Travel

TRAVEL GUIDE: CRUISING FOR NEWBIES

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For the past five years, we have taken group trips to celebrate my younger brother’s birthday. Last year, our trip was almost marred in tragedy, after a snow mobile accident resulted in him being life flighted to Denver with bleeding on the brain and his girlfriend at the time with a broken elbow and hip. We learned a lot that trip about taking unnecessary risks, but instead of ending the birthday trip annual vacations, we just took heed of the lessons learned last December for all future travels.

This year, the plan was to travel to Puerto Rico. But when Hurricane Irma followed by Hurricane Maria hit the island in September, leaving many areas devastated and without power, we knew that our travel plans would have to be changed. For a while we waited with hopefulness that the state of emergency declared would clear, that the government would rally for the speedy restoration of Puerto Rico like the Southern states had rallied for Houston, and that Puerto Rico would be back operational before our trip, however, three months later, Puerto Rico is still trying to recover from the devastation caused to an infrastructure that was already fragile before the wind and rain ravished the island.

So, what do you do in Houston when you need a quick and affordable trip to a tropical paradise?!? You call up your favorite travel agent and book a cruise from the Port of Galveston, which is only about 45 minute away. And being that my grandmother celebrated her 82nd birthday a few days after my brother, we knew that a cruise was the perfect way to include her on this vacation, as well.

It’s been almost 4 years or maybe even longer since my last cruise, so of course, I had to consult my traveler’s bible aka Pinterest for tips to make the most of this trip. However, while perusing Pinterest for shopping lists and travel tips, I noticed that comprehensive travel guides for cruises were in short supply.

And let me also be honest and say that I didn’t start preparing for my trip until the week of departure. Between celebrating my own birthday along with the Thanksgiving holiday, studying for my upcoming Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) Exam, and balancing end of the year work stressors, I was still running around the day of my trip trying to get last minute things done like a pedicure and restocking travel toiletries.

Our 4 day cruise to Cozumel ended up being the perfect reprieve from real life and just the right balance of fun, sleep, and sun sprinkled with a mild case of gluttony.

Here is my comprehensive guide to help those new to cruising get the most of out your trip:

BEFORE THE CRUISE:

As I previously stated, I had minimal time to prepare for this trip, and there are a handful of things that I’m glad I knew or wished I would have known before showing up at the port on departure day.

Contact your cruise line and inquire about special themed nights.

Unless you usually come on vacations already prepared with afro wigs and bell-bottoms for a night of partying in Boogie Wonderland or ugly Christmas sweaters for a festive fete, it might be a good idea to call your cruise line and inquire about any themed events.  While even short cruises usually have a Captain’s Ball, where you can party with the captain and crew in your black tie attire, there are usually a couple of additional themed nights to enjoy with your travel companion(s).

When applicable, pack for dual seasons.

So, I’m going to blame my lack of sleep for being genuinely perplexed when my brother asked me whether I was bringing a jacket and warm clothes aboard the ship.  As I looked down in my half-packed bag, at 1:30am the morning/night before my cruise, I realized that I had not taken into consideration that the weather would not be warm until we reached the Caribbean waters.  Luckily, that question was asked in enough time for me to throw a jacket in my bag, because the wind gusts on the upper decks of the ships on our first and last nights reminded me that it was Winter.

BYOB (Bring your own booze).

One of the most expensive items on your cruise are the overpriced drinks available at one of the many bars or dining rooms.  But don’t fret, most cruise lines allow guests to bring a limited supply of wine on board.  For Royal Caribbean, the limit is 2 (750ml) bottles per stateroom.

Tip:  Signature daily drinks usually come in fancy souvenir cups which raise the price.  You can ask for the same cocktail in a regular glass and save a few $$$.  I mean, how often will you use that fancy souvenir glass when you get back home anyway?!?

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Plan to arrive for check-in early or late(ish).

The check-in process for cruises can be extremely long, especially when the bulk of the two-thousand plus men, women, and children, are gathered by the masses to begin their tropical vacation.  The best times for the shortest lines are either first thing in the morning when boarding begins or in the last couple of hours before boarding ends. When you checkin for your cruise, pay attention to boarding times and plan accordingly.

Tip:  Your stateroom may not be ready until a couple of hours after departure.  Be sure and pack any outfits you would like to change into within your first hours of being onboard like swimwear and any other important items like prescriptions, etc.

Be weather conscious.

The Monday before my cruise departed that Thursday, I remember checking the weather and seeing that it would most likely rain on our day in Cozumel.  But somehow between Monday and my Thursday departure day, I forgot.  Needless to say, our travel group ended up braving torrential downpours (until we found some cheap ponchos) to make the most of our limited time docked in Cozumel.

DURING THE CRUISE

Plan your day at the beginning of the day.

Each day while on your cruise, your attentive cabin attendants will distribute a daily schedule.  Let me first say, there has to be a million things going on each day, whether it’s trivia, bingo, dance classes, liquor tasting, games, etc.  The easiest way to make the most of your time is to plan out your day at the beginning of your morning (or afternoon if you like to sleep like me).  Almost every activity on our cruise started on time, so don’t spread yourself so thin that you spend more time running all over the ship than actually enjoying your trip.

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Eat, eat, and eat some more.

For most people, the best part of cruise vacations is that the food is usually good and plentiful.  Whether its the main dining hall, the buffet, or one of the specialty dining restaurants on board, there is always a large variety of delicious food to eat.  There is something about vacations that make people a little more adventurous, and even though I’m one of the pickiest food consumers alive, the garlic butter escargot served in the main dining room became a family favorite.

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Tip: You can order multiples appetizers and entrees in the main dining room for FREE.  Don’t be afraid to try the many dishes, you paid for it.

Watch a show, laugh at some jokes, and don’t be afraid to show off your latest line dances on the main deck.

Whether he was impersonating the lead singer of the Village People, costume and all, teaching cruise goers the choreographed routine to Thriller for a finale performance, or leading the love train through the center of the ship, our cruise director, Steve, was charismatic, full of energy, and the perfect host of every social event on the Vision of the Seas.  It was obvious that every entertainment detail had been thought out in its entirety, from the hilarious comedy of John Knight to the broadway worthy performances filled with talented dancers and vocalists, the on-board entertainment is probably the next best perk to the food.

Allow your kids to live their best lives.

As a single woman without any kids, I’m always leery of vacations where the ratio to little people versus adult people is significantly inproportiante.  I can’t say it’s ideal to be sipping my cosmo by the pool while a toddler is splashing my novel.  Cruises, however, are perfect for family vacations, and there is a whole deck or area, on most ships, solely dedicated to your bundles of joy.  The Vision of the Seas had an arcade, nursery, and teen center to keep your little ones busy.

Stock up on your favorites liquors.

My favorite liquor, Sheridan, is not available in the States, so of course, I look forward to international duty-free shopping to stock my bar.  Whether it’s your favorite vodka, cognac, or speciality liquor, you can usually find just about everything on board your ship or at a docking port for a value price.  And most cruises offer liquor tasting in their duty free shops to help you find liquors that are worth being added to your repertoire.

Tip: Make sure you are familiar with customs taxes and limits to make sure you get all your booze back to your residence without hefty fees.

Don’t miss the boat.

This sounds like common sense, but most cruise personnel can tell you that it’s not uncommon for there to be at least a couple of stragglers that consume too much tequila and have to fly home at their own expense.  If you cruise ships says that you will be in Cozumel from 8am-5pm, that means you will be in Cozumel until 5:00pm.  On the way off boat, you card is scanned not to wait on you or call your cell phone in case you’re late, but so that cruise officials will know that Tonia and her little friends didn’t make it back from Margaritaville.  One of the easiest ways to make sure that you’re on time is to book a guided excursion, but since most of us had frequented Mexico enough to have done all the touristy stuff, we just all kept an eye on the time.  After about 6 rounds of tequila shots, I’m sure they were very blurry eyes, but hey, we made it.  I watched one man have to get carried back to the boat, by his parents of all people, but hey, he made it.

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Keep track of the expenses on your onboard account.

Between drink purchases by the pool and shopping in the duty free shops, it’s easy to run up a large tab that has to be paid before you depart back to your regular life.  Either keep track of your purchases through keeping your receipts, or you can check your balances at guest services each day.  I don’t think there’s a dishwashing option, so make sure that you only spend within your means.

Tip: Some cruise lines charge a daily fee to your onboard account.  Our fee was $13.50 per day, making my tab already over $50, before I even started adding cocktails and Cokes. Yes, even soft drinks cost on your cruise.

AFTER THE CRUISE

Complete the survey.

At the end of your cruise, you will be emailed a survey on various aspects of your cruise, including but not limited to cleanliness and service.  If you had great cabin attendants or servers at dinner, the survey is your time to acknowledge their hard work and dedication to making your cruise memorable.

Have you been on a cruise?  What tips would you give to newbies, and what are some of your favorite ports?  We look forward to reading your advice and suggestions in the comments below.

P.S.  If you would like assistance booking your next trip, click here.

TRAVEL GUIDE: THE PERFECT VACATION ITINERARY

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There are some free-spirited travelers that believe in reaching their destination and just going with the wind, but if you suffer from a mild case of OCD and SE (See Everything), like me, I live for a custom itinerary.  My itinerary needs vary depending on the type of trip, for instance, if I’m going to the Caribbean, I want a 5 star resort with premium liquor (with familiar names) and amenities that are guaranteed to need their own day, but if I’m travelling to a historically rich area like Great Britain for instance, I’m Airbnb all the way due to most of my time being spent playing world-class tourist versus pool napping extraordinaire.

There was a time when I would jam-pack my itineraries so tight that by the time I crossed everything off my list, I was often too tired to fully immerse myself in the experiences.  Below are some of the tips I use to create my perfect travel itinerary while still making time to just breathe:

  • Know what your destination has to offer.  I believe in maximizing each and every travel location.  In this day and age, all that it takes is a few catch phrases using either Google or Pinterest to find the best places to visit in just about any city across the world.  Based on your personal preferences, choose the places that spark your interest. For my 30th birthday, I took a trip to Ocho Rios, Jamaica, and one of the major selling points in staying there versus Montego Bay, was the accessibility to the excursions that best met my preferences like visiting Dunns River and Secret Falls.

  • Be realistic.  In 2015, I spent 18 days touring Europe with 2 friends.  Over the course of 2 and a half weeks, we traveled from London to Greece fulfilling our wanderlust ambitions, but even with that amount of time, we still had to pick and choose which places, beaches, restaurants, etc, that would reasonably take precedence since it was physically impossible to see everything.

  • Make Trip Advisor and Yelp your new best friends. In the same way that most of us use Yelp in our home cities to find new restaurants and attractions (and to leave 1 star reviews), combined with Trip Advisor, these sites are essential to finding highly ranked places to visit and eat while travelling.  They can also help you to avoid locations that are overly touristy and can even assist with pricing and/or tips to meet your needs.  Download the apps for both of these sites to have these great resources at your fingertips, and don’t forget to leave your reviews as well to help other visitors.

  • Learn how to bargain shop.  There was a time when I thought Viator was the end all, be all, when it came down to booking excursions.  I am so glad that I have been delivert. Before booking an excursion or tour, use your fancy phone and research multiple companies to check pricing and reviews.

  • Build relationships with the locals.  One of the best resources on any trip are the locals that call that city home.  From dining to exploring little-known gems, don’t be afraid to step outside of your box and strike up a conversation.  Whether it’s the coffee barista serving your morning latte or the bartender at your swanky hotel or resort, locals are often friendly and don’t mind sharing tips to navigating the place that they call home.

