Category Archives: travel reviews

Glamping at Firelight Camps (Ithaca, New York)

There comes a time in life where once must face certain truths. Revelations like; I’ll never enjoy eating foie gras, will not willingly jump out of a perfectly good plane and camping is better suited anyone but me. Now glamping, that is a different story. 

Yes, the woman who spent her childhood summers in a musty old military surplus tent, reveled in solar showers, and would never dream of an RV has become tent-adverse and is raising hotel kids. In fact, during one stay at a lovely Residence Inn in Charleston, North Carolina, the youngest picked up the room phone and was appalled to learn there was no concierge. 

Frog Pond at Firelight Camps Ithaca New YorkWould I ever be able to show them the joys of camping? Did I even want to? I mean, solar showers sort of suck. Maybe easing them in would be the key… or not.

The teen daughter and I set out to test this theory with an epic road trip to Upstate New York, where we’d be guests at Firelight Camps in Ithaca for a glamping experiment. Would she survive without bell service… and, um… electricity?

I’ve written about Firelight Camps and the whole glamping trend before, but I’d yet fully experience it for myself. {I doubt a pop up tent in a suite at the Four Seasons counts.}  

firelight camps Ithaca new yorkFirst impressions count, and Firelight’s first impression knocks it out of the park, as it sits on the grounds of the La Trouelle Hotel – a quaint resort with some beautiful architectural features.   The camps themselves are behind the hotel, which is a little disorienting at first.

Once you make your way down the the “lobby” tent, where you’re greeted by not only chic-camp decor but a friendly host, the “awkward” wares off.  Our host welcomed us with local wine, gave us the lay of the land.. where the bath house is {a real bathroom, with real showers and even a sauna}, what was available on-site, and what wasn’t. There is no electrical outlet in your tent. That said, there are battery operated lanterns that light things up fairly well and do double duty as USB chargers.

Glamping at Firelight Camps Ithaca New YorkThe lack of outlets fades away the minute you step inside your tent and see the REAL bed – with actual sheets, and pillows you don’t have to blow up! Each tent also features a balcony with chairs and a table. Ours looked out over a small ravine and was the perfect spot for enjoying tea with the birds. 

Though there isn’t room service, you can make reservations at the steakhouse that is also located on the property. We choose to head into the town of Ithaca, which is just a short drive away from camp. Ithaca is absolutely charming, and the foodie scene is strong. We had the best meal at North Star Pub {recommended by our host} and enjoyed watching a parade that was part of the city’s annual festival with a theme of “Better Together” celebrating the artist in everyone.

Back at camp, the fire surrounded by a luxury seating area blazed as craft cocktails where whipped up and deep conversations had. There was a fierce game of horseshoes going on as well. Gourmet S’mores? Yeah they had those too.

The bed was sublime. The only bug we encountered was on the outside of the tent, and try though he might, he wasn’t getting through that canvas. Thank god! The frogs sang us to sleep from the nearby pond. 

In the morning we noshed fresh fruit, pastries, and locally produced yogurt topped with the famed granola made by chef/owner Emma Frisch who also happened to be a finalist on Food Network Star Season 10 and is the owner of Frisch Kitchen.  Not your typical hotel breakfast, for sure.

Luxury Glamping Touches at Firelight Camps Ithaca New YorkSo how did Firelight do with the teen? She really enjoyed the bed, got over the no electricity thing, and says that she wants to hike nearby Buttermilk Falls – this from the kid who says “Ugh, nature… it’s all over me!” That I’d have to credit our host with, he was very enthused about all great hiking in the area.

There is a certain serenity to Firelight that I’ve not found at “traditional” camp grounds. While families are welcomed with open arms, I’d caution that this isn’t a place for the rambunctious. That said, it’s perfect for a family like ours who is looking to break out of the suite life and get back to nature without having to sleep on the ground… or use a solar shower.

