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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Free Things to do in NYC: Landmarks

NYC has a vast amount of landmarks. These are all free to do. I wasn't able to get to all of the famous landmark this trip, BUT I conquered what I could!

Statue of Liberty: Take the free Staten Island Ferry to and from Staten Island. The ferry leaves quite often, however, I would avoid rush hour times due to heavy "local" traffic (many locals use this ferry). I would rather ride the ferry than pay to go stand and look at Lady Liberty. If you don't wish to stand outside, go inside and downstairs where there are less people!

Times Square: When a friend said, "The lights are so bright at night, it's like daylight," I didn't really believe her. But it's so true!!!!! Such an incredible amount of light blinds you at times! Don't fall for any tourist traps. Take your pics, people watch a bit, then leave. I recommend visiting during the day AND night.

No flash needed!

Brooklyn Bridge: It's not as long as you think and the panoramic view of the buildings on The Promenade is breathtaking!  Be wary of the cyclists zooming by! I also suggest walking it at night to see the city lights.

Grand Central Station: This is the best place to people watch in the city. Thousands of people walk through this beautiful building. Take a moment to step aside, take pictures, and watch the beauty of humanity pass by.

Chrysler Building: You won't be able to go to the top floor and take pictures of the Manhattan skyline, however, check out the frescoes painted on the ceiling and read about the history of the building.

St. Patrick's Cathedral: This magnificent church rivals some that I've visited in Europe. If you are Catholic, I highly recommend going to mass in such a massive cathedral. If you are not, try to avoid going during mass times in respect to those worshipping. You can make a small donation when you first arrive in the church before touring. This church holds the Cardinal's chair, which is the highest officiant for the United States. I did not notice if shoulders must be covered or not (I just always tend to cover my shoulders when I go to mass).

Rockefeller Center: When visiting this iconic area, go early in the morning and go to the Today Show to try and get on the morning news!

Chelsea Market: The building that Chelsea Market is housed in is the old Nabisco factory! The Chelsea Market area was the meat packing district of Manhattan. There are lots of eateries and small grocery stores to choose from. The seafood market looked delish!

9/11 Memorial and Freedom Tower: This serene solute to the victims of 9/11 brought me back to where I was when our beautiful country was attacked. Sit and stay awhile, thinking positive thoughts sending positive vibes to the family members survived by the victims.

Other landmarks to take pictures in front of (for free): Radio City Hall, Carnegie Hall, Empire State Building (is it really worth paying $35 to go to the top where most of the views of the skyline are blocked by bars and high concrete walls?), and many more landmarks that I was not able to visit in this trip!

Free Things to Do in New York City: Parks

Even though New York City is notorious for being expensive, there are many free or low-fee activities for the budget wary traveler. Most of your money will go towards accommodation, food, and beverages.

However, several of the green sanctuaries housed amidst towering sky scrapers offer a wide variety of fun, FREE things to do.

Bryant Park: Bryant Park is located south of Central Park, and it is tucked away between concrete giants. Every morning, some kind of class is offered, such as Tai Chi, barre fitness, dance classes, yoga, etc. The best part is they are all completely free!

My first Tai Chi class, and it was free!
Come back later in the day and catch a few songs from a broadway show, hear a pianist sing, play a game, learn a new language, or watch Shakespeare in Bryant Park. Check out the calendar here.

Shakespeare in Bryant Park: Romeo and Juliet
Romeo hiding amonsgt the crowd!
Prospect Park: Take a free cardio or yoga class, go on a nature walk, play games, take a walk, or just relax in this Brooklyn green space. Click here to visit the website.

Central Park: Being NYC's most famous and largest park, there are plenty of activities to satiate one's thirst for experiencing nature. Fantastic running and walking paths wind through the park. Check out Shakespeare in the Park, however, be prepared to stand in line early in the morning to get tickets. See the Met Symphony play or watch performers dance. Listen to a free concert or two, play frisbee, soak up the sun, or row a boat on "The Lake." Don't forget to visit the animals in the Central Park Zoo! For more information, visit their website. Several activities do cost money, but there are plenty that don't!

