Take A Trip: Australia

I count myself lucky to be an American who’s had the pleasure of visiting Australia more than once. I’ve been twice now, both times for work, but with some fun sprinkled in. I won’t bore you with the details of the trips, per se, but instead will focus on the cool stuff I got to do along the way.

Before we get into the parts of Australia, here’s a few tips overall:

  • Check your visa needs before you go! You will get stopped at the airport (at least in the US/UK) if you don’t. If you’re coming from the US (and likely many other countries), you have to apply online for the visa ahead of time and pay a fee ($20 AUD). It doesn’t take long to grant the visa (less than 24-hours) and it’s electronic, but you still have to do it before you go. If you aren’t sure what visa requirements apply to you, one of my favorite sources is cibtvisas.com. Just put in where you’re coming from, going to and the country of your passport and voila!
  • Don’t count on American Express. My employer uses Amex for our corporate cards (which is a super nice perk and I’m very grateful for it!), but 90% of everyday places in Australia don’t take it. (Yes, the nicer restaurants / establishments tend to.) When I’m there and not doing stuff for work, I’d prefer to live like a local, which means going into small bakeries or hitting street sales. American Express is not your friend at these places. Make sure you’re traveling with Visa or Mastercard and ideally a chip card. Tapping to pay is also a common thing, so if you’ve got data on your phone, that’ll work. If you prefer to use cash, I’m a fan of just withdrawing money from an ATM with my bank card (vs. exchanging USD somewhere). I’ve never had an issue with it in Australia and with my bank, some ATMs are even free of charge!
  • Coffee is never regular (American) coffee. You will be hard pressed to find drip coffee in any part of the country, but if you like espresso, try a long black. Otherwise, find somewhere that offers french press coffee (even this is hard to come by). However, if you like espresso, get excited because they have TONS of amazing espresso for your enjoyment.
  • If you can manage business class (or find an amazing fare), DO IT! Coming from pretty much anywhere, the flight to Australia is worth the business class investment. For US folks, it’s basically a minimum of 14 hours and depending on where you live, you’ll probably need to tack on a few hours to get to a city where flights down under depart. I’ve flown through Vancouver, CAN, Houston, TX and Los Angeles, CA. All were pretty easy, but the flight times for the long leg varied a bit – LAX was 14 hours, YVR was 16 and IAH was 17. So, as stated, business class is WORTH IT. The food is amazing, the alcohol helps with sleeping and, oh yea, depending on who you fly with, you will 100% get a lay flat bed and maybe, just maybe, a pillow topper for that bed and PAJAMAS!!! Not to mention, you’ll get lounge access at the airport (so free food and drinks and a quiet, clean place to hang out). I recently flew United Polaris and the experience was insane. Here’s a few pics to show you what I mean:

(the cart shown was bringing around dessert – there were tiers of delicious treats and an ice cream sundae option as well; you can see the provided bedding and pajamas on the long haul flight; the food shown was on my flight to Houston before I picked up my long leg…so this was just basic first class food! I don’t have any Polaris food pics, but rest assured, it was fantastic.)

Sydney (NSW)

First up, Sydney, in the state of New South Wales. This is the major city for Australia, and where you will most likely fly into or through depending on your final destination in Australia or, in many cases, New Zealand. Sydney is BEAUTIFUL and has lots of great things to offer both in, around and not-completely-far from the city.

First, some general notes about Sydney:

  • There are two parts to the city itself: the CBD (Central Business District), which is on the South side of the bridge and North Sydney, which is on the….north side of the bridge. By “the bridge” I, of course, mean the Sydney Harbour Bridge, one of the most iconic bridges in the world. (I think I might have a thing for bridges…). The CBD is definitely more active than North Sydney, but there is some neat stuff on the north side of the city that I recommend below (I stayed on the north side for work).
  • Public transit is great. I HIGHLY recommend getting an Opal card when you arrive. You can get them lots of places, including the train station at the airport. An Opal card makes it easy to use public transit to get into and around the city. The cab/uber ride from the airport into the city can get pretty pricey even though it’s only a 20-30 minute ride. The train is like $10-12 AUD. Anyway, the Opal card is great because you can use it for busses, trains, and ferries (all of which you should try – they are all easy to navigate especially if you have GoogleMaps or similar (or are familiar with reading timetables online)).
  • There are lots of neat neighborhoods just outside the city, including Bondi, Manly and Neutral Bay. Some are best to get to by Ferry (Manly), train (Neutral Bay), or bus (Bondi) – just really depends on where you’re coming from / going. Explore all options and see more of the greater city area than just downtown / the harbour.
  • Sydney isn’t really that far from great natural areas. Obviously, the ocean runs along the east side of the city with the very large harbour in the middle, but just about 2 hours slightly north and mostly west on a train and you’re in the gorgeous Blue Mountains region. It’s definitely worth the train ride out, but more about that below.
  • There are luggage lockers around the city where you can drop your bags when you first arrive or before you leave (if you can’t yet check-in to or have already checked out of your hotel). I think we paid maybe $15 to have our luggage stored for several hours before our evening flight out. This was great because it allowed us to roam around the city freely! We used this place, but there are lots of options.

Okay, now, let’s get into recommendations. This is by no means an exhaustive list (I am only one person who can only do so much!), but these were the things I did, and enjoyed, whilst there.

