Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Next Michael Phelps-Mason at 16 Months in Hawaii

This is our crazy 1 1/2 year swimming in the pool in Hawaii.  He thinks he's pretty cool and can do anything his older sister does.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Hotel Review: The Venetian in Las Vegas

Katie and I went to St George for Thanksgiving and decided to take advantage of the family babysitters at hand and go to Vegas for one night.  I got on Get a Room to see what kind of deals could be had.  The site usually has as good a rate as we can find but often times even better rates if you just call in.  I asked the agent what was the best rate we could get for a 5 star on the strip and was told TheVenetian for $160.  Pretty good deal for a weekend/holiday rate.  The best online rate I could find for The Venetian was $299.
The resort itself is in an excellent location.  It is close to many other high end resorts and is across the street from The Fashion Show Mall. 
The rooms were VERY nice.  The bathrooms had both a shower and tub.  The bedroom was decorated very upscale but not over the top tacky.  The room had stairs that went down to a living area that had two sofas, one of which pulled out to a queen bed.  The living area also had a desk and the second flat screen of the room.  Most importantly, it was clean.
The property is great.  There were very nice pools and hot tubs that were built in a garden setting so each pool seemed to offer some sense of privacy.  The work out area was very nice and clean-at least that’s what Katie tells me, I never stepped foot in the gym.  Also, we really liked the fact that the resort’s entrance sits on the floor above the casino, so if you want to walk around the shops or eat, you’re not sitting next to a dinging slot machine or inhaling someone’s cigar smoke.  You have to want to go to the casino to even see it whereas most Vegas resorts the casino is forced on you. 
We had dinner at Bouchon, a French style restaurant.  We ordered Monk Fish and it was one of the best fish meals we’ve ever had.  I would give it high praise.
The poker room is one of the best in Vegas.  I didn’t do well, lost one hand full house to a higher full house and a second hand I lost straight to a flush.  I can’t blame that on the resort.
We would absolutely go back and we would take our kids.  The room is perfect for a family of 4.  That said, it was nice to have a little get away with Katie.  

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Cancun Pictures


Gwen and dad playing in the Ocean

Gwen trying to move in her inflatable life jacket


I wouldn't pet him


Old colonial Merida

Uxmal

Uxmal

Uxmal Temple
Beautiful JW Marriott pool

Our Family's Top 10 Favorite Hotels and Resorts

Please leave a comment and let me know if your family has any favorite hotels we should be aware of!

We each have different criteria for best hotels.  I like hotels in great locations.  Katie enjoys a helpful, friendly staff and room slippers.  Gwen likes hotels with close to lots of action and with really nice pools.  Admittedly our family has a little bit of a Marriott bias, but below is each family members ranking of their top 10 hotels:

Scott’s Top 10 Hotels and Resorts:
            -Phuket, Thailand (best staff in the world)
2) AYANA Resort and Spa (Formerly Ritz Carlton Bali)
            -Bali, Indonesia (Amazing pools and private beach)
            -Oahu, Hawaii (perfect family hotel)
            -Seoul, South Korea (amazing gym and subway access)
            -Hong Kong, China (very elegant and perfect views in all directions)
            -Prague, Czech Republic (very large rooms and excellent location)
            -Herradura, Costa Rica (open air hotel and close to many activities)
            -Cancun, Mexico (amazing pool and beautiful rooms)
            -Singapore, Singapore (located in the epicenter of Orchard Road)
            -Las Vegas, Nevada (away from the The Strip with great rain showers)

Katie’s Top 10 Hotels and Resorts:
1) AYANA Resort and Spa (Formerly Ritz Carlton Bali)
            -Bali, Indonesia (perfect views and great staff)
            -Phuket, Thailand (great staff and restaurants)
            -Oahu, Hawaii (nice pools and beaches for the family)
            -Herradura, Costa Rica (beautiful tropical setting)
            -Singapore, Singapore (great location and dim sum bar)
            -Seoul, South Korea (next door to a fun food court and subway)
            -Cancun, Mexico (beautiful beach and nice rooms)
            -Bangkok, Thailand (great lobby and location)
            -Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (one of the best work out facilities)
            -Stockholm, Sweden (contemporary and close to many walking trails)

