It’s Not Just a Steel Town

If you read our blog and/or know me well you may already realize that with my points and miles hobby, it’s not all too uncommon for us to have “expiring award nights” – that is, hotel award nights we’ve been given for a credit card sign-up bonus or spend, that we haven’t gotten around to using for the past year (or sometimes two).  Last summer we found ourselves in that situation for some Fairmont Hotel award nights we had, and we were trying to figure out where we could use them without too much trouble.  I looked at the map of Fairmont Hotels, and one that’s local to home stood out: Pittsburgh!

All of these years, all of these travels, all of these countries; and we’d never been to Pittsburgh together.  It was time.  We booked the hotel and then timidly contacted a couple we had met five years before in a hot tub in Hawaii.  Gregory and Nancy had driven from their residence in Pittsburgh to Philadelphia once since then, for Elliott’s birthday party, but it had ended with an emergency room visit and we weren’t sure if they were too keen on seeing us again.  What a fabulous surprise, then, when they appeared delighted at the idea of us visiting their town, offered us a place to stay, and insisted on being our personal tour guides.

Gregory grew up in Pittsburgh and was proud of his hometown.  Elliott had never been, and I didn’t remember being impressed as a kid, but Pittsburgh apparently grew up and matured with us!  Even from our hotel room, we could see a nice-looking, clean city.

On our first evening in town, Gregory and Nancy showed us some local outdoor sights.  There’s a really nice walkway that goes right under some buildings downtown, and at least one of the many bridges lights up at night.  We found a statue with some really big eyeballs in front of it to see if we could freak out Elliott.

13 Our hosts Gregory and Nancy

Our hosts Gregory and Nancy show us the way

We also went to Point State Park and got a comprehensive history lesson on it and its role in forming Pittsburgh.  After a 12-year refurbishment period and $40 million, Point State Park reopened in 2013.  Point State Park is a Pittsburgh landmark like the arch for St. Louis and the Golden Gate Bridge for San Francisco.  It is located at the site where three rivers meet; or more accurately, where the Monongahela and Allegheny form the Ohio.  It’s marked by a huge 150 foot fountain at the edge of the park, and has great views, grassy areas on which to play or relax, and the nearby River Trail.

But Point State Park is more than just geographical; it’s highly historical as well.  It is the former site of not one but two forts – Fort Duquesne and Fort Pitt – and where the “wild West” began.  Fort Duqesne was built by the French and used during the French & Indian War, but was also destroyed by the French when they no longer felt they could defend it from the British.  Once the British got hold of the land and found there was no longer a fort on it, they built their own fort – Fort Pitt.  Though neither fort stands any longer, a stone path in the park still marks the outlines of Fort Pitt.

18 Point State Park Fountain

Point State Park Fountain

Finally, we were excused from school and allowed to go to recess where we played in a fountain as it changed colors and form.

 

The next day, Gregory and Nancy took us to the Carnegie Science Center.  I got right to work on some important projects for mankind while Elliott took a nap.

On our third day, Gregory and Nancy decided to stop taking it so easy on us, and they packed our itinerary with activities.  We started out at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, which were well worthwhile despite the sometimes blistering heat in those greenhouses!

31 At the botanical garden

Me, Elliott, Nancy and Gregory

 

Next up was the Heinz Chapel at the University of Pittsburgh.  We were all very excited it was open and we could get inside, as Gregory and Nancy said it is often closed.

 

Gregory told us our visit to University of Pittsburgh would not be complete without seeing the Cathedral of Learning.  It was, indeed, a fun and interesting building to walk around!    Parts of it really did remind us of our favorite school: Hogwarts School of Withcraft and Wizardry of the Harry Potter series.

 

Last but not least, Gregory was sure to drive us to every great Pittsburgh viewing point he could think of.  We had a lot of great vantage points, and saw the city in a whole new way!  We can’t wait to go back and spend more time in this fun city with our amazing guides:)

Segelbaums over Pittsburgh

Segelbaums over Pittsburgh

 

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A Big Decision and the Five Year Repeat

Just before we left on our Around-the-World trip in the summer of 2012, we took a “Family and Friends” road trip in order to say goodbye to some of our loved ones since we were heading out for a year.  It was a crazy and exciting time: we had left our big townhome and rented it out, moved into a two-bedroom condo, quit our jobs, put the bulk of our things in storage, and then left our new two bedroom condo – all in the span of five months!  Our little goodbye road trip gave us some breathing time before we hit the road and tried to make one of the biggest decisions of our lives; whether or not to permanently retire and live in another country to do so.

