Avid traveler, and travel writer, Stephanie Bonilla returns to share her experiences from a recent Chicago visit. Many of our cruisers are from the Windy City, so we are delighted to share this contribution!

I finally booked my trip to Chicago after catching myself constantly looking up airfares from Miami to O’hare. It seemed I was on a subliminal mission to check the ‘windy city’ off my wanderlist. On a celestial Wednesday night, the stars aligned and I was able to find an extremely cheap flight just in time for Labor Day weekend.

Something about Chicago has always fascinated me. There’s something to say about a city whose endured so much (the Great Chicago Fire, every single winter ever) yet prevails year after year, never falling short of any “best cities to live in” list. Every Chicagoan I’ve ever talked with describes how miserable and brutal the weather can be, yet follows up his/her complaint with numerous ways the city blossoms during summer. For only three fleeting months of awesomeness, locals willfully withstand six months of snow storms and insanely cold temperatures. The only other city that comes to mind that houses such a loyal fanbase is NYC, where every winter becomes an obstacle of the spirit for its inhabitants. But why? What makes Chicago the outlier of the Midwest? I was determined to find out.

Friday

After taking the earliest flight out of Miami possible, we were checked in and ready to sight-see by noon. Chi-town is an extremely walkable city, allowing visitors to embark on their respective journeys via foot (or by purchasing a Ventra Card). We quickly made our way to Wild Berry, conveniently located on the outskirts of Millennium Park. The restaurant’s ‘Creamy Nutella’ crepe, which comes sprinkled and stuffed with chocolate drizzled banana goodness, is one of the many delectable dishes diners can choose from. Fall where you will on the brunch debate, this place won’t disappoint. We used our sugar buzz to take on Millennium Park, making it in and out of the park in about an hour and checking out its impressive amphitheatre and infamous Cloud Gate sculpture along the way. It seemed like everyone was out enjoying the summer’s heat, with herds of joggers and cyclists invading the park’s grounds. I started to see why Chicago’s residents are so bewitched by their city.

After wandering around the park’s surrounding area, we hopped on a train and headed to Goose Island Brewing Co., the masterminds behind one of my all-time favorite beers, 312. Although we didn’t make it to the walking tour, we sat in the brewery’s tap room for quite some time. Pint after pint, our buds were awakened with a mix of tasty ales. Already in the beer spirit, we took a train to Rock Bottom Brewery, a brewpub designed with beer enthusiasts in mind. Every craft-beer served at this pub is truly a labor of love. After trying a couple of brewskies and wallowing in the pub’s pungent hoppy aroma, we somehow stumbled back to our hotel to change in preparation for our evening plans. Volare was what was for dinner and marked the perfect ending to our eventful day. This gem should be on every restaurant list published about Chicago.  In fact, any lists printed prior to the opening of this restaurant should be required to be republished. If you like authentic Italian cuisine intertwined with a romantic ambiance, make sure you add this to your itinerary. Reservations are a must, unless you’re cool with waiting an hour or two for a table.

 

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Saturday

After having such a great first day in Chicago, Saturday had big shoes to fill. We started our morning by visiting the Willis Tower. There is so much to see here, particularly the sky deck that offers spectacular views of the city. If you’re brave enough, you can stand on one of the glass boxes that extend 4 feet from the deck, leaving you floating 1,353 feet up in the air. It’s truly a gnarly experience. After experiencing such an adrenaline rush we decided to indulge in some emotional eating. Fortunately, Giordano’s, Chicago’s famous deep dish pizza eatery, was just a few steps away. It takes around 45 minutes for the restaurant’s pizza artisans to work their magic, but the final masterpiece is worth the wait.

We embarked on a 75-minute Wendella Architecture Tour later that afternoon, learning about Chicago’s glittery skyscrapers and the history behind the city’s remarkable transformation. This tour is a must for design and architecture buffs, allowing passengers to see Chicago in a truly unique way. Once the tour was over, we treated ourselves to more food and drinks at a near-by gastropub called Public House. With a mixed crowd of yuppies and hipsters, this place has an awesome, laid back feel and some really good nachos.

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Sunday

Sunday started as quickly as it ended. Inspired by the city’s abundant energy, we decided to run to Lincoln Park, through the  Lincoln Park Zoo, over to Lake Michigan, stopping to gaze at beautiful brick houses along the way. We were famished by 11:30 a.m., making it back just in time for our brunch reservation at Hutch. From their pulled bacon Benedict to their jalapeno and garlic infused cocktails, this place knows how to fusion. Named on many of Chicago’s “boozy brunch” lists, seating at this restaurant comes much slower than it goes.

We rolled on over to Wrigley Field after brunch, the legendary home of the Chicago Cubs. If you’re visiting during baseball season, I encourage you to buy tickets to a game. Chicago fans are no joke, wearing their royal blue and red jerseys with pride.  Following a big win against the Arizona Diamondbacks, we made our way through the rowdy crowds, seeking shelter at Emporium Arcade Bar, an adult playground come to life.  If you could get your hands on any of the 400 machines found in this ‘barcade’, you can play Ms. Pac-Man while sippin’ on your PBR(s) and jammin’ to awesome tunes. The rest of the night is a little hazy, but I vaguely remember bar hopping and fireball shots being involved.

