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 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

Exploring Juneau - Alaska's State Capital

And the rain rain rain came down down down...

As the Rhapsody of the Seas pulled into Juneau - the first port of call on our Alaskan cruise - the decks were virtually empty. A steady rain had welcomed us to Alaska's capital, and it was clear that for many of our fellow passengers, the best laid plains had gone soggy. But not for us - if anything, the rain made our day in Juneau all the more memorable.

Mendenhall Glacier Hike

When you book an Alaskan cruise, there are two things you can pretty much take to the bank: one of the stops will be Juneau and while you're there it will rain. The city gets 250+ days of rain per year, so the odds of staying dry are definitely not in your favor. The key, as we would quickly learn, is to simply be prepared.


Like all cruise lines, Royal Caribbean offered a host of interesting shore excursions in Juneau. From whale watching to salmon bakes to helicopter tours of the glacier, there was definitely something for everyone...except us. I just didn't see much point in spending a chunk of change to see whales or eat salmon when I had already done both in abundance the last two days - especially the "eat salmon" part. So we decided to set off on our own.


MJ and I were among the first off the ship when it docked at noon, and we were quickly accosted by a host of booths offering a number of sightseeing tours. Though they appeared to be separate, these guys were all either shamelessly guilty of collusion or - the more likely explanation - they were actually all the same company because they all offered the exact same tours for, wouldn't you know it, the exact same price. We opted for the shuttle up to nearby Mendenhall Glacier, which at $20 per-person round-trip was a fraction of what Royal Caribbean wanted for basically the same thing.

Nuget Falls Trail

We set off on the 20 minute ride with a  driver who if given three guesses on where he was from I'd have nailed Juneau for sure. Along the way we spotted a number of bald eagles, before being dumped back into the rain at the entrance to Mendenhall. In true MacGyver fashion, MJ whipped out a pair of ponchos - read: garbage bags - from her pack and we began the two mile hike to the glacier.


One benefit of the rain: we had the Nugget Falls trail entirely to ourselves. The usually crowded path was deserted as most visitors opted to see the glacier from the dry confines of the visitors center and viewing deck. It was serene, and a perfect introduction to the great outdoors for a guy that only experiences it on fairways and greens. But having the trail to ourselves did have one downside: the numerous bear warning signs along the way.


Soon we arrived at the sandy cove that fronts the Mendenhall Glacier. As beautiful as the prehistoric piece of ice is, the real highlight was the enormous waterfall just to its right. The cascading water is fueled by snowmelt and towards the end of summer is nothing more than a gentle stream. Since this was early June, the fall was still raging and  we took turns feeling it's power up close, getting soaked in the process. Not that it mattered, we were already drenched, plus how often can you walk up to a waterfall in Alaska?

Mendenhall Glacier Nugget Falls Trail

In the end, the hike to Mendenhall Glacier proved to be one of the highlights of our entire trip - to skip it because of a little rain would have been a huge mistake. Translation: pack a poncho and slog through it.


Once back in town, we had just enough time before "all aboard" to visit two of Juneau's most popular destinations: the Red Dog Saloon and Tracy's Crab Shack. As the name suggests, Red Dog is an old time saloon turned tourist trap that dates to Alaska's mining era. My guess is it lost its standing as a real saloon right about the time it opened a gift shop and posted a host at the front door to seat patrons. It's campy, no other way to put it. But nonetheless, it is worth a visit to warm up with a pint or Irish coffee.

Red Dog Saloon

Tracy's Crab Shack, on the other hand, is a can't miss. Well, allow me to rephrase: if you like both crab and life changing experiences, then this is the place for you. Tracy's started as basically a "hot dog cart selling crab one leg at a time" and has evolved into a full on outdoor restaurant adjacent to the port,  specializing in all things crab caught by local fisherman.

Tracy's Crab Shack

MJ and I split the "Crab Shack Combo" and "Captain's Reserve." The former was one leg, a cup of crab bisque, and an order of mini-crab cakes, while the Reserve was two giant legs, one of which had the claw. Needless to say, I left in a king crab coma and the experience was worth every penny.

Tracy's Crab Shack Tracy's Crab Shack

If we had to do our visit to Juneau over again, I'm not sure there's anything that I'd change. Although some of the cruise excursions sounded amazing, striking out on our own allowed us to stay on our own schedule, and clear of the crabby rain-soaked tourists whose presence might have rained on our parade...puns intended. Unless you simply have your heart set on something unique like a helicopter or seaplane tour, skip the excursion and reinvest the savings into a visit to Tracy's Crab Shack.

