Turoe Pet Farm

Right, so, I’m in Clifden, Co. Galway for my Uncle Robbie’s wake and funeral not too long ago, and I’m sat in the hotel foyer, waiting for my parents to get changed out of the funeral garb and come down for dinner.  Lewis is with me, doing his usual ‘running round like a hurricane’ kinda thing.  To be fair, he’d been pretty great for the travel, wake and funeral and was just crying out to burn off some energy – so where better place to do it than the hotel lobby?!

All of a sudden, he appears next to me, with a flyer from the stand of tourist leaflets sat in the lobby.  ‘Mama, this looks fun’, he says to me sincerely.  Taking the leaflet from him, I expected some fuddy duddy tourist place, or a local beach or what not.  In actual fact? He’d picked a leaflet for Turoe Pet Farm – which had a ginormous bouncy castle on the front of it – and, true as his word? It looked like a lot of fun.

“Can we go mama?” He asked eagerly.

“Let mama check that it’s open first and that it’s on our way home,” I replied.

As it turns out, from November to April they only open on weekends, from May to November they’re open all week – AND they were only a few short Kms out of our way on our journey back up North.  The weather was due to suck, so our original Lettergesh beach plan had been shelved, and I decided that since Lewis had been AMAZING on the six hour car ride, and at both the wake and the funeral that we’d take him and give him some time to blow off a little steam.

It was very easy to find off the motorway (ok, so my GPS found it, but we didn’t get lost), two adults and two kids cost around thirty Euro – and, considering that granted you access to all areas in the place, bags of animal feed, and you could stay til closing? That was excellent value for money.

The place starts with a little ice cream shop, right next to a wee park, with a rather large sand box – it was pretty tough to convince Lewis that there was anything better to go play with, or see, than the sand box – the kid LOVES sand.

This leads you to a one-mile loop that you can walk around and feed the animals.  From cows and calves, to goats and donkeys – they’re all hungry and incredibly friendly when they see those white bags of feed.

At the end of the loop, there’s another park – a little bigger, and more modern.  We had a quick swing, before we headed over to check out the indoor side of things. The jungle gym section was totally packed, so Lewis didn’t go off exploring.  We ordered food at the restaurant/café – and, in spite of there being, like, ten kids parties there at that moment, the food was quick, hot and delicious – it, again, cost us maybe thirty Euro to feed the four of us including drinks and it was tasty.

Lewis’ favourite part of the whole day, was the indoor bouncy city.  He LOVED it.  The pictures don’t quite do it justice – it was ginormous! After his first trip down the sheer-drop slide, he didn’t want to come out.  He just kept going up those steps and sliding down the slide.

When it was time to go home, I had to go ask one of the women working there to go nab him for me.  The facility was excellent.  Spacious, plenty to do, reasonably priced, plenty of toilets and fascilities, on site restaurant with lots of seating and a total of three hours from us here in Larne (and two hours from my parents in Newry) – and it was worth the trip, for sure!

If you’re looking for something to do this summer – that covers both Summer and potential downpour, Baltic, winter weather? Half-term getaway?

Check this place out!

It says ‘Galway’, but it’s the nearside, about 110 miles from Newry for those of you in the hometown!

To the lady on the Boston Harbour boat tour…

Dear stranger-lady on the Boston Harbour boat tour, 

My son was an out and out horror today. 

He was so epically, UNBELIEVABLY, naughty, that after our brief encounter on the tour boat, we made our way back to our hotel – where, I admit, the day momentarily picked up with games of hide and seek, milkshake (cause no where delivers margaritas to my hotel room) and a dance party to Fat Man Scoop, but, when bed time rolled around, he was just as bad as ever.

I don’t know what his deal is, or where I’ve gone wrong…he was such a good two year old, but three? Three is…well, it’s…it’s…something.  Someone told me a couple weeks ago that I was essentially a bad mother to my son, those words have rung in my ears every day since they were written to me, and make me question myself constantly.  

Especially today.

At some point, I sat with my son in my lap, carefully pinning his arms to his legs to avoid him hurting himself, or, from being on the receiving end of one more punch, kick, or elbow from this tiny ninja and waiting out the storm.  I had, against all odds, kept my cool and was trying to reason with him, shush him, calm him – I think I even offered him cookies at one point, bribery? Whatever it took.  Trying to explain my desire to keep him safe, trying to encourage some deep breathing, and assuring him that once he exorcised the shrieking, thrashing demon from inside of him and listened, with his listening ears, that I’d let him sit, nicely, on his bottom (not standing jumping on a chair next to an open window) and leave him be.

You see, the three year old demon, clearly did not want to obey regular human being rules today, the rules that strongly suggest that when you’re on a moving boat you don’t run like Ussain freaking Bolt, in circles, up and down flights of stairs and generally put yourself in dangerous situations, or, essentially run any which place your parents are not – thinking this careless and reckless behaviour is funny, it is not.  

Prior to the boat tour he had also not taken heed of those other tricky little regular human rules, y’know, like, 

• Thou shalt not run on the train platform.  Never.  NEVER run on the effing train platform.

• Thou shalt not drop hands and bolt from your parents in a busy tourist area for any insane person to kidnap, or car to smash in to – or, for that matter, in any public place.

• Thou also shalt not clobber thy parents with moves that have clearly come directly from Conor McGregors back pocket.

And here’s where the double standard lies for parents. Let your kid run away from you on the train platform and get smushed by a train? Or jump out the window of a moving boat? Terrible parent.  Neglectful.  Absent minded.  Tut tut.  Head shake.  Clearly an utter hot mess who deserves to be burned alive at the stake.

Shout (or use that STOP FUCKING RUNNING YOU’RE IN IMMINENT DANGER” yell that parents have), put your kid in time out, or make any threats about tech-time, toys, candy or grounding them til they’re 35? and you’re too heavy handed, too strict, that poor child.  Terrible parent. 

Anywhoo, I digress.  After enduring more punches than I have in the ring, I tagged daddy-C in to the fight and sat longingly gazing in to Boston harbour wishing the waves could open and swallow me up and praying his, inexplicable and monumental meltdown would pass quickly, then you appeared.  

“Mama, I’ve been there,” you said to me quietly over my shoulder as I bit my lip and fought back my second wave of tears of the day, “could I maybe try to help?” you asked.  “Perhaps I could play a game with him and distract him somehow?” You suggested, your voice filled with empathy and understanding.

“Sure” I said, defeated, go for it” 

“Hey buddy,” she said confidently, “would you like to play a game with me to distract you?” She asked him.  

He instantly stopped melting down, looked at her curiously, and nodded.  His wet-with-sweat hair was matted to his forehead and his crocodile-tear stained cheeks were hotter than the Red Sox logo.  But he was listening.

“Let’s distract you,” she continued, “because I’m not mama or daddy and you may even listen to me.  Can you play patty cake?” She enquired,

He nodded to the affirmative (even though he cannot) and she requested he put his hands up.  He stared at her as she demonstrated her expectations.  “I’ll just leave my hands here until you’re ready to do it too”, she said to him calmly.  

