Don’t like tours or cruises? Maybe you’re a FIT. What’s that?!?

When traveling, some people like to go to a companies that offer tours, whether they are small groups or large groups. These tours often have a specific purpose or theme, such as “Spanish Wine Tour” or “Classical Music in Vienna,” and the group will have a set itinerary, which probably also allows for a certain amount of free time. These can be great, and I encourage you to check out my host agency, Travelex International, which offers several wonderful music, food, and wine themed tours each year. Tell them I sent you, so that I get credit for it! 🙂


Jonathan Pilkington, of Pilkington Travels, LLC, is an independent affiliate of
Travelex International, a Virtuoso Member Agency.

Of course, another “easy” way to travel is going on a cruise. The convenience of a cruise is that you unpack once, and your accommodations, food, and transportation are taken care of for the entire week. Over the course of a 7-day cruise, you’ll visit anywhere from 3-5 different ports. The ports may be different cities within the same country, different islands in the Caribbean (or Greece, or Hawaii), or each day might take you to a different country. This can be very fun and exciting. You leave the ship in the morning, explore the port town, maybe take an excursion, and you return back to the ship in the evening for dinner, entertainment, dancing, etc.FIT Travel Cruise Tour Dancing Party

However, this isn’t for everyone. Many people would prefer to fly to one location, stay there for a week, be immersed in the culture, get to know people around town, and live like a local. In the travel industry, this person is known is a FIT. So what is that? A FIT is a Fully Independent Traveler. While a FIT may travel solo, that isn’t necessarily what it means. A FIT can be a solo traveler, a couple, a family, or a group. A FIT doesn’t like to be tied down to a set itinerary each day. A FIT may take part in tours as part of their trip, but they will select tours that specifically interest them and provide a better experience than they would have on their own.

Train Tour Alaska Skagway White Pass

In my opinion, a FIT trip can range from a quick, weekend getaway to an extended European tour. It may seem that a FIT can make all of the arrangements themselves, and they can. However, since everyone is busy these days, and there is so much information available on the internet, it is a great idea to use a travel advisor. The travel advisor’s business is to know the best places to go for information, to have a network of contacts who can help when they don’t know all of the answers, and to help the traveler get the biggest “bang for their buck.” Travel advisors have access to resources that other people do not have, and through consortiums and other resources, they can often provide special perks and incentives. There is great VALUE in using a travel advisor!

The FIT need not worry that they will lose control of their plans. A great travel advisor will be there throughout the entire process to get to know the client, provide options, and adjust hotels, flights, etc. to fit the client’s needs. For some people, though, the convenience might be the most valuable thing.

I feel that part of my job is to educate people about the benefits of using a travel advisor, because we can really be a valuable resource. I absolutely love this work and am excited every time I get to plan any amount of travel for someone. They say that the anticipation of travel is almost as beneficial to our well-being as the travel itself, and I am grateful to experience this over and over again with my clients. If you have not considered using a travel advisor in the past, I would encourage you to try it. Maybe start small, the next time you need a hotel reservation, or start big, with the trip of your lifetime!

Please visit my website, www.pilkingtontravels.com or contact me below!

5 Helpful Travel Products

This is a brief one! I am highlighting 5 products that have been useful in my recent travels. Feel free to contact me below or visit my website!

When the handle broke on my old carryon, I did an Amazon search and found that they are now selling their own line of luggage. I love the way this suitcase looks and the way it rolls. The orange also stands out if you have to check it. I hope you’ll choose a different color, though, so our bags don’t get confused! 🙂

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These Keens are SO comfortable for walking! I bought them for those occasions when you need to wear closed toed shoes but don’t want to wear shoes or socks.

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I wanted a functional, inexpensive backpack, and this one is working out very well for me. It’s not too large and bulky, but it holds what I need it to hold!

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A Kindle is probably an obvious travel accessory, but I haven’t always had one. I love this one because it can either be lit or not. If you’re reading in a well lit place, you can turn off the light, or you can turn it on as dim or as bright as you want it!

These luggage tags are great! When you go on a cruise, you can always print out your luggage tags before the cruise, so you print them, cut them out, fold them, and stuff them in these tags. They have a very tough zip-lock seal at the top, so your tag is safe from any water or rough treatment.

Highwind Cruise Luggage Tags 8 Pack

Cruise vs All-Inclusive: The Pilkington Perspective

 

This post is inspired by my recent visit to El Dorado Royale in Cancun, Mexico. It was my first visit to an all-inclusive resort. I discuss check-in, the property, entertainment, meal times and food, as well as entertainment and activities. Hopefully this helps, and feel free to reach out if I can help you decide what is best for you!

It is no secret, I love going on cruises, whether is a 3-day cruise or a 15-day cruise. I first started going on cruises when, as a single college professor, I was looking for somewhere to travel solo during spring break. I was able to afford a decent trip, but all of the “deals” I found required a single supplement (the fine print would say something like “$250 supplement for solo travelers”), or I would have to pay double. With a lot of internet research, I found out about Norwegian Cruise Line’s studio cabins, which are specifically for the solo cabins. I decided on the NCL Epic, which was one of the first ships to offer the studios. They also have the “Studio Lounge,” which hosts a daily solo meet-up. This is not a match making thing. It is simply to encourage people to mingle, make friends, and go to dinner and events together.

I had no idea whether or not I would love or hate the cruise, whether I would be bored, whether I would make friends, or what would happen. On the first night, I went to the solo gathering and ended up having dinner with three people who became my friends for the rest of the cruise. We had a fantastic time. There is a general understanding among solo travelers that there is no pressure to hang out. Solo time is respected, but if you want to interact, there is a place for you. At the end of the 7-day cruise, I didn’t want to leave. It was the most fun, relaxing vacation I had ever had. That was in 2015, and I have been on eight other NCL cruises since then, as well as one on Holland America and another with Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line. Even my worst cruise wasn’t bad, and I’ve always enjoyed it.

Now that I am a travel advisor, I feel a bit of a need to experience different locations and ways of traveling. As I travel, I try to see the big picture, but I also see myself as an advocate for the solo traveler. In the past year, I was unusually aware of several friends going on vacation in Cancun, so when I found myself with a few free days at the end of the summer, I decided on a quick visit to El Dorado Royale. Since they offered a rate for one person, that seemed like a good sign.

