Accommodations, Attractions, Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, Road Trips, Shopping, TRAVEL, Travel Planning, United States

Your Personal Travel Advisor

TRAVEL TALK: I’VE GIVEN MYSELF A PROMOTION

Yes, I know it’s Tuesday and I don’t usually post on Tuesdays, but Monday is devoted to a recent cruise, on Wednesdays I’m still covering Egypt and on Friday’s I share my Spot On Images post.  So what’s a girl who just attended a travel show supposed to do?  I decided if I squeaked this in here you wouldn’t mind too much.  Anyway, I’ve promoted myself from Random Travel Blogger to Personal Travel Adviser and I thought I’d tell you why.

The Travel Pros

I have a lot of respect for pros in the travel industry, but at a recent Travel & Adventure Show in Dallas, I learned I didn’t have quite enough respect for myself.  I’m not Samantha Brown.  I’m not even Josh Garcia. However, I might be more valuable to you than both of those travel pros.  While travel pros can give you some great information, they do not necessarily give you the best advice.  Let me give you an example.

Emmy Award-winning Investigative Reporter & CBS News Travel Editor

“Call the hotel directly and ask to speak to the MOD.” (That’s Manager On Duty for the rest of us.)  This is the advice Peter Greenberg gave to us.  He assured us this was the best way to score cheap hotel rates.

During the Q&A, the first guy to the mic challenged this advice.  He told of a call he’d made to a Las Vegas resort and the result had been just short of being laughed off the phone.  The MOD wasn’t going to be rude to a potential guest, but he wasn’t going to upgrade him to the presidential suite or comp a couple of days either.  Peter Greenberg, Emmy Award-Winning Investigative Reporter & CBS News Travel Editor has reason to expect that sort of treatment, but you and me and the guy at the mic?  Not so much.  Mr. Greenbers response?  Mumbling into the microphone about starting a conversation and moving to the next question.

Can a call to the MOD make a difference?  Absolutely.  Bill called the MOD at Egypt’s Mena House and negotiated an outstanding rate, but he had a reason to call.  Since he had an expired Egyptian passport, there was a chance he’d qualify for the resident rate.  Some hotels will, some won’t.  My charming husband called up and pumped the guy for information about the hotel, things he genuinely wanted to know, but he didn’t start with ‘give me a discount’.  Along the way he explained how much his travel-blogging wife wanted to stay there and lamented the good old days when his expired passport used to get him a reduced rate.  Before the call had ended, Bill had booked two nights at $75 a night.

So Mr. Greenberg was right about the advice, but he’d failed to share the conversation part and that had caused the guy at the mic to endure some unnecessary embarrassment.  I’ll give Mr. Greenberg a break.  He only has so much time to share his information and convince you to become a fan. I don’t have to squeeze everything I have to tell you into 30-45 minutes.  I dribble it out in 750-1000 word bites, but I’ve got nothing but time, so I can thoroughly explain exactly what I mean when I give you my opinion.

Back to the MOD thing – there could be any number of reasons to give him/her a call and see what happens.  If you’re a really patient person with a lot of time on your hands, then I recommend it heartily, but most of us just don’t have the time, the patience or the personality to charm the MOD.  I’ve tried it a couple of times and discovered the rate they offered didn’t even beat Expedia.  And that’s why I can give you better travel advice than the guy at the travel show.  I still face all the same challenges you do.

I’m More Like You Than I Am Them

One of the reasons you need to be a little suspect of travel pros is that they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a tourist.  They had to give up being a tourist to become a pro, but sometimes when they are giving advice to tourists, they forget about the pure joy of travel.  They behave as if you get points for avoiding an expense.  Unnecessary expenses, sure, like taking a cab for a 10 minute taxi ride from the airport, instead of paying $79 to the resort for shared transfers.  You bet I’m taking the cab, but what’s their beef with balconies?

The new trend among travel pros is balcony bashing.  They whisper about interior cabins as if it wasn’t clear to anyone, even novices, that inside cabins are less expensive.  That’s not exactly a travel secret.  Can’t afford a balcony?  OK, but don’t let that keep you home.  By the same token, if a balcony sounds good and you can afford it, get it. Travel is not some kind of financial acuity exam.  In fact, the easiest way to ruin a vacation is to grieve over every penny you spend.  Have a budget, stay in it and then enjoy the heck out of yourself.

So, here I am, your personal travel adviser.  You either know me personally or you’ve come to trust what I say because you’ve been reading my blog for awhile.  You should at least know you can trust me more than an anonymous review on a travel site and since this latest travel show I attended, I know you can trust me more than the pros.

I plan to take my new position very seriously, so let me know how I can help you with your travel quandaries.

Accommodations, Attractions, Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, Road Trips, Shopping, TRAVEL, Travel Planning

The Not So Cheap Cheapie Cruise

A Chilly Sail Away

TRAVEL HERE: EXTERIOR CABINS FROM $259

So Bill’s birthday was on the horizon and it was a significant number.  At dinner on a Sunday evening we discussed what to do about it and a short cheapie cruise out of Galveston seemed like just the thing.  We’d taken a Carnival Cruise out of Galveston a few years ago and had a great time.  We expected a repeat performance, with upgrades, but that’s not how it turned out.

