Sunday 29 December 2013

Ice Storm

In the days leading up to Christmas our area was hit was a massive Ice Storm which caused us to lose power for about 80 hours. I will be totally honest, it wasn't a fun experience.

Saturday December 21st started off normally - mom headed into work, dad and I decided to see a movie (Saving Mr. Banks is awesome!) and Brian was driving down to Buffalo to pick up a Christmas gift. We ordered pizza that night partly because everyone was coming and going at different times, but mostly because it was cold and miserable outside so no one felt like moving off the couches and away from the fire and blankets... Little did we know how much time we would be spending in our family room over the next few days.

The power first shut off at around 4:30/5:00pm so we called the local power company and reported the outage. Within an hour or so they had trucks on the street fixing whatever had blown. I occupied myself resding on my tablet so it wasn't a big deal. At about 9:30 the power came back and I was excited because it meant I could watch the Christmas episode of Saturday Night Live with Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon. However that plan didn't work out as there was a loud bang outside my window and by 10:30 everything was dark. From my bedroom I could see a street lamp burning off - changing colours, sparking and looking pretty dangerous so I called the outage line again. This time I figured I may as well just sleep because nothing was going to happen anytime soon. 

The next morning I was surprised to see we were still in darkness, however that surprise was nothing compared to the one I got when I went outside. There were large branches of trees down everywhere - on the roads, on properties, all over our backyard, on my brothers old truck, in between cars - it looked like something from a disaster movie. The driveway itself was a sheet of ice, and every few seconds you would hear an ominous "crack" sound coming from the ice covered trees. All afternoon those cracks continued as more trees had their limbs come crashing down. Ice was everywhere - the street, on the house, and on our outside Christmas decorations but it was the trees which drew your attention. Despite all the destruction they looked magical, as if we were living in a winter palace or a scene from the movie Frozen. 

Our house next door (which is vacant and used for electrical supplies) had the electrical wires come right down and the hook up meter ripped from out from the side. Our damage was nothing compared to houses further down the street who had trees on top of their homes and electrical wires all over the place. 

All six of us managed to get luke-warm showers (thank god!) but we used up the last of the hot water in the process. Our phones are on a business system so all we had for communication were our cell phones - which had pretty crappy service. Sunday morning was spent hanging out in the living room, reading, cooking whatever we had in the fridge (we are fortunate enough to have a gas stove) and checking twitter for updates from the power company. The outage was wide spread - most of Toronto and Durham were without power. Slowly updates trickled in of small pockets regaining power so we were hopeful, but ultimately not one of the lucky areas. 

Sunday ended up being a lazy day - and very boring. We managed to charge our phones through the cars, which also offered a bit more warmth. While we have fireplaces they are gas and put out limited amounts of heat. That night we went to bed cold and a bit grumpy hoping it would be fixed come morning. 

It wasn't. 

Monday December 23 had us going a bit stir crazy. Dad and I went to a Canadian Tire to get a car hook-up. We had to go two towns over before we found a store that was open and with power. They had signs on the door making it clear they were all out of generators, road salt and propane heaters. Dad found a plug that would hook up to the car and headed home. The hope was he could plug the hot water heater in and get warm water through the hook up. Sadly the product was faulty and didn't work so freezing cold showers were the only option. At this point we started to question our Christmas plans. We always host Christmas but weren't sure it was possible this year. We still had no power and couldn't start shopping and prepping until we did. Thankfully my aunt and uncle had power in their area and agreed to take it over. What was supposed to be a relaxing day for them was spent rushing to multiple stores trying to get everything. It made things chaotic for them, but meant Christmas would still happen. At this point Mom and I started getting annoyed at my grandparents as they wouldn't leave their home. Their house had even less heat then us (their gas fireplace is pretty much for show only) so we were trying to get them to come to our place, a hotel, my uncles - anything warmer. I have to mention how awesome my Aunt Honey and Uncle Beau were through all this - in addition to throwing together a last minute holiday meal (which turned out delicious and awesome) they kept inviting us over to shower, warm up, camp out - anything to try and help. 

Brian grabbed his laptop and tablet and took off to find a open Starbucks. He hung out there all day as he was unable to sit around and do nothing (those who know Brian know how he needs to have something to occupy him) and Adam went to finish Christmas Shopping. Monday night we went to my other uncles house for dinner, so we were able to escape the cold for a few hours. On the way back my friends began texting me that power had returned to their homes so I was hoping I would see lights in my neighbourhood. My hope was answered because I did see lights when I pulled into the neighbourhood but they stopped about halfway in. We live in an older area and close to the Durham/Toronto line so our power was being impacted by Toronto. Until they were able to fix certain areas, our power company (there are two seperate compaines for the separate regions) couldn't start. Monday night was freezing cold, and it made it incredibly hard to sleep. Finally I gave up and laid downstairs by the fireplace under as many blankets as I could find. 

Tuesday was Christmas Eve and none of us woke up in the holiday spirit. Mom and I decided we had enough of the freezing cold water and packed a bag for the rec center. We have gym memberships there and it was being used as a warming center so we went and had hot showers. It was awesome to stand under the hot water, and finally do something with my crazy hair. We took a trip to my grandparents place and were happy to find them packing for a hotel. Their house was horribly cold and I can't believe they stayed there as long as they did. We dropped off gifts at my great-aunts house which was somewhat sad. Every Christmas Eve I attend church with my grandparents and then spend the evening at my great-aunts home with all my extended family. It's something I have been doing for years, but the ice storm changed those plans. My great aunt was still hosting it - but in the dark. They said Brian and I were of course welcome, but Nanny and Pappy weren't going to be there, and I wanted to seek some sort of warmth because the cold was really starting to take its toll on me. 

