Monday, November 17, 2014

Oh, Island in the Sun: Breeze-ing Back to the Southern Caribbean (Part Two)

Day two in Florida didn’t start with any more promise than day one did. While we had yet to experience anything like the torrential rains The Weather Channel had been forecasting all week, we also had yet to see any sunlight. 37,000 feet above, Stephanie was on an early flight to meet up with us and caught the sun hiding above the clouds.

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And for what it’s worth, she had her first post-merger “New” American Airlines breakfast and gave the fresh-from-the-freezer blintzes with gloppy fruit topping supremely low ratings.

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37,000 feet below, Mom and I headed to Einstein Bros for some bagels, coffee and SoFlo goss. No matter what day of the week or what time of day, every time we go to Einstein for a bagel or some coffee in Florida, it’s always packed and lively.

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Stephanie was flying into Fort Lauderdale, which was a much shorter drive than Miami is from our hotel in Plantation. We didn’t want to leave too early and have to circle the airport and we didn’t want to wait too long and leave her waiting with two and a half pieces of luggage, so we hunkered down and tracked her flight. From Target. Mom picked up the Ponds makeup wipes, Diet Coke and Vitamin Waters. I tracked Stephanie’s descent across the Everglades. We were a dynamic multi-tasking duo. We checked out as her plane was landing and began the quick 15-minute trek to the airport.

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As perfectly as we tried to time it, we still had to circle the arrivals gate a few times before a Stephanie finally appeared with two big suitcases and a backpack. With the one thing Stephanie and I both really wanting to do out of the picture (Fort Lauderdale Beach in the intermittent rain wasn’t incredibly appealing) and having done everything else Mom and I really wanted to do the day before, we left the plans for the day up to Stephanie, and she already had her mind made up. To Boca we went.

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I might be the only one who finds this odd, but Friday morning, 11:00 am, and the Nordstrom Rack parking lot was packed. I’m not entirely sure what people do during the work day in Florida, but if it involves browsing around Nordstrom Rack, I want in.

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As it always is, the Nordstrom Rack in Boca was infinitely better than the Nordstrom Racks in Chicago, but Mom and Stephanie refused to let me start buying winter coats again (seriously, though, racks and racks of North Face winter fleece’s on sale!) and we headed out towards Boca Town Center, where there was also…no parking. We found a spot a ways out and grabbed a quick lunch at the Grand Lux Café (try the Chicken Piccata – it’s the best!).

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After lunch, we walked around the mall for a few hours, grabbing some last minute odds and ends for our cruise.

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We hit a few more stores after we left Town Center, and we drove around for a bit reminiscing (again). Mom told us a few years back she had contemplated moving our family down to Boca right before Stephanie and I entered high school and as we drove around, we contemplated what life would have looked like if we had relocated from Chicago. We’d be warmer. My tan wouldn’t be so quick to fade. We’d get great discounts on cruises and apparently, we’d spend all day at Nordstrom Rack, Boca Town Center or Einstein Bros looking for parking spots.

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After a stop at the biggest Wal-Mart I’ve ever seen for everything Mom and I had forgotten at Target, we headed back to Plantation to rest for a bit. With our early flight the day before, Stephanie’s early flight and our cruise adventure starting the next day, a couple hours of napping and mindless TV watching sounded perfect.

When time rolled around for dinner, Mom only had one thing on her mind, and Stephanie and I didn’t fight her on it.

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We contemplated heading out to Sawgrass after dinner to do a little late shopping, but Stephanie really wasn’t up to it, so we just headed back to the hotel. At some point, Mom called housekeeping for some more toiletries and they more than indulged us.

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Made of Honor was on Lifetime and we had a restful night in. We talked about what we wanted to do and see and experience in the week ahead, but unlike many of our other trips, we went into this trip without anything planned. We had no excursions booked, no reservations made and we were leaving all of it up to whatever we felt like. For a planner like me, having no plans usually feels incredibly stressful, but I found it oddly liberating to go into this trip with no expectations and to be able to do it by however we felt. We spend so much time planning and putting hopes and expectations on the actualization of these long planned for moments, but that often leads to expectations that can result in disappointment. It was interesting to approach this trip from the other side of it and just doing whatever we felt like as we felt like doing it.

