Monday, October 10, 2011

Bienvenue a' Montreal

We arrive in Montreal after a desolate 5 hour drive through New England. We've almost come to the end of the East Coast leg of our journey, although Montreal doesn’t really feel like we’re in another country;forget the “Paris of North America” cliché.  The true testimonial that were in foreign territory, the language of course.  Everyone around the city speaks French all the time and it’s really pays to bring along a boyfriend that can talk the talk as my charades act just wasn’t cutting it.

We arrive late as usual and meet our tour guide Annique for the day, who assures us we will see almost all Montreal has to offer.  She takes us to the city outskirts where we find Montreal's main public park Mont Royal, the peak of which is the cities highest point. And so, starting at the bottom of the park, we 'drive’ up to the top instead of walk because let’s face it I am from Orange County and walking is not my thing unless it’s through South Coast in Loubitons.  Maybe if Chrissy Lou made a pair of sneakers with a red sole I might reconsider.  Speaking of shopping, one very important educational fact I learned on the tour from Annique was that Montreal holds the Guinness World Records for having the most retail headquarters in the world…yes these are the type of facts I retain, don’t judge me!

Hotel Nelligan

Our hotel was fantastic, specifically because we got a corner room with stone and brick walls which set the tone for our stay.  This New York style chic boutique hotel has just upped the romantic ante, now to make sure my boyfriend steps up his game.  We are staying in historic Old Montreal which is infamous for romantic rendezvous.  I have to mention the staff, I guess you could say I am a little high maintenance when on vacation; I have very high expectations working in the industry.  From check-in to check-out their staff was on it.  One of the highlights of the hotel was the outside rooftop terrace the views are amazing; even if the appreciation is induced largely by a dreamy cocktail menu.  Think the Rooftop Lounge in Laguna where the ocean view is replaced by skyscrapers for miles.  We ventured up there multiple times.  The hotel is located just a block south of the Basilique Notre-Dame-de-Montréal which provides a nice backdrop for date night.  Combine this with cobblestone streets and cute little sidewalk cafes and your sure to make an impression.  

La Banquise

 The one “must cheat on your diet” food item to try while in Montreal is poutine.  Pou… what? No not that, get your mind out of the gutter were talking about food here!  For those who don’t know, poutine is a classic Canadian dish although I have actually seen it on a menu in Huntington Beach.  The ingredients include gravy, cheese curds and French fries.  Holy heart attack but well worth the risk.  It doesn’t sound like much - in fact it sounds like something you’d buy from a food truck after a full night of drinking. When asking the locals who makes the best poutine it was clear and there was only one common answer, La Banquise.   This restaurant takes traditional poutine to the next level. There was a lengthy menu which offered poutine in 24 different varieties: Mexican, pizza, chicken, sausage… to list a few.  

TriStar Gym

If you’re looking to get into a fight outside of a bar TriStar Gym is the place to be.  Not to mention, this is the home gym of one of the top MMA fighters in the world, the UFC’s Georges St. PierreOn the last day we ventured to Tristar, picture Tito Ortiz’s new gym in Huntington Beach except replace Tito with George St. Pierre.  This was a bucket list check off for my other half, the ultimate experience for an award winning fighter like himself.  Ok this should be interesting but I will play along, go roll around on those sweaty mats babe and do your thing.  He did take down each competitor which was highly impressive I must say…I definitely get points for this and highly regard myself as girlfriend of the year, whether he agrees with me or not.

This was his reward for allowing me to hit the spa earlier that day so I guess it’s an even trade.  Speaking of the spa, I had the most amazing massage by “Brigitee” at Scandinave Les Bains Vieux-Montréal.  This is a must for any relaxation seeking femme visiting the city.  Included with your massage is thermotherapy a 1000 year old tradition which consists of three stages body-warming, cool-water rinsing and relaxation.  I’m in where do I sign up?