I'm pretty sure you'll be glad you did .

Enjoy Your Stay

The Beatles Suite at The Edgewater Hotel Seattle

It's 1964. You're a struggling hotel on Seattle's waterfront and The Beatles - having been turned away by every other hotel in town - are in need of a place to stay. What do you do? Well, if you're The Edgewater Hotel, you make a call to Brian Epstein, take out some extra insurance, and cement a place in history for decades to come. 

Edgewater Hotel Seattle

The stories surrounding The Beatles' visit to Seattle and The Edgewater are a perfect microcosm of the insanity that was Beatlemania. The hotel was forced to build a barbed wire fence to hold back the throngs of teenage girls waiting outside. Some tried sneaking in with the hotel's daily laundry, others booked a room the night before the band arrived and then hid under the bed instead of checking out. The hotel even hired a few members of a local high school football team to serve as security - how effective they were against the charms of their attractive classmates is probably debatable.

Edgewater Hotel Beatles Suite

But perhaps the craziest stunt of all came when the lads decided to try their hand at fishing from the window of their suite. The scene produced one of the most famous photographs of the era and a cover of Life Magazine, however, it also inspired several girls to attempt a swim across Elliott Bay to the hotel - a distance of well over a mile.

Today, room #272 is known as The Beatles Suite, and given that I am both a hotels and Beatles junkie, you can probably imagine my reaction when I learned it was available for our stay at The Edgewater.

Looks about right.

To say it was quite a rush when the door lock to the Beatles Suite went "click" is no doubt an understatement. Once inside, my eyes were immediately drawn to two things: the incredible view of Elliott Bay and the print hanging on a pillar of the most famous band ever assembled leaning out the very same window.

Edgewater Hotel Beatles Suite

Goosebumps.

After the euphoria wore off, I was able to size up The Beatles Suite's primary function as our hotel room for the night. For starters, the room is huge - certainly an abundance space for the two of us, although I couldn't help but wonder how there was enough room for the four lads to sleep. MJ was quick to point out that it was unlikely they did any sleeping...

Edgewater Hotel Beatles Suite

Aside from the sheer size of the room, I was also quite impressed by its decor. The working fireplace (there's one in every room at The Edgewater) was a nice touch, MJ was a fan of the claw-foot tub, and we even enjoyed a meal at the dining room table - something that never happens in our own home. And somewhat to my surprise, the use of memorabilia was far from over the top - I half expected it to look like The Beatles had thrown up all over the room.

Edgewater Hotel Beatles Suite

Then again, some of them may very well have.

Which is exactly the kind of thought that's impossible to escape while in The Beatles Suite. As you look around, it's easy to imagine what it was like. Paul in the corner chatting up some brunette. John on the couch reading a book, completely ignoring the blonde that won't shut up next to him.  George attempting to write a song on the floor with his guitar, while two sisters explain they took the Greyhound bus all night from Sacramento. And Ringo, still trying to catch a fish out the window because no one realized he was there.

Edgewater Hotel Beatles Suite

Then again, the reality is that The Beatles Suite probably bears little resemblance to what it did back then. After the group departed, the room was stripped clean - the furnishings all secretly moved to other rooms to prevent people from stealing them. The carpet was even torn out and sent to a local department store where it was sold off in small squares. So although you can't technically say "John Lennon sat on this couch" there is something magnetic about knowing that they were there. Besides, who wants to sit on a 50 year old couch.

Best view in the house.

The exposure from The Beatles' brief stay at The Edgewater did more than earn it a few mentions in teen-beat magazines - it made it the place to stay in Seattle for celebrities, politicians, and fanatical fans of the Fab Four alike. From the Rolling Stones and Nirvana to President Clinton and Led Zepplin - who were banned from the hotel in a story that's anything but safe for work - The Edgewater has played host to more than its fair share of luminaries.

And while I am probably the least famous person to ever check-in to room #272, this was one hotel stay that I will truly never forget.

Enjoy Your Stay

A Whirlwind Pre-Cruise Tour of Seattle

Starbucks, Boeing, Nirvana, the Space Needle, and that place where they throw the fish - until earlier this month, that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge on the city of Seattle. After a short trip to the Emerald City, that's still just about all I know.

