The Epcot Flower and Garden Festival

Could this really be my new favorite festival at Epcot?.

The Oasis of the Seas - Revisited

A ship so great, we sailed it twice.

Bellagio Day

Exploring the new symbol of Las Vegas.

My Top 8 Bucket List Golf Courses

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

A Summer Weekend in Hot-lanta

As a certified travel junkie, the list of destinations I plan to visit is nearly as long as the one Santa totes around in mid-December. Despite my best efforts to scratch as many places off that list as possible, there's one thing that I can pretty much count on year-in and year-out... July 4th will be spent in Atlanta.

Why Atlanta?


Well, as you may recall from previous posts, MJ is one of those crazy runner people, and July 4th happens to be when Atlanta hosts the annual Peachtree Road Race. The run is the largest 10k in the world with over sixty thousand participants - no, I am not one of them - and it also ranks as perhaps her favorite race of the year. Which makes no sense to me considering its 182 degrees in Atlanta in July, and the course involves the ominously named "Cardiac Hill."
One of this years runners. Man I felt bad watching him with donut in hand.


Still, the Peachtree guarantees me at least one weekend a year in one of my favorite cities, and I've managed to pick up a few solid tips for getting the most of your visit to Hotlanta.

Getting Around

We have one rule when it comes to Atlanta: no driving. I might make an exception for an out of the way restaurant or two, but typically once the car is parked at our hotel it doesn't leave again until it's time to head home. Traffic in Atlanta is like a root canal while waiting in line at Starbucks - simply the worst kind of torture. Avoid it at all costs.

Seriously, you want nothing to do with this.

The MARTA rail system is convenient for visiting any of the big attractions downtown, like the Georgia Aquarium, World of Coke, CNN, and Centennial Olympic Park. If you want to hit up Stone Mountain or Six Flags, you're pretty much out of luck here, but we are usually able to get by just fine between MARTA and our own two feet.
Walking has its benefits. Like getting caught in Olympic Park during a rainstorm.

The Atlanta public transit has its limits, however, and relying on taxis will eventually break the bank. Thankfully, there's a pretty good solution to this problem...

Where to Stay

When planning a trip to Atlanta, you're pretty likely to end up booking a hotel in one of three areas: Downtown, Midtown, or Buckhead. These are the three most vibrant parts of town, with easiest access to great hotels, restaurants, and things to do. It just so happens, all three also happen to be home to a W Hotel.
Most comfy pool loungers ever.

Why stay at a W Hotel? Well, they're awesome for starters. The bigger reason, however comes down to convenience, specifically in the form of their courtesy car service. W Hotels typically have nice shiny SUVs with a driver that will take you anywhere within a 3 mile radius free of charge - of course, you should always tip the driver. The service worked great for us in Buckhead and saved us making the trek to Fado Irish Pub to watch a World Cup match in the killer Atlanta heat.
The awesome bar at W Downtown

Of course, the biggest benefit to this is it gives guests access to many of Atlanta's world class restaurants, without the risk of road rage or expense of a taxi. Which leads me to the most important part of this exercise..

What to Eat

In a part of the country where white gravy and fried everything is king, some of the leading chefs of the day are putting down roots in The ATL and doing some remarkable stuff. If the title of Food Capital of the South hasn't already been granted, it's coming any day now.
Go ahead, spoil your dinner. (At Lenox Mall)

Over the years, a number of restaurants in Atlanta have made my list of all time favorites. TWO Urban Licks, South City Kitchen, Spice Market, and, of course, The Varsity, are always sure to please. Each visit, I try to scratch at least one or two places from my list, but it seems that names of hot new restaurants get added faster than I can mark them off.  This year we paid a visit to a new kid on the block, and one mainstay that's arguably the most highly acclaimed restaurant in town.
If you haven't been....GO!

Cook Hall at the W Buckhead was a pleasant surprise. The hotel's former restaurant was uninspiring at best, but this new gastropub with a southern flair had yours truly throughly impressed. Of course, crab mac & cheese is usually bound to do that.
Crab deviled eggs? Don't mind if I do.

