Photography by Yuri Krasov

The most popular vacation destination on the Caribbean coast of Mexico, Cancún boasts so many hotels that they form their own territory, Zona Hotelera de Cancún – a narrow strip of land protruding far into the turquoise sea and covered with sugar-white sand.

Cancun is a favorite with all kinds of vacationers from newlyweds and extended families to corporate execs, because one thing is always certain – here, like nowhere else everyone will get what they are looking for – full relaxation or active adventure, the joys of leisurely care-free life, and excellent service.

In the last few years, the fast-growing company, Excellence Group Luxury Hotels & Resorts, became a symbol of the quintessential Cancún hospitality. It operates three all-inclusive brands – adults only Excellence Resorts, all-ages Finest Resorts and boutique Beloved Hotels.

Excellence beach

My personal experience includes only the first two brands, and only for a couple of days each, but what I’ve learned about the Excellence Group in this short period of time speaks of unsurpassed perfection and keen attention to detail in every aspect of accommodating the resort guests.

As it happened, my husband and I were delayed by the carrier for our connecting flight, and after sprint-running to the gate only to discover we were four minutes late, stranded at the LAX for another 12 hours. Distraught, I asked my husband if we should venture into the city and try to make the best of it… “We’ll spend so much time in traffic you won’t be able to really enjoy Los Angeles,” he said. “One Delta delay is enough. You don’t want to miss our Cancún altogether!”

No, I didn’t want that. When we finally landed on the blessed land of Mexico close to 7 a.m. after a tiring red-eye flight, we quickly discovered that the tropical sun, the cloudless sky, and the ocean breeze provided a boost of energy sufficient to sustain us for the day. Who needs sleep if an endless sandy beach is awaiting you just beyond the swaying palms, and the five-star luxury is at your disposal every step of the way?

Excellence pool

Excellence Riviera Cancún is located in the vicinity of Playa del Carmen, 15-20 minutes from the airport. Its multi-million dollar renovation was completed only last year, and the creamy-white buildings with open terraces, the gorgeously appointed restaurant entrances, and open air fountains and sculptures throughout the entire territory surely look inviting.

Upon a quick efficient check-in we were escorted to our room – an oasis of calm and coolness decorated in aqua and sandy color scheme, with a balcony overlooking a free-form swimming pool running like a blue ribbon between manicured lawns and flowering bushes.

After a much needed full breakfast, during which we couldn’t get enough of freshly-squeezed tropical juices, smoked fish, meat and vegetable stews, omelets to order, yogurts and flans, and freshly-baked pastries, we embarked on a stroll around the resort.

Excellence room

There are ten restaurants on the premises of Excellence Riviera Cancún – Agave (Mexican cuisine, art glass décor, and nightly mariachi music), Barcelona (our lavish breakfast was had here), Basmati (Indian cuisine, Indian art décor, and the chef is from India), Chez Isabelle (French, upscale, live music every night), Flavor Market (food from all corners of the world), and others – equally enticing. The amount of love and creativity invested in food preparation and plating is simply astounding!

Excellence Treats

Ten bars include a pool bar, a non-alcoholic juice-and-smoothie bar (try O-Vi with guava, peach, mango, grapefruit, and pineapple), an exclusive Excellence Club bar, a coffee bar, a martini bar, and the list goes on.

Excellence spaExcellence Hydrotherapy

Miilé Spa looks like a white palace on an island formed by the resort swimming pool. Long white curtains at the entrance billow in the wind like sails. Inside, there’s a complex system of 17-step hydrotherapy massage, guided by an attendant, and of course all kinds of regular massages provided by skilled therapists.

Every morning, the resort guests get a newsletter, titled, The Excellence Times, that lists restaurants and bars, massage specials of the day at the spa, tours and excursions departing from the hotel lobby, romantic specials, like champagne breakfast in bed, fresh flowers service, and dinner for two on the beach, as well as tons of daily activities from tennis and beach volleyball to cooking lessons, Zumba and Texas Hold’Em.

Finest Golden bar

After two glorious days at the Excellence Riviera Cancún, we made a short ride to the brand-new Finest Playa Mujeres on the opposite side of the Zona Hotelera, located among the sandy dunes across from the beautiful island Isla Mujeres.

In the light spacious lobby of the hotel we found ourselves right in front of the imposing Golden Bar, actually made from copper, but shiny nonetheless. Here, an attentive bartender created lychee martinis for us, decorated with a little butterfly, carved from a carrot, sitting on a glass rim.

Finest cocktail

Later, for lunch at Le Petit Restaurant, served on a white table cloth, the most delicious pumpkin soup was delivered to the table in a white porcelain teapot, and poured over grilled shrimp and croutons.

Pre-dinner cocktails at Tinto & Tapas included a rainbow of mixed drinks, Spanish red wine, and an array of hors d’oeuvres, like imported from Spain jamon Serrano, gazpacho, and potato omelet tortillas.

Our multi-course dinner at Lizo Cocina Mexicana started with a tasting of hot sauces used in traditional Mexican cooking. I’ve always favored chipotle and arbol, but now discovered even more exciting varieties – la costena, cuaresmeno and habanero diablo!

The Lizo dinner, prepared and presented with the same perfection as everything everywhere in Excellence Group, continued with crab cocktail (onion, tomatillos, plantain chips); guacamole tortilla with shrimp, dried cheese, and chili; beef ribs in chipotle sauce; and for a sweet finale – a decadent caramel flan with pineapple candy and Mexican vanilla.

Finest food

There are ten restaurants on the territory of Finest Playa Mujeres and more than a dozen bars, including Piano Bar & Cigar Lounge, where we spent a joyful evening dancing to the disco music alongside hotel guests of all ages hailing from all over the world.