And as we approached the end of our time in Florida for this trip, I reflected on how being in Florida doesn’t feel like being on vacation anymore. There is (and always will be) an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, but now that nostalgia just feels like normalcy…almost like home.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Oh, Island in the Sun: Breeze-ing Back to the Southern Caribbean (Part One)

Two weeks ago, I was stepping onboard the Breeze. I was in Miami. The sun was beaming brightly in every which way, the air was balmy and calm and even though we were repeating a trip we’d taken a week earlier, we were excited with the adventures to come in the eight days ahead.

And now I’m here. Sitting in my apartment on the thirty-first floor of a non-descript building, the Chicago winter creeping in earlier than usual and the temperatures in the complete opposite direction as the warmth that brought the promise of exploration and adventure.

I have an entire trip to Europe to plan for May, and a new job that I started last week to get my feet wet in. And I have an entire ten day trip to write about, because when I’m not traveling, exploring, adventuring, writing about it is the next best thing.

So the Breeze. This wasn’t our first trip on the Breeze. Or to the ports of Grand Turk, La Romana, Curacao and Aruba. As a matter of fact, we did this exact same trip on the exact same week the year before. This wasn’t our first choice (and certainly not our last). We explored options on some of the newer ships on Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, but newer ships meant less thrilling ports. Sure, there’s plenty left for us to explore in Belize, St. Thomas, Cozumel and even Nassau, but there’s more for us to explore in the ports we’ve visited less frequently – places like Panama and Costa Rica. Places like Aruba and Curacao.

Southwestern itineraries to Panama and Costa Rica are harder to come by than they used to be, and after a trip on the non-upgraded Valor in May, we wanted a ship with newer amenities. We found a great rate on the Breeze and an easy decision was made.

((I still ache to go back to Central America. Costa Rica and Panama can’t be that far from my future there.))

So on a chilly October morning, Mom and I left her house in the suburbs in a taxi bound for O’Hare long before the sun was up. Despite being the main hub into Chicago, O’Hare is actually located in the suburbs, so any time I have an early morning flight, I’ll head home to Mom’s house the night before since taking the Blue line between the hours of 11:00 pm and 7:00 am is a far from ideal option.  We said a quick goodbye to a groggy Stephanie (who would join us in Florida the next day) and made our way down 90/94 towards O’Hare.

We arrived around 4:15 am and O’Hare was already crowded and there were already lines forming at the Skycap. We weren’t entirely sure if we’d have to pay for our luggage or not – we were flying first class home, but we were flying economy to Miami and every time we’ve flown first class at least one way, they’ve given us free luggage on both routes. But we were flying on the “New American,” which had completed its merge with US Airways since our last flight, and was garnering mixed reviews on everything from service to food to inflight experience. Sure enough, flying on the “New” American meant we’d have to pay for our luggage to Miami, but they’d tag our baggage as priority.

Flying on the “New” American also meant that there were hawks pulling people out of the security line if they had more than two carry-ons on their bodies when they were in line. I usually keep my camera bag out through security to make it easier, but that’s a no-go now – I got pulled out of line to put my camera bag into one of my carry-on’s. -2, American Airways. Mom got through in the TSA Pre-Check line without issue and we met up on the other side.

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We settled in at our gate and Mom made a sprint to get us some breakfast and a coffee to help with my headache (no caffeine + three hours of sleep + 6:00 am flight =  cranky Nicole) and we settled in watching the world pass by in a flurry of hurried travelers.

Before we knew it, boarding zones were being called and we were walking onto the plane.  On some of American’s planes, they block out the middle seat on rows 16 and 17 (the reason being if those four seats were occupied, they’d need to hire another Flight Attendant and their math says flying with those seats unoccupied costs less than flying with an extra Flight Attendant) and checking Seat Guru before we booked and seeing these seats open at booking, we sprung for the extra space.

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Our flight took off on time and before we knew it we were amongst the clouds, the buildings below fading into small flecks of light.

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As we were booking our flights, I’d tried to convince Mom that we should fly in after work on Wednesday so we could avoid an early morning wake up. But as the sun rose over the left wing of the plane, casting a rainbow gradient onto the canvas of the open sky, I was glad Mom won that argument. It didn’t matter that I was exhausted or that our preferred carrier was transitioning into something we didn’t know we’d care for. Everything was lost in a haze of mesmerizing colors.

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After the sun was up and we were somewhere around Indianapolis, I fell asleep. It sounds routine and unremarkable, but I’ve spent most of my adult life terrified of flying and I’ve finally found myself in a place where I can sleep through flights and not need to count my breaths to get through bumps of turbulence.  When I woke up, we were somewhere over Florida, not long before we began our descent.