Meanwhile, in Midtown we finally paid a visit to Empire State South. This place truly put Atlanta on the food map, and it's easy to see why. The atmosphere and food were both spectacular, but it was the precision and care of the bartender that made this one a hit. I watched in awe as this artist took every bit of 5 minutes or more to craft my old fashioned - it was easily the finest I've ever had. So good in fact, I had to watch him make another.
The opening spread at Empire State South.

Although Atlanta might not be the first place many would pick for a summer weekend getaway, there are plenty of reasons to put it on the list. From the city's numerous attractions to its ever growing array of amazing restaurants, Atlanta has a little something for everyone. Sure, it's hot as all get out, but that's just a good reason for a Frosted Orange at The Varsity.

Enjoy Your Stay

Showdown at Sawgrass III

The air was thick as we stepped onto the patio at the palatial clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass. Certainly nothing out of the ordinary for a late-summer morning in Florida, where the steam rising off the dewy grass can render the most disheveled of sport coats wrinkle-free. But today, the air wasn't just heavy due to the 117% humidity - it carried a little extra weight thanks to one of the most famous golf courses on the planet and a sibling rivalry that could give old Peyton and Eli a run for their money.

To understand the stakes of this duel, we must go back to one of the very first posts every shared on this little blog. Honestly, I'd just assume you not read the post because it's a rather embarrassing piece of prose. So to save you the trouble let's just say it's the rambling story of the first two trips that my brother and I made to Sawgrass. The first ended in a final hole defeat for yours truly thanks to a pulled 4-iron on my approach to the 18th green. While the second saw RJ go down in a blaze of glory, losing roughly $22 worth of Titleists on the notorious island green 17th.

Fast forward 8 years and it was time to settle the score. But not before a breakfast of kings overlooking the 18th hole of the famed Stadium Course.

Over the years, I've come to realize that the golf matches between my brother and I tend to follow a similar pattern. RJ usually starts off with a couple double-bogeys and then - after calling himself some very NSFW names - is forced to grind out the remainder of the round to salvage a respectable score. Meanwhile, I tend to plod along, building a seemingly insurmountable lead, before blowing up all of the hard work with an ill timed quadruple-bogey. This typically lets him right back into the match and requires playing the rest of the round partially one handed after punching the golf cart steering wheel.

This round was no different.

After a front-9 that included three water balls, two ricochets off the cart path, and one encounter with a very hungry raccoon, we made the turn tied at 8-over par.

It could have been a whole lot worse.

Combine the sweltering heat, a notoriously difficult golf course, and rough that - according to our caddie - was deeper than it was during The Players Championship, we had ourselves a recipe for some truly embarrassing scores.

I'd love to say that from here on in we both turned on the afterburners, but alas the next six holes were filled with an abundance of uninspiring golf. Not that it mattered much, because when it comes to TPC Sawgrass literally everyone that tees it up is there for the final three holes. As luck would have it, we began perhaps the most famous finishing stretch of holes in the game with our match still tied.

The 16th hole at TPC Sawgrass is my nemesis. Before this round, I had been lucky to play it four times - or unlucky, as the scores will show - and had managed to put up one bogey and three doubles. So when the day began I had two goals...

1) Par the 16th.
2) Beat RJ.

With a sigh of relief, I took my first look at the dreaded island green across the way having accomplished goal #1. Sadly, the satisfaction lasted about 12 seconds - RJ rolled in a birdie putt to go one up in the match.

Like Sergio Garcia, Sean O'Hair and Bob Tway, RJ and I both had dark memories to overcome as we moved ahead to the famed 17th at TPC Sawgrass. On our last duel 8 years ago, he put two in the water from the tee, one from the drop zone, and still another when he attempted to throw his ball onto the green in frustration. Not to be outdone, the 17th recently derailed what was on track to be my career best round of golf, thanks to a pair of ProVs in the drink leading to an unimaginable quintuple-bogey.

It's here that I'd like to pause to express my utter disdain for the 17th at Sawgrass. I'm a golf snob, plain and simple, and quite frankly I think this hole is an abomination. It is basically the Howard Stern of golf - famous merely for its shock value and designed to appeal to the hacker that's made 7 trips to the beer tent during The Players Championship. And don't even get me started on the fact that making par requires hitting the green in regulation, unless you're Fred Couples or get "lucky" and find the ridiculous bunker tucked in the front.

