A Travellerspoint blog

Mi Stima Aruba: What We Did

Update: All new posts can be found at http://thewanderingmind.net.

Our trip to Aruba was all about relaxation, so we had not made any plans prior to our arrival, preferring to figure it out once we were there. We knew that our first priority would be beach/pool time, but we also wanted to explore the island and maybe even have some spa time. Another important consideration was that this was our first trip with Cliff and Emily, so we wanted to make sure our plans fit with their expectations and preferences, as well. I quickly learned that the best part of traveling with them is that they pretty much like the same things we do, but don’t like the planning part. It was a travel match made in heaven – Clay and I could plan and choose fun things to do to our heart’s content and then have awesome friends to enjoy them with who were equally happy about not having to plan and choose fun things to do!

Something to know about the Marriott beach – although there is certainly plenty of room on the beach and an abundance of chairs, if one wants to have a palapa and the resulting shade, there is a bit of a process. At one point, all palapas were given on a first-come-first-served basis at certain times of the day (I believe 4 pm for next day reservations and 7 am for same day reservations). This is great for people who don’t mind waiting in lines. Personally, Clay and I would usually prefer to pay a reasonable fee for additional convenience and more time to enjoy our vacation. Therefore, we were glad to learn that there is now a second option – a certain number of palapas are available for a daily fee and can be reserved at any time for up to three days at once. I would recommend that, if this is your preferred option, one of your first stops at the resort should be the beachside towel hut to make reservations. When we arrived, someone had just happened to cancel three days of reservations, which we immediately booked. It was $25 per day for our front row palapa. At this point, we still did not know our plans for the rest of the vacation, but we could cancel as late as 10 am the day of the reservation with no penalty. So, if you are not able to reserve a palapa upon your first visit, stopping by the towel hut in the morning (and as you pass the towel hut at other times) could work out. With three days of beach palapa reservations available, how did we end up spending our time in Aruba?

After conferring with Cliff and Emily over a delicious dinner at Taste of Belgium, it took almost no time to decide that day one should be spent lounging on the beach, despite Emily’s brief protest that she was not crazy about the beach. Honestly, we did not get much beyond that because we were so busy enjoying a delicious dinner. We did manage to make plans to stop by the concierge desk before heading to the beach the next morning, though. As a result (and after a bit of a hassle with the concierge), we ended up with dinner reservations for Thursday evening, a tour scheduled for Friday morning, and spa reservations for Saturday. After cancelling our palapa reservation for Friday, we were all set to relax away the next few days.

Thursday: Beach Day

Because of the aforementioned difficulty with the concierge (and, let’s be honest, perhaps a bit of sleeping in – it was vacation after all), it was approaching 11 am when we finally arrived to the beach. The boys grabbed some chairs, and we were soon set for a day of sun, sand, and the ocean.

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I cannot speak to what beaches are like elsewhere on Aruba (although with a car or other form of transportation many other beaches are easily accessible), but I loved Palm Beach (where the Marriott is located). The turquoise water was warm and calm, with just enough waves to be enjoyable. The water was not the perfectly clear water I expected to see in the Caribbean, but it was lovely, nonetheless. Getting into the ocean could be a bit challenging. There was a ledge at the edge of the water with a 2 – 3 foot drop-off that felt entirely constructed of pieces of shells. However, once you were past that particular form of entertainment (watching other people get in and out was certainly amusing) the ocean floor was perfectly smooth sand and the incline was very gradual. In fact, it was so wonderful that Emily declared she might like the beach, after all!

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There was a roped off area for swimming and water sports of all sorts were widely available nearby. When I was not in the ocean, I could usually be found under the shade of the palapa reading or enjoying one of the various happy hours that happened throughout the afternoon. Grabbing a bite to eat was a matter of walking a few feet to the beach bar, although there were many other beachside options available within easy walking distance.

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After defending my dissertation a few days before, there was nothing better than a day spent on a beautiful beach and not having to think about anything other than whether I preferred a strawberry or mango daiquiri or whether I wanted to read another chapter or take a dip in the ocean. Perfection!

