Wednesday, August 8, 2012

My Love of Travelocity

   No matter what obscure travel site I find, union discount I have, tip I get from reading online, my travel research always returns me to Travelocity.  

    I have tried almost all of,,, through Costco, through my alma mater(s), and lots more.

    Mostly I love Travelocity because as much as I scour the internet, I always find the lowest prices on Travelocity.  I don’t find many people talking about this online, I know money can be a taboo topic....but how can I not talk about going to Curacao for $700 (hotel and air) AND staying at a Hilton. 

    That’s cheap to me, is it for other people?

     I also appreciate Travelocity’s format.  Out of all the major, and less well known travel sites, Travelocity, to me, is the most simple to navigate, compare, and do specific searches.  

    I, luckily, have not had to deal too much with any sort of customer service in my travels.  Last year, however, we bought a package for Tokyo a week before the earth quake and tsunami. We would have loved to still go, but after closely following the nuclear crisis, we decided it was the best idea not to go.  Travelocity helped us work with the hotel and airlines and we got a full refund.

   I don't think any customer service can compare to those saints at Geico, but Travelocity's has been very helpful to us.

   In case anyone was wondering, this is a genuine love, and I have no connection to Travelocity whatsoever. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

NY: Gliding: Planes Without Engines ARE Safe!

      I will do many “adventurous” things.  That is, minus sky diving, bungee jumping and anything very similar to that.  Who knew my 66-year-old father could come up with something I almost added to that list.  

       About a year ago he mentioned he wanted to go gliding. I said hell no.  Later that year, as I searched for birthday and Christmas gifts for him, I almost gave in and took him. The thing is, glider planes don't have engines and that scares me.  I can barely keep a kite in the air, how is a half ton "plane" supposed to stay in the air?? (Side note: I took one Physics class and barely passed).  Finally after tons of mentions and lots of convincing I decided to take him gliding for fathers day. 

       As does everything begin with these days, I started with internet research.  I narrowed down our locations to New Jersey, Upstate NY, or Long Island.  You have to cross the GW bridge/and/or pay a toll/deal with jersey traffic, so Jersey was ruled out.  On Long Island, as my father reasoned, you would probably just glide over the ocean and flat land which would probably not be as interesting as the Catskill mountains, so upstate was decided on.

       I offered to drive, which also allowed me to not think about any hesitation I had to the activity. At the airport, even though we were late, it was very relaxed and they we very hospitable to us.  We signed all the prerequisite waivers and I opted for the newer, more expensive, (seemed safer) glider ride.  My father went first.  I held his hat as we taped his takeoff and tried to follow the plane into the sky.

Dad getting into the "safer" glider

       My dad loved it.  It was his idea in the first place, and he was never scared so I didn’t take much solace in this. Eventually it was my turn.  One guy pushed the glider down so I could get it.  The pilot explained what everything was: “This releases us from the tow plane, don’t touch this.” “This is the joystick, don’t touch this.”  I cut him off and assured him, I would not be touching anything except  my seat belt for dear life.  What? Planes are supposed to have engines!!

        Up we went, towed by an 86-year-old WW2 vet, cool guy.  I think I ran into more turbulence than usual.  For some reason it was less scary than airplane turbulence though.  The pilot pointed out different ranges to me, explained how they compete and some of the physics of it.  After about 20 minutes of catching air currents we headed back to the airport.  This was the best part, dramatic, but not terrifying and we went over an interesting looking bog.  Unfortunately this was also the point at which my iPhone overheated and shut down so I couldn’t tape it.

My sister ended up taking a ride on the older glider.  She survived and got to steer, so at  $15 cheaper I might recommend that one more.

All said and done it was not as scary as I thought.  Wurtsboro also offers longer tours and lessons.  

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Washington: How City Folk Go Hiking

      I loved the idea that Mount Rainer was a volcano.  And I was intent on being ON a Volcano when we went to Seattle.  I had done a little internet research, but hadn’t found much about Mount Rainer park, hiking etc.  Even though, I figured it was one of those places we would drive to find an information booth, map of trails, entrance, helpful ranger, SOMETHING.

     But no. At least it makes for a slightly better story when I’m wrong about these things.

     The road to and through Rainer was AMAZING.  The two lane road twists around the edge of the mountain, which is covered in tall evergreens.  There are some spots to pull off the road for pictures.  I usually don’t take advantage of these, but we would have fallen off the edge if we had kept gawking while driving.  At one point I yelled at him, “Look at that! It’s so beautiful! No, not you- eyes on the road!” 

     After some pictures we drove on and the road continued to flatter ground.  We found an empty ski resort (it was August), but I had no idea how to get myself on this volcano.

