The first place I look...

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Saint Awesome (aka Saint John, Canada) and its dancing lobsters stole my heart!

Weirdly enough….This Texas girl has no idea what to do with Canadian weather. Sailing into port on the Carnival Sunshine was unremarkable…why? You ask? Well, the fog was so thick that you could not see anything past the ship, not the water, not the dock, not anything. Yes…it was this weird floating sensation with no visible horizon, waterline, or otherwise. Once we disembarked we walked into the Saint John port, and right away I was pretty impressed. The terminal was fairly modern, well secured, extremely clean and nice-smelling, and had police officials at every turn. We were immediately greeted by local volunteers who showered us with maps and recommendations of how best to enjoy their town. We opted to take the free, self-guided “Loyalist Trail”, which traces the footsteps of the Saint John founders, some 40,000 British subjects who fled persecution during the American Revolution. The happy Canadians provided us with an easy to follow map that started at the County Courthouse built in 1825, and took us past Steamers Lobster Company, which advertises to the cruise ship crowd with two VERY friendly people sized, walking, waving, dancing lobsters who will not take no for an answer when they want to give you a hug! The walk takes you in a nice little circle through the historic area of Saint John, and included 20 sites, with the Old Burial Ground in King’s Square and Trinity Church by far being our favorites. The Old Burial Ground’s oldest tombstone dates to 1784, Conradt Hendricks, and the entire cemetery is quite a peaceful, serene location situated on a rolling hill, immaculately kept, with lighted walkways and ornate iron gates that easily take you back into time. Even with the rainy, chill in the air it was a pleasant walk thru the stones and on the meandering paths. I was especially taken aback by how green it all was even in the hottest part of summer! (C’mon, I’m used to everything in Texas being dead and brown by July 1st!) The moss growing on the markers and the trees made me feel like I had stepped into a novel somewhere in a far away place. King’s Square, which runs right next to the burial ground, is a quaint little park with sidewalks laid out in the Union Jack pattern straight from the British flag. Numerous benches, gazebos, and places to sit and chat, along with the cool breeze and 65 degree weather, made this spot just about perfect for taking a break. Well, until a happy, dancing lobster comes along encouraging you to visit his namesake seafood place for lunch. My personal favorite spot in Saint John was Trinity Anglican Church. The original wooden structure built on this spot in 1791, was replaced by the grand Gothic Revival beauty there today in 1880, after the Great Fire of 1877 burned the original. It still displays the Royal Coat of Arms of the House of Hanover, from the reign of King George I, who became King of England in 1714. The coat of arms was “rescued” from Boston’s Council Chamber by Colonel Edward Winslow during the American Revolution (and was again rescued during the Great Fire of 1877). This gorgeous church demands attention as it sits as a beacon at the top of the hill overlooking the Bay of Fundy. The interior is no less regal with granite pillars, exquisitely detailed black ash woodwork and gilded carvings, stained glass windows, porcelain figure of Queen Victoria, and most prominently, the Royal Coat of Arms. There was also a very nice indoor mall, boutique-style stores, city market, as well as many places we did not see. I loved its historic charm which really allowed us to see firsthand what happened to the people on “the other side of the war”. As wonderful and fun as it is to show my children their American history roots in places like New York and Boston, I feel it very important to also show them that there were also real live people on the other side, who didn’t win the war, who lost their homes and family members, and who were forced to flee to an unknown far away place to attempt to rebuild their lives. I can’t say enough positive things about the welcoming spirit of every Canadian we met, the very noticeable cleanliness everywhere, and the laid back vibe of this small town, which the locals dubbed “Saint Awesome . I am very much a loyal and proud American, but I cannot help but be a bit jealous of Canada’s perfect July temperatures and those oh so very happy dancing, hugging lobsters. (You just can’t get either one of those anywhere near Texas!)

