Ship Inspection Saturday – Carnival Fantasy

One of the things that we do as travel agents is the occasional cruise ship inspection. As mentioned in my post back in October after we toured the NCL Getaway, this is generally a 3 hour tour of the ship, hosted by a rep or two from the cruise line, and it’s intended to give us an idea of what our clients can expect should we book them on the ship. This is my second ship tour, and my wife’s fourth, as she did two more while down in Ft Lauderdale for Cruise3sixty a couple of weeks ago. For this one, we were getting a look at the Carnival Fantasy, the only ship from any line currently based out of Charleston, SC. She’s an older ship, having launched in early 1990, but the last refurbishment has her in pretty good shape. The decor is pretty standard for other older ships we’ve been on, too. Overall, we were pleasantly surprised at how well the Fantasy has been kept up. Let’s take a closer look…

We drove down from Charlotte early this morning, getting to the port around 10am. Check in for the tour wasn’t scheduled to begin until 11am after all the guests from the previous sailing debarked, so we walked around trying to figure out where to meet. Fortunately, the port area isn’t all that big and we found the spot pretty quickly, and hung out until the Carnival reps arrived. Things didn’t exactly kick off on time, as there was a lot going on. They ended up with surprise Coast Guard  and USDA inspections happening after the ship got back in to port this morning. No biggie, things happen, and we were just a small blip on the list of things the crew had to deal with before they left port this evening. I think we may have been delayed 30-45 minutes boarding as a result. Here’s a couple quick shots of the port, including the front of the terminal. When you arrive and park, a shuttle brings you to this entrance and drops you off here, at which point you’ll go through security and check in for your cruise!

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Another tip: As you board the ship, you’ll notice a bunch of crew wearing red sweatshirts that say “Just Ask”. If you need to know anything, like where you can grab some food or where you’re room is, they are there to answer those questions. No need to get in line for guest services!

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Once we were on, we hustled to check out a couple of rooms. Since we were late, we really were moving fast, and my pictures show it. With more than two dozen people in the group and a schedule to keep, there really wasn’t time to stop and ensure the pictures were clear. The first set here is from a standard oceanview room:

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Not bad, a little small compared to more current ships, but I’d be more than happy to sail in it. Next up is the only shot I got of an interior down the hall:

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And finally, we have a Grand Suite, the largest room category on board. Note that being an older ship, the only categories that actually have balconies are the Junior and Grand Suites

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Due to our time constraints, those were all the rooms we got to see. After finishing there, we were guided around a few other areas as we headed in the direction of the dining room for our lunch. Here are some shots of different areas we saw along the way, including: the show lounge, casino, a couple of bars, the kid’s club, and the Forum Aft Lounge, where they were setting up to host a wedding reception:

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There were a couple of weddings going on today before sailing, from what we saw. We entered the port at the same place they did, and the wedding parties were shuttled in to security the same way we were. While I’m familiar with how on-board weddings at sea (or in a foreign port) work, this was my first exposure to weddings that take place in port prior to the ship’s departure. Not everyone in the wedding party was going on the cruise, so after getting everyone on the ship, they hold the wedding, followed by the reception, and then those who are not sailing are escorted off. Pretty good way to get a shipboard wedding on a budget.

Let’s get back to the tour. After a quick visit to the kid’s club, it was time to eat. They took us to the Jubilee dining room at the aft of the Atlantic deck (8), one of the two main dining rooms on board. We all sat at one of the five tables set up for us, and were served by the staff as if we were cruisers, eating some of the same things served at sea. The menu was pretty well set too, with the only choice we got to make being fish or beef for the main course:

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and here are the courses, in order (I had the beef):

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The spaghetti carbonara was spectacular, as was the warm chocolate melting cake, which is one of our all-time favorite desserts (we usually eat it more than once when we’re on Carnival :)). The braised short ribs were good quality meat, and perfectly cooked, but I’m just not a fan of what ends up being stringy meat (like pot roast type meat). Jen had the beef too, and enjoyed it, but said both the spaghetti and short ribs were better on her tour of the Splendor a couple of weeks ago (they serve the same food on all ship tours).

I’m going to take a second to give a huge shoutout to the wait staff today too, they did a great job, and were even sure to learn our names. After we ate, they even busted out some music and got some of us to get up and dance, just like a regular MDR experience.

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After lunch was over, we headed up to check out the buffets and outside areas on the Lido deck. The buffet stations on the Fantasy are all pretty standard for Carnival, but note that this ship has not undergone any of the Fun Ship 2.0 upgrades, so no Guy’s Burger Joint or BlueIguana Cantina. It does have a Mongolian Wok though, which we always enjoy.

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No, we didn’t sample any of the buffet food, pretty sure that would have been frowned upon, plus we were full from lunch.

On to the outside areas. Here’s the main area on the Lido deck:

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At the back of the ship, they have Waterworks 2.0, added during its last refurbishment a few years ago

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They’re definitely some nice slides for a ship this old, but the one downside here is location. Being right behind the stack, it was a bit noisier, especially as you walked out to this area (walkway shown in the first shot above). It is what is is, though. The other odd thing about the aft design is that one deck down is the Serenity adults-only area. I shot this looking down on it from the back of the ship where the waterslides are:

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Between the noise from the stack and the kids on the waterslide one deck above, I can’t imagine this is very serene, but having never sailed the Fantasy, that’s pure speculation. If you’ve sailed this ship in her current configuration and can speak to the noise level in Serenity, feel free to comment, we’d love to hear how it really is!

