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Atlanta Road Trip

Seeing as how I wrote a post about bucket list activities, Hubby and I decided to start crossing a few more things off our list. We normally go on a 7-8 day trip in the beginning of May but this year scheduling conflicts only allowed for a 4 day trip in June. We went to Jamaica for 4 days, which really wasn’t long enough because 2 of those days were travel days, so it didn’t actually feel like we had a vacation.  When we got back we started planning another trip for the end of summer, when Hubby was between summer courses and the fall course.  We had the hardest time deciding where to go! Back to Jamaica? Back to  the Florida Keys, or maybe just Key West?  I know, I know…Talk about a Champagne Problem…But still, it took some serious discussion. Then we decided to do something we had never done, and something we had always wanted to do. Go diving in the aquarium in Atlanta. The Georgia Aquarium is amazing. It’s #1 in the US, and it’s the largest aquarium in the world. The main attraction? WHALE SHARKS.

Two of the Four giants together
Two of the Four giants together

They have 4 whale sharks in a 6.3 million gallon aquarium, along with 2 Manta Rays and about 5,994 other fish, rays, and sharks. The whale sharks were originally rescued from sale to the fish market in Thailand. They had been trapped in a net ready to be sold, when the Georgia Aquarium showed up and purchased the sharks, loaded them up, and literally shipped them via UPS to Georgia. Seriously.

Anyway, we didn’t want to spend the whole time in the car, so we spent the first night in New Orleans. What was supposed to be a 5 hour drive turned into about a 9 hour drive. So much for not spending the whole time in the car. But it was due to unforeseen circumstances. As soon as we got into Louisiana my low tire pressure light came on. And that was bad news, seeing as how I had new tires put on 2 days before. Luckily we were able to find a shop that was open past 5 pm (what a concept!) and he was able to patch the tire. Of course, this was backwoods Louisiana, so the mechanic had never seen a Prius before! He didn’t know how to turn the car on, or put it into park. Hubby had to talk his through it. Then once he got it onto the lift he climbed out of the car and said to his buddies, “this car ain’t got no engine! It runs on battery!”

Once he patched the tire and we were off, we ended up in construction traffic for HOURS. They really have no idea what they are doing in Louisiana. The drivers feel like they have to drive 20 MPH when there is a closed off lane, and the construction crews set up MILES of cones and close off the lane when they aren’t doing anything even remotely close to the area. We ran into this type of traffic probably 3 times. It was awful. We finally got to our hotel at midnight and didn’t even have the energy to leave our room. We ate a quick dinner of sandwiches in our room, had a couple beers that we brought with us, (we travel on the cheap) and went to bed.

Comparing beignets at different cafes in New Orleans
Comparing beignets at different cafes in New Orleans

The next morning we headed to Pensacola, Florida. The idea had been to possibly find a dive shop in Pensacola, but we didn’t really have the time and the weather wasn’t great while we were there either, so we didn’t do much. I took some photos on the beach that night, we did some shopping, and we went for a run the next morning before heading to Atlanta.

Crab and Shrimp Mac-n'-cheese in Pensacola
Crab and Shrimp Mac-n’-cheese in Pensacola
Future Crafting ideas - Pelican made out of driftwood
Future Crafting ideas – Pelican made out of driftwood
Future Crafting ideas - Crab made out of driftwood
Future Crafting ideas – Crab made out of driftwood
Sunset in Pensacola
Sunset in Pensacola
Pier at night in Pensacola
Pier at night in Pensacola

I didn’t get a picture of it, but our hotel in Atlanta was literally next door to Turner Field, where the Atlanta Braves play. I don’t really care about baseball, so that’s probably why I didn’t get a picture, but it was pretty neat, nonetheless. We walked around the stadium, watched a drunk guy stumbling down the sidewalk as he left the game that had just ended, and then headed to the restaurant next door to get some Georgia BBQ. It was good, but of course, it wasn’t nearly as good as The Salt Lick. Texas BBQ always wins.