I flew direct from Atlanta to Cancun and then took the shuttle (paid for with my reservation) from Cancun airport to the resort. From the start, everyone was very friendly. However, check-in was annoying and lengthy. All I cared about was lunch since it was 2:00 EST and I hadn’t eaten. I was told that my room was not ready, but I was able to enjoy the property, eat lunch, etc, and return at 3:00 CST for my room. I had learned from cruises to pack my swimsuit in my backpack so that when my suitcase is taken, I can change. I did not realize that the same would apply here, so I was stuck in the clothes that I had flown in.

I was directed to a restaurant overlooking the ocean and had a nice, light lunch. I then checked out some of the property before going back to the lobby to see if my room was ready. It wasn’t, so I walked around some more and returned at 3:00. It still wan’t ready, and I showed obvious disappointment. About 30 seconds later, a bellman came and told me that we were going to go to my room, and hopefully it would be ready when we arrived. As we arrived, they were putting the finishing touches on the room, so that was fine! For comparison, a cruise is similar in this way. An announcement is made giving an estimate of when cabins will be ready, and then a final announcement is made when they are ready.  I appreciate that on a cruise, there is no need to keep checking, unless you choose to do that. Next time at a resort, I will be prepared with a change of clothes!

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The property was beautiful and well maintained. The pools were plentiful, with bars and restaurants scattered about conveniently. Of course, this was a beachfront property, but I didn’t see a lot of people in the ocean or on the beach. Also, my room, which was described as a “beachfront suite,” was not really beachfront. I had a view of palm trees and had to duck and squint through the branches to see the beach or the ocean. That was a bit of a disappointment.

Resort Beachfront palm trees
View from my room

At mealtimes on an NCL cruise, you arrive at the restaurant and are asked for your keycard, and they will ask how many. If you are dining alone, there is no issue made of it. I should mention that sometimes you will be asked if you would like to be seated with other people, and on certain days, that could be nice. At El Dorado Royale, when I showed up at a restaurant alone, I was usually asked if I would like a table for two. I would look around awkwardly at the otherwise empty lobby and say, “No. I am only one person.” This was so annoying to me, and when I provided feedback about it, their response was that since it is adults only, they are trained to assume that people are in couples. Ugh, that is an old-fashioned, unhelpful response! While I don’t mind dining alone anywhere, it is best if dining alone is treated as a non-issue, as it is on cruises.

Speaking of mealtime, I should discuss food. I chose El Dorado Royale because they advertise their “Gourmet Inclusive Experience.” Based on reviews I read, my expectations were cautiously optimistic, and I was pleasantly surprised. On my first night, I went to the Fuentes Culinary Theatre, which is basically a cooking show. It was fun, and the food was interesting and delicious. Also, after googling the wines offered in the wine pairings, I decided to pay for the pairings. While I didn’t necessarily feel that the wines were perfect pairings for the courses, I enjoyed all of the wines offered. Another outstanding meal was a lunch at the Asian restaurant, Kampai. The Korean beef was delicious. Also, the steak dinner I had at Santa Fe was delicious! Although it can vary in quality, I always enjoy most of my cruise food as well, so in the food category, cruise vs resort are quite even.

 

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At the resort, there would be a few entertainment options each evening. There was a guitarist who sang some songs by one of the bars/restaurants, and there were different shows each night. I would say that the entertainment was good enough. On a cruise, the same is true. The shows are on a grander scale, though. On a cruise, though, you will find musical acts throughout the ship at any time during the day. At the pool, music will vary throughout the day from a DJ to different live bands, and inside the ship, there will be different small acts scattered about at different times. At the resort, you would only find recorded music at the pools during the day. I found that different pools had different music, though, and I liked the chill “house” music that was played at the pool by the Health Bar that served smoothies, salads, etc.

Mexican Fiesta show at El Dorado
Mexican Fiesta show at El Dorado

On a cruise, you can walk for miles going from one thing to another. If you have trouble walking, you either walk less, or you take a motorized scooter with you. You also have the option of stairs or elevator to go up or down. At a resort, the property is very spread out, and you can also do a ton of walking. However, at this resort, there were golf carts everywhere ready to shuttle people about. It is just like taking a taxi, and you tell them where you want to go. To get to some restaurants would be a 20 minute walk, or a quick ride on a golf cart. I generally prefer walking, but at the same time, when you choose to walk at the resort, you arrive sweaty. There is no escaping the heat! On a cruise, when you walk, you can escape the heat by going inside.

Golf Cart ride at all inclusive resort
Golf Cart Ride

I suppose some people like a change of scenery, and some people like to be at the same place for a while. If you are at a resort, you are just at the resort, unless you pay a lot of money to leave the resort. You have to arrange for a taxi and go through security as you come and go, and the taxis are not cheap. I visited a different resort that I chose because it was nearby, and the taxi was $20 each way! There were a lot of British people at this resort, and some told me that they were there for two weeks. If that’s what they like, that’s fine, but I was ready for something different after 3 days. Of course, on a cruise, you either have a sea day or a port day. Sea days are fun for enjoying the ship, but after one or two, you are ready for a port day, and then you end up on a different island, usually in a different country. That is fun and fascinating to me! I have heard of people who fear feeling stir-crazy or claustrophobic on a ship, but I actually felt more that way at a resort.

Finally, as far as activities, there were some good ones offered at the resort throughout the day. I did the 8am yoga class each day, and they were fantastic. Other things, such as cooking classes, water polo, bike ride, and rifle shooting were all available and free of charge. There was a weekly schedule posted, and it appeared that the schedule would remain the same for the season. On a cruise, there are also many different activities on board, such as language classes, fitness classes, dancing classes, and game shows. Most are free, but some have an extra charge. I feel like there is typically a greater variety of activities on a cruise, but I was pleasantly surprised by the variety offered at the resort.

Yoga class at El Dorado Royale
Yoga class at El Dorado Royale

To sum it all up, each type of vacation has its own set of pros and cons. For me the cruise wins, especially Norwegian Cruise Line, because of how solo travelers are treated. Maybe other resorts are geared toward the solo traveler (I need to find them), but it seems that couples are generally happier at a resort. I enjoy seeing a new place each day but having the comfort of my cruise cabin; however, I understand that some people like to stay put and do nothing but drink cocktails by the pool all day. Another important thing is that I love on a cruise is getting up to see the sunrise and then seeing it set in the evening. At this particular resort, I found that near impossible. Maybe I could have seen the sunrise on the beach, but the sunset was behind the trees. I will try other resorts in the future, but the cruise has my heart for the overall experience!

