Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Punta Cana (DR) - a stay review.

 
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Here’s my review of our stay at this hotel this summer. Please remember that this is a personal review and does not mean you will have the same experience as we did. Please comment below if you’ve stayed here and tell me about your trip!! I’d love to compare anecdotes!

Before we go into specifics, check out some Do’s and Don’ts when you vacation at an All-inclusive here.

THE LOCATION

 Aerial view of the resort. I found it from the plane! Do you see the pools?

Aerial view of the resort. I found it from the plane! Do you see the pools?

Hard Rock Hotel has locations all around the world. We chose this particular one due to a “deal” we found that lured us into looking at it. It is located in the area of Bavaro, in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. You fly into the Punta Cana Airport and make your transfer to the hotel. I urge you to have your transportation set up before arriving. If you can’t or don’t know how to, don’t panic!! There is a counter FULL of transportation agencies right outside the airport with information and people eager to help you. It is just a good idea to plan ahead of time to avoid getting potentially scammed. We were recommended Dominican Plus, and they were very professional and reliable, so I recommend them. Just make sure you tell them that you want to be picked up at the group lobby when you go home, to avoid misunderstandings. The hotel has two lobbies and this can create confusion, and delays…believe me, you don’t want any delays when you are heading to the airport.

The hotel’s entrance is off a main road, but it was quite strange…the gated entrance says “Hard Rock” but it continues into a development of condominiums for sale. Perhaps those are part of the golf course? I don’t know, but after another mile or so inside the gated community, there’s another gate to the actual Hard Rock Hotel. So it’s pretty safe and private in there.

THE SERVICE

Service was OK. The front desk clerk was an absolute delight. Everyone else, not so much. For some reason, besides the entertaining personnel and a handful of waiters, most employees looked like they hated their job. Seriously. Rarely any smiles, not very good at interacting with guests (even when I spoke to them in Spanish), they just didn’t look happy. We witnessed a few guests being terribly mean to some waiters and bartenders, so I am sure they don’t get treated well by the occasional A$$(redacted)**. We tried to be nice and kind, and we received smiles and kindness in return. Just remember that.

THE ROOMS

Well, you have a variety of rooms to chose from, depending on your budget. But, just so you know, ALL rooms have a jacuzzi inside the room. Yes, I repeat. ALL ROOMS have private jacuzzi. All rooms are also equipped with a minibar full of drinks, beer, water, and liquor. You have access to a rum and coke 24/7. I do have to admit, the room was absolutely beautiful and comfortable. Very well decorated, with a large granite counter bathroom and double shower. You will feel like royalty.

ROOM SERVICE

Since all your meals are included in what you already paid…why not order some room service? Their room service was fast and they brought everything we ordered. Very easy to order and just as delicious as if you go eat at the restaurant. We opted to order breakfast for room service. Plenty of hot coffee and fresh fruit. It was great. I do have to say though, the room service menu was a little short, so not too many options for you to chose from.

GETTING AROUND

To get around this massive resort, you can either walk, take the trolley, or rent a golf cart for your stay. If you decide to walk, make sure you are wearing comfortable shoes, because you will be doing a LOT of walking. To get from your room to the pools, or to the beach, or to a specific restaurant, depending on your location, sometimes it’s a long way. If you take the trolley, fear not! There are trolley stations all around and they run every 5-15 minutes depending on the time of the day. There are also maps of the premises all around so you don’t get lost. If you want to have fast and reliable transport at anytime, you can opt to rent a golf cart. Parking for golf carts are conveniently located all around the resort, so it’s easy to get in and out.

THE RESTAURANTS

With 9 different restaurants on the premises, you won’t go hungry. Try them all!! You can walk in for lunch, but for dinner, make sure to have a reservation. Some of these restaurants book days in advance and they won’t let you in without reserving a spot. My tip: When you first arrive, head over to the front desk and make all your reservations for your stay. They have a booth dedicated to reservations in the group lobby of the hotel. BUT BE PATIENT… It can get crowded and the clerks take their time with each guest. When you bypass the waiting, you can decide where to dine each day of your stay. Enjoy anything from Mediterranean, Italian, Japanese, Brazilian steakhouse, Latin American, or artisan brick oven pizza (which by the way is absolutely amazing). When you are done with dinner, have a coffee and pastry at the coffee place, or enjoy some of their magnificent ice cream at the ice cream parlor (no reservations required for the coffee or ice cream!).

THE POOLS

13 pools, which includes 3 kid pools, and 4 swim-up bars. The central pool area (and most pools really) fill out rather quickly. My tip: Head to the pool right after breakfast and claim your seat. All pools have accessible bathroom conveniently located within a short walk, and towel booths. ALSO, all pools have bars nearby and snack foods available at all hours (mostly chicken tenders, french fries or pizza)… PERFECT for when the kids (or adults) say “I’m hungry” in between meals. No need to leave the pool for anything! Poolside servers will bring you a cold drink anytime you want. Make sure to tip them at least once guys. These men and women work really hard, long hours, in the sun. Spare a dollar or two.

Do not forget to check the activities schedule for the central pool. They host competitions and fun games each day for the whole family. You can always enjoy live music or an crazy foam party at the pool.

THE BEACH

The beach at this resort is breathtaking. Beautiful white sand, intense blue waters. My only complaint…the ocean is rough in this part of the island. And when I say rough, I mean ROUGH. Most of the time they won’t allow you to get in the water. It is still nice to sit on the beach and put your toes in the sand.

THE SHOPS and Central area

OMG this place looks like a mall inside. The long long hallways are full of stores on both sides. Clothes, shoes, jewelry, souvenirs, Hard Rock memorabilia, chocolate, and a liquor store. Pretty cool to browse around when you are waiting on your dinner reservation. Most restaurants are located in the central area of the hotel, right where all the shops are; and the bars. It’s a cool place to walk around.

NIGHT LIFE AND ENTERTAINMENT

The bars are right there in the central area. 4 bars which host different activities each night. The Moon Lounge has Karaoke every other night. Kids are welcome in, but only till 11pm…and then the adult party stars. Do you prefer live music? Or perhaps you want to dance all night? They got you covered.

The theater also hosts different shows each night to entertain the crowds of all ages. Check out the shows schedule and make your plans ahead of time. My tip: Plan dinner around the shows to get the most out of your stay.

THE CASINO

The casino is HUGE! 45,000 square feet to be exact. Seriously, you can find all the typical games like poker, blackjack, craps, roulette, and obviously slot machines. One thing I noticed though, they are extremely serious about age restrictions in this place. No one under 18 is allowed to even set foot in the casino premises. Not even if you want to take a shortcut to your room. NOPE. They uphold this rule to the fullest extend. Sorry kids, can’t play on the slot machines.

THE KIDS CLUB

Fear not! Kids can still have lots of fun while the adults enjoy an evening out. The kids club offers lots and lots of activities for the little ones. Most activities are musical related…but it’s the Hard Rock Hotel, duh!

During our stay, our daughter refused to go to the kid’s club and leave our side… but seriously, this was totally OK since there was so many other things to do at the pool and around the hotel, that we kept busy. She even sang karaoke with us one night. It was great. Other options for family activities are: the arcade, escape room, and mini-golf.

THE TOURS

When you book your room, you will get points, and their amount depends on how long you stay and what room you book. Either way, DO NOT FORGET TO USE YOUR POINTS.  It is not a scam.  Redeem them towards a tour or some souvenirs.  They are like hotel cash (kind of).  We booked a dolphin and snorkeling tour directly with the hotel and it was fantastic.  In fact, it was easy and cheap.  You only pay the tax, which we gladly did if it meant that we got to interact with a dolphin so close for about 45 minutes, and snorkel in the beautiful clear and docile waters of the Caribbean.  I am not sure of the location of the snorkeling waters, but they were very calm and clear, not like the waters around the hotel, which were deep blue and very rough.  Either way, it was amazing!!!

There are many other amenities at this hotel that we didn’t have time to check out.  The spa is supposed to be amazing, so it the golfing.  If you want to get more fancy, you can become a member and enjoy MANY member-only amenities they offer.  Things like private pools, private areas, private golf cart pick ups. But I’m sure it cost a pretty penny to do it. 

I would recommend this resort because of its many amenities and great restaurants.  However, I was very disappointed in the entertainment and the themes/quality of the shows they offered.  I have seen many, much better, more elaborate, and more impressive shows done by street performers in cities around the world.  Maybe I expected more because, you know, it IS the Hard Rock Hotel and I imagined concert like experiences. I was wrong.  Regardless of this, it was fun and memorable.  Have you been here? Tell us what you thought down below in the comments!

Always,

Mia.

Punta Cana: A guide to an all-inclusive family vacation

When hubby said, "We are going to Punta Cana" I was excited, but not incredibly thrilled as I've been with other trips. The truth is, I didn't know what to expect.  Either way, we packed our bags and headed to Dominican Republic, an island shared with Haiti, located between Cuba, Jamaica and Puerto Rico, in the beautiful Caribbean ocean.  

