Destination Disney: A Family Vacation with and without the kids

Published in the Chronicle/Advisor

If you want to have a romantic vacation alone with your spouse, plan a week at Walt Disney World with teenagers. I promise you will never see them unless you insist that they meet you for a meal or two. We decamped for the Happiest Place on Earth, armed with sunscreen and leftover Disney dollars, looking for sunshine and amusement. We found both.

We’ve visited Mickey and Minnie Mouse before, in Florida, California and even in France. We prefer to stay at Disney properties because they are very good hotels, consistently well maintained and because of the transportation system. The bus and monorail system allow every one to go their own way without any fuss. With cellphones and texting, we stayed in touch. Some preferred the rides at The Magic Kingdom, while others of us preferred the wine and beers “around the world” at Epcot. Guess who liked what!

The first night we stayed in a family suite at The All-Star Music Resort, one of Disney’s value resorts. The All-Star Resorts (Music, Movie, and Sports) are examples of how Disney has developed lodging for all tastes and prices, including campgrounds. Disney advertises rooms for as low as $84 a night during some seasons at these properties. The two-room suite had two bathrooms, a comfortable queen bed and sleeper sofa. Six people could be squeezed in—all with beds. Seemingly all night long, kids swam in both the guitar- and piano-shaped swimming pools.  Mercifully, the room we had was well insulated.

Our second lodging choice was the newest Disney Deluxe Villa resort, Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa. Everything in Disney is themed—this resort takes its cue from the horseracing mecca of its namesake in New York at the turn of the century. Our room was equipped with a mini refrigerator, microwave and balcony. Its only drawback was its size; they called it a studio, but the four of us were tripping over each other by week’s end.

Tickets for the parks are very pricey. For a single day, one park, you pay $82 for one park.  A “Park Hopper” ticket—which allows you to move from one Disney park to another—is $136 per day.  The more days you buy, the less the ticket costs; you ‘only’ pay $50 a day per person for five days. You get a full day of activity from as early as 8:30 a.m. to one night where the Magic Kingdom was open until 3 a.m.—that would be in the morning, before dawn. An adult favorite was strolling around the World Showcase, where you can drink and eat in Canada, Great Britain, France, Mexico, China, Japan, Italy, Norway, and Morocco — all in an afternoon. The teenagers did the rides, ranging from Test Track, a car racing simulation and Soaring at Epcot to Splash Mountain in the Magic Kingdom. Perennial favorites (and now movies) are the Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. And don’t miss the Lion King show at Animal Kingdom.

Eating is a big expense, but there are ways to economize. Having a big breakfast at the resort helps, as food at the hotels was consistently better tasting and less costly than in the parks. Then, eating an early dinner, with a few snacks in between, helps the budget.

The best lunch was a tie between the belly dancing lessons plus kabobs at the Moroccan restaurant at Epcot and the hamburger and onion rings at the Turf Club Bar and Grill at the Saratoga Resort.

The sushi chef at The California Grill, atop the Contemporary Resort, is world-renowned (not sure how that happens) and the sushi we ordered was both lovely look at and very tasty. This restaurant is known for its extensive, and I mean huge, wine list. The pork belly appetizer was a winner, as was the pasta entrée. Expect to pay a minimum of $50 per person for dinner. If that’s not in your budget, go for a glass of wine at 10 p.m. and watch the fireworks at the Magic Kingdom. It is the best place to see the spectacular fireworks display that happens every evening.  You may even stand out on a restaurant observation deck for the maximum effect.

We also visited one of our favorite restaurants at Epcot, Chefs de France. Our waiter had worked there for 25 years and bore a strange resemblance to Maurice Chevalier. The steak was outstanding, with a lovely crème brulee to finish. The fixed price menu at $39.95 was a good deal with three courses selected from a list of choices. We picked lobster bisque, short ribs braised in red wine and profiteroles, cream puffs stuffed with ice cream and covered in chocolate sauce.

After all that walking, a short visit to the spa was needed. Given everything else there is to do at the resorts and the parks, getting an appointment was easy.  The spa facilities were clean and empty, with a whirlpool, dry and wet sauna for use. It wasn’t the most luxurious spa, but it was an above average facility. The aromatherapy massage was top quality and at resort prices, but worth the splurge for the sheer relaxation value.

