Showdown at Sawgrass III

A rematch at TPC Sawgrass nine years in the making.

The Beatles Suite at The Edgewater Seattle

For a hotel and Beatles junkie, this was pretty much as good as it gets.

Skagway and the Laughton Glacier Hike

Perhaps the most incredible day of my entire travel career.

My Top 8 Bucket List Golf Courses

After a year of incredible golf travel, it was time to revise the bucket list.

A Pre-Cruise Stay at the Hyatt Regency Pier 66

Great value, close proximity to the port, and a vibe that says "I'm on vacation." These are the prerequisites for my ideal pre-cruise hotel. Fort Lauderdale presents no shortage of options that meet this criteria, which usually poses a considerable challenge to my indecisive nature. That is unless you're the closest hotel to Port Everglades offering a rate considerably less than competition, just as we found at the Hyatt Regency Pier 66.

My first impression of the Hyatt Pier 66 was that it's an older resort held together by the hotel equivalent of cosmetic surgery. While the guys from "Botched" couldn't help this hotel's exterior, which sticks out like a sore thumb against the backdrop of Fort Lauderdale beach, the sleek furnishings and pulsating music in the lobby did their best to give a facelift to this socialite just a few years past her prime. Besides the superficial challenges in appearance, the rickety elevator rides were also constant reminder that this gal has some serious osteoporosis.

Lobby Bar

In complete contrast to the Hyatt's somewhat dated feel, the hotel is literally surrounded by some of the most incredible yachts I've ever seen. For anyone that enjoys being by the water and watching the coming and going of boats (which I do), a tower room with a balcony overlooking the pier is about as good as it gets. Thankfully, that's exactly what we landed.
Looks can be deceiving.

Like the rest of the hotel, the room was a mix of 1974 and 2015. The bed would easily rank in the top-5 worst I've experienced in a hotel, and the lounge chair was best designed for almost anything but sitting. But the view? Well that managed to overcompensate for every other shortcoming this hotel could toss my way. From Port Everglades on the left, to the ocean on the right, with the pier and downtown Fort Lauderdale in-between, the Hyatt could have charged a $25 resort fee simply for the view and I wouldn't have cared. Well, I detest resort fees so that's not entirely true, but you get the drift.
The awesome balcony. Fair warning: Keep your curtains shut. That fence is all that separates the two rooms. 

After watching American Pharoah win the Triple Crown - from our room, because no one seemed to care in the bar - we strolled out to the end of the pier for dinner and cocktails at Pelican Landing. This is the more casual of the two dining options at the Hyatt, with Grille 66 being the hotel's upscale, yet seemingly less popular, eatery. The outside deck at Pelican's offered a sublime view of the sunset, that was nearly equaled in greatness by their conch fritters and fish tacos.
The magnificent sunset from Pelican Landing

While the Hyatt is in a no-mans-land of sorts between the beach and Intercoastal Waterway, everything about the hotel's pool says "South Florida paradise." Their crisp blue waters were also surrounded by various activities like corn hole, lawn chess, and a few hammocks for a solid poolside nap.

From a service standpoint, our experience at the Hyatt Pier 66 was hit and miss. The servers at Pelican Landing and poolside were both excellent, but the bartender and bellman I encountered had the personality of a lead brick. I sympathized with our front desk agent as well, who was bombarded with not 1, not 2, but 8 phone calls within the first minute of her beginning our check-in. Clearly the Hyatt has not heard of a centralized guest services department away from the front desk, or those folks decided it was a good time to kick back for break.
Oasis of the Seas heading out to sea.

Despite its numerous flaws, the Hyatt Pier 66 delivered on its role as pre-cruise hotel in spades. I could hit Port Everglades with about a 7-iron from our balcony, and it was pretty great waking up the morning of the cruise to see our ship waiting for us. Combine the location with a rate that was roughly 40% less than our usual Fort Lauderdale pre-cruise hotel - Westin Fort Lauderdale Beach - and suddenly all of those shortcomings didn't seem so bad.

Hard to miss the Hyatt as you sail away...

