Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Jamaican Adventure - Mystic Mountain!

All my life I've been a lazy vacationer (is that a word?). When I have been lucky enough to travel, I like to plant myself by the pool with a book and sit there for seven days. I'm such a creature of habit that even if the resort offers 10 pools, I'll usually find one I like on the first day and return to the same spot day after day.

I always thought excursions were for historians or for those allergic to the sun. At 36, I had never snorkeled, hiked, ziplined, climbed anything, swam with any animals, or visited any pyramids. (Side note - I did visit Stonehenge in college and thought it was the biggest waste of time. Maybe that's what turned me off long ago.)

But as I started traveling for work I realized that it's important for me to experience the things my clients are going to ask about for myself. It's time to get out there and get a taste of each part of the world and what it has to offer. So while I would have loved to spend my last day in Jamaica by the pool sipping a cocktail, I grabbed my husband and set off for Mystic Mountain.

Luckily, we were staying about five minutes away in Ocho Rios, but you can still make a day of it if you're in Negril or Montego Bay. You can buy different packages, but we chose the Tranopy Tour, which includes all components: the Sky Explorer, Ziplining, and Jamaican Bobsled.

At the bottom there are beautiful pools such as this one. I love that color!
One tip: Mystic Mountain is located very near the Ocho Rios cruise port, and therefore will be crowded on days when a ship is docked. If you're staying in Jamaica, make sure to schedule your outing on a day when no ships are there, and you won't have to contend with the lines that cruise passengers bring. We were there on a Sunday and did not encounter any lines at all.

Just beginning the climb...

To begin your journey, you have to take the 15 minute Sky Explorer ride 700 feet up the mountain. It's basically a four-person ski lift, so if you have a terrifying fear of heights, then this is not the place for you. I do not ski - add it to the list in paragraph 2 - so for me this was actually the hardest part. Every time my husband would move an inch I would freak. I tried to focus on the beauty of the rainforest below, the mountains in the distance, and eventually the breathtaking ocean. The views were definitely worth the anxiety!!!

Once at the top, I was amazed at the little village they had created up there! There is a small open-air museum filled with facts about the Jamaican bobsled team and many other Jamaican Olympians. There is also a really nice restaurant with a full bar, an infinity pool with a water slide, and a great gift shop. When you're up there it's totally up to you what you do, when you do it, and in what order. We decided to get a drink and enjoy the views for a while. OK, and who am I kidding? I had to calm my nerves in preparation for what I was about to do!

Even Red Stripe has gotten fancy!

Bobsledding was up first. You can go on your own or two people can attach their sleds together, but only the person in front can control the brakes. A bit of a control freak, I knew if I was in charge of the brake I would keep them on the whole time and go about 5 MPH. This would not be fair to my clients who want to know what bobsledding is like, so I sat in back and put my husband in control of the brakes. As we were waiting for our turn he was talking with the worker as I was sitting back there like a dope. Little did I know he told the guy we wanted to go as fast as possible. He was told not to use the brake at all and that he would give us a push. It was our turn to go - jeez, my heart is pounding as I'm writing this - and the guy ran with our sleds for as far as he can go, pushing us faster and faster until our fate was in gravity's hands. Let me just say that I screamed the entire way. I am not an adrenaline junkie, but after it was all said and done I have to say it was really fun.

It's one to a bobsled, but you can connect two together.
Here we go!
Our pass bought us just one bobsled run, but you can purchase more at the top if you found that you went too slow the first time. Well, the first time was plenty fast for me so I opted out for another run, but I am really glad I went, AND that I went as fast as it goes. What a rush!

Next we headed over to get our ziplining gear on. Aside from looking and feeling like a moron once I was outfitted with harnesses and a helmet, I was really excited to do this. Our group consisted of people from New York, Chicago and Texas, and included a family with kids ranging from 13 - 8! I have the utmost respect for those kids...I could never have done this at their age. We had two guides who were very knowledgeable, but also mischievous. I don't want to ruin any surprises here, but let's just say they keep their jobs interesting by toying with the anxiety of first-timers. They made it fun and we had a lot of good laughs. The course consists of five lines, one vertical drop, and a wooden rope bridge. I could've done without the vertical drop, but I made myself let go and I did it!

Vertical drop and rope bridge.

Ziplining takes you about halfway down, so you get back onto the Sky Explorer and ride it to the bottom. You can either leave Mystic Mountain at that point or stay on, ride it back to the top, and enjoy some lunch or a swim. Give yourself more time than you think you'll need. We took almost three hours, but could have easily gone back up and stretched it to five.

Go back up to the top and cool off in this infinity pool.

