Beaches, Negril, Jamaica – Ya Mon!

     Whenever we travel, we come back to Maryland’s ridiculous weather, and I think, “Why do we live here?” We went to Jamaica for Spring break, and I came home feeling the same way. Why do we live here, when we could live somewhere with beautiful, clear, turquoise waters, gorgeous beaches, and bright sunshine? Not to mention lots of incredible water sports, and plenty of interesting foods and beverages to choose from. Ya mon! Beaches Negril was awesome. And everybody actually says “ya mon,” so we did too. When in Rome. Probably you shouldn’t say “ya mon” in Rome. But you could try it and see how the Italians feel about it. Get back to me. Maybe they’ll laugh. Maybe you’ll get a pizza in the face.
     We knew we wanted Beaches, because we’d been to Beaches Turks & Caicos, and they know how to do a family all-inclusive vacation. And after the $100 we spent every day on breakfast in Hawaii for the four of us, when my children only ate a half of a bagel and a small carton of milk, we wanted to forget about the stress of “how much is this meal/snack/coffee/drink gonna cost?” Really, we just wanted to pay up front and then never get out our wallets again. So that’s what we did.
     The first choice to make was Beaches Negril or Beaches Ocho Rios. Here are the boys, pointing to Negril on a map:
     We chose Negril, despite the fact that it’s a 90-minute drive from the airport, because the amount of actual beach at the resort appeared to be much larger, and the ratio of restaurants to rooms was better. To get there, we purchased the MoBay Club Fast Track in/out of the country for about $300 for the 4 of us. Think Disney Fast Pass. It was worth every penny. When we landed, we were met by our own reggae-singing friendly Jamaican man, and he swept us through the airport past the massive lines of people and through the confusion (it was mobbed and I would have been totally lost); he had us checked in and at the Sandal’s lounge in under 20 minutes. (Sandal’s owns Beaches.) It would have taken us several hours otherwise. The Sandal’s lounge sported lovely bathrooms, snacks, and serve-yourself beer, soda, and a bar with complimentary drinks as well. We had enough time for about a half a beer and a pit stop before we were called to our bus. The bus was itself was decent – comfortable with big windows. The ride was a slow 90 minutes, but I took the opportunity to try and see as much as I could off the resort. The countryside is poor, with many houses that appeared to have been started, but then construction abruptly ended, resulting in half-built properties. To the left I could see the land and the different houses, and to the right the ocean.
     When we arrived at the resort, Mason announced that it looked better than the pictures. The kids couldn’t get off the bus fast enough – they were so eager to explore. Mason was right – the resort was gorgeous! The landscaping was magnificent, and the indoor/outdoor feel of the walkways at the entrance was enchanting. The staff were friendly and really bent over backwards to make us comfortable and welcome. We sat down with a bunch of other families, signed in, and were offered drinks as we waited. The signature cocktail was The Mesmerizer, featuring rum and coconut. From there Krystal escorted us to our room. Located on the 2nd floor (of a 3-floor building), we had one room with a king-sized bed, bath, and private balcony, and the kids had an adjoining room with trundle beds and their own bath/balcony as well. And the view incredible. You could see the ocean and the lovely green and floral grounds from both balconies. We chose the beachfront concierge option, which meant our room was stocked with beer, wine, water, soda, juice, and any liquor we wanted. We skipped the liquor, but it was nice to have beer and wine in the fridge. The Montpelier buildings in Calypso Cove had recently been renovated, and they were gorgeous. Here are some views of the landscape, and from the balcony off of our room:
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     The beach access was really from anywhere in the resort – the beach was long and the resort lined up well with it. The water was mostly calm and incredibly clear. There’s an enormous main pool that sits beside the main buffet restaurant called The Mill. Then there’s a smaller pool with a swim-up bar right next to the water park. Also, the water park was directly beside the beach. So Damian and I could sit at the pool bar or sit on the beach, and the kids could easily run around the water park and still be in sight all the time.  This is Corey in front of the water park:
     The food overall was very good.  It’s just that the breakfast and lunch options were limited. There’s The Mill buffet, which is good if you want fast, and Stewfish right on the beach. Stewfish sports picnic tables dressed up with fancy table clothes, glassware, and sea shells, and you order from a menu. I tried just about everything they had, since we ate there every morning.  Eggs Benedict (classic or smoked salmon), breakfast burrito, pancake stacks with a sugar cane in the middle and blueberry, maple syrup, and/or caramel sauce on the side, waffles with chocolate sauce, etc. My favorite was the local breakfast platter – spicy fish, sauteed kale, johnny cake, and fried plantains. Such a great combination of sweet and salty – we ordered a pastry basket, fruit plate, coffee and juice every day as well. They also had mimosas. And as it’s right at the edge of the ocean, we watched the water sports set up each morning. The boats came in for the daily activities while we were there. The staff there are wonderful – they made us feel so at home and welcome. One woman was in love with Corey – she rubbed his head and offered to take him home with her.  This is a shot of Stewfish (under the latched hut), the edge of the beach bar, and the boats for the water sports:
     And of course there was Stewy, the kitten, named for being a regular at the Stewfish breakfast. He’s a brave little soul – he looked like he’s maybe 12 weeks old (I say that because Shadow was about his size when we got him), and he came for his bacon at breakfast, but he wasn’t annoying. He hung back until we’re ready to feed him. I hope that people don’t complain about him, because he was really adorable, and the kids fell in love with him.
     For lunch the Mill buffet spot was the main choice. There was only one sit-down option at lunch – Mariachi, the Mexican place. It was good, but if you wanted to order from a menu, that was it. There is a bbq place that you could go and order food from and then take it wherever you liked. They sport things like jerk chicken, pulled pork sandwiches, burgers, etc. There is also Dino’s, where you can get wood-fired pizza from 11 am – 6 pm right on the beach. One day, we grabbed food from both the bbq place and Dino’s and took it to Soy, which is the sushi place (closed for lunch), and at their gorgeous (empty), Asian-themed outdoor tables and looked at the grounds/fountains while we ate.  Here’s a shot of the tables at Soy:
     Dinner options were the best. Lots of different choices. The Venetian offered fancy Italian fare, and we dressed up for that. The boys were so cute in their collared shirts, exclaiming about the fancy decor in this round restaurant that sits atop the Mill up a narrow staircase. From the Venetian:
     There was a hibachi place where we were entertained by our own chef. We also had sushi for dinner at Soy, and it was wonderful as well. From hibachi:
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     We ate at Stewfish twice at night as well, for their seafood. Lobster, snapper, lots of interesting desserts, and a chance to watch the sunset over the water while dining. There was a Jamaican beach party one night with steel drums, and it was like having a giant wedding reception right on the beach. Super fun!
     Damian and I also chose to pay extra for a dinner for two on the beach to celebrate our anniversary. The table was steps from the water, we had our own butler/server for the meal, and the food was amazing. Several courses, with a glass of champagne to start, lobster, scallops, filet, wine, and a white chocolate & raspberry dessert to finish. The sun on the water was beautiful. It’s an experience I’ll probably never have again; I’m so glad we chose to wish each other well after so many years of marriage in such a spectacular and memorable way.
     The Cafe de Paris, which they also had in Turks, offers all-day fun coffees and crepes or little pastries. There’s a case of small treats, like carrot cake cupcakes, mini chocolate cakes, mini cheesecakes, mini lemon bars, mini blueberry cakes, mini orange cakes, little red velvet cakes – you name it. I went and tried all the fun coffees after lunch with one of the small treats. I had a Cafe Italien one day (coffee with Amaretto), and Francais another (coffee with coffee liqueur, gran marnier, and whipped cream), and Irish Coffee with Baileys. The boys went before breakfast pretty much daily and got pre-breakfast chocolate chip cookies. Corey usually got two, he admitted – one for each hand. Can’t beat that teen logic.
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     There’s even an herb garden!
     The included water sports were pretty spectacular. There’s a glass-bottom boat ride that you signed up for the day before – or sometimes you can get in the morning of – they usually ran at 9 and 10 am when the water is nice and calm. We did that at 10 am early in the trip, and it was wonderful. I’m not a boat fan, but the water was calm, and the boys particularly loved being able to look through the glass at their feet and see all the huge starfish and interesting fish under the boat. “Big Bear” was our guide, and he was friendly and funny. I also loved not having to don a snorkel for this activity, because no thanks. I don’t snorkel. From the glass-bottom boat ride:
     Damian and Mason do, however, snorkel. And they did. While Corey and I hit the water slides. The snorkeling boat went out several times a day, too, and you just sign up and then show up at your time. It’s about an hour for that. If you want more adventure, you can SCUBA. If you’re already certified, you just sign up and go. If you’re not certified, you can pay $100 per person to have an instructor get in the pool with you and teach you, then you do a short, shallow (15-20 feet), instructor-led dive. If you want to get fully certified, you can do that too for $500 a person. Which is pretty amazing, if it’s something you want to do. Me, not so much. Damian and Mason tried the SCUBA, but Mason couldn’t handle it, so they never made it past the pool. Which was fine – I was proud of him for trying.
     There’s also water bike paddle boats, kayaks, banana boats, sail boats, and water skiing. We did the banana boat and got tossed way out in the ocean, which terrified poor Mason, so we swam to the boat and I asked if we could ride back on the boat, while Damian and Corey climbed back on that banana boat. Damian attempted the water skiing, which was a pretty hilarious failure. He even signed up for a lesson, but he still couldn’t get it. Not that I tried it. But the boys were howling with laughter and made fun of him mercilessly, especially when we saw a lady who was at least 70 years old do it successfully. They were like, “Oh my God – Mom! There’s a grandma doing it! Look!” Damian was a good sport about the whole thing, laughing right along with us.
     The water park was very nice, too. There were two huge water slides, which was great for many reasons. One is that I could pound those slides with the boys and burn off some of the massive amount of food I was eating. There were a ton of stairs, so I did that for about an hour a day several times. The slides overlooked the ocean, too, so the view from the top was worth the climb. Plus it was fun!  There’s a splash zone type area too with smaller slides, dumping buckets, and water spouts that the boys loved. They met a bunch of other kids while playing, so that was nice for all of us.
     We spent a lot of time in the ocean as well. Unlike other beaches we’ve been to, like Ocean City and Cape Hatteras, where the waves move you down the beach, you could just stand in the water and relax. You could rent fancy cabanas for the day for $150, but we didn’t do that. I didn’t want to feel like we had to stay in one place. If you walked up and down the beach for a few minutes, there’s always a couple of chairs in the sun or the shade. The fancy cabanas:
     (Above Mason and I lounge at the beach bar.) The drinks and the bars were all fantastic as well. Plenty of options for both the kids and the adults. The kids drank chocolate monkeys, virgin pina coladas, icee lemons, you name it. The featured liquor was rum, which was nice for me, since that’s really the only liquor I like, but they had lots of other options as well. I met a friendly couple at the beach bar who told me that their bartender, Shaunoozie, made them one too many Shaunoozie boozies the day before, and they were paying for it with some hair of the dog. There were two swim-up bars in the pools, a main bar off The Mill/lobby area (where there was entertainment nightly) also. Since we had the concierge service, I brought a bottle of champagne from our room to the beach one day in an ice bucket and just lounged. Ahhhh! That was luxury.
     We didn’t do any excursions, because there was so much to do right on the resort. But there’s a dolphin swim, a trip to Rick’s cafe, and a few other options that you could book easily at the excursion desk for an extra fee.
     As for shopping, you could buy gifts/necessities from the gift shops, and there were some interesting locals who walked the beach daily selling hand-made jewelry and other trinkets. There’s a guy with brightly colored socks piled on his head we saw every day. I bought a beaded ankle bracelet from a lady in a beautiful turquoise dress named JaNice (Jah- NIECE), and she fitted it to my ankle right on the beach. I wore it the rest of the trip and it never came off. Looking forward to wearing it this summer as a conversation piece.
     One other thing the boys loved was having an evening swim. We’d let them swim in the main pool after the sun set, and we sat on the comfy chairs beside the pool to watch them while we sipped our after-dinner drinks and enjoyed treats from Cafe de Paris. Here’s a shot of the pool at night, and a day time shot of some of the chairs we sat in:
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     Overall we had an amazing time as a family. The boys are older now, and this resort was on the smaller side, and so we were able to afford them a little more freedom, which in turn allowed us a little more freedom.  There are moments that I’ll never forget, including one early evening when I found myself with a rare bit of time alone. I walked over to the beach bar, got myself a glass of crisp white wine in a plastic wine glass, and waded out, about waist deep, in the water. The ocean that day was the picture of perfect calm, and I could see my feet below me. Not many people were in the water just then, and the sun was moving across the ocean, creating a riot of spectacular colors. I sipped my wine, breathed in the soft air, and just enjoyed the peace.
     And I’ll leave you with a couple of shots of us. Go to Negril. Tell me what you think. Ya mon!