The Hyatt Pier 66 would not come close to my first choice for those vacationing in Fort Lauderdale. However, for someone seeking a mid-tier hotel, close to the port, with a South Florida vibe to get into what I call "cruise mode," the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 will certainly do the trick.

Enjoy Your Stay

A Round at TopGolf Tampa

Over the last year or so, no company has moved the needle in the game of golf more than TopGolf, and it's easy to see why... The ultimate playground for golf junkies - think Dave & Busters and Splittsville but replace the arcade or bowling alley with an interactive driving range - TopGolf locations have been sprouting up across the country at an alarming rate, with an ever increasing popularity to match. A new TopGolf location recently opened in the Tampa area, which finally gave this golf junkie an excuse to see what all of the fuss was about.
Warning: It will not look like this when you arrive.

That "fuss" has been almost relentless since I first learned of TopGolf some time ago. From constant praise on Twitter, to features on the Golf Channel and every golf publication on the planet, it seems many believe TopGolf is the greatest thing to happen to our Royal & Ancient game since that phenom from California said "Hello World." One article even went so far as to proclaim that TopGolf could save the game from the downward spiral in participation, brought on by economic challenges and an aging Tiger Woods.

While seemingly everyone has pontificated on everything that TopGolf is, I'll start by saying what it isn't...

TopGolf is not golf.

A visit to TopGolf is no closer to the real thing than a round of putt-putt at Pirates Cove.

And yet I loved every minute of it.

A rooftop bar at a driving range? Yes, please.

My friends and I arrived to TopGolf Tampa at 8:30pm last Saturday night. The chaos of the parking lot, where cars were parked literally everywhere but on top of one another, sent an immediate sense of dread through the four of us. But it was the greeting from the valet that nearly caused an outright panic...

"Welcome to TopGolf. It's a 5 hour wait for golf, but there's no line for the bar."

This outing had been on the books for 6 weeks, and included a 100+ mile drive for 3/4 of our foursome. Now we may not even get to play? This seemed rather preposterous. That is, until we went inside...

After signing up for our "membership" and checking-in with the concierge, I asked if there was any approximate idea on the wait time.

"Right now, I can't guarantee you'll get to play. It's telling me the wait is 7 and a half hours."

I kept waiting for the "Bazinga!" but sadly it never came.  

After a few moments of dumbfounded silence, my brother finally broke the ice...

"I wonder what the wait is at the Atlanta location. It might save us some time if we left now."

We elbowed our way through the uber-crowded bar, and managed to snag a table to watch the Kentucky basketball game on one of the 1,362 TVs on hand. The irony of a bunch of Gators watching Kentucky basketball at a place with "golf" in its name was certainly a little rich.

And this was after it had died down a little..

Two hours later, at the exact moment Notre Dame was attempting a last second shot to advance to the Final Four, my cell phone buzzed. It was a text from TopGolf... Our bay was ready.

After spending two hours locked in intense battle, and dodging the occasional physics-defying shank, a night that started out looking like an epic fail came to a successful end at 1am. But not before coming away with a few tips, observations, and general ramblings on our experience at TopGolf.

3 stories of awesome.

Go Early...Go Hungry

Needless to say, our group was insanely naive to show up at 8:30 on a Saturday night during March Madness. My guess is if we had arrived at say, 5pm, we would have been quoted something a little shorter than a 7 hour wait. The fact is, TopGolf's queue set-up leaves a lot to be desired. The feeling among our group was that quoting 7 hours was merely their way of nicely saying "Go Away." But given that the actual wait only ended up being 2 hours, there were clearly a huge number of people that had signed up to play with either no intention of actually doing so, or they just gave up waiting.

Perhaps requiring a deposit equal to 1-hour of play ($40) would solve this problem and cut down on how many new customers TopGolf discourages right off the tee.

The one saving grace to our wait was the food, which was far better than any of us expected. I mean, sure I've had better chicken & waffles, but never when sitting next to a driving range.

Leave the Clubs at Home

Seriously, don't take your clubs. Especially if you have an unhealthy attachment to them like yours truly. The Callaway rentals at each bay will certainly get the job done, even though they'll probably give your opponent an oft repeated excuse for his or her loss.

