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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.  After our coastline tour, we will have 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!

If you are new to cruising, you might want to check out this website to see which cruise line is a perfect match for tastes and interests.