Finest spa inside

One Spa at the Finest is a very special place, where the hydrotherapy massages, saunas, steam rooms, and contrasting pools and showers (one, called the Cuban shower, features a wooden bucket of icy cold water overturned overhead at a pull of a rope) conclude with the most skillful and relaxing massage of head, neck and shoulders, administered by the talented therapists.

Finest pool for kids

A very special attention at the Finest is paid to the littlest vacationers. Kid’s Plaza includes mini-theater, mini-spa with hair, nails, and massage services, and an amazing swimming pool/playground with waterslides, waterfalls, fountains, and no borders, like a sea lagoon. At The Market Kitchen restaurant there is an entire area with low counters for children to pick their own food, and even to fill their own ice cream cone. The Finest Day newsletter defines all the daytime activities and nighttime entertainment for the guests of all ages.

The Excellence Club, only for adults, and The Finest Club, for all ages, offer heightened levels of luxury, customized services, more privacy, and more pampering (if that’s even possible).

For more information on The Excellence Group and its brands of resort properties, go to www.excellencegroupluxuryresorts.com.

We drove about halfway down the west side of Florida and easily followed the KOA signs from just below Naples. The Marco Island/Naples KOA  Kampgrounds are surrounded by a thick boundary of beautiful forest of mangroves, palms, pines and other trees I do not know. These form a protective barrier and beautiful backdrop for any activity, keeping the camp very quiet.  Grassy areas were between each of the level and well-groomed gravel sites, and many have palm trees or beautiful flowering shrubs.  The park is beautiful and the large staff friendly and helpful.

2 Marco Island Koa park is beautiful

The large, sparkling swimming pool behind the office is a popular place for most of the day and evening, especially since the temperatures here on New Year’s Eve are about 85 degrees, setting most records. These warm temperatures are welcome, especially by the Snow Birds, who come here from colder climes to winter. About half of this KOA is for these semi-permanent owners and migrators. They seem to make good friends and everyone keeps his site clean and tastefully decorated for the holidays. Most of these have lanais (screened porches) so they can live outdoors-in.

The popular clubhouse was filled for the New Year’s Eve party, which was fun for all. Everyone enjoyed food and drink and music of the Dock Boys Band. On all Saturday mornings breakfast for a nominal fee is served here from 8 – 9 a.m.

3 Marco island koa pool

There are many beaches, boat rentals, fishing charters, shopping, museums, restaurants and entertainment quite nearby, and the west coastal barrier islands are beautiful to discover by land or water. We highly recommend this KOA to anyone who loves warm weather activities. In addition to RV sites there are tent sites and cabins, a few of which are for sale for permanent residents.  Come play in the sun!  (Phone: 1 239 774 5455 or  FAX 239 774 0788 or email: naples@koa.net Address:1700 Barefoot Williams Rd. Naples, FL 34113)

KOA Near Orlando Attractions

4 Titusville FL koa

TITUSVILLE/KENNEDY SPACE CENTER KOA, FLORIDA  is a park perfectly located just off highway 95/46 and only a few minutes’ drive to the National Park Seashore’s beautiful public beaches (and also a nude beach!)  There are so very many attractions near this quiet KOA it is hard to imagine that this location is so peaceful.  Our destination was Kennedy Space Center at NASA’s Cape Canaveral, which was just a few minutes’ drive away. The many attractions in Orlando are just a bit farther, but the savings you have in staying at this KOA are great, and we know from experience you can be staying in nearby hotels or RV campgrounds just a few miles away from destination theme parks and it can take over an hour to get to those parks. There is no way to avoid traffic jams in Orlando, so you will benefit from staying in this peaceful KOA and enjoy the savings!

5 playground titusville koa

This KOA near Orlando is beautiful with its numerous ancient hardwood trees towering overhead, their Spanish moss hanging down in weirdly soft, welcoming fashion. If you have never seen these aerophytes growing on giant trees, this park is worth the stay just to enjoy this typical Old South sight.  You will like the asphalt drives and cement pads for your vehicles since the grass is all around for walking and playing. The large swimming pool is heated by the solar panels above it, so it is comfortable even in winter. (Yes, Florida can have very chilly winter weather and temperatures can fluctuate widely from week to week.) For couples or families traveling without a camping vehicle we recommend the lovely smaller cabins or the larger deluxe cabins. They even have Kamping Lodge for larger groups. Please call first to see what furnishings are provided in each. (Phone: 1 321 269 7361  FAX  1 321 269 1123  Email: 1koa@capekennedykoa.net  Location: 4513 W. Main Street, Mims, Florida 32754.)

6 titusville koa gameroom

Of course you’ll have easy access to a clubhouse, game room, and huge, clean laundry facilities. You will even find a beauty shop on site! Children enjoy a wonderful playground and the Pet area is very clean and well-kept. The store is adequate with necessities, and the staff is friendly and helpful. We had come from the Everglades where we were eaten up with insect bites, but we found no mosquitoes or other pests here. Thank goodness!!!

There is a large, adjoining area for long-term campers who stay for more than six months and seem to have a friendly community of group get-togethers, with large gathering places and covered picnic area to use. Of course all the facilities and amenities are open to any campers, for long or overnight stays. We found this KOA to be an excellent choice for the conveniences of home while having access to some of the most famous attractions in the world.

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Traveling families can make quality, lifetime memories on the Carnival Freedom, sailing from

Galveston, Texas. The Legend’s currently-fabulous Caribbean itinerary is perfect for those wanting to

experience a taste of the Caribbean.

As if that isn’t enough, Moody Gardens Hotel and Spa on Galveston Island, provides the perfect

beginning or ending point for vacationing families who like pampering and unlimited fun before or

after their sailing.

