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.

Adventures with Uncle Deej - Old Sport Turns Three

"The most wholesome 'guys weekend' in the history of the world."

For most, the phrase "guys weekend" conjures images of a trashed hotel suite in Las Vegas or a naked Ken Jeong wielding a tire iron. On the opposite end of the spectrum... One and 3/4 adults taking a 3 year old to Disney World. It's safe to say the days of my brother and I climbing to the top of Caesar's Palace with a bottle of Jaegermeister are long gone, not to mention that nobody is going to mistake either of us for Brad Cooper. And yet this recent trip to the Happiest Place on Earth turned out to be the most fun, eye-opening, and memorable "guys weekend" that I've ever experienced.

We made an early start of it and arrived at "The Big Hotel - also known as the Walt Disney World Dolphin - before McDonald's had stopped serving breakfast. It didn't take long for me to realize this would be very different than my usual - read: childless - trips to Disney.

It was right about now that I questioned my ability to adapt to these unfamiliar circumstances. The words "Uncle Deej, I have to potty" are enough to send me into a mild panic. Pushing a stroller through the Magic Kingdom was simply inconceivable. But addressing that fear would have to wait... The Dolphin's pool was first on our itinerary.

After a hearty lunch of french fries, mac & cheese, and a chocolate chip cookie, we piled back into the car for a trip to my favorite hotel in the world... "The Temporary." Our plan was to rent two of the water sprite boats for a ride on Seven Seas Lagoon, but after Old Sport laid eyes on the monorail we had to call an audible. A short ride aboard Monorail Red later, we arrived at the Grand Floridian and headed for their marina.

Admittedly, I didn't fully think through the water sprite idea. In my excitement to introduce Old Sport to one of my favorite activities at Disney, I failed to take into account one crucial detail... It was 112 degrees outside. He was about as excited to be on that boat as sitting for a formal family portrait, so we cut the ride a little short and decided to enjoy another one of my beloved past times....

The hotel lobby.

I tried to convince him that sitting in a comfy chair in a hotel lobby was a blast, but he wasn't buying it.

Fully recovered from our water sprite misadventure, we climbed back aboard Monorail Red for the short trip to the Magic Kingdom. As luck would have it, we walked through the turnstiles and onto Main Street USA just in time for the 3:00 parade. Old Sport was beside himself with excitement to see his favorite characters up close...

Little did he know that we'd be visiting the man himself just a few minutes later. That is, after his dad and I found a little liquid courage at Starbucks.

The Mickster said he was glad to see him - I still find the talking Mickey to be a little freaky - and he was nice enough to give Old Sport his first Disney character autograph. And with that, regardless of what else happened on this day, our trip was officially a success.

And yet it was far from over...

We hung out with Pooh and Tigger in the Hundred Acre Wood...

And took a ride on my personal favorite, the PeopleMover.

He drove his first car at the Tomorrowland Speedway...

Practiced his handstand in Fantasyland...

And searched, unsuccessfully, for Chip & Dale in Liberty Square.

This trip to the Magic Kingdom taught me a very important lesson when it comes to travel with little kids.... You just never know when the best memories are going to be made. For example...

We booked Mickey's Philharmagic as a filler attraction between seeing the Mickster and the race cars. It turned out to be the highlight of my weekend. From Old Sport yelling "HEY!" at the top of his lungs when Simba came on the screen, to his proclamation at the end of "Uncle Deej...I saw Aladdin" in a tone which really said "Trust me dude, this is a big deal." I'm not sure if future visits to Philharmagic will ever be as great, but I do know I'll drag him to it until he's 37 in hopes of repeating this special time.

After a whirlwind 12-hour, no-nap day, we made our way back to the car. Or at least we tried to... Old Sport wasn't too keen on the idea of leaving.

So I did what any self-respecting uncle would do... I bribed him with french fries.

And then the next morning we were back at it once again, beginning with my most sacred of morning routines at Disney... The stroll over to the Swan for coffee. Note: They have the best cold brew iced coffee this side of the Mason Dixon.