Jean Paul Gautier Exhibit-Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Yes the mannequins are winking, blinking and speaking…what? I thought I was losing it for a second.  After the realization that I am in fact still sane I start to appreciate this exhibit for its brilliance although the effects are a little creepy.  The producer created the mannequins with anthropomorphic expressive faces to fool visitors into mistaking them for real people. “What will happen, what will happen?” one mannequin mumbles. Another starts to sing.  They each have faces of real people which were filmed and projected with technical aspects way over my head.  I swear one of them was mocking me.
Olive & Gourmando

So who doesn't love a classic love story?  Our tour guide Annique recommended a visit to a bakery around the corner from our hotel.  First because their pastries are so good you will lick every last crumb off your plate and second to experience a thriving business that was created by love.  Owners Dyan Solomon and Éric Girard have a romantic history straight out of a movie: they fell in love while working the bread ovens at an upscale restaurant before going out on their own. It all started when they fell madly in love with one another without speaking the same language.  Sometimes I wonder if my relationship would be better if we were unable to speak to each other.  Just kidding babe you know I hang on your every word ;)  The story itself was enough to get us in the door, as were not huge pastry fans.  It is a quirky love story that you must hear for yourself to truly appreciate.  The establishment was hectic yet filled with character.  The reviews were correct and the food was undeniably delicious.  C'est magnifique!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Drink, Swim, Tan-DST

What had my girls in such an uproar this morning?  I had already gotten 3 calls, two texts and so many Facebook updates on my phone I was about to huck it out the window. Day drinking, laying out and dancing all night sounded great but they also sounded like my typical Sunday funday.  A cruise.  That’s what this is all about?  I always thought cruising would be something akin to 7 days in Laughlin on sea legs.  I had just about given up on the idea when I read the last post and was turned completely around. Girls trip.  Now you have my attention.  I love vacationing with my other half (Hi, babe.  Now, earmuffs) but there's something rejuvenating about traveling with the girls. The necessity to get pampered, sip martinis, go shopping, sip martinis, lay out and sip martinis (did I say that already) without a drop of testosterone in sight. It strengthens our friendship bonds, darkens are tans and most importantly strips away the stress from 10 hour days and 6 day weeks.  Last year, my friends and I hopped on a plane and headed to Costa Rica splurging on volcanic ash facials while enjoying the vast amounts of adventurous activities of the rain forest.  It was agreed.  I was in.  We booked a Western Caribbean cruise -- a seven-night voyage on-board Carnival Valor with stops that included Belize City, Grand Cayman, Cozumel & Roatan. So boys, as much as we love having you pull out our chairs, doing cannonballs into the pool and shotgunning beers, we needed girl time. Now I was excited and quicker than a 14 year old with 4 thumbs I had joined the texting frenzy.  “OMG, we are going to have so much fun. <3 u. C U soon.”
Flying into Miami made the perfect excuse to add a girl’s night out in South Beach. We hit the ground running.  Dinner, drinks and maybe a Kardashian sighting if we were lucky (aren’t there like a dozen of them?) The first stop was Barton G. They had me at hello.  Any restaurant that serves cotton candy for dessert sounds like a must to me. Being a girl’s trip we are free to order all of the stuff you boys roll your eyes at.  For example, salad (hold the cheese, croutons, onions, bacon and bring the dressing on the side), latte’s (with more complicated instructions than a flight manual) and drinks with dry ice and silly names. We started with a round from their Below Zero Nitro Bar; I opted for the Sabrinatini a carefully crafted martini with Belvedere vodka, watermelon puckers, a nitro-champagne swivel stick and a chocolate chimp for garnish and copious amounts of dry ice.  Perfect.

