My Experience with Spirit Airlines

My Experience with Spirit Airlines

Thinking of flying Spirit Airlines? Then this review is for you!

Last month I took my first flight on Spirit Airlines, an American "ultra-low-cost" or budget airline. I am not a stranger to budget airlines. When I lived in Europe, I took dozens of flights on airlines including RyanAir and EasyJet. I also used budget airlines to travel around Asia. However, my experience on Spirit was my first with an American budget airline.

*N.B. this article contains affiliate links. That means that if you make a purchase after clicking one of these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

Booking

Pricing

Being a budget airline means you the passenger get a really cheap base-price ticket on Spirit, but then have to pay for any and all extras that may typically be included by a mainstream airline. This is true of most budget airlines: for anyone that has flown on RyanAir, perhaps you remember the flight attendants selling lottery tickets during the flight to increase revenue. I'm glad Spirit doesn't try that, but I've heard rumors they may start charging a fee to use the lavatories.

If you are willing to forego or pay for flight extras, Spirit Airlines is worth the low price. Many people falsely believe that budget airlines lack safety features that mainstream airlines provide. They do not. All airlines operating at U.S. airports must pass the exact same safety tests. Airlines cannot cut corners on safety for price savings. Instead, they pay lower airport "rental" fees which means they will be last priority for take-off if there is a delay, for baggage claim after a flight, and for other similar operations. There is no need to be more concerned about safety when flying on a budget airline such as Spirit Airlines than you would be on any mainstream airline.

Purchasing Flights

My experience purchasing flights on Spirit Airlines was as easy as with any other airline. I needed two seats on round-trip flights from Hartford, Connecticut (BDL) to Orlando, Florida (MCO). When I searched for one seat, the price was $409 USD, but when I searched for two seats, the price was $472 USD each!

Note: this will happen on any airline selling a set of seats at one price and the next set of seats at a higher price if there is only one seat left. All seats in a purchase will be quoted at the higher price.

Knowing this, I booked the two seats separately for an average price of $440 USD. The next cheapest flight for my itinerary on a mainstream airline was over $600 USD, so the savings were significant. The purchases were made smoothly. I did not experience any glitches with the website or issues with the purchasing process.

The BAG Decision

Most travelers in America are used to being charged extra for a checked bag, while being allowed to bring a personal item and a carry-on into the aircraft cabin for free. Spirit Airlines only allows one personal item for free. You must pay for your carry-on item in addition to any checked bags. The fees for these bags are much higher than mainstream airlines as well.

The one upside to Spirit's baggage policy is that the personal item allowance is very generous at 18 in. x 14 in. x 8 in. My standard long-weekend Longchamp travel bag is 17.75 in x 13.75 in x 9 in, with soft sides. With a little squishing I could get it to qualify as a personal item on Spirit and avoid the baggage fees. This is true of many small backpacks and large tote bags or purses. If you are going on a short trip to a warm locale, you may not need to pay for any bags on Spirit.

Check out my post on How to Travel the World with One Carry-On to get more tips on packing light for any vacation!

Spirit charges different bag fees depending on the flight you book. Their website offers a bag fee calculator for your specific flight. For the Hartford to Orlando flight, a carry-on selected during booking would cost $32 per passenger, and a checked bag would cost $37 per bag. My travel companion and I decided to purchase one checked bag to share and no carry-on bags. The price to check a bag or carry it on increases at each process point until you board the plane, so it is beneficial to decide early. I've heard stories of Spirit Airlines charging almost $100 for a carry-on when the passenger decided she needed it as she was boarding the plane!

 

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Bag checkers near the boarding gate

 

Check-In

Online

Online check-in for Spirit begins 24 hours before the flight departs. This is typical for most American airlines. When I travel, I almost always check-in online and use a mobile ticket. When I do this, I sometimes get worried about losing my Internet connection just as I reach the front of the security line, so I save my mobile boarding pass to my Apple wallet, take a screenshot of it, use the airline's app, and make sure the email is loaded. I assumed I would do the same for my mobile boarding pass with Spirit Airlines.

My travel companion always prefers printed hard-copy boarding passes, so he printed his out. I did not. On the drive to the airport, I tried to pull my boarding pass up on my iPhone. The emailed boarding pass would not show the QR code (similar to a barcode on paper boarding passes). I checked online and found that this is a common error with the Gmail app. I tried to open the boarding pass using Gmail on the Safari web-browsing app but had the same issue. Forwarding the boarding pass to my ancient Yahoo! email account did not help either. The Spirit app was completely defunct so that wasn't an option either. It was starting to look like I was out of options.

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This is all my boarding pass on my phone looked like: not very helpful.

At the Airport

At this point I was worried I'd have to pay a hefty fee to have a Spirit agent print my boarding pass for me. I saw a number of Spirit check-in kiosks in the arrivals terminal, so I gave one of them a try just in case. As with all mainstream airline kiosks, I pulled up my reservation and printed my boarding pass for free! I used this same method on my return flight from Orlando to Hartford, and it was once again free.

I highly recommend printing your Spirit boarding pass before arriving at the airport just in case, but know that you should be able to obtain one for free at an airport kiosk if necessary. Either way, you probably will not be able to use the mobile boarding pass option.

Dropping off the checked bag was a breeze. There is a 40 lb weight limit. Our bag was weighed for both flights, and I saw one woman trying to readjust her belongings to make the limit, so it is enforced.

Boarding

The boarding process was a bit of a fiasco. I have no idea how we left on time. My travel companion and I were in Zone 2. When we arrived at the gate, we  had at least five minutes before boarding began. Despite this, the entire plane of passengers was crowded around the boarding lane. The agent at the desk was simultaneously telling them to move back and trying to handle pre-flight issues. Nobody would listen to her. I understand if you are a Zone 1 passenger milling around the lane entrance, but there were too many people for that to be the case.

When boarding began, the standard "passengers flying with small children and those who need extra help boarding" were invited on the plane first followed by military personnel. Seeing as Spirit does not have a "First Class" section, Zone 2 was called shortly after these passengers. My companion and I made our way through the sea of passengers surrounding the boarding lanes to get on the plane.

On the Flight

The three-hour flight experience was reasonably pleasant.

BIG Front Seats

I was planning to sit in a normal economy seat. I booked a ticket for an (unassigned) economy seat. However, over Christmas dinner a well-traveled family member recommended upgrading to the BIG Front Seats. I was hesitant, seeing as I was flying Spirit Airlines in an attempt to save money, but my travel companion convinced me the upgrade was worthwhile. He was right!

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We paid $55 per person per flight for the upgrade. This was the price quoted us after booking the flight but before check-in. I expected seats similar to "Premium economy" on mainstream airlines. This would provide another 2" or 3" of pitch and 2" of width on the seat. Instead, we were treated to large, comfortable First Class type seats. Yes, they looked old, worn, and a little dirty, and no they did not recline, but for $55 I couldn't complain. Plus, every other economy seat on the plane also had those attributes. I have yet to sit in the economy section of a Spirit Airlines flight, but this review from The Points Guy explains that the BIG Front Seat is worth the upgrade.

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My travel companion - my dad - and I enjoying our BIG Front Seats!

Refreshments

Spirit offers refreshments for purchase on their flights. These include the standard non-alcoholic beverages that are free on mainstream airlines. The menu offerings and prices look similar to what's available on mainstream airlines. Though $3 for a can of Coke seems expensive, knowing they have a monopoly in the sky Spirit could have charged $10 for that same can of Coke and people probably would have purchased it.

Being aware of this issue, my travel companion and I purchased sandwiches in the airport to bring on board with us. I also made sure to fill up my water bottle, since even water was not free on Spirit. My travel companion purchased one soda on the flight using his credit card. He was given the entire can plus a plastic cup with ice in which to pour his drink.