  • Make time to rest like Jesus.  For most of us, travelling is a reprieve from some of our normal responsibilities like work, school, etc.  Don’t create an itinerary so full that you don’t have time to sit back, relax, and JUST enjoy life without any real commitments.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here. Travels by Tonia can book your flights and accommodations and/or just create your custom itinerary.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: RIVIERA MAYA, MEXICO

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Stay.

30th birthdays are always a celebration, and this past weekend, I was able to embark on a trip to Riviera Maya, Mexico with a group of girlfriends to celebrate one of my college roommates 30th birthday.  Being that we live all over the US, it’s always a rare treat to be in the same city for multiple days.  And while I have been to Cozumel on a Carnival cruise, this was my first inland trip to Mexico.

Sidenote: Since this trip, I’ve added Cabo to my list, and it has become my favorite city to visit in Mexico. You can read about my trip to Cabo by clicking here or book your room at Secrets Los Cabos by clicking here.

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After reading reviews and perusing through several destinations and resorts in Mexico, we opted for the fairly new and renovated El Dorado Seaside Suites, an adult only, all-inclusive resort near Tulum.  From the private infinity pools, modern decor, expansive bathrooms in each suite to the swing bar and fancy restaurants, and 24 hours room service with bomb ass quesadillas, this resort was one of the better all-inclusives of which I have stayed.  In every building, guests were greeted with champagne, and the resort itself was just the right size for walking, if you didn’t want to wait on the shuttle.  The beach near our resort was still under construction, as much of this resort was built on coral reef (great for snorkeling, not so fun for distance swimming), however, the finished beach had a great bar and impeccable service that kept beach patrons with a fresh drink in their hands, even though I was drinking Mexican Cokes like water.  We were also connected to a nude beach, but due to time constraints, we didn’t make it over to that side.  Not saying I’m a nudist, but I am saying I might have went and took a little peeky peek.  And I can’t help but to mention the way that we walked into almost every club on the resort and took over the DJ booth and the dance floor.

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Note: Riviera Maya has become one of my favorite quick and cheap getaway destinations, and while El Dorado Seaside Suites was a great resort, I have fallen in love with the Secrets and Breathless chain of hotels. From the service to the amenities, you can’t go wrong with any AM Resort, and you can check prices and book your room directly from my website by clicking here.

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Play.

Similar to my planning for any trip, I set up a board on Pinterest and mapped out the must-see/must-do things in and near Riviera Maya.  Usually, I create a list and if it is too lengthy, I consult the locals on arrival to help narrow it down.  The list for this trip was fairly short though, as there were only 2 main attractions that kept popping up, Chichen Itza and Xcaret.  So, I shot my suggestions over to our group message, we voted, and the majority of the group decided to also purchase tickets to these attractions.  

Xcaret.

Xcaret.

Note: There are two other excursions that I highly recommend, especially if you are an adrenaline junkie, like myself. You can zip line, ride ATVS, and swim in a cenote at Extreme Adventure Eco Park or up the anti at Xplor with swimming in underground caves and driving amphibious vehicles through the jungle terrain.

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Since our arrival to the resort was marred with the news of the death of music icon, Prince, we spent most of it at the bar or in our private infinity pools swimming under the influence.  There’s nothing like being the bearer of bad news to the other vacationers that had been disconnected from the media, while coercing them into purple shots.  I mean, it was an all inclusive, drink to you can’t drink anymore.  And I must be honest and admit, I didn’t get to fully enjoy the grand splendor of our resort or our suite until the next day due to my level of alcohol consumption that first night. #RIPPrince

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For relaxation purposes, we decided to plan our excursions in the middle of our trip, leaving room for 2 resort days.  In hindsight though, I wish that we would have stayed an extra day or 2.  I feel like I didn’t get to enjoy enough of the resort, sober at least.  On our first excursion day, we embarked on a journey to Mexico’s premiere adventure park, Xcaret.  Now, let me be honest, in the same way that I kept referring Chi-ch-en Itza as Chicken Itza, in my mind, Xcaret was a water park.  Yeah, I mean water park like Splashtown or WaterWorld (if you’re from Houston and old enough to remember).  Yet, on arrival and entrance I quickly found out the meaning of “adventure-park.”  Xcaret offered everything from snorkeling, to swimming with dolphins and sharks, underwater fish watching, jaguar and puma exhibitions, cenote tours, a recreated Mayan city and Mexican cemetery, along with a host of other “adventurous” activities.  The way our sleep was set up, we didn’t get there until the afternoon, but it was easy to see how a whole day could be spent at Xcaret.  One of the highlights of the park is their award winning night show, Mexico Espectacular, which details Mexico’s history from Mayan times to today.  One of the most powerful parts of the show was seeing Mayan warriors being converted to Christianity.  While we were too tired  to enjoy the show in all of its glory, we realized the next day on our tour of Chichen Itza how many of the shows historical references we were able to connect to our tour.

Being that I graduated with a Bachelors in History and its on my bucket list to see the 7 Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza was a must see, even though there was much group debate about going to Tulum instead. However, after reading the reviews and debating life experiences, we chose Chichen.  I was leery of the trip, due to reviews from my brother about the long drive, however, we all packed good books and a couple of snacks and set out on our 12-hour excursion.  I’m convinced that I have a case of car narcolypse, so true to my fashion, I slept most of the way to Chichen Itza.

I’ve always had a sick fascination with gory historic events and unexplained phenomenons, and the visit to Chichen Itza combined components of both.  As the brutal sun took its time trying to convince us to strip out of our clothes and try our luck in the Sacred Cenote, we embarked on a tour of one of the most popular Mayan cities of all times.  From viewing Chichen Itza, and learning that it was actually a temple and calendar used to keep track of the days and seasons, viewing the sacrificial statues, the Wall of Skulls, their sports colosseum where participants fought to their deaths, literally and figuratively, to the Sacred Cenote, an underground river where humans dead and alive were sacrificed to the Mayan water God, Chaac, I can see why Chichen Itza it designated as a world heritage site. For 3000 years, a civilization thrived, only to be reduced to myth and speculation. Included in the tour to Chichen Itza, we also had the oppurtunity to wander through Valladolid to view the colonial landmarks and to have lunch and swim in one of the most famous cenotes, Ik Kil.

Ik Kil.

Ik Kil.

Chichen Itza.

Chichen Itza.

For those travelers that prefer a low key trip with shopping, purchasing souvenirs, and enjoying food outside of the resort, I definitely recommend heading to 5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen. Whether you’re in the market for some authentic Mexican vanilla to up the anti with your baked goods, perusing the racks at Zara and other high end shops, or bar hopping to find your favorite haunt, 5th Avenue is the place to be.

As the members of our college crew enter their 30s, I realize that it won’t be too long before our girls’ trips become family trips.  I’m cherishing each and every one of these moments, even though the family additions will be welcomed additions.

Valladolid.

Valladolid.

 Restaurant Highlight- Yo Amo Tacos

Let me first say, I might be the only Texan alive that doesn’t really like Mexican food, unless Taco Bell counts.  But I have started to dabble in rice and beans and love tacos.  Yo Amo Tacos, located on 5th Avenue, offered a large selection of tacos and authentic Mexican cuisine, and not one of our crew of 6 had any complaints.  Between the lively patrons and savory tacos, Yo Amo is a must visit the next time you’re near Playa Del Carmen.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: LOS CABOS, MEXICO

With a sea once dubbed the Aquarium of the World, by famed explorer Jacques Cousteau, Cabo has remained a vibrant city filled with a plethora of activities to cater to travelers.  This tropical oasis, popular among spring breakers and A-list travelers alike, hosts a variety of activites from water-sports to partying on Skid Row that rivals Bourbon Street in New Orleans.  While most travelers know to visit El Arco (The Arch), Lover’s and Divorce Beach, and to party at Cabo Wabo, below are 4 must-do things to add to your itinerary on your next trip to Cabo San Lucas:

Stay in a 5 Star Hotel

As a popular tourist location once frequented in high numbers by celebrity travelers,  Cabo San Lucas offers a vast array of trendy resorts.  Anytime that I visit locations that offer all-inclusive living, I aim for resorts with the best amenities and dining options.  One of the resorts that I recommend in Cabo is the Grand Fiesta Americana Los Cabos.  Ranked one of the Top 50 best golf resorts in the world, this resort also has one of the only seven wine spas in the world, SOMMA. Grand Fiesta has one of the few swimmable beaches in the area on the resort, as Cabo beaches are known for strong currents and rip tides rendering most of their beaches dangerous to swimmers.  From the beautiful views to the attentive staff and lively entertainment, this will be a resort that I frequent on my trips back to Cabo.

Another luxury hotel that I recommend in Los Cabos is the Secrets Puerto Los Cabos, which you can book directly by clicking here.

Tip: If you’re partying by the pool in Cabo, order a round of mini-beer shots.

Rent a Yacht

For almost the same price as a day excursion on a party boat, Cabo vacationers can rent a private yacht with open bar to sail the Sea of Cortez and view not only the marina, but also the infamous El Arco and Lover’s and Divorce Beach. From a seasick traveler in our party to one that indulged to much in the open bar, our captain and first mate, Javier and Marco, were there to cater to all of our needs.  There are not to many places where you can rent a private yacht at an affordable rate, so this is definitely something to take advantage of on your trip to Cabo.

Tip: In order to get assistance planning your day on a yacht, simply click here.

Go Whale Watching

From December to April, Cabo San Lucas is know for the vast amount of humpback whales that come back to the Sea of Cortez and Pacific Ocean to mate before starting their migration to cooler waters.  Whale watching has been on my bucket list for a few years, so I was stoked to learn that my trip to Cabo coincided with whale watching season.  In researching the various companies that offered whale watching tours in the area, I decided on Whale Watch Cabo for various reasons.  Founded by Janneke, Miguel Angel, and Peter, to fulfill a lifelong dream of providing a safe, educational, and responsible way to encounter whales, Whale Watch Cabo is still the only dedicated whale watch company in Cabo San Lucas.  Voted #1 on Trip  Advisor for their small group tours since 2010, these eco-friendly tours are led by a knowledgable guide, such as my guide, Paola, who was an oceonagrapher, and guarantee a whale sighting or your next tour is free.  Our tour began with a short tour of the Sea of Cortez to get some touristy shots of El Arco, Scooby Doo Rock, Neptune’s Finger, etc, before we shot across the water for some all eyes on deck whale watching.  Not only did we get to see a handful of whales taking a final breath before their deep plunges, towards the very end of our tour, we had the pleasure of witnessing a mother and her calf breach repeatedly, leaving us with memories that will last a lifetime.  Whale Watch Cabo offers a variety of different tours, including their highly recommended Zodiac Tour, that can cover more distance in a shorter span of time.

And if you’re in the mood for a tour that includes breakfast while whale watching, click here.

Tip: Unless you absolutely love photography, one of the perks of booking a tour with Whale Watch Cabo, is that your guide also doubles as a photographer and will inbox pictures from your tour via DropBox, free of charge.

Dine with a View

Cabo is one of those picturesque places fit for a romance novel, contributing to an influx in restaurants with unparalleled views.  Even if you’re staying at an all-inclusive resort, I always recommend dining off the resort at least one night of your stay, especially if you’re celebrating a special occasion.  While I recommend at least trying a sunset dinner cruise on one your nights in Cabo, below are some of the top options for restaurants with a view:

Tip: Always consult a local when looking to find the best, authentic cuisine while on vacation.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

Are you visiting Cancun/Riviera Maya or Cozumel in the near future? Make sure you check out my travel guides to maximize those trips, as well.

