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A Day Touring Beijing Part One – The Beijing Zoo

The Beijing Zoo: Elephants and Tigers and Pandas, Oh my!

Still adjusting to the time difference, we were up pretty early one morning and decided to venture out to the opposite end of the subway system to where we knew there were a few tourist attractions. Since the zoo opened early, and Carolann loves elephants, we decided to head there first. Zoos aren’t our favourite places, and before we got to the Beijing zoo we had forgotten how hard it is to witness animals in captivity, but we had wanted to see the Giant Pandas (and of course the elephants) and with our limited time, we made the decision to check it out. We used a site with all the tourist information for Beijing to find all the information for the zoo we needed.

A few subway line transfers and we arrived at an already busy front gate. Purchasing our tickets proved to be an education in “queue etiquette” in Beijing, which is pretty much: move into any opening you can and take advantage of every opportunity to move yourself up in line. We learned fast and managed to get our entrance tickets, including admission to the panda house, fairly quickly. What surprised us was the price of admission. For a single entry with admission to the Panda House exhibit, it only cost 20RMB which is approximately $4 CDN. That made the cost of our entire trip, with subway to and from the zoo, come out to about $5 each!! They have one of the largest aquariums as well but we decided not to include that as part of our visit that day.

 

beijing zoo, beijing tourism, things to do in beijing, beijing panda house

Beijing zoo entrance

beijing zoo, things to do in beijing, beijing tourism, panda house,

Gotta see the elephants!!

panda house beijing zoo, beijing zoo, panda house, beijjing tourism

Entrance to the panda house

beijing zoo, blown sugar art, beijing tourism

Blown sugar art

The park is pretty expansive and colourful with lush greenery and many traditional Chinese buildings, statues and decorations throughout the winding roads. We strolled along the river, watching the ferries and boats go by taking zoo-goers on rides to various places, and stopped in at the different animal habitats along the way.

 

panda house, beijing zoo, things to do in beijing, panda stuffed animals   bear statue, beijing zoo, zoo photos, beijing attractions

beijing zoo, lion statue, Beijing tourism, things to do in Beijing

One of many statues decorating the park

beijing zoo ferry, beijing zoo, beiing attractions

One thing we noticed was that despite the signs instructing visitors not to feed the animals, many people ignored these postings and fed some of the animals various vegetables.  No one stopped them so we aren’t positive the zoo wasn’t selling these somewhere, we just didn’t see anywhere to buy feed.  This upset us both so we opted to visit only a few more before heading out. What did help us feel better was that it seemed as though all the animals were in good condition and there was always feed (from the zoo) visible in each habitat.

Gazelle, beijing zoo, beijing attractions,  ostrich, ostrich beijing zoo, beijing zoo, beijing attractions

snubnose monkey, beiing zoo, beijing attractions   zebra, beiing zoo, beijing attractions

Two of the last areas we visited were the tiger and the giraffe habitats where we managed to get a few amazing photos of each.

Giraffes, Beijing Zoo, Giraffe love, Beijing attractions   tiger photo, siberian tiger, beijing zoo, beijing attractions, beautiful tiger photo

The panda house exhibit was actually split into two areas, one was exclusively for the Olympic Games panda and boy did he have it made! An entire habitat to himself, with all the platforms, stairs and toys he could want.  The other pandas didn’t have it too bad either. The final habitat we visited was the elephant habitat. They had a decent sized area to roam in and around but it’s always sad to see them (as well as any animal) in captivity.

olympic panda at the beijing zoo   elephant photo, beijing zoo, beijing attractions, asian elephants

We were going to take the ferry from the zoo to a popular Bamboo Park nearby but decided we would save the money and create our own adventure getting there, just like we did to get to The Great Wall!

See our post for the rest of our day, where we will take you with us on a walk through the Bamboo Park!

 

beijing zoo, playful elephant, asian elephants, beijing attractions, elephant photo

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Climbing the Great Wall And Tourist Scams

The only thing harder than climbing the Great Wall is ordering dumplings.

Our first full day in China had us learning many a lesson about the tourist scene here in Beijing. The learning curve is steep and it is definitely not without stumbles but we managed to navigate our way to, and from, the Great wall with only a few “tourist bruises”, a great story to tell and one amazing memory of travelling to the Wall.

We met a fellow travel blogger/backpacker who was also on day one of her own journey (see Emily’s blog here) and started discussing possible ways to get to the Mutianyu portion of The Great Wall. At the hostel in Beijing we are staying at, there are guided tours but we were hoping to spend less and also wanted the adventure and challenge of getting there ourselves.

After researching the route and suggestions from other bloggers, all three of us set off to find our way to the Wall. From what we read, it was possible but tricky as scams and money grabbing schemes are common, so we knew we would very likely run into a few snags along the way. And we sure did!

Lesson #1: Don’t Act Like Tourists (Even Though It’s Obvious)

It started out pretty smoothly. We knew we needed to get to Dongzhimen station to catch a bus. Easy enough. We’ve only been here a short time but the subway system is pretty simple to learn once you’ve tried it and seen a map, so we knew how to navigate to get to the line transfers we needed.

Our instructions told us to catch the 916 bus to Huairou so we made our way to the bus transfer and found the line we needed. We hesitated. Just a moment where we opened a map and all three of us looked at it with concern, like we didn’t quite know where to go. And that’s all it took.

We were instantly approached by a woman claiming she could take us to bus 830 that would get us to Mutianyu quicker than the one we were waiting for. We followed at first but remembering that the lady at the reception desk at our hostel confirmed our directions for us, we quickly decided that even if it was quicker, we weren’t going to risk it.

