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One way to feed the travel addiction on a limited budget is to house/pet sit. It’s a great way to see more of the world, meet wonderful people and their amazing pets, and live like a local—all for a very reasonable travel cost. As retirees, it’s been a terrific way for my husband and I to travel to places we wouldn’t likely have gone to otherwise, and are so glad we did. One such trip was a house-sitting assignment in Atlantic Beach, Florida in February/March 2016. Having never visited that region before, we had no idea what to expect. Of course I did my usual online research about the area, and pinpointed a few places I knew we’d want to visit, but that’s as far as I went research-wise.

In the past I’ve always headed to either Orlando or the Gulf Coast of Florida. I’d never set foot in northeast Florida, so I was excited to learn more about this area, it’s people, and what it has to offer travelers working with a limited budget. I have to tell you, I was blown away! The house we were caring for was a rambling one floor ranch that was quite comfortable. We were house/pet sitting for a lovely lady with two senior dogs that needed caring for while she was away on a cruise. With the house being just two blocks from Atlantic Beach, it was an ideal opportunity to get to know the Atlantic side of Florida.

What I hadn’t expected was for the area to be so lush and full of tropical flora and fauna. Although northeast Florida definitely experiences cooler winters than its more southern siblings, it’s extremely green and inviting, with plenty of palm trees, palmettos, and flowering plants everywhere. The beaches are some of the widest and longest I’ve ever experienced, which was thrilling to discover. Because we were there from February 24th to March 15th, we certainly got a taste of the cooler and wetter temperatures (ranging from around 9C to about 21C, or 48F to around 70F), but having left Southwestern Ontario, Canada’s unusual winter to early spring cold to cool temperatures, we were happy to trade our heavy winter outwear for much lighter jackets and running shoes.

Atlantic Beach

We were required to walk the dogs first thing in the morning and around 4pm each day, which left us ample opportunity to get acquainted with the neighbourhood, traverse the expanse of sand on the beach, say hello to others passing by, and chat to some of the neighbours. On all but a few occasions, we walked the dogs on the beach to allow us to really experience the Atlantic ocean, and so I could pick up a few interesting shells along the way. It’s where we also saw our first beached jellyfish, and had to take a picture to show our young grandchildren back home. There were a few days when the fog came in and blanketed the coast, making our walks eerily silent, enveloping us in a grey shroud our eyes could barely penetrate. We loved it!

I’m mostly a fair weather girl though, so I admit I revelled in the days we were able to get out and soak up some sun. The small village of Atlantic Beach is lovely, but there wasn’t much to see or do in the town itself at that time of year. We did discover a unique and inviting pub though. Poe’s Tavern on Atlantic Beach is a welcoming place to stop in for a beer and a burger. With a well-rounded menu offering over fifty beers to choose from, its in-house- ground gourmet burgers and hand-cut fries, well, you simply can’t go wrong. Unfortunately, the day we were there the weather was overcast and rainy, so we were happy to sit inside and soak up the ambience of the cozy pub and admire the dozens of Edgar Allen Poe photographs and quotes posted to the walls. On a trip to the ladies’ room, I was surprised to hear a man’s voice coming from the overhead speakers reciting one of Poe’s works, rather than the usual muzak or radio stations one usually hears. The waitress was friendly and knowledgeable, the atmosphere was ideal for a cool, dreary day, and the food was excellent. Had the weather been sunnier and warmer, we’d definitely have sat outside on the large patio dotted with many tables and umbrellas. If you’re in Atlantic Beach, do stop in and check it out for yourself.

St. Augustine

Many days we explored the region by car, checking out the magnificent homes that line the winding waterways. One day we decided to visit Marineland Dolphin Adventure just south of St. Augustine, where visitors can actually purchase tickets to get right into the water with the dolphins (with handlers, of course) and interact with these incredible animals and learn more about the abundant sea life that lives in the ocean.

