Category Archives for "Destinations"

Epcot Flower & Garden Festival 2019: What Not to Miss

By Marley Braun | Destinations

Looking for something fun to do this spring that will help chase away your winter blues?  Check out the 2019 Epcot® International Flower and Garden Festival. 

From March 5 through June 3, guests at Epcot can enjoy the Flower and Garden Festival. The festival is included with the regular park admission price. It is an annual fun-filled spring festival for nearly every member of your family to enjoy. 

I had never attended the Flower and Garden festival, and found it to be a really enjoyable day all by myself! Check out my guide below on how to create your own day of Disney magic.  

Maps & Guides

Festival Passport

  • You can get the free "Festival Passport" guide when you enter the Epoct park. 
  • This guide lists where each topiary is, and where each garden destination is. (Including the new Bo Peep’s playtime training grounds and the Playful Garden in Showcase Plaza!)
  • In addition, you’ll find the free concert line-up with performances listed nightly for the duration of the festival.
  • It outlines the official event merchandise (the flower Mickey ears seemed to be a crowd favorite).
  • It details the tea garden tours.  Tip:  The Royal Tea Garden 20-minute tour is free, but there is a 45-minute paid tour as well.  I'd suggest reserving the paid tour ahead of time. The tour includes a sampling of tea and scones. 
  • Finally, the passport helps you find the most important stops: the food!

Scavenger Hunt

This map can be purchased at the Port of Entry at Epcot for $6.99 plus tax while supplies last.  Guest of all ages can enjoy this springtime scavenger hunt led by Spike, the honey bee. You will go in search of Spike’s best blooms as he pollinates flower beds across Epcot.  Return your completed map to the Port of Entry for a special souvenir! 

An additional Egg-Stravaganza hunt will be offered from April 5-21.

Side Note:  Cast members and Annual Passholders receive a discount on the maps.  

Best Photo Ops

As you travel through the park and around the World Showcase, you will find plenty of great photo-ops along the way with many of your favorite characters all decked out as colorful topiaries.  

Some of my favorites included Lighting McQueen and Tow Mater in Future World East and Beauty and the Beast in France. For the best scenery and topiary behind you, make sure you take a selfie with Lady and the Tramp in Italy.  

 Side Note:  Don’t forget to check out the topiaries when they are lit up at night as well. They are stunning!  

For the 'gram:  Sorry flowers, but the most beautiful creation at the festival is the 5-layer cotton candy flower created at the Chinese Pavilion. 

This fluffy rainbow flower costs between $10-$15 and it is as big as my head!  I am not going to spoil it with a picture here. You need to watch it be created to truly appreciate it.

The Food

In 2019, there are four new Outdoor Kitchen spaces all open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.:  Arbor, Flavor Full Kitchen, The Citrus Blossom, and Trowell and Trellis.  

The festival passport is also helpful in finding locations that serve kid-approved, vegetarian and gluten-free meals, as well as beer and cider flights!  

Along with your reliable favorites at Epcot, during the festival you can find seasonal specialties such as tuna tataki and the chocolate pudding terrarium. I especially enjoyed the Orange Sunshine Wine Slushy and kids will love the Orange Cream Slushy and its adorable souvenir cup at the Citrus Blossom!  

 Side Note:  Head straight over to the Arbor at the Odyssey Center if you are a beer and cider lover.  Great choices there!

Concerts

For 2019, concert performances are held nightly at 5:30pm, 6:45pm and 8:00pm at the American Gardens Theatre.  

Arrive at least 30 minutes ahead of time to get a seat, or you can reserve a Garden Rocks Concert Series dining package at 407-WDW-DINE.  For this package, you can choose from 15 unique eateries around Epcot. That package includes an appetizer, a non-alcoholic beverage, an entrée, and a dessert or one full buffet or family style dining meal per person. The package also entitles you one guaranteed seat to the concert held that day.

 Side Note:  If there is a band you REALLY don’t want to miss, this is a splurge-worthy package.

