The Desert in Bloom – Phoenix, Arizona

 

 

My favourite time to visit Phoenix is when the desert starts to bloom. I always like the desert landscape, the starkness, the cactuses and unusual plants and shrubs. But when it starts to bloom it is really beautiful. The weather is lovely and hot and the desert comes alive. Until I experienced it I never knew that cactuses flowered this way. Below are some of my favourite cactus and other plant pictures from this April.

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Relaxing Caribbean Cruise

I finished off my month in the sun with a Caribbean cruise. After 10 days of chaos at Disney World a cruise was a great way to relax. Just sat back and let the captain take me to beautiful sunny islands while I sat on a lounge chair reading and sipping pina coladas. I have heard comments from people who think cruises are only for old people, aren’t real “traveling” or are boring, but I find when you want a vacation where you don’t need to plan, just want to relax yet see different places and want to eat some really good food, a cruise is a great way to travel. The main benefit is you get to travel to different places without having to pack and repack your belongings as your hotel travels with you, which I think is a bonus when I’m looking for a week of relaxation.

I went on a Celebrity cruise with family to the islands of Puerto Rico (although we missed that port, more on that later), St. Kitts and St. Martin. The passengers were a mix of old and young people, lots of families and couples but some single people too. The ship was lovely, lots of great places to relax and tons of lounge chairs on the deck, which was really important to me, no fighting for space during the days at sea. There were two pools, one inside (adult only) and one outside, and many tasty specialty restaurants.

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For the few cruises I have been on, I have always chosen my cruise based on the ports of call, I don’t like too many days at sea (there are only so many days I can sit on the deck and hang out around the ship and not get stir crazy) and I like to try and go to places I haven’t been before. I have been to Puerto Rico before but St. Kitts and St. Martin were new for me. Unfortunately due to weather, and apparently an issue with the propulsion system of the boat (at least according to the rumors onboard), we missed the port of Puerto Rico. At least I had been there before but it was still disappointing. The propulsion system issue was known to Celebrity (the ship is scheduled to go into dry dock in January) and to some of the passengers who had gone to Cruise Critic, a site I had not heard of before but now I will use for any future cruises. It is a good resource to research information on cruising, on specific cruise ships, ports of call and itineraries, and it provides reviews from previous passengers. If I had known about the propulsion issue I might have chosen another ship.

The ports we did make it to were beautiful, I would go back to either island. I did a tour on both, one through the cruise excursions group and one with a third party, Shore Trips. On St. Kitts our tour started with a train trip along the old sugar cane route. Once the sugar cane industry collapsed the country decided to use the old railway system to create a tourist attraction that provides a tour around the island. The train is open on top with a cover to provide some shade, or you can sit inside downstairs. On the train they provide unlimited drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) and a traditional St. Kitts sugar cookie. A singing quartet comes to each car and sings traditional songs. The scenery along the route is stunning and the guide provides a commentary on the history of the island. I highly recommend taking this trip if you are in St. Kitts.

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The second part of the tour was a catamaran ride along the coast back to the cruise ship port. There were spaces in front to sit on the netting right above the water. It is the splash zone so beware! Again drinks were unlimited and they even provided a bag lunch which was delicious. It was lovely sitting outside in the sun sailing along the coast. Such a beautiful island!

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The next island was St. Martin. What a gorgeous spot! The island is jointly owned by two countries, about two thirds is owned by France and the other one third is owned by the Netherlands.  The cruise ship pier is on the Dutch side. I went on a small tour that took us to both sides of the island. Our guide was funny and knowledgeable, telling us all sorts of interesting facts about the history of St. Martin and life on the island. One fact I found particularly bizarre is that it is a long distance call to phone someone from the French side to the Dutch side, but it is a local call to phone France from the French side. Another story was about how the island was divided. The legend is that the representatives of France and the Netherlands agreed to walk until they met and that point would be the dividing line of the island. The Frenchman then spiked the Dutchman’s water bottle with wine and after many swigs the Dutchman was drunk and decided to take a nap allowing the Frenchman to walk further and take more of the island. This is apparently why France owns a bigger share of the island, but the Dutch do not have it that bad as the Dutch side contains more of the industry and of course the lucrative cruise ship port.

However it was divided, the two countries have lived peacefully on the island ever since. The capital of the French side, Marigot is full of lovely restaurants and delicious pastry shops, very French.  We stopped at one beach and it was gorgeous white sand, but unfortunately there was an influx of seaweed that week and it was all over the shore and in the water. So instead of spending some time there we headed back over to the Dutch side and went to Maho beach which is right beside the airport. When the planes land or takeoff they go right over the beach, it almost looks like they are about to land right on the beach, or on the sunbathers! I’ve never seen anything like it. You can get some great pictures though as they fly overhead, but one warning is that it is a small beach and therefore can be very crowded.

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St. Martin is also a good spot to use as a jumping off point to other nearby islands. It is only a short ferry trip to Anguilla, St. Barts and Saba. St. Martin is now on my very long list of places I would like to spend more time in and hopefully next time I will have time to explore the other islands too.

Overall it was a nice relaxing trip and just what I needed after running around after my nieces at Disney.

Being A Kid Again At Disney World And Universal Studios

I just spent a fantastic week with my family, including my two adorable nieces, at Disney World and Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. It was like being a kid again, racing to the best rides and screaming on the roller coasters. Watching a four year old and one year old experience it for the first time made it even better. I haven’t been to Disney since I was 16, wish I hadn’t waited so long! The trip was amazing and I don’t think I will ever be too old to enjoy Disney. Disney World is huge, there are so many parks to experience it is almost overwhelming. We went to Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Blizzard Beach water park. To fit it all in we had a 6 day park hopper, 3 days at Magic Kingdom and one each at the rest. The only two I didn’t make it to were Animal Kingdom, I spent that day at Universal Studios touring the Wizarding World of Harry Potter instead, and Typhoon Lagoon because it was closed. To do the water parks you do need a special pass so if that is something you are interested in make sure to get it added to your package.