We never did see bus 830 on route to the Wall but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or wouldn’t have gotten us there faster, we just don’t believe that’s the case. We opted for the way we had researched and got back in line for the 916.

        Mutianyu Great Wall, Guides at the Great Wall, How to get to Mutianyu

Lesson #2: Don’t get off the bus.

Three stops and an hour in and a man steps on the bus, walks up to the three of us and says this is the stop for Mutianyu. Now, we know for a fact this is not the stop the directions indicated and we wouldn’t have gotten off the bus, but two Chinese girls on the bus with us spoke to the man and told us the taxis weren’t running from Huairou (the station we needed to reach).

They said they’d get off the bus with us so we could go together as they were headed there as well. As the bus drove away and we listened to the one girl and the man, who we learned was a taxi driver, talk to each other in Chinese, it became increasingly obvious that this was one of those scams we had read about and by the sound of the girl’s tone, she was not happy about it.

It would have ended up being a scam and we would have had to pay significantly more. While we wouldn’t have gotten off that bus without the girl, she ended up saving us money and time in the long run by negotiating with the driver and ensuring we all went in the “cab” together.

She was incredibly helpful making sure we got our tickets and gave us instructions and directions for getting back. It was quite the contrast in attitudes to see one person working so hard to work their scheme and another fighting so hard against it. While we don’t appreciate being taken advantage of, we also don’t fault someone for wanting to make a little extra cash, and we sure are thankful for having someone who just wanted to help.

 

Dumplings in China, Great Wall of China restaurants, Mutianyu Great Wall, Dumplings and Noodles

Lesson #3: When Ordering Dumplings, Make Sure You Know How Much You’re Ordering.

The three of us were pretty hungry by the time we made it to the first entrance to get to the Wall, so we stopped in a dumpling restaurant. The waitress didn’t speak English but we tried hard to communicate that we wanted 3 pork and chive dumplings and 3 pork and shrimp dumplings.

We weren’t sure she had completely understood what we had said and were proven correct when we received three of each alright. Three plates of each for a grand total of 60 dumplings. We were shocked at first and a little upset because we weren’t convinced she didn’t “confuse” our order on purpose, but our frustration quickly turned to laughter at the absurd number of dumplings set before us.

We decided to make light of the situation, pack up a to go bag, pay our bill, and take the dumplings with us. Before we left Macrae joked in English/make-shift signing that since we bought so many dumplings, maybe we could take the chopsticks for free. She smiled and agreed, so we are now travelling with our own set of chopsticks.

mutianyu village, mutianyu great wall, stone carvings china

Lesson #4: Climbing the Great Wall is not a piece of cake but it is definitely worth every step.

After lunch we headed, on foot (instead of buying a shuttle ticket), the half hour walk from the first gate through the village of Mutianyu, to reach the stairs that would take us to the Wall.

Once there we started our climb to the top of the mountain and the Wall itself. It was not an easy task. Steep staircase, after steep staircase, we seemed to be climbing for hours but in reality it was probably only one.

By the time we made it to the top we were sweaty, exhausted and had drank more than half of our water. It was hard to focus on much else but the fact that our legs hurt, until we took the final step onto the Wall and got our first real glimpse of the view. It’s one of those views that no lens could ever capture to its fullest extent but regardless, you keep snapping photos in the futile hope of getting just one that may do it justice.

 

Great Wall Selfie, The Great Wall of China, Mutianyu Great Wall, Climbing the Great Wall

Lesson #5: Tours cost 280 Yuan (aprox. $40 USD). Finding our own adventure is priceless.

We walked along the Wall for a while before heading back down and making our way back to our hostel. The route home was somewhat less eventful since we knew the buses we needed to take and ignored all offers of a “taxi” ride.

Looking back on the day it was completely exhausting, filled with the unexpected, and one of the best days ever. It was only the first day of our adventures but we definitely learned and experienced a lot and it is a day we won’t soon forget.   

One Modern Couple Visiting The Great Wall Of China Mutinyu

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What It Means For Us to Pack Up & Go – Part 2

 

We touched on three of the common questions we’ve received when describing our decision to travel full-time: “What about money?”, “So, you are quitting your job?”, and “What about your apartment and things?” There are two additional questions we seem to receive quite frequently as well and we will attempt to answer them now.

What about your relationship? Won’t it be a big stress?

one modern couple, funny face, couple photo,

We certainly don’t have all the answers and we definitely can’t see into the future but what we do know is that every stage of this process has been something we’ve done together and has enabled us to spend time growing closer and strengthening our relationship. Our passion for travel is something we have shared all along and building the blog started as a hobby building websites together. With that in mind, we both hope and feel that the rest of our ventures and travels will continue to follow in that vein and will serve to strengthen us as a couple.

Having said that, we know that for a relationship to work you have to put work into it. Both of us will have to put in the effort. Staying in love and making a relationship work doesn’t happen through magic no matter where you are or what you are doing, and we both acknowledge that fact. Yes, we are stirring the pot up a bit by putting ourselves in a position where we will face obstacles and challenges that we will have to work out together but we believe that this will only lead us to grow stronger.

What about your family?

OneModernCouple & Aunt, missing family, One Modern Family, One Modern Couple, Aunt

In our post Living Life Without Limits – Packing Up, Selling Off and Heading Out, we touch on the fact that it’s tough to leave family and friends but that it helps to have multiple forms of communication available no matter where we are.  It does help to know we will be able to talk to our loved ones in some form, but it in no way replaces real interaction, so of course we will miss them terribly and we will think of them often, but we know this is something we need to do to fulfill our lives as individuals and as a couple.