Another day we opted to wander the streets of beautiful, historic old St. Augustine. Although the day we visited St. Augustine was again cool and quite windy, I could well imagine how it would be on a warm day or summer evening. With its numerous historic buildings (many of which are now gift shops, which did ruin the effect for me a bit), narrow cobblestone streets, and people walking about in period costumes all contributed to the feeling of history. I loved learning about the long coquina walls (walls constructed of sedimentary rock and shells) by the Spanish settlers, and was entranced by the idea of touching stone walls that had stood for hundreds of years. Out on the water, replica pirate ships bobbed, where tourists can pay to take a tour and “be a pirate for a day”. Much as we’d have liked to take advantage of such a fun adventure, the weather was simply too cool. The smell of briny seas was strong that day, so I could easily imagine pirates and sailors of yore shouting to one another from ship to shore, while the sights of the town and the opportunity to read up on the early days of settlement of this iconic port made the trip from Atlantic Beach well worth the visit.

On other days we took leisurely day trips to explore the many incredible beaches ranging along the coast from Jacksonville Beach up to Little Talbot and Amelia Island, Georgia. In late February to March, most of the beaches we visited were either delightfully deserted, or inhabited by only a few other couples and families. Be prepared to walk though, since many of these beaches are accessible only by long boardwalks or paths leading from parking areas to surf. This of course is meant to protect the beach and wildlife from human interference as much as possible. On a hot day, the trek can be a bit of a challenge for anyone with mobility or breathing difficulties, but if you go, it’s well worth the effort once you get down to your destination.

TPC Sawgrass Golf Club

My husband loves to golf, so any opportunity to swing the clubs is a welcome one for him. For those looking to get in a little golf, there numerous courses to indulge your addiction for every budget. If you’re looking for a luxury golf vacation, executive retreat, or corporate event though, then the TPC Sawgrass is the ideal venue for you. Partnered with the Marriott Golf Resort and Spa in Pont Vedra Beach, it really does offer something for everyone; from fine dining, spa visits, lazy days soaking up the sun by the pool, to idyllic golf conditions at the world headquarters of professional golf.

All in all, we were extremely impressed with all that Florida’s northeast coast has to offer, and would certainly return in a heart beat. The main take-away for us was the fact that anyone can take advantage of the many free and low-cost options to explore, walk, and learn more about a destination, if they choose. Much as I love luxury living and accommodations, that trip will stand out as a truly memorable one, not because of a beautiful hotel, room, or hospitality service, but because we made the effort to get out and explore on our own, investigating the roads, beaches, and towns we’d read about back home, and are now part of our experiential travels we treasure.

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A few years ago I attended my youngest sister’s wedding, which she decided should be a destination event. I was extremely excited to learn that she and her groom-to-be (now husband), chose to host their celebration on Mackinac Island, Michigan. I’d heard about the island, but had never been. What I did know was that it was a unique experience unlike any I’d get anywhere else.

My young niece informed me the island had a certain smell to it; “Horse manure and fudge!” she exclaimed, watching my face as she made her announcement. On the ferry ride over from the mainland area of Mackinaw, I kept trying to imagine what I was in for, and was intrigued at the idea of coming to a place where you step off the boat and are transported back in time.

Immediately after disembarking, visitors are treated to the sight of a line-up of perfectly outfitted horse-drawn carriages, each waiting patiently to take visitors to their destination, or for a tour around the tiny island. You see, no cars or motorized vehicles are permitted on this quaint little piece of land along the shores of Lake Huron, furthering the feeling of being transported to a bygone era. Other than horses and feet, bicycles are the other most popular mode of transportation around the island, and are available to rent from a variety of locations.

As our group turned the corner onto the main street, I became immediately aware of the truth of my niece’s assessment; the air did indeed smell of horse manure and fudge – oddly, not an unpleasant odour. In addition to its tourist draw of horses, carriage rides, and picturesque Victorian-themed shops lining Main Street, Mackinac Island is infamous for its outrageously good fudge. Walking by one of the open doors of a fudge shop, my middle sister and I simply had to stop in and watch as the candy artisans worked a new batch of creamy delight, right in the open portion of the shop itself. Visitors to the shop are invited to ask questions, and of course there are numerous exquisite samples of the finished product to tempt the palate. Needless to say, we each bought several flavours to take home with us.