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The beautiful blue skies we’d been gliding across made way for gray storm clouds as we descended upon Miami. The forecast for our two days had called for torrential rains and tropical storms and as much as I’d hoped for the sun to shine over Southern Florida and show The Weather Channel where to stick it, it looked like they got it right on this one. We didn't see torrential rains, but we saw rain...and we didn't see much sun.

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When it comes to airports in SoFlo, MIA comes behind Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach for me. It’s big, it’s spread out and you need to take multiple trams to get from the terminal to the baggage claim. But Miami International has something that FLL and PBI don’t – the rainbow room.

It took us so long to get to the baggage claim from the terminal that our bags were already out when we got there. And then we dragged them towards the car rental center. But on the way to the car rental center is a room that many pass by and few notice. A room with rainbow stained glass windows scattering a colorful glow across the floor.

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The journey after the rainbow room wasn’t as pleasant or colorful. As long of a journey it is from the terminal to the baggage claim, it’s an equally long journey from the baggage claim to the car rental center, filled with narrowed moving walkways and never-ending stretches of hallways leading to more hallways. I sent a silent thanks to Stephanie, who convinced me I only needed one suitcase instead of two.

We got a last-minute rate on a rental car through Dollar. The plus with Dollar is that they have a shuttle to the port, so when we returned the car, we wouldn’t have to worry about transportation to the ship.  And they offered an option to use their Sunpass for a flat $8 a day. Since some Florida tollbooths don’t have cash or coin options and many car rental companies will charge you a fee when they get the pay-by-plate ticket, it was almost a steal, especially because we frequently use the Turnpike. The con was that even though we were picking up our car in a large airport, selection was incredibly, incredibly limited. They only had a few full size SUV’s out and the only one with a decent sized trunk smelled like someone had suffered from some carsickness in it, so we ended up with a smaller car. With a car and a trunk full of suitcases, we headed towards Fort Lauderdale.

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After straying from our usual hotel on our last visit to SoFlo and being disappointed in the results, we ran back with open arms to our favorite, the Renaissance hotel in Plantation.

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The Renaissance has been our SoFlo default for the past eight years or so. I used to be able to get it on Priceline (it was the only four-star hotel in Plantation so I could guarantee a stay there, even when using the name-your-own-price option), but since our last visit, Priceline has combined the Plantation and Sawgrass hotel areas into one, which means there was another hotel that we could have bid into. Any time we use Priceline, I do vigorous research into each hotel we could bid into and if any of them have unfavorable reviews, we don’t use Priceline. My research into the other hotel we could bid into showed mixed reviews, but uncovered something more important: aside from the nightly rate, tax and Priceline fee, we’d have to pay a daily resort fee and a parking fee. The Renaissance has no resort fee and ample free self-parking. If we bid into the Renaissance, we’d probably save $10-$20 a night, but if we bid into the other hotel, we’d actually be paying $40 a night more than we would booking directly with the Renaissance. I found a web-exclusive pre-pay rate for $110 a night and we booked directly with Marriott (and, bonus, their reward program will turn my hotel points into American Airline miles).

Booking with Priceline means that you can’t guarantee anything. You can request a room with two beds, or early check-in, but it’s just that: a request. When I booked direct, I had a menu of options (Did I want to check in early? Yep. Two beds? Absolutely. High floor and extra pillows? Holla at your girl, Renaissance).

Plantation lays in between Fort Lauderdale and Miami. It’s within a half hour of both ports. The city is large enough to have plenty of dining options and any chain and big box store you can think of, but small enough to be quiet. It’s suburban and calm but close enough to the big cities to enjoy what they have to offer. The Renaissance underwent a large renovation a few years back and the lobby and common areas are glam chic, evocative of the club vibe in the W hotel line, with silver sparkles mingling amongst pure whites and dark violets. Vaulted ceilings give the small lobby an incredibly spacious feel, and oversized chairs sitting on either side of leather couches makes for a great meeting space (and feels fitting for a pre-cruise gathering).

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Predictably, though, when we’d booked with Priceline, our room was always ready and our requests were always fulfilled. And when we booked directly with the hotel, our room wouldn’t be ready for hours unless we wanted a handicap accessible room (and after our last years traveling with our grandma in a wheelchair, none of us ever want to see an accessible room anywhere ever again, even if they’re bigger or sometimes better located. We’ll leave ‘em for those who need ‘em). So we left our luggage with them, and with a promise they’d call when our room was ready, we headed out. And if you’ve read this blog for long enough, you’ll know exactly where we headed…

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We are nothing if not predictable creatures of habit.

