Tag Archives: vacation

Travel Agent Trial by Fire

DSCN0668I have always loved traveling and putting together trips. Disney is my happy place. I grew up near Disneyland and as a teen moved to Indiana, where Disney World became our go to theme park. It doesn’t matter the size of the crowd or the heat of the day, I LOVE being at Disney. I also adore Universal Studios (on both coasts), and cruising. I’ve also led about a dozen student trips both in the U.S. and in Europe, in hopes of one day seeing most of the world.

So when I saw an opportunity to become a Magical Vacation Planner back in August of 2019, I applied. I was thrilled when I was chosen and excited to start training. And boy was there a lot of training! Not that I minded as it was fascinating learning the ins and outs of vacation planning for some of my favorite destinations. I truly feel the knowledge I’ve acquired, my love of travel, and my attention to detail make me pretty good at this job.

After only a few months of getting the word out about my new business, I was even one of the top 10 agents on my team in January. It was so amazingly exciting!

And then the coronavirus hit. Talk about a trial by fire.

On the plus side, most of my trips are scheduled for later this year, but I had two clients scheduled for trips in March, and I was supposed to be leaving with my family on a Disney vacation for the first week of our spring break. In fact, I was scheduled to leave for Disney World the day after Disney announced they’d be closing Disney World. The park actually shut down on what would have been the third day of my trip.

20191230_110814It was a mad scramble to get trips canceled and rebooked. I spent several hours on the phone with Carnival Cruise Line and Disney World trying to get everything sorted out. I definitely had my share of frustration over some dropped calls. I’d been on hold with Disney for an hour when it seemed like someone picked up, but no voice could be heard, and I was transferred to the end of call agent customer service survey. There may have been tears. But I persevered, dialed again, and waited one more time until I got through.

At one point I was actually chatting with my client on Facebook Messenger while talking to a Disney agent in order to replan her trip. Although it started out stressful, the agent I talked to was simply amazing and I ended up getting my client an even better deal which included a small refund and an upgrade to her dining plan, which will end up saving her even more money once she’s at Disney.

It’s been a crazy few weeks, but I’ve been very impressed with how Disney, Universal, and the cruise lines have handled everything. I’m also so thankful I’ve been able to get things worked out for my clients and that I still have people talking to me about wanting to travel later on in the year.

Considering how easy it can be to book your own vacations online, I’ve had several people ask why bother using a travel agent. The last few weeks have been a clear testament to why travel agents matter. My clients didn’t have to do anything to get their trips canceled and rescheduled. They didn’t wait on the phone for hours, I did. They didn’t have to sort through all the emails and online information about the latest cancelation/rebooking policies, I did. They didn’t have to try to negotiate the best refunds/deals for rebooking, I did. All they had to do was tell me what they wanted done, and I got it done for them.

One of my funniest moments was actually when my cruise client emailed me about an email she’d gotten from Carnival with an updated cancelation policy the day after we’d canceled her trip. I’d already been on hold with Carnival for 45 minutes trying to make sure she got the better deal when her email came through. I gave her an immediate update via email, and when I got her a full refund, I called her to let her know.

It’s been a crazy few weeks and since I have another client scheduled to travel in mid-April, I expect I’ll have a few more crazy weeks, but I love helping people plan the best vacations I can, so I’m happy to do it. The world may be a bit up in the air right now, but remember that once things settle, I’ll be here to help you plan the perfect Disney, Universal, or cruise vacation. And you’ll get the same dedication, organization, and communication as all of my clients. I want to help people make amazing memories and see the world.

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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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Filed under addictions, chocolate, cool links, cool places, cruising, entertainment, food, good days, Magical Vacation Planner by Shannon Schiller, motherhood, my daughter, my son, products, ramblings, Royal Caribbean, travel, what makes me me

Royal Caribbean Cruises: Briliance of the Seas Windjammer Cafe

20191228_120846When I told my nine year old daughter that we were going on a cruise, she cried. They were not tears of joy.

She’d been on a cruise once before when she was 5 and had a pretty scary experience. We were at the pool enjoying our very first few hours at sea when a boy much larger than she was ran on the small inch deep section she’d been playing in, and knocked her over into a deeper part of the pool. If this image is hard to picture (because it is definitely hard to explain), the picture below shows the different depths of the pool. Luckily I was right there, jumped in, and saved her. But still, she had horrible memories of it and did NOT want to go on another cruise. There were tears, there were protests. It was initially pretty awful.

20191228_164226So I slowly started reminding her of all the good, not scary parts of a cruise. I think it was when I said the magic word–BUFFET–that she stopped her tears.

