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Royal Caribbean Cruises: Mayan Cacoa Company Excursion

20191231_143345-1In my last blog, I wrote about our fantastic shore excursion to the Mayan ruins at San Gervasio in Cozumel, Mexico. While I loved exploring the ruins and got some amazing pictures, for me the highlight of the trip was our stop at the Mayan Cacao Company. There were a couple different shore excursions coupled with the ruins and when I saw this one that also included a chocolate tour…I was hooked. History and chocolate? Take my money and sign me up!

The Mayan Cacao Company is clearly a happening place to be. It was hoppin! I think half the island may have been there when we arrived, but our amazing guide Edwin got us right on a guided tour of the operation. It began in a room (which was thankfully air conditioned after our rather sweaty time at the ruins) dedicated to the history of chocolate. There were some replicas of Mayan statues, actual cacao pods for us to smell, written and pictorial explanations of the history and chocolate making process and some small artifacts from early chocolate making. Our tour guide gave us about a five minute talk on the cultural significance of early chocolate making.

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Next, we headed down a shaded path, where a beautiful red parrot sat squawking at us. Our guide led us to a thatched hut-like building where people were making a chocolate based mole sauce for us to try. We learned about the process and the importance of mole in Mexican cooking and then got to try a small corn tortilla with the homemade mole on it. Although only the briefest whispers of cocoa were present, I thought it was quite tasty. My husband and son both loved it too. My daughter, the insanely picky eater took a bite, made a face, and handed it over to me. Her brother was eyeing the extra portion so I gave it to him.

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We continued to wind down the path and our guide stopped to show us some cacao trees and explain how they are nurtured and cultivated. She also showed us actual cacao pods on the trees and explained a bit about how they are harvested.

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Along the path we passed another gorgeous parrot. This guy was green and even more talkative. I’m not much of a bird fan, but after their earlier interaction with parrots (they got to hold and play with one), they wanted to stop and talk to these birds too. I took pictures, which was really pretty brave of me!

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The next stop on our tour was the demonstration room. As we shuffled inside, we were handed a little wooden spoon with some not quite liquid, not quite solid chocolate on it. Our presenter explained that it was fresh chocolate which had just been made during the last demonstration. It was DELICIOUS! My daughter, who at least loves pretty much all things sweet, devoured that sample, which was a shame because I definitely wanted another one!

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The demonstration was really pretty cool…and not just because we were in another wonderfully air-conditioned spot. The presentation was about 10 minutes long and explained the entire chocolate making process. The Mayan Cacao Company is true to its roots and at least the initial process hasn’t changed in centuries. Unlike the Mayans though, now the cacao is served in delicious bar form and not as a very watery, very bitter unsugared drink. As we watched, he pounded and ground the spices together to make the samples of chocolate for the next group.

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After the presentation (you can watch thefull version here), we got a chance to try the original Mayan cacao drink if we wanted. Of course my husband, son, and I grabbed some. There was a little station where guests could add some spices like cinnamon to the drink. Man, it was bitter! I cannot believe people actually enjoyed it at all. But I drank it up, even if it made me grimace a bit.

Luckily right next to that cacao station was a bar with frozen chocolate drinks for sale! I guess they also served non-chocolate drinks, but why bother? My sister, husband, and I each grabbed one. Although they all looked pretty much the same, we each tried a different flavor of liquor! I got a chocolate daiquiri, my sister got a chocolate margarita, and my husband got a mud slide. Of course we had to taste each other’s drinks! I think I liked the mud slide the best, but my daiquiri was pretty good. The drinks were made with HUGE chunks of the Mayan Cacao Company’s chocolate. My only complaint is that the chunks did not get blended enough so the bottom of my cup was basically a solid chunk of chocolate.

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As with pretty much every tour I’ve ever been on, it ended in a gift shop. And this was a glorious gift shop! They had samples of each and every one of their chocolate bars (about two dozen). They also had samples of some of their jams. Of course we had to try them all. I was surprised by how much I actually liked their dark chocolate. I don’t know if I’m just slowly becoming a dark chocolate convert or if theirs is just really good, but most of my favorite ones were dark chocolate! However, I ended up buying my favorite bar which was milk chocolate with cranberries, almonds, and grapes. My kids got the milk chocolate and hazelnut bar to share, although they had a hard time agreeing on one bar. My daughter thought they should probably sample all of them twice, but I made her commit to a bar after only one round of sampling!

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As a chocoholic, it’s no surprise that I loved this part of the excursion. If we ever find ourselves back in Cozumel (fingers crossed), I definitely plan to stop by again. If you are cruising the Caribbean and get a chance to stop in at the Mayan Cacao Company, it is a must visit!

 

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Munchie Monday: The best Godiva ever

Godiva cranberryIt seems that whenever I fall in love with a piece of Godiva chocolate, they discontinue it. Well, not discontinue per say, but remove it from the case where I can buy individual pieces (or maybe a dozen). Sure, Godiva gift boxes are great and if someone wants to get me one, I’ll accept it and be beyond thankful for it, but I prefer to make my own little gift boxes with my favorite chocolates. Who wouldn’t?