He pauses for a second, glances at me, glances back to the lady, and double hi-fives the stranger.
She began singing and clapping with him, explaining the process as she went along – and for maybe 30 whole seconds he was my happy little boy again, before he plopped off the chair he was calmly sitting on and made a bee-line for the stairs to the upper levels on the boat.
I wanted to cry.  I wanted to curl up in a ball, admit defeat and have my parenting pass withdrawn.  I wanted to offer my small child up to this, clearly superior-to-me parent, and say ‘Hey, go for it’.  He’s yours to fuck up now.
“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong”, my voice quivered at her.
“You’re going to be fine”, she replied, “you’re doing great, mama.”
“It doesn’t feel like it” I sighed.
“You gotta love an independent, strong-willed child.  It will serve him well when he’s older, but it’s so hard to endure right now.  Stick with it” she encouraged.
Turns out, she has two girls herself, 6 and 8 year olds and was one of the most genuine, least “other mother”-y type parents I’ve ever met.  She’s been there, done that, and enjoying a little nice-time before gearing up for puberty and the bitchy-ville wars that she’s soon to be staring down.
Ok, the rest of our day was blown to shit, our hundred dollar day passes to the kids museum, swan paddle boats and trolley tour, among other things were completely wasted.
Ok, I had to physically hold him in his bed to stop him climbing, jumping, running and causing mayhem and throwing things at bed time.
Ok so I wanted the ground to swallow me up from embarrassment, anger, frustration, resignation…but for an instant, this absolute stranger, sat in my space, reached out a little branch of calm and made me feel even just a teeny tiny little bit better about myself in that awful moment.
So, thank you, lady on the Bostonian boat tour, in the chaos I didn’t even catch your name, for agreeing with me that 3 years old, is a whole nother level of hell, than 2 was.  For taking a moment out of your sight-seeing trip, in blissful solitude all by yourself, away from your own children, to try and help better my day, even just for an instant and to give me some relief from the hellish demon that has seemingly all but replaced my loving and kind little boy.  For making me feel better about my defeated-feeling self, when all I really wanted to do was drink, eat chocolate, cry and disappear.
As I stepped off the boat behind Col, who was getting his glasses smacked off his face for the 38559295th time, I received a text from a friend, “I get that he’s an asshole kid right now.  But you fought hard to have that little asshole and you’ll fight hard to figure out what his damn problem is and set him straight.  Even if it’s emotionally exhausting and there are days that you just want to quit.”
Today? Today I want to quit.
And so, I’m going to bed, teary and deflated, I don’t want today to last even another second.  And considering Col and I both all but passed out on the bed the second we got back in to the hotel room, I don’t think a good sleep in the bank is a terribly bad plan.  Hopefully tomorrow is a better day, because I can’t take another one like today so soon on its heels, especially since tomorrow? We fly again. Lawwwwd in heaven, help me.
Today was a bad, bad day.  I’m praying that tomorrow is better.
He wasn’t all bad – see? This cute, adorable, sweaty-faced, sun-kissed smile? Yeah.  He was grinning because he went running around the sidewalk next to a busy bus pick-up/drop-off area at the airport like the Tasmanian devil.  Causing high blood pressure, severe heart palpitations and shrieking.  All the while yelling ‘Ha Ha! You can’t get meeeeee!’ at Colin and I – and he’s right, we typically *can’t* get him, unless we cut him off from different sides and swoop him up when he can’t see us coming.  He’s a slippy one.
Why do kids gotta be such little a-holes sometimes?  All we have tried to do on this trip is bring him fun places and do fun things.  Screw it, our next vacation will be spent at Presidential libraries, WWII ships and state capitols and he can just live with it.
Ugh! He’s lucky he’s cute.

Things to do in Texas: Texas State Railroad (Fall Foliage Brunch Train)

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It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, we went home to the UK for a few weeks, I’ve been under the weather (before and since), and Lewis is keeping me on my toes.  But, we recently embarked on a fun activity here in Texas, that I wanted to share with y’all, in case you are interested in doing the Polar Express train before Christmas.

Col and I have been married for five years as of October, the traditional gift is wood, and, after having bought him his record player (affectionately named ‘Maggie’), I wanted to find something for us to do together, to mark the occasion.  As many of you know, we love our little getaways, a weekend here, an overnight there, we love exploring Texas and think, as a state, it has so much to offer.  To get to the train ride took exactly three hours from Houston (though, on our way TO the train, it took five hours, an hour in traffic, an hour stopped for lunch, plus the three hour journey – yawn!)

We went up the day before, spent the afternoon in the hotel pool (the Hampton inn and suites, if you’re interested, was excellent, and we’d go back without question and, while I’m at it, grab a delicious pizza in a restaurant called ‘Switch’).

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For those of you who say that Texas doesn’t have a ‘fall’ season, you’re wrong.  I just saw it, out the window of a hundred year old steam train as we traveled across East Texas ‘Pineywoods’ forest country.  You pay $55 per person, you board the train at one of two Victorian-style train depots at either Palestine (where we boarded), or Rusk.

They ask you to be there almost an hour early, to pick up your tickets from the ticket desk – don’t groan – that gives you plenty of time to watch the steam engine come out of her little shed, down the track and connect to the carriages, and to take pictures of the train, the depot and the surroundings, it’s very picturesque.

Once on board, we found the table with our family name place card, took a seat, and enjoyed a delicious platter of fresh fruit, fruit dip, orange juice, apple juice, water and coffee, as we waited for the train to disembark the station.

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The journey through the trees was glorious, the sun shone, the trees were a multitude of colours, and the atmosphere onboard, was excited anticipation.  The family carriage, was filled with both adults and kids alike, I was amazed to find linen table cloths, real glasses and cutlery on the tables and fully uniformed staff ready to wait on us hand and foot.  It was a real experience, we even traveled through a rainbow – which was pretty darn cool!

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As we approached our one and only stop at Rusk, Texas, they brought us slices of quiche (bacon or veggie), with a side salad and some dressing (in hindsight I should have ordered a third portion because Lewis decided he loved it and ate a chunk of mine and Col’s!)

We disembarked for our forty-five minute pit-stop, watched the engine disconnect, and pass the carriages to reconnect.  In Rusk there are bathrooms (though the lines were seriously long, I’d say just go on board the train whilst no one is on board!), the men’s bathroom had a koala care station – which is definitely worth noting for those with little ones, as many restaurants, even ‘big name’ restaurants don’t have facilities in even the Women’s toilets, let alone the men’s.

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There is a gift shop for you to peruse and some nice grounds if you’d like a wander around.  When we got back on the train, there was a platter of crackers, cheese and tomato/cucumber waiting for us and about half-way back to the Palestine depot, they brought out a selection of muffins and cinnamon rolls.  Informing us that we could ‘pick two’ (and then offered us a cinnamon roll separate), Col had the blueberry muffin and the mini lemon and poppy seed muffin, I chose the banana nut muffin and a mini lemon and poppy seed and we picked up a cinnamon roll to share.  What we actually ate, on the other hand, was half the cinnamon roll, Lewis and I shared the mini muffin and Col had his mini muffin – so much food! (We bagged the two larger muffins to take home with us on our journey home).

The thing that surprised me on this journey, other than the food being really tasty (for some reason I always expect those type of things to be quite Ming), was the service, the servers on the train were exceptional – better than many of the restaurants I’ve been in lately.  They were friendly and warm, interested (mostly in Lewis, obviously!) but not imposing, efficient and generous (one lady even gave me some diet coke and offered more if/when I fancied it).  They definitely added to the whole experience and were full of smiles the whole time.

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We both loved this experience, it was romantic, fun, different and we got to see a part of Texas that, previously, had been uncharted for us, and the train was pretty damn cool – I won some serious wifey points to boot.

Their 2015 calendar includes a romantic Valentine’s night dinner and an Easter train ride – both of which sound fun.  If Lewis was a little older, we’d take him on the Polar Express Christmas train ride for sure!

