MSC Seaside: The Ports!

I really should have titled this one “The Port!” since we only got off the ship once :). The final itinerary we sailed changed a couple of times, impacted the most by the devastating hurricanes that came through the Caribbean back in September. Originally included on our itinerary were San Juan and St Martin, with both being (understandably) pulled from the schedule not long after the storms devastated both islands. As a result, our final itinerary ended up being Antigua, St Thomas, and Nassau. Of those three stops, Antigua is the only one we’d never been to, so we decided to stay on the Seaside in St Thomas and Nassau, as we wanted to get as much time on this new ship as possible.

Not seeing much on the list of ship excursions in Antigua that we really wanted to do, we decided to get day passes to Sandals Grande Antigua. We’ve had good times with day passes at Sandals in the past, and wanted to check out this resort and its beaches. Having a pool with a swim up bar doesn’t hurt either! The Seaside arrived early in the morning, sometime before 8am. We really weren’t in a big hurry to get off the ship, so while the girls slept in, I just walked around, ate some breakfast, and took a few pictures:

After a relaxing and slow morning, we finally got off the ship a little after 10am. Things in the port were a little hectic, it’s a small port area and including the Seaside there were 4 ships docked that day. We did find a cab pretty quickly, however, and were on our way at a cost of $12 for all three of us (one way). The drive over was interesting, to say the least. It was Boxing Day, which is celebrated on the island, so many of the streets in the port area were blocked by different activities, including an actual boxing match. Apparently anyone can just challenge someone else to a fight and step in the ring! We did eventually get around all of that, arriving at Sandals roughly 25 minutes after we left the port.

Upon arriving at Sandals, we checked in, got information on when our tour would take place (a requirement for travel agent day passes) and headed down to the pool/beach area in the Mediterranean Village area of the resort. Since it was approaching lunch time, we decided to eat first, so we stepped in to the open air restaurant Barefoot by the Sea for a quick bite to eat. From start to finish, it was definitely an enjoyable experience. Beautiful setting, tasty burger, excellent service, yea, it was a good choice!

Next up was some beach time. Their beach is connected to a public beach, so the only thing that’s really limited to Sandals guests only are the loungers. The ones with umbrellas were all taken, so we grabbed three in the sun and spent a little time relaxing. The beach itself is beautiful, but due to time of year, the water was a little chilly, so none of us went in for more than a minute. It was a bit windy, too, so after about 30 minutes or so, we decided to move to the main pool in the Mediterranean Village portion of the resort (full map here). This is the part I really enjoy, as I’m a fan of swim-up pool bars. We probably spent a couple of hours at the pool, both relaxing on the loungers and over sitting at the pool bar. Excellent drinks in a quiet atmosphere with blue skies overhead. Definitely the way to spend a port day!

Just before 2pm we headed back up to the lobby for our tour. This resort had just reopened after a 3 month closure for renovations, so it was nice to get to see the place right after all of that work was completed. I’ve got a bunch of pictures of the resort at the end of this post, but I will say that we were impressed with what we saw. The views from those ocean-facing rooms is amazing, everyone we met during the day was friendly, and the property has plenty of space to allow for activities, entertainment, or just plain relaxing. One of the highlights for Bayley was the cat cafe. They have a few cats roaming the property, so over by the spa they have a little open air cat house where they keep some food and water. We didn’t initially see any cats in the area, but as we were walking away, one jumped out of the bushes and eventually let Bayley pet it.

After hanging out with the cat for a bit, we headed over to the Garden Pool in the Sunset Bluff portion of the resort (resort map) to relax a little more before departure. We’d pre-arranged a departure time with our cab driver, so I think we had something like 30 more minutes at the resort before he arrived, and we weren’t going to waste it! This is a beautiful resort, and we enjoyed all of our time there. A big thank you to the staff for the tour, as well! Enjoy a few more pictures from our time at Sandals Grande Antigua, and (shameless plug) if they inspire you, feel free to contact Jen about booking a stay here!

 

A Night in the Kirkenes Snow Hotel – Part 2

Ever wonder what it’s like to sleep in an igloo? Read on!