Many of our friends and family don’t want us to leave but they are supportive nonetheless, and we are grateful for that. It’s never easy being apart from those you care about but as time goes on we believe we will learn to maximize the quality of our time when we are together and take advantage of every opportunity we can to call, email, Skype, and the like, while we are away.

 

We posed all of these questions, and more, to ourselves while we were making our plans and hope that after these two posts we have given a good idea of how we finally arrived at our decision and shown that what we are doing involves a lot more thought, discussion and effort than just deciding to “pack up and go”.

Comment below and let us know what would be the hardest thing, for you, about packing up and leaving.

 

Now Boarding – The Start Of Our New Lifestyle

macrae at airport

Only 12 more days before we leave! We’ve officially launched our site and it’s almost time to pack our bags and fly out. Which begs the question: where are we going?

With our hearts set on seeing the world, we really had no place to start. What we did know is that we wanted to begin our journey in a location that was gentler on our bank accounts but still provided great travel experiences. We also wanted to make sure we were able to stay for a longer period of time to allow us a chance to adjust to our new lifestyle. We narrowed our focus to Southeast Asia and the countries that offered longer stays for Canadian travellers. From Taiwan to Phillipines, Vietnam to Cambodia, we researched countries, read other blogs and perused photos. What our decision came down to was…elephants.

Carolann’s favourite animal is the elephant and one of her top bucket list items has always been to travel to an elephant sanctuary and spend time, up close and personal, with them. So when we received a recommendation for a sanctuary in Thailand we decided it would be the perfect place to start. We applied for, and received, our travel visa for Thailand which allows us a two month stay. We fly into Chang Mai, in the north, and from there we will decide how long we stay before heading south.

Before we fly to Thailand however, we opted for a quick, one week stay in China. What initially began as an idea to pick a flight with a layover in Hong Kong for dim sum, evolved into a desire to see the Great Wall (thanks to one hour where Macrae was left alone with a Lonely Planet travel guide for China). We leave Canada for Beijing and intend to visit a couple parts of the wall and as much of Beijing as we can within the short period of time we are there.

Our travels after Thailand are still unknown, even to us, but we know we want to see much more of Southeast Asia before moving on to another continent. We hope you follow us on our journey through our blogs and photos and share our excitement as we travel.

Have you been to China or Thailand? We’d love for you to comment below and tell us where you’ve been, what you think we should see, where we should eat and any other recommendations!

Airplane Window

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Review Of The Melia Marina Varadero

At the Melia Las Dunas in Santa Maria we were travelling as a couple but on our second trip to Cuba we travelled with our family in a group of 8 adults and 2 children. It wasn’t intentional that we stayed at a Melia resort our second trip to Cuba but we were glad we did. The resort was perfect for us as a large group and offered many opportunities for all the couples and smaller families to have time on their own.

We definitely think this is a place for families or groups of friends looking for a vacation destination, but more than that we really think it is a perfect romantic destination. If you’re looking to plan a romantic trip, we’ve put together some other amazing anniversary trip ideas that are great for any couples getaway!

Initial Impressions – Enter Paradise

varadero beach view from snack bar

 

On our second visit to Cuba, we stayed at the Melia Marina Varadero. The resort is only about 45 minutes from the airport via shuttle through local areas which provides a very brief, but fascinating, glimpse of Cuban living.  We were told when we booked the trip that the resort was still under some construction but when we arrived there was very little evidence of any construction left to be done to the main portion of the resort. The bulk of the remaining work was on the areas surrounding the hotel where non-inclusive shops, cafés and a bowling alley are being built.

Once again, when we first walked into the lobby, we were immediately embraced with a tropical island oasis feel.  The only issue we had was with regards to check-in. We unfortunately had to wait 2 hours after the listed check-in time to receive our room keys. Since we had gotten to the resort 2 hours prior to this time, we were pretty tired but it’s hard to complain when you can check your luggage at the front desk, grab a drink and sit on a gorgeous beach to wait.

The Room – A Great Marina View

hotel room melia marina varadero

Unlike the Melia Las Dunas, this resort had one main building of hotel rooms around which the rest of the resort was built.  The room we received was large, bright and clean, as was the bathroom which had both a bathtub and a large shower stall. We also had a balcony with a beautiful view of the marina.

As in Santa Clara, we were hoping to receive a swan towel. This quest for a swan towel at a hotel started before Cuba and has been an ongoing joke of ours since. Although we got some very nice curtain and bed sheet designs this time around, we were still left without a swan by the end of the trip. (You can find our first swan towel, and the excitement that ensured, at the Swiss Lanna Lodge in Thailand.)

There were also a set of apartments as an alternate room option, in which one couple in our group stayed. The two bedroom apartment came with a family room, two bathrooms, kitchenette and laundry area and was not only large but clean and comfortable. The apartments also had their own roof-top pool and fitness area.

The Beach – White Sand, Turquoise Waters

varadero beach cuba

Considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, Varadero beach will have you taking a moment of silent reflection as you look out over the pristine water and white sand.  From the resort, the beach is accessed by a boardwalk but it was not too far of a walk and there were staff driven golf carts for those that wanted. The other benefit of having the beach slightly off the resort was that the sand fleas (if there were any) also remained at a distance. The water was clean, calm and warm and the resort staff put on water-aerobics every morning which was actually a lot of fun and got us interacting with other guests. The beach also had plenty of cabanas and beach loungers so there was always shade if we needed.