After meandering through delightful gift, clothing, and assorted shopping venues, we met up with the main group for lunch at the Pink Pony restaurant. On a warm September day, it was the ideal venue for an alfresco repast right along the water’s edge, where we sat and looked out onto the wide expanse of blue of Lake Huron.

Opting to walk up the hill from the main street shopping area after lunch, we headed up to check into our hotel, The Grand Hotel, the island’s premiere resort hotel and destination.

With its impressively wide steps leading up to a spectacular white wooden porch, reminiscent of the grand old days of southern charm and elegance, we made our way indoors to the lobby, where guests milled around and lounged in well-appointed chairs and sofas dotting the open area. After excited greetings with late-arriving guests who were part of our large group, we found our way to our room, exhausted, and ready to re-charge before dinner.

Each room is perfectly outfitted in soft carpets, beautiful antiques, and wall-papered elegance befitting a grand old mansion oozing southern charm, yet the bathrooms lack none of the expected updated modern-day necessities, to ensure each guest’s visit it perfectly ideal.

As a writer, I was thrilled to learn that this hotel was the set and location for the movie, Somewhere In Time, with Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve. I have to admit to being in awe of walking through rooms and down hallways featured in the movie, and imagined turning a corner to find the genteel beauty of Seymour’s character all decked out in a sweepingly elegant gown.

The rest of that weekend became a bit of a blur, with wedding preparations, the ceremony on the grand front porch, and dancing till dawn that evening, but the experience as a whole will remain with me for a lifetime.

What I came away with from that trip was the sense that, in this one place, this one island, time really does slow right down and take visitors back to the distant past. I couldn’t help but reflect on the craziness of our modern, everyday lives, where we’re plugged in, connected, and yet also disconcertingly disconnected, especially in contrast to the old world charm and grace the island exudes. While we didn’t have enough time to check out the many fabulous on and off-island B & Bs and other beautiful hotels and venues during our stay that weekend, I’ll definitely go back to explore more of this unique place. I can’t think of a better way to unplug, de-stress, and reconnect with self and others. For travelers looking for a truly unique experience, a visit to Mackinac Island simply can’t be beat.

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From the street The Sandpearl Resort in Clearwater, Florida looks lovely, but it’s really once I stepped through her doors that I got a true sense of what’s in store. Being greeted by warm smiles and a friendly “hello” sets a welcoming tone, but it’s the allure of the pool, palms, and ocean that draw me in. Now I’ve been to Florida countless times before, but the stately elegance, understated seashell decor, and cool air were balms to my soul on my arrival on the very humid August day we arrived. I was with a group of event planners from Strategic Incentive Solutions on a site inspection, and since this was my first foray into this arena, I was excited to see St. Pete’s/Clearwater from a whole new angle.

I certainly wasn’t disappointed with our host venue. The Sandpearl is a luxury five-star hotel, and after a day packed with visits to several other venues and destinations, dinner at The Sandpearl that evening was a special affair in the private wine room. Our waiter, Chris, kept us all laughing by regaling us with information and hilarious stories throughout the spectacular meal. Afterward, we wandered outside, drinks in hand, to take in the cooler breezes, many tiny lights strung everywhere, and groups of guests clustered around the pool and beachfront fire pits. The night was crystal clear, the moon hanging large and low in the sky. I couldn’t wait to walk the beach and dip my toes into what we’d been assured was bathwater temperature water, but that would have to wait till morning.

At first light, I made a quick cup of complimentary coffee in my room in the coffee maker set out for guest’s use, padded out to the balcony, and settled in to watch the hotel wake up. At first there was little light, other than those around the pool area directly below me. Stretching as far as my eyes could see was the Gulf of Mexico. I was at peace in the half-light, sipping my coffee alone. As the sun rose in the sky, signs of life became apparent, as workers came out and headed to the beach to rake and clean up for the day’s activities. On impulse, I decided to hurry up and headed out to walk the beach before gearing up for a day packed with activities with the group.