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In-Flight Experience

As a "no-frills" airline, Spirit provides no in-flight entertainment. There are no seat-back multimedia screens. A flight tracker is not available. The flight attendant does not play a 20-year-old classic film for the entire plane using drop-down screens. There isn't even a ten-song rotation on an obscure airline radio station to plug in and listen to. It's how I imagine flying in the 1970s may have been.

This is not a problem so long as you are prepared for it. In my purse I brought my iPhone for music, my iPad for a offline games (both charged ahead of time, since there are no in-seat charging ports on Spirit's flights), an eBook on my iPad and a hardcover book. I also had my Harry Potter coloring book and set of 50 colored pencils in case the plane hit bad turbulence and I needed a distraction. I was determined to keep myself occupied on the flight. It turned out not to be an issue because I fell asleep within a half hour of take-off and awoke as we were making our descent. Had that not happened, I am sure all the items I brought with me for entertainment would have kept me busy for hours, or at least the three hour duration of the flight.

Looking for more must-have travel items? Check out my post on 15 Luxury Travel Essentials!

Baggage Claim

Baggage claim was the worst part of my Spirit Airlines experience. I never check bags, so I don't usually have to deal with baggage claim. I did not know what to expect for timing of retrieving our bag. Because of its low airport "rental" fees, there are only two Spirit baggage claim carousels at Orlando International Airport. Bags from all of the incoming Spirit flights arrive on the same two carousels. You never know when the new set of bags is from your flight.

It took over an hour from the time my travel companion and I left the aircraft to the time we retrieved our bag. To me, that was an unreasonable amount of time. When time is money, you should compare the cost-savings of checking a bag with the time-cost of standing in an airport's baggage claim area. It may not be worth it.

Our bag arrived with our flight and everything was in one piece, so it could have been worse. It was not the best start to the vacation, though, and something that could have easily been avoided with a carry-on.

Spirit Airlines Review Conclusion

I was not deterred by the minor hiccups during my first Spirit Airlines experience. As I normally do, I signed up for a frequent flyer number with Spirit. I intend to fly them again soon. I will be testing the personal item versus carry-on strategy and hopefully will not have to pay $100 at the gate to bring my bag with me! Regardless I don't think I would check a bag again. So long as you know what you are getting into, are aware of the rules that could cost you extra money, and are willing to pay for all extras, flying Spirit Airlines is a great deal.

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My first experience flying with Spirit Airlines, a low-cost American airline
My first experience flying with Spirit Airlines, a low-cost American airline
New Years Eve in Orlando 2019 – Part II

New Years Eve in Orlando 2019 – Part II

Check out Part I here!

Epcot on New Years Eve Day

The main purpose of going to Orlando was to spend New Years Eve at Epcot. I think my love for world travel draws me to Epcot more than the other Disney parks. It features miniature cities (called pavilions) from eleven countries as a main attractions. While I also love Magic Kingdom and enjoy visiting Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom, if I had to pick just one park to visit it would be Epcot every time.

The lack of crowds at Epcot early in the morning surprised me. I took a picture of the iconic Spaceship Earth from the center of the park with no people in the picture! Unfortunately, when my dad and I tried to go on the Test Track ride, we learned where all the people were: waiting in line for the rides. The line for Test Track was four hours long, and the single riders line was two hours long. At that point I realized I would only get to go on one ride at Epcot that day. I chose the new "Frozen" ride.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando

Norway

The "Frozen" ride is one of the most popular rides in the park. As a fan of the "Frozen" movie - and as a Norwegian - I was excited to go on the ride. The line was forty-five minutes long. Guests in line wander through the castle, a village, and Oaken's Trading Post. Once on the ride, riders see scenes and hear songs from "Frozen."

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; norway; frozen

The ride was fun, but it was exactly the same ride as the Viking one that had previously been in its location! Having been on this ride multiple times before I was disappointed there was absolutely nothing new about it. Even the boats we rode in were the same Viking boats. The only difference was the wait time: the "Frozen" theme draws a crowd whereas I walked right onto the Viking ride every time before. If you are a huge fan of "Frozen" or have never been on the Viking boat ride, then a line less than one hour long is worth waiting in. If you are expecting something drastically new and different, don't wait in line.

China

Whenever my dad and I visit China, or "China," we end up doing things we didn't plan to. In Beijing, we accidentally saw Mao's embalmed body. In Epcot's China, we accidentally watched a 13 minute 360-degree film about the country.

China is one of many world showcase countries I've visited in real life since the last time I was at Epcot. It was neat to see reconstructions of real Chinese buildings I had seen recently in Epcot's showcase. One such building was the Temple of Heaven structure. In Beijing, the Temple of Heaven is a park with a circular structure surrounded by a concrete plaza. Many people take photos in the plaza but no one is allowed to enter the structure. You can look inside to see an altar but the entrance is locked.

At Epcot, the Temple of Heaven structure is open. My dad and I walked in, passed the exhibits, and made our way through the building. We expected to find shops that we could walk through and exit on the other side. Instead, we ended up in a giant circular theatre. There were about 50 people already inside leaning on banisters in the center of the room. We soon realized what we had walked into, but not quickly enough. The exit doors started closing just as we were about to leave. We were stuck: we would be watching the film about China.

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When you go to Epcot, if you have a strong interest in China or a familiarity with the country you may want to watch the film. It is only 13 minutes long and the effects of being in a 360-degree theatre are pretty cool. It was also interesting to see Beijing represented in the film after having traveled there. However, if your intent for visiting Epcot is to enjoy the Disney-related elements, perhaps a documentary on a foreign country is not the best way to spend your time.

Japan

My dad and I were hungry for lunch when we arrived at Japan's pavilion, even though it was only 11:00 AM. I heard that the restaurants on the second floor of Japan's pavilion were phenomenal and wanted to check them out. All dining reservations in Epcot that day were fully booked months in advance. Our only opportunity to try Japan's restaurants was to arrive when they opened.

We were luckily immediately seated in Tokyo Dining at a table next to a window overlooking the World Showcase Lagoon. From our table, we could see each of the country pavilions and Future World. We could also see and hear the Japanese percussion show performed across the way on the Pagoda's platform. The food was good too! Not wanting a heavy meal, we each ordered a miso soup, followed by panko-crusted shrimp for my dad and a large spicy-crunchy maki roll for me. I would recommend either dish for lunch. The portions were large enough to fill us up for the rest of our day at the park.

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View from Tokyo Dining

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Maki Lunch

Morocco

The final country I want to highlight for you is Morocco, though I recommend visiting all eleven country pavilions. I have not yet been to real Morocco so I cannot compare the pavilion to the country itself. Nevertheless, I feel confident in its authenticity. When the Kingdom of Morocco learned Epcot planned to include its country as a pavilion, it funded and oversaw the construction of the entire area. To this day, the Moroccan government pays for and oversees upkeep and restoration. The next time you visit Epcot, keep this in mind as you wonder at the mosaics and visit the souks in Morocco's pavilion.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; morocco

Fountain in Morocco

Secret Passageway - The International Gateway

My best tip for Epcot is to use the International Gateway entrance and exit. Located between the France and England pavilions, and a short walk from the Disney Yacht Club Resort, this entrance is not well-known so few people use it.

If you are using Disney transportation or taking a ride share, get dropped off at the Disney Yacht Club. Walk through the lobby to the beach and then go left up the path. Stay left as you go over the bridge and you will soon find yourself at Epcot's back entrance. There are ticket booths available if you need to purchase your park ticket. The best part: no lines!

