Tuesday, April 26, 2011

View the Amazing Sights of Romantic and Historical Paris

"Sous le ciel de Paris s'envole une chanson!"

This famous song, written by Maurice Chevalier and recently used in the movie "An Education", epitomizes the carefree yet classy feeling one gets from walking along the streets of Paris. The line, roughly translated, means "Under the skies of Paris, a song flies". Or something like that. My French is pretty rusty. But I understand the emotion Chevalier was trying to convey - Paris puts a song in your heart! The blue-roofed buildings, the gold-gilded railings and roofs, the flowered balconies - it all meshes together to create the classic vision of Paris.

Posing outside the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadero

When I traveled there in 2010 with my school Travel Club group, I fell in love with the look and feel of the city. It is rich in history and beautiful in architecture. We were able to accomplish some amazing feats of sight-seeing considering we only had about two days in Paris: the Louvre, the Palace of Versailles, and riding to the top of the Eiffel Tower.   However, this post will give you information on how to get a feel for Paris by seeing multiple sights at once, in true tourist style.  (You will want to explore these sights in further detail if you have the time... passing them by via boat or bus just doesn't cut it.  But if you are crunched for time, this post will be useful!)

The Eiffel Tower as seen from the Seine boat cruise

One of the first things our group did was learn to ride the Metro.  Once you know how to navigate the Paris Metro, you are golden.  Paris is fairly straight-forward to travel around in, as long as you can feel comfortable using the Metro.  We had reservations at the Eiffel Tower, so that's where we headed first. After snapping several artistic photographs of the lovely and impressive Eiffel Tower, we boarded a boat in order to complete a Seine River tour, which offered glimpses of many of Paris' landmarks.

Preparing to board the Paris Metro and head to the boat cruise

Our particular Seine River cruise was located right at the base of the Eiffel Tower, just across the street and down some stairs towards the river. Called Seine Cruises, this tour company begins and ends at the Eiffel Tower, and offers a narrated tour of the sights along the banks of the river. Our boat tour was included with the Explorica experience, so I don't know how much it would cost regularly.  When I look at their website, I don't see any offers for just a river cruise - they have bus and river cruises, dinner and lunch cruises, and champagne evening cruises, so I'm guessing our package was part of a deal they had with our tour company.

One of the Seine River Boat Cruise boats

Our boat sailed past many notable landmarks, including the Palais du Louvre, which we would explore in detail later.  We floated by Île de la Cité, the island found in the middle of the Seine River upon which rests the towering Notre Dame Cathedral. We would also later walk past the cathedral, but unfortunately did not have time to go inside.  That is one of my goals for next time I visit Paris - go to the top of the cathedral, and also explore the catacombs below.

Our view of Notre Dame Cathedral as we float past on the Seine River cruise

Other landmarks we were able to lay our eyes on included the Grand Palais, Musee d'Orsay, Assemblee Nationale, and Pont Neuf, to name a few.  The tour was both wonderful (we got see a lot of Paris in a short time) but also excruciating (I wanted to get off the boat at every stop and explore these wonderful monuments and feats of architecture).  I recommend it, but I also recommend... go to Paris for more than two days so you can see it all!

The Grand Palais, seen from the Seine River

Floating under Pont Alexandre III during our Seine River boat cruise

Another great way to see a lot of Paris in a little time is to go on a bus tour of Paris to see some of the ‘inland’ sights. Once again, I would have preferred to travel around on my own time, checking out each building in detail and having time to explore, meet locals, and taste the local fare, but when towing 23 junior high students and 10 parents along for the ride, it is much easier and safer to keep everyone as a group on one bus. Even so, we did manage to feast our eyes upon many fabulous sights, including the Arc de Triomphe, Les Invalides, and the Rodin Museum.

Driving around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris during our bus tour

Cruising through Place de la Concorde in Paris during our bus tour

We stopped outside the Paris Opera House to do some shopping, but did not have time to venture inside the building. No massive chandelier, opera ghost, and underground lake for me, at least, not this time around. As a tour group, we visited a perfumery called ‘Fragonard’, which is located just down the street from the opera house.  I bought a lovely scent called “Les Etoiles”, which I'm terrified to use because then I won't have it anymore!  Makes no sense, I know.