  • Botanic Gardens – this is a great ‘when you arrive’ activity. You can do as much or as little walking as you’d like – there are spots to just chill on the grass by the water, or you can wind your way through the miles of pathway. It’s also right by the Opera House, so two birds, one stone.
    • For Americans, you’ll get in usually pretty early in the morning. Hopefully you’ve caught some shuteye on the plane and can stay up for the day because that’s the goal. When you land, stay up as long as possible, ideally until at least early evening, and then go to bed and sleep until morning. This should get you acclimated within a day. PS, coming back to the states SUCKS and the jetlag is way worse so just prepare yourself. At least you won’t be tired on your vacation. 🙂
  • Opera House – this is right at Circular Quay, the central ferry terminal for Sydney (this is also a central spot to pick up a train, bus or cab). Quay is pronounced as key. Anyway, you have to see this while you’re there – you almost can’t NOT see it, so that’s good. But if you aren’t in the city, make it a point to get there to see it in person. It is both bigger and smaller than you think it’s going to be. It’s also apparently amazing to actually see shows in. I didn’t, but a colleague of mine did and really enjoyed it.
    • Note, there are lots of nice restaurants around this area. Sydney Cove Oyster Bar is quite yummy, although a little pricey. There’s also some shopping, although if you’re looking for a souvenir shop, I’d actually recommend just waiting until the airport on your way home. I found the airport prices to be cheaper than the stores in the city AND they had all the same stuff (maybe even more / better options!).
  • Syndey Harbour Bridge walk – this is simple and free – walk from the CBD to North Sydney (or the other way around) at least once. You will have beautiful views of the water, bridge and city. You could do the Sydney Harbour Bridge climb, where you go up and over the bridge, but it’s somewhat pricey (I saw anywhere from $260-$400 AUD). I opted for the free version, although maybe someday if I’m ever back there, I’ll give it a go.
  • The Rocks Market – Every Saturday and Sunday you can find a little street fair market in The Rocks. This is an area to the Southeast of the bridge right by the water / docks. If you start at Circular Quay and you’re facing the ferry station, it’s to your left – follow the pathway around until you get just past the Art Museum and head up the hill toward the cobblestone road. You should see lots of stalls with handicrafts, clothing, art and food. If you aren’t there for the weekend, there are still lots of cute little restaurants and shops in this area.
  • Helicopter Ride over the city – my husband was able to come out during my first trip to Sydney and we did this together. There were INCREDIBLE views of all parts of the city and it really wasn’t all that expensive (maybe like $150 AUD per person, which with the conversion at the time was only like $115 / person for 15 minutes in the air). Here are some pics to show you why you should do it. We used Blue Sky Helicopters and took public transit to get there. That was a little bit sketchy, as we had to walk near a highway and around the airport, but we managed. The tour company was great – we were in a mixed group with two other couples and my husband got to ride up front with the pilot, so had probably the best view out of everyone!
  • Bondi Beach – we decided to rent bikes from Bronte (one neighborhood over) and ride to Bondi Beach. It was an absolutely incredible and enjoyable ride until we went downhill a TON and got to the bottom and realized we’d have to ride back up 🙂 That said, it wasn’t that bad and was totally worth it because the Icebergs Club and Bondi Beach are both beautiful. We happened upon the annual Sculpture by the Sea event, which is right near Bondi Beach in the cliffs and it was really cool. It was pretty packed, so beware that could be the case for you, but it’s every year right at the beginning of summer (so end of October / beginning of November – different hemisphere).
    • Coogee to Bondi walk – I have not done this myself, but I’ve heard from others who have that it’s amazing. It is an urban coastal walk which takes you on a 6 km hike/walk.
  • Manly Beach – this is a must-do in my opinion. If I were to live in Sydney, I’d definitely live in Manly. There is a great beach, shopping and tons of awesome restaurants and cafes. There is also a lot of hiking and other outdoor sport to do! And, it’s only a 20-30 minute ferry ride, with more great views, from Circular Quay. Please note, you can use your Opal card for either the normal ferry (30-minute ride, cheaper fare) or the Manly Fast Ferry (20-minute ride, $9.10 fare as of Nov. 2018); both have bars. Some of my favorite places in Manly are:
    • Hugos – this is right at the ferry terminal when you come in, but it’s also on the water. It’s an Italian restaurant with really fun cocktails (and even cocktail jugs – I had the apple / watermelon one and it was DELICIOUS) and yummy plates to share.
    • Manly Greenhouse – I went here for afternoon cocktails on a Sunday and it was jamming at the 3rd floor bar. However, this is where it’s at. It’s an open air spot with fantastic views of the water. They also have really fun cocktails and even pretty good “bar food,” which is much better than American bar food. We got arancini with fresh provolone inside, white bait (these are tiny little fish – you eat the whole thing tip to tail), and fat chips. Even the chips (aka fries) were great and they came with a really good aioli.
    • The Pantry – this place is right on Manly Beach (not across the road where the majority of places are) so it has unobstructed views of the open water. It’s pretty spectacular. They also have really nice food and you can get cocktails.
  • Manly to the Spit Bridge hike – if you do decide to make it over to Manly, which you should, then you could make your way back toward the city on the Manly to the Spit Bridge urban coastal hike. This is a 10km walk up and down the coast from Manly to Mosman. It is definitely a little bit intense in some parts, and it is pretty long, so be smart about if/when you go. Make sure to take plenty of water, wear sunscreen and dress for the weather. I made the trek on a beautiful 80 degree day and really enjoyed it, but I definitely was sweating up a storm and the sun was beating down on me. In hindsight, probably should’ve worn a hat. You can pick up this hike at either end – if you start at the Spit Bridge (probably a better starting point than a finish, because after you finish in Manly you could enjoy a drink or food and there’s not much near the bridge in Mosman), take the stairs beneath the bridge to pick up the trail. If you start in Manly, when you come out of the ferry terminal, turn left and follow the path behind the little beach there. You’ll see signs periodically to let you know you’re on the right path. At one point, I did have to ask someone for directions, but he was an incredibly friendly Aussie who told me exactly where to go to pick it back up.
  • Mr. Wong – this is a restaurant in the CBD. They don’t accept reservations unless it’s for a large group, so if you want to go, I recommend showing up right when they open so you can get a seat quickly. Otherwise, you’re in for a long wait. This place is a really cool and delicious Chinese restaurant. Definitely opt to share plates – we did a chef’s special steamed dim sum to start and then a veggie, a rice and two meats to share for our main (amongst 3 people) and it was the perfect amount. It is a pricier restaurant, but everything I’ve had there has been excellent (I went on both of my trips…so that might tell you something…)
    • On my recent trip, we wanted to go for a nightcap after dinner, so we headed to Tank Stream bar around the corner. They were closing, but directed us to this basement speakeasy around the corner (that, coincidentally, is attached to Mr. Wong through a door in the lower level) called Palmer and Co. It had a very cool 1920s vibe and really good cocktails to boot.
  • O Bar and Dining – the hubs and I have started to develop a thing for revolving restaurants (well, maybe I just like them and he goes along with it…I don’t know) but we went to our first one in Seattle at the Space Needle and had the pleasure of visiting one of the TWO rotating restaurants in Sydney, O Bar and Dining. From what I’ve heard, this is the better of the two (it’s in tall, circular office building, not the Westfield tower). The food was absolutely amazing and I got to visit this spot on both trips as well (we had a work event there one night on my recent trip). It is definitely on the pricey side, but with the 360 degree-view of the city every 80 minutes, it’s worth it. Plus, did I mention how good the food was?!

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  • Flaky Tart Bakery – this is on the north side of the city just over the Harbour bridge. If you decide to make that walk and are looking for a little snack before you head back to the CBD, hit up this little spot. Go down the stairs and turn right toward the road and then right again before the road. It will be directly on your right-hand side (you may or may not have to cross under the bridge, depending on which side you walked over on). I went there one morning for breakfast and had a fantastic quiche with ham and a fresh-from-the-oven, still-warm doughnut that really changed the whole outlook of my day.
  • Whale watching – this is only a good idea during certain parts of the year when the whales are likely migrating along the coast, but if you are there during the peak season, it’s a fun time. I can’t find the name of the company we went out with, but there are lots to choose from. Our boat was a pretty small, but very fast, one. I would not recommend if you get easily seasick – take a bigger boat out. We had a great time and got to see a few different whales while we were out.
  • The Blue Mountains – if you’ve got an extra day, fit this in. It’s a 2-hour train journey from the city, but the train ride itself is quite scenic and is very smooth. We grabbed breakfast and enjoyed it on the train and just hung out. When we arrived, we booked a bus tour which took us to a number of scenic spots. One of the best stops was Scenic World, which allows you to take a few gondola rides and this super steep train-like ride down the mountain. It would be a great place to take kids too! There are also some neat antique shops in town if you’re looking for more shopping. And then you can take a nap to recover from the day on your train ride back to the city.

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Melbourne (VIC)

I have almost no records of my time here (it was only ~2 days total), so I can’t tell you what I ate or drank or enjoyed (but do have some pics below), but here’s what I will say: Melbourne (pronounced by the locals as Melbun with the emphasis on the Mel) is a very cool city. It is a little more artsy / funky / laidback and is supposed to have one of the greatest coffee scenes in the world. So, if you have some extra time or want to city hop, I’d recommend this as an option.

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Great Barrier Reef (Cairns, Australia, QLD)

When the hubs came out to join me on my first trip, we decided it’d be a real shame NOT to visit the Great Barrier reef. It is dying, after all. So, we stayed for a few days in Sydney before heading up to Cairns, a coastal city that has lots of options for getting out to the GBR. I wouldn’t recommend the place we stayed (it was a bit of a dive hotel, but it was cheap), but this is a cool little town. Though they don’t have a proper beach for lounging, they do have tons of souvenir shopping and lots of options for getting out to the reef. We used Down Under Dive and had a great experience. We did two rounds of scuba diving and some snorkeling. It was our first time with scuba and it was such a fun experience. We definitely want to try it elsewhere.