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First things first. We always look for the best travel deals and family friendly spots. For more information on how to travel on a budget read this first.  

When you budget for a vacation, it is important to remember a few factors. First, how many are traveling. Not to be obvious here, but the more people, the more expensive it can get, but even with large families, there's always the option of Airbnb.  

This time, we wanted to do an all-inclusive type of hotel.  Dominican Republic is known for its many resorts and beautiful beaches, so we gave it a chance. We found an amazing deal (Expedia unreal deals are great sometimes) at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.  

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Granted that sometimes, if you book your hotel directly with the hotel's site, you can find even better deals. Sometimes this hotel (depending on the season) has up to 40% off and kids stay free.  Of course, they do these types of deals when kids are in school and chances are that you will only find adults there, but hey! If you can afford taking your family on a school week without missing any important tests or projects, this can be a very affordable option.  

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Either way, we always pack light. Even when kids are traveling. I've adopted a minimalist way of traveling and I'm loving it.  For a list of things to pack when traveling with kids, check this out.  

WHAT TO EXPECT AT THE PUNTA CANA AIRPORT

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It is hot. The plane landed and we got off the plane and onto a bus, which took us to their immigration port of entry. Lines were long, so be prepared to wait. Have your immigration AND customs paperwork filled out and ready. Once you go through immigration, you proceed to pick up your luggage and go through customs... which is technically just an officer collecting your form. They might do a random baggage search, but we didn't see any of that. In fact, there are people that work at the airport for a tip that will help you get your luggage through the side so you don't stay in line...most of them know the custom's officers and they let them bypass the crowd. Weird, yes, but it worked for us.  

Make sure you have transportation set up in advance. 

We were recommended Dominican Plus, and we are glad we used them. Very reliable, incredibly friendly staff, and we felt safe the entire time. Not to mention, very much affordable.  You can rent a van just for you and your family and they will pick up at the airport, and take you straight to the hotel.  Round trip.  No other stops, no other people in with you.  Private van for a very affordable price. You can go to their website or check them out on Viator (which by the way is highly recommended) to see their tours and other services while in Punta Cana.  

A TIP GOES A LONG WAY

One of the good things about an all-inclusive vacation is that tip is included in the price…well, that’s what they tell you. In fact, it is written on what’s included with your trip. But, look at it this way: yes, you might’ve paid enough to get there and have your dream vacation, so yes, it should be included in the price, BUT these people make no money out of it, and work incredibly hard every single day. They will not get rich if you tip them a little here and there, in fact, they will treat you like a VIP.

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Here’s what you do: Always tip your drivers and bell-person at the hotel. Pick your favorite bar and get to know your bartender or poolside server. Tip him/her well ($10 might not be a lot for you, but it is for people in other countries), that tip, at the start of your day will create a ripple effect… Your glass will not be empty, you will feel like a VIP, because they will treat you differently from those who do not tip, IF you are drinking alcoholic beverages (Why not?! It is all-inclusive!) they will make sure your drink is better than all others. Don’t believe me? Try it. You will be treated like royalty…it is your dream vacation after all.

HOTEL EMPLOYEES ARE HUMAN TOO. BE KIND.

This is something that you would think is obvious, but I was surprised by how many people treated hotel employees and drivers like they were trash. It was sad. Yes, they are there to help you and make sure you have a great time, but please remember that a kind word, a smile, and a simple thank you can make a difference in the day of others… and it will give you good karma points.

TRY ALL THE DRINKS

It’s free! Yes, if you are drinking a Pina Colada, and suddenly your taste buds decide you need something more dry…Do it! No outrageous-cocktail-price guilt attached. And after that try a specialty coffee to wake you up before karaoke night. Yes, you get the idea.

TAKE CASH

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We are all so used to plastic, that it’s easy to forget to withdraw some cash before your trip. Take cash with you because you will need it. American dollars are OK. It comes in handy when you tip or when you want to buy a quick souvenir. Keep in mind that most of these resorts have many stores and many choices to find small (or big) gifts.

PACK SOME FANCY CLOTHES

If this is your first time at an all-inclusive resort, you probably think that all you need is your swimming suit and flip flops. Well, yes, that is great if all you plan to do is to stay by the pool. But the truth is that you are going to want to try the amazing gastronomy that these resorts have to offer… INCLUDED IN THE PRICE.

Side note: To eat at some of these restaurants, you must dress up… a little. So pack a nice dress or two, and fancy flats or sandals. You will regret it if you don’t. By the way… it doesn’t really have to be so fancy, just something other than shorts and a tank top.


DO KARAOKE, GO TO THE DANCE BAR, GO SEE A SHOW

But, I have the kids with me! Yes, I know. We did too… Besides the casino and specific adult-only designated areas, most all-inclusive hotels that allow children are very family oriented and kid friendly. So, things like karaoke, shows, and dance night are open to all ages. They might have a curfew for kids, but it’s usually by midnight. Believe me, you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy yourself and your kids will love it too.

USE YOUR POINTS

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When you book at certain hotels, most have a reward system or point system that gifts guests with incentives. Get informed about their rewards and use it! You may think that it’s a scam to lure you into buying extra amenities or packages..blah blah. Not always. We used our points (given to us by just booking on certain days) and used them towards excursions. All you have to pay is tax. We were able to swim with the dolphins and snorkel in the Caribbean ocean for next to no money! Thanks to the points we cashed. No questions asked, no extra spending. USE YOUR POINTS! If you don’t like excursions, you can also use points towards the spa or even to buy souvenirs.

A side note: I did notice that the actual city of Punta Cana is quite dirty. The touristic sites are kept well and clean, but the rest of the city and streets are extremely dirty and full of trash. That sight made me double pledge to keep trash in bins and recycle ALL my plastic at home.

RELAX BY THE BEACH

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Chances are your resort is on the beach. If so, take advantage of the privacy (or semi-privacy) that all-inclusive resort locations have to offer. Depending on the location, you might find paradise in your back yard. It is easy to get lost in the amenities that resorts have to offer, just take at least a few hours to admire nature and put your toes in the sand.

RELAX BY THE POOL

This one is pretty straight forward. Just pick a pool and enjoy. Most likely whatever all-inclusive you pick is going to have several pools to chose from. The best thing to do is wake up early, have breakfast and head to the pool of your choice to reserve a chair. Pools get pretty packed starting mid morning and afternoon. But if you know that you will be spending your day doing nothing, sun bathing or enjoying cocktails while you read your favorite book (see suggestions here!), pick your pool and claim your seat. Get to know your bartender and/or poolside waiter, tip them well, and you will LOVE your day.

ALSO, HAVE FUN BY THE POOL

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In many hotels, they reserve the main or central pool to conduct family friendly pool activities. Take a day or afternoon to get our of your shell and release your inner weirdo… in a good way, and not in a creepy way. Pool entertainers are usually pretty outgoing and with a contagious sense of adventure, get lured in and participate. Fall off the giant inflatable in front of everyone, rock on in a pool of foam, paddle across the pool competing for best time, play polo or water sports. Just do relax, and have fun.

LAST THOUGHTS

All inclusive resorts are great if you have a budget and a family. You can drink, eat, and have fun without the guilt of overspending as everything is pre-paid. Want some ice cream at 10 pm? Get it! Decided to try all flavors of coffee and accompany them with different pastries…do it! No-guilt attached… other than the overload of calories you will intake, your wallet won’t suffer.

Go ahead! Find your best choice for your family and do it. Looking for deals might be a tedious task sometimes, but it is sooooo worth it when you finally hit the jackpot. Piece of advice: search on Wednesdays and/or Thursday nights, since I’ve found that many deals are released on those days. If you search for vacations on the weekend, chances are that you will pay more… this is not always the case, but it’s worth the try.

ENJOY YOUR VACATION!

Do you have any other tips or recommendations? Comment below! I would love to hear about it.

Always,

Mia

Disney's Hollywood Studios: Travel Truths

 
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If you are looking for rides, you will be utterly disappointed when you go to Hollywood Studios.  There are only a handful of actual rides in the park.  Everything else is split between various kinds of entertainment shows, greeting of characters, shops and restaurants.  

Perhaps my least favorite park of them all (to read the reviews of all other Disney parks, click here), Hollywood Studios is still a beautiful park to see.  If you are more into the spectacles, Hollywood glamour, or Star Wars, then you'll probably like this park.  Let me break it down on what to do while visiting Hollywood Studios in Orlando. (disclaimer: types and availability of shows may vary by season).

THE BEST

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We like the thrills and rides with the technology and special effects that Disney is known to offer.  If you are up for a super, very fast ride, head over to the Rock 'n Roller Coaster.  You get on a "limousine" courtesy of Steven Tyler himself, and ride on the streets of L.A. on an incredibly fast, loud, roller coaster full of spins and twists, that may or may not make you throw up.  All while rocking to the songs of Aerosmith.  You can't beat that thrill!.

