Sunday, December 2, 2012

Las Vegas is a Safe Bet Any Time of Year

I'm not going to write about the Las Vegas you probably already know--the gambling and drinking and partying.  Mostly because I don't do those things.  I am going to write about my kind of Vegas--one that is indeed an adult's play land, full of wonder and excitement and beauty.

There are more shows and restaurants and shopping than any other location on Earth. (That isn't actually a researched fact but I'm sure I'm right.)  Any thing that a human being would want to do can be found in or near there: outside adventure (racing in the desert at Desert Race car Adventure); natural beauty (the Grand Canyon at Grand Canyon National Park); man's greatest achievements (Hoosier Dam); man's greatest follies (Mob Museum); art; food--I could go on and on.  Las Vegas has it all for any adult on the list.  There are only two types of people who would not enjoy this vacation--non walkers and children.  To truly experience everything, a stout pair of walking shoes is in order.  It is nearly impossible to see and do anything in Vegas without walking a major part of your day.  Taking a taxi or the convenient public transportation (Deuce and Double Deuce) is nice but you still walk almost everywhere you want to go.  And, people, leave the kids at home.  While many of the shots of Vegas look like a kid might enjoy them with rides and carnival type atmospheres (Circus Circus Casino for example), there are hardly anything for kids to do and at nights, some really questionable characters come out. 

As far as the climate goes, there really isn't a bad time to go.  The summer might be the least fun with rising temperatures and huge crowds.  In my opinion, fall is really ideal since the pools are still open and the heat isn't quite so bad.  But,the holiday season is just jaw-dropping with no limits to Christmas and other holiday decorations.

To See: 

Of course, the casinos have to figure in any conversation about Las Vegas.  But, I didn't go there to gamble.  I actually tried it for about 10 minutes before I was bored out of my skull.  Maybe I didn't get the point but sitting and pushing the same little button and watching some numbers and pictures flash in front of my eyes at rapid pace just didn't seem entertaining.  Mind numbing, maybe.  One should really go to the casinos for the absolute pure wonder and delight that each instill throughout their unique buildings.  While you can travel from Paris (the best way to see the Bellagio Fountain Show is from the top of the Eiffel Tower at Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino) to Venice (the best Italian experience is eating under the"sky" at The Venetian Las Vegas) to New York (the famous inside and outside roller coaster is at New York-New York Las Vegas Hotel and Casino) in just a few steps, these are my favorites: 
  • The Wynn is more of a museum than a casino.  The gambling tables themselves are discreetly  set back within the buildings and tourists can freely walk through the most amazing shopping on the Strip.  More amazing than that, though, is the center garden area.  Located inside, this area has greenery and floral designs that have to be seen to be believed.  The decorations change fairly often but you could easily spend an afternoon just walking around looking at one amazing sight after another.  For more information, see The Wynn Las Vegas.
  • The Bellagio defines the word opulence.  Every wall and hallway and door oozes sophistication and class.  Even the chairs by the cheap slots are some of the nicest in all of Las Vegas!  My favorite part, though, would have to be the Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.  Right in the middle of the hotel, an entire room is devoted to some of the most beautiful flora and fauna I have ever seen.  While it isn't a huge area, it more than makes up for that with spectacular displays that change with each season.  This area is typically packed with tourists and even waiting to get into the area is amazing because the lobby ceiling is also an art piece.  The chandelier is by artist Dale Chihuly and many of his pieces are scattered throughout the hotel.  The Bellagio also has the nicest swimming pool and although it is exclusively for guests, it is worth looking at.  Of course, what trip to Las Vegas would be complete without the spectacular Fountain show.  For true Vegas style, time your visit to Elvis's "Viva Las Vegas" or visit during one of the classical numbers for a show that is breath-taking and where the water seems to literally dance right before your eyes.   For more information, see Bellagio Las Vegas.
  • The Luxor is one of the farthest on the Strip but is worth the trek.  Just stepping foot into the immense lobby gives one the idea of what those Egyptian pyramids must have been like.  The inside is large enough to host a village but the real treat is the elevators.  Since the rooms are built on the inside of the pyramid, the floors are slanted.....which makes the elevators go sideways.  Truly a unique and unsettling experience.  While you're there, try out T&T (Tacos and Tequila).  They have dozens of tequilas--unique and pricey and their Blue Agave Margarita is the finest I have ever drunk.  For more information, visit Luxor Las Vegas.
To Do:

I am not going to suggest the top attractions of Vegas.  Anyone acquainted with the Internet can surely research those.  Instead, I am going to suggest a couple of out-of-the-way ideas that a one-time visitor might skip.  And, while it is impossible to do it all, put at least one of these ideas on your to-do list. 

