about the best deal.
The cruise we just came back from took us to Cozumel, Mexico and Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands.  We have been to both of  these destinations before.  We cruised to both places on our very first cruise 15 years ago.  But we found a great deal on Carnival.  The cruise cost $279.00 per person with $50 onboard credit per room.  If you have not cruised before keep in mind that there are Cruise Government Taxes and Fees, $186.50 for this cruise, and mandatory gratuities charge which we prepaid when we booked our cruise and that added another $129.50 to the price of the cruise.

2.  We are not fussy about the cruise line we choose.   
We will go with the line that is offering the biggest bang for the buck.  We look at the deals of all the cruise lines.  We have only vacationed with two cruise lines so far, Royal Caribbean and Carnival and have been very happy with both.  

3.  We cruise out of the ports we can drive to.  
We save a ton of money on not having to fly to a port.  Now that we are snowbirds and live half the year in Florida, we have 3 ports all within a 2 hour drive and Miami is 4 hours from us.  We do need to park our car for the duration of the cruise.  It cost us $75 to park for 5 days at the Tampa port.

4.  We skip the expensive excursions and get to the beach on our own.
We went to the beach in both Cozumel and Grand Cayman.  Our friends recommended that we spend the day at Mr. Sancho's Beach Club if we wanted to do the beach in Cozumel.  It cost us $40.00 round trip total by taxi to get there and we spent another $10.00 for drinks.   We paid $20.00 total round trip to get to Seven Mile Beach in Grand Cayman and $10.00 to rent two lounge chairs at Public Beach.  There was no charge to get onto either beach.  Compare that to the $69.99 per person excursion that gets you transportation to the beach and a chair at a beach in Grand Cayman.

5.  We drink the water, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, lemonade and iced tea (and juice and milk during breakfast hours) and not purchase the beverage packages.
We had a few beers from a machine where you dispensed your own.  Soko loved it!  It cost slightly less than if we got a beer from the bar.  After using the onboard credit we had, we were left with a bill of $38.00 at the end of the trip for drinks (and bingo!).  Compare that to $56.95 +15% gratuity per day per person for the beverage package.

When all was said and done, we spent a grand total of $1,057.00 for a really nice vacation.  Where can you go and spend only $212.00 per day and get a room (a really tiny room) 3 meals a day (and a midnight snack), 2-3 comedy shows a night (the comedians, Spike Davis and Kelly Terranova, were hilarious) live music (in different venues around the ship) and a stage show every night (I didn't want the Epic Rock show to end.  It was amazing!)   

Cruising gives us a chance to try new food like this eggs benedict with salmon instead of ham.  Yum!

Cruising definitely works for us as far as staying within our vacation budget and we enjoy all they have to offer!

Monday, January 29, 2018

Our Top 12 Must-See National Parks

We have planned for years to see as many national parks as we could once we retired.  The we not only includes Soko, but also my sister (with me in the picture above) and her husband John (Mini).  We have been to three and they turned out to be our most loved vacations.  Some of the most beautiful sites we have ever seen have been in these parks.  We enjoy everything about spending the day out in nature from the hiking to stopping to appreciate a gorgeous wildflower.  But there are 59 national parks.  (Number 59 - Pinnacles National Park is not on some older lists.)  That means we have 56 parks left to visit.  Although we really would like to get to all the remaining parks, we know that might be impossible, so we had to get get this number down to something more doable.   After hours of researching, we have come up with this list of  our 12 must-see national parks.

We came up with our top 12 by finding lists of best national parks around the web and by talking to friends and family.  I went to National Geographic and Fodor's Travel Guide and found their top 10 lists.  I was sure those sites would have the very best of the parks on their lists.  Travel + Leisure's website featured an article about a couple who saw all 59 parks in 52 weeks.  That couple came up with a list of parks they felt "every traveler should be sure to see."  I used their list.  I went to a website called Ranker that polled travelers, hikers, campers and sightseers to create a most beautiful park list.  It made sense to check out their list.  After looking at all these lists and more and "interviewing" family and friends, I thought we would have a list of 10 must-see national parks but couldn't get it to less than 12. 

