Sunday, 28 June 2015

CHIC Punta Cana Trip

This post is a few months late (and back dated) because just thinking about my trip experience has a tendency to make me sick. Toward the start of summer, Brian and I decided to go away for a few days. We considered going to the US for an extended weekend and considered some places like the Pocono Mountains, Niagara Falls, Michigan etc. However when I looked in prices these places were the same price level as an week-long all inclusive vacation. Likely due to summer vacation and the fact that many people prefer island destination travel to take place in the winter and not the summer. It seemed silly to only go for a few days and have nothing included when we could go for a week and be in a tropical paradise with all our meals, drinks, included.
 
So I booked with the "Sunwing Surprise Escapes" which ensured a stay at one of four "five star" resorts. That promotion should have been called "Chic Escape" as pretty much anyone I talked to online or on the plane was heading to Chic. Which makes sense since Sunwing has ownership in it, so I wasn't too surprised that of the four choices it turned out to be the cheaper "budget luxury" brand. When we arrived it looked amazing - beautiful lobby, gorgeous decor. There were cold towels being handed out as well as some pesto-bismol looking cocktail rimmed with colored candy. You could see the palm trees and glimpses of the ocean in the distance. So it seemed like the trip was going to be as amazing as we planned. 



Check in went okay. They tried to up-sell us to diamond which would have been over $1000.00 more for the added benefit of a private lounge, private beach area, butler service, better liquor, a nicer bracelet and a better room. Maybe for a few hundred more I could see the value but not for that much more. Plus all the diamond rooms are right by the pool and either facing the pool or an active construction site which I had read was very loud. I wanted a quiet room so we stuck with what we booked and were at one of the buildings behind the reception. These buildings seem like an after thought and are clearly separate from anything diamond related. It was like they wanted to ensure we knew that our second-class place on the resort. 


Our first room was in building 6 on the main floor. While the decor was nice and the room spacious the smell of mildew was overwhelming. We tried airing out the room and stayed there for about 25 minutes but the smell was awful and making us gag. Considering the resort is less then a year old I was shocked at how repugnant this room smelt. We went back to the lobby and were able to switch rooms - this time to building 7 on the third floor. This room looked the exact same in terms of decor and still had a slight moldy/mildew smell but was much less overpowering and easy to deal with. We found that keeping the AC on high and opening the balcony doors helped limit the smell. The AC would shut off the second the door opened so we made sure we were in the room when we did this so it didn't get too hot. If we left and didn't have the AC on the room became an oven by the time we got back - likely due to the June heat.

It was after 3:00 by this time and everything but the snack bar - Munchies - was closed for food so we went there. My husband ordered a burger which was slider size and when he bit into it, found a piece of bone inside. I had nachos which I ultimately passed on eating as they were covered with this awful fake cheese sauce, think much lower quality then movie theaters. 

The pool area was beautiful - lots of pool chairs, a few umbrellas, a large spacious pool area and shallow areas where lounge chairs could be placed right inside the water. There wasn't really anything shaded (the umbrellas didn't even provide much shade) so my husband knew he wouldn't be outside between 11:30-1:30 each day. One thing I was surprised to notice was the Diamond Club swim out rooms. If I had paid the extra 1000.00+ for this room I would have been very disappointed. The impression I had gotten and the way most swim out rooms are, is that you can leave your room and be directly in the pool. Usually it's done lazy river style which then takes you to the main pool area. That wasn't the case here. The swim out rooms were just rooms with a square shaped small mini pool area attached. There were two chairs in the water and a small area that you could sit, stand, semi-float in. There were all attached in a row but there were walls between each room so you were confined to your space. They backed onto the pool area but the wall was high so you couldn't get to the main pool from your swim out pool without going into the room and leaving from the front door. A few times the waiters were serving people in their room pools but for the most part they weren't in use during the day. I think it was something that people used more at night more and hung out at the main pool during the day. Honestly it seemed like a huge waste of money and something I am glad I didn't upgrade to.



That night we went to the Italian restaurant for diner which again was beautifully decorated with a decent menu. The food was okay - probably the best food of the trip when you look at the overall picture but that isn’t saying much. I had pizza which was decent and Brian had lamb. By this point we were both thinking the resort had some pros and cons, but it was going to be a great vacation.

