Saturday, March 18, 2017

Magical Mystery Tour - Part 3

On Sunday morning, we walked to Gastown to see the famous steam clock and to hear it go off. I didn't get a good picture of it unfortunately, but it was cool to watch.

The Gastown neighborhood was quite interesting, with their own flatiron building and other cool architecture. The bar across from the clock was being used to film something or other. Vancouver is the filming location for a ton of movies and TV series.

We made our way east from Gastown to Chinatown. We stumbled upon a flea market/swap meet whose vendors were largely from the citiy's homeless population. We also saw two young people doing heroine on the sidewalk, in broad daylight on a Sunday morning. Vancouver is lovely and diverse, but clearly not without problems.

In Chinatown we went to the Vancouver Chinese Garden.

We explored the neighborhood and ate a lot of dim sum.

After Chinatown, we took a taxi to the Museum of Anthropology on the University of British Columbia campus. They have a large collection of First Nations art, both inside and on the grounds.

On our last full day in Vancouver we booked a whale watching tour. The tour left from Granville Island, so we took the morning before the tour to explore the Granville Island Public Market. It was just a short walk and short ferry ride from our hotel. There were lots of fun shops and food. We picked up fixings for a picnic on the boat.

It was a rough and long boat trip (about 6 hours). Casey got a bit of motion sickness at first, but some ginger candy helped. The orcas were far south that day so we didn't end up spotting them until just off the San Juan islands.  There were lots of whales to see, and we got to watch them for an hour or so. It was breathtaking and a bucket list experience for sure!  The only way it could've been better is if I could have gotten in the water to swim with them and pet them. It was for sure, my favorite activity of the trip.

That evening we enjoyed the sunset on our balcony and reflected on our time in beautiful Vancouver. 

I'd recommend Vancouver to anyone who wants a vacation that offers a little of everything: amazing views and natural beauty, interesting sites and dining. I would absolutely go back. And of course, the Canadians we met were just as nice as you'd expect.

I'd also recommend Magical Mystery Tours! I don't think Casey enjoyed the element of surprise a much as I did, but it was wonderful to have someone else do the planning. And with their choice of Vancouver, they proved that they know how to choose a holiday that exceeds expectations.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Magical Mystery Tours - Part 2

We opened the envelope at the airport...

And found out we were headed to...

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada!!!

I admit that we didn't know much about this destination, and probably wouldn't have picked it for ourselves. At least it hadn't made it onto out travel wish list yet. But we soon learned that Vancouver really ticked all the boxes in what we were looking for in an anniversary trip. 

We flew through Denver to Vancouver, and used the flight time to read the guidebook and information provided by MMT. The booklet they provide (in my right hand above) includes flight and hotel info, tips for getting around, dining recommendations and site seeing info. It was pretty comprehensive and we referred to it many times on our trip. I ended up carrying the guide book with me most days as well. 

Upon arrival in Vancouver, we quickly made it through immigration and were welcomed in French (I'd completely forgotten that Canada is bilingual.) We took the sky train from the airport to our hotel. MMT picked a fantastic location (we were able to walk to most things)! The hotel had a bar, a huge breakfast which was included, and a pool. Our room was huge, with a kitchenette, large bathroom and balcony facing the sea and mountains. 

Since we arrived around lunch time, we took some time to unpack and marvel in our view before exploring the city. We wandered down to the waterfront and saw Canada Place,  where the cruise terminal is. We had a late lunch/early supper at a pub on the water. Our server gave us great tips for planning our time in Vancouver. After lunch we continued to wander around but went back to the hotel somewhat early to plan the rest of our visit. We got back to the room to find a surprise dessert from MMT, which was a thoughtful touch.

Our first full day was a Friday and it was unseasonably warm, in the 80s. We chose that day to go to Stanley Park and the beach. We walked from our hotel to the park, then used a trolley in the park to stop at various sites there. There were a lot more attractions than we had time to see, but the park and beach were beautiful. The architecture in Vancouver is very modern, with tall glass buildings reflecting the sea and mountains. We loved this one with a tree planted at the top. 

Our first happy accident was stumbling on a lovely restaurant with a stunning view of Lion's Gate bridge.

We got the water at Third Beach. It was freezing of course, but really cool with the mountains and ships in the background. 

After the beach we went back to the hotel to get cleaned up for a nice dinner at Guu Garden for izakaya, Japanese small plates. I think this was my favorite meal of the trip. Vancouver is very multicultural, with lots of residence from the Pacific rim and Asia. We really enjoyed the diversity. 