Brian again took off for Starbucks, so mom, dad and I went to see a movie. They went to some action/violence one but I wanted something happier (it was Christmas Eve and my mood was not the greatest) so I choose to see Frozen instead. It was a wonderful movie. We met up with Brian for dinner at a local Irish bar/restaurant, it wasn't bad but not at all festive. We returned home to our still dark and freezing house. I helped wrap some presents for my brother which was a bit hard by flashlight so they ended up looking ridiculous, and then went to bed. I'm not happy to admit this, but I was pretty grumpy at this point as was everyone else so there was a lot of snapping and miserable behaviour in our household. I was too cold to fall asleep so when the power finally returned around 11pm I was the only one awake for it. I quickly woke everyone and we chalked it up to Santa Claus bringing us a gift! 

To me - and too many people who encountered the power outages - it was a miserable time. The fact it changed/ruined people's Christmas's is still something being mentioned and talked about. There were people that remained without power until almost the end of December, so there was and still is a lot of frustration. There has been some negativity aimed toward the power companies which I totally disagree with. Okay fine, maybe above ground power lines aren't the greatest but its what we have and up until now functioned without incident. This wasn't Veridian (our company) messing up - it was weather related. And their response was amaizing. They utilized social media frequently to keep everyone updated and issued numerous progress reports. Their crews worked through the night, through the holidays and even had staff cancel their vacations and holidays to come in assist. They brought in trucks from other areas, and other companies to assist. In my mind they did a fantastic job. 

But looking back I can't help but be a tad ashamed at what a huge deal/impact it was on me. It's very much a case of "first world problems". There are so many people out in the world who don't have heat, or hot water, or even a proper home and this is their every day life. Driving through areas in the Caribbean I have seen tiny shack like houses basically destroyed by hurricanes still housing large families. Turning on the news you see the conditions overseas. I think it's really easy to forget how fortunate we are to live where we do and have what we have. The fact that those 80 hours made me get to such a miserable/grumpy place makes me upset at myself for not just being grateful that my family and friends were all safe/healthy and grateful for all the good things I  do have going for me. Especially since this all happened around Christmas - the season of good tidings - I wish I had been more positive. The lack of power yes was an inconvenience, but it wasn't the end of the world - looking back I definitely recognize that. 

Here are some of the crazy photos of the damage around our home. (The quality is poor because my regular camera wasn't changed so I had to use my phone).

All the trees are covered in ice 

The hydro hook up next store was ripped right out

Trees down all over 

A tree went right on top of a neighbours house 

Trees hitting the trucks 

A tree on top of my grandparents neighbours house 

Tree falling on my brothers truck

Monday 18 November 2013

The Couples Resort

I first came across the Couples Resort website when I was looking for some weekend getaway ideas in the summer. A few years back my mom, grandma and I went away for the weekend to a Muskoka resort that was an adult-only property. While we all love kids, we found the atmosphere different then our typical vacation stays and quite enjoyed it. What I recall from that weekend was the peace, quiet and maturity of the entire place. No kids splashing in the pool or lake, a quiet and intimate dining room, and the ability to use the resort facilities without encountering groups of children. Again, I love kids - I wouldn't have gone through teachers college if I didn't - but for a relaxing grandmother-mother-daughter trip it was incredibly enjoyable.

When I began looking at resorts in the Muskoka/Algonquin area I remembered that resort but couldn't recall the name. Interested in it as a possibility, I turned to Google and preformed a search of "muskoka" "adult only resort". The Couples Resort was my first hit, and while I knew for sure this wasn't the place I had stayed on our girls weekend the name got me curious. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, as with the ever growing popularity of the Shades of Grey trilogy a niche market has popped up around a very specific type of adult travel. I had recently read of some American hotels that were successfully using the books as inspiration for hotel packages and another in England that replaced the hotel bibles with copies of the book (which is somewhat ridiculous in my opinion) 

For those curious on this unique travel craze:

So I wasn't quite sure if The Couples Resort was Canada's version of that. Once I clicked on the website I was pleased to see that wasn't the case, and was impressed at how beautiful everything looked. The photos on the website make the lake-front grounds look amazing, and the rooms like something out of a decorating magazine. The resort had been a family vacation spot at one point but over the years the owners realized that there was interest in a couples only property.   

As I clicked through the site everything I saw - the amenities, decor, resort facilities - made me want to stay there immediately! Naturally the price tag for the busy summer season matched the amenities, decor, and resort facilities so it wasn't at all feasible. 

I did however bookmark it making a vow that I would stay at this resort... And anyone who knows me can attest to the fact I can be pretty darn persistent at times! 

