Saturday, December 10, 2011

A la Carte or All Inclusive? That is the question!

For many, the idea of taking a family vacation that requires a passport seems flamboyant or expensive at best. But the truth be told, all inclusive vacations can pack the best value for your hard earned dollar. Let's compare:
Take the classic American Vacation to see the big Mouse in Florida, for example. Your package will consist of air, Magical Express transfers and a room for your stay. Tickets to the theme parks are just the beginning of all the extras you'll incur. Do you want one park a day or an all access pass including water parks? If you skimp here, guaranteed you'll want more Mickey and therefore drop more Benjamins. And of course, you'll need to eat so that brings up the question of how much? Do you go a la carte or prepay a meal plan? Meal plan? Make sure your eyes aren't bigger than your stomach or else you'll have wasted precious moolah you'll be needing for souvenirs. Afterall, ALL the kids are wearing Mouse ear hats and waving wands ensuring all their dreams come true! Although an American tradition for many, lets face it; with all these questions, hypothetical scenarios, and preplanning, I'm sure you'll, like many parents, wave your white surrender flag in exasperation! ...And that's when you call on me to give you alternate options!

As my husband and I were planning out all the Jamaican adventures we wanted to take in, he stopped me and asked a great question, "What's included at the Resort? I mean, do we really need to even leave it?" Why yes, excellent point! At Beaches Resorts, like their parent company, Sandals, love is all you need because, everything's included! Upon our arrival, we have complimentary snacks and beverages (including Red Stripe!) in the private Sandals & Beaches lounge at the airport. From there, a private transfer will whisk you off to Paradise. After your transfer you'll be greeted by a friendly host at the door who will offer you a cool towel infused with Lemongrass, their signature Red Lane Spa scent. Chances are you'll be offered a beverage, but no worries 'Mon it's all included! "Mom let's go snorkeling!", "I want to go play Kinetics!", "I'm hungry! Do they serve pizza in Jamaica?", "Dad can we go golfing tomorrow?" Did you know that if you answered yes to all of these questions it wouldn't cost a thing? Thats right! They also boast the island's largest waterpark, XBox Game Garage, Kids Club including Sesame Street characters who will visit at breakfast, Elmo-cize on the beach, bake cookies with Cookie Monster, start a parade at dusk, host an excellent Caribbean party, and even tuck your child in with a bedtime story! In fact, at Beaches they boast of being the resorts with "more inclusions than any other on the PLANET!" And as a parent I can appreciate that because we're in the business of making memories, NOT having a family meeting by day 2 to talk about our budget!

Dunns River Falls

So in our attempt to "carpe diem" we shuffled our family of 5 off to Dunns River Falls for a few hours of exhilarating family bonding. And did we bond! Our family, plus many more totaling over 30 in all, bonded our hands to form a human chain as we began our asent. Beginning at the beach, we climbed for over 45 minutes including several falls and even a few "slides". Along the way we had some photo opps to remind ourselves how brave we were. I think I may even use it as our Christmas card this year! I'll be honest, there were a few moments that made my heart race and other times where I doubted my ability and certainly my 5 year old! With trust in each person whose hand we're holding and of course the helpful guides, we made it to the top! The large congratulating sign was euphoria!

After the climb, which involved negotiations with our anatomy and even psyche at times, our guard was let down as we walked our way back to the bus. We clearly had two paths to choose from and were even advised to stay clear of the craft market. But like Adam & Eve, we were led astray and soon were haggled, hustled and even had words hurled at us for not buying from the vendors. Every trick in the book was used; from saying they were a worker at the resort we stayed at to offering to give the kids a gift. Once the "gift" was personalized and in the children's hands, they demanded obscene amounts of money. Since when does a 3" wooden turtle cost $30? Furthermore, when do gifts cost money? No 'Mon, I don't think so. The best part of the whole deal is that I tell my clients to beware of the craft market and shop the Duty Free or even when the vendors visit the resort. It's no wonder we felt like we had just been through the ringer with an afternoon filled with one adrenaline rush after the next!
Today we realized a valuable lesson; if you fail to make a plan, you plan to fail! What a bummer to see we've been relaxing so much and meeting so many people from around the globe that we have more things we want to see and do than we have days left here! Yesterday was a calm day on the ocean so we made it on the snorkel tour. While the 5 year old stayed back at Kids Camp doing a treasure hunt with Bert & Ernie, the rest of us set out on the high seas. Something was different today for my 9 year old; I think because the ocean was so calm and crystal clear, she got a closer look at the underwater world and was a bit more intimidated than the day before. Unfortunately, all efforts to calm her down were unsuccessful, so Daddy swam with her back to the boat. For me, although PADI Certified, I was a little wary as well! Perhaps because I just saw the movie Soul Surfer, that may explain my rapid heart beat and deep breathing! On the other hand, my 8 year old son was a natural! Being the gentleman he is, he took me by the hand and swam me around showing me lion fish, sea urchins and eels. As I tried to convince myself nothing large enough to eat me could fit amongst the skinny paths and caverns of coral reef, my son was swimming along with "no worries 'mon!" Ugh, I get a queasy stomach just writing about it. Or could it be the fact I'm on a 50mph transfer ride on the opposite side of he road to Dunns River Falls! Speaking of the Falls, were off to "carpe diem"! All for now....