After finishing up with the dog sledding covered in my last post, we walked around the facilities a little more, stopping to see all of the dogs and resting a bit before the actual Snowhotel program started. An important thing to note here is that there are two sides to this place:

  • The Gamme cabins, which are heated and I’m sure provide amazing views via their panoramic windows
  • The actual Snowhotel, comprised of ~20 rooms carved out of snow/ice connected by a long walkway, which ends at the ice bar.

We chose the colder option and booked a room in the Snowhotel. If we were going to make the trip up there, we were definitely going to make it worthwhile! This isn’t like checking in to a regular hotel, as the program is specific and has set times when you can be in your room. You also don’t drop your luggage off in your room on arrival, it’s shuttled from the small building at the entrance to the luggage room, located in the main building at the far end of the snowhotel and held there throughout your stay, but more on that later.

So how does this work? Well, at around 5pm, everyone staying in the Snowhotel met in Gabba restaurant near the dog sledding area to find that out! Upon arrival, we took a seat and were given a brief history of the facility, along with a basic timeline of events for the evening. Snowhotel guests pretty much do everything together, including eating dinner and breakfast, so we were all on the same schedule. While in Gabba, we also had the chance to cook more reindeer sausage for ourselves as a little pre-dinner snack. Yummy!

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After finishing up in Gabba, we headed over to feed the reindeer. On arriving at the platform, we were all given some food and were able to reach over the fence to feed any that came our way. The reindeer knew what was coming, and were more than happy to take the food off our hands.

After the feeding, we had some time to walk through all the Snowhotel rooms, but having done this earlier in the day when no one else was in there, we used it as a little downtime before dinner, and just walked around outside a little more. Here are a few of the other rooms that I’d shot earlier in the day:

At dinner time, everyone met in the first floor dining room for the group dinner. We had a set table where the 20 or so of us staying in the Snowhotel sat. Now, one thing I’ve never mentioned here is that I’m not a seafood guy. Like at all. Before this trip, the last time I’d really eaten fish was well over 20 years ago. I knew going in to this trip that I’d likely be stuck eating seafood at least one, if not most nights on the trip, it’s the nature of being in a coastal country known for it. This was one of those night. On the menu:

  • Reindeer carpaccio
  • Arctic Char with potatoes
  • Ice cream with caramel sauce
  • Northern Light (hot cocoa with peppermint liquer – we ordered this as an extra)

It was all really good, including the fish. While I didn’t eat all of the char, I ate quite a bit of it, and was surprised at how good it tasted. Congrats to the Snowhotel on getting me to like a seafood dish!

After dinner we had a bit of free time before bed, so we walked around the complex a bit, followed by a visit to the ice bar. It’s exactly what it sounds like, a bar made entirely out of ice. Only being open for an hour, we got there pretty early, and found our bartender all set up and ready to serve. With Bayley having just turned 21, she partook in a few drinks with me. We opted for a 4-shot package, where he poured Bayley and I each 4 different shots, telling a story with each. I really wish I could remember those stories, but no such luck. I can say that it was pretty fun, and included 5th shot at no charge, with him also giving Bayley a 6th “birthday” shot for free. Drinking at an ice bar was an awesome experience, one we all enjoyed and won’t soon forget. Our excellent bartender made it that much better 🙂

I almost forgot, when you’re done with each drink, you have to clean up after yourself, which consists of smashing your shot glass (also made solely of ice) on the bar. Nice touch :). Here’s a little Boomerang of Bayley “cleaning up” after one of her shots!

When it came time for bed, the real fun began. First, you head in to the luggage room and grab what you want to change in to. One key thing here is that you do not want to overdo it with what you wear. My dog sledding guide had warned me that when she stayed in the hotel, she overdressed and was hot most of the night, so I just grabbed a short sleeved t-shirt, and my flannel pajama pants. After changing, we each grabbed a sleeping kit, which consisted of a thermal sleeping bag, sheets (basically a bag made out of sheets that you put yourself in), a balaclava, and some heavy wool socks. Here are a couple of shots of the area where the kit items are, the sleeping bags, and the showers:

At that point, everything else you have goes back in to your luggage, and you head to your room with your sleeping kit and boots to get ready for bed. Once you arrive at your room, it’s a matter of getting into the sheet “bag” (felt like I was getting ready for a potato sack race), and then into the sleeping bag. This part was harder than I expected. After laying down in the sleeping bag, it took a lot of effort to get into the sleeping bag properly to ensure you could get it zipped up and cinched around your head properly. Once complete, however, we were ready for bed. Here’s a 360 degree look around the room with us all bundled up and laying down:

I slept pretty good most of the night, and that sleeping bag definitely keeps you warm, even though you’re laying on a bed carved from ice! The most common question we’ve been asked is: what happens if you need to get up during the night to go to the bathroom? Well, you get out of your bags, put your shoes on, and walk the hall (inside, but still in the snowhotel) to the main building. Sure, you may get a little cold in the hall, but once you’re back, it’s into the warmth of the sleeping bag once again.

The next morning, if you’re still asleep at 7:30, a woman comes in ringing a bell to wake you up, as you still have a schedule to keep. This is where I can see it getting pretty busy, too. Once awake, you grab your sleeping kit and make your way back to the main building. At this point you’re basically getting ready for breakfast, and yes, there are showers with warm water as shown in a previous picture, but when the hotel is full, it could easily feel crowded in here, as the luggage area and bathrooms are really only sized for 4-7 people max in my opinion. It wasn’t really bad for us, as some people had gotten up earlier, and some were still making their way up the hall.

After getting dressed, it was time for breakfast. We all headed to the same little restaurant we’d eaten dinner at, just that this time with the sun up we could see the amazing view out the panoramic window. Breakfast itself was pretty good, with a selection of breads, meats, cheeses, and some eggs and bacon. All delicious!

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Once breakfast is over, that’s pretty much it for a single night program in the Snowhotel. You’re still welcome to make use of the facilities until departure, and with some time before we had to head to the ship in Kirkenes, we made use of it. Another nice thing at the Snowhotel is the use of the snow equipment. You can take out snowshoes and/or cross-country skis at no additional cost, so after walking around and petting the dogs again, complete with a visit to see the 3-4 week old puppy, we went snowshoeing! We put some of their cold weather gear on, grabbed the snowshoes, and stopped at the entrance building to see where the trail was. I admit we didn’t stay out long, but we got quite the workout. It’s a hilly trail, and not being used to walking in these things, we were all exhausted after about 45 minutes or so.

After we got back and returned the gear, we relaxed in Gabba for a few minutes before it was time to head out on our bus. Looking back on our time at the Snowhotel, it couldn’t have provided a better start to the trip. We loved every second of it, and if you’re headed to Norway during the winter, I highly recommend a trip up here, it’s well worth the money and will provide memories that last a lifetime!

In my next post, I’ll be covering our (very) brief time on Hurtigruten’s MS Nordnorge, so stay tuned. In the meantime, enjoy a few more pics of the Snowhotel!

A Night in the Kirkenes Snow Hotel – Part 1

Read about our stay at the Snowhotel in Kirkenes Norway, starting with our dog sledding excursion!

As mentioned in my Norway kickoff post, our first real stop on this adventure was in Kirkenes for some dog sledding and a night at the Snowhotel. We’d gone back and forth on the latter part, as it’s not cheap to stay there, but in the end decided that it was a once in a lifetime that we just had to do while we were there. We couldn’t have been happier with that decision :).

After flying up to Kirkenes from Oslo, we grabbed a cab from the airport to the hotel at a cost of around 250NOK. On arrival to the Snowhotel, we checked in to the main building, dropped our luggage, and were given a quick tour of the place by one of the hostesses. She did a really solid job of explaining how everything was going to work, walked us over to the actual snow hotel building, pointed out the heated cabins for those who don’t want to sleep in an ice cave, gave us a quick tour of the main area where dinner would be served, and where the private lounge for snow hotel guests was. Some shots from the walk:

We were also told that we were the only ones staying in a family-sized room, and as a result we’d have our choice of rooms in that category, so we should check them all out and let them know which we wanted. After walking through each of the family rooms, Bayley easily made the call, we were staying in the Frozen-themed room, which you can take a 360-degree tour of!