A Quick Google

With very little ado I found a four day cruise on Royal Caribbean.  An exterior cabin was supposed to be $259.  That sounded good to Bill.  I’d warned him that Royal Caribbean had a la carte pricing and $259 was the starting point, not the final total.  He wanted a little time to think about it.  A little time turned into a day and Tuesday morning I contacted my travel agent, Sandra Rubio of CTC,Inc.

We had a little back and forth, because initially she couldn’t find the deal.  Part of the problem was that we’d waited a couple of days.  The golden rule of travel bargains is grab it as soon as you find it, but Mr. Bill isn’t made that way.  He always sleeps on decisions.  In most cases that’s a good thing and it has saved our gravy more times than I can count, but it did put a dent in our $259 (per person based on double occupancy) exterior cabin.

By Tuesday, interior cabins began at $280 and it was only $67 more for one with an ocean view, so we made the leap for an exterior cabin.  We got it for $313 each, plus taxes ($123.62).  So far so good.  We were under $750 and we were on Royal Caribbean, a line we’d sailed before and loved.

Let the Nickel and Diming Begin!

Something all cruise lines do these days is offer online sites for personal cruise planning.  Once you’ve booked they will send you a link and you can start personalizing your cruise.  Everything from bed arrangements to special events can be arranged through your portal.  It’s great for booking shore excursions, specialty dining, beverage packages and entertainment.  You can also begin to understand what you can expect once you are on board.

Not everything on the portal will cost money, but a lot of it does.  My first concern is always shore excursions.  I compare what the independent shore excursion companies offer compared to what the boat offers.  If you book independently, be sure you are using a legitimate shore excursion company that guarantees you will be back on board in time for your cruise.  Read the fine print and check out comments.

According to what you are looking for you don’t even have to book a shore excursion.  The spa and other services on board are usually heavily discounted when the boat is in harbor.  Sometimes everything you want is within walking distance of the boat.  Shop around and do your research.

What I Did

I was dying to go to Chichen Itza, one of the top archaeological sites in the world, but this wasn’t my cruise.  Bill opted for Discover the Yucatan and Mayan Culture, which was offered by Royal Caribbean.   Our only port of call was Progresso, which is a bit of a backwater in the cruising industry, so independent providers didn’t really offer much.  With a 30% discount for booking before we boarded, the shore excursions were $63 a piece.  I also purchased a beverage plan, because I can’t live without caffeine and I don’t drink coffee.  Again the pre-boarding booking saved me 30% and I had a $25 on board credit from my travel agent (see why you use a travel agent) I got a $40 package for $15.  That brought our total up to $990.74 which is almost twice the advertised $259 person price would be.   

What a bargain cruising can actually be.  If you consider transportation, food, accommodations and entertainment, you can barely stay home for $123.75 per person per day – much less travel.  So we may whine about the price a little bit, but cruising really is a big bang for your traveling buck.   

So far so good.  How did this trip almost turn into a traveling disaster?  Come back next week and we’ll talk about it.

 

ART, Attractions, Decorative Arts, DESTINATIONS, International, Shopping, TRAVEL

My Sharm-ing Shopping Opportunity

TRAVEL THERE: A MIDNIGHT TRIP TO THE LOCAL SOUK

Bokra is a word you hear frequently in Egypt.  It means tomorrow, but just like the Spanish word for tomorrow, manana, it also means ‘maybe tomorrow or maybe never.’  Since I’d been in Sharm I’d been promised a trip to the souk to do a little shopping and this was to be our last night in town.  As the clock ticked towards midnight, my anxiety grew, but I should have realized there was no need for worry.

THE SHOPPING

Mirette made good on her promise. It was well after 10 PM, but this was Egypt, so everything was still going strong. Maggie came along, because she still had some shopping to do, too.  The sisters headed off in one direction and I headed in another with Bill. Now that my mom is gone, souvenir buying is not as urgent, but I do like to pick up something for my bestie.

We wandered the shops but I couldn’t find exactly what I wanted. I like pharaonic jewelry, but it’s no longer fashionable in Egypt. Most of the jewelry looked like pieces I could buy anywhere, lovely, but they didn’t seem representative to me. Then there would be the pharaonic section, with huge scarabs or an elaborately decorated eye, but that wasn’t what I was looking for either.  I wanted something that would be worn frequently with pride, but I also wanted it to have an Egyptian flavor.

At one of the few shops which was closed, I found a lovely piece in the window that was just what I wanted.  The shop was locked up tighter than a drum.  Some shops were sitting wide open with no one inside, but if you entered a nearby vendor would come to help you.  I looked around helplessly and complained about the shop being closed a little louder than I normally would, but I was hoping someone would hear me, and then come over to offer their services.

