Return to Punta Cana

I was invited to the Dominican Republic again this year for a Top Agent Retreat… who would decline a trip to an island paradise? The island had recently been hit by Hurricane Maria but the only visible damage to the area that we were in was some downed trees and stripped foliage. The ocean was glistening and the pools sparkling; it was time for some fun!

This year’s trip took the hubs and I to the Riu Palace Bavaro and I’m not going to lie, not a big Riu fan. The things we enjoyed most about this resort were the pool with its tile loungers and the Costa Caribe drinks. Gratefully, the Costa Caribe’s were plentiful and the pool was a delight.

Riu Palace Bavaro poolCosta Caribe drink

While in Punta Cana, we had the pleasure of touring other resorts. These are referred to as site inspections in travel agent lingo. What does that really mean? Up and at ’em early, zipping from resort to resort, viewing various room types, meeting the staff, checking out the restaurants, pools, and other amenities, etc. If anyone ever steals my phone, they’ll likely wonder why I have so many pictures of the inside of hotel rooms, bathrooms, and mini-fridges.

The other places we visited were the Nickelodeon Resort Punta Cana and I totally would’ve enjoyed spending the trip there. With a clean design and not an over-the-top kid feel, I would definitely stay here on a future trip. Their waterpark area was such a fun amenity for resort guests! For a mere $4k/night, you could even stay in Spongebob’s house!Spongebob's House

Aqua Nick waterpark

Next up was Chic Punta Cana, an adults only resort. Here you can stay in a six-bedroom Mansion villa for about that same $4k/night if a pineapple under the sea wasn’t your cup of tea. Not looking to blow the budget? The other room categories are much more affordable and some even feature the swim-out rooms with infinity pools!

Chic Punta Cana

Next up was Royalton Punta Cana, which we visited last year, but is always a beauty. As far as impressive views from the lobby, this one is right up there.

Royalton Punta Cana

There were two other Riu resorts on our list to tour, Riu Bambu for families and Riu Republica for adults only. Riu Bambu is one of the five resorts that was in our resort’s overall complex – with Riu Naioba, Riu Macao, and Riu Palace Punta Cana. Riu Bambu is a very pretty resort and I’d have preferred to stay there over ours. The layout and vibe here was better, newer decor, nice central restaurant area, and a cluster of pools close by.

Riu Bambu

Riu Republica had a nice clean look but definitely not my taste. There was more of a party vibe here, especially at the pools, and this resort will cater to spring breakers in 2018. Great for that age group, not so much for mine. 🙂

Riu Republica

Last up for this trip was Excellence El Carmen. This is also an adult only property and you could feel the step up in quality here. The rooms were much bigger and OMG, this honeymoon room had a private balcony with a swim-up, its own small pool, and jacuzzi tub.

Beachfront room view

Private balcony with swim-up

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Private pool, jacuzzi tub, and lounge bed

Now that’s what I’m talking about.

I’ll leave you with the recipe for the Costa Caribe, in case you’re interested. I highly recommend these and can’t wait for a return to the DR to try them again!

Until next time!

Amber

Costa Caribe

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Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights #27 (#hhn27)

Howdy!  It’s time for another guest blog post — this time from the Hubs.  Enjoy!

Being a lifelong lover of the macabre, I’ve always wanted to take Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights for a spin, but it’s never been in the cards. That changed this year, when a surprise birthday trip included not only our daughter, but our teenage niece — who, as it so happens, is a big fan of horror movies. (By her own admission, the only things she can’t handle are creepy twins and scary clowns. That’s called “foreshadowing.”) So, as the rest of the group headed to Disney Springs for some restaurants and shopping, Niece (not her actual name) and I headed to #HHN27 for some pants-ruining fun.

First off, the map:

#hhn27 map

The map for Halloween Horror Nights #27

The little red letters are the haunted houses (there were nine altogether: American Horror Story, The Shining, The Fallen, Dead Waters, The Horrors of Blumhouse, Hive, Scarecrow: The Reaping, Ash vs Evil Dead, and Saw), while the yellow sections are Scare Zones — themed areas where performers roam free to pounce on you as you walk by. Upon entering the park, the very first thing we saw in the very first Scare Zone was the creepy ghost twins from The Shining, standing there being all creepy. As a direct result, we decided to start with some rides. So, proceeding through the nonexistent line, we hopped straight onto Transformers. Personally, I find Universal’s rides repetitive — it’s like the pitch for every ride since The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man has consisted of, “Hey, remember Spider-Man? It’s like that, except with {insert hot intellectual property here}!”