It is near impossible to eat right on vacation and their menu was making it much tougher.  We chose the Lobster Pop-Tarts; they came served in a vintage toaster oven and were stuffed with lobster and gruyère cheese in a flaky crust accompanied by a trio of sauces: hollandaise, brandy tarragon and lemon caper. Then it just got plain crazy(er).  A 2 foot tall statue of fish tackle was attached to my plate.  You heard me right.  Then dessert came.  A Chocolate “G”-Cuzzi, melted dark chocolate served in a doll sized bathtub equipped with a bubble making machine, talk about creative.   Dorothy, we are not in Laughlin anymore.  We finished our night at the iconic Fountainbleu with a little dancing but how interesting does that sound compared with dry ice, lobster pop tarts and desserts in bathtubs that actually bubble?
Having never been on a 7 day cruise before, I had some concerns.  The main concern for me was my adult obtained attention deficit disorder.  Will I get restless and want to throw myself overboard?  What could we possibly do (aside from drinking and sunbathing) to take our minds off the obvious deficit of things to occupy us?  What else did I really need?

Day 1: Explore
Getting on board the 110,000-ton 3,260-passenger Carnival Valor was quick and painless.  I noticed right away the decor centered on a “hero” theme that ties together everything from the themed “Bronx” sports bar to the “One Small Step Disco” (a tribute to Neil Armstrong’s “supposed” walk on the moon).  After taking a tour I was sure my ADD would stay in check.   It was like the Twelve days of Christmas.  There was always something for this ship to give to you.

22 bars and lounges, 300 slot machines, two dozen gaming tables, four swimming pools, 8 hot tubs, 214 foot long water slide, a Vegas styled theater called Ivanhoe...5 golden rings.

The 3 story Ivanhoe theater was very cool.  It hosts Vegas-style song and dance performances accompanied by live orchestras.  We were lucky enough to get a backstage tour from Backstage Manager Anna Thompkins, she pointed out that the multimillion dollar stage was equipped with over 200 lights for each show.   

Set on the top deck was the aptly named Serenity area.  This is just what we needed—adult only pure relaxation. The ideal location to getaway from the many kids that were on this cruise.  Don’t get me wrong I am fine if you want to bring your kids on a cruise but can’t you keep them in the cabin? Just kidding.  After riding the elevator to every floor after one pushed all the buttons and laughed at my expense I was ready to lock a few of them away myself.  Just Kidding.  Don’t you love how you can say “Just Kidding” after anything and it makes it OK?

About the food.  Let’s just say that everything you have ever heard about cruise dining is true.  It is more of a feeding.  There was never a time when you could complain that you were hungry.  Do not even joke about dieting onboard.  You are here to indulge.  Everything that happens on the cruise stays on the cruise (except your noticeably heavier thighs).  Never realized it but size and sighs appropriately rhyme with thighs.
Our mornings started at the ocean view gym where we tried out the latest fitness equipment, working off a few calories before hitting the breakfast buffet.  It felt good to know that out of the eggs, sausage, pancakes, syrup and butter I had just wolfed down I had managed to at least burn off the butter pre-breakfast on the Pre-cor.

Day 2: Grand Cayman
Day two made for our first stop to Grand Cayman.  Our goal was to tackle a to do list.  Drink, swim and Tan.  DST.  Our must do attractions were swimming with the stingrays, sunbathing on 7 mile beach and rum tasting at the Tortuga Rum Factory.  Stingray City has been claimed the most famous excursion so we headed there first.  The massive amount of stingrays is a bit intimidating but I am a huge animal lover so I was in.  In Grand Cayman we were reminded it was our job to relax so we headed to 7 mile beach to set up shop and claimed a desolate portion of the white sandy beach.  After a few hours basking in the sun and taking the occasional dip in the turquoise waters to cool off it was time for some rum.  The exit strategy was quick, I hadn’t seen the girls move that fast all day.  The Tortuga Rum Factory was just as expected and one without self control could fall off the deep-end taste testing all the rum and rum cakes one could handle.  Trust me when I say we had our fair share.