Mirette showed up just about then to see how we were doing and I pointed out the necklace.  Darling Mirette disappeared for a moment or two and before I knew it, there was the shop’s proprietor, opening his shop and apologizing for his absence.  I’m not sure what it took to get the man back to the shop.  Perhaps Mirette was a friend or the shopkeeper understood her husband Ayman’s influence.  Whatever it was, we were very grateful, because nothing else in the bazaar was anywhere as lovely as the necklace in the window.

Come to find out the beautiful hand-made piece was beyond reasonable. I’d picked out the necklace for my bestie, but wished for one for myself. However, the proprietor was also the craftsman and he had only made one. I can understand why, because the necklace consisted of many tiny talismans and intricate beadwork, which is why I couldn’t believe the price. It was truly a unique piece. I satisfied myself with a lovely lapis lazuli lotus pendant. Bill pointed out that I could have taken the elaborate necklace for myself and given Deb the lotus, but then that wouldn’t have been quite fair now, would it.

Maggie too, had found just what we needed and we headed back to Mirette’s house.  The young ones had been put to bed long ago by their grandparents and a group of neighbors had joined the family, sharing sheesha and laughing at one another’s stories.  Soon the shoppers were gathered around, relighting the hookah pipes and telling their own stories – in Arabic.

I hate being the party pooper, but it was far beyond my bed time and all the chatter in an unfamiliar language only made it worse.  We were traveling in the morning.  I had my bags ready, but I needed to sleep.  Mirette carried us back to the hotel and another day in Egypt ended.

ART, Decorative Arts, DESTINATIONS, International, Shopping, TRAVEL

A Lazy Day Beside the Red Sea

TRAVEL THERE:  A LITTLE RELAXATION & A FEAST

When my husband first mentioned spending several days at the beach with his family, I was worried.  I don’t beach well.  About 20 minutes is all I can stand and that’s only if the wind isn’t blowing sand all over me.  I had visions of interminable days on end, chained to a chaise lounge, at the mercy of people who love the beach.  In reality, by the time I finally got a day to visit the beach, I was ready to enjoy it. 

POOL TIME

I may not see my grand nieces and nephews very often, but I’m no fool.  I bribe them with gifts and always have a little something up my sleeve. This trip that something was my coloring equipment.

A few years ago a friend gave me everything I needed to get hooked on adult coloring.  What she didn’t know was that I already loved to color, I just never seemed to have time for it.  Now I have a coloring book, coloring cards, coloring pencils and a great eraser that come out whenever I travel.  I like to color on the plane, but on this trip I also thought I could tempt the kids to color with me.  BINGO!

The Sharm Marriott has a great pool and when the family joined us there, I was already busy coloring.  Suddenly, I was the center of attention and they were eager to join me in a little coloring book action.  As they shared my pencils, their mom and I had the opportunity to chat.  It’s one of my favorite memories of the time in Egypt.

All good things must come to an end though and soon the nieces and nephews were on their way to Mirette’s house.  It was a time for sisters and cousins, so Bill and I stayed behind to enjoy the water a little more.  As I’d thought about our stay at the Marriott, one of things I’d looked forward to was a Margarita at the submerged pool bar, beneath a waterfall, but the bar didn’t open until late afternoon and I was never in the pool at that time, so I missed it.

BEACH TIME

Once the kids were gone, Bill wanted to move to the beach.  I was perfectly content to hang out at the pool until the bar opened, but it was his vacation too, so out to the sandy, sweaty beach I went.  After the allotted twenty minutes were over I begged to be released so I could wash my hair.  Reluctantly he agreed to let me go.

Now if you are a beach person, the Marriott was great.  Beautiful sand, gorgeous water, comfy lounges, rattan umbrellas, cabana boys delivering drinks – the whole nine yards.  I left Bill laying in the sun and retreated to the room.

THE FEAST

We were invited to Mirette’s home for dinner.  Her mother, Bill’s sister Mona, had been cooking all day.  What an absolute delight!  Mona is my favorite Egyptian chef.  She probably doesn’t realize she could charge me for her amazing macaroni and bechamel or her goulash (a sort of savory baklava) or her kufta or… so let’s not tell her!

She beamed as I dug in for seconds.  She’s well aware of the fact that I’m always counting my calories, so asking for seconds was a compliment of the highest order, but I supplemented the obvious with even more verbal exclamations of my complete bliss over her cooking.

Next was a little mid-night shopping trip, but you’ll have to come back next week for that.

Accommodations, Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, Road Trips, Shopping, TRAVEL, Travel Planning, United States

Travel Show Treats

TRAVEL HERE: VACATIONS START HERE

Remember when they tried to tell us travel agents were going to disappear, because everyone was going to shop for their travel online.  Well, go ahead and shop, but when it gets time to buy, call your travel agent.  They haven’t gone anywhere and they still book the greater majority of travel.  Besides that, they are free and that’s my price.  My travel agency is CTC  and my travel agent is Sandra Rubio.  Let me tell you about their recent travel show.