The Top 10 parks, according to most of the websites, are listed below in order of popularity.   We have been to three of them.  This left us with the first seven entries on our must-see list.  After talking to family and friends we had four more to add to the list.  And finally, we added the one park I  always dreamed of seeing and that is how we got our Top 12 Must-See National Parks!  

1.  Yosemite National Park - California - (1)  The majority of the sites I looked at had Yosemite at the top of their lists of best parks.  Tunnel View is the "not to be missed" sight to see here.  Once we get near this vista, we simply park our car and walk over.  From here we can see Bridalveil Fall and the granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome.  

2.  Grand Canyon National Park - Arizona - This is one of the three parks we have been to.  It didn't surprise me to see the Grand Canyon on most of the lists and close to the top of those lists.  The pictures I had seen of this park didn't come close to the awesomeness of seeing the Grand Canyon in person.  It was truly breathtaking!  

3.  Grand Teton National Park - Wyoming - (2) is another very popular park.  My (very soon to be) daughter-in-law, Chrissy (right) and her friend, Sarah decided to take a Midwest trip "to do some hiking, see beautiful views, try new things and meet new people."  With this in mind, they landed up visiting two of America's best national parks.  The first was Grand Teton.  One highlight of Grand Teton for them was Inspiration Point in the picture below.  The elevation here is 7,200 feet Chrissy told me.  We will pose for a picture, when we get to this Point, to send to Chrissy, but I'm sure we will be right side up!  

4.  Acadia National Park - Maine - This is the second of the three national parks we have been to.  Every summer, for many years, we took the kids camping along with 5-7 other families.  We still talk about how our Maine trip was one of the best.  We spent almost the entire vacation hiking in Acadia.  The kids loved it.  I think my favorite day of this trip was when we bought some steamed lobsters and had a picnic in the park.  This park is gorgeous and the views are spectacular.  I was not surprised to see Acadia on so many lists.

5.  Glacier National Park - Montana - (3)  When I was compiling this list, I asked for suggestions from our friends, Penny and Bill.  They have been to more parks than anyone else we know, a total of 44 so far.   One of the big reasons they go to the parks is to get a glimpse of the wildlife.  Glacier National Park is the perfect park to go for that reason as they have a diverse collection of animals ranging from mountain goats to grizzly bears.  Penny and Bill told us that they visited the park in the fall when the wildlife is most active.   They saw not only the mountain goats and grizzly bears, but also moose, wolf and elk.  I hope we are that lucky when we visit although I may just be as happy not to bump into a grizzly!   

6.  Rocky Mountain National Park - Colorado - (4)  I have wanted to visit this park ever since I first heard the song Rocky Mountain High by John Denver.  (Yes, I am that old!)  He made it sound heavenly!  My daughter, Lisa, has been there and she tells me the thing I have to do there is to take a ride on the 48 mile Trail Ridge Road.   The highest elevation on this road is over 12,000 feet!  On the way up there, we can enjoy thrilling views, wildlife sightings and spectacular alpine wildflower exhibitions.

7.  Olympic National Park - Washington - (5)  The attractiveness of this park is it's diversity.  In it's million acres, you can find glacier-capped mountains, rain forests and over 70 miles of coastline.  I would love to spend the day here strolling the shores of Lake Crescent and walking along Rialto Beach watching the waves crashing onto offshore islands and, if we are lucky, spotting an eagle flying overhead. 

8.  Yellowstone National Park - Wyoming, Montana, Idaho - (6)  This was the second park Chrissy and Sarah visited on their Midwest adventure.  Chrissy, shared her pictures of one of the best known parks in America with the best known geyser anywhere, Old Faithful.   They found another geyser on one of their hikes through Yellowstone, picture 2.  Chrissy attached a warning here:  "Caution: Do not touch - extremely hot.  Do not breathe in - extremely smelly."  To get to the beautiful waterfall behind Chrissy, in her third picture, they hiked Uncle Tom's Trail which she told me included 300 stairs down to the falls.  "But also meant 300 stairs back up!"