Monday

We attempted to cure our hangover with sunshine and the consumption of a lot of comfort food. Yolk offers a great food selection with more than just eggs on their menu. They’re known for pushing the envelope with creative breakfast and lunch items which include: scooped out pineapples filled with housemade Greek yogurt and fresh fruits or tasty Red Velvet FrenchToast.  Soon after eating and sipping on some much-needed coffee, we took Uber to Chicago’s landmark, Navy Pier. After taking a ride on the pier’s iconic Ferris wheel, our time left in Chicago was quickly approaching its end.

Our last stop on our trip was Lagunitas Brewing Company. Because why not get over a hangover at a brewery, right? Although the location is a bit rough around the edges, the facility’s size and interior more than make up for the sketchy locality. Be prepared to walk through many trippy hallways blasting Alice and Wonderland tunes.  Afterall, this is the headquarter of a beer-maker that believes the golden hued liquid they discharge out of a tap is the answer to social intercourse. My favorite part of Lagunitas, or any brewery for that matter, was their tap room. We sent our amazing long weekend off with lots of clinks of our Hop Stoopids and Sucks, a reference only true beer fans will understand.

‘Til next time, Chicago.

Contributor: Stephanie Bonilla

If someone told IMG_4108me a year ago that I’d be sitting in my tiny apartment writing about my recent adventure in Thailand, I’d giggle. Since college, I joked with close friends about going to Asia. At that time, taking a trip to the other side of the world was unimaginable. Sure some of us had already gotten a taste for international travel. But for some reason, the Orient always felt so foreign, so distant. In our minds, taking a trip to Asia meant we had made it. Not only in the financial/successful sense since any ticket over $300 at that time would have over drafted our bank accounts, but also in the transformative sense. We knew then that a trip like that would be life-changing. So naturally, when I venturesomely embarked on my Thailand adventure, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride. I had made it and I would never be the same.

Thailand was truly everything I had dreamed of and more. This trip will forever hold the number one spot in my heart. Most of you must be thinking I’m speaking too soon. I haven’t been to every single place in the world (yet), so how could I make such an uninformed decision? Well, you don’t have to be coupled with every person in the world to choose your soul mate, right? Sometimes, “you just know”. So when you get your chance at speed dating with Thailand, here’s how you can fall in love:

Cycle – Bangkok Style

Bangkok is a vibrant city, offering a wide range of cultural activities and historical attractions to choose from. Although this colorful metropolis is mostly known for its lively nightlife, there are plenty of places to explore during daylight. My favorite experience while in Bangkok was the most unexpected: “Follow Me” Bike Tour. I must admit that I was extremely apprehensive about participating when the idea initially presented itself. I am not keen on bike riding, especially not in a city that houses over 10 million people and has the busiest rush hour I have ever experienced. But when in Bangkok…right?

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There are various tours to choose from. My friends and I selected the “Siam Boran” tour, the company’s most popular route. This excursion allows you to experience Bangkok like a true local.  Our ridiculously awesome tour guide, Matthew, took us up, down and across the ancient Chao Phraya River, allowing us to explore Bangkok’s lively Chinatown district, vegetable and flower markets, local temples and surrounding slums. For just 1200 baht (approximately $34), riders get a bike, ferry transfers, pictures, drinks, Thai snacks AND get to dip their feet in a fish foot spa—the Thai are just awesome like that. Group sizes depend on how many people sign-up, but we were lucky enough to be the only ones on our tour.

We took this tour on our very first day in Thailand, and I can’t think of a better way to start a trip with a bang! We learned the correct way to enter and sit in a temple, how to fold a real lotus flower; we ate fried grasshoppers, were able to make an offering to Buddha and even left with an irreplaceable keepsake: a piece of the Buddha’s robe. I have never felt so at peace in my life—even when I was sweating my life out, literally IN bumper to bumper traffic with thousands of cars and scooters during Bangkok’s infamous Friday rush hour. Most importantly, I met some of the friendliest locals ever (our tour guide included) who welcomed us to their country with open arms and infectious smiles.

Dine In The Sky

Although it’s very Hangover 2, you should definitely experience one of Bangkok’s sky-high restaurants. Besides serving delicious dishes incorporating juicy steaks, lamb and seafood, these restaurants offer guests a bird’s-eye-view of this magical city.  Teetering on the expensive side, this was the most money we spent on a meal during our stay. However, the amazing views and ambiance were worth every penny (or baht). We dined in style on the 61st floor of Vertigo and Moon Bar under the glimmering stars above and million sparkling lights below. If you’re afraid of heights, mentally prepare yourself. This skyscraper was built to allow the restaurant to be completely exposed, with no walls or structures blocking any views. You really feel like you’re dining on top of the world here.