The next day we went over to meet with the excursion people which was a disappointment. The options were more limited then I had expected and the prices insane. We decided to go into a shopping area later in the week but not bother with any of the tours and just save the money. Breakfast was laughable – I have never encountered such a horrible buffet. The food looked like it had been sitting for days and the overall facility just looked dirty and didn’t make me want to eat anything from them (I opted for a box of dry fruit loops). Same for lunch – everything just looked old, and about to go bad. The pool area was amazing – very beautiful, truth be told any positive experiences I had at this resort were at the pool. But again due to the lack of shade, I was here alone. Brian would have burnt to a crisp if he tried to sit outside with me. Still I spent most of the time here – reading, swimming and trying to make the best of it all. 


One of the absolute worst aspects was the “concierge” of our building. You are led to think he’s there to make sure your stay goes as planned, but really it’s a timeshare ploy. We went to the “information session about the resort” after asking 5 times if this was about timeshare and being assured it wasn’t. Yet when we get there we learn it is indeed about Timeshare. Then when we walk out – as we have Timeshare elsewhere – the concierge treats us horribly for the rest of the day/trip. Not very comforting as he is able to get in and out of our room and knows when we have left to go to dinner etc.

We ate at the Steakhouse one night which was just okay. The best part was when I ordered a non-alcoholic drink, and the waiter gave me something with Blue Curacao and told me that wasn’t alcoholic… Yup, the staff were that knowledgeable! The Sushi place was probably the best restaurant in terms of taste and quality, but the Moroccan I don’t even want to think about. After eating there I got so incredibly sick – sicker then I have ever been in my life. Maybe it was the food there (you never know for sure) or maybe it was the bottled water (which never seemed sealed and to which I saw a maid refill from the tap which they tell you not to use). Regardless as careful as I was (only eating fruit you can peel, staying away from produce, cheese and anything else that can go bad, and not drinking anything but water I could tell was sealed) I was violently ill. 

A few days before leaving I had found out I was pregnant (which had nothing to do with how sick I got, a doctors visit home and testing proved I ate something at the resort which caused it). But anyways, because I was newly pregnant I didn’t want to risk staying there and being that sick. I had heard horror stories about medical care in Dominican, so at an added cost to us (since Sunwing wouldn’t let us swap flights and wanted another $1000.00 to get us home) Brian and I left. The trip ended up being a disaster and a complete waste of money – but we got home safely and thankfully the baby wasn’t impacted by the illness.



Below is my Trip Advisor Review of Chic Punta Cana:

I am still amazed at how awful my trip here was. The resort has put all its money into make sure everything looks beautiful - the lobby, the restaurants, the decor, the rooms, the pool, etc. Any photo will make you fall in love with this resort - but photos don't tell the whole story.

Check in - they tried to upgrade up to a diamond room for an extra $1000.00+ which didn't make sense given the limited benefits. We stuck with what we booked and our room was way at the back --- making sure we knew our place as second class citizens in the resort hierarchy (trust me - we were treated accordingly).

Rooms - first room had an overpowering smell of mildew which made us gag. Second room still had it but to a lesser degree.

Food - was simply horrendous. I stayed elsewhere in Punta Cana a few months earlier, spent less and had much better food. The quality was questionable - bones in a burger, rancid cheese, a buffet that looked like it was seeing the same food from days earlier. The Italian was prob the only edible restaurant and even then it wasn't good. Room service was laughable. Watch out for the bottled water as hardly any of the seals were intact and I actually saw the maid refilling my bottled room in the room.

Staff - some were friendly, others clueless. The worst was when I ordered a non-alcoholic drink and got one with blue curaçao. The waiter told me that isn't alcohol just a coloring product. Then came back 45 mins later to tell me he was wrong and it was alcoholic (which I figured).

The pool was great - but you have to get there early for a chair. The beach was okay - as a lot of Dominican there is a lot of seaweed and such which is to be expected.

Honestly I feel sick thinking about this trip. I got sick four days in and had to leave early - despite the high cost to get home I was glad to leave.