Update: Based on a comment on our Facebook page, it sounds like the location of Serenity is a non-issue!

After we finished on Lido, we did a very quick walk through of the spa, which was a pretty standard setup for Carnival. There seemed to be plenty of gym space for those wanting to work out, too.

Once we finished our walk-through of the spa we were out of time, so we headed down to deck 3, gave our passes back, and sadly left the ship. All in all it was a good tour, and left us with a pretty solid impression of the Fantasy. As mentioned, Carnival has done a really good job with upkeep. Is it small? Yes. Are you limited in room types? Yes. It’s not the Dream or the Breeze, but it’s still a worthy option, especially if you’re looking to cruise out of an east coast port outside of Florida. It’s only three hours from us, so I personally would like to give the ship a shot in the near future if we can carve out some time.

One last thing before I leave you with more pictures of the tour: A big thank you to Joanie and Kirsten, our tour guides from Carnival. They took really good care of us today!

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Hotel Review – Doubletree Lower Manhattan

As mentioned in a previous post, I spent last week in NYC on business. With my client’s offices being in the financial district, I decided to stay at the same Doubletree a coworker of mine uses when he goes up. This is only my second stay at a Doubletree property, the other being the one in Blooomington, IL a few years ago. I used to travel there 3-4 times a year for business, normally staying at the local Courtyard, but was convinced to try the Doubletree on one of my last trips there based on the non-stop recommendations of others. I found that visit totally underwhelming compared to the build-up, and not worth losing out on Marriott points.

So how did they hold up on this visit? Well, things started out with a small issue, but overall it was good. After landing at LGA, I grabbed a car to the hotel, and upon arriving, was greeted by a friendly gentleman at the front desk who handed me my room keys, the warm cookie, and a bag containing two bottles of water. Check-in took all of 3min thanks to Doubletree allowing you to check-in online ahead of time, including selecting your room (nice touch, BTW). I chose 4310, a king deluxe room with a view of the Hudson river. After getting my keys, I headed up to 43 and tried to enter my room. I tried, really I did. I must have tried both keys a couple dozen times, but no go. Neither worked, so back down to the desk it was with all of my stuff in tow. The clerk apologized, set those same cards up for the room once again, and back up I went. They worked like a champ this time, so that little glitch was resolved. No harm no foul, I guess.

The room itself was fine, albeit the normal tiny NYC hotel room size (smaller than I expected for something labeled “deluxe”). The view was pretty good, looking out over Battery Park with a view of the river. Some shots of the room:

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Going in to the trip, I read the reviews on TripAdvisor and noticed one repeating issue that had me a little concerned, that some people found they had long waits for elevators in the morning. Being a business trip, the last thing I wanted to deal with was a long wait for an elevator each morning, but for the most part, it was never an issue, except for Wednesday afternoon. I’d finished the day’s meetings early, and headed back to the hotel around 3:45pm. Upon arriving, I went right up to the room to change so I could head up to Central Park. When I went to grab an elevator to head out, I encountered the wait those reviews mentioned. I waited 10 minutes until one arrived, only to find out it was being used by the staff to collect garbage from each floor, basically being used as a service elevator. No go, so I waited some more. And waited. And waited. After a total of 23 minutes, an empty elevator finally showed up, and I headed out. Was it the end of the world? No, but I’d hesitate to stay there in the future because of it. That, or stay much lower (without a view) just in case I need to take the stairs if the elevators are slow to arrive in cases where I’m strapped for time.

My only other issue, my last day there I went to lower the room temp and found that the AC unit wasn’t working. I’d lower the temp on the thermostat and the unit never kicked on. Since I was leaving the next morning and the window opened a few inches to allow for airflow, I didn’t report it until I checked out. Again, no biggie, the fresh air was cool enough. I have no doubt they’d have sent someone up to fix it had I called that night.

I can’t speak to the room service food or the attached restaurant, as I didn’t have food from either. My dinners were spent at tiny little hole in the wall places I found while I was out walking around, and lunches were spent eating with the client. I did eat breakfast over at the Andaz the last two mornings with one of my customer contacts (he’d flown in for this too), and loved their buffet. Pretty cool hotel, too, so I’ll probably give that a shot next time I go up there.

The location of this Doubletree was pretty good for my needs. The entrance is on Stone St, which isn’t too busy, and it was an easy walk to my customer’s office on Water St. There was also a subway station a very short walk from the hotel entrance, which allowed me to pick up the R train up to the midtown area the last couple of afternoons I was there. One other thing I saw in a couple reviews of this place is that since it’s on a less traveled street, people felt the need to walk over to the ferry terminal so they could get a cab upon checkout. Hogwash. Yes, the street is small and gets less traffic, but all you have to do is ask the bell staff standing there at the entrance and they’ll call you a cab. They had one for me in less than 5min Friday morning at 5:30am.

Overall it was a good stay in a clean hotel room with a view, but I still don’t get the hype around the brand. People swear by Doubletree, so maybe I just keep choosing the wrong ones. That, or the cookies are laced with something that makes you fall in love with the place :). Regardless, I’d stay there again if the situation warranted, but would like to try a couple others in the area first, including the Andaz I mentioned earlier.

