Grand Cayman Part 1

I had an opportunity to hop on the first Southwest Airlines flight to Grand Cayman. There was a huge party going on at Fort Lauderdale that day, since they were launching new flights to Montego Bay, Cancun, and Belize that day as well. The flight was an easy hour and thirty-five minute flight from Fort Lauderdale.
I usually rent cars thru National, but the prices for most rental cars were outrageous for that week in Grand Cayman! I ended up renting with Firefly, whose parent company is Hertz. The rates were $9 a day! Here’s the catch, if you do not buy their insurance, they put a huge hold on your credit card. If you buy all of their insurance, they only charge the rental plus insurance and you have the option of using a debit card. When I went to check in for the car, I asked for the full insurance. The rate ended up being about $48 a day, which was still cheaper than the next best rate for that week! I ended up in a brand new Hertz car too, and a slightly upgraded car.
It was about a short 15 minute drive to our hotel, the Holiday Inn Resort. This hotel was much cheaper than the other hotel on the Seven Mile Beach strip. The hotel is on the bay side of the small strip of land in the west of Grand Cayman, but you can see the rooftops of the larger hotel on Seven Mile Beach from the parking lot of the Holiday Inn. The drive to the beach is about 5 minutes, but the price difference can be hundreds of dollars. We ended up saving about $250 a night, just by staying on the bay side.
We ended up with a one bedroom suite, and it was awesome. It came with a balcony, full kitchen, and a washer/dryer in the room! The full kitchen came in handy to make light lunches and dinner, since food can be very expensive on Grand Cayman. There is also a nice restaurant at the hotel called Blue Iguana Grill. The food is very good and the prices are very reasonable! They also offer a kids eat free deal with one adult meal if you are staying at the Holiday Inn.
Seven Mile Beach is a long crescent of coral-sand beach on the western end of Grand Cayman. Seven Mile Beach is known for its beauty, recently receiving the honor of “The Caribbean’s Best Beach” from Caribbean Travel and Life Magazine. The actual distance of Seven Mile Beach is 6.3 miles! The whole beachfront is public, but parking is at a premium for the most part. There is a public parking area right on the beach at Governors Beach, right by the Governor’s House. The water is warm and swimmable, as the waves as not intense. You could spend hours at Seven Mile Beach and never want to leave!

Mardi Gras in New Orleans Part 2

When most people think of Mardi Gras, they think of the craziness that happens on Bourbon St. There is way more involved with Mardi Gras in New Orleans than that. The first Mardi Gras in New Orleans happened on March 2,1699. The parades in New Orleans are set up and put on by groups called Krewes. The first krewe, Comus, was formed in 1856. Mardi Gras became a state holiday in 1875. 1972 was the last year that any major parade went thru the French Quarter, most of them skirt around the edge up and down Canal St. now. The traditional colors are Mardi Gras are green, gold, and purple. Green for power, gold for faith, and purple for justice. The colors were used in the first parade of the Rex krewe in 1872. There are now about 77 krewes in New Orleans that hold parades throughout the Carnival season. The parades have a lot of different throws of beads, stuffed animals, and doubloons that are considered collectors items.
Bourbon St. is where most of the tourists head to during Mardi Gras. Bourbon St. was just a residential area up until the 1880’s, when the first red light district popped up along Basin St. By 1950, there were at least 50 different burlesque, striptease, and exotic establishments. In 1962, a new district attorney Jim Garrison started to clean up Bourbon St., shutting down a lot of establishments that were involved in prostitution and overcharging alcohol. When Mayor Moon Landrieu was elected in 1970, he turned Bourbon St. into a pedestrian mall and “Disneyfied” it.
Bourbon St. is where you want to go if you want your “Girls Gone Wild” version of Mardi Gras. There are a lot of people offering beads and there are also a lot of people with cameras and phones out for those that do decide to partake in the exchange. You also have to watch your step walking around on the street. There are potholes up and down Bourbon St. that do get filled up with various liquids, and you do not want to step in it and have leave your shoes/socks/pants behind in New Orleans! During the day, it is pretty easy to move up and down Bourbon St., but at night, it can be very difficult with the crowds of people. I recommend traveling up a side street like Royal or Dauphine to get to where you really want to be on Bourbon St. Being on a balcony on Bourbon St. is amazing anytime of year, more so over the Mardi Gras season. Most of these balconies are rented out to private parties, but you might be able to pay a small cover charge to get up on one if you really wanted to!
I have never stayed up late enough to see it, but the traditional end to the Mardi Gras season in New Orleans is a mounted squad of New Orleans police officer push everyone out of upper Bourbon St. where most of the tourists hang out at. This happens at the stroke of Midnight of Ash Wednesday. I highly recommend everyone at least experience Carnival season in New Orleans at least once in your lives. It is a huge party you really have to see it to believe it!