Y’all should check this train out, really – it’s worth it!!

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A pleasantly surprising discovery – Beaumont, Texas.

When hubby announced to me last Wednesday that we were going away for the weekend for my birthday celebration, I was *almost* disappointed.  We can’t fly, can’t sail and can’t endure long car rides (especially since my chest pains arrived a couple weeks ago), so that leaves short-car trips.  One would assume San Antonio or Austin.

While I do enjoy both of these cities, (scrambling to sound less of an ungrateful mare) we favour trying somewhere new when we travel.  I should have had more faith in my wonderfully curious, explorer-husband, because he did in fact stick to our preference of trying out somewhere new, and his description of our weekend was, and I quote, ‘a gamble’.

Hmmm.  He told me the night before we left, where we were going, Beaumont, Texas – a city around an hour and forty minutes from us in Missouri City, so closer still than San Antonio or Austin (bonus points for a shorter-than-expected car journey!) and that we were going to take in a show, the Blue Man Group.  I can’t/won’t tell you too much about the show, mostly because I’m not sure that it’s something words do justice to, so, instead, I’ll tell you it’s musical, it’s visually stimulating, it’s hilarious and to go and see it, if you have the opportunity – you won’t regret it.  My mind was BLOWN.

Why bother with Beaumont?

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I wasn’t sure what to expect from Beaumont to be honest, I’d only ever considered it as a venue for concerts by people who didn’t make it to Houston – but had never considered it as being in our ‘somewhere to go’ catalogue.

Beaumont is probably most famous as being an old oil ‘boomtown’, in 1900, the Lucas gusher blew, putting Beaumont on the map for being the home of the greatest oil well in history.  It’s success lasted around a decade, at the end of which, the oil well was drained dry, Gladys city was a ghost town of wooden shacks and all that was left, was the memory of the Lucas gusher.

First things first, this IS a manageable day-trip from the greater Houston area, that said, Beaumont, in whatever wacky wisdom they believe to work for their city, close a lot of the tourist attractions on the weekend – two days of the when, in my opinion, would be the most beneficial time to keep the places open for tourists.  That, or they open at odd hours, or request you book appointments in advance.  But, what do I know? I’m just a tourist, right?

What did we do?

We arrived on Friday afternoon, had lunch, did a spot of shopping (just in Target) and hit up the Blue Man Group in the Julie Rogers Theatre – a beautiful theatre, if you have a chance to see something here, do it.  Parking was free at the back of the theatre, it’s a great size, not too big, not too small, acoustics are good and the décor is absolutely beautiful!

Fire Museum of Texas

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Saturday morning we hit up the Fire Museum of Texas – and quickly discovered, that it was closed (BOOO!) But, thankfully, the worlds largest functioning fire hydrant wasn’t inside, so we had a walk around the grounds and took some fun pictures of the HUGE hydrant painted like a cow.

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Spindletop/Gladys City Boomtown Museum.

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Once we were done taking pictures in the sunshine, we headed out to the   A reconstruction of the old Gladys City from back in the days of the Lucas Gusher.  It was a very interesting museum, you move from building to building around the town, learning what life was like back in 1900, when the gusher blew and tens of thousands of oil-folk flocked to the city.

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Also you have model Spindle Tops, a gift shop, and, if you are so inclined, a function room that can hold up to 75 people – we spent just over an hour here at this museum and there was a lot of open space for kid-lets to run around and wear themselves out!

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This museum is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (last admission at 4:20 p.m.) Sunday, 1-5 p.m. (last admission at 4:20 p.m.) Closed most Mondays, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Easter and Memorial Day. Information: 409-880-1750 or gladyscityinfo@gmail.com and parking is free.
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Being married to a guy who works in the oil and gas industry, a visit to the Texas Energy Museum was pretty much, unavoidable.  Full of interactive, educational exhibits on how oil is drilled for, processed and what it is used for, this place was quite fun.  That said, it wasn’t as extensive as I expected, and we probably were in and out in about an hour to an hour and a half.
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It still focuses a lot on the Lucas Gusher and the boom in Beaumont, but I feel they could have done a lot more to encompass the actual oil process.  It was definitely worth the entry fee and I think it would be particularly interesting for kids of people in the oil services industry, to learn what mum or dad’s company does.  Plus they’ll all enjoy pushing the buttons – right?! 🙂

Free parking adjacent to the Museum (always a bonus) and open Tuesday through Saturday 9am to 5pm and Sunday 1pm to 5pm.  Adults pay $5, children over 5yrs old and seniors pay $3.

Notable mention: Raos Bakery

We went here, under the false pretenses of lunch.  Trip advisor and Yelp said they did sandwiches, paninis and soup – as it turned out, they were all pre-packaged and didn’t look overly appetizing at all.

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That said, this place is a bakery, so the sweet counter got our attention in an instant.  As it was valentines weekend, they had a lot of both Valentine’s themed goodies, as well as some King’s Cakes on hand for the upcoming Mardi Gras celebrations.  We opted for the last Napoleon that was on the shelf.  Mostly because it looked like this:

IMG_8245Sweet Lord above we died and went to heaven.  Puff pastry, sweet cream and strawberries – simple, but so totally delicious (and very unladylike to eat!!) – and their chocolate dipped strawberries were fantastic too.

If you fancy a coffee and a treat, go here.  You won’t be disappointed!

Where did we stay?

Probably the newest (at the time I’m writing this, Feb 2014) hotel in the Beaumont area and one of the nicest ‘budget’ hotels I’ve been to in a loooooong time.  The Holiday Inn Express.  It came very highly rated on Yelp and Trip Advisor and hubby got a good deal on a room (around $85 a night).  For that, you get free internet (which worked pretty well for hotel internet), free breakfast (again, surprisingly good considering most hotel breakfasts – my favorite was the industrial pancake making machine and I left wanting Col to buy me one for Christmas!) free parking, close access to all of the attractions in Beaumont.

The room also had a fridge (which worked better than our own at home), a microwave (which was ace since hubby brought along some popcorn to pop – just in case!) and a decent sized bathroom.  The pool was an outside pool, which, normally wouldn’t bother us in February in Texas, but after our freakishly cold winter this year, the pool was left empty for the weekend, which was a shame.

I can’t recommend this hotel enough, we got great sleep (with a hot water bottle for a husband, a good AC unit is of paramount importance), it was quiet, we were able to watch the Winter Olympics on the flat screen and the staff were lovely and friendly.

What else can you do in Beaumont?

Here is a couple of places we couldn’t make work, due to timing, but would have interested us, had they been open over the weekend.

Places like the Beaumont Police Department Museum is free to visit, but is only open on weekdays and viewable by appointment only (call 409-880-3825).

The Fire Museum of Texas, was somewhere we were DYING to go see (we love going to see local fire museums), but, again, it’s not open on weekends (unless by special appointment).  Another free institution to go and visit (Beaumont is a really GREAT city for free museums!!) this museum is open Monday to Friday 8am to 4.30pm and ranks as the #1 attraction to visit in Beaumont.  We are sad to have missed out!

Thomas Edison plaza museum, is another free-to-visit place to drop in on your day/short trip visit to Beaumont, and, as of June 2013, they are open Tuesday through Friday 9am-2pm and Saturdays 10am-2pm and reviewers say to allow yourself an hour to an hour and a half to enjoy this small museum.