Gwen’s Top 10 Hotels and  Resorts:
            -Phuket, Thailand (nice beach and warm pools)
2) AYANA Resort and Spa (Formerly Ritz Carlton Bali)
            -Bali, Indonesia (fun kids club and a water slide)
            -Oahu, Hawaii (awesome beach and friends close by)
            -Maui, Hawaii (pirate ship pool)
            -Hurradura, Costa Rica (huge pool and monkeys)
            -Park City, Utah (really nice rooms)
            -Seoul, South Korea (huge swimming pool and subway)
            -Cancun, Mexico (pretty beach)
            -Stockholm, Sweden (across the street from a park)
            -Indian Wells, California (you can pick oranges from trees by the pool)

Mason
Any hotel with a pool and hot tub.

OVERALL #1 HOTEL: JW MARRIOTT HOTEL SEOUL 

Friday, November 18, 2011

5 Days in a Mexican Hurricane Shelter-Part 5

The next morning we woke up excited, thinking it was all behind us and ready to get out of the shelter.  We were outside enjoying some fresh air and sunlight when a police jeep pulled in and advised everyone to go back inside because the nearby zoo’s walls had crumbled in the storm and they were still searching for all the animals. 

About 12:00 that day, we were updated on our options.  We were told that the hotel had arranged for vehicle transportation to the nearest city with an international airport, Merida, but that once we left, Marriott would not be responsible for us.  They warned that there would be a lot of people heading to Merida so we would have to make our own hotel and flight arrangements and that there were reports of severe flooding on the roads there.  Our other option was to stay at the shelter where we would have a place to stay and continue to be fed.  But the Cancun airport was closed, the hotel had been destroyed and we would have to stay put for a few days until an evacuation plan could be put in place.

Every guest there ran for one of the transportation vehicles, anxious to get out and on a plane back home.  Our little group discussed our options and decided it would be best, even if the idea was unappealing, to stay put.  After the vans started pulling out, we looked around and realized we were the only guests there.  We soon noticed locals and other stranded tourists walking by the front gate, glancing in and noticing that we had food and water.  There were only a handful of us and a few Marriott employees and it no longer felt like the wise thing to stay put.  A van was ordered and we finally left the shelter behind.

What we saw on the other side of the walls was heart breaking.  Tourists were gathering coconuts to try to find something to drink, water stations had lines 2-3 people wide and ½ mile long.  Homes were flattened.  Hotels were destroyed. 
Guests of another hotel with no idea what to do.
Sorting through luggage trying to find our bags.
Our neighbor hotel didn't have a single window left.
The rebuilding process is already starting.
A view inside our lobby.


We were driven to our hotel where they sorted through the luggage and gave us our bags we had left behind.  Our beautiful hotel was hardly recognizable.  Waves and water were reported to have reached the 4th floor of our building.  Our bags, which had been in a closet many floors above that, were wet, indicating that our balcony window was no longer there and our room had filled with rain water.

We got back in our van and headed toward the main highway that goes past Chitzen Itza.  It took us a couple hours to get to the start of the highway when our van suddenly pulled off the road.  All the other vans from our shelter were already parked there.  We learned that the highway was completely flooded and several buses had tipped over trying to cross.  Vic, a fluent Spanish speaker, overheard some of the drivers say “we’ve already been paid, let’s just take them back.”  Our driver replied in Spanish that he had family in Merida and wouldn’t mind going there.  He knew of some back roads but would have to drive very far south, almost to the Belize boarder to reach those back roads.  The other drivers were trying to convince him that he was crazy to even consider doing that.  Before our driver had time to decide, Vic (who happened to be a large man) grabbed our driver by the scruff of his neck and said “yeah, yeah, let’s go.  Let’s go the way you suggested.  We’ll pay extra, hurry.”  He pulled him away from the other drivers before they talked sense into him and we all got back in the van and headed off, I think to the surprise of even our driver.