Which is exactly why I was miserable when Godiva took my absolute favorite chocolate ever, the raspberry cordial, out of the case. I loved it so much that I even bought the chocolate assortments it would show up in, and suffer through the far inferior cherry cordial to get it. But then, even that disappeared. It has been years and I still miss that cordial. DeBrand’s has a piece that is similar and I’ll admit I shop at DeBrand’s way more often than Godiva now as a result.

Because I love all things tart, my second favorite piece at Godiva was the holiday cranberry truffle. I’d wait all year for it to come out, go to the store and buy a dozen or so each holiday season. It couldn’t replace the raspberry cordial, but it was a solid backup.

And then they pulled it from the cases too. It’s like Godiva has some sort of strange vendetta against me and wants me to be unhappy. Thankfully, it is still available in the holiday collection, so I can still get it. However, now I get one each holiday season, which breaks my heart.

20191222_190606The truffle itself is a masterpiece. Even though it is wrapped in dark chocolate, which I am not a huge fan of, the fact that it is paired with this perfect, crisp, tart center, makes the dark chocolate the perfect mix. This fantabulous center would wither inside milk chocolate. The center has that perfect cranberry bite. It’s just fruity enough to make it pleasant, but tart enough to make my mouth water a bit. It reminds me a bit of the cranberries in the cranberry apple crisp I make. The perfect blend of sugar and tart.

I can’t see a way this  truffle could be better. Unless Godiva came to their senses and started putting it back in the case. Each holiday season I hurry in to my local Godiva boutique in hopes they’ve come to their senses. And each year I am disappointed and leave with a holiday box like this one and nothing else.

Overall:

Taste: 10/10
Appearance: 7/10 (when it was sold in the case it had a fantastic bit of cranberry sugar on it.
Value: 2/10–if I could buy these on their own, the value would be 10/10, but they came in a “Limited Edition Holiday Collection: which had four truffles available all year round and only two “holiday” truffles. I didn’t want the other ones, so I was NOT happy about the price I paid.

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Disney’s Polynesian Resort: Pool cabanas

20191009_162339When I suggested to my mom and sister that we take a girl’s trip to Disney World, I knew I was going to be doing the planning. Of course, I don’t mind this at all as I LOVE planning Disney trips. I also knew where I wanted to stay: Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. Now, it didn’t take much to convince my mom that this would be a great choice for us. When I mentioned that we’d be able to ride the Monorail straight from our hotel to the Ticket and Transportation Center and then quickly switch to the Epcot Monorail, she was pretty much sold.

But, when I mentioned that we could rent a pool cabana at the resort and just hang by the pool while a cabana attendant brought us all the food and drinks we wanted, she was sold.

All of the Deluxe Resorts at Disney have cabanas for rent. While the cabanas at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Disney’s Yacht Club Resort, Disney’s Beach Club Resort and Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa are a bit swankier-they include TV’s, Bluetooth speakers, mini fridges with water and soda, and fruit/snack baskets–they are also quite a bit more expensive–ranging from $99-$249 depending on season and rental length.

20191009_160709Regardless of which Deluxe resort you pick, cabanas are available from 10 am-7pm or you can do half day rentals from 10am-2pm or 3pm-7pm. We decided we wanted a leisurely morning, so we opted for a half day rental from 3-7. During the first week of October, it only cost us $35. Sure, we had no TV, fruit basket or fridge, but we got to lounge by the pool in VERY comfy chairs and have a dedicated cabana attendant bring us whatever we wanted from the menu (which we paid for).

20191009_160752ThePolynesian has three cabanas located at the much quieter Oasis Pool, which I have to say was super relaxing. During the four hours we spent in our cabana, one of the other cabanas was in use (although they left about an hour before the rental was up), and maybe a dozen other people were in and out of the pool at various times. There were four kids there in those four hours and they were younger kids who were pretty quiet. Not that I have anything against kids being loud at a pool. It’s a pool. I expected crazy hijinx and kids laughing and splashing, but it really didn’t happen. People with kids were enjoying the Lava pool with its cool volcano water slide and super spiffy kids water treehouse-type area.

The weather was a bit cooler on our pool day, highs only reached about 76, so we didn’t really venture into the water. That didn’t stop us from having fun though. We spent our time trying various drinks, snacking on wonton chips, and just talking. As much as I love all that the Disney parks have to offer, I think it is essential to have some down time outside the parks. Every good Disney trip needs a day right smack in the middle where everyone can leisurely move through their day and just enjoy time being together without any lines or rushing to meet a Fast Pass deadline.

20191009_162921The drinks we had were AMAZING! I cannot rave enough about my frozen margarita with Dole Whip lime. The drink alone would have been worth it, but I flipped over the chili lime salt on the rim. I loved it so much that I searched it out at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival. I found a packet of it, scooped it up, and brought it home for drinks at home. Incidentally, I also used it to season my pumpkin seeds this year and it was life changing! My sister’s blueberry lemonade (with vodka) was a close second. Of course, my mom’s Frosty Pineapple, which was Dole Whip and rum was tasty too. I was not as enamored of my second drink, a cucumber and mint vojito (a fun spin on a mojito with vodka instead), but honestly, anything after that Dole Whip lime margarita was gonna be a let down.