Well, if you’ve been reading our blog, you already know we did move to Ecuador and base ourselves there the last several years!  It’s been great living in and exploring another country, and we wouldn’t trade the experiences we’ve had for the world.  In the middle of 2017, though, we were ready for another change, and we moved ourselves back home, to the suburbs of Philadelphia.  Just before we made the official move, we found ourselves on another “Family and Friends” road trip, and I couldn’t help but think about how perfect the timing was.  It was exactly five years since the last one, and just like then, it was right before a big change in our lives!  What a special “anniversary.”

Five years ago, the same trip was immediately before we started our blog, and barely got a mention.  I thought it seemed more than appropriate then, to include it this time.  First, we headed up to Toronto to visit Elliott’s Uncle Roger, Aunt Rose, and any of his cousins we could corner.  On the way to their beautiful lakeside cottage two hours outside of Toronto, we stopped in the city to meet up with our friend James, whom we met several years ago in Cuenca when he came to stay with us through couch surfing.  Unfortunately we didn’t get a photo of James that day, but we got a few of Elliott’s family.  At the cottage, we had a great time relaxing, canoeing in the lake, catching up with family members, and even ballroom dancing!  When we left, we stopped in the city of Toronto again, this time to see one of Elliott’s cousins who hadn’t made it to the cottage.

We made some fun videos during the weekend of Elliott leading Aunt Rose in a Foxtrot, and Anya pushing her Grandpa “Mo” on the Swing.

Next up was the coastal town of Tiverton, RI, just outside of Providence.  This time we were visiting my Uncle Jon and Aunt Mary, and they were wonderful hosts as always.  They took us to a local Maritime Museum where we learned all about a famous ship builder with local origins and his contributions to racing yacht designs for The America’s Cup.  We met up that evening with my cousin Chris and his seven-year old daughter, whom we were thrilled to meet for the very first time.  And the next day Jon and Mare took us out into Mt. Hope Bay on one of the boats from their local boat club – always a special treat, and a great and relaxing time for us.

RI_01 Ahoy, Captain Elliott!

At the Maritime Musem

Last but not least, we drove to Bristol, Connecticut to see our good friend Stacey and her daughter (our niece!) Pez.  They had made a big move in the past five years as well, out of her parents’ house and into a place of their own with her boyfriend Craig.  It had been way too long since the last visit so we had a lot of catching up to do.  The five of us played lots of games together.  We liked Craig right away and had such a blast hanging out with them all, that we ended up going back a few times in the summer and fall.

Visiting our friends and family again just before our move back to PA reinforced for us that no matter where you travel or end up in life, it’s always great to be back home.

Finn-tastic Finland

Having never been to Scandinavia before, we were pretty excited to set foot in the land of Vikings and legos.*  We got up and out the ships doors before 9am.  The weather was a cold 38 degrees Fahrenheit but the sun was out and it wasn’t windy at all when we started walking from the pier into town.  As tour guide for the day, Elliott was armed with maps and a walking guide on the Kindle.  As if that weren’t enough, there were signs pointing into the center of town.  But Elliott had better ideas – he saw a tall steeple and was convinced it must be our destination.  He guided us towards it using only his eyes and intuition!

(*Elliott’s note, as that’s all of his general knowledge about Scandinavia.)

Okay, so in the end it turned out the steeple wasn’t the one he thought it was, and so we wandered a bit, eventually finding our way into town.  As we like to put it, we sort of “spiraled” in to our destination, which was the starting point of our walking tour.  We passed Kauppatori Market Square on the way but didn’t really shop; we figured we could always come back if we wanted to and had time.  The spiraling into town was also okay because we found all sorts of cool things on the way, not the least of which was snow!

In addition, we came across the Uspenski Cathedral at the top of a hill.  It was of Russian Orthodox denomination, gorgeous inside and out, and wasn’t even on the walking tour!  We went inside to warm up and admire its beauty.

We left the warmth of the church to go back outside and finally begin our walking tour.