More important than a quick entrance is a less-crowded exit at the end of the night, which was especially important on New Years Eve! One of my only stressors for this vacation was how my dad and I were going to get back to our off-property hotel after midnight. I had heard horror stories about exiting the park through the main gate, hours-long waits to board Disney's monorail, and traffic jams that turned Google Maps from red to purple. This "secret" exit away from the park's main gate was one key in having an enjoyable end to the night.

Disney Springs

To avoid staying at Epcot for 15 hours and relying on the different fast food areas within the park for dinner (as there were no reservations available), my dad and I went back to the hotel for a few hours in the afternoon to enjoy the resort pool and then went to Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) for dinner.

Disney Springs was bustling at night! There were many people heading to dinner or settling in to enjoy the New Years festivities. Live bands were setting up on various stages for performances later in the evening. As we walked by some of the bands after dinner, it seemed like it would be a fun evening. I can only imagine what the midnight celebration was like!

The Boathouse Restaurant

OpenTable's list of the 100 Most Scenic Restaurants in the USA included Disney Springs' The Boathouse. I did not realize the restaurant was part of the Disney complex at first when I saw the list. As I was considering where to make dinner reservations for New Years Eve, the recommendation on the list convinced me to make a reservation at this restaurant. I'm so glad I did! Not only did the reservations fill up entirely before we arrived in Orlando, but its scenic views were matched only by the quality of the food. Both were incredible! My dad and I sat at a table on a dock over the water. As a Northerner, this was my first time enjoying New Years Eve dinner outside, and in a tank top no less!

As we were enjoying the fresh warm rolls covered in honey-butter, a car drove by. This caught my attention since we were surrounded by water. My dad was enthralled: he had not seen an amphicar in over half a century! Apparently these cars, similar to the duck boats, were a fad in the 1960s. They can drive on land but are also watertight with a propeller that allows them to function as boats. Rides were $125 for about 10 minutes so we did not take a ride, but it was fascinating to watch the cars float by as we were eating.

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Dinner on the water!

Epcot for New Years Eve

After dinner we took a Disney bus back to Epcot for the New Years Eve festivities. Using our newly-discovered secret entrance at the Yacht Club Resort, we were thrust into the party as we entered the park in the World Showcase. The world pavilions had transformed from quaint villages during the day to party scenes at night.

DJs and Dance Parties

England hosted a Queen cover band that led the crowd in a "Bohemian Rhapsody" singalong. Italy featured a DJ leading a proper European rave. When we snaked through this crowd I was immediately transported back to the clubs I encountered during my times studying abroad. The atmosphere was very authentic. China had a more varied musical selection. Its main attraction was a colorful electronic dragon that spewed steam and fire over the heads of the dancers. A live funk band  played at America's stage. People were dancing in the area in front of stage while many more weary revelers rested their legs in the amphitheater seating while watching the entertainment.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; china

Chinese Party and Dragon

There were two dance parties at the entrance to Future World. One was a Silent Groove. Participants took headphones provided by the prak and listened to music played by the DJs. If you did not have headphones you could not hear the music or the DJ's commentary. I did not participate but it was fun watching for a while.

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Silent Groove

My favorite dance party was the main party in front of Spaceship Earth. The DJ got into the groove playing the best music and feeling the crowd. After spending some time wandering around the world showcase, I loved watching this DJ in his element dancing to the music along with thousands of strangers.

Midnight Celebration

My dad and I stayed at the main dance party until 11:40 PM. We then went back to the World Showcase in search of champagne and a place to watch the special New Years Illuminations show. Of course the best champagne was in France. After making our purchases, we watched the Epcot globe light up the lagoon with pictures from around the world.

At five minutes to midnight there was a special presentation for each World Showcase country that had already celebrated the New Year. Each country was recognized individually with fireworks shot off from its pavilion in the colors of the country's flag. The group of us watching from France cheered extra loud when it was France's turn! Disney timed the celebration perfectly: after going through the eight previous countries, we had a 10-second countdown for the USA, Mexico, and Canada. As midnight struck, the largest fireworks finale I've ever seen went off! It was an amazing New Years celebration.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; fireworks; midnight

Exiting the Park

Ten minutes after midnight everyone headed for the park exits. My dad and I had strategically placed ourselves next to the International Gateway exit and left quickly with thousands of people. The night before, an Uber driver left us behind because I ordered the ride too quickly, anticipating traffic at Universal Studios' pick up. Hoping to avoid the same fate, I waited until we were back on the Yacht Club property to order an Uber. There were none available in the area! One driver finally accepted the ride only to cancel when he saw we were 20 minutes away.

Our brilliant exit strategy was failing. I had not accounted for the supply and demand problem with ride shares just after midnight on New Years Eve. We also weren't the only ones who planned to make our exit by Uber from the Disney Yacht Club. About 50 other people were also waiting in front of the hotel for rides. I was exhausted from two days of constant walking and was getting deflated about our chances for getting home at a reasonable time. I looked to the curb for a space to sit down.

The Kindest Strangers Ever

I must have looked pretty weary because a man offered me his curb seat, insisting he would rather stand anyway. After sitting I explained the Uber situation to my dad. The now-standing man's wife, who was sitting next to me, asked in which direction we were headed. I named our hotel, not knowing in which direction it was. The couple immediately offered to share their Uber with us! The woman had ordered an Uber about twenty minutes prior on the walk from the park and their ride was almost at the resort. I assumed their hotel was near ours. Considering that our chances of getting a ride in the next few hours were almost nothing, my dad and I took the couple up on their offer.

Due to a few international glitches (her Canadian Uber and Venmo apps would not recognize my American phone number), we had to pay the couple in cash for our part of the ride. I'm hoping our contribution was sufficient because the couple was staying about 5 minutes away, just outside Disney park limits, whereas my dad and I rode in the Uber for another twenty minutes. Without a communication method, though, I had no way of knowing. As the couple left the Uber, I thanked them profusely (again). They said they were just building karma for the New Year and were happy to help. I can only imagine how long we would have been stranded at the Disney Yacht Club Resort had these kind strangers not offered to share their ride with us.

Saying Thank You

Though I've tried, I have no way of getting in touch with the couple again. The woman, Maureen, gave me her business card in case anything went wrong during the rest of the Uber ride. I am posting her business website here as a small thank you: if you have the ability and interest in patronizing her, please do so! Magnolia and Vine - Maureen's website.

Overall the trip was a success! I had a great time and would definitely visit Orlando for New Years Eve weekend again. I would reconsider being in a park at midnight as I think the celebration at Disney Springs would have been just as good, but I loved every second of the vacation.

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Guide to Epcot, Orlando, for New Years Eve
Guide to Epcot, Orlando, for New Years Eve
New Years Eve in Orlando 2019 – Part I

New Years Eve in Orlando 2019 – Part I

Two months ago, I was not planning to spend New Years Eve in Orlando. I hoped to go skiing in Canada. However, when I suggested this to my dad - my travel companion for the weekend - he requested that we set our sights on a warmer locale.

The flights to and hotels in Orlando were surprisingly cheap for New Years Eve weekend. Furthermore, I had not yet seen the new half of Harry Potter World at Universal. I also suspected that Disney would have an awesome midnight celebration. After reading this article from blogger Tessa Koten about New Years at Epcot I was hooked. My dad and I booked our flights a few days before Christmas and we were on our way to celebrate the new year in Orlando!

Spirit Air Flight

Spirit Air; new years eve orlando; budget airline

The flights were surprisingly cheap in part because my dad and I flew budget airline Spirit Air. We chose Spirit because the airline offered direct flights to and from Orlando at reasonable times of day.

This was my first flight on Spirit Air. I had flown other budget airlines in Europe and Asia before so I was not as concerned as first-time budget travelers. Still, I set my expectations low.