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Hang With Monks

There are more than 400 wats (or temples) in Bangkok alone. Fortunately, many of the temples are located near each other, making them easy to find. I mean, who can really miss a towering building topped with shiny gold?

No temple in Thailand lacks majesty, making it difficult to choose which ones to visit. We were fortunate enough to see a lot of them during our stay; most of the famous ones, a few off the beaten path, each one with its own charm. The temple I favored was Wat Kanlayanamit, also known as the “best friends” temple. Unlike the more well-known temples, this house of worship had no crowds and no designated number on one of those “10 must-see temples in Thailand” lists. In fact, you will rarely find this sanctuary on any list. Visited mainly by locals, this is where I got to experience Buddhist rituals and practices. Clusters of bright orange robes surrounded me, as we all kneeled in front of the “awakened one”. I can still hear their penetrating chants today. It’s an indescribable event and one you truly have to experience to understand its greatness.

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Become a Budding Cook

I hear friends talk about how much they love Thai food all the time. I apologize in advance for sounding “braggy”, but you’ve never truly experienced Thai food unless you’ve been to Thailand. Specifically, until you’ve taken a cooking class there. We took ours during our stay in Chiang Mai, and let me tell you, I had THE BEST massaman chicken curry and pad thai there! During this jaunt, we got to shop for our food at a local market, cook 6 different meals–which included Thailand’s yummy mango sticky rice– and got to take swigs of our Chang beers as we devoured it all.  You will never eat Thai food anywhere that is not in Thailand or in your kitchen again.

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Hug a Tiger

You know how they say you can never feel more like a Disney princess than paying a visit to Magic Kingdom? Well, that was true until I visited Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai. I have never felt more like Princess Jasmine than laying face to fur with a real tiger. Although there are a ton of allegations on handlers drugging tigers to keep them tranquil, I myself never saw any mistreatment or foul play. Since I don’t want to make this a controversial piece, I will stick to my visit.

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There’s no experience more exhilarating than hanging out in a cage with 5-6 carnivorous killing machines—let alone laying with them, touching them and even playing with them (only the baby tigers are allowed to play with humans).  This is one you have to answer for yourself. If you’re incredibly concerned about animal abuse and this just doesn’t feel right, then it probably shouldn’t be on your list. If you’re skeptical and want to see for yourself, then go give a tiger a high five.

Walk With Gentle Giants

Processed with VSCOcam with c2 presetElephant Nature Park was my all-time favorite experience in Thailand. This park is a rescue and rehabilitation center for abused and orphaned elephants. Their mission is not only to provide a sanctuary for these gentle giants, but to educate visitors on the plight of this endangered species. There is a dark side to elephant tourism that most of us are unaware of. If you’re ever interested in learning why you shouldn’t ride an elephant or have them doodle a picture for you, do your research.

We were lucky enough to have done ours before the trip, which led us to this wonderful pachyderm haven. At Elephant Nature Park, you get to be a trainer for a day. Meaning you get to feed, bathe and play with these magical creatures! As an elephant lover, this was a dream come true. It was an incredible and humbling experience to roam freely alongside these magnificent creatures. I can’t encourage you enough to add this one to your bucket list.

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Indulge in a Rubdown

Go to any spa anywhere in the world and you will most likely see “Thai Massage” on the menu. I am still unsure as to why Thai massages became so popular, but I can vouch that the Thai have perfected their craft. There are almost as many spas in Thailand as there are 7-eleven’s, so choose carefully. We waited until we arrived in Phuket to treat ourselves. From the minute we entered the spa, a sense of serenity could be felt. We were immediately handed cool towels and a list of spa treatments to choose from.  Not only did we indulge in massages, we all took deliciously warm milk baths in our own private rooms to help hydrate our skin. After sweating so much, your skin will love you for it.

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Island Hop

Processed with VSCOcam with k1 presetEver watch Leo DiCaprio’s movie The Beach and imagine yourself sitting on the sand, looking out into the distance at dramatic limestone cliffs peaking their heads out of glimmering turquoise waters? Yeah, we all have.

If you find yourself in Phuket, you MUST hop on one of those rustic long tail boats and explore the surrounding islands. We opted for a snorkeling trip (shout out to Nudi Tours), allowing us not only to explore the different islands, but the exotic marine life too. I have never felt like I was living in a postcard until I embarked on this journey. We had died and gone to beach heaven.

Processed with VSCOcam with k2 presetThe trip consisted of alternating between snorkeling and basking in the sun –each time on a new island. We were able to see an array of beautifully colored fish and explore islands such as: Phi Phi Don, Maya Bay and Monkey Island. If you ever want to check “Utopia” off your list, make this tour a priority.
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Something happened to me on this trip—it’s almost as if the lens on my glasses changed to a brighter, rosier tone. Thailand helped me build my confidence enough to believe that I can do anything. Therefore, I can do everything.