  • The Auto Collection at the Quad Resort and Casino (formerly Imperial Palace) is showcased as "The World's Largest Classic Car Showroom" and it is truly spectacular. While I am not a gear head by any stretch of the imagination, wandering around looking at these beauties was a great time.  Some of the cars are valued at $1 million and there are many shoppers walking around looking to buy!  The 250 cars are valued at over $100 million and a new audio feature gives in depth information about each car. What is even more surprising is that the whole thing is free.  If you need to take a few minutes out of your busy day, stop by here.  I guarantee you'll see things here you won't see anywhere else in your lifetime.  For more information, visit The Quad.
  • You might think zip lines belong in the forests or woods but Zip lining Fremont Street is a must-do experience!  Fremont Street could be suitably named 'Freak Street' because this is where the most colorful people in Vegas hang out--with snakes, and chains, and piercings and anything else your imagination could think of.  Seeing all that from above is just too incredible.  Climbing five stories and then shooting down the street would be amazing on its own but what truly sets it apart is not what is under your feet but what is over your head--Viva Vision!  Viva Vision is like a music video on rocket overload.  Hundreds of feet long, the screen lights up with video and music feeds from classic rock (like Kiss) to more recent rock (like Bon Jovi).  Plus, the older, vintage signs have been installed so it is also like a neon museum of the Strip in its glory days.  It is truly an experience that only Vegas could bring.  For more information, visit, Fremont Street Experience.
  • Who would go all the way to Las Vegas just to waste one day at the pool?  If you're smart, that answer should be you!  The pools at Vegas aren't like your local YMCA variety.  They are more like oases, full of music, incredible food and drink and the best money and DJ's to rival any nightclub in Vegas.  The servers are really showgirls in skimpier outfits and each pool is meant to relax visitors.  Honestly, a day spent at a Vegas pool feels like relaxing in some faraway tropical location.  My favorite was at the Flamingo, one of the oldest on the Strip because it also includes a small zoo/aviary and the final resting place of Bugsy Malone.  For more information, visit Flamingo Las Vegas.
To Eat:

If you were to live in Las Vegas, you could literally eat at a different restaurant every single night and still have plenty of restaurants to choose from.  I am going to avoid obvious chain restaurants since you could indulge in that in practically any city and also avoid choices that are too expensive.  It would be possible to go broke during a single dinner in Vegas and since I am a modest schoolteacher, none of those options were available to me.  Here, instead, are my top three choices for a culinary experience that is one of a kind:

  • For breakfast, nothing can beat Hash House A Go-Go inside The Quad.  This restaurant has been featured on Man Vs. Food, so make sure to share all entrees.  Just trust me on this one.  Their panckaes are as big as tires and you can literally add any ingredient to it you can think of.  I did blackberries and granola and it was so good!  They also have a Snickers pancake that is pretty much sinful.  My favorite is the Waffles and Chicken.  Who in the world thought of this lovely concoction and why have I wasted my life eating other things?  It is literally as tall as a toddler and I am ashamed to say we ate almost every bite.  You will be full the entire day but it's worth it.  For more information, visit Hash House A Go-Go:  Twisted Farm Food.
  • For lunch, you can't find a more delectable menu than Chocolate By the Bald Man at Caesar's.    Honestly, any restaurant that has MAPLE SYRUP as a SIDE DISH should go to the top of any one's list.  A huge copper vat sits right inside the store, beckoning to all who enter with the smells of liquid chocolate.  Hints of spices of cinnamon and other exotic smells practically swallow the patron and no seat is a bad one.   The menu is pure decadence.  But, hey, this is Vegas, right?  For more information, visit Chocolate By the Bald Man:  Max Brenner.
  • For dinner, there is no view more spectacular than the VooDoo Steak and Rooftop Nightclub atop the Rio Casino.  Located a couple of blocks off the Strip, it is definitely worth the trip over.  The restaurant is on the 50th floor of the hotel and offers a romantic view that has to be the best in the city.  You can see up and down the Strip with views of every hotel and the busy lives far below.  The food is amazing and lives up to the height.  When you finish, go up one floor to the 51st nightclub.  This outdoor establishment has clear glass walls and it feels as if you are floating over the city.  An amazing experience.  For more information, visit Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Waterpark Capitol of the World

Water, Water Everywhere and Fun at Every Turn

When you think of Wisconsin, you might automatically think 'Cheesehead' or beer.  If you're more refined, perhaps you picture the winged Milwaukee Art Museum.  If you're a little less refined than that, it's that place where they did American Idol a couple of seasons ago.  But, Wisconsin has so much more to offer than cheese, beer, cow and art.  Although, to be fair, they do those things to the ultimate degree. 