Clifton Steamboat museum, this museum (and accompanying tug-boat) doesn’t even appear on Trip Advisor’s list of things to do in the city of Beaumont – so I didn’t know about it’s existence until I got home – a little too late, right?  It is open by appointment only, costs $5 per adult, $4 per child and is free for children under 5 years old.

Road Trip! Springfield, Illinois

Did you know that Chicago is NOT actually the State Capitol of Illinois? Well, as it turned out, our brief trip through Springfield, Illinois, was the most surprising and, in many ways, most enjoyable.  Being poly-sci geeks it wasn’t too difficult, this place is coming down with politics and history and is well worth the visit, even just for a day trip!

What to do in Springfield?

Well, it’s mostly a city paying homage to this dude…

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…honest Abe.  Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States.  And very worthy homage it is, he was a great man – a very interesting man – and this city, by extension, is a very interesting city.

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library

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Website: http://www.illinois.gov/alplm/Pages/default.aspx

Cost: $12

Hours: 9 AM – 5 PM DAILY

This is not my first presidential library, but by George, it was my favourite! It was moving, inspiring, educational and fun.  There wasn’t too much going on, it wasn’t heavy and boring and I feel like I got a real insight into this legendary president.

The exhibitions are thought provoking and much of what you see/read is still largely applicable to today.  There are 4 main exhibition ‘halls’ and they are all separate, yet intertwined at the same time.

Lincoln tomb and war memorial

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Website: www.lincolntomb.org/

Cost: Free

Hours: www.lincolntomb.org/tomb_directions.php

When my friend said ‘visit the tomb’, I thought she meant go to the grounds and have a walk around.  I had no idea that you could go inside, walk around, see sculptures, read about the legend, take pictures, see his actual tomb – it’s amazing, it’s awe-inspiring, it gave me goosebumps.

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It’s free, so that’s good, though there should be big collection boxes everywhere cause it’s awesome in the true sense of the word.  I told my hubby I wanted a tomb just like that when I die, he just laughed at me.  I’m serious, it’s epic.  GO!

Illinios State Capitol Building

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Website: http://www.ilstatehouse.com/

Cost: Free

I LOVED the IL state capitol, it was definitely one of my favourites!  There’s lots to look at, both inside and outside the building, lots of interesting statues, exhibitions, information – we spent a while here and took tonnes of pictures.  They have a cool map that lists all of the points of interest, inside the building and on the surrounding grounds –

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 Would you go back to Springfield, Illinois?

Had we more time, there was a never-ending list of places we’d have gone to visit, Lincoln’s home (national historic site), Old State Capitol building, Illinois State Museum, Illinois State Military museum, Camp Butler national cemetery, Shea’s Gas station museum and the Grand Army of the republic Memorial museum – were all on our ‘short list’ of places to try and squeeze in during our time there.

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Aside from politics, our short trip to Springfield included a quick blurt down a section of Route 66 (which neither of us expected and we both thought was pretty cool), but Springfield also has a lot to offer for those non-politics people out there.  From shopping and art galleries, to tours and outdoor fun, I’m confident that should you find yourself, for whatever reason, in Springfield Illinois, you’ll find something fun to keep you occupied!

Road Trip! Memphis, Tennessee.

Let’s rewind a little (LOT) here, I have been so appallingly bad at keeping my blog up to date and I have a heaving pile of blog-post drafts in the recesses of the WordPress dashboard.  It was a New Years promise to myself, to sit and finish some of them and post them, cause otherwise what’s the point? I’ve had about fifteen unfinished blog-posts, just sitting there, doing nothing, when they obviously could have been out there, saving the world from bad restaurant experiences and helping with epic travel-plans.

In October, we embarked on our longest, ever road-trip, we took on a number of states, spending more time in some, than others.  And boy did we have a blast (so much so, that we’re planning another major road-trip for the near future)!!

Let me tell you about our fave places to eat, fave things to do and where we stayed in each of the cities that we pit-stopped in.  Just in case you have some time on your hands and fancy a wee jaunt into some of the neighbouring states.

Overview – Was Memphis worth the drive?

Heck yes! What a culturally rich city.  I am SO glad that we chose to hit-up Memphis on this trip.  If you like music (of any kind really) and you are interested in Black history (I.E seeing where MLK Jr was shot and killed, Civil Rights museums etc) don’t hesitate.  I think something that people don’t tend to thoroughly consider, is the depth of what Memphis has to offer.  They think Elvis, Graceland and that’s it.  But that’s NOT it.  Memphis really has something for everyone – and I’m pretty sure, we barely scratched the surface on our trip.

What to do in Memphis?

Sun Studios

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Website: www.sunstudio.com

Cost: $12pp

Hours: 10am-6pm daily

Parking: Free but limited.  Free shuttle that ferries between Graceland/Rock and Soul museum.

You look at the to-do list for Memphis TN and you see 3 music museums (Sun, Stax and Rock and Soul) and you think to your self, is it really worth it? Is there really that much ‘music stuff’ to look at? And the answer is yes.  Go to each of them, they are each fabulous, each of them are worth the entrance fee and each of them has a whole different mojo.

This place really is old – and you can tell, it’s creaky, it’s musty, corridors and stairwells are narrow, but know what else it is? It’s HISTORY and you can *feel* it as soon as you walk in.  The tour was 40 minutes, (our tour-guide, Rae was great, she was knowledgeable, fun, funny and a great storyteller).  plus the waiting time for your tour to start during busy periods (35 mins for us)  Parking is limited and to get in to the parking lot there’s a VERY narrow side-street to maneuver down, or you have to circle round, which may be easier.

Stop outside for a moment for a photo-op, you’re standing next to a major piece of history – don’t waste the opportunity!  While we waited for our tour to start, we ordered some drinks, since they didn’t have any diet drinks, I had a surprisingly delicious strawberry milkshake and hubby had a great root-beer float, pricing was great and the server was chatty and interesting while we waited.

It felt surreal to me, to imagine that people like Elvis and Johnny Cash stood in that room, recording their hits? That is nothing short of EPIC.  You also get to have your picture taken with one of the original five microphones used in ‘The era’ of recording, how awesome is that?!

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I was thrilled and amazed to hear that 4-5 times a week, in the evenings, this recording studio still records for modern artists – this is excellent, and now I’m curious to find out who still records here!

Stax museum of American Soul Music

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Website: www.staxmuseum.com

Cost: $12pp

Hours: Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 1pm-5pm

Parking: Free and plentiful (they play music into the car park too)

This museum is one of the most interesting I have been to, a 20 minute short film about the history of Stax before you’re set loose in the main museum.  The movie is educational and moving, it also serves to help you realise that you’re a bigger fan of soul than you realise – cause you’re bopping away to songs you’ve known and loved for years.  I also never realised how racially integrated soul music was, call me ignorant, but I really learned a lot from both the film and the museum itself.  I found it all fascinating!

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It’s not in the best part of town, but, at the same time, it’s definitely worth the trip.  There’s a lot of loud exhibits, playing very close to one another, so the sound all kind of blurs together into, just, noise and it’s hard to separate, but it was nice to have a self guided tour and see everything as you like and take as much time on the exhibits as you’d like.

The disco ball spinning over a dance-floor with epic songs playing from re-runs of soul train? Dance.  You know you want to – plus, you can’t really help yourself, move your feet to the beat!

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The rotating Cadillac is fab, the fluffy extravagant exterior and the choons playing in that hall is pretty cool, I just wished I’d had something from Cee-Lo Green’s wardrobe on The Voice and I’d have felt right at home.  Excellent display – and hubby loves cars – so it was win-win!  Don’t ignore the gift shop, they have some cool things, I couldn’t justify the $60 on the throw, but I was so very tempted.  They also have a clearance table with good bargains!