The Pool – Family Fun

view of pool at the marina hotel in varadero cuba

There was one large pool behind the hotel with a swim up bar and a 24 hour restaurant. There was less shade by the pool but plenty of loungers. Cabanas could be rented and there was entertainment and activities throughout the day. Again, we spent more of our time by the beach, but enjoyed taking some time by the pool at the end of the day.

The Food – Another Pizza Love Affair

heart shaped pizza marina hotel varadero

Once again, the food was not what is expected of a Cuban resort. We actually looked forward to the buffet to see what new items were added and which of our favourite dishes were back again. It seems like a pattern with us in general, but the pizza was one of our favourite foods. The cook who makes it was a delight to chat with and has an obvious passion for what he does. He even made us a heart-shaped pizza with toppings of our choice. We still talk about how delicious that pizza was.

The restaurants by the pool and beach both offered a different menu and were enjoyable as well. Unfortunately, the a la carte options were limited as they were still in the process of putting together more restaurants but there were 5 to choose from. we would recommend the Latin restaurant. They were incredibly accommodating and entertaining and the food was good.

The Service – Impeccable!

suprise drinks from marina hotel varadero

For the most part the service at this resort was 5-star. The waiters and bar staff were helpful, friendly, and always going that extra step to make the guests happy. The above photo is of the marina bars “surprise”. It was recommended by one of our favourite bartenders on the first night and they remained a staple for our entire group for the rest of the trip!
The manager of the resort could be seen quite frequently interacting with guests and overseeing the staff to ensure all aspects of the resorts’ service was spot on.  The only area where we felt was lacking was the front desk. They were less helpful during the delay in check-in and less friendly when asking questions throughout the stay. As a whole however, the service was impeccable.

The Entertainment – A Must-See Every Night

dog show in the marina veradero hotel

The Melia Marina Varadero had a plethora of entertainment and activities throughout the day and into the evenings. From beach- and pool-side activities to evening shows by the marina, there was always something to do and see.  Every evening there was a different show prepared for the guests and each one was well produced and thoroughly enjoyable, including a magic show and a salsa/variety night, to name a few.

In addition to the scheduled nightly performances, there were musicians frequently playing in the lounge during the evening and random surprises throughout our stay.  On one afternoon during our stay, we decided to go to the pool after our day at the beach and were surprised to see an animal show being organized. Dogs, a monkey, a horse and a donkey were among the animals in this funny and entertaining act that had the full attention of both adults and children.

Sometimes the thought of spending a full week in one location can seem monotonous but our visit was filled with a variety of performances and activities we could choose to participate in, or forgo. For those looking for late night entertainment, there was also a disco where guests could dance into the early hours of the morning.

The Location  – Perfect for Beach Lovers and Explorers Alike

horses in varadero

The great thing about a resort in Varadero, is the ease in which you are able to venture into town. There is a bus service with stops by all the resorts, for tourists exclusively which will take you along the main road into the heart of town and back again for a few pesos.

Stepping off the bus in town was like stepping into another decade.  Classic vintage American cars, faded brick buildings, and locals sitting on front stoops chatting, were prevalent and really hit home the differences between Cuba and where we are from. Playing to the masses of tourists, market squares, street vendors and restaurants are also very common.

We would highly recommend at least one day visiting Varadero. While it is obviously a tourist destination, there are still glimpses of local lifestyle between the elements of commercialism.

Dining Out in Varadero

paella from la vicaria in varadero

Local food is also a great treat. We ended up choosing a restaurant we had passed twice, La Vicaria. We noticed that there seemed to be many locals dining there and decided that it was a good sign. We ordered an appetizer of cooked shrimp and as our mains we ordered a pork chop dish and paella.

We would highly recommend the paella which came as an assortment of meats, fish and wonderfully seasoned rice and had us wishing we had ordered two bowls. It was a great chance to taste some of the local cuisine and only cost us about $20 CDN for the entire meal, including an appetizer and drinks.

Overall, both our experiences at Melia resorts were memorable. If you are looking for 5-star dining, then you may want to look outside of Cuba, but we can’t complain about the quality of meals we received. With the differences in locations, each resort offered a slightly different atmosphere.

The Melia Las Dunas in Santa Clara felt more isolated, family-oriented and laid-back, whereas the Melia Marina Varadero had a faster-paced feel with loads of entertainment. The ease of travel to Varadero was also a bonus with the Melia Marina as you are able to escape the confines of the resort and explore Cuban culture.

Either way, our experience with the Melia chain has been fantastic and we look forward to comparing more Melia resorts, as well as other chains, in the future.

 

Looking for a different resort in Cuba? See our previous review of our first all-inclusive Cuba vacation at the Melia Las Dunas, Santa Clara.

 

We had amazing experiences in Cuba but we know there are other great destinations out there. Comment below and tell us about your favourite vacation destination!

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Melia Resorts in Review. Part One: Santa Maria

Two of our major vacations over the past two years were all-inclusive trips to Cuba. We chose Cuba for its beautiful beaches and reasonable prices and on both occasions happened to book with a Melia resort. We weren’t disappointed with either trip but there were definitely differences between the two areas, and the two resorts, which resulted in different experiences altogether. The first trip was to the Melia Las Dunas in Santa Maria and the second trip was to the Melia Marina Varadero.

The Melia international chain of hotels is a Spanish owned chain with over 350 hotels worldwide. While we’ve only been to two (and both were in the same country), I can honestly say we were truly impressed with both stays. In this two part series we’ll discuss both resorts individually and then provide a summary for those looking to vacation in Cuba.

First Impressions of Melia Las Dunas Resort

Melia Las Dunas Resort

Our first trip was to Santa Maria and the Melia Las Dunas Resort. The resort is about 1 hour 45 minutes from the airport in Santa Clara via resort shuttle and the route takes you over the Cayo Santa Maria causeway which makes for some pretty nice views.