20191009_171308My mom has decided that we are now cabana people and any time I suggest going somewhere beachy–we are always planning our next trip–she immediately asks if there are cabanas available. She just doesn’t think that she can go back to a life where she doesn’t lounge while people bring her frosty tropical drinks. I can’t disagree.

Even if I was staying at one of the other Deluxe resorts, I would pay the $99 for a half day rental. The cabana was a lovely way to relax and recoup after a long day of traveling followed by an even longer day at Epcot. Plus, it helped us reset and prepare for the longest day of our trip: Epcot with the Frozen Ever After Dessert Party.

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Munchie Monday: Godiva Bundt Cake Collection

20191201_142644Any time Godiva has something new, I have to try it. They may have been beaten out by DeBrand’s as my favorite place to shop for chocolate, but I still have some serious brand loyalty. The problem, is that recently I have not been impressed with their new offerings. The old standards are still fantastic. I am not sure there is a better truffle than their holiday cranberry truffle. I am still angry that they no longer offer it directly out of the case. As it is, every year they sucker me into buying a holiday truffle sampler so that I can get it. That may seem smart on their part, but I buy one sampler and I would easily buy a few dozen. I love it that much. So really, they are losing out on mega profits, just from me!

So, when I walked in to Godiva and saw the Bundt Cake collection, I was definitely excited. Thanks to the opening of Nothing Bundt Cakes, I’ve had a resurgence in my love for all things bundt (I went through a phase about 8 years ago where I was always making bundt cakes). I was also skeptical. I wanted to like them, just like I’ve wanted to like all of their special collections. This blog, however, is a history of mostly failed special Godiva collection pieces.

But, ever the chocophile/glutton for punishment, I bought three of the six pieces in the collection. Since I am not a huge dark chocolate fan, I skipped all three of them: dark chocolate ganache, dark chocolate orange, and dark chocolate salted caramel. I almost went for the salted caramel, but I’ve been burned by dark chocolate varieties of this so often that I stuck with the milk and white chocolate pieces.

Godiva almond bundtFirst up was the milk chocolate almond bundt cake. I was very pleasantly surprised. The filling was on the drier, crumbly side, much like their almond butter truffle, but despite that texture, it was amazingly creamy. It tasted a little more hazelnut than almond, but I think that’s true of most nutty pieces Godiva produces. Like all things Euroopean, they love their hazelnut. Adding to the nuttiness of this piece were the crisped rice pieces embedded in it. It was odd because even though I knew they were rice, they somehow reminded me of the crunch of nuts and deepened the nutty flavor. This one was quite tasty and I was encouraged.

Next up was the white chocolate cinnamon pecan bundt cake. Although the inside flavorGodiva cinnamon bundt sounded appealing, lately Godiva and I have not been seeing eye to eye on their white chocolate. Ok, that’s not quite fair, as a whole I have lost my enthusiasm for white chocolate. It tends to leave behind a grainy, film in my tongue that just bothers me. I was sure this would be my least favorite…but it turns out I was wrong. This one was my absolute favorite. It was simply fantastic! It was creamy without any of that white chocolate film. The filling in this one was less crumbly than the almond one and a bit more like most of their non-liquid fillings in their truffles–softer, but not runny. I loved the subtle crunch of the pecans in the filling. The cinnamon came in at the of the bite, giving it a warm feeling. I was reminded of sitting next to a fire on a cold winter day, eating those candied roasted pecans that are sold at winter farmer’s markets. YUM!

Godiva coconut bundtI finished off this grouping with the milk chocolate coconut bundt cake. I was most excited by this one and sadly, most disappointed in it. That’s not to say I didn’t like it. I actually did, but it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for. I wanted it to be more coconutty. I could taste the coconut, but it seemed like an afterthought, not the star. The inside of this piece was not the liquid filling of a raspberry cordial (my favorite candy from Godiva), but it was definitely closer to liquid than solid. Texture wise it’s similar to the one inside their coconut truffle (which I also find a bit disappointing). This is a perfectly good chocolate, but I wanted it to scream “I’M COCONUT!” like an excited child. Instead, it sort of mumbled, “yeah, I’m coconut,” like a bored teenager. Fine, but after the delightful white chocolate cinnamon pecan bundt cake, it was a let down. Not the way to end my tasting of this collection. Had this been the first one I tried, I might have thought more fondly of it.

Still, I am happy to say I have once again gotten excited about a Godiva special collection. This gives me hope for future purchases and it’s why I keep trying these collections. I may have to kiss a few frogs, but eventually I get a prince!

Overall:

Taste: 8/10
Appearance: 7/10
Value: 8/10

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Munchie Monday: Disney World Chocolate Truffles

Disney truffles boxOn my most recent trip to Disney World I was looking for body wash for my cousin. I know that seems like a very odd and random item, but last October we went on a family trip to Disney World together and she fell in love with a body wash she’d found in the hotel gift shop at the All-Star Music Resort we stayed at. While it was not the scent provided for us in our actual hotel rooms on that trip, as luck would have it, it WAS the scent of the products in my hotel room at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. I rushed right down to the gift shop to buy it for her, but they didn’t have it.