Also, next to the Rock 'n Roller Coaster you will find the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.  Now, I'd always wanted to ride this haunted elevator, since I was a kid.  Being a fan of the Twilight Zone since childhood, this ride was very anticipated.  You walk into a very haunted looking hotel lobby, with obvious spiderwebs and creepy decor.  Then you are taken to the elevator by the bellman.  You get in.  Sit down on the bench-like seat, fasten your seat belt (make sure to do this). 

The elevator goes up, and up, and up to the top floor, it opens a few times so you can see the scenery (pretty cool by the way) and then.... you scream.  The elevator drops several floors down.  Up and down, dropping with no warning.  It was fantastic.

The Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular was OK as well.  Not a ride, but a cool show that demonstrates how a film full of stunts is filmed (AKA Indiana Jones). 

FOR THE LITTLE ONES: 

Toy Story Mania was a cool little ride.  You enter the Toy Story world while shooting targets and collect points.  Play solo or challenge your friend.  It's playfully great! 

Also, if you reminisce of the good ole Muppets, the  Muppet Vision 3D, is the show to watch. It's sweet, funny, and just brings back good memories.  

FOR THE STAR WARS FANS:

Star Wars: Path of the Jedi, is a film experience that both parts of the movies, and real characters on stage.  The Jedi Training, will turn the little ones (4-12) into Jedi masters.  Star Tours: get in this simulator, travel the stars and feel the force.  

OTHER SHOWS:

The Voyage of the Little Mermaid, is a theatrical live short show with real characters, and special effects.  

For The First Time in Forever: Sing along to the songs of Frozen. Also, Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage, a Broadway style musical.  

Fantasmic: The one show you shouldn't miss.  Join Mickey and other Disney Characters on a magical musical adventure full of special effects and ... magic. 

Most of the entertainment in Hollywood Studios is in the form of short shows and meet the characters. The scenery is beautiful, but if you go with little ones, there is not going to be a whole lot to do (keep in mind that most "meet the characters" do not take the fast passes, so lines might be long).

Read our post on Disney's Do's and Dont's so you can plan your trip now!

There are plenty of restaurants, snack points, and shops along the park.  You will not leave without a souvenir! 

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I know I've said that Hollywood Studios is my least favorite park... Do you like it? What did I miss? Let us know in the comments and prove me wrong! (traveling is a learning experience). 

Always,

Mia

 

THE WIZARDING WORLD OF HARRY POTTER- a review

 

By the way... this is a real live photo I took.  It's that out of this world it looks fake to the eyes!

I was still a teen when I got hooked on the magic of a boy named Harry.  I can honestly say that reading these books changed, and saved my life in ways that many people don't understand.  How can a kid's book change your life? Well, it did. 

You can read my open letter to JK Rowling HERE.  It remained secret for a long time, but it feels good to tell the world that being sad, or depressed shouldn't be a stigma.  

So because of this, and many other things that I won't go into detail with now, I can say that I'm a Harry Potter super fan, or simply (and proudly) a Potterhead.  

Going to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Studios, and Islands of Adventure Florida had been my dream every since it was announced in 2007. 

HERE ARE THE MAIN THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

If you are going to the park for the first time, there are certain things you should know so you can make every second count.

1. GET A MULTI-PARK TICKET.

You have the choice of purchasing a single park admission (Universal Studios OR Islands of Adventure) or a multi-pass or park hopper ticket.  GET BOTH.  WHY? The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is actually split in both parks. While Islands of Adventure opened the HP World in 2010, an expansion of this magical world was opened in the Universal Studios area in 2014. Both areas are connected by the Hogwarts Express.  YOU WON'T BE ABLE TO RIDE THE HOGWARTS EXPRESS unless you have a ticket for both parks.  Believe me.  It's worth it.

2. HOW THE WIZARDING WORLD IS DIVIDED

Islands of Adventure houses Hogsmeade, many shops and restaurants, the Flight of the Hippogriff, and the Hogwarts Castle with the Forbidden Journey ride.  Take the Hogwarts Express to King's Cross (located on the Universal Studios side) and enter the mysterious Diagon Alley where you can find Gringotts Bank and a fire breathing dragon on top of it.

 

RELATED: UNIVERSAL STUDIOS AND ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE- TRAVEL TIPS.

WHAT TO DO FIRST.

The very first thing a true fan should do is to get your own magic wand at Olivander's.  Whether you enter through Universal or Islands of Adventure, both sides have an Olivander's store.  This should be your first stop as the lines can get long, and there's no fast pass for it.  They will let about 20 people inside at the time for a "mini-show" to meet the man himself, Mr. Olivander.  He will pick a random lucky person from the group to hold wands and recreate the famous scene when Harry's wand chose him.  It's a very cool experience to see so close and in person.  But don't worry, if you are not chosen (they only chose ONE person per group- usually a kid, duh!) You will be then guided to the shop, where you can purchase your own wand.  

RELATED: DIY Harry Potter Rug. Step by Step.

WHAT KIND OF WANDS DO THEY HAVE? 

You can choose regular, character-based wands, interactive character wands, or your own wand based on your birthday.  If we talk about looks, some wands tend to lean towards the "dark side", but it's pretty cool to see what wand you'll get.  The store personnel is usually standing by in robes ready to assist you.  The interactive wands are more expensive, but totally worth it.  WHAT DO THEY DO?  With your purchase, you'll receive a map of Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade with every single interactive point in the land, along with the specific magic spells that will allow you to showcase your magic skills...

WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY "MAGIC SKILLS"?

Step on the symbols marking the magic spots (carved in gold on the ground), wave your wand in the way it specifies as you say the spell and just watch what happens.  You will see it rain on other bystanders, lights flicker, things float, etc.  There are dozens of places for you to practice your magic with your wand! But remember! The WAND chooses the wizard, not the other way around.

3. RIDE THE HOGWARTS EXPRESS

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One of the most memorable moments of my life - don't judge- was when standing in line, there I was, awaiting patiently at King's Cross, right at platform 9 & 3/4 (which you can find between platform 9 and 10 - wink wink) when suddenly, I hear it. The powerful whistle of the Hogwarts Express as it approached our station.  I think I didn't cry just because my daughter was watching me, but I almost did.  I did squeal.  This amazing replica of the iconic locomotive is as beautiful as it looks on the films.  When you board, they will seat about seven to eight people per cart, and close your door.  The cart compartments look EXACTLY as they look in the movies.  Before departure, pay attention to the glazed doors of the cart.  You'll see shadows of the characters "talking on the hallway", the Trolley lady, and even dementors looking to take you to Azkaban.  Watch the window when the train is in motion to observe the beautiful landscape and the view to Hogwarts/Diagon Alley. You are not supposed to take pictures or video inside the train... (sad face). 

4. RIDE EVERYTHING.

Besides the Hogwarts Express, there are only a couple of actual rides inside Harry Potter World's, but there is SO much to do! Go into the Hogwarts Castle and see it inside while waiting in line to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.  Look around, enjoy the magic! 

Before you enter the Forbidden Journey ride you will have to put ALL your belongings in a locker.  No backpacks, no lose items are allowed in this ride.  Do you remember the scene when Ron took the old Ford for a ride and landed on the Whomping Willow? Well, this ride will feel like this.  The magic bench (in which you will be seating) is controlled by a robot arm.  Combine this with the most amazing flying simulator, incredible props, and special effects, and you go on the ride of your life. 

The flight of the Hippogriff is a roller coaster designed to feel as if you were flying on Buckbeak, the hippogriff. It's fun and short, but not as amazing as THE ESCAPE FROM GRINGOTTS.  Yeah.  You literally (or simulator-ally)  go all the way down into the vault in one of those little carts guided by a goblin.  Then it gets intense.  That freaking dragon, man! It's a great thrill! You almost have to ride this twice to be able to appreciate everything there is to see as it goes magically fast. Oh, before I forget, stay outside Gringotts for a while and watch the dragon on the top of the building breath fire. We timed it to be every 15-20 minutes or so. It's great!

5. DRINK BUTTERBEER.

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I'm not a fan of sweet, creamy/sparkling drinks, but I obviously had to try butterbeer.  I've had it before at a different venue, but NOTHING, and I repeat, NOTHING compares to this butterbeer.  IT WAS AMAZING! Not too sweet, not too simple. It was just the perfect combination of sparkling, and creamy buttery flavors.  I opted to have it cold, but apparently you can also  order it hot.  

6. DINE AT THE THREE BROOMSTICKS, Leaky Cauldron OR have a brew AT HOG'S HEAD.

Great food, simple menu and the portions are big.  Two can split some plates.  Reasonably priced as well (for a theme park).  The atmosphere is cozy and the service is quite organized.  