Disclaimer: While some of the companies in this post paid for my use of their services, all of the opinions expressed in this post are my own. I would never endorse a company that I would not recommend or use again. Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: EAT, PLAY, STAY IN MONTEGO BAY, JAMAICA

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When I first visited Jamaica for my 30th birthday, it was understood that the only thing I was concerned about was jumping down a waterfall or 2, drinking Red Stripes for breakfast, and eating oxtails in the city. Let’s just say, mission accomplished and exceeded in all of areas mentioned above. And while I was able to scratch those things off of my bucket list, I also walked away from Jamaica with a newfound respect for the culture, the people, and the land. My first trip to Jamaica was centered around Ocho Rios, because I’d always been advised it was the better option to the more touristy Montego Bay, however, when it came to finding a luxury all-inclusive room to accommodate three guests, the better options were in MoBay (the local name for Montego Bay).

Out of the group of 3, there was one Jamaica newbie, so in order to create a trip filled with new experiences for us all, I made sure to peruse blogs, Pinterest, and tour sites for the best off-resort excursions.

My only regret from this entire stay was not being able to stay longer. This trip was a reminder of everything that I loved about Jamaica, from the people to the food, and we even left with a new adopted uncle in the form of our driver, Dean. Our respect for Uncle Dean might have been the only thing that kept our party animal sides in check when the cocktails and shots started flowing like the water down Dunn’s River Falls while at Rick’s Cafe.

Here is my comprehensive guide to enjoying Montego Bay on your next visit to Jamaica.

Eat

It goes without saying that one of the best things in Jamaica, next to the people, is the food. On vacation, God removes gluttiny as a sin, and encourages you to eat as much as want, whenever you want. Well actually, I’m sure that I made that up, so don’t quote me at the pearly gates, but that’s definitely my rule of thumb. Just in case you’ve either been under a rock or are far removed from anything that resembles Jamaican culture, I’m listing some of the staples below:

  • Jerk Anything (but start with the chicken)

  • Oxtails

  • Rice and Peas

  • Beef Patties

  • Curry Goat

  • Coco Bread

  • Fried Plantains

  • Callaloo

  • Rum Cake

  • Rum Punch

  • Blue Mountain Coffee

There are to many traditional foods to name, but the list above should leave you off to a good start. And if you’re a lover of spice, try the Jamaican pepper sauce made with scotch bonnet peppers. Yum!

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The best place to try authentic Jamaican food is in town or by suggestion of the locals, so I’ve listed and linked some favorites below:

Scotchies

The Pork Pit

The Pelican Grill

And just in case, you decide to try your hand at making some jerk delicacies when you return back home, pick up these seasonings either in town or at the airport.

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Since this was not my first trip to Jamaica, I had already knocked some of the popular touristy things out like Dunn’s River Falls and the Bob Marley tour in Nine Mile. You can read about those by clicking here. This trip we were torn between a day in Negril and a trip to Kingston for the extended Bob Marley tour, where Negril won by a hairline fracture (only because I wanted to cliff dive).

Negril is most famous for two things: Seven Mile Beach and Rick’s Cafe. Even though it took almost 2 hours to get there from our hotel in Trelawny, the day spent in Negril might have been one of the best days on vacation in my life. Seven Mile Beach is breathtaking, even though the hagglers can be overwhelming, but between the authentic jerk chicken and pork being grilled on the beach, that according to Uncle Dean is some of the best in all of Jamaica, and the free cream rum tasting at the gift shops, you can haggle me for my last $2 any day.

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And Rick’s Cafe. I really want to write a soliloquy about the romanticism of the sunset, the water that is an emerald blue like nothing I’ve seen yet on this planet, the DJ that must have a part time residency learning the hits in the States, the lobster that we ate like someone was going to steal it from us, and the rum punches and test tube shots that made cliff diving from the highest point seem like a good idea… But instead, I will just tell you, go to Ricks and thanks me later. And if you can swim, cliff dive. #TheEnd

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Sidenote: Imagine our surprise when Mike Epps walked in to enjoy Rick’s on a random Tuesday with the rest of us.

Our day in Negril was perfect, but there’s another excursion that I added onto the itinerary as a surprise to my girls for letting me drag them across the Caribbean more than once. Jamaica is one of only five places in the world that has a bioluminescent bay, which is essentially a body of water that lights up with millions of microorganisms to the touch. The only way that the glow of the water can be captured is with a specialized camera, so even our fancy new IPhones didn’t do the trick, but the sunset dip in the dark lagoon surrounded by glowing microorganisms was one pretty dope experience that will forever be committed to memory.

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Our tour to Luminous Lagoon can be found by clicking here, but for any other tour or transportation needs in and/or around the Montego Bay Area, I recommend my Uncle Dean. He’s a preferred driver for Riu properties, so if you’re staying at one of them, even better, but if not, he can be reached via What’s App at (1-876-394-1171). You can tell him that one of his nieces from Houston sent you.

Note: US Dollars are widely accepted in Jamaica preventing the dreaded currency exchange.

Stay

There are 2 things that determine whether a resort is perfect in my eyes, besides visual aesthetics, and those things are food and service. Melia Braco’s Village, almost 5 star overall customer reviews on Trip Advisor was solidified from the moment that we stepped foot on the resort.

Since we had been traveling since early morning, after dropping off our luggage, the only thing on our minds was the nearest place to fill our rumbling stomachs (and maybe grab a rum punch or 2). If you’ve been to multiple all-inclusive resorts, then you probably know that the lunch food by the pool can be either hit or miss, but let me tell you about my first meal. Imagine jerk snapper covered in sautéed greens, onions, and bell peppers before being grilled in a foil pack and served to your table hot and ready to enjoy. This was the first of many great meals, including hibachi good enough to put Benihana’s out of business.

Our resort was filled with many amenities, including it’s very own complimentary adventure park with zip-lining and an obstacle course. And let me not forget the many photographic areas, like this little hut that just screamed Jamaica.

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Confession: I’ve realized that I might need to start writing in some travel picture time into each day, because my camera is often replaced by a cocktail or plate of food within the first few hours of any trip. Hence, the lack of shots around the resort.

Would I recommend Melia Braco Village for your next trip to Jamaica? Yes, BUT that’s only if your sole purpose is enjoying the resort and the food. I could talk about the food, amenities, and great service all day, however, since our resort was situated in Trelawny, about 30-45 minutes outside of Montego Bay, cabs were pricey and hard to come by, preventing us from getting to enjoy the nightlife as much as we would have preferred on this trip.

On my next trip to Jamaica, I’m sure I will be staying at one the Secrets Resorts or Breathless, which can be booked directly from my website by clicking here.

Have you been to Jamaica? What were some of your favorite food and local spots?

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P.S.  If you would like assistance booking your next trip, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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TRAVEL GUIDE: SOUTH AFRICA

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While many of us are familiar with the term “apartheid” and Nelson Mandela, it was not until my trip to South Africa that I was able to get a firsthand account of this racial divide that had such a profound impact on South African history and culture. Ironically, I had purchased Trevor Noah's Born a Crime months before my trip, however, I didn’t get a chance to read it until I got back to the States. Simply reading this book would have given me some of the background knowledge and terminology to improve my cultural context. For example, when I heard the term “colored” used in South Africa, I was automatically transported to images of the segregated South, however, the term “colored” refers to lighter skinned Africans of mixed heritage. I am a black woman that lives in America, so I am not unfamiliar with racism, but the systematic divisions of apartheid were chilling, knowing that this dark time in history ended as recent as 1994.

Johannesburg was filled with stark reminders of the apartheid era, and there were countless times that my sisters and I were advised to remain inside of most buildings during tours and to not peruse the city streets due to the threats of muggings and/or harm. And while Cape Town on the surface gave the impression of prosperity and the good life, it only took a quick drive out of the touristy areas to “smash and grab” territory to remind you that the economic impacts of apartheid are still thriving in many townships.

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Johannesburg and Cape Town are both filled with a seemingly endless amount of rich and powerful history, and my trip only scratched the surface. However, I have outlined some of the activities and/or tours that I would recommend for each city below.

Johannesburg

Take a city tour.

One of the best ways to see the top sites in any city, especially if you’re on a limited schedule, is by spending a day or two on the hop-on hop-off bus. Instead of spending your day piecing together your own itinerary and trying to figure out the best methods of transportation, you can buy a ticket for the bus route of your choice and depart the bus at any time to visit those must-see locations on your list. And being that I am a self-proclaimed historian, one of my favorite things about the Hop-On Hop-Off bus is that as it cruises through the city, you are given free headphones to listen to historical facts about the city. Below are pictures of some of my favorite stops:

World of Beer.

World of Beer.

World of Beer Exhibit.

World of Beer Exhibit.

Apartheid Museum with my sisters.

Apartheid Museum with my sisters.

One of my biggest regrets was not having enough time to fully immerse myself in the history at the Apartheid Museum and/or not paying additional money for a guided tour.  If I was to go back to Johannesburg, I would definitely add space into my itinerary for this tour.

Visit Mandela House in Soweto.

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Soweto is one of the most historic black townships in South Africa and was home to Nelson Mandela and many other South African advocates and popular figures.  For $5 US, you can walk through Mandela House and continue your trek through Soweto to get a taste of authentic “Jo-Berg” culture. 

Grab lunch at the original Nandos.

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Take a safari.

Kruger National Park is one of the most popular (and expensive) locations for an authentic South African safari, but for those of you with limited time, you can also take a trip to the Lion Park.

See Johannesburg from the observation deck of the Carlton Centre, the tallest building in Africa.

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Cape Town

The five days that we spent in Cape Town was not nearly enough time to scratch the surface of this beautiful port city flanked by views of the infamous Table Mountain.  From the Cape of Good Hope to the wineries of Stellenbosch, there were so many places to go and things to see in and around Cape Town. 

Ride the Hop-on Hop-off bus up to Table Mountain.

One of the things to note when visiting South Africa is that it is Winter when the States are celebrating Summer.  While the temperatures were not brutally cold, riding up to Table Mountain versus hiking, all while getting a tour of the city and nearby beaches, is a must add to your itinerary. Click here to secure your seat.

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Visit Robben Island.

Robben Island is probably one of the most popular attractions for tourists visiting Cape Town and is home to the infamous prison where Nelson Mandela would serve a large portion of his prison sentence.  And being that this tour is so popular, I recommend booking in advance to secure your spot on one of the outgoing ferries.  Unfortunately,  the waters were so choppy on the day of our tour to Robben Island that all ferries were cancelled, and being that our itinerary was super tight, we didn't have the time to move this tour to another day. 

Hike Table Mountain.

For adventure and fitness enthusiast, a trip to Cape Town is not complete without hiking Table Mountain.  Being that the weather and terrain can be unpredictable, it is always advised to hike with a knowledgable guide.  You can click here to book a private hiking tour.

Visit Stellenbosch (or any of the other Winelands).

Cape Town is surrounded by wineries, and the day that we spent in Stellenbosch was one of the best days of the entire trip.  There are many ways to visit the wineries from Cape Town, such as the wine tram, the vine hopper bus, group tours, private tours, etc.  And there is a winery for every wine connoisseur. JC Le Roux and Mulderbosch made the top of our favorites list. 

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Jc Le Roux (Try the Le Domaine).

Jc Le Roux (Try the Le Domaine).

Mulderbosch Pizza.