My run flew thanks to the awesome scenery!
Free Nicki Minaj concert during my run? Yes, please!
The Highline: The Highline is an abandoned elevated rail line turned park. Inspired by a similar French civic project, NYC repurposed these rails to create an oasis in the sky! This is a must do in NYC (the views are breathtaking!).

The flora is native to the area.

Beautiful escape

The parks in NYC bring nature and relief from the hectic, busy lives and buildings that surround them. Make sure to add a visit to any or all of these oases into your itinerary!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Texas Road Trip

Texas is huge! Texas is well known throughout the world thanks to Hollywood and its unique shape, which spans 773 miles (1,244 km) in width and 790 miles (1,270 km) in length. The famous Texas Triangle, the major metros of Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas/Fort Worth, totals 75% of the state’s population while only holding 25% of the total area. Having lived in 3 of the state’s 7 most populous cities and visiting all over the great state, we have put together the perfect summer road trip for your convenience!

Day 1: Wednesday

Get an early flight into HOUSTON, TX! The largest city in the state and fourth largest in the USA. Houston is known as the Expense Account City, and because of that there are fabulous restaurants. In fact, over 11,000 restaurants! After you’ve rented your truck (or car if you don’t want to fit in, just kidding… ish) check out one of these restaurants. Whatever you are in the mood for, Houston will have it. Here are a few:

Capone's located near thirty shopping Westheimer street
El Tiempo off Washington has killer margaritas.
Anything in Market Square, but you may never leave…
Pastry War!
Another nickname for Houston is Space City, which a few of our sports teams are named for (Astros and Rockets). I would highly recommend driving south to Johnson Space Center to get a tour of NASA. Don't miss mission control or trying astronaut ice cream!
Get up close and personal with a rocket!
Although Houston recently overtook New York City as the most ethnically diverse city in the country, we have yet to conquer their fine arts scene, but we pull a close second in the nation! This just means you have all the shows available at a cheaper price and nicer people! Wind down the evening with a show. The Houston Ballet is top notch. If the theater is not your thing, Houston also has over 20 museums for any kind of taste. Check out Houston’s official visitor's site for more details on which museum fits your needs. Not an artsy person at all? Love sports? Well, better go check out the "Eighth Wonder of the World", the Astrodome. Recently having its 50th birthday party, the dome does not do tours, but you can get a glimpse from the outside.

After the show you may be hungry and thirsty. We can help with both. Downtown, Midtown, Washington, Rice Village, the Heights, and City Centre will have something going on any day of the week. There are way too many restaurants and bars to list, so I will let Thrillist make recommendations: 

Thrillist site #2

Day 2: Thursday

Wake up, have yourself a bloody mary for breakfast at Brick & Spoon with a Big Spoon Bloody Mary  or a Big 'Ol Bloody Mary (everything is bigger in Texas) at Downhouse. Shake off that hangover and head south to Corpus Christi, TX! Corpus Christi is home to the best beaches and best weather in Texas. After the 3 hour drive you need to shake out your legs and do so by touring the USS Lexington.
The Blue Ghost participated in almost all major events in the Pacific and spent 21 months in combat. Walk along the deck to check out some of the aircrafts and of course great views of the city. Check out our write up from Memorial Day. After the tour if you still have energy, walk over to the Texas State Aquarium. In addition to aquatic life, the Aquarium is home to a birds of prey exhibit and cute Texas otters.  Grab dinner on Fajitaville's patio where you can enjoy a taste of the beach life and sunsets. Head downtown to the Executive Surf Club for cheap beer and live music. There are many other dive bars in walking distance if live music isn’t your thing.