This place is doing great things to preserve the history of soul music in the US, but also educating the future of soul music here too, with the academy next door.  You don’t need to love soul music to come here, just to love and appreciate music!

Rock and soul museum

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Website: www.memphisrocknsoul.org

Cost: $11pp

Hours: Daily 10am – 7pm

Parking: A couple blocks away and relatively inexpensive

I think this was my favourite museum of the trip – and probably ranks very highly in my list of all-time faves, we parked in the parking garage next to the Peabody Hotel and walked the block or two to get to the museum.  I loved the self guided headphone tour, it was easy to use, type in the 3 digit numbers that are posted on exhibits and hit the play button – user friendly, good sound and plenty of information about each exhibit.

There’s a 12 minute introductory film to the museum, you will probably find yourself singing along with both the film and other patrons – like the Stax museum, you can’t help yourself! (or at least I couldn’t!)  A blend of country, gospel and blues music – who’d have thought such a fab sound would come of it?! LOL!

I, personally, favoured all of the juke boxes, I loved hearing the info about the machines themselves, and rockin’ out to some of the mu-sac as I looked at the exhibits (I must have listened to ‘Soul Man’ about 10 times, boppin’ every time!) the music is fab and you really could just spend a few hours playing all of the songs in the juke boxes.

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Lots to look at, lots to learn and a variety of artists whose music you’ve probably heard but you don’t necessarily know their names.  The rich complexity of music of this era and the tapestries and stories woven within the music is amazing and awe-inspiring.  At a time where many people were angry and hurt and scared, the music remained hopeful and less racial than one might think.  Definitely progressive for its time.  What an education in this place!

Put this museum top of your Memphis to-do list!

Graceland

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Website: www.elvis.com/graceland

Cost: $40pp

Hours: www.elvis.com/graceland/tours/hours.aspx

Parking: $10

Disclaimer:  I appreciate his music and his achievements, but I’m not a pantie-throwing obsessive fan, so for me, this place was a must-see, but not a crying, screaming, worshiping kinda thing.

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As far as the recorded tour guide goes – with SO much information to remember about Elvis, I’m kinda glad it’s all recorded and you can listen at your own speed and it’s not on some poor tour guide to remember it all and recite to you.

The ticket price is high, but for my hubby and I, worth it.  We went off-peak (October) and still had to stand in a 30-45 minute line, and it was hot and sunny outside – I’ve no idea how people can do that in August, I imagine the top-price tickets are worth it for the front of the line pass alone!

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We went with mid-priced tickets, we got to see the main attractions plus the Lisa Marie airplane, Elvis’ car collection – this was one of my favourite exhibits!!!! As well as a smattering of other minor exhibits that we skipped as they didn’t really rope us in.

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I loved his house and grounds, modest, but at the time I imagine it was the one everyone wanted.  The decor is what you think would be iconically Elvis (esp the room with the waterfall in it).

Railroad and Trolley museum

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Website: www.mrtm.org

Cost: $3pp

Hours: 9am-5pm Friday and Saturday, Noon – 5pm Sun.

Parking: Street-side, free.

It’s worth the entry fee at twice the price, there’s so much to see, lots of interactive exhibits (SOS, lights, children’s display).  When this place expands out back, it’ll be even better.  Hubby and I spent ages here, the staff were both lovely and friendly, they were knowledgeable about trains and the locale, they gave us suggestions for food and places to visit in town.

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Time well spent!

Where to eat in Memphis?

We weren’t hugely overwhelmed by our culinary experiences in Memphis, the BBQ we had was disappointing and we ate in some nation-wide chains that weren’t worth remarking on, cause you can go to them at home.  This place, however? This place was worth mentioning to y’all!

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Brother Junipers: Hours: Tue-Fri 6:30 am – 1 pm, Sat 7 am – 12:30 pm, Sun 8 am – 1 pm Website: www.brotherjunipers.com

We were quoted a 40 minute wait, the waiting area was packed and most people were standing.  They were, however, selling coffee while we waited which made the wait go easier for many, and our wait time was actually 25 minutes.

This place is solely a breakfast place, so when I saw a gyro on the menu, I was immediately sold – I’m not a huge fan of breakfast food, especially here in the USA – I don’t tend to like their breakfast meat and that leaves eggs, which I seem to have an aversion to since I got pregnant.  I ordered the gyro with breakfast potatoes – and it was absolutely delicious.  The feta was strong, salty and tasty, they gave me slightly too much spinach and not enough meat, but the pita was delicious and the breakfast potatoes, in spite of the generous portion, just weren’t enough – I could have eaten those bad boys all day!!!

Delish!

Hubby had a more traditional (translation: boring) breakfast, mushroom, cheese and chorizo omlette with breakfast potatoes and he was extremely happy with his food too.

The atmosphere was buzzing, the staff were friendly, service was quick, food was hot and excellent and it was definitely worth the money and the wait – if you’re in the area, go visit this place.  The only downside is the difficulty of parking, otherwise this place is seriously a great find.

You could do worse than Christmas at the Alamo!

Due to some rather crappy confluences of circumstances, we ended up having absolutely nothing to do for Christmas, in a house that was filled with packed boxes and severely lacking in any ‘holiday cheer’ (no tree, no decorations, minimal presents).   We were originally supposed to be in Dubai (again with the, WE WEREN’T SUPPOSED TO BE HERE!!) the timeline got pushed, so we were then supposed to be in the UK for a few days, the timeline got pushed again, so we were then supposed to be in DC getting documentation accredited and then the move got postponed for at least six months, so we decided to make the best of a bad situation, and go somewhere, ANYWHERE, that wasn’t here.

We originally looked at going to Iowa (Amber had kindly invited us for Christmas ages ago!) but considering the stress we’d been under of late, we concluded that not going through the hassle of airports, security etc during one of the busiest flying times of the year, probably wasn’t the best idea.

So we moved to a road-trip, we looked at Atlanta or Mississippi, but, again, considering the stress-factor, we decided that an 18+ hour road-trip wasn’t the best option either.

Finally, we settled on heading back up to good old reliable San Antonio, a short drive away, yet far enough from home to be considered a getaway and somewhere that had a sufficient amount of holiday cheer.  We decided to pay over the odds, stay on the River-walk itself and enjoy not driving, just strolling to and from the River-walk from the hotel.

Christmas experience?

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This wasn’t our first Christmas ‘alone’, we’ve spent four out of our five Christmases in Texas, ‘just us’, and we tend to love it.  This *was*, however, our first Christmas travelling somewhere and spending it at the mercy of the hotel and restaurant industry.  In context, it was exactly what we needed, a few days down-time from all the insanity, somewhere where you didn’t even have to make your own bed, or pick up towels from the floor.

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For Texas, it was as Christmassy as you can probably get, the River-walk was covered in Christmas lights, mariachi bands were singing Christmas carols table-side, the hotels had been decorated with exterior lights and huge trees and for once, the weather was proper Christmassy (in that it was cold enough for snow, but we never saw any).

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We didn’t do much, walked the River-walk quite a lot, just dandered to and from the hotel, watched lots of cheesy 80’s movies and bad TV (we watched a lot of housing renovation programmes) and relaxed – which we needed.  It was truly blissful and I may have even burst in to tears when the insane world stopped and we found ourselves just spending an afternoon in bed, watching TV.