If you loved Pixar’s movie Coco as much as I did, you can not miss the story brought to life daily at the Mexico Pavilion. The magnificent musicians of Mariachi Cobre are joined by folkloric dancers, along with a hand-crafted puppet of Coco to tell the story of family.  You will just love it!

Closing Thoughts

If you are looking for a fun and inspiring spring-time activity, I definitely recommend checking out Epcot’s International Flower and Garden Festival.  

Since it was my first time attending, I would love to hear from those of you who have been before in the comment section below!

Our mother-daughter journey to Machu Picchu

By Marley Braun | Destinations

For Hayley’s sweet sixteen, I planned a mother-daughter trip to Machu Picchu, in Peru.  I wanted to get her something that she would never forget, and that would bring us closer together.  

Being the mother of a teenage daughter is definitely not a walk in the park. It's hard to get them away from their phones and their friends, or to spend quality time with you that doesn’t include screaming and eye rolling. I figured the bigger the adventure, the better!  

Peru had never been on my bucket list (and honestly, it scared me a little) but I found a great package deal.  I could not have asked for a better trip.

Our adventure started off in Cusco, a city in the Peruvian Andes.

We spent our first few days relaxing in Cusco and enjoying the town itself.  It has some wonderful local markets, and you can not beat the prices there.  We stocked up a full suitcase of souvenirs very quickly!  

Peru is known for its cacao trees, so how could we pass up a chocolate making class?

We had so much fun bonding there that we decided to sign up for the cooking class that evening. The teacher/chef took us on a tour of the local food market, and we got to come back with our new purchases and cook an authentic Peruvian dinner.  

I can not even begin to tell you how exhausted and hungry I was, but watching the grin on Hayley’s face as she cooked with me and other people from around the world was priceless to me. 

  • Knowing some Spanish when you go there is very helpful.  
  • Make coca tea your new best friend.  Cusco is over 11,000 feet above sea level, and can be quite jarring to your body if you aren't used to the high elevation.  Take it slow the first few days and drink a lot of coca tea.

Next on our sightseeing list was the many Incan Ruins.

....Although Hayley was always watching out for any chance to be distracted and completely enthralled by a llama.

There are no shortage of Incan ruins (or llamas for that matter) on the way to Machu Picchu.  We visited Tambomachay, Puca Pucara, Qenko, and Sacsayhuamán.

I can not begin to tell you how many pictures she made me take of her with the llamas.  Hayley feeding the llama.  Hayley petting the llama.  Hayley sitting next to the llama. When you have a teenage daughter, you become their personal selfie-stick.

When I wasn’t acting as a human selfie-stick, I roamed around the two towns taking pictures of the locals and checking out the local markets.  Everything there was so colorful to me and I wanted to capture it all.

That night, we were dropped off at our hotel that was literally IN the train station.  No worries about missing the train the next morning!  We were led to our room that had a padlock on it as our door lock.  The adventure part of our trip had begun!  We could not stop giggling or talking about what to do with the padlock.  We had yet to have hot water in a shower on our trip, so that caused more giggling before heading to bed.

I think we would both say our favorite spot on the way to Machu Picchu was the Sacred Valley.

The citadel there is now in ruins, but you can climb high above the valley floor and look down at the patch-worked patterned fields that are surrounded by vast terraces and stonework.  

Oddly enough, my favorite part was walking through doorways that my head almost touched.  I am only 5’2 and in Peru I felt like a runway model, which was nice for a change!

I chose the Vistadome train to get us to Machu Picchu, and it did not disappoint.

 It had large panoramic windows all around it and it was perfect to see the countryside of Peru.  On the way back to Cusco, the train provided live entertainment in the form of a fashion show, which got us giggling again.  

On top of that, the train ride was a perfect place for Hayley to practice her Spanish.  The Argentinians next to us spent at least an hour teaching her phrases.  As I marveled at how much Spanish she had learned in only two semesters, I realized she was clearly enjoying telling amusing stories about me.  I could understand "madre" thanks to 4 semesters of high school Spanish, and the universal language of laughter.

The train dropped us off a few steps from our hotel (hot water finally!), which was at the bottom of Machu Picchu in the town of Aquas Calientes.  