I kept my eye out and while we were at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, I was pleased to find that they did have it both as a single bottle and in gift sets. Since she just wanted the body wash, I bought her two bottles to take home. It wasn’t until after I bought them that I realized this would mean checking my bag on the flight home, not something Delta lets passengers do for free. With my checked baggage fee, those bottles of body wash cost me almost double!

Since I’ve been to Disney so many times, it’s rare I buy myself any sort of souvenir to bring home. But as I was shopping for my cousin’s body wash, I saw this adorable little truffle gift and had to grab it. When my mom saw it, she gushed over it too. She’d already bought my sister something and figured it was only fair to get these for me. I felt bad since she was paying for the entire trip, but my love for chocolate took back over and I gladly accepted the gift.

all three chocolates from disney.jpgConsidering we’d gone on the trip to gorge at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, there was no time to try my chocolates on the trip. We had far too many other delicious treats to try. So it wasn’t until I got home that I had a chance to actually try them.

The reason they caught my eye in the first place was the adorable designs on them. I loved the playful Mickey ears and Mickey and Minnie romance theme around them. There are only three flavors in the box, plus a solid chocolate “card” with Mickey and Minnie on the telephone.

Disney dark chocolate truffleSince I’m a save the best for last kinda gal, I started by trying the truffle I figured I’d like the least: dark chocolate with chocolate ganache. I know many people LOVE dark chocolate and I am getting better about it, but it is rarely my go to chocolate. This piece has that unique dark chocolate smell to it…that hint of something bitter and rich that has a slight fruity undertone to it. Although there is nothing actually fruity about the taste itself, I get the same scent from it that I do when I drink red wine. That’s probably why so many people talk of the chocolatey hints in wine that I never quite taste. This piece is surprisingly not that bitter. I think the ganache in the center tames it a bit. It is creamy and smooth, but I definitely needed a drink of water after I’d eaten it to rinse the slightly bitter aftertaste away.

white chocolate disney truffleNext up was the white chocolate with red velvet ganache. Like all white chocolate, it has that buttery, artificial feel to it. As a kid I LOVED white chocolate. As an adult, I think I like dark chocolate more. This piece reminded me a bit of vanilla birthday cake frosting, which is odd since red velvet is really just a clever way of saying red chocolate. It definitely reminded me of eating cake though, which was fun. But, I felt like it left a slight film on my teeth. Then again, I find this is almost always true of white chocolate…and cake frosting.

disney milk truffleFinally I was down to the milk chocolate with strawberry ganache. This is the one I was most excited about because it is in my coveted chocolate wheelhouse. I have to admit I was most disappointed in this one. The chocolate wasn’t super creamy the way I like my milk chocolate to be and despite claiming to have a strawberry ganache, I tasted no fruity hints at all. I even tried just eating the ganache to see if I could catch a hint of it. I could not.

Honestly, I’m glad my mom bought this collection for me. I think I’d feel very guilty spending my own money on it as I have no intention of finishing it. I will no doubt end up taking it to school and letting my students sample them. It’s not entirely surprising, but teenagers are not at all picky about the chocolate put in front of them.

Overall:

Taste: 3/10
Appearance: 10/10
Value: I don’t remember the cost and they were a present, so this one is hard to judge

 

 

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Gluten-free Disney: Day 3

Mickey breakfastWhile my mom and I slept, enjoying the quiet that came from not sharing a hotel room with my daughter who wakes up at the crack of dawn demanding breakfast and a show, my sister snuck out of our room in search of breakfast.

Since we were staying at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, initially when she went down to Capt. Cook’s to get a quick service breakfast she asked for the Bounty Breakfast without the French toast. Although the cast member who took her order was happy to comply, she did ask if there was a reason my sister didn’t want the French toast. When my sister told her about her gluten issue, the cast member told her not to worry, that they’d get her something tasty and allergy free. My sister was thrilled because she’d really wanted to have some Mickey waffles. She knew they were just going to be waffles, but the idea of getting them in the shape of Mickey delighted her.

She was so excited by her breakfast that she took a picture of it (notice the green allergy marking in the upper left corner) and texted it to me. I ignored the vibrating, but when she came back to the room and we woke up, she raved about her breakfast adventure. Even though I was not in the mood for breakfast (I never am when I first wake up), I was thrilled to see her so happy.

Unfortunately, her happiness was to be rather short-lived.

enchanted barWednesday was our planned park-free day. We had a cabana reserved at the hotel, but not until 3 pm. While I was scrolling through some Disney news, I realized that The Enchanted Rose, Disney’s newest lounge had just opened up at the Grand Floridian the day before, so I insisted we go and check it out. I was pretty excited to be one of the first guests to experience it.

The Enchanted Rose is amazing! I have another blog about it if you want a closer look at it here. Sadly, while they do have a unique snack menu available, which a foodie like me was excited about, the kitchen doesn’t open until 5pm, so we were not able to try anything. We were, however, VERY hungry, and more than a little tipsy at that point, so food was a must!

We decided to grab some lunch at Gasparilla Island Grill. Our plan for the day was to be so casual, so no reservations had been made anywhere. We liked the fly by the seat of our pants aspect of it, so lunch at a quick service place was great for us. My mom and I both got very tasty sandwiches. I had a chicken and brie and my mom had the hot Italian. My sister decided on a Caesar salad. Since she’s still new to eating gluten-free (and I suspect her decision making abilities were not 100%), she didn’t even think about the fact that many salad dressings have gluten in them (something I had no idea about), so she forgot to ask about potential allergens.