Relaxation is in short supply at Disney World with so much to see and do. All of the resorts are full service with activities, and nicely appointed fitness facilities. Every time I visit I vow to spend more time at the swimming pools and every time I get sucked right back into park hopping. I guess we are all just big kids, no matter what our age.

On our last day in Disney, we sat outside the cleanest pub you’ll ever find, The Rose and Crown, the sun shining on our faces enjoying a pleasant 75 degrees, sipping a nice Guinness stout and imagining ourselves in London. For what we paid for the trip, we probably could have gone to the real London but it would have been cold and rainy just like home, and Florida’s sunshine and Disney’s magic was what we needed.

 

 

 

 

 

Florida Keys Long Weekend: Sun, Sand and Seafood

Published in the Chronicle/Advisor

You know you’re not in Michigan anymore when the first warm blast of air (scented by jet fuel) hits you as you leave the plane and enter the jet way. When I asked a Michigan native why they live in the Florida Keys for half the year, “It’s as far south as you can go and still be in the U.S..” South is good when there are piles of snow lining your driveway. We had modest goals for our long weekend—sun, sand and seafood. And water—lots of blue water!

The temperatures were hovering in the high 70s as we drove down U.S. 1 towards the Florida Keys. Three airports are in driving distance of this chain of small islands stretching for 120 miles between the Gulf and the Atlantic Ocean. West Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami all boast Keys friendly driving distances. You can also fly right into Key West’s small international airport (think postage stamp run-way) but the airfare is considerably more expensive.

The drive down the Keys is a mostly two-lane highway, where topping 55 mph is an accomplishment. But what’s your hurry? It is one of the most beautiful drives in the world, with expansive vistas of aquamarine water reaching as far as the eye can see on both sides. The first of five major keys or islands is Key Largo, a perfect spot for lunch after flying and driving since 0’ dark hundred. A family (and an army) travel on their stomachs after all! We choose a perennial favorite with an unoriginal name, The Fish House at mile marker 102.5. Mile markers are attached to the road signs and tell you were you as you progress towards the last island, Key West, mile marker 0.

We were sold by the claim that they serve only fresh fish brought to the restaurant’s back door and then filleted and prepared on the premises.  How much fresher could you get? The outside of the restaurant looked sketchy as my daughter said. But inside was bright, with the fish motif carried to the nth degree including nets hanging from the ceiling. And the food was fabulous. Succulent boiled and u-peel shrimp, called pink gold by the locals, best in class fried calamari, lovely grouper Matecumbe, baked and topped with fresh tomatoes, shallots, basil, capers, olive oil and lemon juice. The last dish was The Fish House’s original creation that has been featured in “Cooking Light” magazine.

You drive across dozens of small islands with names like No Name Key, Greyhound Key and Plantation Key. Our destination was Duck Key, home of Hawks Cay Resort where we have stayed before. This weekend we were going to stay with friends a few keys down but wanted to check out what a $35 million renovation had done to what was already a lovely resort. It’s a big place, 402 rooms and villas with five restaurants. That was at least two more than last time we stayed. The beautiful saltwater lagoon was as inviting as we remembered and they had really souped up their dolphin program. Called the Dolphin Connection, they say it is the only one of its kind in North America. Now they even have Segway tours using those wonderful upright two wheeled scooters. Quite a place at quite a price, rooms usually start at $300 a night but they did have a web only special of $189 a night that would be a huge deal if it matched the dates you wanted to stay.

Continuing down the route, it was almost time for dinner. There is a food theme to all our travels. Lots of choices in Marathon, the mid point, but we traveled on to the Square Grouper in Cudjoe Key, at mile marker 22.5. It was worth the extra miles. The fish selections had all the freshness of the Fish House but with even more inventive and exciting flavor combinations. A square grouper is what they call the bale of marijuana that gets dumped overboard by smugglers when law enforcement comes alongside (news to me!).

The menu is dived into ocean and earth and we sampled from both. We tried the island shrimp cakes with banana pepper aioli and the pasta with shrimp scallops and fresh fish of the day. My husband almost licked his plate of roasted duck breast with a spicy tamarind garlic sauce. The wine was displayed in unusual cubbyholes around the restaurant and the wine list was pronounced very satisfactory by the wine snobs at the table.