Another well-known tourist destination is Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin.  Just short drive away from the Windy City, Wisconsin is a 3 and 1/2 hour drive (a little over 190 miles from Chicago).  Many people, when asked, might fondly remember a Wisconsin Dells of their youth, with outdoor water parks and a picturesque downtown.  You don't have to squint too hard to see that 1950's version but the 'new' Wisconsin Dells will surely blow you away.

The Dells has something for every age and every season, from the high to the low brow, from those who like quiet country drives to those who zip through the trees hanging by a thread.  Summer weather finds amusement and water parks, literally the largest in the United States.  Fall and spring are astounding for the foliage and boat trips to see the majestic and unique 'Dells'.  (Fun Fact:  The 'Dells' is actually a striated rock formation that is only found in three other places on earth, one of which is underwater and another in a foreign country)  Winter won't leave you bored since many of the water parks are indoors and it is also home to many indoor amusement parks, one of which has a three-story ropes course which was amazing even for someone deathly afraid of heights!  It's full of fun, eats, water and culture from one end of the county to the next.

To Do:

  • You may have heard of the 'Ducks' before--the partly amphibious, partly terrain open-air vehicles that are major tourist attractions all over the US.  Well, that tradition started right here in Wisconsin Dells.  The Original Wisconsin Ducks are actually WWII-era vehicles that still patrol the quiet woods and deep waters of the Wisconsin River, Dell Creek and Lake Delton.  This trip will take you over eight miles of both land and water that have to be seen to be believed.  Quiet woods and out of the way lake spots led us to view our very first sighting of a bald eagle, once endangered, calmly drinking water by the lake, standing nearly as tall as a human!  Wildlife abounds and the foliage during the fall was breathtaking.  The tour guide was full of history and was so funny that both teenage daughters laughed out loud in spite of themselves!  For more information, visit The Original Wisconsin Duck Tours.
  • If thrill and adventure are your thing, you must visit Kalahari Indoor Theme Park.  To me, this seemed as if it must be the largest in the world, although they didn't advertise that.  They have over 100,000 feet of space devoted to fun both in the water and out, all for families and the young at heart.  The water park is amazing with a lazy river that feels as long as the Congo.  The water slides are breathtaking (literally) with spots for babies and toddlers, a wave pool, various water slides and a toilet-flush bowl that had me laughing out loud, spurting up water and holding on to my top.  Of course, the next day, my body rudely reminded me I wasn't quite as young as I thought!  Still, wow!  What fun.  When you get dried off, there's another world awaiting you with an indoor Ferris wheel, a race track, a three-story ropes course, climbing walls and laser tag--all under one roof!  Not to mention the 24 lanes of bowling, movie theater and gourmet food spots.  You could literally spend an entire day here with the family and not be able to do everything.  Amazing fun for any age!  For more information, visit Kalahari Resorts and Conventions.
  • I do not consider myself an amateur at ziplining.  I have been before and to pretty extreme places--Fremont Street on Halloween Night at Las Vegas; Branson Missouri and the tallest zipline in America at Christmas with twinkling lights guiding me on the way down. But, I must say, this zipline was.....simply the best I've ever done!  The Wilderness Canyon Zip Line Tour is not so much a zipline as a zipline adventure.  The course winds through the trees and over a gully or two (canyon seems extreme when you've seen the Grand Canyon from the air).  In reality, the trip is 5 ziplines to 6 platform towers that meander through a forest way, way, way up high.  I hate heights but hurtling through space and the colorful leaves during Autumn was an experience I will never forget.  And, I will also never forget having to be rescued by the guide because I couldn't quite make it to the platform.  The guides were amazing and funny and so very competent that they made us all feel like the professionals.  For more information, visit Wilderness Territory.
  • After all that adventure, mom and and dad needed a little time to themselves to relax and unwind.  Fall Creek Winery provided just the rest and fun we needed.  We always try to visit a local winery on our trips and so we have seen and tasted dozens.  But, this one was truly unique!  Their winery is located a few miles out of town and the drive, in the fall, was gorgeous.  They were just getting ready for the fall and putting up scads of pumpkins and gourds.  I suspect they go out for every holiday and the grounds were just gorgeous.  The inside was also a delight with a full tasting bar, tables to enjoy some artisan cheese, an outside deck that features bands and even a shopping area.  What made the winery so unique was their wine blends.  I've never seen this before but I am a fan now.  They take dry wines and mix them with different flavors to create a brand new seasonal or fruit wine that is truly unlike anything I've tasted.  I avoid most fruit wines because they are too tart but these were heady and full of aroma and tasted so wonderful.  A full case made the long trip back home and will be enjoyed in short order!  For more information, visit Fawn Creek Winery.