When Brian and I started talking about possible plans for our third anniversary in October my thoughts immediately went to The Couples Resort as a possibility. I checked back on the website and was thrilled to see that they were heavily discounting the price for November and December. The Algonquin area is very busy all throughout summer and into Autumn with the gorgeous fall foliage, however the season dies down a bit in November and December. It does pick up again in January when there is skiing, skating and snowmobiling but fortunately for us our anniversary was at the end of October. This end of October into November off season thing is something we had found before on our previous anniversary trips to Vermont and Lake Placid, so we weren't surprised. Our experience has been that certain places and amenities will be shut down/unavailable but it's not usually a problem. In Vermont we found plenty to do for the week on the resort and within an hours drive, and Lake Placid had enough local shops and areas to keep us occupied for the weekend. We figured the same would be true for Algonquin and the discount cemented that. 

In all honesty I was pretty set on this place from the start and Brian could tell how much it meant to me, so it wasn't a hard sell. I had never been to Algonquin Park or the surrounding area and ever since my grandparents showed me photos from one of their trips up there I had wanted to visit. They had gone in the fall and the pictures of the leaves, parks, lakes and scenery were just amazing. Plus, the resort was all-inclusive which I saw as a huge benefit. Often a hotel price seems reasonable - or maybe worth a splurge - but that's usually just for the night. When you add in your breakfast, lunch and dinner things start to add up. Initially even with the discounted rate the resort seemed a bit pricy, but then I thought back to the most recent overnight trip we took (which had been to Belleville) and did the math. At the town's Holiday Inn, with meals at small, reasonably priced restaurants our cost had been more then what the resort was. I'm not going to lie, this surprised me. There is definitely advantages to all-inclusive prices, and the resort seemed well worth it.  

We initially booked for first weekend of November but with Brian's grandmother passing away we moved the dates a bit so we arrived on a Monday and left on a Thursday. Our plans had been to stay only two nights but we changed our minds when we noticed an additional deal. The resort has different types of rooms all with differing amenities. Their top room type is a Chateau which comes with everything! Fireplace, outdoor hot tub, steam shower, sauna, lake access, a basket of spa products (which turned out to be worth about $60!), priority seating and table in the drinking room, free coffees and espressos in the room, complimentary soft drinks and water - the list seemed endless. The Chateau price is of course high but in addition to the already discounted rate there was a deal where the third night was free. After exploring all the different room types and prices, we decided to splurge a bit since it was exceptionally reasonable. And it was completely worth it! 

I will admit a week or so before our trip I did get a bit apprehensive about the resort. As an avid TripAdvisor user I like to read reviews on hotels, restaurants and attractions prior to visiting. While on the Couples Resort page I was shocked at what I saw. For most negative reviews left by travellers the owner responded quite forcefully. It wasn't the usual "thanks so much for letting us know; we are sorry we didn't meet your expectations etc etc" that you usually see in these cases. Rather the owner was calling the reviewer out on their comments and fighting back. It did concern me as I wondered if any potential problems we could encounter would be treated in a negative manner. It also made me wonder at the staff - if this was how the owner behaved, would the staff be as friendly as I would expect? I continued checking the varying reviews - which I will point out were almost all very positive - but the negative ones drew me in to see how the owner would be respond. 

There was a few by him that helped quell my apprehension and actually admire his stance. In his long responses guests he pointed out a number of things. First that most of the overall rare complaints were about the semi-formal dress code in the dining room. In order to dine in the dining room for dinner men needed a dress shirt, tie, pants and dress shoes, and women a dress or dress pants. The owner pointed out that this dress code was told to anyone booking over the phone, printed on all materials including numerous pages of the website, and included in the email confirmation sent. So to show up and not adhere to a clearly stated rule and then expect to be treated special was the fault of the guest. (In my opinion, this is all true - many negative reviews were about that, the dress code IS stated clearly and I encountered it at least three times in the process of booking. And if you think about it, it's the same on cruise ships, other establishments and even in schools. My brother went to a Catholic school and if he wasn't adhering to the dress code he was sent home. To just decide to ignore that and then get mad when it doesn't work out for you is just silly and says a lot about the character of the person, not the resort. Plus they allow you to have dinner sent to your room, so it's not like they refuse to feed you and you are own your own... They do make accommodations and allow you to still enjoy the 5 course feast everyone else is). 

Secondly, he pointed out that the resort has a policy that allows guests to leave within the first 6 hours of check-in without loss of money if expectations are not met. So if you are that upset with service, the room or anything you have the option to leave without penalty. He went on to state that despite this policy there are often those who complain in the attempt to get something out of it - like a rate reduction. He explained all actual, valid complaints are dealt with and again, there is the policy in place for those who are still not satisfied. (Its been my experience that there are indeed many people out there who are just trying to get some sort of deal or compensation though stupid reasons. I do know that on occasion things can go wrong, but travellers (from the positive reviews) who encountered any mishaps made it clear they were dealt with effectively. It's my belief that in most cases compensation shouldn't occur if something happens but is dealt with quickly. Based on most reviews it seemed like the resort did fix actual problems and those complaining were more the type who wanted some sort of special treatment and again, that speaks to their character not the resorts). 

