Archive for the ‘Lodging’ Category

Amazing Astronomy: Three Extraordinary Stargazing Experiences

February 15, 2010

Galileo Galilei Astronomy

Galileo Galilei

While wandering around aimlessly online last night, I discovered that today is the 446th birthday of Galileo Galilei, the guy widely considered to be the father of modern astronomy.  Which got me to thinking about some of the amazing stargazing experiences I’ve had over the years.

My all-time favorite has to be the weekend we spent at Benson, Arizona’s Astronomers Inn.  This four-room bed-and-breakfast located an hour southeast of Tucson isn’t much to look at.  But its amenities—including an in-house observatory where your own personal astronomer will roll back the roof and take you on an eye-opening tour of the galaxy using one of their eight telescopes—made for one of the most memorable nights I’ve spent in any property anywhere.

Then there’s a program at the nearby Kitt Peak Observatory that sure to be an unforgetable once-in-a-lifetime experience for anyone who’s ever looked up at the night sky with a sense of wonder.  Along with its more modest public stargazing sessions, the observatory—which sports the largest collection of optical research telescopes in the world—offers an Advanced Observing Program that allows a limited number of visitors to view and photograph deep space objects through a telescope that would make a professional astronomer drool.  Note that these sessions fills up fast, so don’t delay if you’re interested.

Kitt Peak Observatory

Photo of M51 galaxy taken by visitor in Kitt Peak's Advanced Observing Program

Finally, there’s a lot to be said for just laying on your back gazing up at a night sky so dark the stars look like the aftermath of a powdered sugar donut binge on the dark blue suit of the universe.  And for such low-tech stargazing it’s hard to beat southeastern Utah’s Natural Bridges National Monument, a spot so ideal it was designated as the world’s first International Dark Sky Park.

Spend some time at any of these places and chances are you’ll be thinking “Galileo, eat your heart out!”

If you’ve had an amazing stargazing experience, tell us about it via the Leave A Comment link below.


Kennedy Space Center: Shuttle Launch Experiences For Astro-Nots


3 Ways To Sleep Cheap

January 19, 2010

In the two decades I’ve spent traveling the world to dig up new and unusual experiences for my readers, I’ve spent the night in everything from ridiculously expensive hotels where my personal butler left plush slippers next to the bed each evening to low-budget motels with filthy orange shag carpet so gross I was afraid to take my shoes off.  And here’s what I learned:  That it usually doesn’t make much sense to shell out a ton of dough for a room where all I’m going to do is sleep and shower.

Fortunately for frugal types like me, there are more affordable lodging options out there than ever before.  Which brings me to a trio of intriguing hotel alternatives I’m looking forward to trying out on my next trip:couch surfing

With more than 1.6 million members in 230 countries, chances are pretty good that this website can help you find cool people who’ll be willing to put you up for a few nights and maybe even show you around town, all for free.

Hosteling International

While many hostels still attract large numbers of young people, these shared accommodations aren’t just for kids anymore.  And the prices are hard to beat: A recent search of the organization’s San Diego hostels turned up dorm-style rooms for about $20/weekend night and a private room and bath for less than $50.

If the idea of spending time in yet another generic hotel is unappealing, check out this online marketplace that allows individuals to rent out their spare room—and sometimes their entire house or apartment— to out of town guests at very affordable rates.

San Diego: 3 Ways To Stay

November 5, 2009

As someone who’s spent the night in thousands of hotel rooms over the years, I’m not easily impressed. So when I discover places that turn out to be more than just another generic place to lay my head at the end of a long day, I figure I ought to share the wealth.

Which brings me to these hot tips on three great lodging options I discovered on my recent visit to San Diego:

Marriott Courtyard/Liberty Station

sanal_phototour14Located on the grounds of the former Naval Training Center, this year-old waterfront hotel combines an ideal location with a super-friendly staff, surprisingly attractive and well-kept rooms and public spaces, and an on-site restaurant (serving up killer breakfasts) and deli into something that’s way more than just another chain-operated airport hotel.  In fact, I actually preferred it hands-down over the much pricier W Hotel downtown I stayed at earlier in the week.

Pacific Terrace Hotel

1If you know anything about San Diego, you know sooner or later you’re going to end up at the beach.  So why not stay there?  Located a couple of blocks north of the Crystal Pier in my old Pacific Beach neighborhood, this relatively small property offers huge rooms with ocean views as good as any in town, plus a free continental breakfast every morning and fresh, hot cookies every afternoon.  Check out the view at their online web cam.