When the Power Goes Out at the Beach, Hit the Mountains

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Who doesn’t love the beach? Our family is no exception. Every year the extended bunch hits the Outer Banks in North Carolina, renting several houses and meeting up to enjoy the sun, water, and one another’s company in a beautiful setting. The vacation is planned a year in advance, and my sons, Corey & Mason, look forward to this time to play in the sand with their cousins,Sydney & Evan, and extended cousins – and yell at me in protest that they don’t really need any sunscreen – all year long. (Above is a shot of our alternative vacation – Deep Creek Lake, in the mountains of MD.)

So you can imagine the devastation we all felt when a bridge construction accident led to the severing of the power to Ocracoke Island as well as Hatteras Island (where our rented house sat, unoccupied, beckoning to us) a mere two days before our vacation was set to begin. Lights out, my friends!

A flurry of activity began the moment the lights went out. A mandatory evacuation of Ocracoke Island was announced, and ferries ran non-stop to take the tourists off the tiny remote island. Only residents and employees were allowed to remain. I thought, okay, well, there goes our annual trek to Howard’s Pub, our favorite restaurant/bar on Ocracoke, with its huge welcoming screened-in deck and wonderful food and draft beer selections. But! Perhaps the rest of Hatteras Island would not suffer the same fate, and we would be able to go, even if there was limited power supplied by generators and we had to forego A/C and rely on charcoal grills to cook our food. Glamping sounded pretty good to me, considering that the weather was supposed to top out at a high of 81 degrees, the house we rented was gorgeous, AND the beach access was the same, with our without power.

With this hope in mind, and considering that the car was already packed for our vacation, we set off for Kill Devil Hills, which is not as remote as Hatteras Island, even though it is still part of the Outer Banks. We had pre-paid for a room at the Quality Inn (it’s a dump – don’t go there – and that’s all I’m going to say on that subject), and we were still hopeful that the power might be restored before our vacation was set to begin. We left at 4:30 AM and reached the Outer Banks by 10:30 AM, giving us almost the whole day to enjoy.

And we did. We visited the Wright Brother’s Museum – a place we’d always wanted to see, but in the past had just driven by as we powered our way all the way out to Hatteras Island. It was really fun. We listened to an informative speech by a park ranger and then meandered around the site, seeing the marked take-off and landing spots the Wright Brothers used, and taking in the spectacular views after we hiked all the way up to the memorial. This is a shot of us up at the memorial. As usual, I’m not looking at the camera.

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Afterword we did lunch at Awful Arthur’s Oyster Bar. The sky lounge, where we had appetizers and drafts as we looked over the ocean, was my favorite part, but it was a nice little lunch spot. Then it was on to the beach! The best part of our hotel was that it’s beach front, and we got ready and hit the beach for a few hours, making the kids wildly happy and allowing us some time to relax.

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After cleaning up, we hit Goombay’s for dinner, and the seafood was wonderful. I had red snapper in a creamy but still light sauce and some delicious chardonnay, and it was a hit with the kids too. Plus we could walk there from the hotel – nice on the way out, but not so much on the way back, because a storm was threatening to blow my hair into a fashion that would only have been acceptable in the ’80s. We opted for Uber instead.

During our stay in Kill Devil Hills, we learned that our trip to the Hatteras Island house was officially canceled (boo!), but my wonderful mother-in-law (who we had rented the house with, along with my BIL and his wife) had spent the better part of the day booking us a back-up vacation in Deep Creek Lake, MD. The only minor issue with this plan for us is that Deep Creek is 400 miles from Kill Devil Hills, but we thought – who cares? We’d never been there before. And if the boys had been denied their week with the cousins, we might have found ourselves in a tenser situation than the current nuclear stand-off between the US and North Korea. Would you want to go there? Me neither.

We scarfed some breakfast and then meandered back to the beach to dip our toes in the sand….

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……for about 20 minutes before throwing our suitcase back in the car and hitting the road, Jack. I was personally really excited for part deux of our vacation adventure, and while it was a boatload of driving, I’m not sorry we did either part.

We drove in via the West Virginia route in order to avoid 95 traffic horrors, and that was the right choice. We saw all sorts of beautiful scenery along the way, and lost our beach chairs off the roof on a back road rather than a highway (oops), which possibly saved somebody’s life. The strap holding them up there snapped after hundreds of miles of my driving. Rossen Reports has already phoned me about filming a reenactment of the incident.

But we made it safely, after about 8 hours of travel, in time for dinner with the rest of the family. The house was gorgeous, high up on the mountain, and offered a spectacular view of the lake below (the first picture in this post is the view from our house). Here are the kids, looking down at us from their loft:

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The next day we pretty much hit the ground running, and we took advantage of the many activities that Deep Creek offers at the resort. Here are the 10 of us before our adventures began:


First, we hit the mountain coaster, which is a no joke thrill-ride down the mountain that had me swearing and vowing to never do it again, while Mason (who drew the short straw and got stuck with me as a partner) yelled “Mom! Don’t hit the breaks! Here comes another turn! WOOOOHOOOO!” He was terrified to do it beforehand, and then he was a total maniac and wanted to hit it 10 more times after he did it. Typical Mason. Corey also loved it, and, since he’s 12, he was old enough to drive one of the coaster cars himself. Nobody died during this event, so I guess it was a success.

This is Amanda & Sydney (with Shawn) on the coaster before going up on the mountain coaster:


And then a shot as they were heading up the mountain (scenic chair lift on the right):


But that was by no means the scariest event of the day. Not. Even. Close.

After the mountain coaster, eight of us, including the four kids and their parents, hit the Spider Monkey obstacle course. Here we all are, thinking “This is gonna rock!” Idiots.


This course ends with a 200-foot zip line, and that was a lot of fun, but the rest of it turned me into a terrified shaking weenie. The course is maybe 20 feet up in the air, but it felt like about 200 feet when I was up there, and I’m not even afraid of heights. It starts with a 40-foot spider web that you have to pull yourself through, stepping on wildly moving ropes and grabbing onto ropes with your hands, and the ground looks mighty far down as you swing all over the place and pray your arms don’t give out before you make it to the other side. Here is Evan, showing us how it’s done:


Then you make it to the other side platform. Where another obstacle awaits you. A rope bridge that swings all over the place. Sydney demonstrates her agility here:


Then it’s a skate board attached to some ropes, just floating through the air. I don’t want to skateboard on the ground. I don’t know why I thought it would be fun to skateboard through the air. The hardest obstacle for me was the next one – a bunch of long boards, spaced at angles, dangling from ropes, so that your balance was all over the place and the next foothold/rope to grab was always just out of your reach, forcing you to jump/grab for it to advance.

It ain’t over yet.

Before the zip line course conclusion, a balance beam awaits you. With a huge gap in the middle and nothing to hold onto. At this point I thought, well, that’s all she wrote. The fire department is going to have to come and rescue me with a ladder. Or maybe they can just knock me off with the hose. But either way, I was pretty sure it was over.

Until it wasn’t, and I pretty much just ran across and then hugged the pole on the platform at the other side. I thought about kissing it, opted to retain the tiniest shred of dignity,  and instead jumped off and did the zip line to the end, where I also considered throwing up. I did not throw up. Amanda felt the same way, but she too managed to do it. Girl power!

Where were the kids during all this, you ask? All four of them just beasted out and did the course before any of the adults even started. They were out of their harnesses and cheering (or jeering) us on from the ground. Stinkers. Fearless stinkers. But still – stinkers. Here’s Corey doing the zip line like a boss:


From there we recuperated with the 30-minute scenic chairlift up the mountain, and it was spectacular. Deep Creek is not only home to summer lake fun, but also winter activities with the Wisp Ski Resort.


