Discovery Cove – Where Dreams Really Do Come True.

a_002Something I have heard said many times is that you should do something every day that truly makes you happy. It doesn’t have to be massive; it could be as simple as running a bath, lighting some candles and putting on some relaxing music as you indulge in a long soak in the tub. There are of course those special things that take a lot more planning and may seem more out of reach but will really make an impact on you. This is the stuff that forms part of your ‘Bucket List’. These are the special things that you want to achieve, conquer or experience before your time on this earth is through.

For me, on the top of my bucket list was swimming with the dolphins. I had decided that one way or the other this was an experience that I simply had to have before my time was up. I love animals in general but to me there is something magical and even spiritual about dolphins. They are such beautiful creatures and nothing will replace the experience I had on a recent holiday in Orlando, Florida. Thinking my experience would involve leaping over board in desperate hope that a dolphin might glide past me at arms’ length I was thrilled to actually touch, kiss and ride with a beautiful teenage dolphin called Coral at Discovery Cove.

Our whole Discovery Cove experience was absolutely amazing. We were really not sure what to expect and were initially a little shocked at the high price we paid for our Dolphin experience. However, as we were to discover the Dolphin experience was just one small part of our Discovery Cove day. From the time of our arrival we had free run of their whole set up. The morning started with an arrival photo. Arrgh I had no makeup and hadn’t done much to my hair as we would be swimming all day! From our photo opportunity we were directed to a fully catered breakfast in their outdoor restaurant. What we were to discover was that all food and drink for the day was provided free of charge and dotted around this magical water world were many different kiosks providing drinks and snacks and even alcoholic beverages all available for your enjoyment.

After breakfast friendly staff guided us to a changing area where we squeezed ourselves into our wetsuits, locked up our possessions and continued on our tour of the water park. Along with our wetsuits came a snorkel and fins and even some fish friendly sun tan lotion. The park is beautifully laid out with wide paths that weave their way through tropical trees and around the edges of all of the snorkelling and dolphin man make lakes. The layout is fantastic with a huge welcoming, meticulously groomed beach full of sun loungers for those intending to laze away the day and soak up some sun.

It was hard to focus on much until my time came for my Dolphin experience as that was the highlight of my visit. After gathering with a group for our welcome and information segment on what to expect we were all placed in groups of eight with two Dolphin trainers per group. We were taken to the Dolphin pools where each group lined up in waist deep water to eagerly await the arrival of the Dolphins. Coral was our allocated Dolphin and impeccably behaved for her teenage years. The trainers clearly have a love of these graceful creatures and had a special routine that was both informative and interactive. While having my photo taken with Coral I gently rubbed her belly and to my delight she chattered away in dolphin speak. The grand finale was of course the swim out to the deep area of her pool to have her glide up beside me, let me hold her top and side fin while she swam me back to the shallows. A magical pocket of time I will never ever forget.

My Dolphin experience was going to be pretty difficult to top so I was surprised how much I enjoyed snorkelling with the tropical fish, stingrays and manta rays. Some of these amazing creatures were as large as my arm span and happily glided around the bottom of their lake with humans swimming above and beside them. Unlike the Dolphins that had a clean rubbery feel these big beauties were a little more on the slimy side and though totally safe their sheer size made them look quite daunting. A sectioned off area of the lake was set aside for sharks and those keen enough to dive with them. I was content to look through the glass from my underwater vantage point and watch with trepidation as several glided past the glass giving me the eye!

One side of the park was totally dedicated to fish of all shapes and sizes whilst the other side had been modelled into an adventure water wonderland. Waterways had been created around the edge of the park, surrounded by tropical plants and spotlessly clean. Swimmers of all shapes and sizes lounged in rubber rings and various other floatation devices while enjoying the sun and relaxing their way around the water circuit. A bird sanctuary offered a great distraction for families with birds tame enough to be hand fed with the carefully provided bird friendly snacks. At your leisure lunch was available back in the restaurant, again at no cost and with enough options to suit the most voracious appetite.

With the sheer amount of people through Discovery Cove I was even amazed how well presented the shower facilities were. Everything had been thought through down to the supply of fresh towels; soap, shampoo etc in the showers; and even the laundry bins collecting wet towels that were constantly being changed out. As our day came to an end and we wandered through the gift shops one last time I couldn’t help but be impressed not only by the presentation and cleanliness of the water park but also by the amount of friendly, helpful staff on hand to ensure you had fun and got good value for money. Well done Discovery Cove!

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South Beach Miami, not CSI Miami!

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Welcome to South Beach Miami; a veritable feast of sun, fun, colour and cuisine.

If your arrival in Miami is via rental car, as ours was, you may find yourself precariously clutching hotel directions as you navigate the complex interstate/freeway system, scared to breathe at the wrong time for fear of missing an all important turn.  To avoid the first holiday argument it may be wiser to taxi from the airport which of course will also eliminate parking costs and issues once your are insitu.  Enjoy the scenery as your ride will take you past some beautiful waterways and homes of the rich and famous and if your timing is right there should be several cruise liners docked in port confirming this is clearly a preferred destination for holiday makers of all varieties.

This is Art Deco central with exquisite buildings side by side proudly holding hands like long lost friends of a bygone era.  What our hotel room lacked in size it certainly compensated for with ambiance.  From the marble stairs and door frames, the wrought iron railings and the funky interior decor this hotel did not disappoint.  Sporting friendly, efficient staff and right in the hub of South Beach what else could you really wish for?  Art Deco lovers would find this paradise personified as every building in this region is from the same time warp.  Options abound from backpackers, the well appointed boutique hotel, right up to the more sumptuous in hotel residing.  As darkness descends these beautiful buildings take on another life with vibrant colored lights highlighting stunning architecture, framed by palm trees everywhere you look.