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano Texas

Of all the small towns in Texas…Llano has stolen my heart, and my stomach. It all started with a very pleasant drive south on Texas Highway 16 from Goldthwaite. Once you pass through the tiny town of Cherokee, it looks like God himself painted the roadside with every color of imaginable. We visited during April, and this sea of wildflowers covers both sides of the road for miles and miles. The little girl in me just wanted to jump out of the car and take a walk through them, but thankfully the adult brain kicked in, so I stayed in the car…it is snake season after all. Once we arrived in Llano, we made our way straight to Texas-famous Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que. Here, they claim “It’s all about the meat”, and they definitely aren’t kidding. You wait in a cattle chute style line just to get to take a look at a giant steel outdoor box filled with smoked meats. Next thing you know, it’s your turn and you have to actually pick how much, and which kind of meat you are going to try. The staff must be used to hearing, “gimme a little bit of everything”, because he sliced off pieces of brisket, sausage, turkey, steak, chicken, and ribs, dipped them in Bar-B-Que sauce, then slapped them down on a big red tray. So happy to please me, this young man even took his time allowing me to choose what side of the meat slabs I wanted my selections cut from. With salivary glands already going into overdrive, I walked inside with my tray of goodness. We were parted for only a few moments while they weighed each meat, which allowed me to choose sides and desserts. At this point, my eyes were much bigger than my stomach, so I choose not only corn on the cob, fresh store-made cheese, but also a big ol’ bowl of pecan cobbler. When I asked for beans, since no Texas girl would ever eat Bar-B-Que without them, I found out that they are not only all-you-can-eat, but they are also FREE! I nearly ran to an open spot at one of the picnic tables, to get started on my feast which cost less than some fast food meals. It is impossible to state here which meat was my favorite, but I will mention that their ribs were “fall-off-the-bone” soft and tasty, and their steak, though cooked in huge slabs, was tender, juicy, and black pepper seared perfection with zero gristle or fat. I hardly had room for those sides I purchased, but the sharp, cheddar cheese and few bites of beans with a hint of jalapeno that I was able to sample were more than enough to mark this day down in taste bud history for me. And just when I thought I might burst, I took a tiny bite of pecan cobbler. This was the cherry-on-top to this already perfect meal. The fresh made cobbler contained straight off the tree San Saba pecans, flaky cobbler crust, and sweet, brown-sugary sauce, that despite my already bulging belly, I had to finish. I then had to sit awhile before I could move, but then met some new friends at the sit next to your neighbor style tables. They agreed with me that Cooper’s is definitely food heaven.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Texas Shangri-La

August in Texas is very, very hot.  It gets so hot that the chickens start laying hard boiled eggs!  And that’s when all of the South Texans (and anyone looking for relief from the brutal summer sun) head down to the Rio Frio near Uvalde.  Rio Frio literally means “Cold River” in Spanish and was aptly named due to its spring-fed coolness and consistent flow.  It snakes thru Garner State Park and is surrounded by the Texas version of mountains, in the beautiful Hill Country.  The little town that has now sprung up around it, Concan, hosts cabins, homes and resorts that enable you to vacation in this little slice of heaven.  We stayed at a home less than a mile from the river itself called Shangri-La, which can be found at  Nestled at the base of a mountain and surrounded by trees and wildlife, you can sit on the huge back porch at Shangri-La and take in the tranquil atmosphere.  From the porch swing, to picnic tables, to fire pit seating area, you have ample shade and space to relax and watch the deer, jackrabbits, armadillo, birds, and misc. unnamed critters in their natural environment.  The inside of the home doesn’t disappoint either with multiple downstairs master bedrooms with baths, a nicely decorated living room, dining room, and a large kitchen and laundry room.  Upstairs you will find a game room with pool table and two more bedrooms and baths.  As an added surprise, one of the bedrooms has a walk-in closet with a secret door leading to a cozy kid’s space complete with room to sleep four, a trunk full of children’s books and a TV complete with a large selection of Disney movies.  The house was extremely clean, featured rustic style fixtures, and came equipped with dishes and other necessities to make your stay there easy and comfortable.  Our king size bed mattress was very comfortable and appeared new.  That, along with the quality furniture pieces really enabled this house to live up to its name.  For those of you that can’t quite place where you’ve heard that name before…Shangri-La was originally a fictional land of harmony and perpetual youth, a setting for the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton, along with movie versions based on the book.  I’m holding out hope on the perpetual youth idea, but this is surely God’s country where you can’t help but to absorb the peacefulness and serenity that abounds there.  It truly is a remote and beautiful place where life approaches perfection…as long as you continue dipping your toes in the Frio River to beat the Texas heat!