242 acres of lush tropical gardens, luxurious hotel, premier seaside golf course, aquarium, paddle-

wheeler, spa, zip line, Magic 3D theater, Rainforest Pyramid, Discovery Museum, and Texas- sized

pool are just a tiny sampling of the spectacular beauty of Moody Gardens. Entire families and multi-

generational clans from around the world have discovered the unique majesty and endless activities for

all ages at Moody Gardens. What better way to prepare for the sheer luxury awaiting you on

embarkation day, or to decompress before you face reality after disembarking the majestic Carnival

Freedom?

Once on board your sailing city, the Carnival Freedom, true 24/7 fun at sea begins. Families

traveling with small children will love Camp Carnival where the most qualified camp counselors on the

ocean, will treat the kids with complete pampered attention and care while offering fun and educational

activities and projects, art, music, movies, scavenger hunts, contests, dancing, games and impeccable

childcare and dining.

Parents can completely relax and enjoy every moment of their vacation entrusting their little ones

into the best hands knowing they are enjoying quality youth experiences and that close to a million kids

travel with Camp Carnival every single year. Teens and tweens will relish every moment of a tailored

program that ensures fun and safety from supervised dance parties, competitions, sporting events,

social gatherings, movies, teen-themed crafts, dining and more.

The Carnival Legend was recently refurbished into grandeur and is a gleaming beauty of endless

activities tailored to suit every taste and interest. When not at the Jamaica, Grand Cayman, and

Cozumel ports of call, this floating Funship is brimming with relaxing, pampering, and exciting

offerings.

5.

For family members who love music, you can dance or sing the night away at discos and piano bars.

Musical trivia contests provide challenging fun and nostalgia. Live bands and gifted singers belt out

Jamaican, Latin, and Calypso melodies under tropical sunny days and star-filled nights aboard the Lido

deck to help you get your groove on. Outstanding theater performances of musicals, Broadway style

glitz, and Vegas-caliber shows grace the stage almost nightly.

Does someone in your family like to play the odds? Texas Hold ‘Em, Bingo, a full casino, and slot

tournaments are a few more options.

Anyone like to eat? An empty stomach is an impossibility on a Carnival sailing. The dining options

are literally endless with room service in your cabin, Lido deck buffets, endless ice cream and pizza, a

completely themed and immersive Seussical Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast, the elegant Sun King Steakhouse experience, tea time, deli, Guy’s Burger Joint, and the standard dining room experience for

breakfast lunch or dinner, which doesn’t even begin to encompass all the choices available day and

night. Dining cruise casual or cruise elegant in the dining room or poolside while soaking up the sun

and water are only two more of dozens of possibilities for fabulous dining atmosphere.

3.

One ships, two ships, it’s the Cat in the Hat on Cruise Ships—as the magic of Dr. Seuss at Sea

brings the fun and whimsy of its beloved tales and characters into dining, storytime, photo ops, and

zany fun anytime throughout Carnival’s entire fleet.

Water babies, anyone? A huge, curling water slide and multiple swimming pools will provide just

the way to float the afternoon away in total relaxation as the dolphins, seagulls, pelicans, and waves

pass by.

2.

Art collectors, movie buffs, fitness gurus, or spa lovers in your bunch? Carnival Legend has it all

dialed in and in such a way as to entertain and appeal to all generations of your family.

Mom and dad will appreciate that they can spend a romantic date-night relishing in culinary

delights at the private Sun King Steakhouse or chill in the cabin with some room service while little

ones are safely entertained and cared for. Or they may become addicted to the Serenity Deck where

only the over-18-cruisers can pull up a romantic cabana chair or soak in the private spas while watching

the sun dip into the horizon with the sky ablaze as far as the eye can see.

Kids will love the all-inclusive fun and friendship they experience through Camp Carnival and the

youth activities. The entire family will enjoy big screen togetherness from movies on the Lido deck

during dine-in movie gatherings, to ice carving and towel animal presentations, and live shows with the

cruise director. Young cruisers enjoy wearable art and other challenging projects that not only build

skills and self-esteem but provide cherished souvenirs to take home and remember the fun for years to

come.

Grandparents can appreciate art auctions, internet cafe, spa treatments, fitness classes, health and

wellness seminars, shopping, and tasting events. And should anyone want exciting night life, George

Lopez has partnered with Carnival’s Punchliner to bring top notch comedy shows throughout the

sailing, not to mention onboard ballroom dance/salsa lessons, and late night live music, all of which

may keep you wondering if anyone ever wants to go to sleep and chance missing the endless fun.

You’ll never have to wonder what to do when ashore as Carnival has all the ports of call and shore

excursions tailored specially for Carnival guests. There are magical Jeep tours, fishing and naturalist

excursions, hikes to ruins, snorkeling and scuba treks, fabulous all-inclusive family resort days,

waterfall hikes, tubing adventures, shopping tours, and literally something for everyone’s tastes and

sense of adventure.

6.

Every concern and need has been attended to. A full medical center on board, gluten free options for

dining, professional family portraits, “Behind the Fun” on board tours, and outstanding shore

excursions are available to vacationing families as well.

4.

After a long, dreary landscape of hot desert and nothing else you climb to about 7,000 feet to the Eastern side of Flagstaff, Arizona and find the welcoming cool of the pine forest. This KOA Campground has been here since 1960’s and is determined to keep its camp atmosphere and not be turned into an RV Resort.  It has all the clean accommodations you expect in KOA campgrounds and a wonderful family atmosphere similar to camping in National Parks.

2     Flagstaff playground

The very large playground is the site of many squeals of fun and laughter. Kids revel in outdoor play when camping, often quite different than what they do at home. Flagstaff KOA is adjacent to Coconino National Forest, so you can go through the little gate to walk on the trails there or hike up the mountain. The high mountains behind the campground were still snow-capped in May and reached far above us at this 7,000 feet high KOA!