Throughout our entire time in Cairns, we walked everywhere. It’s a very small town and easy to navigate on foot. A few places of note in Cairns:

  • Four Cinq – this was a really good ramen place we went one evening. If you like ramen, I would definitely recommend it because it’s actually authentic.
  • Foot and Body by Healing Touch – this was in the Orchid Plaza shopping centre. My  hubs and I got a couples massage for super cheap and it was really good. We walked out of there feeling dazed because we felt so relaxed.
  • The Esplanade Lagoon- this is right by the water and is a massive pool / kids water play area.

Finally, I’ll leave you with my personal recommendations on the best souvenirs to bring back home with you:

  • Timtams – these are an Australian cookie treat. There are tons of different flavors. This time I brought home caramel and mint chocolate chip and both were soooo good. You can buy these at any grocery store.
  • Kangaroo scrotum coin pouch – these are a huge hit with the family back home because they are so bizarre. And don’t worry, Aussies eat kangaroo meat (and they are kind of a nuisance like deer are in certain parts of the US), so nothing is going to waste. You can buy these at any souvenir shop / most shops in the airport.
  • Other Kangaroo leather products – shoes, glove, wallets, etc. You can buy these goods at many souvenir and airport shops.
  • Wine – Australia is known for its many wine regions, so there are lots of options to choose from. You can buy from one of the numerous wine shops around the city.
  • Aboriginal art – this work is often characterized by a dot painting technique and makes for very cool artwork. You can buy at one of the many galleries in the city or from souvenir shops.
  • Casey’s Chocolates – this might be harder to find, but I met this guy at a street sale in Manly on a Saturday and he let me sample (and ultimately sold me) some super delicious chocolate that he makes. It is all dairy-free and it’s quite a treat.

If you want more ideas or to chat through anything you’re planning, leave a comment below! I’m by no means an expert on Australia or Sydney, but I do have some base knowledge and lots of friends there who can help with expert advice too!

Take A Trip: San Fran Day By Day

If you aren’t interested in a ton of exposition and storytelling, this isn’t the blog for you. Instead, check out Take A Trip: San Francisco – it’s an abbreviated version of my experience with categorizations, so easier to use for planning a trip of your own!

For those of you who enjoy the story element, let’s go.

Day 1

We arrived on a Saturday morning in October around 10am. We spent far too much time at the airport, but the hubs wanted to change, get breakfast, etc. I exercised an extreme amount of patience and composure (pretty proud, actually) and just sat around reading my book. Before this weekend, I made a commitment to myself: the trip was 100% unexpected fun for me. He got asked to go about 1.5 weeks in advance and immediately asked me to come along. So, it wasn’t something I’d been planning or agonizing over for weeks. The other component was we’d been to the city before – only for a day back in 2015 after a drive up the coast of California (more on that coming soon). It wasn’t a great day, so I was determined to make this time different (both with my planning & attitude). You can read about how I planned my trip in Take A Trip: Planning.

Anyway, we finally got into the city around 11:30 (a Lyft from the San Francisco airport to the Moscone was ~$35). See map below – the location of my hubs’ conference was pretty conveniently located to a luggage locker.

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Since his employer booked him a hotel in Oakland (lower cost – but may actually recommend), I didn’t want to have to get over there to drop my stuff and then get back over to the city to actually have some fun. So, I dropped him and then dropped my suitcase for only $10 for the day.

Before we left, I purchased this backpack since I knew I’d want to do yoga around the city at some point each day. I highly recommend it – my mat felt secure all day, I was able to have other necessities with me (I carried sunscreen, chapstick, money, sweatshirt, in addition to a jacket I started the day by wearing, sunglasses, headphones, charger pack and water bottle), and I was even able to fit anything I purchased while shopping. Regardless of if you want this backpack for a yoga mat, be sure to have a backpack with you; it will be way more comfortable than a purse / stuff in your hands all day.

My first stop after dropping the luggage was Mama’s On Washington. I was pretty hungry at this point, but I decided it was worth the ~35 minute walk to get there and have a delicious brunch. I arrived around probably 12:30, after a very cool walk through a few shopping areas and Chinatown. I did have to wait for about an hour to eat, but it was worth the wait. I enjoyed the French Toast Sampler, which came with 1 piece of Swedish Cinnamon, 1 piece of Lemonberry and 1 piece of Banana Walnut. YUM (well, minus the lemonberry, but I’m not a huge lemon OR berry fan; the Banana Walnut were life-changing)!

Mama’s is also located adjacent to a cute park – this would have been a good spot to stop and do yoga or just chillax. However, while I was waiting in line to get in, I noticed lots of signs for something called Coit Tower. After a quick google, I discovered it proclaimed to have some of the best 360 views of the city. Yes, please! After brunch, I made the short (~10 minute) walk up there…yes….UP there. It’s a bit of a steep walk, so be advised.

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Once there, I decided this was the spot for me to do yoga. The view was beautiful – on one side, you could see the Golden Gate and on the other, the Bay Bridge. Nice.

 

Then it was down to the Ferry Marketplace building – this is at the end of the Embarcadero. There is a TON to do on this road – it’s where all the piers are. There’s even a museum. I will say, the walk down from Coit Tower is incredibly cool. I went down a ton of steps through little gardens/courtyards between houses on hills and then a long staircase at a steep drop off point. Plus, I happened upon and through the Levi campus.

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I wandered around the Ferry Marketplace building for a while and ended up making a purchase at Dandelion Chocolate. There are places to eat in here, but I was still pretty satisfied from my brunch (and the one place I went there to try, Biscuit Bender, had already closed up shop for the day). One good thing of note is this place is teeming with (people and) samples!

After the Ferry Marketplace, I headed back toward the Moscone and happened through a cute little street sale. This happened a few times over the course of the weekend – they seem to set up shop randomly, yet regularly, around the city. Once I met up with the hubs, he wasn’t feeling great, so we decided to head across the bridge and check into our hotel. We also made the decision to stay on the Oakland side for dinner, rather than trying to get back INTO San Francisco on a Saturday night.

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In Oakland, we enjoyed Sobo Ramen for dinner – we ordered through Caviar and had it delivered to our hotel, which was awesome. We sat in bed and ate soup – this definitely helped the hubs perk up, which was great for lots of reasons, but mainly because I was able to then convince him to go out for ice cream later. We enjoyed Cookiebar Creamery (just a short walk from our hotel) – I had an ice cream sandwich with one double chocolate and one peanut butter cookie and banana oreo ice cream and he had a pina colada vegan treat.

Day 2

Before leaving Oakland, we hit up Blue Bottle Coffee. He wanted to stop and get breakfast before he got to his conference and they were just a short walk from our hotel. It was a very fancy coffee place – we both got drip coffee, which I wasn’t immensely impressed with, and he got a chia pudding. It seems to be a small chain, as I saw others in the city, but I feel there are better coffee spots than it.

We then got an earlier start into the city via Lyft (in hindsight, we may have just taken the train each day, as this was insanely easy – we discovered this on Monday) and I was on my own by about 8:30am. My first stop was Mr. Holmes Bakehouse. It was about a ~20-minute walk from the Moscone (full walk not pictured below – I must have started my walk tracker late. As a note, I used Google Maps for all my walking/biking directions and Map My Run for capturing my walk/bike routes the entire trip.).

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I ordered a few things (per the recommendation I saw on other blogs – try more than one thing): bourbon pecan sticky bun, a pumpkin pie cheesecake doughnut, a mango lime doughnut, and a matcha croissant (sorry, no pic). We thoroughly enjoyed all of it (I saved 2 items for the hubs), but the bourbon pecan sticky bun was, by far, the best.