Here are a few more shots from my various walks around Manhattan, including some of a protest I stumbled on near Central Park, along with a shot of the sunset from my plane on approach to LGA:

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Dealing in Absolutes

It’s been a while since my last post, mostly due to workload and lack of recent trips. We’re rectifying that over the next month and a half, as I’m headed to NYC for work this week (staying at the Doubletree in Lower Manhattan), and we’re going to Disney World in mid-May on vacation. While both should provide me with plenty of blog fodder, I did want to rant about an article I ran across a couple of months ago that really irritated me:

11 Reasons you should never ever take a cruise

It’s an older article that seems to reappear every year during peak cruise season. Headlines like that are obvious click-bait, and I hesitated to click on it for that very reason, but in the end gave in to my curiosities and contributed to the problem. It doesn’t bother me that the author and the referenced sources don’t like cruising, as everyone has different tastes. I just find articles that deal in absolutes annoying, regardless of the topic, especially when posted on a “trusted” site. As expected, it was an aggravating article filled with only one side of the story. Shocker.

Before we get in to the points presented, I want to start out by saying that I’m not sitting here trying to say that everyone should cruise and love it. Everyone’s different, and people have different travel tastes. People are capable of making up their own minds, but anyone on the fence about trying cruising that runs across biased drivel like that could end up swayed by someone else’s failure to present a fair argument. Let’s look at the reasons presented:

Dangerous fellow passengers: I’ve heard the arguments presented in here before, including from the sources quoted and other prominent maritime lawyers. I don’t doubt that the threat is real, but it’s also one that exists just about anywhere you go on vacation, whether it’s a cruise, all-inclusive resort, vacation house in some exotic country, etc.  I do agree with the insinuation that it’s a bad idea to let your kids roam freely on a ship, and it does surprise me every cruise to see how many young kids are allowed to do so. A little common sense goes a long way, especially when it comes to being aware of your surroundings, keeping an eye on your kids, and watching how much you drink. That applies to any vacation.

Unhealthy eating and drinking: I’ve fallen in to this trap on cruises before, as our Thanksgiving cruise in 2011 quickly ended my 2500cal (max) per day diet that helped me drop just over 60lbs, and it was a real struggle to get back on track, but that was solely on me for caving at the first sight of Carnival’s warm chocolate melting cake. The cruise lines have added a number of healthy options over the years, but when you’re surrounded by a lot of delicious (and unhealthy) food, your willpower is tested. We’ve done all-inclusive resorts with the same issues, but on a cruise, it can be argued that it’s harder to avoid the temptation since you can’t just leave to find healthier options elsewhere. Is this a reason to “never ever take a cruise”? No more so than any all-inclusive vacation, just be smart about what and how much you eat. USA Today has some solid tips on how to eat healthy on a cruise.

Food poisoning and norovirus: Yup, it happens, although we’ve been fortunate to never encounter either on a cruise. Norovirus exposures are something the media loves to call out, but only when it happens on a ship, since there’s nothing sexy about reporting outbreaks at more common locations like hospitals and nursing homes. According to CDC stats, there are between 19-21 million reported cases annually in the U.S.. If you count the number of passengers on all U.S.-based sailings who contracted noro last year, again based on CDC stats, you get 1,766 passengers and crew reported to have contracted noro. Comparing against the lower end of 19m cases per year, U.S.-based cruises accounted for less than 1% of reported noro outbreaks in this country. Being smart while on a cruise (or anywhere with food, frankly) can go a long way to staving it off, too. The CDC has tips for that: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp/pub/cruisingtips/healthycruising.htm

Mechanical difficulties and their consequences: We’ve all seen the news reports of the various breakdowns ships have had in the past few years, with the most famous probably being the Carnival Triumph. That was easily the worst I’ve heard of in modern cruising, and it’s something Carnival learned from as well, upgrading the backup power on all ships as well as implementing other safety measures to try and avoid that kind of damage again. Cruise lines still encounter issues that cause them to cut trips short which isn’t surprising given the number of moving parts on a ship, but for the most part they seem to handle those situations appropriately and provide some level of compensation to passengers in the event a cruise is cut short or a port has to be skipped. Yes, it’s disappointing to miss ports, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Yet another issue that seems to impact a very small number of cruisers every year.

Unqualified doctors: I can’t really speak to this one, as we’ve only had to deal with medical on one cruise after my daughter was hurt during a cruise-sponsored shore excursion in Jamaica during our trip on the Norwegian Jewel several years ago. The doc took good care of her (which is more than I can say for the rest of the staff we dealt with about it), and I don’t recall having any complaints in that regard. The author was sure to select a scary looking picture to try and play on people’s fears of non-American doctors, so be afraid!

Too much fun in the sun: This is one of the most ridiculous arguments in the list. No one every has too much fun in the sun on a non-cruise vacation, right? That really bad sunburn I got skiing in college or the one I got at the resort in Mexico when I fell asleep in a lounge chair must have been all in my head. The author’s grasping for straws here.

Cruises rock – and roll: Another one that’s got some truth to it, as storms do happen at sea. If you cruise during hurricane season to an area they tend to hit, the risk is increased as well. Ship propulsion systems have gotten pretty good over the past few years, with stabilizing systems that can dampen the effect of smaller storms, and we’ve seen course changes made to avoid larger ones. My wife gets motion sick very easily, but in all the cruises we’ve done she has only had an issue once, when we were buried on a low deck with a porthole in a storm, and only when she was looking out the window. She wears motion sickness patches that she gets a prescription for prior to departure, and outside of that one incident has been fine. One of these days I need to get her to do a guest post with tips on how to avoid motion sickness on a cruise.

Your bed might bug you: I honestly have no idea what the stats are here, but in 9 cruises spanning 4 lines, we’ve never had this issue or known of anyone that has. Hotels seemed to get more press on this a few years ago when there were larger outbreaks, which just goes to show that it can happen anywhere.