3   Flagstaff cabin

This KOA has hundreds of sites for rigs of all sizes, some KOA cabins, and large clean tent sites. There is no swimming pool, but the office has an array of souvenirs and some foods, beer, and other snacks, and the mall and points of interest for Flagstaff are just a short drive away.

4   environment tips

KOA Kamp Kitchen is a little food truck located on site for your freshly prepared-to-order breakfast from early to mid-morning each day for an extra fee. Delicious!  One of the unusual features of this KOA is the Environmental Impact Educational Park for kids and adults. There are signs telling many ways to help the environment by making very small changes in our daily habits. It is well worth reading all the information with your family and walking through the little garden here. Children may even be able to use this knowledge for school projects later.

5   grand-canyon from south rim

We found Flagstaff KOA a comfortable, friendly, well-located site. It takes about 90 minutes to drive to the South side of the Grand Canyon, which is why most people stay here; others come just to find a cool, full shade respite from blistering summer heat and to kick back and have a wholesome, fun, camping experience. The smell of campfires and meat cooking while families gather around their own picnic tables at most sites imprints your memory with happy reveries. Plan to arrive early instead of peak check-in time in late afternoon because the driveway entrance is sometimes bumper to bumper and extends into the edge of highway traffic.

6   Flagstaff  traffic bumper to bumper

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Photos by Aleah Montoya and Perry Montoya

For years I’ve lapped around Indiana’s borders but never seemed to dive in. The wait is over. It was time to stop letting big brothers Illinois, Ohio and Michigan take front seat. Indiana is no second fiddle. Indeed, Indianapolis touts its airport as the best inside of either coast and in all of North America and has the awards to prove it IND is central to statewide locations and, though not a primary or secondary hub for any major airline, touts various direct flights and off-the-charts customer satisfaction.

Bloomington was the destination this time for Aleah (my photog/social media guru who doubles as my daughter) and me. About an hour via shuttle from IND, we traveled to Bloomington worry free with Go Express Travel which has extremely reasonable prices. Bloomington is Everytown, USA. I’d guess more people know about this part of Indiana than they realize. Bloomington is home to Indiana University and truly no trip to Indiana is complete without making it to I.U. Like so many before us, we were welcomed through I.U.’s formal entry way known as Sample Gates. These pillars of welcome are some of Indiana’s most highly photographed; standing there in the moment, Aleah was all but ready to apply to I.U.

PIC #2 Sample Gates Web Ready

Many would make the pilgrimage to I.U. just to see the Assembly Hall (venue of Hoosier legendary basketball) or perhaps for a gawk at the Little 500 track (of movie fame) and a nostalgic heart thump at the thrill of one’s own “Breaking Away”. Sold.

PIC #3 IU Soccer and Little 500 Web Ready

We toured I.U. with a small group and were treated to peeks of the baseball, football, soccer and basketball practice and game day facilities and stadiums (Bart Kaufman, Mellencamp, Memorial Stadium and Cook Hall respectively – Assembly Hall was under renovation and closed to visitor’s during our visit.) Google “I.U. Football” and the first two hits are for basketball and soccer respectively. But, don’t be fooled. Memorial Stadium has an electric feel even when empty.

PIC #4 IU Football Web Ready

This is a college town! And college town means college town food. Nick’s English Hut is “a Bloomington tradition” says their website.

PIC #5 Nick's Web Ready

Merriam Webster’s defines tradition as, “the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction” and that is precisely what’s happening at Nick’s. Waiters know the menu by heart. Businessmen sit beside students. All share a love for their “Sink the Biz” fries and choices from burgers to pizza to sandwiches. We couldn’t chose between the Stromboli and Italian Beef sandwiches so we got both and split them. Incredible!

If Nick’s isn’t enough of a draw, Buffalouie’s seemed to be on the tongue of locals and visitors alike.

PIC #6 BuffaLouies Web Ready

As their name suggests, Buffalouie’s is a wing haven to behold. They proudly tout being one of USA today’s top ten wing joints and their wings match the hype and then some. Perhaps the only flop with their flappers was when we tried to break our order into several sauces for a “snack” size and were rebuffed – pun intended. Also they have a charge for extra sauces and veggies which could have been looped into the price of our food (author’s note: I always wince at upcharges which I’d have gladly paid for in the price of the meal, but see as “nickel and dime” when required to be purchased à la carte. An additional charge for chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant would be another good example of this foodie phobia). Try this place. Enjoy the Americana that adorns their walls. Go when it’s game week. Expect fresh, filling, fire and fun. Such was our outing.

But Bloomington is more than merely a magnet for students. Yuppie foodies will fawn over the farm to table fare of the eatery FARM. While there for a “by invitation” dinner, we were treated to a macro sampling of what FARM is all about. Their menu changes with the seasons and the supply of local farmers. We savored everything from homegrown popped corn to farm fresh catfish. Indeed, in order, we consumed these tasty treats:

Frittered Smelt, purple cauliflower, red carrots, red peppers, grape tomatoes, fresh bleu cheese, arugula pizza with wild mushrooms, Brie, goat cheese basil pancakes, golden beet gazpacho, fresh ground corn fried catfish, whole roasted pig, cold rare bison steak, roast duck, pulled pork sliders, watermelon, wild grown mushroom (three types of mushrooms) salad, homemade mozzarella, smoked gouda, homemade marshmallows, pecan pie, sweet potato pie with fresh cream, goat cheese mousse, maple funnel cakes, peach cobbler, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, a ginger ale and a bag of popcorn.

The full fare was presented at the farm-to-table eatery with the farmers there telling us about their products while chefs were preparing their items in the kitchen. I think we literally had one of everything. Maybe it was the popcorn at the end of the meal that might have kept me lying awake that night (he said, literally with tongue in cheek).