My kids both ADORE buffets. They beg and plead for them. I am not really a fan, but my daughter, who has some major texture issues and is a rather picky eater, loves them. I think it’s mostly a chance to find foods she feels completely comfortable with and definitely knows. The rest of us are rather adventurous eaters and love Indian, Thai, and Cajun food, all of which she despises. But a buffet means everyone will be happy, right?

So, when I told her that she could eat several of her meals not only with her cousins (who she adores), but also at a buffet, she was suddenly delighted. I’m the opposite. The older I get, the less enamored of buffets I am. With the exception of The Wicked Spoon at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, as an adult, I have never been to a buffet that has blown me away.

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And I was not blown away by The Windjammer Cafe on Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas. Breakfast had pretty standard breakfast fair. There were made to order omelette stations, which I skipped because I did not want to wait in the daily lines. There was also just about every form of breakfast meat available. There were biscuits and gravy (with very bland gravy), grits (which were even blander), and several different ways to eat eggs. There were several dozen different types of breads and pastries. My daughter was THRILLED that there were donuts. When I told her she couldn’t have one because she’d had one the morning before, she was quite upset. But then she found out they had pancakes and a topping bar with chocolate sauce, so she thwarted my attempt to get her to eat something healthy by getting two of those. There were also several types of cereal and yogurts. My personal breakfast favorite (aside from the bacon) were these little yogurt, fruit and granola parfaits. I ate one every day. They were super tasty and very impressive.

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For the most part it was like every other decent, but not exciting breakfast buffet I’ve ever been to. In all fairness, I’m not much of a breakfast fan, so I was bound to be underwhelmed. My kids, gave it two thumbs up for breakfast.

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Lunch was a bit more my speed. There were a variety of sandwiches and chicken, tuna, and egg salad to make my own. There were also a lot of different cold salads. I’m always a huge fan of those. Sadly, they only had the delicious chickpea salad on the first day of the cruise. If I had known that I would have had more of it. I appreciated the traditional salad bar as well as it helped me feel I could offset some of the unhealthier options. One thing I noticed was a lack of cooked veggies, so it was nice to always have salad options. There wasn’t much variety of fruit, but if you like melon and pineapple, this buffet will be heaven. My kids were happy that they could get burgers, hot dogs, and pizza every day for lunch. Since my daughter would pretty much live on pizza and hot dogs if I let her, she was thrilled. She was also thrilled with the dessert table at lunch. She loved having access to the ice cream machine, cookies, cakes, jello and fun parfait creations. My favorite thing about lunch was the chocolate and vanilla swirl soft serve. I have always been a sucker for a swirled cone!

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One big draw of cruises is having dinner in the formal dining room. It’s fun to get a little dressed up and order fancy meals and desserts. We did eat three of our meals in the fancy dining room, but dinner was actually when the buffet had the biggest draw for us: Indian food. Oh my goodness…this cruise had some fantastic Indian food. Every night there were at least two different offerings, one with meat and one vegetarian as well as either roti or papadums. I think I may have eaten my weight in papadums over the course of the cruise. I tried every single Indian dish they offered in the Windjammer and there wasn’t one I didn’t LOVE.

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After spending the day at Grand Cayman, the feature at the buffet was Caribbean and Indian cuisine. That night there were four different Indian offerings as well as Jamaican meat patties, fried plantains, and jerk chicken. It was, without a doubt, the best food I had on the cruise. I could have eaten it every single night and been blissfully happy. My mom, husband, and son who also love Indian food agreed. It was spiced perfectly. I had been worried that since it was being mass produced for a cruise that the flavors would have been dulled down to suit all taste buds, but that was not the case. It was spicy and flavorful and amazing! I definitely needed some extra water that night.

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For those who needed some milder dishes (like my nephews and daughter), there were still some great offerings at dinner. Every night there were a couple of different chicken and pasta dishes. There was always a carving station with roast beef, ham or chicken ready to be served. Just like lunch, there were two different salad bars, and tons of different  rolls. One of my personal favorite items was the steak, pork chops, and chicken they had cooked to order. I wanted a steak one night, so I walked up to the counter and ordered it medium well. It was done in a few minutes and it was tasty. Every night they had made to order options. One night they had a stir-fry option. One night it was a make your own pizza option. The night we were in Cozumel The Windjammer Cafe had a Mexican fiesta, but since it was New Year’s Eve, we decided to eat in the formal dining room to celebrate. I am still a bit sorry we missed this night as Mexican food is my favorite.