Just hoping our van doesn't get stuck in this new lake
People waiting for water

We drove south, several times through “lakes” that came up over the hood of our van.  It took several hours to reach Tulum (normally only an hour away) and headed even further south.  All along the road was utter destruction and people wandering aimlessly, hungry and thirsty.  Eventually we turned west, away from the coast and toward through the jungles.  We were finally able to get a little cell coverage and call our families to let them know we were ok.  They had very little news back home of what had gone on and hadn’t heard from us for 5 days.  Every now and then, we would stop, in complete darkness, to go through boarder crossings which consisted of about 10 soldiers holding machine guns sitting by a large truck.  It was frightening to feel so vulnerable and put your trust in a van driver we had never met.  Vic would get out of the car to listen in to the conversation and encourage our driver to get back in the car and keep moving.

We finally arrived in Merida around 1:00 in the morning.  We were all exhausted.  One member of our group had arranged 3 hotel rooms in the center of town, called Casa Del Balam.  It was a great little hotel.  Luckily no one goes to sleep in Merida and a restaurant was open next door.

The next morning we all tried to make arrangements to get home.  Our group started disbanding as people got different flights on different days.  We were the last to leave and spent 5 days in Merida waiting for a flight.  We made the best of it and have often commented on the fact that we never would have gone to Merida if not for the unusual circumstances but loved the charm of the old city.  We also visited Uxmal and were amazed at the Mayan ruins.  Our hotel was a great little place in town, but we often wonder if we enjoyed it so much because of the hotel itself or our previous "hotel."

Our Merida hotel Casa Del Balam

All cleaned up

Merida Cathedral

Merida Town Square

Gwen's first serenade

Uxmal

Cori, Gwen and Katie at Uxmal

Uxmal

Uxmal
  

Delta told us they could get us home from Mexico City, but we would have to get there.  Their partner airline gauged us to the tune of $800 per ticket to fly from Merida to Mexico City.  Eventually we made it to home via Mexico City to Atlanta to Salt Lake City.  Our original 5 day vacation turned into 2 weeks of hell.  It was also about quadruple the cost we had anticipated.  That said, we felt watched over and protected getting to Merida and finding lodging. 

We later learned that all the other vans did head back to the shelter and leave the guests.  Apparently it was a nightmare since everyone was distraught and the party crowd had been given their bags of alcohol back.  They ended up there 5 days more before Marriott was able to get 2 private jets to Cancun and took everyone to either Mexico City or Atlanta.  Marriott was kind enough to give them free lodging at their hotels in each location until they could find a way home.  Marriott was very impressive in how they handled the whole situation, and it has converted us into loyal Marriott guests pretty much anywhere we travel.

A family trip we’ll never forget.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

5 Days in a Mexican Hurricane Shelter-Part 4

Saturday the 21st, we were still in the main impact of the storm.  The mood was sour, people were tired since no one was getting 8 hours of sleep, and there was no end in sight.  Strangely, the most positive people through the ordeal were the Marriott Employees.  We later learned that they were given the choice to take care of the guests or go home to their families.  They were told that if they volunteered to take care of the guests, Marriott would keep them employed until the hotel reopened.  I am still touched looking back on what a good attitude they all had.

Sometime that day, the drains on the roof backed up and water began to come up through the drains in the floor and the water was steadily rising.  It was just one more strange event, and people climbed up off the floor as the rose and rose.  Once the Marriott Employees figured out what was going on, they sent one of their own outside, a 135 pound little Mexican worker.  They tied him off with a rope and sent him on the roof in 150+ MPH winds to unclog the drains.  That guy was our hero.  He was the same guy that went outside once a day to fire up the generator so we could all flush away 24 hours of waste. 

Start of the flooding
This picture was taken during the eye, the thing was bent in half by the end of the storm


Our wall had crumbled
Toward late afternoon, we were allowed outside for 20 minutes to look around during the eye of the hurricane.  It was strange to feel the calm, but see all the destruction.  Across the, another cinder block building was crumbled to the ground.  A large metal billboard was bent in half and palm trees were snapped.  It was then that I realized what a precarious situation we were in and that the back half of the storm could crush our building as the front half had done to others.

Later that evening, the winds picked up again, but it we were happy to know that we were at least half way through the storm.  Our new friends tried to help keep everyone’s spirits up.  We all laughed at one point when Gwen, aged 3, said to her aunt who was having a moment, “Cori, do you see other people crying, just stop thinking about it.”  It was the very line we had used on her in many a public place through the years. For some reason, that little exchange put everyone in a better mood.