I wanted somewhere to enjoy my breakfast and get a bit organized before I started the longer walk to The Painted Ladies / Alamo Square Park for yoga. I consulted Google Maps and headed toward Jefferson Square Park. For whatever reason, I was struggling with remembering to turn on Map My Run on Sunday and forgot to record my walk to Jefferson Park and then on to Alamo Square Park, but pretty sure it went something like the below. As an aside, I used Bluetooth earbuds for listening to the turn by turn Google Maps directions alongside listening to a playlist on Spotify. Admittedly, sometimes Google would get a bit lost, but overall it was easy to use.

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At Alamo Square Park, right across from The Painted Ladies, I got inadvertently suckered into a bootcamp class (I was told it was yoga bootcamp – it MOST DEFINITELY was not).

I suffered through it for 45 minutes and then needed to escape, so headed toward Golden Gate Park. Since my plan to do yoga at Alamo Square Park was thwarted, Golden Gate would have to suffice as the new destination. It was a bit of a hike to Golden Gate Park, but most of my walk wound through Panhandle Park, so was incredibly scenic and enjoyable.

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I did manage to find a nice, out of the way spot at Golden Gate Park, but this park was pretty jammin’ with people. Actually – every park / location where I did yoga, it was jammin’ with people. I suppose it is worth mentioning that “jammin’ with people” is San Francisco in a nut shell. I didn’t do yoga at the below spot, but this was a picture-esque spot I captured on my way to my yoga spot.

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Anyway, while winding my way through the park, I saw several signs for a street sale just a few blocks outside the park. I was starting to get a little hungry, so left the park in search of eating and shopping. The street sale was a bust, but on my way there, I passed Nopalito (and was planning to go to Nopa as well, but wasn’t opposed to trying the offshoot), so I doubled back there for lunch.

After lunch, I headed for the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps. It turns out, I made it to the Secret Garden steps, thinking I had reached my destination, and never actually did see the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps. But, the Secret Garden Steps were very nice.

Since I’d already done a TON of walking (about 4 miles before lunch), I was ready for a small rest. I considered my options – although I hadn’t made it to Twin Peaks yet (another park on my list), I wasn’t anywhere near it and it also wasn’t near to much. Also, I ultimately needed to end up back at the Moscone and it was getting late in the day. The hubs would be done with work soon, so I wanted to get back toward that direction-ish. I didn’t originally have it on my list, but I decided to go see the seals at Pier 39. This would have been an INSANE walk, so I broke down and took a Shared Lyft. It was kind of a long ride, but the break helped me gear up for the next activities in my day.

We’d been to Pier 39 on our previous trip, but somehow missed the seals. It was really neat to see – they’re pretty funny so I recommend making the trip (and it’s totally free – bonus!). Plus there’s lots of shopping and dining options. I walked around a bit and ended up picking up a gift for my friend’s son’s birthday and this is also where I discovered Doughp. The night before, the hubs had been talking about getting some cookie dough (he asked if Cookiebar Creamery had it, which they did not). Lo and behold – a place that is entirely safe-to-eat cookie dough. You can even add TOPPINGS! I didn’t, as I just purchased a small container that we could share later. Then I started the journey back toward the Moscone. This ended up being about a 35-minute walk, but it was very scenic and easy.

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That evening, we rented Ford GoBikes. These are super popular around the city – you can find docking / pickup stations lots of places. We rode from the Moscone area to La Taqueria. I read a lot of reviews directing me to go here, so I couldn’t resist. It was a packed place. The seating options were not good. Overall, the experience was NOT enjoyable, but the food was delicious. I would go again, but I’d plan to take it away and eat elsewhere. Afterward, we went to Bi-Rite. I meant to take us to Bi-rite Creamery (they are right down the street from one another) and for the second time in one day, I was duped into going to the wrong place. Again, I had a positive outcome as what I was searching for (pot de creme) was available at the Bi-rite small grocery store we happened upon. It was DELICIOUS. Must get – but would recommend hitting the actual creamery if you’re in search of dessert options.

After that, we headed back over to Oakland and called it a night.

Day 3

We took the bart in ($4.00 from Oakland City Center to Powell Street). It was about a 25-minute experience (a little walking before and after) to get to the Moscone. But, because it was a weekday, we’d been told the traffic would add at least 30 minutes to the commute over, so the subway was a more efficient commute. If I’d realized how easy it was, I probably would have done the same for Sunday morning.

My first stop for the day was Tartine. When we rented the GoBikes the night before, we paid for a 24-hour pass for $10, so I decided to expedite my commute and hopped on a bike. I road it most of the way there, docked and finished on foot.

After a short wait at Tartine, I enjoyed a bacon, spinach and sun-dried tomato quiche with a chocolate torte and a cup of coffee. Like La Taqueria, they had community seating options, but even with a constant line out the door, the seating never got too packed, which was amazing. I was able to sit and watch Last Week Tonight with John Oliver while eating my breakfast.

I then headed to the Lyon Street Steps. I had to take a conference call for work around midday but ultimately wanted to make it out to the Wave Organ. The Lyon Street Steps was somewhat on the way there and is right next to the Presidio, a HUGE park. At the very least, I was sure I could find a quiet spot for my call somewhere around there. As you can tell from the stop-starts below, I kept debating hopping on a GoBike vs. walking. I ultimately ended up walking the whole thing.

SUPER glad I made this addition to my trip. The views were spectacular and the stairs were very cool too. Also, there are incredible mansions to scope out on the way up. It is a very peaceful neighborhood to wander through.

The walk down to the Wave Organ was easy (all down hill). Before I made it to my final destination, I stopped at Crissy Field East Beach for some awesome photos of the Golden Gate Bridge AND to do yoga on the beach, which was awesome. From there, it was just a short, 10-minute walk out to the Wave Organ.

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By that point, I was starting to get hungry, so decided to head to Ike’s for lunch. It was a long walk, ~1 hour, but I decided to listen to one of my audiobooks, which helped to pass the time. One thing I forgot to do for this walk – put sunscreen on my scalp. It was a BEAUTIFUL day, but I got a little pink on my head.

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Ike’s was okay, but I had been there before (which I didn’t realize until I was there). My sandwich was good, don’t get me wrong. I just wish I’d tried somewhere I’d never been. From there, I headed back in the direction of the Moscone. After walking for a bit, I picked up a Ford GoBike and finished that way.

The hubs was stuck at work and had no idea when he’d be free, so I wanted to hang out in that area since it was getting late in the day. I camped out at Contraband Coffee just around the corner and enjoyed an iced coffee and chocolate croissant. It was yummy.

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After we met up, we decided to head back to the Embarcadero, as he wanted to see the piers and water. I wanted to take him to see the seals, so we headed back to Pier 39 via bike. They didn’t have a return terminal right at Pier 39, so we finished on foot.

We saw the seals, did a little more shopping and then had dinner at the Crepe Cafe. I would not go back here, most likely. It wasn’t bad, but there is WAY better food in this city. We had a savory crepe with crab and a sweet crepe with strawberry. After this, we rode back toward our subway stop and took the train back out of the city over to Oakland. Our trip was almost over…

Day 4

Originally I was going to have us try to go into the city early and hit one last place for breakfast. However, with all of our luggage, and feeling sleepy from a jam-packed weekend, we decided to find a super close spot in Oakland. Right next to our hotel was Cafe Gabriela. It was a tiny place, but had good food and coffee. We had the breakfast sandwich, which had an egg, bacon, greens and shaved parmesan.

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We then hopped on the train from Oakland City Center to the San Francisco Airport. It was $10 per person and took about an hour (maybe a little less). Unfortunately, since it was a Tuesday morning around 8:15, and we were heading through the city down to SFO, it was busy with morning commuters for about the first half. But, it was way cheaper and quicker than taking a car.