Nothing to sneeze at: I’m not really sure what they’re getting at here, as the author gives nothing in the way of cruise-centric statistics showing that you’re more likely to suffer from allergies on a ship other than to say some allergens prefer moist environments (duh). I have significant allergy issues. I was tested a few years ago, you know the one where they put a tray of needles on your back and stab you with 50 different allergens? Yea, I had very noticeable allergic reactions to 48 of them, yet I’ve never had allergy issues on a ship. I have issues in hotels with 100% down pillows, when we’re out on excursions in the jungle, and even when I mow, but that’s why I carry stuff like Claratin D.

Mental health challenges: This was the final argument against it, one that I feel was a reach yet again. I completely understand that the environment might not suit someone who’s on the edge, but quoting statistics that include what one of the quoted sources calls “alleged” suicides is reckless in my opinion. Unless you’ve got the evidence to back it up, you leave that alone. The most that I’ll say to this one is that anyone feeling depressed should consult a doctor prior to *any* vacation, regardless of where it is.

The last slide is the only part of this that’s actually somewhat objective in my opinion, with even the sources stating that the majority of people who cruise have a good time, just like any other type of vacation. Shame it was buried at the end of a bunch of obviously biased arguments.

As I said before, cruising isn’t for everyone, but a headline that deals in scary absolutes is nothing more than a cheap attempt at click-baiting. If you never cruised before and are interested, research it. Read reviews, talk to friends who have, look at actual statistics for things you’re concerned about. Use all that info to make up your own mind. If it doesn’t seem like something you’d want to do, spend your hard-earned money on a vacation you will enjoy! Just don’t base your opinion of anything you haven’t tried on such an obviously biased article.

 

Driving a Supercar

Earlier today I cashed in one of the presents I got for Christmas: a Living Social deal for a 3-lap driving experience from the folks at Motorsport Lab. While it’s not travel, I figured I’d throw out a quick review on it. Note that my review is for the Charlotte event, I can’t speak for any other location.

When you register on Motorsport Lab’s web site, you get to choose the type of car you want to drive. For this event, there were 3 options when I registered in late December:

  • Lamborghini Gallardo
  • Ferrari 360 Modena
  • Ferrari F430 (upcharge for this one)

Being a life-long Lambo fan, I chose the Gallardo. After you register, you’re sent a link to the participation form you need to fill out and bring with you to the event. As I saw called out in the many Yelp reviews of this company, this is a rather long form (16 pages), filled with all kinds of scary language warning about possible charges for things like damage and exceeding various RPM levels among other things. They offer insurance for each possible problem at the charge of $20/$30/$50 per waiver, depending on the item. That, and the form calls out suggested tip levels very clearly, which I admit is something I find a bit tacky. I’m fine letting people know the instructors work off of tips, but suggesting amounts like that can be a bit of a turnoff. After reading a few of the Yelp reviews, I see I’m not alone in that. I also saw a number of people mention that the added insurance wasn’t needed for most locations, so when I filled it out, I declined all of them. I’m glad I did.

Several of the reviews I read were negative, with some people even saying they skipped the experience entirely after being scared off by the language in the form. This is completely unnecessary in my opinion. Even if you don’t believe me, go early and watch a few people run the course before you sign in so you can get an idea of exactly what is going on, you might be surprised. With all the negative reviews, I figured it was only fair to throw in a positive review since we enjoyed the event.

First, did I spend any money beyond the cost of the Living Social deal? Yes. Totally by my own choice and it was worth it. I asked about getting a ride along for Bayley, who is home for spring break, and took him up on the offer to get her laps with the instructor for $50. That fee and the tip were the only added costs for us. They weren’t being pushy with anything, and were up front in saying that people should tip what they were comfortable with. When I checked in, the guy at the table looked over my forms, saw I’d declined all optional insurance, and moved on without trying to change my mind. I even heard him tell the guy in front of me that most of it wasn’t needed for a course like this. Don’t be scared or turned off by all the language in there around damage, I assume most of it is to ensure that people thinking they’re going to treat these things like rental cars are talked down off that ledge. There were a few other complaints in other reviews that could have been addressed by people doing a little research beforehand, so I’ll call a couple of them out here:

(Note: If you want to read those reviews, just search for the company. I’m not a big fan of Yelp so I’m not linking to them)

  • This experience is on an autocross course. It has the words ‘autocross’ and ‘agility’ in the experience name, so arriving to find a course of cones shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s not going to be on an oval or on city streets, even if the event is held at a track, like it is in Boston. You’re not getting the cars up to 100MPH. Even the straight on our course was too short to get up over 50MPH-ish (had it been dry) unless you’re really experienced on these types of courses. If you want something faster, maybe try the IndyCar or NASCAR experience. I’ve done the IndyCar one, and you definitely go a lot faster with that, but you’re on an oval.
  • The Lambo wasn’t put in to automatic transmission mode as some reviews mentioned, but we never got out of 2nd. You do get to shift, but basically only from neutral to 1st to get going, and to 2nd pretty quick after that. Once in 2nd, you stay there the rest of the way. You’re not getting close to the 6500RPM limit in 2nd on this course unless you’re planning on exiting over some cones and paying the price.
  • Scheduling can be a pain. I don’t disagree. Once you buy the deal, register as fast as possible to ensure you have options. I’ve learned this the hard way with other LS/Groupon deals in the past (namely my IndyCar one), so I registered shortly after opening this present. Even with that, the list of available dates was limited, but I got something that worked for me.
  • Some people said your time in the car isn’t that long, and that’s true. The deal is for 3 laps, and being an autocross course in a parking lot, that means a relatively small track. They do offer more laps as an add-on, or if that’s not enough, you might want to check out one of the companies that use real road courses or take you out on streets.