 

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Visiting Ottawa Canada (aka Myth Busting)

 Debunking Five Myths about Candians by Visiting Ottawa, CanadaAh, stereotypes. Every country and culture seems to have at least a few. Visiting Ottawa, Canada helped me bust a few myths. Travel gives us the ability to be myth busters of a short… only without the walrus mustaches and exploding crash-test dummies. 

Myth 1: It’s Winter 11 Months of the Year

Visiting Ottawa in summer is blissfully balmy. In fact an average summer day comes in at around 78°,  almost San Diego-esque, eh? A warm, breezy summer day in the Canadian capital city is perfect for wandering. So much of the sites are within easy walking distance of each other. 

Rideau Canal Ottawa Canada UNESCO World Heritage SiteA stroll along the Rideau Canal is a must. This UNESCO World Heritage site is a marvel of 19th century engineering.  One of the first canals to be designed specifically for steam-powered vessels, the system of locks now conveys mostly leisure craft along the Rideau and Cataraqui rivers. In fact it’s the only canal of the “Great North American Canal Building Era,” to still operate along it’s original route. If you enjoy history, a tour of the canal system is a must, since many of the original structures remain intact today.

MYTH BUSTED

Myth 2: Canadians Only Drink Beer

Sparks Street is a bit like the a low-key version of Time Square. Closed to all but pedestrian traffic these few blocks near Parliament Hill feature kitschy souvenir shops, eateries, bars, and a few upscale shopping areas. Here we did stop by a place called Bier Markt that featured 150 beers from 30 countries. Could there be something to this beer thing?

I like a nice hoppy beer and will try an IPA any day.  I fully expected Ottawa to be a beer city, and I’d have been okay with that. Turns out Canadians dig their craft cocktails too. LIFT Bar, the cocktail lounge inside the Delta Ottawa City Centre (now a part of the Marriott hotel family, yeah!) where we were hosted guests during our stay, makes a mean Mule and even some truly creative cocktails featuring locally produced spirits – and yes, some great craft brews too.

Ottawa Mule Craft CocktailClearing away any doubt that this myth is exactly that, I present you with the following evidence…. Wayne Gretzky Estates.  We picked up a 2011 Merlot made with grapes hand harvested in Okanagan Valley, British Colombia and it was actually quite good!

MYTH BUSTED

Myth 3: Canada is ALL about the Hockey, eh!

We witnessed a man dressed in full hockey gear, including skates, balance on top of a goal while juggling flaming hockey sticks. While you’d think that would have proved the myth, this guy {Paz} happened to hail from LA… eh.  <— which I think I said more than any Canadian we met.

Juggling Flaming Hockey Sticks. Visiting Ottawa, Canada

MYTH BUSTED

Myth 4: Canadians Live on Maple Syrup and (Back) Bacon

Admittedly there is plenty of maple and Back Bacon {known to we Americans as Canadian bacon} to be found. Even in the Eggs Benedict at LIFT restaurant – not sure I was so much into that. Ottawa is a very metropolitan city boasting a vibrant food scene with plenty of influence coming from the French. Hello poutine and pastries. The farm-to-table options come in a dizzying array from a rainbow of produce and artisanal cheeses at the famed ByWard Market to scratch-made Italian staples at several area eateries.

ByWard Market Ottawa Canada

You can NOT leave Ottawa without eating BeaverTails. I know what you’re thinking, I thought it too. Eew gross, Canada! Wrong. SO wrong. BeaverTails are oddly-named, flaky, rich, light and airy pillows of crispy pastry topped with awesome. Start with the maple butter {obviously} and work your way through the menu. You’ll thank me, even if your waistline won’t.

MYTH BUSTED

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Myth 5: Canadians Are SO Polite

I was pretty sure the minute we drove into the parking garage at the Delta – which is shared with the public – and were greeted by a smiling hotel employee {obviously on his break} who was all to happy to show us the best spot to park in, give tips for cutting down on the cost of parking, and welcome us to his city, that this is a myth that could not be busted. Once at the front desk, the busting prospects looked even more bleak.