To Eat:
  • New Orleans seems a world away from the cold, frozen North. And, yet.......Taste of New Orleans brought all those memories from the deep South back!  This charming restaurant is located on a quaint downtown street that has probably looked the same for decades--and I mean that in the most flattering way.  Inside, the decor is so cheesy, so quaint, so absolutely adorable that my girls and I had great fun taking pictures everywhere we could--A Bourbon Street sign with beads in Wisconsin!  Who woulda thought?  And, the food!  Oh, my!  We had Gator Bites and Cajun Swamp Balls and they just tasted New Orleans though and through.  And, the Shrimp Po Boy was so very, very Po (that's a compliment!) Everything was so delicious. The only, slightest disappointment was the beignets, but, really, what were we thinking?  That kind of pleasure can only be found in the French Quarter.  For more information, visit A Taste of New Orleans.
  • Any restaurant that has a moose straddling a VW bug is a friend of mine--what a mascot!  The inside of this restaurant, Moosejaw Pizza & Dells Brewing Co., is true North, true Wisconsin, true Canadian!  At least, that's what calls to mind when you step inside and see wooden beams and tables and soaring wooden balustrades and a roaring fireplace easily two stories tall.  If the cozy atmosphere doesn't get you, the food will.  The Mozzarella Sticks are literally true sticks--as thick as a branch you would find on a tree. Deep-fried and served with warm Bruschetta, it is more mouthwatering than any words can describe.  And, the pizza!  Ahh, the pizza.  It isn't one of those cardboard chain stores.  This pizza is made to order with any variety of toppings you desire and so thin (if you want), it snaps when you bite into it.  My favorite kind.  They also have an onsite microbrewery and for a very reasonable fee, you can indulge in your brews.  Tastings and dozens of beers and a generous growler made for one very happy poppa. For more information, visit Moosejaw Pizza & Dells Brewing Co.
  • What is beer without brats?  Okay, so I'm not big into beer but brats is a whole 'nother thing and Brat House Grill had those in abundance.  This place is more like a bar and probably not something you want to bring small kids to, but the brats and dogs are so good.  The Chicago Style Dog was dripping with toppings--onions, peppers, relish and tomatoes and the Parmesan Fries were so good.  Watching a wall-size TV made for a very laid-back, fun night.  For more information, visit Brat House Grill.
  • All the pizza and hot dogs and beer had to be balanced with a nice, fancy meal and we weren't disappointed by Sarento's.  A true Italian feel met you at the door and followed you all the way to your table.  This was no poser!  An authentic Italian meal awaited us and we waddled to the car on our way home rather than walked.  The insalate was so delicious--finger licking good, although I refrained because this was a fancy place but I wanted to!  A unique and truly amazing dish, dare I say award-winning if there were such awards for this, was the Chicken Sarento, a dish of grilled chicken, arugula, basil, tomatoes, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  It is almost worth my 8+ hour drive just to go back and get this dish.  For more information, visit Sarento's Restaurant and Pizzeria.
  • What week would be complete without Mexican and Margaritas?  Not mine, certainly!  The Mexicali Rose is located just on the Lower Dells and has a most awesome view.  The entire back wall is glass and almost every table sits in front of the windows.  In addition to the scenery, the food was quite good and while the margaritas didn't match the local ones from home, they did the the trick.  The food was absolutely authentic and the Carnitas and Salsa and Guacamole hit the spot.  For more information, visit Mexicali Rose.
  • For a conclusion to our tour of the world in Wisconsin Dells, we decided to do Carribbean at Marley's.  I am so glad we did.  What a fun time!  When we entered, a Zumba class was just warming up on the dance floor and we were able to enjoy some great music and a some laughs at locals being silly (I hope!).  Everyone in the place seemed intent on having a great time.  Even the table wait was fun--the table covering was a big piece of butcher paper with crayons and we played tic-tac-toe and had drawing competitions until our food arrived.  That, also, did not disappoint.  Our appetizer was so good, a nibbles sampler that was served in a bucket.  So cute. The fish tacos were wonderful and any Caribbean would be proud to know their food was being represented well.  For more information, visit Marley's:  A Taste of the Caribbean.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Fairs, Festivals and Fetes

Spring, Summer, Fall and even Winter--no season is without a festival of some kind.  I admit to being something of a festival fan.  I love  aimlessly wandering from tent to tent, sampling homemade wares, buying local artisan jewelry and celebrating what is unique and beautiful about local towns.  No Walmart clearnance sales or Super Bowl for me--just fill up a tank of gas on a Saturday morning and hit the road for a day of fun and surprises.