Like many this time of year, our visit to Seattle was a stop-off before boarding a cruise ship bound for Alaska. It was the secondary destination, and thus merely a bonus feature on our itinerary in the Pacific Northwest. But although our time in Seattle was short, thanks to MJ's ever efficient planning we managed to squeeze in most of the highlights - all in a single day.

First things first...

Aside from my caffeine-driven affection for Starbucks, two other things that I hold dear come together in a unique way in Seattle: hotels and The Beatles. During the height of Beatlemania, the lads stayed at The Edgewater Hotel, and snapped a now famous photograph fishing out of the window in their suite. Some 50 years later, it was our turn to do the same, but more on that later...

As I've shared here many times before, the morning stroll for ice coffee is my favorite tradition when traveling. In Seattle, my leisurely saunter came at a price: the climb to Pike Market. You see, The Edgewater is located, well, on the edge of the water, with the rest of Seattle rising roughly 100 feet a mere two blocks inland. Translation: getting just about anywhere means a never-ending climb up the hill or staircase. I can assure you I'm not accustomed to such strenuous activity before I've had my first sip of coffee, but the payoff was worth the extra effort.

Ice coffee from the original Starbucks and insanely awesome mini-donuts...
What life is all about.

Two pieces of advice for anyone planning to visit the original Starbucks and/or Pike Place Market: get there early. When I say early, I mean like 6am early. Yeah, it sounds crazy, but trust me on this one. For starters, the sun comes up during the summer at like 2:30am so you'll probably be up anyway. But, more importantly, if you go any later in the day the line at Starbucks will be out the door and the market will be overrun with tourists. Go early and you'll have both places to yourself.

Sadly, they didn't offer free samples.

After the far more leisurely stroll back to The Edgewater with coffee and donuts in hand, we took the hotel's complimentary car service up to Seattle Center - i.e. the Space Needle. We were only going to snap a picture with the famous flying saucer, but with a little time on our hands we decided to take the ride to the top. The view was spectacular, and was worth the $18 "just to say we did." This is another one of those things that's probably best done on a weekday morning - the queue infrastructure in place was rather lengthy. 

The view from the Space Needle.

Seattle Center is also home to the EMP and Chihuly Museums. We opted for the EMP due to its emphasis on music, plus once you've been to one Chihuly museum, you've sort of been to them all. The EMP was a good time killer, and for a 90's kid the Nirvana exhibit was worth the cost of admission. Speaking of which, buy your tickets online - there's a $5 discount vs at the door. 

Original mockup for the Nevermind cover.

By now the donuts and coffee had worn off and it was time for lunch. MJ dug up a place called Local 360, the concept of which was written right on the sign: all of the food is sourced within 360 miles. For future reference, the grilled egg & cheddar sandwich pairs remarkably well with their version of the old fashioned known as Old Mischievous Ways. Yes, an old fashioned at lunch...don't judge.

Seriously good lunch.

From here we had a choice: go back to the hotel for a nap, or sprint to the docks to try and catch the ferry to Bainbridge Island. As much as the old man inside of me wanted a nap, we opted for the latter and I'm sure glad we did.

Panorama from the ferry.

The sun came out just as we boarded the ferry for the half hour ride to Bainbridge. The view of the skyline was magnificent to say the least, and we enjoyed walking the shops and caf├ęs once on the island. And yes, we even did a little wine tasting. The trip to Bainbridge ate up most of our afternoon, but it proved to be the highlight of our time in Seattle.

$10 wine tasting...Sign us up!

Of course, no visit to any great city would be complete without at least one blowout dinner. For that, we decided to hit Black Bottle, a tapas place just a few blocks from The Edgewater. The atmosphere was great, the cocktails were inspiring, and the food - well, let's just say that the fried chicken was the finest I've ever had in a lifetime of living in the South. But please, don't call me a Southerner. 

The collards were a miss, but the chicken changed my life.

A few years ago, a friend of mine visited the Seattle area and basically never came home. After our short visit to the city, I can completely see how that would happen - Seattle strikes me as a great place to visit, but an even better place to live. There's no doubt our whirlwind tour barely scratched the surface of what Seattle has to offer, but for anyone visiting either before or after a cruise, this secondary destination will not disappoint. 

Enjoy Your Stay