Remember...It's Not Golf

The games at TopGolf all pretty much center around hitting shots to various targets on the range. There are 6 different targets and each of those is divided into quadrants for scoring. Getting it as close to center as possible is typically the game, but requires a much different approach than real golf, along with a good deal of luck.

Since the bottom of each target is a net, the ball doesn't bounce once in the target area. So if you're going to get it close, the trick is to either one hop it from short, or fly it all the way to the center.

It also seemed the combination of "house ball" clubs and the fancy microchip embedded Callaway balls resulted in shots flying about 80% as far as normal. Either that, or I've been severely under-clubbing for roughly my entire life.

Oh and to paraphrase the current Nike ad, if you play golf to get better at golf, then TopGolf has nothing for you. Trust me, adjusting to the equipment is guaranteed to have your swing wrecked by the end of the night. If you're looking to practice, go to a real golf course.

My brother hitting what I'd guess was his first shot ever struck past midnight.

Better Than Green Fees

After spending the same amount of time as a typical round of golf, the four of us left feeling as though TopGolf was surprisingly cheap entertainment. We spent 2 hours in the bar and 2 hours on the range, and each walked out spending $60-$80, including food, beverages and our golf. Compare that to green fees at a golf course, or even dinner and a movie, and TopGolf begins to look like a steal. 

Mainstream Golf

It was clear pretty early on that I'd been looking at TopGolf all wrong...

TopGolf is not a golf facility with an entertainment component. It's an entertainment facility with a golf component. For every one person that was there hoping to hit golf balls, there were 5 more that had no intention of picking up a club. In fact, I'd peg the percentage that had ever picked up a club at even lower than that.

I'm confident the Old Tom Morris shirt shaved those hours off the wait.

Still, it's impossible to deny that each and every night, hundreds, maybe thousands, of people are introduced to golf for the very first time at TopGolf facilities across the country. Do any of them then decide to buy a set of clubs and give it a go at their local muni... Possibly, but I'm willing to bet that number is infinitesimally small compared to the number that will only "play golf" on an occasional outing to TopGolf.

So with that in mind, can TopGolf really "save" the game of golf?

Absolutely not... But it can only help.

Enjoy Your Stay

The Villas at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort

Tell me if you've heard this one before... A new Disney Vacation Club wing has recently opened at one of the deluxe hotels at Walt Disney World. Sound familiar?

It should. 

From the Contemporary to Beach Club, Wilderness Lodge to Animal Kingdom, Disney has slowly but surely brought DVC to each of its upper-tier hotels. The most recent byproduct of this DVC-ification... The Villas at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort.

When the addition to Grand Floridian was announced, I was a bit skeptical. Call me weird, but I'm very, shall I say, protective of my favorite hotels. My fear was that this addition would turn out like the Kidani Village at Animal Kingdom Lodge... A cheap, tacky knock-off of the original. Those fears eased a bit as I observed the construction for months from the passing monorail. As soon as I stepped inside the new lobby, they vanished entirely.

Although not nearly as grand as the original - pun intended - the lobby for the Villas certainly makes a nice impression. Where the original is more of the "grand dame" flavor, the polished marble and understated furnishings bring a more up to date feel to the neighborhood. Check-in is a seated affair, something I've never been a fan of, but after a quick programming of our MagicBands we were off to the room.

MJ and I always book a studio room when staying with our DVC points, which offers the two of us plenty of space, though usually not much more than a glorified hotel room. Not so at the Grand Floridian...

From a rainmaker shower and TV in the bathroom mirror, to the expansive balcony overlooking the monorail, I was absolutely astonished at the quality of this room. In fact, I'd go so far as to say they are the best on Disney property.

But all gushing aside, easily the coolest thing about our studio was the trundle bed built into the armoire. While I wouldn't dream of sleeping on it myself, I'm pretty sure my nephew, Old Sport, would be a fan.

So how does Grand Floridian stack up against the other DVC resorts? In terms of the quality of room and easy access to great restaurants at all of the monorail resorts, it is head and shoulders above the rest. However, my ranking of Grand Floridian comes down to that old rule of real estate...