Lastly there was a post where the owner explained they were a family business. Large hotel chains can afford to compensate guests at the drop of a hat with little to no financial effect on them. A small, family run resort can not. (This goes back to the whole "people always wanting to get something for free". The adage of "the customer is always right" is a ridiculous notion that has gone too far. It seems more often then not people feel a sense of entitlement that because THEY are gracing you with their business then YOU owe them something. Um, I don't think so. I am all for rewarding loyalty, and of course offering compensation when there is actual merit but things have gone so far past that. When I worked for a company, a woman demanded a discount because her child was told to stop playing with something. Let me get this straight, you let your child run wild in the store (possibility injuring themselves) yet the store owes you? That's not the way the world works. At another job I had a customer insist his breakfast should be free because I didn't put enough butter on his bagel. Offering him more butter or the option of having a fresh bagel made immediately apparently wasn't enough. At my most recent job I had a woman call in to the office saying that we should honour an old gift certificate to a store we replaced. Turns out we that not only had they replaced this store many years ago, but the company did honour the old certificates for a year. When I nicely explained this I was met with anger and a "how dare you?" attitude. It's hard enough running a small business these days, but losing money to customers like this? I completely agree with the owner here - not worth it). 

Anyways, once I read more I did come to respect the owners position and think its a stance more people need to start taking. If you let people continuously walk all over you and your business, it's likely your business isn't long for this world. 

Our drive up to the resort took about 3 and a half hours. It was a nice drive, scenic but with limited places to stop along the way. We made the mistake of opting to grab lunch on the road - it wasn't until 2 and a half hours later that we finally ate. Brian was a bit annoyed at me on that one since the "oh, lets just stop at some place new and exciting!" came from me not him. When we left Bancroft (the town we stopped in) we were hit with a sudden burst of heavy snow. It was the first snow we had encountered at this point in the season and were unprepared. Brian had no hat or gloves and the car was missing a snow brush. We bought a little scraper at the gas station but Brian was left wiping down most of the car with his arm. (Again, possibly a little more annoyance here since it was again me that had been "we don't need the brush! It's still early!" Honestly my husband should know by now not to listen to me!) 

But we did make it up to the resort just as darkness was settling in - and just in time too. Being unfamiliar with the roads which were now slick with ice and snow was hard enough, doing it in the dark wouldn't have been fun. 

Check in was a quick and easy process and the receptionist was wonderful. She answered all of our questions, explained where everything was and what was going on throughout the resort and area. Our Chateau - named Lyra - was directly across from the main building which meant only a quick walk to everything. There was a parking spot directly in front of our building which was another benefit of the Chateau option.  

As for the Chateau itself... Wow. What an incredible unit. Even now months later I get excited thinking about it. The layout was wonderful - a small entry way with a closet, leading into a large living area with a 16ft ceiling. There was a fridge, microwave, espresso machine, coffee maker and sink. There was a double sided stone wood-burning fireplace that opened on both the living room and in the bedroom. The bedroom had a large jacuzzi tub, private screened in gazebo and the most comfortable bed I have ever slept on. The decor was beautiful - very nice furniture along the lines the French country style but more grand. The walls were kept simple with artwork used sparingly and the windows were covered in long, heavy drapes. The entire chateau felt open and airy yet still managed to give off the vibe of being a relaxing, cozy and comfortable space. It was the type of accommodation you don't want to leave because its so amazing! But the real treat was the bathroom - it was like I was in bathroom heaven. There was a large vanity, double sinks and huge counter, large sauna, and this massive steam shower. Everything was marble, and just gorgeous. If I ever build a dream house my bathroom needs to look like that! The linens were soft and comfortable - smooth cotton sheets along with warm fluffy towels and robes. And the gift basket of spa products was delightful - sea salts, bath products, a candle everything was all high quality and smelt fantastic. We actually paid a visit to the local store in Huntsville that supplied the products and I saw first hand that the value listed on the website was indeed accurate. 

Outside, the property backed onto the lake, and had its own outdoor hot tub. If you just added on a actual kitchen I could happily live here! I have been fortunate enough to have travelled a lot in my life, and some of those trips have included fantastic accommodations. Before this trip if you asked me which place had the best accommodation I would have answered this fancy hotel outside Venice my family and I stayed in for a night. It was a long time ago but I remember the large canopied beds, spacious room and stunning European decor. This trip changed that as my answer would now be the Chateau Lyra. 

Our first nights dinner was amazing - actually they all were! We had Derek as a waiter each night and he was fabulous. I don't remember his last name (there were multiple Derek's in the dining room) but his parents live in West Hill (I do remember that because we talked about a pub near their house that Brian and I frequent!) The food was superb - the baked brie appetizer, brie and asparagus risotto, and blood orange pork jump out at me. Their daily soups were fantastic and the deserts were delicious. John made me the best after dinner cocktails I have ever tasted - even modifying them a bit for my preference. Everyone in the dining room really went above and beyond to make sure our meal was perfect. As for the dress code I LOVED it! Getting dressed up for dinner is a novelty that seems to have worn off in many places. Often I go to a downtown theatre for a play or a fancy restaurant and see most patrons in jeans and sneakers. Putting on a dress each night and walking hand in hand with Brian (who looked great in his suit) really made the whole anniversary experience special. It's not something I would want to do every single night of my life, but for those three it was most enjoyed. Breakfast and lunch were also great meals - simpler then dinner but still wonderful. Brian had eggs Benedict every morning and was in his glory. 