Now on to Key West itself, the largest town by far with 25,500 souls. Lots of hotel and restaurant choices here, and nice, uncrowded public beaches. We met our other two goals, lying in sand for sun baked oblivion for many hours (with lots of sunscreen!). Some people avail themselves of the plentiful snorkeling, sport fishing, glass bottomed boats and jet skies. About five miles off-shore, along the length of the Keys is the only living-coral barrier reef in the continental U.S. The coral formations are famous for their abundance of fish, from impressive schools of blue-striped grunts to toothy green moray eels. This is a must see on our next trip.

Once we were thoroughly unthawed, we ventured into town. Fortified by a terrific mohito (rum, mint, lime, sugar and soda water) at The Grand Café on Duval Street, we walked almost the length of the street. This is important only because Duval is known as the longest street in the world, since it stretches from the Gulf to the Atlantic. By now the temperature had soared to the high 80s, so ice cream was a must. We choose The Flamingo Crossing where they make their own. English cream, mint chocolate chip and Cuban coffee satisfied our frozen flavor cravings.

Lots o’ tacky T-shirt shops, interspersed with some nice art galleries and clothing stores line both sides of Duval Street. Like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, you can buy beverages as you walk down the street and carry them from spot to spot. We ended up in Mallory Square to watch the sunset, a Key West tradition. In the shadow of a giant Disney cruise ship, we were feted by street musicians and young men on unicycles, juggling fire and knives. The carnival atmosphere is heightened by the wild variety of visitors, from the two men wearing the same hideous Hawaiian shirts, meeting by chance to discuss who paid less, to grandmothers pushing strollers and teenagers on the lam from their parents.

Our final meal was a tribute to the small island nation only 90 miles from Key West, Cuba. Key West is actually closer to Cuba than it is to Miami. We chose El Siboney, a family owned restaurant in a plain brick building slightly off the beaten track. The budget conscious prices were a good way to end the long weekend. It’s the kind of place where locals order by the number. I had the number 3, Roast Pork, Casava, Tamale. Casava is yucca root and tastes like potatoes. It may have been potato for all I know.  It was a huge plate of food for $9.95 so my husband had to eat half of it to accompany his El Siboney Steak, a specially seasoned hangar steak with yellow rice and black beans.

Then it was back to the rental car for the three- hour drive past shimmering blue waters, lined with mangrove trees, to the airport and our flight back to reality and the frozen Midwest.

 

Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel: Just May be Your Father’s Hotel

Published in the Chronicle/Advisor

Mackinac Island is magical. The blue waters stretching between Mackinac City and the Island provide a buffer zone between everyday and holiday. We’ve made the trip four times in the past few years, mostly day trips including a very memorable trip with two busloads of fourth graders. Once, we stayed the weekend at a cute bed and breakfast. This time we booked a room at The Grand Hotel, and we were all a tingle with anticipation. This resort has hosted five U.S. Presidents, and now it was our turn to stay at the self styled “world’s largest summer hotel.”

Disembarking from the ferry and walking to the street, we started looking for The Grand Hotel taxi—horse drawn, of course. No cars allowed on the Island, adding to the time traveling sensibility. The antique wooden carriage, driven by a red coated driver complete with black top hat, was as advertised, except it was already filled. So we had to take just a regular horse drawn taxi. They meet all the ferries. In the summertime there are more horses on the Island, some 600, than full time Island residents (around 500). It wouldn’t have been a bad walk either, just up the main street with its six different fudge producers and through a charming residential neighborhood.

The Grand looms above the town, featuring the world’s largest front porch, where imposing columns frame dozens of white rockers and a multiple of American flags complete the pure Americana postcard. Built in 1887, the first view of the Grand is something special. From the porch, the view back to the Bridge is nothing short of spectacular. From the Cupola Bar at the top of the hotel, you can see all the way to tomorrow.

The Grand’s lobby was filled with folks who looked like my parents, those young 80-somethings, with a few 60 and 70 year olds thrown in to bring down the median age to 72. Don’t get me wrong, AARP sends me membership cards every month. I still throw them away without opening. I am closer to 80 than 20, but I still wasn’t ready for the overwhelming number of seniors standing in line to check in for their Grand Hotel package.