Mardi Gras in New Orleans Part 1

Mardi Gras is an amazing time of year to visit New Orleans. Mardi Gras , also called Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday, refers to events of the Carnival celebrations which begins on or after the Christian feasts of the Epiphany (Three Kings Day) and culminating on the day before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday”, reflecting the practice of the last night of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season.
On the way from the airport to downtown, I highly recommend that you stop at Beads by the Dozen. They are a huge shop that sells beads, throws, and anything Mardi Gras or party related. We left the store with cases of throw beads and big beads as well! We stayed at the Sheraton downtown right on Canal St. You have to watch the timing of your arrival and the parade schedule, as you could be caught up and very heavy traffic and be forced to walk a couple of blocks due to road closures. We ended up getting lucky and getting upgraded to a suite overlooking Canal St. and downtown New Orleans.
We were very hungry after a long flight to New Orleans. One of my favorite spots to grab a quick bite is Coop’s Place. Coop’s Place is a Creole restaurant that serves up Cajun grub, fried chicken and drinks in a busy no-frills space that’s open late. I had the Cajun fried chicken and it was very plump and flavorful! Also down the street on Decatur is a favorite in New Orleans, Cafe du Monde. Founded in 1862, this cafe has kept it simple, serving cafe au laits and beignets as its staple. The cafe is open 24/7, so it’s always a good pit stop any time of day! Beignets are french fried fritters, served up with lots of powdered sugar. Each order comes with 3 beignets.
Near Cafe du Monde, is Jackson Square. Jackson Square was built in 1721, modeled after Place des Vosges in Paris. This was also the place where the Louisiana Purchase was signed in 1803, making Louisiana a US territory. Right behind Jackson Square is St. Louis Cathedral. St. Louis Cathedral is the oldest Cathedral in the United States, the first church on the site was built in 1718.

Running Around Rome and Beyond Day 4

We decided to go out of Rome again one more time to visit the ancient ruins of Pompeii. The trip to Pompeii was very easy by train! We showed up to buy tickets for the next train to Naples, the nearest major city to Pompeii. The train station had lots of automatic kiosks to buy tickets from, and the walk up fare was 49 euros a person! The trains run about every 30-45 minutes and the trip takes only 67 minutes on the new Frecciarossa 1000 trains! One we were seated, the train picked up speed pretty quick once we got out of Rome. They have monitors in the cabin that shows where you were, how far you were away from your destination, ETA, and speed. It was crazy watching the Italian countryside fly by at 220mph. Once in Naples, we had to transfer to the local Circumevesuviana trains, which are cash only, to Pompei Scavi station. The trip on the local commuter train is about 35 minutes.
Pompeii is an amazing ancient city, founded in the 7th or 6th century BC, it was covered in 13-20 feet of ash after Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. The site was lost for about 1,500 years, rediscovered in 1599 and only really excavated in 1748. All the artifacts have been so well preserved because of the lack of air and moisture from the ash that covered it. When we got to the front gate, we were in luck! Come to find out, most public Italian museums are free to the public on the first Sunday of every month! Once we got in, the city is 170 acres full of ruins. You’ll need a good part of a day to explore all of what this ancient city has to offer. It has a few homes, baths, temples, an amphitheatre, and a gymnasium. When I was walking around, I was in awe of the technological feats to support these ancient citizens way of life 2,000. I could only imagine what it would be like then.
After walking around Pompeii for what felt like all day, we headed back into Naples. We were going to catch a meal in Naples before heading back into Rome, but we decided on heading back earlier. Luckily, our walk up fare train tickets were transferable to an earlier train. We left an hour and half earlier than we expected! Once we were back in Rome, we went to the Colosseum one last time at night before we had to head home the next morning. I just stood there, looking at this ancient wonder in appreciation for a minute or two, before heading back to the subway station for the hotel, longing to return back to Rome to enjoy its sights and sounds.