We were able to get a free pass to Algonquin park from the resort and spent one of the days there. It wasn't very busy and many trails and shops were closed for the season but it was still awesome. It was snowing on and off that day so Brian bought a hat and mitts and we bundled up and headed out. We drove to a few different areas before getting out of the car, walking around and exploring. We didn't any of the hiking trails because the paths were slick and icy. With my track record of getting injured on vacations we figured it was safer. Still we wandered around a lot and saw some beautiful winter scenery. We also took some silly photos of each other all bundled up for winter. 

Another day we drove around the local town which to be honest took about 5 minutes. There isn't much in Whitney, but everyone is very friendly. We drove a bit further to another town whose name escapes me and wandered around there. We had also both brought books so we made use of the amazing chateau and just spent time relaxing - each of us taking a couch and curling up to read. Despite the cold, snowy weather I insisted we make use of the hot tub because when else do we have the chance. So each day we changed into bathing suits and made a mad dash for the hot water. Sitting in a hot tub outside in winter is actually a pretty awesome experience. At times a very cold one; but still amazing. Sitting there, looking out over the lake was very serene and relaxing - the mad dash back inside was kind of awful but worth it. I tended to pre-warm the sauna and then went immediately in there from the hot tub, a ritual which has served me well at the rec centre after swimming. 

(The views from the chateau were amazing!)

There was a really awesome games room at the resort which had a bunch of board games and table games. This was pretty fun - it was enjoyable just to relax and do something different. Playing pool and things like that aren't part of our daily routines so it was a nice change. We didn't visit the onsite gallery or the spa but I would definitely do both of those next time. 

The only disappointment during the entire visit was that the leaves had all fallen and I wasn't able to see the brilliant fall colours first hand. But I choose to look on the bright side and realize it means we will just have to go back to the resort at some point! The Couples Resort was a fantastic place to spend our third anniversary, is a place I would recommend fully and is somewhere Brian and I will definitely return to. Every detail was executed perfectly, all the staff were truly wonderful and it exceeded our expectations. It was a fantastic way to spend our anniversary!

Monday 11 November 2013

Monroe, Louisiana

Sadly in October Brian's grandmother passed away. With family all over the place (both in the US and outside it) rather then do an immiedate funeral they planned a memorial a few weeks later. It was held in Monroe, LA where she had been living. Brian had been to Monroe only once before, and it was my first visit. While I had met his aunt at a family wedding, it was my first time meeting the extended family.  Actually due to the long time span since Brian had last been there, it was also the first time he was meeting some of his second and third cousins!

We flew from Toronto to Monroe via the Dallas/Fort Worth airport on Friday evening. Despite my many many flights over the years, this was my first time doing the whole connecting thing. Brian found this unbelievable, but due to my dislike of flying I always try and find something direct. Anyways; the whole trip was pretty simple. We flew out of a smaller terminal which was a pleasant surprise since it meant a much quicker process through the border and security checkpoints. The larger terminal that most flights to the US leave from has incredibly long lines so it was nice not to have to deal with them. The flights themselves were uneventful - thankfully not much turbulence. The flight from Dallas to Monroe was on a pretty small plane, similar to the prop jet I used to take all those years ago for my many Toronto-Baltimore trips to see Brian. 

The Dallas airport is huge, and very much a connector hub. There are shops and restaurants everywhere, and I had a bit of time to wander around while Brian was dashing in and out of security for a quick cigarette. I stopped at Starbucks for a latte needing a caffeine boost (there was a small time change, and it was later in the day) and ordered my seasonal favourite Egg Nog Latte. That was a mistake! Three of the employees had no idea how to make it, and the forth (a manager) who was called over just steamed the egg nog. When I inquired as to where the espresso was, I was told "Oh, the Egg Nog latte doesn't have any caffeine." Hmm, okay, that sort of defeats the point of calling it a latte huh? (I did end up turning to Google and confirmed that the drink does in fact have espresso as I suspected but there was no point in arguing). That's my pet peeve with the non-Starbucks run, Starbucks. Most of the ones in the airports and stores are independently owned, so their employees don't ungo the usual training. I truly can't recall the last time I had a good drink made from any of the independent ones besides the Markham Longos whose barista is amazing. 

Out flight into Monroe arrived at 8pm (we almost missed it since we were mistakenly sent to the wrong gate!) and we were met at the airport by Brians Aunt Sue and her husband. They took us back to their house, served us some delicious Lousianna Style Gumbo (which I have to say is as awesome as I've heard) and then headed back out to pick up Brian's mom and cousin. We spent a couple hours catching up as it had been years (in fact the last time Brian saw his cousin was 20 years ago) before we went to our hotel. Initially the plan was for us to stay with his aunt, but she gererously secured us hotel rooms. When we walked into the hotel room that night the fridge was stocked with water and soft drinks, along with a goodie bag of treats. Southern hospitality truly does exist - and I'd love to encounter more of it up here in the North. 

Saturday morning we went straight to the memorial which was a small and quick family service. Sue's children, grandchildren and great-grand children all came so there were a few minutes of hugging and introductions. I think I met about 20 people in the span of minutes, but I managed to keep all the names straight! 

After the service we had a lunch on the bayou which was wonderful. The bayou is beautiful and something I am glad I was able to see. Such beautiful colours despite the grey day outside. 

Lunch was great - I tried another Louisiana speciality a spicy shrimp po boy and it was delicious! The way in which the shrimps were seasoned and served on the bread was perfect and something I plan to experiment making. 