20191009_162921At first, she was fine. We made our way back over to the Polynesian where we hung out in our cabana, drinking delicious tropical drinks like these. Mine was the best…it was the frozen margarita with lime Dole Whip. That sprinkling of orange around the rim is a chili lime salt and it was so good that I licked the rim of that cup absolutely clean of it (and bought some at Epcot). My sister got a blueberry lemonade and my mom got the Frosty Pineapple. As with every other drink we got, we passed them around so everyone could try them. We did the same thing with our second round of drinks. My cucumber and mint vojito was ok, but just did not live up to this amazing margarita. I still dream of having it again.

Not long before our cabana time ended, my sister started to look green. It wasn’t the alcohol though. She traced it back to the salad, which had been delicious, but which had gluten in the dressing. She spent the next several hours in our hotel room, piled under several blankets and still shivering.

We were supposed to do the Monorail Pub Crawl that night, but with my sister so sick, that was obviously out. While she rested in our room, my mom and I went out to see the Electrical Water Pageant. If you’ve never seen it, it’s cute and a fun little show to watch from the beach area at the Polynesian. You can check out a video I shot of it on my YouTube channel here. Since we knew we’d be able to see the fireworks from the Magic Kingdom as well, we decided to relax and enjoy our hotel bound evening.

After they were both done, we were hungry. Obviously we weren’t going to leave the hotel with my sister still not feeling well, so we opted to head over to Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto. I texted my sister to let her know where we were. It had been about three hours since she’d been doubled over in pain and she was actually feeling better, so she decided to come join us.

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She wasn’t super hungry, but figured she probably needed to eat. This time she was careful about her menu choice. The chicken lettuce cups were exactly what she needed. Not only were they delicious (I took a tiny bit just of the chicken), but still small enough that her stomach didn’t feel overwhelmed. They were light and tasty. Not as good as my Thai chicken and veggie flatbread, but she wasn’t even ready to glance at anything with gluten in it again (and secretly I’ll admit I was glad as I didn’t want to share it).

Not only did Trader Sam’s have great appetizers, but they also had some really tasty drinks. And the best part is that many of them come in really cool souvenir mugs. After being so horribly sick, my sister definitely deserved her Shrunken Zombie Head drink.

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The best part was that instead of giving her the dirty glass, they gave her a completely new glass all boxed up and ready to take home with her. We also learned that if you want one of the fancy drinks but don’t want the fancy cup, you can still order the drink at a reduced rate. Both my mom and I took advantage of this fact. She got a mai tai and I got…well, now I don’t remember what I got, but it had pineapple in it! You can see all of the cool souvenir glasses they offer below.

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So while it definitely was NOT our best day of gluten-free eating, we did learn some important lessons. And my sister was very meticulous about asking for allergy free foods for the rest of the trip.

 

 

 

 

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A new view of a familiar place

BttF 1I can’t remember exactly how old I was the first time I went to Universal Studios Orlando. I know it was before Islands of Adventure existed, but not when it first opened. I’m thinking mid to late 90’s.

I was so excited to go since I’d grown up near the original Universal Studios in Hollywood and spent so many hours of my youth completely in awe of actually being in the town square where Back to the Future was filmed, talk to K.I.T.T from my favorite show Knight Rider, and desperately try to get picked to be one of the volunteers to ride the bicycle and fly with E.T. While I never got to soar against that green screen, I did love the backlot tour in Hollywood, so I figured Universal Studios Orlando would be amazing too.

And it was. I loved all of it. My favorite part was definitely the backlot tour, even if there wasn’t that much actual filming going on. It was a bit odd to me that Earthquake, King Kong and Jaws were their own stand alone rides, since they are integrated into the actual backlot tour in Hollywood, but I still got a kick out of them. I also really loved the Back to the Future ride. It was the first time I’d been on a motion ride like that.

Men in BlackFast forward a few years to 2004, my husband and I moved to St. Augustine, Florida. Disney annual passes were a bit out of our price range, but Islands of Adventures had opened at Universal Studios Orlando, and we decided passes were a must. In the 8 years or so that had passed since my last visit, not that much had changed. In fact, the only new edition I remembered was Men in Black, and it was fantastically fun.* We loved our annual passes. Often we’d go for just a couple of rides and then we’d catch a movie and get some food. It was a great way to unwind after work or spend a lazy Sunday afternoon. Sure, I already knew all the secrets of Twister Ride it Out, but I still went to see it because it was fun. And no, the “shark attack” in Jaws no longer even slightly started me, but who cares? It was fun. And don’t even get me starting on Dueling Dragons. I LOVED that ride.

It’s been about 15 years since I’ve visited Universal Studios Orlando resort, but this past week, I got to go as part of trip to help me learn more about the resort so I could help clients make their vacation plans. This was really exciting for me for two reasons: 1) I love helping people plan trips and I want to be able to give them the most accurate information and the best advice I can.