Friday: Island Tour Day with a Side of Pool Time

For Friday, we booked the half-day natural pool island tour with DePalm Tours. They picked us up from the resort and drove us in the open air Land Rover to their office to fill out the necessary paperwork and pick up some water shoes before beginning the tour.

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Although initially the pool was scheduled for last, our guide made the decision to go there first so it would be less crowded. Before long we were heading across the island to Arikok National Park and the natural pool.

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I don’t think there is a single paved road in the park and the terrain is a bit, um, bumpy. I was glad someone else was driving a car that I wasn’t responsible for keeping in one piece.

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It was definitely fun! Once we made it to the natural pool, there was a steep walk down to the pool, but then we had time to snorkel (gear was provided by the tour company) and explore the pool.

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After the natural pool, we dried off as we experienced more of the gorgeous Aruba landscape across other parts of the island. Aruba is a desert island, so the landscape was not a typical tropical landscape. It was beautiful though and the drive through the park was an opportunity to learn more about Aruba and see some fantastic views of the island and the ocean. The tour was done in both English and Spanish, which are two of the four languages spoken by everyone on the island. The official language is Dutch (DePalm offers tours in Dutch, also) and there is also a local language – Papiamento. The tour guide was the perfect balance of funny, informative, and bumpy, non-paved road driver.

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Other stops on the tour included the remains of a natural bridge, the Alto Vista chapel, and the California lighthouse, although we drove past many other landmarks, seemingly finding every bump and pothole on the island.

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At the end of the tour, we were conveniently returned to our hotel. The tour made for a full morning and we felt like we got our money’s worth, certainly when taking into account the convenience and the fact that we did not need to purchase extra insurance on a rental car! Although we enjoyed the jeep tour, other options for seeing more of the island include using a rental car or taxi, tours on horseback, and four wheeler tours (although not all hotels will allow pickups for this due to safety concerns). Although a full-day tour would have allowed us to see more of the island, we all felt that the half-day tour gave us a great overview of the island without being totally exhausting. On a practical note, I found that wearing my swimsuit under shorts and a shirt (with lots of sunscreen, of course) was comfortable for the tour. The company provided water shoes for the rocky climb into the natural pool, although if that sort of thing grosses you out, you may want to bring your own. Also of note, snacks and drinks are provided, so no need to pack those things with your sunscreen, sunglasses, and camera.

After a packed morning, we were ready for some pool time. We first tried to find a spot at the adult pool, but could not locate four chairs together (or even within a reasonable proximity of each other), so we headed to the main pool.

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Honestly, because it was early December and therefore most children were still in school, there were not many children on the property so even the main pool was relatively quiet. We grabbed lunch at the swim-up pool bar and I spent the rest of the afternoon repeating the previous day’s activities (swim, read, repeat) except poolside. Emily and I both headed in early for a nap and I think at some point Clay may have joined a game of beach volleyball. Tough life!

Saturday: Spa Day

No trip is complete without a little spa time, at least for Clay and I. Fortunately, Cliff and Emily did not disagree! Because of the availability of spa appointments, it ended up that Emily and I had appointments around 10 am and Clay and Cliff had appointments around noon. Therefore, the girls headed to the spa post-breakfast while the boys headed to the beach and then we essentially traded places. The spa is actually located in one of the other Marriott properties, but is convenient for those staying at our resort. Emily and I both booked the Aruba Awakening “spa ceremony,” which included a footbath (basically a pedicure without the polish part), a body scrub, and 50-minute massage. To sum up the spa experience, the treatments were fantastic. I enjoyed every minute and thought my masseuse was wonderful. I like to think I have had a reasonable range of treatments at this point to be able to judge that effectively. However, the facilities were a bit limited and worn, although spotlessly clean.

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The staff was superb, but the visual appearance of the spa detracted a bit from the entire experience. But, seriously, can one really complain when a morning begins at the spa and the day ends on the beach?