Usually when you check-in at any hotel, the front desk staff is cordial. Even at the most luxurious of properties the script is pretty much the same. “Can we help you with anything while you’re staying with us?”, “How was your trip?”, “Would you like help with your bags.” All perfectly polite – and expected– inquires.  Then there is Alex.

Spires of the East Block Building of Canadian Parliment Ottawa
Weathered spires and French architectural influences abound on Canada’s Parliament Hill.

Alex took the time not only to ask those questions, but to find out what we liked, what we might want to discover about his city, and even give us tips about things we’d never have known about without him. He took out a map and walked us through the best things to see, when to go where, and gave as an impromptu history lesson. It was like having our own personal guide to Ottawa. Then there was Eric.

Eric turned out to be the name of the friendly staffer from the car park, as well as a stellar Bellman.  Gift bags to keep the kids entertained. Cold drinks to refresh weary parents who got stuck a Canadian Customs {that’s a story for another post, oi!} and even setting up late evening reservations for the whole crew on the pub side of LIFT. Then there was Annie.

Things were looking pretty damn polite at this point!

In the interest of full-disclosure, we are Elite level Marriott rewards members and make it a point to snag club level rooms anytime they are available. Tip: DO THIS! If you’ve got more than one kid it pays for itself. Marriott Clubs often offer free breakfast, snacks, and enough refreshments and libations to cover the additional cost several times over.  Also, as I mentioned before this was a hosted visit. Annie had no way of knowing that though. Each morning she greeted us as though we were long-lost pals returning to visit her! Any question we had, any little thing the kids asked for, she made sure it was taken care of. You just can’t put a price on service like that. Though this Delta property hasn’t quite gotten to the level of offerings that you typically see in Marriott Clubs, Annie’s shining smile made it feel as top-notch as any other. Then their was Parliament.

Living in the Washington D.C. area, we’re used to dower-faced officials. Hey, things are rough these days and their job is to watch out for bad guys, not make kids giggle. The Canadians seem to have been able to balance the need to keep a wary eye out, with their penchant for polite. 

Are All Canadians Freindly or What
Polite, and hilariously cool.. the Guards of Parliament Hill. I can’t be the only one thinking “Benny Hill” here, can I?

That feeling of warm welcome extends from the folk watching over the buildings of Parliament, to the locals who gather to share a spot on the lawn any given summer evening to watch the story of Canada – from the First Peoples to modern Canadians– unfold in multi-media magnificence; Northern Lights.  Hundreds of people gathered for a free show and not one tussle, no salty stares, not even an frenzied rush to get the best spot. Then there was the cab driver.

Rude. Angry. Took the long way around to get a higher fare. Though he did mention that was from Indonesia.

MYTH CONFIRMED (so far)

Visiting Ottawa, Canada was such a blast we’ll be back to bust a few more myths during Winterlude. Plus.. um.. MORE Poutine!

Stay tuned for more on Canada’s Delta Hotels joining the Marriott brand and a full review of our stay at Delta Ottawa City Center.

Poutine Canada's Gift to the WORLD
Poutine from a Food Truck. Or as the teen calls it… “Deep fried bliss smothered in happiness gravy dotted with cheesy nuggets of awesome.” Yeah, pretty close.
 Field Notes On Visiting Ottawa, Canada:

The trip to Ottawa, Canada was amazing everyone was so nice we stayed at a beautiful hotel called Delta. Alex, at the front desk was so amazing he suggested a lot of fun activities to do.One of the doormen even gave me and my brother gift bags. My mom gave me a tip to give him. He was very happy, and said thanks.

Next we went for a walk. There were little shops outside, and I got some new jewelry, a ring from a very nice lady and a name bracelet form a funny guy who showed us where to get poutine. Then we went to dinner. I had ribs on a plate so huge that it took up the whole table!  

So we went to a pastry shop and a tasted sweets. The wifi at the hotel was was very good. Housekeeping left chocolates on the pillow and my favorite robe. The pool was amazing and the outdoor lounge was relaxing.