The snow had stopped but then started again in force before we even got all the way down the hill to the harbor.

The cold was so intense, we found ourselves ducking into whatever places we could find just to get warm for a few minutes at a time.  We found a dark hallway in an old office building, had hot chocolate in a Finnish McDonald’s, and pretended to read Finnish books in a local bookstore.  (Was it obvious we were imposters?)

But the snow made it all worth it – stopping and starting, I got excited every single time.  It was May, after all!!

611a Loving the snow

Loving the snow

611 It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

We carried on in through our Winter Wonderland.  We saw some “official” houses, then finished our walking tour with the art museum, national theater and train station.  I was thrilled to see that the National Theater was decorated with carvings of owls, and Elliott was thrilled to see the Art-Deco Helsinki Railway Station which was used in the movie “Batman.”

The Helsinki Train Station

The Helsinki Train Station

After our tour, we had just a few more stops.  We found the local Hard Rock so we could buy a guitar pin for a friend.  Then, on our way to the Temppeliaukio Church, we found some giraffes hanging out on a balcony, and Santa Clause!  (Santa, at least, seemed quite appropriate given all the snow.)

Our last stop for the day was the Temppeliaukio Church, also known as the Rock Church.  This church was carved out of a rock hillside, and has some of the best acoustics in the world.  The ceiling is a giant coil of copper wire – literally miles of it!  The dome spans 70 feet and is covered on the interior by 15 miles of Finnish copper wire.

Our day in Finland had quickly come to a close.  We arrived at the ship just in the nick of time – having had to jog a couple times there at the end!  We never thought we’d be able to say we walked a snow-covered gang plank.  It had snowed FIVE times on us in the one day!

 
After we appreciated the majestic sight of our ship in the snow, there was nothing left to do but check out our haul of Finnish candy before we returned to our floating, Baltic home.

Chillin’ in Jamaica Mon

As happens more often than you might think, in February I suddenly realized we had some hotel nights that would expire quickly if we didn’t use them.  Elliott and I each have a Chase Hyatt card, and each of those credit cards awarded us two nights at a Hyatt hotel after we met a certain spend requirement.  In the past the banks were often willing to extend the expiration dates on unused certificates, but they are no longer doing this for the most part.  Several years ago we had the cards and used our free nights at the Grand Hyatt Kauai, which we absolutely loved.  But this year we had no plans to go to Hawaii before the hotel nights’ expiration date, and since Chase was no longer willing to extend the expiration date, we had to find another option.

I quickly researched the best Hyatts at which to use the award nights issued by Chase.  Sometimes there are restrictions on how you can use free nights such as these, so I wanted to make sure I knew the rules before getting excited about any specific properties.  To my surprise, I found that Hyatt all-inclusive properties are included in those you can book with the Chase free night certificates, and Hyatt has all-inclusives in Jamaica and Mexico – both of which are about mid-way between our two home bases of Ecuador and Philadelphia.

I booked four nights for us at the adults-only Hyatt Zilara in Montego Bay, Jamaica.  The Hyatt Ziva is the next door “twin hotel” that accommodates families, and we would have access to both.  I knew we wouldn’t leave the property, but didn’t feel too guilty since we’ve been to Jamaica before (and seen a couple of the sites).  I tried not to do too much research on the property since I love surprises, but I did read that this particular one had a full schedule of activities.  Since I don’t sit still for too long at one time, I was psyched.

When we arrived we were checked in right away.  We went right up to our room and were tickled to see my name on the TV on the wall!

DSC00676

My own personal welcome!

The room was spacious and gorgeous, with a desk, love seat, table and chair and bed with white linens.

It had a mini-bar in which everything was included, so we were sure to follow the advice someone had given us to take the snacks each day!

DSC00686

I’m takin’ the snacks, yo!

The bathroom had a huge tub, separate tiled shower, terry-cloth robes and lots of toiletries, including a mini scrubby thingy!

And we had a balcony with an outdoor lounge/bed, table and chair, and views of the pools and sand and ocean beyond.  We were going to like this place!