We hit Honi Honi for a fun happy hour and views of the lake, including a mama with her baby ducks in tow, afterward. I’d go there again in hot second, despite the fact that the server got all our drink orders wrong. That speaks to the ambiance, for sure. The crab dip and fresh guacamole were delicious, too. The kids found this massive chair at Honi Honi:


The next day featured mini golf and Funland for the kids, plus a trip to the lakeside beach. There is sand there, and roped off swimming, but there are also rocks galore. The kids really liked it, but we needed swim shoes and giant floaties to really enjoy it. Next time.

The next day the event was a relaxing and informative pontoon boat tour. The listed time was an hour, but our tour guide was clearly on island time, because we cruised calmly around the lake for closer to 90 minutes. This was a highlight for me. It was just so beautiful and serene out there, plus it was fun to look at the houses on the lake as well as the other people enjoying water sports from speed boating to wave runners to water skiing to tubing off the back of other boats. Here are some shots from the pontoon boat:





We decided to do a morning hike the next day, and we hit Swallow Falls State Park for a gorgeous trek through the woods. The kids loved it. The adults loved it. The temperature was great in the shade of the forest, and we did the whole loops, taking some side paths and wandering onto the rocks right next to the various waterfalls in the park. There were moments when I thought I might slip on a rock and find myself swept away by the rapidly churning water, but luckily this didn’t happen. Swallow Falls pictures:

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After our hike, we rewarded ourselves with a visit to the Lakeside Creamery, where they make all their own ice cream, and it is delicious. We made our selections and then sat at a picnic table and enjoyed the lake views while we ate. Mason and his ice cream cone (birthday cake and cotton candy in a waffle cone):

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Damian, Corey and I decided to hit the lake the following morning for a wave runner adventure. It was SPECTACULAR! The best wave runner experience of my life. We had total freedom on the lake, and since it’s 65 miles around, we had a TON of ground to cover. And cover it we did. At break-neck speeds that made me think I might go flying off the back while my husband tried to reenact the motorcycle scene with Tom Cruise in “Top Gun.” I didn’t really object, though, until we started doing donuts. At which point he said, “We have to show our son a good time.”

Uh huh.

The rest of the family was set to kayak that afternoon, but there weren’t enough kayaks. This was sad for the adults, but good for the kids, because we ended up at Inflatable Water Park, which none of us had ever done before, and they just LOVED. They climbed up these huge inflatables – think bounce houses made for the water – jumped or slid off the tops, swam/ran around water obstacles, and just generally got crazy for the duration of their time. During which the adults enjoyed margaritas and a lovely view from the picnic table. Until a lightning bolt caused immediate evacuation, but there was only about a minute left on their time at that point, so who cared? The inflatable water park shots:

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We also found a fun little bar/restaurant right at the water park called Ace’s Run with a spectacular balcony overlooking the lake:

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Damian took the boys back to Wisp the next day to re-do the mountain coaster and also to do the next-level zip lining course, the hour-long canopy tour, and hit Ace’s Run for a late lunch afterward with his brother, Amanda, and the cousins. After the Spider Monkey, there was no way I was going to try the canopy tour, and it sounded intense from what the boys said. High atop the trees, with rope bridges, huge zips, and two crazy 20-year-old guides who tried to shake them off the challenges. No thanks. I like my book.

In between all these wild activities, we ate some excellent meals, drank some really good wines, and played a lot of corn hole and cards. Overall, it was an excellent adventure. Damian and I are considering buying a lake house and retiring up there. If we do, you should come and visit us. Here we are on our last night, looking stupid-happy considering we were about to roll out. I guess we had a good time!







The Night We Ate a Whole Duck

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That’s right! I ate a whole duck. Or rather, I ate about half a duck, since my husband gets credit for sharing the duck with me. I think this vastly improves my street cred. Above is a shot of us as we were heading in to dinner from Parasol Down (a gorgeous spot for a drink) at The Wynn.

What is she talking about? I’m talking about Wing Lei, Las Vegas, located in The Wynn Hotel, which is the first Michelin-rated Chinese restaurant in the country. They offer a chef’s tasting (with wine pairing, if you like) menu that features several courses made with – you guessed it! – one perfectly-roasted Peking duck. But who wants to eat that much duck? I didn’t. In fact, when Damian suggested we embark on this culinary adventure, I said, “That’s a lot of duck.” But adventure is the right word for it, and it was absolutely amazing.

When we sat down, I was struck by the lovely decor, and then taken completely by surprise when I tried to hang my purse off the side of my chair only to be offered a chair for my purse. And this was no extra chair they had lying around. It was a gorgeous little mini affair that looked like it would be really comfortable if I were either a two-year-old or a purse. This is the kind of luxurious detail that I never would have anticipated, but really appreciated. Who wants to put their purse on the dirty floor? I need a purse chair!

We were greeted, confirmed that we wanted the Peking duck tasting with the wine pairing, and then our adventure began! First, our duck was brought to the table, looking perfectly roasted and whole, with a white towel wrapped discreetly around its head. This nearly sent me into a fit of giggles, but I guess the alternatives were not great. Either they wave a headless duck in front of your face, at which point maybe you decide to bail or potentially become a vegetarian, or they offer Daffy with his dead eyes staring at you and his beak sadly flopping open with his tongue lolling out the side. “I’ll just have the fish. Thanks.” We approved our duck (I wonder what happens if you say, “I don’t like that duck.”), and we began our adventure.

Out came the sommelier with our first wine, which was a lovely port. The first course of duck was served table side. Bits of crispy and tender duck were sliced off in neat, thin strips and served on delicate pancakes with thinly sliced cucumbers and spring onions, topped with a hoison sauce. The richness of the meat was perfect with the crispness and slight sweetness of the port. This was my favorite course, though I enjoyed them all.

Next we were presented with a duck salad, perfectly plated, and a Chardonnay. It was not overdressed, and I’d never had duck as part of a salad before. Delicious.

After the salad came duck soup. This was paired with a white wine made from a grape that I am completely unfamiliar with, and sadly I can’t remember what it was, but it was once again the perfect choice with the soup. Bite-sized pieces of duck, along with noodles and some other flavorful items were brought to us in the bowls, and then the server poured a thin, not-too-salty broth over top of this at the table. I love that kind of a presentation with soup.

Then it was the main course, which was a wok-fried duck, served with a rich and delicious rice full of exotic mushrooms on the side. I could not finish this part, but each bite I took was delectable. This was paired with a German red wine. The fact that it was German and red took me by surprise, as I’m more familiar with the white wines from that country, but it was quite good and matched up with the course very well.

Finally, as I was considering waving my white flag of surrender, dessert appeared along with a dessert wine. The dessert was some kind of a mousse topped with a hard white and dark chocolate domed shell served over a chewy brownie. The brownie portion was a little dry, but the mousse was light, smooth and creamy – a nice way to end a very rich meal. We were also brought little truffles and mini pineapple upside down cupcakes to go.

It was a fantastic experience, and I’m so glad we went. The sommelier was knowledgeable, friendly, and attentive, and while I am often disappointed in the small pours that come with a wine pouring, I was not at all disappointed at Wing Lei. There was enough wine in my glass to have a sip with each bite, if I wanted to, and a bit left at the end of each course to linger over. The meal was perfectly paced, also. I really can’t say enough good things about it. It’s crazy expensive, but worth it. Just don’t shoot craps after you’re full of everything the sommelier offers you – if you’re like us, you’ll have a great time, but it won’t go well…….

We did not take any pictures of our food. What were we thinking? Clearly, we weren’t. But here are a couple of shots of us dressed for dinner, once again at Parasol Down, and then one of me at the end of the meal at Wing Lei, with my eyes closed, holding up not a white flag of surrender but a little “happy anniversary” chocolate, since this was our (belated) anniversary celebration.

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You can see the restaurant’s decor in the background of this last shot. I had a great time taunting Damian for his pink drink in the previous shot. It had lavender in it. If you asked me the very last drink I’d think Damian would ever order, I might say, “A pink fruity drink with a purple flower in it.” Guess I was wrong about that. After I took his picture with the foo-foo drink, I then managed to take about 15 shots of my own drink (a glass of Trefethen Chardonnay) on the table. Oops.

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And finally, this is the view from our hotel room at The Wynn:

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Not too shabby. We had a marvelous breakfast at the lovely Terrace Cafe the next morning, but that is a story for another day….



Alcatraz. “The Rock.” One of the world’s most famous prisons, located in the middle of the choppy but beautiful waters of the San Francisco Bay, California, was home to some of the most infamous prisoners in US history from 1934 until it closed in 1963. We visited the island last week and were transported back in time by the imposing sights of the prison itself as well as the voices and sounds presented in the impeccably crafted audio tour. Before I continue with our experience, here is some information on The Rock’s most famous prisoners as well as The Great Escape (click on the links below for more information).

Famous Inmates: The most infamous inmates on The Rock included Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Stroud (The Birdman of Alcatraz), just to name a few.

Al Capone, otherwise known as Scarface, was of course the famous Italian-American gangster who rose to notoriety in the Prohibition era in Chicago. He was a violent bootlegger with a profitable relationship with Chicago’s mayor, which gave him protection from the law. Until 7 rival gang members were killed in public during the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, at which point he became “Public Enemy No. 1.”

Capone was eventually captured, tried, and sent to Atlanta US Penitentiary at the age of 32 in 1933. He suffered from syphilis and cocaine withdrawal. After rumors of special treatment there, he was subsequently sent to Alcatraz, where he would serve 4 1/2 years.

George “Machine Gun” Kelly. This is the guy I think of when the picture of a Prohibition era gangster, tommy gun in hand, comes to mind. At the age of 19, Kelly was married with 2 children, but found himself unable to support his family on his meager taxi cab driver wages. He split from his wife and started down the path to his bootlegging career. By 1927 he’d already begun to earn a reputation as a tough underground gangster, but it was Kathryn Thorne, who he met and then married in 1930, who is believed to be the true mastermind behind his reputation.

It was Thorne who gave Kelly his signature tommy gun, and she masterfully marketed her husband by passing out the spent cartridges and calling her husband “Machine Gun” at every opportunity. His crime sprees, while small time before Thorne entered the picture, soon rocketed him to the status of “Public Enemy No. 1.”

Eventually Kelly was caught and imprisoned in Leavenworth, but he bragged that he would escape and break his wife out of prison as well. These boasts were taken seriously, and led to his transfer to Alcatraz in 1934, where he remained until 1951.