Upgrades

When you fly a budget airline you must pay a fee for everything on top of your ticket price. The "upgrades" my dad and I paid for were one checked bag and BIG Front Seats. One checked bag was cheaper than two carry-ons. Plus, we wouldn't have to carry bags through the airport and we could bring full-size liquids. This upgrade was worth it until we had to get our bag from baggage claim in Orlando.

Checked Baggage

Many people (falsely) believe that budget airlines are cheap because they are not as safe as mainstream airlines. This is not true. To operate flights in the US or Europe, all airlines must pass the same safety inspections. Budget airlines are cheap because they make you pay for "extras" and they pay the lowest airport fees. Low airport fees means last priority when there is an airport-wide delay and when the baggage handlers need to unload checked bags.

It took almost an hour to leave the airport from the time my dad and I disembarked the plane. I don't normally check bags so I thought maybe this was normal. The other passengers made it clear this was an excessive amount of time. Because of this time, and because the personal baggage allotment is pretty large (the size of a small carry-on), I recommend against checking a bag on Spirit Air.

BIG Front Seat

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Enjoying our BIG Front Seats on the way to Orlando!

I do recommend booking the BIG Front Seat option. One of my cousins recommended this upgrade to my dad and I over Christmas. I hesitated to spend any additional money on what was supposed to be a budget-friendly vacation, but my dad convinced me it was worth it. The BIG Front Seats look like they are former first class passenger seats from Boeing 737 aircraft that Spirit bought at a discount. They are large and comfortable, but do not recline and do not offer in-seat entertainment. They also look used. Despite all these drawbacks, I felt like a first class passenger sitting in the seat, even though I had to bring my own food and water on-board.

Hilton Orlando Resort

After my dad and I finally obtained our checked luggage, an Uber took us to our hotel, the Hilton Orlando resort. I was amazed by this hotel. The lobby was huge. It included three restaurants, a cafe, and hotel shop. The outdoor area was even bigger. There were two giant pools, three hot tubs, a great lazy river, three-story water slide, pool bar, and outdoor games like volleyball and cornhole. Although the property was somewhat out of the way of everything, I am glad we stayed there. I would absolutely stay again next time I am in Orlando.

Outdoor Pool Area

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I have been to Orlando numerous times before, so I expected the hotel to have a pool as most Orlando hotels do. The pool area at the Hilton Orlando was more than just another hotel pool. The main pool was about 100 meters long. The three hot tubs were well-spaced and large enough for multiple people to use them comfortably. The pool bar was centrally located and provided delicious food and drinks. It also had about six big-screen televisions broadcasting the college football bowl games. The water slide was as good as any you would find at a small water park.

The best part of the pool area, and the place where I spent most of my time, was the lazy river. It was warmer than the main pool but still refreshing. It allowed you to be in the water while still doing something, either sitting in an inner tube holding a drink or swimming along with the current.

Indoor Cafe and Restaurants

The cafe on the first floor of the resort was key to my vacation. It provided coffee and espresso drinks each morning. There was cheap drip coffee available in the hotel room, but purchasing a large iced caramel latte to begin the day meant I could stay on-the-go exploring the theme parks for 12+ hours without needing a break to either rest or get more coffee.

The on-site restaurants were decent as well. I only had the chance to try David's Club Bar & Grill, but it suited mine and my dad's needs perfectly. David's had two giant TVs in its lounge area with over-sized chairs and low tables in front of them. At the end of a long day of travel or day at the parks it was great to be able to settle into a chair, order a nice glass of wine and appetizer, and watch a few quarters of football on the large screen.

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Watching sports at David's Club

Universal Studios Orlando on New Years Eve Weekend

Six years ago I visited Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure park to see Harry Potter World. About four years ago, Universal built a second Harry Potter World in Universal Studios park and added a ride on the Hogwarts Express connecting the two. You can only access the Hogwarts Express if you have a multi-park ticket. I was determined to ride the Hogwarts Express, so I insisted on buying the one-day Park-2-Park ticket. I have no regrets.

Harry Potter World

My first visit to Universal Studios was in 2001. My middle school best friend was spending her February vacation in Orlando, so my parents agreed to go on vacation there as well. We spent a full day going on rides like Back to the Future, JAWS, and the Hollywood Studios Tour. None of these rides exist anymore. Instead, areas depicting real places like New York City, San Francisco, and London have been created.

The London area was very well done. Though Kings Cross Station is miles from the Leicester Square Station tube stop in real London, I was impressed that everything looked very authentic.

After admiring the authenticity as I walked along the typical London street, I quickly found myself moving away from London and into another city. I stopped to pause. Where was Diagon Alley? And the Escape from Gringotts ride? How had I missed them?

I asked a nearby vendor where the entrance was to Gringotts (the Harry Potter Wizarding Bank). She pointed to the Leicester Square Station entrance, a large red brick building. Standing in front of the station, I peered into a large opening in the front wall. A second wall was set back a few feet. It looked like the entrance to the bathroom at an airport or sports stadium. I expected to find a long line of people waiting to go on the Escape from Gringotts ride on the other side of the wall.

universal orlando; harry potter world; new years eve orlando; diagon alley; london

London street and entrance to Diagon Alley

Inside Diagon Alley

Instead, as my dad and I turned the corner around the stack of bricks, Universal Studios Orlando disappeared and Diagon Alley opened up before our eyes! I don't know what type of illusory magic Universal used to create this effect, but I definitely couldn't see the four blocks of three-story wizard buildings from the park, and aside from the occasional helicopter passing overhead, I thought I was in Diagon Alley, London, while standing in its square. Magical shops lined the streets, including Honeydukes sweets, Olivander's wand shop, the Weasley's Wizard Wheezes joke shop, Borgin & Burkes, and the Leaky Cauldron pub. In the center of it all was Gringotts with a dragon perched high on the roof.

gringotts; diagon alley; harry potter world; universal orlando

First View of Diagon Alley, with the dragon on top of Gringotts shooting fire every so often

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Every kind of magical sweet you could imagine was available at Honeydukes! I bought the Fizzing Whizbees

weasley; diagon alley; universal orlando; harry potter world

Weasley's Wizard Wheezes inviting shoppers in

harry potter world; vanishing cabinet; borgin and burkes; knockturn alley; diagon alley; universal orlando

Vanishing Cabinet in Borgin & Burkes

Most of the tourists were wearing various forms of Harry Potter paraphernalia, while children dressed in full wizard robes. Olivander's was selling interactive magic wands that would cause different effects around the Alley, such as making a stone frog fountain squirt water at passersby. Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Orlando exceeded my expectations. It felt as real as an imaginary place could be.

Escape from Gringotts

The Escape from Gringotts ride is a 4D adventure inside the wizard bank. It follows the story from Harry Potter book seven where Harry, Ron, and Hermione break into Gringotts bank to visit an evil wizard's vault. They have to spontaneously come up with an escape plane when the bank's security devices remove the enchantments the trio used to break in.

gringotts; escape from gringotts; universal orlando; harry potter world; diagon alley

Watch the goblins work as you wait to enter the bank's vault

Thirty minutes after the park opened the wait for the ride was already four hours long. There was no way I was spending almost half my day in line for one ride no matter how good it was. Luckily there was a "single riders" line option. Theme park rides that offer single rider lines are the best. Individuals in these lines fill empty space in carriages on rides to ensure ride efficiency. Unless you really want your souvenir photo screaming on a roller coaster with your friends there's no reason not to use the single riders line. My dad and I bypassed the four hour wait and were on the ride in 15 minutes!

Hogwarts Express

hogwarts express; harry potter world; diagon alley; hogsmeade; universal orlando; islands of adventure

My expectations for the Hogwarts Express were mild. Because this was my only opportunity to ride on the "Hogwarts Express," I wanted to experience it. I expected the ride to be a normal train that would slowly move between the two parks in a couple minutes. Instead, Universal made it into another ride experience.