When we arrived at the resort we were immediately greeted with warm smiles and offerings of tropical beverages. We were given our room keys right away and set off to explore the resort. As we stepped out of the lobby we were immediately hit with the tropical feel of the place. Palm tress, shrubbery and flowers created a truly isolated, island oasis. The entire resort has this welcoming, enveloping feel and made walking around a truly pleasant experience.

The Room – A Private Oasis

melia las dunas cuba standard room garden view

Rather than one main building, many individual 2-storey units house multiple rooms. The room we received was clean and spacious with a small entrance-way and sitting area as well as a vanity separating the closet and the bathroom. Every morning we received a different towel design on our bed. We were hoping for a swan and heard that other couples had returned to their rooms after breakfast to find one awaiting them… the above picture was the most complicated creation we found during our stay. This was the only real disappointment of the trip.

The Beach – Paradise & Perfection

santa maria beach

The view of the beach on Cayo Santa Maria is one of the most surreal experiences. Stepping onto soft white sand, looking out at crystal clear water that is the colour you think only exists in photoshopped photos, we felt like we were in paradise. The water was warm and for half of our stay it was calm.

The only thing we noticed was the lack of shade. Few palm trees or cabanas decorated the beach and the ones that were present, were taken early and rarely left for the duration of the day.

Be aware that on some beaches in Cuba, as in most sandy beaches, sand fleas are present at night time and are vicious biters. Socks, shoes and full length pants would be your best bet if you plan on catching the sunset on the beach, but this still won’t guarantee those pesky critters won’t find their way to your skin.

The Pool – There’s More Than One!

melia las dunas cuba pool area

There were two pools on this resort. One in the “family” section of units, where any one could go, and one on the “adults” section, where children were not allowed. Both areas had activities during the day, obviously geared for the age ranges present, and both featured swim-up bars.

We didn’t spend too much time at the pool until the end of our week when the weather became overcast and too windy to spend long hours at the beach but we were always able to find a lounger.

The Food – A Pizza Love Affair

pizza heart

Despite what many people have told us, food at Cuban resorts is not always bad. I was prepared for flavourless meals but instead found some pretty delicious food. The buffet changed from day-to-day. Not altogether, but significantly enough so as not to tire of the options.

The a la carte restaurants were also a nice change from the buffet. Our favourite was the pizzeria which was not only an a la carte option for dinner, but was also open for lunch without a reservation.

At the airport on the way home, passengers from other resorts commiserated over the bland and inedible food they experienced. Fortunately, we were unable to relate to their experience.

The Service – Smiles & A Helping Hand

cuba bartender and crab

From the concierge to the bartenders, the pool staff to the waiters, our Cuban hosts were always smiling, friendly and willing to help. At the end of our stay, Macrae fell pretty ill with the flu and we received a great deal of support from the concierge and the wait staff. The only issue we did have was with our room attendant (and no, not just because we didn’t get any fancy towel swans). She was often missing in action, failing to re-supply the toilet paper, or not altogether friendly when we did find her, but from those we spoke to on the resort, she was one of the exceptions and we were usually able to find another attendant at the neighbouring units to help us.

The Entertainment – Always Something New

Melia Las Dunas Fire Drinks

The resort seemed to have a significant number of families the week we were there. Many activities were available for children but there were also numerous adult oriented activities including sports, such as tennis; dance classes, such as salsa; and even Spanish lessons. There was nightly entertainment in an open theatre off the main bar which showcased dancers, comedy acts, magicians, and a night for Disney characters and songs. Random entertainment also seemed to pop up regularly. Musicians in the lounge, “Cuban Day” festivities with music, dancers and, my personal favourite, popcorn and cotton candy machines, were all unexpected enhancements to our stay.

Excursions also run from this resort which vary in price and depend on what tour company/airline you use. We had to cancel our snorkelling/swim with the dolphins excursion as Macrae was too sick to get out of bed, but friends we made there said it was incredible. There is also a marketplace that sits between Las Dunas and another resort which is set up with vendors during the day and has a bowling alley, discoteque, and restaurant for later in the evening. These are not included in the cost of your trip but are relatively inexpensive.

The Location – A Secluded Island

cuban market

While it may have been the time of the year in which we visited (late March), we found our resort to be a quieter, family-oriented location. This suited us fine as we weren’t looking for a spring break atmosphere.  The location was also remote, requiring air transport to Havana or any other distant tourist locale. The snorkeling here is supposedly some of the best on Cuba and while we were unable to experience it during this trip, we hope to make it back one day and see if it’s true.

Even though we ended up being limited to our activities towards the end of our trip (and even though there were no swan towels) the trip was still tons of fun and incredibly memorable. The overall experience at the resort was fantastic and we’d highly recommend it for anyone looking for a more relaxed vacation, with unbelievable beaches, amazing service and good food.

 

Looking to see another location in Cuba? Check out our review of our second Cuban all-inclusive vacation to another Melia resort, the Melia Marina Varadero.

 

Have you been to Cuba? Where is your favourite location and resort to stay?

 

 

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A Weekend in New Brunswick – Part Two

Our breakfast at Homestead Restaurant left us in good spirits as we headed to Hopewell Rocks, what we ultimately had travelled over 1500km to see. We made it in time for low tide (check online for times if you go) and it was one of the most amazing experiences. Here is the rest of our list of stops (Check out the first part of our Weekend in New Brunswick) that we think are worth your while in New Brunswick:

Hopewell Rocks Ocean Tidal Exploration Site

Hopewell Rocks Ocean Tidal Exploration Site is only about a 30 minute drive from Moncton and while there is an entrance fee, it is reasonable and allows you access for two days in order to see both high and low tides, walk the trails or visit their beaches.