Day 3: Friday

Everything moves a little slower in Corpus Christi on a Friday. Some workers are taking the day off to go fishing and others are sneaking off to the island with their surfboards. Take a walk down Shoreline Dr. to watch the sunrise to start your day. Pay tribute to the statue of Selena, the Tejano star who rose to fame here. Harrison's Landing does offer boat tours of the Bay and gives great point of views of downtown, the Harbor Bridge, and the USS Lexington. The beach is what sets Corpus apart from the rest, so that is what you should spend the day doing. The two main beach spots will be J.P. Luby Park and Horace Caldwell Pier in Port Aransas. On Mustang Island, driving on the beach is allowed, so be careful and don’t get stuck! After spending the day at the beach head towards town and stop at Snoopy's, a local hometown favorite, for some delicious seafood and the best views of a Gulf Coast sunset.

Day 4: Saturday

Get an early start to San Antonio. You don’t want to miss brunch on the River Walk! Check out the Guenther House . It may be a tourist spot, but it has 100 years of history and good food. You will need your energy for the next adventure.
A Texas summertime favorite is floating the river in San Marcos. The fun usually starts around noon and a float lasts about 4 hours. Hydrate on your way to Texas State Tubes (check Groupon for deals) as the sun can be draining. If you need some adult beverages, remember glass bottles are not allowed.  You can purchase your tubes and shuttle here. Put on the sun block and enjoy! Once you are back from your float, drive to Austin. I’ve had great experiences staying at the Hilton Garden. It has easy access to I35 and walking distance to many bars and restaurants. But just before getting there, make a pit stop at Sandy’s Burgers in Barton Springs. Now Austin is the black sheep of the state where they live by the saying “Keep Austin Weird. So now you have been warned, clean up and make your way down to the famous 6th street. Now we could try to break down every bar here, but it would take too long. Go have fun and check out all there is to offer, but check this out for starters!
6th street on Halloween

Day 5: Sunday

It’s going to hurt, but you will have to get up. I suggest walking some, like to Tacos and Tequila. How can you resist a taco bar? Once you are refueled, you are going to need to sweat out the previous day. A day hike to Hamilton Pool is a perfect solution. It’s not a long hike but a beautiful view. After a couple hours there you must finish off the day with good 'ol fashion barbeque. Salt Lick in Driftwood is the original location of this perfection. Make sure you get a glimpse of the pit! Head back to Austin and check out some live music because that's what Austin is known for!

Day 6: Monday

Hop on I35 and head north to Fort Worth. You are going to want to wait til you get to West, Texas to eat breakfast. Czech Stop has the best kolaches you will ever try. Never heard of kolaches? I am sorry your hometown does not have this delicious breakfast item. Head straight to Fort Worth Stockyards for a step back in time to the old wild west. After walking around in the hot Texas summer heat, you will need some sweet iced tea and good food. Cattlemen’s and Billy Bob’s are too good spots. Billy Bob’s doubles up as a dance hall at night. If Texas two steppin' is not your thing, the Historic Sundance Square has everything from shopping to dining. It also has a very vibrant nightlife with a variety of bars.

Day 7: Tuesday

You are probably feeling a little drained, so stop at Paciugo for some Italian cafĂ© before making the short trip over to Dallas (Watch out for the toll roads). Six Flags over Texas is not a theme park just for kids. They have some pretty serious rides turning in every direction while reaching top speeds. Tickets may not be the cheapest, but you will stay busy all day. Finish off the day with dinner at Reunion Tower. Soak in the 360 degree view of the Dallas Skyline before preparing for the final night. Check out the Trolley Bar Map for the perfect ending to the best road trip in Texas. But, if that is not your thing, Lower Greenville, Henderson, and Deep Elum have excellent bar scenes.
View from Reunion Tower

Day 8: Wednesday

Drag yourself back to Houston or any other airport you chose to fly out of. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Why Playing Tourist in My Hometown Ended in Tears

Today, Memorial Day, the “Lady Lex” a.k.a. “Blue Ghost” called my name. As one of the top tourist attractions in my hometown, the U.S.S. Lexington stands solemn and mighty in our bay. It’s one of those places native Corpus Christians say, “I’ve been meaning to go!” although many never find the time. But, today I made the decision to just go, and go solo.