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Sister Sites

Today while the kids were at Kids Camp making cookies with Cookie Monster and dancing with Zoe and my husband was making friends with ALL the Canadians at the resort, I snuck out and took a peek at the sister resorts here in Ocho Rios. My first stop was at Sandals Grande Ocho Rios. My, what a lovely makeover she has just completed! As the largest resort in the chain, boasting almost 600 rooms, 94 pools, 14 restaurants and a plethora of bars, this I'm sure was no easy feat! My tour began as we walked the property and noticed all the people in love! It was like Noahs Ark; everything set up two of this and two of that. Even the beach loungers were two by two! I saw the 7 areas where weddings are held and the corresponding areas for a reception afterwards. Whether a group of 4 or 104, this property could easily handle the most important day of any newlywed's lives. I moved on to see the rooms with their new soft coverings and toned down color pallet. Out with the bold Caribbean colors and in with the muted earth tones accented with treasures from the sea. Mr Stewart didn't hold back when he ensured every room had a gorgeous mahogany four poster king bed! It took all my will power NOT to jump on one (just once!) For the active couple, a state of the art fitness center is sure to please and Jamaicas largest rock climbing wall will have you longing for the Red Lane Spa. Golf? Included. Drinks? Included. Gourmet Restaurants? Included. In fact, the only question will be, "where shall we eat tonight?". It was plain to see there truly was something for everyone at this diverse resort.

Next stop was Royal Plantation next door. This boutique resort has won numerous awards from Conde Nest and it was apparent as soon as I walked in! This all butler resort caters to the person who wants it all! To begin your vacation, a private transfer from the airport is included. All rooms have ocean views, even from the jacuzzi bath tub! Grand balconies grace a few of the rooms where your personal butler can serve your breakfast or even a romantic candle light dinner. I saw many basking in the sun while reading their Kindles and simply enjoying the good life. People here were not interested in tours or the hustle and bustle atmosphere that the neighboring Sandals had. If after martinis or even caviar one was so inclined to kick up their heels, of course they could go next door and enjoy the nightlife. But after a full tour including breathtaking views and incredible wedding locations, I'm not sure anyone would want to leave this memorable place!

Day 3, Monday ya Mon!

Today we spent most of the day hanging around meeting people and just sharing cultures and stories of what brought us to Beaches. We met families from Miami with thick Spanish accents who would occasionally drop a few native words mid sentence; I think they liked my facial expressions when they did it because it caught me so off guard! Like this one, "Sweetie, we need to get going so we don't miss the glass bottom boat ride. Andale Andale! Sometimes, she's just so slow!" Andale has quickly become my new favorite word :) I asked this family from Miami why they chose Jamaica, afterall, Miami is pretty tropical! She said they needed a change of pace and scenery and Jamaica would allow them much needed time to slow down and reconnect as a family. No cell phones or Internet was their family rule. The kids played with other kids at Kids Camp while Mom and Dad got a spa treatment or went on a Lovers Catamaran ride. They dined together, snorkeled together, picked seashells together, even made their own CD together at the DJ Scratch Academy!

And then we spent the better part of the day learning to relax and take it easy with a family from Kingston. Recently divorced, Christine, said she was looking to spend some quality time with her girls and celebrate the oldest's 12th birthday! Her girls and mine hit it off right away! While the girls danced to Kinect or swam in the ocean it was with Christine that I learned so many "truths" about her homeland, Jamaica. For example, did you know Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, has a population of over one million, however, it is a really safe part of the country. So many times we're told as Americans (even travel agents) that it's not recommended to travel there, so we dismiss it altogether. She advised that you haven't seen Jamaica if you haven't been to Kingston. With all the diversity of people, cultures and food, it is a destination all in itself. During our poolside chat, I learned that Jamaica is a Christian nation that boasts more churches per capita; in fact, its been mentioned in the Guiness World of Records. I also learned that the locals are very genuine people who shouldn't be feared. As we enjoyed Jerk Chicken over lunch, she went on to share that she homeschools her daughters with hopes to provide them with a more diverse curriculum that allows them to excel at their own pace and express themselves, the very same reasons my American friends homeschool! My children were eager to share some winter pictures with the girls and show them snow, ice fishing memories and even how we bundle to protect ourselves from Old Man Winter.

As our fun filled day was winding down, we met two families who put it simply, they were here making huge deposits into their love accounts! They were the typical American family who work more than they play causing strains on the family that only time and attention could only ease. For them they were being intentional and scheduled this time to punch out of work and punch in on the family time clock! They filled their days with Character breakfasts and many tours including swimming with the dolphins, glass bottom boat rides, hiking Dunns River Falls and private dinners on the beach. Admiring their desire and dedication to their family time, we politely let them carry on and join us when they were ready.
In all these examples, the resounding theme, including our own, was to relax and reconnect with the ones most dear to us. I'd have to say that's a 'Mission Accomplished'!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Day 2; Sunday Funday!