7. THE SHOPS!!!! 

SO many shops! Most have basically the same merchandise but organized differently, so it's fun to see the props and different decor of each store.  Definitely don't miss Weasley's Wizard Wheezes trick and candy store.  It's very entertaining. Also, I was a little disappointed to see that they don't have a lot of small souvenir items for sale (other than key chains).  I was hoping to find cool Harry Potter inspired jewelry, or car stickers, or you know, things like that... nope.  Most stuff was apparel, and expensive collector's items.  There are stores dedicated to Quidditch items and apparel, others to robes, and you can even get your own post owl!

8. EXPLORE DIAGON ALLEY.

When you are in Diagon Alley you must adventure towards a small, not so crowded, alleyways and you'll be surprise what you'll find.  If you dare, you'll find yourself in Knockturn Alley.  There you'll see Borgin and Burkes, a store dedicated to the dark arts, just like the one Harry fell in after saying the wrong name with the floo powder. A replica of a moving, very life-like Nagini is showcased on the store's display.  

9. DON'T FORGET TO STOP BY GRIMMAULD PLACE AND THE KNIGHT BUS.

Outside Diagon Alley, on the Universal Studio's side, you can see a beautiful replica of Grimmauld Place.  It's funny that I got excited to see it, but most people walk by it thinking it's just a decorative building... well... it is, but you can still see it and take a pic, while imagining you were part of the Order of the Phoenix. The Knight bus is next to it.  Go inside.  Take a selfie.  

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10. WATCH THE CASTLE AT NIGHT. 

Since we only did one day at Universal (first mistake), we stayed there ALL day and into the night, to be able to do most attractions.  When night falls, it's a wonderful spectacle at Hogsmeade.  Yes, you need to make your way towards Hogwarts and watch the light show.  Just like they do it at Disney on Cinderella's castle, Hogwarts has nothing to be ashamed of.  It was actually superior than the one at Disney (READ THAT REVIEW HERE). They play a very familiar tune that dances to the marvelous lights reflected on the Castle.  I have no words to describe it, so watch this video instead and see for yourself: (disclaimer, it was Christmas time celebration when we were there, so they probably change it according to the season). 

 

SO MUCH TO DO! The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is fascinating, and truly a magical experience.  From the snow covered roofs of Hogsmeade, to the whistle of the Hogwarts Express, you will be delighted with this world and will want to go home and read (or reread) all seven books.  Yes.  Do it.  I know you want to.

IF YOU WANT TO READ THE BOOKS, GET THIS SET: Harry Potter Books 1-7.  It's worth every penny. 

Till next time.

Always,

Mia.

 

 

My First Disney Trip: Preparation Stage

I'm *** years old (I reserve the right to that number) and I've never been to Disney. My hubby has been there a few times as a kid, but it's been my dream since childhood to, one day, say hi to Mickey in person.

My daughter is now 7, and we both agreed she's old enough, tall enough, and mature enough to grant a trip to Disney.  Well... he didn't have to convince me. I said yes before he even finished the word "Disney".  

The one thing I didn't know is how much preparation it takes to make this trip, not only affordable, but also hassle free. Just to start, we've been planning for months!

RELATED: HARRY POTTER MIDNIGHT RELEASE

The trick is to do a little at a time. If you try to book everything, and try to figure out the fast-passes, the dinner reservations, the accommodations all at once, you will go insane. So, take a deep breath and know that you can take your time so that everything is not rushed at the last minute... Let me explain:

1. DECIDE WHICH PARKS TO VISIT

You can pick and choose which parks to go and accommodate your budget accordingly. Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios. Additionally, Universal Studios and literally hundreds of other attractions (not part of Disney but in the vicinity).   

This is your first step.  Do you want to visit all parks? Or just Magic Kingdom? Do you want to spend one or two days in one park? This will determine your length of stay, which will determine your hotel accommodation as well. 

2. STAYING INSIDE DISNEY OR A NEARBY HOTEL?

Now that you know which parks you want to see, you can calculate how many days you need to spend, and where to stay, another important decision when it comes to budgeting. If you decide to stay in one of the many Disney Resorts, you will get a MagicBand with your stay.  This option is awesome, because these waterproof bracelets will allow you to link everything together. You can open your hotel room, access the parks, make purchases, link your pictures to your photopass (if you get one) and much more. You can also use a hotel shuttle, monorail or boat to get to the parks (depending on where you stay), complimentary with your booking.  That will definitely save you the hassle of parking.  

Staying outside Disney, in the vicinity, is also a good, cheaper option. You won't get a MagicBand, just an access card to the parks, but the prices are considerably lower. You do have to, however, find your own transportation to the parks.  Using AllTheRooms,  Airbnb or HomeAway to find a home or condo nearby might be a great alternative for large groups or families.  

RELATED: Check out this Alltherooms.com list for traveling with kids!

3. GETTING THERE.

Unless you live in Florida, traveling to Orlando can be a bit of a long road trip. So, the next thing you need to determine is if you want to drive or fly. Many budget airlines like Allegiant Air, Spirit, or Southwestern Airlines offer round trips to Orlando for very low prices. But here's the catch: usually, these flights don't depart everyday. There are only certain dates and days that these low-cost air tickets are offered. 

RELATED: PACKING LIST WHEN TRAVELING WITH KIDS

You also must consider that if you are traveling with lots of luggage, you might want to chose a regular airline instead. Just remember, low-cost airlines charge for every, single, anything.  They charge for carry-on, for printing your boarding pass, for any drinks or food, etc. in the end, you'll end up paying the same price as in a regular flight IF you are not careful.    

The alternative?  Road trip!

RELATED: LOOKING FOR HAPPINESS? JUST TRAVEL

4. MEAL PLAN and MEMORY MAKER PHOTOPASS

When you stay at a Disney Resort, you can also purchase a Disney Dining Plan or the Dining Plan Deluxe. This includes two meals (3 with the deluxe) -counter or table restaurants- per day, a snack, and drink.  If you do this, make sure to make restaurant reservations at least 60 days in advance so you don't lose the opportunity to dine with your favorite characters. Even if you don't purchase the dining plan, you should go ahead and make reservations in advance.  

Another great feature I came across is the Memory Maker photopass. Now, I still think you should take candid pictures and maybe a selfie or two while you are there, but with the memory maker pass, you don't have to worry about asking people to take a picture of you and your family, because one of the hundreds of professional photographers at the park will do so, and will link your picture to your Disney online account by using your Magicband or card.  it's that easy. This is particularly great for a mom that is ALWAYS taking pictures of every family member having fun, and there are NO pictures of mom. Yeah. That's me. If it's not a selfie, there's not a picture of me posing in cool places. I'm actually excited about this feature!

RELATED: DOLLYWOOD: FUN FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY

5. FASTPASS

Want to skip the line? Get a fastpass! Everyone is eligible to get a fastpass to the most popular attractions. You get 3 fastpasses a day, and once you used them, you can obtain more fastpasses using your Disney Experience app or by logging on into your account (use the app...it's way easier).  So, you schedule a time for a specific attraction, and you have up to 1 hour to show up for your ride and skip the line. Trust me, you want to go ahead and schedule your fastpass+ times at least 30 days ahead of your visit (60 days ahead if you stay at Disney Resorts). Times fill out rather quickly, so don't forget to do this for each park!  

Go online or on the app and explore each park and learn about each attraction to determine which ones to get the fastpass to.  (I will tell you about my experience with this later this year!)

Planning can be exhausting but, in my opinion, it's well worth it. We are leaving soon, so expect a recount of my experience and other tips! I feel much more comfortable once I know where, how, why, and what we are doing. Visiting a new place is always exciting, but it can be stressful if you don't know anything about it. So, get familiar with it, look it up online, read other's experiences and advice, and enjoy!

Do you have any suggestions for me before I go meet Mickey???? Let me know! Please comment below.

See you guys later!

Always,

Mia

 

Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden: Chinese Lantern Festival

Always one to explore local festivals and exhibits, when I heard that Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden would be hosting a Chinese Lantern Festival I, of course, had to check it out. 

Located just outside of Charlotte, NC in nearby Belmont Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden is a quick trip down 85. I had actually never visited the gardens before but it is definitely a place I will return with gusto! (A Christmas visit it at the top of my list now also- I hear they do an amazing lights exhibit!) 

I purchased my tickets online (a tad pricey at 21.95 per adult but well worth the money) and made sure to arrive with time to spare as the exhibit ran from 5:30-9:30 and I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to check out everything. (Plus, I loathe waiting in lines so anytime I can purchase tickets online and breeze past lines- I seize the opportunity.) There was a ton to explore, winding pathways of lanterns (obviously), food trucks, kids crafting areas, a stage with scheduled entertainers, and lots of unique stalls erected selling all sorts of trinkets and souvenirs made by local craters and artists. 

Upon entering the gardens, the first thing we did, obviously, was head to the food trucks. There was tons to choose from, plenty of variety for any palate, and we decided on the kabob truck. Shrimps and bottles of water for all! After a quick stop at the wine booth we were ready to see the lights!