I will admit, I have a fascination with World War II and the American military. Trevor doesn’t mind joining me with a pint of ice cream on a Saturday night to watch “D-Day” or “WWII in HD” on the History Channel. Naturally when we travel, I’m pulled to any kind of WWII attraction (Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dachau, Germany, etc).

Going solo gave me the chance to take the time I wanted to read all of the captions of pictures or paraphernalia , watch all of the videos, and try the interactive components of several tours. But most importantly, it gave me the chance to meet and visit with some war veterans.

Many war veterans dedicate and volunteer their time to educating the public about the ship and their experiences. Currently, two WWII veterans volunteer at the “Blue Ghost” (one actually was a pilot who flew planes off her deck!), and I couldn’t help myself but to have a conversation with one of them.

His name is Merton Bobo, and he was proud to share his memorabilia with me that he donated to the Lexington. “I was 19 when this picture was taken,” he smiled and pointed to a picture that had a group of three smiling young men in flying gear. He was a radioman and gunman in war aircraft during the Pacific theater of WWII (Iwo Jima, along with other well known battles). He continued to proudly show off the medals he earned during the war, along with his leather “fighter” jacket with a painted picture of a guy holding a bullet saying, “It’s a dud!” “I paid $10 for a guy to paint that on for me. And these are the maps they gave us just in case we got shot down over the water or over land so we knew how to get out.” Gulp. The peril of his job was simply stated.

“You are very beautiful, Rebeca,” he said as we shook hands and introduced ourselves formally. He winked saying, “I have a good eye for beauty, too. But, beauty isn’t just a pretty face. You have to have a nice presence.” I returned his crooked smile and took his picture.

"Bobo" and Me

I happened to be touring at the right time to be a part of the memorial service complete with naval customs and handsome characters in uniform. It was unexpected, but impactful to all visiting the ship.

As the two WWII veterans slowly made their way towards the entryway, arm in arm supporting one another, with a memorial wreath, sobs and sniffles could be heard along with the sound of the waves crashing against the side of the ship. Silently the two men released the wreath into the water and a lone trumpet began to play Silver Taps. The words of the naval officer conducting the memorial service resounded in my mind as silent tears streamed down my cheeks, “If we do not do something to remember, it’s not a shame on the fallen, but a shame on us.” The crowd dispersed in silence. This memory will forever be seared in my mind.

Memorial Day isn't just a day off from work to go shopping and drink with our friends. We remember.

Signs You're About to Have an Experience You Never Thought

“We are doing this one, right?” I wishfully pointed to the map of a hike labeled three hours duration. “Oh, no. We are doing this longer one. We can tackle it in half the time, then cook hotdogs for dinner.” I read the estimated hike time he mentioned. SIX to EIGHT hours! It was already 7:30 p.m. No dinner. I reluctantly turned to follow the group. This was the first sign.
I guess I'll follow

We journeyed up the inclined steps of the path. Save for the mosquitos buzzing around my head, I enjoyed gazing at the vibrant green plants with bursts of colorful flowers. I noticed the amount of descending hikers, several forced to sit and rest due to exhaustion. What did I get myself into? The second sign.

We hiked at a steady, quick pace. A cleared area of brush indicated a vantage point. I walked toward the edge to see the immensity of Exit Glacier. The wavering lines of the crevasses beheld beautiful colors of cerulean, grey, and white. Was this real life? Another sign.
Exit Glacier

“Just get to the top,” I kept murmuring and chanting to myself as a mantra to keep my hangry (angry hunger) symptoms at bay. Now above the treeline, the vibrant green flora turned to heather (think Scottish Highlands), which turned to rocks and dirt, which turned into SNOW! This South Texas girl experienced snow four times in twenty-seven years! Curse words sprinkled my mantra. A sign for what was to come.
We literally climbed a mountain!