The value isn't there. Considering it's a new resort the facilities look better then they actually are. And the restaurants need a massive overhaul. If you are heading to Punta Cana look into Punta Cana Princess - I had a much better trip there.


So needless to say I don’t recommend this vacation spot!

Saturday, 30 May 2015

30 Things before 30: The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon has always been a place I have wanted to see and I am extremely happy that I got to see it as part of my 30 things list. Since we were doing another Las Vegas trip this year, Uncle Beau suggested we leave a day early and fit in the Grand Canyon since we hadn’t had enough time last year to do it. Everyone agreed to this except for Adam and Amanda who decided to fly directly into Las Vegas and meet us there. When we were making arrangements I suggested that we fly into Phoenix, Arizona so that we could see different scenery on our drive. All of us (Beau, Honey, Mom, Dad, Amanda. G and I) were on the same Toronto-Phoenix flight which left Tuesday morning. The flight was okay – it was on Air Canada Rouge, which to be honest is a crappy air carrier. It’s Air Canada’s discount brand and the service, seats and experience match the cost. When we got checked in we were told our seats had been changed despite having paid extra to select the ones with a little more room (when I mean a “little” more room I truly mean it). When we got to the gate we were called again to ensure we knew about this change. Finally just before boarding Dad and Amanda were called up that their seats were changed to ones at the very back because their seats were needed for someone with accessibility issues. These new seats were at the very last row and not part of upgrade we paid. When dad asked about the payment being refunded the woman at the gate blew him off. When we went to ask her name she refused to give it to him stating rudely that he had no right to that information. Seriously?!?!? Using twitter I contacted Air Canada about this and did get the refund for the seats but they completely ignored my question about her attitude and the fact that apparently paying passengers aren’t entitled to know the names of employees who treat them with rudeness and disrespect. This is the third trip in a row that we have encountered issues with the attitude of Air Canada staff either at the gate or on the plane. Trust me, if possible I plan to never give this company business again unless it’s absolutely necessary – especially considering the amazing service we had returning on West Jet. Dad and Amanda ended up being moved again to a row in the middle of the plane whereas Mom and I had our original seats a few rows ahead. The flight attendants were not very friendly and made it seem as if we were inconveniencing them by being there and there was no entertainment offered unless you had downloaded their app on your own tablet or paid to rent one. Needless to say we were all happy when the flight was over.






We grabbed a late lunch in Phoenix and then began our four hour drive. The scenery was great – especially when we got to see all these different cactus’s. We planned to stop for some photos but put it off not realizing that the landscape changes the further you go. By the time we got to a certain point there wasn’t any cactus’s around which was sad. It just means I will have to go back to get my cactus photo!

We arrived at the Grand Canyon entrance just as it was getting dark and decided to wait until morning to go in. We stocked up on some snacks and drinks at a nearby store and went to bed early since we planned to leave by 3:30am. The hotel wasn’t the nicest – it was an older Holiday Inn – that clearly over charges and doesn’t care about upgrading because of the high volume of tourists in the area. It was really worn out – peeling paint, stained floors, cracks in the bathroom – but the beds were comfortable and we were only there for the one night.





The next morning we were up long before sunrise and piled into the van. By 4:00am we were parked and outside waiting for sunrise. We had thought sunrise was earlier then it was – or it was obstructed by the Canyon – but either way we were outside in the dark for a while waiting for sunrise.  Something I hadn’t realized was how cold it would be at this point. With the sun only just rising, it was freezing cold. I had a sweater on and that wasn’t nearly enough to keep me warm. A piece of advice to anyone traveling there – bring warm clothes! Despite it being May with the Daytime temperatures hitting 80-90 degrees – you will definitely need warm clothes for the early morning Canyon visit!  






The scenery was amazing and wroth the visit. It’s so impressive to see these massive rocks and their formation – it really makes you think about the history and the fact they have been here for so many years. I would love to go back at some point and spend more time there – visiting other parts of the Canyon and maybe some day being able to afford a trip down to the ground. There are helicopter tours that will take you right into the Canyon and allow you to see it from below. I think that would be amazing. Until then, I am glad that I was able to see it and am thrilled to have shared that experience with some of my favorite people.   







