Jul 31, 2011

Florida Family Vacation at the Beach

It doesn't get any better than this.  Anna Maria Island, Florida. July 21, 2011

I confess I've had very low expectations for the beach in America.  I pictured the endless rows of high rises running along the Atlantic coast, people driving up and down the gray sands of Daytona and New Symrna Beach, the water nondescript in appearance and always too cold.  I associated the east coast Florida beaches of my youth with the inchoate melancholy of that period--trips to the shore that were never as fun as I pretended with people that often weren't such great friends as I wished.

I'd spent much less time on the Gulf coast.  We stopped by the beach a few times during high school trips to Tampa.  J, Chris, Greg, and I were impressed with the Emerald Coast up on Florida's Panhandle during a road trip in my college years.  When Babs and I were newly dating we spent a day with the Chris and Carissa Cotta at a beach in Clearwater.  Those experiences were all quite nice, but compared to the fresher memories of the Marianas, I was sure they didn't measure up.

It was my son who corrected me, as we drove over the low bridge on to Anna Maria Island on Thursday, July 21, 2011:

"Daddy, this looks like Saipan!" he cried.

The view from our balcony at Anna Maria Island Inn

And indeed it did.  For just about 24 marvelous hours our family soaked up the beach life at Anna Maria Island on Florida's Gulf Coast.  Annual summer sojourns to Anna Maria were one of the family traditions Babs and I had missed out on while overseas.  We returned to the States just as the tradition was falling into disrepair.  Mom and Dawn had been determined to revive the Anna Maria beach week this summer, but they started planning too late and all the places that met their highly specific criteria were either already booked or out of their price range.  By the time we arrived, the beach week plan had been reduced to a day trip.  Indeed we didn't decide to spend the night until Wednesday, the day before we left, when Jim pointed out that a five hour round trip drive just to spend a few hours at the beach wouldn't be as much fun.  Why not just find a cheap place--forget all the criteria--and spend one night, and then come back the next day.  Mom, Dawn, and I got on the web and started looking.

Looking out from the front entrance to our unit.  One of the great things about Anna Maria Island is the laid-back island feel.  It's all two lane roads, locally-owned shops catering to vacationers, low-slung beach bungalows, vacation rentals, and unassuming luxury condos (my understanding is that they don't allow any high-rises on the island).

What we found was far more than we expected on such notice.  We found a wonderful little beachside place with lots of character and a reasonable price.  Anna Maria Island Inn had exactly two nights open, and both were on the days we could make the trip.  What a blessing!
Looking back at the Anna Maria Island Inn from the water. Our unit is on the left on the seconf floor.

It was the perfect day at the beach.  The pace was languid, the mood relaxed.  I completely enjoyed playing in the ocean with my son, sharing in his wonder at the waves, his fascination with the sand, and his curiosity about the "blue sea" as he described it--the areas too deep even for me to wade with him in my arms.  "Let's go to the blue sea!" he'd ask, pointing to the darker depths.  After a couple of hours on the beach we were ready for a tasty lunch of sub sandwhiches and nice afternoon nap.

Mom, Dawn and "Baby J" frolic in the waves.  See more photos of the kids at the beach at Elijah's blog.

While the Feller slept, I indulged in nice lazy afternoon like I hadn't had all summer--reading for a couple of hours out on the balcony-- migrating inside to the comfy living room couch when it got too hot.

The kitchen and dining area of our two bedroom apartment at the Anna Maria Island Inn.  We found the Inn clean, comfortable, and quite attractive with modern and tasteful decor.  It might have felt a bit cramped for a week-long stay for the seven of us (five adults and two toddlers), but for one night it was more than sufficient.

In the late afternoon, we hit the surf again, this time joined by Uncle Robert and my cousin, who I will call "T", and Jim and my nephew.  It was a great father-son time, building rudimentary sandcastles, discovering the sealife-starfish, shells, and sand fleas--and playing with the floaties in the shallows.  Again there was no rush--we played as long as we liked--and finally left the water when the sun was dipping towards the horizon.

Jim shows the kids a starfish he found in the shallows

Heading out towards the blue sea

As the sun set the Thomson, Maycock, and Brothers families gathered around a delicious haystack supper, feasting on the food and the fellowship.