And of course, my favorite part of any meal is dessert. Like most buffets, dessert can be hit or miss. They often look much better than they taste. But let’s face it, it’s easy to make desserts look good. The plate below is a perfect example. And yes, I did try some of all four. The pecan pie and coconut cookie were just ok. Nothing special. I only had about two bites of each. But, the lemon meringue pie and the sugar free chocolate mousse were fantastic! I actually hate meringue, but this one was delicious. It wasn’t the stiff meringue I’m used to, so my guess is that it was some sort of hybrid recipe, but even as full as I was, I could have eaten a dozen of these. The lemon was so tart that it made the back of my mouth water a bit, just like I like it. And despite being a no sugar added dessert, that dark chocolate mousse was delish! I also had an insanely good chocolate cherry parfait dessert one night, but sadly the picture did not turn out very well.

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One of my favorite things about the Windjammer was the different seating options. Because it was pretty crowded in the morning, we often found ourselves eating in the outdoor section of the restaurant, which was right at the back of the ship. We had some lovely ocean views and breezes as we dined. I also like the veranda area which is still air-conditioned, but set off and a bit quieter. Since the walls are floor to ceiling windows, there were lovely views while we ate. We found ourselves sitting by windows several times, and it just added to the relaxing vacation vibe I wanted.

While The Windjammer Cafe may not be the most impressive buffet I’ve ever eaten at, it was pretty good. I would definitely suggest the formal dining room for breakfast (eggs Benedict!), but it was great for a light lunch and the Indian and Caribbean food at dinner blew me away. It may be a few more years until we find ourselves traveling the high seas again, but after this experience, I know it will be far easier to get my daughter on board!

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Filed under addictions, chocolate, cool links, cool places, food, Magical Vacation Planner by Shannon Schiller, motherhood, my crazy family, my daughter, ramblings, Royal Caribbean, travel, what makes me me

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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Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort:First impressions

20191007_100415As often as I’ve been to Disney World and Disneyland, it wasn’t until I was in my 30’s and had kids of my own that we actually started staying on property. In all fairness, when I was a kid we were annual passholders for Disneyland and lived like 15 minutes away, so it would have been silly to stay at the Disneyland Hotel. Although, when we used to ride the monorail over there to shop, I desperately wanted to.

When we visited Disney World in my late childhood, teens and even as a fairly young adult, I had a great aunt who lived in St. Augustine, about an hour and a half away, so we always stayed for free with her rather than shell out money for a hotel. Once my aunt and I drove to Florida for a girl’s trip and decided to stay in Kissimmee, but it was a super budget trip, so we stayed way down the end of the adventure strip at just about the cheapest motel we could find so that we could focus our funds on park tickets and souvenirs.

So far I’ve stayed in a few of the Value resorts and even a Moderate, but until my latest trip with my mom and sister, I’d only ever seen the Deluxe resorts as we passed by/through them on the monorail. My family was actually supposed to stay at the Polynesian Village Resort on our very first trip, but my mother-in-law, who was booking the trip for us had waited too long and all the standard rooms were sold out. We stayed at Port Orleans French Quarter and while we loved it, I was always so sad that I hadn’t gotten to stay at the Polynesian, since it was a dream from my childhood. Luckily, my mom is all about deluxe accommodations and since it was just going to be the three of us girls, when I mentioned my desire to stay at the Polynesian, she said, “book it!”

20191007_114824From the moment I walked in, I was in love! Like everything at Disney, the theming is spot on. If you want a tropical island getaway without actually having to leave the United States, this is the place. From the tiki torches, lush vegetation, and waterfall that greet you as you get off the Magical Express (or come from the parking lot), to the statue who welcomes you as you enter the lobby (see the picture at the top of the post), to the leis the cast members give you at check in (I picked a pink one, but my mom and sister wanted purple), everything screams tropical island. Ok, maybe not screams it. There is such a relaxed vibe, which is apparent from the moment you step off the bus, that it’s more like it sighs and says, “hey, welcome to vacation, you’re gonna like it here.”

20191007_100439-1The lobby is comfy and believe me, I tested pretty much every chair in it. My flight got in about 3.5 hours before my mom and sister’s did and since our room wasn’t ready yet, I had some time to chill in the lobby. Sure, I could have gone shopping at one of the two stores (one in the lobby and one on the second floor), relaxed by one of the two amazing pools, sunned myself on the chairs on the beach facing the lagoon, played games in the arcade or even hopped on the monorail to check out the other two hotels on the Magic Kingdom monorail circuit, but I also had three sets of essays to grade, so I hunkered down in the lobby and started grading. Luckily several of the lamps in the lobby have USB ports in them and I was able to charge my phone while I waited.

Ok, so I didn’t just sit and grade. That would be a dedication I don’t have on vacation, no matter how comfy the lobby is. I graded for about 30 minutes, then wandered around the hotel for 15-20 minutes, then hunkered down for another grading session. Before doing it all again. So yeah, before my mom and sister arrived I did check out the two stores. I was on a mission to find body wash that my cousin wanted from our last trip to Disney, so I figured I might as well look while I was there. Plus, I knew I’d have to bring some kind of souvenir home for my kids, so what better time to look? I loved the name of the store on the main floor: Boutiki!