What I Didn’t Know

I’ve traveled a lot in my life, but it would be impossible to know everything about the travel industry, because things change all the time.  The the more you know, quite frankly, the better you will travel.  Most of the things I heard at CTC’s travel expo I already knew, but as always, I picked up little tidbits.  Some things help me get better value for my travel dollar.  Others introduce me to exciting new opportunities.

Here’s some of the new tidbits I can picked up this time:

  • BOOK CRUISES EARLY and the more you care about when, where, what boat and what cabin, the earlier you need to book.  2019 is already filling up and some of the best things in 2020 are already gone.  And the industry is very, very serious about this.
  • Yes, you can get short cruises.  Used to be the norm was 14-21 days, but that doesn’t work for Boomers or Millennials and that’s who’s driving the industry now.  There are lots of short 4-5 day cruises leaving American ports and 8-10 day cruises all over the world.
  • Say good-bye to losing your boarding card.  Royal Caribbean will be giving you a watch programmed with all your essentials.  Another line is working on a piece of jewelry that can be worn in several ways that will hold you essential info – not just your beverage program, but how you like your martinis!  Thank RFID technology.
  • Being single is becoming less of problem.  Remember those Boomers and Millennials who are driving the industry?  Well, most of them are single and even if they are not, some of them prefer traveling alone.  The travel industry has listened!  There’s an emerging market of single bookings available.  Price quoted double occupancy is still the norm, but you’re no longer required to make friends with a stranger or put up with your crazy cousin to afford traveling alone.  You’ll still have to do your homework, for now.  There are limited choices, but watch for this to pick up momentum.  For now, check out Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Cunard.
  • Get a passport!  Changes are coming.  Security and documentation for travel, even domestic travel, is quickly getting more and more demanding.  While for the time being you can still enjoy closed loop cruising or domestic flights without a passport, the clock is ticking.  They’ve got things in the works that will make flight documentation so cumbersome that you’ll want a passport – even if you’re just flying from Dallas to San Antonio for a long weekend.  And by the way, 13 airports in our world now have bio-metric security measures.  Expect it on your travels soon.
  • Thank Millennials for  community spaces in your hotel.  Have you noticed business centers have moved to the front of the hotel?  There was a time when finding the business center to check your email or send a fax (Ha! remember faxes?) meant wandering into the bowels of your hotel and you’d be very alone when you got there.  If you’ve visited a new hotel or a newly renovated one, then you’ve probably noticed bright, comfortable workspaces near the entrance.  These inviting communal spaces, the snack/wine bar and other property amenities are there to lure Millennials.  Since so many of them are self-employed, tele-commuting from home or working in other alternative spaces, they crave getting out of the four walls of their hotel room.  They want places to meet with their clients without taking them back to their room or going to Starbucks.  Their demand is our gain.  Not only is there a more attractive place to check your email, chances are there will be an inviting buzz in the lobby around 5 o’clock, the workout room will not be a grungy place where old gym equipment goes to die and who knows, there might even be grill on the patio!
  • All the new fees are not a product of your imagination – get used to it.  It started with the airlines, but it didn’t stop there.  First, it was baggage fees and box lunches.  Now, there’s fee for having an assigned seat or legroom.   Who knows when they’ll figure out how to charge you a fee for the air you breathe!  But that’s not the worst part.  The hotels, resorts, car rental agencies, tour operators, etc., etc. etc. of the world observed what the airline industry did and now you’ll find they are adding fees to their tab, too.  Tickets represent only 71% of airline revenue and with Spirit Airlines, that goes down to 60% – everything else is fees.  Hotels took in $2.7 Billion (with a B!) during a recent year and the number is just beginning to climb.  Bottom line, that online price is just the beginning.  Another reason to get to know your local travel agent!
  • New ships coming!  Cruising just gets more popular everyday.  Ninety-seven new cruise ships are scheduled to be launched from 2017-2025.  Yes, some of them are huge, like Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class, but smaller ships are wildly popular, too.  Ritz Carlton will be launching 298-passenger yachts. Emerald,a river cruising enterprise, is about to enter the small ocean-going ship market.  Celebrity is about to launch a new ship concept with The Edge.  Viking is churning out longships and small ocean-going ships as fast as it can.

That should be enough to tempt you off your sofa (even with all the fees).  So come on out and choose a vacation.  You’ll be glad you did.  Tell them Jane sent you!

 

 

 

DESTINATIONS, DFW Metroplex, Shopping, TRAVEL

So Maybe I Am a Little Neurotic

TRAVEL HERE: HOW HAPPY CAN $4 MAKE ME?

I once thought being a procrastinator proved I wasn’t obsessive/compulsive, but then I found procrastination is one of the first noticeable symptoms of the malady.  My friends politely speak of my perfectionism and I try to be normal, but it’s hard.  Recently $4 saved me from myself.