True to the staff’s promise, the water was as warm as a bath, and since I’ve always visited Florida in the March/April time frame before, it was a new experience for me. What followed was a whirlwind day of many personal firsts; exquisite meals and tours of two additional luxury area hotels, and an afternoon on a chartered catamaran, where we watched dolphins play and swim alongside our boat while we were treated to cool, refreshing drinks, snacks, and incredible waterside views of the marinas, resorts, and beaches strung out along the coastline. I quickly came to the realization that the St. Pete’s/Clearwater area I thought I knew had grown up. I must admit to being impressed with the vibrancy, elegance, and luxury offered in a place I’d always thought of as sleepy and perhaps a bit “old-fogey”. Let me tell you, there’s nothing sleepy or old about it! From upscale venues and restaurants, to wide expanses of sand and sea, we experienced some of the very best the travel and tourism trade in Florida have to offer.

That’s not all though. We were there to check out the venues as potential destinations for events, and were pleased to discover that this aspect of each venue exceeded any needs our clients might have. Even more impressive is The Sandpearl’s commitment to what they call, “green meetings”, where biodegradable products, energy efficient lighting, and resort-wide recycling is in full effect in an effort to help protect the Gulf Coast’s unique natural resources. For today’s travelers and event planners, that’s important, since more people are aware of the negative effects humans can and do have on nature.

For me, as it is with most travelers, whether for business, pleasure, or a combination of both, it’s always about the experiences and memories I take away with me. Whether engaging in exciting team building adventures, a sunset dinner cruise, or a must-visit to the nearby Clearwater Marine Aquarium and introduction to Winter, the dolphin (see my previous post, “It’s All About The Dolphin”), I came away with a tremendous appreciation for this incredible destination, venues, and the community’s commitment to conservation. For anyone seeking an exciting luxury Florida destination along the Gulf of Mexico, I’d highly recommend St. Pete’s/Clearwater and The Sandpearl.

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A few years ago I went on a company site inspection with S.I.S (Strategic Incentive Solutions) to St. Pete’s/Clearwater, Florida. The Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (CVB) hosted a top-notch site inspection for the entire S.I.S. staff for two nights, three days, that featured four fabulous luxury hotels and several exciting points of interest.

Having visited Florida many, many times over the years I’ll admit I had a preconceived notion that this particular area was primarily geared to geriatrics and snow-birders. As a child, my family and I used to frequent the area just to the south of St. Pete’s/Clearwater in our motor home, but I wasn’t as familiar with the town itself as I thought.

St. Pete’s/Clearwater is a bustling, upscale destination boasting some of the travel industry’s top luxury hotels. Facing pristine wide beaches are some of the most beautiful hotels I’ve had the pleasure to visit. With soft white sands underfoot, shore birds, and pelicans wheeling overhead, and the warm gulf coast surf lapping at my cold Canadian toes, I was enchanted.

On arrival we were met by Suzanne and Tina, our two escorts from the local CVB, who drove us to our host hotel, The Sandpearl. From the moment we exited the rental cars, our group was warmly welcomed by the sales manager, Wendy. After a quick change and freshen up, we were back in the car for a short 15 minute drive to meet Winter, the dolphin, at the nearby Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Winter and her friends became the heroes of a much loved, family-friendly film, Dolphin Tale, a movie I’ve enjoyed watching since my return home.

Winter the dolphin

For the next few hours we were given a personal tour by guide, John, who filled us in on all the small details we would have missed otherwise, and told us the heart-breaking story of Winter the dolphin. Winter was rescued from Mosquito Lagoon, near Cape Canaveral. At only two months old, she became wrapped up in a crab trap line, where her tail flukes lost circulation due to the lines. Overcoming extreme odds against survival, and after many trials of outfitting her with a new prosthetic tail, Winter made a tremendous recovery, proving she could overcome anything, and thrive. Once word got out about Winter’s prosthetic tail, people with varying degrees of their own disabilities began showing up at the Aquarium to see this miracle dolphin for themselves, and came away inspired to tackle their own personal challenges with renewed hope.

John told us many stories of marine wildlife in desperate need of the aquarium’s unique services, and I couldn’t help but be impressed by the passion, vision, and goals of this small facility and those who worked there. We were constantly reminded that, while open to the public, this is no tourist “show”. This is a working rescue, rehab, and release facility that helps the area’s marine life survive the sometimes brutal encounters with humans and other catastrophes. After the success of A Dolphin Tale, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium saw a tremendous influx of visitors, and much needed revenue. Although I haven’t been back since the new aquarium opened in 2011, I definitely want to return to see how they’re doing and the changes they’ve been able to make!