To get on the ride at Kings Cross, guests go "through" the wall between platforms 9 and 10 to platform 9 3/4. Universal set up an illusion glass in the train station so approaching guests see those ahead of them disappearing into the wall. Such a neat effect!

Once on the train the compartment door closes and scenes of London streets are shown out the window. The streets turn to the English and Scottish countrysides. The scenery includes the Glenfinnan Viaduct and dementors flying by. On the other side of the compartment, shadows of Harry, Ron, and Hermione pass by. When the train reaches Universal Islands of Adventure in Hogsmeade, Hagrid greets you as you arrive. For someone who grew up always wanting to receive my "letter" and be whisked away to Hogwarts, this was an incredible experience. Universal did its best to make it as real as it possibly could be.

london; hogwarts express; diagon alley; hogsmeade; hogwarts; universal orlando; islands of adventure park

Watching London's streets pass by in the window

Hogsmeade Village and Hogwarts

I did not spend much time in the Hogsmeade area, having already visited in 2013. Almost nothing had changed. The one difference I noticed was the Dragon Challenge roller coaster ride was missing. It was demolished in 2017 to make room for a new Harry Potter roller coaster attraction, hopefully opening soon.

My dad and I wandered around the village, went on the Forbidden Journey ride in Hogwarts Castle (still the best Harry Potter ride I think), then grabbed some Butterbeer and left Harry Potter World to look for better food and explore the rest of the park.

Universal Islands of Adventure Park

Islands of Adventure has eight different "lands" within the park. For lunch, we went to the Lost Continent for some healthy Mediterranean food: a gyro, a Greek salad, and a hummus plate. After lunch we sought out a mild ride to go on while digesting.

Poseidon's Fury

poseidons fury; islands of adventure; universal orlando; new years eve orlando

I did not know what the Poseidon's Fury ride entailed when we got in line for it after lunch. The park guide at the entrance said we would be standing on our feet the entire time. We entered the first room of the "ride" after about 20 minutes in line and the show began. As soon as the actress started talking, I knew I had done this ride before. I thoroughly regretted going on it again.

Poseidon's Fury is not really a ride. It is a show with an actress pretending to be a junior archaeologist who "wakes up" Poseidon and his rival Greek god. She gets the group stuck underground in a dig site where the gods engage in battle. Guests go into a few different rooms, which involves walking through a somewhat-cool water tunnel. They see a final performance with a lot of water and fire effects that are sort of neat in the last room. I would skip this attraction if you are looking for anything more exciting during your visit.

Jurassic Park

jurassic park; universal orlando; islands of adventure; orlando new years eve

The next land my dad and I visited was Jurassic Park. We went on the river raft ride in 2013, but the giant log flume ride provided some action and entertainment, so we went on it again. This was another ride where the single riders line potentially saved us hours of waiting in line. Admittedly I'm not a huge fan of rides that include a large drop. I closed my eyes at the top of the crest when our boat went down the flume, but it was still fun! My dad, who is much more afraid of heights than I am, made fun of me afterwards because he kept his eyes open the whole time.

Skull Island

Our final stop for the day was the Kong ride on Skull Island. This ride always has a long wait. We decided to wait this time because we had never gone on it before and it seemed highly popular.

skull island; king kong; universal orlando; islands of adventure

One of the features to distract guests while waiting in line

WARNING: If you cannot get on the Kong ride within 15 minutes, do not wait in line. We must have been on our feet for two hours going through the twists and turns Universal uses to prevent guests from seeing the long line around the corner. In the end, the ride was three-minutes long. King Kong appears on some screens next to you and the large caravan you're in shakes a little.

Waiting so long to go on this unimpressive ride did us in for the day. We took the Hogwarts Express back to Universal Studios, walked through a few more areas of that park, and then went back to the hotel to get some dinner and relax.

Part II: New Years Eve Day at Epcot coming soon!

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Learn about the good and bad available
Learn about the good and bad at Universal Orlando's Harry Potter World and Islands of Adventure through stories about visiting on New Year's Eve weekend.
What to Do in Denver in Every Season

What to Do in Denver in Every Season

Have you ever wondered what to do in Denver if you’re planning to visit at a particular time of the year? Denver is one of the best cities to visit at any time, whenever your schedule allows! The city offers four seasons of fun and has activities that will appeal to everyone. Denver residents are known for their healthy lifestyles, so most activities will also promote an active vacation!

Planning a trip out West? Check out Weekend Adventures in Portland, OR for more adventures for your U.S. trip!

What to Do in Denver in the Winter

When most people think of vacation in Denver, they immediate think of skiing and snowboarding. Given that there are dozens of mountains just an hour or two away from the city, this makes sense. Hop on Route 70 from the Denver airport, take a scenic ride through the Rocky Mountains, and pick your ski resort!

Loveland Ski Area – Day Trip

Skiing at Loveland Ski Area; what to do in denver in the winter; denver; winter; rocky mountains

 

If you want to experience Denver-area skiing and snowboarding for a day, head to the Loveland Ski Area. Just an hour from Denver, this ski area does not have an accompanying resort so it is meant for day trips. Loveland is a smaller mountain that has many great trails for beginners. Even so, there is still enough intermediate and advanced terrain for experienced skiers and snowboarders to have fun for a day too.

Loveland Pass; what to do in Denver in the winter; rocky mountains

If you have time after your day on the mountain, continue ten minutes up route 6 from the ski area to the Loveland Pass and take a photo on top of the Continental Divide.

Loveland Pass; what to do in Denver in the winter; rocky mountains

Keystone Resort – Weekend or Full Week

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About an hour and a half outside of Denver, Keystone Resort is a mid-sized ski resort perfect to visit for a few days. You can stay right on the mountain, or check out accommodations in the nearby town of Keystone, CO. The mountain itself is welcoming to skiers of all levels. Even beginners can enjoy spectacular views from the summit before making their way down the mountain. Expert skiers looking for a wilderness experience can take the Outback lift to an off-piste area that is part of the mountain. With 148 trails covering 3,148 acres, Keystone Resort provides enough skiing and snowboarding opportunities to last a few days. When your group is ready for a break, head to the Keystone ski village to enjoy a hot chocolate and gaufre liège.

Want more ski resort recommendations? Check out the Best New England Ski Resorts post!

What to Do in Denver in the Spring

Cherry Creek Bike Ride

what to do in denver in the spring; bike ride; biking; nature ride; cherry creek trail; cherry creek river

what to do in denver in the spring; bike ride; biking; nature ride; cherry creek trail; cherry creek river

The Cherry Creek Trail is a 42-mile pedestrian and bike path that runs along the Cherry Creek River. It begins in Downtown Denver and travels South to Castle Rock, CO. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you could bike the entire path. Otherwise, rent a bike in the city from any B-Cycle Station and spend a few miles cycling peacefully by the river as it runs through town. If you choose to leave the path, most Denver city roads are bike-friendly as well.

Colorado Rockies Baseball Game

Watching a live baseball game is the perfect way to spend a Spring afternoon or evening in America! The Colorado Rockies play at Denver’s Coors Field in downtown Denver.  Major League Baseball’s 2019 Opening Day is scheduled for March 28. This early start gives you plenty of opportunities to pick up day-of tickets if you decide to attend a game while you’re in town.

What to Do in Denver in the Summer

Elitch Gardens

elitch gardens; what to do in denver in the summer; theme park; water park

Summer is for theme parks and water parks! Forego the big-name commercial theme parks for a chance to step back in history at Denver’s Elitch Gardens. The gardens have been running continuously since they opened in 1890 as a garden and zoo. The first theme park ride, the carousel, premiered in 1928 and is still operating today. Many other rides in the park may look familiar to patrons from around the country: I recognized a number of rides as duplicates of those I spent many years on at Lake Compounce Theme Park in Bristol, Connecticut. Don’t forget to pack a bathing suit for the water park too, which is included in your admission ticket!

