Saturday, January 24, 2015

Big Band Dance Weekend at Asheville's Grove Park Inn

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - The Jimmy Dorsey Band
The Jimmy Dorsey Band

Pursuant to our newly set travel aspiration theme of dance travel, this past weekend we hopped in the car for a long weekend trip to Asheville, North Carolina. Every January, the swanky Omni Grove Park Inn holds a big band dance weekend in their ballroom. A few of our fellow dancers from the Arthur Murray studio in Alpharetta have gone in years past and we put together a nice little group occupying two tables.

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Dancers at Grove Park Inn Ballroom

The event spanned both Friday and Saturday nights with different bands each night. Both were of the "big band" variety with plenty of brass and sultry vocals. The Saturday night band was the Jimmy Dorsey band (we assume their provenance is solid), and they played all the great expected tunes like "In The Mood", "Moonlight Serenade", "Sentimental Journey", and plenty more. Especially memorable (though not exactly danceable) was their rendition of "Sing-Sing" showing off their drummer. Dancing styles were mostly foxtrot and swing, with a few cha-cha's and waltzes thrown in.

The Grove Park Inn is likely Asheville's most picturesque building, which is saying a lot in this beautiful corner of the world that has long attracted the wealthy from the northeast (like the Vanderbilts, who built the nearby Biltmore Mansion). Nestled in the Smoky Mountain area of the Appalachians, the century-old Grove Park Inn is situated on the side of a westward-facing slope. The sunsets, best viewed from their back porch, are spectacular. This grand old hotel and spa has been visited by countless dignitaries, including Presidents, a fact they show off with interesting photo displays and placards.

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Sunset from Grove Park Inn
Sunset from the Grove Park's Westward Porch

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - A roaring fireplace at Grove Park Inn
One of Grove Park's Huge Fireplaces

If you've never been to Asheville, it's worth consideration. The centerpiece of an Asheville visit is Biltmore Mansion and the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but the compact (though hilly) downtown with its artsy/funky shops, bars, and restaurants will keep you amused for a couple of days. If you happen to come through during North Carolina's short ski season, you can also hit the slopes 30 minutes west at the Cataloochee Ski Area.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Top 10 Lessons Learned From Our Full Time Travels (So Far!)

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Suitcases Packed and Ready To Go

The holidays are well behind us, and we've had just enough time to take care of a few things around the house...and to actually get it sold. By the time you read this, we're expecting to have a contract on our house. Even though we plan to buy a house in Florida, this whole "vagabonding" thing has suddenly gotten very real!

Just next week we'll leave our house in Atlanta for the last time to set out on a couple of back-to-back road trips. The first will take us to Florida's vacation lands for some travel, work, and play (which just so happens to be our Twitter handle) and house hunting. The second road trip will take us north to a handful of the East's major cities (DC, Philly, Boston, NYC), some skiing in Vermont, and some work along the way. After that we'll be moving and preparing for an April-May-June return to Europe.

With our next round of travel looming, we've been thinking about the lessons we learned on the road from June to December of last year.

10. Keeping Your Devices Powered Is Paramount - We (travel peeps in general) have become dependent on our laptops, phones, and pads. We blog, research, and work anywhere we can and with any time we can carve out. We carry around entire libraries of books. We stay in touch with friends and family by emails, texts, and tweets. And we take thousands of pictures. Nothing dismays quite as much as getting somewhere and needing or wanting to work or read or take a picture and we find the little battery icon is empty. Fortunately, with just about all those devices now being made to accommodate the voltage inputs from back home and in Europe, we don't have to carry those bulky transformers around anymore. Instead, we just need one of these USB chargers with a power cord for the local plugs and a spare battery like this one.

9. Don't Forget Cruises As Transportation - Long-term travel, full-time travel, or constant travel not only changes your travel perspective but also your travel requirements. Unbounded by a 1-week or 2-week vacation, you no longer have to limit yourself to airplanes (and all the costs and stresses associated with air travel nowadays). Taking 2 weeks to drive across country actually has an appeal to us, as does cross-country train rides. But there doesn't seem to be a travel deal on the planet as sweet as cruising back and forth across the ocean. Of course we blogged a lot recently about our trip home on the Queen Mary 2 (start here), but it's especially worth pointing out that we would have spent almost as much on coach airfare to fly home as we did on taking the Queen Mary 2. And for our return to Spain in April, we're paying even less than coach airfare by taking a repositioning cruise with Norwegian.