Afterward we made the drive to Las Vegas stopping along the way at the Flintstone Park – which was so silly but fun, and the Hoover Dam. The Dam was interesting, but of the two stops Flintstone Park gets my vote. It was so random and bizarre – just a really fun memory. Mom enjoyed it as she loves the show the Flintstones. Everyone else but Amanda opted to wait and drive around, but I think they missed out!  











Thursday, 2 April 2015

Digital Perm

Back in January I read an article in Fashion about this new perming concept – a digital perm. Growing up my mom always had perms and I loved how pretty her spiral ringlets looked. As I got older, perms were out of style and while I have some curl in my hair, the super tight curls didn’t suit me. When I read this article I was intrigued because it mentioned the new trend in perming which included more beachy waves. Anyone how knows me, knows this is a style I wear often as its easier to put some curl product in my hair and scrunch it up then spending an hour blow drying and straightening it. The digital perming technology was created in Korea for Asian hair which is traditionally straight. Looking up photos it was amazing to see how great the curls developed on different types of hair – including types typically didn’t curl. Plus the curl started just under the ears so you didn’t get the super tight curls that started at the top of your head. I was a little nervous to try it but when I mentioned it to Amanda she was also intrigued.

We booked appointments with the women who was featured in the article – Hannah from H20 Goa. She went over the price (almost $300.00) and the rules (it couldn’t be done on hair that had bleach in it). Amanda and I drove downtown to the Koreatown part of Toronto, equally parts excited and nervous. When we arrived Amanda realized she wasn’t able to do it because she had recently highlighted her hair but Hannah suggested trying a straightening treatment which was similar to the perm technology just having the opposite effect. Since we were there and I was going to be about 3 hours she decided to do it.

Hannah trimmed up my hair a little bit and took me back to another area of the salon where she applied this product to my hair and then rolled it into these large rollers. Then she hooked the rollers up to these crazy chords and turned on the machine. After sitting there hooked up to this crazy contraption for about 30-40 minutes the product was washed out of my hair, it was dried and then something else was applied. At this point Hannah suggested a treatment which would help and I agreed so that was added and my hair was wrapped in a plastic bag and I was set under the dryer.  





As soon as everything was washed out I noticed the curls immediately. Hannah styled my hair and showed me the best way to achieve well defined waves. I was very happy with the end result but worried about how it would look when I washed it and styled it myself. I didn’t need to worry as it was easy to manage and replicate. I am very happy that I tried this and would consider doing it again. Because my hair is naturally wavy, I found that this treatment helped give me some defined curls which are easier to manage. I definitely recommend trying this but encourage you to go to Hannah as she was amazing. She explained everything she was doing, made both Amanda and I feel welcome and comfortable and has a wonderful salon.   


Monday, 23 March 2015

40 Days of Starbucks Alternatives

Anyone who knows me now, can attest to the fact that I am a Starbucks addict. My addiction started about five years ago and only worsened once a drive through was opened less then 10 minutes from my house. What would surprise many people is the fact that A) I don't really drink coffee (maybe 5 cups of coffee per year) B) I don't drink many espresso beverages (maybe 30 lattes per year) and C) I used to hate Starbucks.

Yup it’s true, the Starbucks addict once hated the brand that has become the elixir of life. It started back when I was at Niagara College and my friend Brittney and I would drive to Starbucks every day. Initially it was her choice, but soon I was enjoying the beverages just as much as she was. When I moved back home my Starbucks habit continued and I was making multiple trips a week for my fix. My go-to drink is a non-fat no-water chai latte… I find this comforting, warm and just my happy place. At Christmas I LOVE an occasional ristretto, half-caf all Egg Nog latte and this year became addicted to the Chai Nog latte which was a combination of Chai and Egg Nog. In the spring my favorite indulgence has been the Mocha Coconut Frapp (which hasn’t come back this year) or the caramel flan latte. In the fall I will have an occasional salted caramel mocha or a caramel apple spice, and often for breakfasts a strawberry protein smoothie. I wasn’t kidding about the addiction…. Just writing this post makes me want Starbucks!