Inside the Swan, we surprised Old Sport with the two words every kid loves to hear, whether 3 or 34.... Character Breakfast.

While I detest the phrase "hidden gem" the Garden Grove at the Swan is the very definition of one. Not only do they have great characters - Chip & Dale, Pluto, and Goofy - but they are first come first serve only. We walked up at 8:45am and were taken straight to a table. Try doing that at Chef Mickey's. 

Luckily, Old Sport's meal was free because, and I quote... "I don't want to eat. I just want to see my friends."

I couldn't really blame him. 

We had finally reached the dreaded part of the trip when that awful reality sets in... It was time to go home. The greatness of this "guys weekend" had been exceeded only by the number of memories my brother and I would take from it. Neither of us wanted to break the sad news to Old Sport, so we squeezed in one more stop before heading home...

"The best playground ever." 

Old Sport's third birthday brings with it a looming milestone for any family as obsessed with Disney as we are... With the turn of the calendar, his days of visiting Mickey's kingdom for "free" are officially over. But as for his adventures with Uncle Deej and Mickey... Well, we're only just getting started.

Happy Birthday, Old Sport

Exploring Atlanta's Oakland Cemetery

Call me weird, but I love a good cemetery. Some might say it's a rather morbid thing to enjoy - an opinion I find difficult to refute - yet there's something peaceful about strolling through the outdoors, admiring the headstones, and imagining the story behind each one. Or maybe I just find an unusual satisfaction in being reminded that I'm still on the right side of this deal known as life.

Over the years, MJ and I have paid a visit to numerous cemeteries during our travels, and each has proven to be one of the lasting memories of the trip and unique in their own way. Arlington is solemn, Bonaventure in Savannah is spooky and Pere Lachaise in Paris is grand. Then there's Key West, where personal ties give a different feeling altogether, thanks to the 7 generations of my family stacked in gleaming white boxes.

After years of making an annual trip to Atlanta, we finally put historic Oakland Cemetery on our itinerary. The main objective was to pay tribute to the great Bobby Jones, but what we found at Oakland was far more than a shrine for lovers of the Royal & Ancient game.

I have a standing rule on our trips to Atlanta: Once the car is parked at the hotel, it doesn't move until it's time to go home. We rely on MARTA for getting around the city because, quite frankly, the last thing Atlanta needs is another tourist on its congested roads. For those that share my disdain of Atlanta traffic, the entrance to Oakland Cemetery is located about a 5-10 minute walk from the King Memorial MARTA station. Is it a safe walk? Sure...but as one should always do when walking a metropolitan area, be aware and walk with a purpose.

A soft rain greeted us at the gates to Oakland Cemetery, which seemed like appropriate conditions for exploring a historic burial ground. I had read somewhere that anyone who was anyone in Atlanta is buried in Oakland Cemetery, and the panorama of beautiful memorials that greeted us made that abundantly clear. In total, 27 former mayors of the city, 6 former governors of Georgia, countless other political and civic luminaries, and one champion golfer are laid to rest in Oakland.

It was easy to see why so many chose Oakland Cemetery, which was established in 1850, as their final resting place. The cemetery largely occupies high ground that overlooks Atlanta's downtown area, although I'm sure the view was slightly different 165 years ago.

As we strolled down hill and toward the east, the ornate family plots soon gave way to simple white stones arranged in straight lines. It's the type of stone you might see at Arlington or on the shores of Normandy, except these markers weren't engraved with their branch of service and conflict served, but instead with the simple designation "C.S.A."

Although I've lived my entire life in the South and it comprises a great deal of my family heritage - specifically the Atlanta area - the only part of me that identifies as a Southerner is my stomach. The men who served the Confederacy and where they were laid to rest is one notion that, quite frankly, I had never once considered. And yet, standing face to face with thousands of headstones, with still 3000 more beneath an Unknown Soldier memorial, I was faced with a conflicting and uneasy reality...