Hopefully now you get a better understanding of my love for the land of smiles!

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Contributor: Stephanie Bonilla

pic001Florida is a clever little sucker. Let me tell you why. As a self-proclaimed “weekender,” I regularly study maps of Florida in search of my next mini getaway. My eyes tend to gravitate towards the peninsula’s coasts, hoping to lay themselves on our next beach-town adventure. I have never seen Anna Maria Island (AMI) marked on any of the maps I’ve carefully analyzed, which is why I was caught off guard when my boyfriend gifted me with a weekend stay on the island for my birthday. Had my eyes failed me? Was this a premature sign of ageing hitting me in the wake of my 28th birthday? I quickly grabbed my laptop for validation. Although AMI was not listed on any map, I soon learned a lot about this hidden paradise and the state it resides in: they are both really good at keeping secrets.

Another Day In Paradise

Approximately 40 miles south of Tampa, tucked along the Gulf of Mexico, sits this subtropical nirvana. The teeny island houses less than 15,000 residents and 3 tiny communities: Anna Maria (north), Holmes Beach (middle) and Bradenton Beach (south). With only one main road running north to south of this 7-by-2 mile island, AMI is the epitome of a small town. It proves, however, that big things really do come in small packages.

Our journey to paradise began very early. I got out of bed as soon as the alarm went off at 4 a.m. Before allowing my mind to go to a really dark place, I quickly reminded it that in just a few hours, we (my mind and I) would be laid back on a beach adding color to that wonderful tan we work 104 days a year for.

Since we were extremely excited about exploring the island, it wasn’t long before we arrived. We didn’t even stop for coffee, a common occurrence in all of our road trips. Catching sight of the Cortez Bridge, we knew we had arrived. The bridge is the only thing that connects the real world to this magical oasis. An old, historical fishing village is sprinkled just outside the bridge’s entrance, as if it was left there to remind incoming visitors that remnants of old Florida still remain. We drove directly to our hotel as soon as we crossed the bridge, our eyes slowly adjusting to the colorful beach cottages that served as a backdrop.

Our place wasn’t ready when we arrived– apparently even housekeeping live on island time. It didn’t faze us. We were in no rush to take refuge in our hotel room anyway. The property manager and his buddy were taking a break from the island’s heat in the inn’s office. After finding out it was our first time visiting AMI, they excitedly advised us of local eateries, bars and shops to check out. For the remainder of our stay, we used their informal itinerary as a guide for our exploration of the island. I’ll be forever indebted to them for leading us to some of the most perfect places I’ve ever visited. I hope this article does the same for you. Here’s what you should do:

Ditch Your Cottage, Explore The Landscape

A mix of colorful cottages and shady palm trees dominate the island’s landscape. The most challenging part of your day will be deciding on your transportation. You can hop on the island’s FREE trolley, rent a bike or scooter from one of the local rental shops, or use your very own two feet. Whatever your choice is, you will find plenty to look at.  One thing you won’t see on the island is high-rises. This modest beach community has been successful at maintaining its true old Florida beach feel by keeping developers and chainy hotels OFF of the island. It’s as if time was paused here 30 years ago and never started up again.

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But don’t let my description confuse you. Not everything on the island is kitschy and old. Although they are no higher than 3 stories tall, jaw dropping cottages have been built around the island, serving as both residences and lodging for visitors. Though beautiful, these new and improved bungalows still fit the “quiet money” mold exhibited throughout the island. AMI got the memo. Upscale just doesn’t jibe with beachy.

Overload On Island Grub

Like most islands, seafood is the prominent food of choice on AMI. You will not find any golden arches here. Local eateries take pride in serving domestic meals to seafood lovers, delivering shrimp, fish and oysters fished directly out of Florida’s waters.

But AMI doesn’t only do seafood right. A popular gem known by every local can be found just off the main road on the north end of the island. The Donut Experiment, a tiny boutique donut shop, allows mad scientists of all ages to create their own cake-based dunker. From key lime glazes to maple bacon or Sriracha toppings to choose from, the world really is your oyster at this island shop.

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Favorite Breakfast Spot: The Donut Experiment

Favorite Breakfast Spot: The Donut Experiment

Best Oysters: Anna Maria Oyster Bar

Best Oysters: Anna Maria Oyster Bar

Favorite Lunch Spot: The Waterfront Restaurant

Favorite Lunch Spot: The Waterfront Restaurant

Drink Like A Local

Bars can be found all over the island, ranging from rustic beachside tiki bars, to laid back establishments nestled in-between eclectic art shops displaying tropical motifs. Best way to describe AMI’s nightlife:  A Key West feel sans the rowdy crowds. When deciding what to wear, think: “What Would Jack Johnson Do.” In a land where flip-flops and shorts are standard and overloading on piña coladas is expected, packing should never be a cause of panic. Always choose comfort.   