One street away and adjacent to the beach is Ocean Drive.  Jam packed full of restaurants, bars and a spattering of shops it’s fun and vibrant and definitely the place to be.  This is the land of Mojitos, Long Island Iced Tea and Cuban cuisine.  The balmy temperatures and prolific palm trees enhance the atmosphere of fun and festivities and it would be fair to say that nowhere else will you see so many boobs and booties on display.  There’s the trim, tanned and terrific clad in the shortest of shorts and the tightest of tops strutting their stuff.  This is clearly the world of chest enhancement as even the shop window mannikins sport a chest that really makes the displayed bikini look like the infamous incy, wincy, teenie, weenie model known for its polka dots.  Undeterred are those carrying more rolls than a bakery, the larger real bootilicious girls that pour themselves into two sizes too small and let it all hang out with the rest. However, big or small it’s a sight to behold.

A spectacular boardwalk runs the length of Ocean Drive and is a must for a morning walk.  Laid out beautifully with wide concrete paths to cater for all activities and nicely appointed park areas dotted with palm trees it’s the perfect start to the day before the heat really gets going. With one side meeting the sand and the start of the beach it has several outdoor shower facilities as well as sand volley ball courts and outdoor exercise equipment utilized by the bronzed and beautiful.  If cycling is your preferred mode of transportation then you will love the boardwalk with its cycle stations.  For a small fee you can insert your credit card and select a bicycle for as long as you wish, returning it when your fun is over.  Whatever your passion you will be passed by cyclists, roller bladers, joggers and those just having a stroll and soaking up the atmosphere.

From Miami port where you could see at least 5 cruise liners a day coming and going to all the way North as far as the eye can see stretches the fabulously groomed, white sands of South Beach.  The attention to detail is just fantastic. It follows the line of the beautiful Art Deco region and merges with the glitz and glamor of Miami North and high rises of all shapes and sizes.  If throwing your towel on the sand doesn’t spin your wheels then renting a sun lounger and umbrella is an available option.  For those wanting a little more beach luxury there are also double bed cabanas available.  Everything has been thought out from the water sport options for the thrill seeking holiday makers down to the kiosks selling food and drink, sunglasses and suntan lotion.  Crystal clear water glistening in the sun holds invitation all day long and complete with life guard stations makes this a beach to be enjoyed by all ages.

Like the exquisite buildings this area really takes on a new persona at nightfall.  If you are not here to have fun then you really need not apply as this is fun city.  Eating out has more options than a multi choice school exam and restaurant staff are upbeat and incredibly friendly.  Clad in a mostly casual fashion due to the heat they do a great job touting for business in a hugely competitive market.  Cabaret acts are dotted up and down the strip and give a Priscilla Queen of the Desert feel to an already ecliptic community.

Fifty Shades of Chicago.

Flying into Chicago, a hub for the United States and their second busiest airport, was nothing short of amazing.  Aircraft landed, taxied and/or took off like clockwork bringing to mind the term “Grand Central Station”. Just getting to the docking bridge in our aircraft took at least ten minutes and the whole visual expanse was something to experience.

On the edge of lake Michigan, on a flat landscape as far as the eye can see, impressive high rise buildings suddenly immerge out of nowhere as if competing for dominance in the sky. We were soon to learn that the title Chicago proudly held for the highest building in all of the United States, is now under threat with the birth of the replacement for the twin towers in New York. That aside, an architectural boat tour told a fascinating story of the essence of Chicago’s buildings history.  The central city and business district is a monopoly of high rise buildings with an ecliptic mix of Art Deco, post modern and modern, all immaculately kept and telling their own personal stories, some of yester year and others of the here and now. If a mix of history and architecture is your thing then this tour is a must and can be linked to a bus trip as well to ensure nothing is missed.

Our hotel, whilst modern from the outside had been styled on the bygone era and you couldn’t help but be transported back in time as you made your way down the elegant hallway to your room.  Half expecting to pass someone resembling the legendary Al Capone, we felt totally immersed in the 1920’s era of gangsters and flappers. Bars and restaurants where easily accessible and continued the theme with their love of Jazz and the Blues. We were continually impressed with the warmth and friendliness of the locals and not a night went by were we didn’t make a connection with someone that we truly hope will be enduring.

Chicago in November hosts a much cooler climate than what we were accustomed so the tip to bring mittens and our warmest jackets was much appreciated, thank you Tina (a friend who hails from Chicago). Fondly known as the “Windy City” Chicago lived up to its reputation and even on the sunny days a sharp, biting wind kept us on our toes.  With autumn running a little late this year trees still clutched desperately to their changing foliage so the colours through the city were absolutely stunning. Our second to last day, to our awe and surprise, brought in the first snow for the season and a continued drop in temperatures. So, sitting here with a fabulous glass of Pinot Noir (actually from Marlborough) in the warmth of our hotel restaurant, writing this article seemed like the perfect end to the day.

Michigan Avenue hosts a fine array of the best of best in premium label stores from Channel, Hermes and Jimmy Choo to name but a few.  The “Magnificent Mile” as it is fondly known, with its wide streets and ample pedestrian access, is a shopper’s paradise covering all the usual requirements and more. The history of this piece of retail real estate holds appeal for more than just shopping as even wedding parties stopped to pose for photos in the middle of the street.  Adding an element of romance, horse and carriages for hire mingled with the usual big city hustle and bustle.  However, when the snow set in this afternoon I had to fight the urge to throw a cover on each of my four legged friends as they patiently waited, heads bent to avoid the worst of it.

Only three days in the city saw us leaving with not everything accomplished but still with the thrill of being part of Chicago culture.  Famous for Blues and Jazz, deep dish pizza, Mexican and Italian cuisine and of course a good collection of Irish pubs there’s something here for everyone.