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Sorry for the delayed notification, but In Transit has a new address with several updates since my last post (Costa Rica AND New England/Canada!). Happy reading and thank you for following!

Celebrating America from the Redneck Riviera

While this post does not fit the theme of luxury travel, I wouldn’t be doing this blog justice without writing about my annual Fourth of July trip: a family vacation to our condo in Panama City Beach, Florida. Affectionately known as the Redneck Riviera, PCB is a place where you can spend hours people watching, counting the number of rebel flag tattoos and the number of mullets blowing effortlessly in the wind.  This kicks into full gear while celebrating the Fourth of July.  This year, my family and I kept a count of how many American flag bathing suits we saw on the beach – we were well over 20 watching from the balcony alone – and decided to pledge allegiance to every one we passed.  If there is one thing rednecks love, besides Bud Light and a good Alvin’s Island shopping spree, it’s America, which makes PCB one of the best places to celebrate our freedom.

Photos & video courtesy of Charles

I can’t diss the general public too much, this place is like a second home to me and the people here are some of the friendliest in the world (not to mention I come from a family of rednecks, which makes me appreciate the stereotype that much more). It’s not the camo-wearing crowd that makes makes the Fourth of July at Panama City Beach great; it’s the fireworks. While there are a few professional shows going on along the beach, including ones at Pier Park and St. Andrews, the really impressive displays are those shot off by average joe’s who have spent well over three grand for a couple hours’ worth of revelry. It’s not necessarily the quality of these fireworks that matters, it’s the quantity that’s really impressive. All along the beach, as far as your eyes can see, bursts of thousand-degree flames spiral through the air (and, if you’re unlucky, some of them spiral toward a crowd).

We had a front-row view from our condo balcony, where two or three families competed with one another on the grandeur of their firework displays.  Hundreds of balconies full of observers cheered them on, applauding when one vibrant show outdid the other. This went on for well over an hour, interlaced with a few stragglers who had purchased Roman Candles, sending measly slivers of light thirty feet into the air. If I had invested in Roman Candles, I’d probably wait until the 5th of July to shoot them off, so as not to be outdone by the more elaborate fireworks around me. Either way, the sheer volume of the fireworks is unparalleled. I’ve seen professional firework displays from the New York Harbor, but sometimes you just can’t compete with the home-grown charm of PCB. Take a look at the video below to see just how much was going on:

And that is how you celebrate America, Redneck Riviera style.

The Final 3

Before departing from the MBJ airport, we finished our tour-de-force with three final site inspections:

Sandals Montego Bay

I loved this property, which offers the best of the Montego Bay area by combining all inclusive with great accommodations (the Bay Roc Villas are phenomenal for the prices).  The colors of the property are understated, the perfect pairing with all that’s going on throughout the resort.

Bay Roc Villas

Tokyo Joe's (The best view of any Asian restaurant I've ever been to!)

There are just enough restaurant choices to give variety, the resort is just big enough to be interesting, and those villas are just private enough to feel like a home away from home. All in all, it’s just right.

Ritz Carlton Rose Hall

For those looking for the classic Ritz Carlton elegance, this property does not disappoint. From the main lobby to the accommodations, the resort offers a familiar grandeur paired with the bright, fun style of Jamaica.

Out of every hotel we visited, I’d say that the Ritz is the most comfortable for US travelers accustomed to luxury travel style. By no means a boutique property, the resort is large enough (with the best pool I’ve seen in Jamaica) to keep entire families entertained. Great for groups, families, and Ritz Carlton aficionados.

Half Moon

While I’m a big fan of a modern hotel look, Half Moon’s old Hollywood style is simply breathtaking. The beautiful black and white awnings and marble floors are brilliant against the bright blue ocean – and this was just in the lobby.

I was taken aback at just how spacious the cottages and villas are (even the lowest level room category was roomy!) – one of the cottages, my personal favorite, has its own baby grand piano and wet bar, like a “make your own piano bar” feature.  With an on-site area to swim with the dolphins, a shopping village, and much more, this resort can easily keep the interest of any traveler – romantic settings for honeymooners and tons of activities for those who need to be entertained.