Meals continued to be the same old thing, but we later learned how fortunate we were when we talked to others in public shelters.  One couple we met after it was all over told us of stealing among everyone at the shelters and how one thief was taken outside and shot by police to send a message to not steal and keep other would be thieves out.

We slept Saturday night and woke up Sunday to much of the same.  Toward the end of the day, everyone noticed the winds start to die down.  The end was in sight.  That night, we were let outside and it turned into an impromptu party.  Someone broke out a stick for a limbo contest, music played and the staff felt comfortable to start serving up much of the remaining food.  Everyone had been wearing the same clothes for 5 days, but no one cared at that point.  It was so nice to finally feel free, although we had no idea what the next few days would entail.  The next 24 hours would be the most adventurous.
Vic and Angela
Limbo Stick, we threw away those pink sweats


Katie showing off her lack of flexibility
Gwen dancing with the staff-they were awesome


5 Days in a Mexican Hurricane Shelter-Part 3


Wednesday night, the 19th, all the hatches had been battened down and we were prepared to ride out the storm.  A few of the guests were from The South and immediately became the subject matter experts on all things hurricane related.  We were told by those “experts” that once the hurricane actually hit, to plan on about 24 hours for it to blow through.  That sounded reasonable.  We knew the full force of the storm would hit us the next day, so we would probably just kick back in this shelter until Friday or Saturday at the latest.  The staff passed out sandwiches, pop and candy bars.  The last reports we got before contact with the outside world was lost were that the hurricane was over Cozumel and on a direct path for Cancun.

Our family crammed on the king bed in the “adult entertainment” room.  Our stomachs were full and we drifted off.  We felt safe, but all the while there was a quiet tension as none of us knew what to expect over the next 24 hours.  That night, the wind really started to pick up.  It made it difficult to sleep, but the thought I kept having was, “let’s just get this over with.”  Turns out, that wind was only a precursor to the real stuff.  Those didn’t hit until about 12:00 Thursday morning. 

The next morning we opened the door leading from our garage hotel room to the service hall connecting all the rooms.  We were surprised to see that most of the guests were hanging out in this hall and many had spent the night there.  They found something comforting in being around other people as the winds raged.  We got to know many of the other guests and turned out to be a novelty since we had Gwen with us.  Many of the guests had children at home and just wanted to be close to her.  Since she didn’t quite understand what was going on, her spirits were high and I think others drew strength from that.

We soon figured out the routine of breakfast, lunch and dinner which broke up the monotony and was looked forward to by all.  The meals were generally grilled cheese sandwiches or grilled cheese sandwiches.  They did try to include a treat with dinner and many of the guests offered theirs to Gwen.  As soon as she figured that out, she walked up and down the hall gathering as many treats as she could.

That night, we were given some disappointing news.  We were told that the storm would last longer than anticipated and we might be there 48 hours.  That meant we weren’t getting out Friday.  That’s also when the winds really picked up.  The power went out and the generator kicked in lighting up half the service hallway, but leaving our rooms pitch black.  That meant no showers and no flushing toilets.  The mood got much darker as people started to realize this was going to be tougher than they’d imagined.  That night, Katie, Cori and Gwen slept out in the hall.  I decided to go the room, using the remaining juice in my cell phone as a flashlight.  It felt lonely in there.  I had felt safe going to a cinder block building, but that feeling was disappearing as the room began to shake.  Eventually exhaustion took over and I fell asleep.

The hallway became the hang-out spot
Friday morning we found our niche in the group and made friends with some great people, a single mom from Oklahoma, a couple from Colorado and a great couple from California, Vic and Angela.  It was nice to have someone to talk to and take your mind off what was going on.  Six years later, we still count Vic and Angela as friends.  The group became bonded and we all agreed to take care of each other.  The day passed slowly as we were now experiencing the absolute strength of the storm.  It is difficult to describe how uneasy I felt having a cement building shake around me and my family.  We noticed that the meals got a little less elaborate and that the staff was talking quietly to each other.  That night, the announcement came, “the storm hadn’t moved at all and was stalled over Cancun.”  They didn’t know how much longer it would last but needed to be more careful about rations.  They said they would send someone out once a day to start the generator for 15 minutes so everyone could try to flush their toilets.  I think everyone had found comfort in projecting an end, 24 hours, then 48 hours, and knowing that each hour that passed was one hour closer to the end.  Now there wasn’t an end in sight, and the mood of the place went into a tailspin.  
Gwen sitting in the doorway from our room to the hallway.
Cori staking her spot in the hallway.



Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pictures of the Evacuation and Garage Hotel



The view from our balcony the morning of the evacuation


The Garage Hotel

Trying to figure out which strangers we would ride out the storm with

They drew the short straws and had to stay with the family

5 Days in a Mexican Hurricane Shelter-Part 2

After eating as much lobster as we could, we all went back to our room to try to get one last good night of sleep.  The mood had turned a little somber and Cori had started to get quiet.  Katie was trying not to show her concern so Gwen wouldn’t pick up on it.  We were all nervous, but trying our best to not worry.  We watched a little news before we went to bed, but the English speaking channels like CNN and FOX weren’t saying too much about the storm since it was heading for Mexico.  We later learned that Wilma was the quickest recorded storm to go from Tropical Storm to Category 5 status ever.  Wikipedia says it was the most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded with winds at 185 mph and sustained winds of 150 mph when it hit the Yucatan Peninsula.

We woke the next morning to a knock on the door and were instructed to put our luggage in the closet and bring one small bag for the entire room, all 4 of us.  I looked out our balcony to see that the waves had grown heavier, frothier and the water was much browner than the night before.  The air was heavy.  The storm was definitely on its way.  We put everything in the closet, tried to decide what we needed and walked down to the ballroom with no idea of what was in store.  There was a very strange feeling in the ballroom and even some panic by a few of the guests.  I looked around and noticed Gwen was the only child in the room.

The General Manager of the hotel asked everyone to be quiet and walked us through the hotel’s plan for its guests.  He explained that we would all get on buses and move inland and taken to a Federally approved Hurricane Shelter that Marriott keeps on retainer in case of an emergency.  Staff from the hotel would come to take care of us for as long as it took and that we would be safe there.  Food and blankets had been sent there the night before.  We would be leaving in 20 minutes.

It all sounded good and well planned.  I was grateful for that.  I later learned that our circumstances were unique.  Of all the hotels in Cancun, the JW Marriott, the CasaMagna Marriott, the Ritz-Carlton and the Hyatt were the only properties that had this sort of arrangement.  I learned a big lesson, you get what you pay for.  There are many good non-US hotel chains, but I’ll always be grateful for Marriott and their staff that they had a plan like this in place to take care of their guests.  When I met other vacationers after the storm was over, I learned many had just been dropped off in gymnasiums that had the roofs blown off or bull fighting arenas with a little food and were on their own. 

It was eerie riding the bus and seeing all the shops boarded up, the streets empty and massive hotels vacant.  30 minutes later, the bus was driving in an industrial part of town when it turned through a large gate and behind a 15 foot wall was our new hotel.  It was quite different from The JW.  It was what is referred to as a “garage hotel.”  The premise behind a garage hotel is it’s a place you take your secretary during lunch with total anonymity.  You drive your car into a garage and a red light turns on in the long hall connecting all the rooms so staff can see that a guest has arrived.  There is a lazy susan device that one might use in film development for the guest to put their money on, the staff in return puts a room key on and the guest can now open the door from the garage to their hourly rate room without any face to face contact with the staff.  From there, the guest walks up some stairs to a room that sits above the garage. 

The bus stopped.  We took our one bag and were told, “Look around and make some friends.  There will need to be 6 guests to a room.”  A young couple from Vegas that had a pest control company hooked up with us, but since we were a family, I think they felt a little uncomfortable and we never really did see them at our room. 

We opened the door leading from the garage to our room, walked up some stairs and turned the corner, finally realizing what this hotel was all about.  The walls had several “tasteful” nude pictures.  Katie tried to turn them around but they were screwed into the cinder block walls.  The first 5 channels on the television were of an adult nature.  No TV, of course we found out the signal was lost shortly after we arrived.  We were just happy we didn’t have a CSI black-light to learn more of this room’s secrets.