The chances were quite high that some of my ancestors were amongst these stones, having perished not in the pursuit or protection of Liberty, but in defense of the indefensible.

Reconciling those feelings would have to wait for another day. As the rain continued to fall, we turned back up the hill in search of the one headstone that had brought us to Oakland in the first place. Walking parallel to Memorial Drive, a small sign that simply said "Bobby Jones" pointed us toward the brick wall that forms the cemetery's southern boundary. There were still countless stones in that general direction, but finding this one was no trouble at all...

I also brought a brand new Titleist ProV1, in hopes that the offering would bring me some future positive intervention from the Golf Gods on the course. It was surprising that in a cemetery filled with so many grand memorials, the man who gave us Augusta National was found beneath such an unassuming marker. Then again, Mr. Jones would likely have found anything more to be ostentatious and ungentlemanly.

After a quick word of thanks to Mr. Jones, we made our way to the exit and the next stop on our itinerary...lunch. On Memorial Drive, a 3/4 sand wedge from the grave of Bobby Jones one will find the appropriately named Six Feet Under. It's likely you'll work up quite an appetite walking the cemetery, and this is just the place to satisfy it. Fried green tomatoes, collard greens, hush puppies, and an array of seafood that made ordering nearly impossible. 

If you happen to find yourself in Atlanta and share my strange enjoyment of walking cemeteries, then a visit to Oakland is well worth the trip. It pairs nicely with the Martin Luther King Memorial, and makes for an enjoyable afternoon in the outdoors...something that's in short supply in Atlanta's concrete jungle. 

Enjoy Your Stay

Trader Sam's at Disney's Polynesian Resort

Over the last two years, Disney's Polynesian Village has undergone an extensive renovation which basically stripped away most of the unique theming that made the resort great. In the early days, when you walked into the Polynesian resort, it didn't just look, smell, and sound like a lush tropical felt that way too. Sadly, this key component to theming, and that which has always set Disney apart, seems to have been forgotten by the folks in Imagineering and the Polynesian is their latest victim. Yet in total contrast to this dumbing down of the Polynesian's design is Trader Sam's - the most brilliantly themed space to open at Walt Disney World in at least two decades.

Arriving to Trader Sam's, it's pretty hard to escape the feeling that this is no ordinary watering hole. The nondescript front door was so much so that we literally walked by it twice not realizing it was the main entrance. I mean, sure there's a little sign that says Trader Sam's, but it looks more like a side exit or something. Once the door was open, however, the chorus of Alohas made it clear we were in the right place...

We had heard about horrendous, multi-hour wait times to get in when Trader Sam's opened - the venue is quite small and only holds about 50 people - so we made sure to get there early. Checking-in with the host, we were told it would be about a 30 minute wait. A true testament to the popularity of Trader Sam's, given it was 5pm on a Thursday.

After stalking the front door as folks were leaving, our buzzer signaled it was time for our adventure to begin...

It's important to know going in to Trader Sam's that it's different... very different. For starters, your buzzer going off doesn't mean there's a table or assigned chairs waiting for you. You may walk in to find an open table or two seats together at the bar... Or you may come in and find the only two open chairs are at a four-top table, where another couple is already sitting. Just go with the flow and ask to join them...chances are they had to do the same earlier.

Once settled, get prepared to be slapped in the face by your surroundings. The mish-mash of kitcsh on the walls might first seem like Ruby Tuesday's gone terribly wrong, but that's when it's important to know the story of Trader Sam himself...

In a nutshell, Trader Sam from the Jungle Cruise opened a bar...

Throughout his travels in search of the finest, most exotic ingredients for his beverages, he collected a few trinkets along the way, which ties together the seemingly random decor.

After soaking in the surroundings for a few minutes, we ordered an "Uh-Oh-Ah" and a round of the Chicken & Pork Sliders. When the Uh-Oh-Ah arrived, the lights in Trader Sam's dimmed and then turned a frightening shade of blue. The Tiki God on the ceiling was angry, and shot her piercing stare our direction. Thankfully, no one crossed paths with her paralyzing gaze. We chanted "Uh-Oh-Ah..Uh-Oh-Ah" and tossed our tributes into our flaming drink, which seemed to ease her fury...for now.
The Uh-Oh-Ah.
MJ was eventually caught in her gaze.