Sunset on the Gulf

Dawn clowns around

Uncle Robert, Jim, and me dig in.

Cousin "T" and Mom enjoying dinner on the balcony

We all slept well that night and awoke early for one more visit to the beach, before packing up and heading back to Orlando.

Walking on the beach, Friday morning, July 22, 2011

We weren't ready to leave at all, and we knew that we were committed to a proper beach week at Anna Maria next summer.  The family tradition is being revived and this time we'll get to be a part of it. Mom and Dawn have already begun researching vacation rentals that will accomodate us all comfortably next summer, and we'll get our reservation in early.  What a surprise, I experienced the perfect beach vacation not in the tropical island paradises of Saipan or Hawaii, but right here in America on Anna Maria Island, Florida. 

Jul 30, 2011

Florida Family Vacation

Family Photo 2011 (Taken Sabbath, July 23, 2011)

This past week, from July 19 to July 27, our family had one of the best vacations we've ever experienced in quite a long time.  It was an ideal mix of quiet, relaxed downtime and fun experiences made perfect because all were marked by precious quality time with family.  Because of the variety of activities over the course the trip, the vacation felt much longer than seven days, yet because it was such a joyful time it seemed to end far too soon.

I had this silly notion that I would get all this work done during our visit, and at first I felt guilty over all I wasn't doing as our vacation unfolded.  But then, I wised up and realized that this time of relaxed play with my son, long chats with my mom, dates with my wife, and conversation with my family was invaluable time that I dared not waste on work.
The Feller and his uncle Jim relaxing at mom's house. July 26, 2011

We began and ended our trip with unscheduled days.  We ate delicious breakfasts at mom's house, played ping-pong in the sunroom, read and watched TV, napped, and socialized.  On both days I hung out with my old high school friend Greg for a couple of hours as well.  On Tuesday, July 26, our last full day in Florida, the extended family--Uncle Roland and Aunt Colleen,  Uncle Robert & Aunt Diana and thier son, my youngest cousin, and my cousin Yvette came over for dinner.  It was a great way to spend the first and last day of our visit--unhurried, relaxed, and restful--giving us time to rejuvante from and prepare for our travels.
Anna Maria Island, July 21, 2011
On Thursday, July 21, we packed up the car and drove down to Anna Maria island on Florida's gorgeous Gulf coast for some beach time.  We spend the night at a wonderful little beachfront inn and returned to Orlando Friday morning. An upcoming entry entitled  Florida Family Vacation at the Beach will detail this idyllic time.
The three most important women in my life:  My wife, Babs; my mom, Rosalind; my sister, Dawn

On Sabbath, July 23, we went to church, and then had Uncle Roland and Aunt Colleen over for lunch.  In the late afternoon, we dressed up and headed over to Azaela Park in Winter Park to take some family photos.  I'll develop this story more and share some more of those pictures in Florida Family Vacation Photos.
Playing in the pool.  Sunday, July 24, 2011

On Sunday, July 24, we celebrated my nephew's first birthday!  His actual birthday was on the day we arrived in Florida, July 19, but Dawn and Jim planned a poolside bash at their townhome for the weekend.  Later in the afternoon, Babs and I took the opportunity to go on a date, just the two of us.  We went to see Larry Crowne, the Tom Hanks/Julia Roberts romcom which was enjoyable enough despite it's rather vague plot.  After the movie we dined at Seasons 52, enjoying a four course meal that left us satisfied but not stuffed in the way that only Seasons 52 can.
The Little Feller and the Big Mouse

Monday, July 25, we made the first of what I'm sure will be several pilgrimages to Disney World.  It was a hot day, but a fun one, especially for the kids.  More on this in my entry Florida Family Vacation at Disney World.

It really was a special week and all three of us were sad to leave when it was over.  It reminded me of those visits with family when we lived in Saipan--when the visits were never long enough and a year seemed too long to wait to see each other again.  I left determined that now that we're closer, we need to plan to visit more than once a year.

It was nice to be on vacation from work and at-home responsibilities; Florida was wonderful, but it was the family that made our time a true treasure.


Find out what it means to me
                                   --Otis Redding, as made famous by Aretha Franklin

There are three kinds of respect.