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5 Facts About Using a Travel Advisor

Travel Advisor Pilkington Blue Hill Stone Barns

Pilkington Travels, LLC is my company name, and I am an independent affiliate of Travelex International. That is a mouthful, but it is all important! Travelex International, established in 1992, is a Virtuoso® member travel agency that advises travelers in personalized leisure travel, custom group travel & corporate travel. As a Virtuoso® member, one of the top 1% of travel agencies worldwide, we provide custom itineraries for our distinctive clientele to the seven continents of the world and throughout the United States.

As a travel advisor, I now know that my first job is to educate people about what a travel advisor does and the value of using one. Here are five things that stand out to me!

  1. Travel Advisor” is now the correct term. A great travel advisor, along with their own expertise, has an extensive, international network and support system to guide their clients through the process of planning travel. This includes selecting the best flights, hotels, experiences, and even restaurant recommendations, as well as support along the way. The old travel agent might have been a person to book airfare & hotels, but our industry has evolved to meet (and exceed) the needs of 21st Century clients!
  2. Travel Advisors should be paid for their time and expertise. If you want the best accountant, you pay them for their services, even if you are getting a tax return. While a travel advisor may charge a fee, the overall trip cost will be very similar, if not lower, than booking independently, but the VALUE of having the support of an advisor is priceless. A travel advisor will be there for you if anything goes wrong. For example, if I book air through my agency, Travelex International, and your flight is canceled, we can deal with the airline for you, often before the general public knows about it!
  3. A Virtuoso travel advisor, which I am, elevates every trip. We know how to get the best value for your time and money, and, thanks to our global connections, we can VIP you at hotels, on cruise lines, on tours, and more. All of our suppliers are vetted to ensure that they offer a high level of quality and service.
  4. As a travel advisor, it is an honor to help clients wisely use their hard-earned money and leisure time. Americans, in particular, are often criticized for not traveling internationally. However, when someone has only two weeks out of the year to vacation, they stay close to home. That is fine! However, I hope to educate clients that it might be possible, and more gratifying, to do more with your time, while staying in your budget. If you choose to go to the same resort you’ve always enjoyed, maybe there are extra perks available through an advisor!
  5. You might find an excellent deal from one of the popular travel sites, and those actually can be fine. However, you don’t have the one-on-one support of a travel advisor who can make sure you have a good flight (minimal connections, good seat, etc), choose a hotel that meets your desires, and support you from beginning to end with personalized trip specifically for you! We can also get you perks that you can’t get on your own or on the internet.

Please contact me to explore your travel options!

 

My Solo 7-Day Alaska Cruise: How and Why

IMG_0075Over the past year, I have transitioned from being a full time college professor to being a freelance voice teacher, singer, and travel advisor with Travelex International. Summer is a scary time for an educator since income is reduced, but I’ve become pretty good at saving thanks to my budgeting app that I mention later. While I might be a bit crazy to book an Alaska cruise with a somewhat uncertain future, I knew that everything would work out (without going into debt)!

I usually cruise with Norwegian Cruise Line because they have studio cabins, which are intended for solo travelers. In case you didn’t know, solo travelers usually have to pay for 2 people, and that’s really annoying! NCL’s studio cabins are great. They are 100 square feet, but they’re so well designed that it’s comfortable enough. Even if they were not so well designed, I have no interest in spending time in my cabin, except to sleep and shower!

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NCL Bliss Studio

One of my favorite features about the studio cabins on NCL Bliss is the “virtual balcony”. It might sound cheesy, but it is a the screen to the right of the bed, and it shows you what is happening on the outside of the ship. The regular interior cabins don’t have that, so this is a nice little perk. You can also always turn the television (to the left of the bed) to “a view from the bridge” which shows what the captain sees in front of the ship. Another fun feature of staying in a studio is the Studio Lounge, which is sort of a living room and gathering place for solo travelers.

The Studio Lounge on Norwegian Bliss
NCL Bliss Studio Lounge

The “studio host” will have daily meeting at around 5:00 to organize activities, dinners, etc for those who want do things with other people. I have made some really fun friends this way, and I am still in touch with them. My FAVORITE thing in the Studio Lounge is the coffee machine. It is an automatic espresso machine that grinds fresh beans and brews espressos, lattes, and cappuccinos for free. This may not sound like a big deal, but if you want espresso elsewhere on the ship, you have to pay for it. This machine made my mornings so much better!

In searching for an Alaska cruise, I considered NCL Joy, Bliss, and Jewel. Jewel was actually the least expensive cruise, but it was a one-way cruise. While that is actually appealing, it complicates getting flights. If the cruise leaves from Seward, AK, you fly to Anchorage and make your way to Seward, which is over 2 hours away. That is fine, but it would be best to have one or two days to enjoy the area before the cruise. I didn’t have that option on this trip. Then you disembark in Victoria, B.C. and have to fly home from there. I decided that round trip from Seattle was a better option for me.google map anchorage seward

That left me to choose between Bliss & Joy. I sailed on Bliss in May of 2018 and had an amazing experience. I also got to know a lot of the staff and wanted to see some familiar faces. Joy was originally designed for the Asian market but was reworked for US sailings. While it would have been fun to sail on a different ship, I chose Bliss.

I use YNAB (You Need A Budget), which really has changed my financial life. It is a budgeting app that works a bit differently. You place money into categories as you make it, so every dollar has a job. Travel is a priority, so this has allowed me to make it a priority while paying my other bills!

That is the How & Why of my Alaska cruise. I will soon publish a post about the actual cruise, which was wonderful!

Cruising: Do it Your Way

Visit http://www.jonathanpilkington.net/travel for contact information.

People who have never gone a cruise often think they wouldn’t like it, and I think the reasons are because of misconceptions about cruising. Before I went on my first cruise, I probably had the same ideas: smoky casinos, fat Americans gorging themselves at the buffet, hairy chest contests, and a lack of cultural experiences.