The grandmotherly feel continued in the décor of our room. White chenille bedspreads with large floral patterned wallpaper were supposed to remind the visitor of the Victorian era; instead it was more of the Grandma Eda era. Clearly our room was not in the Millennial wing where 42 new guest rooms were opened ten years ago. President Bush probably did not stay in our room. The beds were comfortable, and the room was large with a wonderful view out the back of the hotel to the wooded interior of the Island.

Since we were on a breakfast package and we wanted to try the famed Grand Dining room, we made reservations for dinner. All guests must dress for dinner, coats for the men, dresses or nice pants suits for the ladies. At, gulp, $70 per person, we were expecting the five-course meal to be memorable.

A phalanx of tuxedo clad serving staff attended us with care, asking for our menu choices and advising us on the selection of the right wine. Many of them had served in the dining room for 20 years, coming every season. The green striped chairs, white linens and candles set the atmosphere. The appetizers were tasty, and the choices for soups and entrees sounded intriguing.

The meal itself did not wow us.  The size of the dining room and the sheer volume of meals served made our choices seem assembly line like. Nothing was quite hot enough or cold enough, not bad but not spectacular.  It felt like a very elegant stop on a packaged bus tour, which for many of the guests, exactly described their two-day stop t the Grand.

After dinner, a coffee demitasse was served in the Parlor, accompanied by soothing harp music. Dancing ensues from 9:30 to 11:30 p.m. in the Terrace Room with the Grand Hotel Orchestra. Lovely silver haired couples cutting a rug, the very old fashioned away to describe dancing and a fitting way to sum up an evening at The Grand.

The next morning we set off to find the perfect fudge. At Mackinac Island that requires multiple tasting stops. They boast a Fudge Festival every August. We tried all six different shops, and found our favorite at Sanders, plain old-fashioned creamy melt in your mouth fudge. The chocolate mint was a hit at Joann’s. Kilwin’s does have good ice cream. It is impossible to imagine all the varieties from cherry to blueberry to rocky road and white maple at Murdick’s and Ryba’s. Truly your fudge fantasy can realized on the Island and for just a few dollars a half-pound.

For dinner that evening we decided to take a carriage back to The Woods, another restaurant owned by the Grand. The Tudor mansion featured a charming Bavarian vibe with roaring fires and the hint of wood smoke. We tried a variety of excellent German entrees including the Appenzeller Cheese, Beer and White Onion Soup and Käsespätzle, a noodle and cheese dish. The menu features non-German selections, like a delicious rosemary rubbed rack of lamb. The atmosphere is casual and fun. If we’d had time we might have tried America’s oldest operating duckpin bowling alley.

Just to balance all the rich food not to mention the fudge, a trip down to the gym and swimming pool was required.  The Esther Williams pool is a heated 500,000-gallon, 220-foot long serpentine-shaped pool. The sauna and two whirlpools as well as a nice sized workout room with all the necessary equipment and free weights are adjacent to the pool.

Leaving the Island is always bittersweet.  We won’t need to stay at The Grand again but there are so many other choices from the small bed and breakfast to the large resort. For those of you still wanting to try The Grand, they open for their 124th season on May 5, 2011.

The wind blows your hair on the ferry, the sun shines and you think about returning to the real world. Do I have to? Maybe I could stow away. But no, time to get back in your car and head back to reality.

 

Twenty four hours at the Peninsula Hotel, Chicago

To surprise my husband for his birthday, I booked a night at the famed Peninsula Hotel in Chicago. Even with a winter package rate, all we could afford was one night at this five star destination.  But wow, what a night and what a great hotel! The Peninsula is part of a chain of hotels of the same name. Several years ago we had stayed at the flagship Peninsula in Hong Kong and fell in love with the hotel.

We took a speedy and uneventful train trip from Battle Creek to Chicago’s Union Station. The Peninsula is a short cab ride from the train station.  Parking your car overnight is a cool $48 a night, which was more than the train ticket.  On a snowy winter morning, the train was a wonderful respite from sliding down the highway, and we could both enjoy Bloody Marys and cinnamon rolls, leaving the driving to Amtrak.