But I digress. Halloween Horror Nights isn’t about the rides; it’s about the scares. (As a matter of fact, several attractions are closed during the event since their queues are repurposed for the haunted houses.) It was well time for a haunted house, and, with me being a huge Evil Dead devotee for more years than I care to admit, Ash vs Evil Dead was the logical place to start. And since it’s horrific in a haha sort of way, it couldn’t be so bad for Niece, right?

It scared the absolute bejeezus out of her.

To calm her still-pounding heart, I decided it was Harry Potter time. Now, referring back to the map above, Ash vs Evil Dead is at the bottom center, while Harry Potter is at the top right. If you’ll notice, the walkway between the two is in no way, shape, or form yellow. (This will be a very important factor in my upcoming defense trial.) As we headed that way, however, Niece froze in her tracks. When I asked what was wrong, she said simply, “That’s a clown.”

As it turns out, that was a massive understatement. It was not a clown. It was a plethora of clowns. Scary ones. With chainsaws.

We ducked into a Simpsons-themed food court and made our way along its entire length to an exit at the opposite end. As we peeked out in an attempt to determine whether we’d managed to circumvent the murderous clowns, I noticed a teenage girl sitting at a nearby table. No food, just sitting. Eyes wide, she said, “You can’t go out there. THEY CHASE YOU.”

The long route to Harry Potter it was, then! Backtracking through the restaurant, we exited the door through which we’d entered, taking precisely zero notice of the support column right outside said door. Two steps later, a theretofore unseen clown lunged out from behind that column and brap-brapped his — quite realistic, I might add — chainsaw right in Niece’s face. Until that moment, I never knew it was possible to launch scream-powered tears out of one’s eyeballs with such astounding velocity.

 

We did eventually make it to Harry Potter via the long way around, but any further haunted houses were to be solo affairs while Niece waited it out in a no-scare zone (the performers don’t follow you into shops or restaurants). While, as I mentioned before, the size of my Evil Dead fandom is only surpassed by the ego of one Ashley J. Williams, if asked to pick a Best of Show I’d have a hard time choosing between that and The Shining — both were extremely well done experiences, and really managed to capture the essence of their respective properties.

So, would I do it again? In an elevated heartbeat I would! I’d just do so knowing that, when Universal says Halloween Horror Nights is too intense for most guests, they sort of mean it.

A conference in Virginia Beach…

My latest adventure took me to Virginia Beach, to accompany the hubs to a work conference.  I can only recall being in Virginia Beach twice in my life, once at least fifteen years ago for a concert that got cancelled (boo!) and then back in middle school on a field trip.  We don’t live terribly far from the area but it has never been on my short list to visit.

Arriving at the beach, it was what I was expecting but not what I’m used to for a beach vacation.  I prefer quiet, family-oriented beaches with sand dunes, seashells, and very little commercialism so I struck out on all counts here.  I won’t lie, I wouldn’t visit the area again to hang out at the ocean.  However, this trip wasn’t focused on the water so we entertained ourselves at the pool area of the hotel (Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront), at the always delicious Duck Donuts around the corner, and at the conference activities.  We had a free afternoon that we planned to spend at the nearby aquarium but, the rest of the greater Virginia Beach area got the the same idea, so we bailed.

A speaker at the conference had mentioned the Military Aviation Museum in nearby Pungo, so we changed course and headed there.  Luckily, the museum was a short drive past the aquarium, so we were already going in the right direction.  Bombing out on a place that looked appealing for lunch near the hotel, we stopped in at Firebrew Bar and Grill on the way to the museum.  How delish!  Being a Monday at lunchtime, we had the restaurant to ourselves and dined on yummy pierogies, ahi tuna tacos, flatbreads, and pizzas.  The day was looking up!

After stuffing ourselves at lunch, we continued on to Pungo.  The bucolic fields and controlled retail environments made for a great experience on the drive.  Arriving at the museum, we were pleased to find that it wasn’t crowded.  Entering the main exhibit building, the staff gave us a warm welcome and intro to the facility with an overview of the areas to visit.  We saw working aircraft from World War II from the Army and Navy, various German vehicles, an Amphicar, and a real German Enigma machine.  Had we a little more time, we would’ve gone on the tour to visit the additional hangars that featured World War I replica and German aircraft.  If you visit anywhere in the greater Virginia Beach area and are an aviation or history fan, you need to make time to stop here!

Another evening took us to One Fish, Two Fish for dinner and we enjoyed a fantastic meal.  The restaurant is situated in a marina and offers local ingredients and stellar service.  Another place to add to the list.

So, yeah, not a fan of Virginia Beach’s oceanfront but I think the surrounding area has potential for a future visit.  I hear Sandbridge Beach is nice so maybe that would be a good home base to stay and then pop in to some of the other places we enjoyed and find some new fun at First Landing State Park or the Cape Henry Lighthouses.