 

hopewell rocks high tide large pichopewell rocks low tide large pic

The Flowering Pot Rocks (seen above) were about a 1km walk from the start of the site. Throughout this walk, there were various well-marked lookout points to stop at and take in the view. The water had receded completely from when we had gone the evening before and at every lookout there was dry land where there was once many feet of water. The guide at the stairs down to the ocean floor said the water level can reach up to 14 m at high tide!

yingyang hopewell rocks

We walked down to the bottom of the Flowering Pot Rocks and around the excavation site and marvelled at the complete transformation of the area from just a short time ago. Such large quantities of water evacuating from such a large area was almost beyond comprehension. Visiting Hopewell rocks is not only recommended, but we feel it is a must-see site. If you get a chance, see the area at both high and low tides to get a true sense of appreciation for this phenomenon.

Sticky Buns from Kelly’s Bake Shop

sticky bun from NBKelly's Bake Shop NB

On our stop at the tourist centre at the beginning of our trip, we were told that we could find some truly amazing sticky buns in Alma.  Even though it required a half hour drive in the opposite direction of where we were travelling, we opted to make the trek to Kelly’s Bake Shop and see if it really was worth the star we drew on our map. It was worth 5. The sticky buns were fresh and moist with just the right amount of cinnamon. In addition to sticky buns, they had fresh pies, breads, cookies and other baked goods. We decided to buy some savory buns and they were a delicious treat for the drive back. We didn’t regret backtracking and we don’t think you’ll regret making this a stop on your trip.

 

The Acadian Coastal Drive

house on the beach in newbrunswick

We opted to drive up the coast and follow the Acadian Coastal Drive marked on our map. This took us along the coast of the Northumberland Strait and the Gulf of St. Lawrence and provided some incredible views.

barn house new brunswick

It was a breathtaking drive witnessing the coast and passing through small towns that are the very definition of East Coast charm. We only took this route as far as Miramichi before cutting across the province, but the drive runs all around the Eastern and Northern coast and is definitely on our list of things we’d do again. If you do happen to take a drive along this route, we would highly recommend having a meal at Seaside Grill in Rexton. We stopped here because it was the first restaurant we passed and we were hungry, but it was perfect timing. We had the best East Coast seafood of the entire trip.

ocean view new brunswick

We ended up heading out of New Brunswick on Sunday night making our stay in the province only a weekend in length. Whether you have a significant amount of time to spend in New Brunswick, or you are just heading there for a long weekend like us, there is plenty to do and we think that our list provides a great place to start planning.

Maybe New Brunswick is too far from where you live for a road trip. Comment below and let us know where your favourite road trip destination is from where you live!

 

For tips on long weekend road trips, see our post “10 Tips for a Long Weekend Road Trip”. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, like our Facebook page and subscribe to our mailing list!

 

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A Weekend in New Brunswick – Part One

new brunswick welcome sign

It was the Tuesday before a long weekend and we still hadn’t settled on plans and so when a travel advertisement came on and an image of Hopewell Rocks flashed across the screen, it seemed like a sign. We were going to New Brunswick for the three-day long weekend. And we were going to drive.

We left after work on Friday night with a cooler full of snacks, our bags packed and our hatch full of pillows and blankets and set off through Quebec to make the 20 hour drive to the East coast of New Brunswick and see the Hopewell Rocks.

We had to be back to work on the following Tuesday and while we didn’t want to set too much of a plan, we had to identify some key places that we wanted to stop so that we could ensure we hit everything. Taking turns driving the first night, we made it to New Brunswick by Saturday morning and figured we could make it back by Monday night if we circled around the coast. We ended up cutting across instead, just to make sure we got home in time, but managed to see a lot of what we wanted. If you are planning a visit to New Brunswick, whether it be for a weekend or longer, there are a few places we think are worth a stop:

 

Hartland Covered Bridge

wooden bridge altered

We were driving down the Western border and happened to see a sign for “The World’s Longest Covered Bridge” and decided, why not? We veered off course and went in search of this record holding bridge. Stopping to read a bit about the bridge, built in 1921,  we embraced the picturesque surroundings and the history of this structure.  It was a neat find and worth a detour. If you do decide to make this one of your stops, you may want to pay tribute to the past and give your significant other a kiss while passing through. Folklore has it that these “kissing bridges” were used by courting couples to sneak a hug or kiss.

St. Andrews

st andrews new brunswick

Our first main stop was in St. Andrews. This quaint town has a variety of things to do in a very small area including whale watching tours, hiking trails, a golf course, a marine science centre, a museum and plenty of scenic areas. We stopped at a tourist centre and grabbed a map and a tour guide and these helped tremendously with our trip.  We also grabbed lunch and had our first taste of East coast seafood that met our every expectation.

The Magnetic Hill

magnetic hill sign

We ended up making it to the Hopewell rocks area too late on Saturday to make the low tides and decided we’d snap a few pictures of the rocks at high tide and head to Moncton for the night. On our way into Moncton, we saw yet another sign that peaked our interest – “Magnetic Hill”. We got there after hours and were the only ones which allowed us to try this attraction many times for free. If you’ve never heard of a magnetic hill the gist is that you park your vehicle facing up a hill at a marked location. You then put the car in neutral and sit back as the car is “pulled up the hill”.  We tried this several times, facing up, facing down, and any number of variations in positioning and had a blast trying to figure it out. If you want to know the trick, you can search it, but I recommend trying it at least once before you do.