Robert Stroud, The Birdman of Alcatraz. In 1909, Stroud murdered a bartender who didn’t pay for the services of one of Stroud’s prostitutes, then raided his wallet to pay the girl and take his own cut. After being tried and convicted, he was known as a violent and unruly prisoner, and he eventually stabbed a prison guard to death in front of over a thousand other prisoners in the mess hall. After this incident, he was kept in solitary confinement.

While at Leavenworth, he developed an interest in canaries, and he was allowed to research them during his 30 years at the prison. In 1942, he was transferred to Alcatraz, where he spent the next 17 years.


The Great Escape: The worst of the worst were sent to Alcatraz because it was believed to be impossible to escape from The Rock. Even if a prisoner could get out of a locked cell and escape the prison walls, how would anyone be able to swim the frigid, rough waters and manage the swift currents of the San Francisco Bay? Still, several escape attempts were made in the history of Alcatraz.

Frank Lee Morris masterminded Alcatraz’s most famous escape alongside accomplices Allen West and brothers John and Clarence Anglin. The complex plan included lifelike dummies made from concrete blocks, paint from prison art kits, and even human hair from the barbershop. When prison guards passed by to do head counts after lights out, these dummies were good enough to fool them into thinking the prisoners were still in their cells. Additionally, over 50 raincoats were used to fashion life preservers and a life raft for the escapees.

On June 11, 1962, after lights out, Morris placed the dummies on the bunks, and along with the Anglin brothers, climbed 30 feet of plumbing to the roof, made the way precariously over 100 feet of rooftop, then climbed down 50 feet of piping to the ground. West was left behind. Morris and the Anglin brothers were never seen again.


Our Visit

Alcatraz is a national park now, and we visited on July 7th, 2017.  Our family went with my brother and his wife and children. I loved it. The kids loved it. We all loved it. All four of the little ones were all in for the entire event. Here’s a shot of us during the audio tour:



We got up that morning, ate a light breakfast, and then we drove a mile to the ferry dock. The ferry ride was about 25 minutes to San Francisco, and this is how my brother commutes daily. He rides his bike the mile to the ferry, rides the boat over the gorgeous bay, and then bikes the last 5 miles to work. The ferry ride to San Francisco was a big event for my kids. They loved it. And really, all of us seemed to enjoy it. Here are the kids on the ferry:


To get to Alcatraz from San Francisco, you have to take another ferry. Tickets for this must be purchased well in advance. The day we went, people were trying to buy tickets for that day only to be told that the next available excursion was not until August 19th. Yikes. Our tickets were for the 12:30 ferry, and at noon we were in line and prepared to board.
Although the ferry ride over to the prison was really pretty, the prison itself was wickedly imposing, from a distance and particularly so close up. Such a stark contrast to the beauty of both the bay and the city. And they pointed this out a couple of times on the audio tour – that these prisoners were forced to see all that is good in life, just out of their reach, every day. Here is a shot of the bay and the city beyond from Alcatraz.
We landed on The Rock, were greeted by an employee of the park who offered us some general instructions, and then set out on foot for our tour. We started with a 17 minute video on the history of the place, after which all 8 of us picked up the audio tour equipment, which the workers synchronized for us, and that was wonderful. This allowed us to hear the tour at the same pace, even though we all had individual head phones. The way it’s organized is fantastic too. Everyone on the island doesn’t start the tour in the same place. When we began the audio tour, other groups went right or straight, so we weren’t a giant mob of krill working our way around together. Very well done.
The cells themselves were all individual. Just a bed and a small table and a toilet. We also saw the D block cells – solitary confinement. I walked into one of those cells and walked right back out. I can’t imagine being in a cell like that, in the pitch dark, 24 hours a day. We also saw the mess hall, the guard’s station, and each of the different cell blocks.
When the tour took us outside, we saw incredible views of the bay from up on high, and we saw the ruins of the warden’s home. That place, though it’s just a shell now, looked pretty amazing. Brick, with fireplaces, and just unbelievable views of the bay and city. I was surprised to learn that the prison workers lived on the island with their families. It was a whole little community, and the wives that were interviewed as part of the audio tour said raising their families on the island was amazing. I think I’d be a little freaked out by the level of scary humans in such close proximity to my kids. But the place is remarkably beautiful. The kids are just next to the ruins of the Warden’s house here:
In all of Alcatraz, the thing that Mason wanted to see most was the concrete heads (mentioned above in my description of The Great Escape). Just to quickly reiterate, a few of the prisoners, for an escape attempt, used concrete and carved it out to look like human heads, so that when the guards came by at night to do a head count, they saw these dummies in the cells and thought they were the actual prisoners.
And, last but not least, we met an actual prisoner from Alcatraz! William Baker. He’s 83, and was finally released from prison at the age of 80. He wrote a book, and he was there signing books. We bought a copy and got it signed, along with a picture alongside Damian and Mason. Here’s a little snippet of what Baker said about his 3 years in Alcatraz. “A human being can adjust to just about anything. We found happiness comes in small packages. To a junkyard dog, a bone is pure heaven. The food was alright and once we got a job, we could get out of our cell during the day and go to work…I don’t regret the experience because I met some really great people there. People who I thought were great anyway. They just liked to rob banks.”
Here’s a picture of Damian and Mason along with actual Alcatraz prisoner William Baker:
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Overall, an excellent experience, and another item to cross of of my bucket list! Photographs courtesy of my talented sister in law, Jen Huff, from Jen Huff Photography.

Walt Disney World!

     We have just returned from a fabulous vacation to Walt Disney World in Florida. Corey’s and Mason’s grandparents, Conni & Tom (AKA Nanny & Papa) were kind enough to take all of us, including Aunt Amanda, Uncle Shawn, and cousins Sydney & Evan, on an absolutely amazing 5-day adventure. I’ll never be able to thank them enough for their kindness and generosity. It was the trip of a lifetime for our family, and none of us will ever forget it.
     We stayed at Port Orleans in the French Quarter, which was lovely. If you haven’t been there, it’s supposed to feel like New Orleans. I’m not sure how much it really felt like NOLA, but it was very pretty, and I had some yummy spicy gumbo there. Also, the bus rides/ferry rides to the different parks from the FQ were perfectly reasonable, and the rooms were very nice, so we were quite happy. The kids, of course, were just excited about the pool and arcade. Pools and arcades are everywhere in the world. Epcot and Magic Kingdom, not so much. This logic escaped them.
     We had park hopper passes, and the plan was Monday to visit Epcot, then Tuesday at Animal Kingdom, Wednesday at Magic Kingdom, Thursday at Hollywood Studios, and back to Magic Kingdom for Friday with some hops between during the days if we had the time.
     Monday we arrived in Disney at 9:30, checked in, and then headed out to Epcot. Our first fastpass of the day was set for 11 AM. We took the bus from the hotel (Disney does have transportation down to a science), and when a woman with a baby got on the crowded bus, Tom stood up to offer her his seat. Mason said, “Papa is so nice.” What a good example of kindness and consideration for others to set for the boys. Here are some of us at the Epcot bridge. Spaceship Earth is in the background.
     When we arrived at Epcot, it was obviously already open, and there was a huge line to get through security. I expected Disney to be busy, but that was an eye opener. As we waited for the fastpass, we walked around and found the only fast attraction, which was a terrible movie about man’s destruction of the environment, complete with all sorts of horrifying pictures of what our country looked like before the EPA, which should be playing on a loop in the White House for the current administration. It was a good lesson for the kids, but man was it depressing.
     Luckily the day went very well after that! We hit our first fastpass, which was for Spaceship Earth. Which I loved. I’m a big, big fan of rides that you sit in and are taken through as you look at beautifully detailed animatronics, and this ride did not disappoint. It was a journey through time on our planet, the evolution of man and technology, told through these lovely scenes with lifelike cavemen, ancient Egyptians, Renaissance painters, 1960s families, culminating in a breathtaking view of Earth from space and personalized with some computerized choices about what you’d like the future to be. Loved it. Mason loved it too, and we ended up riding it twice more as the week progressed.
     We spent the rest of that day riding whatever we could cram in. We all loved Soarin’ – it was a long wait, but well worth it. Sitting in a roller-coaster type seat and then being lifted into the air as though you were flying, feet dangling below you as you watched a massive screen and flew through the plains of Africa while smelling grass as the animals trampled it – just awesome. The kids’ faces were adorable. Frozen Ever After was a major hit – Elsa and Anna and ice castles. Can’t beat that. We also discovered a little hidden gem – in Mexico there’s an indoor restaurant that also has a ride tucked inside it that I’d describe as It’s a Small World, but for Mexico. Here’s the building:
Walt Disney World Photo Gallery Disc
     Dinner was in the Bier Garten in Germany. Sign me up for the Bier Garten!  I had a beer flight and enough sausage and weiner schnitzel to feed a small village. And there was a potato/leek soup that was SOOO good. Not to mention the perfect bite-size desserts, such as black forest cake and cheesecake. Yummy. Add to this fact that there was live entertainment that enraptured the kids, and now we’re cooking with gas. They ate and enjoyed while the adults sipped, ate, and enjoyed. Tom’s beer was the size of a keg, and really I’d go back there again in a hot second. Except that Corey may be banned for attempting to eat all of the salmon in the restaurant. I think he had 5 servings. Check out the live talent:
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     When we were finished dinner, we spent time wandering around the countries of Epcot, taking in their beauty and trying some of the wine/beer. Mason and Sydney wanted to meet Snow White, and Conni was kind enough to take them while the guys were off riding Test Track.
     So Amanda and I went to Italy and had a wine flight. Man I love a good wine/beer flight. And it’s so beautiful there – the details in all of the countries are breathtaking and so quaint. Italy is behind us in this shot:
     Tuesday we hit Animal Kingdom and started out with Expedition Everest. That coaster is LEGIT. The entrance to the ride is decked out with so much wonderful detail that you feel as if you’re preparing to climb Everest yourself. It’s amazing. The coaster itself climbs to the top for you, where you discover broken track that was broken by the Yeti, at which point you find yourself flying backwards into the dark depths of the mountain. I don’t like backwards and dark. Neither did Mason. The photo we got from this ride is a clear statement of how Mason felt about it.
     The African safari ride was AWESOME. We loved riding in the big 32-person JEEP and seeing the animals so close up. Rhinos, giraffes, hippos, elephants – all right there, not in cages or enclosures. Even lions. One day a Disney guest is going to be stupid enough to whip out a bloody roast beef sandwich and get eaten on that ride, at which point it will close permanently, so I’m glad I got to ride it before that happens. The driver had to threaten the guy behind us about 10 times as he lifted his kid up like bait.
     We also rode a river rapids ride which resulted in my complete soaking due to poor seating choice. Well unlucky seating choice, anyway. Damian and I went down a hill sideways together and just got pummeled by a wave. BAM! So I was wet for most of the day. But Corey loved it, and the weather was really good, so it was slightly uncomfortable, but no big deal. When we wrapped that park up, we went out for drinks with Shawn & Amanda at Disney Springs, where there were Corona-ritas involved. Luckily there is pictorial proof of the 1950s car that was cruising around in the lake, or I might have thought I’d imagined it.
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     Tuesday night we had a wonderful buffet dinner to celebrate Shawn’s birthday, then it was off to Magic Kingdom on Wednesday morning! We hit the 8 AM bus to be at Adventureland at rope drop. That was the right choice, because we were able to hit Pirates of the Caribbean, Splash Mountain (twice!) and the Haunted Mansion before our first fastpass opened up. Mason was terrified to ride the Haunted Mansion. So Damian and I smashed him between us in the seat, he wailed and complained the whole time about what evil, horrible parents we were, and then promptly announced that we had to do it again, preferably that very second, and that it is, in fact, his favorite ride.
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     We spent the whole day in Magic Kingdom, enjoying everything from the Peter Pan ride to the Jungle Cruise to It’s a Small World. Lunch was enjoyed at Be Our Guest, with a Beauty and the Beast theme that fell absolutely flat as far as ease for patrons to get their food and sit down to relax. Even with a reservation we had to wait in line for 40 minutes with a bunch of hot hangry people to order our food while standing at a kiosk like we were checking our own bags at the Southwest kiosks in the airport. Not a good setup. Apparently it’s different at dinner. However, the food was fantastic. I had a salad Nicoise with rare tuna and the freshest vegetables, paired with a potato/leek soup and capped off by a lemon mirangue cupcake. The kids loved the ambience, which was Disney.
     Thursday we started out with a breakfast with Mickey that the kids just loved. They got to see all the characters while chowing down on cinnamon buns.
     After breakfast, we hit Hollywood Studios for a fun tram ride through Hollywood sets. This is my kind of ride – sitting and cruising through an air-conditioned ride, appreciating all the beautiful colors and sights that are made as only Disney can. We saw movie sets from Singin’ in the Rain, Fiddler on the Roof, Mary Poppins, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Aliens, Casablanca, and the kids favorite – The Wizard of Oz, the perfect picture of Munchkin Land, complete with a visit in a puff of smoke from and animatronic Wicked Witch of the West. The other adults hit the Tower of Terror while I took the kids on a less-terrifying 4-D adventure with the Muppets, which they (and I) all loved. Everybody enjoyed grabbing a beer and sitting down in the shade to watch the Indiana Jones Stunt Show, which was very well done – interesting, exciting, and funny, complete with audience extras. Mason did yell at me for not volunteering to be an extra, and to be fair, it’s the kind of thing I normally would go for. But who would hold my beer? Here we are in Hollywood Studios:
      A few of us took the ferry back to Epcot after that, where I split off with Sydney and Mason and made them stop for every possible photo opportunity. They were good sports about it, and we rode Spaceship Earth together once again.
     Friday we bid adieu to the cousins and spent the morning back in Magic Kingdom where we used the skills we’d learned previously to get in a few more rides before the crowds descended. It was a great way to cap off a beautiful vacation, including one last go-round on our favorite, the Haunted Mansion.
     Thanks again to Conni & Tom for being the best grandparents (and in-laws!) any kid could hope for!

