The first place I look...

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!

Hampton Inn and Suites Miami Airport South Blue Lagoon

The night before our cruise we stayed at the Hampton Inn & Suites Miami Airport South at Blue Lagoon. This was a very contemporary hotel and most of the second floor was dedicated to a very nice breakfast eating area which is always complimentary with your Hampton stay. The eating area overlooked a second floor swimming pool and nice views of downtown Miami. The breakfast here was a little different than what I'm used to because instead of bacon or breakfast sausage, they offered a smoked sausage in a casing, which in my neck of the woods a little more traditional for lunch or dinner. Luckily, they still had the make it yourself waffles, which are always a hit with the kids and fill them up nicely so they aren't begging for something to eat before it's actually lunch time. Our room was a suite, which as usual with Hampton's, was very clean, nicely furnished, and updated with plenty of room for the 6 of us to stay. My friend, Becky, and her two daughters were staying in the room next door, so they were able to to allow our 7th family member to stay in their room. It costs only about $150 for 6 people to stay the night and a good breakfast for everyone, making it well worth the price. And the location was just near the airport and only about 10 minutes drive to the Port of Miami. The hotel staff was very accommodating by ensuring we had extra towels, blankets and pillows which are always in short supply with a large family. In addition, the next morning while we were finishing up breakfast, they arranged for 2 van taxis to be waiting at the hotel's entrance to pick us up to deliver us to the Port of Miami to our cruise ship. And if that isn't enough, at the very last minute we realized that we did not print enough copies of our bag tags for the cruise, so the front desk receptionist was kind enough to make a few more copies for us. I would definitely recommend all Hamptons for family travel and especially this one here in Miami at Blue Lagoon.
PS Don't forget to sign up for Hilton Honors (HH) too! We actually stayed here for FREE by using our HH points from previous stays!! It's easy to sign up, costs nothing, and easy to keep up with your reservations, and best of all easy to cash in the rewards!

2014 Summer Vacation Introduction

Hi travel fans! I just got back to Texas from my 2 week whirlwind 2014 summer vacation with a cruise on the Carnival Breeze and a few extra days in the Florida Keys. My next several posts will let you know my own personal experience about each of the places I visited which will hopefully help you plan your own family travel. Reggie and I, along with 5 kids, started out with our flight out of Austin Bergstrom International Airport (AUS). I like to use American Airlines, as they are usually on time, seem to have more leg room, and they are usually pretty good about changing seats and trying to keep us happy overall. When we got to our gate at the terminal, we were just waiting for our flight and who do we see but the famous Johnny football! Johnny Manziel himself was there sitting with a group of friends awaiting his own 4th of July flight out of Austin. Despite his bad boy reputation, he was very kind and posed for pictures with the kids. The girls were just too excited to post their pics to Instagram so all of their friends could be completely jealous of their chance encounter! The next time you're in airport make sure that you're looking around... you never know who you may spot.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Small Town Texas Mini Food Tour of my favorite things to do in Texas is to drive through the small towns dotted all over the state,  look for a parking lot full of cars, pull in and park, go inside and generally you will find some of the best food you've ever had.  No chain restaurants for me.  I like to see the locals.  See their smiles, hear their Texas twang, and taste what they consider to be the best.  For Mother's Day 2014, I found myself in Victoria, Texas for a golf tournament for one of the girls.  It was really a pretty drive from Waco down Highway 77, and the perfect opportunity to visit all the small town eateries.

We had dinner in Palacious, pronounced Pa-Laa-Shush, Texas right on the gulf coast south of Victoria.  We jumped at the chance to rub our toes in the sand and have some fresh caught seafood...a true treat in my book!  We ate at a place called the Lumber Yard, formerly known as the Outrigger Grill.  It sits about a block off the water, but has a really neat, build as you go outdoor area with plenty of seating.  We got lucky and were entertained with live music by a young guy (I didn't get his name!) from College Station who sang a pretty eclectic mix that was really pretty good.  We waited quite awhile for our food, but the waiter was excellent at making sure our glasses stayed full the entire time.  The fried catfish and shrimp baskets were amazing!  Quite a bit of fish for the price, maybe a little skimpy on shrimp for the price, but the taste, including the fries, was spot on.  Other than a little mishap with the ketchup bottle--which resulted in the entire contents of the bottle on my plate and my was worth the trip off the beaten path.

The next day we tried a little barbecue place in small town Hallettsville, Texas, called Wieting's BBQ.  This place was packed for lunch, and true to theory...another great small town place to eat.  The barbecue sandwiches were large and very meaty.  I liked how the chopped barbecue was more cubed than chopped, non-fatty, and with a good homemade barbecue sauce.  I had the baked potato, which was a good size as well, and perfectly cooked all the way thru.  My favorite part was watching the sweet little lady behind the counter...she looked as though she had run the place for many years...and she walked around with a fly swatter poised for attack.  I did not see any flies...but the employees never stopped moving either...not sure who she used the swatter on the most!  And other than another mishap with a glass of sweet tea--which resulted in the entire contents on my shirt, pants, and was worth the trip off the beaten path.