The lanterns were handmade in China and featured tons of unique elements including some moving exhibits with sound effects. We meandered through the walking trails, snapping pictures and admiring the handcrafted art. In total there were over 800 lanterns spanning the sprawling 12 acres of the gardens. Here are a few of my favorites: 

We made it to the stage in time to watch the Kung Fu Show, where a group of Kung Fu aficionados showed off knowledge of this ancient art. This was followed up with an opportunity for people to come up on stage and partake in a demonstration themselves, learning some of the basic moves of Kung Fu! My hand eye coordination is paltry at best so I opted to hang back and take in the show from the audience.

At the end of the exhibit, the walking trail puts you at the tent filled with stalls of handcrafted wares. Local artists booths were arranged within the tent selling anything from hand-painted pieces of art, exquisite jewelry, delicate sugared candies, and so much more. We took our time perusing the stalls and purchased two bookmarks, handmade (of course) cut shapes of each of my children's Chinese zodiac signs (a tiger and a pig!) Take a look at this beautiful artwork:

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The entire exhibit was a beautiful foray into Chinese culture and history, imaginative and ethereal. When the sun fell and night rose, the gardens truly came alive in a unique and wondrous way. If you ever get the opportunity to visit, take it! You won't be disappointed. 

Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens is located at 6500 South New Hope Road, Belmont, NC 28012, P: (704) 825-4490 and you can visit there website for a calendar of other events being hosted throughout the year.

XOXO, 

Coco

READ ABOUT OUR OTHER FUN TRAVEL EXPERIENCES HERE!

Myrtle Beach, SC: Pirate Voyage and more

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I have been to Myrtle Beach, SC hundreds of times, and every single time we go I look at the billboards advertising Pirate Voyage and my inner child bursts with excitement. Unfortunately, we never have the time to go check it out...until this summer.  When hubby stated out loud "who wants to see pirates?" I knew exactly what he was talking about! (I think I cried a little).

Ok, so I had no idea what to expect.  We had been to Medieval Times Dinner before, which lead me to believe that this was going to be similar.  I was right, but I was wrong.  

Pirate Voyage is located on North Kings Hwy in Myrtle Beach, SC, next to the Grand Opry.  The building stands tall with a very Colonial style facade and big red letters that read "Pirate Voyage".  They tell you to arrive at least one and a half hours before your scheduled dinner (highly recommended to purchase the tickets online in advance to guarantee a seat...the place was packed!).

RELATED: CAROLINA BEACH: FAMILY WEEKEND

Why get there so early?  Well, they want you to hang around their restaurant/bar/shopping area while you are thoroughly entertained by the pirates.  ALSO, they want your kids to beg you so they can have their face painted or get a pirate tattoo.... yeah, ours convinced us.  We are weak. (Just between you and me... my daughter chose the pirate package- face painting - and oh lord... the makeup was horrible.  She looked like a cheap ***,  not going to say the word I was thinking of, but it was not worth the $20 we paid.) 

ENTERTAINMENT FOR ALL

The place is beautifully decorated with all sorts of pirate and mermaid stuff.  The bar mixes specialty drinks served in skull shaped mugs that you can keep (we got two!). The pirates walk around the bar and in between the long tables while they talk to people, take pictures with kids, and crack a joke or two.  

At some point some of the pirates get on the small stage and do all kinds of juggling and dare-devilish stunts, even with fire.  It was quite awesome.

SHOW TIME

After a while, they call the two sides to their seats... when you purchase your ticket you can choose red (Crimson), or blue (Sapphire) teams.  The teams seat on opposite sides.  The center of the "arena" is a pirate ship and the rest is water....pretty amazing view.  

RELATED: MEDIEVAL TIMES, MYRTLE BEACH, SC.

So you are sitting facing the giant pool and the show begins.  The pirates come out and introduce themselves; they ask you to cheer for your respective team; they start competition after competition between the teams, keeping score of who wins.  There's a plot to the story though... the captains of the red (a female pirate) and blue (a male pirate) teams start a battle against each other, racing to be the first ones to find a hidden treasure. The audience is engaged; even participating in some of the competitions. There are aerial acrobatics, seals, dogs, fire, sword fighting, and scary spirits... very scary, giant spirits.  (Good thing we love Halloween!).  But, the best part of all...the mermaids.  I wish they had more of the mermaids, they only come out for a minute or two... but it was just magical.

THE FEAST

And then we eat. Well, you eat while the show is going on in front of you. The menu is simple and it's the same for everyone.  Remember... you are there to be a pirate, so you must eat pirate food.  Vegetable soup, bread, a quarter roasted chicken, BBQ pulled pork, corn on the cob, tater tots, and apple pie.  It's a lot of food, and it was surprisingly not bad at all. The chicken was falling off the bone, so it was nice and tender. There is also a vegetarian option if you prefer.  Drinks included with dinner are water or tea and you can purchase any drink from the bar and they will bring it to you.  

Bottom line.  Don't procrastinate like me.  Become a pirate or a mermaid and let your inner child scream Ahoy Matey!

Always,

Mia.

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Cruising Do's and Don'ts: When I planned ahead and when I didn't plan with my head.

Being that this was my second cruise I thought for sure I was adequately knowledgeable about the ins and outs of what to expect and what to bring. Turns out packing/cruising for 7 is a tad different from the small party of two that was the last trip. 

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-BRING A LANYARD: I don't know why I didn't think about or remember this from the last trip- but please for the love of god bring a lanyard to keep your sail and sign card on. Since cruises are non cash accepting zones, these things are needed for everything (get on and off the boat at port, buy drinks, pick up souvenirs in the gift shop, play in the arcade/casino). They are linked to whatever CC you set it up with (or pre-loaded cash) and I can't tell you how annoying it was to have to keep it in my wallet the whole trip which I was then forced to carry around on the ship the entire 7 days. Mia was smart and brought one as a "just in case" item. They *do* sell them on the boat, but my cheap ass wasn't paying $13 (per lanyard) for both my husband and myself. Lesson learned. Bring a lanyard! 

-IF GOING IN A GROUP, A WALKIE TALKIE IS A LIFESAVER:

Being that we were traveling outside of the US (without an international data package) we knew we would not able to communicate with each other using cell phones while on board. Even our normal tricks of using WiFi to text via WhatsApp wasn't an option being that Carnival charges a daily Wifi fee that I was definitely not going to fork over (cheap ass remember?) Thank goodness Mia came up with the brilliant plan (she comes up with most of them if I'm being honest) of bringing a set of long range walkie talkies with us in the event that we wanted to split up so we could still communicate when/where to meet back up. Or to prank call each other from our rooms at night/in the AM, whateves. The boys scoffed at us, but they quickly realized how useful they were and everyone was happy we forked over the $15 per couple to buy them from Amazon. 

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-CHEERS! PACKAGE OR NAH?

So the Cheers! package is an unlimited alcohol package for when you are on board the ship. At about $50 per day per person- this one isn't for the casual drinker. We weighed this option very carefully and did ALOT of math when determining if it would be worth it for us (see kids, math DOES come in handy when you are adulting- tabulating drink costs on a cruise ship for 4 of age adults is no joke!). In the end we decided to fork over the $800 per couple total cost just to have the peace of mind of not mentally tabulating our sail and sign bill each time we ordered a cocktail. (I should clarify that *I* didn't worry about calculating that bill but hubby saw that as the total to beat and kept track of every drink we each had in order to calculate if we really got our monies worth...we did....and then some in case you were wondering). At between $6 and $10 for your most bought beer and cocktails, they can add up quick! Throw in 3 full days at sea with no ports (and let's be honest- three kids who while adorable and lovely- can drive you up a wall)- and we easily met our moneys worth. We were also able to use them to get the kids some fancy (non alcoholic) drinks and sodas that we would have normally had to pay for, so all in all it was a good deal for us. 

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- TO TIP OR NOT TO TIP- THAT IS THE QUESTION:

When given the option to pre-pay for tips up front when we booked the cruise, we opted out. (Now hold your horses people- we are really great tippers and always tip well when we receive a service- over 20% in fact). We were unsure of how the staff was actually tipped out from this option and wanted to tip individually to those who provided us with services (room stewards/bar tenders/waiters) to ensure that our tip money was actually going to those serving us. Turns out, everyone is charged a flat fee for tips, they just give you the option to pay it up front or your card will be charged at the end of the cruise. We found this out the night before setting sail which was kind of an annoyance (my husband had already taken out a couple hundred dollars...in ones...) but c'est la vie. Because we firmly believe in over-tipping, especially when the service is phenomenal- we went ahead with our original plan and tipped our servers individually anyway. These guys were some of the most friendly, efficient, hard working service industry professionals I have ever met and they deserved every dollar (and more), so when given the option to tip- do it. 