The next day we went to a war museum it was very interesting and sad too. After that we went down to the gift shop, it was a little overpriced but I got a owl necklace. I had my very first  beavertail, they are so yum! Goodbye Ottawa, until we meet again.  

Emily – Field Reporter {age 9}

Delta Hotel Ottawa City Centre.png
Chic updated suite at the Delta Ottawa City Centre. Can’t wait to introduce you to the Smart Desk!

Disclosure: As you know, from time to time I’m asked to visit places, attractions, and hotels as a hosted guest. That said, my thoughts and opinions are always my own. Honesty, you deserve nothing less.

The Summer Wind – Sailing in Baltimore

Sailing Excursions in Baltimore MarylandEvening comes and as the sun begins to set. A warm glow lingers among the soft breezes drifting across the Chesapeake Bay. Late summer is the  season that sailing is at its best here in Maryland. The Summer Wind brings a new charter option to sailing in Baltimore.  

We all have our, “Happy Place.” A boat with billowing sails gliding across glassy water is that place  me. Funny that a kid who grew up in the desert loves to be on a boat. Perhaps more odd that the entire time I was in the Navy I rarely set foot on one. Now that I’m living just a short drive from the Chesapeake bay I sail as much as I can. 

Typically that means either a jaunt to Annapolis or taking the bridge over to the Eastern shore. I was thrilled to recently learn that American Sailing Tours has pulled anchor from its original home, sailing the Delaware River off the coast of Philadelphia, and docked in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor bringing The Summer Wind with them.

I’ll admit they pretty much had me at the name of this 48-foot long schooner. “The Summer Wind,”  is one of my absolute favorite Sinatra songs. 

Owner (and skipper) Tom Kirwan captained us out onto the harbor for our latest Travel Massive meetup.  As the 50-foot sails unfurled guiding us past the iconic Domino’s Sugar sign, Tom and I chatted about his life as a sailor – which started before he was even able to walk.

The Summer Wind - Sailing in BaltimoreKirwan brought The Summer Wind to Baltimore in 2015 for its first season. Today, she is the only sailboat of her class offering public sailing excursions out of the Inner Harbor. While American Sailing Tours offers the staple harbor tours and sunset sailing, what sets it apart is Tom and his crew.

There is zero pretension aboard The Summer Wind. You won’t find stuffy folks with ascots and jauntily positioned sailing caps here. When you sail with Tom and his crew you feel a true connection to people who love what they do, and where they do it. They’ll regale you with tales of Baltimore’s maritime history, fill you in on the points of interest as you pass by, and make you feel as though this were your boat. 

Relax on deck with a glass of wine. Here you’ll find comfy seating, polished wood siding, and of course some great conversation. Below decks is more seating and the head {sailor-speak for the facilities – I swear I never even used that term in the Navy, past boot camp. It’s just weird.} 

Saling Excursions in BaltimoreBe sure to make some time either before you set sail or when you drop anchor, to explore the Harbor East area where you’ll find upscale boutiques, a movie theater, and great eats. Wit & Wisdom at the Four Seasons is the perfect place for a wonderful meal or nibbles. It is just steps from The Summer Wind’s birth.  Lobster corn dogs, mesquite smoked mussels in a champagne beurre blanc, black truffle popcorn… need I say more?

The summer wind came blowin’ in from across the sea. Next time you’re in Baltimore… come sail with me! 

The Summer Wind - Baltimore

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Loews Philadelphia Hotel (review)

Union League of Philadelphia buildingWith a view of the William Penn statue atop City Hall on one side, and the neon glow of the sign that crowns the top of Benjamin Franklin House, a noted restaurant on site and many of the most popular attractions within walking distance, the Loews Philadelphia Hotel is a unique gem.

Location! Location! Location!

Some of the best views of the Philadelphia skyline can be found on the 33rd floor of this historic building, which is actually the very first skyscraper ever constructed in the United States. Looking out the windows of our own room, it was easy to imagine how awe struck  people of 1932 must have been when gazing upon the city for the first time from a bird’s eye vantage point.

