Christmas on the Las Vegas Strip

Baby, it’s cold outside…especially in Las Vegas! Some people don’t think it gets cold in Sin City, but the desert weather gets pretty chilly in the winter. Right now, it’s 46º degrees…brrr! When the wintry weather arrives, there is no place like Las Vegas Blvd. to get into the Christmas spirit!

Our perennial favorite is the Bellagio, home of the Bellagio Conservatory and our favorite bar–the Petrossian. My fiance’ actually chose this spot to propose, as we come here at least five times a year to see the ever-changing seasons spotlighted at the Conservatory. I’ve even blogged about it before, and the best time of the year to stroll through the gorgeous atrium is holiday time! This year didn’t disappoint–imagine penguins, polar bears constructed of flowers, and a giant Christmas tree!

Another favorite thing to do in Vegas in the winter is ice skating! Several of the casinos, including the stylish Cosmopolitan and the Venetian, have outdoor ice rinks. We’ve enjoyed the one at the Cosmopolitan the last couple of years, as the rooftop pool converted to a rink makes this girl feel as though she is skating down the Strip! And even if you hate to skate, there are glorious fire pits and cold weather cocktails available.

Need some other December ideas for the Strip? There is the world record-breaking Great Santa Run each year in Downtown Las Vegas, lovely holiday shopping at Fashion Show Mall, and the Magical Forest at nearby Opportunity Village.

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Princess Cruising to Alaska

In my ever-exciting quest to visit all 50 state capitols, one of my dear friends and I set off for Southeast Alaska to hit Juneau via a Princess Cruise. We were thrilled to learn that the Golden Princess departed on a summer Saturday from Seattle during Seafair, and we spent the day prior to the cruise exploring the Emerald City. My friend and I hit the high points: Pike’s Market, a duck tour of Lake Union, Smith Tower, and drinks with a local friend. The following day, we headed for the largest US state as we boarded our ship.

Upon immediate exploration, we decided to make the most of our time at sea and filled up our days at sea with activities galore: TRX classes at the gym, treatments at the spa, bingo, shopping classes, card games (literally 15+ hours of Spite and Malice at the boat’s wine bar), and enjoying the ship’s big band music. Some things we learned about Alaskan cruising Princess-style: “all-inclusive” barely covers anything, never do the set dining (dull table mates), pack for warmth with layers, and always buy the full bottle of bubbles/make friends with the bartender. We loved the relaxation that we found away from it all, though, and we achieved Princess’ mantra of “escape completely.”

We hit Juneau on a drizzly Monday morning, and we immediately took off through the downtown area towards the state capitol. Upon arrival, a kind volunteer gave us a wonderful tour–did you know that Alaska has the only state seal with a seal on it?–and shared some wonderful stories about Elizabeth Peratrovich, one of the first civil rights activists. Shopping and a whale watching excursion completed our time in the capitol city.

Next stop was Skagway, which was a little town rich with gold rush history. We opted to go on an close-by adventure to a musher’s camp (picture: Alaskan sled dogs made famous by the Iditarod) to experience nature and cuddle the baby huskies. This was especially well-worth the trip when we came across a bear less than 30 feet away. Rar! We also stopped in the famous Red Onion Saloon–a former brothel!–and enjoyed the scandalous tour. The next day, the cruise ship sailed around Glacier Bay, and we happily shelled out more money to sit in the adults-only Sanctuary and watch the beautiful glaciers calving (breaking apart and falling into the water with a loud clap, which the Tlingits called “white thunder.”)

Our favorite stop was in Ketchikan, where we decided to forgo the tourist stops and do Stray Boots‘ art walk scavenger hunt. We saw wonderful galleries, watched the seals play near Creek Street, and discovered the best bar in town: the Arctic Bar, home of the lovely Paula and the best Bloody Mary in Alaska. My friend and I enjoyed going off the beaten path (read: away from fellow cruisers) before getting back on board and cruising onward to Victoria, BC. Having journeyed to beautiful Victoria before, we spent some time people-watching near the harbor during our quick stop in Canada before heading back to the Golden Princess for one final round of Spite and Malice.

 

Business Trip to Bangalore

Although I’ve had the pleasure of journeying to India before (you can read about my trip to Delhi here), I was thrilled to go on a business trip to Bangalore last month. Part of my excitement was visiting the tech hub of India, and after my previous visit to “Incredible India!”, I wanted to experience more. The similarities: the hustle and bustle of daily life, the kindness of the people I encountered, and the incredibly delish cuisine. Speaking of cuisine, I enjoyed some of my favorites–masala, paneer, dosas!–multiple times throughout the visit. I also learned to love Indian tea.