And 2) The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I have been DYING to go to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter since it opened back in 2014. I could barely contain my excitement on Monday night when I got to walk through the archway to Hogsmeade. There might have been tears.

But that’s for another post. This post is about what I didn’t realize in my excitement: in order to make way for my beloved Harry Potter and all his magical experiences, the powers that be had to get rid of almost every single ride I’d known in the studio side of things. Ok, true, it wasn’t just the wonderful world of Hogwarts and Diagon Alley that pushed out my old favorites like Back to the Future and Twister. The park underwent a HUGE facelift that left it, well, like a lot of plastic surgery patients, almost unrecognizable to me.

As I strolled through the park, only one ride remained from my first trip there over 20 years ago: E.T. Adventure. The ride is absolutely unchanged from the first time I rode it all those years ago. It’s still a simple dark ride that reminds me a bit of Peter Pan’s Flight, only this trip is on a fake bicycle with a mission to help E.T. save his dying planet. At the end of the ride, E.T. still calls out the names of each rider on the bike. Well, in theory he does. Somehow there was a snafu when we went through and we got called the names of the people who’d been just ahead of us in line. Still, it was cute and brought a bit of nostalgia to me.

ETOne of my fellow vacation planners told me that the only reason the E.T. Adventure hasn’t been sacrificed to progress is because Steven Spielberg himself adores the ride and had such a hand it in. He basically demanded that it stay in the park and at this point if Spielberg wants it, he pretty much gets it. Not that I mind. I liked seeing at least one part of the original park still standing.

Ok, that’s not entirely fair. There are some homages to the parks origins scattered throughout. The Mummy ride features a golden statue of Kong in the treasure room (since the Mummy ride is housed in the old Kongfrontation building). There are also some hidden Easter Eggs from Jaws in Diagon Alley, which occupies part of the space that Jaws used to. And there is still a chance to get a photo op with the shark that used to guard the entrance to the ride, but it’s been moved to the San Francisco Wharf area.

JawsAs much as I love all the new attractions and updates, I can’t help but be a little taken aback that so little remains of the original park. It’s not that I expect time to stand still in the parks. I understand the entertainment industry is constantly changing and if they want to appeal to their audience, which is also growing and changing, they need to make sure they are giving everyone a good bang for their buck. But classic movies are classics for a reason: they withstand the test of time. It’s a shame the same is not always true about classic rides.

BttF 2

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Munchie Monday: Byrd’s cookies

byrd's cookies all.jpgLast week my family made our annual pilgrimage to Isle of Palms, South Carolina. Ok, so it’s not actually any sort of religious trip, unless you’re like my aunt and consider a trip to the beach a way to worship the sun. Ever since my daughter was a teeny tiny baby, 8 years ago, my husband’s family has headed to my SiL’s beach house in Wild Dunes (I can actually see my SiL’s house in the picture on this link) and we’ve spent a week together.

I know for many people this probably sounds like a dream. An entire week spent in a house that is not only right next door to a pool, but can also claim the ocean as its backyard, is the stuff that relaxation videos are made out of, right? Clearly anyone who thinks this has never met my in-laws.

I do not mean this post as a condemnation of my in-laws, who on an individual basis are almost entirely great people–except for that one. It is very hard to share a house, even a decent sized one with 15 other people for an entire week. The actual house only sleeps 10 people comfortably (12 with air mattresses), so thankfully four of those people didn’t actually spend the night at the house. My MiL and FiL had a hotel room at the Boardwalk Inn, which is actually right next door. Additionally, two members of my MiL’s extended family also spent the days at our beach house, but their nights at my SiL’s condo in nearby Charleston. However, for pretty much every waking hour of the day, there were 15 people in the house. Seven were children ranging from 8-14. That is a LOT of noise, especially when most of it is contained between two floors with walls that are surprisingly thin.

And don’t even get me started on the nightly “entertainment” from bands at the hotel next door.

But again, that’s not the purpose of this post. Inevitably what happens at some point during this trip, we all get more than a little sick of each other. For my family this means a trip to a matinee one day. It also means at least one lunch and one dinner (and this year one breakfast) away from the basically required family meals to have some alone time. It also means our yearly trip into downtown Charleston, where we always visit the City Market and the surrounding shops.

Despite a serious need for an extended break from everyone around Wednesday, we had a few hiccups and didn’t actually get into town until Friday, our last full day of the trip. I was excited not only to visit some absolute favorites from years past (Charleston Crab House, Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits, The Spice and Tea Exchange of Charleston, and Kilwin’s to name a few), but to discover a brand new shop I’d never seen before: Byrd’s Cookies.

Byrd’s was so new, in fact, that they didn’t even have their official signage up on the building yet. They’d been open for less than a month and had I not seen a sign on their door offering a taste test of cookies when I walked into The Spice and Tea Exchange, we might have walked right on by. I am so glad we didn’t!

Byrd’s may be new to downtown Charleston, but they have been a cookie tradition for over 90 years. They started in Savannah, Georgia with their original Scotch Oatmeal cookie and now have over a dozen varieties, all of which were available to taste test when we went in. Although I wanted to try them all, I was good and only tried about five varieties. All that I tried were really good. It was hard to make a decision about which four varieties to buy (it was buy 3 get one for $1). In the end we decided to let each person in the family pick their favorite.