Party NCL Dawn Cruise Travel Vacation
Party on NCL Dawn
Norwegian Dawn Pool Travel Cruise Vacation
Norwegian Dawn Pool Deck

Well, these ideas aren’t completely inaccurate. In fact, they are still part of cruises; however, cruise ships, even mid-sized ones, are large enough to get away and do your own thing. For example, the hairy chest competition usually happens at the main pool deck, along with the “Cha Cha Slide,” “The Wobble,” and “The Cupid Shuffle.” There is usually a quiet zone with a smaller pool and a hot tub, and it this area, there is either no music or relaxing, ambient music. You still have sunshine in this area, as well as a place to cool off from the sunshine.

As for the casino, they usually are smoky, so I avoid them at all costs. You don’t have to walk through it. Even if the theatre is next to the casino, you can usually access it from a deck above or below. I am on the Norwegian Dawn right now, and I still haven’t seen the casino! (Update: I walked through it once. This is a great shop if you prefer to avoid the smoke!) A wonderful development seems to be trending, which is having a casino that is smoke-free and possibly a smaller, enclosed casino for smoking. This is true on Norwegian Bliss, and I am sure on other ships as well.

Cruise Travel NCL bliss wine class
Wine class on NCL Bliss

Regarding dining, many people probably don’t know that there are so many options on ships now. In addition to the buffet, there is at least one main dining room, in addition to numerous specialty restaurants. The specialty restaurants usually specialize in a certain cuisine, such as Italian, Mexican, Steakhouse, Brazilian, BBQ, etc. Celebrity chefs also partner with cruise lines and create restaurants. The buffet is still there, and there are people who eat every meal at the buffet. I usually lunch at the buffet upon boarding, and then I relax by the pool for a few hours. After that, I either try the main dining room or specialty restaurants for other meals. I also go to the buffet for breakfast since I am an early riser, and it is generally the earliest option. I fix a plate and take it to my room, which is how I like to start my morning.

French Dinner NCL Dawn Cruise travel vacation
Dinner at Le Bistro on NCL Dawn
Dinner Cruise French Bistro vacation travel
French dinner at Le Bistro on NCL Dawn

It is true that if you want to really have an immersive cultural experience, you need to spend more than one day in a location. That is usually not what you get on a cruise, except ships that sail to Cuba often stay overnight, cruises to Bermuda often stay several days, and I believe a cruise to St. Petersburg, Russia is likely to stay overnight.

Why should we think a Caribbean island is unworthy of our time? Even a day in Nassau, Bahamas can provide a taste of Bahamian culture. Just walk around the town, get a bit off the beaten path, and ask a local where to have lunch. On one trip, I witnessed a political event (a peaceful one) outside the government building and had a lunch at a very local cafe (Sunshine’s Deli). I have more stories where that came from.

Deli Cruise NCL Sky Vacation Travel
Sunshine’s Deli in Nassau, Bahamas
Nassau Bahamas Cruise NCL Sky Vacation Travel
Political Event in Nassau

So you think Caribbean culture isn’t worthy of your time? Well, European cruises are a great option. A 7-day Mediterranean cruise can be an amazing value. I see them as low as $500 sometimes (not including flights). You can visit areas of Italy, Spain, and France in 7 days. This can include days in Rome, Florence, Pisa, Napoli, Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Cannes, and Marseilles. You can cruise to Russia, Greek Isles, British Isles, Iceland, Norway, etc! If you are anything like me, this will give you a taste of places, so you can put them on a list of future destinations where you will spend more time.

Cannes France Travel Cruise Mediterranean Vacation
Overlooking Cannes, France

I have used a cruise as an affordable mode of transportation & accommodations. Once I took a cruise from Southampton, England to Hamburg, Germany. This took me to a part of England I had never been, as well as a part of Germany I had never been. I stayed a night on the Isle of Wight before the cruise and had lots of time to explore Southampton and the Isle of Wight before the cruise. I then spent two or three days in Hamburg, which was wonderful. I got to see a concert at the Elbfilharmonie, which is their amazing new concert hall!

Elbphilharmonie Cruise Vacation Hamburg Music NCL
Inside the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg
Isle of Wight England United Kingdom Cruise Travel Vacation
Pre-cruise night on the Isle of Wight, UK

This is my hard sell for cruising. If you like to experience different cultures, you can do that. If you want to stay in your bubble of American culture, you can do that as well. In the best of ways, cruises are like the NYC Subway, because people from all over come together for a journey. Some people sleep in fancier cabins, but there is something egalitarian about a cruise, and it has taught me to be more open minded, and more importantly, less judgmental. I think you should try it. There’s something for everyone!

P.S.: If you are a gym addict, cruise ships usually have pretty nice gyms and offer a number of group exercise classes, in addition to personal trainer sessions.

Whether you want to consider a cruise or a land based vacation, I can help you find what is best for you. Please contact me via my website: http://www.jonathanpilkington.net/travel

 

The Singer and the Side Hustle

They say this is the age of the gig economy. Many people drive for Uber or Lyft in their spare time, while others sell lipstick and skin care products. None of this felt right for me. I toyed around with the idea of becoming a health coach, which is a relatively new field, but training for that is pretty expensive. I became friends with a travel agent on a 15-day cruise almost a year ago, and the idea of becoming a travel agent sparked a real interest in me. If I had unlimited funds and didn’t have a cat, I think I could easily travel half of the year. I LOVE home, but traveling is so important to me.

Why would I need a side hustle? Well, even as a full time college professor, I taught extra lessons, took singing gigs, and rented out part of my home on Airbnb. It wasn’t totally out of need that I did this. Extra work kept me busy doing things I enjoy, and it allowed a cushion for my income so that I could travel. This is my last semester teaching at Piedmont College, and I have a good amount of work lined up to keep me busy teaching. However, there is time in the morning or between lessons when I could make money to supplement my income. I started to bug my travel agent friend from the cruise a bit more, and all of a sudden, I was signed up to join her agency, Cherished Memories Travel Co, LLC!

Fortunately, there is no overhead required to start, so I can try it out for a while and see if it works for me. I need clients, though! Most people travel at least once a year, but many people don’t understand why a person would use a travel agent these days. I didn’t either until I started saving a lot of money by using a travel agent. You might get a preferred rate, but it seems more common that you pay the same and get extra perks that you would not get on your own. For example, with a cruise, you often get to choose 1 or 2 perks from a list of 4 or 5, such as shore excursions, free drinks, specialty dining, or free wifi. By booking through an agent, you might get 2 perks instead of 1. This can be a value of several hundred dollars. In a hotel, you might get an upgraded room or other perks.