As Christmases go, it was pretty classy, we enjoyed getting some glad-rags on and taking in a posh dinner in a beautiful hotel – and I must admit, having someone else cook, even if it wasn’t what I, myself would have cooked for Christmas day? Was pretty damn nice indeed!

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I’m definitely no longer averse to going away for Christmas, like I once was, and San Antonio really has a lot to offer during the season – it’s a pretty good place to give some consideration to, should you find yourself needing somewhere to go for the holidays!

Here’s my ‘review’ on the place we stayed, the place we ate Christmas dinner, and somewhere you should try when you’re on the River-walk, whether it’s Christmas, or not!

The Hotel: Hotel Contessa

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After doing some extensive researching and price comparing, we settled on the Hotel Contessa, for three nights – which was a good deal for that hotel, don’t get me wrong, it’s just a lot more than WE would usually pay for a hotel, we are bargain travellers.  I’m not sure what I expected from a 4 Star hotel in the USA.  We normally stay in Holiday Inns or “lower priced” 2.5 stars – 3 star hotels that we Price-line, get for great prices and, more often than not, they are exactly what we need them to be.  Personally, I feel, for $200 a night that you should come away feeling that if you were to come back to the River-walk that you couldn’t possibly stay anywhere else on that river, other than Contessa cause it was so awesome.  I’m sorry, but I just didn’t feel that!

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Perhaps if housekeeping had treated my teddy lion better, I’d have enjoyed it more? Lol! It’s actually become quite the accurate barometer of a hotel, some housekeeping staffs put him in bed when they are done making it, some have him peeking out from behind the pillows, some have him on the floor or tossed on the bedside table – Contessa falls into the later.

For those money conscious reading this (my couponer self, loves getting a deal, I love making my money stretch further than just what somewhere charges for something).  We had read the reviews before leaving Houston (thanks yelpers!) and parked in the garage (not even a block away) for $12 per day, as opposed to the mandatory hotel valet parking for $30 – saving of more than 50% a day on parking before we’d even started.  We spent $6 more for three days parking across the street, than ONE day of parking at Contessa (plus, Contessa probably would have added tax etc) – score!

Check-in is later than any hotel I’ve been to, 4pm.  You can pay (!!!!) $40 to check-in early.  What a ridiculous policy!! We actually didn’t know this ahead of turning up at the hotel, so I guess we got lucky that our room was ready at 2.35pm when we rolled up to the check-in desk, as we didn’t have a problem.

Contessa charge $20 extra per day for the River-walk view, is it worth it? Who knows?  We opted to stay on the quieter side of the hotel, though we also ended up with a partial view of the river which was a nice surprise.

We were woken up on our first morning in the hotel at 7am by some dudes clock radio alarm playing the Red Hot Chili Peppers, someone running a shower above us and cleaning crews going door to door.  I dunno, call me fussy, but with a 4-star hotel, I expect the walls to be a little thicker than paper and more sound proof than those in the Holiday Inn or Best Western!  I expected better quality of sleep, a quieter night, and, should I have wanted it (and we did!!) a lie-in!

We ordered room service once and my main problem with it lies with the fact that the guy delivering our food, left the food and took the silver warmer cloches off and left the room with them.  WTF???? I wasn’t ready for it just yet and it was COLD when I got to it.  Who the heck takes the cloches off and leaves with them???!?!? The menu is also pretentious to the utmost degree.  I asked for their posh fish and chips and expected some king of the ocean to appear, not chewy fish nuggets, bland aioli and cold fries (though the cold could have been because HE TOOK MY CLOCHE!)

No condiments to go with the in-room tea or coffee? Seriously? Even the cheap-@ss hotels have sugar, sweetener, half and half and stirrers!!!!! The mini bar costs are extortionate (moreso than other hotels I’ve been in) – if you didn’t bring provisions, just walk the two blocks go to the CVS on the River-walk, which is more expensive than a ‘regular’ CVS, but much cheaper than the minibar!

Aside from the suite being fairly nice and spacious, (though no room in the fridge, no in-room microwave, not even a free bottle of water!) and considering that it was CHRISTMAS and the best “treat” we got for spending our Christmas in Contessa was a $5 off a movie on the in-room system.  Thanks :-/ Again, I wouldn’t be encouraged to pick this hotel for next Christmas, especially considering how amazing the Hyatt’s Christmas buffet was and how fab their staff were.

And while i’m on the rampage, their website is terrible, spa packages have basic information (they don’t tell you the extent of services), no prices, the restaurant didn’t have a menu up, they also didn’t have their Christmas menu online.  Everyone lives online, it’s the age of technology, just give me everything I need to know BEFORE I get to the hotel please!

Check out is early enough (at 11am), DO NOT have housekeeping hound me (by banging the crap out of the door) from 9.30am (and again at 10.30am!!) to be granted access to a room I’ve paid for til 11am!! Classless.  Absolutely classless!

I can’t quite figure out what the price per night “up-charge” is for, other than the fact that it’s on the River-walk and even then, there are some cheaper 4 star hotels with better reviews out there, but we opted for Contessa for something a little more plush and luxurious than the others.

Maybe it’s *because* we are used to finding fantastic hotels at rock-bottom prices that I left feeling short-changed?  For example, we stayed at an EPIC Sheraton a few months ago, for $57 a night, and while there was really nothing badly wrong with Contessa, I just can’t, in good conscience, rate it on the same level as previous hotels we have stayed in, for much cheaper.  I feel like the “River-walk factor” gets away with way too much, and it just doesn’t cut it! (end rant!)

Christmas dinner: Q on the Riverwalk

Col lookin' VERY excited to have seen the buffet on his way in!

Col lookin’ VERY excited to have seen the buffet on his way in!

Google is your friend, though it took us a while to investigate which restaurants were open, if they had a specific Christmas menu, if so, what was ON their Christmas menu.  It’s like it’s some underground network of nods and winks to find Christmas dinner on the River-walk.  Be warned, Irish/British expats, finding a traditional Christmas dinner, is nigh on impossible – even from the British and Irish bars along the River-walk, which was highly disappointing.  Can you imagine the influx of expats if they offered even a carvery dinner for Christmas? I’d be first in line!

Make a reservation, we used open table.  I think they quietly allocate an hour for your table, but we weren’t rushed out of our spot – we tried to savour each plate and enjoy our experience, instead of hitting it hard like the Tasmanian devil and being stuffed after the first course! Lol! It was busier than I anticipated it would be, but not so crowded that you were all up in your neighbours business.

Per person cost was $46 + tax and 18% gratuity (or there abouts)  it worked out at around $116 for the two of us – this is a bargain, even at twice the price (which is more what you’d expect for a Christmas dinner).  It was an EPIC feed!!  The price includes all the food in all the land (buffet), free champagne, mimosas, fruit juices, sodas, tea and coffee – which we didn’t know ahead of time, but we were very happy to discover.

I counted 5 courses, but you could probably count more or less depending on how many plates you use and how highly they are stacked 😉

All of this is recalled from my food-coma memory, so bare with me – thankfully I took pictures to aid my memory recall! Lol!

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Salad bar: 3 types of lettuce, 4 kinds of dressing, and about 7-8 pots of “toppings”, cucumber, onion, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, bacon and croutons.

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Behind the soup/bread there were also 3 drawers of salads, broccoli salad, pasta salad and what looked like sweet potato salad but I could be wrong.  Fresh, fresh, fresh! As salads go it was delicious.  Start small though, you wanna build up to the meat!