My addiction was so crazy earlier this year that when my goddaughter brought up Lent, I knew I needed to prove to myself – and everyone else – that I could take a 6 week break from Starbucks. It was hard - especially since Brian and I drove down to Maryland during that time – but it was a success!

I made it into a fun challenge to step outside my Starbucks zone and try other café alternatives. Fun fact…. The Pickering/Ajax area has a number of cafes that I didn’t even know existed until recently.

Here are a few of my notes.  

Independent Canadian Places

Queen Beans (Port Perry): The hot chocolate wasn't memorable – it tasted like cheap powder mixed with some milk. They also had a strange concept of chai latte as they talked about it being a cup of chai tea mixed with a little milk. I dumped both out.

Piano Cafe (Port Perry): While I didn’t really enjoy the food they made an excellent chai latte. It reminded me of a café I used to work at that made amazing chai lattes. I will definitely be coming back here for drinks! 

Ray's Café (Pickering): Very cool atmosphere and they made an awesome chai latte. Tasted rich and had the hint of spice that I enjoy. I will go back here and try some of their other drinks.

Debbie’s Boutique Café (Ajax): I liked this place a lot. Not only did they have board games you could play, but they also had a great drink/desert menu. The hot chocolate was really good, but I didn’t really like the lattes – a little too sugary sweet for me. This is a must-return too and the staff are super friendly as well.

Canadian/American Chains

Panera: Their chai latte is just okay. Not good but not horrible.

McDonald's: Excellent hot chocolate, it tastes very rich and yummy. Their Mocha is also good but according to Brian it’s “recipe driven but with no heart”. I don’t know what a heartless mocha tastes like, but apparently Brian does and McDonalds makes one.   

American Chains & Independent Locations  

Caffe Bean: Makimono meets Starbucks. Very Asian inspired in drinks and food. Mocha doesn't combine well - low quality ingredients and tastes chemical. There is a burnt coffee taste in their drinks. Aztec Hot chocolate horrible - no taste besides a super dark chocolate. Whipped cream kind of lumpy and tasteless.

Bean Hallow (Ellicott City, MD) Mocha was okay – not wroth the money, it’s better to just get coffee there. They use too much regular milk rather then steamed milk – so you end up feeling very full afterward. Nutty Irishman not what I anticipated but good. Without espresso it was a milk steamer with Irish cream and hazelnut. Tasted like Nutty Irishman drink but warm and non-alcoholic. This place was a bit pricey but their biscotti was worth it!

Little French Market (Ellicott City, MD): OMG I wish I lived closer (well of course I wish I lived closer to see Brian’s family more) but this comes in as a secondary reason. The Santa's Hat was hot chocolate with cayenne pepper and it was amazing. It has this spicy bite at the end with a lush chocolate taste. The Peppermint Chai was a vanilla chai latte with peppermint syrup, and it was incredible! vanilla chai is a bit sweeter with less spice then Starbucks and the peppermint syrup adds something nice. I may have to try this at Starbucks! Junk Girl Java – which was Brian's drink – and had a salted caramel taste after each sip. Now that moacha had heart!

Dunkin Donuts: I like their coffee but nothing else (but I fully admit I have low coffee standards). The almond hot chocolate was horrible – very watery, tasteless.

Einstein Brothers Bagels: The hazelnut hot chocolate was made with machine and tasted watery and powdered.  The Mocha was also machine made and similar to Tim Horton’s.   

Soul Full Cup Coffee House (Corning, NY) Turkish coffee was not good - used regular grind not special Turkish roasted grind. Tasted like espresso with beans left in. Hot chocolate was okay - but not anything special. I could make better at home. Service was fantastic! 

Poppelton Bakery (Corning, NY) - Sipping chocolate was incredible. Rich, delicious, and everything sipping chocolate should be.

Old world Ice Cream and Café (Corning, NY) – The mocha got a Brian shrug. It was cold and tasted just okay – apparently another heartless mocha!

Max Brenner: The Italian hot chocolate was incredible as was the white chocolate chai tea. The mocha tasted more like a hot chocolate but everything was yummy, indulgent, rich and chocolaty – just as you would expect a chocolate store to be! I adore this place and am thrilled there is one near my sister-in-laws house. I told Brian Max Brenner will be completing all of our MD trips from now on.