As I alluded to above, staying in Oakland was actually pretty great. It was easy to get in and out of the city, it was cheaper than a city hotel, and Oakland also has some cool stuff to see and a good food scene. If you’re trying to do the city on a budget, Oakland is probably a great option for you.

All in all, this was a great trip and we really enjoyed ourselves. If you’ve never been, it’s one I’d recommend you add to the list, even just for a short trip like us!

Take A Trip: San Francisco

If you haven’t already, check out the Take A Trip: Planning which is all about how I planned my 3 days in San Francisco. This is the official report out post-trip so I can tell you what I did / didn’t get to and how it all turned out.

Let’s break this down into a few categories for those (like me) who sometimes feel a little tl;dr about blogs:

Where to Eat

  • The following were on my list:
    • Tartine – swapped out from Tuesday to Monday and went there (not sure how I missed that B. Patisserie was closed on Monday when I made my plan); MUST DO. They have crazy desserts, pastries and other baked items there. I had a yummy bacon, spinach and sun-dried tomato quiche with a chocolate torte. I highly recommend you head there early – it can definitely get busy. The tables were self-serve but I was easily able to find a seat around 9:15am. Most people seemed to go in for takeout.
    • Mama’s on Washington – I went here on my first day as planned and walked there from the Moscone. It was about a 40-minute walk, but a cool route through Chinatown. (You can see exactly what I did each day in my upcoming blog Day by Day: San Francisco) I waited in line for about an hour before getting inside and then probably another 10 minutes from there before a table opened up. This place is a well-oiled machine and delicious. I had the french toast sampler, which included Swedish Cinnamon, Banana Walnut and Lemonberry french toast with fresh fruit. If I had to go again, I would have chosen just the Banana Walnut as it was BY FAR the best of the three (although the Swedish Cinnamon was good too but I’m not really a Lemonberry fan). I also had a cup of coffee which was yummy too. All in all, my breakfast experience probably took less time than I waited to have it, but I feel it was worth the wait. Oh, and be prepared for cash or debit only.
    • Mr. Holme’s Bakehouse – this was breakfast / treats on Day 2. It’s in a little bit of a weird area – a bit sketchy around the edges, but it was worth it. I got the iconic ‘insta-shot’ (below), but the real star was the bourbon pecan sticky bun. I got this, along with two donuts (pumpkin pie cheesecake and mango lime) and a matcha croissant (one donut and the croissant were for the hubs – he ate them later on and said both were great). I enjoyed the sticky bun, which was excellent, along with the PPC donut – it was also good, despite the fact that I’m not a huge fan of cheesecake OR pumpkin pie. The flavor wasn’t too overwhelming.
    • B. Patisserie – didn’t make it here; total oversight when planning my agenda, but I slotted it for Monday and lo and behold, it wasn’t actually open on Monday. So I replaced it with Tartine on Monday and added Cafe Gabriela on Tuesday.
    • Biscuit Bender – didn’t make it here either; well, actually, I tried to go on Saturday, but he had closed up shop earlier than Google informed me, so I didn’t get to give it a try. He’s got a table down the hall from the honey place.
    • Top of the Mark – didn’t make it here either either! We ended up with all sorts of mixed up evenings.
    • Mission Beach Cafe – I bit off more than I could chew in terms of walking plans for Sunday, so I didn’t make it here.
    • Nopa – In part, we didn’t hit Nopa because we couldn’t get a reservation and were told the wait was about 1.5 hours without one. I did get to try Nopalito (an offshoot), so read more about that below.
    • La Taqueria – delicious, huge burritos, but don’t plan to eat here. The tables are self-serve and people are absolute vultures with them. You could be standing there with your food and have someone blocking a table for 4 with nothing on it. Or, you could be waiting to grab a table and someone else comes up and just sits down at it. After waiting for probably 20-30 minutes in line to order and then another 10 minutes to eat, I didn’t care for this extra hassle. So, worth the trip for the yummy dinner, but we should have planned an alternate location for enjoying it.
    • Ike’s Place – I went there for lunch on Monday and it was good; I realized I’d previously been there on a trip up the coast of California a few years back, so in hindsight, I wish I’d chosen somewhere more classic San Fran.
    • Cliff House – did not make it – it’s on the opposite side of the city from where most of the action is and they charge a $25 fee per person for reservations if you change your mind; we had somewhat volatile plans / not much control over timing, so ended up deciding to pass on it.
    • Bi-Rite – we hit this spot after La Taqueria (they aren’t too far apart). Be advised that there’s Bi-Rite creamery (which is NOT where I ended up) as well as just Bi-Rite. The good news is that they’re affiliated and the grocery store-esque Bi-Rite where we ended up still had the pot de creme that I was searching for. It was super good. Highly recommend it and would also recommend hitting up the creamery for other good treat options.
    • Beard Papa – went to the one in the Westfield Shopping Center and enjoyed it. The cream puffs are ENORMOUS. The creme brulee was really yummy, as was the coffee original. Definitely a fun place to stop for a sweet treat.
    • Benkyodo Mochi – did not make it due to limited hours on Saturday
    • Dandelion Chocolate – went to the one at the Ferry Marketplace (there are others around the city) and enjoyed tasting a few samples. Ultimately picked up a bag of dairy free toffee for my Grandma for her birthday, so it was a win!
  • The following places were subbed in for the above items we missed:
    • Sobo Ramen – we had this our first night as the husband wasn’t feeling great and wanted to get back to the hotel. Since we were staying in Oakland (his employer’s choice), we decided not to go back and forth across the bay and just did dinner locally. We ordered from Sobo Ramen and had it delivered by Caviar, which was a good choice. The ramen was very good – they had several options along with a build-your-own, which we both went with. I would absolutely go here again – cheap, tasty and quick.
    • Cookiebar Creamery – this didn’t really replace anything, but I was in the mood for dessert and this place claimed to have both good cookies AND ice cream. We went around maybe 7:30pm and unfortunately, they were sold out of many cookie flavors. That said, we did taste a few of their ice cream flavors and enjoyed that. I ended up ordering an ice cream sandwich with banana oreo ice cream (VERY good) between a double chocolate cookie and a peanut butter cookie. It was a winning combination. The hubs had a vegan pina colada “ice cream” which he also enjoyed.
    • Crepe Cafe – do not recommend. This place is at Pier 39, which is mostly ‘touristy’ type food (although Doughp, mentioned below, is also there and was a good choice). My husband loves crepes and wanted to give it a shot, so we split a savory (crab) crepe and a sweet (strawberry) one. They were both okay, but not something I would go and get again.
    • Cafe Gabriela – we did breakfast here before our flight home on Tuesday morning. It was a last minute addition to our itinerary since I did Tartine a day early and we decided to do breakfast in Oakland. It was literally next door to our hotel and, although I felt a bit rush to order when we arrived, it was really good food. We split the egg breakfast sandwich which had baby greens, a fried egg and shaved parmesan on Italian. We also both got coffee, which was good.
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    • Contraband Coffee Bar – this was around the corner from the Moscone and I needed some place to hang out while waiting on the hubs. I got a chocolate croissant and an iced coffee and both were great. I enjoy that this place, as well as many others on this list, serves coffee and treats in/on real dishes.
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    • Nopalito – this was an impulse decision for lunch; I had been wandering around Golden Gate Park and decided to check out this Sunday street sale that I kept seeing signs for. It wasn’t all that great, but I stumbled across this place on the way to it and had a fantastic empanada and Mexican rice here. Would definitely go again.
    • Blue Bottle Coffee – we went here for the hubs to get coffee and breakfast on Sunday morning (I ultimately went to Mr. Holme’s later, but did get coffee here). He had a chia pudding and we both had hot coffee. They were definitely on the pricey side and the coffee wasn’t all that remarkable (one of the less good coffees I had in the city). I wouldn’t necessarily go back.
    • Doughp – not really a sub in, but was at Pier 39 and saw this and had to stop. My hubs had just been talking about wanting safe to eat cookie dough and that’s exactly what this place is! They offered a variety of rotating flavors along with toppings. Or, you can get a to-go container of just the dough.