Breakfast at Homestead Restaurant

homestead restaruant newbrunswick

Checking out of our hotel on Sunday morning in Moncton, we asked the concierge if she could give us a recommendation for breakfast. She suggested Homestead Restaurant just outside the city and we are so glad we chose to take her advice. The interior is cozy and inviting with wooden décor and a display of baked goods. The menus are handwritten and, since they bake all their own bread daily, the aroma of freshly baked bread permeated the restaurant. Between the two of us we had an egg breakfast and pancakes which were both delicious and filling and exactly what we were looking for. The homemade bread brought it up another level and the only regret is not buying some baked goods to take with us. We would definitely recommend a stop here for breakfast if you are in Moncton.

What did we miss? Comment below and tell us what you think are other must-see places in New Brunswick.

 

Read more about our trip in A Weekend in New Brunswick – Part Two  or check out our post with some tips for long weekend trips. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, like our Facebook page and subscribe to our mailing list

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10 Tips for a Long Weekend Road Trip

 

Most young couples each have roughly 2 weeks’ vacation time per year and while this never seems like enough, there are some ways to maximize your vacation time. One of our favourite ways is taking short road trips which we either take on a long weekend or add a vacation day to one to make it a full four days. Wherever you are in the world, these mini vacations are a great way to maximize the limited vacation days you have available, while still exploring and spending quality time with your significant other. We’ve learned a few things over our travels that help us get the most out of our shorter trips and prevent us from experiencing cabin fever by the end of the drive:

1. Always check your vehicle. Even if you make plans last minute, checking windshield washer fluid, oil and gas levels are essential for a safe and incident free drive. Even with a thorough check, make sure you have a roadside assistance plan, whether it be a CAA/AAA card or the numbers of towing companies in the areas you are travelling through, preparing for car trouble is important. Taking a look at the air in your tires is also a good idea and can sometimes be overlooked in the excitement of impending vacation time. Ensuring the right tire pressure will also help you save gas, which leads us to our second tip.

2. Think of saving money on gas. The lighter you pack your car, the less gas it will need to lug you around, so pack as light as possible.  Other gas saving tips include driving relaxed (accelerating quickly and driving faster both eat at your fuel levels) and using open windows rather than the AC when driving at speeds under 80km/hr (50miles/hr) and rolling up those windows and turning on the AC when going over 80km, if possible (studies have shown that while A/C reduces fuel efficiency, driving over 80km/hr with the windows down increases resistance and fuel efficiency is reduced to a greater extent than having the AC on).  Not only is it good to think of saving on gas but using gas stations that accept points cards are key and it may mean fueling up sooner than you plan if you happen to see the right station.

3. Your vehicle is your living space, start with clean quarters. Make sure your car is clean of unnecessary items and garbage and organize your belongings for efficiency and safety.  Make sure emergency and first aid items, including water and blankets, are present and accessible and keep garbage bags nearby for any waste that accumulates. It may seem silly but keeping organized allows for a more relaxed few days on the road.  You don’t have much time to travel and you don’t want to be wasting it looking for items or cleaning up from stop to stop.

4. Be flexible! As you can tell by our spontaneous road trip to Key West (see 5 Things You Must Do When Travelling to the Keys), we tend not to overthink our travel plans. General plans are good to have. They allow you to stick to your shortened timeline and have a general route of getting to the main places you want to see. But planning too much can cause stress if there are any deviations or obstacles.  Being tied to a rigid schedule does not allow for the amazing unplanned adventures that a road trip often leads us on. In this day and age, cell phones allow us to access a wide range of information, including GPS, but if you are going somewhere where you will not have access to data, or you just want to do some good ol’ fashioned mapping, a CAA/AAA membership gets you free trip ticks showing you maps, restaurants, accommodations and key attractions from your home to your destination, and all the places in between.

5. Relax, road trips are about adventure. On road trips, we always like to just take things as they come. For spontaneous road trips, we have no choice. Either way, expect the unexpected and try to maintain excitement for new experiences. We’ve decided to camp for the night after a long day of driving and all the camp grounds were booked. We’ve even experienced an entire city’s worth of hotels being booked on the same night. Whether it’s your accommodations for the night, an attraction you were looking to see, or a detour you must take, try and maintain a positive outlook and enjoy it for what it is  – and adventure.

Short Road Trips

6. Music! You will be spending a significant amount of time driving and even if you think you’ll be able to chat endlessly with your partner, there will be times when silence will prevail. Whether it’s because you’ve run out of things to talk about, you’re enjoying the scenery, or you are switching off driving duty and it’s someone’s turn to nap, there will be times when some background music would be appreciated. Load up whatever media source you are able to play through your car stereo with music as radio reception is not guaranteed. We decided to get satellite radio to ensure we would have something to listen to no matter where we drive. What we did find was that, just like radio stations, satellite stations can begin to get repetitive when you drive for hours on end and having the option of turning to a talk radio station like a comedy channel was a great break.  This also helps to keep the driver awake and aware if you are taking turns napping.

7. Practice those relationship skills. This is a great time to practice working as a couple. It’s a time where you must work together to plan a general route and decide on stops, random or planned.  Staying cooperative, communicative and patient can be challenging during long periods together in closed quarters but it can definitely be a time that brings you closer together as a couple. And a word to the wise, this would probably not be a great time to bring up each others’ flaws as drivers.