Back to the review: After checking in, we hung out under the canopies they’d put up (due to rain) and waited for the event to start. There weren’t a huge number of people for our 9am session, I’d say 7-8 for each of the two cars at most. Those driving the Ferrari got a nice upgrade at no cost, as the 360 was in the shop, so all they had was the F430 (both the F430 and Gallardo are 2006 models, BTW). They take you out based on the time you checked in, which they’d written on your wristband, so I was 3rd for the Lambo. With the ground being so wet none of us in that first three pushed all that hard, but I really did enjoy it. I’ve driven some fast stuff, but never something so well balanced in the corners. The instructor (or ‘sherpa’, as they call it) who was with me was really good, too. Very nice and talked you through the whole thing, and was far more helpful than the spotter I had with the IndyCar experience. He gave me pointers on corner entry/exit, and when to give it power exiting a turn. It ended faster than i’d have liked, which wasn’t a big surprise. Three laps is a bit short in my opinion, but I knew what I was getting in to, and I’m sure if I’d asked I could have upgraded to six for a little more. It was enough to give me a taste of what a well balanced supercar felt like, so it was worth it to me.

After I went, my daughter was up for her ride-along. When I bought it, the guy said that the cost is $50/lap, but they normally go ahead and do two laps for that. She actually got three, and he seemed to really be enjoying himself behind the wheel out there (who wouldn’t?), intentionally kicking out the rear in a few corners. Just for fun I gave him a heads-up that he had her past experiences to live up to, as she’s done an IndyCar 2-seater ride as well as the Audi ride-along at Daytona. He definitely pushed it, and she loved every second of it. I’ve got video of her laps up on YouTube if anyone wants to see it.

When it was all over, we both agreed that we had a blast. All of the employees were very friendly, and the car was a blast to drive, even in the rain. For the Living Social price it was definitely a fun morning, but I wouldn’t have done it for the listed price of $549. Not really sure if anyone actually paid that this morning, though. I do think Jen made a bit of a tactical error in buying this for me, as now I want to move up to one of the events on real tracks, like this one. There are a couple of cars on their list I’d absolutely love to get behind the wheel of, like the McLaren, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for deals with them, too :)

 

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Hotel Review – Staybridge Suites St. Petersburg

We spent last weekend in St Petersburg attending family weekend at Eckerd College. In an uncharacteristic move for us, we waited until the last minute to get a hotel, not actually booking anything until a couple of days before the trip. Being so close to the trip, not a lot was available near the school, and nothing along the beach (gulf-side) that fit in to our budget looked all that appealing. After a bit of hunting, we finally found something in downtown St Pete that looked promising, and more importantly was in our budget, Staybridge Suites. Oh, and it had one other requirement we needed since we were taking our dog, it was pet friendly.

Upon arrival late Thursday night, my wife got us checked in and we headed to the room. One of the first things I noticed was the use of NFC-based room keys, and not the usual problematic swipe cards that most hotels use. I loved this. Just tap the card on the pad, and the door unlocks. It was easy and reliable the entire time, regardless of where I kept my key in my wallet. I actually didn’t take it out of my wallet until we checked out, I just tapped my wallet against the reader. Hopefully more hotels (and cruise lines) embrace technology like this to get rid of the frustration of key cards failing during a guest’s stay.

The room itself was nice, good sized for the most part, and clean. We’d asked for a room with a sleeper sofa when we booked just in case Bayley wanted to come hang out for a night, but the room we ended up with didn’t have one. No matter, when we asked the next day, the staff gave us a rollaway at no extra charge. Problem solved!

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In a couple of the pics above, you’ll see something I take with me wherever I go, our Belkin mini power strips. We first bought these for cruising, since many rooms only have two outlets and cruise lines aren’t fans of corded power strips, but hotels oftentimes don’t have a lot of open outlets either, so bringing these allows us to be able to charge as many devices as we need to.

Back to the hotel: As mentioned, the room was nice. The beds are pretty stiff, so be aware of that if you prefer a softer mattress. We sleep on a fairly firm memory foam mattress at home, so this felt good to me. What I wasn’t a fan of were the pillows. They were really soft, which I like, but they were at least partially down, which I’m allergic to. As long as I take some OTC allergy medication I’m generally fine, but I’d totally forgotten it on this trip, so we hit up a drug store the next day to rectify that. I’m sure I probably could have asked the desk for replacements, but they were soft to my liking, so I was fine dealing with it. My only other issue is that the walls seemed a bit thin. On one side of us we had someone who we could hear pretty clearly whenever he talked, and on the other side we had someone who had a nasty coughing condition that kicked in every morning around 8 or so. It wasn’t a huge issue though, and pretty much matches my experiences at other hotels in class. As far as the bathroom, it was pretty small, and having a door that opened in to it was a bit of a pain (see the pictures above). Also, for those that prefer a bath to a shower, our room did not have a tub. No complaints about that here, neither of us would have used a tub, and I was happy to see that I wasn’t going to have to step in an out of one to take a shower.

The hotel’s location was pretty good for us, although I’d have preferred to be closer to the water. The hotel is off of 175 right when you enter downtown. It was an easy 5min drive to and from Eckerd. There was plenty of food around there, too, as the downtown restaurants are generally only 5-10min away by car. There’s also a little park next door (between the hotel and school) that provided a great place to walk the dog. The hotel did have a pet waste disposal stand or two on property, but the one we checked never had baggies in it. No matter, we had our own.