Day 3: Roatan
Located about 30 miles off the coast of Honduras, Roatan offers some of the best scuba-diving in the world and a laid-back island atmosphere.  Scuba diving wasn’t for all of us but one thing we could all agree on was that we wanted to play with monkeys and Gumbalimba Park is just the place to do it.  This park included multiple opportunities to visit with adult and baby “jump-on-your- head-out-of nowhere” monkeys.   They will use you as their personal playground climbing up and down and hanging off your arms like you were a tree trunk.  I thought we left the boys at home?  Just kidding.
Now we needed some DST. After a twenty minute cab ride we pulled into the Mayan Princess Resort, much more our style.  The resort is located on the top of West Bay Beach and offered a lot of options for us to take advantage of including para-sailing, snorkeling, kayaking and paddle boarding.   Sounds like boy-stuff.  After a signature cocktail compliments of the staff we ventured out to explore the second largest barrier reef in the world, one word…amazing.   

Day 4: DST.

Day 5: Belize City
With only a limited amount of time to visit Central America’s second smallest country  where diving is the claim to fame we booked a Cave Tubing tour.  The thought of meandering through underground cave channels seemed an exciting feat.   With nothing but an inner tube and a miner-style headlamp we were off.   This was about 4 hours of low key fun sitting back in our tubes and floating along a river, although not as exciting as we hoped but it was unique.   I would have to say our tour guides made the excursion; joking with us, dancing down the aisles of our tour bus to Michael Jackson and filling our cups with Coconut Rum and Pineapple juice it couldn’t get any better.

Day 6: Cozumel:  Bad shopping.  Not cute. Back to the ship for DST.

Day 7:  Recovering from the relaxation.
Our last day was spent at sea sailing back to the port of Miami.  Of course for us that meant spa and tanning day on the top deck of our ship.  We booked a deep conditioning treatment to help with the sun damage.  I was assigned to Steven, a hilarious over the top Brit.  Lucky for him we had the same personality and shared quite a few laughs within the 2 hour treatment.  He was a good sport to say the least.  After the treatment it was off to say goodbye to everyone at the final dinner.   

Feeling a little melancholy leaving the ship and ready to head home we said our round of goodbyes and departed our separate ways.  As I headed back to Orange County I remembered it could be worse I could be heading back to cold weather but instead I am lucky to “rough it” in 70 degree weather year round.  Until the next trip. Here’s a reminder to get your girls together and DST.  By the way if you are not a big swimmer, re-read the story substituting shopping for swimming and have just as much fun.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Nikki Beach Miami

Commonly referred to as one of the "sexiest party spots" in the world we were expecting big things from this open-air day and night club.

 This oceanfront complex starts as an upscale restaurant during the day and transforms into a "see and be seen" club and lounge at night.  We chose to visit the afternoon beach soiree during the world famous Sunday Brunch we had heard so much about.  The crowd is a vision of mostly tourists lazily wandering up to the bar to order their next much needed Bloody Mary with expectations of mingling with the other gender.  Don't come expecting your average beach party, this party doesn't include water.  The white fabric lined cabanas and beach beds are located directly on the sand, situated under swaying palm trees.  There is a section of the beach within steps of the ocean waves designated to Nikki guests but the party and social scene remain back at the venue.

It’s hard to beat the sophisticated atmosphere here, the modern beats and minimal lifestyle is in every corner of the landmark jewel. The music brings out the crowd as resident DJ’s mix the latest and greatest with a house twist.  Most dance from their cabana, with the high cost of $300 a pop for a couple hours I wouldn’t stray far either.

If you are still recouping from the night before opt for the amazing variety of delectable brunch choices along with fabulous Mojito’s, Bloody Mary’s and Mimosa’s created with South Beach flair that Miami is famous for.  Trust me these are worth the sticker shock price.  Hey you’re in Miami; expect to throw around money like P. Diddy.