You take a bus to the entrance of Machu Picchu and in all my life, I have never been on a crazier bus ride.  To say it is terrifying, yet thrilling at the same time, would be an understatement. These buses fly up this winding, very steep, one-way road and it looks like they are playing a bizarre game of chicken with a busload of people.  It is not for the faint of heart!

The ruins when you finally reach Machu Picchu are spectacular!  

I can think of no other word to describe them. It is one of those places you really have to see to fully appreciate it.  We walked from one end of them to another with only a few breaks to pet the wild llamas. 

How they got all of those stones up that mountain left me dumbfounded (yes, that is truly how my brain works).  How my legs carried me all the way up to the Sun Gate at the end of that day I will never know, but it was worth it!

Only 400 people each day are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu.

Huayna Picchu is the peak that overlooks Machu Picchu.  You start hiking before sunrise, and then you are able to sit at the top of Huayna Picchu and watch the sun come up.  

The climb is difficult and narrow in spots, but it's worth it!  You MUST reserve these tickets ahead of time, and they WILL sell out.

The view over the ruins when we reached Machu Picchu, with the peak of Huayna Picchu in the background.

I had trained for a few weeks at the gym getting my legs and heart ready for the climb, but it was hard! I’m not going to lie.

At the very end of the climb, you descend into a very narrow cave (this is when I asked myself WTF am I doing, I am claustrophobic), only to emerge at the very top to the most serene atmosphere I have ever witnessed.  

High above the clouds, Hayley and I just sat in silence waiting for the sun to rise.  

THIS was mother-daughter bonding at its best. No arguments. No eye rolling. No cell phones buzzing.  Just immense appreciation and love.  We had conquered the mountain and it rewarded us paid in full.

My Top 5 Tips for Visiting Machu Picchu

  • Fly into Cusco a few days early.  No offense to Lima, but I loved Cusco hands down. It's a great place to get acclimated to the altitude change, and you'll get a better sense of the Peruvians and their home. 
  • Even if you don’t think the altitude is bothering you, most hotels will offer the coca tea  24/7.  Drink it, and while you’re at it, use it to wash down some yummy Peruvian food.  Hint:  If something just says “meat”, ask if it is beef. You may be surprised (or delighted) to find that it is guinea pig, a delicacy in Peru. 
  • Unless you know Spanish really well and are comfortable traveling on your own, consider using a FIT (flexible independent travel) package for Peru. I really liked it because I was able to customize everything, but also had a set itinerary. With a FIT, we had people who spoke English to get us from place to place, and tickets for trains and attractions ahead of time.
  • Spend the extra money and ride on the Vistadome train It is worth it.  This is one time that you don’t want to bury your head in a book.  
  • Plan to hike Huayna Picchu, and get your ticket WAY ahead of time.  Spend a minimum of two days there. You will thank me later!

Remember:  Our recommendations are based on our 2012 trip, so make sure to do your research.  Send us a message - we'd be happy to help!

Why Travel to Croatia: A Guide for Game of Thrones Fans

By Marley Braun | Destinations

Visiting King's Landing 

Years ago when I started watching Game of Thrones on HBO (cue the theme music in my head right now), I remember thinking are these locations real and if so, I have to go there!  

I was delighted to learn the locations ARE real and that Croatia would be the next country added to my bucket list.

Actually, getting to Croatia took me almost as long as it took George RR Martin to write A Dance with Dragons, but I finally made it there last year.  Did it disappoint?  Absolutely not. Do I totally want to go back?  Hell yes. 

Besides being THE King’s Landing, home of the Seven Kingdoms, Dubrovnik itself is stunning.  It sits on the beautiful turquoise waters of the Adriatic Sea, surrounded by a massive stone wall that has stayed intact since the 16th century.  Thanks to Game of Thrones (cue the theme music again), Dubrovnik has become quite the tourist attraction and it has become so overcrowded with GOT fans like me that the last few seasons HBO has had to move shooting locations to somewhere quieter.  

However, Dubrovnik is more than ready to be a “must see” destination in itself.