Club MoBay

For just $30 per person, travelers can now purchase VIP access through immigration and into the Club MoBay Sky Lounge. Now, seeing the line at immigration, which would have taken at least an hour to get through, I can tell you that $30 is worth skipping ahead. Let me also note that, while no immigrations officers are every friendly, the Montego Bay employees seem to be especially abysmal. Unfortunately, your $30 will not buy them smiling faces. However, it does allow you to get through immigration seamlessly – what would’ve taken us 1+ hours only took about twenty minutes. After dealing with the bluebirds of happiness, we skipped into Club MoBay, the brand new lounge for VIP pass holders. The lounge is really an incredible addition to skipping ahead in line (seriously, I would pay well over $30 to do that in Atlanta) and I would encourage this for any traveler coming from MBJ. Well worth it.

Final Thoughts

I love “researching” for my job.

How to Vacation in Jamaica

So this is what it feels like to vacation in Jamaica. With only one site inspection today (Royal Plantation, where we’re staying), I took full advantage of the spa, beach chairs, ocean, beach bar and grill, pool chairs, pool, butler service, rose petal baths, cheese trays, mudslides, and giant king bed for napping.

happy camper.

What a great day – I just woke up from a nap and hate to even get dressed up to dinner…if I was here with a significant other, I’d probably take advantage of the complimentary 24 hour room service for dinner, have it set up on my balcony, and then call room service again for a midnight snack of something chocolate-related. However, it’s our last night, so our group will be eating at the Terrace restaurant on property (sad that reservations to eat at Sandals Grande Riviera didn’t work out, but I’m OK with stepping out my door and being at dinner instead of taking a 1 1/2 minute car ride).

About Royal Plantation: the resort really does feel like an old, giant plantation house – it’s so serene and laid back. While I loved the property itself, I was initially not digging the small size – I like a little more activity – but it has definitely grown on me, especially when I got to experience it in all of its relaxing glory today. I would recommend this to anyone looking for a nice getaway with great all-inclusive amenities (plus you can go to Sandals Riviera next door and eat at their restaurants, etc. if you get bored. The thing is, you won’t get bored – you’ll get spoiled on relaxing).

Royal Plantation Entrance

View of the Resort

 

Fun Fact: Royal Plantation has peacocks walking around everywhere. Their calls sound like cats meowing – pretty birds to encounter on your way to breakfast like I did this morning:

Jamaican Me Crazy – 7 Properties in One Day

The first two of the seven site inspections below are in order of favoritism. The rest fall where they may, but each should provide a little insight into what we saw today. Enjoy!

Goldeneye

No wonder this place inspired Ian Flemming to write James Bond – I’m not sure how you could stay here and not experience the culture of creativity. Goldeneye is easily my favorite property in Jamaica, maybe even one of my top 3 in the Caribbean. I seriously had another Cap Maison moment – not knowing what to expect beforehand, only to be completely blown away upon arriving. Just like Cap Maison, I honestly could not find one thing wrong with this resort, it was just spectacular!

The Bridge connecting Old Goldeneye to New Goldeneye

It’s really like a little slice of French Polynesia in the Caribbean – the boutique property boasts everything from lagoon rooms, where guests can swim across the shallow brackish water to the spa, to beachfront villas, just steps away from the ocean.

Lagoon Rooms

View from the Beachfront Villas

The attentive staff blew us away with incredible service. They greeted us with friendly faces and treated us to a wonderful coffee break, which the general manager attended. I love when GMs take the extra time to introduce themselves – it makes me so much more confident sending my clients to that resort.

The highlight of the resort, besides the fact that I just fell in love with Goldeneye in general, is Ian Flemming’s home, a collection of villas that can be rented for 6-8K per night. In defense of the price, it does have 5 rooms, so that could be split up – plus, it comes with its own private pool, tv/game room, and so much more.  Not to mention, you can sit at Ian Flemming’s desk and try to compose the next great novel – I tried to do so today. Maybe I’d need a little more time than 5 minutes.