The majestic Charles Garnier Opera House in Paris

I know this type of travel and sight-seeing does not appeal to many people - it is too fleeting, too 'skim the surface' and perhaps too 'touristy', but in the case of my 2010 trip, it was just what the doctor ordered.  We had very little time in the city, a giant wish list, and an even bigger group of people to keep contained and accounted for.  Had we actually stopped to savor each landmark, we'd have been in Paris for at least two weeks, and probably would have come home at least three students short.  Therefore, I do recommend the Seine River boat cruise, and the Paris City Bus Tour if you want to see a lot in a little time with little stress. 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Learn to Snorkel in Cancun's Isla Mujeres

Rarely do I have negative travel experiences. Usually I am a perky, positive, and optimistic tourist, willing to try new things and overlook negativity such as rude waiters, overpriced attractions, and days where I find myself hopelessly lost in strange quarters. 

But sadly, my first experience snorkeling was my second-most negative traveling adventure to date (the first being trapped overnight in the Philadelphia airport baggage claim area with no luggage, a laptop for a pillow, and a homeless man snoring in the row of seats next to me - more on that in a later post).

The Gypsy Breeze, my ride out to Isla Mujeres for the day.

The day began nice enough. I was in Cancun, Mexico in March of 2011 for my Spring Break solo trip. To keep myself busy, I had booked a 'trip a day' through Grey Lines Cancun, a tourist company. By day three, I had already been on a couple of Grey Lines tours and they had all been fabulous (see the Chichen Itza post or the Swimming with Dolphins post). On this particular day, I was booked to journey on a catamaran to Isla Mujeres, where I'd try my hand at snorkeling, something I had never done before. Needless to say, I was extremely excited.

The catamaran ride was absolutely gorgeous - the water was an uncanny shade of blue, nearly turquoise, and the wind whipping through my hair was warm and salty. I secured a spot at the front of the catamaran, where the netting dipped precariously close to the surface of the sea. When our boat lurched on a wave and came bouncing down, I was sprayed with a cool ocean mist (and this was very nice, seeing that by day three in Mexico my skin was redder than a cooked lobster).

The amazingly blue waters of Cancun.

Unfortunately, during the catamaran ride to Isla Mujeres (Island of the Women) the wind picked up a lot. When we finally docked at Isla Mujeres to let off the non-snorkeling passengers, our tour captain informed us that the snorkeling trip would be rough, but they were not canceling it. Instead, he forewarned us that we might not have much visibility, and may not see much for ocean life. 

Stubbornly, I persisted: I had paid good money to participate in the dive, and wanted to see as much of Mexico as I could. I wriggled into the awkward and shabby life-jackets they handed out, strapped my underwater camera to my arm, and shoved on my flippers. Nothing would stop me!

Our first sighting of the tropical Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

It took me about three seconds after diving into the water to figure out the tour captain had not been lying. I drank a mouthful of sea water as wave after wave slammed into my face. We were not deposited into some sheltered and peaceful cove or reef, but smack along the shoreline of Isla Mujeres, with looming black rocks slick with seaweed just a kick and a splash away. I realized that very quickly, if I wasn't physically swimming against the waves, I could be drug into those nasty looking rocks. Desperately, I reached out to grab the line rope the instructor had set out for us.

This is where it gets really sad. It took me about two hours to fully recover from my grief... As I reached out to grab the rope, a powerful wave washed over my body, wrenching my underwater camera from its little strap and into the sea. I didn't even notice, as I was intent on grabbing my lifeline. When I absently reached down to handle my camera, I discovered it was gone.

Using my goggles, I looked down below me: there was my little red Olympus, never been used, awaiting retrieval amongst the seaweed below. It wasn't that deep, so I figured I could quickly dive down to get it. I had just begun to slip the life-jacket off me when my dive instructor yelled at me, "No life-jacket, no snorkeling! Put it back on!" He was pretty harsh. No one wanted to listen to my story that my lonely little camera was drowning just below my flippers. So I had to leave it behind, as the rest of the group was leaving me behind. RIP little camera.

The sights of Isla Mujeres - a beautiful island.