Our jaunt back to the hotel from FARM was pleasant and rewarding. En route, we overshot a street and wound up on Bloomington’s “B-Line” trail. The 12’ wide blacktop trail winds for a little over three miles through town and is frequented by cross-trainers, bikers, boarders and bladers. Even those of us who were on a casual stroll found it a nice diversion from semaphore controlled motor traffic.

The Courtyard Marriott (our lodging during the trip) was both convenient and comfortable. Upon arrival in Bloomington we’d found our room not to our personal liking and staff were quick to arrange our change of rooms and assure all was in order. I even had a wardrobe malfunction (with my belt) during our stay and one of their staff allowed me to use tools in their workshop area to rectify the problem. We’d gladly return to The Courtyard Marriott without hesitation.

In all, we found every quaint aspect of Bloomington worth each day of our stay. We’ve already set a date to tune in to the next I.U. vs. Purdue rivalry game and are prepared to cheer for “our” Hoosiers. We’ll be back to the friendly feel of Bloomington and relished our time among new found friends in “Honest-to-Goodness Indiana”.

 

 

 

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Hotel Nuevo Boston of the Husa Hotel Chain is the perfect hotel near Madrid Barajas Airport. We arrived weary from 35 hours with no sleep. Our GPS, which did not recognize one-way streets, had led us on a merry chase in a maze of one-ways for an hour, even though this wonderful hotel is only five minutes from the airport!  The staff immediately recognized how tired we were and showed us to one of the loveliest rooms we have ever stayed in in Europe.

2    Nuevo Boston our room

We were too tired to try to go out for dinner and crossed our fingers that the restaurant in the hotel would be OK, but it was SUPERIOR! Of course, our hunger schedules were still on American time, and it was Siesta Time in Spain, but the hotel Bar was ready for such travelers.  We had a large and varied menu from which to order, and it was not just bar food but also included hot meals. Bill chose a wonderful meal of fish and vegetables and was so pleased with it.  I am a hamburger junkie, and the burger I ordered was one of the best I ever had, with unusual seasonings and toppings that were delicious!  The chef is quite talented and everything on the menu, which was in Spanish and English, sounded delectable with combinations we had never thought of. The pleasant and efficient waiter brought our meals much more rapidly than we had thought, and each plate was a picture, even though it was a bar!! We watched as they made preparations for the grand buffet in the adjoining dining room for several hours later. We would like to be awake next time for that experience of fine dining.

3        Nuevo Boston room beckoned us

Our pretty blue and white room beckoned us with its crisp sheets and very comfortable beds. We slept our jetlag off peacefully with no outside noises, which have bothered us in other hotels when we go to bed early. In the morning we were refreshed and headed down for the included wonderful buffet of everything we had ever thought of for breakfast and a lot more! The big dining room is so pretty and the food was delicious. This is an excellent hotel for business, pleasure, Conferences and Weddings and Family gatherings.

4    Nuevo Boston breakfast

The facilities and well-trained staff can handle very large groups politely and efficiently, as they aim to please and to make each guest feel personally welcome.

5   Nuevo Boston Internet

At the comfortable Cyberpoint we checked our email on their free WIFI and got excellent fast reception.

5    Nuevo Boston pool

We enjoyed a dip in the garden swimming pool before heading out for the day. This is THE hotel we will return to again and again! We highly recommend it. Hotel Nuevo Boston is part of the Husa Hotel Group of world renowned hotels.

 

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Our grandson has been an avid NASCAR fan since he was three years old. When Bill was tired of playing on the floor he put him in his lap saying, “Let’s watch the cars go around. Which one will we cheer for: the M&M car or the Dupont car with the flames?” Nicolas quickly chose the bright fiery flames with Jeff Gordon as the driver, and that day he won the race! Nicolas was HOOKED!  As a pre-schooler he begged to watch every race on TV, and when he got his first email address he even used a clever derivative of Gordon’s name for his own email address, so with every email he sent or received he could promote his favorite star!

As a teen, Nicolas saved the money he earned all year to go to some NASCAR races in person at many different tracks. Having a father and grandparents who are also avid NASCAR fans, it was easy to persuade them to take him.  In November 2015 we were able to take him, now 20, to “Jeff’s Last Rodeo” at Texas Motor Speedway which is near our home.  We all were excited to cheer our favorite driver in his 334 laps at the TMS 1.5 mile track. Nicolas is a walking encyclopedia of facts about TMS, NASCAR, and Gordon. With his dedicated focus he reads all the race magazines and has never missed watching a NASCAR race in Jeff’s career. It was great for Nicolas to teach us more about the track, NASCAR, and Gordon.

Q:   So Jeff became your hero, and then what?

A:   My granddad and I had picked a real winner because he won that race I watched in ’96 and he was Champion ’97,’98  .  He averaged about 10 wins a year and 13 in some seasons.

Q:  The last time you were at Texas Motor Speedway at age 13 in 2008, I had orders to write five magazine articles about a young person who lived and breathed racing, so I had to pull some PRESS strings to get you into the HOT areas and to have a meeting with Gordon, your hero.  But I failed to ask the age limit or dress code. We arrived with you in sandals and shorts and had to scramble to find your tennis shoes, and you had to wear your granddad’s way-too-long running suit pants tied up at the waist!  What do you most remember about that weekend at TMS?

A:   Of course that was my first time and I was so excited!  I heard people say,  ”We know he’s not 18. How in the world did he get in here?”  It was really fun to be youngest in the Hot Garage.   It was very cold that day and threatened rain.  You had on your long black raincoat with a hood and we nick-named you the Grim Reaper. After the first time we passed through any checkpoint they remembered the Grim Reaper coat and my special HOT pass and just let us on through! It was so cool!

2  Getting Gordon autograph

Q:  I had arranged for us to have a Photo Interview with Gordon after the Time Trial on Saturday, so we were at his transporter waiting.  Do you remember what happened?