Normally, I would have wanted to jump right into a pool or the ocean, but the weather was not what we expected.  There were such strong winds that despite the temperature, it felt too chilly to go in water, even for me.  The hot tubs were barely warmer than the pools, so it wasn’t even tempting to go in them!  We were hungry though, so we had lunch at Blue Grill by Calypzo, a beachfront grill serving fresh seafood.  We sat for a while on one of the swinging chairs on the beach and just relaxed.  We had a bean bag toss, and then went inside and pretended our bathtub was the hot tub since the actual hot tub was too cold.  That night we had some of the best mozzarella sticks at FuZion, the Asian Grill!  (Go figure…)

The next day we slept in and I had an amazing jerk chicken burrito at Jamaican Rootz by Horizon.

I walked along all of the beaches scoping out a few good spots for Elliott to do yoga.  While he did some yoga I tested out each swimming area on the various beaches.  None of them were great; I tried finding the deepest one, and as they got deeper, they had more seaweed.  Once Elliott finished yoga-fying, we did have fun bobbing in the water, ducking under the waves and throwing seaweed at one another.

That evening we went back to the gym and did a new workout.  Dinner at the Italian restaurant Di Roza that night was actually our least favorite meal.  The caprese salad and bruschetta were both very good, and the pesto gnocci was so delicious I was tempted to order more.  But they forgot to make the pizza I had ordered, and it wasn’t finished until Elliott was just about finished with his parmesan crusted tenderloin.  Once the pizza arrived, I didn’t even enjoy it – the bleu cheese (or goat, or gorgonzola) totally overpowered the other cheeses, to the point where I didn’t like the taste at all!

On Day 3 we sat by the Ziva pool.

I did the 11am Aqua Gym but I did it outside of the pool because the water felt too cold to go in!  I worked up a sweat though so when the class was more-or-less finished I did dip in the pool quickly.  At 12pm we took the Reggae class together.  Elliott found a few moves he liked and said he wants to incorporate them into his future dance moves.  After lunch at Choicez, we went back to the beach we had sat on for a long time yesterday.  After relaxing we went for a beach walk and played bean bags again.   I went swimming in the ocean again and Elliott joined me for a few minutes.

When we got back to our room, we had another welcome message – this time for Elliott:

DSC00718

We had dinner at Brazil (a Brazilian steakhouse), and headed to the gym for another workout.

On our fourth day I joined the Reggae dance class by the pool which was a lot of fun and Elliott joined me part way through.  We had lunch inside our hotel at Urban Heat by Flavorz.  We finally got to sit on these cool “pretzel stick” chairs (sorry, no photo!).  I tried a new drink – Planter’s Punch – which I liked a lot.  It tasted great and was extremely visually appealing, with the drink color changing ever so slightly from top to bottom.  It looked like a red-orange sunset!  For lunch I had a beet salad and a salmon dish – both were absolutely delicious.

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Afterwards I went swimming in the Zilara pool for the first time!  I first swam in the lower pool, then went exploring the upper pool and the long narrow parts that go along the first floor junior suites with lounge chairs in the pool.  Later we went to the gym together and did another kick-butt workout – you’ve got to burn off all those included food and drink calories somehow!

We went to Choicez for dinner.  It was Moroccan Food which Elliott really likes and the live entertainment show was going on outside, so we asked to sit outside so we could listen and half-watch.  There was a great steel drum band playing on the stage.  The drummers were also dancing at times which was impressive, and at the end, they came out one at a time and did some amazing break-dancing and gymnastics-type moves.  We walked back to Zilara and found a fire pit just for us, and sat for a little while.  The fire pits at night were one of our favorite features of the resort, and sitting by them after dinner had become a nightly ritual.

On our last day we had to check out early so I set an alarm for 6:10am!  I was determined to have some pool time and enjoy our last morning before leaving.  I got us packed and headed out at 7:30 and claimed us some awesome chairs right next to the pool.  It was the nicest day since we had arrived!  We both went to the yoga class on the boardwalk leading to the gazebo.  I was impressed – there were a bunch of people, the instructor had us do some tough poses, and the class lasted an hour long.  I was happy!

DSC00721

A great spot for a yoga class.

Afterwards we ate breakfast just across the way at the Blue Grill by Calypso – it was fitting as our first meal had been there too.  After breakfast we went back to the pool and we went swimming one last time.  Then we sat at the pool bar and ordered our last drinks – a Dark & Stormy for him, and a Bob Marley for me.  It was so much fun, finally sitting on those in-the-pool bar stools and enjoying drinks in the sun!  I went for one last swim under all the waterfalls as I said goodbye to the Hyatt Zilara.