The main thing to look for when bar hopping is live music. Be prepared to nurse your beer as you sway to a live rendition of Brown-Eyed Girl or a funky version of Rapper’s Delight. Unlike Key West, the local musicians don’t just croon Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville for a buck–they truly get to know their audience. We went from nervously calling out requests, to taking shot after shot with our entertainers and fellow escapees. Definitely check out AMI’s popular Bridgewalk area. Some of our favorite bars were located there:  Bridge Tender Inn and Waterfront Bar.

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Experience A Golden Hour – West Coast-Style

Florida’s west coast is infamous for its spectacular sunsets. As long as you’re on the west side of the island, you can pretty much catch nature painting the sky “magic” from anywhere on the island. Establishments like Sandbar crowd up just as the sun is about to set, prizing lucky guessers with a complimentary drink should they predict the correct sunset time. If there were ever a photo opp on the island, it would be during sunset. After all, sunset lighting is the best lighting, right? I’ll let the pictures work their magic.

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Soak Up The Rays

The “wake up slow” mentality is alive and well on Anna Maria. You won’t find many beach goers catching rays earlier than 10 a.m. There is plenty of space on the sugary white sand, so don’t worry too much about reserving a spot. The translucent turquoise water is just the right temperature to refresh those in need of a cool down. Swooping pelicans plunge into the pristine water in hopes of catching their next meal, while bottlenose dolphins grace observant beach bums with impromptu cameos. Make sure to pack lots of sunscreen and yummy drinks to get you by, but be sure you leave all alcohol behind in your cottage. Alcoholic beverages are not permitted on AMI’s beaches, unless you’re sipping it while sitting at one of those cute oceanfront tiki bars.

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Anna Maria Island turned out to be a very special place. If you’re looking for a slower, simpler Key West, this is the place for you. Something else I learned from this vacation: I apparently can’t keep a secret.

Today, we are excited to present the first story from our new contributor, Stephanie Bonilla! Her enthusiasm and passions for travel are apparent in her writing and now our fellow cruisers and travelers will benefit, while getting to know her. You can also learn a bit more about Stephanie via our Contributors page!


 

Stephanie Bonilla

Contributor: Stephanie Bonilla

How many times do cruise takers hop on an aircraft, take a taxi (or Uber), making it just in time to board their ocean greyhound and embark on their next adventure? Countless. How many of those passengers consider exploring the backyard of the ports they originally depart from? Not many.

Port Canaveral, also known as the “turnaround” port, is home to Florida’s second busiest cruise port. With popular cruise lines such as Carnival, Disney, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian using it to dock their vessels, thousands of passengers pour over gangplanks daily. Although the port’s locality doesn’t have much to offer, there are plenty of hidden gems waiting to be explored near-by. Take heed of the following piece of travel wisdom: Disney World will be the top contender when asking the Internet for advice– but there is much more to see in Central Florida than the mouse! Rather than fall victim to the common tourist traps, I challenge you to overcome your Disney itch and travel a little farther north to a place many locals have labeled as Mother Nature’s playground.

Blue Spring State Park

Just under an hour and a half drive from the port and only thirty minutes farther than the greater Orlando-area, wedged between your typical Central Florida neighborhood and more live oak trees than you can count, lies a hidden oasis. Since you can easily obtain all the park’s facts from a simple Internet search, I will refrain from spewing them out at you. All you really need to know is Blue Spring State Park covers over 2,600 acres and serves as a Manatee Refuge to a growing population of buoyant sea cows. The park’s biggest attraction, respectively called Blue Springs, is one of Central Florida’s hidden treasures. For the low fare of $6 per vehicle, visitors can cannon ball into one of nature’s swimming pools, hike miles of unspoiled wilderness, enjoy a barbeque in one of the park’s numerous pavilions, or bait up and cast their fishing line near the river’s shore. No matter what you’re into, this park’s got you covered. Now more on my adventure…

Stephanie Bonilla at Blue Spring State Park

Stephanie Bonilla at Blue Spring State Park

Blue Spring State Park entrance

Blue Spring State Park entrance

 

 

 

 

 

 

Springin’ It
3-4 hours

After being greeted by friendly park staff, we quickly stumbled upon a tunnel of trees that lead us to the parking lot. Excited families with multicolored floats in arm caught my eyes as they disappeared behind oak trees, eagerly making their way towards the spring. I quickly got in my two-piece, kicked off my flip-flops and happily lugged my 4-foot hot pink donut float down a windy boardwalk. Arriving at the shore of the awe-inspiring turquoise waters, I could feel the explorer vibes flowing through my body. They were quickly stunned as my skin touched the 73-degree crystalline water. Man, was it cold! It took my body a couple of minutes to adjust to the chilly temperature. Although I’m a Miamian who prefers its lukewarm oceans, the excitement of exploring this swimming hole for the adventurous numbed any feeling of discomfort. You have the option of swimming, tubing, snorkeling or scuba diving down the spring. For those feeling a little more energetic, a thin rope serves as a divider for visitors who prefer to kayak or canoe. Forgot your raft? Equipment rentals for almost all of the water activities mentioned can be rented at the ground’s concession for a small fee—minus the scuba gear. We opted to bring our own floats and goggles in an effort to save a couple of bucks.