8. Understand your budget and make the most of it. With short road trips it can be easier to budget your trip. If you want to save money, you can bring food and drinks in a cooler and top up the ice whenever needed. If you are looking to spend more on restaurants and the dining experience, you may want to reduce accommodation costs by finding camp sites or sleeping in the car rather than a hotel. Another aspect of your budget to take into account is whether you are looking to spend money on paid-for attractions or enjoy nature and the scenery for free. Whatever your budget is, there are ways to ensure you are getting exactly what you want out of the trip without breaking it.

9. Be realistic. Since you are only going for a short period of time, plan for your final destination to be at the midway point of the trip with plenty of time to return.  If you are the type of people who like to detour and/or make random stops when you see something interesting, set a mid-way date and time when you know you need to turn around, regardless of whether you have made your final destination or not.  It’s okay if you don’t get to see everything you had planned. You can use those missed places as inspiration for your next trip.

10. Be creative. Even though it is a short trip, there are always ways to get more out of it. Go somewhere close but with many different possible stops along the way. Or,  you can plan different routes to and from your destination so you can stop and see different things. You can also make rules for the trip to create more fun, such as always stopping whenever either of you see something in which you are interested. Just because you are taking a short road trip, doesn’t mean you can’t fill it with just as much excitement and adventure as a long one.

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5 Things You Must Do When Travelling to the Keys

 

On a recent trip to Florida we managed to get a car rental with unlimited mileage.  We were staying on the West Coast but couldn’t help but find a way to use those unlimited miles to our advantage.  We decided to venture to the Keys, even though it was off-season, to see what we could find. We ended up finding a lot.

Our initial plan was to make it to Key Largo, the first of the keys, and decide if we wanted to go any farther. We found ourselves travelling the entire length of the keys and staying three days and two nights in Key West.

It took us some time to narrow it down but here is what we chose as our top 5 “must-dos” of the Keys, counting down to our number 1, must-do!

5. Make the Drive Down the Keys

Islamorada

While flights can be taken directly to Key West or to Marathon (located in the middle of the keys), it is well worth it to drive the entire length of the chain of keys.  Flying into Miami International or West Palm Beach gets you on the right coast and offers a not-too-distant route.

Driving down the Keys is truly an amazing experience and each key has its own charms. Whether it’s to scuba dive in Key Largo or to try your luck at spotting the endangered Key deer of Marathon, you’ll find something different to see each stop you make.

Our most memorable stop was in Islamorada where we ate outside by the water at Islamorada Fish Company. We felt adventurous and ordered gator as our appetizer. They came out like chicken nuggets and were absolutely delicious! It was definitely worth it.

If you’re driving down from Miami, you may want to stop into 11th Street Diner before heading down to the keys. The food was some of the best we’ve had and it was one of the highlights of our trip to Florida!

4. Experience Key West Nightlife

Key West at Night

It may seem obvious that experiencing Key West at night is essential, but with so much to do during the day it’s easy to wind up worn out by nighttime. To us, Key West was like a tropical New Orleans with busy streets and numerous bars in a very small area.  As a couple, the off season was pretty perfect. No lines to get into any of the bars, no spring break crowds, and an entire strip of activity to explore.  We had a great time walking Duval street, stopping into differently themed bars, small market-like areas and shops as we went. We stayed in a hotel right on Duval, so we were smack dab in the middle of the action and able to immerse ourselves in the island’s nightlife. I can’t begin to imagine what the island must be like at night during high season… we’ll have to find out another time!

A tip: After eating some pretty amazing seafood for two days straight, I decided a little change was in order when I saw a small pizzeria. If you are looking for some absolutely phenomenal pizza, try Angelina’s Pizzeria on Duval.  Their tagline is “The Best Piece in Town”, and they aren’t lying!

3. Have Breakfast with the Roosters

Breakfast with the Roosters

One thing we discovered is that he dining experience in the Keys is impeccable. It seemed as though no matter where or what we ate, the food was delicious.

One of our most memorable meals was at Blue Heaven. Even though it was off-season we still had to wait 30 minutes to be seated, but this popular Key West restaurant was well worth the wait. It was a bit unnerving when we first sat down and found out that, until 2pm, they let their roosters loose to wander the dining area, but they don’t bother you and it was quite a different experience! The food was amazing as well. Between the two of us we had a fried egg breakfast and the special, lobster eggs Benedict. The only words of caution is to ask for the prices of their specials. We didn’t and got quite the shock when the bill came.

2. Go Snorkeling at the Reef

rum and reggae cruise Key West

The Great Florida Reef lies off the coast of Key West and while it doesn’t allow for great sandy beaches, it provides an amazing snorkeling experience. There are many companies that organize snorkeling excursions at pretty reasonable prices.

We ended up taking a “Rum and Reggae” boat ride to the reef. This cruise included snorkeling equipment (if needed) and on the hour ride back, all the rum punch or pina coladas you could enjoy while listening to reggae music. Even though it was a choppy day, the ride was beautiful and we were still able to see plenty of fish. If you have more time to plan your stay, coordinate your snorkeling excursion with the weather to avoid rainy days and I’m sure the underwater view is even more spectacular.

1. Watch the Sunset

Key West Sunset

It always seemed ridiculous hearing about someone crying over a beautiful sunset. Or it was until this trip. The sun began to set over half the way to Key West and we thought we’d pull over and maybe take a few picturesque photos. There are no words to accurately describe the beauty of that sunset or the feeling of complete serenity that falls over you.

We watched the sun set the second night and while not quite the moving experience of the first, it was still a breathtaking sight.

If you can only do one thing while you are in Key West, watching the sunset over the water should be it.

 

Been to the Keys? Comment below and let us know what’s on your “must-do” list!