20191007_100431It was also during one of these little breaks in grading that I discovered the monorail station on the second floor. And yeah, I did take a break and ride the full circle of it. I hadn’t ridden the resort monorail since I was in my teens and although I knew it stopped at the Polynesian, Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, the Magic Kingdom, the Transportation and Ticket Center, and the Contemporary, I didn’t know the order of things nor did I really remember what the other hotels looked like. Since we were going to be using the monorail to get to The International Food and Wine Festival at Epcot twice during our trip (it was the only park we visited), I figured I should figure out the monorail before my mom arrived so she wouldn’t have to worry about it. If you want to check out the ride, you can watch it on my YouTube channel here. The video starts and ends at the Polynesain with the 3-6 minute stops cut out. The entire ride is about 25 minutes.

20191007_110936After I got back from my ride and did one more round of grading, I decided to explore the grounds just a bit more. My mom and sister had texted that their plane had landed and after I guided them through the airport to the Magical Express (it is easy to find, but my mom is an anxious traveler and she was tired from having been up at 4 am), I set off again. This time I just wanted to explore the beauty of the hotel. Because it is simply a beautiful hotel.

20191007_114753Thanks to Florida’s warm climate, they are able to grow tropical flowers, which are all over the grounds. Everywhere I turned, things were lush and green, which was such a departure from my home in Indiana where we were in the final throes of fall and everything was turning that red it does just before it goes brown and dead.

20191007_105444Plus there were all sorts of fun, decorative surprises as I walked the paths around the hotel. Personally, I love all the cut wood signs that helped make me believe that I was in my own little corner of a Polynesisan island. I may not have actually visited Hawaii yet (it’s my goal for 2021), but just looking around me, I felt like I was there. Everything was straight out of the movies and books I’ve read about the islands. And, it was surprisingly quiet. I realize it was about 1:30 in the afternoon and a lot of people were off exploring the theme parks, but as I wandered the paths which run the rather expansive property, I encountered few people and heard no noises that reminded me of the hectic, citified life I’d left behind. I heard the soft beating of drums and island songs pumped in by the speaker systems threaded throughout the property, but that was about it.

20191007_114812Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort really does offer the tranquility of a peaceful island vacation. Unlike the constant bustle and hum of the Value resorts, from the moment I stepped off the Magical Express, I knew I was on vacation. I felt the tension fly from my shoulders and even grading didn’t seem so ominous or overwhelming. I might not get all those essays graded, but that was ok. I was in paradise.

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Chocolate Monday: Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Happy Birthday Truffle bar

3 Cs birthday cake bar with confettiI am not generally someone who loves shopping. I know that according to pretty much every movie, TV show or book ever written, that as a woman, I am supposed to simply adore shopping. I am supposed to reach near orgasmic heights at the prospect of finding some amazing discount on designer shoes or purses or some such nonsense. Although I can name some designers, aside from the famous Burberry pattern, I’m not sure I could actually identify anything by a designer. Oh wait, does Vera Bradley count? I can pretty much always recognize her stuff. Not because I like it (I am not a fan), but because just about every teacher in the world has some sort of Vera Bradley bag. I have four different friends with Vera Bradley lunchboxes.

But as usual, I digress.

About the only time I actually enjoy shopping is if I am with my best friend. And then, it isn’t for the shopping, but for the company. I love being out and about with my BFF. As long as we are not in Anthropologie, she actually makes trying on clothes kind of fun. A part of each trip to visit her in Athens, Georgia means finding one of her college students to babysit my kiddos so that the two of us can have a few hours to have a semi-fancy lunch and hit downtown to look at the fun shops.

At one of our stops this year, we found a store that carries pretty much everything girly. There were clothes, shoes, purses, jewelry, cards, soaps, lotions…if it seems like it should be in a boutique for women, they have some version of it. I’ve been in this store a lot, so I wasn’t really surprised at the majority of the inventory. However, when I saw a whole display of Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate bars and truffles, I knew I would be making a purchase this year.

3 Cs birthday cake packageMy BFF decided to buy the box of truffles. Each night as we watched something fun on TV, she’d take out two truffles, cut them in half and we’d savor them. I don’t actually remember any of the flavors of them, but I do remember enjoying them. My contribution to our nightly chocolate fest was two of their chocolate bars. I grabbed the Sea Salt Caramel bar (not sure how I’d miss this one so far) and the Happy Birthday truffle bar.