((PS – still highly recommend it. Food? Good. Service? Good. Lunch specials? Wowza.))

After lunch, we hit up Target and since we hadn’t heard from the hotel, we headed back. Our room was ready and naturally they were just about to call us when we arrived.

As fresh as the lobby of the Renaissance feels, the rooms, while spacious and still well-appointed, are starting to feel a bit worn. The bathroom, in particular, had a few questionable stains on the wall that I don’t want to think about.

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And because we’re predictable creatures of habit, after we freshened up and changed, we headed to Boca for some shopping.

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If you haven’t read any of my SoFlo entries, let me explain. Boca Raton is our nostalgic happy place. Our grandma had a condo there, and when Stephanie and I were little, we’d fly down with Mom to meet grandma in November or December and we’d all live down there until the snow melted in Chicago. Every time we go to SoFlo, we go to Boca and Mom tells the same stories and we reminisce. My memories of those times are limited, but they’re surrounded in a gilded haze. Making laps around the pool and pulling on the shower cord. Playing on the astroturf ground of the balcony and reading ourselves to sleep with Berenstain Bears books. Trips to Toys R Us with Mom where she’d buy us those toy makeup kits (and she’d take away the lipsticks because we’d draw on the walls with them otherwise) and trips to Publix where our Aunt Ethel would get Stephanie and I those kiddie carts and let us pick out the produce. Walks to see the flamingos in the ponds and trolley rides to the shopping mall. Mundane motions and events that make up some of the best of childhood memories. Visiting Boca is like coming home.

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After a few hours of reminiscing and shopping, we headed out to Sawgrass for some shopping (Sawgrass Mills is the world’s largest outlet mall…or so they say) and dinner. I was good this time, though. No new Tory Burch shoes, no new Michael Kors bag. I almost bought a new purse at the Kate Spade outlet, but on a rack that boasted an extra 50% off clearance items, they had half pulled off a markdown sticker, and when I asked how much the item was, they tried to give me 50% off the original price. So Sawgrass shopping was a bust, but dinner at Grand Lux Cafe capped off with those made to order beignets could never do us wrong.

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We were burnt out after such a long day, so we headed back to the hotel just in time to catch Grey’s Anatomy, catch up with Stephanie (who was running last minute errands) and get to bed early, marking the end of a long, full day.

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Friday, November 7, 2014

Oh, but California

At the end of July, my best friend and I hopped on an airplane headed west.

San Francisco for the first half of the week, Los Angeles for the second.

We share Broadway in Chicago season tickets and are avid musical theater fans. When it was announced that Hair was going to be performed at the Hollywood Bowl, we knew we had to go. It's one of our favorite shows. And a trip fit. She'd just finished graduate school and wanted to celebrate. I needed some perspective and peace, and I know no greater place to find it than on a bench at Chrissy Field, so adding San Francisco to the itinerary was an easy choice.

So on a clear, balmy July evening, we hopped on an airplane heading west.

We sat at Chrissy Field for what felt like forever and went jumping on trampolines. We walked across the Golden Gate Bridge. We ate...everything from In-n-Out to a multi-course organic meal at one of San Francisco's best restaurants. We shopped on Haight Ashbury and took a million pictures of everything everywhere. And the best part of the trip of all: I got to catch up and spend a few days with another one of my most adored friends, one who opens up her couch to me anytime I need some time away and inspires me with words of wisdom over bottles of wine in Napa.

And then we hopped on a Megabus headed south. We went to Beverly Hills and visited the Hollywood Walk of Fame. We took a two hour bus ride to Disneyland and rode on It's A Small World more times than I could count. We took a two hour bus ride back to Los Angeles. I broke a sandal strap getting off a bus between Hollywood and Beverly Hills and waited in a Starbucks while my best friend went to Walgreens to get me some new flip flops, and I got some of the best people watching in that I've ever had. We saw an inspiring performance of an incredibly powerful show.

Words can't describe the incredible peace I get in California. The full sensory experience of driving through the Presidio with the windows down, cool air whipping around you as the smell of the eucalyptus trees overwhelms your mind. The feeling of the cool air sticking to your skin as the sun sets over the Hollywood Hills. I can't describe it. The contradiction in the constraint of words to describe the most freeing of experiences is almost comical.

California inspires me. And where words fail me, I let the inspiration guide my camera.

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Until next time, California. I'll be back soon.