Roar & Snore/Wild Animal Park

31108654Okay, so technically this isn’t a hotel.  But sleeping in one of the large canvas tents overlooking the San Diego Wild Animal Park’s wide-open East Africa exhibit offers amenities no hotel room can match, like the sounds of tigers roaring and elephants trumpeting as you drift off to sleep.  Add some tasty grub plus walking tours and family-friendly activities and you have a lodging alternative that you won’t soon forget.

Paranormal Activity Anyone?

October 8, 2009

Myrtles Plantation/St. Francisville, LA

Myrtles Plantation/St. Francisville, LA

Maybe you’ve heard about this new movie Paranormal Activity, which is supposed to be the scariest new movie to come along since The Blair Witch Project made us all think twice before heading into the woods with a video camera back in 1999.

Of course, watching a  movie like this is just one way to get that spooky feeling that makes a shiver run up your spine.  For a more authentic paranormal experience, I’d highly recommend you spend the night at St. Francisville, Louisiana’s Myrtles Plantation.

This grand 1796 antebellum home has seen so much tragedy over the past two centuries that it’s no wonder many paranormal experts believe it to be one of the most haunted homes in the U.S.  You’re bound to get goose bumps just listening to the guide’s tales of ghostly encounters that actually seem to get more frequent when guests are present.  If that’s not spooky enough for you, you can arrange to spend the night in one of the rooms of the main house where former guests have heard everything from the sounds of some long-ago social event to a mortally-wounded man staggering loudly up the steep wooden stairs.

And while there’s no guarantee you’ll see a ghost, it’s a safe bet that you’ll come away with some great stories to tell at your next Halloween party!

Hugs & Kisses

April 2, 2009

rider-kissOver the years I’ve been fortunate enough to have had several truly remarkable wildlife encounters with everything from a 400-pound Alaskan grizzly to a 24-ounce Harris hawk.  And now I can add another extraordinary experience to that list thanks to folks at Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys.

Hawks Cay, which is located on Duck Key about 90 minutes south of Miami, has all the things you’d expect at an upscale resort, including a wide array of watersports activities (Hot Tip: Check out their jet ski tours where we saw both dolphins and sea turtles in their natural environment).  But the hotel also has something you’re not likely to find anywhere else: A full-on dolphin encounter program dedicated to both preserving the species and protecting the oceans that these highly intelligent marine mammals call home.

One way the folks at the Dolphin Connection hope to achieve those admirable goals is by offering three distinct programs designed to appeal to a variety of ages and interest levels.  My family and I opted for the 45-minute Dolphin Discovery program that allowed us to spend nearly a half-hour in the water with the program’s four Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. 

While guests’ interactions with the dolphins are tightly controlled for the good of all concerned, it was still pretty amazing to be this close to these intelligent creatures and interact with them as the trainers put them through their paces.  Actually, in retrospect, it was a little like co-starring in one of those old Flipper episodes I watched as a kid.

rider-hug-2In the end our time with the dolphins was over much too soon, though not before we all managed to get both a hug and a kiss out of the deal.  Which, come to think of it, is more than I can say for any of the other wildlife encounters I’ve ever had!

9 Things I Learned At Mardi Gras

February 27, 2009

mardi-gras-2Having lived in New Orleans in the mid-1980s, I’ve been to my share of Mardi Gras parades.  That said, I just came back from the biggest Mardi Gras weekend since Hurricane Katrina blew through The City That Care Forgot and I have to admit that I learned a few things (or at least remembered some things I’d forgotten).  In no particular order they are:

1.  New Orleans is back as a world-class destination.  While there are still many neighborhoods that remain devastated, all the things that make this town such a great place to visit—the food, the music, the friendly people—are still here and as enjoyable as ever.

2.  Everybody you meet during Mardi Gras seems remarkably happy.  If we could just find a way to bottle this joie de vivre, no one would need antidepressants.

3.  Try to explain Mardi Gras parades to someone who’s never been there (like my friend Pasquale, above) and they’ll look at you like you’re insane.  Better to just take them to New Orleans and let them experience this wonderful madness for themselves.

4.  It doesn’t matter how old you are:  The moment that first parade float rolls by you’ll be instantaneously transformed into a 10-year-old kid as you beg float riders to throw you cheap plastic trinkets.

5.  While many Mardi Gras krewes (the organizations that put on the parades) are essentially closed to outsiders, there are several that offer memberships that allow out-of-towners to ride aboard their elaborately-decorated floats.  Two of the biggest are the krewes of Orpheus (the parade Pasquale and I rode in) and Zulu.

6.  If you end up riding in a parade and need throws or are just looking for cool Mardi Gras souvenirs, go where the krewe members go: Beads By The Dozen.  Their elaborate showroom in suburban New Orleans is filled with all the cool trinkets you would have caught if it wasn’t for that 13-year-old’s quicker reflexes.

