Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Biking in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park

It is almost Christmas here in Alberta, Canada, and the snow is piled high on the ground. I have escaped the confines of my home, where I am trapped indoors with my two energetic and stir-crazy toddlers, to the local library which features a very popular train table and of course, lots of fun books for the kids to occupy themselves with.

As I sit here, watching them play and dreaming about sunnier days, I realized that I actually have a touch of free time with which to write about one sunny day in particular.

This sunny day occurred in late September, when I traveled to San Francisco with a group of girlfriends for a fun week away. On this day, we had decided to explore Golden Gate Park. Upon receiving a map of the park, we realized just how massive the grounds were, and lamented that we might not be able to see it all. In order to gather our thoughts and decide what was a priority for us to experience, we ambled over to some street food trucks and ordered some lunch.

A detailed, beautiful sculpture in Golden Gate Park - I missed most of them.

I have to say, the trucks located just outside of the Japanese Gardens offered some yummy food. I had a craving for a giant hot dog piled high with sauerkraut, and it didn't disappoint. (I don't usually eat hot dogs with sauerkraut, but if they all tasted like the one in San Francisco, I WOULD eat them more.)

The Japanese Tea Gardens, which I also missed.

As it happened, right beside the food trucks was a stand procuring bike rentals that enable visitors to see Golden Gate Park in its entirety. They even had a four person 'bike' called a surrey, and since there were five of us, we thought we might give it a go.

We chatted with the two men operating the bike stand, and they said that five of us could fit on the bike, but only four could pedal at a time. That meant someone always got a break, so we thought that was a fantastic idea. We rented the surrey at $45 plus exchange rate for a one-hour time period, grabbed a map, and hopped on.

Five ladies on a four person surrey bike.

Well, what can I say about the surrey adventure? It was... unexpected, if what you expected was a relaxing, enjoyable ride around Golden Gate Park.

We nearly died.

It was the most physical labor that I have done since I was actually in labor. And that was with three other women peddling with me. To be honest, I was the fifth person jammed in the backseat with no pedals to push for the first 8 minutes or so. I had to perch up on the backseat rail, my feet on the seat, my butt cheeks hanging out of the back of the surrey for the world to see. (Not bare butt cheeks! But I'm sure it wasn't the most pleasant of views for the people riding behind us.) I cheered on the ladies with words of encouragement and support, as well as laughter at their complaints about how hard it was to move the surrey, until they made me take a turn.

This was when we were just starting, before it got difficult!

It was so difficult! Downhill was a snap, but going on a flat plane required an exorbitant amount of effort to move the surrey at even a snail's pace, and forget about going uphill. In fact, at one point we got out and pushed the darn thing uphill. It was to the point where going downhill was such a relief that we didn't even apply the brakes, just so we could harness the momentum for the next flat portion. During one of our frenzied downhill flights, we whizzed through a major intersection and the dress I was wearing (yes, I chose to do this in a dress) flew up over my head and I gave everyone idling at the red light a really good show of my under-roos underneath. We continued this 'downhill-dive-no-brakes-applied' move until we almost blew a stop sign and nearly perished, and then we were little more careful.

I was in the sweet seat for a little while - no peddling!

When the going was somewhat good, though, we did manage to see a few items around us through a haze of dripping sweat. There was a waterfall, I think, and some lovely sculptures that I saw for a brief second. There was a lake, or maybe it was a field of grass that rippled in the wind like a lake? Whatever. It was stunningly beautiful, I think.

Twisted branches on the road side as we biked past.

What I do distinctly remember is that every person we passed burst out into laughter seeing us panting, sweating, swearing, and bickering with each other as we tried to keep the surrey moving forward even just a little.

And then it went from bad to worse, when the front right pedal broke off, and there was no way to screw it back on because everything inside was stripped. We tried desperately to pedal with three wheels, but if it was hard before, it was literally impossible then. I called the men who ran the bike stand and told them bluntly, and *possibly* a little angrily, that they rented us a faulty bike and we would most certainly be arriving back later than the one hour time limit. They were okay with it, but they didn't send out a rescue squad or anything.

Our pedal fell off! Pure ridiculousness.

We pushed the heavy surrey for about 20 minutes through Golden Gate Park, arriving about 10 minutes late for our return time. The entire time we pushed, people pointed and chuckled while we waved with small, embarrassed smiles.

Our plan had been to explore the Japanese Tea Gardens once we finished our round on the surrey, but when we did finally manage to get the bike off of our hands, we were so exhausted we all just wanted to go back to the hotel room and rest. I am a bit sad now that we didn't just suck it up and go into the tea gardens for a quick walk around - even a snack might have helped to pick us up a bit - but I guess this means I will have to go back to San Francisco at some point!