Spring Festivals

  • In Kentucky, Spring really begins with The Kentucky Derby Festival.  Since the Derby is held the first full weekend in May, the festival is always the two weeks prior to that.  You don't have to be from Kentucky to love this festival.  There is something to do for everyone--a full 'chuckwagon' of every food and vendor imaginable; free concerts and contests; a fair; a marathon; and I couldn't forget about Thunder over Louisville, now the largest fireworks show in the nation.  But, that's nothing compared to the Air Show that gathers fans from the youngest to the oldest to witness arial feats that can't be described without using words like 'loop-de-loop's and 'so fast' and 'too amazing'.  My own personal favorite event though is the Great Steamboat Race.  Seeing the Louisville Belle chug down the river racing another grand old riverboat lady takes me back to a yesteryear I can only imagine.  For more information, visit Kentucky Derby Festival
  • Where else can you see the largest pumpkin/tomato in the state?  Where else can you eat a friend Twinkie?  Where else can you pet indigenous snakes and ride a tractor, all while nibbling on ice cream?  Only at the Indiana State Fair.  I've only been to a couple of state fairs, but this one is my favorite.  It has the feel of a local town fair with all the offerings of a huge state affair.  Rides on the side and rides on the track--fun from sun up to sun down.  Local artists and huge stars--this fair has it all.  If you've never been to a state fair before and think they only have farming to offer, think again.  I'm no farm girl and I had a blast.  If you are a farm girl, this is no contest--fun for every gender, every age.  For more information, visit Indiana State Fair
Summer Fairs and Festivals

  • Wine, Art and Jazz Festival in Evansville, Indiana is one of my favorite festivals of all and I am proud to say I am making it a tradition!  What could be better, more thirst-quenching on a hot summer day, than a cold glass of wine?  How about several cold glasses of wine!  One ticket to this festival will get you a glass that you can have refilled all day long with over fifteen (and counting) local wineries in attendance.  Sample the wines and local foodstuffs and then meander over to a shaded tent and listen to local jazz musicians play until the wee hours of the night--if you can last that long!  Local artisans are in attendance as well and their tents are set up along a breath-taking walk by the Ohio River.  If you're new to wine, be sure to take in one of the free classes that will teach you everything you might want to know.  For more information, visit Wine, Art and Jazz Festival

Fall Festivals

  • There are more fall festivals than during any other time of the year.  Pumpkins and gourds and mums fill every farm on little backroads and even in big cities.  But, the best festivals of all don't focus on the autumn harvest.  The Bourbon Festival takes place in Bardstown, Kentucky, the bourbon capital of the world.  Over 90% of the world's bourbon is produced here and this little historic town becomes center stage in the state during September each year.  From events that feature music to a food area featuring foods dipped in, fried in and oozing bourbon, this festival caters to all.  Black tie galas and historic tours of the town; car shows; artists' tents; bluegrass music--if Kentucky offers it, it can be found during the 6 days of this festival.  The only thing you won't find is.....bourbon!  The tastings can only be done at local restaurants so this is a great festival for the family and one that doesn't celebrate alcohol so much as Kentucky tradition.  For more information, visit Kentucky Bourbon Festival
Winter Festivals

  • Think winter is for hiding out at home, wrapped in a Snuggy, reading by the fire?  Think again!  The Winter Wine Walk in Corydon, Indiana will have you rethinking your December Saturdays.  This event has over 15 wineries set up in local shops in the charming historic town.  So, in addition to free wine tasting, you also get to get a jump start on that Christmas shopping.  For more information, check out Winter Wine Walk
There is no way to feature every festival, fair and fete in the area, but if you have one you'd like me to check out.....leave a comment.  I'm always up for a new experience and would love to feature local towns and talent here.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Paradise is Closer Than You Think

Cabo San Lucas, Los Cabos, Mexico

When we first stepped on the plane for the trip over, I settled in for a nice long ride.  Just four short hours later, we were at our destination and I was in shock!  Traveling to Cabo, Mexico, was a faster trip than one to Las Vegas, Nevada with none of the usual time hangover.  Although we did have to switch planes once in Houston, jumping over the Sea of Cortez made this trip faster than I could have imagined.  Who knew paradise was so close to my own backdoor?

And, a paradise it was!  I had been expecting a lush, green tropical oasis but the stark beauty of the Baja Desert called to me with a song of its own.  Miles upon miles of dry and scrubby cactus were astounding and the heat washed over us like a warm hug--not the squelching humidity of other Mexican hot spots.  The town of Cabo had a wonderful small town feel to it with meandering streets full of local flavors and ware; the food was authentic and incredible; the people, the most hospitable  I've ever met.  In truth, I can think of nothing that distracted from pure perfection.

This is one of those locales that has you questioning the purpose of your life.  Makes you wonder if your job is really that important.  Makes you think that weekend visits with family could easily be turned into yearly skips back home.  Still, months after returning home, Cabo San Lucas calls to me like a siren, inviting me back.