I am writing this for shameless self promotion but also in the spirit that it might inspire someone to take the leap into a side hustle, whether it is to have extra spending money or fill a gap where extra income is needed.

Please like my Facebook page, follow me in Instagram , or contact me at 404-507-6880 or pilkingtontravels@gmail.com. I would be honored to help you book a dream vacation!

Blue Hill at Stone Barns!

Sometimes an experience is so monumental that a picture being worth a thousand words is still inadequate. An attempt to capture the experience of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in words and pictures is truly futile, but it will help me to remember the experience and share it with those who might be interested.

Our dinner reservation was for 8:30 pm, and they suggested arriving around 30 minutes early to walk the grounds and possibly have a drink before being seated. We arrived a bit after 7:00, because we didn’t want to feel rushed. Stone Barns was the Rockefeller’s dairy farm at one point, and I believe I remember correctly that it was donated to Blue Hill for the restaurant. Further research might be needed.

Once we parked, we weren’t quite sure where to go, so we wandered around the gorgeous grounds a bit until we ran into a very helpful young man. He was so perfectly pleasant that he was almost Stepford-esque. Unfortunately, we didn’t get his name. I’ll call him Nigel. He suggested that we look at the vegetable gardens, the walk around to see the greenhouses, where we might see some sheep and chickens. Finally we should wrap back around an make our way inside to the bar. Nigel said he would meet us there.

We weren’t exactly dressed for walking around a garden, or really for walking anywhere. Bree was wearing heels, and I was wearing new shoes that were starting to give me a blister on one foot. We suffered, though, and made it look good.

There were some young tomato plants and some peas growing. I’m sure there was plenty other produce growing, but that is as far as we ventured into the vegetable garden. On our walk over to the greenhouses, we took a few photos, and we also saw the chickens. As we approached a door, which we hoped led to the right place, someone (not Nigel) offered to take a picture of us. As we entered, we were greeted by Nigel, who instructed us to make ourselves comfortable, and someone else found out our names so they knew we had arrived for our reservation.

Nigel brought us a turmeric spritzer, along with a towel for our hands. We looked at the drink menu and felt it was necessary to order one of the creative cocktails. Mine was called “Rhubarb Reviver,” and Bree’s was “Bad Reputation.” I wish I had taken a picture of the cocktail menu! We requested to go outside, and Nigel escorted us out there. That is the last we saw of him, unfortunately.

The sun was setting as we sat on the patio overlooking the farm. Over to our right, someone was grilling things. We had not yet had a bite to eat, but everything was so perfect.

Right at 8:30, someone found us and took us to our table. The dining room was beautiful. The lighting was perfect, and a long table with an amazing floral spread was in the center of the dining room. I would estimate that 50 people were there. On our table was a booklet, a napkin, a flower arrangement, and a birthday greeting for Bree. It was explained that they would start bringing us food soon and that there was no silverware on the table. Silverware would be provided when they thought we needed it.

I tried taking notes about the courses as they were brought to us, but I missed some of the details. The first course was baby vegetables. They were lightly dressed/seasoned with something, and they were delicious. We experienced the true flavor of each vegetable.

Next, a server came by with a vase holding fennel fronds and said “a flower delivery.” We each took a frond and ate it. The stalk part tasted like fennel, as one would expect, but the frond part was quite sweet.

Next, we were presented with turnips with peach something (a description I missed). The person who brought it dusted the plate with poppy seeds as if he were sprinkling glitter.

Around the same time was a plate of pickled stuff (also missed the description). By this time, I think we were beginning to be simultaneously overwhelmed, amused, comfortable, and having a great time. Each “course” was presented by a different person, who placed it in front of us, pleasantly recited the description, and walked away. It was never a stuffy or pretentious experience, and everyone was so kind and charming. If we had a question, they were happy to answer.

I almost forgot the wine. Instead of the doing the “Unconventional Pairings,” we asked if they could give us two glasses each throughout the evening that would work well with the food we would be served. We first had white and later red. For each glass, we were given a taste of two different wines to see which we prefer, then a glass was poured. I could have done that all night long, and next time I might like to have the experience of the unconventional pairings.

Moving on with dinner, we were served kohlrabi (another missed description). Around about the same time, we each got a small cone of beef tendon popcorn (kind of like pork rinds).

We were also served weeds (on the arched structure), which came with a dressing for dipping. As the weeds were presented, it was explained that many weeds that grow are actually quite tasty.

Along with the weeds, we were served duck feet. Duck feet! The closest thing I could compare them to is crispy chicken skin. We also got some grilled fava beans.

We’ve now come to a highlight of the whole meal, which was pork liver with chocolate. Although I’m pretty adventurous, liver always scares me a bit. This was heavenly!

Finally, we were given silverware, which was wrapped in a satchel. Amazing.

All evening we had observed someone walking around the dining room with what appeared to be a branch from a tree. He finally visited our table and explained that what he was carrying was knotweed, which is apparently related to rhubarb. What arrived next was a knotweed spritzer. Perhaps this was a palate cleanser, because it seemed to be a turning point in the meal.

What came next was bones, asparagus, and cheese. The asparagus was what they called asparagus tartare with strawberry compote. What made this particularly interesting is that the server showed us three different egg yolks on a tray. One was from the typical egg that is raised on the farm, the other was from chickens that had been fed red peppers (the yolks were red). I actually can’t remember what the other variety of yolks was. We were to choose a yolk, and the server would grate a bit of it on top of the asparagus dish. This is one of my few minor complaints about the whole dinner. It would have been better if we could have tasted each yolk to decide which we wanted. There wasn’t really enough grated on the dish to taste it, so the idea was really interesting but I feel that the experience could have been more fulfilling.

The bones were very interesting. A white bone and a black bone were placed on our table to explain how bones are recycled. The server explained that the black bone had been carbonated in their carbonizer. These bones are used as charcoal for the grill. They are also used in aging the cheese that we were served. They called it bone char cheese, and it was so lovely with the oat bread. It looks like brie, and that is how it tasted, except a bit better.