The next morning we got to the aquarium when they opened and pretty much had the place to ourselves. The first thing we did was head to the giant tank where we would be diving, and we watched as divers fed the whale sharks.

Divers feed the whale sharks krill from a squeeze bottle for training purposes
Divers feed the whale sharks krill from a squeeze bottle for training purposes

It was so neat to watch!

I took SO MANY PICTURES. It’s unreal. But everything was amazing to see, and I wanted to capture it all. Here are a few more shots I took in the aquarium…

We weren’t allowed to bring cameras into the aquarium on the dive, but you can imagine that it was pretty F-ing spectacular. We were able to swim up to the glass and play patty-cake and paper-scissors-rock-lizard-Spock with the people standing on the other side, and get up close to several different species of sharks, rays, and (other) fish. I wanted to pet them SO BAD. One of my favorite things to do is feed the sting rays at various aquariums that offer that, where you can pet the sting rays as long as they allow it. It took all my strength to NOT pet the rays and sharks in the tank, but that was the only rule they had for us on the dive, and I was not about to break the rule and get kicked out of the dive. I was so determined to NOT be the one to end the dive early, that I was trying my hardest to not even breathe while I was down there, for fear of running out of air and causing the dive to be over! For those of you that aren’t divers, when you are diving with a group, you dive until either a certain amount of time has passed, or until the first person is low on air. Once someone signals that they are low on air, EVERYONE in the group has to end the dive, as a safety precaution so that no one gets left behind.

After the dive we headed back to the hotel. We were pooped from being at the aquarium all day. The next morning we got up and headed to Zoo Atlanta. We were some of the first people in the door (again) and headed straight for the panda exhibit! We don’t have pandas in Texas, so we watched the two 2-year-old sisters wrestle in true WWF fashion.

They have a HUGE gorilla exhibit and we got to watch the infant gorillas climb and play while the adults lounged in the grass.

Baby hanging out with Mom.
Baby hanging out with Mom.

We were done at the zoo in the late morning, so then we headed back down to New Orleans for our last night on the road. This time we were spending a night in a super old hotel with a balcony, just a couple blocks from the French Market, in a perfect location.

We went out onto Bourbon Street for a little bit, but honestly, that street stresses me out way too much to enjoy it, so we didn’t spend a lot of time there. We had a drink at the Carousel Bar, then went to Cafe du Monde to get beignets and coffee before heading back to our hotel that night.

Finally, on the last day of our trip, we got up and went to Belle’s Diner for breakfast and hit the French Market for some Christmas and “Thanks-for-watching-our-house” gifts. And we saw Andrew Zimmern filming a new episode of his show!

Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizzare Foods, filming a new episode
Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizzare Foods, filming a new episode
Andrew Zimmern, filming in front of the famous St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans
Andrew Zimmern, filming in front of the famous St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans

All in all, it was a great trip. I was ready to be home and sleep in my own bed and play with my dogs, but I would have been just as happy staying on the road forever. It was so relaxing.

St. Louis Cathedral
St. Louis Cathedral

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How to Have An Awesome Vacation While Not Blowing Your Budget

Over the summer after our trip to the Keys, I wrote a guest post for my sister, That Clever Chick, about vacationing on the cheap. I had done a little plug for it here, but I thought to myself, ‘why on EARTH would I force ALL of you to divert from the post you were already reading to read another post?‘ Especially because I know you, fellow travelers, and I know that you got so drawn in by my stories and descriptions that even though you thought, ‘I’ll read this post and then go to the guest post and get two posts in one day!‘ that you completely forgot to read it, didn’t you?

So, here it is, in all its glory. How to Have An Awesome Vacation While Not Blowing Your Budget.

Enjoy!