Putting my English major to good work

Overall, my favorite resort so far.

Jamaica Inn

I loved this Virtuoso resort to the same extent as Goldeneye, although the two properties are entirely different. Goldeneye has a more natural, Caribbean feel, with its lush, raw landscape, while Jamaica Inn has a charming cottage-like experience and more manicured landscape.

Straight From a Postcard

This resort has several one-of-a-kind suites and cottages, each one we toured just got better and better. The White Suite, a one-bedroom oceanfront room with private pool (this isn’t just a plunge pool – it’s the largest private pool I’ve seen at a resort) and walkway to a secluded area overlooking the water, was truly magnificent. However, I fell in love with one of the cottages we toured – the private infinity-edged pool on an immaculate terrace just did not hurt. It also had a special stairway down to the beach, making it the best of both worlds: a secluded cottage with beach access and spectacular ocean views.

Best View in the Whole Resort

Jamaica Inn was generous enough to host us for lunch, which was absolutely incredible. Best meal we’ve had so far.

Beaches Boscobel

What a good family property! Beaches are such a great alternative to a family cruise – it has multiple kids areas, depending on ages, a huge water park, and so much more to accommodate families.

Wish I could've been unprofessional and tested out this slide...

Boscobel really takes it to a new level – it’s just large enough to entertain everyone, but just small enough to where parents won’t be worried about children running around on the property. Not to mention the recent renovations – we were all pleasantly surprised with the updated furniture and the spacious accommodations. PLUS, it’s all inclusive, which means no huge bill on water sports, soft drinks, alcoholic drinks, gratuities, or anything else that surprises guests at the end of a cruise.  I’ve got a family going to Beaches Negril next month and they are going to love it.

They surprised us with a demonstration of the Night Night Tuck-In, where a Sesame Street character brings cookies and milk and tucks your child in…however, we did not know this character would be waiting on us in the room. It scared the mess out of Frances, who was the first one to walk in and see a giant pink character grinning in her direction. Not going to lie, even once I got used to it, it still kind of creeped me out. Courtney explained that it’s because I don’t have kids:

Courtney & Character

Couples Tower Isle

I was so impressed with the public areas of this property – it’s modern and stark white with beautiful green and blue accents. Very South Beach (or so I’m told). The clientele is nice and the price point is a great bang for your buck…until you get to the rooms. The accommodations are so outdated! If they would renovate the old tile floors and grab some new bedspreads (and artwork – the children’s paintings of Red Riding Hood were not what I’d call romantic), I’d rank them seriously high. For now, the public areas have recently been redone and are just gorgeous, so it’s an affordable option if you don’t mind the older rooms.

Please note that, if you’re just taken with the fact that this resort has a private island like Sandals Royal Caribbean, it has one major difference: guests who go to the private island are required to bare it all on the nude beach. No clothing-optional features here. It’s either off or you can’t hang out on the island.

Wedding Gazebo with a view of the nude island

Couples Sans Souci

This Couples Resort definitely made up for Tower Isle – the property is a little quieter, has updated rooms, and the grounds were just beautiful.  While Tower Isle had a more modern feel, Sans Souci has an authentic Caribbean elegance.  I love the natural landscape and the laid-back, beachy vibe.  I’m happy to say that my two couples heading here later this year should have a blast!

Sans Souci Entrance

RIU

Really, we really had to stop at the RIU? It was a learning experience, considering how rarely I sell RIU (this Spanish chain is a behemoth of a resort – 800 rooms and if you’re in room #800….man, you’ve got a long week of walking ahead of you). We saw two sub-par rooms today, one on each end of this property. I just about hurled myself out of the window when I realized that the room was not worth the 7 mile walk.

The RIU does have its merits, though – it’s good for budget and for activities. It’s like the land equivalent to a lower-end mass market cruise. You’ll never run out of things to do, there’s a buffet and live entertainment, and you can make 800 new friends.