The other very interesting thing about the bones is that a scientist from Philadelphia is studying the difference between bones from animals raised on their farm versus bones from animals raised in less ideal conditions. He makes bone china from the bones and has found that it is significantly stronger. The cheese and bread were served on this china, and I believe other courses were as well.

Next up were two courses that really made me laugh. The first was described as “joy choy with last year’s sardines.” Joy choy is related to bok choy, and it was not explained why last year’s sardines were used instead of this year’s sardines!

Bathroom break:

Following the joy choy and old sardines was “duck from recent slaughter.” It was served on top of some stones and was absolutely divine! This was served with a bit of asparagus stew. At this point we had also moved on to our red wine selection. I wish I had made notes on the wine, but there’s only so much I can do!

The lady who seemed to be our main server appeared and instructed us to gather our silverware satchel so that we could go on a little journey with her. She put our wine glasses on a small tray and escorted us out to the dreamy “shed” we had seen earlier in the evening. On the way there, she asked where we were from. She was interested to know that I am from Atlanta and mentioned that one of the other servers is from Atlanta and talks about going to Staplehouse, where I recently had an amazing dining experience.

Back to the shed! She told us that we would be served a course there, so she left us alone for a while. Then, a few minutes later, someone else brought us “the first of the peas with pullet egg.” It was delicious, and this part of the evening was especially magical. It’s hard to imagine how they coordinate the timing of everything so that everyone gets a turn in the shed. After we finished there, she took us on a short walk to show us some things, such as the herb garden. She explained that they were waiting for the chamomile to be ready so that all of their teas could come from the garden.

Soon after we returned, someone came by and took our “flower” arrangement and replaced it with orchids because they were going to cook the other one for us. It was an arrangement of “Christmas tree” (spruce or fir?) and asparagus. They also changed our candle. Also, the person from Atlanta ca,e by for a nice little chat.

What came next was most interesting. Simply put, we were served tacos that we had to assemble; however none of the ingredients were “normal.” First of all, the meat was a fish head. Then we had a lazy Susan with pea guacamole, bacon salsa, cream, greens, and a seasoned salt. The tortilla shells were made from something interesting too, but I have forgotten. This was all explained very quickly. However, despite the weirdness and lack of instruction, it was delicious and fun. There was a surprising amount of edible flesh available on the fish head. I truly wonder who got to eat the rest of the fish, though!

Following the fish head tacos was a plate of pork. It wasn’t really explained at all, but we definitely had pork belly and tenderloin. Also, our asparagus was served on top of the Christmas tree sprigs! They had grilled it for us.

Following that was a salad of experimental greens. I believe there was also duck involved in the salad. What made this particularly interesting was the dressing. The server arrived with a small copper pot. She explained what was in it, such as balsamic vinegar, etc. She took our candle and poured the melted stuff into the pot and said, “Don’t worry. It’s not wax. It’s beef tallow.” Melted beef fat was the fat portion of the salad dressing! She then poured the dressing onto our salads. Fascinating and delicious!

Along with the salad was served bone marrow. I find bone marrow to be delectable and disturbing at the same time.

Finally, around midnight, it was time for dessert. They brought out a tiny birthday cake for Bree. I believe it was a cheesecake.

Following that was the real dessert, which was a dollop of ice cream (scooped at the table) on top of slivers of rhubarb. They also poured a small amount of a chocolate sauce on the side of the ice cream. It is barely visible. This dessert was very nice and not very sweet. The rhubarb was tangy, the ice cream was creamy and not sweet, and the chocolate provided the most sweetness.

Alongside the ice cream was a small soufflé in a glass cup. It was amazingly delicious. The soufflé and the ice cream were both made from the same cream, which I believe they described as reduced milk, or something along those lines.

Just when we thought we were finished, we were served one more course. There was honeycomb, strawberries, cherries, and rhubarb needles in a haystack. Two of the strawberries were pickled and were quite tasty. The rhubarb needles were fun, but I did not find them particularly good to eat. Along with dessert, we also ordered a green tea and a latte.

This is why I couldn’t just post photos of the meal. I think they needed explanation. Believe me, it was not the quantity of the food that made the meal amazing. It was the creativity, inventiveness, and the overall experience, along with the flavor of the food that made the meal mind-blowing. As we left the building around 1:00 am, we were encouraged to return during another season. There are so many other restaurants in the world to explore, but I truly do hope that I will dine at Blue Hill at Stone Barns again, especially since I learned just before writing this that it has been named the #12 restaurant in the world. Congratulations to Chef Dan Barber on winning Chef’s Choice Award, which was awarded by his peers.

What a night. What a place. What a meal. I’ll never forget it!

My Day in Havana

As usual, I woke early, and I’m glad I did. It was before sunrise, and I went up to the observation deck (I was on a cruise–Norwegian Sky) to see what I could see. When I first got up there, it was still pretty dark, and you could see lights in the distance. As I made my way to the front of the ship, I found a good place to hang out to watch the sunrise as we approached Havana. There were probably 20 people out there, and typical for the sunrise crowd, it was pretty quiet. There was a different mood as we approached Havana, though. One man standing near me seemed reflective, and I’d say it’s possible that he was originally from Cuba. For me, it was somewhat surreal to be approaching this forbidden island that I’ve heard of my whole life. As I prepared for my trip, I did quite a bit of research to understand the history of what had happened there. That made me more excited to actually be there. Norwegian Cruise Line could not have planned the approach to Cuba better, and I don’t really believe that they did plan to arrive precisely as the sun was rising. It was absolutely stunning to see the dramatic colors of the sky along with the dramatic architecture of Havana.

I got some breakfast and went back to my cabin to get ready for the day. I was scheduled to meet Ramona and Donna at 8:15. Ramona noticed that I was traveling solo when we were waiting in the cruise terminal in Miami, and she asked if I would like to join her and her daughter on their day in Havana. They had arranged a tour guide to take them on a walking tour and classic car tour. I’m so glad that I met her and accepted her offer. It was a wonderful day. My only condition was that we went to the place I had planned to have lunch!