The artists who carve these rooms do amazing work, even down to a thinner ceiling to allow natural light in, visible in the above photo.

With that out of the way, we had some time before our dog sledding excursion began, so we walked over to the Gabba Restaurant to grab a quick bite to eat, as we hadn’t had lunch yet. Just grabbing a snack, I had a reindeer sausage, Jen had a salmon sandwich, and Bayley had a piece of cake. Not exactly a full meal, but enough to tide us over for the dog sledding, and delicious to boot!

When it came time for the excursion, we stepped out of Gabba to find the group already assembling. The dogs are all onsite, so we basically were leaving on the sleds from just a few feet outside of the restaurant. The guides were busy getting the dogs all sorted out, so after putting on the insulated overalls and balaclavas they provide, we headed over and waited by our assigned sleds. Jen and Bayley were in the lead, with me in the second one. After getting everything sorted and meeting our guides, we were off, sort of. Jen and Bayley’s dogs weren’t too keen on working with each other, so we did have a couple of early stops shortly after leaving to get that sorted, but they got it taken care of pretty quick.

I have to say, this is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done, and gave us some amazing views of the snow-covered landscape. Just check out some of this video!

At one point, we had the option to drive the sled (as shown in one of the pics above), and I jumped at it. I actually got to drive for two stints, since I was the only passenger on mine, and had a blast the entire time. I even managed to keep the sled upright :). Shortly after I gave the controls back, however, that changed. Right before the half-way point, we hit a corner faster than expected and took a tumble. I wasn’t expecting the shift in the sled, so I totally forgot to lean against it, which I’m sure didn’t help. Falling out into a bunch of light and fluffy snow meant no injuries, but the dogs were still running, sled in tow. Fortunately, the driver of the sled ahead of us was able to stop our sled as it raced by.

That was about the point where we were stopping for a break anyway, so the guides locked down the sleds, handed out some yummy warm juice, and set up a fire for us to warm up next to for a bit. It also gave us a chance to give the dogs some love, which we were all to happy to do:

After the stop ended, we continued on through the snowy tundra through the back half of the course, with scenery just as beautiful as the first half. Upon our arrival back at the hotel, all of the dogs who were left behind welcomed us (or their fellow pups) back rather loudly, as well!

After arriving back, we returned our cold weather gear, and went to rest for a bit before our Snowhotel stay really began. The trip was a ton of fun, and we were all really glad we spent the money. I highly recommend trying this if you get the chance!

Next up, I cover our actual stay in the Snowhotel, complete with dinner, drinks at the Ice Bar, and sleeping on a large block of ice!

Hotel Review – Disney’s Coronado Springs

For our Thanksgiving trip to Disney World, we’d originally booked a room at Pop Century Resort, one we’ve stayed at in the past, but a few weeks out from this trip, we were able to move the reservation to Coronado Springs for a relatively small increase. Having never stayed there, we decided to give it a try.

Check in was pretty easy here. I’d actually checked in online the day before, and just before noon on our scheduled day of arrival, I got a text letting me know our room was ready for us. Upon arrival, we hit the registration counter, got our keys and some basic information. While the main building lookd fine, one thing that stood out were the lack of Christmas decorations. Jen and I ate dinner at Beaches and Cream that night, and seeing both Beach Club and Yacht Club pretty well saturated in Christmas, were a bit surprised that Coronado Springs had yet to get any love in this area, or maybe it was just so subtle we didn’t’ see them.

After checking in, we headed over to our room, located in the Cabanas section (building 9A, specifically). We’d requested a water view, and got just that, as we had a corner room overlooking the Cabanas village pool. Our room itself was pretty disappointing, especially for a hotel classified as a moderate. Disney really needs to gut these rooms and start over, as they feel like they haven’t been touched in 20 years. We never had an issue with it being clean, it just felt worn and dated. Additionally, one thing we really liked about French Quarter back in May was that there were two sinks, allowing us to get ready faster in the morning. Not so here, as shown in the room pics.