The Happy Birthday bar is really pretty cute. I think the little pieces of candy confetti on the back are a nice touch. While it may not be quite the same as eating the delicious looking cupcake on the front of the package, I love that they did their best to replicate the experience by adding the confetti. Visually I love it. However, I am not a big fan of sprinkles or candy dots like this on actual cake. I don’t like the crunch they give desserts and I don’t like the strange, nondescript sugar taste they add to an otherwise delicious treat. These candy dots are no exception. They detract a bit from my enjoyment because they add a sort of useless extra crunch to the bar.

3 Cs birthday close upThe milk chocolate is smooth and creamy and I think the best part of this bar is the bites of simple solid chocolate. The filling claims to be a buttercream frosting truffle. I’m not quite sure what a buttercream truffle would be as I’ve never had another company claim to make one. The center of the bar definitely reminds me of cake frosting, but once again, not in the way I’d hope for. It is almost too sweet. It reminds me a bit of the poorly made, almost cloyingly sweet frosting that comes on cheap grocery store cakes. My kids loved it, but then again, they both love sprinkles on cupcakes and love those cheap grocery store cupcakes some parent always brings in for classroom celebration days. I find myself scraping the frosting off and then being sad that the cake is too dry.

I had high hopes for this bar as birthday cake is one of my favorite foods in the world. Sadly, this was not a happy celebration.

Overall:

Taste: 4/10
Appearance: 8/10
Value: 3/10 (since I didn’t like it, it definitely made the $5 bar of chocolate seem way over priced).

 

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Chocolate Monday: Viva! Argentine Cuisine cupcakes

Viva cupcakesSpring break is finally here and just in time. If I had to sit through one more class or grade one more final, I might have lost my mind!

Ok, who am I kidding, I’m a teacher…I lost my mind a long time ago! Plus, I actually have tons of grading (and planning) to do over break, but I’m sort of in denial mode for the moment.

The biggest reason I am denying all the work I need to do is because break also means a trip to Athens, Georgia to visit my best friend. And, for the first time since she moved to Athens to become a professor at UGA, we have the same spring break!

Don’t misunderstand, I am thrilled with any trip to see my darling BFF, but usually when my kids and I go to visit her, she still has to do quite a bit of teaching, grading and planning for her own courses, which means several hours every day that she is off on campus and I am trying to entertain my kids. And, last year it rained half the time we were there!

But this year since we all have break together, we get to spend nearly every waking moment together (she did have to to in to campus for about two hours today) and the weather so far has been a bit chilly, but the forecast looks bright, sunny and nearly 75 degrees a few days. Considering it snowed in Indiana today, I’ll take having to wear a fleece because it’s a bit windy!

One of my favorite things about visiting Athens (aside from the endless hours of catching up, shopping and movies with my best friend) is the food. Athens has some really amazing places to eat. I live in a city about seven times the size of Athens, but I’m not sure we have anywhere near the number of delicious eateries around town.

Our first stop this trip was Viva! Argentine Cuisine. I ADORE Viva! My best friend and her husband took my kids and I there on our very first trip into town and we all agree it is an absolute necessity of every trip. I’m not sure what my kids love more, the super tasty empanadas or the cupcakes. Who am I kidding? Of course it is the cupcakes!

Every day, Viva! offers a variety of moist, delicious cupcakes. I’ve never been there when there are less than a dozen flavors. I’ve tried eight or nine different flavors and I’ve yet to be disappointed in any of them. One of my absolute favorites is their version of dulce de leche (it has another name I can’t remember…its nickname is Alfie). It is simply melt in your mouth good. As much as I love it, this time they had several Girl Scout cookie inspired cupcakes I’d never seen before, and I had to try those instead.

They actually had three Girl Scout cookie inspired cupcakes: Savannah Smiles, Tagalongs and Samoa. Since Samoas are my absolute favorite Girl Scout cookie ever, that was the first one I ordered. Although I love the taste of lemon, I am not a huge fan of the Savannah Smiles. They are just not lemony enough. And while I was sure Viva! would have an amazing lemon cupcake (I’ve had their blueberry lemon one before and it is awesome), chocolate and peanut butter is a hard combination to beat, so I had to pick the Tagalong cupcake.

I know picking two cupcakes seems more than a little decadent, but one thing I love about Viva! is that they have mini versions of most of their cupcakes, so I was able to get both a Samoa and a Tagalong with very little guilt and no nausea from over eating!

