Saturday, March 23, 2013

Heading to Japan!

I have had a Japanese pen pal, Mariko, since we both were 16 years old.  I was an exchange student in Denmark when we first began our written relationship.  She had a friend who was writing to a Danish student that I knew.  They had been corresponding in English and she asked if I'd be interested in having a pen pal too.  I'd never had one, but at that time, it seemed like a good idea.  Back then we wrote to each other about once a month.  The letters kept coming as the years went on.  Sometimes postcards from our vacation spots.  Sometimes a very thin letter written on air mail stationary.  As years went on, it turned into e-mail.  We saw each other through life events and world events.  We discussed movies, weather, presidential elections, royal family.  She visited me twice, but I never went to Japan.  It is the one remaining item on my bucket list that I made more than 20 years ago.

A photo frame Mariko brought during a previous visit.  That's her in traditional kimono on the left.  The royal couple
are on the commemorative stamp on the right.  The bag in front is a gift bag used in Japan that held the frame.
Last year, we tried to see the cherry blossoms bloom in Washington, DC, but somehow the timing was off and we missed the amazing blooms.  I said to my husband that one day I'd really like to see the blooms in Japan, the place where the trees in DC came from.  I also told Mariko that I'd like to visit her and see the blooms.  I really hadn't counted on it happening so quickly, but my husband never forgets anything and he said we could go using some airline miles!  The timing seemed to be perfect because it turned out Omar has spring break during blossom time in Kyoto!

After numerous e-mails back and forth, we finally have a travel plan.  Mariko lives in the south of Japan in Fukuoka prefecture, but the big tourist spots are further north at Tokyo and Kyoto.  She works full time, so finds it difficult to get time off at this time of year.  Somehow she managed to be able to take 2 days off.  We discussed us coming to her part of Japan, but she said she'd meet us in Kyoto, since it's a city she's never visited.  She's planning to take the bullet train from her home the 2 1/2 hours to Kyoto after work on April 2, and she will stay with us for 2 nights!  I'm very excited to be seeing her in her home country and talking about things face to face.  She says all women need is good food and chatting to make them happy.  How true!  I remember once she visited me when I lived in Florida and she wanted to try every type of ice cream Hagen Daz made, so we bought out the pints and indulged!  She also loves Disney movies and spent all night,nearly every night, watching the kids' movies, then she would fall asleep in the car during the day when we were doing sightseeing.  We had a great time together!

We leave for Tokyo on Friday and we'll be gone for one week.  My husband and 2 sons will be going with us.  We'll visit Tokyo, Kyoto, and Izu.  Most of the nights we'll be staying in hotels, but one night we are staying at a Japanese inn that is known for its spas, Japanese hospitality, and relaxation.  They dress you in kimono, feed you in your room on the floor at lap tables, let you bathe in mineral laden hot springs.  Sounds like heaven to me!  Looking forward to a great adventure!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

My favorite vacation spot- Caneel Bay at St. John

We've done a lot of traveling over the years, but I finally found my favorite spot.  Caneel Bay is a resort on St. John in the US Virgin Islands.  My husband had come to St. John many years ago as part of a cruise and loved the beach so much that he vowed he would return.  He found a great deal pricewise for this particular resort, and it had exceptional reviews on trip advisor, so he booked nearly a week there for the 3 of us.

It took us all day to get there, although we talked to people living on the east coast who said it's a direct flight to St. Thomas from Newark, which explains why there were so many people from the eastern USA.  You have to fly to St. Thomas airport and are bussed to the ferry terminal where you catch a shuttle to the hotel, which is actually a high speed ferry, directly to the resort.  The check in for the resort is done right at the airport.  When you arrive at the dock on the resort, you're met by a driver and golf cart that whisks you away to your room.  It's a large resort, so these golf carts are a necessity.