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For those looking for accessibility, Staybridge seems to have you well covered here. There didn’t appear to be any stairs/steps to deal with anywhere in the lobby or breakfast areas, and the pool had a lift, too, as shown in the first picture here:

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Frankly, the outside area seemed kinda cool as shown above in the second picture, with a fire pit and seating to hang out there day or night.

Food-wise, the only time we ate there outside of me grabbing complimentary cookies, was breakfast. It was included with the room, and they had a decent selection of warm food. On the first morning, I had an omlette, bacon, and a waffle. They had three waffle makers, more than I’m used to seeing at a hotel, and we never saw a wait to make them while we were there. The quality of the pre-made stuff (omelettes, bacon, eggs, etc) was good, and pretty much on-par with other properties I’ve stayed at that offer complimentary hot breakfasts.

The staff was great the entire time we were there, very friendly and helpful. Considering the quality of the service, cleanliness of the hotel, and proximity to Eckerd, we wouldn’t hesitate to stay there again.

 

 

24 Hours of Speed – Part 2

Picking up where I left off in part 1, after grabbing a golf cart from the suite back to the infield, we immediately headed for the Ferris wheel. One of the best views of the race at night is from that thing, and at that point in the night, it wasn’t busy all, so we got an extra-long ride. To get an idea of the view you get of the infield, here are a few night shots I took, and be sure to check out the video I posted of a full rotation while looking over the infield.

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With our midnight Ferris wheel ride over, we decided to rest in the Audi Boardwalk Club for a few minutes before walking the paddock and pits. When we walked in and sat down, there was only one other table of people in there. It took all of 2 minutes for Bayley and I to realize who two of them were; Conor Daly and James Hinchcliffe. Hinch was at the 24 as a co-driver on the #70 SpeedSource Mazda, and as mentioned in the previous post, their race had ended a little earlier with an oil pump failure. We’re both big fans of the Mayor of Hinchtown, so it was cool to walk in to that. I’m not one to bother someone (regardless of who it is) while they’re hanging out and relaxing, so we just sat and rested for a few. At one point, Hinch got up and walked past us, so I went ahead and asked if we could get a pic with him and Bayley, and as usual (he’s one of the most fan-friendly IndyCar drivers), he was happy to oblige:

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Shortly after that, somewhere around 1am, the three of us decided to head to the paddock to see if any cars were in for work. Sure enough, there were a few teams hard at work repairing cars, and a couple cars covered due to terminal issues. Walking pit lane, there was plenty of action there too with teams filling up fueling rigs, getting misc parts together, and preparing for pit stops. These shots are another example of how much of a team sport this really is. There’s also one in here taken just before the Paul Miller Racing guys did a driver change, with Christopher Haase standing on the pit wall in full gear waiting for their Audi R8 to make its way to the pits.

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After walking around down there for a bit, the kids decided they wanted to rest for a while, so they headed back to the boardwalk club, while I continued walking around. I’d hardly done any shooting with the Nikon D750 I rented for the trip, so I decided to head over to the infield grandstands to get some shooting in. I forgot to bring my step stool, a very handy tool for getting shots over the fence line at the track, so I used the grandstands in the turns 3, 4 and 7 areas to do some night shooting. While I didn’t shoot nearly as many pictures as a did last time, I did get a few that I like:

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Between walks of those grandstands, I stopped in the Boardwalk Club to check on the kids. They were both pretty tired, but on my stop in there, her friend and I downed some Red Bull to stay awake. They did use the floor in there as a bed for about 10 minutes each, but that was about the extent of the sleeping. I’m pretty sure we were the only ones with the Audi ME tickets who stayed the entire night, as we were the only non-employees in the Boardwalk Club between 2am and 6am.

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Around 6am, the catering staff began to arrive, and we cleaned up our area a bit so we weren’t in the way. As more people began to show up, the sun started rising over the backstretch. I absolutely love watching the sun come up at the track, and the patio area of the Boardwalk Club was a great place to do so.

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After breakfast, we had to head back to the room for a few minutes to check on Bayley’s cat, so we grabbed a golf cart back to the car corral, piled in my daughter’s Jeep, and were on our way. I admit, it was nice to clean up a little at the hotel after being up for more than 24 hours. We only stayed for about 20 minutes, then headed back to the track, where we decided to spend some time relaxing in the suite. If I recall, we were the only ones in there at that point, so the kids hung out inside while I sat in the seats outside for a bit, taking in more of the race.

At about 10:45am, after just over an hour and a half hanging out in the suite, we decided to head to the Boardwalk Club for lunch. One of the things we hadn’t taken advantage of yet were the race updates. Audi did these a couple of times Saturday and once or twice Sunday, and it was basically a short update on the status of the Audi teams from one or more of the drivers. For the 11am update today, Dion von Moltke from Paul Miller Racing was there between stints to update us on their race. They’d had a pretty good race up to the 17 hour mark, fighting for the win, but a couple of issues late in the race had them fighting to get back up front. While Dion was in there talking, we could see on the monitors above him that another issue struck the car, as it was spending an extended period of time in the pits. In the shot below where you can see the monitors above him, the one on the left is the live shot out the rear of his car as it was sitting on pit lane.