Walking into the hotel is a bit anticlimactic, since you have to go to the second floor to actually check-in.  At the end of a hallway, the two-story tearoom and restaurant opens up on the right, check-in is on the left, and the concierge straight ahead. Dramatic flower arrangements punctuate the understated décor. Our room was ready early, and the hotel did not seem overly crowded.  I was surprised they didn’t upgrade us. Don’t get me wrong. It was a Superior Room, done in pale, yet warm, beiges and gold tones and meeting all of the indulgent traveler’s check-offs.  Great bed—check. Marble bathroom with separate shower and tub—check. Great Jacuzzi tub—check.

Let me pause for a moment on the tub. Seriously, this was a very nice tub with room for two. And you could watch the inset TV on the wall at the foot of the tub.  The height of indulgence—a bubble bath and Desperate Housewives. But I digress.

It was time for tea, which was included in the package. Not satisfied with the Peninsula’s regular high tea (which was one of the choices of the package), we ordered the Royal Tea, which came with a glass of champagne, caviar and extra savories and sweets. Since they didn’t have the champagne that was advertised, the waiter kindly gave us an entire bottle of a very nice French bubbly. Nice touch. The soaring two-story dining room was filled with tables of guests from two to eight people, drinking tea in a most civilized manner. Who would have guessed that all those little plates could fill a person up?

And what a selection of morsels…plain scones, cinnamon orange Scones, lemon cornmeal savarin, coconut passion fruit cookie, rose hip shortbread, orange curd tart, key lime and graham chiboust, chocolate caramel mousse cake, curried chicken salad, spice-scented crepe,

grilled vegetables, lemon caper hummus, black olive tapenade, smoked salmon, citrus dill cream cheese,  pan de mie, roasted cauliflower, gruyere cheese and more – I am not kidding!

The scene outside of the large window was swirling snow and the frozen courtyard. We were tucked in to our multiple courses of delectables, and a lovely bottomless cup of jasmine tea.

We waddled back to our room, and my husband changed to go for his massage in the Peninsula Spa by ESPA on the 7th floor.  I went to the small, but very nicely outfitted gym to use the treadmill.  I did, after all, say it was his birthday.  An indoor pool and hot tub share the floor with the gym. Inside the ladies locker room, I chose to use both the wet and dry saunas, pretending that I was recovering from a grueling day of spa treatments. Afterward, a sip from the fruited water dispenser made all seem right with the world.

 

We capped off our afternoon and evening with a drink and appetizer in the Bar. The only downside to a visit in January is that the hotel closes both of its restaurants, Avenues and the Shanghai Terrace during that window.  The Bar is a cozy wood paneled room with a nice fire place.  Drinks and appetizer sucked up only a bit less than the $100 food credit that went with the package.  Really, we only had one drink and one appetizer apiece. The prices are not for the faint hearted. Waiting for us when we returned to our room was a lovely birthday surprise from the hotel, a small basket made of chocolate and filed with fresh berries and a bottle of wine—a Spanish red.

The king-sized bed delivered as good a night’s rest as I had imagined. In the morning, we ordered coffee from room service and enjoyed the newspaper delivered to our room. One of life’s simple pleasures is reading the thick Sunday paper with an outstanding cup of coffee. Room service was prompt, and our coffee included a small pitcher of heated milk in the European style—lovely.

To gather our strength before the train journey back to reality, we ate lunch at the restaurant on the first floor of the hotel, Pierrott Gourmet.  It was billed as a European-style cafe and was clearly a popular place with guests and locals.  Selections ranged from very unique sandwiches, soups and pizzas to a few more complete entrees. It was one of those menus where you wanted to sample everything.  My husband was impressed by the wine list, which offered a selection of wines by the glass, flights, and tastings in the afternoon.  The continuing snow outside kept us lingering over lunch while the line of people waiting grew.

The hotel staff had thoughtfully given us a late check-out, and we returned to the room to pack up, a full 24 hours from our arrival time the day before. When we emerged from the hotel to catch a cab back to the train station, I realized how close we had been to the Water Tower shopping mall. Darn. In my Peninsula cocoon, I hadn’t realized I was in the heart of Chicago’s Miracle Mile and a raft of upscale shopping.  From a travel budget point of view, that was probably a good thing.