But I digress...

Though he later admitted to being more nervous than he let on, RJ found the center of the island green with no problem. Now it was my turn to answer, that is if I could get my hands to stop shaking as I stood over the ball. This was my 5th time teeing it up on the 17th at Sawgrass, and apparently it doesn't get any easier with experience. Especially if you're in a grudge match with your younger brother...

I made one of the worst swings of the day, and watched in agony as the bladed 9-iron took one hop off the left side of the green and into the water. A "ho-hum" par for RJ vs an up-and-down bogey for yours truly, left me two down heading to the 18th.

Just your run of the mill hardest finishing hole on Tour.

In an effort to protect his lead, RJ lobbed a hybrid club up the right side, while I vented some frustration over the 17th by making a swing that might have made the Incredible Hulk proud. The Golf Gods threw me a bone and placed this one in Position A. They weren't so kind to RJ's conservative play, however - his attempt at laying up for his 2nd shot found the water left.

A solid knock-down 8-iron from me and a great pitch from RJ left us with a pair of 15 foot putts - mine for birdie, his for bogey. And just as you might expect, those same Golf Gods decided to have a little more fun... Both putts went in, ending our match in a tie.

You have to be kidding me...

A rematch 8 years in the making and we still haven't settled the score at Sawgrass. I'm sure there's some brotherly silver-lining that we're supposed to see here. That it's not about winning, but special memories made together. But screw that.... I wanted to win.

The fact is, I was lucky to get a tie. I deserved to lose, but that's the game of golf. Still, at risk of sounding uber-sappy, on this day at one of the top courses in the world, we both definitely won.

Enjoy Your Stay

The Cruise Ship Debate - Is Bigger Always Better?

In 1992, my family took a summer vacation aboard the Majesty of the Seas. Royal Caribbean's sparkling new Sovereign-class ship was the largest on the water at the time, and set in motion a long love affair with cruising.

A lot has changed since that first cruise all those years ago. For starters, the other two Sovereign-class ships have been decommissioned, and the Majesty of the Seas - now the smallest ship in Royal Caribbean's fleet - is barely hanging on by a thread. I recently watched the Majesty pull into port in Nassau, and I must say, she was a very sad sight - a relic from the early days of the "cruise boom" of the last 20+ years where cruiselines have built one gargantuan floating city after another that's bigger than the last.

But when it comes to cruise ships, is bigger always better? I used to think so, but now I'm not so sure.

Here's a few observations that may help you decide which is best for your cruise.

Today On The Lido Deck

When it comes to onboard activities, there's no question...bigger is definitely better. Ice skating at sea? No problem. Zip lining or rock climbing? Go for it. Boogie boarding, miniature golf, and yoga on the helipad? Yep, that too. And all of it can be done before lunch on the Oasis of the Seas.
MJ & Co. doing yoga on the helipad.

By comparison, the smaller - read: older - ships typically have your run of the mill options when it comes to entertainment. If you're in to bingo, art auctions, or the belly flop contest, then have no fear. Same thing goes if you enjoy baking by the pool for days on end. But if you're like me and get bored easily and have an aversion to sun, you may be twiddling your thumbs by about day three.

Be Our Guest

For yours truly, the biggest drawback to the ultra-mega-monster ships like the Oasis or Allure of the Seas is that much is lost when it comes to service. One of the most vivid memories from that first cruise aboard the Majesty was our dinner server, Afla, bringing me vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce every night without asking - he caught on after day two that I'm pretty simple when it comes to dessert. Nothing even remotely close to that ever happened on two sailings aboard the Oasis of the Seas...

At first I chocked the impersonal service on the larger ships as just par for the course in the cruise industry these days, but then we set sail on the Rhapsody of the Seas...
MJ and our awesome server in Chops, Praful.

Though it is by no means a "small" ship, the service aboard the Rhapsody was light years ahead of the Oasis. I can think of nearly a dozen crew members that either knew me by name, knew exactly how I liked my Old Fashioned, or went out of their way in some form to make our experience memorable. Perhaps the crew aboard the Rhapsody is just more motivated than those on the Oasis, but it would seem the more likely explanation is that when it comes to service, there's definitely addition by subtraction.