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The update was cool, something I wish we’d taken advantage of on Saturday, but live and learn. After Dion finished up, we enjoyed one last meal in the Boardwalk club (off that awesome menu above), and headed back to the suite to end the race. We expected it to be full late in the race, so we wanted to get there as quick as possible to get decent seats, which we managed to do. There were only a few people there at that point, so the kids grabbed some seats along the window inside, and I grabbed a spot outside to enjoy the final couple of hours. It did get pretty busy, as expected, but it was a great place to watch the end of the race. We were all worn out, and walking around really wasn’t an option. Those last 15 minutes made for a good race, as Jordan Taylor, was putting on a show trying to get back up to Scott Dixon, only to have all of that work undone by a miscalculation by the team on his time in the car. When the caution came out for a wreck near the bus stop and Jordan brought the #10 in to the pits, the assumption was they’d miscalculated on fuel, but jaws dropped around me when they did a driver change. The guys over at Jalopnik have a pretty good story on what happened, it’s well worth the read.

With the race over, we headed down to grab a cart from the suite back to the car corral one last time. We hopped in our cars, headed to the hotel to rest, clean up, eat dinner and get a full night’s sleep. Bayley’s friend had never been to a race like this before and seemed to really enjoy himself all weekend, so hopefully we helped bring a new fan in to the sport. Regardless, the entire weekend was a blast. I was really happy with the decision to buy the Audi Motorsport Experience tickets, and can’t say enough good things about the staff, they were great all weekend. We’ve now done this race in two completely different ways, so next time maybe we just need to rent an RV and camp out in the infield all 4 days. One of these years, hopefully :). That last shot below of us on our balcony was taken after the race, just before we cleaned up for dinner. After roughly 36 hours of being awake we were wiped out, but loved every minute of it. Huge thank you to Audi Sport, Paul Miller Racing, and Flying Lizard Motorsports for an awesome weekend!

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24 Hours of Speed – Part 1

As I said in my recap of the last Rolex 24 we went to, being at a race is definitely my happy place. There’s something about the sound of a race engine roaring to life, or a race car flying by me that I absolutely love. Last weekend Bayley and I, along with her best friend, made the trek to this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona. There are plenty of places where you can read coverage of the race itself, including my one of favorite sites, Racer.com, so I’ll stick to covering our experience. The race itself was great, with a lot of action on track, and a crazy last few laps. Being a fan of Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan, I was happy to see them cross the stripe first for the overall victory, but I’d have loved to see my favorite GTD team, Flying Lizard, finish higher up the order. No matter, they fought hard the entire time to get back up to 10th in class after some early clutch issues, and were still pushing hard when the clock hit zero on Sunday afternoon.

This race weekend was a much different experience than any past IndyCar or sports car race we’ve been to. Normally I just get the standard 3-4 day weekend package with grandstand seats for whatever race we’re going to, but this time I splurged a little and went with the Audi Motorsport Experience tickets. We’ve never done a race on any sort of hospitality tickets, and looking back, I couldn’t be happier with the choice, Audi took great care of us all weekend. The tickets themselves included access to a number of things we’d never had access to at a race before that will all be covered here, and we loved every minute of it.

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When we got to Daytona on Friday evening we went straight to the track. Even though the Continental Tire Series race had just ended, I had business to attend to in the garage area before the teams called it a night, and we wanted to hit Tijuana Flats for dinner after that, which is right across the street from the track. Walking the garage at a track off-hours definitely reminds you that this is a team sport. While the drivers may be off doing appearances or resting up for the race, the crews are usually hard at work getting the car ready.

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Come Saturday morning, our normal race weekend plan kicked in. Bayley knows that I like to get to the track as early as possible, so that meant getting to the Audi Boardwalk Club, the heart of their hospitality setup located in the middle of the infield, as soon as we could. We left the hotel around 7:20am and got to the Audi car corral about 20 minutes later. They’d included two parking passes with our tickets, so my daughter parked her Jeep over with the other non-Audi cars, while I parked my little TT roadster in line next to a beautiful R8.

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Once we had all of our stuff, we hopped on the Audi golf cart shuttles, which took us pretty much wherever we needed to go over the course of the weekend, and headed to the Boardwalk Club to get signed in. These tickets included a few behind the scenes things that we wanted to be sure and get spots for:

  • Hot lap
  • Audi paddock (garage) tour
  • Hot pit tour during the race

When we initially signed up, we were on the 11am hot lap list, which was pretty long. Right after we went and sat down in the Boardwalk Club to enjoy some breakfast, one of the girls from the front desk came over and asked if we wanted to switch to the 8:30 hot lap, as they had a couple of openings. We enthusiastically agreed, and hopped on one of the carts to head to the IMSA (series) hauler to sign our lives away.

The hot lap is exactly what it sounds like. A lap around the track at speed. Since we were with Audi, that obviously meant doing the lap in an Audi, specifically a new S3 (the blue one below). It was pretty wet out, and even started raining a bit harder as we were standing on pit road waiting for our turn. We expected them to shut it down, considering all the high speed infield turns, as well as the steep speedway turns. Nope. The line of hot lap cars came in, and we hopped right in and took off. It was an absolute blast, with our driver telling us that they weren’t even holding back in the wet, the cars were gripping just fine. Coming off of turn 7 (speedway turn 2) on to the back straight, we were doing almost 120mph in a street car. So. Much. Fun. In addition to the pics below, I’ve got video of the hot lap up on YouTube.