I trudged and mumbled along the slippery, snowy path. Loud thuds immediately put me on alert for bears until I looked up to see a giant rock barreling down the mountainside towards the path! Frozen in my place, the rock bounced right over the path fifteen feet from me. Did something not want us there? A sign.

It was midnight, the sun did not set, but was at the correct position to paint the snow all shades of pink, orange, and purple. And there it was. We walked up to the magnificence of the Harding Ice Field expanding for hundreds of miles across the horizon. The massive breadth of it all overwhelmed, consumed, and dizzied me with emotion. I was speechless and humbled by the painted colors of the sun, the majesty of the mountain peaks, and the quiet stillness of mother nature showcasing her best attributes.
Harding Ice Field

I never expected to experience nature in that way, nor to journey up a mountain to then declare that it marked one of my favorite adventures to date. Though there may be signs that beckon you to quit, the journey of persistence will surely reward.

Photos courtesy of Darren Drake.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

A Cheat Sheet for Making the Most of Your Cruise! #cruisehacks (Part 2)

Here is the continuation of our cruise hacks! Remember, if you have any more ideas, leave a comment and let me know! (Disclaimer, I have only been on Carnival Cruises, let me know if there is anything different that must be included in this post).

Drink/Soda Card:  In my opinion is not worth it. Come on, you're going to be in your bathing suit most of the day, do you really need that gaseous drink to make you look more bloated? The sun bathing will be dehydrating, you will need WATER, not soda. But okay, I'll get off my soap box. If you have an addiction, then go for it. Now this card does NOT include alcohol and this is where the cruises get you. Alcohol is so expensive! The waiters will be walking around with delicious-looking drinks and you will rack up an incredible tab by the end of the day. I'm not sure if you can buy alcohol at the ports of call and bring it on the ship.

Housekeeping: You will almost always have the same housekeepers throughout your trip. These people are from countries around the world, so get to know them! Many of them are working to earn money to support their families at home. Once again, tip them well, treat them with the respect they deserve, and they will take extra care of you and get you everything you need! Most nights you will come back to an artistic towel sculpture waiting for you on your turned back bed.

Days at Sea: Days at Sea can be treacherous for some people because they dislike being "trapped" on a boat. However, cruise lines have absolutely FANTASTIC activities scheduled to cure just that! From fitness rooms with group exercise classes, spas, outdoor track/basketball court/climbing wall, to fantastic pools with slides, etc!
If those activities don't suit your fancy, dance classes (two-step, ballroom, salsa) are sometimes offered during the day. The Duty Free store on the ship offers a nice shopping experience. Also, raffles are always taking place alongside bingo.....Now these are not only fun, but worth it! My mom won TWO, yes I said TWO free cruises! One through a raffle, the other through Bingo! You can only imagine the excitement that erupted from my large family (mom, dad, brother, brother's family of 5 kids, my sister, and me). IT was a great time.
Go see the spectacular culinary showcases that are offered. For one, you get to see a part of the gigantic kitchens, two, these people are artists!!!!!! It's AMAZING what they can do (plus you can thank them for creating your delicious meals every night).

Mealtimes: Depending on the size of your party, you may be seated at a table with other travelers for mealtimes. This is a great chance to meet some interesting people! You will definitely be seeing them every night of your cruise, so be friendly and get to know them! Your table will be assigned a waiter who will serve you every time you eat a meal at the formal dining room. Tip generously and treat this person with the respect s/he deserves, and you may get an extra steak, shrimp, or melting chocolate lava cake (OMG by far my fav dessert).
You have the ability to eat breakfast and dinner in the"formal" dining room, where you will sit at a set table and your waiter will take your orders. Or you have the choice of having breakfast (if you get up in time) and lunch at the less formal cafeteria-style area. Don't expect anything spectacular besides the common breakfast foods and typical "kid-type" lunch foods, including hamburgers, hot dogs, etc. At night, a pizzeria normally opens up, and sometimes crepes or other kind of "dessert" may be featured.