However, the building is painted periwinkle purple, and that’s something I just can’t live with.

This is ACTUALLY the RIU in Montego Bay. Ocho Rios looks a bit better than this, but it gives you an idea of the building color. Periwinkle.

Sandals Grande Riviera

The largest of all the Sandals Resorts, I did not expect to like Grande Riviera – but I loved it! There’s so much going on at this resort it’s unbelievable. They’re undergoing a serious renovation to their hillside villas, which will be spectacular once they’re completed. The property is very spread out, though. Even though the villas are secluded and private, I would want to be right on the beach in a concierge or butler room since they’re a little more convenient. It all really depends on what you’re looking for, though, and those villas were really gorgeous. We’re going over to Gordon’s on the Pier (this restaurant is only available to butler guests at the Sandals Resorts – that’s one of the reasons I recommend staying butler! Plus you get awesome cheese trays waiting for you in your room, like I did tonight. I love me some cheese trays.), so I’ll update regarding the food just as soon as I try it. Also, I didn’t take a ton of photos, so I’ll try to get a few more tomorrow. The number of restaurant options at Grande Riviera is unbelievable – thank goodness that Royal Plantation guests have access to the dining!

Welcome to Jamaica, Mon

Things that happened at the Atlanta airport today:

- I realized just how spoiled I’m getting on incredibly perfect airport sendoffs.

- I experienced ATL on a Monday at 8 AM – the sheer volume of people was terrifying. The line, which weaved itself through the food court and snaked around each individual baggage claim, looked like an exodus out of Atlanta. I checked the date to make sure it wasn’t 2012 and the world was coming to an end.

- To my complete surprise, I got through security in less than 30 minutes – and trust me, that line looked like it would take at least two hours to trudge through. For once I find myself congratulating ATL on efficiency. The weirdest part? The TSA agents were friendlier than normal – maybe they just work well under pressure.

- I ran into one of my English major friends in terminal E!

- I then ran into Mark Richt in the Sky Lounge. In my four years at UGA, I’ve never had a chance to shake his hand, so it was a really cool opportunity. He introduced me to his wife and they were both just as down to earth as they could be. Say what you will about Georgia football, but I really like Coach Richt and what he stands for, on a personal and character-based level. I like him even more since he took this photo with me:

Go Dawgs!

It was an uneventful flight to Jamaica, which I consider an accomplishment after all of the overly-eventful flights in my life within the past couple of years. After checking in through customs, we went to the Sandals room to wait for our transfer – several of the major hotels have their own check-in lounges at the airport (Sandals, Couples, Half Moon, The Ritz, Hedonism [gross – I don’t ever want to check in there]).  Our first stop of the day was a site inspection of Sandals Royal Caribbean, which I’ve wanted to see for a while considering the number of people I send/have going to the resort (one of which leaves this weekend, shout out to Natasha & Jason!).  I really liked the property – it feels boutique in size, which I love, and even at 100% occupancy it did not feel in the least bit crowded.  RC has its own private island with a swim-up bar, Thai restaurant, and plenty of places to lounge – this was my favorite part of the hotel. I could see myself spending hours in one of those cabanas…maybe one day.

Reserved...for me? If only.

Sandals Cay - Sandals Royal Caribbean's Private Island

After lunch and a full site inspection of the property, we went over to Round Hill, a Virtuoso property with both a hotel block and individual villas.  The property is just the epitome of class – it’s small and elegant with beautiful style (Ralph Lauren designed the interior decor) and gorgeous landscaping .

The villas were absolutely stunning – private pools and jacuzzis with full gardens (Laura Allen, you would flip at the flora here) and multiple rooms. The best part: they can be really affordable when shared for a multi-couple/family getaway.