With a packed agenda of meetings and not much time to see the city after it took nearly two days for me to arrive, I hired a driver to take me into the city center on a Sunday afternoon. I visited the quaint Bangalore Palace, which had guided tours and quite a bit of history to learn about the families that lived there in the past. (Note: if you are vehemently against the shooting and displaying of wild game, I’d skip it.) My driver also took me to Shiva Temple, and he was kind enough to tour it with me to explain some of the Hindu traditions. It was there that I took the majority of my photos in Bengaluru, and it–along with some religious history from a kind colleague–I got the best picture of local worship.

The majority of the week was spent in cars going to and fro my hotel–the swanky Zuri Whitefield–and the many meetings I had. The negative side of the Zuri: I did take the opportunity to go to the hotel’s spa (where the masseuse asked me if I ever exercised…I cringed); and the positive:the kind waiters tried to show me which foods were spicy. The one late afternoon I had off, I got to explore a local mall and try on some fabulous clothes at Biba, where I bought a really pretty shirt.

The main difference between this trip and my 2011 trip to India was sadly time: I did not have near enough of it to explore as I would have hoped.

 

The Joys of Flying

My most current business trip started as most do: I called Uber for my lift to the airport while doing some last-second packing. After many years of traveling for work, I have fitting it all in down pat, although this pre-trip rush always gives me adrenaline. At the airport, I head to a different terminal, as I’m flying on US Airways this particular trip. As a long-time American Airlines fan, I was dreading flying this merging airline, especially with some updates announced today that are sending us frequent AA flyers into a tailspin.

Nevertheless, my trip went was fairly non-eventful–except for some small hiccups. So, here are some friendly reminders for all of us on a flying metal tube to have a pleasant flight:

  • Although your ring tone is a loud “Sweet Child of Mine” by the great Guns ‘N Roses, after the plane door is closed, it’s probably a good idea to silence your phone and have it in airplane mode.
  • Come to think of it, phones should always be in quiet mode during a flight, especially when you’re composing emails the entire trip. That means you, 6B.
  • I can’t understand why passengers seated in the rear of the plane place their carry on luggage near the bulkhead. Those spots fill up so fast, then those who are by law required to stow all luggage have nowhere to put their belongings…which can cause delays!
  • What you’re grabbing for balance every time you get out of your seat is actually the back of the passenger’s in front of you. Remember: we’re all in this together!
  • I’ve read multiple times recently in travel forums how few people actually respond to the flight attendants when they greet boarding travelers. I decided to preempt their greetings with one cheerful “good morning!!” of my own. It’s not only the polite thing to do, but they have been very lovely in response.

Hopefully, this week’s post comes across as a positive one. Travel is definitely my passion, even though I have to remind myself during delayed flights and encounters with rude passengers. We road warriors must remember that it’s all worth it–especially the opportunity to experience new cities, meet new people from around the world, and enjoy the rare–but incredible!–personal excursions we get to take.

 

A Sunny Weekend in Laguna Beach

My boyfriend and I were ecstatic to join three other couples this past weekend in Laguna Beach, California. Although I used to live fifteen minutes away from there, each trip I am reminded how gorgeous this part of the world is! And the springy weather made the weekend absolutely perfect to enjoy morning walks on the beach and time on the balcony listening to the waves.

We stayed at the Laguna Brisas Spa Hotel, and it had a perfect location a block away from the water. It was close to several of the activities we enjoyed–a tasty dinner at Mozambique, Thai massages for the boys, and pedicures for the girls. I would certainly book a room at this hotel for our next journey.

One of my absolute favorite hangouts in Orange County the Ramos House Cafe. In old San Juan Capistrano, this rustic spot was an excellent brunch locale. Its owner lives in the house, stores the wine in the cellar, and grows the herbs on-site. I’ve been lucky enough to dine there on multiple occasions, and each one is a treat with their famous Scotch Quail Egg Bloody Marys. This brunch is not for the faint of heart, though: come prepared to spend a set $40 on two courses and leave stuffed (as I did on truffle mac n’ cheese.)

Another highlight of this trip–besides walking hand-in-hand with Jacob and window shopping  at many of Laguna’s amazing art galleries–was dinner at Sapphire Laguna. Our party of eight’s table was not yet available during the time we arrived, and the lovely manager treated us to sparkling champagne during our brief wait. We paid a small corkage fee and enjoyed some heavenly wine with our incredible salads and main courses. I treated myself to the Chianti Braised Short Rib, and it was absolutely delightful. The staff was attentive and festive–as they helped us celebrate the birthday of our friend Alisa. What a treat!

Laguna Beach was also the perfect place to try out my brand new camera, the incredible Sony NEX-3NL…our group took wonderful photos with it the entire trip! After only a short weekend in this seaside heaven, we were sad to leave. We had a gorgeous farewell cocktail at the Splashes Bar at the nearby Surf and Sand Resort before an uneventful and short flight home. With already-made plans to return , I look forward to revisiting this quaint beach town in California very soon.