A few more drinks came out for other tables... The "Volcano" brought an eruption from not just one, but two flaming peaks on each side of Trader Sam's, prompting the cast to ask a very good question... "Who builds a bar between two volcanoes?"
The erupting volcano outside our "window."

Meanwhile, there was a volcano bubbling over in my mouth. The sliders were quite tasty, but one in the middle had a tiny little red pepper that I didn't see when I chomped into it. I spent the next 15 minutes in agony...This was the single hottest thing I had ever eaten, and I thought passing out was a real possibility. Think I'm exaggerating? I probably am...but try it and see for yourself...
My friends at the Disney Food Blog capture the little red devil.

But like any great theme, the feeling that one gets while visiting Trader Sam's comes first and foremost from the cast members. They buy in 100% to their "show" and it sets Trader Sam's apart from every other bar at Disney. 
The East Coast Branch of the Family Tree.
The West Coast branch resides at the Disneyland Hotel

Then again, to call it a bar isn't really a fair description... A visit to Trader Sam's really is an adventure. It's a journey to tropical paradise, built by a man of some questionable sanity, where they serve anything but your run of the mill pina colada. Most importantly, however...Trader Sam's embodies something that used to be Disney's trademark, yet today is a rare commodity...

Theming at its finest.

Enjoy Your Stay

Hike to Mount Liamuiga - No Ordinary Shore Excursion

"An incredibly grueling hike up Mount Liamuiga - an ancient volcano formerly known as Mount Misery - that will at times make you question both your sanity and ability to survive, while rewarding those who muster the will to continue on with an unmatched sense of satisfaction. $99."

That's what the description for our shore excursion on St. Kitts should have read. Instead, the relatively tame synopsis on Royal Caribbean's website sold a day filled with picturesque views and lush tropical surroundings. 
Mount Liamuiga Hike
She looks rather kind from afar...

Well, I suppose that was technically true...

Thankfully, we did a bit of outside research before booking the Mount Liamuiga shore excursion, rather than attempting to read between the lines of Royal Caribbean's selling points. It was clear this wasn't your run of the mill "beach break" or "best of" tours that are rampant throughout the Caribbean, and that I avoid like Justin Beiber on Pandora. But even with our research, MJ and I couldn't have imagined just what we were getting into.

The adventure started with what Royal Caribbean described as a ride in "off road vehicles to the base of the volcano." Or put another way... a 30 minute drag race in what can only be described as a "tin can of death" to the other side of the island. We hurtled through the narrow, winding streets of St. Kitts at speeds of 40-50 mph, with our driver dodging cars, pedestrians, and the occasional livestock, while the rest of us held on for dear life. I was convinced at multiple times throughout the journey that my time on this planet was going to come to an end on St. Kitts. 

It was far from the last time that thought would cross my mind.

Paint this brown and you get the idea...

The insanely reckless driving ended on a dirt road that offered the first of those "inspiring panoramas" we were promised in the excursion info. The view of tiny Sint Eustatius in the distance as we tumbled through farmland and brush taller than the vehicle was certainly a calming sight after our harrowing adventure across the island. 
Mount Liamuiga Hike
The smile masks the terror within.

At last, we'd arrived at the equivalent of base camp for Mount Liamuiga. There we were given a bottle of water, a walking stick, and a safety briefing that basically amounted to "don't get hurt, mahn."
The view out the back of the tin can of death.

We set off into the forest at a brisk pace, over terrain that was a little milder than I had read on previous reviews. I started to relax a little as the fears which those reviews had stirred were dismissed as over-exaggerations. Surely we'd be just fine if it continued like this...

The guides pressed further and further up the trail, describing the trek as "a walk in the park," while those of us behind grew desperate for a break with each passing minute. Finally, we reached the first of our six promised stopping points and caught our collective breath. 
A large mango tree. I was tempted to pull the vines and eat whatever fell.