8. The Portability Of A Phone Camera Nearly Trumps All Other Benefits - For more than 6 months last year, we lugged around our Nikon DSLR camera and 2 lenses. We took it because it takes significantly better pictures, especially in full light conditions, than even our (fairly current) iPhones. Of the 16,000 or so pictures we took, about a sixth were with the Nikon, and--as always--it produced splendid photographs. But not so much that we're ever going to lug it around again. The bottom line is that, even (especially?) for us full-time travelers, the utility of our phone cameras is such a benefit compared to a full-sized DSLR that we can't justify the weight and space costs of the DSLR. We might be shopping for a more compact camera, but for now we plan to just go with our iPhones (which have some other nifty benefits, which we'll blog about soon).

7. Travel Bloggers And "Travel Hack Experts" Aren't Always Right - We did a huge amount of research last May when we first considered taking the Queen Mary 2 home. It seemed incredible, after all, that a week aboard this storied ocean liner would be financially comparable to the option of staying longer and flying. One of the travel blogs we read said that the optimal time to book a cruise is 90 days out. This unnerved me as we had booked the QM2 more than 6 months out (we wanted to be absolutely sure we had that ride home just before Christmas and had no idea how popular it would be). Suffice it to say I watched those fares like a hawk, and they never wavered. One cruise isn't a statistical measure in the least, but I have been watching other cruise fares. It seems to me that last minute cruise deals (as in within 2 weeks) are always the best despite that "cruise expert's" blog that 90 days is the best (strictly comparing costs). We've noticed similar discrepancies in travel hack experts recommendations for everything from hotels to airfare. Bottom line, nothing beats good ol' research and diligence, and it can be part of the travel planning fun.

6. A Lightweight Rain Jacket Is A Lifesaver - Of all the stuff we bought for our trip, perhaps the most valued yet underrated item we carried along was this Columbia rain jacket. I kept it neatly folded in my backpack, and it proved immeasurably handy for both wet and cold weather without the bulkiness of an umbrella. I won't go vagabonding without it.

5. You Can't Forget To Count The Luggage Weight - Our two suitcases (pictured above) seemed adequate to the task of 6 months of travel when we originally purchased them. But after only a couple of months, we were wishing they were smaller. Even moreso, we were wishing they were lighter weight. At 7 pounds each, that meant our actual contents weight could only be 43 pounds when flying (at least by the American standard of 50 pounds). We're already eyeing ultra-lightweight luggage weighing in an incredible 3 pounds with similar space. Think of it this way: each pound a suitcase weighs is a pound less personal belongings you get to carry with, which is a great seque to the next lesson learnt (a little British lingo there)...

4. Travel Light, Collect Less Stuff - A lot can be said for full time travel forcing you into a less materialistic life: the costs (tangible and intangible) of carrying something around everywhere you go rarely come to mind when you live a "conventional" life. Not only do you continually aspire to travel even more lightly, you tend to collect less and less stuff along the way. And the stuff you collect is smaller, compact, and more greatly treasured because of that cost. For example, Chuck's prized souvenir from 6 months in Europe in 2014 is a tiny aluminum (train) platform conductor's whistle he picked up at an antique store in Notthingham, England for £5 (about $7). It weighs only a couple of ounces and can be easily carried in a pocket.

3. Three to Four Weeks Is Optimal - Moving from place to place incurs costs: both real costs of transportation and costs in time and effort. Conventional vacation travel drives people to go-see-do; we've been, and sometimes continue to be, guilty of multi-week tours of "3 days here, 4 days there". Ironically, on a 2 or 3 week vacation, you can least afford the time invested in moving around so much. We feel that a 3 to 4 week stay somewhere is pretty optimal, like the month we did in Valencia last July and the month we plan to do in Ibiza this May. Transportation costs are better managed, time and effort in packing and going are minimized, and it's generally plenty of time to see all the major things there are to see while becoming temporary regulars at the local restaurants and pubs.