Nightlife: You may be thinking, what night life? But yes, there is nighttime entertainment!!! The shows and productions the dance troupe puts on in the main theater are high quality (I seriously considered auditioning, but didn't think I could spend nine months on a ship). Drinks are served during the show!
If this kind of entertainment doesn't appeal to you, visit the many bars on the ship. From piano bars to nightclubs, you'll find it all. Different themed bars call for different drinks! After the shows are finished, many times the dancers will join passengers at the nightclubs to let off some steam. I dare you to dance with them, or just have a conversation.
And of course, I cannot overlook, the casinos!!!!!!!!!!!! If this is your cup of tea, you can stay here all day and all night!
At the end of your night of dancing, room service is often open late, so get yourself a PB&J and a glass of water to avoid a hangover and be refreshed for the next morning!

At the end of your trip, getting your luggage is a little stressful and takes a long time. Be patient. Irate people just make things worse.

These are the #cruisehacks I have for you so far! If you have any more that your think should be included, leave a comment!

A Cheat Sheet for Making the Most of Your Cruise! #cruisehacks (Part One)

As spring break rolls around and this awful weather keeps sticking around, many people are escaping Jack Frost by going on cruises! I've been on several cruises in the Caribbean and would like to share some things I learned/wish I knew before my first cruise. (Disclaimer, I've only been on Carnival Cruises...)

Carnival Cruise in Cozumel (circa 2008)

Cheapest Cabin: The cheapest room are those that are on the lowest passenger deck on the "inside" (meaning no windows or decks). In my opinion these are the best cabins mostly because I'm the type of traveler who rarely spends any time in my room. Just to sleep, shower, and get ready. On a cruise, you will spend most of your time out on the sunny, warm deck or doing excursions or other activities at the designated ports of call. Sign up for a cruise liner's email list to get last minute deals! If you are a spontaneous traveler, I've heard you can walk up to the ship the night before or morning of and get fantastic deals (since the cruises always try to fill to capacity), although you may run the risk of there being no available rooms, too.

Preparation: Be sure to pack Dramamine or some kind of seasickness medicine. Depending on the size of the ship, you may feel it move slightly more. Look at the schedule to see the evening events. Most cruises do a formal night, so a nice dress or suit may need to be included on your packing list.

Check-in/First Day: Just like an airport, checking in for the cruise creates long lines. Being irritable doesn't make any line go faster. Be prepared with all necessary documents before you step up to the counter. Get there early! That way you can start enjoying all the fantastic amenities a cruise ship has to offer.
When you get on, don't get too comfortable any certain place because you will be called in to a safety meeting and you MUST wear your life vest. Just so you know, depending on the deck your cabin is depends where you will meet.
On the first cruise I went on, I was not aware it takes quite awhile to get your luggage delivered to your room. So while the experienced cruisers were already sun bathing on the deck, I was inside waiting for my bag. Lesson learned! Pack a small carry-on sized bag with all sun bathing essentials: bathing suit, flip flops, sunscreen, hat, book, and a relaxed attitude.

Excursions:  On the first day, the main deck will be packed with people wanting to sign up for excursions. On the first cruise vacation I went on with my family, we didn't know which excursions were offered, the price, etc. etc., so we not only took time to look through the pamphlet to choose, but then we (meaning my awesome dad), got stuck in the very long line to sign up. Also, availability may be an issue if you wait too long. Once again, taking away time from being able to enjoy the sun!!!! Excursions are a hit or miss. They are definitely over-priced, however, they are less of a hassle and they may be worth the convenience if you are needing that.
OR, you can do some research ahead of time about the ports of call, hustle out to town and find a taxi to go on your own excursion that YOU planned. My family chose to do this on one of the cruises and it resulted in an excellent day at the beach!
Always remember, don't put yourself in a situation that will make you a victim. If it looks sketchy, it probably is.

(Part 2 to come soon!)