Location, Location, Location.

We crashed at the Grand Floridian Villas the night of our recent anniversary dinner at Victoria & Albert's. Obviously, the location couldn't be beat in this case, however my one fault with the resort is the same as Bay Lake Tower... You're reliant on the monorail to get to Epcot, and only one park can be accessed easily. Because of this, and the fact we spend most of our time at Epcot and Hollywood Studios, I still give an edge to Boardwalk or Beach Club, but certainly not by much.


In the end, it's clear those old fears of Disney doing the Villas at Grand Floridian on the cheap were totally unfounded. They spared no expense in getting this one right, which isn't something that can be said very often these days. Although the Grand Floridian may not be our first pick simply because of location, it's a great choice for anyone whose primary park will be the Magic Kingdom. And if nothing else, it also gave me a good reason to be excited for the final chapter in the DVC-ification of Disney's deluxe resorts... The soon to open Polynesian Villas & Bungalows.

Enjoy Your Stay

Victoria & Albert's at Disney's Grand Floridian - Revisted

Good evening Mr. & Mrs. Jones, welcome back and happy 6th anniversary.

Ah yes, that moment every other year that reminds me of why Victoria & Albert's at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort is such a remarkably special place. Israel's warm welcome, remembering us on sight some two years between visits, is always both wildly impressive and entirely genuine. And yet this time around, there was an added twist that I would never have expected...

Mr. Jones, I read your blog just the other day...we are all so very appreciative for your kind words.

Wait a minute, you're telling me the Maitre d' at the only Five Diamond restaurant in Orlando....reads my blog?

As Israel led us to a primo table in the center of the dining room, I scrolled those old blog posts in my head attempting to remember exactly what I had written. Feeling both astonished and slightly embarrassed, I soon realized that this really should have been no surprise at all. Attention to detail in service is what Victoria & Albert's does best, and I suppose one could argue that also includes reading obscure blog posts from past guests.

Still, it's nice to know someone out there is reading besides mom and dad.

Our relationship with Victoria & Albert's began 6 years ago, when MJ and I dined here for the first time the day after our wedding. That night, we established the first tradition of our new marriage: a pact to return to V&A's every other year on our anniversary. After enjoying the intimate 10-course experience in the Queen Victoria Room two years ago, which by all accounts is nothing short of spectacular, we decided that for future visits the 7-course offering in the main dining room was just the right amount of overindulgence.

As the champagne was popped and the harpist broke into the theme song from Game of Thrones, our server, Mike, who was with us back on that very first visit, kicked off the festivities...

There's a couple of reasons I always get excited when a meal begins with an amuse bouche. First I just like saying amuse bouche. And second, this plate designed to get the tastebuds ready for the meal ahead is usually quite sinful, with things like smoked salmon and caviar, or in this case...both.

With my palate and tastebuds properly primed, next out was a sumac crusted tuna alongside a black radish slaw. While the tuna was exquisite, the real highlight here was the wine pairing - a Sauvignon Blanc from Jules Taylor whose floral aroma was a party for my outsized nose. Turns out I'm not the only one that loved it...the vintage earned a top 100 ranking from Wine Enthusiast.

Next out for yours truly was an Alaskan king salmon, while MJ went with the masago crusted Maine scallop. The salmon was exceptional, but as I gazed across the table it was clear that MJ had won this round...

As Mike returned to the table in preparation for our next course, the same wine being poured for us both should have been a sign that something was amiss. Sure enough, a surprise course of Wild Turbot arrived for each of us, and a welcome one at that given that I had nearly ordered it to start. The turbot is line caught off the coast of Portugal, where very tight catch limits are imposed on the fish, making its appearance on the menu all the more rare. The dish was easily the highlight of my evening and really should have been my main course...somehow I had to find room for two more plus dessert.
Seriously...if this is on the menu...order it.

I was up for the challenge.

The next course is one that always leaves me with a little bit of "entree envy" every time we visit Victoria & Albert's. I went with the Palmetto Farms Quail, which offered a nice break from all of the seafood, but MJ's gnocchi along with black trumpet mushrooms and truffles always steals the show. Every visit I say I'm going to order this on our next one, and every year I manage to forget... Perhaps I should ask Israel to put a note in his file to remind me next time. Or...maybe I just did?