2. The People You Meet Are 10 Times More Memorable Than The Stuff You See - By far, the stories we tell of our travels are more often about "a couple we met" or "this performer we saw" or "friends we have in wherever" than anything else. It's not that we're advocating skipping the museums and the castles and the cathedrals to hang out in bars to meet people; instead, it's just that if you realize in advance that the most memorable travel experiences you'll possibly have are about the people you'll encounter, you're more apt to strike up conversations, congratulate people celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, stop in a crowd outside a church and applaud the newlyweds, or ask someone where they're from.

1. Rediscovering Each Other (The "Bonding" in Vagabonding!) - For us, the biggest lesson we've learned from our full time travels so far is that we've spent a lot of our lives apart. Indeed we've had a great 29 years together, but for too many of those years, 5/7's of the time we set the alarm, got up, got dressed, and spent all day apart from one another. For quite a few of those years, we were focused on the evening and weekend needs of our 2 awesome children. Don't perceive any whining here: we loved every second of it, and we indeed found plenty of time for one another. But after only a few weeks of traveling together last year, we looked at each other and, with the kids grown and pursuing their own lives, declared we'd never go back to that "normal" life again.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Travel Aspirations, Updated

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Penrith Castle, England
Penrith Castle, England

Sometimes some of the simplest blog concepts turn out to be the hardest to actually write. While we were on the Queen Mary 2 in December, I told Lori we should write another blog to update our travel wish list (a transatlantic crossing on the QM2 has a way of getting you thinking about travel dreams). My thought was, now that we've tackled a few more of our travel dreams, we should cross them off the list and add a few more.

Not to mention the most common question we're now asked (by a mile) is, "Where are you going next?"

The problem is that the travel addiction seems to compound exponentially. Having challenged Lori to think of places we want to go and things we want to do, we both began to collect a list that far exceeds the list we began last year's 6-month adventure with. So much for "crossing things off our list".

I guess in that regard, we're anti "bucket list" people. We just don't think of travel that way. We like slow travel, not solely "go-see-do-move-on" travel. We like being opportunistic. We like being temporary regulars. And we especially like making new friends everywhere we go, not something you can exactly plan out in advance. Nevertheless, we came up with a list, but (trust me) you'd fall asleep reading through it. Suffice it to say we're interested in seeing pretty much every corner of the globe as long as there's good food and friendly people there.

Instead, we boiled our travel aspirations down to four "themes". Three of them we'll work on this year and next, but the fourth will take some effort (as in time and money) to accomplish. And while this list is light on a few major places of interest (4 of the 7 continents, to be precise), don't think we're not interested in places like South America or Australia anymore. We're just saving those for later.

Here are our current travel aspirations:

Americana - We've been all over America. We've seen more of our country than 99% of Americans, but that still leaves quite a healthy list of places yet to see, including Alaska and the states of the upper Rockies. We have a yearning to see more of the West's national parks, particularly Yellowstone (which we're planning to visit in July). Look also this year or next for us to go on a "Hall of Fame" trip to hit the Football, Baseball, and Rock-and-Roll Halls of Fame.

Dance Travel - We've decided that we're going to seek out opportunities to stretch our dance legs. As I write this, we just completed a big band dance event in Asheville, North Carolina. We're hoping to go to a dance club in New York when we pass through in March. And we've collected a list of ballroom dance venues with potential for us to visit this year, including a casino in Las Vegas (June) and a dinner-dance club in Seattle (July-August).

Eastern Europe - Our only regret (if you could call it that) from our 2014 European travels is that we sacrificed our time in the Balkans. When we return later in 2015, we definitely don't want to miss Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro again. We still want to visit the Czech Republic, plus we now also want to see Poland.

Round-The-World-Cruise - Cunard announced a couple of months ago that they'd offer 3 round-the-world cruises in 2016, one on each of their "Queens". The Queen Mary 2 will set out from Southampton in January, and 120 days, 38 ports, and 26 countries later, return to Southampton. This, if you couldn't tell, is the aspiration that we'll have to work on (it's not cheap). But oh, how nice it would be to spend 4 months at sea, at constant travel yet with no decisions much more complicated than how late to sleep, whether to eat in the buffet or the restaurant, and how late we'd stay up dancing.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Opportunism and Another Transatlantic Crossing

The Norwegian Epic

We hope you've liked our blog series on our transatlantic crossing aboard Cunard's Queen Mary 2. Because in the span of time from when you read the first to the last, we booked another transatlantic cruise.