What I loved about this island getaway is that it was peaceful when you wanted peace, but you could also enjoy all kinds of activities for no additional charge.  They don't really call it an 'all inclusive' resort, but all your water sports, tennis, kids club, hiking, and snorkeling gear are included.  There are no televisions or phones in the rooms.  It was designed by the Rockefellers as a way to get away from the bustle of the city and everyday life.  Even by the 2nd day, I could feel myself decompress.  And did I mention that there were 7 different beaches on the resort?!!!  You really never had a need to leave, but of course there was an onsite car rental, or you could catch a taxi van to the nearby city for a night out.  What it didn't have was wild discos or opportunities to get drunk and stupid.  This was more of a family or couples resort, so if nightlife is what you're craving, find somewhere else.  Most people we spoke with were exhausted from a full day of sun and beach, and were in bed by 9!  Many families book next year's vacation while they are enjoying this one!  We hate to pay full price for any hotel or resort, so we probably wouldn't become regulars, but if there was a good deal, we'd be back!

We had a great time trying snorkeling.  Even Omar saw fish!  They had these float belts you could use to stay above the reefs, so it was easy to swim over the fish and see the undersea life. There were various stages of wild wave activity at all of the beaches, so if Omar wanted to body surf, we did Turtle Bay.  For watching turtles, we went to Hawksnest.  To build sandcastles, there was the main beach at the restaurant.  Honeymoon beach was a good launching point for snorkeling.  You never got bored with your selection.  We could have tried kiteboarding or kayaking, or even borrowed a sailboat for a few hours.  They even provided the kids with sand pails at check-in.

The place was full of deer and donkeys, which was kind of amusing for the kids.  Omar kept trying to catch the deer.  Most were totally unafraid of people.  He begged to go to the kids' club for at least a few hours every day.  They even took him fishing one day, which he enjoyed.  The food was good and plentiful.  It rained every day but only for an hour or so.  The sun was always just around the corner.  Every afternoon at 4, you could go to the Turtle Bay Estate house and enjoy free tea and cookies or scones with lemon curd and cream!  We rarely missed that!  This was truly paradise.  I hope we get an opportunity to enjoy this place again!
You could find a glorious sunset at the end of a day

Colorful blossoms were everywhere

One of the many turtles we saw snorkeling

Friendly donkeys

Beautiful beaches

An old sugar mill converted to a restaurant

Chicago at St. Patrick's Day

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, but surprisingly, I had never been to the city of Chicago for the actual St. Pat's Day celebration.  I suppose it was because it has become more of a drinking celebration than anything else, and I left for the Air Force before I turned 21, the legal drinking age.  This weekend, I was finally able to celebrate with all the Irish and the Irish wannabes, because a good friend of mine was in Chicago for a conference.

I might warn you that if you decide to ever go to Chicago for this event, book a hotel room well ahead of time.  We did this last minute and the only rooms available were either way outside the downtown area, or at a high price.  We ended up paying $300+ for one night at the Residence Inn, but it was super convenient to be right in the middle of everything and so close to the River Walk.  And an added bonus- parking was included as well as breakfast.  Parking will kill your wallet in Chicago.  If you can find it, it's very expensive.

On the Saturday before St. Patrick's Day, the city of Chicago has a HUGE parade which includes floats, Irish dancers, bands, and all things green.  You won't even find such a celebration in Ireland.  This is one of the top 10 cities to celebrate this particular holiday.  Before the parade, the river is DYED GREEN!  How cool is that?!  It's a tradition started in the 1960s using a vegetable dye.  You can read the whole story here about how a plumber used it to find leaks in the sewer and it ended up on his coveralls, which spurred a thought about starting the greening of the river tradition.  It's all privately funded.  It starts out almost as a neon green, and turns to a cool kelly green later in the day.

Chicago River on St. Patrick's Day

Do you wonder what the birds think?

Very few people eat more than one slice

So besides the parade and river being green, the city is chock full of celebrating green clad young people.  Any bar advertising green beer (and there are plenty!) will have a line out the door, even before noon.  You will hear and see the strangest things.  It's a great day for people watching.  I have never seen such a variety of green headwear- everything from afros to boa clad cowboys.  And if you're in Chicago and trying to show an outsider a good time, there are a few MUSTS that should be included:  Giordano's Chicago pizza pie, a shot of yourself in the cloud gate sculpture (better known as 'the bean'), a walk on the Magnificent Mile for window shopping, and a visit to the Art Institute where they are currently celebrating 100 years of Picasso's influence on Chicago.  We did all of those and my friend said she enjoyed herself.  In spite of the cold, it was good to have a holiday in Chicago!

The Bean at Millennium park

I had seen this painting in books but it was quite exciting to see it close up.  I never noticed the couple walking a monkey!  Do you see it?