Respect Owed
There is the basic respect that all human beings deserve simply by virtue of being a child of God.  Every person should always be treated with dignity, decency, and care.  This kind of respect does not need to be earned.  Unfortunately in this world of sin, this type of respect isn't often demonstrated universally, as it should be.

Respect Paid
The second kind of respect, is the respect we pay to those in authority or those with power over us.  Police officers and other representatives of government, parents, teachers, employers, among others are due this type of respect.  It is the same type of respect we pay to fire, the sea, a pit bull--a respect that we withold at our own peril.  Here in America, this type of respect isn't particularly popular.  We bridle at the thought that we owe anybody respect by mere virtue of their position.  But I think this is because we often confuse this type of respect with the third kind.

Respect Earned
The third kind of respect is no one's birthright.  It must be earned.  This is the respect we bestow on those who inspire us and who we aspire to be like.  We respect people who live their lives well, who demonstrate the first type of respect to all they encounter.  We respect people for their character and their integrity.  Or at least we should respect people for these reasons.   Somtimes we conflate talent with trustworthiness, skill with goodness, beauty with grace and we offer respect to those that do not deserve it.  This type of respect should be offered selectively.  It may--or may not--be offered to those in authority over us.  It definitely should not be doled out to every child of God.

Respect earned has proven a little tricky for me.  I've found that when I have profound respect for a person, I tend to be accept with less critical thought what they have to say and think.  The respect I have for them tends to put a seal of approval on all that they say, do and sometimes even to who they are related to.  More than once I've found myself thinking: "Oh, she's So-and-So's sister?  Then she must be amazing too!"   On the other hand, I've found that with people I don't respect I'm inclined to shut them down without really hearing them.  More than once I've dismissed opinions or suggestions from people I don't respect only to later realize that what they had to say was actually right on target.  I'm learning that it's important to consider the message itself rather than accepting or rejecting what I hear based only on the messenger.

After all, we can always learn from others, even those we don't respect.  And even our biggest heroes, are still human and prone to error from time to time.

It is my goal in life to show the appropriate type of respect to everyone I encounter and to be a person that is worthy of respect myself.

Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.
                                                                                                                1 Peter 2:17

Jul 26, 2011

Meet Me in Chicago

Meet me in Chicago
Down by the waterline.
You stepped across the gold coast
Stepped into this heart of mine
--"Chicago" by Mat Kearney

She's from Cincinnati, I'm from Portland, but Chicago. . .Chicago is our city, the one that belongs to us.
Our city of Chicago, as seen from our room at the Fairmont. Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Chicago has long been a part of the mythology of our relationship.   We'd both been there countless times before we met with various would-be lovers and friends & aquaintances of the moment.  But when we started dating, Chicago was never far away.  The Big City, a mere a hour and a half from Andrews University, where we could go on Big City Dates.  Some of my favorite memories of our early years of dating and marriage are set in the Windy City.  There was the weekend of my friend Kim's wedding.  The wedding was actually held in Atlanta, it's our time in Chicago that really sticks in my memory.   We stayed in Kim's Irving Park apartment the night before our flight to Atlanta--it was like a taste of romantic urban life.  And when we flew back into to town we decided to spend the day walking the city's blustery streets and warming ourselves with hot coffee at a Brother's coffee shop on Michigan Avenue.  We got lost trying to find our way out of the city, and even that was a treasured moment.  The two of us, out in the bustling metropolis, finding our way.

And then there was our wedding night.  The first night of our honeymoon found us back in Chicago, celebrating the beginning of our life together in the luxurious Fairmont Hotel within sight of Navy Pier and Grant Park.  We had planned to explore the city during the two days we had until we jetted off to our honeymoon proper--a week in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico--but the Fairmont was so amazing, that we found ourselves content to hole up in the room for virtually the entire time.  Just looking out the windows we could see our city glittering in at our feet.

One of the last places we visited before we left for Saipan, was Chicago, once again.  We shopped at the Crate and Barrel on the Magnificent Mile, and took lots of pictures of the city, to tide us over in the decidely un-urban life ahead of us.