As we moved along, the pounding waves continually shifted my goggles, leaking water into my eyes and clouding the plastic visor. I had to constantly look up to ensure I wasn't getting pushed by the current into the scary black rocks. Time and again I had to abandon the snorkeling part of the activity to swim out further into the ocean to prevent breaking a limb on the rocks. I saw a lot of little yellow and black fish, and couple of neat blue ones, but the ocean fauna was seemingly bunking down until the wave intensity subsided.

We had been promised an hour or so of snorkeling, but after about half an hour, we were instructed to once again board the catamaran. Our catamaran was accompanied by what I can only assume was a Mexican coast guard boat. Apparently, the waves were so rough that our company probably shouldn't have let us out into the water, and the coast guard shut down our snorkeling tour early. We did not receive any refund for this. I was bitterly disappointed: it had turned out to be a very expensive activity for the value I received.

The Cuban-esque beaches of Isla Mujeres, Mexico

The boat docked in Isla Mujeres and we were given some time to explore and shop. I loved the beach on the island - it looks more Cuban than Mexican. I watched as one vendor dried a freshly delivered conch shell (his buddy had literally pulled up in his boat, and handed over the shell he had just dived for). I wanted it to be a conch horn, so he drilled a hole in the top and taught me how to blow into it properly in order to make a low, loud, baritone note.

The rest of the island was a bit too commercial for me: stores upon stores with pushy vendors grabbing at your arms, trying to get you to enter and shop. I chose the one store where the vendors were sitting on the porch drinking shots: they sold me a lovely dress (of course, after I bartered with them. Man, I love bartering!) and then we drank some beer and almond-flavored tequila. The grief over losing my camera was, at this point, beginning to subside. I walked back to the boat, and the tour company sailed us to an inlet where we stopped for a buffet lunch.

Having some fun with the crazy tour leaders on our way back to Cancun!

The company did work its butt off to make us happy on the cruise back. Because of the short duration of the snorkeling, we had some extra time to putter around on our catamaran. They provided us with an open bar and zumba dancing lessons on the deck (I was the second victim to be chosen as the tour director's dance partner, and I nearly fell of the side of the boat as I am very uncoordinated). We even set anchor just outside Cancun, in the bluest of waters, to have a diving competition. I met two lovely ladies from Montana, and we will hopefully have the chance to travel together again.

Trying to dance (unsuccessfully) on the catamaran.

I still want to try snorkeling again, but I think next time I will simply rent my own snorkel equipment (or buy it - it can't be that expensive) and set my own day, time, and place to snorkel. Someone also told me Xel-Ha in Mexico is great for snorkeling, as it is very sheltered and you don't have to worry about getting crushed by massive black rocks. I don't want this one traumatic experience to forever shadow 'snorkeling' for me. If anyone has ideas on where and when to try snorkeling again, I would love to hear them!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

My Top 3 Packing "Must Haves"

Underwear and socks... check. Deodorant... check. Pair of versatile jeans... check. Purse with wallet... check. Now, why do I have the feeling I forgot something?

Everyone goes through this process while packing for a trip, whether near or far. The basic essentials typically include clothing, toiletries, money, and electronics (cell phone, laptops, iPads, etc.) Depending on your style, you could pack a lot or a little. I myself am an over-packer. I admit it. For a four day trip to Mexico, where I knew I'd probably be wearing a tank top and shorts each and every day, I still managed to fill a whole suitcase with clothing, toiletries, sandals, and hair products. Packing light is a concept I am still trying to master. The weight of my carry-on bag alone is enough to dislocate one's shoulder. And even with my excess-packing problem, I still manage to forget items.

What are your top packing 'must-haves'? Image via

This weekend I took a mini-trip in my own neck of the woods, traveling from Red Deer, Alberta to Edmonton, Alberta for a conference. I know this isn't 'traveling' by most people's standards, but I bring it up today to point out some 'essential' items that should be packed on most trips (because I forgot them this time around and was bitterly disappointed). I will call these my "Top Three Must Haves".

A deck of cards

Make sure you slip a pack into a little pocket somewhere in your luggage! They take up no room, but bring big entertainment for moments when you have some unwanted downtime, or need to occupy a group of people. My colleagues and I found ourselves with a slow evening during our conference, and desperately wanted to play a rousing game of "Kaiser".

Some cool playing cards - gotta get me a deck like this and keep it in my suitcase! Image via.