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Once the hot lap was over, we walked around the garage a bit before heading back to the Boardwalk Club. Our first two activities were almost back to back, with the paddock tours scheduled for 9:30am. On arrival, we once again boarded a golf cart shuttle and headed back to the garage area. This time around, we were getting a behind the scenes tour of the garages for both Audi teams, Flying Lizard and Paul Miller Racing, along with a tour of the Audi Customer Racing parts hauler. We all had a blast. In addition to getting to see the crew of my favorite car at work (the #45), our guide Mark did a great job of explaining things along the way and answering questions as they came up. The guys in the Audi hauler were really cool, too. The hauler is equipped with two spare R8 chassis and enough parts to build a couple more cars. They just sit there and wait for one of the teams to come over needing a part. A good race for the Audi teams means the guys in the parts hauler have no work :).

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Once our paddock tours ended, we were left to do whatever we wanted until later that evening, as our last scheduled event was the hot pit tour at 9pm. We walked around for a bit, checking out the final activity in the garages, and headed back over to the Boardwalk Club for lunch. One of the nice things about these tickets is that they included all meals, as well as snacks overnight. All of the meals were outstanding. Our lunch menu on Saturday included some delicious weiner schnitzel and German potato salad, among other items. During lunch, the drivers for both of the Audi teams arrived for the pre-race driver meet and greet for Audi hospitality guests. Each of the teams were on stage for a few minutes talking about how their car was running, what they expected out of the race, and doing a short Q&A. Definitely a nice touch.

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Once we were done with lunch, we headed over to the autograph session. We’d gotten some Audi flags at the Boardwalk Club, and decided to get them signed by all 8 Audi drivers. The autograph tables are divided into stations, with something like 6 tables per station. Fortunately both of the Audi teams were at the same station, so we only had to stand in one line, but on the flip side, Patrick Dempsey’s team was also in the same station, which meant it’d have a very long line. We got there a little early and waited in line near the front, but it was a really long line by the time the session started. I feel bad for the Dempsey fans in line, too. About 10 minutes before the session started, someone with his team walked by to let anyone waiting for him know that Dempsey would be a no-show for autographs (no reason was given), and would be replaced by Hurley Haywood. While it was cool to see a legend like that sit in last minute, I’d bet less than half of those waiting for Dempsey even know who Haywood is. Regardless, we got what we came for. In addition to the smaller flag, I also got a flag I bought at the 2012 race signed by the entire 2015 Rolex 24 Flying Lizard team this weekend. Drivers, crew, everyone. Of the few pieces of autographed memorabilia I have, this is easily a favorite. The picture of me holding that flag was shot very early Sunday morning, so ignore how rough I look :)

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Our autographed flags in hand, we hopped a golf cart to the car corral to switch out some stuff before the race started. Our plan was to watch the start from the Audi suite on the front stretch. None of us had watched a race from a suite before, and while I normally like to be closer to the track during a race, this was actually a great spot. We had an excellent view of the pits and front stretch from the seats in front of the suite, and Audi staff were on hand inside the suite offering up drinks and snacks, all included with our tickets.

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I’m not good at sitting in one place for any length of time, so after a couple of hours enjoying the action from the suite, we hopped a cart and headed back to the infield to watch the race from the Ferris wheel. This is one of the coolest places to see the race from, especially at night. We did both a day and a night ride, fun stuff.

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After the ride and a walk through the carnival games area, we headed back to the Boardwalk Club for what was easily the best meal of the weekend. Inside, Audi’s chef had a long table with things like roasted potatoes, penne Gorgonzola, and beef tenderloin. Outside they had a table with a large amount of smoked sausage and corn on the cob, along with a table of oysters. Did I mention Audi took really good care of us all weekend? To top it all off, they had a delicious wall of dessert inside.

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Not long after dinner we did break my main rule of the Rolex 24: once you’re in the track, you’re in until it’s over. With the kids heading back to college after the race, my daughter had her cat Luna with us (who lives with her in her dorm at Eckerd), and he was back in the hotel room alone, so we left for a little while to go check on him. We couldn’t stay long, however, as our last scheduled event was on tap at 9:15pm, the hot pit tour. We left the track a little after 7:30pm and got back about 8:45pm. Upon arriving, we took a cart straight back to the Boardwalk Club to check in for our pit tour.

When we got to the pits, they gave us IMSA visitor hard-cards and some headsets so we could talk to Mark. Because of how busy the Paul Miller Racing guys were (fighting for the lead in GTD at the time), we only got to tour the Flying Lizard pits, but it was a blast. We hung out in there for a little over 10 minutes and got to see one of their pits stops, along with the final pit stop of the #70 SpeedSource Mazda prototype before it retired with a fatal oil pump issue. It was all very cool to watch, those crews really bust their butts. The last pic below is the Mazda in for its stop.

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After the pit tour, we decided to hang out in the Boardwalk Club for a while and watch the 10pm fireworks. This is always a highlight of the evening, one that everyone attending should make a point to watch. Race cars and fireworks. What could be better? I’ve got videos of the fireworks as seen from the patio at the Boardwalk Club here, and here. Looking at the last one, the smoke from the finale must have been blinding for the drivers as they came down the backstretch. Shortly after the fireworks, the staff put out some sliders for everyone who was still there. Not that we needed more food, but hey, might as well get our money’s worth, right?

Our last move of Saturday night was grabbing a cart and heading back to the front stretch suite to watch the race from there for a while. The suite closed at midnight, so by the time we got over there, I think we only stayed for about 45 minutes before heading back to the infield as Saturday ended. It was well worth the cart ride, the suite provided an outstanding view of the track at night.

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I think that about covers our Saturday at the track. We really enjoyed all of the special events Audi put together, and were enjoying the race as well. Next up in part 2: Sunday at the Rolex 24!