Monday, January 30, 2017

10th Anniversary Trip

The Hubby and I recently returned from an Eastern Caribbean cruise celebrating our 10th anniversary. I had plenty of time to read on the boat-- so expect some new book reviews soon-- but before we get to those, I thought I'd review our trip as a whole!

Here are the basics:



Southwest Airlines:

I love Southwest.  Every one of our flights boarded, departed, and arrived on time.  Every crew member we interacted with was friendly, helpful, and professional.  Lastly, BAGS FLY FREE!  When embarking on a 10-day trip requiring everything from formalwear to snorkeling equipment... we simply had to check a few bags, and were able to do so without paying an extra $50.


Ok, I know I'm behind the times, but I experienced my first Uber rides this trip.  Never will I take a taxi again, if I can help it.  The cars were clean, the drivers were knowledgeable, the Uber app was efficient, and the fares were FAR cheaper than those quoted from taxi companies for similar rides.  Uber rocks.

Universal Orlando 

Loews Royal Pacific Resort 

This resort is on the Universal grounds, and worked perfectly for our purposes.
Advantages include:

  1. Easy walking distance to Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and City Walk 
  2. Free Express Passes included.  These passes allow you to skip lines at the majority of rides in both parks. 
  3. Early park admission.  As resort guests, we were allowed to enter Islands of Adventure and hour early.  This allowed us to ride several popular rides that do not accept express passes, and enjoy walking around Hogsmeade before the park became unbearably crowded. 
  4. Beautiful grounds, rooms, and pools. 

Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure 

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter-- the only reason we made the trip in the first place-- was all I dreamed it would be.  The theming is impeccably done.  Again, it got crowded fast, so take pictures and enjoy the experience as early as you can.  The rest of the park seemed deserted in comparison.  Also try the frozen butterbeer.  It's awesome.  

Norwegian Epic 

We took a 7-day Eastern Caribbean cruise aboard NCL's Epic that departed from Port Canaveral.  

Here's a brief list of lessons learned:

The Epic

  • Yes, the staterooms are arranged in an unusual way.  There was plenty of space and storage for 2 married people... but any more would be tight, and perhaps a little awkward with only frosted glass separating the shower and toilet from the rest of the cabin.  For a couple that's been married for 10 years?  No big deal.  
  • We chose a standard balcony stateroom, but one that had an extra-large balcony due to it's location on the ship.  I highly recommend the large balcony.  It fit two lounge chairs, two regular chairs, and two small tables easily, with plenty of room to move around. 
  • BUY POSH PASSES.  The fancy-shmancy "Haven" area of the ship is for rich people who need their own lounging areas, pool, and dining room.  They also have their own sun deck with a bar called the "Posh Deck."  Luckily, NCL sells a set number of posh passes to the lowly regular cruisers every trip.  We sprinted and elbowed our way down to guest services immediately upon embarkation, and barely managed to get a hold of 2 passes.  Worth.  Every.  Penny.  The deck has plenty of space, a variety of comfy lounges, and a very well-trained staff.  If Nester is working the bar, ask for a Margarita Meltdown.  We invented it.  You'll thank me later. 
  • The food was delicious, though the desserts were a bit unimpressive.  We ate at the main dining room a few times, and also visited several specialty restaurants.  Le Bistro (the French place) was great, but Cagney's (steak house) and Moderno (Brazilian) were fantastic.  The cheese rolls at Moderno changed by life.  I'm googling the recipe later today.  
  • We aren't big cruise entertainment people, but we gave Howl at the Moon a try.  It's a free dueling piano show in one of the clubs that performs every other night.  All night, the performers play audience requests and have everyone sing along.  It was a blast, and definitely worth checking out.  
 (Posh Deck)


We took Speedy's Ferry from Tortola to Virgin Gorda to see The Baths.  
  • We were left mostly unimpressed with Speedy's.  I had read that they ran on time and were the best way to travel between islands, and that booking a trip to Virgin Gorda through the cruise ship was a waste of time and money.  That's probably still true.  Speedy's got us to Virgin Gorda, and from the ferry dock to The Baths very efficiently and for a reasonable price... but the return trip was another story indeed.  Unfortunately the cruise ship had contracted with Speedy's as well, and because we didn't have the green wristband issued by the cruise excursion, we were treated like second class citizens for most of the afternoon.  The only tram and ferry rides available to use lowly blue wristband people left far too early to have sufficiently explored the area, or too late to ensure an on-time arrival back to Tortola.  We made it back with a bit of time to spare, but it was a stressful time waiting for the last ferry to arrive.  The crew was not terribly helpful or friendly either.  
  • The Baths themselves, however, were fantastic!  Not only were the giant granite boulders beautiful and fun to climb over, under, and around, but the beaches around them were equally perfect.  The beach closest to the actual caves was overcrowded and unpleasant, so we swam/snorkeled up to Spring Bay (a very easy swim) and enjoyed a mostly deserted beach with excellent snorkeling.  

St. Thomas

  • We jumped on a taxi van headed up to Megan's Bay from the cruise port for $8 per person.  The driver stopped at an overlook of the bay, then took us down to the state park area.  Entering the park cost another $5 per person, but was definitely worth it.  Magen's Bay is regarded as one of the world's best beaches for a reason.  While the beach area right off the parking lot got uncomfortably crowded with 5 cruise ships in port that day, Hubby and I walked about 1/4 mile down the beach, and were mostly alone for the morning.  I was worried about the "tourist-y" nature of the famous beach making it too crowded to enjoy, but that was not the case at all. 
  • We stopped at some shops on our way back to the boat and picked up some souvenirs for the boys and my awesome father-in-law who had been watching them all week.  Plenty of the typical t-shirts, hats, magnets, pirate-themed toys, etc. to meet our needs.  