Bonus!  When your time at Shangri-La comes to an end, be sure to stop in at Frio’s Dry Fifty, right off Texas Highway 127, for souvenir shopping.  You will find a HUGE (and I mean massive) selection of unique and updated T-shirts, many with phrases you surely thought to yourself as you were enjoying your vacation on the river.  This store has it all from flip flops to gifts and antiques.  After shopping, take a short break at their snack shack and enjoy some ice-cream or a Texas size snow cone in their shaded outdoor lounge with giant board games for the kiddos and fun “Kodak moment” backdrops.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Bally's Las Vegas Hotel and Casino

What happens in Vegas...Isn't Staying in Vegas for this Travel Loving Girl!  When you are traveling to Vegas on a small budget, THE VERY BEST place to stay is at Bally's!
1.  Location, location, location.  Bally's is located smack dab in the center of the strip directly across from the Bellagio Hotel.  TIP: Be sure to ask for a room in the back tower (the cheapest) but directly facing the strip.  You will have a beautiful picture frame view of the amazing fountain show that the Bellagio is so very famous for!
2.  By booking with (I made this easy for you with a link at the top of my page) I received a free breakfast buffet and two free drinks in the main restaurant during my stay (that was the promotion at the time--all you have to do is call Bally's and ask!)
3.  Connected to the back of Bally's is a small shopping mall and fast food court which is very nice when you want a quick snack or to get away from the casino for a bit.
4.  Just off the casino, you will see an indoor cobblestone road (I'm not kidding!) lined with boutique style shops.  Follow this winding path past more shops and cafes and suddenly you are inside Paris Las Vegas!
5.  Bally's also has the traditional Vegas style shows complete with ultra fancy showgirls (and for great prices compared to other comparable shows)!
6.  And last but not least, I found Bally's to be a very clean hotel and nicely updated as well.  Our room was VERY large!  It had a king size bed, couch, armoire, and dresser...with room to do a few cartwheels still.

As an added bonus...I got lucky with a John Wayne slot machine at Bally's and loved it when he told me "there's 5 of a kind partner!" (use best John Wayne voice)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Bandito's Tex Mex Cantina in Dallas, TX

Right around the corner from the campus of Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, is quite possibly the best chips and salsa in the Great State of Texas!  After our visit to the George W. Bush Presidential Library, we stopped at Bandito’s Tex Mex Cantina at 6615 Snider Plaza for an early dinner.  The ambiance was perfect…half restaurant, half bar, with a splash of college hangout thrown in.  The building that housed the restaurant was old but redone, and with all of the cool factor of the past left to be seen, and with an outdoor seating area set against an old brick wall covered in murals.  Upon entering, we were given the traditional friendly Texas greeting and told to sit wherever we wanted.  Our waiter came over straight away and we each ordered a draft beer, which came out VERY COLD, and it was an absolute perfect complement to their amazing cilantro lime salsa with fresh homemade style tortilla chips.  We ordered chicken fajitas, which was served just as we LOVE them with tons of grilled onions and peppers, a plate full of rice and refried beans, as well as another plate mounded with sour cream, cheese, guacamole, and pico de gallo.  The fajita chicken breast had an exceptional juicy marinade taste and was perfectly sliced and displayed over the veggies.  Our bill came to only about $27 which was super for the meal that we received and the nice experience we had while visiting Dallas.  I must also note, that there was adequate free parking right in front of the restaurant, which was also surrounded by many boutique style shops and quaint neighborhood which was only 1 street off the main street (Hillcrest Avenue) which runs right along the SMU campus.  It is definitely an area to stop and spend a little time and, of course, have some chips and salsa.

NOTICE the ice crystals in the beer...  (It is August in Texas...and these are small joys to this Texas girl)

The George W. Bush Presidential Library

September 11, 2001, the day that changed America forever.  I can still remember exactly what I was doing when I heard the news, and the next few days we were all in a state of shock as we were glued to our televisions for some kind of explanation.  I was reminded of these events today as we visited the George W. Bush Presidential Library on the Southern Methodist University (SMU) campus in Dallas, Tx.  My first impression of the building itself was that of simple, straight lines, but with a majestic undertone set amongst native trees and grasses.  Although we did arrive right at the noon opening, we waited in line about 20 minutes to get inside (be prepared for metal detectors)  Adult admission was $17 per person (but I did get $3 off with my student ID) and parking was $7.  While in the lobby be sure to stop at each of the glass displays to see many of the VERY interesting gifts that were given to the President and Mrs. Bush from leaders from around the globe.  I personally was mesmerized by the diamond and sapphire necklace set given to Laura Bush by Crowned Price Abdullah from Saudi Arabia.  Once you enter the gallery, it is akin to walking along a timeline of President Bush’s years in office.  As you can imagine, the 9/11 exhibit was emotionally staggering and difficult to relive as you came face to face with a massive piece of steel beam, taken from the World Trade Center site, that was twisted and burned.  Looking back, as a nation we were all fortunate to have such a strong, and morally sound leader in office at the time that we suffered those attacks.  His library also included a replica of the White House Oval Office (which I just had to have a picture of myself sitting at the desk), exhibits of his and Laura’s and their daughter’s lives behind the scenes at the White House, the Texas Rose Garden, and many interactive exhibits about his humanitarian efforts and decision points during his Presidency.  It took about 4 hours to go through the entire exhibit, with so much more than I listed here, but of particular interest to me was the actual Glock 9mm pistol that was in Saddam Hussein’s possession at the time of his capture and a full size African lion that was given to Bush by Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete in 2008 (it was as tall as I am standing on all 4 legs).  As with all museums, you exit through the gift shop, although this one was very tastefully done and includes many interesting reads.  I encourage everyone to stop here at least once in their lifetime to remember such a significant time in our nation’s history.  
 (Yes!  I am that girl that spent 4 hours walking around a museum in cast, all while refusing multiple offers of a wheelchair from the very helpful staff there.  ....All for the love of travel!)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Carnival Cruise on the Breeze