Sunday: Home Day

Clay and I flew out on one of the first flights Sunday morning, although Cliff and Emily got to enjoy Aruba for a bit longer. One of the convenient things about Aruba is that there is a US Customs office in the airport, so when flying back to the US, one can clear customs in Aruba and then baggage can be checked to the final destination. Basically, there is one part of the airport for US bound flights and another part for all other flights. We were on, I believe, the first flight of the day, so after we checked in we had to wait in line for customs to open. Most recommendations are to arrive at the airport 2 – 3 hours before your flight to ensure plenty of time. That is probably not necessary for the first flight or two of the day, but like when we came into Aruba, I can see how it could have taken a while to get through if we were there at a busier time. After another set of (thankfully) uneventful flights, we were back to Houston and to real life. Clay headed back to Dallas the next day and I headed back to work, a little more tan and a lot more relaxed!

Posted by cgplatt 08:48 Archived in Aruba Tagged beaches pool tour spa aruba Comments (1)

Mi Stima Aruba: Where We Stayed

Aruba Marriott and Stellaris Casino

Update: All new posts can be found at http://thewanderingmind.net.

Aruba! Clay first told me of our vacation destination while in Midland, Texas, with cold rain pouring down outside our car as we drove through the dreary, dark night. At that moment, I could think of nothing more appealing than lying on a warm, sunny beach with a tropical drink in my hand. Better yet, our friends Cliff and Emily were coming, too! Thankfully, the next two months passed quickly and before I knew it, we were on a flight bound for paradise.

We flew out early on a Wednesday morning and we had a free about-to-expire Marriott night to use, so we decided to stay at the Houston Airport Marriott Tuesday evening. In short, the hotel was a bit dated, but comfortable and clean. Best of all, there was a tram that connects the hotel to the terminals, so we were able to sleep as late as conceivably possible, leaving just enough time to grab some Starbucks before getting on the plane. I can confidently recommend a stay at this hotel for anyone needing to be close to the airport and it was beyond convenient for an early morning flight.

After an uneventful layover in Miami, we were on our way to Aruba. Arriving just after 2:45, seemingly at the same time as every other flight to Aruba that day, it took almost an hour to get through customs. After not-so-patiently waiting in line, I was thrilled to be in a taxi and on our way to our hotel, the Aruba Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino.

As soon as we arrived, I gleefully began exploring the resort, planning how we would spend our few days on the island. First stop was our room. By now, Clay knows the drill – the first thing we do when we arrive at a hotel is check out every corner of the room while snapping pictures.

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Our room, which was a standard partial ocean view room, was spacious and comfortable. The bathroom was stylish and included a large, walk-in closet.

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Best of all, this was the “partial” ocean view:

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All rooms had in-room wi-fi, available for a daily fee or complimentary for those with Marriott status (plus even our low level status gave us a discount at all on-site restaurants, $50 of calls to the US, and a spa discount). There was also free wi-fi in the lobby. After checking out the room and finishing our check-in drinks on the balcony, we set out to find what else the hotel had to offer while waiting on Cliff and Emily to arrive.

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The resort, which had been remodeled a couple years prior, was easy to navigate and beautiful with a tropical feel most apparent in the details rather than in the more obvious decor sometimes seen in beach resorts.

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There were two pools, a large “family” pool with a hot tub and swim up bar and the new adults-only pool. We liked that our room overlooked the adults-only pool because it seemed somewhat quieter than a room next to the main pool.

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Beach access was conveniently located just beyond the pools.

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With everything the Aruba Marriott had to offer - great pools, a beautiful beach, fantastic restaurants, and even an on-site casino - my favorite part was probably the sunset from our balcony. It never got old. Sitting on our balcony and watching the sunset was the perfect way to relax before dinner.

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More about where we ate and what we did while we were in Aruba coming soon!

Posted by cgplatt 15:22 Archived in Aruba Tagged beaches hotel aruba Comments (0)

New Orleans: The Food

Update: All new posts can be found at http://thewanderingmind.net.