Rocky Mountain National Park

what to do in denver in the summer; rocky mountain national park; hiking; colorado; outdoors

what to do in denver in the summer; rocky mountain national park; hiking; colorado; outdoors

Hiking is considered a year-round activity in Colorado, but the best time to go is in the Summer. Temperatures in the higher altitudes will drop quickly, even when it is 90 degrees in the city. Go on your hike prepared with appropriate pants and a sweater. The best hiking in the area is in Rocky Mountain National Park. The park is about an hour and a half North of Denver. Hiking in the park is not strenuous itself, but if you are not used to the higher altitudes, you may become out of break quicker than usual. This is normal and you are not suddenly out of shape, it is just the new altitude! Be sure to carry water with you and go slowly if you experience this strange phenomenon.

What to Do in Denver in the Fall

Denver Broncos Football Game

As with baseball in the Spring, American football in the Fall is a quintessential American activity. Denver’s football team, the Broncos, play at the Mile High Stadium located in downtown Denver. If you want to catch a game, you could swing by after Sunday brunch, pick up a ticket, and head right into the stadium for kickoff. However, if you do that you may miss out on the best part of football: tailgating! To participate in tailgating, make your way to the parking lots outside the stadium a few hours before kickoff. Wander around the tailgate parties and engage with the fans. You may even be invited to partake in a game of cornhole (bean bag toss) or enjoy a beer with fellow Broncos fans at their tailgates.

Stanley Hotel in Estes Park

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stanley hotel; the shining; stephen king; what to do in denver in the fall; what to do in denver in autumn; halloweek; horror; estes park

If you’re a fan of Halloween and horror stories, you don’t want to miss the Stanley Hotel in October. This is the hotel on which Stephen King’s “The Shining” book and subsequent movie is based. Eerie in its own right, the hotel leans into its haunted fame to host Twin Terror Weekends leading up to Halloween. Visit the hotel to take a tour, explore the grounds, attend a party, or stay overnight if you want the full experience.

What to Do in Denver at Any Time

Museum of Nature & Science

what to do in denver; museum of science; museum of nature and science; museum; downtown denver

Stuck inside on a rainy day? Too cold to explore the city? Looking for someplace to take the kids? Check out Denver’s Museum of Nature & Science. Even if you’ve been before, the rotating exhibits guarantee there will be something new to see next time. For example, I saw awesome exhibits on Whales and the Silk Road a few years ago that are long gone. Next time, I would love to go see the current Cuba! exhibit. Depending on the weather, after your museum visit you can meander through the bordering Denver City Park and make your way over to the nearby Denver Zoo (also located in the park).

REI Flagship Store

what to do in denver; rei; flagship store; rock wall; climbing wall

If you are interested in outdoor activities or shopping, be sure to stop at the REI Flagship store when you are in Denver. Sitting on the banks of the Cherry Creek and Colorado Rivers, this store offers much more than a chance to buy new hiking boots. There are free outdoor sports seminars, a cold room that lets you try cold gear, and the best attraction: a 3-story indoor climbing wall! Unlike your local REI, this is a destination, not just a store.

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Planning a trip to Denver? Check out this post for activities available year round in the city and surrounding area!

What to Do in Denver in Every Season: list of activities in this awesome city for any time you may be visiting!

Spring Weekend Adventures in Portland, Oregon

Spring Weekend Adventures in Portland, Oregon

"Where are you from and where are you going?"

"I'm from Boston and am going to Portland."

"Why don't you just take the train?"

I had this conversation with a stranger at Boston's Logan airport as we were both waiting for our delayed flights one night in May. I thought it was obvious I was flying across the country to Portland, Oregon, and not traveling up the coast a few miles to Portland, Maine, but I guess it was not.

The stranger's confusion was not unfounded. When Portland, OR, was founded in 1845, its name was decided by a coin toss. The two founding settlers were from Boston, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine. They both wanted to name the new city after their respective former cities. The disagreement was settled by flipping a penny, and the settler from Maine won. Thus Portland, OR, was named after Portland, ME. The penny involved is on display at the Oregon Historical Society Museum in Portland.

I did not have a chance to see the penny when I visited Portland in May for the first time. However, the things I was able to do and see on my visit caused me to fall in love with the city. Boston will always be my home, but if I were ever forced to relocate, I think I would pick Portland without hesitation.

Lake Oswego: A Portland Suburb

My trip began in the upscale Portland suburb of Lake Oswego. The purpose of my visit was to see one of my best friends graduate from Lewis and Clark Law School, which is located in Lake Oswego. I arrived a day before anyone else, so I had a full day to explore the area on my own.

Downtown Lake Oswego

My first stop was a local spin studio. I wanted to take advantage of the three hour time difference from Boston by waking up early and having a full day of activities. Using my global Class Pass account to schedule an early-morning spin class at StarCycle, I was able to get in some fitness before a day of tourist activities. The studio was very welcoming and accommodating considering I was just stopping by for the day!

starcycle; spin; portland; oregon; lake oswego; travel fitness

After class, I treated myself to a pedicure at Tiffany Nails and Spa. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that clients received a free drink with their service. I opted for a strawberry mimosa, light on the champagne. When I mentioned this to my friend later, I learned that it is commonplace at nail salons in Oregon to offer free drinks with the services. Boston, take note!

I ended my morning in Lake Oswego by grabbing a pain au chocolat from the St. Honoré Bakery and taking a quick walk down by the lake. It was still a little chilly in mid-May, but I could tell the area would be gorgeous in the summer.

lake oswego; portland; oregon

Lake Oswego from the edge of the downtown area

Accommodation and Restaurant Recommendations

My friends and I stayed at the Residence Inn by Marriott* in Lake Oswego, which had an upscale summer-camp feel. Each residence had its own door, and our two-bedroom suite had two floors. The grounds were large and offered many amenities, including a pool, tennis, volleyball, and a fire pit. The hotel was nice, but if I returned in the summer, I would stay at the Lakeshore Inn* on the water in the downtown center. Its location and many water-sport offerings - like swimming and kayaking - would make for a wonderful vacation.

lake oswego; residence inn; marriott

Balcony and front door of our hotel room.

During my trip, I enjoyed an incredible meal at the Oswego Grill. This restaurant offers delicious steak, chicken, Pacific-caught fish, and vegetarian meals. The chefs also easily accommodated many various food allergies at the table, including a corn intolerance. It is the perfect restaurant for a nice, relaxing meal on vacation.

lake oswego grill

Celebrating my friend's law school graduation at the Lake Oswego Grill

Willamette Valley Vineyards

Being a wine-lover, I could not visit Oregon without exploring at least one vineyard. Before my trip, I researched some of Oregon's well-known wine regions. Dundee Hills, which is part of the famous Willamette Valley region, was only 15 minutes from my hotel. After my morning in downtown Lake Oswego, I hopped in my rental car and headed to Dundee Hills for the afternoon.

Rex Hill

My first stop was Rex Hill Vineyard. An "essence table" greeted me in the lobby. You have probably heard wines described as having a certain "nose" and tasting like things other than wine, such as blackberries, cherries, or even leather. The essence table had 24 glasses filled with various fruits, spices, and minerals that one could use to describe wine. Guests were meant to smell the items on the table then associate those smells with their wines while they had tastings. I did not make many associations during my tasting, but I had fun smelling my way around the table!

essence table; rex hill; willimette valley

I choose to sit outside on the deck during my tasting. The sommelier first brought me some cheese biscuits to enjoy with my wine. He then brought out each of the six wines for my tasting one at a time. The pours began with the recent rosé vintage, then moved on to the typical Oregon Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.

rex hill

Because the vineyard was not crowded, the sommelier had time to tell me the history of the vineyard and the wines. Most interestingly, I learned about the ancient Missoula floods that occurred when the Ice Age ice receded from the region. The floods started in Montana, ran all the way to the Pacific Ocean, and then slowly receded. This created rocky terrain, which causes the grape vine roots to dig deeper into the soil than in other regions. The effect is a deeper flavor in the wine, closer to that of a Syrah than your typical Pinot Noir. This lesson, along with my tasting, gave me a new appreciation for American wines.