SO... here is my plug for Carnival Cruise Lines: I LOVE Carnival. 

I love Carnival so much that I hope to work for them once I get my crazy crew grown and off on their own adult paths. If you are a mom and you have never been on a cruise, I would highly recommend that you consider one for your next vacation. It is the ONLY, and I mean ONLY, way that I am able to actually rest while on vacation.
While cruising I do not have to cook for anyone.
I do not have to clean up after anyone.
I do not have to entertain anyone.
I do not have to think about kids' nutrition, exercising their bodies and brains, getting them to make their bed, or even how I'm going to logistically get everyone where they need to go and all at the same time.

Did I mention that I love cruising with Carnival?

Our cruise director on the Breeze this year was Matt Mitcham...a HUGE shout out to him because he made our week wonderful with his warm personality, funny, quick wit and constant patience for my daughter, Paige, who was completely gaga over him. (she asked...What's your favorite color Matt? Lol) Her shining moment was getting to dance on stage with him at the Gold Members VIP party and the enormous smiles on her and Maggie's faces were priceless when he introduced them as the "future of Carnival Cruiselines". Carnival has created lifelong cruisers in my kiddos for sure and all because they do an excellent job of providing a vacation experience. From their first class entertainment to the amazing dining room menu choices that are out of this world, (FYI- their "warm chocolate melting cake" has converted every chocolate hater I know into a chocolate lover!) Carnival has their finger on the button of the perfect family vacation.  It only got better that we had the best waiter I have ever had in my whole 38 years, Jonathan.  Not only did he remember our names and dining preferences, he did fun table tricks and riddles for our family every single night and we all just fell in love with him.  Maggie, age 10, walked into the dining room every night and requested him and boldly refused to eat unless we got seated at one of his tables.
We moved up this year to the 9th deck to be close to all of the fun and to not have to be on the stairs so much (definitely worth spending a little bit of extra money to be higher up on the ship). The teenagers always enjoy Club O2 and Circle C, but this year Maggie struggled a little with Camp Carnival, which she had always loved in the past. I think that 9 to 11 year old age group is difficult to keep entertained as they don't want to be with the "little kids", but they still aren't ready for the freedom that comes with the older groups. But she still made friends and never got tired of the scavenger hunts, ropes course and sports court.
I love that my son Brady (15 years old) came away again this year with more friends and twitter followers (or whatever the teens are using for social networking these days).  Tell-tale of his love of cruising is that he still keeps up with kids he met on our first cruise 5 years ago and from all over the world!. That kid will do great things one day with his ability to remember people and juggle hundreds of friends and contacts at once! Our room steward, Oakley, deserves a huge kudos as he put up with all 7 of us with a smile on his face daily. He renamed our 17 year old, Tylar, "sleepy" because he seemed to have his days and nights mixed up, and just slept all day pretty much.  Oakley worked around him anyway and even accepted a proposal from Becky (our family friend who joined us) during our adult scavenger hunt!
Last, but not least, I must mention Chili. He was one of the entertainment staff who ran most of the trivia (which Reggie and I soaked up this year--brought home 2 ships on a stick and 2 Carnival medals to prove it!). Chili was an interesting character, the kind whom you can tell has tons of stories to share and you just want to listen to them, even if he was a bit hard to understand...but after the 1st day my brain figured out his accent and he just cracked me up constantly.
The Breeze was our families' 5th cruise and the best by far. I even teared up at the farewell song from the dining room waitstaff on the last night. For the first time on a vacation...I felt like I was leaving family may have only been 8 days, but each of these people touched my family and I truly hope I see them again on our next Carnival Cruise! And just maybe I will be able to give back and be a part of the Carnival family myself!