What to Do

  • The following places were on my original list to visit:
    • Ferry Building Marketplace – this place consists of many small shops to walk around and peruse. I enjoyed walking through here, but be advised that it can be on the busier side on the weekends. It’s right on the water on Embarcadero.
    • Alcatraz – we didn’t make it here because our plans were a bit up in the air and tickets eventually sold out before we could get them; even for a Monday in October, it still sold out, so highly advise that you pre-purchase in advance if you can.
    • Wave Organ – I didn’t get to hear any real music or sounds here, but it has a great view of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge and is just a neat, natural hang out spot.
    • 16th Ave Tiled Steps – not sure I actually saw these as I was following directions to them and happened upon some tiled steps. I assumed it was these, but turns out it was actually the Secret Garden Steps (below). Don’t get confused like I did!
    • North Beach – I’m sure I wondered around down here at some point, although not sure there is necessarily anything specific from this area that I’d recommend.
    • Parks – I hit up quite a few on Sunday in the following order: Jefferson Square Park (where I enjoyed my breakfast from Mr. Holme’s Bakehouse), Alamo Square Park (where I suffered through an unexpected boot camp in front of the Painted Ladies), followed by Panhandle Park, which was on my way to Golden Gate Park (they sort of connect). Then, on Monday, I popped by Presidio and Crissy Field East Beach (below).
  • The following places were sporadic decisions to visit:
    • Secret Garden Steps – really, I was aiming for the 16th Ave Tiled Steps and ended up here by mistake. I had already left the area by the time I realized I never made it to the right place. But, these were still super cool to look at and climb!
    • Pier 39 Sea Lions – for whatever reason, we missed these on our first trip to San Fran and I’m glad I saw them this time. It’s such a hilarious spectacle. Plus, then you’re at Pier 39 if you want to see the touristy restaurants / shops or hit up Doughp from above.
    • Crissy Field East Beach – this is a MUST DO; this spot had great views of the Golden Gate Bridge and was super peaceful. There are a few sandy beach areas along with some stone seating and a walking path.
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    • Coit Tower – I happened to be just down the street from this after brunch at Mama’s on Washington, so decided to walk my way up there (less than 10 minutes). I didn’t end up going into the tower, but even views from the small park are beautiful. I did yoga on the grass, which was very calming.
    • Lyon Street Steps – I was looking for something to do on Monday afternoon to get me from my breakfast spot in Mission Hill to the beach for the Wave Organ. Plus, I needed to take a call for work, so needed a somewhat quiet, out of the way place. Somehow, I landed on the Lyon Street Steps. This area, right between Pacific Heights and Cow Hollow, butts up against Presidio (a MASSIVE park at the northwestern corner of the peninsula). It’s a very high-end neighborhood with old, tightly packed mansions that have a pretty spectacular view of the bay. Walking the streets around this area was enjoyable in itself, but when I got to the stairs, the view was breathtaking. The stairs themselves are actually nicely designed too with greenery, so overall, it’s a very peaceful place to enjoy.

Tips & Advice

  • Be prepared to wait. This could mean in traffic (a given) or in line (many restaurants operate in this way and don’t offer reservations). San Francisco is a big city with lots of people and lots of visitors, so there’s always a lot going on.
  • Walk around. I’ve been there now both on foot and in car and I would highly recommend giving on foot a shot. That seems obvious, but with the traffic and crazy roads, you really miss a lot by being restricted to four wheels. By bike is also a nice alternative if you want to go a further distance in the city. They now have Ford GoBikes, which are a good and easy option, as well as rentable scooters that will let you zip around town.
  • Eat a lot. As you can tell from the above, there is no shortage of yummy food options. Make the most of it and try EVERYTHING.
  • Carry cash. There are many places that only take cash or debit, and even some pop-up markets that you’ll see around town that it’s just easier to have cash for.
  • Use public transit. At least when you’re crossing from Oakland to San Fran or even trying to get to the airport. Morning rush hour on weekdays adds about 30 minutes just to cross the Bay Bridge and a train ride into the city is only $4, which is much cheaper than Uber or Lyft.

Take a Trip: Planning

I found out a few days ago that I’m going to San Francisco for fun. If that sounds ridiculous, it kind of is, but basically the hubs got asked to go for work and asked me along. What S.O. in their right mind would say no?! So I’m going. We’ve been to San Francisco once before, but were only there for a day. Admittedly, it wasn’t a great day – I don’t really remember why, I just remember having a stressful, grouchy day.

This time around, I’m gonna have fun. To do that, I figured I should probably get an idea of what to do to maximize my trip and squeeze the most out of the city that I could in three days. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, follow the steps I took to plan this out:

  • Document your parameters – I knew I’d have time to kill alone during the day while my hunny is working, so I needed a list of activities and places to eat at all times of the day; also, we’d be staying in Oakland, so I wanted to fill my days with a variety of activities so I wouldn’t have to traipse back and forth across the bay to the hotel. Finally, I would have most of the day Saturday, all day Sunday and Monday and super early morning on Tuesday before our flight back home.
  • Do the research – I went down the rabbit hole (read: pinterest & google) for a solid day and a half / two days. I took screenshots of stuff that looked good, made notes on my phone, pinned, etc. Once I had a solid idea of things to do and places to try, I wrote them all down along with their hours of operation and grouped them into the following categories (see example here – page 1):
    1. Breakfast spots
    2. Dinner spots
    3. Any meal spots
    4. Treats
    5. Things to do
  • Map your options – even though San Francisco isn’t a huge city (42 square miles), I still wanted to try to organize my time in a way that made logical location sense. That way, I could spend more time experiencing different parts of the city rather than getting there (this was a problem from the first time there – we basically just drove around all day, although it was in a convertible which was cool). To do this, I used Google Maps to create a map of my own (you have to be signed into google to save it). This site has really simple instructions to do it. It came out like this:

San Francisco Ideas

  • Plan your days – For this, see page 2 here. I kept my days blocked roughly and made notes about what/where and if I needed to do anything to finalize the plan. I may or may not end up getting to everything on the list, but I’m pretty excited for the trip and feeling well-prepared and motivated to start each day early and really absorb and enjoy every moment to the max!

As an aside, the real truth is that when I did this activity, it looked like the below (okay, it WAS the below). I decided to clean it up and make / share useful tools and better ways to do it instead.

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Take a Trip: Royal Caribbean Bahamas Weekend Cruise

This cruise was a celebration/gift for my sister’s 40th birthday. It was a girls’ trip and included my mom, two sisters and my niece (the adult daughter of the 40-year-old).  This trip was bound to be good no matter what because I love these 4 ladies; they’re probably my favorite people to be with. However, our choice of a cruise with Royal Caribbean to these destinations really made it over-the-top awesome.

If you check out my Large Group Getaway Planning: Make It Work, you can learn all about how I tackle working with a number of parameters for booking a trip with lots of parties involved. For this trip, I was working with the following:

  • Must be during summer (3 teachers in our bunch); ideally between July 22 – August 2 for various reasons
  • 3 or 4 nights max (both of my sisters have kids, so being away for too long can be tough on the hubs who also have to work)
  • Must be Royal (obvs – we’ve been Royal snobs since our first cruise in 2003)
  • Must go somewhere tropical

That left us with a few choices and ultimately we landed on the Mariner of the Seas out of Miami to Cococay, Royal’s private island, and Nassau, Bahamas. As a bonus, we learned that the Mariner was undergoing refurbishment and that we’d be sailing on the upgraded boat only a few months after it was removed from dry docks. It was AWESOME. More on that later.