Dubrovnik

On the day I was there, there was a mass of people trying to get into the city through Pile Gate.  I instantly felt like Arya trying to maneuver through the streets of Kings Landing in season one trying not to get trampled to death or spotted by Joffrey.  

I highly recommend the Game of Thrones tour through Viator.  It was absolutely fantastic!

My 5 Favorite Moments of the Tour

Tyrion Lannister’s secret passageway in/out of King’s Landing

The water here is stunning and the day I was there people were in the water and clearly not afraid of wildfire.   

The Red Keep

As you climb above the steep steps to Fort Lovrijenrc opposite the walled city of Dubrovnik and above Tyrion’s secret passage, you enter the Red Keep. Above the entrance is a very fitting saying carved in the stone, “Non Bene Pro Toto Libertas Venditur Auro” (“Freedom cannot be sold for all the gold of the world”).  

From here you get a breathtaking view of Dubrovnik and Minceta Tower, which served as the House of the Undying where Daenerys went to look for her stolen dragons.  You can’t help looking out into the distance searching for Stannis Baratheon’s ill-fated fleet.  

Pile Gate

The entrance to King’s Landing is the gate to the city.  Instead of peasants and commoners you will encounter artists and performers.  

The Steps of Great Sep of Baelor

I couldn’t help myself from walking up and down the stairs saying shame, shame!


The Iron Throne

Even though this was just a replica, we couldn’t help taking turns sitting in it.  How cool is that?  It is located in a small shop, up a lot of steps but it was totally worth the picture.  

HBO Stories

Not only did we go to some cool sites in King’s Landing, but we learned some really cool insider information about the HBO production.  Whether they are true or not, I really don’t care. They were highly amusing to hear.  

Click & Expand for HBO insider secrets we heard on the tour!

"Tyler Lannister Slept Here"

Too Many Tourists

Paid Vacation for Better Filming?!

Many More Places To Explore...

If you are a true Game of Thrones fan, you can not leave Croatia without going to Trsteno Arboretum (or Highgarden as GOT fans would recognize it).  The arboretum dates back to the 15th century.  It is a worthy place for the Tyrell family to call home.  R.I.P. Margaery and Lady Olenna.  

Below captures the scene in season three when I decided I had to find out if that place was real or not.  It was and it was right there waiting for me in Croatia!

Image by neufal54 on Pixabay

Final Thoughts & Tips

With HBO’s Game of Thrones coming to an end in 2019, I am preparing myself to say goodbye to so many great characters but I will not be saying goodbye to Croatia.  

I am already planning to go back in 2020 with friends, who are not GOT fans, but who I plan to convert!  If I could ever get Hayley to sit still long enough to get through an episode of Game of Thrones, I am sure she would realize Croatia needs to be added to her bucket list.  

Whether you go on your own, as a couple, with friends or with family, here are my top 5 tips for visiting Croatia:

  • Know your currency: You will want to exchange money for Croatian kuna or plan to use an ATM once you arrive. I have met many people that didn't realize Croatia does not accept euros.  Know before you go!  The kuna currently equals 1 for every .15 cents in U.S. dollars so that is A LOT of kuna!  Croatia is a great value. 
  • You don't have to be a Game of Thrones fan to enjoy Croatia.  I have traveled all over the world and Dubrovnik is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen.   If you are closer to my age than Hayley's, you may not even know where Croatia is.  When I was in school, we called it Yugoslavia.  Know before you go!
  • If you aren't sure you want to spend an entire week of vacation there, look into the many cruises that now include Dubrovnik and Split as ports of call.  You can get a great primer for what Croatia is like and then you can plan a longer visit for the future.  
  • If you are a Game of Thrones fan, just know that the sites won't look exactly like they do on TV.  There are a lot of CGI effects that the show uses to "enhance" the already beautiful buildings.  For example, don't expect to see the Great Sep of Baelor at the top of the "shame, shame" steps.  There is an old church there, not a behemoth cathedral. 
  • "You know nothing Jon Snow" (or any other traveler who is used to the well run trains in Europe).  Croatia does not have a great train system but it does have a great bus system.  Getbybus is a great site to use to figure out how to get from town to town.  
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