Bang For The Buck

Quite naturally, when you start putting things like bumper cars and water slides that extend over the ocean on cruise ships, the cost is going to go up. Are all of those swanky amenities worth the extra cost?

It depends...
Sure...the Flowrider is worth a few extra bucks.

I walked off the Oasis of the Seas feeling as though it was worth every penny. But I've also felt that about every cruise I've ever taken. Value is certainly in the eye of the beholder, but I think more than anything it depends on the type of cruise. Heading to Europe, Alaska, or on a "booze cruise?" Then you can probably save the money and go without the ice skating rink. On the other hand, a week in the Western Caribbean is almost always better served by the biggest most tricked out cruise ship on the water.

A Vacation From Your Vacation

So we've established that on the monster ships the fun and price go up while the service tends to takes a dive. What else goes down proportionally as the size of the ship increases?

Relaxation.

There's so much to see and do aboard a ship like the Oasis that I almost felt guilty every time I just kicked back on the balcony with a beverage and book. I mean, we even had a spreadsheet - yes, a spreadsheet - of all the activities and reservations that we wanted to do each day. And then when the cruise was all over, we felt as though we'd barely scratched the surface - so much so that we booked another trip on the last day.
Hours and hours of....nothing.

It wasn't until I spent nearly a week in the same chair in the Rhapsody's Viking Crown Lounge, reading two books and just watching the world go by, that I realized just how much I had missed that part of cruising.

So is bigger better? Well, like all of the points in this debate, it simply depends. Choosing the right cruise ship is like trying to rank the best golf courses in the world - it's purely subjective to the individual. Either way, whether you're aboard one of the Majesty's final sailings or the maiden voyage of the Quantum of the Seas this November, you have to try really hard to have a lousy time on a cruise.

Probably why all of those mega-ships are booked solid week in and week out.

Enjoy Your Stay

A Short Visit to Victoria, British Columbia

If the United States ever wanted to wage economic war on our neighbors to the north, a significant blow could be delivered with the repeal of one little worthless law. Thanks to an obscure piece of legislation, cruises which depart from the U.S. must visit at least one "foreign" port of call during their voyage. Obviously, the cruise lines are a fan of this because it keeps smaller companies from popping up offering weekend cruises from Boston to Baltimore or San Diego to San Francisco. The net effect for those cruising to Alaska from Seattle is that you're guaranteed to make a token stop in Victoria, British Columbia.

Like our visit to Juneau earlier in the cruise, MJ and I decided to wing the day in Victoria without booking any specific activities. The majority of shore excursions offered by Royal Caribbean either involved whale watching or a visit to Victoria's most popular attraction - Butchart Gardens. I wasn't too keen on the idea of dropping $100+ to see a few more whales or some pretty flowers, so we set foot into Canada for the first time without any plan.

The port in Victoria is a bit of a hike from downtown. It was a stunning day weather wise, so we bypassed all of the waiting taxis in favor of the well marked path which pointed the way. The signs led us to town by way of Victoria's Fisherman's Wharf, a charming village of houseboats that MJ decided was the place we should retire. I had to hand it to her, it sounded like a pretty great idea.

Soon we were welcomed to downtown by the impressive capitol building for British Columbia and a number of the town's official greeters, all of whom were dressed in Victorian-era attire. We paused to snap the obligatory photo, and it was clear that Victoria was beginning to work her charms on me.

Just across the way was the historic Empress Hotel - the only place I told MJ that we had to see while in Victoria. The grand dame is famous for its afternoon tea, which we opted to skip given we were sorely underdressed. Although, given how many cruise ship passengers were roaming the streets, I'm sure we were far from the only ones. The Empress was certainly impressive, but not exactly the kind of place I'd ever want to stay - far too overcrowded with tourists like yours truly roaming about.

By this time I was getting a little cranky, which usually means its time for lunch. We popped into a restaurant along the waterfront, where we enjoyed a little lunch alfresco as well as arguably the best fish & chips of my life.

As we finished our lunch MJ and I both kind of felt that we had "seen it" when it came to Victoria. This presented us with a choice: head back to the ship the way we came, or stop in to the visitor's bureau next door and ask for some suggestions. We opted for the latter which proved to be a wise decision.