Mulderbosch Pizza.

Mulderbosch Burger.

Mulderbosch Burger.

Sidenote:  If you have time for dinner while visiting the Winelands, The Tasting Room is highly recommended. 

Take the drive to Boulder Beach and The Cape of Good Hope.

Chapman’s Peak.

Chapman’s Peak.

Boulder’s Beach.

Boulder’s Beach.

Cape of Good Hope.

Cape of Good Hope.

Chapman’s Peak.

Chapman’s Peak.

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Eat seafood near the beach at Camps Bay.

Visit the townships.

Cape Town is home to Langa, one of the oldest townships and Khayelitsha, one of the largest and fastest growing townships in Cape Town. You can click here to safely visit these townships and others with a guide.

Khayelitsha.

Khayelitsha.

Shop and Dine at the VA Waterfront.

“Where the city meets the sea”

One of the perks of traveling to South Africa, especially is you are from the US, is that your $ go very far. We were able to dine and live the luxe lifestyle on a minimal budget, whether shopping for trendy new outfits or fine dining at one of the many restaurants on and/or near the waterfront.

Sidenote: The Ocean Basket became one of our favorite chain eateries while in Capetown, and there was even a location in the airport for us to enjoy while waiting for our flight to depart.

Pose for pictures in the Bo-Kaap.

The Bo-Kaap, one of the most photographed areas in Cape Town, was previously home to slaves that expressed their love for color through the painting of their homes due to a law that prevented them from wearing colorful clothing.  Like many black neighborhoods that have become prime real estate, gentrification is threatening to push out homeowners to make way for new real estate ventures by either buying out residences and/or increasing taxes to a point of in-affordibility for most home owners in that area.  This has prompted several protests, causing many tour companies to remove the Bo-Kaap from its list of safe sites for tourists.  However, we decided to chance it, and asked a couple of homeowners for permission to take pictures in front of their historical homes. 

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I would love to visit Cape Town during the summer and enjoy their thriving nightlife, and I can now see why many celebrities like Will Smith own homes in his beautiful city.  Have you been to South Africa?  And if so, what are some of your favorite things to do, see, or eat while there?

P.S.  If you would like assistance booking your next trip, click here

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: LAS VEGAS, NEVADA

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Las Vegas is a place that I try to visit at least twice a year, so when I found a RT flight for less than $100, I was super excited to enjoy a weekend of fun with my girls. And then, like 99% of Americans the winter of 2017-2018, I caught the flu, and since my flight and hotel were non-refundable, I packed a bag and my meds and still flew to Vegas.

Usually, I’m a party all night and wake up in the afternoon to do it all again the next day Vegas visitor, but being that I was technically on the sick and shut-in list, I had to get creative to still enjoy my trip. I recommend purchasing a Explorer Pass for discounts and/or entry to some of the most popular attractions. Below is my Vegas guide for those that won’t be spending their weekend in the club:

Visit the Bellagio.

The Bellagio fountains are one of the most popular tourist attractions on the strip, and as many times as I’ve watched the different shows, this is still one of my highlights each and every time that I am in Vegas.  The fountains come to life every 30 minutes, Monday through Saturday, from 3pm to 8pm, and every 15 minutes from 8pm to midnight.  On Sundays, the show starts at 11am and plays every 30 minutes until 7pm, and every 15 minutes from 7pm until midnight.  You can view the schedule by clicking here.

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Another one of my favorite attractions at the Bellagio is their conservatory and botanical garden.  Seasonally, the atrium in the Bellagio is transformed into a 14,000 square foot floral playground fit for one of the scenes in your favorite fairy tale.

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Eat, Eat, Eat.

In my opinion, Vegas is one of the foodie capitals of the world, especially if you know where to look.  One of my favorite hidden gems is Secret Pizza on the third floor of the Cosmopolitan Hotel.  Don’t look for any signs to lead you to your destination, just ride the escalator up and look for the long line that appears out of a seemingly inconspicuous hallway. And according to one of my Vegas Uber drivers, the founding chef, Chris Vaughn, has been repeatedly ranked one of the top pizza chefs in the world.

Whether it’s pizza at Secret Pizza or black rice and oxtail risotto and fried chicken skins from Carson Kitchen, there are plenty of top notch restaurants located all over Las Vegas.

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See a show.

On my very first trip to Las Vegas, which seems like decades ago, my friends and I bought tickets to see Peepshow, starring Playboy’s own Holly Madison.  According to Wikipedia, the contract for this burlesque show expired in 2009, so you don’t have to do much math to figure out that was quite a while back.  However, since then I have seen everything from comedy shows to concerts, and I have yet to be disappointed.  Don’t judge me, but I still plan to spend the gazillion dollars to see Celine Dion perform at Caesar’s before her contract expires.

Take a Uber to Fremont St.

If your only Vegas experiences have taken place on the main strip, you have been depriving yourself and your wallet of the hidden gems of Fremont St.  Before the strip came into existence, Fremont St was the face of Las Vegas and home to the city’s first casinos.  And if gambling is your thing, trust me when I say that you have a much better chance of winning on Fremont St versus one of the fancy hotels on the main drag.  And thanks to the Fremont Experience, the already numerous bars and restaurants have been increased, you can zip line down the street, and did I mention that’s where you can find a light show on the world’s largest screen.

You can find all types of entertainment on Fremont St, from live music, to vendors selling custom goods, to …..

Stay in a 5-Star Hotel.

One of my guilty pleasures is my love for posh hotels with luxe amenities.  The best part about Las Vegas is that you can usually get great rates on 5-star hotels, since they know that they will just pick up your extra cash in the club, at the bar, or at one of the many slot machines or tables you have to walk by to enter and exit every hotel on the strip.

Go skydiving.

This still remains on my bucket list, but one day I will take the plunge, literally and figuratively, over the Grand Canyon on one of my Vegas stays. Click here for more information.

Go see the Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon.

Like a watercolor painting brought to life, the magnificent cliffs of the Grand Canyon loom, bold, brilliant, and beautiful.  For a split second, I forget about my fear of heights, until I take a peek over the edge of the nearest cliff, longing to see the plains below, or at least the muddy waters of the Colorado River.  Dizziness, nausea, and the fear of plunging over the edge, quickly send an alarming reminder.  As I let my camera be my eyes to capture the depths, I take in all the beauty.  If I ever questioned whether there was a God, the Grand Canyon sends a swift, yet powerful, reminder of the perfection of HIS creations.

Approximately three hours from the bustling Las Vegas strip stands this magnificent creation, formed by time and evolution.  Named one of the seven wonders of the natural world, visitors have the opportunity to view the various gorges from land, air, or water.  With a sanctity and tranquility guarded ferociously  by the Hualapai Indians, the only way to tour this mammoth site, is through the purchase of a tour either on location or from an outside vendor.

You can either book a tour to the West Rim or take the longer, more scenic view of the South Rim. For those that choose the West Rim, which is best for those with minimal time in their schedule, and the route that I chose, there’s even a brief stop at the Hoover Dam and optional paid access to the Skywalk. And for my adventure enthusiast, you can enhance your experience and view the Grand Canyon by helicopter and boat by clicking here.

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Shop.

It doesn’t matter if your taste and wallets are on a Forever 21 budget or a Chanel budget, there is plenty of shopping up and down the Vegas strip and an outlet not far away where you can shop until your credit cards stop swiping.

Ride a roller coaster.

Since I’m not a roller coaster enthusiast, but am more of a wait at the exit kind of gal, the only thing I can tell you about this horrifying experience is that it is located on top of the New York, New York hotel.  And for those of you that suffer from weak knees and self-diagnosed heart problems when it comes to mechanically engineered machines designed with drops and loops, there’s a cute little arcade where you can wait for your friends to finish defying death.  Issa “no” for me.

Visit Paris, Italy, and New York. 

Just in case your budget hasn’t extended past domestic travel, don’t worry, many of the hotels on the Vegas strip are fashioned after some of the world’s most beautiful cities.  You can visit Rome via Caesar’s Palace, Venice at the Venetian and the Palazzo, and Paris and New York at the hotels bearing their namesakes.  You can even take a gondola ride through the Venetian and Palazzo to really maximize your Italian experience.

Pose with your favorite celebrities at Madame Tussaud’s.

Did I ever tell y’all about that time I took a pic in the oval office while interning for President Obama?

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Get your Explorer City Pass by clicking here.

P.S.  If you would like assistance booking your next trip, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: AIRBNB

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As vacation season looms around the corner, I have had many travelers inquire about using AirBnb in lieu of pricey hotels with limited amenities and outrageous parking costs.  For those of you unfamiliar with AirBnb, it is a site where property owners can post their lodgings for travelers around the world to rent.  While AirBnb boasts about its unique rentals, such as treehouse properties, it has pretty much any size accommodations from a bedroom in someone’s home to villa sized houses to accommodate large families and/or groups of friends.  AirBnb definitely has its perks and was my preferred lodging type for my trip to Europe last summer, however, as with any service, travelers must be mindful of some nuances that could be the difference between a dream vacation and trip from hell.  Here are some tips to help make your AirBnb experience a success.

Location

If you are not familiar with the different neighborhoods in the city where you plan to vacay, please make sure to do your research.  The last thing that you want is to be stuck in the suburbs, far outside of the center of the city and away from tourist attractions, or even worst, smack dab in the middle of a neighborhood only fit for The First 48.  You’d be surprised how many pricey residences are being placed in “redeveloping” areas which probably won’t fit the vision of your ideal vacation.  As the popular adage goes, “Location, location, location.”  Also, be mindful of your preferred mode of transportation whether rental car or city transit, because Uber and taxi fees can add up if you’ve inadvicingly chosen a residence without taking location into consideration.

Amenities

You’re in Paris, it’s the peak of the summer, the temperature has been consistently at 90 degrees, and as you go to adjust the thermostat in your AirBnb apartment, it hits you, the amenity box that said air conditioning wasn’t checked for your listing.  That, unfortunately, is a true story, and it happened to me.  Depending on where you live, there are some amenities that we take for granted, like central air.  And while AirBnb requires hosts to list their rental’s available amenities, make sure that you have an idea of what amenities are important to you and VERIFY that your listing meets those expectations.  Don’t assume.  Some of the most popular amenities that you probably want to look for are:

Wireless Internet

24 Hr Check-In

Air Conditioning and/or Heat

Cable TV

Washer AND Dryer (I will save the clothes line story for another day)

Reviews

In the same way that we rely on Trip Advisor or some other trusty review site (or at least you should before booking any unfamiliar accommodation), AirBnb allows travelers to leave reviews on their host’s property after their stay.    While all properties may not have reviews, either due to being a recent listing or being the unlucky host of unreviewing guests, to be on the safe side, stick to properties that have multiple reviews.  And for my really skeptical travelers, you can even filter your rental property search results to only show rentals with a Superhost.  What is a Superhost?  A Superhost is a property lister that responds to guest quickly, has a 90% guest response rate or higher,  at least 80% of 5-star reviews, and a limited number of confirmed cancelled reservations.  The reviews are the perfect place to not only find out whether your host keeps clean, guest friendly accommodations, but some even go as far as to be able to offer you information about preferred nearby attractions and/or restaurants, hints about the easiest methods of travel (especially in cities where public transit is popular), or maybe even a warning about the pesky wireless internet in that lodging being consistently inconsistent.  Reviews are your friends, use them.