Red Hills Market

The Red Hills Market was highly recommended for a quick, local bite to eat. It was also between the two vineyards I wanted to visit, so it made a perfect lunch spot. I had a simple yet delicious soup and salad combo with farm-fresh local ingredients. If you need a spot to grab a bite to eat in Dundee Hills, add the Red Hills Market to your itinerary.

red hills market

Sokol Blosser Winery

My second wine stop of the day was the Sokol Blosser Winery. Located further into the Dundee Hills region than Rex Hills, the Sokol Blosser Winery has three sitting rooms where you can taste your wine. While you are sipping, beautiful views of the region are offered through floor-to-ceiling windows in each room. I sampled the Spring Flight while I was there, which included a Pinot Gris, a Pinot Noir rosé, and three typical Pinot Noir samples.

Sokol Busser; vineyard; wine; portland; oregon

While the wine at Sokol Blosser was delicious, the experience was not as personal nor as relaxing as the one I had at Rex Hill. If you only have time for one vineyard on your trip, I would recommend Rex Hill over Sokol Blosser. However, Sokol Blosser's public areas are larger, and you are able to wander around the vineyards, whereas most of Rex Hill's vineyards are off-site. Considering this, Sokol Blosser may be more accommodating for a larger group of people while Rex Hill is better for a solo traveler.

Downtown Portland

After my day in Dundee Hills, I spent the late afternoon and evening in downtown Portland. I had a few key tourist locations I wanted to check out in my few remaining solo hours. Most of them were interesting, beautiful, and worth visiting again!

EaT: An Oyster Bar

Raw oysters are one of my favorite foods. Similar to wines, they develop particular flavors and textures based on the regions and waters in which they are raised. I have access to many East Coast oysters living in Massachusetts, but West Coast oysters are both more difficult to come by and more expensive. Given this, I wanted to make sure to sample some West Coast oysters while in Oregon.

EaT is an open-air bar and restaurant featuring $1 oyster happy hour specials. Its front wall is like a garage door, which was completely open when I was there to provide access to sidewalk seats. I stopped by and ordered three oysters from Washington state, three from Oregon, and an oyster shooter special. The oysters definitely had a more full-bodied and less-salty taste than East Coast oysters. This makes me wish we had better access to them in Boston, but I at least know where to return for great oysters next time I am in Portland.

oysters; portland; oregon

West Coast Oysters

International Rose Test Garden

In 1915, as World War I raged on in Europe, a local Portland rose enthusiast convinced city officials to set up the International Rose Test Garden as a safe haven for Europe's hybrid roses. Oregon was so far away from the fighting of WWI, and such an undesirable target, that it was thought the roses would certainly be safe there. Seedlings from England and other countries were sent over in 1918 to begin the garden.

100 years later, the garden provides 4.5 acres of beautiful roses overlooking the city. Access to the gardens is free. If you visit Portland in the Spring or Summer, take some time out of your trip to walk through the garden's grounds. The blooms were already so beautiful in May, and I'm sure they are even more brilliant later in the season.

rose garden; portland; oregon

Powell's Books

If you have heard anything about Portland, you have probably heard about Powells Books. This four-story bookstore takes up an entire city block in Portland's Pearl District. It covers 1.6 total acres. You can find all your typical bookstore books here, as well as rare finds and even out-of-print books. When I visited, I planned to just look around, but I was drawn to the foreign language section and ended up purchasing Dante's Inferno in both English and Italian and Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamozov completely in Russian. I am just learning to read Russian, so I am on page 3, but I was proud that I could recognize the book for what it was with no English context! These books would have been difficult to find anywhere but Powells Books.

Japanese Gardens

The Japanese Gardens had also been on my list, but I did not have a chance to visit my first day in the city. Luckily, the group I was with all wanted to visit later in my trip. The Gardens span 12 acres and transport you to another world across the Pacific Ocean while you are there. They offer peaceful koi ponds and contemplative zen rock gardens, as well as elaborate displays of foreign flora. You could spend a few hours seeing to the displays you are most impressed with, or wander the grounds for an entire day. Either way, these gardens should be a stop on your tour of Portland.

japanese garden; portland; oregon

Koi Pond

japanese garden; portland; oregon

Zen Rock Garden

Portland Peculiarium

The Portland Peculiarium was not a place I consider worth visiting again. However, it was an interesting experience so I thought it worth mentioning. When researching things to do in Portland before my trip, a friend trying to "help" found the Portland Peculiarium listed as a suggested destination. He insisted that I visit, and even offered to pay my admission if I went. Seeing as I had some extra time and I would be passing close to the location in my travels, I took a few minutes to stop in.

portland; peculiarium; oregon

Front of the Peculiarium

The Peculiarium museum is in a warehouse-like building. There were a few odd, yet obviously fake, "peculiar" things on the sidewalk outside to entice visitors. The lobby inside included the ticket desk, gift shop, and temporary walls to hide the exhibits. The museum itself had three rooms, each about the size of a typical bedroom. The rooms were filled with objects made by the creators from random children's toys, such as a dead zombie baby in a carriage and random body parts in a blood-filled bathtub. The coolest part was the exhibit where you could stick your head through a hole and take a picture of yourself as someone subjected to an alien dissection. Overall, unless you are really into this type of thing or really bored, do not go out of your way to visit Portland's Peculiarium.

portland; oregon; peculiarium

Alien Dissection

I made sure to buy my friend a giant rubber cockroach from the gift store, and leave it unknowingly on his desk as a thank you gift for sending me to this place.

Hiking in Columbia River Gorge

On my last day in Oregon I went hiking with my friends in the Columbia River Gorge Valley. Their favorite hiking trails on the Oregon-side of the Columbia River were closed from fire damage caused by last year's fires. Therefore, we had to explore new trails on the Washington-side of the river that day. We got lucky with a beautiful, clear, sunny day with moderately cool temperatures perfect for hiking. While most of our journey paralleled the river, and therefore the road next to it, it was great to get out of the city and experience some of the nature in the area. When I return, I will be sure to save more time for hiking and hopefully check out some of the Oregon-side trails when they reopen!

hiking; columbia river gorge; portland; oregon; washington

 

*N.B. Some links included in this article are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and make a purchase, I may receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.

 

Looking to spend a weekend in Portland, Oregon this Spring? Check out this post!
Looking to spend a weekend in Portland, Oregon this Spring? Check out this post!
Best New England Ski Resorts for Weekend Getaways

Best New England Ski Resorts for Weekend Getaways

New England ski resorts are open for 2018! For anyone looking to get away for a ski weekend in the Northeast from now until March or April, check out the resorts below. Each resort listed has great terrain, many accommodation options, villages offering you a break from your boots, and price points that won't break the bank, at least as far as ski weekends go.

Looking for more things to do in New England? Check out these posts about a Weekend in New Hampshire, Fall in Connecticut, and a Day Trip to Salem, MA!