Let’s Go to Vegas & Rock Crawl in a Jeep

     Yeah, we did that. Forget gambling in Las Vegas. We went for the full-on adrenaline junkie outdoor adventure with Las Vegas Rock Crawlers on the Logandale Trails. And those trails were no joke. Owners Tim and Quinann let us know that the difficulty level of these trails on a 1-10 scale is a 7. If Logandale is a 7, then I don’t want to see a 10. Ever.
     Here’s what I’ve learned. When my husband says, “Yeah Honey, we’re going to have a little adventure together,” I say, “You have fun with that. I’ll be at the spa.” It’s not like I don’t know Damian. The man jumps out of planes and bungee jumps off bridges. What was I thinking? Apparently I wasn’t, because we pretty much lost our minds and decided to jump in that red Jeep Wrangler. Las Vegas Rock Crawlers is an apt name – those Jeeps literally crawl through the most amazing and terrifying rock obstacles. We crawled that Jeep through some beautiful red rocks – it was totally insane. And while it was terrifying, and I am apparently a rock-crawling weenie, we did love it, and I can’t say enough good things about Las Vegas Rock Crawlers.
     But let me back up and begin at the beginning. We started the tour by meeting several other groups of people (who were also driving that day) on the rooftop deck of The Wynn Hotel at 7:30 AM. There were 2 other couples and a family of 4. The family drove a 4-door Jeep, the rest of us had 2-door Jeeps. We signed some forms and then headed up to Moapa (which is a Native American reservation) to begin our adventure.
     We drove 60 miles in a caravan up to Moapa, and it was FREEZING COLD. We were the last to sign up, so we got the oldest Jeep of the bunch. It’s from 1998, open in the back, and temps were running in the thirties that morning. I had myself wrapped up in a blanket with the heat blasting, and my toes still felt like ice cubes by the time we got there. Not to mention how loud that thing was. Damian and I literally had to yell to hear each other when we were blasting down the highway toward our destination. I must say, being in that caravan was pretty bad ass – people all along the road craned their necks to look at us. It’s not something you see every day – a caravan of red Jeep Wranglers with massive tires barreling down the highway together.
     Before we reached the trail, we stopped at a gas station to let the air out of the tires and flip the Jeeps into 4-wheel drive. From there, it was about 2 miles out to the trails. Once we reached the trail head, there were no other people around. It was amazingly isolated and quiet, and it struck me then that, if any of us got stuck, it was going to be up to us to get unstuck. Or rather up to the rest of the caravan, because I’d probably be busy quaking in fear and/or crying in a bush somewhere.
     Tim instructed all of us to get out of our Jeeps and then showed us the first obstacle. When he said, “So your left front tire is going to drive over this rock right here” – and that rock was straight up and down, I thought he was joking! He was not joking. Tim doesn’t joke about rock crawling. He explained, in terrifying detail, the way to navigate the first obstacle, then I watched with my jaw hanging open as he then demonstrated with his Jeep. Guess who got to go next? Us! And we had the oldest Jeep! Which meant the one that would be hardest to navigate through the obstacles.
     Great. We’re gonna die.
     I got in the Jeep, belted myself in, and white-knuckled my way through that obstacle. Tim stood outside on the rocks and talked Damian through it over my screams of protest. No I am not kidding. I was literally screaming. The Jeep was tilted so far to the right that we were pretty much sideways and my face was about 5 inches from a rock. I thought Damian was going to flip us for sure. I can’t believe we didn’t flip. But Tim was totally calm, and that kept Damian totally calm. I was not calm. My heart was hammering in my chest and I was so scared that I scared the crap out of the rest of the wives. Well, 2 out of the 3 – the family of 4 were totally fearless.
     I got out of the Jeep after that obstacle and did not ride through the next one. I hiked it on my feet. Feet that I trust, unlike my rookie husband driving that ancient Jeep. Damian who said, “Yeah, we might flip,” like he was saying, “Yeah, we might get a steak later.” Nonchalant. Gah! Roll bar or not, I did not want to end up upside down or rolling down the side of a cliff. Thanks, but no thanks. One benefit to my screaming-banshee escape from Jeep was that I was able to get some great photos. Like this one of Damian manning his way through the second insane obstacle. That’s Tim on the rock talking him through/taking his picture.
     Take a look at his left front wheel. Not. On. The. Ground.
     After that, I rode with the company owner. Really. I knew that Tim wasn’t going to flip his Jeep, and even though going through the obstacles was still going to terrify me, I wasn’t going to die. Though there was a chance that Damian was going to bite it, but I figured that was his choice. Here he is, grinding his wheels and slipping while not biting it. Like a boss.
     So I asked if Tim’s wife, Quinann, would switch with me, and she kindly agreed. She was awesome – so laid back and friendly. Just the perfect personality, along with her husband, for guiding a bunch of rookies through a really difficult course and keeping idiots like me from losing our heads. She was also helpful for Damian, because she could help guide him through the obstacles from the passenger seat. The more difficult obstacles Tim guided each Jeep through one at a time, but Damian still benefited from her experience for the easier crawls. She’d say, “Hug that bush!” – and Damian would hug the bush with his wheel, which is not something he otherwise would have thought of. Damian got his man card punched. I got my weenie card punched. I’m okay with that. I didn’t stop the production or ruin anybody else’s trip, so who cares? And now I can say that I did it. Here’s some proof that I did it, in case you’re really not sure at this point.
     We crawled through those rocks for hours, and then we hit some dunes. That’s what I’d initially thought we’d be doing. Blasting around the dunes – weee! Nope. We did that for about an hour, and it was fun, but it was almost like an afterthought following the harrowing red rock journey. Here’s a shot of us in the dunes. The landscape was breathtaking, however, and not to be missed.
     One other highlight was gunning the Jeep up a steep dirt hill. Tim did this maneuver without giving me any warning, and we were about halfway up the hill before I even knew what was going on. Which was good – less time to freak out. At the top we parked, got out, and enjoyed one of the most magnificent views I’ve ever seen. Just gorgeous sun and red rocks all around us. That part was really peaceful and nice. I think my heart rate returned to normal for that portion of the trip. This is the hill – and that’s Damian gunning it with Quinann in the passenger seat.
     When Damian and Quinann crested that hill, she gave me a look of faux fright and said, “Get me outta here! He’s a maniac!” Cracked me up.
     Another benefit to riding with the owner was listening to his tales of previous tour guests as well as other off-roading experiences he’s had. He talked about a place called Cliffhanger in Utah that even had him rattled, and this guy doesn’t rattle easily. He also shared stories of other people who were frightened by the experience – some who made it happen, some who saw the first obstacle and flat out refused. I’m glad I didn’t quit – it was an unforgettable experience, and one that I don’t regret. Maybe one day I’ll have the guts to go back and do it again and actually stay in the Jeep. Or drive the Jeep. On the highway.
     We stopped at a park area and ate lunch together – sandwiches, chips, and water, which was nice – I was so busy fearing my imminent death complete with several broken bones that I didn’t consider the fact that I was actually really hungry.
     After that, it was back to the strip. We dropped the Jeep off at the Wynn and headed off for adventures that are more my speed. At the Beer Park.
     If adrenaline is your thing, and you like off-roading, do this. I’d love to hear about your adventures from the comfort and safety of my couch.