- DOWNLOAD THE CARNIVAL HUB APP-

A free app with cruise specific info, this thing was a life saver most days at sea. Set it up with your own unique login and password, and it keeps an electronic tab of all your purchases on the boat as well as a schedule of all the events going on onboard each day. It allows you to mark items you are interested in and it will alert you when they are coming up we found it really handy! The best part? The app will work on the boat and will not charge you for wifi (app is free and to use is free even in international water). Score! 

- WHAT TIME TO DINE?

Upon booking your cruise you will asked to choose a dining time for dinners at your assigned dining room. Three options are given, Early, Late, and 'Your Time". I would choose the "Your Time" dining option as it is the most flexible of the three, allowing you to go early or late depending on what other activities you guys have going on on any particular day. With so many fun and exciting activities both onboard and onshore it's nice to have this flexible option. 

- BEACH TOWEL BONANZA: 

Carnival does provide beach towels for your use (one per person will be folded up for your use in your room) BUT if you loose one during the day they charge your room $20 for a replacement. Since they all look alike and the whole boat had them, it is very easy for people to pick them up thinking they are theirs and they are YOU are stuck with a bill (happened to me on our first cruise- so annoying!) So I say bring your own distinct beach towel so no one mistakes it for theirs.

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-WATERPROOF CAMERA IS A MUST!

I originally planned to just get a water proof case for my phone but I chickened out when it came to the deep blue ocean... I mean, let's face it... even though my phone is ancient, I paid like an arm and a leg for it, so I didn't want it ruined! I did test the case, and it did have good reviews, but I'm a nutcase and I couldn't make myself submerge my iPhone under the sea. In a pool, yeah. In the ocean. No. So I went online and bought a (Yuntab Action Camera Sport) cheap version of a goPro, and OMG that little camera is awesome! Paid just $20 for it, plus $10 for the 32gb memory card, and I have to say that the pictures and the video quality are off the hook! This tiny (super tiny) camera with a very good waterproof case did wonders under water... here's a video of me snorkeling:

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-JOT DOWN YOUR MEMORIES.  

Take a journal. Yeah. It might sound a little juvenile to you, but taking trips down memory lane 20 years from now when you find your journal in a drawer or in a box will be awesome. (You are welcome in advance.) Also, pick your favorite picture from your trip, print it, and throw it in there. You'll eventually forget about it, but when you find it, it is sure to bring a smile to your face. 

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-FOR GOODNESS SAKE, CHILDREN, GIVE OCEAN CLUB A CHANCE.

 Do it for your parents. They deserve a break. Our little humans were excited to go check it out and were there for about two hours. When we picked them up, we could see them dancing and laughing and doing crafts, but as soon as they saw us they changed their attitude. We asked "Did you like it!?"... "Nah" They all said they didn't want to come back, they all wanted to spend 24/7 with us because (and I guess this is partially our fault) they enjoyed the activities that involved music, and singing, and trivia, and games, and although family friendly, they weren't catered to children. Oh well. Next time we will probably approach it in a different way and maybe they'll have more kid time and we can have more adult time.  

-TAKE AN EXCURSION! We took ours in Grand Turk. Reserved through the Carnival website. They took us snorkeling to two locations, over the coral reef, and then swimming with sting rays. Yes, those things are scary looking. After our outing we were treated to some rum punch they even fed us freshly prepared (caught in front of you) Conch salad. n awesome experience and highly recommend!

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There are many "Do's and Dont's" that I can write, that may or may not pertain to you, so bottom line, go have fun! Enjoy the sun, the water, the people, don't forget that the people that work there are people too and those people are super cool actually... as they have met sooooo many more people than you. Be kind and you'll have a great time!

Bon Voyage!!! 

Cruising the Caribbean: The Highlights Reel

So here I am, not even a week post cruise and I'm already dying to go back. We have spent the last seven days gliding along the Atlantic, hitting up spots in Nassau, Half Moon Cay (a privately owned Carnival island) and Grand Turk (which my 6 year old affectionately dubbed "Turkish" for the entirety of the trip) and we have lived to tell the tale! I'm happy to report that Mia did not fall off the boat, or get eaten by a shark, or get left on an island as the cruise ship sailed off and left her alone, nor did the zombie apocalypse occur while we were in international waters, or really any waters for that matter. Oh, we had a plan of course in case such a situation arose, but I digress.... Nothing but a little sea sickness and in the grand scheme of things- it was pretty benign. 

Traveling with a large group (7) including three kids, we did have our fair share of meltdowns, tears, whining, and general pestering, but by and large it was a truly fun trip. So, of course, we have to break down our favorite things about cruising and our ports of call. 

1) I'm not sure what kind of list this would be without mentioning the most important item for us when traveling (or let's be serious, just generally in life), THE FOOD. Being that it was an all inclusive trip, all food costs were covered in the initial price of booking, and for real ya'll, we ate our monies worth. From Guy's Burgers, hot and fresh taco bars, cafeteria styled feasts, to formal sit down dining, a cruise is the place to be for any foodie. Sit down dinners were my favorite meals of the day as they always featured unique menu items along with the more traditional fine dining meal options (steak lobster, etc. ) I am proud to share that I sampled escargots and frog legs among many other carefully crafted delicacies. I may have left the 7 day cruise 10 pounds heavier, but my stomach has never been happier

RELATED: MY FIRST CRUISE

2) You may not know this about us, but we are a pretty competitive bunch. Well, let me clarify, the husbands are a pretty competitive bunch so you can pretty easily guess that we took all the onboard activities very seriously on our trip. From bingo to scavenger hunts, Harry Potter trivia (which we were were ashamed not to know all the very tricky answers!)  and roulette, we were on a mission to win any and all competitions (even self made) with extra bragging rights if an actual prize was involved. We were dubbed ping-pong champions , back stroke masters, scavenger hunt aficionados, bingo extraordinaires, and family challenge victors. Between the two families we won over a dozen medals, a cruise ship shaped trophy, a bottle of champagne, and $340 in bingo spoils. There is always something fun going on onboard, and we always add our own flare/style to the events! As a funny side story, at the scavenger challenge, one of the items was to get a bikini top and bring it to the stage...well, Mia's hubby had the fantastic idea of snagging her bikini top. Thank goodness she had her cover up on because he was serious about it (umm hello? bragging rights and a snazzy plastic medal were at stake!) and took off with it! Unfortunately he was not quick enough, and my hubby snagged the victory on that one. ;)

 Our team name was "The Incredibles" and we ROCKED the family challange! 

Our team name was "The Incredibles" and we ROCKED the family challange! 

3) Out of the three ports we visited, my absolute favorite was Grand Turk. There was something for everyone; chitzy & craftsman style shopping, white sandy beaches, fun and exciting excursions, and of course....places to eat. This was the island we had chosen to go on our excursion, snorkeling with sting rays. We took a motorboat out into the water to three separate spots to explore various reefs and sea life with the last stop at a small island cove where we got up close and personal with some sting rays. Riding the motorboat back inland, the crew whipped up a fresh from the sea conch salsa (so good!) and some rum punch. 

4) THE PEOPLE. Yes. We met pretty fantastic and interesting people on this trip. Oddly enough, none of which were fellow cruisers...well, not really odd because, let's be honest here, we are not "walk up to random strangers and make friends" type of girls. Hello! Social anxiety!  We actually made an effort to speak with and made friends with the crew of the ship.. they looked much more approachable (maybe it's because they are paid to be nice to you? ;) ) It happens that the crew consists of a very international and diverse community and talking to people from so many different parts of the world (parts that we had never heard of before) is kind of amazing. We met people from all parts of Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Romania, Peru, and different parts of the US. What we found even more amazing is how humble, and hard working all these people are, and to be honest, I think we found some great friends in this trip... in fact, our next big adventure might be to Transylvania! 

So, bottom line my friends: Pack your bags and take a cruise!!!!! Enjoy the good food, the beautiful places, and the great people. Then go home with some amazing memories and share them with the world!

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Snow Tubing Fun!- Hawksnest, Seven Devils, NC

When you are not a very sporty person, the idea of spending your weekend participating in what your mind is perceiving as a extreme sport, is not very appealing. It gets even harder to admit that you are crying inside when your six year old is over the moon excited and fearless.  

Living in Charlotte, North Carolina we don't get a lot of snow around here. Maybe once every few years we'll see a few inches of snow (and the whole city shuts down). That being said, we don't own snow gear, or snow clothes, or anything of that sort... but we are resourceful. You should've seen me in layers of leggings, and sweatpants, and an old pair of Uggs. Throw in a rain jacket, and you have the perfect snow tubing outfit. Although, for my daughter's fashion taste, I looked "embarrassing". I didn't care. I was warm and dry. 

Maybe a little bit too warm, if I want to be honest. It was a scorching 55 degrees at the top of the mountain and I wasn't feeling so good, as the windy roads messed up my stomach and I almost puked, twice.

But this weather was not ideal for snow activities. It's basic science folks...snow melts on anything that is over freezing temperatures. Who would've thought that it was going to be so (relatively) hot at the top of a mountain in the middle of winter??? -Global Warming people!