On Saturday, we took a free bus to Capilano Suspension Bridge park and Grouse Mountain. Both were beautiful!

After getting back downtown, we shopped and hit an Irish pub (which we always do when we travel) before going back to the hotel. 

This is getting a bit long, so I'll write about the second half of our trip in a separate blog entry...

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Magical Mystery Tour - Part 1

I'm super late in writing this but I have to share our awesome experience with Magical Mystery Tours. (No, it's not some stupid Beatles thing.)

If you're unaware, Magical Mystery Tours specializes in surprise travel. From weekend getaways to honeymoons to independent travel, MMT can put together any kind of holiday. Casey heard about this some time ago but we didn't pull the trigger until this year. We were debating where to celebrate our anniversary and couldn't settle on a location, so we agreed to give it a try.

To get the process started we completed the online travel survey. We answered questions about budget, favorite past trips (Paris, Ireland), least favorite trips (Las Vegas), food, lodging and weather preferences. We also picked dates and budget. We told them we were celebrating our anniversary and either wanted a long weekend stateside or a longer trip out of the country. We wanted some nature like mountains or beach, but also nightlife, good food and museums. Basically, you tell them as much or as little as you want. Our contact, Katie, reached out to us immediately via email, confirmed details and took our $300 fee.

A month or so later (which may seem like a long time) we learned our exact dates (which will always fall in the window chosen) and the budget and made a payment. We were able to add travel insurance at this time as well. At that point we knew we were leaving the US because of the length of trip and budget.

Let the guessing begin! Casey and I couldn't help ourselves, we sent each other guesses daily. South America and Canada figured prominently, but even Hong Kong, Bulgaria and Iceland made the rounds.

A week before our trip, Katie sent an email with a suggested packing list and weather forecast and a time to arrive at the airport. We also shared our passport info and known traveler numbers. This is where the guessing began in earnest, especially from Casey. Turns out he doesn't actually like surprises, while I was totally fine with it.

Side note about me: I have a lot of curly hair. Caring for it properly demands that I vigilantly monitor weather conditions - specifically humidity and dew point. Because of this, I look at multiple weather apps daily. Because MMT sent a screen snippet from the weather app they used to share the forecast with us, I immediately knew where to find this specific forecast. Still, I didn't look because I didn't want to spoil it. Casey couldn't stop trying to find out though. After a few hours torment, I took mercy on him. Based on the suggested packing list (walking shoes, backpack, going out clothes, swim suit etc.) the second city I looked for had a forecast image that matched exactly what MMT gave us. I would recommend future users of this service try not to guess. We didn't ruin the trip for ourselves, but I think we could have had more fun with it had we not known ahead of time.

Two days before our departure we received an envelope with our travel documents and were told not to open it until we got to the airport. That was actually easy, because we felt like we knew where we were going. We found out we were going to...'ll have to wait to until Part 2 to find out.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Spring Break 2016

Casey, Caelen and I, along with Casey's parents, took a western Caribbean cruise through Norwegian for spring break. The complete set of photos is here.

We drove to New Orleans on 3/12. The 17 hour drive was a bit painful, but we learned that Mississippi is beautiful and everyone there is so friendly. Casey booked a hotel near the pier for that evening.

We boarded Sunday, just in time for muster and spent the rest of the day eating, exploring the ship and watching the Mississippi river roll by as we departed.

Monday was a sea day, which meant pool time and play time. The adults in the group had spa passes which meant access to saunas, steam rooms, hot tubs and a private pool. I think this is the best kept secret on the ship. I also took a yoga class that day, but the teacher wasn't very good. Still, it was fun to try. Casey's parents had an amazing suite, with butler and concierge, and got us into the captain's reception.

Our first port was Cozumel, Mexico. We initially planned to golf, but decided to just go out on our own. The five of us rented a taxi to take us around the island. We stopped for photos and shopping along the way and had incredible fish tacos for lunch. Before boarding the ship, we stopped at Starbucks. (It's not a vacation without Starbucks.)

On Wednesday we were in Belize City, Belize. This was a tender port, so that was kind of fun. We booked an excursion through NCL. We had an hour bus ride to our boat on the New River. We saw local fishermen, a Mennonite farm, and lots of wildlife along the way. We stopped at the Lamanai ruins and had a tour guide there. We were able to climb one of the pyramids. After the boat ride back to the starting point we had a Belizean lunch, which was delicious, before boarding the bus back to the port. The line for the tender was super long, but made tolerable when Casey bought us all fresh young coconuts to drink.