It was suggested that we head back to ship by way of Beacon Hill Park, and it was here that the charms of Victoria turned into jealousy. The park was downright beautiful, and made me envious of all the locals that were either passing through or camped out on a bench with a good book. Victoria clearly puts a lot of resources into the upkeep of the city's public areas, something I wished they could rub off on more towns back home.

The other nice thing about Beacon Hill Park: Unlike all the tourists heading to Butchart, we got to enjoy beautiful gardens for absolutely free.

After meandering through the park for a while we decided to continue the trek back to the ship, but progress was soon halted when we came across the Beacon Hill Drive-In. You know when you think "I bet that place is really good" at the sight of a dive-looking restaurant in a new city? Well, that was the Beacon Hill Drive-In. Despite still being full from lunch, there was simply no way I was walking by this place without ordering at least something. That "something" turned out to be one heck of a chocolate shake.

The last leg of our journey took us along a stunning stretch of Victoria's waterfront. The scene was very reminiscent of Monterey, complete with the stray sea lion sunbathing on the rocks off shore. What made it even better, however, was we had this coastal path all to ourselves, with the exception of the stray jogger or two. I doubt very seriously that there was a better way to cap our time in Victoria, not to mention the last stop of our Alaskan cruise.

As I've done many times before, it turns out I may have misjudged Victoria. I treated the stop as an afterthought, one that wasn't deserving of any real planning or excitement. In the end, however, Victoria proved me wrong. I left the city completely smitten by its charms, and yes even considering MJ's half-joking suggestion of retiring to the Fisherman's Wharf. It didn't take long, but I fell in love with Victoria - something I'm pretty sure wouldn't have happened on the bus to Butchart Gardens.

Enjoy Your Stay

Skagway, the White Pass Railroad, and The Hike to Laughton Glacier

I didn't expect much from Skagway - and really, who could blame me? This town of 1000 residents which barely measures five city blocks square is pretty much the polar opposite of any destination I'd ordinarily choose to visit. There is no Starbucks nor any award-winning hotels or restaurants, just your run of the mill souvenir shops and a few eateries with a surprisingly good selection of local craft beer. And yet, Skagway is a prominent feature of nearly every Alaskan cruise itinerary, and to my astonishment it somehow managed to yield one of the greatest days of my entire life.

Laughton Glacier Skagway
The recipe for a remarkable day...

Skagway was founded as the first city in the Alaskan territory thanks to the boom of the Klondike gold rush. The town served as a stop-off point for prospectors who dared the treacherous hike into the Yukon in search of their fortune. The White Pass & Yukon Route railway was built to make the journey easier for miners, but by the time it opened in 1900 the gold rush was nearly over. Today, the railroad remains as the most popular tourist attraction in Alaska, carrying nearly 400,000 passengers across the historic and scenic pass.

Royal Caribbean offered about 78 different shore excursions in Skagway that included a trip on the White Pass railroad, but only one of them managed to peak our interest. Described as a 14 mile ride on the railroad combined with a 6 mile round-trip hike to the Laughton Glacier, we were sold on this excursion almost immediately. This despite my aversion to the word "hike."

Our chariot. All the cars have unique names, each representing a lake in Alaska.

We met the team from Packer Expeditions at 7am and set off on our adventure with only 10 other passengers from the three cruise ships in port that day. After climbing aboard an empty rail car, we were given the first of roughly 28 safety briefings, and were outfitted with our provisions for the hike. Inside the oversized fanny packs were bottles of water, candy bars, and other protein-heavy snacks, and we each took turns making sandwiches - all of which would be consumed by the end of the day. Naturally, I wasn't too keen on wearing a fanny pack, so I went with the "European Carry-all" method.


Soon, one of the engines for the White Pass railway hooked up to our group of cars, and we began the journey up the mountain. The ride was equal parts stunning and scary. The train hugs the Skagway River, offering some incredible vistas, however, if there was ever a time to institute a "don't look down" policy, this was definitely it.

This was a little tame by comparison to most.

After about 45 minutes, the train came to a stop near mile-marker 13, and basically ditched our group in the middle of the wilderness. As the train pulled away and the countless tourists waved and snapped photos of the crazies that had chosen to get off in the middle of nowhere, I couldn't help but wonder what I'd gotten myself into.