Looking around at our group, there wasn't a single one of the 25 hikers that wasn't already gassed. A few used the opportunity to turn back. I attempted to boost everyone's spirits by pointing out that we were now 1/3 of the way up...just 2/3 left to go. Only my attempt at positive reinforcement completely backfired...

"No mahn, it's 6 stops heading up and no stops coming back down. Not 3 and 3."
Our guide going on about the monkey population of the rainforest.

My heart sank and I held back a full blown panic. If I was already this exhausted, how on earth was I supposed to get through five more segments? I could wrap my head around two, but five more just to reach the top and then having to come back down - with no breaks - was more than both my mind and body could process. 

And yet, we pressed on...

From this point forward, the terrain grew more treacherous. I began to understand why our guide referred to the opening as "a walk in the park" - by comparison to this, it really was...
Mount Liamuiga Hike

The climb was so steep in places, I was presented with another problem. Our tickets for the excursion instructed us to wear long pants. The only ones I had packed for the cruise was a pair of jeans. Attempting to step up 3 and 4 feet at a time is no easy task in denim, which lead me to strongly consider asking for the guide's pocketknife so I could cut them into shorts. 

By the time our 5th stop arrived, I had crossed over into a state of delirium. While I did my best to stay hydrated, my body desperately craved some sort of nourishment. When our guides pulled out a jug of fresh fruit juice, I made my way to the front of the line like Costanza in a fire at a child's birthday party. 

At long last, we reached the top and soaked in the view of the ancient volcano. The peak was much smaller than I'd imagined - roughly 3x3 square - which meant our group had to take turns enjoying the view. Still, the panorama was worth every bit of the effort to get there, though that feeling of satisfaction was short lived. After just 5 minutes at the top and roughly 90 seconds eying the view, it was time to begin the trek back down.

Just then, the rainforest lived up to its name...

At some point along the way up, I commented to MJ that surely there must be another trail that would lead us back down the mountain. There was simply no way that a path this formidable could be safely traveled going down, especially now that it was raining.

To my disbelief, we started right back down the same way we came. 

All of those steep steps up and uneasy climbs over roots and boulders were now appearing in reverse, and so too were the muscles being used in the process. My legs turned to rubber, and I was soon transformed into a walking zombie. At more than one point, I wanted to cry. A few in our group just let those tears flow..

The hike down was supposed to take half as long and be half as difficult. Great in theory, not so much in reality. The fact is the hike down is every bit as hard, if not harder, as the hike up. And while it may have taken a little less in the time department, by the time the final 1/3 of the hike rolls around the minutes start to feel like hours. 

Finally, the "base camp" came into view and just a few short steps separated us from what felt like the promised land. A tomato and lettuce sandwich never tasted so good...
Peace Out, Mount Liamuiga. See you... Never.

This was without a doubt the most physically demanding thing I've ever done, and may ever do again. The urge to throw in the towel during the hike was overwhelming, but the sense of satisfaction that set in once it was over more than offset the pain. Well, at least the mental pain...I'm still not sure I've recovered from the physical kind. 

If you choose to take on the Mount Liamuiga hike, heed these warnings...

  • Take a small pack with water, juice/gatorade, Snickers or other high protein snacks. Aside from the one tiny cup of juice and a piece of fruit bread, there is nothing provided until the hike is over. We took 4 bottles of water, and it wasn't enough. 
  • Know your limits and remember that ever step in is a step you'll have to take back out.
  • Wear lightweight pants. These come in handy on the hike down, where you're all but guaranteed to suffer some sort of scrape, etc. 
  • Take a walking stick. A few in our group didn't take the guide's advice in this department and regretted it. 
  • Block the thought of "what happens if I get hurt" out of your mind. The hike is hard enough without the paralyzing element of fear. Save this for when it's all over, when the question will likely turn to "What on earth was I thinking?"
Enjoy Your Stay

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