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

My sister, Beans, has a great blog of her own, but every once in awhile I can convince her to throw some text my way so I can take a nap. Here’s her guest post about saving money on vacation:

There are many ways to go on vacation, and there are many ways to save money.  For most people, these things cannot go hand-in-hand.  That is because many people think that a vacation isn’t a vacation unless you splurge on everything that you wouldn’t normally splurge on.  That is pure insanity to me, but…to each his own, I guess.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand if you are going to have a romantic get-away, and you plan on eating fancy food, drinking fancy wine, and getting massages every day.  But usually people do not do these things on every vacation.  Vacations don’t have to be a romantic get-away, because technically you should have romance all year long, not just in the jungles of South America, living in a bungalow for a week, getting waited on hand and foot.  But that’s a rant for another day.

No, vacations mean travel, seeing the world and other cultures, and experiencing new things that you can’t experience by watching the Travel Channel (because let’s face it, the Travel Channel has just become a channel where you watch people eat weird “food” items now). There is a way to travel on the cheap and still have a great time, and I’m going to give you some tips on how to accomplish this!

The first thing Hubby and I do every year is pick where we are going to go.  That is probably the hardest part anyway, right?  I think the easiest thing to do when planning a vacation is deciding on the dates of travel, and putting it down on the calendar.  If you write something down on the calendar, you are much more likely to do it, rather than putting it off for something else.

The next thing we do is book the plane tickets.  And this is done MONTHS in advance.  Every year we book our vacations in December and plan to go on them in May, so by the time the trip actually arrives, it’s almost like you have a free trip planned, because the travel has already been paid for.  In fact, this year I had enough frequent flyer miles to get free flights to Key West, so it really was free to get where we were going!

Over the next month we book the hotel and the rental car, and pay for as much of it ahead of time as possible.  Rental cars can’t be paid for completely in advance, but if you get the Loss Damage Waiver (which we do every time we rent, no matter what) then you can pay for that before you get the car, and that is usually half the cost of the rental car in the first place.

Another tip is to go before tourist season, if possible.  Now, this has pros and cons, so this is mainly a personal decision.  One benefit is that hotels are usually not full, so you can ask for a free upgrade for your room, and you can easily get a room with a view of water for instance, instead of a view of the parking lot.  However, sometimes tours (such as SCUBA or Snorkeling tours) have a required number of people that need to be signed up for the tour before they can take the tour group out.  So, since it’s before tourist season, you are risking not being able to go on the Ghost Tour of Seattle or something because not enough people signed up the night you planned on doing it.

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Another great money saving trick is probably the simplest, but most people would never think of.  FIND THE GROCERY STORE.  Most hotel rooms have a mini fridge in them, right?  And you probably never use the mini fridge, do you?  This is the easiest, cheapest way to do several things: buy sandwich fixin’s and make a picnic on the beach.  We even brought a collapsible cooler with us on our trip, so we could keep food and drinks in the car.  Buy sodas, bottled water, and/or sports drinks to keep you hydrated while you explore the area and buy a small bottle of liquor to mix in with the previously mentioned beverages to relax by the pool.

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Remember not to buy more than you will consume while you are on vacation.  True, you can check your leftover beverages in your luggage, but if your bottle of tequila starts leaking under the plane, I have a feeling that the other passengers will not be happy with you when you land.  It is easier just to go back to the store if you ran out of something.  Also, keep in mind that some cities, like Austin, have banned plastic grocery bags, so maybe you would want to bring some reusable green bags with you too.  Sometimes your hotel room will also have a microwave in the room.  If that’s the case you just scored big, because that means that when you DO go out for dinner, you can bring your leftovers back with you for another meal! Or midnight snack, whatever.  Either way, it saves a trip to the vending machines, right?  Or you could be like my Hubby, and not even require a microwave.  (He’s not a picky eater).

One of the most expensive parts of vacationing is the food and drinks.  I know that when I was leaving for our last trip to Florida, several people told me to “drink pretty drinks!”  I’m not saying I snuck away from the restaurant to mix a quick rum and Diet Dr. Pepper and then run back to the restaurant, but while we were relaxing by the pool or on our patio over-looking the bay (from our free room upgrade) I didn’t waste my time or money ordering drinks from the hotel bar, because I had my own adult beverages that I could mix as I pleased.  The price difference? At the hotel bar, the mango daiquiris that I was drinking were about $6 each.  The Kraken Rum and Diet Dr. Pepper that I mixed in the hotel room? About $1.50 each.  Big difference, right?