As we made our way down the spring, bathers congregated around the spring’s boil, watching jumpers leap off of trees and sandy banks into the clear blue water. This particular area is a magnet for scuba divers, housing an underwater cave and an abundance of marine life. Divers and snorkelers alike delve into the depth of this blue hole, attempting to unlock the cave’s mysteries. After spending a couple of hours soaking up the sun and investigating the spring, we decided to tap out and grab a quick snack.

The springs at Blue Spring Park

The springs at Blue Spring Park

Tubers and rafters at Blue Spring Park

Tubers and rafters at Blue Spring Park

 

 

 

 

 

Picnicking
1 hour

The park’s grounds have a variety of places visitors can use to kick back and dry off. Pavilions, BBQ pits, and grassy areas can be found just outside the spring’s boardwalk, with families migrating here to get their grub on. For the most part, these areas are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, so keep that in mind when making lunch plans. Though the park offers both food and drinks for purchase, we opted to bring our own ham and cheese sandwiches and hung out on the grass. Beer drinkers beware: alcoholic beverages are not allowed on park grounds. As the first one to crave a refreshing IPA to quench my thirst, I must admit I was a little bummed.

The Boardwalk at Blue Spring Park

The Boardwalk at Blue Spring Park

The Picnic area at Blue Spring Park

The Picnic area at Blue Spring Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Hiking

2-3 hours

As soon as lunch was over, we decided to walk some calories off on one of the park’s nature trails. We began our voyage at Pine Island Trail, a lesser-known, less-used terrain. Immediately upon entering the trailhead, hikers are welcomed by a sign warning them that this is a one-way path. 4.5 miles each way, the trail offers dense forests, shady resting areas, casual scrub-jay sightings, and plenty of photo opps. Nature’s magic is truly felt as you make your way through massive live oaks, leaving the sounds of humans behind. During our hike, we were lucky enough to spot scrub-jays, cardinals, deer, turtles, and a variety of insects. Love bugs are prevalent in this area, so don’t be surprised if a couple of intertwined honeymoon flies land on you. Overall, the long walk was well worth it. Since nearly a mile of the trail is fully exposed to the sun in each direction, I highly recommend that anyone taking this journey apply lots of sunscreen. Also, make sure to bring some H2O with you as well a bug spray. You’ll thank me later.

Entering the Pine Island Hiking Trail

Entering the Pine Island Hiking Trail

Hiking Pine Island at Blue Spring State Park

Hiking Pine Island at Blue Spring State Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Little Lagniappe
1-2 hours

If you’re all park’d out and still have time to spare, I highly suggest taking a drive 7 miles west to the near-by city, Deland. Located smack in the middle of Deland’s downtown strip is Santorini Greek Cuisine, a yelper’s dream come true. This little hole-in-the-wall offers great service, an array of Greek food options, and a relaxing vibe. For some of the best Greek food that will ever grace your palette, order the restaurant’s Athenian Chicken with a side of their lemon roasted potatoes. It’s enough for two and probably the best $13 you’ll ever spend.

Sweet tooth nudging you? Walk on over to Pat & Toni’s Chocolate and Sweet Things for your choice of creamy ice cream and chocolate-covered-anything. If chocolate covered bacon doesn’t entice you, try one of their dark mint truffles or imported licorice. It won’t disappoint.

Santorini Greek Cuisine, in Deland, Florida!

Santorini Greek Cuisine, in Deland, Florida!

Santorini Greek Cuisine's Athenian Chicken

The Athenian Chicken!

Pat & Toni's Chocolate and Sweet Things in Deland!

Pat & Toni’s Chocolate and Sweet Things in Deland!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Those with time to kill after getting off a ship at Port Canaveral should not think twice about making it out to this magnificent, pristine land. In less than 10 hours, visitors can enjoy a day full of activities, unforgettable adventures, and great food. Although at first glance this area doesn’t seem like it has much to offer, it proves that venturing away from your typical tourist stomping grounds can pay off. Remember, true adventure seekers don’t have to stand in 3-hour lines wearing Mickey ears!

Most cruise ship staterooms will provide basic toiletries such as soap and shampoo. But, you may want to make room in your luggage for your favorite brands (I’m not a big fan of the mystery soaps on wall dispensers). The same can be said for hair dryers. Most staterooms come with weak dryers so if you’re picky, pack your own. Be mindful, however, of your ship’s power limitations, per cabin (not really an issue on newer ships).

This travel-sized power strip even has two USB inputs!

This travel-sized power strip even has two USB inputs!