    Eventually, with no other options we found a small parking area on the side of the road where a couple of other cars were parked.  This was our best bet at this point so we parked and started on the small trail.  It was cute in the beginning, with a wooden bridge over a small creek, but then the trail just snaked back and forth up the side of a hill (mountain?).  By the way we were wearing shorts, sandals, I had my purse, and no water let alone any other type of gear.  Half way up the hill we ran into a father and daughter hiking.  They had about half of REI with them.  We asked them if this trail led anywhere and they said they were going to camp at Crystal Lake for a few days.  They told us we still had about 1-2 hours of hiking before we reached that area.  That wasn't happening for us, so disappointed, we headed back down to our car.

Yeah Right

                Even though I didn’t reach a summit, lake...anything, I still like to be able to say I was on a volcano!  Also, I just signed us up for an REI class- Preparing for the Unexpected- Outdoor Safety Basics. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

NYC: Horseback Riding in the Hood

      One of the things I included on my summer vacation to do list was horseback riding.  No need to go to far, I discovered the NYC parks department listed an equestrian center that offers trail riding in the Bronx.  Trying to head off impending thunderstorms we headed over there Sunday afternoon.
     We got there, paid, signed our lives away on the waiver, waited, pet some horses, and tried to convince the horses not to eat the wooden gate surrounding them.

     Then we were introduced to Budweiser, which was to be his horse, and looked like he was at least half Clydesdale.  Fat jokes were made.  I climbed onto freckled Bam Bam, not my favorite horse name. A nine year old strapped me in and mocked my lack of horsey knowledge.  Then we waited for the rest of our group to be set up.  Budweiser and Bam Bam did not like waiting, Budweiser was shifting his head around like he had never worn a bridle before and Bam Bam apparently had an irresistible itch and scratched off half his hair on a nearby post.

     The our guide Carlos climbed on his horse and began walking.  No explanation, no instructions.  I know I didn’t pay for a lesson, but nothing? No hold on? Don’t gallop? Not even an ok lets go guys? Good thing Bam Bam knew the drill and we fell in line with the other horses.

     Our caravan began down the trail, crossed a street and we were in Pelham Bay Park.  All of a sudden Bam Bam parked himself on the side of the trail.  I didn’t even parallel park this well on my road test.  “Let’s Go Bam Bam.”  Carlos is half a blocks length away ( I’m a city girl, I’m not sure what a quarter of a mile looks like) and is waving me on. Petting him, "Come on Bam Bam." Andale! Nothing.  Most of my horse knowledge probably comes from TV, and I must have subconsciously remembered kicking them makes them go...and I was right!  Kicking them more must make them go faster! Yup, Carlos must be proud.  I caught up and we continued through the park, under an old, rusted railroad bridge, past the golf course. 

   I remember seeing a sign in the office saying ABSOLUTELY NO TROTTING on trail rides.  The horses must have not seen it though because they began running.  It was like a chain reaction.  One horse up front would trot and the rest would run to catch up.  I was not wearing the right bra for this. And of course no one ever instructed me to sit up out of the saddle when this happened.  I think I bruised myself.  Finally we got to the halfway mark and had to turn around.  Well, we had to turn around because Carlos went down the wrong trail.  I’m beginning to think Carlos was some guy who happened to be walking by on Pelham Parkway that day.

    We uncomfortably trotted/walked back.  Thankfully we soon got  close to the stables and next to the street.  Just then a car drove by BLASTING music.  I think the one thing I learned about horses that day is they don’t like Drake.  His horse started shifting, shaking his head and rode him into the bushes, all while he yelled at me “ If I die horse back riding I WILL haunt you!”  Up front, another guys horse stood up! Like Black Beauty or something (I have very few horse references, sorry) and pushed Carlos's horse into the bushes.  Did I mention we weren’t wearing helmets?  Who knew horses from the Bronx wouldn’t like Hip Hop? Thank goodness we were almost back at the stables. 

 Back at the stables the 9 year old helped us off the horses with a slight smirk on her face. What did she know? There was also a sign on the office about how tipping is appreciated, but we left without, we can ignore signs too. 


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Panama: ¿Tienes un mapa?

    ¿Tienes un mapa?, according to my translator app, was how to ask for a map in Spanish.  Simple enough, and I know my Spanish accent isn't horrible, yet still no one seemed to understand me.  Maybe they just didn't have any maps.

No Mapas

      In Panama City we stayed slightly outside the city at the mouth of the Panama Canal.  This was ok with me since one of our first sights in the city was a large patch of grass next to the highway lit ablaze.  I asked our taxi driver if that was supposed to be on fire and he ignored me, or the only English he knew was money related- still not sure. 