Soup: butternut squash bisque – just a little cup, but dear LORD it was delicious.  I could have enjoyed gallons of the stuff! Don’t overload on bread at this stage.  DON’T DO IT.  1 or 2 slices, max.  Save the bread for the cheese course, if you can manage it by the time you get there!

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We left the cheese and antipasti station for the moment, but it’s right there – so you WILL be tempted.

Entrees: carving station (pork loin, prime rib) here you’ll find the mashed potatoes, apple sauce, mushroom demi-gravy, and – weirdly, bread pudding, which you *may* if you’re my husband, mistake for stuffing!

I tried the pork, it was great.  It wasn’t dry, the dude can slice as much or as little as you’d like.  Prime rib was wayyyyy too raw for me but hubby loved it.  Mash potatoes were EPIC.  Hubby who doesn’t tend to like potatoes, loved them.  It was great to see brown jus-gravy and not thick creamy white gravy.

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On the other side of the salad bar, you have the other entrees, carrots and asparagus, crab topped rainbow trout, braised short rib, sweet potato mallow gratin, stuffed chicken breast, wild game paella… I’m not kidding, ALL THE FOOD IN ALL THE WORLD!!!

I loved the veggies, the braised short ribs rocked my world, like freakin’ amazing.  The trout was perfectly cooked too.  Least fave was the chicken, I just didn’t care for the stuffing inside and it was a little dry and boring compared to the other treasures on offer.

Next it was the cheese, bread and antipasti/cold seafood.  If you have room.  The breads were fresh and delicious, the cheeses were just sitting right there – it was tempting to take an entire block, and hubby could have camped at the antipasti table all day….and night….and the next day!

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If you’ve any room left, the dessert table is round the corner beside the bar.  I had a small piece of cheesecake with raspberry coulis which was light and tasty.  I thought the cake was chocolate cake, it wasn’t (unfortunately), it was the strongest coffee flavour EVER.  Pass.  Not my bag.

I also managed half a slice of the key lime pie – hands down the single best key lime pie I’ve ever eaten…and wished I could have taken the other half back to the hotel in a box to have eaten whenever I was eventually hungry again (around 10 or 11pm!!)  Hubby also tried a swiss-roll type thing that he said was nice.

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Things they need to improve this fab meal?  A wee bit of stuffing (it’s CHRISTMAS dangit!!!!) custard and/or whipped cream and pleeeeease label each dish, you’d probably reduce waste if people know what they are picking up!! I ended up accidentally getting Caesar dressing instead of ranch, cause they all looked the same in unmarked jugs!

Service was really great, he was bubbly, friendly, attentive and didn’t rush us or treat us any different for not ordering any alcohol and when I asked for tea, he brought me like six kinds!

Notable mention: Waxy O’Connors

Ok, first of all this place should obviously be split into two sets of reviews.  Bar vs food – if you read the Yelp reviews, the food gets rave reviews and the bar-service gets poor reviews.  At first glance you could be tempted not to come here as there are places with better reviews around and 3.5 stars isn’t everyone’s bag.  Don’t be.  Give it a whirl.

Disclaimer: most of my readers know that I am IRISH, we’ve lived in TX for 4.5 years, but have a very high standard when someone brands their bar and food as an Irish pub, with traditional or authentic food.  I am VERY fussy when it comes to “Irish fare”, but in spite of expecting disaster, we discovered that not only was this place great for food, but it was one of the best, complete meals we have had in a loooooong time!!

Upon reading yelp, I told Col (yes, he had no choice in the matter!) that he was having fish and chips and that i’d have the bangers and mash.  We also ordered a side of the fresh brown bread cause I was curious.

The fish was delicious, flaky, lightly battered and plentiful.  The chips are more akin to “Five guys fries” and not the “real” chips we were expecting, but they were yummy too – and yes, we even ate the peas, which was unusual enough that our server commented on it! (I ate most of them with my bangers and mash) lol! Bangers and mash was delicious, the gravy was excellent, best sausages we have tried this side of the atlantic and creamy, smooth mash potatoes.

The brown bread could have done with being warmed and a smidge less sugar, but it was as close to wheaten bread as i’ve found outside of home.  Even the butter was room temp – which I can’t even find at home ! Lol!!

For dessert we shared apple pie with ice cream.  The apple pie was delicious (hubby says I need to mention the crust being outstanding!) and the ice cream came in a separate wee bowl so it didn’t melt all over the pie – genius! And delicious – all they are missing is a lick of real custard!!

I can’t say enough good things about this place.  Service was fast and very friendly, food was hot and delicious, great quality food across the board, but the best sampling of “Irish” food that we have found since crossing the Atlantic 4.5 years ago!

Cruising to Alaska: Ketchikan

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With even less time in Ketchikan than the other ports, we didn’t have a lot to play with.  However, I’d have rathered a little more time here and perhaps a little less time in Sitka, there’s much more to do here than you realise.
What we did:
Shopping
Again the streets are lined with stores, chains and independent ones alike.  I’d say, without a doubt, that the best place for souvenir shopping, is Ketchikan.  It’s the cheapest place we saw, it had more choice and options, and the stores are bigger too – many of which give out ‘free gifts’ with purchase, like tote bags.
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One of my personal favourites, is the Christmas store – which, coincidentally isn’t too far from the popcorn stall – try the Chicago mix, it was a pretty darn tasty mix of sweet and savoury!
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Visit the Tongas Trading Post just a few yards from the dock in Ketchikan. They have the lowest priced Alaska memorabilia. Buy the generic ulu knives and save – though I got my own Ulu knife in Juneau and think it was of better quality than the ones on offer in Ketchikan that I saw.
Ketchikan Lumberjack show
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This is a must-see during your visit to Ketchikan.  It was also the only ‘official’ excursion we did, and that was because we couldn’t find a way to buy tickets that wasn’t through the cruise ship’s website.  However, when we got to the Lumberjack show, we discovered that you can buy tickets on-site, so don’t feel obliged to buying through the cruise line.
The show itself is wholesome, family fun and a great show.  The show lasts about an hour and is a great price at only around $35 for adults and $17.50 for kids (we paid for Eve to have a seat, but further investigation showed that we really had no need to, toddlers don’t need tickets).  The show was great, wood chopping, pole climbing, log balancing, axe throwing and log-sawing and a team of great lumberjacks who were more than willing to pose for pictures and sign autographs when the show was over.  We all had a great time!
Other things on offer (or things we would do if we were to go back to Ketchikan):
Zoom through the lush rainforest on an Adventure Kart all-terrain vehicle tour.
Duck (bus) tour – $42 for Adults, $25 for kids (2-12yrs old) and FREE for kids under 2yrs! (Purchase your tickets in advance and the price is only $40 for Adults).  You’ll see the tour bus once you disembark the cruise ship.
The Totem Heritage Center, admission is around $5.00 per adult, but there are totem poles outside the center that you can walk around for free.  It’s not too far from the docks, but a decent walk (and a short cable car ride).
Potlatch Park, Free and gotten to via city bus. Allow around 3 hours for this trip.  Be early at the return bus stop- where you get dropped off, there is only one bus per hour.  Print out and take a copy of the totem guide sheet with you http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/units/totembgh.htm
Visited by thousands of visitors every year, historic Creek Street is one of the most popular things to do in Ketchikan. The antique boardwalk on wooden pilings over Ketchikan Creek is home to restaurants, unique curio shops, the ‘Dolly’s House Museum’ & private dwellings, and though we didn’t get to investigate too deeply in our short time there, I’m told that it also has some of the best salmon viewing areas in Ketchikan.  Apparently married Man’s Trail and the Salmon Ladder are also not to be missed when exploring Creek Street!