For this trip, we were trying to keep costs low because we all had other vacations over the summer that we had to budget for, so we pooled miles to get airline tickets. Thankfully, we were able to get all 5 at no cost. That said, our airline experience with American Airlines was absolutely horrendous and at one point, my sister and I were in different cities, hours apart, on the phone crying together because we didn’t think we were all going to be able to make the cruise. Yes, you’re probably thinking, “why didn’t you fly the night before, everyone knows that.” Suffice it to say, we couldn’t for various reasons, but we also had a 6am flight booked and had it not been cancelled for mechanical problems, we would have been fine.

That rant over, let’s get on to the fun planning. We decided to do shore excursions at both ports, in part because it was only a 3-night cruise and we wanted to make the absolute most of it. So, I did some research in My Cruise Planner and pulled all the shore excursions available at each location (all of those that we’d be interested, at least) and created an itinerary of options with pricing, descriptions and reminders of other things we’d have going on that day (one day my sister got a massage, we had a dinner reservation in the Main Dining Room each night, which I HIGHLY recommend, and there were specified times that the boat docked and departed each day). Check out what I created here.

You can also book your spa treatments, beverage or internet packages, or other onboard activities all through My Cruise Planner up to three days before sailing. Sometimes there are even sales and you can get things for a discounted price.

I took the itinerary and printed out copies for each of my traveling companions so we could review the options together, make a decision and I could book. I also found and printed a map of Cococay, which was helpful for us to see where different excursions would be in relation to other parts of the island. Finally, I printed out everyone’s pre-cruise paperwork, including the Set Sail pass and luggage tags. In order to access these, you must login on the website and enter your personal details, upload a headshot and provide credit card details for your onboard Seapass.

To keep it organized by person, and to have a little fun, I took some super cute Kate Spade folders I received as a gift, along with coordinating Kate Spade highlighters and binder clips (who knew there were such things!) and put together little planning packs for each person.

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When I next saw my companions, I distributed the packs, we went through the itinerary and selected our excursions so I was able to book everything for us. We also decided to plan a few other things, like taking a shared big suitcase so we only had to check one bag, dividing up shared toiletries since we only had two rooms and how to bring the max of 4 bottles per wine (2 per stateroom). We were ready to go.

When we finally made it to the ship just in time (after a CRAZY morning), it was beautiful. Lots of pics below to give you a good idea. There were several things we liked about the Mariner of the Seas:

  • Promenade – this was a three-story open area in the middle of the ship, so you could walk across it down the middle from front to back. They had lots of activities here including shows and a balloon drop. Lining the Promenade were bars, restaurants, a coffee shop, Ben & Jerry’s, a late night cafe and onboard shopping. There was also a beautiful grand staircase, which was great for pictures in our formal wear (pictured further down).
  • Activities – So many cool things to do – we didn’t even have time to do them all; this ship had everything:
    • Basketball court
    • Racing water slides
    • Flowrider Surfing or Boogie boarding
    • Rock climbing wall
    • Mini golf
    • Adult and regular pools and hot tubs galore
    • Hammock area
    • Skypad Virtual Reality coolness
    • Lilypad-like climbing things
    • And so much more!
  • Shows – in addition to the short, party-like shows in the Promenade, there were also great shows in the main theater, including comedians, singing and dancing, and there was even an ice skating rink! We didn’t see an on-ice show, but we did visit the rink for a very hilarious adult game show.
  • The ship’s opulence – this was probably one of our favorite parts – the whole thing feels so extravagant and expensive and deluxe. In our normal life, we don’t enjoy a lot of luxury, so this is how we treat ourselves. Below are pics of one of the main staircases and our table in the Main Dining Room. As mentioned above, when you book your cruise, I encourage you to reserve a dining time. You can always do my time dining where you call and make a reservation on the day (not guaranteed) or eat at the Windjammer (always open) or one of the other restaurants (all of which incur an additional cost), but why not eat as much as you want of a 3-course meal with amazing servers?! It really is a no-brainer. Plus it’s fun to get all dressed up and go (but you don’t have to dress up anymore).

We also THOROUGHLY enjoyed our shore excursions. We picked the following:

  • Beach Bungalows at Cococay – this was a great choice as well; since we had a group of 5, this was a perfect option as it was a flat rate up to 6 people; it included lunch, water, the covered couch, two sun loungers and two floating mats; we took a short shuttle to the secluded part of the island where these were located, but it was still close enough for us to walk/swim over to the floating bar for some drinks. Cococay is undergoing massive renovations to become A Perfect Day at Cococay, so these are probably some of the last pics where it will look like this on the way in
  • Pearl Island with lunch – this excursion was great; the people who ran it was super nice and friendly (the bartender totally hooked us up), we had a delicious lunch, the scenery was gorgeous and they even had fun in-water activities like kayak, paddleboard, and a trampoline; a few of us had been to Nassau before, so we wanted to check out something away from the city and this was about a 30 minute boat ride away, which also provided a scenic tour of the area from the water; after we returned to Nassau, we still had some time to hit the famous Straw Market for souvenirs before heading back to the ship

Finally, the rooms, though small, were still pretty okay. Our room attendant was very nice and made us fun little towel animals! My sister had a great idea to bring the following items which definitely came in handy:

  • Magnets – the walls are metal, so you can hang up the daily Cruise Compass that they provide with activities and times for the day
  • Highlighter – there are so many activities to choose from, so use this to identify what you want to do from the Cruise Compass
  • Hanging air freshener – just a simple one that you might put in your car; it helps keep the bathroom smelling fresh in such a small space after a few days onboard

We were very sad to end our vacation when we got back to Miami. We had about 5 hours to kill before our flight, so we decided to hit the Bayside Marketplace, which is about a 10-minute ride from the cruise port terminal. We shared some delicious appetizers and cold drinks at Segafredo, sat in the sun and played cards. Even though our cruise had ended, we were able to extend our vacation a little bit longer with this before we headed to MIA to go home.

Large Group Getaway Planning: Make It Work

I recently took a new approach to planning a large group getaway that I found very helpful due to the very narrow set of parameters with which I had to work. The group size is 21 – all my adult siblings and their families. My brother and his family come home from overseas every three years and this year, my mom had her heart set on a cruise (let’s be serious, we ALL were super down). More about my ladies’ cruise this past summer later…that’s what started cruising fever.

Here were my parameters. Regardless of the approach you take, defining these are the essential first step:

  • What/Where: Cruise somewhere warm on Royal Caribbean; we’ve tried a few other lines and didn’t love them quite as much. Royal is very opulent, but also accessible and not stuffy.
    • WHERE: Must depart from a port that we can drive to within a semi-reasonable amount of time (ie, not CA or WA since we are midwest). This left the East Coast tip to tail. Texas would be doable, but a bit of a stretch.
    • This could be what city/beach/area/country you want to go do AND what types of activities/vacation you want to have (hiking, biking, beach, shopping, sightseeing, wilderness, you name it). Also, don’t forget to consider travel TO the location (how long / how much / types of travel available).
  • When: Must occur between June 16th and July 6th (and be complete no later than then)
  • How Much: Must be comparably priced per person to the summer cruise we took (21 costs a lot more than 5)

To start, I got down to business researching. Using a number of filters on the RC site, I left Cruising To blank, but hand-picked Cruising from (my preferred departure ports) and the Departing time. From there, I got a number of results. I sorted by price lowest to highest and then created the document you can find here (we priced everything at an interior room – a balcony is a nice touch but the ocean view isn’t really worth it. I’ve personally found that I never really spend enough time in my room to justify the additional cost), stopping at my max budget per person.