A Change of Seasons

When it came time to change my closet to my fall wardrobe, there was an issue.  I had enough hangers for all my clothes, but for some reason I suddenly didn’t have all the “right” hangers.  See, different kinds of clothes need different kinds of hangers and for some reason my clothes weren’t distributing themselves appropriately on the hangers I had.    I fussed over the problem with elaborate mathematical equations for a while, but finally convinced myself to quit being neurotic and instead be thankful I have clothes, because there are those who don’t.

A History of My Hangers

This hanger issue isn’t a problem I’ve always dealt with.  There was a day when I only had two kinds of hangers – the wire hangers from the dry cleaner and those nice clear plastic ones you get with the clothes you buy.  I didn’t think about hangers at all in in those days, but I did use my “good” hangers for my best clothes and everything else was on a wire hanger.

However, I did notice all the clothes in my mom’s closet were on those nice hangers from the store.  Of course, she worked in retail from the 60’s to the 90’s.  She made sure everything she bought home was on a nice hanger and with wardrobe attrition, eventually everything migrated to the good ones.  In fact, in my career girl days, probably the only reason I had those nice hangers was because of Mom’s generosity.  She gave me clothes for pretty much every occasion and even for no occasion at all, when she found something she wanted me to have and there was no occasion in sight.  Yeah, she was pretty amazing.  While I appreciated Mom’s closet, I guess I wasn’t neurotic yet, because I didn’t covet her closeting habits.

Then I went into real estate and we custom built a house.  You might wonder why selling real estate and building a house had any effect on which hangers I used.  Well, my days in real estate gave me some discretionary funds I hadn’t had access to before and when we moved into the custom house, one of the perks was a dream closet – complete with a dressing table.  One thing led to another and I suddenly had very specific hangers for all my clothes.  My evening clothes went on padded hangers.  Dresses, jackets and blouses went on those clear plastic hangers.  I had specialized multi-tier hangers for skirts and pants.  Everything else went on those white plastic hangers you can buy in bulk.  You cannot imagine the joy this brought me.  I would stand in my closet and derive pleasure from the mere sight of my clothes hanging on their appropriate hangers.  By then, Mom had retired and my closet was actually better than hers!

Maintaining My Obsession

There have been five houses since that customized closet and while none of those closets were quite so grand, I have maintained my penchant for hangers.  I’ve even expanded my collection.  I found heartier versions of the white plastic hangers that work great with jeans and outerwear.  I discovered specialized hangers for tank tops and camisoles.  Did you know they have hangers for boots, too?  To my dismay they “improved” the white plastic hangers, so I now have about four varieties of the white hangers in my closet, but I’ve had learned to ignore that hiccup.

Then suddenly my hangers were all wrong and no amount of switching could right the problem.  The bottom line was that I needed more white plastic hangers, but back in October I told myself I could do without them.  I’d just get by with a few variations on the theme.  Every time a hanger would break, the situation got a little worse.  Then I bought a few items from stores that thought tossing my purchases in a bag was enough. (You’ll be glad to know I didn’t lay down in the floor and have a fit.)  Soon it seemed as if some elf tribe was entering my closet each evening as I slept and trading out good hangers for bad, because it seemed as if the situation was worsening daily.  Every day more and more wire hangers were finding their way into my garments!

Mission Drift

So, what does all that have to do with $4 solving my obsession/compulsion issues.  Well, I was in Target to find a couple of items they’d been out of at Ulta.  Since I was there, I looked into several other items on my list, one of which  took me right by the storage department (though I can’t tell you exactly what item that was.)  There, I discovered a HUGE package of white plastic hangers was $1.99.  I’d been gritting my teeth for months over those “inappropriate” hangers and for less than 200 pennies I could just fix my closet.  I bought two packages!  My clothes are all hanging on the appropriate hangers now and unless those elves I talked about return, I’m set for a couple of years – and all for less than $4.

DESTINATIONS, DFW Metroplex, Shopping, TRAVEL

Back to My Life

Santa and some of his holiday elves!

TRAVEL HERE: THE LOST CHRISTMAS

This year I missed Christmas.  It wasn’t a planned omission, the way it was when we lived in Wylie.  That year we were camping out in a rent house and my husband encouraged me to keep Christmas in its boxes, because our house was going to be done any minute.  (We didn’t move until April, but I liked his optimism.)  No, Christmas made it out of the boxes and I had Christmas Cards on hand.  It was me that didn’t make it to Christmas.

My Ruth-less Christmases

Mom enjoying a holiday mess

Ruth was my mom and she was Christmas Central.  I lost her in 2013 and since then the holiday has just not been the same.  My family calls me the Queen of Christmas, because in Mom’s final years, it was my duty to provide her with a happy holiday, but I always missed the high mark she set.  (Maybe you saw my poem about that in December.)  In my first Ruth-less Christmas season, I pulled out my decorations and tried to carry on, but about the only sizzle the season had was a little trip Bill and I took to South Texas.