Once lunch was over we were able to go back to the hotel to change before gathering back at Sues house. Her daughter made a cake batter dip which was unbelievable. I have since made it a few times and it is a great desert. 

Cake Batter Dip
- a box of rainbow chip cake mix, 2 cups of plain vanilla yogurt, and 1 cup of cool whip. You mix all this fine their and add some sprinkles. It gets served with fruit, wafers and anything else. 

You have to love all the interesting recipes that have come from Pinterest. 

After awhile catching up a bunch of us piled into the cars and went to visit Duck Command the location of the Duck Dynasty site. While not a show Brian or I watch, the show is popular enough I was aware of it and the family behind it. Visiting the Duck Command was an interesting experience, I can't believe now much this family has skyrocketed to fame making duck whistles. The place was packed, tourists from all over and everyone buying tons of merchandise. Christmas CD's of Duck Calls, whistles, clothing, etc. It really amazes me how much reality TV has become part of our culture (I don't personally think its a positive thing despite enjoying reslity TV on occassion). I am positive that if the Honey-Boo-Boo family opened a store people would flock there too, which is just sad. 

After our stop there we went to Antique Alley where we wandered in and out of of the local shops. What a really cute place, and very proud of Duck Dynsty - products and posters everywhere! I can see now happy some of the town appears at having Monroe be put on the map. Perhaps after recent magizine comments made by some of the family members, some may be rethinking that stance, who knows. All of the people working in these stores were so friendly, especially once they heard I was from Canada. I can't remember the last time I had such a happy and positive shopping experience. I found these adorable Christmas headbands which I bought for myself, my mom and a gift for Amanda. Getting them back home was complicated since I only brought a tiny carry-on but I managed it. 

After Antique Alley we drove around Monroe for a bit getting a sense of the history. We again retuned to Sues and spent the rest of the evening catching up. There were a bunch of younger kids who were adorable. Two of the little girls were 4 and the boy around 2, and they reminded me so much of my brother Adam, cousin and myself at that age. Just like my cousin and I, these girls were all happy and hugging one second and fighting and crying the next. Then just as Adam did, the boy was following them around and trying to do whatever they did. It brought back a lot of memories! 

That night after leaving Sue's Brian and I had a late night snack and drinks at an Applebee's near the hotel. Our waiter was brand new, a sweet kid but really nervous and kept forgetting everything we ordered. But we were easy going so it didn't matter. 

The next morning Sue, her husband and Brian's Mom dropped us off at the airport. Brian, his cousin and I were leaving Sunday (as I said, it was a quick weekend!) but his mom was staying until Monday. Our flights home were again thankfully uneventful and before evening we were back home recovering from an eventful weekend. 

Though the reason for the trip was sad, it was a nice weekend visiting with family. I enjoyed the opportunity to meet more of Brian's family, it was wonderful for him to see and catch up with everyone.  Sometimes it takes sad events to remind us how important family is. 

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Freedom of the Seas: A Mom/Daughter Cruise

Way back in 2008 I graduated from University Toronto with a specialist in English. To celebrate this accomplishment Mom decided we would take a special mother/daughter cruise. However I was heading to Niagara College in the fall so we decided to post-pone. Once I finished up my Event Management program in 2009, we talked again about the cruise now having two things to celebrate. But once again, I was heading off to a different school this time for Teachers College at York. The initial plan was to finally take this trip once that was finished around May but by that time Brian and I were engaged and planning a wedding. Most of 2010 was dominated by wedding plans and in 2011 mom and I both had new jobs. We talked - actually more-so joked - fleetingly about this trip throughout 2012 but nothing came of it. I had a different job towards the end of 2012 into early 2013 and was still taking courses and volunteering in the hopes of being hired by a school board. Dad and I went on a last minute Ireland trip in Spring, and then I was off on a trip to Greece with Brian's family. Despite my disappointment over not finding a teaching job, I was very fortunate in 2013 in terms of travel. 

Dad and Adam booked a 3 week China trip for most October, and the mother/daughter cruise came up once again. We started looking into things and found some around Canadian Thanksgiving - this worked well as it meant not having to miss a full week of work. It was also good timing because it would be just after Brian's birthday on the 11th but before our anniversary on the 24th. I wasn't expecting things to actually pan out - I had traveled a lot and was again trying to get on a supply list - but mom went ahead and booked it as a surprise. 

So a day after Brian's birthday mom and I boarded a plane to Orlando. The cruise was leaving from Cape Canaveral but we went in a day before and stayed a nearby Hilton. It was funny pulling up to the hotel because it was directly beside the timeshare we had stayed at a few years back when we took a family trip to Florida with Beau, Honey and the kids. That was the trip where Brian and I had driven down stopping to stay with his dad and stepmom in Maryland and his aunt in Atlanta. It was also the trip where I - at a stop at a parade float museum in the middle of Virginia - managed to badly sprain my ankle and spend the rest of the trip (including Disney) on crutches. I am pretty convinced that after Brian and I left the parade float museum that day for the local hospital, the museum must have changed their policies and stopped allowing guests to climb up and sit on the floats. The way in which the staff were freaking out over the potential of a lawsuit would have been funny if I wasn't in agony. But seriously? I am the one who tripped on my flip flop coming down the stairs - how is that anyone's fault but my own? Well, maybe also Brian's since he suggested such a place for his accident-prone girlfriend!  Anyway, our Hilton was directly beside the resort we stayed at which made us smile remembering the fun times we had there. 