San Francisco is gorgeous, San Diego the sort of place we even considered living in,Orlando is lots of fun, Cincinnati, Portland, Columbus are all home in one sense or another.  But Chicago?  Chicago is ours.

And so two weeks ago, we hit the road once again for Chicago--just the two of us.  For the first time we left our son to stay overnight with his grandparents.  For the next twenty-four hours or so, we would be simply a couple again.  We enjoyed a nice drive up to the city, listening to the special U2 playlist I'd created on my ipod an anticipation of the concert that night.
Belly Shack: Perfect for lunch!

 We arrived in Chicago around 2:30 in the afternoon and our first stop was the Belly Shack, a wonderfully delicious little place specializing in a hybrid of Korean and Puerto Rican food.  I had the Korean BBQ beef with a side of the best kimchi I've had since Saipan (actually the first kimchi I"ve had since Saipan--but it was good!).  Babs had the borica--marinated tofu with hoisin BBQ sauce and brown rice served on slices of crispy plantains.  We also had the togarashi spiced fries with curry mayo--unbelievably good.  I found the place while doing a google search of the best restaurants in Chicago, and I must concur that this is not only one of the best eats in Chicago, but one of the best anywhere--and reasonably priced too!

The Chicago Fairmont, one of our favorite places in our favorite city to stay
After treating our bellies at the Belly Shack, our next stop was the Chicago Fairmont hotel.  After 14 years, it was long past time to revisit our honeymoon hotel.  Since 1997, they've completely remodeled the place and if anything it's even more spectacular and luxurious than before.  They gave us a huge suite with stunning views of the city from both the living room and bedroom.  We thought our honeymoon suite was pretty swell, but these digs e easily outclassed our very lovely first room.  Once again we found ourselves so enamored with the luxury of our room, that we ended up abandoning our plans to walk around the city and spent the remains of the afternoon reveling in our room overlooking our city.

The living room area of our suite, as you enter the front door.

The dining nook, adjoining the living room.  You can see the door to the bedroom to the left

The bedroom. Wow!  Our honeymoon suite was basically one room, like most hotel suites.  This room had a completely seperate bedroom and a bedroom-sized bathroom as well!
Of course Babs had to get a picture of the artwork on the wall above our bed!

The view from our bedroom window
The happy couple, still on honeymoon after 14 years!

At the last possible minute, we grabbed a cab and raced over to Soldier Field for the main reason for our visit--the U2 360 tour was in town again, and this time I intended to treat my wife to the incomparable experience of a U2 show.  I knew, having seen this tour twice already in 2009, that even with our seats high in the stands, Babs would be in for a treat.
At the show:  We had seats high up "behind" the circular stage.  The band made a decent effort to include us in the action, circling around to our side from time to time to sing or play, but still most of the time they were facing the front or sides.  From this high up, the screen was the best way to view the show anyway and we always had a spectacular view of that.

We arrived just as the lights were going down and the band's intro music, David Bowie's "A Spaced Oddity" was beginning to play.   The band played a great set.  I've read online that many who'd seen multiple shows on this tour thought this one of their best nights of the tour.  For myself, I found few surprises--since I'd studied the setlist in advance I knew pretty much what to expect.   U2 began with a blistering quartet of songs from their 1991 album Achtung Baby, and then continued with a sampling of cuts from every album they've released--from crowd-pleasing hits like "Pride (In the Name of Love)", "With or Without You", "Beautiful Day" and this one:
"I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" (my traditional U2 concert video clip)

to fan-pleasing rarities like "Out of Control", "Zooropa" and "Scarlet".  I was particularl pleased to hear "Zooropa" as it is one of my all-time favorite U2 tunes and hadn't been played live for years until just recently.   But all of this was expected--at least for me--and what I was hoping for was a surprise, something I didn't see coming.   And I got it, right at the very end.  On what appeared to be a spur of the moment decision the band decided to play "One Tree Hill", a song written in honor of their close friend Greg Carroll, who died almost 25 years ago to the day  of that concert.  This song about saying goodbyes, with intimations of seeing loved ones again "when the stars fall from the sky and the moon turns red over One Tree Hill", and the image of the great ocean that I love so much, is another one of my favorites among favorites by U2 and I was so excited to hear it again.  I last heard it at the Japan show I attended in 2006 and the bootleg of that version is the one I prefer above even the original recording.  I felt even more lucky to hear it, when I found out that U2 rarely ever play this song.