A Luxurious Stay in Athens

Having been drawn to the mythical lore of Greece for as long as I can remember, I was greatly excited to visit Athens late this summer. My boyfriend Jacob and I were in the ancient city for less than 48 hours, and armed with our DK Top 10 Athens guide, we packed quite a bit in during our two day stay. We arrived at the swanky King George, where we were upgraded to a super-luxe suite. The hotel’s rooftop bar–which was better than any we found later in the Plaka district–was easily one of our favorite parts of Athens. Here, we had a relaxing glass of wine and an unparalleled view of the entire Acropolis. The servers were so lovely, and they delighted me by trying to teach me how to pronounce Greek phrases.

Our first night was spent walking around the Plaka, which is at the base of the Acropolis and is considered the oldest district in Athens. We enjoyed meandering down the streets and throughout the many shops. Here, I bought a pair of gold leather sandals for €25 and enjoyed a conversation with the shopkeeper. We found a quaint, if touristic, place to have dinner, and our love affair with authentic Greek fare began. That evening, we discovered our rooftop bar before turning in for a busy tour the following day.

Our tour was booked via Concept Tours, and it was a fantastic way to see many of the ancient sites of Athens in a short amount of time. We visited the Panathenaic Stadium (Home of the First Modern Olympic Games), the Temple of Zeus, the Parliament Building, and the Acropolis. Our guide had the right balance of history and humor as he lead us up to the top of the Acropolis…as he described what it must have been like for ancient citizens, one couldn’t help but picture the magnificence the ruins once were. We were enchanted.

Jacob and I left the tour and climbed back down to the city, via the Areopagus (St. Paul preached on this rock) and the Agora market. Our route back to our hotel took us by a local restaurant where the charming host–quite literally the best salesman in the world–enticed us to eat a late lunch…and what a meal it was! Mixed grill, cucumbers, tzatziki sauce, and a crisp glass of white wine was the perfect refreshment after our busy morning. The remainder of our time there was spent shopping, relaxing at our hotel rooftop bar, and packing to prepare for our 3am wake up call to leave for our next destination. Opa!

A Balkan Roadtrip through Albania

Albania and other parts of the former Yugoslav Republic were never on my list of places to visit, and yet this September, I found myself on a Balkan Roadtrip with my boyfriend Jacob and a busload of amazing Australians. We set off from Saranda after a chaotic ferry trip from Corfu, Greece, and immediately were shocked by the country’s transformation after the fall of Communism in 1991. Most of the information that our guide imparted about this part of Albanian history was news to me, and I do offer a caveat that the facts mentioned in this blog are based upon conversations with our guide, not heavy historical research.

Our three-day trip started in Southern Albania, where Jacob and I pulled out roughly $100 USD for spending money for both of us. On our first day, we were stunned by the gorgeous Southern Albanian coastline, where we had lunch–local beers and pasta for less than $7 USD–and marveled at the stellar blue waters. We stopped by a natural spring waterfall and a former Communist checkpoint over looking a large valley before ending up in Berat to spend the first evening.

Berat–known as the City of a Thousand Windows–was certainly the highlight of our trip. We began our adventures here by joining locals in their traditional evening stroll, known as the xhiro. Jacob and I might have been the only blonde couple enjoying a lovely dusk walk on the main promenade, but we greatly enjoyed this part of their culture. Our group stayed at what our guide called “the best hotel in town,” and the Hotel Mangalemi was a quaint treat. Some our our group enjoyed dinner at their darling outdoor restaurant, and it was a delicious (and inexpensive) traditional Albanian meal.

The next morning, we explored more of Berat, which seemed to have Moorish architectural influence. An early tour of Berat Castle, which overlooked the town from all directions, is a must…especially after learning about two early manuscripts of the Bible’s Book of Matthew found in a Byzantine church there. The history of this area was fascinating, and I recommend reading up on it prior to the journey, just because it is so rich.

We headed on after Berat to the capitol city of Tirana, which was not a charming as what we discovered in Southern Albania. Buildings there were stark, and one could tell that while Tirana has come a long way since 1991, it had a long way to go before it would become a major destination city in Europe. Our group made the most of it–and a surprise downpour which flooded the streets–by exploring the local nightlife scene at Radio.

The final day, we left dreary Tirana for the Montenegro border, and when we arrived in glamorous Kotor, many of us felt that we would have rather spent the previous night there, exploring the stunningly beautiful walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our trip ended in Dubrovnik, Croatia, where most of us on the tour spent a few days exploring on our own (which will be featured separately in a blog post soon). By the time our tour ended, Jacob and I had $20 left to tip our guide and new Aussie friends that we are looking forward to seeing again soon.