It took a while to get off the ship and through customs. In addition to the lines of people disembarking, there was a computer problem in the immigration line. We made it, though, and we met Luis, our tour guide, right on time at the Russian Orthodox church. He was very friendly and spoke excellent English. He apologized, though, because he had been giving tours in German recently. He told us that he learned German on his own! Also, his previous career was as an English teacher. The meeting place was also very close to the Havana Club Rum Museum, so we stopped by there to arrange a tour for later. We then started our walking tour, which was necessary since cars are not allowed on many of the streets in the Old Town. Here are some of the sights along the way:

Meeting Luis, our guide

A place where Cubans go for their rations
So, the woman is kind of interesting, but the building is the actual subject
Government building
Train car that used to transport important people
I was enjoying this guy’s music. Wished I had some coins to give him.
We were told that this has something to do with women wearing the pants.
Plaza vieja
Plaza Vieja with a sculpture of the national flower

Looking into the hotel where Hemingway stayed for a while.

“Shrine” to Heminway at Hotel Ambos Mundos

Old apothecary shop
Trompe l’oeil
Catedral de la Habana

C

Me with my mojito
Inside La Bodeguita del Medio (Hemingway’s place for mojitos)
Wooden street pavers

Going up the stairs at the rum museum
Courtyard at the rum museum

Tasting after the tour. Donna won a drink for answering a question

After the rum tour, we finally met our car, which was a green Oldsmobile. I thought 61 was the date, but someone told me that’s after the trade embargo. Maybe it was 58? Here it is, along with the Russian Orthodox church in the background.

Our first stop on the car tour was lunch at La Guarida. I read about this over and over as I was researching Havana, so this was the one place that I felt I must visit for a meal. La Guarida is a paladar, which is a restaurant run out of a private residence. If I had been walking, I likely would have missed it. Part of the charm is the staircase that looks like it’s in ruins. It was a fun surprise to see the linens hanging to dry as we walked up the stairs. Some photos from our experience there:

Yucca Fritters
Ropa Vieja–Yum!

The check was presented in this beautiful box

The handwashing area outside the toilets.
View from La Guarida.

I wish I knew what this wall says.

Next stop was the Hotel Nacional, which was modeled after The Breakers in Palm Beach Florida. I was excited to see that since The Breakers is one of my favorite places to visit in Palm Beach (just to visit–not to stay). It was interesting to see that it actually was very similar in design, especially from the outside. The inside was similar too, but a bit less fancy, as one might expect.

A menu at the restaurant, featuring photos of famous people.

We then went to the Plaza de la RevoluciĂłn (Revolution Square). It’s very important to the politics of Cuba (description from Wikipedia).

Luis, the tour guide, then took us to a shop to buy rum and cigars. Although I have no interest in smoking anything, I bought three cigars to give to people who might appreciate them. I also bought 3 different small bottles of rum (for research). As Donna and I left the shop, we found Ramona outside enjoying a cigarillo.

Although Havana Club is more popular, it seems that Cubans prefer Santiago de Cuba rum.

Next stop was La Floridita, where Hemingway went to drink daiquiris. It’s also known as the birthplace of the daiquiri! It was a fun experience with live music playing.

A few other sights as we ended our tour:

Bacardi Building–they moved to Puerto Rico after the revolution.
Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso (Alicia was a famous ballerina)
Capitol
HUGE flea market

I went back to the ship for dinner, rested a bit, and went back out by myself. Although the streets were dimly lit, I felt more safe walking alone there than I would on many streets in Atlanta. It was great to see Havana at night! I wasn’t sure where I was going to end up, but I had a few places marked on my map. I had downloaded Havana in Google Maps, and I was very happy the the GPS worked even without cellular service. I ended up at a place called Siá-Kará CafĂ©. There were some great musicians playing, especially the saxophonist. I got a seat at the bar and ordered a Cuba Libre and flan. Both were wonderful. I had a great conversation with one of the servers, and it was very interesting to get his take on life in Cuba. By the way, I didn’t pry. He just started telling me about his life. On my next trip to Havana, I hope to visit there again!

Gran Teatro at night

Flan & Cuba Libre

A few more photos of the walk back to the ship:

Supposed to be a good place to go

The next morning, we were still in Havana until 11:30. I decided to just stay on the ship, since I had a very full day from 8:15am until almost midnight. I chose to keep that beautiful day as my Havana experience. Another thing is that I spent over $200! You could spend much less per day, but I’d say I packed about 3 days of enjoyment and exploration into one. I was eating a wonderful lunch in the main dining room as we sailed away from Havana:

Ah, I can’t wait to go back!

Belated Post from June 26/27

I began my final morning feeling pretty well rested, and the sun was shining beautifully, so I decided to go out for one last stroll. There was an area that I had passed on the tram several times but had not explored, so I decided to take the 18 min ride there. I walked around for about 45 min, took some photos, and took the tram back to the hotel.

Amazing Breakfast!!!

Bloemenmarkt (I assume this translates to “flower market”

I did not eat any of these baked goods. They were just so pretty

Just Amsterdam Amsterdaming

Fortunately, check-out was noon, so I just relaxed until about 11:45. I took the public transportation to the airport, which was super easy. The walk to the train station was 7 minutes, I bought a ticket, and then I was on the very comfy train. The ride was only about 10 minutes. I got to the proper terminal and through security easily, and I found my airport lounge, where I hung out for about 4 hours. I’m thinking ahead to my coming week, so I thought it best to just rest. They had a lovely lunch buffet with salads, pumpkin soup, and a couscous dish. I found a seat, had my lunch, did some things online, and took a short nap.

My new hobby is airport lounges. They’re all different, and this one was quite fancy.