A:   I saw Jeff’s expression as he returned from the track and realized he had not had a good qualifying race, and I figured I would not get to talk to him.  But since we were there where he had to pass through us, I had my official red Gordon jacket and felt pen waiting and handed it to him, and you got a photo of him signing. I was elated! That jacket has been hanging on my bedroom wall ever since, and I never wore it…It was sacred and the center of my huge collection of Gordon memorabilia

Q:  What else was special about having the Hot Garage pass?

A:  Everyone was so open and interested in me since it was obvious I was a young fan and a curiosity there. I had read so many race magazines that I knew crew faces and names.  I had many questions I wanted to ask because at that time I wanted know how they got into a NASCAR career and what steps I should take to get there. Everyone encouraged me to get a full engineering degree, not just the 10 month program, because it is too specific and there are no other options if you don’t get the job.  But with an engineering degree you have options for other jobs.  They cared and put thought into their advice about what would be best for a young fan wanting to make a career in NASCAR.  No one gave me just glib fan answers. I was impressed and so happy to talk to each one, from garage crew, to pit crew, to NASCAR officials, to TMS workers.

3 Adult  Nicolas watching Gordon in hot pit

Q:  Do you recommend that fans buy the Hot Garage passes if they can afford to?

A:  Yes, it’s really cool to be in a NASCAR garage area.  I even recognized Bruton Smith then, owner of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. and got to talk to him. Even though I was a young kid, everyone does really care about fans and makes sure everything a fan could want is really accessible. I also got an autograph from the NASCAR Mascot Lugnut, a character in costume who always appeals to children.  Any sport thrives on a new generation coming in. NASCAR strives to be a clean, wholesome family event.

There is usually a Charity Walk early with some drivers on day before the NASCAR race, and in 2008 we walked with some of the drivers. Even though we had to get up in the dark to arrive in time, I loved it.  For a long time I walked beside the youngest driver of the Nationwide Race that day, and he told me all about his budding career and encouraged me, even though I did not want to be a driver. Later he spoke to me by name when he passed in a golf cart to the driver meeting.

Q:  What were the key things you found most interesting in 2015,”Jeff’s Last Rodeo?”

A:  It was cool to see that even though every week these guys are fiercely competing on the track, now that Gordon is retiring I saw how much of a family NASCAR really is because all the drivers congratulated him.  There is obvious respect for him in the NASCAR community as he retires. He is not only a huge name driver but also good guy and friend.  He ushered in the modern era of NASCAR as the first really young person to come to racing at the top level. When he was just 18 he flew from his home to compete and qualify for his first Xfinity race. He returned home to attend his high school graduation and then flew back the next day to race in the Xfinity Series. Dale Earnhardt,Sr, joked that he would be too young to have champagne at the award ceremony…Jeff would have to have milk.  So, at the ceremony Jeff toasted Earnhardt with a champagne glass filled with milk. The next year he was in 30 of the 31 Xfinity races, and his third year he won three of the 31 races and was ushered into his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race at 20, just my age now!

4.  Nicolas Always 24 Fan

Q:  In the future Gordon will be as a commentator for NASCAR. I know at one time you wanted to be a NASCAR commentator also. You would make a good one since you can remember so many facts about each driver, race, and track.  Do you have any desire to do that still?

A:  It could be another career choice, and I would jump at the opportunity, but now my main goal is to work for one of the many possibilities in the hospitality side of racing. I have completed two years at the world’s top hospitality school, Ecole Hospitalitier Lausanne in Switzerland, and I will enter Johnson and Wales in Charlotte, NC, in the spring to complete my degree. Since that is the home base area for NASCAR the opportunities will abound for me in the hospitality or public relations side of NASCAR.  I would also love to be a PR agent for a driver.

Q:  What positive influences has Gordon had on the public?

A:  He is an outspoken advocate of safe highway driving. This is very important for young race fans. He has two children and is aware of the potential dangers of young drivers wanting to race on a public road. A lot of kids look up to him and he says, “If you want to race, get on track and wear proper safety gear…never race on a public street; never drink or text while driving, and never smoke and drive.”

Gordon also has the first charity as a sponsor:  AARP Drive to End Hunger. A significant portion of all Gordon merchandise they sell goes to this charity. I think this is terrific, and my hero Jeff was the first to bring sponsorship in this new direction for creating charity awareness in the thousands of fans.

Jeff has this private charity Jeff Gordon’s Children’s Foundation.  NASCAR and its drivers are among the most charitable organizations in all of sports. And because racing is perhaps the most family-oriented sport, the drivers are encouraged to be upstanding in sports and in personal life.

5  Teen Nicolas With 24 room

Q:  Tell me about your Gordon memorabilia collection.

A:  Since all my family and friends know I’m basically race crazy, they have given me die-cast Gordon cars every year for birthdays and Christmas, and most of the money I earned mowing LOTS of lawns went to adding larger cars and other memorabilia to my Gordon collection. I have all the cars with all the different paint designs. And of course, the Gordon jacket he autographed. My entire room features Gordon: bedspread, curtains, shelves and cases of cars. I have many official track video games and spend a lot of free time racing, so I know each track, every turn very well.

But my best item in my collection is an official helmet.  When I was at the Charlotte track with you I was barely 16. I had worked for months to save quite a lot of money to spend on souvenirs at the track. We walked miles looking for an official, real helmet like the drivers wear and finally found one in the hot garage area, actually available for a driver who might need a replacement, but they agreed to sell it to me.  I took it to the garages and pits and asked many crew members to sign it. Even Bruton Smith signed it. We were talking to one of the official gate guards and he was very interested in such a young fan and saw my helmet and pen. He opened the gate for me to go into the area where the drivers were arriving for the Driver Meeting. I had learned not to be afraid of approaching these people and many drivers signed it for me!  It is my treasure!