We went back outside to get to know some of our neighbors.  There was the religious crowd that were praying together, something I’m a little uncomfortable with around strangers (there happened to be a priest in the group).  There was the party crowd that managed to fill their one survival bag with alcohol (later confiscated by the staff).  There were the young couples with no kids.  There were the older couples that their kids had long since moved out.  There were the other couples that left their kids home.  And then there was the Chandlers, two 20 something parents, a 19 year old sister-in-law and a blonde 3 year old.  We didn’t look like we fit in any group.

After a couple hours, we were told to go back inside as the storm was getting closer.  Little did we know that other than the brief 20 minutes we would be allowed outside during the eye of the hurricane, we would be stuck in that cinder block building for the next 5 days.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Calm Before the Storm




5 Days in a Mexican Hurricane Shelter-Part 1

Hurricane Wilma

Remember the crazy news footage coming out of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005?  To see people stranded in the United States waiting to be evacuated, hungry for food, angry that help wasn’t arriving?  How disturbed the people were that waited in the Superdome and the lawlessness that they described took place while waiting in that shelter?  All these things were still fresh in my mind when our family flew to Cancun for a relaxing 5 day trip.

In mid-August of 2005, we had some Marriott free stay certificates and quite a few air miles.  We called my wife’s college aged sister, Cori, and asked if she would want to come to Cancun with us and her only payment would be to jump in the pool every time Gwen, 3 at the time, had the urge to swim.  Cori agreed, we lined up the trip using the free tickets and certs, and looked forward to a fun trip in mid-October.  About a week after booking that trip, Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans.  Katie asked if it was wise to go to the Caribbean in the summer time.  I patiently explained that we’re going in October and hurricane season ended in September. 

We arrived in Cancun Sunday October 16th to beautiful weather.  We stood behind the singer Seal at customs and learned that MTV was having their Latin American Awards in Cancun that week.  We stepped out of the airport and took a taxi to the JWMarriott Cancun Resort.  It was a gorgeous resort with wrap around infinity pools, excellent work out facility and several great restaurants.  Let the relaxing vacation begin.  We spent time at the pool, on the beach and enjoying the view from our room on the 10th floor room.

We did want to leave the resort and explore a little and booked a tour to go to Tulum on Tuesday the 18th.  I went to bed Monday night and watched the weather to see what our day would be like.  There was talk of a Tropical Storm below Cuba, and my only thought was “sounds like it will be rainy on Friday when we leave.  We timed this trip perfectly.”

Tulum was beautiful.  It is a must see for anyone that visits Mexico.  We spent the afternoon touring the ruins and looking out over the clear blue water that Tulum is famous for.  The water seemed calm and all was normal.  Our bus dropped us off at the hotel around 6:00 and it didn’t take long to sense something wasn’t right.  The lobby was packed with guests elbowing to the front of the line to talk to anyone they could at reception.  Others were on their cell phones talking angrily at whoever was on the other end of the line.  We turned a corner and there were hotel workers screwing pieces of plywood over the windows.  I stopped a stranger to ask what was going on.  “A category 5 hurricane is coming right for us!” 

If you haven’t ever been to Cancun, the hotels are literally built on a strip of sand about 20 feet above sea level.  So here I am in Mexico, thoughts of Katrina blaring through my head, and I’m thinking “stay calm, I’ll just call Delta and catch a flight home before it gets here.”  When I finally got through to a Delta representative she explained very nicely (although I’m sure inside she was thinking DUH), that all flights to Cancun had been cancelled and they weren’t sending any planes to a place where a Category 5 Hurricane headed.  Now I’m thinking “if it got that crazy in the U.S., how crazy is it going to get in Mexico?”

We went to our room to clean up and get ready for dinner.  As we were getting dressed, there was a knock on the door.  A hotel employee stopped by to ask us to not panic and that all the guests were instructed to meet in the hotel ballroom the next morning at 8:00. What are you supposed to do in a situation like that?  Our answer…we went to the Lobster Sea Food Buffet.  Why not go out in style?
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