We've always wanted to be those people you sometimes met who come across and jump on incredible travel deals. It always seems to be some sort of travel legend that someone managed to find a last-minute, week-long cruise for $100 or next-day airfare to Paris for $200. And you wish that you could, one day, be in a position to take advantage of such fantastic last-minute deals.

Well, we have, and we'll tell you how we did it. Here was the opportunity we spotted: an 11-night cruise on NCL's Norwegian Epic from Miami to Barcelona for $499. You simply can't buy airfare to get to Barcelona for $499, which alone would make this a great deal. But then factor in that you get fed those 10 days and 11 nights, and the deal looks even sweeter. But wait, it gets better.

I set up an alert on the app I used to find this cruise, and a couple of days later it alerted me that the fare had fallen to $449! Lori and I discussed it, scratched our heads, thought about it, and after a day decided we could take advantage of the time to get some heads-down work down, do some writing, follow-up on some work in Barcelona, get in a little ancestry research at nearby Ibiza, then come home. So we called the next day.

"Do you live on the east coast?" our cruise agent asked. As far as I knew geographically, Georgia indeed qualifies as an east coast state. "We're running an east-coast resident special, so you get an additional $30 off per person."

Bottom line, we booked this transatlantic, 11-night cruise for $419 per person. For the both of us, that comes out to just over $76 per day for room and board. This is important because it's part of our strategy to afford full-time travel (how-to blog forthcoming). It's like checking into a $25 per night hotel, being fed buffet breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day, and after a week-and-a-half, waking up in Spain.

Here's the kicker: this isn't a last-minute cruise. It leaves on a comfortably distant April 19th.

You might point out that this is surely the worst possible inside cabin on the ship. Indeed it might be: this fare is actually a "we'll put you in whatever passenger cabin we have available" sort of fare. It's possible (though not likely) that we could be upgraded to a suite. It's most likely that we'll get assigned one of the dozens of inside staterooms somewhere on the ship. Considering that we only ever slept and dressed in our stateroom on the Queen Mary 2, this seemed a completely acceptable tradeoff. We think of it this way: if we went to a 2,000-room resort anywhere in the world with multiple pools and hot tubs and dozens of restaurants and lounges and things to do, we wouldn't go sit in our room all day, even if it were the Presidential Suite.

Regardless of what sort of stateroom NCL puts us in, we still accumulate NCL points, and since this is an 11-night cruise and we've cruised with them before, we think this might actually bump us up a level. Which will come in real handy with the true vacation cruise we plan to take with friends this summer.

You might also rightly point out that we'll have lodging costs once we get to Spain, and we'll have costs associated with getting home. You'd be correct in both regards, but with the Euro falling against the dollar, it's the best time in over a decade to find lodging deals in Europe, especially in the southern countries like Spain and Italy (see this awesome blog from our friends Brian and Shannon). Many of those lodging options are cheaper than our cost-of-living room and board in the states. And who knows, maybe we can spot a house sitting opportunity in May. So far as airfare getting home, we're keeping an eye on a couple of attractive options, including unconventional connections through Iceland and Canada, as well as Norwegian Air's new low-cost intercontinental offering. More to come on these topics...

So how--you should be wondering--did we find this awesome deal? We found it by surfing around on an app called iCruise (available on iOS, not sure about Android). It allows you to filter dozens of cruises by cruise lines, month, destination, and length of cruise. We found another great cruise app called Ship Mate that has similar functionality but also tons of info on the ships, including a nifty "where are they now" capability.

So there you have it: travel opportunity abounds, and we are finally able to take advantage of some of it. This cruise deal is actually still out there but has bounced back up to the $499 we originally saw. If any of our friends or followers want to go to Spain in April and decide to book a cabin across the Atlantic on the Norwegian Epic, be sure to let us know: we'd love to see you on the ship!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

10 Underrated Things To Do On The Queen Mary 2

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - The QM2's Commodore Club
Looking Forward (Westward) From The Queen Mary 2's Commodore Club

We're going to wrap up our series of blogs on our Queen Mary 2 crossing with a nod to all the other activities that are worth mentioning that don't get the attention they deserve. There are our "10 Underrated Things To Do On The Queen Mary 2", those activities you just don't see on blogs or listed on Cunard's website that amount to great time spent and wonderful memories should you take a cruise or crossing on this great ship.