Since I’m a save the best for last kinda gal, I started with the Tagalong cupcake. It was a great chocolate cupcake filled with a bit of peanut butter and about a third of a Tagalong cookie on the top. The cake was rich and delicious. It was perfectly moist, which can be a real issue with mini cupcakes. Often they are a bit overcooked and dry, but Viva! always has perfectly baked cupcakes. The only odd bit about this cupcake is that the bit of actual Tagalong on top was not even remotely crisp. It was the first time I’ve ever had a Tagalong that didn’t sort of “snap” when bitten into. It was a decidedly flimsy cookie bit. Still, it wasn’t enough to dampen my spirits or make me not like the dessert. It was still super yummy, if a bit of an odd texture.

My Samoa cupcake was even better. Once again, it was an awesome chocolate cupcake with a little dot of caramel filling. The caramely coconut frosting on top was superb. And, the Samoa piece on top was the right consistency, which definitely made it even better. It was precisely what I’d expect the cake form of a Samoa to be. My son liked it so much he ordered two of them!

Overall:

Appearance: 9/10
Taste: 9/10
Value: 7/10 (at $2 a pop, mini cupcakes are a bit pricey, especially since regular sized ones are only $3 each).

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Teaching Tuesday: Spring break countdown

The countdown to Spring break is here. Three more days and counting. And yes, I am counting, just as desperately as my students. Maybe even more so.

Of course, this countdown means the end of our third grading period and since we are on block 4, it means final. Yes, that’s right, since by this time my classes have finished the equivalent of one semester’s worth of course time, on Thursday and Friday, they will be taking finals. While this means a fresh start for everyone after our two week break (we are also on a balanced calendar), it means I will be spending at least part of my break grading.

Luckily grades are not due until the Tuesday we return from break, but since I will have final tests and essays to grade (plus a handful of assignments I have not yet gotten around to grading in the last two weeks), my break will still be full of student work.

Since I’ll be spending half of my break with my best friend in Georgia and the other half bumming around town with my kids, it does make it a little easier to deal with all the grading I have to do. I won’t lie and say it makes it enjoyable, but it does make it more manageable.

Still, 3:30 Friday afternoon cannot get here fast enough!

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Chocolate Monday: Condor Chocolates

Condor chocolates full boxOn my most recent trip to Athens, Georgia, my best friend and I stopped by Condor Chocolates. While we were there, not only did I get a very delicious dark chocolate brownie, but also a box of their 8 filled chocolates.

Condor is a cute, family owned chocolate shop founded by two brothers whose mother came from Ecuador, which is also where they get all their chocolate from.

Although I am not a big fan of dark chocolate, I always like to support local chocolate shops and every now and then I find a dark chocolate I really love, so I figured I had to give this chocolate collection a shot.

When I opened the box I thought the chocolates were all simply, but elegantly decorated. I had a moment of worry though–I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell the chocolates apart. It’s not like I could eat all 8 at once. Ok, that’s a lie, I could do it, but as it would make me sick, I knew I shouldn’t. So, when I opened the box a day later, the only one I was sure about was the raspberry chocolate. The little red dots on top, which look like individual raspberry seeds, was a dead give away.

Luckily I noticed the position of the raspberry in the box, right between a circular chocolate and one with what appeared to be a coffee bean on top. On the list of chocolates included in the box, there are 8 chocolates and the second row has a mayan, mocha, raspberry and spiced apple. The genius people at the chocolate shop put them in the box in the same order they are listed on the insert. I’m so glad I figured it out and that they have this clever system, otherwise I would have been lost.

Usually I’m a save the best for last kind of girl, but since I didn’t want to risk jumbling the chocolates and not knowing what I’d be tasting, I decided to eat them in order.

Condor bourbonMy first chocolate was the bourbon chocolate. Surrounded in dark chocolate, it definitely has a bitterness to it. However underneath that bitter dark is the distinct taste of slightly smokey, slightly sweet bourbon. It reminds me quite a bit of the center of my homemade bourbon balls. I’m not much of a bourbon girl, but I like bourbon balls. Especially because they always leave my mouth just a little tingly. So did this truffle. I felt like I’d just had a shot, only without the actual alcohol buzz.

Next up was the caramel truffle, which probably would’ve been my second to last treat if I was doing this in my usual order. But, as I was sticking to my chart, it became my second. I liked the little geodesic dome structure to it. It was sleek and fun. The dark chocolate on this piece is much more subtle, partially tempered by the very sweet caramel. It was not the usual buttery caramel I’m used to. It is definitely a liquid caramel, which is what I always prefer, but it was a mix of sweet with just a slightly savory hint. Salt-like, but not salty. I’m not sure quite how to describe it. I’m also not sure I really liked the actual caramel, which is a rarity for me. It was such a small piece, that it was hard to call it.

The dark chocolate was next for me and my first bite was definitely more than enough. It didn’t help that it had bits of dark chocolate nibs on the top and they scraped the roof of my mouth. For someone who loves dark chocolate, this is probably a dream piece, but I just couldn’t finish it.