The gift shop in our hotel was unexpectedly closed, and there were no gas stations or knick-knack stores in our area, so we had to drive around the city on the hunt for some cards. It wasn't hard to find them, but it was a pain in the rear. I vowed to always have a pack stored in my suitcase - even if I did lose at "Kaiser". Twice.

Bathing suit

Even if you are not expecting to be swimming, often you are presented with the chance while on vacation or traveling.

Bathing suits are great to pack, even if you don't think you'll be swimming.  You might!

Our hotel had a gorgeous hot tub set-up in the inner courtyard, resplendent with palm trees and fountains (it was an indoor courtyard, enabling the palm trees to thrive). My colleagues and I gazed at the hot tub longingly, but alas, none of us had packed a swimsuit. It would have been nice to relax in its warmth, especially since it was snowing outside.

Ibuprofen / Advil

Sometimes you need it RIGHT AWAY, and don't have the time or the inclination to go out to the store and buy some. It can also be expensive to purchase at a hotel gift shop, so it is just better to have your own supply on hand.

Always good to pack for emergencies - headache pills.  Image via.

As of this weekend, those are my top three items that I must forevermore never forget. I’m sure over the course of my travels, I will add to the list. Are there any items that you believe are “Must Haves” for a successful trip, be it short or long, near or far?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ride the London Eye

Photo: Nico Trinkhaus London Eye and Westminster, England -CC-BY-NC

I spy with my little eye... something ginormous! That would be the London Eye, a giant sightseeing Ferris wheel-type contraption on the south bank of the River Thames in London, England. This machine looms over the river and offers a wonderful view of London by lifting its passengers 135 meters into the sky, slo-o-o-wly, then lowers them back down again. Passengers sit or stand comfortably inside the Eye's giant pods, which can hold up to 28 people. Distant photographs show the London Eye as being deceptively small - the wheel itself is huge and the pods spacious and restful.

The London Eye - a massive sight-seeing Ferris wheel along the Thames River

I had the pleasure of riding the London Eye during my European tour with my junior high Travel Club students in April of 2010. This was a side trip that we had organized as a club; it wasn’t part of the package offered by Explorica, our tour company. This meant we had to navigate our way through the London Underground on our own, and make our way to the London Eye unassisted. We were successful in touring the subway on our own, however, a fact that made us very proud! We arrived at the London Eye in the early evening, in time to see the city in the daylight and get some great photographs from atop the wheel. By the time we got off the ride, it was dusk, and the sky was ablaze with orange and pink clouds, the lights of the London Eye glittering like falling stars. It was very picturesque.

The London Eye twinkling in the twilight

You could not purchase group tickets in advance, so as group leader, I went into the London Eye building and bought a group package while my students photographed the wheel (they were overwhelmed by its immensity). It was a bit pricey, but considering the amount of time you get to spend on the machine and the spectacular views it offers, I believe the price was worth it, at least to try once in your lifetime. We had to stand in line to board, but it moved quickly, even with another school group in line ahead of us. The pods can hold a lot of people, so the line moves at a nice rate. Despite the pods being able to hold nearly 30 people, the technicians didn’t pack the pods full – they typically loaded 10 to 15 people per pod in order to ensure comfort. (I’m sure that at busier times it is much squishier and probably less enjoyable – we seemed to have lucked out by turning up at the London Eye just before dusk.) Our group was split into two pods, and up we went.

The size of a pod on the London Eye

At first, it feels as if the pods are moving excruciatingly slow. You see a great deal of the river bank and parking lot for the first while. Just as the students began to grumble, we seemed to reach a ‘new level’ and began to get a glimpse of the skyline and full river view. The cameras began to emerge yet again. Nearer to the top, none of the students were sitting on the benches, but were pressed against the glass, gazing at the city view of London, and taking pictures of themselves against the glass, the London vista at their backs. At the very top, we made faces at the other half of our group, as we were lined up side by side and could see one another clearly. On the way back down, the kids pressed themselves against the front of the pod, as there is a large camera set on the wheel geared to take group photographs of the pod passengers. These pictures can be bought in the London Eye building, but are, of course, a hefty price.