Special Conditions

I kid you not, some hosts have strange requests that you would think would scare away any traveler from staying in their rental.  However, you have to remember, that some of these listings are people’s actual home away from homes, and it’s only fair to ask that you respect their rules, in the same way that you expect your house guest to respect your own.  Some of the requests are minimal, like don’t wash after 10pm because it disturbs the neighbors or keep the music and noise down, but some of the special conditions can be a little more “tricky” for lack of a better word. For instance, in the rental where we stayed in Venice, the main bathroom had been remodeled using a specially treated bamboo, and the hosts left implicit instructions to be sure to not get the walls or floor wet when you showered.  And many of the reviewers complained about this being quite the feat, due to the small size of the tub.  Honestly, I went back and forth with my traveler companions before choosing this residence, and when we compared the affordable price and 3 bedrooms to the $600 per night hotels in Venice, we decided the pros outweighed the cons.  Now, I will be honest and say that in order to not wet the bathroom floor or walls in this particular residence, we had to take something that was not quite a shower nor quite a bath and more like a mix between the 2, but hey, we saved $400 a night, so I take it.

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Overall

Do I recommend AirBnb?  Yes, yes, and yes, but with all things, there can be some drawbacks.  While these tips should help you to make a well-informed AirBnb decision, don’t be afraid to ask the hosts any questions that you may have “before” you book.  Most hosts respond within 24-48 hours, and if they don’t, you may be dodging a bullet anyway.  On my trip to Europe, we stayed in approximately 4-6 AirBnb residences, and each residence was not only exactly as pictured and described, but each host was helpful when it came to knowing how and where to catch public transit and choosing local restaurants that fit our preferences.  In one of my favorite accommodations in Florence, Italy the hosts even went as far as to book our restaurant reservations for us the entire duration of our stay, and most hosts usually have some kind of special treat to welcome you to their rental.  And while I prefer all-inclusive resort for my island vacations, for my non-beach travels, AirBnb is becoming my preferred accommodation choice, especially when traveling with a group larger than 2.  Why stick to a hotel room when you can get a three bedroom rental with a full kitchen and free parking for a fraction of the cost?  If you’re hesitant or have any questions about using AirBnb, please feel free to comment below, and I will be more than happy to help in any way that I can. Happy travels!

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation and/or choosing the perfect AirBnb space to fit your needs, click here.

TRAVEL GUIDE: A WEEKEND IN ATLANTA, GA

Atlanta, a city with as many historical sites as posh clubs filled with A-List entertainers.  I’m sure that I would need both hands to count the number of times that I have been to Atlanta, but I recently realized that I’ve never been to Atlanta as a tourist.  So, while I was in Atlanta this weekend for the African American on the Move Book Club Awards, I decided to use my limited free time to visit some of Atlanta’s most popular tourist spots.

My plane touched down in Atlanta around 3pm on a blazing sunny Friday.  With temperatures near the 100s and only about an hour to spare before having to get dressed for my first event of the weekend, I decided to take a stroll down Peachtree Avenue.  Yes, I took a walk instead of rushing to get dressed, it’s the procrastinator in my blood.  Truth be told, I have somewhat of a obession with walking cities, being that between Houston’s humid weather and spread out locations, walking is usually not a feasible option.  One of the determining factors of choosing a hotel in Buckhead was being walking distance from Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza and only a short commute from Buckhead’s MARTA station.  I used that to my full advantage on my limited schedule to be able to squeeze in my touristy travels in the midst of a weekend filled with award festivities.  And let me not forget to mention that Uber was also my best friend.  Unlike the higher fares that can be found in Houston, with the exception of my ride to Elizabeth Baptist Church, all of my rides around the city were less than $10 and even cheaper when I opted to use the pool option.

After my walk down Buckhead to scope out potential dinner restaurants, I spent a lovely evening at The Secrets movie screening with the movie cast and bestselling and aspiring authors discussing our literary chronicles.

Saturday, in order to make the most of my day, I awoke early to hit some of the most popular tourist spots on my list.  With one of my closest friends as my guide, I was able to tour the Martin Luther King memorial, where both him and Coretta are interned, visit his childhood home, and walk through the Ebenezer Baptist Church where King was associate pastor until his assassination.   Almost immediately around the corner, is the infamous Jackson Street Bridge, where I was able to get an amazing shot of the Atlanta Downtown Skyline.  We ended the day at Lenox Mall and Wet Willies enjoying daiquiris before heading back to my hotel to get me dressed for the AAMBC Awards.

With Sunday being my last full day in Atlanta, I started off the morning at Elizabeth Baptist Church to celebrate the pastoral anniversary of Pastor Craig Oliver.  Even though it crossed my mind to get some extra sleep, God has been too good to me for me to miss church in a city filled with so many phenomenal pastors.  After a quick change back at my hotel room from my dressy church attire to jeans and a t-shirt, I headed over to the World of Coca Cola to be enlightened with a brief history surrounding my favorite beverage accompanied with a sampling of Coca Cola beverages from all over the world.  I’m convinced that they are still putting the Coke in Coca Cola, because I swear I have been addicted for most of my life.  Let me not tell y’all that one of my favorite parts of visiting Mexico were the Mexican Cokes that were restocked in our refrigerator each morning.  Right outside of Coca Cola is the beautiful, scenic Centennial Park through which I strolled on my way to CNN.  Due to my limited schedule, I didn’t get to take the official CNN tour, but I was able to walk through the building before heading to brunch.  Sadly, I happened to be on vacation as another sadistic loser made history by shooting up a club in Orlando, and as I walked through the CNN building, I can’t explain the solemn silence that lingered in the air as people sat in the food court with their eyes glued to the news screens.

For a guided bus tour of Atlanta, click here.

It was bittersweet packing to head back to Houston from Atlanta, and being that I hadn’t seen my high school best friend, Victoria, in over a year, we decided to end my trip with dinner at Scales 925, rapper TI’s (now closed) restaurant.  While the ambiance of the restaurant was sophisticated and elegant, we were so engulfed in our cocktails that we allowed the kitchen to close and ended up eating at Twin Peaks.  I can’t say I was sad about it.  I’m a sports bar girl at heart.  I didn’t get to enjoy the Atlanta club scene this trip, but I still think this was one of best trips to Atlanta, yet.

Restaurant Highlight

Being that I have a sister that graduated from Spelman and a host of friends that live and have lived in Atlanta, I was blessed with a list of restaurants to fit my palates for any given night of the weekend.  After leaving the awards show, I was famished, and being that it was such a great night, I was looking forward to a fancy dinner.  Even though my Uber driver was appalled that I would be dining alone (and even volunteered to join me), I decided to dine at JCT Kitchen and Bar.  Since I was in the mood for some good Southern comfort food, I couldn’t resist trying their Georgia Trout with a side of greens and house hot sauce.  I would like to think I am well-versed in my Southern comfort food, and between the ambiance, good service, and delicious cuisine, JCT has made the must visit list on future trips to Atlanta.

 

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: SAN ANTONIO, TX

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The true test of friendships is not how much or how often you turn up together, but how fast you mobilize and gather the troops when some ish hits the fan. I’ve had most of the same friends for close to or over a decade, but even in my new relationships, it amazes me how God has placed so many women (and men) around me with like minds and connected souls. So, when one of my kindred spirits hurt, I hurt, and immediately channel my inner Olivia Pope.

One of the best things about living in Houston is being so close to some popular getaway cities, like San Antonio and Austin, for impromptu road trips and hotel sleepovers. San Antonio is honestly one of my favorite cities for overnight trips, because it is filled with so many things to do, making it the perfect place to indulge in adult beverages and forget about the woes of life.

I’m going to be honest and admit that when life gets hard, my suggestion is always to pack a bag and book a flight, but on short notice, we opted for a room at one of my favorite San Antonio hotels, Hotel Contessa on the Riverwalk. And being that I am the designated trip planner, in all of my friend circles, I set to put together the perfect itinerary with just the right amount of libations to make this trip purposefully lit.

Here are 8 things that you must include on your itinerary for your next quickie trip to San Antonio:

Stay in a Swanky Hotel

Being that San Antonio is a place frequented by tourists and is known for its infamous Riverwalk, there are enough hotels to fit the preferences of even the pickiest travelers. On this trip, I chose Hotel Contessa, mostly because of its swimming pool, however, one of my other top picks is Hotel Valencia, which is also on the Riverwalk. Since I I prefer to stay in areas where I can walk to most attractions or places of interest, I recommend being centrally located, but there are several great hotels all over the city. It helps to have your itinerary mapped out, so that you can minimize your driving while on such a short trip.

Enjoy Brunch

Whether it’s a triple berry, mango,  white peach, or mini mimosa, Mimi’s Cafe has them all. While this was our pick on this getaway, San Antonio has enough brunch options to satisfy the pickiest food critic. Below are some of the top picks according to Trip Advisor:

Ann Marie’s Carriage House Bistro 

Madhatter’s Tea House and Cafe

Cappy’s Restaurant 

Max’s Wine Dive

Pancake Joe’s

The Guenther House 

The Magnolia Pancake Haus

Mimosa Restaurant and Lounge

Be a Tourist

The Riverwalk. The Alamo. Madame Toussaids. Schlitterbahn. Six Flags Fiesta Texas. The list goes on and on. San Antonio is filled with so many gems to explore at your leisure, and it will definitely take more than one trip to see them all.

Take a Safari

While this remains one of the few things on my San Antonio bucket list that I’ve not yet been able to cross off, the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch offers visitors the opportunity to take an African safari from the comforts of their vehicles from 9-6pm daily. On top of being able to view over 500 animals, the ranch also has a Restaurant, sweet shop, trading post, walk-a-bout and petting barnyard to cater to the needs of all age groups.

Visit the Brewstillery

For $10, you can get 2 tours for 1, at the Ranger Creek Brewing and Distillery. On select days from 2-4pm, visitors are walked through Ranger Creek’s process of making beer and bourbon along with select tastings of some of their best-selling concoctions. Click here to check out their events calendar, and if you have a thing for libation tours and tastings, check out our blog on visiting Messina Hof.

Shop Til’ You Drop

A short commute away from San Antonio are the San Marcos outlets. As a recovering shopaholic, I try to stay away, but for those that are down to swipe a card or two, the San Marcos Outlets are filled with your favorite brand names, including high end designers like Gucci and Prada.

Visit the Tower of Americas Happy Hour

$6 Martinis with one of the best views of San Antonio in the entire city. *Drops mic

Eat Dinner on the Riverwalk

There are great dining options all over the city of San Antonio, but I personally love people watching on the Riverwalk. Even though the Riverwalk can be considered somewhat of a tourist trap, you can still find great food, a table with a view, and yummy margaritas to sip while you chat with your companions and watch the eclectic mixtures of tourists.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: THE EUROPEAN TRAVELER

“Not all those who wander are lost.” -J.R.R. Tolkien

Even though I’ve always been an avid traveler, in the summer of 2015,  I decided to embark on an 18 day journey across Europe before the celebration of my 30th birthday.  You can read about how I planned my trip by clicking here. Below are some of my best memories and thoughts of each city.

London

I think I’ve found my new home away from home.  London was similar to big cities in “America”, but the people, food, and culture were absolutely amazing! From visiting Buckingham palace, to purchasing tea at Fortnum and Mason, to eating at Nandos (Rihanna’s favorite restaurant), London is a unique mix of the historic with the modern (and everyone speaks English).  Even though I flew through pounds like I had a press in my backpack,  I can’t wait to visit again.  And I’m sure it will be sooner rather than later.  One of the most memorable moments from London was being able to stand outside of the gate of the late Amy Winehouse’s home in Camden.  Amy will always remain one of my favs that gained her wings well before we were ready to see her go, and the tribute from her fans in front of her apartment touched my heart to its core.  I had intentions to see her recently released biopic in London before our departure, but unfortunately, time was not on our side. You can visit Stonehenge and Bath by clicking here.