Condor earl grayThe Earl Grey piece was a bit more my speed. I thought it was very pretty to look at. I love the bits of tea on top of it, especially the tiny purple beads. It didn’t have an overwhelming tea taste, but it did have tiny bits of tea leaves in it, which gave it texture. It reminded me of the few times I’ve eaten tea leaves by not straining properly. It did have a bit of a creamy taste to it, which reminded me a bit of putting milk in Earl Grey tea. Not my favorite, but I could definitely finish it.

 

 

Since I’ve had a few different chili chocolates, I figured the Mayan chocolate was going to have a spicy kick to it. This piece did not have a painful dose of spice–and I have had some that really have. One brand of chili chocolate I had was so spicy it made my eyes start to water. This one was more subtle. The center itself has a slight sweetness to it. The spicy doesn’t really hit until a few seconds after the bit is swallowed. There is a sort of lingering heat at the back of my throat and my tongue and cheeks have a slight tingle to them. Despite being a fairly dark piece, this is my favorite of the first five.

I was not at all excited about the espresso chocolate. I am not a coffee gal and anytime there is a coffee or mocha or espresso flavored chocolate, it’s usually the first chocolate I eat (if I don’t give it away), so that I can get it out of the way and move on to better, tastier chocolates. I do like the design on this one. It has some cute white “pearls” and a little coffee bean on top. Just from an aesthetic perspective, I find this one very appealing. If you are a coffee fan, this one is definitely for you. Surprisingly, I didn’t hate it. It definitely had not only the taste of coffee, but also a slight hint of crunchy coffee beans–even before I bit into the actual bean. It was actually creamy and fairly tasty…and not just for a coffee chocolate.

Condor raspberryThe raspberry chocolate was the next on my list. This was the one I was most excited about. I LOVE raspberries. In fact, my love for them is so deep that they actually helped me ease into dark chocolate. I attribute my biggest leaps in my tolerance of dark chocolate to Godiva’s raspberry cordials. This meant I had pretty high hopes for Condor’s raspberry chocolate. And those expectations were fairly well met. Although it didn’t have the liquidy raspberry center I love in a cordial, the center was VERY tart, which is my only real desire in a raspberry dark chocolate pairing. Unlike the rest of the the chocolates, this one has an added layer of what looks a bit like raspberry jam, which gives it that lovely, fruity, tarty sweetness. The bitterness of the dark chocolate is completely eclipsed by that super yummy raspberry. I love the little tiny bits of raspberry seeds in it too. While not quite as amazing as Godiva’s raspberry cordial, it is a close, close second. I actually saved the last bit of this truffle so it could officially be my last taste of Condor chocolate.

My final piece was the spiced apple. This one had a thinner layer of dark chocolate surrounding it, but had a surprising amount of bitterness to it. It also had quite a spicy bite. It reminded me a bit of eating Penzy’s pie spice right out of the jar. It was very heavy on the nutmeg and a bit too light on the apple for me. It wasn’t bad, but did not fulfill my hopes. It made me very glad I reserved that last bite of raspberry.

I enjoyed about half the pieces in this collection and truly loved one. When I go back to Condor on my next visit, and I will definitely go back, I’ll be a bit pickier about my selections. I’ll probably fill my box halfway full of raspberries. I may also have to try the gelato.

Overall:

Taste: 6/10
Appearance: 8/10
Value: 7/10

 

 

 

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Throwback Thursday: Vacationing with kids

Athens playgroundFrom the moment my best friend delivered the devastating news that she’d gotten her dream job–10 hours away from me–I started planning my first visit to see her. It just so happened that her move at the end of July coincided with my school’s very first year on the balanced calendar. In between trips to our favorite coffee shop and last minute movie watching, she was packing up boxes to move three states away and I was putting the finishing touches on my lesson plans.

Although juggling the heartache of her leaving with the extreme stress that comes with the start of each new school year was really weighing me down, I just kept reminding myself that in a little over two months I’d be taking my first trip to see her. I attempted to delude myself into believing that I’d be so caught up in the new semester that it would be easy to forget she was no longer right down the street. Sadly, I’ve never been a great liar…not even to myself.

The time did pass and at the end of the grading period, we loaded the family up and headed to Georgia. Of course, we only stayed with her one night before continuing on to Disney World. After five days that I can only describe as the best family vacation we’ve ever been on, we turned around and headed back to see my best friend.

This time my husband only spent one night before he had to head back home to work, leaving me and the kids behind to spend an amazing week with my best friend and her husband. Although we had no car of our own, it really wasn’t a problem. When my best friend had to teach we either hung around her house doing crafts and taking walks or we went to campus with her and played in the fun park-like area near her building or she lent us her car and we went to local parks. Then, when she was off, she introduced us to a plethora of really fun places for the kids to play while we got to talk.