DSC00724

Love the waterfalls.

We packed the rest of our things and went downstairs for the free shuttle, hoping one day we can return again!

2017 Disney in Pictures

After volunteering for four days during the Disney Marathon Weekend this January, we switched hotels and then spent several days in the parks.  As always, we had a blast!

We stayed in a Disney hotel that was new for us – Disney’s Art of Animation.

As you can see, we stayed in the Little Mermaid Building.

At Animal Kingdom, we…

went on a safari…

found a lizard that could stick to walls…

listened to some interesting musicians (you can listen too if you like to the sitar and the harp)…

and found some Hidden Mickeys!

63 Hidden MIckey

See the Mickey to the left of the book?

At Epcot, we…

floated through the Disney greenhouses…

watched our favorite Chinese acrobats…

and searched for our own legacy.

 

In the Magic Kingdom, we…

spun on the teacups until Elliott could no longer see straight…

raced like Andre Andretti…

rode some horses around and around in a circle…94a Carousing on the caourse-el cr

and flew through space in our favorite Astro Orbiter.

 

And at Disney Studios we…

ate at a new old café…

and feared for our lives as we were surrounded by storm troopers!

119 The whole gang cr

We sure were exhausted by the end of that week!87 Main Street USA

A New Way to See Disney

In 2006 and 2007, we participated in the Disney Marathon and raised over $25,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in honor of (and then in memory of) my mom, Sharon.   Over the years we went on to do several other endurance events to raise money for that and other charities, but the Disney Marathon was definitely our favorite of all the events for several reasons.  First of all, it’s Disney!  Our love of the place is probably quite apparent given that we visit every year.  Even if you don’t inherently love Disney, you have to admit that Disney knows how to run and operate things smoothly; that was certainly the case with their Marathon Weekend.  In addition, you get to run through the Disney theme parks during your event, and they entertain you like crazy!  You even get great snacks at the rest stops.  We always describe it as a 26.2 mile long party.

Now ten years later in 2017, we decided to approach the marathon from a different angle – this time we would not be the runners but the volunteers making sure the event runs smoothly!  Not only does it feel great to volunteer for such a wonderful charity as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society; Disney goes out of their way to compensate volunteers who work at their events with points and/or vouchers towards free days at Disney.  This seemed like a no-brainer and a win-win.

Disney Marathon Weekend consists of four different events that run over four days – a 5k, 10k, half marathon and full marathon.  Luckily I called ahead to ask a few questions about the registration process, including how long it would take for the positions to fill up.  I asked if they might be filled up five hours after registration began, and was told they would all fill up within 15 minutes of when it began!  Whoa – I was not expecting that.  I prepared myself with multiple browsers since I had to sign both Elliott and myself up and he was out guiding a tour of the local market.  I managed to get ourselves registered for volunteer positions for all four events, which was a feat in and of itself.  (If you are ever interested in trying to get volunteer positions for these events, definitely talk to me for some tips!)

We decided to stay at Disney for ten days – five days for volunteering, and five days to use some old existing park 5-day park tickets.  We arrived on a Wednesday afternoon and had to go straight to the enormous Expo center to pick up our registration packets.  After the Expo we took Disney buses to Downtown Disney and walked a mile to a local grocery store we know of so that we did not have to pay exorbitant prices for every morsel of food we were going to consume over the next four days.  Then it was back to our hotel and to bed at 9pm(!) so we could get some sleep before our first volunteer shift.  We were spending the first five nights in the Disney Swan, which we deemed within walking distance of the volunteer locations and saved us from having to rent a car.

01 The Swan

The Walt Disney World Swan.

20 Disney Swan

Up-close view.

01a Seven swans a-swimming

Swans in a fountain.

The most difficult aspect of our four volunteer shifts may very well have been the timing.  Endurance races begin very early in the morning, sometimes as early as 6am.  And when there are 10,000+ people running in an event, it takes a long time to get them all organized in their corrals… which means they need to arrive as early as 3 or 4am.  And of course the volunteers need to be there *before* the runners, which put our shift start time at 3am!  Add an hour long walk for us to get there, and that meant we were rising for our day at 1:30am.