View from the 33rd Floor observation area. Named among the best views in the entire city. (photo credit: Loews Hotels)
View from the 33rd Floor observation area. Named among the best views in the entire city. (photo credit: Loews Hotels)

This hotel is perfectly situated in a downtown area packed with things to see, do and eat.  Reading Terminal Market is just one block away, Independence National Historic park – where you’ll find the liberty bell, Independence Hall, and more–  an easy six block stroll. It seems every block between here and where you might like to go, has it’s own character, architectural wonders, and unique artwork. You can easily leave your car in the parking garage and not miss it. 

Loews Philadelphia Hotel (review)
Wifi forgotten as she watches the city below, wrapped in her favorite hotel robe.

Amenities

12 Fit Spa is a unique mix of spa and gym. There is a heated two-lane lap pool and cardio center, as well as saunas. You can still get a body treatment or facial, but there isn’t a lounging or kiddie pool.

Bank & Bourbon the hotel bar and restaurant is a hip take on American classic cuisine and cocktails with a modern twist.  Read on for our favorite offerings from the kitchen.

Loews Hotel Philadelpia (review)Staff

Let me start by saying that we shared the hotel with what seemed like a very large convention of some sort. The place was packed. Even with a huge volume to deal with, some of the staff still really went above and beyond.

Anthony in Concierge was our unofficial, personal ambassador to Philadelphia. From the moment he helped with our bags, to every time we passed by the desk, he had a smile and a tip for us. We’d have never headed over to Reading Terminal Market without his advice, or known that there was a great sports memorabilia shop right behind the hotel – the 10 year old was thrilled at that news! He guided us along the six block walk to see the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.  In short, the guy is a gem. 

We have a family tradition when traveling, the ‘Room Service Dessert Picnic.’ This sweet indulgence is what we use to bribe the kids into not bugging us for sweets everywhere we go. Everyone gets to order one dessert of the menu and has to share. If I’m being honest, it’s my favorite part of the trip too.   

Cheryl in Room Service helped make this one of our best picnics ever. She guided us through the extensive menu, asking what the kids’ favorite flavors were, telling us about her favorites, describing each treat as though she were the host of a Cooking Channel show.

Loews Philadelpia Hotel The fresh-made donut (warm and fluffy) topped with vanilla bean ice cream and cookie crumbles, served with a side of bourbon caramel sauce was a HUGE hit. Pastry Chef at Bank & Bourbon might be getting a love letter from this family.

Value

Loews Hotels are luxury-level properties, so you can expect that you won’t be getting that $49 rate you found on that discount site. That said, you can find a luxury level room for around $200 on a weekend night. For comparison in the area other luxury hotels – like say a Ritz Carlton – run about $275 for a basic room. 

Valet parking runs around $46 a day. Bringing along your furry family member? Loews hotels do an amazing job at being pet-friendly.  At this location you can get dog-walking route maps, pet placemats, water bowls, treats, doggie pick-up bags and more for $40. They even have pet sitting options as well as their human babysitting services.

Loews Philiadelphia HotelFor Families?

Our family spends a lot of time in hotels… like, a lot. The kids themselves have become experts in their own right on what makes a great amenity and whether a hotel is really family-friendly. The teen was impressed that Loews hotels think of her age group by presenting them with music download gift cards. In her words, “Bonus! Saving data for the win… Mommm.”

Guests 10 and under receive a “Loews Loves Kids” welcome gift. Our kids didn’t get these, but in all fairness this could be because staff didn’t notice them as they were glued to the wall of TVs in the lobby lounge.  This property also has “Kids Closet,” offering things you might want or need during your stay, like;  board games, books, car seats, strollers, night-lights, potty seats, baby bathtub, baby blankets, outlet protectors, self-contained DVD players with age appropriate DVDs—and more.