All in all, it was a great show, with something for everyone--lots of familiar hits that I knew my wife, and the many other casual fans there would know, and lots of gems from their catalogue that die-hards like me could treasure.

Here's the complete setlist for the show we attended on Tuesday, July 5, 2011:

Even Better Than The Real Thing
The Fly
Mysterious Ways / Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World (snippet)
Until The End Of The World
Out Of Control
Get On Your Boots
I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For / The Promised Land (snippet)
Stay (Faraway, So Close!)
Beautiful Day / Space Oddity (snippet)
Pride (In The Name Of Love)
Miss Sarajevo
City Of Blinding Lights / My Kind Of Town (snippet)
Miss You (snippet) / I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight / Discothèque (snippet) / Life During Wartime (snippet)
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Walk On / You'll Never Walk Alone (snippet)

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (snippet) / Where The Streets Have No Name
Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me / My Kind Of Town (snippet)
With Or Without You
Moment of Surrender / One Tree Hill (snippet)
One Tree Hill

Sound and Light at the U2360 show.  I actually thought the band made more creative use of the 360 degree screen at the 2009 Chicago shows, but it was still pretty spectacular.

Looks like she's having a great time!  To be honest, I felt a little shy taking Babs to her first U2 concert.  I wasn't sure if she would enjoy it as much as I did, if she'd find either the band or my enthusiasm too loud. I'd have been crushed if she'd felt negatively about an experience and a band that I enjoy so much.  Fortunately, my worries turned out to be for naught.

Just before "Moment of Surrender",  Bono asked us to take out our cellphones, as he often does at concerts, and had the stage lights turned down so that the entire stadium turned into a galaxy of stars created by 80,000 phones.  We opened our phone too, revealing the picture of our Little Feller, in that way remembering him and makin him part of our experience too.
U2's 360 stage nicknamed "The Claw" at the end of the show.  The pictures came out better with the houselights up.

Babs n' Me after the show.

Getting out of the stadium took awhile, and by the time we began walking back to the Fairmont I was bone tired.  Yet, strolling along hand-in-hand, the city lights twinkling all around us, is one of my favorite memories among many of the two of us in our city.

The next morning we slept late, rushed out to find some souvenirs to take home to our little boy, grabbed a delectable classic Chicago deep-dish pizza from Lou Malnati's (another place I definitely recommend--they have locations all over the city and out in the suburbs), and hit the road for home.

Our visit had been too short, as it seems our visits to Chicago always are, but long enough to create a few more special memories that will join the others of the times we've spent as friends and lovers in our city--Chicago.

Chicago cityscape.  Babs took this photo on Wednesday, July 6, on our way out of town.  With our good friends J, Evelyn, and Benjamin Carlos moving to the Windy City, we expect to be back soon and often.
Meet me in Chicago
Down by the water line
Step across the gold coast
To my heart and to your wine
Maybe Cincinnati
With a trip in the morning light
Step across the branches
I will follow you over the Rhine

And it takes one to know one
That's what they always say
I've waited for the dawn
And I've waited for the day
Oh, I'm coming low
And I'm willing to pray
Stepping through the haze
One more day on a wide open road
On and on and the lights come and go
And everything I might not even know
What is the distance
On through the resistance singing

Meet me in Portland
Roast here in the summer light
See you in the evergreens
I will catch you down on the Northeast side
And maybe San Diego
Moonlight at the lowest tide
See you in the shoreline breaker
Stepping over my maker's line

And it takes one to know one
That's what they always say
I've waited for the dawn
And I've waited for the day
Oh, I'm coming low
And I'm willing to pray
Stepping through the haze
One more day on a wide open road
On and on and the lights come and go
And everything I might not even know
What is the distance
On through the resistance singing

You met me on the backstreets
Right there at the end of the line
Where a spark turns into fire
And a tear falls into life