Do you label yourself as the ultimate VIP and want to impress your friends? Bring them here, and watch their eyes pop, as the chic SoBe experience with its rich and beautiful crowd showcases great people watching.  Throw back cocktails with the pretty people in one of the clubs tepees or signature hammocks.

In the evening the atmosphere changes, tiki torches are lit and club goers start to enjoy the sand as their dance floor and the sky as their roof.  Don’t even think about going casual just because you’re at the beach, dressing to impress is still a must.

Tip:  Order a Strawberry Margarita from one of the sculpted tan servers it was one of our personal faves.  

Monday, April 11, 2011

It's all about the Guinness in Dublin

We arrived in Dublin on RyanAir, the airline is as everyone I spoke to describes it, the bare minimum but when you are able to book fares for 5 cents who can complain?  I love that this airline holds these specials often via website, you only pay tax making travel throughout Europe extremely cost effective and compared to the Eurorail saves a tremendous amount of time.  Another airline to check out is Easyjet, they make Southwest look expensive.
Once I arrived at the airport, I had to go through customs, they were very welcoming unlike the ones we encounter at LAX, and once they noticed the last name on my passport had all kinds of things they wanted to chat about.  Being a McLaughlin does have its benefits in Ireland.  The Dublin Airport was extremely easy to get around and access to transportation into the city is just steps outside the entrance.  The Airlink Bus seemed to be the best deal and it was about a half hour ride into the city.
We checked into the Hilton Dublin which overlooks the Grand Canal, it’s not located in the heart of the city but offered easy access right outside its lobby entrance to a tram stop.  The Luas is a quick method of transport in and around the city, super clean and full of people going to and from work.  Buy a smartcard for the best deal.  The hotel staff was very friendly and helpful.  They offered us a happy hour complimentary which was a great surprise.  This consisted of beverages (alcoholic and non) and some traditional Irish appetizers.                 The Guinness cheese was our favorite!  

You can stay a bit closer to the city center, but I really liked the location of this Hilton as it was much quieter in the evening. The rooms were modern and much like that of a Hilton in the US. The hotel concierge was helpful and offered discounted tickets for the Dublin tour buses. 

We dropped our bags off and headed for our highly anticipated first stop, Temple Bar Pub.   I was told before the trip this was a must.  Established as the “friendliest watering hole” in Dublin, it seemed like a no brainer, the perfect place to drink our first Guinness in Ireland.  We ordered a pint and started people watching.  We noticed right away that majority of women were ordering Guinness with black currant.  Of course we followed suit and realized quickly it was a whole new side to the Guinness experience.  For us this was a great find and it became our new signature drink throughout the trip.  After chatting it up with the locals, we met Brian a college student that was eager to show us the cities offerings.  Our first stop on Brian’s city tour was the Arlington Hotel.  The hotel is famous for its Irish Dancing.  Dinner and a show run about 30 per person but if you sit at the bar you get the show without the hefty fee.   On our way to the next stop we met a leprechaun.  

The next morning after an amazing traditional Irish breakfast we got ready for the day, it was going to be jammed packed.  We had a lot to fit in.  So the first stop had to be the Guinness Storehouse, the most visited site in all of Ireland, or so I was told.  Admission is 12.50€  which included a pint of Guinness after the tour to enjoy at the Gravity Bar which sits on top of the factory and has a 360 degree view of the entire city.  This is definitely a tour you have to arrive at early to avoid the crowds.  

The next stop, Trinity College/Book of Kells.  The setting of the college is beautiful, you enter this location through the campus store (good location to buy Trinity gear and remember to get a tax receipt, it can save you big money).  The admission fee was 8€, which doesn't seem bad, but once I went in, I found it a little over priced.  If you really want to visit this site, I strongly suggest you do some homework on the Book of Kells before you visit.  The final events of the day led us on a castle tour which we decided to use as the backdrop for our own personal photo shoot.   The scenery and ocean setting provided amazing pictures!