Mount Snow

West Dover, Vermont * Opens for the season November 4, 2018https://www.mountsnow.com/

mount snow; ski; vermont

The Mountain

Mount Snow is the closest Green Mountain ski resort to both Boston (2.5 hours) and New York City (4 hours). It runs 20 lifts for its 600 acres of terrain, including the Bluebird Express that provides a front cover to cut the wind as you ride to the summit. The mountain provides mostly intermediate terrain, with a few steep diamond trails and a nice long, easy beginner trail down from the summit.

mount snow; ski; resort; new england; vermont; mountain

Accommodations

Two on-site accommodations are available at Mount Snow. The Grand Summit Resort Hotel provides ski-in ski-out privileges for the mountain. If you are looking for something more budget-friendly, stay at the Snow Lake Lodge across the street from the mountain, which is accessible by shuttle. Both locations offer hot tubs to enjoy during your après-ski time.

Village and Town

Mount Snow doesn't have a contained resort area, but it doesn't need one. The town of West Dover, Vermont, is a short drive away from the mountain and provides everything you would want in a ski town. If you want to be a part of mountain history, head for TC's Restaurant, home of Gold-Medal Olympian Snowboarder Kelly Clark. For something more upscale, sit in the dining room at West Dover Joe's. Looking for nightlife after dinner? The Snow Barn, a few feet from the mountain, provides drinks and live music most nights.

Overall Review: Given its location and size, Mount Snow is great for a short weekend ski trip or a long day of skiing if you're coming from New England or Eastern New York.

Killington

Killington, Vermont * Open NOW for the season! * https://www.killington.com/

killington; ski resort; vermont; new england

The Mountain

Nicknamed "The Beast," Killington offers the biggest ski area in New England. Its size means there are enough trails to satisfy skiers of all levels. Thrilling black diamond trails challenge the best skiers, while beginners can stick to the numerous bunny trails or try a run from the summit entirely on beginner trails. Lift tickets are also some of the most expensive in the area at full price, but Killington often offers discount tickets if you spend time investigating.

Accommodations

The Killington Grand Resort Hotel at the base of the mountain is the perfect place to stay if you want all the comforts of a ski hotel. However, ski cabins are much more popular at Killington, as many of them have lift access, offering ski-on/ski-off capabilities. Killington's Managed Condos website or AirBNB can help you locate your ideal accommodation, whether it's a 12-person cabin with a private outdoor hot tub and indoor sauna, or a single-family two-bedroom bungalow.

Village and Town

Killington's Base Lodge offers numerous dining options for hungry skiers. Favorites include Preston's and Killington House of Pizza. If you want to venture into the cold for some nightlife, you must check out the Wobbly Barn, Killington's infamous music house and nightclub.

Overall Review: While Killington doesn't offer the on-site resort experience you may expect out West or in Europe, it has the best mountain in the area, so it's the best destination for serious skiers and their friends.

Jay Peak

Jay, Vermont * Opens for the season November 23, 2018 * https://jaypeakresort.com/

jay peak; snow; ski; resort; new england; vermont

The Mountain

Jay Peak offers 385 acres of terrain with 79 trails. However, it boasts the encouragement of off piste skiing as well, with 100+ acres of glade terrain. Advanced skiers looking to challenge themselves can take advantage of this additional acreage, while advanced-beginner skiers will find the intermediate trails accessible.

Accommodations

Jay Peak offers numerous accommodation options, all connected with their convenient shuttle service. For a hotel-like experience, stay at the Hotel Jay, Tram Haus Lodge, or Stateside Hotel. Many condos and cabins are available for larger groups who prefer their own private residence.

Village

The New England ski resort with the most options available when you're ready to give the skis a break is Jay Peak. The Pump House indoor water park is a guest favorite with water slides, a lazy river, and indoor surfing. Access to the Pump House is included in your Ski and Stay ticket. The Ice Haus indoor ice skating rink lets you brush up on your other winter sport while you are on vacation. With 16 on-property restaurants, there is something to accommodate everyone's tastes at Jay Peak. At night, a few of the bars provide live music. If you want a quieter evening, see what's playing at the Movie Theater next to the Stateside Hotel.

jay peak; pump house; waterpark; indoor water park; vermont; ski resort

Inside the Pump House

Overall Review: A large mountain near the Canadian border, Jay Peak offers a full day of skiing and plenty of dining and entertainment options off the mountain to keep you occupied for a long vacation. 

Sugarloaf

Carrabassett Valley, Maine * Opens for the season November 19, 2018 * https://www.sugarloaf.com/

sugarloaf; maine; mountain; new england; ski resort

The Mountain

Sugarloaf is one of the most popular mountains in Maine. Though somewhat difficult to reach, traveling on about 30 minutes of dark, local roads after you pass Portland, the journey is worth it. Sugarloaf Mountain offers 162 trails, which are evenly divided among beginner, intermediate, and expert options. The signature feature at Sugarloaf is its summit lift that is the only lift to bring skiers to trails above the treeline in the East.

Accommodations

Sugarloaf Mountain is in the middle of nowhere, so you're going to want to stay on the mountain. The Sugarloaf Mountain Hotel offers beautiful rooms at the base of the mountain. If you don't want to stay in a hotel, your other option are the ski-in/ski-out condos and cabins on the mountain.

Village

Because of its remote location, Sugarloaf offers plenty to do on its property, and provides frequent shuttle buses to bring visitors to all its dining and entertainment options. The premium restaurant for a nice night out is 45 North. During the day, pick up a quick snack at Hunker Down or Alice & Lulu's between runs. If you're looking for a nice drink, The Widowmaker or Shipyard Brewhaus has got you covered. At night, take the shuttle to The Rack to grab a drink while listening to live music.

Overall Review: Sugarloaf's remote location mandates great customer service, a standard that the resort definitely lives up to. 

BONUS REVIEW: Mont Tremblant

Mont Tremblant, Quebec, Canada * Opens for the season November 22, 2018 * https://www.tremblant.ca/

mont tremblant; ski resort; canada; quebec

While this post is meant to focus on New England ski resorts, I would be remiss if I did not mention the absolutely best ski resort in the Northeast, just over the border in Canada. A 6-hour drive from Boston, or a quick flight from New York City, Mont Tremblant ski resort is absolutely worth the trip.

The Mountain

With 102 trails on four separate slopes, you could spend your entire trip covering new terrain with every run. The slopes are well-maintained with packed powder. Just remember to pack all your cold-weather ski gear: temperatures at the summit when I was there were below zero degrees Fahrenheit, without a wind chill!

Accommodations

There are cabins and condos available in the area of Mont Tremblant, but with such diverse options in the village, you should pick one of the official lodgings for your stay. The Fairmont and Le Westin provide the high-end, luxurious options. Homewood Suites and the Holiday Inn Express round out the hotel chain options with hotel suites including gas fireplaces and kitchens. For a more traditional experience, look into the Sommet des Neiges, Ermitage du Lac, and the Tour des Voyageurs.

Village

When you arrive at Mont Tremblant's village, you will think you've been transported to a European ski village in the French or Swiss Alps, and not just because everyone speaks both English and French. The village was built in 1939, creating Canada's first ski resort area. As you walk through the lower and upper villages, you will pass many shops, restaurants, bistros, and bars. Make sure to stop into a shop for your traditional Canadian maple taffy, freshly made on Mont Tremblant's snow!

mont tremblant; canada; ski resort

Overall Review: If you want a proper European ski resort experience, take the time to visit Mont Tremblant. Also worth noting for American visitors, this luxury ski resort is a bargain due to our favorable exchange rate! It is also advised to take advantage of American bank holidays to visit this Canadian destination: many Montrealers venture to Mont Tremblant on the weekends, but it is virtually deserted during the week. I had an entire trail to myself on Martin Luther King Day a couple years ago!

 

Ready to plan your ski weekend? Find some of my favorite ski gear, like goggles, helmets, jackets, and base layers here!

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Best New England Ski Resorts for Weekend Getaways
Best New England Ski Resorts for Weekend Getaways
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