9.  Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Tennessee, North Carolina - We first visited this park as part of a family road trip that brought us from our home in New York, through Pennysylvania and West Virginia, to Indiana to have lunch before we made our way to Dayton, Ohio for a bowling tournament that me and daughter, Lisa were competing in.  From there we were meeting our friends in South Carolina for our annual camping trip.  So we drove from Ohio to Kentucky and into Tennessee then through the Great Smoky Mountains to North Carolina and into South Carolina.  This road trip currently holds the record as being our longest.  Our second visit to this picturesque park was with my sister Sandie and her husband, Mini.  We spent a long weekend hiking a couple of the many trails throughout the park.  You can read more about the fun we had on that trip here.

10.  Zion National Park - Utah - (7)  The pictures I have seen of Zion National Park and especially the ones of the Emerald Pools makes me so excited about planning a visit here.  There are lots of hiking trails at the Emerald Pools, ranging from easy to strenuous, to choose from and they all lead to beautiful waterfalls.  Also, the massive sandstone cliffs reaching up to sky will definitely be an amazing sight to see I'm sure.

The next four parks were highly recommended by family and friends which is the reason why they made our list.  I did see them listed on the lists of some of the websites but not as often as the ten above.   

Bryce Canyon National Park - Utah - (8) - My son, Joe and daughter-in-law Nicole recommended we visit their favorite national park of the ten they have been to.  They visited the park in early March so couldn't hike the snow covered trails but enjoyed how the snow added to gorgeousness of the views.  There were many scenic outlooks for them to pull into as they drove around the park.   We will make sure to be on the lookout for Thor's Hammer (picture 1) and will also make sure we drive to the south end of the road to Rainbow Point as the view there was amazing according to Joe and Nicole.  I will definitely be looking for Natural Bridge, picture 3.  Now that's something you don't see everyday!

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks - California - (9) - are jointly listed by the National Park Service because they actually are connected and made our list because it is the favorite of our friends, Penny and Bill.  If Sequoia & Kings Canyon are their favorite of the 44 parks they have visited then we can't miss this one.  Bill loved how the giant sequoias made Penny look like "she was about the size of a mosquito" next to them.  Another highlight in these parks for them were the waterfalls.  We were told we can't miss Roaring River Falls, Mist Falls and Grizzly Falls in Kings Canyon.  Another plus that put these parks on the top of their list was that there are about 1/10th the amount of sightseers here than what some of the other parks have.  

Arches National Park - Utah - (10) and Canyonlands are also favorites of Penny and Bill and made our list once they told us the two parks are only 26 miles apart.  Arches is appropriately named as there are 2,000 natural sandstone arches throughout the park.  One we will be on the lookout for is the world famous (at least that's what I read but I have never heard of it) Delicate Arch.  Also, there is a rock formation named Balanced Rock which is a massive rock resting on a narrow pillar.  It looks amazing in the picture I saw.  I am really looking forward to seeing it one day.

Canyonlands National Park - Utah - (11) is a park in the heart of southeast Utah's high desert.  Here we will enjoy views of colorful canyons from the many overlooks we can stop at as we tour the park in our car on a paved road.  We also have our choice of hiking trails of varying length to choose from to explore more of the park.

And, last but not least...  

Redwood National Park - California - (12) - I can't believe that this park wasn't on any list I found.  It made our list because every June, for 16 years, I sang the song, This Land Is Your Land along with other teachers and about 60 four and five year olds on graduation day.  As I clapped and sang "from the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters" along with the group I would get a beautiful vision of gorgeous, giant trees and imagined that I would see them one day.   Hopefully that one day will be here very soon!

That's our National Park bucket list.  Which one will end up being our favorite?  We would love to hear about yours!