Free Ebooks!

There is a big summer promotion going on at Smashwords, the largest distributor of electronic books outside of Many authors have offered their books at deep discounts, including free! I’m offering my book for free during the month of July. If you haven’t read about what it is like to raise a child with tricuspid atresia, a major congenital heart defect, you can do so for free for the next month by using this link and then entering the coupon code SFREE at checkout.

Raising a Heart Child

But my book isn’t the only free book! Check out the other authors who are offering cheap/free books for the month of July here:

Smashwords Summer Ebook Sale


Happy summer reading!

Top 21 Worst Baby Names of 2016



You named me WHAT?!

According to, these names were voted the twenty one worst baby names of 2016. Thus far. We still have some time, people! Some of these are head scratchers, but they are also real names that parents gave their children. If you find yourself thinking, “Wait, that’s a beautiful name!” – look again. You might have missed a letter. And no, they are not typos.

21. Britney Shakira Beyonce

20. Melanomia

19. Yunique

18. Gotham

17. Appaloosa

16. Reighleigh

15. Panthy

14. Jerica

13. Merica

12. Baby

11. Abcde

10. Colon

9. C’andre

8. Nevaeh

7. Beberly

6. Little Sweetmeats

5. Danger

4. Mhavrych

3. Aliviyah

2. Meldor

1. Elizabreth

Take me to the Caribbean!

DSC_4221A major blizzard was set to pummel our town last week, but we managed to escape the storm and head for the Caribbean island of Turks & Caicos. Snowzilla – a mega snowstorm that dumped 29 inches of snow on our neighborhood – nearly derailed a vacation that we’d planned for a year. Talk about timing! We bought our plane tickets in July, and the very day we were set to fly – Saturday, January 23 – BAM! Blizzard.

It’s a miracle we made it. Once the weather forecasters were close to certain that we were in fact in the direct path of a blizzard, we moved our flights up a day to Friday, January 22. Then we scrambled to book another night at our resort: Beaches, Turks & Caicos. The booking agent told me the phone had been ringing off the hook with people from the East coast trying to get in ahead of the storm. But! Our room was available, and we could have it for the extra night. Phew! I thought we were on our way. One extra day in paradise, and weren’t we so smart to get out in front of the storm? I exhaled and started packing.

I exhaled too soon. Those Friday flights were canceled on Thursday, leaving us in a mad panic. We were told that there were no flights until Monday. Monday! What should we do? Should we break our children’s hearts and cancel the whole vacation? Were there any other flights we could take? Was there any way we could get out ahead of this massive snowstorm and make it to Turks & Caicos?

American Airlines threw brick wall after brick wall at us. No, there were no other flights with 4 seats available. No, there were no other carriers who could take us. No, no, no!

I refused to take that no for an answer, though. This isn’t the 1980s. We’ve got the net. So I hopped on and prayed for a miracle. At that point, it was 8 PM on Thursday, January 21, and I was ready to fly anywhere to get my family to Turks & Caicos. If there had been a flight out of Oklahoma City, we would have been on it.

Expedia handed me the miracle I was looking for. I found a flight leaving at 6 AM on Friday, January 22 out of BWI with 5 seats left on it. This flight went to Toronto and then picked up a direct flight to Providenciales after a very short 75 minute layover. Air Canada. My new favorite airline. I booked it and then chewed my fingernails off waiting for a confirmation that the airline had actually accepted the Expedia ticketing. Not long after, they did.

We went to sleep for a few hours, got up at 3 AM, made our first flight – a tiny little plane with a row of 2 on either side of the aisle – and continued to worry that we wouldn’t make our second flight. We had to clear customs in Canada before we could board the flight to Providenciales, and I didn’t truly believe we were going to make it until we were successfully de-iced in Canada and that second flight was airborne. When we left the Toronto airport behind – and the East coast blizzard that would shut our area down for almost a full week – I finally felt myself believe that we were going to make it.

We made it to our CARIBBEAN ISLAND!


And make it we did. The view of the changing turquoise-colored waters as we landed was breathtaking. I’d never seen water that shade before. We arrived on the beautiful island of Turks & Caicos early in the afternoon of Friday, January 22. Delirious, but blissfully happy. A shuttle from the resort met us at the airport and took us directly to our destination.

The RESORT overview – amazing.

The resort itself is absolutely gorgeous. The landscaping, the architecture, the layout of the 4 villages – just incredible. It’s paradise. The resort is divided into 4 villages, each based on a different geographical area. They include the French village – set at the back of the resort, away from the bustle of the beaches:



The Italian village – the most beautiful of the villages, nestled at the heart of the resort:


The Key West village – a beautiful tribute to Florida’s houses and condos:


…and the Caribbean village – the least beautiful from the outside, but this village provides access to the beach and water sports:



After reading numerous reviews, we opted for the French village. And it is gorgeous. There are only 2 or 3 floors in each villa, so it has a cozier feel than the larger villages. It reminded me a bit of the Royal Hideaway in Playa del Carmen in that sense, where we honeymooned. It also sports an Italian restaurant, a cafe/patisserie, a bar, and an adults-only fancy French restaurant offering a four-course meal. Our room was located on the lower level of one of the two-tiered villas, offering a walk out patio area where we could sit and enjoy the landscape. And the landscaping in that village is to-die-for gorgeous. I could just sit on that balcony and stare for hours. This is the view from our room:


There is also a massive pool and hot tub, with a swim up bar serving drinks from 10 AM to 6 PM daily. The resort’s water park, featuring 5 water slides and a lazy river, was steps away from our room.


The boys loved that water park. But they really loved the bar! The resort is all-inclusive, so we turned them loose on the bartenders and let them order any (virgin) drink they wanted. They tried Shirley Temples, tornadoes, icy lemons, strawberry daiquiris – you name it, they tried it. I was a little less brave – but I did discover that Jamaican rum is awesome. The resort is known for their rum, and my two new favorite words – after Air Canada – are rum runner. Delicious.

The resort also features 21 restaurants, and we let the boys order all sorts of food too. There are Italian restaurants, French restaurants, a Caribbean jerk shack, and American-style diner, a seafood restaurant, a sushi restaurant, a Hibachi restaurant, a wood-fire pizza grill – there’s even an English pub that is decorated like a true English pub and serves Guinness! Here is Cricketer’s, the English pub:


The boys tried a lot of new things, which made me proud. Corey discovered that he loves mussels. Mason discovered that pizza is still his favorite food. He may have had more pizza than any other person on the resort. And ice cream. And french fries. But, like Corey said as a toddler, BE AT VACATION!

Off-setting the massive amount of food and booze that’s readily available are the included water sports. They offer snorkeling – not just the gear, although you can just borrow that too, but a trip out onto the ocean in a boat where they dump you and let you paddle around looking at the fish and coral through the crystal-clear water for an hour. There are wake boards, paddle-boat bikes, kayaks, sailboats – even scuba diving. Not to mention several pools, water slides, and, of course, the ocean for swimming. On a day when it’s green (i.e., very little wind), the water just laps gently at the shore and the water is ideal for swimming or just sitting and lounging. Also, the resort itself is so large that we walked a ton. Here’s a view of the beach from the pier:


In any case, our first day we were delirious. We settled into our room, and then we found the nearest place to eat, which turned out to be an outdoor cafe called Dino’s serving pizza, salads, and such. It felt like an outdoor cafe in a city, but with people clad in swimwear and 80-degree weather. We hadn’t been far on the resort at that point, and we oohed and ahhed over the loveliness of the place. After a very late lunch, we let the boys explore the French pool (and French bar). That night, since the boys were still stuffed with pizza and fries, we talked them into hitting the sushi place. It was just beautiful, twinkling with white lights and rippling fountains, and they were full enough and intrigued enough by the landscaping of the place to agree to try it.

And, they hated the food. But they were game to try some rice and one roll each, plus whatever fun drinks they wanted, and they actually enjoyed themselves because they found the setting so intriguing. As did we. The evening was perfect for sitting outside and enjoying the weather. Damian and I split 5 sushi rolls, and they were delectable. We liked them so much that we resolved to eat there again later in the week.




Saturday, our first full day on the resort, was our day to explore. The day dawned clear and lovely, and we suited up to take in the sights of the resort and dip ourselves in its many pools along the way. But first, we began with a breakfast at Guisseppie’s, an Italian restaurant sporting a full breakfast buffet and some gorgeous decorations. It was one of the few times we ate inside, because we were not yet aware of the excellent restaurants right on the water. The buffet was wonderful – those of you who went to the Royal Hideaway may remember Spices and the buffet breakfast there, which sported everything from champagne and chocolate croissants to coffee and made-to-order omelets.

From there we wandered next door to the patisserie for some fancy coffees. This is the Starbucks of the resort, essentially. But in addition to the cafe au lait and cafe lattes we ordered, there is a case full of mini treats. Little squares of cheesecake, chocolate ganache cake, carrot carrot, white chocolate mousse, red velvet cream cakes, espresso cakes, chocolate brownies, banana cream cakes – you name it. And order it. As many as you want. This was ideal for me, because they were small. Just little tastes. We went there every day.

Our travels around the resort after breakfast familiarized us with the different villages, their restaurants, the water sports, the beaches themselves, the many pools, and the cabanas that overlook the ocean where you can just relax and read your book while sipping that latte/mojito/rum runner/daiquiri/etc. Damian and I took full advantage of those places when we dropped our kids at Kids’ Camp. This is a shot of me and the boys in one of the cabanas:


Oh yes, I said Kids’ Camp. Also included in the package is a camp designed to entertain kids, and it’s broken out by age groups. So the kids get to spend time with other children their own age. Corey and Mason fit right in the 8-10 year-old group. They were offered all sorts of fun activities, including trips to the beach, games in the pools, time at the water park, unlimited fun drinks, and lunch/dinner depending upon the time of day. They loved it. We loved it. Everybody loved it. This camp enabled us to have time apart while still being a family. Although we did meet people who dropped their kids off at 9 AM and picked them up at 9 PM. Which you can do. We preferred to drop them off at 9 AM and then pick them up after lunch, but one day when we came to get them, they told us to come back in two hours, because they were headed for the water park with their new friends! Ha!