Entrance to a 2-bedroom 2-bath Villa

Villa's Pool & Jacuzzi

Our final site inspection was of Secrets St. James & Wild Orchid, which are two properties on the same grounds. This 700-room resort was a pleasant surprise – I liked the modern look, complete with dark wood accents and sleek light fixtures, and the Preferred Club option, which is exactly what I’d recommend to anyone interested in staying at Secrets. Secrets suits those looking for an environment that reflects what they’re used to – it reminded me more of a condo complex in Florida and less of a Caribbean resort. This is not a bad thing, it all depends on what you’re looking for.

Finally, after a long day of travel, we arrived at Sandals Royal Plantation, the all-butler resort (it was previously a Virtuoso, still part of Leading Small Hotels) that we’ll be staying in for the week. It was too late to really take in the property, but I like what I’ve seen so far – it feels like staying in a super-sized mansion, from the layout and warm atmosphere, which I think offers a unique option for the Sandals brand.

Our Room at Royal Plantation

Three site inspections down…thirteen more to go for the week. If all goes according to plan, we’ll knock out 9 of those tomorrow. It’s going to be a long day in Jamaica. Still, a long day here beats any day in the office!

Up Next…

My upcoming travel plans/blogging topics:

June: Jamaica – Company fam trip to Montego Bay and Ocho Rios – Staying in Royal Plantation and doing sites of Sandals Montego Bay, Royal Caribbean, Grande Ocho, Round Hill, Golden Eye, Beaches Boscobel, Jamaica Inn and a few more

August: Las Vegas – My second annual attendance of Travel Mart! I’ve may or may not have started buying outfits for this approximately seven months ago.

September: Costa Rica – I’ll be taking my mom with me on this Big 5 Fam trip – Costa Rica is one of our dream destinations! Staying in Tabacon, El Silencio, and one other (more on this to come)

Wrap-Up

After roughly 8,000 miles, two weeks, one flight, one SUV transfer, one trolley, one cruise ship, one bus, one whale watching boat, one ride in Kim’s car, one gondola, one train, one taxi, another flight, another taxi, one motor coach, one Ice Explorer, and one Banff Airporter bus…we are on our way home. We’ve only got two flights in front of us and a drive from ATL; tonight, I will finally be sleeping in my own bed. I love traveling, but coming home is such a good feeling.

Last night, we attended a dinner theater performance that made fun of Canadians. Here’s Don playing the spoons with the violinist:

The show was pretty good, but the bus ride back was the highlight – it was our last opportunity to say goodbye to our travel buddies. I really can’t express how close we’ve gotten to some of our companions on this trip. Sandy gave me life lessons for moving back in with my family and Don told me to use his pseudonym on my blog, which is, appropriately, Nod. We said our goodbyes to Jenny and John, Sandy and Jeff, and bid a nearly tearful farewell to Nod.

This is the value of a trip like this – meeting and connecting with other travelers – and it has certainly been a memorable graduation and 22nd birthday trip!

The Last Leg

We’re on the very last leg of this trip and, while I’m loving it, I feel like I’m going to need a vacation after this vacation. The full days of motor coach travel just wear me out. We’ve been informed that adjusting to this elevation is harder for those from lower sea levels, which would explain the multiple naps I’ve taken. Hourly.

Fun story to show just how small the world is: yesterday, we managed to meet someone in the middle-of-nowhere-Alberta-Canada with a Georgia Bulldogs license plate! Jim and Claudia, a couple who currently resides in Alberta, introduced themselves after catching us taking photos of their license plate. Embarrassing. Muriel came over to talk about her time at the University and within the state, which is when they found out that they had mutual friends from Jim’s hometown. What are the odds!? Go Dawgs!

In travel related news…the sites have been beautiful – yesterday, we passed by several elk, a bear, Athabasca Falls, and Lake Louise. The hours go by like minutes when we’re driving through such beautiful scenery. I took out my iPod for a personal soundtrack provided by Joshua James. Again, though, between fatigue and a concern that my words won’t do this country justice, I’m finding my stories better told in photos:

this elk was kind of mangy...