Since this initial trip, we’ve found some favorite places in Athens that we go back to every single visit.

park bulldogOne of the best parts about visiting Georgia in October is that the weather is usually pretty nice. Unlike Indiana, where the temperatures sometimes sink down into the 40’s, in Georgia the weather rarely dips below 75, which means plenty of outdoor time with the kids. And since my kids LOVE to be outdoors, if it’s not raining, we plan outdoor activities.

This year we got to check out the new World of Wonder park, which is actually part of Southeast Clarke Park. We’d actually visited the park on one of our previous trips and while the playground was pretty cool and the kids had a blast, it was not nearly as epic as the updates are. The playground was actually moved to the other side of the park and now has two separate park areas, one for kids under 5 and one for bigger kids. The bigger kid playground features 10 different slides, a really cool webbed climbing merry-go-round thingamabob, a three-story tree house looking structure for kids to climb, wobbly bridges, tons of swings, lots of room for families to sit and even these really cool porch swings (of sorts) that are in shaded areas. The picture at the top of this blog is from the WOW park. My kids had a blast on it. My son particularly liked the “mushrooms” which were these stepping areas that reminded him of the mushrooms in Mario Bros. He loved the way they sprung beneath his feet as he jumped from one to the next.

My BFF and I loved that we could sit on a lovely shaded bench and talk while my kids ran amuck on the playground. Since we could see just about every area of the playground from our seats, we never lost eye contact with the kids for more than a few seconds. And, since the playground is surrounded mostly be a wide open grassy area (and is completely fenced in), it’s not like they could really wander off anywhere.

Bear Hollow signOn our last full day in Athens we also got to visit one of our favorite places: Memorial Park/The Bear Hollow Zoo. My BFF is not normally a fan of zoos. Like many people, she hates the fact that animals are taken from their natural habitats, forced into cramped spaces (at least compared to how they’d live in the wild) and put on display for our amusement. However, she is a huge supporter of The Bear Hollow Zoo. The reason is simple: The Bear Hollow Zoo only has animals that are native to Georgia and only has animals that have been injured and are in need of rehabilitation and protection. All of the animals in the zoo have been injured and cannot survive on their own. They are brought to the zoo by people who rescue them. Some times the animals can be rehabilitated and released back into the wild, but often times their injuries are so severe that they would not be able to survive in the wild, so instead they get to live out their lives at Bear Hollow. The zoo is fairly small with only less than two dozen animals in it, but it’s pretty cool.

The zoo has a few birds, including two owls, an alligator, three bears, an opposum, a tortoise, an otter, a bobcat, an eagle, deer, turkeys and some reptiles. Every time we’ve gone we’ve been able to see all of the animals, which is pretty cool. Since it is part of the public park system, it’s not fancy, but it’s a great way to spend half an hour with kids.

Bears at Bear HollowAs part of her service learning class, my BFF has her students do volunteer work for the zoo, so she always has some great information to share with me and the kids. One year she even got us a “backstage” tour. We got to feed almost all of the animals (we skipped the alligator and the snakes) and even got to go into some of the enclosures. My daughter still goes on and on about how she fed the bears blueberries. Yes, that’s right, my kids actually fed the bears in this picture yogurt covered blueberries. It was initially pretty terrifying for me to watch, as I was sure they’d lose at least a finger if not an entire hand, but they loved doing it.

Once we finished up at Bear Hollow, we walked down a short wooded path to get to Memorial Park. Although much smaller than the WOW park, it has a fun little playground, which is geared more toward younger children. My son, who is 10, still finds ways to have fun on it, but everything is sized a bit more for my daughter, who is 7. In addition to the playground equipment, Memorial Park also has a large man made lake full of ducks, geese and turtles. There are hundreds of turtles in that lake. And, there are little machines with food in them scattered all around the lake, so once we finished on the playground, I handed my kids a few quarters and we killed another 20 minutes walking around the lake and feeding animals. The turtles were not too quick on the uptake. Most of their food was snatched by very quick little fish. My kids thought that was hysterical.

One great thing about the parks in Athens is that they also feature the famous UGA bulldog. My kids LOVE driving around Athens and looking for bulldogs, which are all over the city. At the parks not only do they get to look, but they get to climb on them as well. My kids have memorized where some of their favorite bulldogs are and they make a game of trying to be the first to spot them. Whenever we find a new one, they get very, very excited.

Not only is Athens the home of my best friend, but it’s also a wonderful place to find great food and some great outdoor family fun.

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