Thursday, March 27, 2014

Niagara, the Falls and Me: Part 2


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This review is my personal opinion. I am not paid by anyone. I do not receive any amenities (free or discounted).

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Niagara, the Falls and Me (in winter): Part 2

The last entry about Niagara Falls featured the USA side. As promised, here is an entry about the Canadian side.

Horseshoe Falls, Canada

1. Be ready for the cold. As one might expect, January in Niagara Falls (either side) is (very) cold and there seems to be precipitation every day. But the view was breathtaking and worth the trip. I saw cars with Canadian license plates stopping to get out and take pictures like tourists. Apparently, I wasn't the only one impressed.

Horseshoe Falls, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada.

2. Be ready to cross the border. As I stated in the previous entry, start from New York, if you are coming from the USA and take the Rainbow Bridge. There will be a cash toll and you will show official ID. Everyone will need a passport or enhanced driver's license (the days of a regular license or your birth certificate are over). For children, pay the extra money and get the passport card and the book. For this trip, the card will be sufficient.

Once across the border, just follow the signs towards the Falls. If you walked, that's pretty easy. However, if you drove, there will be different places to park. There will be plenty of parking garages.  Toward the end of the Horseshoe Falls, there is a parking lot and you can stroll along the sidewalk of the Falls. At the opposite end, near Clifton Hill, there are parking lots and garages near the casinos and other attractions.

3. Be prepared for limited attractions. In winter, the boat tours of the falls are closed. In fact, there are signs everywhere near the Falls themselves that even the sidewalks are not maintained during winter and you are on your own. The spray carried by the wind and consistent rain and snow make walking treacherous, so dress accordingly. Now is not the time to be cute: wear those heavy boots. 

Near Queen Victoria Park is the Skylon Tower, an observation tower to see the Falls from on high. Along with the ferris wheel on Clifton Hill, and a few other buildings, this makes of the skyline of Niagara Falls, Ontario.

The main drag is Clifton Hill, which resembles a wannabe Las Vegas/Times Square when lit up at night.
Clifton Hill, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada

4. Why people think this is the nice side: Clifton Hill is full of inexpensive family places to eat, lodgings that escalate in price during warmer weather and every wax museum known to man. There are arcades, souvenir shops, the Guinness Book of World Records and all sorts of interesting variations on theme parks such as MGM Studios Plaza and an upside down house museum (seriously). Why? Because, honestly, after seeing the Falls and the Whirlpool, you need something else to do. All of these attractions take money and if you plan to stay a week (which I would not recommend), you need activities and a good amount of cash. But the point is that the so-called "nice" area is very small and it is clear that all tourist attractions there exist simply because of the Falls. 

For those who brave the winter elements to see the Falls, you can enjoy the indoor water park at Great Wolf Lodge, straight up Victoria Avenue (Clifton intersects with Victoria, not within walking distance).  Other than that, look for hotels with indoor pools for all seasons (in case it rains). Some motels are not year round. Don't forget the fireworks schedule and even if it is winter, go see the Falls lit up at night.

The Falls at night

5. What do you do in nicer weather? In tourist season, the Maid of the Mist, the boat that takes you through the gorge and right up to Horseshoe is worth the money. You can take it from the USA or Canada side. Other Falls attractions can be found on the Niagara Parks website, such as Journey Behind the Falls (open in winter), Niagara's Fury (closed for part of January) and, something new to compete with the Maid of the Mist, Hornblower Niagara Cruises, where you sail aboard a catamaran.

Another interesting nature-based attraction is the Whirlpool Aero Car, also part of the Niagara Parks attractions. Located along River Road/Niagara Parkway, not too far off Victoria Avenue, it's about a 10 minute drive from the Falls. The Aero Car will take you over the Whirlpool during tourist season. If you are driving, parking is free and tickets are available there or part of a package sold by Niagara Parks.

Whirlpool Aero Car, Niagara Falls, Canada

Christmas decorations and Skylon Tower

For more information: Fun at the Falls, Clifton Hill, Top of Clifton HillNiagara Parks and Skylon Tower.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

How to Travel: Part 2 - Resources


Copyright Disclaimer under section 107 if the copyright act of 1976, allowance is made for "fair use" for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.

This review is my personal opinion. I am not paid by anyone. I do not receive any amenities (free or discounted).

Follow us on FacebookInstagramTwitterTumblr. Purchase our fine art and decor or stock photos on ShutterstockZenfolioImageKindmcraytonphoto.comiStock by Getty Images , and Dreamstime.


Screen shot of my tablet library

1. Books still rock! My favorite publishers are Rick Steves, Fodors, Frommers, Moon and Lonely Planet. They write in a clear, honest, common sense and entertaining manner. I carry one travel sized version and buy the others for my tablet. They're excellent for doing your research and planning your trip.