There is so much to see and do at each park. If you have the time do one full day at each park, plus an extra at Magic Kingdom. We were there in low season (although the Magic Kingdom was still very busy) which made it easier to go on a lot of rides. Also, all of the parks were set up of Christmas, and Disney does Christmas well. They even made Cinderella’s castle into the Frozen castle.

The highlights for me were:

Magic Kingdom: Thunder Mountain railroad, Space Mountain, watching my one year old niece meet Anna from Frozen (she was so excited and went right up to her, she is her favourite princess), and going to Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas which is a special evening event with fewer guests, free hot chocolate and cookies and lots of time to go on the rides.

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Epcot: The rides Soarin and Test Track. Walking through the country displays to see how they made their space represent their country. Below are pictures of Italy and Canada.

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Hollywood Studios: The Christmas light show and the Rockin Roller Coaster.

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Blizzard Beach: The longer tube ride and the toboggan slide.  There is also a great kids area with smaller slides for young kids.

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As I mentioned, we also went to Universal Studios, which was amazing. We did a 2 day park to park pass so we could ride the Hogwarts Express between the parks (without park to park you cannot do this). Universal is worth the trip, if you have the time or if you love Harry Potter. They did an amazing job on both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, the detail is fantastic and the rides are really well done. Just walking into either area brings to mind the movies, and fans will recognize most of the shops. Plus the amount of great merchandise you can buy will make any Harry Potter fan swoon. The interactive wands were my favourite, you can choose either a character wand or a wand based on the Celtic calendar, and the wands can be used to cast spells in both areas of the Wizarding World, although they do work better in Diagon Alley. The two main rides, Forbidden Journey and Escape From Gringotts are amazing, even for non-Harry Potter fans, and fans will love the detail in Gringotts and Hogwarts. Dragon Challenge is also a great roller coaster, the concept is two dragons chasing each other so there are 2 separate tracks. Make sure you go twice, once on each side as the two rides are different. The two main restaurants, the Three Broomsticks and the Leaky Cauldron, serve British food and the signature Harry Potter drinks like butter beer (tastes similar to cream soda but better) and pumpkin juice. The atmosphere in both is well worth a visit.

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Aside from the Harry Potter sections, there are many fun rides at Universal, some classics like the Hulk roller coaster, plus some great 3D movie/TV rides like the Simpsons Krustyland, Spider-Man, Transformers and Men In Black. You can cover most of Universal in one busy day in low season (we rarely waited more than 10-15 minutes for a ride) but in high season with longer wait times you probably need 2 days.

It was a fabulous, but busy, trip and a great place to escape and be a kid again!

Road Trip to Phoenix

I’m off on a month long adventure in the US and the Caribbean. This trip couldn’t have come at a better time as it started snowing in Calgary just as I was leaving. The first part of my trip was a road trip to Phoenix. I drove through some beautiful countryside and some very boring countryside. It is almost a straight shot down from Lethbridge, Alberta along the I-15 to Vegas and then head about 5 hours further Southeast along Highway 93 to Phoenix.  Once I crossed the border into the US I passed through Montana, Idaho, Utah, Nevada and then finally entered into Arizona. If you ever do that drive, or just want to cross into Montana, I recommend timing your border crossing for early evening if you can, there was nobody there and I sailed through. Sadly going in the evening meant I missed some of the stunning Montana scenery but I did manage to see some of it in the morning.

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For the first 2 days I drove through snow, rain, fog and a bit of sun once I got closer to Vegas. Fortunately the highway is pretty good and the snow didn’t accumulate. In spite of the weather I still managed to get a few nice pictures.

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Salt Lake City is absolutely massive. It seemed like I drove for hours just to get through it. At least it is a large highway and when I was going through the traffic moved very well. If you ever need to drive through Salt Lake City, try and time it so you do not drive through during rush hour, it must be a nightmare!  I only caught a quick glimpse of the salt lake, surprising since it is huge, and I wasn’t quick enough to get my camera out, plus there is nowhere to stop on the 4+ lane highway.  Utah has some really beautiful spots, Salt Lake City is surrounded by mountains and of course that big lake. I see why the Olympics were held here, it is lovely and the mountains are really close.

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After all of that driving I figured I deserved a nice break in Vegas. I booked 2 nights at the Mirage on the strip, it has a great pool area and is fairly central. Unfortunately I hit the worst weather day, still way better than Calgary as it was a sunny 18 degrees, but not great for the pool (although I still made it for an hour or so one afternoon, couldn’t resist!). So instead I spent my time wandering along the strip and through the hotels, then played a little poker on the machines, had a pan chocolat from a bakery at the Paris, a delicious meal at the steak house in the Mirage and went to the Terry Fator show which was great.

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After Vegas I drove past Lake Mead and through some lovely scenery in the desert, which was hard to see as it was getting dark but the sunset over the desert was lovely. Also stopped for a delicious In and Out burger, I wish we had them in Canada, they are so good! Overall a great road trip and glad to have officially escaped the snow and cold to sunny Phoenix which was 29 degrees today. I’m so happy to be in shorts and sandals again!!

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Next stop is Orlando and Disney where I will meet up with my family, including my adorable nieces, for 9 days of being a kid again and riding every ride I can. Can’t wait!