Kissing a lion we are so happy to be out of that bike!

I just won't be renting the bikes to help me finish exploring Golden Gate Park!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Fontainebleau Miami Beach: The Glitz and Glam of Miami Beach

In October of 2016, my husband and I had the opportunity to stay in a five-star hotel resort in Miami, Florida during Joey's annual work AGM. We would probably never have had the chance to stay in such a swanky place on our own, so I was incredibly excited for the occasion to explore a hotel of that rating. (Thank you, MNP, for the amazing work retreat! It was fabulous!)

A gorgeous photo of the Fontainebleau Miami Beach pool, taken by my friend Melisa Milne.

The hotel we were staying at is called the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, and is somewhat famous in the area. It is an older hotel, dating back to 1954, but is dripping with luxury and opulence, which makes up for the age of the building. It has been featured in many movies, TV shows, and hosts an abundance of live shows for a variety of reasons. The reputation and glamour of the hotel attracts tons of celebrities. In fact, during the short time we were at the Fontainebleau, several celebrities were seen on the premises: Pink, Hilary Clinton, Kesha, and Tom Cochrane all stayed at the Fontainebleau at some point during the week.

The gorgeous Fontainebleau lobby at the registration desk.

For all the glitz and glamour, I can't say our room reflected any of that. We might have sold ourselves short on this point. We flew into Miami on a red-eye flight from Calgary, and so arrived at the Fontainebleau at the weird time of 8:00 a.m. We were positive there'd be no room available for us, but we were prepared to just store our luggage and sleep next to the pool. At the registration desk, however, the lady told us we could wait until 3:00 p.m. for our reserved room, or we could take a room with two queen beds right away. We chose the double queen room in the Versailles tower, and were ecstatic to head upstairs instantly for a shower and a long sleep.

The boardwalk that separates the Fontainebleau pools from Miami Beach.

If we had kept our normal reservation, we probably would have been put up in the Tresor tower where most of the MNP visitors were staying. From what I heard, the Tresor tower is much more spacious with a much better view of the ocean and pools than the Versailles tower. We didn't really care, though. We were happy to sleep after our long flight, and hardly spent any time in our room anyway. With so many beautiful pools, the hot sand of Miami Beach, and all of Miami to explore, who needs a pretty hotel room?

Palm trees and the Fontainebleau Tresor tower.

I would love to inform you of the cost to stay at Fontainebleau Miami Beach, but I truly have no idea. We stayed at a discounted group rate that had been negotiated for Joey's company AGM, and I am not even sure I am allowed to discuss company pricing policies, so I'll just stay quiet. I can imagine, however, that a regular night's cost at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach might set you back a fair chunk of change. And I am only guessing at that because I do know how much dinners and drinks at the resort cost. One pitcher of sangria: $75. One strawberry daiquiri: $21 plus tip. One dinner at Hakkasan, the Chinese restaurant on the top floor: $200 for four items and no beverages. So you can only image the normal room prices. It was expensive to eat and drink on the premises, but not unexpected for a five-star hotel frequented by celebrities.

Dumplings at the Fontainebleau's Chinese food restaurant, Hakkasan.

What you do get for the price of your room is pretty awesome, though. Access to all of the pools, which are like a slice of paradise. There is the main pool shaped like a giant gently-curved rainbow, surrounded by lounge chairs, which are free to claim if you can find one available, and cabanas and circular beds, which are available to rent. There is a circular pool with an island cabana in the middle (also available to rent). There is also a 'kid-friendly' pool with fountains and activities such as crafts all around the poolside area. Waitresses in fun, polka-dot bathing suits with skirts and white sneakers wander the pool deck, happy to take your orders for food and drinks. You barely have to lift a finger.

A sunny day at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach.

Don't fancy a dip in the pool? Just a few steps away from the main pool area, up and over the wooden boardwalk, you'll find the smooth sands of Miami Beach and the cool Atlantic waters. Loungers are also available for free, if you can find one open. Waiters flit to and fro, serving paying guests platters of food and drinks from the beach-side restaurant, La Cote.

Enjoying lunch at the beach-side restaurant, La Cote.

Joey and I spent a couple of days swimming in the ocean waters, but we stayed at the Fontainebleau during a particularly windy week in Florida, so the waves and the chilly breeze deterred us from too much beach time. Mostly we lazed by the hotel pools, jumping in sporadically for a swim or a soak in  one of the many hot tubs.

Miami Beach in all of its sunny glory.