    Our hotel, The Country Inns and Suites, was nice for its price, pool, large rooms, TGI Fridays, canal views, not near anything.  At first it was charming, quiet...but by the next morning we felt stranded and were sick of the “Jack Daniels grill” and mozzarella sticks,  so we decided to rent a car through the hotel.

     I assumed with all the history and relations with the US and the fact they use American money many people in Panama would speak English.  I was wrong (hence my above mentioned need for a translator app).  This made renting slightly more difficult, on top of the fact that rental car companies don’t trust anyone under 25, but, eventually, we got the car. 

    After driving around the city, I decided we should not just be next to the canal, or just see the locks, but we should go IN the canal (in a boat of course, there are crocodiles).  So I did a little internet research and discovered a resort about 45 minutes up the canal that offered canal activities.

    Off we were to Gamboa resort.  Well not just yet,  I found the location on my iPhone map and the map did not, um, show a road, which concerned me.  The hotel staff insisted there was, in fact, a road and gave me a cartoon map of our area insisting the road at the edge of the page would lead us there.  I did not believe them so we stopped at several gas stations so I could practice uttering  the most consecutive words I ever have in Spanish (my middle school Spanish consisted of colors, numbers and days of the week).  But, as I mentioned before, no maps.

      Well Teddy Roosevelt probably didn’t have a map when he was here (who knows) so we bravely followed the nicely paved, perfectly safe looking road.  I’m realizing now that it’s a little sad that if my iPhone does not say it exists, I'm not sure it’s real.

    The road did not become a dirt road, we were not stopped by a herd of goat, but we did run across a $2 zoo and visited Jaguar Mundo! Soon after our visit with the jaguars de Panama we were at Gamboa.  Cliche- but it was like an oasis in the rain forest.  The resort was beautiful, huge had many pools, amenities, restaurants that were not franchises, etc.

    Many tours that day were already filled up (I would get there early, or plan/call ahead), but we were able to score some seats on a boat tour.  We had a few hours to kill so we ate on a terrace overlooking the canal and walked around the grounds.  It was a little large and busy for my hotel tastes, but still very nice.  Isolated like our hotel, but there was much more to do on the grounds.

    Eventually we loaded into the little motor boat and were on our “Gatun Lake Expidition”.    We saw monkeys! Sloths! Dredging machines! And Crocodiles that scooted into the water when we got too close!  Not much to write about the actual boat ride except, I loved it, recommend it and was only slightly nervous when everyone decided to lean over one side of the boat to see our first monkey.

I think I’m seeing a pattern- even though I have difficulty starting my plans, in the end I always get there-  there's something deep in that.

I would recommend both, keep in mind you may want a rental car at the Country Inns and Suites!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Hawaii: “It’s Probably Not That Far”

   “It’s probably not that far.  We can walk- it’s right there.”  Words that are almost always wrong and definitely were that day in Honolulu.
   Diamond Head was right there.  You could see it from the beach, it couldn't be that far.  Why bother taking a taxi or figuring out a bus when it’s right there.  There should have been a warning like on side view mirrors “Diamond Head is further than it may appear.”  So I convinced him, for like the last time ever after this bad decision, and we started walking. 

   Leaving Waikiki, past the Honolulu Zoo and some very tan homeless folk, past the surfers smoking weed out of an apple and into a town where some actual Hawaiians live. Then the road started its incline.  Mountains tend to do that,  I must have forgotten with my vacation brain.  It’s a good thing I brought sneakers to change into, bad thing we started walking at all. And it’s Hawaii so of course it started raining midway. 

   Finally we arrived at the entrance and had to proceed through an ominous tunnel.  We’re sure this volcano is dormant right?  Against car traffic- what- no one else had my bright idea? We were inside the crater! Unfortunately there wasn’t an escalator to the top like I was hoping at that point. Who knew the rest of the way was a series of twisted tunnels, paths and stairs, some very steep, to the top. 

   As we continued through the crowds I vowed to always invest in a guide book...and a rental car.  I couldn’t believe there were some (Japanese?) women wearing heels! I hope they didn’t walk to diamond head in those or I should be really ashamed.  The optimist in me was grateful there was at least a handrail I could pull myself up with.

   At the top- the views were definitely worth it.  That vantage point to stare down on Waikiki and off into the pacific was an interesting one and worth it (at least to the top of the crater, I don't recommend walking to Diamond Head itself).  I estimate we walked about four miles in total.  Which sounds pathetic as I write it because I definitely felt like Lawrence of Arabia pushing on through the harsh (actually it was pretty lush) landscape for my destination and some water.  Or at least Aladdin after he got out of the cave of wonders.  Who knew I would be so dramatic about a stroll?
We hiked back down to the crater and, sigh, found a free trolley that would bring us back to town.