Paris

Before the start of this trip, I knew that Paris would steal my heart, but it did nothing of the sort.  While the sights were breathtaking and the food delicious, the anti-American and anti-hygienic people of the city left a lot to be desired. From the rancid smells to the lack of participating English speaking French people, I’m not sure that Paris will make it back on my wanderlust list.  However, there was one highlight that made my trip to Paris well worth it.  Versailles.  As a Marie Antoinette fanatic, I was more than stoked to walk the halls of the historic, yet still breathtaking Versailles, even though we only had 30 minutes to navigate due to a time restricted tour and crowd at capacity.  I can’t wait to go back and revisit on a less crowded day and view it in all of its splendor.

Cognac

“Every cognac is a brandy, but not every brandy is a cognac.”

From the moment I discovered that all cognac comes from a small town outside of Paris (or else it is brandy and not cognac), I knew that this was one place that I had to visit.  And where Paris lacked in American enthusiasm, Cognac opened its warm arms and grasped a place in my heart.  Jayne, our experienced tour guide, arranged informative tours and cognac sampling at Courvoisier, Remy Martin, and Camus (Hennessy is closed for renovations), three of the world’s top 5 cognacs, and we embarked on a journey of cognac 101.  I’m not sure whether my extreme happiness at the end of this tour was dedicated to my cognac consumption or excitement in finally meeting some nice people in France, but I look forward to one day revisiting with my brothers and/or male counterpart. I recommend using Cognac Tours to arrange your ideal experience with a knowledgeable guide. You can tell them that Tonia from Texas sent you. And while I didn’t get a chance to visit Champagne country, this tour is definitely on my wish list, click here.

Venice

It was hot, and I got lost ALOT, but the food was amazing. And you can’t go to Venice without a gondola experience.

Florence

I think I’ve found my favorite European city thus far.  From the people, to discovering Tuscan steak, to the picturesque landscape and the natural beauty of structures that have survived the test of time, Florence stole my heart.  And while discussing Florence, I must talk about 2 noteworthy experiences.  On our first night in Florence, we partook in a lovely feast in the Tuscan hills.  This entire European trip has been filled with various tours from many different companies, but this one stole the show.  We were treated to a 4 course meal with 4 wine selections, and both the chef and host were extremely personable and entertaining.  Personally, I think that the host had been sipping some “vino” himself, but hey, what’s Italy without a little wine.  It was at this beautiful farmhouse in the hills that we discovered the Tuscan peoples love for steak and the beginning of the end for my delight in American cuisine.

Note: The Tuscan Dinner Experience that is described in this blog is no longer available, but you can click here to find a comparable option.

What this tour overcompensated for in good cheer and delicious cuisine, our second tour in Tuscany almost sent me packing.  Since every Chianti daytime wine tour was sold out, I found a tour that involved an easy-medium walk of Florence and included a wine tasting at an exclusive Tuscan villa in the hills.  When the tour guide showed up in full workout gear with us being the only three patrons, I should have known that we were in deep trouble.  We shall call this tour the “Death Walk.”  After hiking up 140 steps (no exaggeration) and up the Tuscan hills through winding roads that often required us to clutch the wall to prevent becoming road kill, we finally made it to the villa.  While the villa was just as beautiful as described and the wine and food pairing were superb,  we definitely caught a taxi back home.  Easy-medium walk my ass. You can click here to find an easier tour with a similar tasting and villa experience.

Rome

How does the old adage go?  When in Rome, do what the Romans do….  If that involves eating a lot of pizza, doing a lot of drinking, becoming a Gelato connessieur, and being one hell of a foot soldier, call me Roman.  There were so many architectural marvels in Rome, with the Colosseum being the one that stopped my heart.  Standing outside this majestic structure, I could hear the crowd cheers as the gladiators fought to their deaths.  Like really, I’m serious!  But even with all of the marvel that the Colosseum had to offer, I’m sure that my favorite would have been the Trevi Fountain.  And I say would have been, because of course, it is still under construction.  However, I still made my wish.  *shrugs

Colosseum.

Colosseum.

Vatican.

Vatican.

Pompeii

While our first day in Rome was spent sight seeing, day 2 was dedicated to seeing the ruins of the once glamorous city known as Pompeii.  I think that the only city that intrigues me more than Pompeii, would be the city of Atlantis (whether mythical or not).  Needless to say, our tour of Pompeii was not only informative, but hilarious.  Not only was Pompeii a city of fine architecture and riches, but also a city of brothels where gay sex was the norm.  And to think, our society likes to think that we are in the end of days.  The sins of man haven’t changed, just the way in which they are cloaked.  Let that sink in for a moment, it’s deep, I know.

Pompeii.

Pompeii.

Athens

Let me start off by saying, our stay in Athens was rough.  It is a shame that our stay in this marvel of a city had to be marred by a traveler’s worst nightmare… Lost luggage.  In the matter of a one way flight via Vueling Airlines, you can go from being best dressed to struggling choosing supermarket panties and deciding how to recycle today’s outfit for tomorrow.  I spent my first day in Athens trying to keep the group’s spirits up and trying not to succumb to the fear of our luggage being forever lost in oblivion.  However, we eventually sucked it up, hand washed our drawers, and handled it like some champs.

Since a day was wasted wallowing in our feelings, my time in Athens was minimal.  However, I did get to marvel at the city view from the top of the Acropolis (after almost sliding to my death due to the lack of grip on my converse and muscles in my legs) and find my favorite restaurant of the entire trip, Agora.  I’m not usually big on repeating restaurants, especially in a new city, but the staff and food was so good, that we made it a point to return the second night.  And the free fruit, ice cream, and shots at the end of each meal, only sealed the deal.

Click here for a half-day tour of Athens.

Let me not forget to add that we were also able to find some good deals on clothes at the mall in Athens.  Due to the $50s per day we were given for each day our luggage were lost, we were able to find some steals to hold us over for a few days.  I spent $100 and was able to replace most of my necessary toiletries and get 2 swimsuits, 2 pairs of sandals, 3 dresses, 2 shirts, and a skirt thanks to the end of summer/recession sale at H&M.  Won’t he do it!

#VuelingSucks

#VuelingSucks

Mykonos

If there was one place I wish I could have experienced in my early 20’s, it would have to be the Mykonos, my second favorite place of the entire trip.  The beaches were beautiful, the people were friendly, and the party scene rivaled anything I’ve encountered in the past 29 years (and I like to party).  From champagne showers to gorgeous Italian men that clearly liked black women, Mykonos owes me nothing (but a new liver).  If only for one city this trip, I was able to be my usual “free spirit with a wild heart” self and just live, live like no one was watching. We drank, we partied, and we drank some more.  And it was in Mykonos that we became one of the few Vueling customers to ever recover their lost luggage.  Perfect ending, right?

Crete


From the Mykonos, we traveled via ferry to the largest island in Greece, Crete.  While we arrived in Heraklion, I opted for our group to stay in a small village about 20 minutes from the city known as Archanes.  Crete was the portion of our trip where we could just let our hair down, rest our tired toes, and just chill and marvel in the beauty of our travels.  And that is exactly what we did.  Within 24 hours of arriving in Archanes, we had become one with the locals, including one of the only two taxi drivers, Katerina.  If you’re ever in Archanes and need a driver, call her (0030)6944-232224.

In Archanes, life takes place in the city’s square, which was a short trot down the hill from our residence house.  In the square, you could find your restaurants and bars and mingle with the city “folks.”  And at the end of each meal, they resumed the tradition of not allowing us to leave without enjoying complimentary shots, fresh fruit, and dessert.

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Michael and I.

Michael and I.

Santorini

I’ve always said that my perfect honeymoon destination was going to be Bora Bora… Well, that was before we took a day trip to Santorini.  Santorini was everything that every picture has every shown, and it was the epitome of the beauty of Greece and all of its marvels.  From the white buildings, to the blue beaches, to the rolling cliffs, my only regret is only being able to spend one day enjoying it’s beauty.

Instead of opting for a traditional tour, I was able to talk my traveling compadres into renting ATVS to tour the island like some bosses.  Until you’ve zipped through cliffs without barriers at high rates of speed without a map or care in the world, I’m going to venture to say maybe you haven’t lived.  Before this trip, I might have been the ride on an ATV behind her man kind of girl, but thanks to this trip, I’m now the get your own and meet my ass at the top kind of woman.  Hell of a difference….

Epic Fail.

Epic Fail.

End Notes


I started this 18 day “sabbatical” with a heavy heart and a wounded spirit with a slight vendetta with God.  So many doors have recently been closed in my face, without rhyme or reason, and I was beginning to doubt my purpose, or whether I even served a purpose.  I came to Europe looking for my muse…  the potion to heal my wounded heart and ego.  And I left with so much more… Not only did I find my muse, but a renewed lust for life, and a better understanding of why sometimes God has to make you uncomfortable to allow your true purpose to shine through.  I’m back focused, and all I can say is thank you God.  Thank you for the traveling grace, thank you for the trials, and thank you for putting me on the right track to finding myself.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: CHICAGO IN THE WINTER

It’s not a secret by now that Chicago is one of my favorite cities, if not my favorite city, in the States. Summertime Chi is enough to make you pack up your bags and relocate to the Windy City. But even though I’ve been to Chicago a handful of times, I had never been in the Winter, until I decided it would be a brilliant idea to bring in my NYE in this city notorious for its harsh winters with negative temperatures.

Let me first give this disclaimer, I’m from Texas. My winters usually involve days where shorts and sandals are appropriate, and even as I boarded my plane to head to temperatures slated to be at or around zero, I was only layered up to be prepared for disembarking from the plane. So, it’s not surprising that my conversation with my friend that’s a Chicago Native went something like this:

Me: Do I need to wear long johns and fleece tights at the same time?

Her: No.

Me: Are you going to help me decide the best way to tie my scarf?

Her: Yes.

Me: Do you think I need to go and get a ski mask?

Her: (I’m pretty sure this is probably where she slammed her hand to her forehead)

I’ve been to New York in the Winter, but that’s honestly where my experience with extreme cold weather temperatures comes to an end. And I can remember being so cold my first night in NY that I refused to leave the warmth of my cousin’s apartment. 110 degree weather, I have experience for days, but sleet and snow are outside of my realm of expertise.

There are a million ways to enjoy Chicago in the summertime. The weather is perfect, the festivals are in full swing, and the rooftop bars become every liquor connoisseurs playground. But what do you do when the temperature creeps into the negative, when it’s no longer fun to be an outdoor tourist, and when you’re in one of your favorite cities in the world?!?

Click here to get your Chicago City Pass for discounts to some of the most popular Chicago attractions.

Here is my list of 9 things to do in Chicago when the temperature tries to prevent you from living your best life:

Be festive. 

Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years are my favorite holidays, making winter and fall my favorite seasons to indulge in holiday activities.  Whether you go to ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo, see a Charlie Brown Christmas at the Broadway Playhouse, or visit the Magnificent Mile Light Festival, there is plenty to do for holiday enthusiast like myself.

Eat like you’re trying to gain a layer of flubber.