Some places not to be missed:

To Do:
  • Sunset Jazz and Wine Cruise on Tropicat Caramaran.  There are literally dozens of choices to take any willing rider out to see the famous Lover's Beach and Arch--pirate boat, sailboat, fishing boat, Sea Doo, etc.  We elected to go on the Tropicat at sunset, a huge catamaran.  While many in the harbor were loading onto mammoth partyboats full of pulsing music and lights, my party and I quietly stepped on this luxurious boat with jazz playing softly in the background.  The trip out and back takes a total of about three hours and the crew is attentive to your every need, filling wineglasses or other mixed drink and keeping the gourmet snacks ready.  While the point of the trip is to see the Arch, the travel back and forth is what is truly breathtaking.  Before we even left the bay, a pod of Orca whales breached in front of us.  While the loud partyboaters were jamming off in the distance, my crew on the sailboat stood perfectly still, watching the majestic creatures play in the water just a few feet from where we stood spellbound.  If that wasn't enough of treat, the local sea lion colony had its lone ambassador at point on a rock, calling out and showing off.  It felt surreal for this Kentucky girl to have witnessed such beauty.  And, all this was before even seeing the Arch, famous the entire world over!  For $75 a couple, this experience is bucket-list worthy.  For more information, see the website Tropicat
  • Snorkeling and Mini Sub Dive.  There are many ways to see the waters in Cabo and since swimming is not allowed on the Pacific Ocean due to rough waves, you must travel by boat if you really want to experience the beauty of the surf.  Again, there are dozens of choices but a true once in a lifetime experience is going down under in a Mini-Sub.  The 30-minute independent personal submarine trip will allow you to see ocean life like never before.  Unhampered by masks and hoses, the submarine lets you come in contact with wildlife that even snorkelers can't begin to see, let alone touch.  Again, the personnel on all the attractions are there to please and the entire trip is one of endless drinks and food and fun.  For more information, see the website Oceanus Mini Subs and Cruises
  • ATV Desert and Beach Tour.  It is hard to believe that an ocean location is also the site of one of the most beautiful deserts on earth.  This is probably what is most well-known in the area:  miles upon miles of free range ATV and dune buggy tours.  And, when I say free range, you're not following some man-made trail.  You're blazing your own path.  The Rancho Carisuva, an eco-adventure company, sits near the Pacific Ocean and is an authentic Baja Californian ranch with all kinds of animals and plenty of things to ride from horses to ATV's.  Whatever your pleasure, get ready for an experience you could never even have dreamed up.  One minute you're flying over barren desert floors then you're climbing cliff edges then you're skimming along deserted beaches while the spray of the Pacific cools you off.  Of all the things I've done in my life, this was truly the most amazing.  For more information, see the website Rancho Carisuva
To Eat (or Drink)
  • Cabo Wabo.  Sammy Hagar's famous Cabo location lives up to its reputation.  Most nights see big name stars and rock bands on the main stage.  On the night we were there, the small stage out front hosted a local band that played some of the finest music I've ever heard.  Sitting under the stars, listening to great music and eating $2 tacos (a variety, all of which were delicious!  My favorite was the barbecue port and pineapple slaw.) was the perfect introduction to Cabo nightlife.  While there, try both signature house drinks--the Waborita and the Wabotini.  For more information, see the website Cabo Wabo Cantina
  • Now I can say I've been to the most romantic restaurant in the world!  There is no way even Paris, France could top this place.  The Sunset Da Mona Lisa oozes romance from every terraced balcony and chilled wine glass.  Combine that with gourmet Italian food and breathtaking views and you have it all.  Situated right on the point, the restaurant is only open at sunset and the staff does it up right.  An entire sunset ceremony takes place with gongs and everything.  While all the food looks amazing, we just had to try steaks and fresh veggies grilled on volcanic rock.  For more information, see the website Sunset Da Mona Lisa
  • If you're like my husband, you hear Mexican and you think Corona!  Well, don't be so quick to focus on that beer staple.  The Baja Brewing Company can give you something new to appreciate.  Located on the Puerto Paraiso Mall at the Marina, the beer and food is made fresh and right on the premises.  If anything can compete with the views of million dollar yachts and breathtaking waves of the Sea of Cortez, it is the menu which downplays the truly gourmet burger and pub offerings.  Sit outside and you have an entire night's worth of fun watching the eclectic mix of local musicians and travelers from around the world.  For more information, see the website at Baja Brewing Company

Sunday, August 5, 2012

NOLA-A Grand Old Dame Starting Her Second Rebirth

New Orleans-The Sinfully, Older, But Wiser, Sister to Las Vegas

My husband and I first visited New Orleans two years after Hurricane Katrina.  We wanted to spend our Bush tax dollars on the place that seemed to need it most and New Orleans needed it more than we did.  Then, it was a surreal drive--acres of wasting homes and stores and hotels.  It truly seemed almost an abandoned city or one that has survived, barely, an explosive bomb.

