Thursday, 19 May 2016

Disney's Hilton Head Resort, South Carolina

In the United States, Disney has extended its reach further than the parks and resorts and they have other properties outside of Orlando and Anaheim.  One of those is a mere six hours up the road in South Carolina on Hilton Head Island.  Of course being so close, it was a perfect excuse for a road trip and to tick another state off the list! 

We visited way back in February, when the weather was much cooler than it is now and it hit lows of around 3oC, which for two girls being used to a Floridian winter (I use that word very loosely) it came even more of a shock to the system than Chicago!

Cold weather regardless, the Hilton Head resort is stunning.  It sits next to a beautiful lake and marshes and about a mile or so from the beach.  The marshes looked like something out of a film- it was speechless!  You can walk out to a gazebo over the marshes and although the wind really whipped up a chill while we were there, I can imagine it to be very beautiful during the summer!  

Hilton Head is also a Disney Vacation Club resort and because of this, the rooms are either studios or villas which make for a very homely stay.  The decor is all themed around a lake house theme which I simply loved!  Wooden board floors and very airy spaces, once again I felt as if I were in a film!  The bathroom also had a jacuzzi bath which was so relaxing, I ever normally pamper myself with anything like that so I enjoyed it very much. 

The amenities at the hotel were also very homely and welcoming.  Upon our arrival, we were greeted with warm apple cider and cookies - which are always a winner for me.  There's also a lounge with a crackling open fire, super comfy chairs, a selection of board games and newspapers - for us, it was great to warm up after a brisk walk outside!

They also have a whole selection of recreational activities (bike hire etc), a pool (definitely was too cold!) and a Community House where they were hosting a hot chocolate making activity.  I think I had whipped cream and extra marshmallows!  There's a quick service restaurant which served your regular Disney fare for breakfast and lunch but when you're lounging by the pool, you don't really need anything else! 

We did venture down the beach which was basically deserted.  The resort runs a shuttle down to the Disney Beach House if you don't fancy the walk.  Again, the Beach House would be amazing in the warmer weather with its pool and restaurant but was completely empty during our visit.  The beach was lovely; I really enjoy walks along the beach in the cold weather and I had wrapped up warm enough so it was invigorating enough to blow all the cobwebs away! 

The Island itself is very much geared up to the golfing tourists with a large range of restaurants and boutiquey shops scattered around.  Another perk for us was a Barnes and Noble - I forgot how much I enjoyed browsing through a bookshop, it's these simple pleasures that you can forget about in the busy, bustling, car-less environment of Disney!

Another great thing about this resort was that it was full of Disney magic without being so highly strung like the parks.  The cast were warm and friendly and took the time to chat to us and make us feel welcome and at home.  The Disney-outside-of-Disney helped me return to Florida feeling refreshed and rejuvenated!  Now, I'm very eager to visit Disney's other DVC resort here in Florida at Vero Beach!  

Monday, 16 May 2016

Invictus Games 2016

The ESPN Complex here on Walt Disney World property was the home of the 2016 Invictus Games.  This understandably created a huge buzz around the resort both because of the amazing athletes and wounded warriors who take part the games and also because it meant that Prince Harry would be here in WDW too!

We were all very excited once we knew the Games would be held here and as soon as we knew tickets were on sale, we quickly snapped up some for the Closing Ceremony.  I would have loved to have been able to go to one of the events but my work schedule and previous plans meant that I wasn't able to.  

Fourteen different teams from across the globe took part in ten different games and the stories of sportsmanship and comradery that emerged were truly touching.  The athletes really are so inspirational and although I could never begin to understand what they have been through, I admire and respect everything they have done so much.  

The Closing Ceremony was a wonderful celebration of the Games themselves and also of the friends and family who support the soldiers.  To kick off the ceremony, the crowd welcomed and cheered the friends and family's of the participants; everyone was so proud to be there!  Afterwards, another extremely touching part of the ceremony was the handing out of the Games medallions to every athlete that took part in the games.  Some teams were very small - only 16/17 members - others were much larger - around 100 athletes - but each team had an amazing story that was shared over the PA system.  Teams were lent equipment to play games by other teams and supported throughout the whole four days of Invictus.  