When it comes to food, Chicago is one of my favorite cities to restaurant hop and live the foodie life. This trip, I had the opportunity to enjoy some of Chicago’s best food outside of the ritzy and touristy areas. From the beef tips that I enjoyed at Wiley’s to the fried hot polish from Maxwells , I know that I put on a extra four or five pounds during my trip. I will just say that I needed the extra weight to battle the freezing temperatures. You can venture out on your own or take a food tour.

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Go ice-skating. 

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See a show on Broadway. 

Warm up with a cup of steamy hot chocolate.

There’s nothing like enjoying a warm, steamy mug of hot cocoa to escape from the frigid temperatures. Get on Trip Advisor and find the nearest highly ranked carrier in your area and forget it’s windy and below zero.

Visit a Museum. 

While many tourists know to visit the Art Institute Museum, Chicago is home to many other museums like the Field Museum or Museum of Contemporary Art.  Get a Chicago Explorer pass and escape the frigid temperatures to stimulate your artistic creativity.

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Go to a sports game. 

Whether it’s the Chicago Bulls, Bears, Cubs, White Sox etc, Chicago is the perfect city for sports fans. And if you like hockey, don’t forget to go and visit the all-new Black Hawks stadium.

Take a self-led tour of filming locations.

There have been many popular movies and TV shows filmed in Chicago. Since I’m a Batman fanatic, this is right up my alley. You can click here to track down some of Chicago’s most popular shot locations.

Shop at the new Jordan store. 

Picture Courtesy of Chicago Tribune

P.S.  If you would like assistance booking your next trip, click here.


Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: NEW ORLEANS- THE OFF BOURBON EDITION

In my head, I am an honorary New Orleans resident. At one point, after graduating college, I was in New Orleans every month simply catching up with old friends and enjoying one of the few cities that has a piece of my heart. When you graduated from a college about an hour away from one of the most famous cities in the world, and had college roommates that call it home, it’s almost impossible for it not to become a second city of residence. While most travelers to New Orleans visit the infamous Bourbon St, there is so much more to see and love in this lively city. While I recommend securing your seat on the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus, especially if you are New Orleans first timer, below are some of my favs to enjoying New Orleans, off of Bourbon St:

Eat Like It’s a Cheat Day

It’s no secret that New Orleans is the type of city that lives in a foodie’s dreams. But being that there are so many choices, I’ve narrowed down the list to a few of my favorites.  Since these locations are not on Bourbon Street, hail an Uber (using my code if it’s your first ride: ANTHONIAO) and go indulge in calorie overload.  Simply click the name to peruse these choices to find the ones that match your palate needs.

Breakfast/Brunch

The Ruby Slipper Cafe

Surrey’s Cafe and Juice Bar

The Trolley Stop

Russell Marina Grill

Another Broken Egg

Lunch/Dinner

Port of Call

Superior Seafood

Basin

Trenasse

Tableu

Compere Lapin Balise

Zea Rotisserie and Grill

Happy Hour

Victory

Skip the Line at Cafe Du Monde

If it’s your first time going to New Orleans, by all means, stand in line and enjoy the powdered sugar covered pastries that tourists can’t seem to get enough of, BUT remember to not drink the cup of water that comes with your treats, as it is solely given to clean your hands, and don’t wear black, unless you want to leave looking like a 2 year old that just got into a bag of flour. But if you’ve already done the Cafe Du Monde thing and just want some beignets equally as delicious, go a little further down the sidewalk to New Orleans Famous Beignets. The line is usually non-existent and you can still get the same “quality” people watching from one of the tables on their outside patio. You’ll thank me later.

Take a Tour

If you watched American Horror Story’s third season, Coven, which was set in New Orleans, you were probably prompted to do some research on the real characters behind the actors like the infamous, Marie Laveau. New Orleans is filled with enough spooky ghost stories and voodoo legends to create a booming tourist industry. As you walk through the French Quarters, take a stop at one of the tour vendors and book a tour of your choice. If ghosts and creepy old houses are not your thing, ask about a swamp tour, drunk history tour, steamboat cruise tour, or anything else that might spark your interests. You can click the links below to access some of my favorite New Orleans tours:

Ghost, Voodoo, and Vampire Tour

New Orleans Swamp and Bayou Boat Tour

Small Group Swamp Tour by Airboat

Food and History Tour

New Orleans City Tour: Katrina, Garden District, French Quarter, Graveyard

City of the Dead Cemetery Tour

Cocktail History Walking Tour

Night Cemetery and Ghost BYOB Bus Tour

Hang out at Harrahs after the Club

The millennial locals will probably be mad at me for sharing this tip, but after the clubs close, Harrahs has become a popular hangout for those that are not yet ready to call it a night. For a few pennies, literally, you can sit at one of the slot machines and indulge in the complimentary drinks, or simply hang out and people watch with some of your friends.

Take a Stroll through Jackson Square

This historic national landmark is cited as the place where Louisiana was made a US territory before the signing of the Louisiana Purchase. Today, Jackson Square is filled with local painters, artists, and musicians showing off their talents and selling their goods to ogling tourists. This park is the perfect place to nurse a drink or beignet while people watching and taking in the greenery.

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Eat at the Popeyes on Canal

Maybe I made this up, maybe it true, but I would put money on endorsing the Popeyes on Canal, the original Popeyes, as having the best fried chicken in the world (even at 4am when you’re just leaving the club). Don’t let the long line detour you, because the servers and cashiers have efficiency down to a science and will have you walking the quarters chomping your chicken in no time, greasy lips and all.

Visit Celebration Rum Distillery

Who would have ever guessed that New Orleans produces one the highest rated rums in the US? Since I’m frequently in New Orleans, I’m always looking for new things to try and do, so when a close friend suggested visiting Celebration Distillery, I was all for it. For $15, you can take a 45 minute tour of the facility and sample some of their award winning rums. And let me not forget the welcome cocktail you are presented with on your arrival. For those that are without a vehicle in New Orleans, Celebration even offers a complimentary shuttle to their facility that leaves from the French Market at different intervals throughout the day.

Go Urban Kayaking 

In real life, I’m not very athletic, but there’s something about the lure of  kayaking that always lands me ill-advisedly in a boat with a paddle in my hand. As a alternative to walking and bus tours, Kayak-iti-Yat offers adventure enthusiast the oppurtunity to explore New Orleans via the city’s vast waterway systems.

Compete in the Tchoupitoulas Barathon

6 miles. 6 bars. 6 beers. When I first signed up for this very untraditional race, I didn’t know what to expect. I can’t run 6 miles on a regular day, so I don’t know what made me think it was a good idea to sign up for 6 miles semi-inebriated. From men dressed in tutus to all types of festive attire, we took the New Orleans streets half jogging, half walking, chugging beers and taking shots for the esteemed title of Barathon Champion. This annual race always takes place 2 Fridays after Jazz Fest and continues to get better and better with each passing year. I’m not going to lie, I ended up sleep at a sushi dinner table after I completed the race, but hey, I finished it before it finished me.

Shop at the Farmer’s and French Market

Gather your coins and support local vendors as they sell everything from handmade goods and souvenirs to fresh fruits and vegetables. And if you’re a crawfish connoisseur like myself, pick up a pound or three from the farmer’s market, already boiled and seasoned to perfection.

What are some of your favorite off-Bourbon places in New Orleans? Please share in the comments.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: PACK RIGHT, PACK LIGHT

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In April, a group of friends and I embarked on a trip to Mexico to celebrate the 30th birthday of one of my college roommates and closest friends.  As we organized our trip via group message, one of the questions that seemed to arise continuously were the packing necessities that would need to be brought along for our getaway.  Unlike many vacation destinations, all-inclusive resort trips are usually the easiest trips of which to pack.  Your day wear often becomes your night wear as you enjoy the many amenities the resort has to offer and the drinks that flow at the snap of a finger.  While I am usually very fashion conscious and prefer cocktail dresses to sundresses, I’ve learned my lesson about over packing when visiting the Carribean.  They say you can never be overdressed or overeducated, and while I agree with the latter, no one wants to be the girl at the resort club with the achy feet watching the other vacationers dance drunkenly in flip flops still coated in sand. Below are helpful tips to help you pack for your next all-inclusive vacation.

Travel Documents: Depending on your destination, make sure you have proper identification (passport, visa, etc) and travel documents required for boarding your plane, hotel check-in, excursions, etc.  Your internet access might be spotty, even if your resort says otherwise, so it’s best to have everything printed and readily available.

Clothing: Before you leave for an all-inclusive vacation, be sure and check the resort’s dining restrictions, as most of the finer resorts may have a dress code for their fine dining establishments.  Pack clothing items that fit these restrictions, and when possible, try to pack articles of clothing that will work for day and night.  Since most of your day will be spent soaking up the sun in swimwear, that maxi dress you packed to wear around the beach as a cover up that didn’t leave your beach bag can instead be carried over to dinner attire.  Pack light, pack right (unless you are a career fashionista or fashion blogger).  Since I’m someone that doesn’t like to be seen in the same swimsuit twice, below is my ideal clothing list for a 5 day, 4 night all-inclusive trip:

  • 4 Swimsuits

  • 2-4 Cover-Ups

  • 3 Dresses (These can  be substituted for non-shear cover-ups)

  • Sandals (Not Flip-Flops)

  • High-Heels

  • Sneakers (for workouts and/or excursions)

  • Pajamas

  • Undergarments

  • Excursion Outfit(s)

  • Workout Attire

  • Small Clutch or Swing Bag

  • Travel Outfit

Toiletries and Grooming: Let’s be honest. Most of your all-inclusive trip will be spent in or near water, and unless you plan on styling your hair everyday just to jump in the pool or swim on the beach, grooming supplies can be kept to a minimum.  Besides the daily toiletry items, like my dental hygiene products, soap, deodorant, lotion, perfume, etc, I try to keep my toiletry case light, especially when it comes to hair care and makeup products.  I wear minimal makeup on most days, so when I’m on vacation triggering my inner mermaid, I keep my products to the basics: Foundation, Blush, Mascara.  And I usually only break them out for dinner.  Now, I realize that everyone’s haircare regimen is different, but only bring the products that you absolutely need and leave the rest at home.  And don’t forget your sunscreen, mosquito repellent, and any medications that you may need while away from home.

Misc: Since the weather will probably be somewhere between hot and scorching, be sure to include your sunglasses and a beach hat.  Also, verify that you have all of your chargers and additional batteries to sustain your electronic devices while on vacation.  I can almost promise you that you don’t want to pay the up-charge for either at your resort.  While I am not one to wash clothes on vacation, if your resort offers that amenity and you’re a stickler for returning home with clean clothes, be sure to include your travel sized, leak-proof detergent.  And if you plan to shop, it may be wise to pack an empty bag to bring home your loot and/or use as your daily beach bag.  Last but not least, check the weather and see if you need to throw your umbrella in your bag, swag.

Helpful Tips:

  1. Check out my Travel Store to purchase some of my favorite travel items, from fold-able duffel bags to fancy passport covers and more (Available February 2019).

  2. When I headed to Europe for 18 days last summer, one of my friends recommended handy travel compression bags.  These bags are an inexpensive way to compress multiple items to make for easier packing. Click here to purchase a set.

  3. Be mindful of airline baggage costs, and keep your bags and fees to a minimum.

  4. Don’t check your fancy luggage and expect it to come back in tip top shape.  Let’s face it, if you’ve ever watched the airlines unload/toss your luggage off the plane in transit to baggage claim, then you are more than aware of the scuffs and tears that come along with checked luggage.  And unless your bag is severly damaged, meaning the type of damage that prevents it from being re-used, you will not be reimbursed for their callousness.  If you’re rich forever and plan on taking your Louis, make sure its carry-on size.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: TIPS BEFORE BALI

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This summer I had the opportunity to combine two trips into one, so after spending 5 amazing days in Thailand, I hopped on a plane to begin my stay in Bali. Bali easily landed on my list of places that I will revisit many times throughout my life, and here are some tips to make your trip just as enjoyable:

1) Make sure to bring some conservative pieces, especially if you will be staying in Ubud.