My daughter picked the Key Lime cookies. These powdered sugar covered cuties are VERY sweet. They definitely have a bright, limey taste to them, with vanilla undertones as the flavor wears down. My kids and husband LOVE them. I am not quite as big of a fan, even though as a rule I love key lime. I don’t like the slightly odd feel the powdered sugar leaves on the roof of my mouth. However, I have never been a fan of powdered sugar covered treats. One of the reasons I avoid many jelly-filled donuts is because they are covered in powdered sugar. I also don’t like the little Hostess Donnettes with the powdered sugar at all. I hate being messy and I HATE when my hands have food residue on them, which I think is part of the problem. The other problem is that powdered sugar always seems to leave a bit of a residue both on my fingers and in my mouth and I am not a fan. Anyone who likes powdered sugar will probably love these cookies though.

Next up were my husband’s pick: the original Scotch Oatmeal ones. These are quite good, although they do have the tiniest hint of a dark molasses flavor to them. Not that I mind, I just wasn’t initially expecting it and it took a few cookies to grow on me. They actually remind me a bit of one of my favorite childhood cookies: Archway Iced Oatmeal cookies. Yeah, I was that strange kids who really loved oatmeal cookies. I still don’t like Oreos at all and I never crave Chips Ahoy! but give me an oatmeal cookie, with or without icing and I’m over the moon. I’ll take a soft, fresh from the oven oatmeal raisin cookie over a chocolate chip one pretty much any day. I just love the creamy sweetness of oatmeal cookies. Although these little guys are crunchy, not soft, they are still amazingly good. They have that wonderfully oaty flavor that always reminds me just a bit of nuts. They aren’t overly sweet, which I think is perfect at times. I couldn’t eat an entire bag in one sitting, but I know I will be reaching into this bag quite a bit.

Since all of us are huge peanut butter fans, it was not a shock that my son picked chocolate peanut butter. These are so creamy and peanutty! With the crunch, they remind me a bit of eating a spoonful of chunky peanut butter (my favorite). The chocolate in them is subtle and really only in hints, which I don’t mind. The peanut butter is clearly the star here and that is great. I love that when I bite into them I can see real chunks of peanuts. These tiny treats are full of even tinier bits of peanut, but packed with tons of peanut flavor.

Byrd's salted caramelNot to brag, but my favorite, are without a doubt, the ones I picked: salted caramel. I know, I just had a post about salted caramel butter cookies. I also know that these days everything is salted caramel and that many people think it is way beyond cliche/overdone/boring now, but I don’t care. I am not a bit ashamed to say I LOVE these cookies. They are utterly amazing and I cannot stop eating them. They are sweeter than the peanut butter chocolate or Scotch oatmeal, but thanks to the salt, not as sweet as the Key Lime, so they are in that perfect sweet spot for me. They are buttery and delicate. They practically melt on my tongue. The caramel flavor is long lasting and simply amazing. No matter how much I try, I cannot stop eating these amazing cookies. Even though I haven’t finished the 8 oz bag yet (although I have come frighteningly close to it), I have already looked online about buying another bag. Now that I know these exist, they are a must have for me. I cannot imagine a world where my pantry is not stocked with them from now on.

Knowing that Byrd’s is now in downtown Charleston has already got me looking forward to next year’s beach vacation, even if it does mean squeezing into a house with 14 other people!

Overall:

Taste: 10/10 for salted caramel (8/10 for the others)
Appearance: 8/10
Value: 10/10 for the salted caramel (8/10 for the others)

 

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Free Reading Friday: The Upside of Unrequited

upside of unrequitedI really enjoyed The Upside of Unrequited. Considering how much I loved Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, it’s no real surprise that I found Becky Albertalli’s “companion novel,” very enjoyable.

As much as I really liked Simon, I think this book spoke to me more. Probably because like Molly, the main character, when I was in high school, I too was a fat girl who had a darn lot of crushes and no actual boyfriends to speak of. Sure, I may not have had two moms or a twin sister who seemed to be developing a romantic life well before me, but I had a plethora of very good friends, none of whom seemed to be struggling romantically the way I was. And I attributed quite a bit of that to the fact that most of my friends didn’t have the same sort of waistline I did.

I actually saw myself quite a bit in Molly’s character. Granted, I would have never sworn around my folks the way she swears around hers, but I did have a pretty good relationship with my folks. But, like Molly, I kept a LOT of things to myself. Like Molly, I spent a lot of time throwing myself into projects to keep busy and keep my mind off all the ways I was unhappy. Like Molly, I think I was suffering from depression (only mine were not diagnosed). Like Molly, I never really felt comfy in my own skin and could not see myself the way others saw me. Like Molly, I had a big heart and was a great friend. But also like Molly, at times I was a rather “shitty” friend–because I wanted to be happy for them, but I was so jealous of them that it was hard at times.

And like Molly, I pretty much never acted on my crushes. I was far too afraid of being rejected. I had crush after crush after crush. I admired from afar. Even when I thought a guy liked me (which I actually thought a few times), I was too scared to act on it. And, as a result, I ended up losing out on what I later found might have been actual relationships, or at least dates.