Q:  How did you follow NASCAR when you were living in Switzerland?  Nascar has nice streaming platform, NASCAR Raceview, to which you can subscribe. The price was worth it for me to feel closer to home. It features a track map, animated cars, (no live stream out of the USA.)  I could keep up with NASCAR and follow it more in depth than on TV because of extras it has.  I could pull up for any of the drivers I wished and be as close to live as you can get. You can buy it at NASCAR.com .  It is great for those who have to work during the race or are not where you can see it on TV .

RaceBuddy is also a way to see drivers on eight cameras. This is free and you can change drivers each week so you can follow in the car, usually one who will likely be in top place.

6    Adult Nicolas and Granddad

Q:  When Jeff retires will you still be a race fan? Will you still choose 24 or another Hendrick Motorsports driver?

A:  Chase Elliott will now drive the number 24 car and race for Hendrick.  Definitely I’ll support him!  He’s young too. I’m sure he was influenced by Gordon coming in as the youngest driver 25 years ago.  The successful drivers were racing in small cars since preschool.  Gordon’s step father, John Bickford, had a  BMX two-wheel bike for him to race when he was a preschooler, but Jeff’s mom objected because it was not safe, so Bickford bought  him quarter-midget race car which had four wheels and a roll cage. Many good race drivers started that way and raced on dirt as young kids. Gordon was racing with older kids then and beating them. Jeff will always be my hero and remind me of my wonderful times with my grandparents!

“You want me to get on THAT and go down to where?” I wailed from high atop the Alberta Falls waterslide, looking down to an alleged pool that was well out of visual range.  My 11-year-old grand-daughter nodded with a look of both consternation and resignation that I tried very hard to take in stride.

Such was my introduction to a vast array of unusual children’s activities that mesmerized the 70-year-old kid in me as much as they did Dalya, 14 and Mollie, 11 as we frolicked through Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg, VA. (There are 12 such waterparks nationwide).

We could have spent all three days at the resort and still not exhausted the available options. Having to leave to also visit Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens for me was just a distraction. Mollie and Dalya might take issue with that.

There is so much going on at the waterpark that I didn’t know where to look. The pool basketball game, the lazy river, the wave pool, the kiddie pool,  the 4-story interactive treehouse with a section of ascending inter-connected rope tunnels leading to two winding slides, a surf stimulator and, of course, the three waterslides that dominate the park and stretch both inside and outside the building. And everywhere the smiles were as wide as the lazy river was long. And no matter what the activity, you’re never too far from a potential dousing from overhead buckets both large and small eliciting cries of surprise from bathers of every age.

Tipping Bucket splash

Options ranged from the toddler pool proudly boasting its depth at 0’ and containing miniature water buckets and slides to an array of adult slides from family raft rides of gentle descent to the terror-inducing Howlin’ Tornado with sheer drops and challenging turns. Okay, we didn’t go near that one but yes, we returned to the Alberta Falls waterslide multiple times.

And then there was the wave pool. Okay, not exactly ocean-worthy diving potential, but if you’re under three feet or willing, as I was, to kneel down, you can simulate riding the waves even if you can’t exactly dive into them.

Williamsburg Water Park

Once our skins unpruned, we were ready for more land-based adventures — and there were as many of those as there were waterpark options. But first we had to eat — and so we entered the dinner buffet, right off the lobby where continuous other activities unfold.  When I went for my salad, there was dancing in the lobby; back for my entrée, 50 little kids were engrossed in story hour; during dessert, a musical presentation enthralled with singing trees, animals and other fanciful creatures. Entertaining kids around the clock is what Great Lodge is all about. So it was a surprise to see so many adults sporting the turquoise wolf ears the kids get at check in. I resisted the temptation…

The piece de resistance (after the waterpark) is the MagiQuest, a hard-to-describe adventure that takes kids throughout all four floors of the hotel seeking magical powers, potions and portents — all enabled by their magic wand — to satisfy the demands of the Questmaster, a Merlin-like presence ensconced in a computer inside a tree. You don’t dare not follow his instructions!

There are multiple quests with multiple clues to each quest which require you to visit the Enchanted Forest, Tangled Woods, Piney Path and Whispery Woods, all located throughout the hotel. “The Ancient Book of Wisdom,” which you get when you sign up for MagiQuest, directs you to the clues. It’s a good thing I was with Dalya and Mollie: I never could have figured out what to do.

Boy playing MagiQuest

Surprising encounters occur throughout. Let’s say you wand a Quest site that’s not on your list, you might hear: “Silly Magi, you have to be on THIS quest before I waste my time with you.” At the Book of Freezing Spells, a voice admonishes: “Don’t be so literal. You’re reading way too much into this.”

And the huge larger-than-lifesize knight in a stairwell pleads: “You have found 200 pieces of gold hidden in my armor. Now get me out of here!”

Dalya and Mollie Meet the Knight

Word of warning: You have to stay out of the way of younger kids racing around as if their wands were swords and the quests just an excuse to duel each other through the hallways.

And if you tire of this unusual game of dungeons and dragons, you can opt to play miniature golf at the Howl in One course, hang out at the Arcade, or get a Henna tattoo and come back to the quest at a later time.

There was so much going on, so many bizarre places to wend a wand, with a variety of big screens showing animated adventures spaced throughout, that I just gave up trying to understand what was happening and happily trailed behind my grand-daughters in their quest for…well…other items in their quest. Overheard from one frustrated mom with three little ones in tow: “Man, this is crazy, I give up.”  I knew just how she felt. I was so glad when Dalya finally pronounced that she only needed Tree Slime to finish her latest quest. Sounded like a good way to end to me.