My personal take-aways from that trip were reminders not to prejudge an area. The hidden gems and less-known are often the very best experiences of an entire trip. Even though I know Florida fairly well, and I’m sure much has changed again since I last visited the area several years ago, I have a much deeper appreciation for the people who call this beautiful destination, home. They care about the land, beaches, and animals that share the waters and beaches we visitors take for granted. From the hotel staff who do their utmost to make a visitor’s stay memorable, to the guides who feel a real connection to the causes they believe in, it’s all about sharing a little of what they have with others. For those of us fortunate enough to visit and listen, sometimes the valuable take-away is the education we receive about the real threats humans pose to the environment and animals of this planet. It’s these kinds of experiences that stay with me for years after I’ve returned home, and remind me to pay attention to where I put trash, to respect the beauty of the places I visit, but also be mindful of the damage I might unconsciously do just by being there. Animals like Winter remind me that life is to be lived, and when we co-operate, great things can happen.

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Travel. Even the word sends excitement coursing through the veins of those who, like me and my husband, Wayne, enjoy the prospect of embarking on a new journey. Experiencing new places, meeting new people, and discovering exciting new things to do is one of the things that makes us tick. Personally, I love learning the why behind travel; why do we travel, why do we seek new vistas, adventures, and connections, and so many other questions.

The new trend of “experiential travel” is becoming a hot topic in the hospitality, incentive, and travel industry, but some aren’t sure what experiential travel is. Through my work with a full-service rewards and incentive travel company that caters to their many top-tier clients, my understanding is that it is any travel that incorporates adventure, personal growth and wellness, and experiences outside the norm of daily living. Think zip lining, swimming with dolphins (or sharks), hot air balloon rides, culinary or artistic instruction classes, team building exercises, midnight horseback rides on a ranch, attending a world-class sporting event with VIP positioning, standing on the edge of a continent and looking across the ocean to an incredible vastness of water – in effect, anything that makes the heart skip a beat, or enriches the life experience of the traveler.

Experiential travel is also something that travel, venue, and destination hosts acknowledge as being on the top list of needs and wants for today’s traveler. Although many people just want a quiet beach or pool and fruity alcoholic beverage, along with complete relaxation, even more people are seeking to do something new and exciting. They want to get out and connect with the locals, try something new, contribute and/or learn about the local culture in some special way. In fact, many travelers are seeking to connect to that part of themselves that recognizes that this planet we share is a magical and special place. Whether they seek to get back to nature, or source adventures from the safety of their luxury resort, it’s all about experiencing as much as we can about what life has to offer. It’s about opening up and tapping into potentially new awareness. It’s about the take-aways that last a life time.

I know for us, when we get away from home and travel, while we certainly enjoy, and need, the relaxing days by a pool or beach, after a few days, we’re anxious to do and see something new. Neither of us wants to leave this world thinking, I should have… I know we can’t see and do everything we’d like to. We have neither the financial resources or physical ability to do so, but if we can get to experience a few things outside our everyday life, I think we’ll count ourselves blessed.

I’m excited to begin delving into the places both near and far that offer unique opportunities, and I know my husband, Wayne, is too. As part of the process, I’ll be interviewing the providers, event planners, and hosts to learn as much as I can about this growing travel trend, while Wayne will take many of the photographs we’ll use in this blog and social media sites to enhance and showcase what we uncover. I’m not a kid anymore, and neither is Wayne, and we’re definitely not as agile as we used to be, but we can share the information we learn along the way about the who, what, where, when, and perhaps, even some of the why of what’s available in experiential travel.

We welcome comments on adventures and experiences readers have had that they’d like to share, but be prepared to tell us where, and why you went. We also welcome other travel writers, venues, DMCs, experiential providers and hosts, etc. to comment or contact me directly via email at mcclure.d@hotmail.com to arrange an interview and site visit, or to share your stories with our readers here and on my social media posts. For us, it’s all about spreading the word with others.

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