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We made a plan to eat most breakfasts and lunches in the hotel room, but dinners were usually spent out on the town.  That’s the key to a good vacation – you can’t be worried about how much it is costing the entire time, because then you won’t have any fun.  If you find cheaper alternatives, you can still indulge a bit, and save money at the same time.

Also, go to the Visitor’s Center for the city you will be staying in.  They always have flyers for nearby attractions, and they usually have discount rates, coupons, or Buy One Get One Free tickets that they hand out like it’s Halloween.  Trust me on this: the guy at the Key West Visitors Center really must have wanted me to get drunk, because he gave us about 15 Buy One Drink Get One Free tickets for various bars on Duval Street.

Be sure to check Trip Advisor too.  This can be a big help in knowing what is and what is not worth spending your money on.  My suggestion is to go through all the flyers in the Visitor’s Center and pick out some things that sound interesting.  Then go online to Trip Advisor and check out the reviews for those places.  Who knows, you could accidentally find a place that lets you hold orphaned sloth babies that is $300 a person to go to, but you may find out that it’s worth every penny, because with the purchase of an entrance pass, you get a free pet sloth baby.  Some things you can’t know until you find out other people’s experiences.

Sometimes even free places aren’t worth the money it would take to drive there, so take other people’s opinions seriously, and consider your options.  That said, because Trip Advisor is so important to travelers, be sure that when you get back to your hotel that you review the places that you went on your adventures, too.  Whether they were good, great, or just plain awful experiences, people want to know what to expect.  I know I have written some awful reviews of companies in the past, but I have also written glowing ones.  YOU HAVE THE POWER.

Also there are Loyalty Programs – hotels, rental car companies, and airlines all do loyalty programs.  If you travel for work, you will rack up free car rentals, free hotel stays, and free flights in no time.

If you are going to buy Souvenirs – I have quickly learned that most people don’t want a random crappy shot glass from a bar they have never heard of, from a city they have never been to.  You don’t necessarily need to buy gifts for everyone in the family, or everyone single person at work.  If you feel the need to buy something for work people, like if you are talking about your upcoming trip to a friend and the annoying guy in the office announces, “I hope you bring us something good, since we have to stay here and slave away!” then buy something small, consumable, and that everyone will like: CANDY.  I’m sure every little town is famous for one thing or another.  Key West is of course famous for Key Lime Pie.  I was not about to buy and ship actual pies home for everyone at work, but I did consider Key Lime Pie Salt Water Taffy.  I of course didn’t get my coworkers anything, but that’s beside the point. I still THOUGHT about doing it.

Many places are not cheap to visit, but if they were, then they wouldn’t be very good vacation destinations, because they would be packed with people all the time, right?  So if you take my advice, hopefully you can plan out your next great vacation, and people can be jealous of you while you are getting a tan in the Caribbean, riding elephants in India, or petting wild meerkats on the African savannah.  Who knows, maybe soon people at your office will start trying to predict your next adventure, like the people at my office do with me?

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Safe Travels.

Clever Chick Note: Saving money is about priorities; you’re saving to do the things you want rather than thoughtlessly letting money slip through your fingers. If you approach your vacation the same way you can take MORE vacations, or more expensive ones. Have fun!

Future Adventures

This is a sort of continuation of my Bucket List posts.  Soon Hubby and I will be embarking on another adventure – going back to Key Largo.  Some people might think that if we have gone there before, it shouldn’t count as an adventure, but I say no trip is ever the same trip twice.

Last year we discovered that driving to Florida was A LONG TRIP so we are flying again. I also got free flights this year, because of Frequent Flyer Miles, so that was a big reason why we picked Key Largo as our destination again.