Great Stirrup Cay 

  •  Our final stop was NCL's private island in the Bahamas.  While the water in the Virgin Islands was plenty warm enough in January, that wasn't the case in the Bahamas.  We tried to get in the beautiful water, but it was just way too cold.  Luckily, the weather was perfect for laying under a palm tree in the shade... which is what we did.  
  • Much of the island was under construction, but we still managed to hike away from the crowds, and found a nice, not too crowded area with beach loungers to claim.  
  • There's a main buffet on the island, but we opted for the taco truck instead.  The beef and chicken tacos were just fine, but the fish tacos were quite good.  It was an excellent day of relaxing for to end our trip!  
Overall, it was a lovely trip and celebration of our marriage.  I truly appreciated the chance to get away from all the responsibilities of home and simply enjoy being married to my awesome Hubby.  I sincerely hope we don't have to wait another 10 years to get away again!  

Monday, January 16, 2017

"Army Man" Birthday

Last week my baby turned five.  How that's possible, I'm still not sure!  We decided against doing a party (to make life easier...) and yet between making our house appear festive, baking 22 cupcakes for school, and a big cake for our family and a few friends it still felt like a lot.

J. told me he wanted an "Army Man" birthday.  Not sure exactly what he was picturing... here's what I came up with:
For school, just some Army men (ordered from Amazon for cheap) on green cupcakes.  Done. 

Can I just say, freezer paper stencils are the best?  No more dropping $25 on a customized, monogrammed shirt that he'll grow out of in 2 months.  A $4 Hanes t-shirt, some freezer paper, a printer, some scissors, and brown paint and we've got an Army man shirt!  (The back has his name and a 5) 

These super cheap foil hanging decorations are also life-savers.  Amazon has everything.  

The Hubby may have critiqued my battle configuration... but I think the cake was cute.  The pieces on top came from the same tub as the cupcakes with plenty leftover for J. to open as a separate gift.  

In case you're looking for a new recipe, I absolutely LOVE this one for white cakes!  I used it for both the cupcakes and the actual birthday cake.  

Look at that happy birthday boy!  

Monday, January 9, 2017

An Uncommon Courtship

Trent Hawthorne has always loved his position as the younger brother of a Duke.  He's been perfectly content to manage his small estate, spend his days boxing at his favorite club, and patiently wait to fall in love with a woman of his choice.  When circumstances force him to marry a woman he barely knows in order to save her reputation, will he manage to grow up and become the responsible adult and husband she deserves?   

Adelaide Bell had never aspired to a grand marriage, and has always lived in the shadow of her older sister.  Feeling unprepared for the social obligations she faces as Trent's wife, Adelaide isn't sure where to turn for help and guidance.  Will she ever measure up to the Hawthorne family's reputation, or will she prove to be as vain and manipulative as her mother and sister?  Can both Trent and Adelaide overcome the disappointments and resentments they've brought into their young marriage and make it the one they've dreamed of?  

In An Uncommon Courtship, Kristi Ann Hunter continues the story of the Hawthorne family in this third installment of her Hawthorne House series.  As far as I'm concerned, this series gets better and better with each new addition.  Hunter's character development is masterfully done and produces compelling stories I can't bring myself to put down.  Adelaide's mistreatment by her own family and resulting insecurities, and Trent's resentment in losing the future he'd always imagined make for a believable conflict between the two.  

While the plot itself has been told many times-- two strangers forced into marriage who learn to love one another-- it happens to be one that I particularly enjoy.  Hunter wisely uses this age-old romantic tale to remind readers that love simply based on emotions is destined to fail, and that true, lasting love requires commitment and effort.  I will be anxiously awaiting the next Hawthorne love story!  

 I received a free copy from the publisher.  No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Monday, January 2, 2017

A Moonbow Night

When Temperance "Tempe" Tucker's father commits a crime in Virginia, he and his family flee to the wilds of Kentucke.  After a disastrous encounter with a group of Shawnee, the Tucker family establishes an inn along the Shawnee river to serve the various settlers and frontiersman in the region.  Surveyor Sion Morgan and his crew find themselves repeatedly drawn to the delicious food, medical care, and lively conversation of the Moonbow Inn as they work to survey the western edges of the American colonies.  As the dangers of his journey become more and more evident, Sion finds himself relying on Tempe's survival expertise, and eventually asks her to serve as a guide for his crew.  Tempe accepts the position as a way to lead these strangers away from the Moonbow, and keep her father's secret safe.  Will the constant dangers of the wilderness bring Sion and Tempe closer together, or will the constant threat of death only strengthen their individual resolves to never love again?  

Once again, Laura Frantz brings pre-Revolutionary America to vivid life in A Moonbow Night.  Frantz's portrayals of the struggles and hardships of America's early settlers, the tense and complicated relationships between British loyalists, colonists, and Indians, and the utter beauty of a lost wilderness are nothing short of fascinating.  The plot took a while to get going, but once Tempe and Sion embark on their joint adventure, I couldn't make myself stop reading.  Sion definitely evokes a Hawkeye-type vibe, but I particularly loved the choice to make the heroine just as capable on the frontier as the rugged frontiersman.  Even the secondary characters-- Tempe's family, Sion's crew, etc.-- were well-developed and engaging characters.  Tempe and Sion's romance was equally complex and believable, with each of them having to decide whether or not love is worth the inevitable pain than comes with it.  Equal parts exciting adventure and sweet love story, Frantz's latest is yet another work of art.  

 I received a free copy from the publisher.  No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.