And it takes one to know one
That's what they always say
I've waited for the dawn
And I've waited for the day
Oh, I'm coming low
And I'm willing to pray
Stepping through the haze
One more day on a wide open road
On and on and the lights come and go
And everything I might not even know
What is the distance
On through the resistance
On a wide open road
On and on and the lights come and go
And everything I might not even know
What is the distance
On through the resistance singing

Meet me in Chicago
Down by the water line
You stepped across the gold coast
Stepped into this heart of mine

Jul 16, 2011

Wonderworks, Orlando: The Endorsement

I have been asked to remove the photo I found online of WonderWorks as posting it was a copyright violation. I've not yet been able to ascertain whether it was WonderWorks or the photographer that demanded that picture be removed. If it was WonderWorks, it was terribly short-sighted on their part.  They would essentially be preventing free advertising of their business in order to protect their rights to a photograph.  I totally support protecting artists rights to their work, and I always try to honor copyright protection laws whenever I reasonably can.  Any photo that I've "borrowed" from the web I would happily pay a reasonable price for, if provided a way to do so.  It seems like a system for connecting photographers  with those interested in using their online photos and allowing users to pay a nominal fee for each photo used would be a win-win situation for everyone.  Think iTunes for digital photos.  At any rate, the photo is gone, so if you want to see what WonderWorks looks like, you'll have to click on the link below.  I am grudgingly keeping my endorsement of the attraction, as their boneheaded approach to copyright infringement doesn't make the attraction any less amazing.

When the Carnival Sensation returned to port Thursday morning, June 9, 2011, we were out of money, but not out of time.  We still had another 24 hours before our flight left for Columbus.  What were we to do with the remaining time on a budget of zero dollars?

Fortunately, my cousin Yvette Saliba came to the rescue.  Having planned our budget carefully, I knew from the outset that there wouldn't be anything left over for Orlando, so I'd written Yvette hoping that she might be able to pull some strings or call in some favors and get us tickets to somewhere to while away the day in Orlando.  Sure enough, she was able to hook us up with tickets to WonderWorks on International Drive.

Now we've all heard of the Disney World empire with it's vast network of parks from the Magic Kingdom to Epcot to Animal Kingdom. You're undoubtedly familiar with Universal Studios and Sea World.  You may have even heard of nearby Busch Gardens, but Wonderworks?  What's that?

Wonderworks, it turns out is one of Orlando best kept attractions secrets, but after a fantastic afternoon there I'm eager to do my part to raise the profile of this wonderful little place.   Wonderworks has done an outstanding job of positioning itself as an easy addition to any tourist's Orlando itinerary.  It is essentially a hands-on science museuem, though that description fails to do it justice.  Indeed, Yvette's promo of the place was laced with caveats--there are no rides, no theme park characters, very little in the way of obvious "wow" factors--and really who would want to go look at science stuff when you're in the home of Mickey Mouse?  But the truth is Wonderworks should be high on the list of any Orlando visitor's to-do list for a number of reasons:

1.  It's small.  This is just the place to fit in when you're sunburned and exahausted from a couple of days at the big parks, or when Central Florida's afternoon thunderstorms make the thought of long lines at the rides seem daunting.  You can see the whole place in 3 to 4 hours and Wonderworks has made the savvy decision to keep it's doors open until midnight making it the perfect place to tack on to a late afternoon or early evening of a day's activity.  Our group didn't arrive until four in the afternoon and we had plenty of time.

2. It's cheap.  Granted, it was really cheap for us (thanks again Yvette!), but even for those who don't have helpful and generous cousins living in Orlando, the price for an adult full day's admission is $25, almost a quarter of the price of admission to Disney for a day, and about $60 less than the cost of a single-park ticket to Universal.  A mere $20 bucks gets your kids under 12 in the door and includes admission to the 4D theater and the ropes course.  The laser tag option is just $10 more.

3. It's fun! From the moment you enter the place (through a truly dizzying "inverter" that gives you the illusion of being turned upside down), the experience is first class, well-planned, and lots of fun.  After your thrilling pass through the "inverter"--the idea is that the building is a mad scientists' experiment gone awry and that his inverter enables you to experience his upside down house as if you were right side up--you encounter the first of a series of rooms.  Each room contains loads of fun, hands-on science activities.  Virtually everything in Wonderworks lets you get involved--whether it's experiencing an earthquake or hurricane-force winds, designing and riding your own virtual roller coaster or using a computer model that depicts what you'll look like in fifty years.