And now, the post that everyone has been waiting for – the food. New Orleans is known for its food culture, so trying to decide where to eat among so many fantastic options is a challenge and I dare say there is no single list of “must eat” places. So I will simply share some of the food spots that we enjoyed during our weekend in NOLA.

  • Deanie’s Seafood. After a very full day of plantation and swamp touring on Friday, we were in the mood for something low key and convenient. The French Quarter location of Deanie’s Seafood fit the bill. It was within walking distance of our hotel, we did not need reservations (although we did have a bit of a wait), and the atmosphere was casual. Our meal started with perfectly seasoned boiled potatoes rather than the standard bread or rolls. The seafood dishes we ordered were fresh and flavorful. Of course, I was somewhat partial to my choice of the crab stuffed shrimp, but I don’ think any of us left less than happy and completely full. Of course, my dad’s “half” platter of seafood was enough to feed the entire table and more, so he may have left a bit beyond full! Good thing we had a walk back to the hotel to work off about 2% of the calories we consumed.

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  • Domenica. After several consecutive meals of seafood and/or Cajun or Creole food, we were looking for a change of pace for our Saturday evening dinner. Domenica is located in the beautiful and historic Roosevelt Hotel. The décor was modern, yet cozy and provided the perfect atmosphere in which to enjoy gourmet Italian. We began our meal by sharing an antipasti platter replete with house cured meat, cheese, and various accompaniments. We also shared a side of the fried kale, which was palatably paired with lemon and Parmesan. Domenica is best known for their pizzas, so my pick was the basil pesto pizza with goat cheese. The crust was exactly the right amount of crispy and the toppings were perfectly proportioned. My only regret was that I was not able to try two pizzas – the white pizza was equally tempting. Clay went with one of their seasonal specialties – a cheesy polenta topped with wild boar sausage and vegetables. Everything was so delicious. Domenica offered some unique dishes that are not found at your average Italian restaurant, dishes such as tagliatelle with rabbit and porcini mushrooms, risotto with house made blood sausage, stracci with oxtail, and even wood roasted goat. This would definitely be a place I would revisit because there were so many more things I really wanted to try.

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  • Coquette. New Orleans is synonymous with Sunday morning brunch. I missed out on Commander’s Palace reservations, but still wanted somewhere in the Garden District. Coquette was ideal! The restaurant was charming and warm on a cool and rainy Sunday morning. The menu changes seasonally, so the options are thoughtful and fresh. The portion sizes were perfect for sampling several dishes. I chose a cinnamon roll to start, but my dad’s fried oysters were equally delectable. My main course was the eggs Benedict – on toast and made with pork confit. Clay chose the fancier than usual chicken and waffles. Not pictured but also thoroughly enjoyed were the biscuits and gravy, homemade apple “poptart,” and the shrimp and grits. Brunch at Coquette was the consummate way to end our time in New Orleans.

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Next up, our amazing and wonderful and sunny and relaxing and all-too-short trip to Aruba!

Posted by cgplatt 08:55 Archived in USA Tagged food new_orleans Comments (0)

New Orleans: Garden District

Update: All new posts can be found at http://thewanderingmind.net.

Picture this: It’s a cloudy and moderately cool Sunday morning. You and your love are strolling hand-in-hand through the beautiful and historical Garden District of New Orleans. You occasionally stop to enjoy a more extended view of one of the incredible houses in the district. You walk lazily through the iconic Lafayette Cemetery, marveling at the quietness and the history. You slowly make your way toward the charming restaurant where you have brunch reservations. Sounds romantic, right? Yeah, I thought so too until we actually did it and managed to argue the whole time about wearing the wrong shoes and stopping to take another picture and the rain and where we were going next and, and, and… Real life at its finest.

Despite not quite living up to my expectations of a romantic Sunday morning, I still enjoyed taking in part of the Garden District, which is best done by foot. In fact, I had found a self-guided walking tour that was perfect for what I had in mind. The history lesson incorporated into the plantation tour also provided some context for the district. For instance, I would probably have never understood, or even noticed, the prevalence of “American” names in the cemetery without knowing that historically the Garden District was where the wealthy Americans lived even before Louisiana became a part of the US with the Louisiana Purchase, as opposed to the predominantly Creole French Quarter.