(Welcome to Cape Canaveral) 

We stayed at the hotel for the day relaxing, having a quick dinner and then going to bed early. We got up in the morning and took a walk along the beach during sunrise. I wasn't really on board for this and protested a few times, but my mom won me over and I begrudgingly went along. I'm glad I did as it was gorgeous! Some of the best photos I have ever taken occurred that morning. 

We grabbed the first shuttle to the port and were through the cruise check in and registration quickly. I believe we got on board the actual ship at about 12:30 which was great. The ship was Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas and we were porting at: Labadee, Haiti (their island), Falmouth, Jamaica, Cozumel, Mexico and Georgetown, Grand Cayman.

The ship was great! It was a newer one and had a lot of different features then the last RC ship had - such as more pools, a Ben and Jerry's, Speciality Restaurants and a cupcake store. Our room was the typical stateroom we usually get - two beds, a balcony, a couch and a super small bathroom. The one disappointment we encountered was not getting the private table we had requested for dinner. I know some people enjoy the opportunity to get to know new people and love sitting with others at the dining room, but mom and I were looking forward to it just being us. You meet enough people throughout the day at the pool, breakfast, shows etc so the idea of long meals making small talk wasn't appealing. When we went to talk to the dining room supervisor she said it was unlikely things could be changed, but somehow she managed to come through for us and by the second night we had our own table. 

Mom and I have always tended to have a certain routine on cruises - and this one was no different. We would get up early and I would grab chairs at the pool. Mom would use the treadmill and have breakfast while I read poolside. She would come back and we would lay outside/use the pool all morning and into the afternoon. Our time at the pool was spent reading, listening to our iPods and jut relaxing. The pool we choose every day was the adult pool which was just a few floors up from our stateroom. There was one unique aspect to this pool, a woman that mom and I nicknamed "the mermaid". Every morning this woman would show up to the pool dressed in a full body wetsuit. She had a large hat on, scuba diving flippers on her feet, an aquatic belt and gloves. She would spend 4-5 hours every day on one side of the pool, and talk to anyone she encountered. I am all for being friendly and making conversation but this woman was always over sharing to the point it seemed to make people uncomfortable. She would ask personal questions and insert her opinions on matters like health, politics etc. By about day three people began avoiding the section of water she occupied. 

After being at the pool for most of the day mom and I would leave around 1:00 as the sun was getting the strongest. We would grab something small for lunch and head back to the stateroom for showers. We would then relax in the room/on the balcony or head to some ship activity. Then we would have dinner, participate in the bar area trivia games and possibility see a show. Our routine ensures we get to relax, rest and still enjoy the ships features. 

In the past mom has always sought out ships with a high number of sea days. She has cruised a lot so she generally has no interest in the ports. Plus years ago when she started cruising almost all the ship - pool included - would shut down while in port. However on this cruise she changed her mind as she realized that most people get off during the port days leaving the pool area pretty empty. Within the last few years things have changed so that while the casino and shops shut down when in port, the pool and other areas remain open and quiet. During the two port days that we stayed on board (Labadee and Cozumel) the pool area, gym and restaurant were almost empty. 

(Labadee - taken from the ship since we didn't get off!) 

The food on this ship was good - not anywhere near as amazing as Celebrity or Princess - but still good. RC is more a family line - they have the Dreamworks characters on board, a huge children/teen program and a lot of family friendly activities. So that's likely one of the reasons the food is a bit simpler. Cutbacks are another. Out waiter was quite open with us about the changes since we last cruised with them. Certain dishes cruises were known for have been scrapped, along with the the late night buffets and other aspects. It's not just in the food we noticed these changes - our stateroom just had a steward, no assistant to help him. They didn't do the towel animals (which to be honest is one of my favourite aspects) and there are a lot more areas/features that have a fee attached. We still enjoyed everything, but it's definitely different then the last time we cruised with them; and different from our cruise 10 months prior which was through a different line owned by the same parent company. 

We ate at a speciality restaurant twice. We only planned to once; but everything was delicious and the cost was really reasonable so we went back. The seafood and risotto at this place was fantastic. As was the waitress we had who went above and beyond to accommodate us. Plus this restaurant had my absolute favourite wine which I could only get there so I was happy! (Rose Regale needs to be available in Canada! I know of one LCBO downtown that sells it but rarely and only by the small individual bottles). 

(Butter carving) 

(Dreamworks Characters - me and Princess Fiona from Shrek!) 

We really loved the music trivia and attended it almost every night. There was on on songs from movies, love songs, 70's and something else. We never won but had fun trying. One night we partnered up with a young Dutch couple on their Honeymoon which was amusing. They were really sweet but didn't know much in the way of North American music. We didn't go to Bingo which was surprising for us since we normally do. I think the last cruise that changed like 40.00 for a single Bingo game turned us off playing it. 

We did get off in two ports - Grand Cayman and Falmouth. Years ago while on a cruise with the family and Uncle Beau and Aunt Honey, we ported in Grand Cayman and Honey and I had an amazing Aunt/Niece day shopping. Of course neither of us could afford anything since its a town of mostly gorgeous and expensive jewellery but it was fun wandering into the shops to look. We love shopping (something my mom doesn't) so even if we weren't buying we loved looking. I did buy a pretty Guess watch that day so I at least had something from the fancy island. Sadly the watch got washed a few years ago and wasn't repairable. 