We had snagged a wonderful take-out from the restaurant: cheese, fruit and bread for the journey eastward. Three hours later we were brushing more snow off of our car, with that feeling that you get when you really relax and let go of your daily burdens. A little of the Peninsula glow still surrounded us.

 

Georgia On My Mind– Glen-Ella Springs Inn

Somewhere not too far from Atlanta is a wonderful bed and breakfast where the craziness of city life (or just daily life) falls away. When I stayed at the Glen-Ella Springs Inn, it was just chilly enough to miss a swim in the pool but a great time of year to walk in the garden or rock in a wooden rocker and enjoy the bucolic setting of Glen-Ella Springs, where a home has stood for 100 years.

Be sure you don’t miss Barrie Aycock making pancakes on a Sunday morning. It is a special recipe of cakes that capture all that is right with breakfast as the most important meal of the day. You can also buy a bag of the mix to take home but somehow it just isn’t the same. You can’t tell from Barrie’s smile that this may be the millionth pancake she has flipped in her innkeeper role. Her wit is wry and her smile genuine. The breakfast buffet on other days is just as tasty.

Bobby and Barrie Aycock rescued the historic 1830s building in 1986. Leaving the original heart-pine walls, floors and ceilings, the 100 year-old Glen-Ella Springs Inn is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Did I mention the rest of the meals? Glen Ella has a well deserved reputation for wonderful food — some southern favorites but with a lighter interpretation.  Chef Chris Bolton draws on regional recipes and local ingredients. Be sure you try the signature dish, Trout Pecan or the Jumbo Shrimp in Low Country Gravy over Fried Parmesan Grits. I picked up a copy of their cookbook and have made several of recipes. The Blue cheese spread is to die for and very easy to make (see the featured recipe).

While outside of building itself doesn’t sport much Victorian fanciness, my room had the full stop Indulgent Traveler bed—big and comfy with all the trimmings. With heart-pine paneled walls and ceilings, my room was both rustic and elegant with a mixture of period antiques and locally handcrafted items. There was no TV’s in the rooms, but there are two TV’s on the property with full satellite connections and frankly, I didn’t miss it at all.

Combining business and pleasure on this trip, my small group of 10 people met in the Garden House Living Room where we were very productive just so we could get outside and wander in the 17 acres of gardens and meadows.

I also have to warn you that getting to the Inn at night can be a challenge of navigation and steel nerves down some country lanes and finally a gravel road. But follow the directions and you will find that the destination is worth the journey. Prepare to let down, relax, enjoy wonderful food – and let the world pass you by while rocking rhythmically on the porch.

Trout Pecan 

This is our “signature” entrée at the Glen-Ella Springs Inn, having been on our menu since we opened in 1987. We were the first restaurant in the N. GA mountains to offer a sautéed boneless trout, and it remains our most popular entrée.

Serves 4: preparation time 15 minutes

4 6-7 ounce fresh rainbow trout filets
2 cups of our coating mix (see below)
1/2 cup butter, or half butter and half cooking oil
1 large or two small limes, halved
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
1 tablespoon minced fresh mild herbs such as parsley, thyme, oregano

Coating mix:
2 cups Bisquick baking mix
3/4 cup seasoned breadcrumbs or croutons

» Toast pecans about 5 minutes in a 350 oven and set aside. Turn oven to 325.

» In a food processor, combine ingredients for coating mix and process until combined.

» Dredge fish filets in coating mix. In a large non-stick skillet, heat enough butter, or oil and butter, to just cover the bottom of the skillet, when butter is hot, quickly add trout filets, skin side up. If your skillet isn’t large enough to hold all the trout without crowding, sauté half the fish at a time. Reduce heat to medium and cook trout on the flesh side for about 5 minutes until nicely browned.

» Transfer the fish, browned side up to an oven-proof baking dish and continue cooking the rest of the fish in the same manner adding more oil/butter if needed. If oil in skillet starts looked burned, wipe out skillet and add more.

» Squeeze limejuice over each fillet; sprinkle with the herbs and the toasted pecans. Place in oven and bake for about 5 minutes or until fillets flake easily with a fork. Serve immediately with an extra wedge of lime.