7.  Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide, which is filled with parade schedules and other useful information, is a must-have reference.  Pick one up at various locations around town or order your copy online before you go.

8.  As far as I’m concerned, the 479-room Intercontinental New Orleans—which is located right on the route of many of the biggest parades and just two blocks from the French Quarter—is the place to stay during Mardi Gras.  The fact that the hotel also has comfortable grandstands out front to watch the parades is an added bonus. 

9.  The crews that clean up after the parades are amazing—you go to bed with streets littered with every imaginable form of refuse and POOF! you awake to find the place looking like nothing ever happened.

Way More Than A Hotel

February 13, 2009


As someone who spends a lot of nights away from home every year, I admit I’m a little jaded when it comes to hotels.  Whether it’s a Four Seasons or a Motel 6, to my mind they’re all pretty much the same—a rectangular box with a bed, shower, and cable TV. Which makes it all the more surprising how impressed I am with the Nickelodeon Family Suites here in Orlando. 

The 777-room property is unique in a number of ways.  Not the least of which is the fact that—as far as I can tell—it’s the world’s only hotel with a theme based on a kids television network

For starters, all of the property’s rooms are suites.  While all-suite hotels aren’t that unusual, the two- and three-bedroom KidSuites that allow parents and kids to have their own space are a truly brilliant idea I’ve never encountered before.  My 10-year-old son went wide-eyed when he saw his room included bunk beds, a six-foot-tall mural of Nickelodeon’s Jimmy Neutron character, and his own television and video game system.  As parents, my wife and I appreciated the small refrigerator, microwave, sink, and flat-screen TV in the living room, and the way the whole place looks bright, cheerful, and super clean.2-090_king_suite

As you might expect from a network that’s all about keeping kids entertained, there’s no shortage of amusements here.  Outside there are two humongous family-oriented pools that are actually mini- waterparks, complete with countless ever-watchful lifeguards and more than a dozen really cool waterslides (I admit I actually enjoyed these almost as much as my son).  There’s also a central “mall” area with kid-friendly eateries, a huge arcade, and entertainment ranging from 4-D movie theaters to family karaoke.  There’s even a “Kids Spa” where young’ns can be indulged with everything from elaborate hair braids to temporary tattoos.

I’ve stayed at several nearby Disney hotel properties over the years and, while they’re nice enough places, I’m not sure they can compare to the Nickelodeon Family Suites.  Based on my recent visit, I can honestly say that—for families with kids—this is one of the few hotels I’ve encountered that actually qualifies as an extraordinary experience.

My Kind of Light Show

January 20, 2009

050118-F-3488S-003Growing up on the shores of Lake Erie, I had enough brutal winter weather in my first couple of decades to last me the rest of my life.  Which makes it all the more surprising that, upon reading this story about a mid-winter visit to Finland’s Hotel Kakslauttanen, I immediately thought: “Wow, I wanna go there!”

You see, viewing the northern lights has long been on my extraordinary experiences “to-do” list.  The problem, of course, is that these psychedelic atmospheric disturbances are best viewed during the long dark nights of winter at extreme northern latitudes where, to use the technical meteorology term, it gets friggin’ cold.

Turns out that the owner of this unique Lapland hotel 150 miles above the Arctic Circle felt my pain and solved this dilemma by building of 20 glass-roofed igloos.  To be able to lie in a nice warm bed under a star-filled sky and watch this natural light show unfold above me frankly sounds like a dream come true. 

Now all I need to do is figure out a way to get to and from my igloo without actually stepping outside!

If you’ve found another equally fun way to view the aurora borealis, drop me a note via the “Leave A Reply’ box below.

Asleep In The Cockpit

January 17, 2009

19286While I’m not a card-carrying aviation geek like some of my friends, one look at the list of adventures collected on’s Xperiences page and it’s not hard to tell I’m into pretty much anything that flies.  Which may explain why the new Jumbo Hostel at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport caught my eye.

Built inside the shell of a mid-1970s-vintage Boeing 747-200 that’s been grounded at the airport’s entrance, this budget-priced hostel makes a way-cool alternative to your typically dreary airport hotels.  Inside are two-dozen rooms that range from bunk bed-equipped dormitory-style digs to a “Cockpit Suite” that retains many of the flight deck’s original gauges and controls and offers an impressive view of the action on the airport’s runways.  All rooms include flat-screen TVs (with a channel devoted to flight arrival and departure times) and wireless internet access.  Curious travelers and aviation geeks (you know who you are) will want to check out this video tour.


More than anything else though, the Jumbo Hostel offers something you might never have thought possible—the chance to get a really good night’s sleep on an airplane!