Kids’ Camp enabled us to enjoy a dinner by ourselves at the French restaurant, Le Petite Chateau. Which was fabulous. I ordered chardonnay, and then I never had to ask for another drink. The server just filled my glass whenever she noticed it was empty. Which could have been trouble, except for the fact that I ate all four courses. French onion soup, lobster, red snapper, a dessert plate with 4 miniature desserts for two. Amazing, relaxing, and the decor was so detailed and lovely that I felt like I was eating in France. Except for the Sesame Street show that was going on right outside the windows at the French stage.

Did I mention the French village stage? Not my favorite place. More on that later.

Kids’ Camp also allowed us to have a quiet breakfast at the Sky restaurant, which sits on a rooftop right at the water’s edge. Now that is a view I will never forget. We ordered eggs benedict, fruits, strong coffee, and beignets dusted with powdered sugar in a light tangerine sauce and relaxed while we looked out at the blue water. Amazing. What we didn’t realize is that this particular restaurant is adult’s only for dinner, but you can bring the kids for breakfast. We brought the boys back the next day, and they loved the view as well as the pancakes. The plain pancakes. Because God forbid they should try the pancakes with chocolate ganache or caramel sauce. I mean, those had to be horrible, right? This is me at Sky:


Rather than detailing every moment of our trip on a daily basis, I’ll offer some highlights from here on. Partly because I didn’t keep a journal (like I did in France & Switzerland), and partly because my two new favorite words are “rum runner.” Ahem.

Let’s go with FOOD!

The meals were amazing. Absolutely terrific. It’s not food on the same scale as the Ritz Carlton, but I loved nearly everything I ate. From a creamy risotto with bacon at the Italian restaurant Mario’s, to the beautiful fish at the seafood restaurant Schooner’s. Mario’s is set inside the Italian village, but there is outdoor seating on a lovely patio, and we took full advantage of the views of the Italian pool and landscaping while we ate there. The seafood restaurant, called Schooner’s, was our favorite dinner spot. Located right on the ocean, it sports a patio that is covered and wonderful dishes. We ate there twice – the last night we ordered 4 appetizers and shared them, including mussels, which Corey decided are his new favorite food. Damian had tender beef and I had grouper for our main courses, Corey had steamed shrimp, rice & broccoli (from the kid’s menu!), and Mason didn’t try any of that. But he was still happy, so who cares? For dessert, we ordered all four desserts, and then I cut a slice from each and plated them so that the four of us could each try a bite of everything. Fabulous! And, like the Petite Chateau, the wine flowed freely. Here’s a daytime shot of Schooner’s:


The Hibachi restaurant is the only one requiring a reservation, and it was the only meal I didn’t like. I’m not a huge Hibachi fan – stir-fried dinner with a bunch of strangers really isn’t my bag. But it’s the boys’ bag. And it was their favorite meal, so I’m glad we went. You don’t order there – they just give everybody steak, chicken, shrimp, and fish. Our chef showed up an hour after our reservation time, however. That’s a long time to wait with a table full of antsy little kids. My favorite moment of that evening was when our chef busted out with a hilarious rendition of Drake’s cell phone song.

We also discovered a breakfast buffet served right on the ocean at a spot called Bayside. Buffet is not my first choice, but the boys were in heaven, running around and grabbing muffins, pastries, pancakes and bacon. I feel like I said, “Go get some fruit” at least 50 times during each breakfast, though, because they’d invariably show up with nothing but sugary treats if I didn’t police the buffet. I enjoyed the restaurant next door a bit more for that reason – Neptune’s. It’s on the water too, but, like Schooner’s, we sat down and ordered from a menu for those meals. Their menu sports fancier breakfast options, too, from a banana’s foster french toast to a Caribbean-style eggs Benedict. Good stuff. And those water views – I just can’t say enough about the loveliness of dining in that setting. Here are a few shots from our breakfast at Neptune’s:




There’s a steak place on the resort, too, called Arizonas. But we never made it over there. If we’d had one more night, perhaps then we would have. We did eat there for lunch, but it was a buffet, and we had some killer gyros and smoked pork tacos that day. And wine. I enjoyed having red wine with lunch – decadent and relaxing. I did hear some other folks saying the steak there was delicious, though.

There’s no room service, but we could find snacks at places like the Jerk Shack, home of super tender jerk chicken and pork, and they had the best sweet-potato fries I’ve ever tasted. Also in the snack category is a woodfire grill called Bella Napoli that serves pizza to order. The boys loved that place – just stroll up and order a personal pizza in between meals. I think they ate 20 pizzas between the two of them during the course of the week. They also hit Bobby Dee’s – a diner with American food that’s open from 11 AM to 6 AM – Mason’s favorite order there was a plate of fries and 2 scoops of ice cream.


I went down a lot of water slides after carrying up my own raft in an effort to burn off some of the food/drink I was consuming. The slides were awesome, and the boys loved them. Some required a tube, others did not, but they were all a lot of fun. We spent time there daily.


Damian took the boys on a bike that is essentially a paddle boat on the water. This is something we almost weren’t able to do, because the weather was too choppy. Red flag means too windy for most water sports, yellow “use caution”, and green means you’re good to go. We finally got a green flag on our last full day, and we pulled the kids out of Kids’ Camp so they could do this. And it’s a good thing we did, because Damian was literally the last bike out before they changed the flag to yellow and pulled everyone off the water. Phew! Corey would have given us the cold shoulder had it gone down any other way, because he wanted to do this activity from the jump.


Snorkeling is also included in the water activities, and we signed up to take a boat ride out on the ocean and snorkel for an hour off shore. Here’s the boat off shore with the snorkelers (the yellow spots in the water are the snorkelers – Mason & Damian among them in this shot):


The morning we chose to do this was a yellow-flag day, so the ride out was choppy. Those of you who know me well know that I puke on boats, and it was a minor miracle that I didn’t puke up my beautiful breakfast on that boat ride. Once we got out there, Damian and the boys jumped off the back of the boat like they’ve been snorkeling for years. I, on the other hand, waddled off the back like some kind of penguin/duck hybrid. It was sad. I could see the amusement in the eyes of the captain and crew, but really, I’m sure they see dorks like me all the time. I waddled my way in, gracelessly, and immediately discovered a few things.

First, I can’t snorkel. I know this sounds ridiculous. Who can’t snorkel? You just put on the mask, stick your face in the water, and flipper all around. The flippers just felt wrong on my feet, and I couldn’t stop myself from breathing through my nose, which meant my mask was a total fogged-up blur, so I couldn’t see anything. I did not panic, which I think is another minor miracle. But! I am a good swimmer, and I was determined not to give up on the outing, so I took off all the gear, hurled it back onto the boat, and I just swam around for the hour enjoying being so far out in the ocean with the gorgeous clear water.

The second thing I discovered is that Corey can’t snorkel either. After I unloaded my gear, I looked around for my guys, and I spotted Corey. He was doggy paddling and looked really upset. When I swam over to him, he told me he couldn’t do it either. We had a bonding moment. Two non-snorkeling dorks in the water together. So I got him out of his gear, and he swam around with me for the remaining time, which he really seemed to enjoy.

The third thing I learned is that Mason is a natural at snorkeling. He dove right in and just went for it. He and Damian were way off in the distance, faces in the water, fins kicking behind them, finding all sorts of colorful fish and beautiful coral. I almost passed out from the surprise. There are so many things that scare Mason. The Snow White ride at Disney is too dark, and he won’t ride it. When I think scary, the first thing to come to mind is not a glittery Disney princess. But this was a moment like the helicopter ride in Hawaii we did years ago. He just got right on and started reading the safety manual. Same thing here. He just jumped right in and starting reading the ocean’s wonders. Go Mason!

Damian also took the boys sailing, which they loved, and I declined, because the water was choppy and I don’t like puking. Had it been a green flag day, I would have gone, but it was a yellow flag, and I opted out in order to enjoy some time relaxing with my book and a rum runner. Ahhhhhhhh.


We didn’t wake board, but only because it was too choppy – I would have like to have tried that, though. Finally, we spent a fair amount of time swimming in the pools



….and on the beach, which sported lovely white sands and mostly very calm waters.


There were rafts located just off shore that we swam to, and that was quite a bit of fun. Sitting out on the ocean, bobbing up and down and looking around. I thought that was a particularly cool feature.


Damian and Mason enjoyed the snorkeling so much that they went again together, just the two of them, the last day of our vacation. Corey and I were left up to our own devices, so we opted to have a late lunch at a restaurant in the sand right on the ocean, called Barefoot by the Sea.


Corey and I ate in our swimsuits while curling our toes in the sand, and it was wicked fun. I had barbecued ribs, and Corey tried one, declaring it “great!” before deciding to have a little fun with daddy’s camera. We got really silly during that lunch, and it was just wonderful to have some time alone with my oldest child in such a spectacular setting. I learned later that it was his favorite lunch. What a lovely way to enjoy our last lunch on the island. The first shot is proof that Corey tried a rib:



While we were running around taking pictures with daddy’s camera, Corey bumped into these guys, who said, “Hey mon, can you take our photo?” Corey said, “Sure!” And then pointed our camera at them. I said, “No, Honey, they want you to snap a photo with THEIR camera.” But they were great sports and let Corey snap some shots with our camera too. Cracked me up.


And finally – OUR ROOM UPGRADE!

From the French village to the Italian village. If you recall, I didn’t care for the noise of the stage in the French village. After 3 nights, I’d had it. We asked for a change, and they offered us a room in the Caribbean village. Fine. Whatever – it’s the least nice of all the villages, but I wanted to get away from that noise, so we agreed.

From there, it was a flurry of bag packing and getting ready to be out of the room for the day so that they could handle the change for us. We were told that our room would be available at 3 or 4 o’clock, but we headed over to the Caribbean check-in early in order to let them know we were ready – “don’t forget about us!” We were then told that our room had been changed, and that in fact we would be in the Italian village.