While daisy dukes and swimsuits were the norm in Kuta, Ubud was much more conservative, and appropriate covering is required to enter most temples and religious buildings. Since the sun can be brutal during the day, err on the side of caution and at least stick a cardigan in your bag just in case the environment is attire restricted.

2) Be careful of the foods you consume.

Bali Belly is very real, and unfortunately, one of my friends fell victim after over-indulging at the 99k ($7 US) buffet.  Bali Belly not only ruined the last few days of my friend’s trip, but it also followed him home. And being that he had just come from out the country, he couldn’t be treated at an urgent care clinic and had to choose between toughing it out until he met with his doctor the following weekday or taking a trip to the emergency room. The flight to Bali is long enough without having to deal with additional shit, pun intended. Unless you want to spend your entire trip suffering from tummy troubles that may land you at the pharmacy or clinic, be mindful of the foods you eat and pack some Imodium and probiotics to strengthen your immune system, just in case.

3) Do not drink the water.

Refer to #2.

4) Buy your liquor at a duty free BEFORE you reach Bali.

Liquor is considerably more expensive when you get to Bali, in both stores and restaurants. I kicked myself in the butt for not buying a bottle or 2 in Singapore on my layover when I got to Bali and saw that a bottle of regular Hennessy was $120 US. And let me not even mention that their cheapest bottle of wine was around $40 US, and that was for a brand that was similar to Barefoot, which is $5 a bottle in the US. Your money goes far in Bali on just about everything, with the exception of liquor.

5) Respect the offerings.

One of my favorite things about Bali, especially Ubud, was the smell of incense permeating the air due to the fresh daily offerings in front of almost every home and business. Since the offering are plentiful, be sure to watch your step, so that you don’t inadvertently knock over one or smush it under your shoes.

6) Include these amazing things on your itinerary (click here)

7) Stay in Seminyak versus Kuta.

When I first started mapping out my trip to Bali, I read several blogs and articles about the best places to stay. Almost every blog recommended staying in Seminyak over Kuta, since the 2 are so close in proximity.  On arrival, I figured out the rationale fast. Kuta is considerably more sketchy than Seminyak and nowhere near as nice, but don’t worry, you can still reach the same attractions from both.

8)  Be extremely careful when taking an Uber. Please.

Even though you can request Uber from various places in Kuta and Seminyak, the service is discouraged and there have been many reports of Uber drivers being attacked during passenger pick-up or drop-off. At many businesses, including popular places like Potato Head and Ku De Ta, Uber pickups are banned and there are several signs discouraging riders from using them versus a taxi. If you decided to call an Uber and your driver requests to pick you up in a different, but close location, it is probably for their safety. Uber is the cheaper route (and has a motorbike driver option), so we did opt to use it, especially since the ride to the airport was $3 US versus $20 US using the hotel shuttle, but just make sure that you use with caution and are open to being flexible with your driver. And if you should opt to use a taxi, use blue taxis only, as they are the only ones regulated by the city.

9) Negotiate.

The price of almost anything that you can get off the street in Bali, including taxis, is negotiable. NEVER go with the first price, and as a rule of thumb, remember that the real price is often 25-50% cheaper than the first asking price.

10) Rent a Scooter (at your own risk)

Ummm, so I would like to think that I am a decent driver, and I’ve rode solo on everything from a ATV to a snow mobile, BUT that did not prepare me for driving my first scooter. Let’s just say after skidding out full speed into traffic and attempting to stop the bike with my water shoes like I was on a 10 speed while steadily hitting the gas, both my travel companions and the owners of the scooter company decided that maybe I would be better off as a passenger. And just to give you a visual, I had my tote bag on my shoulder like I was really about to get on the scooter and do something. Tragic, just tragic. So while scooters are a great way to see the rice fields up close and let the gentle breeze waft through your hair, rent at your own risk.

11) Invest in mosquito spray.

I thought that mosquitos couldn’t get any worse than at my Granny’s house on the east side of Houston, until I went to Bali. Mosquitos were everywhere in the midst of the other exotic bugs, and quite the nuisance, which I can’t understand since there were frogs by the dozen on every corner trying to steal my joy.

12) Make sure you take some days to relax and just enjoy the scenery.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

TRAVEL GUIDE: OCHO RIOS, JAMAICA

Last year, on Thanksgiving Day, I entered into the third decade of my life.  30 years young.  For months leading up to my birthday, I told anyone that cared to listen that the only guarantee for my big day was that I would be jumping down somebody’s waterfall in Jamaica.  Since my birthday fell on a family holiday, I wasn’t really concerned about who would be able to make the trip and big plunge with me, as long as I had a rushing body of water, a Red Stripe or 3, and a camera to capture the moment, life was fine with me. So, a few months before my scheduled departure date, I sent out a mass email to my usual travel crew and began to plan my first vacation to the reggae capital of the world.

The Jewel Dunn’s River Resort was worth every penny.  The rooms were spacious, the resort beach beautiful, the premium liquor plentiful, and the staff became our friends.  When was the last time you went to an all-inclusive resort that served Hennessy?  I’ll wait, but let me just say that the liquor selection definitely overshadowed the mediocre food that you find at just about any all inclusive resort.

Note: If your Jamaica travels will land you in Montego Bay versus Ocho Rios, you can click here to read my MoBay travel guide filled with tips, or click here to book your room at either a Secrets or Breathless resort.

While I’m a beach bum at heart, I am also a tourist, and there were some things in Ocho Rios that were must sees on my list.  There was no way that I could go to Jamaica and not visit the birth and resting place of Bob Marley, Nine Miles, or not find the perfect waterfall (Dunns River and Secret Falls) to make my birthday wish come true. Unfortunately, my phone died before we reached the peak of Nine Miles, but some sights photos wouldn’t do justice anyway.  If you’re struggling in the humble department, take a trip through Jamaica and up to Nine Miles, and it might help you remember that even on your worst day you are blessed.  From the shanty huts to the children chasing behind our tour van barefoot on the undeveloped roads like on Belly, I had to take a minute and just say, “Thank you God.”

And if you’re a free spirit with a wild heart that’s open to taking a walk on the wild side, take a trip to Shades on a Freaky Friday.  Sorry, no pictures were allowed, so you can only imagine what that means.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you, but you can definitely say I sent you.

Restaurant Highlight:

Miss T’s Kitchen

What is a trip to Jamaica without enjoying traditional cuisine in an authentic Jamaican restaurant.  I couldn’t imagine depriving my travel crew of not only a home cooked meal for Thanksgiving, but also making them suffer through the Jamaican attempt to Americanize the buffet with dry turkey, bland dressing, and a host of other holiday items that didn’t even slightly resemble your mama’s home cooking.  So, based on a host of yelp reviews and recommendations from the locals, we ate our Thanksgiving late lunch/dinner at Miss T’s Kitchen in the heart of Ocho Rios.  Usually a very opinionated and conservative food connoisseur, I must admit that the ox tails and rice and peas were fingerlicking good.  The ambiance of the restaurant also did not disappoint, as it was set outside in the center of a lush garden, protected just enough so that the daily torrential downpour didn’t dampen our moods or our clothes, but instead merged in harmony with the Bob Marley playing from the speakers.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

LOCAL GUIDE: HOUSTON BRUNCH FAVS

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Brunch is absolutely one of my favorite meals of the weekend.  There is nothing like enjoying mimosas and signature entrees with friends and/or family at trendy eateries with delicious food and great service.  Below are some of my favorite brunch spots in and around the Houston area:

The General Public

This place has been one of my favorites since its grand opening a few months ago.   Whether you are trying their fried quail and hotcakes or the bacon crab stack, my personal favorites, the perfect accent to any meal at The General Public are their $1 mimosas.

Grace’s

Besides having exceptional food, this trendy Upper Kirby restaurants makes frozen mimosas that will keep you coming back time and time again.  Although slightly pricey, the atmosphere and delectable cuisine are exactly what you have come to expect from restaurants in the Johnny Carrabba’s chain.

Dish Society

This place was recommended several times before I had the opportunity to finally make it to their La Centerra location.  And let me be honest, I am absolutely addicted to their brisket stuffed sweet potato and smoked Gouda grits.

The Houstonian

Even though most of us probably know of this fabulous hotel for its upscale accommodations and infamous Trellis Spa, their Center Court Restaurant might have some of the best breakfast omelets in the city.

Brasserie 19

This restaurant is still sitting on my list of must try brunches, but I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews, and their brunch menu has enough options for even the pickiest foodie.

 What are some of your favorite brunch spots in and around the city of Houston?

P.S. Sometimes you just need to get away, from your house, that is.  Let Tonia help you put together the perfect staycation for you to vacay in your own city.  Whether it’s an overnight stay with your girls, your spouse, or a solo trip, Travels by Tonia will plan your staycation from start to finish.  Who said you had to leave your home city to still have a rejuvenating vacation?  Click here and you will hear back from a representative within the next 24-48 hours to begin your destination planning.  

LOCAL GUIDE: MESSINA HOF WINERY

In celebration of the birthday of one of my close friends, we spent the day at Messina Hof, a winery and resort in Bryan, TX.  Even though Texas is not known for their vineyards, Messina Hof offers a unique blend of locally grown wines.  Founded by Paul Bonnarigo in 1983, today Messina Hof produces over 50,000 cases of wine a year and offers year round tours to visitors and wine connoisseurs alike.

As you wait for your tour to begin, you have the option to sample several of Messina Hof’s blends in their wine shop, accompanied by a cheese and meat tray specified to your taste.  We opted to go with a Gorgonzola, Red Dragon, and Cheddar to compliment our Sparkling Almond Wine.

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Similar to most liquor tours, the tour takes place in 3 parts: an overview of the history, a walk through the vineyards and distillery, and a tasting.  On the grounds of Messina Hof in Bryan, part of your tour includes the bed and breakfast where guests can stay on site. The doors of the villa were once a part of the home of Louis Pasteur, the father of pasteurization.

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From the villa, you are then taken on a tour through the vineyards, which had just started to bloom.  In Bryan, there are only about 30 acres of grapes being grown on the property.  Most of the grapes used in Messina Hof’s wines are grown in the panhandle.  According to Nick, our tour guide, wine makers prefer hot arid temperatures, so that they can control the amount of water being distributed to their crops.  Even though the vines were just starting to bloom, we still were able to get in some good photos.  Maybe, we were feeling the wine a little too much.

 After the vineyards, we were ushered into the distillery to learn more about the wine making process, which varies from company to company.

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And last but not least, our tour guide walked us through a six step, four wine tasting.  While many of us just like to make our way through a bottle (as quickly as possible),  there is an actual process that wine connoisseurs go through during wine tasting: See, Smell, Swirl, Sip, Swish, Sip.  Your first sip of wine should never determine whether it’s a keeper, because it takes time for your palates to adjust to most blends.  As we navigated our senses through four of Messina Hoff’s popular wines, there were 2 that made it on to my weekday after work list.  This was my second time touring Messina Hof, and I’m looking forward to one day making it back to stomp the grapes.

For lodging options near Messina Hof, click here.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.