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.

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

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