After a few minutes spent mesmerized by the sounds of the harp, the main courses arrived with a bit of flair. It's amazing how something so simple as lifting two domed dish covers at the same time can build so much excitement. But then again, the Australian Kobe had already done plenty of that just on its own.

Finally, following a brief intermezzo of gelato and cheese, it was time for the good stuff. By good stuff, I of course mean the Tanzanian Chocolate Timbale, and coffee courtesy of the coolest brewer you'll ever see. I know its just simple chemistry...or maybe its physics...either way, I'm always delightfully entertained by this thing.
OK, so they're both pretty entertaining.

Each of our visits to Victoria & Albert's has been memorable in its own way, and this time around was no different. Specifically, this was our first time doing late seating (8:30-8:45) which had us at the restaurant until just after midnight. Not that we had anywhere else to be, but anyone like yours truly that's of the "early to bed, early to rise" mentality would probably best be served by the early seating. Of course, the one benefit of being the last ones in the dining room was it gave us the opportunity to snap a few pictures. 
Photobomed by our server, Beth.

As we said our goodbyes and made our way to the frosted glass door, that familiar sense of anticipation returned once more. Only this time, that feeling won't be quenched in a matter of minutes, or days, or even months. However, in two short years we will be back, yes for the incredible food offered by Chef Scott, but more for the warmth of home provided by Israel, Mike, Sharon, and everyone at Victoria & Albert's that night in and night out manage to make so many feel a little like royalty.

Enjoy Your Stay

Golf Shots - The Best of 2014

At risk of sounding like a braggart, 2014 was one heck of a great year for me and the game of golf. The previous 3 years have taken me to many major championship and bucket list courses, and while I didn't come away from 2014 with bag tags from Pinehurst or Pebble Beach, I close out the year with an abundance of something far more valuable... Great memories of great golf with great friends and family.

The year began at TPC Sawgrass, home of the Tour's self proclaimed "5th Major," where I joined seven other golf geeks for a weekend at one of the great venues of the game. The round was filled with several bright spots - birdies at holes 7, 8 & 11 - before the Stadium course eventually took its due. A pair of ProV1s found the water on the iconic 17th hole leading to a quintuple-bogey 8. The card was wrecked, so too were my dreams of a career round at a world-ranked course, but the rest of the festivities soon washed away the pain I encountered at the island green.

Highlight: Dinner and ping pong in the Champion's Locker Room.

A Weekend with The King

From the home of the PGA Tour to that of The King, the next stop in 2014 was a father-sons outing at Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge. We teed it up at Arnie's place just a few weeks before the Tour came to town, and the course could not have been in any better condition. Of course, that also means it was playing exponentially harder, and my scorecard reflected it. In the end, I was soundly defeated by my brother, RJ, however given the glorious day that we had, it was hard to be too upset over the loss.

Highlight: RJ clanging his tee shot off a grandstand on #17 and bouncing nearly onto the green.

Black Diamond Ranch

Next up was the Quarry Course at Black Diamond Ranch. A mainstay on my list, but an invite I had never been able to score, Black Diamond's Stay & Play package made this infamous Tom Fazio design available to me for the first time.  My regular foursome made the trip to tiny Lecanto, Florida and spent the better part of an afternoon with our jaws wide open. The quarry holes at Black Diamond are unlike anything else in the state of Florida, and made for easily the most memorable round of golf we had experienced together. Naturally, I lost to RJ again, but at least I didn't get the label of "thumbs up guy."

Highlight: A 6-iron to 6 feet on the 13th (See: thumbs up pic).

Sawgrass Re-Dux

In April it was back to Sawgrass, where RJ and I hoped to settle a score that was nearly a decade in the making. We split our two previous matches here with one win apiece, and 9 long years had passed since the two of us had teed it Sawgrass together. I came into the round confident, assuming my two rounds on the Stadium within the last year would give me a decided advantage. The match came down to the final putt on the final hole, but one of the best birdies of my life could only earn me a tie.