The hotel lobby was empty when we left each morning!

Having volunteered for other types of events in the past, we weren’t sure how much work would actually be involved; sometimes there is a lot of standing around when you volunteer.  But Disney definitely had our work cut out for us.  For the 5 and 10k races we would be hanging medals around the runners’ necks, which was actually quite fun.  But before the race began, that meant we needed to cut open endless boxes of medals, unpack the medals and take the plastic off of each one, then hang the medals in an organized fashion on endless pegs on wooden racks.

It may sound trivial, but the medals are quite heavy, and the runners cross the finish line in large numbers for hours and hours.  During the race some volunteers spend their time transferring twenty or so medals at a time from the pegs to the arms of other volunteers, and then those volunteers have to work really quickly to unload one medal at a time off their arm and onto a runner’s neck.  If the medals aren’t organized well on the pegs, they won’t be organized when they are placed on your arm, and when you try to get them off to place on the runner’s neck, you will just have a tangled mess.  Needless to say, our arms and shoulders got quite the workout during each shift!

Awarding medals was quite gratifying.  People were so proud when they crossed the finish line, and the smiles on their faces as we placed the medals over their heads were super rewarding in themselves.  Often the runners wanted us to be in their selfies with them; sometimes they even wanted to give us a hug!  (We managed to hide our looks of astonishment when the hugs were super sweaty.)  And many of the runners made a point to thank us for our time and efforts despite their weariness.

The 10k shift was similar to the 5k shift, starting super early in the morning but lasting a little longer due to the increased distance.  On our third day we were shocked when the half marathon was canceled due to impending rain and thunder and lightning storms.  It was the first time in Disney Marathon Weekend history that a race had ever been canceled!  The runners were promised their medals (and volunteers their compensation) despite the cancellation, so we figured we’d just enjoy our day off at our hotel.

But when we walked outside, we noticed many people running with their numbers pinned to their shirts as they would in the race.  We thought about it and quickly decided if people were running, we should be volunteering.  We went inside and grabbed what we needed to deal with the rain, then walked back and forth and up and down and around the “race course” the runners were following, and cheered on every runner and walker we passed.  After cheering for several hours, our voices were hoarse, our legs were tired from the amount of walking we had done, and the runners were thinning out.  Hundreds if not thousands of people had completed their own half marathon and earned their medals.  It was a truly great day.

 

During the rest of that afternoon, and during the other afternoons, we did have some free time to enjoy our hotel grounds and amenities.  We’d often be back from our shift by noon, sleep for a few hours, and then go play.  There were pools, ping pong, hammocks and other activities.  We loved it!

On the last day we got to “sleep in” until 6am, as we were handing out a different type of medal.  There are actually six medals you can earn during Disney Marathon Weekend; the 5k, 10k, half marathon, full marathon, Goofy (if you completed the half and full), and the Dopey (if you completed all four races).  We were handing out the Goofy and Dopey medals, which runners have to pick up after receiving their full marathon medals at the end of the race.  We were putting medals on the necks of people who had walked or run a minimum of 39.3 miles over the prior four days!  It was the elite of the elite.

Regardless of time or number of events, we were super proud of every single person who crossed a finish line during those four days.  We know the time, sweat and effort that goes into training for one of these races, especially for those that are also fundraising.  Volunteering was a rewarding experience which we absolutely hope to repeat next year!

The Perfect Cruise

Almost 18 months prior, I had booked an exciting 16-night Royal Caribbean cruise from Venice to Dubai via the Suez Canal.  At $22pp/night plus taxes, who could resist?  But as the departure time grew close, we realized the cruise itself was the only thing that was going to be a good deal.  The one-way airfares were going to cost a fortune – even with my travel miles and expertise!  We had a heart-to-heart and came to the conclusion that after all of travel we had done in 2016, our primary goal in December was simply some major relaxation.

And so it came to pass that we found ourselves on a 12-night Royal Caribbean cruise on the Grandeur of the Seas, round-trip, out of Baltimore.  Maybe not quite as exciting as the original plan, but it fit the budget, didn’t require airfare, and had plenty of R-E-L-A-X-A-T-I-O-N written all over it.  Elliott was thrilled that he could pack a million pairs of cufflinks and shoes, throw all of the luggage in the car, and not have to worry about airline baggage restrictions.