The majority of cruise ship staterooms do not contain alarm clocks. If you do not want to use a telephone wake up call, bring your own. If you choose to use a cell phone, be sure to disable cellular service so you do not incur any roaming charges. Other items you might want to pack because they’re not provided (or costly to purchase aboard) include:extra hangers, O-T-C meds, batteries, camera memory cards, sunscreen, ear plugs, plastic bags (transporting liquids or wet things, or keeping water out of your gear on water-based tours) and power strips to charge all your electronics.

Do you have any other must-have, or easily overlooked, items? Share with your fellow cruisers here!

The view from aboard the Allure of the Seas as she departs from Port Everglades, in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.

The view from aboard the Allure of the Seas as she departs from Port Everglades, in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.

The Cruise Customer Experience includes so many factors: research, the booking process, on-board experience, flight (getting to the port) and much more. But, what about the time leading up to your next cruise, the period from the time you make deposits (or final payments) to the time you begin your trek to the port? Sure, there’s dieting (maybe?), shopping, researching ports of call and excursions, online check-in, but, what if you could get a bit of a cruise fix in between times of the actual cruise?

If you live near a port city, you can actually visit port inlets and view the cruise ships as they depart for their journeys. You can view them as they arrive, too, but that is typically before the sun comes up! There is also YouTube, of course, where thousands of cruise videos can be found. Videos ranging from corporate marketing pieces to those created by passengers and crew.

Then, there’s my favorite…Live Webcams, particularly cams providing live, moving video. Below I have provided links to several active webcams. The PortCams are particularly interesting, as they are in HD and provide Live Video, great for cruise ship fans and boating/yachting buffs alike. Enjoy!

PORT WEBCAMS

CRUISE SHIP WEBCAMS

Note: With some of the Cruise Line links above, you will have to choose the ship first, then, if the ship has a Cam, click on the Cam link.  Once again, Enjoy!!

North Star (Sky Tower)

North Star (Sky Tower)

Royal Caribbean International’s Quantum-class cruise ships will feature a unique crane and viewing “gondola,” as previously announced. The North Star will lift guests some 91 meters above sea level to give them panoramic views of the sea and surrounding ports of call.  Royal Caribbean and the crane vendor recently provided additional details about the North Star, and providing an exciting, yet safe, Customer Experience.  Here is the rest of the article.

The round objects near the smoke stack are part of a ship's satellite communications infrastructure.

The round objects near the smoke stack are part of a ship’s satellite communications infrastructure.

Our smart phones are great tools at home and on the go.  I don’t know about you all, but it cut down our household, desktop computer usage…which is a good thing!  When we purchase a phone, the sales rep will (hopefully) ask if you have any questions about set-up and usage.  When many of us answer this question, we typically want to know about day-to-day operations, and making sure our data and contacts transfer from the old device into the new one.  Rarely do we ask about the choices within the phone’s settings…and not knowing how to change some of these settings can get you into unwanted situations.

My sister-in-law cruised with us on our last trip,  on the NCL Breakaway last May.  When we last spoke, she had me view her last cellphone bill, and asked me to figure out why it was almost $130 higher than normal.  It turned out that she did not deactivate the phone’s 3g/4g/LTE /data services until several days into the cruise.  And, with today’s smart phones, which do so much more than making phone calls, it doesn’t matter that she did not use the phone, answer calls, and check incoming text messages and emails.

The key word in the previous paragraph is “incoming.” Many of us have our smart phones set up in a way that has it automatically retrieving our emails and text messages.  In many other cases, voice mails may download to the phone.  Stock tickers, sports scores, location services, weather apps and other updates which appear on our home pages…yup…they are also culprits!  All of these background activities are receiving data, and the data is coming from the ship’s satellite communication systems.

One fool proof way to keep your phone from using the ship’s satellite system (for cell data) is to keep the phone “off” for the duration of the cruise.  And be careful if you choose to use the phone in port (even off of the ship, yet close-by), as you may not be far enough away from the ship to tie into the port of call’s cell-tower infrastructure!

What if you do not want to turn the phone off on board?  Perhaps you will use it as your camera, or as a communication tool via an on-board network, such as with Norwegian Cruise Line’s “I-Concierge” app (available on iPhone and Android phones).  This is where it comes in handy to know how to go into your phone’s settings and disable the data services.  This way, you won’t receive any data through cell services, and you can still keep the WIFI function active.  Remember, placing the phone in “AIRPLANE MODE” will also keep you from receiving data services, but you WILL NOT be able to connect to the ship’s WIFI.

If you absolutely need to speak with people via telephone while cruising, you can try your FaceTime, Skype or other apps of the sort.  Beware, however, ship board internet rates are still hefty, and speed is not anywhere close to the “high-speed” you are familiar with at home.

It wasn’t that long ago…you’d pack the mp3 player, the digital camera, your video camera, and maybe even a laptop.  Don’t forget all the extra batteries and the chargers.  And, on my most recent cruise, I did exactly that.  The only thing is, I packed one other item…my iPod touch (2012), and it’s about all I used during the entire cruise.  If you want to simplify the packing routine for your cruise, thing about investing in an iPod touch.  It does just about everything you will need during your trip.  Here are several of its uses:

Shot with the iPod Touch (5th gen) using its panorama mode: The NCL Breakaway and Celebrity Summit at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Bermuda.