Rather than being hit by the full force of the Wonderworks at once, the experience is divided up into a series of rooms, which encourages you to spend more time in each room, fully experiencing each one, before discovering the entrance to yet another room of wonders.  After completing all the exhibits, you climb the stairs past dozens of mind-bending paintings and drawings by M.C. Escher and others until you reach The Basement (remember the building is "upside down.")  The Basement holds an expansive video arcade, the 4-D movie theater, the laser tag course, and the ropes course.  I like that they save all these activities until the end--otherwise kids might race past the exhibits in order to get to the video games, thus missing out on more than half the fun. 

The Basement activities were all a cut above too.  The 4-D theater provided some pretty exiting thrills and was better than any virtual ride I'd been on.  The straight points system in the laser tag arena provided a maximum of action during our session there and easily outclassed any indoor laser tag experience I've had (though even this exceptional experience couldn't come close to the outdoor laser tag experience in Australia).  The ropes course, dangling over the arcade, was fun and challenging too.  Finally, the kids burned through the last of their pocket money on the arcade.  We were there for over five hours and the kids probably would have stayed longer if we'd let them.  And we didn't even go to the dinner and comedy and magic show, which from what I hear, is pretty impressive too.

So if you're looking for an an inexpensive and fun addition to your Orlando vacation for kids at least school-age or older, check out Wonderworks.  Just look for the upside down house!

Jul 14, 2011

Blogging the Bahamas Beaches: Onshore in Freeport & Nassau

Lucaya Beach, Freeport, Grand Bahamas Island. Monday, June 6, 2011
Western Esplanade Beach, Nassau, New Providence Island, Bahamas. Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A few weeks ago Babs and I were talking about what type of lifestyle defines us.  Babs is an unabashed city girl—born in one of the great American cities, Cincinnati—and ever after enamored with urban life.  If she had her way (and we had the money to afford it) we’d been living in a townhouse in the Short North, frequenting galleries and cafes and our son living a like someone on Sesame Street minus the muppets.  The conversation started as we were driving through a quaint little  town on our way to the Allegheny West Campground located about 45 minutes southeast of our home in New Albany.  We noted the charm of the little village, and acknowledged the appeal of living in a small town like that.  Indeed, I know there are those that find the prospect of living out their lives in small-town America to be utterly romantic.  But Babs and I agreed, that wasn’t our style.  Likewise, we drove through beautiful farmland, and mused over the idea of living a rural lifestyle.  Again, we could see the appeal of such a life but recognized it wasn’t for us.
So Babs asked me, where would you want to live?
To be honest, I can be happy just about anywhere.  I think I could find the beauty and joy in country living, residing in a small town, or a big city.  I have found much to enjoy and appreciate living in an upscale suburban area.  But none of those places define me.   After some thought, it came to me—something I guess I’ve known for a long time—when all is said and done I’m an island boy.  The island life is the life for me.  The laid-back life, all-warm-weather climate, the sand and the sea, the eclectic mix of local islanders and ex-patriates—that is me.
And so it was a joy to return to the islands at the beginning of June, 2011.  Granted they were islands I’d never seen before, but I’m realizing that tropical islands of any kind fit the bill.  When I’m there, even if it’s my first time visiting I feel totally at home.

Where I belong.

Our first port of call was on Monday morning, June 6, 2011, just over 15 hours after we left Florida, at Freeport on Grand Bahama Island. 
A tranquil corner of the Lucaya tourist district in Freeport

  The port on Grand Bahama island was about 20 minutes drive from anything of note and we ended up spending $90 round trip on taxi fare just to get into town.  The island, though much larger than New Providence, reminded me a great deal of Tinian, Saipan's smaller neighbor to the south with its quiet roads, the langorous pace, and the mostly flat landscape.  We had the taxi drop us off at Lucaya, the main tourist district in Freeport.  This place reminded me of Garapan, Saipan's tourist district--full of shops stocked with touristy knick-knacks, sunglasses, sarongs, and souvinirs, a few resorts dominating the beachside, and a noticeable lack of people.  The Lucaya district had that same eerie since I noticed in Garapan--the sense that the place was built to accomodate more people than were there.
The national flag of the Bahamas flies over a building near the Lucaya tourist district in Freeport

The kids browsed the shops but weren't quick to buy.  I bought a Malta, enjoying the cold beverage until an errant bee flew into the bottle, drowned itself in the brew, and I was forced to discard the rest.