What?! I hardly dared to hope it would be true. The Italian and the Key West villages are newer and by far the nicest villages on the resort. I’d seen some of the ground floor Italian rooms and felt a bit of room envy, so I held my breath and didn’t truly believe we were going to be so lucky until, at around 3 PM, they handed us the keys.

WOW! Our previous room was okay, the landscaping was what made it special, but this new room was SPECTACULAR. It was a suite with a king-sized bed, a walk-out balcony, huge windows overlooking both the Italian pools, landscaping, and the ocean, and – AND! – there was a separate kids’ room, complete with a door and wooden bunk beds. Not to mention the ginormous bathroom. It also featured a bottle of champagne, 2 bottles of wine, and a full range of liquors from rum to whisky. BAM! We were in heaven for the last two nights – I wasn’t sure I even wanted to leave the room. I’m so glad we spoke up. I learned later that this room was actually $800 more PER NIGHT than our room, but it was a free upgrade, so lucky us. And thank you Beaches! Here’s a peek at our room and the view from the balcony:




Before I sign off, I just want to add one more quick story. The resort sported giant chess sets for the kids to play with. The moment of utmost hilarity for the boys happened when I grabbed a giant bishop and announced “I’ve got the pawn!” Whoops. The boys still bring it up daily. “Remember when mom called the bishop a pawn. Har har.” Nerds. Like their mother. 🙂


Then we had to go home. Which stunk. Boo. I’d like to forget all the details about that, so I will wrap this up by saying that this was an absolute dream vacation. It exceeded my expectations, and we had a wonderful time. You should go. 🙂 I’d like to see your pictures and hear your stories too. I’ll leave you with these family shots:



What happens when you swing a sledgehammer at a car on college game day?

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Well I’ll tell you. In just a bit. But first….

When you yell “O-H!” at the top of your lungs like a screaming banshee in the horseshoe, the home of the Buckeyes, guess what happens? Everybody around you, regardless of their age, gender, or ethnicity, screams right back at you “I-O!” The pilot on the airplane did it. An 8-year-old did it. A 70-year-old lady did it. It’s infectious. And I caught it as I watched the Ohio State Buckeyes take on the Penn State Nittney Lions during Dark Night in the Shoe last Saturday night. It was a blackout event, which was a publicity stunt, but it did look pretty cool to see the sea of fans decked out in their dark colors supporting the team. Usually the stadium is awash in scarlet and gray. But not Saturday night. I donned my black and fit right in.

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     I’m a Terp, but I attended this game with two Buckeyes – my husband Damian and my cousin Megan – and my cousin’s SO, Mick. I married into the Buckeye crazy, but I’ve earned my stripes as a Buckeye fan, as I’ve watched almost every football game for more than a decade. My three companions and I made a weekend out the event. Starting with an 8 AM flight on Friday morning, even though the game itself didn’t happen until 8 PM on Saturday night. Go big or go home, people! Or, if you’re Megan & Mick, make every effort to miss the plane. Those two rolled into the airport at 7:15 for our 8 AM flight and squeaked onto the flight at the last minute. I give them props for cutting it close and making it, though, because that’s how they roll. Unlike Damian and myself – super nerds who were in line at security by 6:30 AM and strolling around with our bagels by 7, periodically checking our pocket protectors to make sure our pens weren’t leaking.
     Given that we got to Columbus eons before game time, we had a full day Friday to enjoy the area, and we spent the time well. We began with some fabulous coffee from a French bakery followed by a wonderful lunch at a small quaint restaurant called The Whitney House. We were the first to arrive – literally every table was empty – and the host asked us with a deadly serious face if we had a reservation. I almost asked him to repeat the question. Then I considered telling him that we would each like our own individual table, because we do like to spread out, and clearly they had enough open tables to accommodate us. I need my space! But I wisely kept it zipped, although I’m pretty sure my eyebrow shot up of its own accord, and we were seated without further ado in a lovely window table. The food was great and very reasonable. We enjoyed various salads, burgers, and crispy french fries while we chatted and looked around at the adorable decor.
     From there we hit Wolf Ridge Craft Brewery, and that was a blast! The tap room sports rustic decor, with beautiful woodwork and hanging light bulbs from the ceiling (hey Megan – spell “ceiling”). We tried some beer flights, and all the flavors were intricate, the pours were nice, and overall it was a really fun experience.
Wolf Ridge
     Nap time!
     Friday night we went to J. Alexander’s, mostly because it was right next to our hotel, but also because it sports good reviews. We loved it. We started with double appetizers, because, like Corey used to say when he was little, “Be at vacation!” That’s right, son! When on vacation, just eat it, drink it, swing a sledgehammer at it – whatever. Just do it. More on that sledgehammer thing later. We ate deviled eggs and roasted artichokes, which were delicious. Damian and I split two entrees – a tender filet cooked to perfection with a side of rich Bearnaise and scallops over lemony orzo made for the perfect pairing. The house special wine was a red blend for $28, but it tasted like a much more expensive bottle of wine. Everyone shared a bite of their dessert with me at the end, so really, I win! Key lime pie, not too sweet, chocolate cake, beautifully moist, sundae with multiple toppings and a glass of port. My companions had to roll me back to the hotel.
     Saturday it was on! Game day, baby! And game day on campus is no joke. It’s all football all the time. We hit the fraternity and sorority houses to see Megan’s old stomping grounds at Kappa Delta – what a beautiful house they have! Here’s a shot of Megan and me outside her house:
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     From there we met some Delta Chi Fraternity members who were ratcheting up the pre-game wildness, but for a good cause – cancer. A donated car – I’m not sure this thing ever ran it was such a hunk of junk – painted in Penn State colors was being offered up for whacks with a sledgehammer. For $5 a swing, you too can get your cave man on. Mick took a video of one the boys standing on the car swinging at it, asking the kid, “Hey, my friend Jim is a Penn State fan. Tell Jim what you think of Penn State.” In the same voice that Leonard McCoy said, “He’s dead, Jim,” on Star Trek, this kid picked up the sledgehammer, raised it over his head, and said, “Penn State sucks, Jim.” And then he let the car have it. I laughed hard enough to send myself into a coughing fit, and now Damian and I will just randomly look at each other and say, “Penn State sucks, Jim.” We’re very mature. Very.
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     We walked around campus some more, shopped, and then hit Eddie George’s where we saw the man himself! And, we got a photo with him! I think Damian can die happy now.
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     That experience was definitely a major party flavor – we waited in the bar for an hour for a table for lunch, despite the fact that there were literally at least 5 empty tables. But during that time we watched some football, some people, and even experienced a troop of marines that blew by in just shorts and backpacks despite the 40-degree weather. Yes, they are bigger badasses than we are. No question. And they were sporting a blowup doll on a stick. This was a stunt to raise awareness for suicide prevention. What a giant used-looking blowup doll has to do with suicide prevention is beyond me, but you know, I’d say the stunt was effective, because it got the attention of everybody in the bar. I’m trying to figure out how I can work a blowup doll into my next attempt to raise awareness for CHD. I’m taking ideas if anybody has one.
     We (finally!) ate, it was great, and then we cleaned up and got ready for the main event. But first we had to party like we were students tailgating by hitting the Varsity Club. I couldn’t get the name right and called it the Victory Garden all weekend. So we bussed our way onto campus and then smashed ourselves between the walls of people at the Victory Garden (my name is better!), where we saw some shenanigans, probably the funniest of which was a woman in her 50s dancing with a college kid to “Back that Thang Up.” And I’m here to tell you, she backed it up. I hope I’m having half that much fun in my next decade.
     After a brat on the street we smashed our way into the stadium, found our killer seats (thank you Mick!) on the club level in the end zone, and made it just in time for kick off. The atmosphere in the shoe was electric. Energy pulsating through the stands that you could feel, sound slamming through the chairs loud enough to vibrate your buns – if you were sitting down, like me – it’s a high octane experience, to be sure. I love watching the game on tv, but you just can’t feel the crowd unless you’re there.
     It was butt cold, though. High 30s, low 40s, hat/gloves/boots/3-pairs-of-socks cold. Except for those marines, because, you know, clothes are just overrated. I think my nose got frostbite. The game started out as a nail biter, because Penn State looked good in the beginning. Like the rest of the season this year, the Buckeyes just don’t have their stuff together in the first half. Magic apparently happens in the locker room at half time – possibly a result of head coach Urban Meyer whipping them into shape, I don’t know – because the team invariably looks better in the second half. And this game was no exception. Penn State kept it interesting, despite the fact that they suck, Jim, but in the end the Buckeyes pulled out a sweet victory at 38 to 10.
     The bus ride home took an agonizing hour. Gah. Enough about that.
     The next morning Damian and I rose at 7:30, checked out at 8, and had our first Uber experience driving to the airport where we picked up our rental car for the (long, long) drive back to Maryland. Megan and Mick chose a 9 PM flight, because it was the only flight that wasn’t outrageously expensive, but that was too late for us on a school night with the boys. Unfortunately, Enterprise didn’t open until 9 AM, even though the location was an airport, so we had to wait around for a bit. Then their printer didn’t work. More waiting. Luckily our guy opted for plan B, wrote our information in, and handed us the keys to a Dodge Charger that might have been on the road in the 1980s. This thing was ready to hit the junkyard. The climate control was busted, and we alternated between arctic freeze and hatching baby chickens. This was extra fun in the mountains of West Virginia where it was snowing. In October. Let me say that again. It was snowing in October! Can you feel the flakes hitting the windshield? And my face, since I had to leave the window open to avoid passing out from the blast-furnace heat.
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     We eventually found a tiny mom & pop restaurant in the middle of nowhere on the edge of PA and WV which was FABULOUS. Dr. McCarthy’s Kitchen – it’s an old house, converted to a restaurant, and there was only one option on the menu – the brunch buffet. But it rocked. For $20, you got all-you-can-eat buffet, which included such fine items as salmon and pulled pork, in addition to roasted pumpkin soup, fruit, coffee and juices, and made-to-order omelets and pancakes. I had an egg white omelet stuffed with mushrooms, tomatoes, spinach, and onions, and Damian had a crispy chocolate chip pancake with butter and syrup. Our table sat on aged wood floors beside an old rustic stone fireplace. I wish we lived closer so that we could go again.
     We made it home by 5 after one fabulous trip! Cheers to Megan and Mick for making it one fantastic weekend of fun.
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