Where will I go next…?

Ahi tuna tacos at Firebrews Military Aviation MuseumMilitary Aviation Museum

Why yes, a cruise for Thanksgiving would be divine!

Being a vegetarian, Thanksgiving is not one of my favorite holidays.  For my family, it represents a long weekend that is perfect for hitting the road and enjoying some time together.  This year, that meant packing up and heading to Florida!

First stop, Disney World, for a quick one-night stay at Saratoga Springs.  We are Disney Vacation Club members and own at the Saratoga Springs resort but this was our first stay there in several years.  We chose Saratoga since it sits right beside Disney Springs and visiting there was our plan for this abbreviated stopover.  Thanksgiving dinner was accomplished at ‘Ohana at the Polynesian resort (to die for, as always!) and then a few hours at Disney Springs was a delightful treat.  I’m amazed with each trip how much Disney Spring evolves.  So much of the area is brand-new and super fancy!  I love the changes and can’t wait to see everything fully complete.

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Disney Springs – Town Center

Black Friday morning for me meant breakfast at Boma at Animal Kingdom Lodge, no shopping!  We stuffed ourselves and then hopped in the van to head over to Port Canaveral.  Emptying the van and skipping into the terminal at the Port, we got checked-in and waited with the masses.  With boarding group #2, we were some of the first folks onboard the beautiful Disney Dream.  Cabanas for the lunch buffet then a little ship exploration kept us occupied until the lifeboat drill and Sail Away party.

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Pool deck on the Dream after boarding

Sail Away party

Sail Away party (before the crowds hit)

Our stateroom was fantastic!  When I toured the Dream in January 2015, I saw a room type that I had never been inside of before.  I knew when I saw it that I had to book one for myself!  The split layout of these rooms and the two large portholes are amazing.  So much room in the stateroom to spread out and really get settled in.

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Our stateroom on the Dream

During our cruise, which was a super short 3-night Bahamian, the ship docked at Nassau in the Bahamas and Castaway Cay.  As I’ve mentioned before, Castaway Cay is Disney’s private island in the Bahamas and it was all decked out for the holidays.

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Island paradise

The ship was also adorned with holiday goodness around every turn.  The lobby featured a beautiful gingerbread house which also filled the air with its lovely scent.

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Dream’s gingerbread house

Pirate night onboard the Dream was a blast (literally!) too with fireworks at sea and the ever-popular Pirate Buffet.  They do such a great job putting out these late-night treats for the hungry pirates!

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Pirate night food decor

Disney Cruise never disappoints and this trip was another memorable one for the fam!

Going solo to Turks and Caicos

Last October, I ventured to the Caribbean to tour some of the Sandals and Beaches brand resorts in Jamaica.  In early July, I jumped on a plane to Providenciales, the hub of the Turks and Caicos islands in the British West Indies to tour the Beaches brand resort located there.  Talk about an absolutely amazing experience!  The resort was gigantic but not in a bad way!  So much to do for the whole family,  a killer beach, plenty of restaurants, fantastic service, and luxurious accommodations!

So let’s see, other than touring the resort and the various room types — it was a working trip — I spent hours on the beach, floating and swimming around.  The water is crystal clear like a pool and the pure white sand is fluffy soft.  Of course, I came home a little on the sunburned side but it was so worth it.  I spent some time in two of the many pools as well and enjoyed those and their swim-up bars.  The nights were filled with delicious food including yummy sushi and a to-die-for French restaurant that I could’ve eaten at every night.

French Village pool

French Village pool near my room

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Grotto at the Iguana pool in the Caribbean Village section of the resort

Le Petit Chateau restaurant

Scrumptious French food, steps from my room!

One morning had an early wake-up call to board the Kitty Katt catamaran tour to snorkel in those beautiful blue waters, visit our own deserted island, and then fly off the back of the boat into the open water on their super fun waterslide.  This was my first experience snorkeling and I had a fantastic time, will definitely do it again!

Kitty Katt catamaran

Kitty Katt catamaran tour, at the deserted island

The resort even has its own waterpark area with five slides, a lazy river, and splash pad!  This area bumps up to the tween/teen fun spot with a diner, kids swim-up pool bar, Xbox lounge, DJ Scratch Academy and kids lounge, and hangout spot with family games.

Pirates Island

Pirates Island waterpark slides and lazy river

The grounds are well-kept throughout the resort and you can always find fountains, sitting areas, hammocks, flowers, small geckos, and friendly faces wherever you turn.

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Fountain in the French Village area

This was my view on the way into the islands and as I was taking off to head back to the States.  I hope that I am seeing this view again, sooner rather than later!