Today, on our last trip, the change is miraculous.  While some sites still remain vacant and lost in the past, most of the city has seen a remarkable regrowth.  Every street is full of new stores or shops about to open.  The entire city vibrates with excitement, almost as if Christmas is around the corner and NOLA is a child ready to burst loose with excitement!

For those of you who only think of New Orleans in conjunction with Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street, shame on you!  This town is a mecca for those who love history, the paranormal and anything related to fun and relaxation.  While I hear that experience NOLA during those chaotic times is a bucket list item, don't wait to visit.  Right now is the time to go--new hotels, restaurants and museums are open all over the city and are just waiting for that first explosion of tourists.  Young or old, party girl or history buff-NOLA has something for everyone.

Some places that are not to be missed:

To Do:

  • The New Orleans Streetcars  I cannot think of a finer way to shed the heat than sitting by an open trolley window, gazing upon Loyola University, stunning parks and antebellum mansions.  All this for $1.25 for a one-way ticket.  It is truly taking a step back in time.  There are three different lines that can take you all over the city and it's an easy hop on and off all day long.  You can buy a $5 ticket per day if you're a true explorer like me!  Three different routes will take you to Canal Street,  Loyola and Tulane Universities, Audubon Zoological Gardens, to the French Market and Aquarium of the Americas.  In between are miles and miles of local owned shops, stores and restaurants that must be seen and tasted and heard to be believed.  A price for the ticket will be the best $5 you will have ever spent in your life!  For more information, check out New Orleans Streetcars
  • Museums New Orleans has over 45 museums dedicated to everything from surgical instruments and Napoleon to children and art.  My favorite, by far, was the National WWII Museum.  While I admit to being a bit of a history buff, even my non-history loving husband was blown away by this museum.  We had put aside 4 hours to tour this, and found we had only gone half-through by closing time!  They had to chase us out and lock the doors.  What made this museum so fascinating was the attention to detail and narrative focus.  From the very first, I felt as if I were living during that time and experiencing it all.  It is truly the finest museum we have ever been to and I admit to losing myself for a big chunk of time in the gift shop.  In addition to the museum (which is practically brand-new but already undergoing an expansion), there is also a vintage ice-cream parlor and theatre attached that focuses on the music and dress of that era.  Incredible fun for everyone in the family.  For more information, check out The National WWII Museum
  • Ghost, Goblins and Vampires!  Oh My!  What trip to NOLA would be complete without dipping your toes into something forbidden.  And, forbidden abounds in this city, especially at night!  The tours are numerous in this city so name your poison.  You can dabble in the culinary with a chef tour, travel back in time with a walking history and garden tour and even try your hand at ghost busting with a ghost tour.  Me, I decided vampire was the way to go!  Is any city more steeped in vampire lore (besides Transylvania!) than New Orleans?  Anne Rice would certainly agree with me.  Our vampire tour guide led us through dark streets and alleys and spilled the secrets of New Orleans that an average tourist would never know.  From the oldest pirate bar in the US to serial killer houses, our vampire tour focused on the weird and absurd.  Our guide, with requisite filed teeth (at least, I THINK they were filed) took us on a two-hour tour that proved to me that New Orleans can keep the title of 'most haunted city in the US.  To schedule your own brand of sin, visit Haunted History Tours
To Eat (or Drink):

  • When In Rome,  Lafitte's Blacksmith Bar makes up in ambiance what in lacks in food.  This is purported to be the oldest continually operating bar in the United States and is a mecca for history buffs.  Any given night will find hordes of tourists and a dark corner has some amazing local music.  While the drink is nothing to rave about, one should visit just to say you've been there.  For more information, visit Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar
  • Southern Donuts All Day and Night  You simply cannot visit New Orleans and NOT try the beignets and chicory coffee.  At all hours of the day, all year long (except for Christmas and the occasional hurricane), Cafe Du Monde is doing it right since 1862--serving up mounds of fresh beignets with pounds of powdered sugar.  We went when the temperature was approaching 100 degrees at night!  But to bite into the first, incredible taste defies description.  No matter how far away, we found our way back each night.  If you do nothing else, do this.  For more information, visit Cafe Du Monde
  • Beering It Up  The Crescent city Brewhouse is the only brewery in the French Quarter.  In addition to four unique brews, the brewery also hosts a restaurant in the French Quarter that serves incredible food and drink with walls full of local art and live jazz.  The food tastes so much better than pub fare.  The Cajun meat pies have to tried and then washed down with the hottest Bloody Mary this side of Hades.  If your tongue isn't numb by then, keep right on going to the Crawfish Etouffe.  For more information, visit Crescent City Brewhouse

Monday, July 2, 2012

Venice Beach, Florida

It seems hard to believe that a one-hour drive from Orlando is such a world away from the hectic crazy Florida lifestyle.  If you're looking for the Florida of your grandparent's or parent's era, look no farther.  Venice Beach, Florida is like stepping back in time, stepping out of the rat race and stepping into pure relaxation.