Thursday was Roatan, Honduras. We split up that day. I signed Caelen and myself up for a zipling and beach day (not through the cruise line). Our Jungle Top Zipline guide met us at the port and walked us to the spot. After getting suited up and some quick safety instruction, we made our way up the mountain. I'd never done this before, and it was such a blast! For sure one of my favorite things we did on the trip. Caelen enjoyed it too...trying tricks and stuff. After 18 zip lines, a driver took us to West Bay Beach and a private beach club. I rented a stand up paddle board which, admittedly, was more Caelen's thing than mine. The water and beach were beautiful but crowded. We had lunch on the beach before heading back to the port. It was so nice to have Caelen to myself that day! Casey rented a scooter and scooted around the city and mountainside by himself. Marcia and Bruce shopped near the port.

Friday was my favorite day. I booked us at Maya Chan in Costa Maya. They arranged for a taxi to pick us up at the port and drove us to the resort's remote location. The place lives up to it's reputation of a "hippie style hangout". We had our own palupa with chairs, a hammock and sunbed, right near the water. We were greeted with fruity rum drinks and homemade chips and guac. The resort is all-inclusive so they kept us hydrated and fed all day. We got to pet a neighbor dog, and use floaties and kayaks. The water didn't have waves but was beautiful and shallow. A few of us got massages, but mostly we just relaxed and hung out. Lunch was tacos, probably the best I've ever had. I would've stayed here much longer, and would love to go back.

Saturday was another sea day, which meant more relaxing and getting ready to disembark.

Sunday's disembarkation was relatively painless. Because the drive down was so tiring, we decided to drive half way home, rather than spend the night in New Orleans. We spent Sunday night in Memphis and got to have amazing BBQ at Germantown Commissary.

We made it home early Monday evening, in time to see our sorely missed puppies.

I'm not sure I would cruise there again, but I would be happy to spend more time in each place, maybe renting a car and driving from spot to spot. I think everyone had a good time and it was good for Caelen to get out of the USA and see how other people live. I'm looking forward to more experiences like this.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Stuff I love: Duolingo

Duolingo is a free online (and app) language learning tool. I started using it in 2014 before going to Italy and switched to French in 2015 before our Paris trip. I continue to practice with it every day and am now 51% fluent (based on Duolingo's grading system).

Duolingo can be used online or via their app, which is how I normally practice. Exercises include writing, listening and speaking and have a lot of variation to keep it interesting. Lingots are earned for completing exercises which can unlock other features, like changing the mascot's (Duo, a cute owl) attire or unlocking special exercises like Christmas words. Users can also network with friends, but other than seeing who is practicing more, I haven't seen much value in that. There are multiple language offerings and users can practice as many as desired.

I usually practice 10 minutes a day, and complete 4 or 5 exercises, so it isn't a lot of work and it gives users the feeling of progressing quickly. The exercises are fun too, and drive to getting learners speaking in full sentences quickly. No conjugation or endless counting or listing months like in high school.

And for fun check out

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Yoga +

I'm still 100% in love with yoga and my at home yoga practice. In addition to that, I took a yoga class on our cruise on one of our at sea days. Although the instructor wasn't great, I was happy that I was able to keep up with others in the class that have been doing yoga for years.

I've been thinking about looking into a local class, but I haven't found anything yet that I think is for me. Maybe I'll try one at the gym.

In addition to yoga I started doing one weight workout and one sprint workout each week. Nothing too heavy or exciting, just something to focus on a different kind of conditioning. And use the gym membership I paid for.

I'm happy with how I'm feeling physically. Nice and easy seems to be working for me.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Happy Valentine's Day!

I've had a fantastic weekend. 

Friday after work, Casey and I met at the Art Center for the members' preview of the Arts & Letters exhibit. The exhibit showcased the relationship between art and literature. There was music, appetizers and a cash bar. We've really enjoyed our membership. 

Saturday we hosted an adult game night. Casey outdid himself with his French menu and cocktails. We had a great time!

Today we're taking it easy. I gave him some boozy chocolates and the gave me the item below. When I opened that card that accompanied the gift it was signed "your dark passenger". For anyone that's watched Dexter they'd understand why I thought I was opening a severed head or something. But instead of samples of blood from my murdered enemies like Dexter kept, these slides have phrases from some of our favorite memories. It starts with our first date at Palmer's ad ends with our trip to Paris. We can keep adding to it as well. 

I totally cried when I got this. It's so thoughtful and sweet and slightly disturbing. Best Valentine's gift ever!