A fabulous view of Big Ben and the Parliament Buildings from the London Eye

When we were done with our London Eye experience, the kids were invited by the ride technicians to explore the inside of the building, where they were offering a “4-D London Eye” show. It was free with our tickets, so of course we had to try! The students and chaperons were handed 3-D glasses, and ushered into a theatre, where we watched a 3-D movie on the construction of the London Eye. The “4-D” element of the show consisted of getting sprayed with soapy bubbles and fake rain water. I personally thought it was a bit gross, but the kids loved it!

The view of London from the tippy-top of the London Eye

If you are a first-time traveler to London, this is one of the best ways to see some of the more famous sights ‘from above’. The London Eye offers a wonderful view of Big Ben and the Parliament buildings, the River Thames, and the city skyline. It is relaxing, enjoyable, and beautiful. Give it a try!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Spend a Day at a Spa (in New York City!)

This one is a rather funny story... and it all began while exploring the streets of New York with my friend Teresa. We were visiting New York for a quick three day getaway, and were trying to check items off our list of things to see and do. Sightseeing and shopping around Soho was one of those things, as well as exploring the cobble-stoned streets of Greenwich Village.

We went through these neighborhoods, and more, all on foot or by hopping aboard the subway. (And may I say, I found the rumor that New Yorkers are "cold" or "unfriendly" to be completely untrue - whenever Teresa and I were unsure of where to go in the subway or which route to take, random New Yorkers would assist us by giving us directions, telling us shortcuts, and giving tips. New Yorkers are awesome!)

Learning to navigate the New York subway system.

By the time mid-afternoon hit, our feet were dying. We had both worn sandals, which are cute and trendy for summertime city strolls, but not very practical. Hobbling along the SoHo sidewalk, arguing about whether or not we should head back to our hotel, Teresa and I bumped into a young girl selling spa packages. They were valued at "300 dollars" according to her, but we could buy them for $60.00 U.S.

Now, I know what you are thinking. It was what I was originally thinking as well - "Don't do it! It's a scam!" But Teresa was eying the foot massage and pedicure part of the package the way a dog eyes a T-bone steak or Thanksgiving turkey that's sitting too close to the edge of the counter. I'd never had a pedicure, or a manicure, or been to a spa even, and so we decided to go for it. Our feet really were tired. After paying, we moved to walk inside the building the girl was standing in front of, but she gently tugged on our arms and pointed to the address on the spa package flyer: we had to go to the Upper East Side. Our feet protested, but there were no refunds, so what choice did we have?

All dressed up to go to our Broadway show!

By this point, as you can imagine, Teresa and I were concerned that we'd bought a day of invisible pampering in an empty lot. On the other hand, we'd already paid, and neither of us had ever been to the Upper East Side before, so we looked at it as a sightseeing, touristy adventure, and hopped aboard the subway once again. We were determined to stay positive, and made plenty of jokes about what we thought we'd find once we arrived at the address. I never would have done this on my own: there is always the possibility of being kidnapped and sold into human trafficking. With Teresa, though, I felt safe. If the address was an empty lot or scary looking shack, we planned on walking quickly away, arms linked tightly!

Luckily for us, the spa was indeed a spa. It had an Italian name, but was run by Iranians. We were ushered in, and to the delight of our toes, were given a pedicure first thing. I must say, I could get used to having pedicures! It was weird at first, having someone all up in your feet and between your toes, but after I relaxed, it was heaven! We then were given back and neck massages, and had our hair done (which was nice, considering we were going to Broadway that night to see “Wicked”.) It was my first time in a spa, and honestly, since then my ONLY time in a spa. If you’ve read any of my other posts, you’ll know that I’m kind of a cheap shopper! Spas are too pricey for me, typically.

Our Fifth Avenue spa - not an abandoned lot after all!

Soooo... I don’t know if this blog post has a “moral” or any tips. I’m not sure what Teresa and I did – buying a sketchy looking spa package for an unknown location halfway across Manhattan – was a good idea. It worked out well for us, in this case! If anyone has any other similar experiences, or experiences that went completely opposite to ours, please feel free to comment! I would love to hear your story!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Throw a Coin Into the Trevi Fountain and Make a Wish

This item on the bucket list I have already done twice. I am one lucky lady! The first time I visited the Trevi Fountain was in January of 2010, when I won a free trip to Rome through a travel company called Explorica. I had booked a school trip through this company, and as I was a first-time group leader, was put into a draw to win a trip for myself and one other person. Hurrah! Me, who can’t even win a free coffee with Tim Horton’s “Roll Up the Rim to Win”, was selected as one of the lucky free travelers and given three options: Rome, Paris, or London.