Running Around Rome and Beyond Day 3

The Vatican Museums is another great Roman destination. Founded in 1506, it has over 70,000 pieces of work with 54 galleries. You defiantly also want to book your tickets online in advance, so the lines to get in can be hours on some days. The tickets for entry are 16 euros, plus a 4-euro reservation fee. You can select the day and time you want to enter. Be sure you pick a time you can commit you, as the guards can be strict on trying to enter the queue early or late during high season. When you enter thru the main doors, you have to exchange your reservation for a physical ticket. There is a guided one-way path thru the Vatican Museums to see most of the exhibits and artwork. Most people pass the artwork quickly to get to the Sistine Chapel. The Sistine Chapel sits in the Apostolic Palace, home of the Pope. It is the site of the Papal Conclave, where the College of Cardinals vote on a new Pope. To be in the Chapel with the fresco of The Last Judgment painted by Michelangelo is breathtaking. You could easily spend hours looking up at the ceiling! There is no talking or taking photos allowed while inside the Chapel, and they are very strict on those rules. I would say plan to at least spend half a day at the Vatican Museums.
After walking around all day and working up an appetite, we found a small pasta chain nearby called Pastaciutti. It is little hole in the all joint, but it has some of the best pasta I ever had! I had cheese and pepper pasta with a coke for about 7 euros! After a quick meal, we hoped on the subway towards downtown Rome. One of the famous sights we checked out was the Pantheon. The Pantheon was a former Roman temple that is now a Christian church. The current building standing was opened in about 126 AD. The church is circular with a portico of large granite Corinthian columns. The dome is the largest unreinforced dome in the world at 142 feet in diameter! It is also one of the best preserved of all the ancient Roman buildings due to its continuous use. Entering in to see the oculus opening shining light down on the marble floor is an awesome sight! We then walked over to the Spanish Steps. The Spanish Steps are 135 steps built in 1725 to link the Bourbon Spanish Embassy to Trinita dei Monti church. The steps were made famous to an American audience during the 1953 classic movie, Roman Holiday.

Running Around Rome and Beyond Day 2

The next morning, we got on a tour bus and headed north to the Umbria area of Italy. The first stop was a winery outside of Orvieto called Cantina Custodi. Cantina Custodi is a small family winery on 70 hectares that is dedicated to making wine and olive oil. We were given a tour of the grounds and winery, while sipping on a few different type of wine! After a few hours at the winery, we made our way into the town of Orvieto. Orvieto, founded in 1290, sits on a volcanic plug. It is home to a huge Roman Catholic cathedral finished in 1591. There are lots of small shops and restaurants in the city center by the cathedral. It was difficult to find a restaurant open in the middle of the week in February, but we eventually ran into Osteria da Mamma Angela, a small local Italian restaurant. Once we filled up on more pasta, we headed back down to check out the city of Civita.

Civita is an interesting little town. It was founded by the Etruscans more than 2,500 years ago. It also sits atop a plateau of friable volcanic tuff. It is constantly in danger as parts of the plateau have fallen off due to erosion. Its population can vary between 12 people in the winter to 100 in the summer. There is a really long footbridge that you have to take to enter Civita, it is the only way in or out of town. Once you are in, it feels like you have gone back in time hundreds of years. The old architecture has withstood the test of time here. We only had a few minutes of daylight to check out the streets of this mysterious town before we had to hop back on the bus to Rome.

Running Around Rome and Beyond Day 1

Once we got into Rome, we took one of the local Trenitalia train lines to get to our hotel. The one-way fare was only 8 euro for the hour and 20-minute ride with a transfer. We stayed at the Courtyard Marriott Central Park, which is located conveniently near a local bus and train stop. I ended up getting a room with an amazing view of St. Peter’s Basilica. I didn’t have time to admire the view, as we had to rush over to the Colosseum for our tour reservations! We took an Uber right to the Colosseum for about 35 euros.

The entrance and tour package allows you to skip the line, which was a huge help. The third ring tour was 12 euros, plus a 2-euro reservation fee. You still must buy a ticket to get in the Colosseum, which was 9 euros. The total package was 23 euros. Once you pass security, you must stop by a ticket booth to collect a physical ticket and get a sticker for the tour. The third ring/underground tour was amazing. They let you out onto the arena floor where the gladiators fought. The tour also lets you down into the underground tunnels, as well as the top tier of the Colosseum. Hang on to your ticket into the Colosseum, as that is good the Roman Forum and Palatine area close by! You could attempt to walk it all in one day, or break it out over 2 days; but the ticket only allows one entrance into each landmark.

We decided on doing the Roman Forum the same day as the Colosseum. It is A LOT of walking around the old ruins of the Forum and Palatine hills, but it’s a sight to see one of the oldest city centers in the world. After a few hours of walking around the ruins, we walked up to another famous landmark, Trevi fountain. Trevi fountain is the largest Braque fountain in Rome. It was built in 1762 to supply Rome with water via the Acqua Vergine. Lots of tourists throw coins into the fountain. The proper way according to the 1954 movie Three Coins in the Fountain is for the coin to be thrown using the right hand over the left shoulder. It is said in the movie that if you make a wish to return to Rome once you throw the coin, you will.

Once I made my wishes at the fountain, we headed back to the hotel via subway to freshen up and meet up with a big travel group at Tonnarello. Tonnarello is an excellent Italian restaurant near the Tiber river. I had the cheese and pepper pasta, a traditional Roman dish. The pasta was good for the 8.50 euros it cost!