A Brown Black Bear

Athabasca Falls

Lake Louise

Lake Louise

The Lake Louise I saw did not match the photos – it’s iced over with snow on top. While it was still beautiful, I was a little disappointed to not see the postcard-perfect view. However, we walked over to the side of the lake that was slightly more melted for a spectacular scene – sometimes it’s better that the postcard didn’t come true.

Since we’ve had a few days around everyone, the group has really settled in and gotten more comfortable with one other. The bus ride is hilarious – especially with Don quipping in every few minutes. For example:

Russell the guide: This event occurred 54 million years ago…

Don: I was only fourteen then! It was a fantastic year!

We all bonded over a group of Asian tourists in the Fairmont Lake Louise. Dad snapped this picture to show exactly how they were dressed:

Not your typical tour group...

These tourists, all exactly 5 feet tall, wore full body silver/tan shirts and pants with oversized hats and walked en masse through the lobby. Jack dubbed them the Silver Smurfs. I’m really loving this group and their sense of humor.

This morning, we woke up to SNOW in Banff! Mom was the third most excited person on the trip – awards for first and second go to Jenny and John, the Australian couple who, until today, had never experienced snow falling from the sky. Coupled with a view of the only unfrozen lake that we’ve seen (I would recommend this tour in later summer – you won’t see as much snow, but the lakes will be prettier), today was the perfect ending to our trip. For now, I’ll leave you with these photos:

Emerald Lake

 

Banff Springs Hotel

 

It's beginning to look a lot like...May?

World, Meet My New Friends (Trafalgar Edition)

On our first night of the tour, when everyone in the room introduced themselves, a man named Paul stood up and said, “This is my second Trafalgar tour and the best part of the first one was the people I met on the trip.” Others who had traveled with Trafalgar (many of my companions are on their 6th or 7th trips with the company) completely agreed and, after just a couple of days, I do, too.

There’s Jenny and John, the lovely Australians who first made their presence known when John hit his head on the lowered TV every time he stood up or sat down on the bus. There’s Dave’s crew (the first man to introduce himself the night of our meet-and-greet): his wife, Nancy, and friends, Jack and Carol. They’re best of friends and travel companions – Dave and Jack worked together in Buffalo, New York before retiring together to Sarasota, Florida. There’s Sandy and her husband – Sandy was one of the first people to greet me and ask more about my recent graduation, which I really appreciated. She and I have since bonded over my iPad, she received one as a retirement present, and a love of cooking blogs. There’s Bill, who I mentioned yesterday, the celebrity of the trip. It’s not every day that a 96 year old man travels on his own like this, and everyone has made him feel like a hero by getting their picture taken together.

And then…there’s Don, a Londoner traveling solo who simply cannot meet a stranger. With a quirky, quick sense of humor and bright, charismatic personality, he’s a spitfire of an individual.  My family and I have instantly clicked with Don – if it wasn’t for his British accent, I’d swear he was a long lost relative (I guess he still could be, despite the accent…). No matter what the situation, Don has a funny quip to add. We passed him today on our walk into town, where he jokingly fought the strong wind back to the hotel. “It only took me twenty minutes to walk there, but it’s taken me an hour to come back – I’ve tried crossing this road twice now!” he said, faking the struggle of falling backwards into the road.

When we spoke with him yesterday about his upcoming trip on the Rocky Mountaineer (Gold Leaf service – he’s going to have such a fun time!), he told us more about his background. This trip has been his lifelong dream for years; it’s at the very top of his bucket list.  He lit up when he spoke of his two daughters and his grandchildren, mentioning his hesitations in taking the trip for so long. “I didn’t want to spend their inheritance,” he said, earnestly, “but they kept saying, ‘Dad, we don’t want you to miss out on your dream because of us’. So here I am!” And he’s having the time of his life – every photo op and scenic viewpoint, every funny conversation, every minute that can possibly be enjoyed on this trip, Don is enjoying to the fullest.

Don & Me

Whether he knows it or not, we’ve decided to adopt him into our family, as long as his family will share.

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