"Look Mildred, those fools are getting off the train."

That trepidation only intensified as we were given a set of metal spike thingys to put on our shoes, while also being briefed on what to do in the somewhat likely event of encountering a bear (Step one: get into a circle. Step two: scream). But I didn't have long to dwell on that fear, because before I knew it the group set off down the trail. As I turned to see the White Pass train climbing the cliff in the distance, it was clear there was no turning back now.

Laughton Glacier Skagway

The fear of not surviving this hike due to a cardiac event or being mauled by a bear was soon set at ease. To my surprise, the trail was actually relatively easy, and despite my lousy physical fitness, I was able to keep up quite easily. In fact, I led the group for a big chunk of the way, which had two key benefits: a) I picked up lots of interesting tidbits from our guide and b) I was in close proximity to the dude with the bear spray.

Laughton Glacier Skagway

But really, the scenery through the first portion of the hike was spectacular. It was a mostly wooded area that ran alongside the Skagway River and the sound of the cascading water combined with the evergreen smell in the air made for a nice introduction to the Great Outdoors. We made a few stops along the way, during which I played outdoorsman by drinking water right out of a stream, but before long the woods gave way to a rocky clearing and one incredible panorama.

Laughton Glacier Skagway

After soaking in the view, our guides and fellow hikers started stripping off some of their layers and took out their lunch, so we found a nearby boulder to set up shop and did the same. The snowcapped mountain in the distance along with its cascading glacier made the rather boring ham sandwich taste a whole lot better. I felt at peace, refreshed, and ready to take on the hike back, assuming that this was our turn-around point.

Laughton Glacier Skagway
Not a bad place for lunch.
We weren't even halfway.

As we continued onward, our guides cautioned that the trail would be a little rocky from here on out. In my opinion, "rocky" was a poor choice of adjective in this situation - "lunar" would have been more appropriate. For a guy that has never hiked a day in his life and has a hard enough time just walking on level land (thank you, duck feet) this was quite a challenge. But as I looked around, it was clearly a challenge for everyone, including our guides. We just took our time, stepped lightly, and kept up the climb toward the glacier that lay ahead.

Laughton Glacier Skagway
Nothing like a giant crack in the ground you're climbing.
Eventually, the rocks gave way to ice and snow and the hike got a little easier thanks to the spike thingys on our shoes. But the relief was short lived - the fear of breaking an ankle on the rocks was replaced by that of falling through a giant cavernous hole in the glacier ice.

Laughton Glacier Skagway
No way I was getting any closer.

Still, we pressed on, climbing a ridge that was surrounded on both sides by ankle deep snow and ice. Our guides asked if we wanted to call one spot the turn-around point, but a show of hands - including my own - voted to continue onward. Soon we were left with no choice, however, as the field of snow which stretched before us served as a wall - our guides fearful of what dangers the snow might hide beneath.

Laughton Glacier Skagway
Onward!

We each found a boulder to call a chair, toasted with hot cocoa all around, and took in the breathtaking surroundings. Short of maybe the 7th tee at Pebble Beach, it was the most beautiful place I've ever been.

Almost as distinctive as the incredible sight were the creaks and cracks coming from the glacier. At one point a piece gave way opening up a waterfall that flowed for about two minutes. Our guides said it was the first time they had ever seen that in person. In that moment, it was impossible not to feel lucky - lucky to see nature at work up close, lucky to be on the ground and not in the helicopter that flew overhead, lucky to be alive.


When the hike began our guides warned that "every step in would mean a step coming back out" and it was now time to repay that debt. Although it went faster, the hike back down the slope was every bit as difficult. Especially once we reached the lunar terrain again, since the rocks tended to shift under foot as we stepped down with force. But alas, we all emerged into the wooded area without a single injury, which seemed like a minor victory for yours truly.

Enjoying some hot chocolate. The guy behind me had the right idea.

After nearly 7 hours, covering over 6 miles and climbing almost 2000 feet in elevation, we found ourselves back at the spot where the White Pass train had left us. Soon, the train horn could be heard echoing amongst the cliffs as our ride back to Skagway crept closer, marking the end of a memorable adventure that may never be equaled.

Enjoy Your Stay