We had to pay $5 for parking (cash only) when we got there...and... none of us had any non-plastic money.

**mental note to check do's and don't online before visiting a new place**

We started sweating even before we got out of the car. We worked hard to gather those $5 guys! Fortunately, there were enough quarters and dimes in the car. The attendant didn't seem too happy to receive this heavy, and quite annoying form of payment. Money is money, and she let us through.

I was quite disappointed to see mostly green. Green hills, green grass everywhere (well, dead grass, mostly), and then I saw the snow.  Tons of "snow"...cause I'm assuming it's fake, just on the track lanes. Not quite what i was expecting. What ever happened to the sight blinding shine of the white snowy hills you see in the movies? I guess not in NC. It hasn't snowed in a while around here.  

We stood in line with a couple hundred other people. We got there pretty early, so we were like second in line, which was nice. When they opened the gate, they directed us to grab a tube per person and proceed to the tracks.

I was nervous, my heart was racing, my legs were shaking. My daughter and hubby went down the hill as I watched them. They seemed fine, so I went. I sat on the tube and let go.  Weeeeeeee. I made it out alive.  No broken bones, no injuries.  I was fine. You might be thinking... It's JUST snow tubing lady! Stop whining... No.  You don't understand.  I am clumsy and I tend to always get injured...so I was very proud of myself here, friends!

When you successfully get to the bottom, you must get your tube and step onto the "magic carpet", which is a slider conveyor carpet, that will pull you, and the tube, up to the top.  Although, it takes like 15 minutes for it to get all the way up.  It was the boring part of the ride.  It goes slow because it has no handles and it's very easy to lose your balance off of it, believe me.  I almost did.

If you pay for one session, you only have 1 hr and 45 minutes to "play". Trust me. That's plenty.  I couldn't have done it longer. I didn't get wet as people suggested, but instead, I was sweating to death, and dying to sit down and drink something cold.  

The snow tubing ended up being a lot of fun, despite my earlier doubts. They also had zip lining, but that would've been too much excitement for one day.

This might be something we would do again. We all had lots of fun. My daughter keeps talking about it, and how much fun she had.  

Here's a short video of me sliding down the mountain...

So if you are in the area, visit Hawksnest in Seven Devils, NC.  It's the largest snow tubing park in the region, and guaranteed fun for the whole family.  **kids 3 and up are allowed to ride**

Have you guys been there? I didn't fall out...did you?

The Southern Christmas Show

It's no secret that Christmas is my favorite holiday. Twinkling lights, Christmas trees, cookies, wrapping gifts, SANTA. There is nothing about Christmas that I don't like. 

One of my favorite annual traditions that always gets the holiday season kicked off for me is The Southern Christmas Show.  Located at The Park Expo and Conference Center in Charlotte, NC, the show runs from November 10-20 and features a wide array of craft and artisan booths as well as more mainstream realtors. Tickets are $12 at the door or $10 if you buy in advance online (so, ummm duh, buy them online).

Make sure you block off the day to fully enjoy all that The Christmas Show has to offer. I can literally spend all day browsing and perusing the various stalls and booths. Good thing they are open from 10-6 on Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays and until 9 all other days! 

 They never fail to deliver beautiful displays while making your way into the building!

They never fail to deliver beautiful displays while making your way into the building!

In order to keep up your shopping stamina, make sure to grab some food at one of the many vendors set up at the show. Take your pick from a cafeteria style set up, or stalls with hamburgers, sandwiches, hot dogs, or pretzels! A stage toward the end of the first building is set up with ample seating to stop and rest your tootsies while taking in some local musical talent. The Christmas Show hosts a number of local choirs and bands throughout the day and evening to keep the Christmas spirit going all throughout the show.    

Now. Onto the shopping!

Check out some of my favorite vendors.

The Christmas Mouse is a must! A Christmas tradition in my family is to gift each child (or in my case adult) with a new ornament each year in his/her stocking. The ornament is usually symbolic of something accomplished during the year or an especially memorable experience. One year my husband received a beautiful American flag ornament when he became a citizen, I was given a stunning crystal chandelier in remembrance of watching The Phantom of the Opera on a family trip to London, etc. It's really amazing to look at our Christmas Tree each year and remember significant life events, and fun vacations from over the years. All of these unique items, we purchase the The Christmas Mouse.

 

You can't go the the Christmas Show and not stop by to try Helmut's Strudel. Featuring several different types of their award winning strudel, I always opt for the cheese. Located in the last building at the end of the shopping day, I'm always excited to scoop up a box (or two) and indulge in the flaky, cheesy goodness this pastry has to offer. 

Shea's Wildflower Company. This exhibitor is located right smack dab in the beginning of the first building. Filled with charming, rustic Christmas decorations, you are sure to find something in here to bring home and adorn your walls, shelves, or gardens. Boasting both natural and artificial decor, I have to seriously control myself because I want it ALL! I mean c'mon, look at all these goodies! Everything from wreaths and topiaries, to lighted figurines and decorative houses, it's all beautiful and well crafted.   

This last vendor was a new one (new to me anyways) that featured beautiful little succulent container. These adorable miniature gardens were fashioned out of small plastic ornaments which can be hung to adorn your tree, or, thanks to the flat bottom, can liven up a shelf or table. I chose to display mine on a shelf in my library. Doesn't it look fantastic?! 

If you are in the Charlotte, NC or surrounding area, do yourself a favor and grab your BFF, mom, sister, grandma, cousin, whoever, and make a day of The Southern Christmas Show. Arm yourself with comfy walking shoes, a tacky Christmas sweater, and loads of Christmas cheer for a day of laughs and fun!

LIKED THIS ARTICLE? Share the Christmas Spirit or comment below! (Santa will bring you something good)

Huzzah! Travel to the Renaissance Time!

 The queen and her court

The queen and her court

I've always dreamed about being a princess.  Since I heard the happily-ever-after stories of Snow White, and my favorite, Beauty and the Beast, I often fantasized (and still do) about Prince Charming on a white stallion.  Then, I learned about King Arthur, and the amazing stories of Camelot.  Oh it was love at first....word...cause I learned about it when I read my books.  

Nothing, and I mean, NOTHING gets closer to being part of those times, than a Renaissance Festival.  Just imagine yourself, walking down a village from the middle ages, with small cottages, and artisan stores.  Where peasants (in full attire) roam the village, singing, and showcasing their arts.  Where you can feast on huge turkey legs, while watching knights jousting to entertain the crowd and the King. Where you can see fairies, and magic walking trees; where you can test your archery skills and other medieval arts.  

Yes, there is a place where you can do all this and much more!  The Carolina's Renaissance Fair is one of the largest in the nation, with over 500 full costumed villagers, knights, and royals walking around and interacting with the visitors.  For 22 years, it is the best way to spend a whole day daydreaming about medieval times while participating in the many activities, shows, games, and magic around you.  Come in early (they have ample free parking), and enjoy yourself!

The stores are incredibly crafty and you can find amazing hand made art and artifacts. One of my favorite stores is Broomhilde . Here, you can find all kinds of magic wands and walking sticks, as well as flying brooms! -get ready Hogwarts!

This is a place for the whole family.  My daughter had a blast riding in the (fully man-powered) pirate ship, giant rocking horse, Davinci ride, and interacting with the very beautiful fairy. Her make up is perfect and my daughter truly believes she is a real fairy...or maybe she is.   

Acrobats from Barely Balanced -who are amazing!- walk around in stilts greeting and meeting people. You can also, if you are lucky, can catch a glimpse of the queen and her court walking through the village, saying hi to the people. And don't forget to look out for the knights! You can meet them too, while they are not jousting, throughout Fairhaven.  

If you get hungry, don't fear! Just feast on one of the very many food stands and accompany your giant turkey leg with a cold beer or sparkling mimosa.  

Our day was full of daydreaming and adventure. We tried our hand at archery, threw tomatoes at a obnoxious jester, found pirate coins throughout a maze, visited a dungeon, witnessed a pirate eat fire, shook hands with a walking tree, rode a camel, got a present from the fairy, saw a vulture perform tricks, found the perfect magic wand, and were amazed by the acrobats performance.  

Our day in the village of Fairhaven, at the Carolinas Renaissance Festival was epic. Huzzah!! 

for more information visit: www.carolina.renfestinfo.com

Medieval Times Myrtle Beach

With summer winding down and the quickly approaching reality of early mornings, homework, and strict bedtimes, hubby and I decided to treat the kids to a long weekend at the beach. 

Myrtle Beach, SC is usually our go-to beach, and we make at least one trip down there a year. Being that it's only a three and a half hour drive from our hometown of Charlotte, is very family friendly, and has tons of activities to keep the kids busy, it's really a no-brainer for us.