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The Cabanas section does have a little beach with a few hammocks hung, which was kinda cool:

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After getting settled, we spent some time walking the grounds. There are some cool views here, but if you’re out in one of the farther building groups, like Ranchos (property map), it could be a bit of a hike to get to the main building. Ours wasn’t too bad, but I’d say that we definitely didn’t fill our soda mugs up nearly as often due to the added distance from the main building (vs French Quarter). In addition to the main building, there’s also a large pool area in the middle of the property, referred to as the “Dig Site”. This is actually kinda cool, with a Mayan theme to it, and it’s complete with a pool, play area, sand volleyball court, and cantina.

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Back on the Christmas decorations, we did notice a tree and some wreaths in the lobby on one of our last nights there, so either we just didn’t see them initially, or they didn’t decorate the place until after the higher-end hotels were done. We’d visited a couple more properties as part of our Disney Dining plan dinners, and all of those were pretty heavily decorated, so it kinda felt like Coronado Springs was an afterthought in this regard. Frankly, it seemed like a number of areas of this resort were worn and needed attention. Case in point, there are automatic gates on the road that surrounds the property. As you turn in to Coronado Springs, you can turn left or right to get to guest areas before you get to the main gate. Our building was to the right, with one of the automatic gates right there. In our case, the gate in was never working while we were there, it was stuck in the up position. Fear not, however, the “out” gate was working fine, just to be sure that no riff-raff were able to escape the property without a short delay to wait for the arm to raise. We did see someone working on the gate on day 2 or 3, but he wasn’t able to fix it, as the “in” gate remained up the rest of our stay.

Overall, if we were presented with the same choice in the future, I’d probably opt to save my money and keep the Pop Century reservation. The added cost for this being a moderate just didn’t feel warranted in my opinion. Disney knows they’re going to get guests staying here since it’s got a convention center, and as such, may not be concerned about renovating it. Maybe I’m wrong, but this just didn’t live up to ‘moderate’ standards for me.

Here’s a quick rundown of the good/bad, along with a few more pictures of the property:

(Note – I can’t speak to any of the restaurants here, as we didn’t try any)

Pros

  • Easy and quick check-in, room was ready 3 hours ahead of time
  • Some great views around the property
  • Our housekeeper took good care of our room
  • The Dig Site’s a great place for families to hang out when not at parks
  • Queen sized beds, a “moderate standard” (also mentioned in the cons list)
  • Had close-able doors between the beds and bathroom area so people could get ready without bothering those still sleeping
  • Bus transportation was pretty good, and the hotel is pretty close to all parks
  • Pretty good gift shop in the main building
  • Landscaping well done and kept up nicely

Cons

  • The rooms need a lot of TLC. They look like they haven’t been renovated in a looooong time.
  • The beds weren’t comfortable at all to me. Felt like someone grabbed a bunch of random worn-out padding and jammed it in a queen bed shell.
  • Some of the other buildings could make guests feel disconnected from the rest of the resort due to distance from the main building, but that holds true at other hotels on property, too.
  • I can see where it could get really busy when the convention center is full utilized

And of course, a few more pics:

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Hotel Smackdown: Holiday Inn Express vs Country Inn & Suites

I enjoy travelling, but over the past two weeks we’ve done more driving than I care to do in such a short time having driven somewhere in the neighborhood of 3000mi in that time. Over the first week of that, we stayed in four different hotels, three of which I’m going to compare here.

Holiday Inn Express, Cambridge, OH

We stopped here for a single night on the way to our destination in Mansfield, OH, and in my opinion it was easily the best of the three hotels in this review. First, a few pictures of the room:

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Good, clean room, complete with a fridge, microwave, and DirecTV, which is a nice change of pace from the standard hotel cable setups that have no interactive on-screen guide.  Another big thing with this room (can’t say the same for the Country Inn rooms), there were plenty of outlets, including at least two on each nightstand. Lack of outlets in hotel rooms is why i carry two Belkin SurgePlus units with me, but neither were necessary in this room. For the type of hotel, the rooms have been done really well also, especially the beds. While none of the mattresses in the hotels I’m reviewing were bad, the pillows are what set the Holiday Inn Express apart from the other two, as it’s something few hotels get right in my experience. They included four pillows on the bed, as shown, with two being firm and two being soft. Nice labeling, too:

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I had one of each, and was pretty happy with both. None appeared to be true down pillows either, something I’m allergic to that could have caused me to wake up with a nasty headache (I carry Flonase with me when travelling just in case). The other thing that set this hotel apart from the other two is the breakfast. Holiday Inn Express has really stepped up their game in this area, apparently. The usual choices were there, eggs, bacon, breads, etc, but the cinnamon rolls stood out. Wow those things were delicious. Additionally, the brand has what I can only describe as a 3D pancake printer:

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The sign did not lie, 60 seconds after pressing the button it spit out two perfectly cooked pancakes on the right side of the unit. Wowza. Love it! No messing with batter or hoping that your waffle isn’t going to stick to the cooking plates, just magical pancakes that show up as if from nowhere.

The front desk staff was super friendly as well, even upon arrival sometime after 10pm. My only real complaint on the hotel would be the difficulty in finding it, which might not have been an issue during the day when we weren’t as tired. Both our GPS and our phones kept telling us where to go, but neither could really pinpoint the location, and the sign seemed a bit hidden to us, so my wife called the hotel and got clarification of where to turn. No biggie, though. Overall, a great hotel and a chain I wouldn’t hesitate to stay at again!

Country Inn & Suites, Mansfield, OH

We stayed here for four nights while visiting family. I recommended this while we were looking at hotels based on past experience with the chain, specifically multiple stays at the one in Bloomington, IL while on business in the past. I always liked that location, but was let down by the one in Mansfield. Again, let’s start with room pictures:

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The hotel itself looked pretty similar to what I remember the one in IL looking like, although the room appeared slightly outdated. It was clean, however, and the mattress was fine, but I couldn’t stand the small square pillows. They seem to be popular these days, with the Hilton we stayed at a few days later in Arlington, VA having the same type. My other main disappointment was breakfast. I recall the one in IL having a decent sized layout, a good selection of warm items every day, and never having an issue with keeping things stocked. That was not the case here. The breakfast area was small, with few warm choices. They did have the standard do it yourself waffle maker, and a few cereal choices, but they only had three warm selections each day, and of the stuff I had (eggs and bacon one morning, that was it), they really weren’t that good. The bread station was an issue too, as it wasn’t stocked very well, to the point that on our last morning, there was only a single donut left (I never saw more than 3 in there any morning), two plain bagels, a few slices of wheat bread, and nothing else.

As I said, it was clean, and all of the staff members we encountered were very friendly, but I think next time we’ll check out the Holiday Inn Express in town.

Country Inn & Suites, Frederick, MD

After leaving Mansfield, we stopped here for one night on the way up to DC. We’d booked this at the same time as the one in Mansfield, again mostly based on how I remembered the one in Bloomington. This location was slightly better, and it looks like it’s undergone a small renovation the Mansfield location hasn’t seen yet. The room:

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That last picture shows the welcome sign at the front desk for Club Carlson members, with my name second on the list. Not something that I look for or need in a hotel, but a nice touch. Again, a very friendly staff, so that piece was a wash for all three hotels. Also notice on the bed is a small plastic bag of goodies we were given on check-in with a couple bottles of water and bags of snack pretzels as another welcome for Club Carlson members. Again, nice touch.

The room was clean and comfortable, but they still have the square pillows that I don’t like. Other than that, no complaints on the room.

The breakfast area was bigger than the one in Mansfield, so I had my hopes up, but once I got down there in the morning, disappointment set in again. The same meager selection of warm items, plus a waffle maker, so I had myself another waffle. The bread selection was a little better than the previous location, at least. This was a better stay than the previous one, but still left me a bit disappointed vs the one I used to stay at in Bloomington.

Overall, you can probably guess where I’m going with this: The Holiday Inn Express was easily my favorite, and a chain I’ll look to in the future when traveling. You can’t go wrong with either brand in my opinion, but the pillows, breakfast buffet, and magical pancake dispenser easily push Holiday Inn Express over the top in my eyes.