The next year we were in the rent house and perhaps it was her absence, as much as the rather depressing view of the rent house, that persuaded me to leave Christmas in the box.  Our first Christmas in Heath I pulled out all my treasures and decorated with a frenzy, but someone else dear to me was not doing well.  My sweet little Shih Tzu, Precious, was failing.  She waited politely waited until the hubbub was over to slip away, but to me that Christmas is memorable mainly because that white piece of fluff was was slowly fading away.

When 2016’s holiday rolled around I got out all the decorations the weekend after Thanksgiving and was determined to have a good time.  We hosted a couple of holiday parties and I even got Christmas cards out after Bill chastised me for trying to omit them from my holiday calendar.  However, as illustrated below, I have not been thriving at Christmas.

This year I just wasn’t in the mood.  I have no excuses, but the thrill was gone.  Ruth would have been so disappointed.  I didn’t drag out my decorations until the first weekend in December, even though many of my neighbors had been shining professionally-installed lights since before Thanksgiving.  The holiday parties began and we enjoyed a few, but I wasn’t feeling it.

Shopping at the Christmas Market

My Holiday Buddy

While my mom is gone, there is someone who is trying to bring back my delight with the season, my bestie Deborah.  She started early this year.  In mid-November she suggested we go to the Chi Omega Christmas Market at Fair Park.  To pump up my enthusiasm, she invited along a true Christmas elf, Allyson, who had already put a cookie-baking event in the works.  They bounced around the crowded Christmas explosion from one booth to the next, buying up Christmas gifts and reveling in the season.  I had a good time, but I only have a few folks to buy for and no need for Christmas decor, so my favorite part of the day was Tex-Mex at Trinity Groves.

Next up after the spattering of holiday parties was The Cookie Extravaganza.  We had an official meeting to choose recipes and plan our day of baking.  Allyson bought us all aprons and had them monogrammed.  I was more excited about this Christmas event than I had been anything else for years.  See, Ruth loved to cook and at the holidays she fabricated all kinds of treats – divinity topped with walnuts, pecans and maraschino cherries.  In Temple, my beloved Aunt Edie would create date bars, rum balls and even homemade fruit cakes.  But the highlight of Christmas baking was the day set aside for baking cookies.  Deborah and Allyson were bringing back the joy.

Ready to roll out cookies!

The Cookie Extravaganza

I hit the streets bright and early that cookie-baking day and my car was loaded down with ingredients which they’d assigned for me to purchase.  My apron was strapped on when I arrived, we took a picture and then we all went to work – and I do mean work.  We baked five dozen each of ten different recipes.  Exhausted and coming down with something, our hostess, Allyson’s mom, disappeared before we’d even gotten our cookies all divided up.  At the end of the evening, Deb & I hustled around trying to leave the home in reasonable order and Allyson assured us things were fine.

On the way home, I didn’t feel fine.  It was only natural for me to feel exhausted at the end of a day of hard labor, but it was more than that.  I crept into my home with my haul of cookies and put them away in airtight containers.  Then I fell on the sofa in relief.  My throat was scratchy.  I felt a little trembly.  Something was off.

Cookies from the Baking Day

For the balance of the season I played tag with a cold.  My sinuses were blocked, my throat was sore and I just could not quit coughing – no fever though.   Some days I’d get up and have an almost normal day.  I made a few holiday events, but missed even more.  If I don’t make it to church on a Christmas Eve Sunday, you know something is wrong.  I was home alone on Christmas Day.  On New Years Eve I sat at the breakfast table and completed a jigsaw puzzle (whoopee!).

Though I managed to scrape up a few crumbs, for the most part, this Christmas holiday was lost to me.  So, on New Year’s Day, as the TV provided coverage of the Rose Bowl Parade, I started putting away the decorations.  Even that endeavor was hampered by my health.  What I used to do in one day took me three!  But I’m back to my life and even though I’m posting this a few hours late – I’m back to blogging, too.  I hope this will be a great year for you and that you’ll come back on Wednesday.  We’ll be in Sharm el Sheik!

 

 

Shopping, TRAVEL

Happy Holidays

My house, ready for Christmas

TRAVEL HERE: CHRISTMAS MEMORIES

When I was a kid, my Christmas activities were tied to my school, my church and my family.  The other constant was driving around to see Christmas lights.  We moved back to Dallas in 1966 and hit the Christmas bonanza.  Highland Park, specifically Beverly Drive, was the most amazing Christmas array of outdoor decorations you can imagine.  Nowadays there are many neighborhoods vying for top dog status, which is probably a relief to the Beverly Drive residents.  What’s more, my hubby is just not to excited about crawling bumper- to-bumper through any neighborhood for any reason that does not involve profit.  The other big deal in my childhood days was the After Christmas Sales.