There were performances by some incredible artists too - I was super excited to see Phillip Phillips perform; he's someone who I thought I'd never be able to see play live and some of his songs are really special to me!  Rascal Flatts were also there and I can't get enough of country music at the moment so that was also so good! 

Tiny Prince Harry

Of course Prince Harry gave a speech and you could tell he feels so passionately about these games and what they mean to each individual involved.  To be honest, it felt almost surreal seeing him there- I saw him more as the creator of these amazing games instead of our Prince!  I also realised afterwards that it was the closest that I have ever been to a British Monarch!

The entire evening was incredibly uplifting and humbling, I felt very privileged to have been able to attend.  It's also moments like that which make me appreciate this program and all the opportunities that we have here.  In the past week I've been able to see a rocket launch and then attend this event.  It really is an indescribable feeling to be able to do all of this!   

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Kennedy Space Center

I have unearthed a new found love: space and space exploration. Before space was something that I was interested in but I could either take it or leave it.  I did want to go to the Kennedy Space Center, it was pretty high up on my bucket list but I wanted to go because it was such an iconic location and I didn't really know what it would involve once I got there.

 Then we finally made it:  we went to the Kennedy Space Center and it sparked a curiosity inside of me that I really had no idea what was there.  I put it fully down to the quality of the KSC and their exhibitions and it was fuelled further when we went to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC (more on that later!).  

The Kennedy Space Center is at Cape Canaveral, which is about an hour or so away from Orlando and a super easy drive to get to.  Their visitor center is obviously away from the launch pads there but you can get pretty up close and personal through their tours.  

There are so many exhibits there that you would struggle to see all in one visit; we've been twice now and still haven't got round everything!  We first of all headed to the Apollo/Saturn V Center which is a short bus ride away from the main visitor complex.  You get to see a restored Saturn V rocket, other memorabilia from the Apollo program and even get to touch a piece of real life moon rock!  There is so much to take in there, you could easily spend a good couple of hours exploring and taking it all in. 

On the bus back to the main visitor complex, you can see the massive Vehicle Assembly Building where the rockets are put together.  Even on my second visit, I could barely comprehend the size of that building: it;s over 160m tall and each of the stars on the American flag outside is 6ft across.  Amazing!  It's in this building that the new Space Launch System will be built.

My favourite favourite favourite part of the KSC is the Atlantis exhibition.  I don't want to give any spoilers but the unveiling of the Space Shuttle Atlantis is so moving.  The exhibit is really first class: it still blows my mind to think that that actual shuttle, only a few feet in front of you, has been to space over thirty times.  The orbiter just seems so humble throughout the whole of the exhibit.  As well as a ton of information about the shuttle and the space shuttle program, there's a really touching tribute to the crews of the Challenger and Columbia whom were both lost.  We braved the Space Shuttle Launch Experience as well (tentatively... scarred from Mission: Space at Epcot) which is pretty much what it says on the tin.  I really could happily revisit this exhibition several times over.

On our second visit to the KSC, Dena surprised me with a "Now and Then" close-up tour where we visited the launch complex 5/6, where Alan Shepard became the first American launched into space, the Air Force Space and Missile Program, the Cape's lighthouse, where the Challenger's remains were laid to rest and so much more!  It was fascinating to hear about NASA's first space programs and everything that they have achieved up until the present and also a little bit more of what's going to come in the future.

We're hoping to make it back to the Cape for a rocket launch in the near future and that would really be a dream come true.  I'm currently swotting up on as much astronomy knowledge as I can possibly fit into my little brain and it really is so amazing how much is out there!  I wish I had paid more attention in physics!  

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Day trip to Chicago

Sometimes you've just got to grab life by the horns and travel 1,154 miles to the other end of the country for a day.  Not an overnight stay, but a get-up-at-3am-and-get-back-home-at-midnight kind of day.  That's one of the great things about this country: you can jump on a plane pretty much how you would catch a bus and if you're lucky enough, you can get some seriously cheap flights.  Once our $100 return flights were booked, we got on full planning mood on how to make our 10 or so hours in the Windy City a productive one.  First and foremost though, we had to go on the hunt for a winter coat!  We left behind 25*C weather to a balmy 6*C (and Chicago was going through something of a warm could have been -10*C)!