If I had to do it over again (and I think I probably will next time I'm in Jamaica) I would do the ziplining first, then go back up, bobsled, eat and swim. They take pictures of you on each activity, and you can buy them for $15 each. We made the mistake of buying our Sky Explorer picture right away, but asking her to keep it behind the desk until we were done. It wasn't until we got down to the bottom after ziplining that we realized we forgot the picture. This is why I would recommend ending your day at the top. Then you can buy your pictures or items at the gift shop, and not have to worry about where you're going to keep them during your activities.

Goofing around in the gift shop!

Both my husband and I agreed that this was the best day of our vacation, and beat sitting at the pool. It was a priceless experience that we can't wait to share with our kids one day, and now I am ready to tackle all the things I have been missing out on when on vacation. I hope you do, too!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Overnight Layovers? Make the Best of It! Dallas & the Sixth Floor

Recently I went on a trip that required an overnight in Dallas. While initially I was annoyed not to be able to reach my destination right away, I decided to make the best of it and do a little sightseeing. The result? Two trips in one at a lower price!

Anyone that knows me knows that I am not a cowgirl, but when in Rome...

With the rising cost of airfares, getting creative with your travel plans is becoming more common, and overnight layovers have the potential to save you some considerable cash. The key is flying through a city that has something to offer, and Dallas is just that city!

For starters, DFW has two hotels connected to it - the Hyatt Regency DFW and the Grand Hyatt DFW. It is a large airport, with five terminals, but has a great transportation system within the airport that will take you to any terminal or either of these hotels at no charge. In my case, I booked a room in advance at the Hyatt Regency DFW for $89 - an incredible rate for such convenience! After I claimed my luggage, I walked over to the "hotel wall," picked up the phone and pressed the button for the Hyatt. The polite gentleman asked me where he should pick me up, and within 5 minutes I was sitting in a cool van headed for my hotel. How simple and flawless was that?

The rooms had a very nice decor. The best part was, for an airport hotel, I never once heard an airplane!

The hotel itself was much more than I expected. It was chic and modern, with an upscale restaurant/bar off the lobby. After checking into my room, it was time to hit the city. I went down to the entrance and asked the bellman to hail me a cab. I did not have to wait for a minute before a car drove up to take me wherever I needed to go.

The opposite side of the room had a great setup for business travelers.

It's about a 20 minute ride to downtown Dallas, and my destination was the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. The museum is located on the 6th and 7th floors of the Dallas County Administration Building, at the corner of Houston and Elm, or as it was formerly named, the Texas School Book Depository. Yes, it is the building from which Lee Harvey Oswald launched the fatal shots that changed a nation.

This is the view from the 7th floor of the building. Pictures aren't allowed on the 6th floor.

View of the building from right around where the President's car was located. The shots came from the far right window on the 6th floor (2nd from the top). This corner section has been restored to its original status and is enclosed in glass.

The museum opened in 1989 in response to the hundreds of visitors each week that came to Dealey Plaza to pay their respects to President Kennedy. They found that people wanted a place to remember the great man and his legacy. I'd like to share with you the Vision Statement of the museum, to give you a better understanding of the purpose of such a place as a tourist destination: "To be an impartial, multi-generational destination and forum for exploring the memory and effects of the events surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy, through sharing his legacy and its impact on an ever-changing global society." I think it's important to note that it did not have a sensationalized, TMZ-like quality to it, but rather the feel of the museum was reflective and engaging. They do such a nice job of engrossing you in the status of the era, the mood of the nation, and the political and social climate of the times.

This view is from the Grassy Knoll, almost to the fence. In the far left corner, the trees frame the window from which the infamous shots came. In the lower right corner you see the X placed at the location of the President's car. It really is quite some distance between the two.

The Sixth Floor Museum is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas, so you should never have a problem getting in. The hours are Mondays from 12pm - 6pm, and the rest of the week from 10am - 6pm. Allow yourself about 90 minutes to go through the museum. Admission is $13.50, but children and seniors can save $1. As far as kids go, there were some children there while I was there, but they either looked really bored or were crying in their strollers. I would recommend ages 12-13 as a minimum, or else you won't be able to really read, listen and engage in the information. A walking audio tour is included, which you can stop and start at any time. You will want to pause the recording to watch several videos, which are approximately five minutes long.

The Grassy Knoll is much smaller than I had imagined.

After you're done with the museum, give yourself at least another half hour to walk around Dealey Plaza. It really is amazing to stand in the Grassy Knoll, and to walk around and read the plaques and dedications surrounding that intersection.

Fence at the left side of the Grassy Knoll. Some believe that may have been a shot fired from this location as well.
View from behind the fence.

After walking a few blocks to have some dinner downtown, it was finally time to head back to the Hyatt and get some sleep for an early flight the next morning. The wake-up call came promptly at 4am, and the shuttle was ready and waiting at 5am to take me to the terminal for my departure. Staying at this hotel was truly seamless!

So next time you're traveling internationally, consider an overnight. You may be able to save some money, as well as add an unexpected, educational experience to your trip!