I color coded the same cruises on different weeks all in the same color and used different colors for each unique itinerary. Each line contained the order of ports, price and ship name. I also included links to the ships, as the amenities onboard are important to us (but not deal breakers). If you’re looking for a certain ship, you can look at sailings on that vessel only. I wouldn’t recommend this, as it’s fun to try them all!

To make our final decision, we considered the following:

  • Destinations – we hit The Bahamas and Cococay on our recent cruise, my sister just got back from Bermuda, and we ruled out New England for its cooler temps. This left a combination of Key West, Havana and Cozumel.
  • Depart & return dates – we picked a cruise with Wednesday and Monday, which means air travel may likely be cheaper and less busy than a Friday, Saturday or Sunday; driving traffic too!
  • Boat – this really played into our decision; even though Mariner was our top choice in this category (it was what we just went on and it was AWESOME!), we felt the ship we chose, Majesty of the Seas, still had enough to do for both kids and adults.

From there, the decision was made and we’ve been working with a Royal Caribbean group specialist (available for room bookings of 8+ – they also allow for lots of nice perks with booking this way) ever since!

As we start to build anticipation over the next 9 months, we’re planning a few different things, like must-packs for a cruise list & assignments, themed dinner attire on a few nights, and some sort of coordinated item. We’re thinking lanyards, as it’s a nice thing to have to carry your Seapass card. As we make decisions, I’ll come back and update you here. Pics will be included as they become available. And I’m trying something new with the linked document above, so leave me a comment if you aren’t able to access it. Thanks!

 

Take A Trip: Las Vegas

This past weekend, I went to Las Vegas with some girlfriends. As with 99% of my personal travel, I started planning this trip by creating a powerpoint with options for flights and hotels and ideas of things to do, along with an estimated cost per person. When you’re planning a trip with friends or family (or really, even at work), this is an important first step. If you’re familiar with “business,” you might say you’re creating a business case (what/why) and part of that is budget.

I considered a few different hotels for our Vegas trip:

  • The LINQ
  • MGM Grand
  • Excalibur
  • Luxor
  • The Flamingo – ultimately, this was the one we went with; we liked that it was on the strip, relatively centrally located, one of the originals and fairly priced. Overall, it was fine. I’ve never been to Vegas before, so I have no comparison, but here are a few noteworthy things:
    • POSITIVE: They offer luggage hold for before or after you’re checking into/ out of your room AND they’ll bring it up once you get checked in.
    • POSITIVE: They have a very clearly marked Uber/Lyft area; this may seem simple, but we visited a view other hotels for shows / bars and it was pretty tricky to find where to meet our driver at most of the other properties.
    • POSITIVE: They have a range of food options – at least 2 cafes, a buffet, a grab-n-go station, two restaurants and a few bars. Plus, it is right off a pedestrian mall that has other options, like Starbucks, In-N-Out, Sprinkles and other places to get tasty treats. Walk across that and you’re in the LINQ, another hotel with many other restaurants/bars/etc. The LINQ is also the hotel that operates The High Roller, which is a massive enclosed ‘Ferris Wheel’ (think ~20 people per pod, some of which have a bar inside!). It was nice to be so close to this.
    • POSITIVE: When you check-in, you can get a Total Rewards card, which gave us a free drink and a free prize slot play. With the free prize slot play, we won a BOGO for the High Roller.
    • NEGATIVE: The adults-only pool cost $11/person, even though we were hotel guests; it was a weekend day (Saturday), but still seems excessive, especially when we were already being charged a daily per person resort fee.
    • NEGATIVE: The room wasn’t quite as advertised. We booked the Fab Executive and in the pictures, a couch is shown. We had a party of 3, so we requested two queen beds, but figured the couch would be good for hanging out. However, the room we received didn’t include a couch, but rather a chair. All in all, not a huge deal, but somewhat of a letdown.
    • NEGATIVE: Random, unexpected security check. My friends were sitting outside and I was heading to meet them when I got a knock on the hotel room door and Security announced themselves and asked to be allowed to do a random inspection of the room. There were two men – one entered the room and went to the phone to enter a code and the other stood at the door. It was really quick, but just odd and not anything the hotel informed us could happen.
    • NEGATIVE: We also attempted to hit the family pool, but were turned away because we had water bottles. We’re not sure if it was the fact that they didn’t know what was inside or that we had the bottles themselves, but we were told we couldn’t bring them inside (not asked to dump them).
    • NEGATIVE: The bathroom was pretty tiny and outdated.
    • NEGATIVE: The A/C was just okay – it was about 110 degrees, so I get it was working hard, but I wouldn’t say it was ever “cold” in our room.

We also explored a variety of options for what to do:

  • DID: Magic Mike Live at The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino; this show was excellent. If you’re looking for a Chippendales or male strippers, this is not the show for you. If you like cool dancing, ripped fellas and humor, you will enjoy this. I highly recommend you watch Magic Mike XXL prior to seeing this show, as it will make you appreciate it all the more.
  • DID: Drag Supper Club at Senor Frogs (inside Treasure Island); this show was ALSO excellent. The ladies were incredibly done up with gorgeous dresses/costumes and very well done routines. There were even some cool acrobats throughout as well. We got the VIP option and had great seats, decent food, open bar and a short meet & greet with a photo with the girls after! They also have a brunch option.
  • DID: High Roller; as mentioned above, this is a 500ft. tall observation wheel. We went at night and it was very cool to see the strip all lit up.
  • DID: Fremont Street – this is the old strip with some cool, classic casinos, random shopping, street performers (and extremely interesting ones, at that), a number of bars, a zip line and cool overhead light show in the evening. Definitely a neat place to walk around and people watch. Oh, and did I mention you can hit one of the bars and walk up and down the pedestrian mall with your alcohol?
  • DID: Hit the outlets – we opted for the North outlets (there are north and south options). Both are pretty close off the strip. We decided on North after reviewing the list of stores at each.
  • DID: Experience a self-driving Lyft!! This was such a cool experience. Sadly, it was only for a super short drive and we weren’t allowed to take pics or video, but the car still took over and drove! It was a BMW 5 series, so a pretty swanky car, but does have a small backseat, so three was a squeeze.

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Finally, we had some damn good food.

  • Holstein’s (inside The Cosmopolitan) – this place has insane adult milkshakes. Like, never in my life have I been served a milkshake of this kind. They also have yummy burgers and fries (plus a few other options). Below is the Donutella and the Cookies & Cream.
  • In-N-Out (just outside The Flamingo) – I live on the East coast of the Midwest 🙂 so I don’t get this option all that often, unless I’m traveling. If you’ve never had it, do. The burgers are yummy and you can customize and the fries are thin and have a nice crisp. Milkshakes are good too.
  • Sprinkles (just outside The Flamingo) – BOMB ASS CUPCAKES. This is an LA-based cupcake shop that has expanded to Las Vegas. They also have a super fun cupcake ‘atm’ for after-hours cupcake needs. I got the red velvet and it was so creamy and just melted in my mouth. HIGHLY recommend. (Oh, and they had a vegan option!)
  • Nacho Daddy – this is just off the ‘old strip,’ aka Fremont Street; nachos are huge and delicious, the desserts and margaritas were also yummy and they have a number of good vegan options. Below are blood orange, strawberry and mango margaritas, the BBQ nachos, fried ice cream and the churro dessert.

I hope this helps you with some ideas of what to explore in Vegas. I highly recommend doing some research (if you’re looking for other interests beyond the above) and planning ahead / pre-purchasing tickets before your trip. Also, you really only need ~4 days there. We had three full days and nights and that was plenty (but we didn’t gamble).