Day 2 began after the entire family slept in over 10 hours! Wow did that feel good! Today we decided was the day we'd explore the resort on our own (since we missed the tour). We made one rule: no tears while on vacation and as parents, we'd try not to use the word 'no' if at all possible. Of course, manners and respect were still part of the deal, but we weren't going to be strict because afterall, we're on vacation!! I challenged Eero (8) to eat his weight in ice cream this week which he happily agreed to! So we ate jerk burgers and local fare like akee and salt fish, explored the ocean and swam at the waterpark, listened to stories with Elmo, played Kinetics and sang karaoke! The kids met other kids from Kingston, Brazil and even Cuba and became fast friends! Dad taught one how to play pool while I got an upper body workout catching the little ones coming down the waterslide.When dinner came we allowed dessert first and encouraged them to dance on the stage to the music while all the other pierced lipped parents cringed with disapproval and then horror when their kids joined in. Eventually they loosened up when the nostalgia of the Sesame Street music reeled them back to the days where "everything's A-ok!" We got our pictures taken with the characters and even spun a few ballet moves with Zoe! Upon retiring to our room, we found our concierge had turned down our beds and left us a fun towel animal along with a four page newsletter of all the happenings that were available (for NO additional fee) tomorrow!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Maki Family Vacation Part 2

Family Vaca part 2

I made sure to follow the same advice I give my clients; go down the night before your flight to ensure an easy, stress free start of your vacation. We stayed at the beautiful and most convenient, Crowne Plaza MOA. The bell men, concierge and front desk staff all made us feel extremely welcomed as we had a quick check in. The weather was quite brisk so we diverted our game plan from enjoying the outdoor Holidazzle Parade to staying indoors and having dinner at The Rainforest Cafe at the Mall of America. The kids had fun watching the live fish in the many aquariums and felt the rumblings of a thunderstorm in the jungle. A quick stop at the book store rounded out our evening before retiring to an early flight Upon our return to the hotel, we even had people on the shuttle whom we knew! It is a small world after all! They were down on a bus trip to shop. In my book, that paled in comparison to our upcoming adventure to Paradise! As we settled into our soft cuddly beds, the sound of the MN Wild Hockey game on tv put us all to sleep. The paper said they won/lost but we were fast asleep dreaming of ocean breezes and fruity umbrella drinks!

The sound of the 4:00am alarm never sounded so sweet! We all scurried around the hotel room preparing our bodies, bags and otherwise for our flight. A smooth check out followed by the $1.75 pack of gum purchase and swiftly we were swept away to the airport. On our shuttle, we had chatty Delta flight attendants and pilots who seemed just as excited to be going to work as we were to be going on vacation. Once inside the terminal we made the game plan to stick together like a Maki Train; Dad in front, kids in middle, followed by Mom, the caboose. My biggest fear of looking like a traveling circus quickly evaporated when I realized the kids were two years older than the last trip so they were much more mature and the fact the airport was relatively empty helped tremendously. Remember, I generally travel alone, so the idea of having to keep track of 3 children put my Mamma Bear senses on high alert! As Dad began his way through security, disrobing himself bit by bit,
I reminded the kids to take their backpacks and put them in the bins. Thankfully TSA allows kids under 12 to keep their shoes on, as that was one less hoop to jump through. Finally, Mama Bear, the caboose, was ready to go. As I filled my bin with my purse, coat and 12 pounds of jewelry, I ultimately was the one who held up the line as I broke the cardinal rule: I didn't declare my laptop!! The astute TSA agent schooled me by showing me how simple it was for me to take the laptop out of the case and put it in a separate bin. Knowing they have about as much authority as God Himself, I politely thanked him for the reminder and promised I'd never make that mistake again. Can you say, Epic Fail?!?!

So as we navigate our way to our gate in one of the largest domestic airports, can you believe I ran into a girl I went to high school with, two couples I booked for their Honeymoon and I received an email from a rep from the Jamaican Tourist Board who was on our same flight! Sing with me, " it's a small world afterall..."

Maki Family Vacation

Family Vacation 12/2/11

This vacation was SO overdue! As they say, the shoe makers kids never have any shoes, well the vacation specialists kids complain they never get a vacation! I can't say their wrong or even ungrateful; afterall, it has been about two years since the last time we all jet set to somewhere warm! As a vacation specialist, I have the wonderful opportunity to visit exotic islands filled with palm trees, adventure, relaxation and some pretty amazing sunsets quite often, but because it's for work, my family is rarely welcomed. This trip however, is for family and I wanted to make it the most memorable as possible!

We began by surprising the kids with an early pickup from school with Elmo! Since we're staying at a Beaches resort where Elmo and the gang reside, I figured it most fitting. Although my 4th grader was a little embarrassed to have the red furry monster escort her and her younger siblings out of school, her demeanor changed as soon as she saw the shiny black Hummer limo welcoming our family complete with the red carpet and all! As Elmo hugged each of us before helping us into our stylish ride, the masses still outside for recess bid us farewell. Inside we were welcomed with balloons, champaign, pop and snacks along with festive Christmas music, compliments of An Escape Limousine. And what an escape it was!