Post Christmas Shopping Frenzy

This Black Friday business is a recent phenomena.  The big shopping event used to be the day after Christmas.  Aunt Edie, Mom and I were enthusiastic about this annual event.  My sister Susan and Aunt Tommie would often join us, but they weren’t quite as pumped about rising early to fight the crowds.  For us the primary focus of the day was Christmas decorations.  Susan and I would stand in the long lines while the adults rushed about gathering the deals and parking them with us.  Sometimes I’d make treks out to the car to unload the purchases into the trunk and then hurry back in for the next retail foray.  Sometimes we would fill up the car at one mall, deliver our goodies to the house and head to another mall.  It was madness.

In those days, Mom and Aunt Edie used to trade off Christmas and Thanksgiving.  One year Mom would do Thanksgiving and Aunt Edie would do Christmas.  The next year Aunt Edie did Thanksgiving and Mom did Christmas.  One of the benefits of this was the variety it added to our post-Christmas Shopping Orgy.  In Dallas we hit all the big malls and shopped the department stores.  Aunt Edie lived in Temple – a much more boutique experience.  Aunt Edie’s shopping habits made her a known quantity in her small town and her arrival was always treated with elaborate gestures of welcome.  We’d visit florists, small shops, hardware stores and drug stores.  On occasion, we’d hit Salado rather than Temple.  What fun we had!

All this started when I still lived at home and eventually I did have my own place, but I still didn’t have a lot of discretionary income.  Collecting ornaments was something I did as a traveled, on a one-by-one basis, rather than stocking up at years end.  In defense of Mom and Aunt Edie, they used the sales to buy up on holiday gifts for the next year.  They both belonged to a wide variety of organizations which required them to participate in gift exchanges.  By December 27th of one year, they’d be stocked up for Christmas in the coming year.  Occasionally I noticed, however, that what one December was bought as a gift, might actually end up on our tree or coffee table.

Eventually, the day arrived that I could afford to join in the fun.  I was married with my own two-story house to decorate.  In a few years we moved out to California and built an even bigger house.  Mom and Aunt Edie would come out to visit and though they were no longer so interested in the holiday decor for themselves, they were more than happy to help me find things I couldn’t live without.

Thrice Blessed at Christmas

Now Mom and Aunt Edie are gone.  Aunt Edie didn’t have any kids and my sister didn’t catch the holiday decor bug, so I inherited two houses worth of Christmas.  While I did do some culling and selected only the creme de la creme from both collections, when I declare it’s time to start decorating, I’ve got a lot of Christmas to spread around.  It is a task of joy.  I’m a visual sort, so the very sight of these treasures unleashes so many memories.  I can recall the very day we bought them and from which store.  If they were Mom or Aunt Edie’s I can tell you where they used them around their house.  For the entire month of December, it’s as if they have come for a visit.  We reminisce about the Christmases of the past and enjoy the season together.

I don’t go to the after Christmas sales now.  Why would I?  Every nook and cranny already has it’s own bit of Christmas and there’s always plenty left over, just-in-case.  When we first moved into our house here in Heath, I did realize I suddenly had ten windows on the front of the house, something none of us had contended with before.  That first year I was Scrooge – until I could hit Hobby Lobby the day after Christmas.  In about 10 minutes I’d picked up 10 wreaths with big red bows and made it through the lines.  Bill went with me that day, but so did Mom and Aunt Edie – at least they were there in spirit.

 

DESTINATIONS, DFW Metroplex, Shopping, TRAVEL

Is Variety the Spice of Life?

TRAVEL HERE: AND THE WINNERS ARE…

We give up.  Perhaps the perfect meal kit service doesn’t exist, but we’ve identified some dogs.  He likes Hello Fresh for this and that, but if Home Chef is going to continue to delight me with dishes like Yorkshire Pudding, well I want it, too. Blue Apron, finally fell off the wagon for a variety of reasons. So for now, I’ll be juggling two services and hopefully I’ll figure out a system to insure that we don’t end up with two boxes of food for any particular week as I did a few weeks ago.  Perhaps someday down the road, one of the services will pull ahead of the others, but for now, I’ll just claim variety is the spice of life.

Why Not Blue Apron?

This journey began with several months of Blue Apron.  I’d done my research and read from several sources they were the best value – not the cheapest, but the one who provided the best product for the greatest value.  I loved it so much.  It wasn’t perfect, but it beat my own meal planning and food management, for a while.  Then Bill demanded a change of pace and did he ever get it!  He’s dizzy from the carousel of meal kit services.

As we sat down to discuss who would win the brass ring, I recounted all the reasons I used to love Blue Apron:

  • Interesting gourmet touches with every meal and lots of variety
  • Unique ingredients never available at the local grocery store
  • Usually the highest quality in meats, fish and vegetables – with some uneveness in the beef department and the occasional vegetable fail
  • Clever packaging that was fun to open and unload
  • Cute knick knack bags for their special ingredients
  • Great recipe cards with easy to follow instructions, helpful upscale photos of the cooking process and finally the best pictures of the plated meals
  • They’d made me feel like an accomplished chef

Even with all these pluses, I had to admit they couldn’t be THE meal kit service, because quite frankly, for the last few months, every time we used them all we had were problems and the food wasn’t as good as it used to be.  All the great recipe cards in the world can’t make up for food we don’t want to eat.