01 car full of luggage

Leaving Philly with all of Elliott’s shoes, cufflinks, and dress shirts.

We really didn’t have any expectations; we simply relished the idea of warm weather, calm blue seas, and not having to cook for a while.  We started out with three days at sea, as we left the cold North and headed down to the Caribbean.

 

It only took about a day and a half to get to the warm weather, which really surprised and pleased us!  I was out swimming in the pool before I knew it.

01a Relaxing in the pool

It’s my favorite place to be.

That wasn’t the only surprise, however; the entire cruise turned out to be one, big, happy surprise.  In those first three sea days, we went to Ballroom and Latin dance lessons, and found there were many more dancers onboard than we are used to.  What a treat!  We got to know many of the other dancers, and traded moves and inspiration night after night.  In addition, the onboard dance instructor loved dance so much, she offered free private lessons to anyone who wanted them.  What?!!  Unheard of!  We took her up on her offer more than once and added a few new beautiful moves to our Waltz and Foxtrot.

I had sadly assumed that since we were on a cruise, any holiday spirit would be totally forgotten for 12 days; it was, after all, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas!  I was wrong and couldn’t have been more pleased.  In the beginning of the cruise, there wasn’t much to remind us of the holidays other than the decorations a few passengers had hung on their cabin doors (which were really cute).  As the days passed, we’d hear a Christmas song here and there, then a Christmas tree was put up in the atrium… then at the end of the cruise some of the crew wore Santa hats!  We found it was the perfect amount of holiday spirit without being in-your-face or overwhelming.

 

There were a lot of fun activities onboard.  One night I joined in the fun for a rendition of an old favorite, Family Feud.  My team was terrible, but somehow made a comeback in the last minute (perhaps due to the fact that the last question was worth 3x the points?!).

 

Another night, we celebrated the ship’s 20th birthday with a big celebration and ship-shaped cake in the atrium.

 

Watch the balloons fall!

The itinerary was a fabulous one, and at the same time, an itinerary about which we felt very relaxed.  We had been to all of the ports before, so we didn’t feel pressured to do a lot on each one.  On our first port of St. Thomas, we walked around a bit and went shopping.  For those of you who don’t know, St. Thomas has many jewelry bargains; and it’s one place where I feel very lucky to have a husband who likes to shop!

04 More jewels from St. Thomas

Happy with my St. Thomas souvenir.

On Dominica, we didn’t even get off the ship, preferring to have a relaxing day of our own “at sea” and having the ship mostly to ourselves.  We did see a gorgeous rainbow from our ship:)

08 Rainbow over Dominica

Rainbow over Dominica.

In Bridgetown, Barbados, to the shock of the locals we walked a whole half hour to a local beach.  We spent a blissful afternoon relaxing under a poisonous(!) tree and swimming.

 

In Castries, St. Lucia, we got off the ship and walked around the town for a few minutes.  We didn’t feel the need to do much more, as we honeymooned there, and had a 10th anniversary trip there a few years ago.  Plus, we were on the wrong end of the island, in our opinion!

 

The most fun and adventure we had on land came the next day, on Saint Martin.  We made our way by local transportation (always fun) to Maho Beach, which is next to the Princess Juliana International Airport.  Maho Beach is directly under the flight path of the planes, so you can stand under them as they come in for a landing.  Pretty cool!

 

See a plane come in for landing yourself!

It is so close to the runway that you can stand on it and feel the jet blast of the planes taking off.  Should you though?  Well, I guess each person has to make that determination for him/herself…

 

Elliott was smart like most of the people standing there and ran to the side when the blast got to strong; unfortunately I simply tried to run away from the blast, going further onto the beach and into the ocean.  Warning: don’t do what I did!  Not only did the bare skin on my back get totally sandblasted, every time I popped up out of the water to see if it was over yet, more sand got pelted into my head and hair.  Not a fun experience!

60 Sandblast

Run, Forrest, run!

Sandblasting and all, we had a fabulous time on this cruise.  So much so, that we did something we’ve never done before; we booked the same exact cruise for 2017, while still on the 2016 sailing!  I’m not saying it would be perfect for everyone, but this appeared to be the perfect cruise for us.  And we’re really looking forward to this year’s version:)