Also, we have no more diving classes that we need to take because after our Key Largo trip we will be MASTER DIVERS (Going to be crossed off the Bucket List even if it wasn’t written down in the first place!). That’s right – I have mastered something.  Now I’m sure most people don’t know what constitutes a Master Diver Certification, but you need 5 Specialty Classes and 50 dives.  We have already gotten our 5 specialties, so by the time we are done with our trip, we will be done! Our last two trips to Key Largo were concentrated around classes, so because we have no more classes to take, we will have time for other fun things, like kayaking in the only underwater state park, John Pennekamp State Park and going to a wild bird sanctuary. Who knows, I might go back to the sea turtle rehab center, but adventures are sometimes more fun when repeated 🙂

I also bought myself a wonderful new camera for Christmas, so I am planning on having some spectacular photos to share when we return.

Sunset on Key Largo
Sunset on Key Largo

Also on the horizon is a trip to Vermont and New York in the fall.  The only New England state I have ever been to was New Jersey. I have to make up for that by seeing the leaves start to change with a good friend of mine that lives up there, and who I haven’t seen in years.  I will force her to be my chauffeur (I will even sit in the back seat and get her a little hat to wear, I’m sure), force her to be my tour guide, and force her to take me to drinking establishments for adults.

Since one item on my bucket list is to see all 50 states, I am planning to knock out at least two states on that trip, and maybe more. I mean, the states are so small up there, it only takes a few hours to get across them! Maybe we will go to Connecticut for a chowder lunch, Maine for a lobster dinner, and Massachusetts for drinks afterwards! That’s how that works, right?

Not a lot of people have the ability or the ambition to cross things off their Bucket Lists. Not only am I thankful that I have the drive to do the things that I say that I want to do, but I have a husband that wants to do the same things. Who knows…in a few years, I might have to write a whole new list!

So keep checking back, World Travelers! I’ll be sure to share our adventures, and hopefully be able to give some good travel tips if you want them!

Underwater Adventure, Part 3

Driving half way across the country takes a lot of time, but the benefit is you get to see things along the way that you would normally just fly right over.

Crystal River was one of those places. It’s pretty much smack in the middle of the state, far from any airport, so it’s not even a day trip. But it’s worth it.

Baby manatee nursing on momma manatee!

Because you get to swim with manatees.

Look at that widdle iddy biddy face!

Yes, this entire trip was centered around either education, or wildlife (or both). So?

Manatees swarm the Crystal River area, and the entire town has totally accepted this. You see Manatee Bowling, Manatee Laundry, Manatee Diner, etc. But it is amazingly inexpensive to go swim with the Manatees, and it’s perfectly legal, and not at all frowned upon (see previous post). In this instance, I would do this over and over again, with no hesitation (except maybe if I didn’t have a thick wetsuit. That water was COLD!)

The viewing of manatees is regulated by the US Fish and Wildlife Department, because they are a Federally Listed Endangered Species. So for example, you are allowed to touch them if they come up to you, but if it is on the river bottom you are not allowed to go down to it. That is considered harassment.

Yep, that’s me. Petting a 2-month old baby manatee. Jealous much?

The money brought in to see them in the wild goes towards conservation of the species, and it educates people about them, so it’s pretty much a win-win!

The group we used was great, too. They let us swim as much as we wanted, and even when we were about to leave the boat captain saw another manatee and a baby, and let us jump back into the water! It was such a great experience for us, that we even suggested it to my sister and her husband on their trip to Florida that they took a few months ago, and they had a great time, too!

This was a really great way to end our Florida Adventure, but all it ever really does is make us want to go back again that much sooner!

Underwater Adventure, part 2

As I stated in a previous post, Hubby and I have started going to Florida every year as our summer vacation. We did it as a road trip this year, and drove all the way to Key Largo. It was a very long trip, and once we got to Key Largo, the days kind of blended together.

Our goal for this trip was not just diving, but to get our Rescue Diver certification. This is a lot of work going through drills and scenarios, and the weather was not exactly cooperating, so it was pretty exhausting.

We got to see Jesus-

And tons of undersea creatures!

School of Parrot Fish (can you spot the Grouper?)

We learned a lot, but we were also able to have a lot of fun while we were doing it, and we became pretty close with the dive crew, too!