RELATED: CAROLINA BEACH, NC FAMILY WEEKEND

This trip, we were looking for something different to do. We have played all the same mini golf attractions, eaten our fill at the iconic Big Crab Restaurant, fished off the pier, and explored the little shops and rides at Bearfoot Landing. Now don't get me wrong, these things are all a lot of fun but we wanted to try out something different. At the behest of a work friend, and our very own Mia, we bought tickets for the dinner show at Medieval Times. 

Medieval Times is located conveniently off Fantasy Way and was a short 20 minute drive from our hotel. Your $53.95 ticket entry fee ($26.95 for kids-as of 2016) allows you to step back into time and experience an authentically unique medieval experience. Guests are grouped into various colors based on your seating. There is a section devoted to the Red Knight, the Green Knight, the Yellow Knight, and so on. 

While dinner is served (a quite hearty portion) a performance is put on by the King, Princess, and various Knights who compete in jousting tournaments, perform horse tricks, and fight to the "death" to win the coveted title of champion. Yelling, cheering, booing, and general crowd interaction are not only allowed, but encouraged (much to my children's delight). Pleasant wait staff (dressed in appropriate medieval garb of course) cater to each guests every need for the duration of the 2 hour show. Dinner was served in courses, tomato bisque, warm baked bread, roasted chicken, sweet buttered corn, herb-basted potato, and the pastry of the day. Be warned, the authenticity of the night includes time period appropriate dining ware, no forks/spoons/knives. Be prepared to use your hands! 

Be prepared to pay a pretty penny not only for the initial ticket price, but for alcoholic beverages and souvenirs. The lobby of Medieval Times sells tons of wares, everything from princess crowns and children's swords, to unique and artisan style knives and metal figurines. 

Despite the sticker shock with admission prices, I am so glad we bit the bullet and took the kids. They loved every minute and left with huge grins. Don't have kids? This show is still very entertaining and engaging for an adult, either way it's a win/win in my book!

RELATED: HOW TO TRAVEL ON A BUDGET

*Travel Tip- most hotels in the area have free coupon books where you can score some discounted tickets, and always look online too. We were able to get the kids tickets free with the purchase of an adult ticket- score!

Carolina Beach, NC. Family Weekend. What to do, where to go.

We are about a 3 1/2 hour drive from Wilmington, NC. and we try to visit this beautiful place often.  Wilmington is the "commercialized" part of this amazing area.  It's full of great restaurants, bars, museums, tours, and it's home to the USS North Carolina, a real life battleship open to tours all year round.  

Once you are in Wilmington and you continue driving south on US 421, you will encounter Carolina Beach.  Go a little further down and you can also enjoy (my personal favorite), the beautiful Kure Beach, and Fort Fisher.  

There are many things to do in Carolina Beach, and most of them are family friendly (and that's why I love this place!).  Here are my top places and things to do with the whole family:

1. OBVIOUSLY, THE BEACH.

Carolina Beach can be crowded in the summer time or holidays, but even so, it's still provides a great place to relax and get some vitamin D from the sun.  You can also go down to Fort Fisher if you are looking for a more secluded beach... there are very few restaurants and stores down at Fort Fisher but the beach is beautiful and peaceful.

2. TAKE A STROLL DOWN THE BOARDWALK

Honestly this boardwalk is amazing.  It's full of shops, restaurants, bars, ice cream parlors, and doughnut shops.  In the summer, you can find live music and fireworks every week.  Kids can freely run and play while enjoying some good live (and free) entertainment.  

3. SEASIDE AMUSEMENT PARK

Yes, there is a permanent amusement park right by the ocean.  Located at the boardwalk, this amusement park has rides for all ages.  It's free to walk around and each ride takes 2-3 tickets.  You can purchase tickets at one of the stands around the park, or you can get an armband (better deal) for $25 and have unlimited rides.  There are no big roller coasters, but you can find your typical Ferris-Wheel, Carousel, giant slides, pirate ship, and many others.  And don't forget to get some funnel cake!

4. ENJOY SOME GOOD HOTDOGS AFTER A DAY AT THE BEACH

We tried Island Hots... and I loved it.  Their menu has hot dogs for every taste, and their onion rings are to die for. (probably the best onion rings I've had in a long time).  Hot dogs go great while sitting on their outside patio, enjoying the weather.

5. TASTE SOME CRAFT BEERS

There are many breweries in the area.  We tried Good Hops Brewing in Carolina Beach.  LOVE IT! What I love the most about this place, it's kid and pet friendly.  I don't feel bad about bringing my six year old with me because they actually have board games, and outside games to entertain everyone. Dogs are allowed inside and outside (must be on a leash), and they even have a doggie water station for our furry friends.  And the beer?  Awesome.  a must try!

6. VISIT THE AQUARIUM

Just a few minutes down Carolina Beach, you will encounter Fort Fisher, home to a beautiful North Carolina Aquarium.  You can enjoy many exhibits including a huge tank which is home to sharks, eels and many, many gorgeous and colorful fish.  You can also meet their albino alligator, Luna!

7. FORT FISHER AND MUSEUM

If you are in a history mood, you can also go across the street from the aquarium and take a look at the actual fort.  There is a small museum with civil war artifacts and lots of history!

8.  GO FISHING

If you enjoy fishing, there is nothing better than spending a couple of hours at the fishing pier.  You can buy a license in the store and pick your spot on the beautiful pier.  The view is breathtaking and the kids have lots of fun.  If you are a little more adventurous, you can try the Jetty at Fort Fisher, but I believe you need a license through the state park to fish here. (don't quote me on that one)

9. RENT A BIKE

Riding a bike is a perfect way to get around the area.  Ride a bike around town, or on the beach.  Enjoy the weather with the whole family

10.  USS NORTH CAROLINA

On our way back home, we stopped at the USS NORTH CAROLINA site.  This impressive battle ship is open to the public for tours every day of the week.  This is a great history lesson for the kids (and adults).  The USS NC is a beautiful memorial and it's actually fun to see the inside of this colossal ship.

Whether you are into history, ice-cream, or just want to put your toes in the sand, Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and Fort Fisher are full of family fun, endless entertainment, and unforgettable memories.  

To learn more about the area click here.

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Pigeon Forge, TN: Where to eat, What to do.

When we decided to go to Dollywood, we drove close to four hours from the piedmont of North Carolina to the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.  It was a nice (curvy) ride.  The view was spectacular as the mountain range appears in front of you.  

We stayed at the Willow Brook Lodge in Pigeon Forge.  The room was clean, the beds were comfortable, and they have an indoor and outdoor pool.  Our daughter loved this place since we were able to use the pool and the jacuzzi at night, before bed. They also have complimentary continental breakfast every morning, which was nice.  

On our way there, we passed the town of Gatlinburg, about ten minutes outside Pigeon Forge. The main road looks like a typical beach strip...but in the mountains. You see bargain souvenir stores and lots of mini-golf places everywhere. There are numerous restaurants, shops, arcades, and family friendly places. MagiQuest ads and Dixie Stampede billboards are everywhere luring people to get tickets. The atmosphere is relaxed and safe.  

RELATED: Dollywood, fun for the whole family

We chose to play "putt putt" at Hillbilly golf.  

This mini-golf course is arranged down a huge hill, and you are transported to the top by riding a rail cart 300 feet up. Once at the top, you descend the hill playing 18 holes through all sorts of machinery, and mountaineer equipment. The course is one of the most unusual mini-golfs I've seen. It was lots of fun for us, especially when I made three holes-in-one and hubby only got one. (insert smiley-mischievous face here ). 

At dinner time, we were recommended to go to the Old Mill Restaurant and eat some good old-fashion southern cooking.

This place was very neat. The restaurant looked like an old cabin on stilts from the outside, overlooking a creek. There was a wait for dinner, but it was worth our while. They bring you corn frites, with a sweet butter with a maple-ish flavor. We ordered the corn chowder, fried chicken (which came with mash potatoes and green beans), and hubby ordered the chicken and dumplings which were exquisite. The dessert was my favorite part. Blackberry cobbler with homemade vanilla icecream.  I honestly have no words to describe it, since it was so fresh and so overwhelmingly delicious. Everything was included in the price; appetizer, main course, and dessert. You can't beat all that food for a very reasonable amount.  

Needless to say, we came back the next day for breakfast.  Again, the price included eggs, a stack of pancakes, bacon, corn grits, and potatoes. They provide you with fresh orange juice and your choice of an alternative drink.  I got coffee, of course, which was perfectly brewed.  

The Old Mill area included a few shops around the restaurant. Their own general store, a pottery store, farmhouse kitchen store, a creamery, and a candy store (where I got lots of candy). This was a great place to spend a few hours browsing around, eating and admiring the beautiful landscape.

Overall, Pigeon Forge as well as Gatlinburg, are very family oriented places to spend a good ol' weekend; even if you don't end up going to Dollywood park, you can still find a million things to do around town.  

For more pictures of Pigeon Forge and Dollywood check out our Pics tab.

Always,

Mia.

***** Read about our other adventures here****

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