I chose Rome, since I kind of have a love affair with Italy and would like to live there one day. I took my husband, Joey, on the trip as my plus one, and we titled our journey “Weekend in Rome” since we were leaving on a Friday and were back that Sunday night – and that’s with an 8-hour flight each way!

Trevi Fountain, one of Rome's more romantic and beautiful sites

That trip we were lucky to have a great group of fellow travelers, and had a fantastic time! There were lots of laughs and escapades as we explored one of the most ancient cities in Europe. Besides the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain was one of my highlights. My husband and I threw in a coin, standing with our backs to the water, using our right hands to flip the coins over our left shoulders, as per tradition. Legend has it that by throwing one coin into the fountain in this fashion ensures a return trip to Rome. It worked! (But I knew it would, as I had already booked a school trip to Rome prior to the coin-tossing experience!)

I returned to Rome again in April of that same year with a large group of 33 people. Once again, I found myself standing in front of this magnificent structure, digging through my pockets for change. And once again, I threw only one coin into the fountain – I have yet to see if the legend comes through for me! I certainly hope it does!

I tossed a coin in - hope I get to come back!

The Trevi Fountain is spectacular both day and night. I was lucky enough to see it in both scenarios. It is a massive, two-tiered fountain, sunk into the street and big enough to swim a pool length in. You have to walk down about four or five steps to reach its front ledge. Above the fountain basin hovers many large and beautiful marble statues, the most prominent one being the statue of Neptune, god of the sea. He is astride his sea-shell chariot, being led by horses (he is also attributed to creating horses from sea foam). There are other statues surrounding him, but your eyes are immediately drawn and captured by his imposing image.

Beautiful blue water spills over the ledge where the statues rest, and into the basin, which is lit with sunken lights. In the evening, light falls majestically on to the statues, and glows from underneath the water. It is a stunning effect. I think it is almost better to view in the evening than in the day, except in the day you really notice the wonderful blue tone to the fountain’s water.

The Trevi Fountain at night

I have only told you part of the coin-tossing ritual thus far. Tradition states that anyone wanting to return to Rome must turn his or her back to the water, cup a coin in the right hand, and toss it over the left shoulder. However, two coins tossed over the left shoulder by the right hand means you will soon find love. Three coins tossed over the shoulder ensures either a marriage, or divorce, depending on the wishes of the coin-bearer. I have read different versions of this legend on the Internet, but this is the version I was told by two separate tour guides, both of whom were natives to Rome. So I will believe them over the Internet sources.

Rome is just filled with ruins - right around the corner!!

One interesting Internet fact I did read was that within ONE DAY (can I stress that a bit more? ONE DAY!!!!!) over $3500 is thrown into the fountain. It is cleaned out each night, with the proceeds going to support food banks / supermarkets for the poor in Rome (http://www.garden-fountains.com/articles/trevi-fountain.html). That is a lot of coins!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Swim with a Dolphin in Cancun

There are probably a lot of people out there that may disagree with this entry on my travel bucket list: to swim with a dolphin. After the saddest documentary EVER came out on the dolphin hunt and dolphin capture, "The Cove", I now know that I probably wouldn't do this again.  But what's done is done, and despite some of the horror stories involving dolphin capture, I really did enjoy my time swimming with dolphins.

However, I did some research after I checked this bucket list item off in Cancun, Mexico, regarding the "Swimming with Dolphins" program at the Delphinus establishment, and learned that most of the dolphins in the Delphinus aquarium are born into captivity, have longer lifespans that dolphins in the wild, are fed and cared for with the utmost respect and care, and are allowed to live freely together and establish normal social patterns as 'wild' dolphins would. It made me feel a little better about my participation in the Delphinus dolphin swim activity.

Getting splashed by a dolphin at Dreams Cancun Resort in Mexico.