So, the point is that pictures do not always tell the full story and that travelling is not always perfectly fun and romantic. But at least I have some pretty pictures. Enjoy!

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Posted by cgplatt 18:48 Archived in USA Tagged new_orleans Comments (0)

New Orleans: Crescent City Cooks!

Update: All new posts can be found at http://thewanderingmind.net.

Continuing the theme of meticulously planning every.single.second of our trip to New Orleans, I had scheduled a cooking class for us at Crescent City Cooks!. The class had been recommended by a co-worker of my dad and my dad and I both love Creole and Cajun food, so it sounded like a fun way to spend a few hours on Saturday. Of course, the class did not begin until 10 a.m. and we could not possibly waste hours of time Saturday morning doing something like sleeping or relaxing, so to make our trip to the Riverwalk Marketplace multipurpose, we enjoyed breakfast at the Café du Monde located in the mall.

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That is if fluffy, fried dough covered in sugar can even be called a meal (says the girl who on occasion eats ice cream for dinner). Of course, some might argue that you have to go to the original French Quarter location for the authentic experience, but if the choice is between beignets at the mall or no beignets at all, I will choose the former every time.

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After getting high on sugar and caffeine, we browsed the mall as we made our way to the cooking class.

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Crescent City Cooks! is a cooking school that also has a store front and is well known for their pralines, which we would get to sample later (although the recipe is a carefully guarded secret). After a few minutes to peruse the store, each party was called by name to be seated. I am not entirely sure, but I think they called parties in the order that they registered for the class. The ones who were called earliest were seated closest to the front, so it is probably worthwhile to make reservations in advance, although there was availability for the couple of people who walked up to register just before the class began. As it was, we were on the second row, which offered a great view of the kitchen action.

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The chef was engaging and funny, and also provided some great tips and pointers about the recipes, which were given to everyone at the beginning of the class. On Saturdays, the recipes made are jambalaya, gumbo, and bread pudding. Although the class was not hands on, I still learned a lot during the class and the chef was willing to answer any question about the recipes or even Cajun and Creole cooking more broadly.

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Best of all, we got to try each of the recipes, plus the famous pralines. Every dish was delicious and the bread pudding was perhaps the best I have ever had. The jambalaya was smoky with a spiciness that gradually built.

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The gumbo had delicate pieces of crab in every bite, which were perfectly balanced by a strong roux and acidic tomatoes (which were what made the gumbo a Creole recipe rather than a Cajun recipe).

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And the bread pudding. I don’t think words are adequate to describe the wonderfulness of the creamy texture, broken up by plump golden raisins and a perfectly crispy crust. I could have eaten bowls of that stuff.

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By the end, I was too full to do more than take a bite of my praline, which was enough to decide that I wanted to buy more of them before we left. We even got a bit of a discount in the store for attending the class. The class was $30 per person, which I thought was an incredible value considering the length of the class, that lunch was essentially included, and the in-store discount. I would definitely recommend it and would even enjoy doing the class again in the future, perhaps on a different day of the week to learn some different recipes. Crescent City Cooks! will also arrange private, hands-on classes, but of course those are considerably more expensive, although I am sure they are fantastic.

By the time the class was over, it was already early afternoon. After doing some shopping, we headed back to the hotel. The plan was to go to the World War II Museum for the rest of the afternoon, but between the football on TV and the coma-like nap I apparently fell into, we never actually made it. That evening, we enjoyed a fantastic Italian dinner (some of the restaurants we enjoyed will be covered in a later post) before Clay and I took the obligatory trip to Bourbon St. Not really my thing, but when in New Orleans… Despite my ridiculously long nap earlier in the day, I was still ready for a relatively early night before our last few hours in NOLA Sunday morning, which would of course involve more delicious food.

Posted by cgplatt 13:27 Archived in USA Tagged food new_orleans Comments (0)

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