Why Hello Fresh?

Can you say Chicken Under a Zucchini Blanket?  Of all the meals we had from any service, this was Bill’s favorite meal – and I have to admit it was a winner.  Their other strengths were:

  • Not a single packaging or quality issue in six meals (something that no other besides Blue Apron can claim)
  • User friendly recipe cards that did the job (if not as well as Blue Apron)
  • Ingredients that were as least as good as what I would pick out for myself at the store
  • Good healthy food that Bill and I both enjoyed (but nothing in the least exotic)

I didn’t want them to be THE meal kit service because:

  • Unpacking my meal was just not as much fun
  • I don’t like the big brown bag per meal or their graphics
  • A little too main-stream-all-the-time for my palate
  • They said Parmesan Crusted Fish and it turned out to be tilapia
  • While the recipe cards did their job, they were less than excellent
    • less than pristine utensils used in cooking photos
    • a downgrade in overall ambiance
    • instructions were good, but not a s good as others
    • finished plate photos are not inspiring

Why Home Chef?

They had me at Yorkshire Pudding!  Not merely the fact that they offered Yorkshire Pudding, but because the dish was easy to make from scratch and it turned out perfect.  Their other two dishes for the week were quite tasty.  Here’s the other reasons they made the cut:

  • While not as adventurous as my friends at Blue Apron, Home Chef does get creative and almost exotic.
  • None of the ingredients were particularly unusual, but they came up with some unique dishes nonetheless
  • Great quality and no ooops yet
  • Clear plastic bags hold most of the ingredients together for each meal.  While this is not as exciting as obsessing over all the separate items in a Blue Apron Box, it beat the big brown grocery bags from Hello Fresh
  •   The recipe cards are great.  They actually offer a few items of information not provided by Blue Apron, but no points for plated dish inspiration.  They use the same distressed wood table for each shot and the same boring white plate.  (YAWN!)
  • I feel more like a chef with Home Chef than I do with Hello Fresh.

Some day they may actually pull ahead and be THE meal kit service, but till then, I’ll keep juggling.

And there you have it.  Wondering what I’ll come up with next week?  Come back and find out!

DESTINATIONS, DFW Metroplex, Shopping, TRAVEL

Freshly Disappointed

TRAVEL HERE: BYE-BYE FRESHLY AND SUN BASKET

Well, I’m on the decision end of my journey.  I’ve tried these meal kit companies, in this order: Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, Sun Basket, Home Chef and Freshly.  Two are now out of the running for my on-going business.  Let me tell you why.

Bland, Blah, Boring!

I was skeptical of Freshly from the moment Bill suggested it.  I wanted to be out of the meal planning and food management business, but I like cooking.  Freshly seemed like a pretentious form of frozen food to me, but since he’s the one I’m trying to please, I gave it a shot.

Our first meal was Roasted Pork Tenderloin with Zucchini & Potato Cakes.  These are three of my favorite foods, so it should have been a shoo-in for delicious.  NOT!  Last night we had Chicken Provencal with Roasted Pepper Cauliflower Mash.  Lots of reasons we should have enjoyed it, but we didn’t.  Peppercorn Steak with Carrots and Green Beans is still in the refrigerator, but after choking down two disappointments we’ve already made up our mind.  We’re even going to forfeit the discount on the second week’s delivery.

If you read their packaging, they do warn you they go easy on the seasonings and suggest ways to spice up your meals.  Well thanks, but there is only so much ground pepper and lemon juice can do. If your pork, potatoes and zucchini all taste the same to begin with, just adding condiments is not going to fix them.  The items may then have more flavor, but they don’t taste like pork, potatoes and zucchini with pepper and lemon, they taste like mush you are trying to doctor up with pepper and lemon.  Freshly prepares the meals, flash freezes them and then they defrost on their way to you.  What’s more, that’s exactly what they taste like.

A Basket of Mistakes

Sun Basket’s meals were actually pretty good, but they were fired for cause – two causes, in fact.  First, I hate their recipe book.  It’s a waste of paper for one thing, for another it gets all yucky in the cooking process and finally, their book is bereft of helpful photos and clear instructions.  Instead they have chatty blogs and vague do-this-until-that suggestions.

My second beef with them was the unreliability of their produce and packing.  You may or may not get your seasoning packages.  Your cucumber might have been frozen and rendered useless.  Your lemon might have a big spot on it.  We had six meals and had a least six oops.  I don’t want a weekly $10 refund.  I just want all the ingredients to arrive and for them to be top quality.

Their packaging was of the brown paper bag sort, like Hello Fresh, but while it’s not my preferred method of receiving my stuff, it wasn’t the reason I abandoned them.  With the other two complaints, it was just one more thing I didn’t like.

So, that leaves Blue Apron, Hello Fresh and Home Chef.  There are pros and cons to all of them.  So who wins the Meal Kit Challenge?  Come back next week and find out.