We got up very early after finishing at late shift at work and boarded our 6am flight  with just a backpack and camera in toe.  It was quite refreshing to pack so light to be honest, we knew we weren't going to have to waste previous time waiting on our checked luggage and we skipped off our flight into the much fresher air of Illinois.  

As soon as we got into the heart of Chicago, I was immediately blown away by the architecture and the look of the city.  Super high skyscrapers that looked straight out of the movies!  We first headed down to Millennium Park to see the famous Bean, take the obligatory selfies and enjoy the humidity free air!  As I said, I really couldn't believe how pretty the high-rises were and how striking the modern almost mirror-like buildings were next some of the older buildings.  

Chicago sits next to Lake Michigan and it's only when you can't see the other side of the lake that you can really begin to comprehend the size.  For me, I'd never seen a lake that was much bigger than a pond... Lake Michigan could have been the ocean!  We then strolled along Chicago's Magnificent Mile, which is a large strip of fairly upscale shops (think Tiffany's and Cartier) and before we knew it, it was lunchtime and then meant a stop in Cheesecake Factory at the bottom of the John Hancock Tower. 

Once lunch had settled, it was time to begin conquering my fears and ascend the 100 story high building.  At the top of the tower, you can see a 360* view of the city and if you're brave enough, you can do the TILT experience which tilts you 30* out across the city (not for me, thank you).  The top of the tower has loads of different computers and interactive features which help you pick out different buildings and landmarks across the Chicago skyline.  It's one of the must-dos when in Chicago and I'm so glad we did it!  

We did a bit more exploring on foot and wandered around the streets.  As I said about Savannah, I really do believe walking around a city is the best way to get a feel for it and although we only saw a fraction of what the city has to offer, we were able to understand why it's the US's third city.  We ventured out onto the Navy Pier which was eerily quiet and all closed up.  It makes sense since we visited in February but it was strange to have nothing at all open.  However, it was still a nice walk in the brisk air.  

After all that walking, it was nearly time to head back to the airport to catch our flight!  We leisurely strolled back, taking in a bit more of the atmosphere and finally headed back to Orlando.  I thoroughly enjoyed our whistle-stop tour of this amazing city and it has definitely made me want to spend more time there at some point in the future to explore the museums, galleries and soaking up some of the music scene.  

It was great to see another side to the States - this time a busy, business focused place that's so different from Orlando.  Until our next adventure...!

Sunday, 1 May 2016

CRP | Staycations #4,5 & 6

Continuing our journey around all the Walt Disney World resorts, next up we have Saratoga Springs, Coronado Springs and the Yacht Club!

Saratoga Springs sits prettily on the lake by Disney Springs and is mainly a DVC resort meaning that (to my knowledge anyway!) the rooms are studios or villas.  Saratoga Springs is also host to the treehouse villas which look incredible but we stayed in a two bedroom villa. The resort is inspired by Saratoga Springs, New York and there are references to this area throughout the whole resort.  I loved how clean and fresh the resort was, it feels so spacious and roomy so you're enveloped in the whole story.  The villa was, of course, immaculate and it's nice to have a little kitchenette in the rooms so you can truly feel at home!  In fact, we got a quick service meal and took it back to the room to have a little family meal!

Coronado Springs is a moderate resort based around Mexico and the southern states. Dena says that it's one of her favourites and that is high praise indeed.  Coronado Springs is massive and the accommodation borders a lake.  The main pool has a huge Mayan pyramid and looks pretty impressive!  It's also a great spot to catch a movie under the stars.  Coronado also has a cute little outside bar if you want to grab a refreshing drink to unwind.  I love the moderate resorts here - they are great value for money; the standard of the resorts is impeccable and although the rooms are a little bit smaller than the deluxes, they are more than enough.  