I booked my dolphin swim through Grey Line Cancun tours, who picked me up from my hotel and delivered me to the Dreams Cancun resort, where Delphinus has a "Swim with Dolphins" establishment. The dolphin technicians asked me to take off all jewellery, including the toe ring that I have worn ever since my first year of college (and is now basically a part of my toe itself). Apparently the dolphins are enticed by shiny pieces of jewellery, and can inadvertently bite or hurt swimmers trying to play with it. Then it was into our swimsuits and life jackets. We watched a video on dolphins in captivity and their treatment at Delphinus, and how to safely swim with them. Then, without further ado, we leapt into the water of the murky dolphin tank.

We were encouraged not to swallow any of the dolphin tank water, as the dolphins live, play, breed, and produce waste within the water. As well, fish swam freely in the tank to encourage dolphins to hunt food for themselves rather than completely relying on their trainers for food. I did swallow a bit by accident, and had horrible stomach cramps later in the evening, which I believe was caused by the water. However, don’t let this little fact deter you: the swim was well worth the little tummy ache I suffered later on.

Cuddling with Bosch, the adorable dolphin!

The dolphin I swam with was named Bosch, and he was a five-year-old with the sweetest personality! He had a great connection with his trainer, and knew all sorts of wonderful tricks. My favorite was the Superman trick, which required me to swim to the middle of the dolphin tank and float on my stomach, arms spread wide and legs and feet locked. Bosch swam up behind me, nudged his nose into the arch of my left foot, and began to swim. Dolphins are powerful swimmers, and Bosch propelled me across the length of the pool so fast that my bikini bottoms started to slide off! I kept my body low in the water as Bosch pushed me to the end, while the Delphinus camera man snapped photograph after photograph. I was very worried there might be ‘nudie pictures’ of me on the Internet after this little escapade (thankfully, there were not).

Enjoying the Superman trick with Bosch, and hoping my suit stays on...

Bosch was a very willing participant in the dolphin swim: he let me massage his back as he swam in circles around me, he rolled onto his back and let me tickle his belly, he danced with me, let me hold him like a baby – all sorts of things! My favorite photographs are when Bosch leaned in and kissed me on the cheek, and then I turned and kissed him on the nose. It was an amazing experience.

The cost for the dolphin swim was pretty extravagant for a one-hour swim, but it was something I had always wanted to experience, and so I was willing to pay the price. For a larger group or family, this could be a pricey memory. As well, you are not allowed to take your own photographs: they hire a photographer and a videographer to capture the memories for you instead. But then they nab you: it is over $100 for a disc with all your photographs, and much more for a disc with the pictures AND videos. I splurged on the photo disc, as you can tell, and it was actually one of my favorite ‘souvenirs’ from my Cancun trip. Despite the costs, I highly recommend the Delphinus dolphin swim for anyone who is interested in this type of thing.

Making out with a dolphin - Spring Break in Cancun! Woo hoo!

Tip #1: If the water gets in your mouth, SPIT IT OUT! EE-yuck!
Tip #2: Wear a one-piece bathing suit if possible, or if wearing a bikini, make sure you wear a tight-fitting one!
Tip #3: Prepare to spend a lot of money in a short amount of time – dolphin swims and accouterments are not cheap!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Go to Paris and ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower is symbol of romance and beauty to most who picture it, perched proudly in the middle of Paris' urban sprawl. Sunset proposals, glorified by Hollywood pictures, are always made better by being presented at the tippy-top of the Eiffel Tower.

In reality, getting up to the top of the tower is a bit of a process, and once you are there, it isn't really all that romantic. Granted, I visited on a day when the wind threatened to push everyone right off the edge, so that kind of took away any romanticism that may have been present. Also, I was with approximately 20 junior high students, and that also tends to dampen any whimsical architectural romance for a person! Ha ha!

What I did find at the top of the Eiffel Tower were A LOT of handy tips and notes for future visitors making plans to ride to the top. The Eiffel Tower visit was part of the itinerary on my Europe Trip with my junior high students in April of 2010, so some of these tips may only apply to people who are hoping to visit as part of a large group.

A great shot of the Eiffel Tower from below

Before even setting foot in France, my students and I learned a lot about the architecture of Paris, such as the Garnier Opera house with its rumored underground lake and phantom, the opulence of the Palace of Versailles, and of course, the story of the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel Tower was built between 1887 and 1889, and was designed by a gentleman named (oh, you'll never guess his name!) Gustave Eiffel. Gustave had won a competition for the World Fair, held in Paris that year, for a new design that would honor the centennial celebration for the French Revolution.