In the evenings, there is always a lot going on, too. The world-famous nightclub, LIV, had people lined up out the front doors of the hotel on the Friday and Saturday nights. We didn't check out LIV because we are old, and cantankerous, and cheap (entrance is about $100 per person). But it was interesting to sit in the lobby bar, which is pretty fancy all in itself, and watch the eclectic mixture of people lined up to gain access to LIV.

Enjoying an evening out together at the hotel lobby bar.

I enjoyed the hotel lobby bar, and we spent a few evenings there mingling with friends, looking out of the windows at the calm pools glittering with pink light from the hotel glow. (In October, the Fontainebleau Miami Beach was lit up with pink lights in honour of breast cancer awareness.)

The Fontainebleau Miami Beach all lit up pink for breast cancer awareness.

Besides LIV, there is also a live music club called Bleaulive, where some of the newest and most popular artists and musicians come to perform. During our stay, Kesha performed at Bleaulive, but Joey didn't want to go. It would have been fun, in my opinion, despite us probably being the oldest people there.

The amazing chandeliers of the Fontainebleau Miami Beach.

There is shopping at the Fontainebleau as well, although if you are a regular joe like my husband and I, you might not actually do any shopping. I wanted a big ol' sunhat or a fedora to keep my large nose from burning, but at the price of $315 per hat, I couldn't do it. I bought a hat for $18 in Little Havana instead. I DID shop at the quaint little chocolate shop near the main lobby though. It had an incredible display of specialty chocolates that were almost too pretty to eat!

Too tasty to eat! The delicacies at the Fontainebleau chocolate shop.

All in all, my experience at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach was wonderful and surreal. It was a place I could never afford to stay on my own, so I am grateful to my husband's company for putting us up there. I am happy to have swam in the pools, lounged on the beach, and yes, even eaten in the crazy expensive restaurants. If I could go back, I completely would, but it might not happen in this middle-class lifetime of mine!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Stroll the Grounds of Villa Vizcaya in Miami

Miami might be most famously known for its neon lights, wild nightlife, and sandy beaches. But those features only scratch the surface of what the city of Miami has to offer. An amazing variety of art instalments, historical buildings, and unique architecture can be found both in the mainland portion of the city and on the various islands, or 'keys', around the area.

One place that combines the trifecta of art, architecture, and history is Villa Vizcaya, a mansion located in the Coconut Grove neighbourhood of Miami. This impressive building is only overshadowed by its labyrinthian gardens and stunning view of Biscayne Bay. On our final full day in Miami, my husband and I decided to explore the mansion and its grounds just to see what all the fuss was about.

Villa Vizcaya in Miami, Florida as seen from the East Terrace.

We grabbed an Uber from our hotel to Villa Vizcaya. Vizcaya is located at 3251 South Miami Avenue, which is about one mile south of downtown Miami. This was actually the second time I used Uber to get to Villa Vizcaya - I went a few days before on a Tuesday, which was a BAD idea because Vizcaya is closed on Tuesdays. So that was a lesson learned; ensure the attraction you wish to visit is actually open before going. The mansion and gardens are open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., so that gives you lots of time to explore.

My hubby and I outside the beautiful pool at Villa Vizcaya.

I had found a brochure on Vizcaya at a gift shop in Little Havana that offered $1 off per visitor, so I took that with me. It is $18 for an adult to gain entrance, $6 for children 6-12 years old, and 5 and under is free. My husband and I used the $1 off coupon, but then re-spent that $1 to buy a guide book that contained tons of information about the art, furniture, and architectural elements of the house.

Just walking to the house from the admission booth meets your expectations. The main house is located down an impressive, wide driveway flanked by fountains carved of fossilized shell limestone. Lush subtropical forests border the fountains and surround the house itself. And of course, the house and its main doors dominate the view at the end of the road.

The main driveway into Villa Vizcaya.

Inside the main doors, an attendant offers you some basic directions and a map to assist your self-guided tour. It is possible to book a 45-minute guided tour for $5 per person, but we weren't interested in that. We are "go-at-your-own-pace" types of people.

We first explored the main level of the house, viewing the library and office, a reception room, a living room with a massive organ, the east loggia with a spectacular Biscayne Bay view, the music room, the dining room, and more. Then we strolled in the central 'open' courtyard, now enclosed in glass, to soak in the bright sunlight.

The East Loggia on the main floor of Villa Vizcaya. Image via.