Venice Beach is primarily known as a retirement location for snowbirds but should be seriously considered as your next Florida vacation.  This locale has it all:  pristine, uncrowded beaches; quaint downtown with unique shops (where else can you find an entire store devoted to just olive oil so far from Italy?); an abundance of restaurants; tourist attractions that feature history, mystery and more--and all that without long lines of cars on every street!

The beach itself is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen.  Miles of turquoise blue water and uncrowded sand all hidden behind untouched dunes.  While the water can be chilly and choppy on some days, that much is true of any beach location.  The best part was doing something I had only dreamed about as a small child:  hunting for shark's teeth!  It is one of the only locations I've ever seen where we actually found one!  Locals say the teeth aren't as plentiful as they used to be, but industrious diggers can still get lucky!

The beach is a mecca for all ages:  in the daytime families with young children build sandcastles and frolic in the sun and at night, teenagers playing cornhole and volleyball compete for space with retired groups playing guitars in old-fashioned sing-alongs drinking wine. 

Some places that aren't to be missed:

To Eat: 
  • While at the pier, make sure to check out Sharky's On the Pier.  You can eat right on the ocean front while listening to music.  Make sure to get there early as there will probably be a waiting list anytime you visit.    Trust me, it's worth the wait!  The Brie and Apple Pizza was a culinary delight and I'm still dreaming of their giant blue maragarita's--the best I've ever tasted anywhere in my travels.   Check out their website for directions and more information:  Sharky's On the Pier
  • Snook Haven Restaurant and Fish Camp has to be seen to be believed.  After a drive down a gritty gravel road, you feel like you've driven back in time.  Set right beside the Myakka river, you can enjoy authentic Gator Bites, fried okra and other seafood delights.  They also have live entertainment many days and nights and take pride in featuring local artists.  After eating, there is a riverboat cruise the whole family can enjoy.  And, if you're a movie buff, this place claims to be the site of a 1930's Tarzan movie.  After visiting, I agree that Tarzan would be right at home in this jungle!  Check out their website for directions and more information:  Snook Haven Restaurant and Fish Camp
  • What trip to Florida is complete with orange juice?  How about a place that combines fresh-squuezed juice with ice-cream?  Make sure to visit Nokomis Groves in nearby Nokomis, Florida.  This family run establishment is part-factory and store and part-ice cream parlor.  With every citrus flavor you can imagine, Nokomis is always busy so be sure to give yourself plenty of time.  And, bring a cooler.  They sell fresh-squeezed orange and grapefruit juice that will make you redefine what juice is.  Check out their website for directions and more information:Nokomis Groves
To Do:
  • Consignments Galore! Even if you don't like to yard sale or rummage shop, you must stop by one of the dozens (hundreds, it seemed!) used furniture, clothing and rummage stores.  They were on practically every corner and one even specialized in nothing but used books (be still my beating heart!).  Some deals we found:  practically new golf clubs for less than $30, brand name clothing and purses for my brand-happy teenager, silver and marble serving dish ($3-I triple checked the price!).  I could go on and on but delving through the stores was just too much fun.
  • For history and botanical lovers, check out The Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers.  This was about a two hour drive but the drive itself was worth it.  No interstate option but rather a winding sprawl that crossed into small and beautiful downtowns full of treasures as well as riding right along some breath-taking coast.  The Edison estate was home to that famous Thomas and his family and has been restored to astonishing proporations.  Not only the Edison home but also a museum and his workshop as well as the home next door of Henry Ford.  If the museum and homes don't entrance you, the grounds will.  Lush spreads of flowers and trees have to be seen to be believed.  Check out their website for directions and more information:  The Edison and Ford Winter Estates
  • Time to Play Tourist!  If you want that cheesy tourist day, check out The Shell Factory and Nature Park in nearby North Fort Myers.  The retail store has every shell you can think of plus rooms and rooms full of inexpensive gifts, mementos and collectibles.  On site, there is a huge zoo with over 350 animals; a fun park with mini golf, bumper boats and paddle boats plus a dog park.  While there, make sure to eat at Capt. Fishbones, located on site.  As much a museum as a restaurant, their fish and chips was the tastiest we had on the whole trip.Check out their website for directions and more information:  The Shell Factory and Nature Park