"YoungMoney" jams with a local musician at an open square in the Lucaya District.  This one-man band was another familiar island staple reminiscent of Saipan.  This guy put on quite an energetic show despite virtually no audience and the broiling midday sun.  In addition to our temporary additions to his show, another school group of fifth and sixth grade boys--also traveling on the Sensation--stopped by and struck up an impressive impromptu dance number.
After some window-shopping we ambled down to the beach for a little bit of sun, sand, and sea before we had to meet our driver to return to the ship.

It's hard to beat the graceful beauty and island charm of coconut palms
Lucaya district, Freeport, Bahamas

The Freeport visit was hardly what I'd call exciting, but it was relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable.  For me just being on the island was pleasure enough.

The line to reboard the Sensation.  We set sail from Freeport at 5:00 P.M. on Monday, June 6, the same day we arrived.  Our next destination: Nassau


Nassau in contrast to Freeport was a bustling hive of activity.  Its sister island in the Marianas would be Guam.  The tourist activities began virtually the moment you got off the ship--shopping, a beach in walking distance, restaurants, and historical sights were all close at hand.

We pulled into port early Tuesday  morning, June 7, and were picked up at the port around 9:00 A.M. by Anthony  Burrows (above), principal of the Bahamas Academy of Seventh-day Adventists. He and one of the teachers from the school took care of us for the morning beginning with a tour of the school's brand new campus under construction.
One of the classrooms at the current and soon-to-be former campus of Bahamas Academy of Seventh-day Adventists
 After a stop at the conference office,  we were taken to the old campus for a tour where we were treated to cold drinks and pizza. 

The interior of Fort Charlotte, an old British garrison in the heart of Nassau

After a pleasant morning touring our sister Adventist institutions we were dropped off at Ft. Charlotte, an old colonial-era fort not far from the port.  A big thank you to Principal Burrows and the staff at Bahamas Academy for your generous hospitality and the gift your time and effort to provide us with a comprehensive tour of the Adventist landmarks in Nassau.

At our next destination, we spent more time shopping at the cluster of vendors outside the fort than we did inside.  The guided tour was delivered in a bored monotone and was over in about 15 minutes.  It wasn't worth the $3.00 a piece that we paid to get inside and certainly not worthy of the tip we were encouraged to (but stubbornly did not) leave behind.  The fort itself was small and somewhat interesting.  It reminded me of the forts we used to visit when I was a kid living in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands though those were better maintained as I recall.  Needless to say this was not the highlight of our trip. 

A view from Ft. Charlotte.  You can see our ship in the distance, and beyond that the towers of the  famed Atlantis resort.
  From Fort Charlotte, we shelled out a few more dollars and got a ride back to the ship, where we ate late lunch and resupplied for a late afternoon foray to the souvenir vendors and the beach.
Throughout our time onshore in the Bahamas there were familiar notes of the island life:

The flame trees
They go by a different name in the Bahamas, but to me they are still flame trees.  Their fiery blossoms were a welcome and familiar site

The beach, of course
Yet another beach shot, this one from our time in Nassau. Our ship, the Sensation, is the one on the left.

 and the tourist racket. . .
The Nassau Straw Market.  We did most of our souvenir shopping here, barganing with the vendors in the hopes of brining home a bargain.  It's not rocket science, really, to live in a place everyone wants to visit and make a living selling what you get for free. (I didn't take any photos of the Straw Market myself--this photo is from About.com)

Let others have the sophisticated cities, the friendly small towns, the bucolic countryside.  I'll take the island life any day!

Just had to throw these two photos in:

While driving us around Nassau, Mr. Burrows pointed this scene out to us:  three guys painting one traffic signal.  Many hands make light work, I guess, though I couldn't help being reminded of the bloated government waste that was one of the downsides of life in Saipan. 
And how could I not take a photo of Columbus House?