Cruising to Alaska: Sitka

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In Sitka, we only had around 7hours but it’s a small, walk-able town for the most part, so we did a few bits’n’bobs once we were tendered to shore from the ship.
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We ate lunch in the Bay View restaurant, cause Yelpers gave it a higher review than the local competition. Though in retrospect, we wish we’d gone elsewhere, while the fries and onion rings were tasty, the service wasn’t great, the staff wasn’t particularly friendly and the rock fish wasn’t good, especially compared to the place we ate in Juneau the previous day.  Shame that the best rated place in Sitka is a Mexican restaurant – we want good, local fish dangit!!
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What’d we do?
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We walked the mile and a half stroll to the National Historical Park where we walked around the trail, which takes you around 18 totem poles.  If you look on the back of one of the totem poles, there’s a phone number on the pole.  Call the number and listen to the lady tell you all about the totem poles, the history, the designs, what they mean and where some of the originals are.
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It’s free, it’s beautiful and there’s some fantastic wildlife around – we saw a baby eagle up in the tree, and he was pretty cool about just sitting nicely for pictures!
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There was a fee to enter, but, from memory, it wasn’t that much, $5 per person.  The aquarium is small, but the salmon hatchery part is pretty fascinating (though I’d love to leave with a piece of salmon! LOL!) The guide knew her stuff, she talked us through the life cycle of the salmon, taught us the five kinds of salmon, how to remember them, how they live, how they die and showed us examples (plastic) of each.
The on-site dog is super friendly and I got some great shots of a huge eagle just sitting on one of the mooring poles in the water, probably hanging around waiting for salmon!
Shopping
The streets are lined with lots of little, independent shops.  Filled with trinkets, Alaskan goodies and great finds.  I got a gorgeous sterling silver whale tail charm for my bracelet, in one of the stores and it has made me smile every time I’ve worn it.
Other things on offer (or things we would do if we were to go back to Sitka):
St Michaels Episcopal cathedral – we walked past this but didn’t go in for a look-see.
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Sea Taxi to see some wild life (puffins and whales!)
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Cruising to Alaska: Juneau

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In the capital city of Alaska, we were fortunate enough to get thirteen hours in Juneau, which is more like 11 if you discount the time it takes to get off and back on the ship (and you obviously want to get back on before the rush too).
If you can swing an excursion or two, try to do so.  Don’t sweat it if you can’t, there are plenty of things to do in the ports without taking excursions that won’t cost much or anything at all, but you need to do some research ahead of time to maximize what are fairly short port days.  But the excursions offer you the opportunity to do things that are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, such as helicopter rides over (and landing on) glaciers.
Here’s a link to a list of ‘10 free things to do in Juneau‘.
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We ate lunch at the Flight Deck (outdoor seafood bar), we ordered fish and chips all-round, and they were EXCELLENT!! Totally delicious!  Nods and murmurs of approval from all 4.5 people around the table – go here for lunch!
What we did:
  • Shopping!
When you’re on board, there’s a few seminars and what not about things to do in Juneau, shopping in Juneau, gem stones, diamonds and tanzanite in Juneau…I guess the jewellery market is a booming economy in Alaska and the cruise ship staff seem to get a commission for us buying from the jewellery stores, as well as the jewellery stores paying a fee to get advertising on the ship too.
Most of the stores offer a ‘freebie’, one offered a free charm bracelet where you could collect different charms from different stores, on different cruises.  Another chain offered a free necklace in each port (and you could buy $10 earrings to match).  Tanzanite international was even offering a deal that if you buy anything in the store, you get a $250 necklace ‘free’.
Don’t bother with the charm bracelet, it’s a cheap piece of crap and the charm clasps don’t open big enough to go on the bracelet.  The free necklaces aren’t bad, neither are the $10 earrings, pretty cheaply made, cute, but I wouldn’t put your entire day on hold to go and get them – not to mention that the staff give a pretty darn good attempt at hard-selling once you step through the door.

944372_10152779852270411_1708026369_nAs soon as you disembark the ship, you’ll pretty much see this attraction.  You can’t miss it – it’s right along the dockside.

Don’t buy tickets in advance though, because if the day is cloudy or misty, you don’t get your money back.  The trams run continuously, so they don’t run out of tickets.
The trip up and down the mountain takes around only 5 minutes each way and once you’re at the top there’s a 20 minute video about Alaska, a small enclosure with a recovering eagle staying and depending on the time of year, a hiking path which leads, I’m told, to a viewing platform.
We didn’t think this attraction was worth the money at all, it was seriously steep for what we got, especially since the hiking path at the top, was closed.  Our view was mostly obscured by the tram mechanism itself and the lady sitting at the eagle enclosure was chain smoking and unfriendly.
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Maybe our opinion would have been different had we been able to walk on the path, but I doubt we’d pay the $31 next time we’re back, to see!

936765_10152779850365411_1358722564_nOk, so Sam saw more whales out the window while he was on the treadmill in the ships gym than we did on this excursion, but I’d still recommend it to anyone going to Alaska.  We did it while we were in Juneau, cause that’s where we had the most time to fill in, we loved it!

We opted for the 2hr tour (with a little ‘un it made more sense than taking the chance she’d behave for 3hours) which cost $110 per adult, Eve went free.  They called us the morning of our visit to Juneau and asked us to be on-hand an hour earlier than planned, they said that due to how their tours worked out and the buses they were using, they could give us a free tour of the city while we were en route to our water tour.

They picked us up from just a little past the Mt Roberts Tramway and the bus tour guide was very knowledgeable and friendly, all of the staff were in fact – I definitely recommend the Juneau whale watch tour company.  They were great, and yes, we even saw some big ole whales! It was a great morning out on the water, weather was perfect, scenery was amazing and we got a free bottle of water and a cereal bar thrown in for good measure!

419753_10152779851045411_1741655321_nI would definitely encourage you to look at the independent tours as well. Much smaller boats with less people, and in my opinion, a much better experience.

Other things on offer (or things we would do if we were to go back to Juneau):

Summer Hours

8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, beginning May 13 this year (2013) through mid-September.
Closed Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day.

Winter hours

10am to 4pm Tuesday through Saturday from September 27th to mid-May.
Open free the first Friday of every month from 4:30 until 7pm. Closed holidays.

Admission

Summer $7, Seniors (65+ years) $6

Winter $3.

Govenor’s mansion
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State Capitol building (we drove past, but didn’t go inside)
Guided Capitol Building Tours
May 14-September 18th
Monday- Friday 8:30-5:00
Saturday & Sunday  9:30-4:00
Tours are complimentary and approximately 30 minutes in duration.
Mendenhall Glacier
I’m told that at the dock in town, book a Glacier Express Blue Bus ticket (maybe around $15?) for a round-trip to the Mendenhall Glacier. The Glacier is apparently well worth a trip and the buses run frequently to and from it. You can walk pretty close to the base of the Glacier as well as hike around in the area. Much cheaper (and gives you lots more flexibility) than an official excursion.  It takes at least 3+ hours so it’s time consuming, but I’m told that it’s worth it!
Free samples!
Business hours:
8 a.m. – 5 p.m., Monday – Friday

Gift shop and tasting room hours:

Winter Hours: October – April: 11 a.m. – 5:30 p.m., Tuesday – Saturday
CLOSED SUNDAYS AND MONDAYS
Summer Hours: May – September: 11 a.m. – 6 p.m., 7 days a week
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