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Bronze Relief Artwork on the Queen Mary 2
Bronze Reliefs on the Queen Mary 2

10. Check Out the Art - The Queen Mary 2 is wonderfully appointed throughout with some great art. It's worth taking time to specifically look for it and not just pass it in awe of everything else the ship offers. In particular, check the stair wells and the main passageways on the lower decks between the Britannia Restaurant and the atrium area. The bronze reliefs are particularly cool.

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Old Photo of Walt Disney and Family onboard the Queen Elizabeth
Walt Disney Family on Cunard's Queen Elizabeth

9. Read The Info Posters - In addition to all the art, you'll find informational posters and placards all around the ship. They offer fascinating insight into transatlantic shipping, the history and development of nautical technology, and (our favorite) show great old pictures of celebrities and famous people who've cruised with Cunard through the company's century-and-a-half history, especially during the grand era of transatlantic crossings.

8. Watch the Dancers - You read our blog a few days ago about us taking advantage of the QM2's ballroom to do some foxtrot and tango, but far more people are dance spectators than participants. Even for us, as dancers, it was fun just to sit a song out and watch others dance from time to time. Being a dance spectator apparently is pretty common: several times we were recognized in the restaurant or on the elevator and greeted with, "Oh, I saw you two dancing!"

7. Take a Dancing Lesson - At some point you might get tired of being a spectator and become brave enough to try your hand (or feet, rather) at some dancing. Every day on our cruise a group lesson was offered (no additional charge). While there were way too many people in those group lessons to make it a practical way to truly learn to dance, it might be a good way for you to see if it's something you might like to try. If so, check with your group instructor to see if private lessons are available (though expect a charge for that).

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - A Queen Mary 2 Deck Plan Placard
Queen Mary 2 Deck Plan Placard

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Queen Mary 2 Hallway
A Long Queen Mary 2 Hallway

6. Wander...And Try To Get Lost - It's worth some time to just set off in one direction and randomly take turns and stairs and elevators. Check the ship's deck plans and look for areas of the ship you've not seen yet. When it's not too wet and windy, step outside on deck 7 every now and then. Study those ship plan signs and figure out how they're oriented toward the bow and aft of the ship. Just try and get lost so you can stump a friendly crew member with a "How do I get to..." question. Don't be one of those people who get home and realize you never saw the so-and-so on the Queen Mary 2.

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Queen Mary 2 Deck 7 Passageway
Queen Mary 2 Deck 7 Near Bow

5. Read - It almost goes without saying, but load up your Kindle or your iPad with books: you'll almost certainly find a quiet and inviting corner somewhere enticing you to sit and read.

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Drinks on the Queen Mary 2
Drinks on the Queen Mary 2

4. Indulge - Go ahead, enjoy a drink or two. As we blogged before, they aren't really that much more expensive (keep telling yourself that). A tip: try their unique for-the-QM2 cocktails; they're often a little more potent and a little less money. For serious indulging, there's even a cigar room, though Chuck didn't find time to utilize it (yes, there's always next time).

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - The Queen Mary 2's Cigar Room
The QM2's Cigar Room

3. Follow the Musicians - While there are headline performers onboard, there are also the performers you'll find in the restaurants, lounges, and common areas. On our cruise there were three piano players, a harpist, a string quartet, a jazz trio, various big band ensembles and singers, and more. Each day's schedule lets you know where the performers will be found, as they move around. If you particularly enjoyed the string quartet's performance while you dined one night, look for them to be performing in a lounge the next afternoon.

2. Chat with Fellow Passengers and Crew - We fear the art of conversation is dying. Do your part to keep it alive. As you soak in the hot tub, try to find out where your fellow hot-tubber is from. Congratulate your neighboring table on the anniversary they're celebrating. Discover from your server how long he or she has been on the Queen Mary 2 and learn what life aboard the ship is about. We found the crew does an amazing job of learning about you, and they'll likely recognize you and call you by name after only one conversation. We met some really great people on our cruise, from the ship's rabbi and his wife to awesome fellow ballroom dancers.

1. Sit and Look Out the Window - Probably the most underrated thing to do on the Queen Mary 2 is to simply sit and look out the window. An endless expanse of ocean has a way of making you think. It's a great opportunity to make plans, contemplate life, and all that stuff. Our favorite spots to do this were the window seats in the lounges, in particular the forward-looking windows of the Commodore Club (picture at the top of this blog), and in the library.