2. Pamphlets. Once you get where you're going, grab a couple of pamphlets. Keep your options open so that you can be spontaneous.

Pamphlets from Paris and Barcelona

Screen shot of travel books in cloud, to be downloaded onto my tablet
3. Maps. Street by street maps are invaluable. They can be bought in bookstores or ordered online. Using an online version is not always practical, get print maps. Study it before you walk around foreign countries, it's safer. My favorites: Borsch, Rick Steves, Streetwise, StreetSmart (along with my faves, the VanDam Pop Up), MapEasy's Guidemaps, and Insight. When I arrive I pick up a public transit map. Many maps also have many sightseeing tips, which take the place of carrying travel books.

Paris Metro and Barcelona Street Map

4. Friends and Family. People who live or who have traveled to a destination are excellent resources. Locals often know off the beaten path. Also, talk to the concierges and hotel reps. Of course, they will promote certain businesses, but they have good ideas. 

5. TV Shows. Not only travel shows, but food shows and those "Top 10..." shows, such as the 10 best roller coasters, best beaches, etc. They give you ideas of places to go or what to do when you get to your destination.

Part 3: Travel with Your Electronics

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Cruise Ship Review: Carnival Pride

For the February break (that's Presidents Day Week for folks outside of the NY metro area), I decided to take my niece on the Carnival Pride (of the Spirit class) out of Baltimore. It was a nice trip, with its usual pros and cons. This entry will deal with the ship and we'll explore the excursions later.

Carnival Pride Cruise
Carnival Pride (editorial)

I chose Baltimore so that I could drive from NYC. It can be a quick drive, depending on traffic, the weather and how fast you drive. Luckily, traffic and the weather was favorable. We left on the day of sailing, Sunday, as the day before was snowy. If the weather had been nicer prior, we would have stayed near the Inner Harbor and seen some of the sights there, since the Harbor is a short drive to the Port of Baltimore. Nearby sights also include Fort McHenry, location of the battle during the War of 1812 that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner.

I was surprised to see that embarking had not yet begun when we parked at about 1:15PM. Later, I was to find out that this ship begins its debarkation process rather late, by some cruise standards. Because of this, the waiting area was full (there were chairs) and the check-in process was actually stopped for about 40 minutes. Once people started boarding, they checked in those of us on line. We were held then for about 10 minutes in the waiting area before we boarded. Fortunately, there was only one ship that was sailing that day.

As usual, once on board, we headed straight to lunch. However, our stateroom was ready (again, I was to find out later why) and we were able to drop off our carry-on bags. As always, the Lido deck was crowded but there were many stations serving. After that we explored the ship.
Lido Deck, Carnival Pride (editorial use)

I was pleasantly surprised at the decor: somehow the Renaissance-ish theme never overwhelmed me, even though it was Vegas-y. The lounges were spacious and there were plenty of areas to relax, which was great because out on deck was not an option for some of us less hardy folks while we were sailing for the first two days: winter was in high gear.

The staff was very nice, pleasant, professional and seemed to really like their job. Another feature to interact with the staff are the sessions with the cruise director or the future cruise travel talk. I like this feature: Carnival is very honest in their future plans, listening to suggestions and chatting with the guests. They treat you almost like investors. I realize it is a marketing aspect but they are honest about that, too: they want your repeat business. They appreciate the old-timers and are dedicated. If you sail, take the time on any cruise line for these chats: you will come away a more informed customer.

My cabin steward (a female) was extremely nice. They are supposed to learn your name and greet you etc, but Carnival does do a good job in their training. You feel special and pampered all week long and you get used to the towel art work and the chocolates at night.
Turn down service (editorial use, newsletter copyright by Carnival)

Meal time was as expected. Normal choices are early or late seating (a specific time) or the flex time option (just show up whenever). The dining room is the same for both options, just different levels. I chose the flex time. As usual, the first day can have long lines for dinner until you get the hang of the best time to come with the shortest wait. They give you a pager. Some days, that was not inconvenient: I needed to go to the shop once or we wanted to get a drink. One evening, karaoke was going on and we were almost sad when the buzzer went off. If you have sailed Carnival before, then you know the fun part of dinner could be the wait staff good-naturedly singing each evening. They know they will never make Broadway, but the fun they have is infectious and it makes dinner entertaining. Also, there are many birthdays being celebrated, so get ready for some real off-key singing, but at least they have fun doing it and everyone joins in.

Normandie Restaurant (editorial use)
There are other meal activities (beyond the usual Lido Deck buffets) that do not cost extra: a sea day brunch and afternoon tea. They were a little light on the snacks for tea time but I asked for an extra cucumber sandwich. It was a pleasant thing to do and makes one want to experience the real thing one day in London.