Remembering how it was my favourite port, I wanted to go back for a few hours and mom agreed. Sadly, a hurricane had done some damage to the old cruise area so we were at a different one. It wasn't as nice, and involved waking though a bunch of construction to get to the shops. So we just stayed in the immediate port area visiting more of the souvenir shops. We found some gifts for family along with some inexpensive jewellery. We didn't stay long and were back at the pool within the hour. 

(Christmas store with an awesome name!)

For Falmouth it was a port neither mom or I had been to. Cruises used to port in Ocho Rios, Jamaica and that area was awful. If you wanted to go to the shop area it was about a 10 minute walk. I did that walk twice and both times felt unsafe. Locals are trying to get money off you, or sell you drugs and its easy to take a wrong turn. Mom and Adam did make a wrong tuen once on the way to meet us and mom is just thankful Adam was with her. He was about twenty at the time and was able to handle the situation. There was one aggressive guy following them trying to get Adam to buy drugs, and Adam remained calm and laughed pointing out he couldn't do that with his mom. The guy left them alone and moved on to someone else. It seems as if hardly any cruises port in Ocho Rios now which makes sense. Falmouth has a newer cruise area built right at the port and includes some shops, American restaurants like Dairy Queen and Subway, some bars and a craft market. We wandered around here for a bit and then we joined a tour. 

The tour I picked was to Good Hope Plantation a plantation that has been around for hundreds of years. We boarded a bus and the guide gave us a history of the area. Once you are out of the cruise area there is a huge difference in the area. Streets were full of garbage and debris, and seemed very impoverished. It also didn't seem at all safe. We had breakfast with a man the next morning who had opted to wander into this area and he said it was a horrible decision.  He had people following him, and calling out to him so within minutes he was high tailing it back to the port. 

The bus ride was short and soon we were at the plantation. When we first got there, we were taken to this grassy area where a woman was dressed in older-style clothing. She explained how the culture would sing folk songs and had us join in. At this point I was sure that I had made a mistake in picking this tour. It was all a little hokey. 

But afterwards we were taken up (by a another bus) to the top of a hill were the plantation house was located. It was a beautiful building. Not anywhere as big as the ones you see in Gone with the Wind or in the Southern US but for the area it was quite large. We were taken through the house and shown all the rooms, and explained the history of it. The building is has been preserved incredibly well and has a fascinating history. 

It was built in 1755 by Col. Thomas Williams for his wife who died a few years after moving in. In 1767 it was sold to John Tharp who expanded the property and helped the area prosper. For more information this website has a more detailed history of the plantation:

A few years ago during the Golden Jubilee Prince Harry was a visitor here so there were photos of his visit scattered around. One thing I loved about the tour was that nothing was roped off. While I get the reasons why most historic attractions rope off areas it was a nice change to be able to touch the furniture and linen, as well as sit on it. The view from the plantation was beautiful - lush greenery all over the rolling hills. 

After the tour we were seated in the gardens and served a traditional high tea. It was quite good and for the first time I tried jerk chicken. I don't usually enjoy Caribbean cuisine but this was delicious. When we went back down to the bottom of the hill we had some time to wander around their shops. We bought my brother and grandfather some Appleton Rum and Brian some strong Jamaican coffee beans along with a handmade coffee mug. I am glad that we did this excursion and found it really enjoyable and worth it. 

We had great weather for the duration of our cruise, and it was smooth sailing. I tend to get a bit sea sick so when on boats I wear a patch behind my ear. Usually I need one for the entire time, but the sailing was calm enough I was able to take if off after day three. All of the staff were wonderful, helpful and friendly. I splurged and treated myself to a facial and massage. Both were wonderful, but the massage was a really cool experience. I chose to try a Thai Poultice Massage which was something I had never heard of. Basically it uses Swedish and Deep Tissue aspects, but involves a large bag-like object made out of plant material that is filled with various herbs. It's applied to you as part of the massage and releases these herbs into your body. It was very relaxing and a style I would do again. During these treatments I got to have some interesting conversations with the therapists about what it was like to live and work on a cruise ship. Most operate on a 9 months on/3 months off schedule with limited time off during the week. They have a staff area which has kitchens, computers, games, fitness equipment and a TV/common area. Both women seemed to enjoy the experience but made it clear they hoped to be done within a few years. 

The shows on the cruise were great - especially the illusionist they had in (he was on Americas Got Talent) and a musical show they did mixing modern music with classic fairy tales. Royal Caribbean probably has the best onboard entertainment. We went to the casino twice and both times drew a crowd playing one of those silly coin-push machines everyone says is pointless. But this one had cash I inside and we won about 40.00 which was fun. 

Overall it was a really wonderful cruise with my mom. We got to spend the whole week together just relaxing and talking which was fantastic. Mom and I have always been close, so I loved the opportunity to spend so much time with her. We plan to do more of these in the future - but further down the road like in 5 years. I personally can't wait! :) 

(Though they weren't doing towel animals they did give us a book showing us how to do it - above was my attempt at a Koala Bear) 

(Our Steward secretly made me a towel animal!)