A surprising fact for my students was that many people detested the tower when it was first built, calling it ugly and an eyesore. The now-famous and very cool riveting was considered hideous and a sign of shoddy workmanship. A petition was signed demanding the tower be torn down, and many famous French historical figures had their names on this petition (including Charles Garnier, who designed the aforementioned Opera House). However, the tower stayed standing. When the lease on the Eiffel Tower's land was up, once again, the city of Paris considered taking the structure down. This time, technology was on the tower's side, and the only reason it was left standing was because it had a handy telegraph signal on the tippy top. Today, of course, it is a symbol not just of Paris, but of all of France, and attracts thousands of tourists.

Checking out the rivets on the Eiffel Tower

My group bought tickets to ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower while we were still in Canada, a few months before our trip was even scheduled to depart. We did a school / group rate, which was nice. Even so, the cost to the top level of the tower isn't cheap. There are two rates: to ride to the top, or to ride to the observatory platform on level 2. Level two has gift and coffee shops, while the top level is merely an observation platform, albeit one with an amazing view.

The day we were to go to the top, we discovered every group has reserved times. We had to wait about an hour before we could go up on the elevator, but that suited the students just fine, as Paris' notorious "Bling Bling Boys" were on site to sell us cheap Eiffel Tower trinkets. I taught some of the kids how to barter, and we wound up with handfuls of Eiffel Tower statues and key chains. It was amusing, as well, to watch the "Bling Bling Boys" on the move. You see, most of them are in Paris illegally from the Middle East or Africa, and when the Parisian police do a walk-through of the area below the tower, the "Bling Bling Boys" run like the wind to hide (who knows where). They begin to slowly trickle back in about ten minutes later. We saw this happen twice in the hour that we were waiting for our elevator.

Standing with my students under the Eiffel Tower

Now, here is where my personal experience with the Eiffel Tower took a turn for the worst, and I'm not saying this experience will happen to everyone who visits. We just caught some bad luck.

The ride up to the second level was fine. We went up in two groups, and met at the second level to explore the gift and coffee shops. However, we soon noticed the weather was taking a turn for the worse, and that the line-up to get to the top level was increasingly growing in size. So we got into line - for over an hour. My group might have been fine waiting during this time, except suddenly the sky opened up with gale force winds and pinpoint rain drops that drove mercilessly into our skin. We hadn't dressed for such weather, and stood miserably in a large huddle trying to stay warm.

Our only moment of relief was when one of our male students, who has flaming red hair (which he normally hates) was accosted by a group of giggly, infatuated British teenaged girls, who thought he looked like some soccer star with red hair. They were taking photographs with him and running their fingers through his locks, much to his delight. This made us forget about the wind and rain temporarily!

Getting blown away atop the Eiffel Tower

When we finally reached the top level, we all agreed the wait had (mostly) been worth it. The weather relented, luckily for us, and we were able to enjoy the view of the Seine winding through the blue-roofed cityscape. The students were happily pointing out Les Invalides, with its glistening gold dome, and other structures we had studied. One student even phoned her mother from atop the Eiffel Tower - now how many people can say they did that?

We stayed up top for about 40 minutes, taking photographs and enjoying our prize, and then it was time to go. The crush to get back down the elevator was nearly as bad as the line-up to get up, and I'm somewhat ashamed to say I had to get violent with some pushy people in the line-up to ensure all of my students made it safely into the elevator and we didn't lose anyone! My apologies to anyone I shoved that day!

Beautiful shot of the Eiffel Tower at night

So, my tips for the Eiffel Tower are:

1. Book tickets in advance. Determine how high you want to go (second level or top level). This influences your wait time.
2. Check the weather and be prepared with your clothing that day. I wouldn't recommend going up if the weather is going to be wet and windy: it's not fun.
3. Go in a small group. If you are with a large group, stagger your visit times (have some shop with the "Bling Bling Boys" while others go to the top, then switch). There's a lovely carousel to play on across the street from the tower, if you are looking to kill some time.
4. Be prepared to wait in line going up AND going down.
5. Don't let anything sour the prize of finally getting to the top and enjoying the view. We still managed to have fun and let our experience turn into a good memory.