Loews Philadelphia Hotel Bank and BourbonHotel Info

Address: 1200 Market St, Philadelphia, PA 19107
Phone: (215) 627-1200
Website: loewshotels.com

 

Spanish Holiday – Hotel Playa de la Luz Rota, Spain

Spanish Holiday - Hotel Playa de la Luz Rota SpainSouthern Spain {Andalucia} has long been a favorite “holiday” destination for European travelers. This makes perfect sense when one considers the lovely beaches, amazing architecture, history, culture and cuisine.  I recall the first time I met a person on, “Spanish Holiday” while living in Spain.  Partly because – as an American– the term, “holiday” means something entirely different, but also because of the place we met – Hotel Playa de la Luz in my “hometown” of Rota, Spain.

Holiday goers -or vacationers, as we call them– flood into Rota during the summer months just as they do nearly all of the coastal towns in Andalucia. The favored casks of La Tintilla in local bodegas take a back seat to hard cider and flowing sangria, skin sizzles to a burnished bronze {in most cases, save the bulk of visitors from the UK and people like me who end up the hue of ripened tomatoes} on the beaches, and the night life rarely gives way at dawn.

What makes Rota differ from this typical Spanish Holiday foray, comes in the form of luxurious oasis just barely outside the city. I’d been living in Rota for nearly a year before setting foot in the Hotel Playa de la Luz, time lost that I’ve come to regret.

Spanish Holiday - Beach front tapas at Hotel Playa de la LuzNestled on a stretch of nearly pristine beach -a welcome change from the beach I leaved near on the other side of town– the hotel is practically a world away from the bustle. Though Rota itself is a small town, Calle de María Auxiliadora being its one fairly busy main boulevard, in high season the crush of people can be difficult to manage. The hotel gives you a place to enjoy the natural beauty of this part of Spain in a simple, yet luxurious setting that is still close enough to the town when you want to stop in at Bar Christina for amazing tortillitas de camarones – or shrimp fritatta– dance the night away, or roam the quaint little shops and gypsy stores.

La Gaviota, the onsite restaurant takes the best of local ingredients and whips up outstanding tapas. As I type my mouth is watering in memory of their alcauciles rellenos, a stuffed artichoke that is worth the airfare from the states. Once you’ve stuffed yourself with Spanish delights you’ll need a way to burn off those extra calories. The hotel features four tennis courts, a gym, and several pools. You can even ask the staff to arrange horseback riding on the beach for you. If you ride, this is a can’t-miss activity. 

For Americans, the rooms by seem small and sparsely decorated. Getting used to that was a tough one for me, but this is pretty much the standard with nearly any level hotel in this part of Spain. I suppose the idea is that you’ll be spending so little of your time indoors, they’d rather focus on elevating the common spaces. 

Playa de la Luz does this really well. Their white-washed facade and intricate Moorish tile work is evocative of old Hollywood glamour.  Take a stroll along the marble inlaid beach walk and you’ll feel as though Clark Gable is waiting on that yacht in the distance to whisk you away.

Spanish Holiday - Luxury Sunbathing at Hotel Playa de La Luz Rota, SpainTips for Families

The hotel features a playground for kids, separate adult and family pools and during the months of July and August childcare services are available.

Day Trips Nearby

Jerez {35 minute drive} visit a Bodega -Harvey’s is one of the more famous ones– stop by the Royal Spanish Equestrian school to see the famed Lipizzaner horses, eat at the Mercado de Abastos.

Cadiz {45 minute drive} Cadiz is one of my favorite towns in all of Spain. It has everything a large metropolitan city could want without the issues that come with being a city of size. To me its a bit of Paris meets Madrid. There are a plethora of galleries and museums, lovely public parks with sculpted gardens, and an immense amount of history as Cadiz is the oldest continually inhabited town in Spain.

Hotel Information

Address:  Avda. de la Diputación S/N
                     11520 Rota (Cádiz) Spain
                     Tel: 1+ (34) 956 810 500
Website: Hotel Playa de la Luz

Reservations line: 1+ (34) 902 418 428