The Yacht Club is a deluxe resort in the Boardwalk area, just a stones throw away from Epcot.  The Yacht Club shares a lot of its facilities with its sister hotel, the Beach Club.  The Yacht Club tells the story of the hey-day of Coney Island so think lots of white plank boards and nautical references.  We got a magical upgrade to a lake view on the groud floor and it was stunning!  The room itself was also lovely, very nautical with a hint of Mickey here and there!  The Yacht and Beach have so many great bars and restaurants close by, it's probably one of my favourite areas here at WDW.  The Yacht and Beach have an amazing sand bottomed pool too as well as a few other smaller pools dotted around with jacuzzis.  I didn't venture into the pools unfortunately as it was a little too chilly for me!

Monday, 25 April 2016

What's on your playlist?

The great thing about living in the United States is that when you want to travel around, it can make for an amazing road trip!  There's nothing better than driving down the road with your windows down and your favourite song playing on the radio.

We've already had some great trips so far - we drove to Savannah, South Carolina and Atlanta... as well as a few trips to the Kennedy Space Center and whenever I hear songs that we played on those drives, I'm instantly transported back there (more often than not, we were singing at the top of our voices as well!) 

However, the main problem that we have here is that we don't own a car and we're either having to spend a fortune on collecting the rental car from the airport or another location or forgoing the road trip altogether and taking a bus.  There is a solution though: Turo allows you to find the perfect car for your road trip by renting a car from a local driver and you can choose from a whole range of cars by searching your dates and location.  Once you've decided on your car, collect from the owner and you can have a stress-free, unforgettable road trip!  Car owners can also list their own car on Turo and many renters leave their own playlist in the car for the road trippers to enjoy - what better way to broaden your musical horizons whilst making memories!

Our next road trip is a pretty big one; we're planning to visit 11 states in 25 days so of course, we're already planning our playlist for the journey!  Here's what we love to sing along to at the moment:

What's on your road trip playlist?

Friday, 22 April 2016

A visit to Savannah, Georgia

After a while of living and breathing Walt Disney World, you need to escape the bubble and go to see what real America has to offer.  However, that being said, as silly as it sounds, I was a little apprehensive about actually leaving Orlando so Savannah was a great little place to visit.  It's a port on the coast of Georgia, Florida's neighbouring state, and only about a 5 hour drive! 

It felt great to jump into a hire car (finally!  Freedom!), turn the radio up and drive.  I'd realised how much I actually enjoyed the driving part of trips and the mini holiday actually starts then, not when you arrive in your destination however many hours later. 

Savannah is a gritty but beautiful little city, steeped in history and culture.  Throughout the city, there are beautiful squares (Chippewa Square is where Forrest Gump's bench was set), each with their own personality and interest.  At the centre of the city is Forsyth Park with its picture perfect fountain.  Throughout the park, there are families playing, couples strolling hand in hand, cyclists, and buskers filling the air with music.  I loved that about Savannah, you can almost sense the art and creativity in the air.  

As you wander through the streets, you can drop into antique shops or vintage clothes shops and browse for a bargain.  On West Broughton Street, you'll find a lot of high end shops as well as small independent shops, we had to stop by the Savannah Bee Company and sample all the amazing honeys and get a bag full of popcorn (birthday cake and Key lime pie flavour) from Savannah Rae's.  I loved the old cinema buildings as well as the beautiful Antebellum style town houses.

Savannah is famous for it's riverfront and we walked along it but found it to be full of regular tourist restaurants and shops; the streets nestled in the heart of the city were much more appealing to us.  It was also super easy to navigate around the city.  We obviously brought the car but we left it at our motel (The Thunderbird Motel - Krispy Kremes for breakfast and Moonpies on your pillow!) and just walked around, I think it's a better way to get a feel for a place. 

We also visited the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum.  It's a small, privately run museum but it is definitely worth a visit that documents segregation in Savannah.  I definitely learned a lot and even now, makes me so sad to think about it.  

We also took a trolley ghost tour.  I love learning about the paranormal side of anything and I was most looking forward to this.  Our ghostly host shared stories about many of the spooks and spectres that reside in Savannah, I just wish we could have stopped at more of these eerie locations!  Whether you're a believer or not, I think Savannah definitely has a paranormal vibe about it at night! 

We were only in Savannah for three days but it definitely left an impression on us.  It's a city full of grace and poise, but is also a little rough around the edges so you can feel at home and relaxed there.  Southern charm, indeed!

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