Part of the Pirate Island Divers Scuba team!

On days when the weather was too choppy to go out on the boat, we went into town to explore. We found the History of Diving Museum-

Historic diving instruments

And what has to be the World’s Largest Carribbean Lobster-

And we had the chance to swim with a nurse shark!

Now, I have mixed emotions about this, but not for the reasons that you might think (unless you know me that well). See, on the one hand, I absolutely love predators so I jumped at the chance to be able to see one up close and touch one. But on the other hand, purposefully habituating predators to associate humans with food is a dangerous idea. Although the shark was perfectly calm and let us rub all over her, we were there to do that. If another diver is there and decides to harrass the shark, she will let the diver get much closer than a non-habituated shark would let him get, before she had to react. And by that time, because of the close contact, the shark would bite rather than swim away (Fight or Flight response). If a person gets bit by a shark, that shark is hunted down and killed. This exact thing is why the dive master for this trip told us he used to have 7 sharks that would come up, and now he’s down to 1. He says that it’s because other dive shops are jealous of his sharks or something, which makes no sense. In actuality, it’s because the sharks were deamed a danger to divers. If these sharks were in an enclosed habitat, I would do it all the time! But because they are wild sharks that are habituated, I will never do this dive again. (Not only this, but the dive crew (Not the same crew we usually dive with) sucked so bad I gave them a horrible review on TripAdvisor.

We had an amazing trip, as I know we will every year. We have actually already booked our plane tickets for our next trip, and we are about to book our hotel! I look forward to those beautiful Key Largo Sunsets everyday. The only problem with them, is that they mean we have one less day in Key Largo.

But, that also meant we were one day closer to the third part of this adventure…

Underwater Adventure, Days 1 and 2

Every summer, Hubby and I go on a SCUBA adventure.  It started with our Honeymoon in the Florida Keys in 2011, and we were instantly planning our return trip the next summer. (Yes, I know I said we do this every year, but this also means every future year as well). This past May we decided to drive to Key Largo instead of fly, because plane tickets were outrageous. I have a Prius, so we literally MADE money on that drive (not literally).

The beauty of driving somewhere instead of flying, is you get to see so many things along the way.  We ate most of our dinners as picnics, so instead of spending a bunch of money on restaurants, we spent the money on diving and adventure! Our first night was spent at a road-side park in Alabama, and then we drove in to Clear Water, Florida. I had to go to the Clear Water Aquarium to go see Winter, and Hubby and I love to go to aquariums whenever we get a chance. I have to say, I wish I had seen the aquarium BEFORE the movie was made. They really commercialized the place.

Movie Prop

Every little thing was marked, “a scene was shot here”, or “movie prop”. It got obnoxious. But we were the first ones there in the morning, so we got the best parking spot there was!

Best Spot in Town

And good thing we did, because when we left, we saw this:

It was a cool place to see though – the aquarium rehabilitates sea turtles and houses turtles that can’t be released due to injuries, they had a sting ray feeding tank, which I was ALL OVER, and they had some river otters (not sure why, but they were cute) and one of them was paralyzed from the waist down.

He got along great, and he was a pretty funny guy.  I thought he was chewing on the hole in the divider wall…

apparently, he was licking it, instead.

And of course, we saw Winter!

Some guy was really upset with the employees at the aquarium. We heard him say something along the lines of, “is this all Winter does?! I thought there was going to be, like a Winter Show or something?!” I wanted to pull him aside and say, “You know she doesn’t have a TAIL, right? You understand that it’s kind of miraculous that the vets could save her, RIGHT?! What else do you want from her?”

So as any good tour does, it ended in the gift shop! I didn’t buy anything, but I REALLY wanted this!

GET IT?!

Anyway, after our time in Clear Water, we headed to Key Largo, my favorite city in the world! And we went to Breezer’s, with the best bartender in the world!! Simply because my mango daiquiris are always over flowing when he makes them 🙂

And we watched the most beautiful sunsets in the world! Ahh…Life is good in Key Largo.