It took me a long time to find my confidence and be ok with who I am. I’m glad Molly was able to do it (to a large degree) over the course of a summer. I wish my journey had been that short!

This book is great for just about any teenager who has ever struggled with his/her self image. It’s great for anyone who has ever had unrequited crushes. It’s wonderful for anyone who is LGBTQ+. It’s just a wonderful book.

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Munchie Monday: Rococo Bee Bar

Rococo Bee BarI know I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but I am willing to spend rather ridiculous amounts of money on chocolate. Some people go on shoe shopping sprees. Some have an affinity for purses or tools, or for people like my husband, Magic the Gathering cards. I always tease him about the thousands he has spent on cards over the years. He fires right back at me about chocolate. I can honestly say I spend way less on chocolate each year than he spends on his Magic addiction, but that is not to say the chocolate bills don’t rack up.

On my recent trip to the UK, my students joined in on mocking my spending habits. While many of them thought nothing of dropping 30 pounds on clothing from Oxford, 50 pounds on jewelry in London or in one case, over 100 pounds for a cashmere sweater in Edinburgh, when I spent 47 pounds at a chocolate shop in York, it was days before I heard the end of it.

Not that I cared much. I don’t like clothing with logos or names on it, I hardly ever wear jewelry and don’t even want to think about caring for a cashmere sweater! Yes, I’ll take my edible spending habit any day.

When I went into York Chocolate Story, I really, really wanted to take the chocolate tour. York is, after all, a chocolate city. Yes, that’s right. While other cities in the UK earned their wealth from wool or cotton or steel or coal, York has pretty much always been known for its sweet treats. They have a chocolate trail where visitors can follow in the footsteps of chocolate development. This was my kind of city. On our initial walking tour we passed about a dozen sweet shops and I made sure to memorize where the ones that specifically dealt in chocolate were.

Despite my complete love for chocolate, I’ve only ever been on two chocolate tours before, once in Hershey, Pennsylvania and once when my husband and I went on a bourbon themed trip in Kentucky. We found a small family owned chocolate shop that did tours and then tastings of bourbon balls and it was great. I’ve wanted to go on several other tours, but I’m always on vacation when I find them and inevitably no one else wants to go with me. Since I was chaperoning a student group on this trip and they wanted to shop for souvenirs, this tour was another pipe dream for me. Instead, I had to settle for a visit to their cafe and shop.

At least it was a really cool shop with tons of candies to choose from. It was really hard to limit myself. I wanted so many of the delicious looking treats, but I limited myself to a box of filled chocolates from York Chocolate Story, a tin with some sort of amazing looking chocolate bark, three large chocolate bars from various localish confectioneries, a box of six truffles from the chocolate case and one tiny bar from a company called Rococo Chocolates.

Until I grabbed this bar, I had no idea it was “London’s Best Luxury Online Chocolate Shop.” Turns out I managed to miss their actual shop when I was in London. Despite being in Covent Garden twice during my three day stay, I didn’t find them–in all fairness, one of the times I was tied up with a student who was having a panic attack and didn’t get to see anything there. I really wish I’d have gotten to visit the star. While York Chocolate Story did have a decent selection of Rococo’s chocolate bars, they didn’t have any of the specialty Roald Dahl ones and I would have bought at least three of those: one for myself and one for each of my kids who love Dahl’s books.

Basil and limeI grabbed the miniature Basil & Persian Lime dark chocolate bar. I wanted to try this one since it was a flavor combination I’ve never had before. Whenever I am somewhere new, I often try to find truly unique chocolates. Anyone can make a regular old milk or dark chocolate bar (granted with varying degrees of success), but I like to try the more exotic. I’ve had spiced chocolate before, but usually it’s cardamom or ginger or chili. I’ve never had, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen, chocolate infused with basil. I was also hoping the tartness of the lime might offset the bitterness of the dark chocolate. Although I have gotten much better at appreciating and even enjoying dark chocolate, I still like it best when it is paired with something tart like raspberry, lemon or lime.

The bar itself is very cute to look at. I love the detail of the bee on each section of chocolate. I was wondering why it was called a “bee bar” and while I’m still not sure if there is a connection other than the design, I liked the connection I could verify.

My first taste of the bar was a bit off putting. The basil was VERY strong and the lime marginal. However, as it slowly melted on my tongue, the basil died away and the lime became the lingering note. The dark chocolate was definitely bitter and not that offset by the basil or the lime. It was not an extremely bitter dark chocolate though, so I found it tolerable. On one of my bites I did sort of feel like I was actually crunching on dried herbs–not so much in taste as in texture. I found it slightly unnerving, but not so much that I stopped eating it.

The bar did leave a slightly odd aftertaste in my mouth. It was slightly herby and slightly sour. I definitely wanted a big drink of water after I’d finished with two squares of the chocolate. After that, I still had a lingering taste of chocolate in the back of my throat, but it was just barely there and sort of nice.

I split the other two squares between my kids and they both really liked it. Of course, they are far less picky about sweets than I am. Probably because they are not allowed to blow their allowances on chocolate bars.

Overall:

Taste: 7/10
Appearance: 9/10
Value: 6/10 (at $2.45 this bar is a bit small for the price)

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