Highlight: French toast and Starbucks on the clubhouse terrace, and the birdie on 18th.

A Trip to Sam's Farm

Back in the mid-1980's, carpet baron Bob Shaw purchased a dramatic piece of property in the hills of north Georgia so that his Golden Retriever, Sam, would have a place to get some exercise. The property was called Sam's Farm, and after the faithful retriever retired to that dog park in the sky, Shaw decided the property - now called The Farm - would make a perfect location for a golf club. He was right...

After hearing story after story about The Farm from my dad following his regular trips to the area, it was finally my turn to tag along and experience the club first hand. At first, it seemed the trip would be a bust thanks to roughly 12 hours of solid rain. But the Golf Gods tossed me a bone and cleared the skies just minutes before our tee time. To say Tom Fazio's course is spectacular is a definite understatement, but it's the property itself which will prove most memorable.

Highlight: A post-round chat with Bob Shaw after watching the last flecks of daylight over the 18th green.

At long last...Streamsong.

I can remember as if it was yesterday the press release announcing the Streamsong Resort arriving to my inbox. A luxury golf retreat in Florida featuring courses by Coore & Crenshaw and Tom Doak built on an abandoned phosphate mine sounded like my particular brand of vodka. When I pulled up the location on Goggle Maps, however, my opinion quickly changed. Frankly, I thought they were nuts...

A golf resort 40 miles from the nearest thing resembling civilization sounded like a bad idea. But the developers charged ahead, and with every unbelievable update on the construction my fascination with the resort grew more and more. At long last, some 4 years after reading that first press release, I was finally able to experience Streamsong first hand. Let's just say, it didn't disappoint.

Highlight: All of it...literally.

The Snake Pit

The finale of sorts for the year took my foursome of golf buddies to the Innisbrook Resort, home to the Tour's Valspar Championship. We were there to celebrate RJ's 30th birthday, and I planned to give him his first loss of the year as a gift. 

After a tune-up round on the surprisingly awesome Island course, the next morning's bleary eyed trek for iced coffee was met with a gorgeous sunrise and high hopes for that long awaited victory. Let's just say I'm still waiting. Not only did I lose yet again to RJ, he managed to beat me with an eleven on his scorecard. In the end, I finished the year 0-3-1 in our golf travels together. On the bright side, that's probably good enough to earn a Captain's Pick at the next Ryder Cup.

Highlight: Gathered around the resort's firepit with glasses in hand and exaggerated stories at the ready.

Finally, no telling of my year in golf travel would be complete without a mention of those memories made close to home. First, I started walking my home course more as opposed to taking a cart, many times with just 5 or 6 clubs. It's amazing how many new things you see on a course you've played your entire life when you're on foot as opposed to driving by it all. In addition, by leaving half the bag in the car it forces me to be more imaginative in what shot I hit, instead of the same old boring shots round after round. Whether either of these will help improve my record against RJ in 2015 remains to be seen.

As much as I enjoyed seeing my home course in a new light, it was even more fulfilling watching my nephew, Old Sport, see it for the first time. He tagged along for many late evening matches between his dad and I, and I'm pretty sure his indoctrination into the game is going just as planned. 

Although I didn't come away from 2014 with bag tags from a host of major championship venues, this year in golf felt every bit as fulfilling. As I look back on the year and what made it memorable, a pair of common themes seemed to be at work. The first is my brother's "lucky shirt"...  Make no mistake, that faded sage green polo he's wearing in most of these photos strikes subconscious fear in my golf game every time I see it. The "lucky shirt" only makes an appearance when we play at renowned courses, and my strategy is to get it so much use that it eventually falls to shreds. 

The real common theme to the year, however, is really quite simple... People. Aside from Streamsong, all of these experiences involved family and friends, both old and new. As memorable as my visits to places like Pinehurst, Kiawah, and Pebble Beach might have been, they were all done alone. Golf at its core is a social sport, and this year I learned that few things that can top a great course paired with some of the people that mean the most to you.

Cheers to you, and here's hoping your 2015 is filled with plenty of fairways & greens.

Enjoy Your Stay