Photographs are prohibited in Villa Vizcaya; at least they are within the home. This nearly killed me inside, because if you know me, you know I love taking photographs while traveling. So I will do my utmost best to describe the villa in order for you to understand what it is all about. I also borrowed some photos from the main Villa Vizcaya website to help illustrate the mansion's beauty. (I sure hope they don't mind!)

Built between 1914 and 1916 by wealthy businessman James Deering, the mansion reflects the style at the time, a style designed to display wealthy and status. The architecture and interior design were both inspired by the palaces of Europe, which rich industrialists during this era were obsessed with. Villa Vizcaya was meant to appear as if the Deering family had occupied it for centuries, with elements inside, such as furniture and draperies, reflecting a variety of periods and styles. In fact, Deering spent lavish amounts of money importing antiques, statues, and even whole fountains from Europe to decorate his home.

The luxurious music room in Villa Vizcaya. Image via.

Rooms in the home were thickly wallpapered with floral patterns, ceilings had detailed masonry, tiles, and paintings adorning them, and the furniture was all heavy, elegantly carved, and obviously expensive.

One of the canopied beds in the beautiful mansion. Image via.

The rooms in the lower level were nice, but my favourites were actually found upstairs, where the views were prettier, the rooms more brightly illuminated with sunlight, and every door opened into a majestic view of the open courtyard. My absolute favourite room was the Breakfast Room, decorated with a naval theme, a giant dining table, and an amazing view of the barge and bay beyond. I could have sat in there all day.

There is also a third floor with a couple of small bedrooms. The bedrooms weren't anything to write home about, but the spiral staircase was. It spun all the way from the very top floor down to the main level, and if you peered over the edge, you could see all the way up or down. I DID sneak in a photo here, just because it was too cool to resist.

The crazy spiral staircase at Villa Vizcaya.

Outside was just as incredible, if not more. Just beyond the doors of the gift shop is the indoor / outdoor swimming pool, which looks as if it has come straight from the white-washed walls of a Greek island resort. I longed to swim in it, even though it is closed to the public except for viewing.

The blue grottoed pool at Villa Vizcaya.
Such a beautiful pool!

The orchid garden, named the David A. Klein Orchidarium, is supposedly a world-famous outdoor orchid garden, although I only spotted a few orchids and wasn't completely impressed. I understand that orchids are difficult to grow so I appreciated the garden for what it was, but to me, the other gardens were just so much more palatial.

The main gardens, located on the opposite side of the house from the Orchidarium, seemed to have come straight from the Red Queen's lands out of the pages of "Alice in Wonderland". Neatly trimmed flowering hedges, winding pathways, and rose bushes were bordered by towering palm trees and twisting mangroves. There were elaborate fountains, built in the 18th century and shipped straight from Italy, amid lily-pad carpeted pools and pebbled lanes.

The perfectly manicured grounds of Villa Vizcaya.

All of the walls, steps, and pools were handcrafted from a gorgeous limestone that was dotted with fossilized shells and other remnants from the ocean floor.

Lily pads dot the ponds at Villa Vizcaya, while seashelled limestone walls add flair.

Some of the more interesting outdoor features were located just outside the doors of the East Loggia, on the edge of the waters of Biscayne Bay. The 'Barge' is a stone pier located just beyond the main outdoor terrace of Villa Vizcaya. The pier doesn't look like any old pier, however. It is designed to look like an Italian boat, half sunken in the waters of the bay. The structure served as a breakwater for smaller boats moored to the East Terrace landing, and also as a spectacular place to host dinners and parties out on the water. It was not accessible to visitors when we were there, but I sure wanted to go explore it!

The Barge just off the East Terrace at Villa Vizcaya.

Another great feature of the East Terrace was the Tea House, a small lattice-roofed gazebo that sits at the edge of the terrace overlooking the bay. The entire design of the little building screams opulence, and now I want one in my backyard.

The Tea House overlooks Biscayne Bay. Image via.

Something I learned while exploring the house that really struck me was that James Deering, the man who owned and commissioned the building and decorating of Villa Vizcaya, died in the year 1925. The house itself wasn't finished construction until 1916. This means that although Deering spent an incredible amount of money, time, and care into the overall look of the house, he didn't get to enjoy it for very many years. Somehow, I found that a little sad. I am grateful, however, that his family decided to donate the house and gardens to Miami-Dade County so that it can be preserved and enjoyed by the public.

As my husband and I left Villa Vizcaya, down the long driveway, past the ticket booth, and through a dirt-packed pathway through the subtropical forest surrounding the grounds, we felt like we were leaving a different era behind us. If I won the lottery, and Villa Vizcaya was for sale, I would snap that place up in an instant. It is so beautiful and romantic; you must go see it for yourself!