Tea Time
The fitness area was spacious and offered many services: cardio, spa, classes, free weights and machines, hot tub, sauna, steam room, beauty parlor, the works. For experienced cruisers, especially those who know this particular voyage, this may be worth the extra cash to pamper yourself for two days.

Fitness Room (editorial)

There was plenty of activities for those over 21 and for those who came to shop: casino games, guess the price of the painting, "sales" in the shops, trivia and live music. My one gripe about the music: very little jazz. The Sensation had live jazz and it is a lower class ship in the Carnival fleet.

I investigated the offerings for the young folks: Camp Carnival© (up to age 11) looked like the first day of school, chaotic and noisy; there was not much action in the Circle C© club (12-14) and O2© (15-17), which had less organized activities but left the lounge open for tweens and teens to hang out in.
Youth Club Area (editorial use)

I am not sure what the 18-20 year old crowd does on cruises such as this. They are too old for the youth clubs and too young to gamble and drink (although some night spots were open for 18 and older). I doubt they want to guess the price of a painting or participate in some of the trivia games. Karaoke may be an option, but that can get old after the third time. In my opinion, unless you are docking at some pretty hot spots every day, a cruise where 4 of the 7 days are at sea can be pretty boring when the weather is not great for being on deck or in the pool.

If you are a swimmer who likes to do laps, cruise pools may disappoint you. From what I hear, they are usually full of kids but that does not matter. Their purpose seems to be for getting wet and staying cool rather than swimming. They are tiny. I was surprised that the Pride's pools were smaller than the Sensation's. The shape was interesting, like a cigar, seemingly no more than 15 feet wide. However, there were plenty of deck chairs throughout the ship, which I am sure is appreciative when this ship sails in warmer waters. There was a retractable roof if you wanted to swim, but it was partially open, so the sun never warmed the area or the pool water, making it cold until we got to Florida.

Carnival Pride Lido Deck (editorial use)

Anything else I may tell you may be moot after the summer. At the informational session, we were told that this ship was due to be dry-docked (that's taken out of service for us landlubbers) and that she was due for an upgrade. Carnival had secured rights for different entertainment, games and new dining similar to upgrade some Spirit© class ships to those of the Conquest© class. They explained that if you were a regular on this particular ship and voyage, you may have wondered why the shows stayed the same. It was because of copyright laws, contracts, etc. Soon they will be able to change the line-up. Also, this ship is due to be repositioned. This means changing ports and itineraries.

The one negative aspect about this particular ship, port and trip is the debarkation process. As usual, you are given luggage tags should you choose to put your bags out the night before to claim them airport style when you disembark. However, many folks choose to lug their stuff off themselves to save time after coming through customs. Either way, Carnival naively relies on the fact that people follow directions and adhere to procedures and therein lies the problem.

There was a schedule for the two sets of people: taking your own bags or if you had set them out the previous evening. If you chose to leave with all of your stuff, your debarkation time depended on which deck your stateroom was on. If you chose to have them do it, the luggage tags corresponded with your departure time. Those who chose to sit their bags out got later times, the last being @12:45PM (which explained why this ship starts to board relatively late).

They asked everyone to vacate rooms by 9AM (which explains why the rooms are ready as soon as you board). Since we are docked, shops, casinos and bar areas are closed (they are usually closed when a ship is in port, they are open when you are out at sea). Only the game room and picture gallery were open. Even the fitness room never opened that morning (which was unusual. I always do a 6AM workout before I leave the ship).They had three areas to "relax" in, one of which was not the area of debarkation. We were all sitting in the main theatre. The Lido deck was available but it was cold.
The Taj Mahal auditorium (also the holding area to disembark), editorial use

When they called for Deck 1 to leave, the first group assigned, everyone got on line. My suggestion when they sent me the survey? Give us exit tickets and be firm about it. I would rather know that I am leaving at 11AM if I am leaving quickly than to have a 10:15AM time and actually get off the ship at 11:30 (which is what happened). My friend said that since we have to print out our luggage tags and boarding passes, why not print out debarkation passes?

Luckily, customs moved quickly. This was good because you come off the gangway to the outdoors and then you enter the building to customs. There were overhead heaters (very nice) while we waited.

So there you have it. If you want to do nothing but be on a floating resort for two days before you get to the first port, a cruise in winter out of Baltimore can be very relaxing. The drawback is the cold climate, which limits pool and deck activities (this includes basketball, ping pong and miniature golf). But the positives include nice people, a different show every night, and plenty of places to sit and read a book throughout the ship. If you know what to expect, then go for it. Check Carnival's site often, since ships are being dry-docked for upgrades and they are also being repositioned. Ports, ships and itineraries will change.

(editorial use only)