Shot with the iPod Touch (5th gen) using its panorama mode: The NCL Breakaway and Celebrity Summit at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Bermuda.

  • Camera:  The iPod touch acts as a camera, and handles low light situations better than I expected.  The latest generation even has a panorama feature, which allows for some stunning images that, in the past, required a steady hand and lots of post production on the computer
  • Video Camera:  The video that the iPod captures rivals the quality of a $300-$500 digital camcorder.  Unless you are looking for broadcast quality, the iPod should be plenty sufficient if you are seeking to capture your holiday memories for watching on your hi-def televisions or for uploading onto a site like YouTube.  The video link on this page, which is an evening Fireworks Display from onboard the Norwegian Breakaway, was shot in its entirety with an iPhone 5 (the same tech as the latest iPod Touch)

  • Music and Video Player:  Load up a bunch of your favorite tunes and films onto the iPod and you have instant entertainment, whether on the plane, in your stateroom, in the fitness center or lounging by the pool.  You can even bring a small bluetooth speaker on your cruise, providing an instant sound system in your stateroom.  Just how many times can you listen to the same piped-in music coming from your cabin televisions!!  Just link the iPod with your speaker using the bluetooth feature in your iPod’s settings
  • Documents and Notes:  You can store all of your cruise documents, ship’s maps and more.  Simply save them as a pdf and then transfer onto your iPod
  • Web surfing, email and social media:  Many ships today have WiFi access available for a fee.  Leave the laptop at home and stop waiting for a computer to become available in the ship’s internet cafe…you can do it all with your iPod Touch
  • Games:  Entertain yourself with games, puzzles and other apps of your choice!
iPod Touch (5th gen) comes in different colors.

iPod Touch (5th gen) comes in different colors.

Most everything mentioned above can be accomplished with an iPad and an iPad mini.  I recommend the iPod for a couple of reasons.  The first is the small size; easy to pack and easier to carry.  Secondly, the iPod Touch handles darker situations better than the iPad, with regards to all still and video photography.  If books are important to you, however, you may want to opt for the iPad.

The newest iPod touches are available in 32 gb, 64 gb, and now, a less expensive 16 gb.  You can do all of your research on Apple’s website.  Which ever iPod you choose, it’s two to three extra bags you can now keep at home!

Another full day at sea and one day closer to Bermuda! Here are today’s experiences and observations from the Norwegian Breakaway:

1. Seems like a definite pattern. Breakfast at the Garden Cafe (Buffet Deck 15) is fully open by 7:30am (all stations). If you want to avoid the crowds, have your plates filled and be seated before 8:30am. By the way…the eggs taste real (not the powdered stuff!). In addition, don’t miss the hash browns! They are like miniature potato pancakes and have great flavor!

2. Foods that are supposed to be hot are hot; consistently now for three days.

3. We enjoyed an international beer tasting today! $15 per person for five samplings and lots of history and information. It all took place at Maltings Bar. We also experienced a Michael Jackson dance class, featuring the song “I Want You Back”, and prep for a flash mob!

4. We enjoyed a game of miniature golf on the 9-hole course. It was crowded but we only had to wait about two minutes for clubs and balls. In addition, deck space was not an issue…if you did not have to be by the two Main Pools.

5. One of the highlights of the day was a photo with two of the Radio City Rockettes. All of our photos will be posted when we are in a fast and reliable WiFi zone. Sorry to say, the satellite service still doesn’t cut the mustard.

6. The casino has an addicting “crane game” that gives you a chance to win lots of cash and iPads. The object is to make an over-sized key-shaped object fit perfectly into an opening, so that it will latch on to the prizes of your choosing. All it takes is a $1 swipe of your room key. But beware, it is not easy, although it seems so simple, and it is easy to lose track of how many turns you have taken.

7. Dinner tonight was in Le Bistro, a French restaurant venue with a $20 pp cover. Service and fare were each excellent, and the food continued to exceed our expectation, especially on a line better known for its entertainment. We have heard comments from several about their pleasant experiences with the meals and food venues.

8. An observation…seems there are more smokers on cruises out of the Northeast than on cruises out of Florida. Keep this in mind if you plan to dine outdoors, as the Breakaway has an abundance of outdoor dining venues.

9. “Rock of Ages” in the Breakaway Theater was amazing…full set, just like on Broadway. The music, and how it was used to tell the story…brilliant, and brought back fond memories. Loved the cast…and they were available for FREE meet and greets and photo opps (with your own cameras) as you exited the Theatre!

Overall, the staff and crew have been very friendly, and we are often greeted with smiles. A couple of times we encountered a shy bartender, but after a few minutes, each seemed to loosen up a bit. However, you can tell which ones are going to be more successful in the long run! That’s it for today. Good night and have a pleasant tomorrow!