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View from the plane flying over Turks and Caicos

Ocean Isle Beach with the fam

After a recent weeklong stay at Ocean Isle Beach in North Carolina, I can confirm that there is such a thing as salt therapy.  It does a body good to plop on the sand, splash in the ocean, and soak in the sun.  Doing so with your family is even better.

Ocean Isle is such a relaxing place with a slower pace that I enjoy so much while recharging from my daily life.  I do work while at the beach but there’s something about doing work on a beach chair in the sand, or from a wicker sofa on a deck in the sun, that really makes the time spent working not so rough.

Normally, Ocean Isle is the place for collecting seashells but this year was pretty much a bust.  We did find a few good specimens but for the most part, the shells were hard to find.  That’s super weird but I chalk it up to high tides all week and the lack of storms in the area that stir up the good stuff.

Speaking of weather, it was perfection!  Warm days, cool nights, no rain… loved it!  I was expecting it to be much more hot and humid than it was but was certainly grateful for the pleasant temps.

The food was good, we hit up all the usual spots that we visit while in the area.  A couple of days at Myrtle Beach for dinner and some time at the outlets rounded out the non-beach time.  This trip was mostly about hanging out at our rental house and spending time together and I think we accomplished that quite well.

Til’ next time!

 

 

Disneyland’s 60th celebration!

It was back to the West Coast over Memorial Day weekend to celebrate Disneyland’s 60th birthday!  The Diamond celebration began last year and I knew that I had to get to Cali to enjoy the festivities in person.

I really thought that I was in for it to be traveling to a place like Disneyland over a holiday weekend.  I was expecting high crowds and balmy temperatures based on my experience with Walt Disney World.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  The weather was lovely, upper 70s each day and somewhat overcast (my first trip with no sunburn!!)  It was only crowded on our last day in the parks but we had overlapped Grad Night celebrations for local schools.  Even still, the crowds didn’t touch what we have experienced on our prior Florida trips.  We basically walked on most rides with the longest waits being maybe 20 minutes.  We did use FastPasses (paper FastPasses!) so that helped with Hyperspace Mountain, Star Tours, and Radiator Springs Racers but other than that, you didn’t need them.

Our first memorable experience for the trip was getting stuck on top of the biggest hill on California Screamin’, a coaster in Disney’s California Adventure park.  We were climbing the big hill and all of the sudden, the train stopped.  I knew that was not good.  After a bit of a delay, Cast Members came running up the stairs (panting all the way up the 120 feet) to tell us what was going on and to help us out.  Out, as in out of the train!  We had to be released from our harnesses and then walk down the steps back to the park.  At first, there was a bit of freaking out but we did get some great pictures though.  Turns out some younger park-goers somehow missed all of the signs that selfie sticks weren’t allowed in the parks.  While climbing said hill, they felt the need to extend the stick to take that all important selfie and Disney shut the ride down.  At least the stick was confiscated but I think they should’ve taken them out back and…

California Screamin'

California Screamin’

So let’s see, what else.  We went on the ‘Walk in Walt’s Disneyland Footsteps’ Tour in Disneyland park and all I can say is ‘WOW.’  It was amazing.  In each land, the guide played clips for us of Walt’s dedication speech for that particular section of the park.  You could really feel Walt’s vision throughout park and this was an excellent experience for all of us.  I would consider this a must-do tour for any Disneyphile.  The tour ended with a visit to the Disneyland Dream Suite — the suite you could win a night in during the ‘Year of a Million Dreams’ promotion a few years back.  Talk about swanky.  No pictures were allowed but it was amazing.  They really went all out for this suite with two bedrooms, a parlor, a secluded outdoor patio, a to-die-for bathroom, and a second outdoor patio overlooking New Orleans Square.  I could have spent all day on that patio just watching the guests go by.

Disneyland Dream Suite

Disneyland Dream Suite

We watched the stunning ‘Paint the Night’ parade in Disneyland followed by the ‘Disneyland Forever’ fireworks.  That parade is the best parade I’ve seen on both coasts.  Very energetic and keeps you in the spirit from beginning to end.

Lumiere during Paint the Night

Lumiere during Paint the Night

On our last trip, we saw some of the ‘World of Color’ nighttime show in California Adventure but didn’t see it up close.  This time around, I decided to purchase tickets to a brand new dessert party offering (I love my desserts) that included seating right at the water for the show.  Our table was perfect and the view, ah-mazing!

World of Color

World of Color

Another super trip and I honestly cannot wait to step foot back into Walt’s magical place.  Once there, I’ll be taking another ‘spin’ on these babies…

Mad Tea Party

Mad Tea Party

Where to next?  Wait and see!