And yes, there were actually more quests to do — the Shadow Quest and the Compass Quest – that I didn’t even want to ask about. And the list of the things we didn’t do was almost as long as those we did. We did not go to the Scoops Kid’s Spa, where the nail polish for mini-manicures all come with ice cream flavor names, the pedicures are done while seated in giant banana split thrones, the facials, bath balms and scrubs are either vanilla, chocolate or strawberry and the glitter make-up application comes with a tiara.

Girls in Scooops Kid Spa

We didn’t try the life-size time challenge game where you race both against the clock and your opponents to push out balloon-size blinking light buttons. We didn’t bowl at Ten Paw Alley with five pound balls and bumpers along the pint-size lanes. We didn’t attend any of the several 4D-movies offered at the Howly Wood Theater. We could have spent a week there and never gotten bored, but hey, Williamsburg and Busch Gardens beckoned, and I reluctantly followed. For more information about Great Wolf Lodge, visit greatwolf.com/Williamsburg.

 

 

On an overcast and chilly day in late May we boarded our Island Packers all day boat trip to Santa Cruz Island, about 20 miles out from Oxnard/Ventura, California. The five Channel Islands are protected as a National Park and a National Marine Sanctuary and an International Biosphere. Never part of the United States Mainland, the five islands which show above the great Pacific Ocean are part of one land mass pushed up by the movement of plate tectonics thousands of years ago but then partially covered by the waters from melting after most recent Ice Age. These islands were inhabited by the Chumash Indians, and human remains 13,000 years old have been found there. The Channel Islands are sometimes referred to as the ”United States Galapago,” and have species of flora and fauna found nowhere else on earth, and each island is different in nature.

We had visited Anacapa Island with Island Packers on our last trip to Oxnard It was magical to see the seabirds nesting right on the ground beside the walking path as we hiked the beautiful island covered with flowers. We were unsure what we would experience at Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the five islands and the only one on which people are allowed to camp.

2   whale watching

From both Channel Islands Harbor and Ventura Harbor Island Packers has a variety of excursions to the various islands and for whale watching. We left from Ventura after checking in with their office, where we could buy souvenirs and any needed items for the trip and get lots of helpful tips, maps, etc. If you choose to kayak, or SCUBA dive, or have guide service when you reach the island you must make arrangements ahead of time with Island Packers or other providers they suggest. You can arrange your permits for the Back Country Camping at the National Park Reservations 1 877 444 6777, but you must take everything you need including water, food, etc., because there are no concessions on Santa Cruz Island. The National Park service has rangers on each island for maintenance and for emergency help and evacuation, if necessary. Although the campground has typical park toilets and some drinking water, everyone must bring their own water. Some of our fellow travelers were bringing all their gear and kayaks for camping there, and Island Packers staff was very helpful with the loading. There are snacks, beer, water, and soft drinks available for purchase on board and clean restrooms (“heads”). The staff is knowledgeable, helpful, friendly, and excellent in their on-board guidance and information.

3   enormous whales

About 10 miles out the Captain announced, “We are fortunate for the sighting ahead of us, and we will stop to watch this rare and exciting event taking place right here!” We saw seabirds swooping down and soaring back up and at first saw nothing else until the captain directed our attention to the whales breeching, jumping and diving. He explained that we had happened upon a group hunting party and the whales were circling the creel and fish below and pushing them to near the surface. We watched for an hour as the captain kept the boat in just the right position for best sightings. Orcas, seen in this area only about four to six times each year, jumped and showed their gigantic bodies, and humpback whales shot their huge masses into the air and U-turned back into the sea again, showing their uniquely patterned flukes as they went down. Soon hundreds of dolphins and seals joined in the feeding frenzy and all of us on board had a photo frenzy…just hoping we could snap fast enough to capture a real image of such an amazing sight! It was MAGICAL! We felt so very privileged and so happy the Captain would stop for us to see nature in its own realm and experience such awe. Whales migrate through this area during many months of the year, traveling to Alaska to feed and back to South America to give birth. Whale sightings are frequent.

4   foxes

We arrived at Santa Cruz Island and spent several hours with a National Park volunteer who led us on a very informative hike and explained the various plants and animals there. The island had been a ranch for several decades and livestock and non-native plants had been imported, upsetting the natural balance. Now the ranch buildings serve as the on-site National Park headquarters and scientists have worked diligently to re-establish the native plants and protect the native animal species, which had been in danger of dying out. We saw the pretty little foxes, which have no predators and are therefore fearless. They ran around comfortably almost like kittens. We hoped to see the native blue jay which is nowhere else on earth, but it was elusive. We did see many other birds, especially when we hiked to the tall cliff overlooking the sea, where birds dived for their food that lives amidst the kelp forest in the clear water far below us.

5    kelp forest below

Those who kayak can explore the sea caves and see many species of fish all around the island, which has protected waters for six miles, so that many oceanic species come here for safety and recovery from the abuses and poisons of the human-polluted open waters all over the world. Kayakers are encouraged to have a professional guide because this is a dangerous sport in open ocean. SCUBA divers from the boat below the cliff were able to see many varieties and species large and small.

Before taking this trip we visited the Channel Island National Park Visitor Center at Ventura Harbor Marina. The explanatory exhibits and the film are excellent and well worth an hour or more to familiarize yourself with these special islands so well protected and interesting.

6   return trip dolphins

This wonderful day of enjoying truly wild nature and beautiful scenery came to a close too soon, and our only regret was that the wild flowers, abundant in February, were not in bloom. We boarded the last boat back to leave at 4 p.m. To our great thrill we had traveled toward the mainland only about a half hour when we saw another wondrous site: hundreds of pairs of dolphins were jumping out of the water and then diving down into it, over and over in another feeding frenzy, and we saw one more humpback whale. What a glorious day we will never forget! Book your trip with Island Packers as the first and best part of any Southern California holiday! Be sure to contact Oxnard Convention and Visitor Bureau at 1-800-2-Oxnard; www.visitoxnard.com for all your fun in this terrific part of California.