I got to the gate for my KLM flight and asked if I could use the priority boarding lane since I’m always in Zone 1 with Delta. I wouldn’t care about that, but I was thinking of overhead space for my bag since I would need to get off the plane as quickly as possible. I was preparing for getting to the theatre to see Audra McDonald in “Lady Day.” The flight was delayed a few minutes. That wasn’t so bad, but then we taxied for what seemed like 30 minutes. I thought we were driving to London! Finally we took off. The flight was very brief, but they served a beverage, and sandwich, and a cookie faster than I’ve ever seen. As we were flying over England, we seemed to really slow down, and we had to circle London a bit before landing. That delayed us even more. I got off the plane very quickly, walked past everyone, and ran to border patrol. I couldn’t believe the line. It appeared that an entire Asian country had just arrived in London. I asked if there was any way to get through more quickly, and I was told that I could apply for a frequent traveler thing with the UK. I’ll think about that. I wonder if they would have helped me if I had explained my situation?? Oh well, the line moved constantly, and I was through it in a reasonable amount of time. I then started running again to Heathrow Express, which is supposed to get you to Paddington Station in central London in 15 minutes. I forgot that if you were at terminal 4, where I arrived, you had to take another train before you can get on the Heathrow Express. There was a 15 min wait for that train. It finally came and got me to the Heathrow Express that was departing at 7:03. The show was at 7:45, and I almost didn’t even get on the train since I also had to take a 20 min tube ride to Leicester Square and then walk to the theatre. I got on anyway, and we got to London at around 7:20 or later. I ran like a crazy person through Paddington Station and don’t even remember seeing the station. I had my Oyster Card (London’s subway card) in my hand and tried to enter, but didn’t have enough credit for the ride. There was a free machine, so I went to reload. My first three attempts at using my credit card didn’t work, but I finally got it to work, ran down the escalators, made it to the platform, and the train came right away. It moved pretty quickly to the station I needed, and I again ran out of the station. I wasn’t sure which exit to take, so I just chose one, which was a horrible choice. I ended up in the bottom of a souvenir shop and had to find my way out. Finally, I found my way to the exit and made sure (with my phone) that I was going in the right direction. That was not easy on the uneven, brick sidewalks of London. I had to stop and walk a few times to regroup. Also, it was pretty a pretty warm night in London, so I was really working up a sweat. Finally, I saw the theatre in sight, and I ran across traffic to get there right at 7:44. I had read that there was no late seating for people sitting on stage, so this caused more stress. Security at the door needed to inspect my bags, I had to pick up my ticket, check my bags at the cloakroom, and be escorted to my seat. The man who appeared to be the house manager was rushing me along, understandably. Finally, I was in my seat onstage, a hot, sweaty, shaking mess, and I was sitting with a lovely Canadian family. I took off my jacket, rolled up my sleeves, fanned myself with my ticket, and enjoyed the music that the combo was playing. I really needed some water, but there was no way to get it. The band played a few numbers before welcoming us to “the club” in Philly. Audra McDonald (Billy Holiday) came on stage, holding a drink. I have not read a synopsis (programs were ÂŁ4, and I didn’t have any cash), but I believe this show happens at the end of Billy Holiday’s career when she was a heroine addict and an alcoholic, etc. I also assume that this was just supposed to be what one of her shows would have been like. She talked a lot about different things in her life. Sometimes the pianist would try to get her to sing a song. Sometimes she wouldn’t want to sing the song. As the show progressed, her condition deteriorated. She was drinking a lot, could hardly walk, would get emotional about certain stories, and at one point, she left the stage. She came back with a small dog but could hardly walk. From my vantage point, I sometimes was making eye contact with her, but sometimes I was watching her from behind. As the show ended, I was watching from behind, and I’m not quite sure what happened. She was singing a song, and the song continued, but she sort of stopped singing. I’ll have to watch the HBO special to see it all from the front. Then it was over. She bowed, I said “brava” as she walked by me, and I went to collect my bags. I told the person there that I was the crazy person who made it at the last minute. She said that she remembered me, but she had a bit of trouble finding my bags. I got them, though, and I stood outside the front of the theatre. It was much cooler, which was great, and I wondered whether she and the cast would come out to talk to the crowd. I didn’t see the stage door, so eventually I decided to walk around the theatre to see if I could find it. I made one left turn and didn’t see anything. Then I turned again, and saw it with a rather small line of people waiting! I was the last person in line, but when Audra came out, she came right to me (the last shall be first). I had met her once before about 17 years ago, so I wasn’t exactly star-struck. I told her how I had sent her a tweet to tell her that I was trying to make it from Heathrow and how I was a hot, sweaty mess after running through London to get there. She laughed at my story, thanked me for coming, and took a quick photo with me. That was certainly the icing on the cake. Of course, I desperately wanted to see her perform this role, but also I wanted to make use of the ticket that I had paid for, almost equally. She is a wonderful singer and actress, and it was inspiring to see her do this. The show was better than I expected, as I forgot that I was watching Audra McDonald on stage several times. I always say that things work out. This time I didn’t even fully believe that they would work out for me to make it on time, but that belief was certainly reaffirmed from this experience. Actually things more than worked out since I had the chance to meet Audra and take a photo!

From my seat on the stage

I figured, even if I don’t get a pic with her, I’ll have this…
Then I decided to walk around back and found this!
She’s so lovely

I eventually made my way to the tube, which was also a bit of a nightmare. It was hot in the station, and there were delays on the crowded station. Also, I had to go all the way back to the airport. I had booked a hotel room there since I would have to be at the airport at around 7 am for my 9:05 flight to JFK. I finally arrived at my hotel at around midnight, after a long train ride and a bus ride. Going to sleep wasn’t easy, and I didn’t sleep very soundly, after the drama and excitement of the evening. You only live once, though, and I would have plenty of napping opportunities on my two flights home.

My somewhat fancy, old-school hotel. The presidential suite was on my floor, but my key didn’t open it.

I woke up at around 5:15, had an instant coffee that was supplied in my room, got ready, and went to check out. I took the public transport bus to the airport, which was a quick, easy ride.

Bus to the airport

Then I found my terminal and breezed through security. TSA Pre-check definitely worked for me this time. I didn’t actually even show my passport to anyone until I got to my gate. Again, I found the airport lounge and hung out with a bit of coffee and breakfast until 8:05, when my gate was announced. I walked the rather long walk there, and I was able to walk right onto the plane. I was one of the earlier people onboard, so I had time to get myself situated in a comfortable way. We actually took off right on time, which was wonderful and boded very well for my change of flights in NYC.

At JFK, I found my airport lounge, had a snack/light lunch, and relaxed until my final flight home. While there, I made a reservation with Enterprise for a cargo van for cleaning out my house in Demorest (more on that soon). The flight to Atlanta was right on time, and I took an Uber home. The Uber driver was pretty rude but got me home quickly. I dropped my things at home and drove to Enterprise to get the cargo van before they closed at 6 pm. I then got a quick bite for dinner at Tin Drum and drove to Demorest to spend the night. When I got there, I put a few things in the van but decided to inflate the air mattress and go to bed around 9:30. I had a decent night’s sleep and got up the next morning around 6:00 to completely empty the house. I had the van returned to Enterprise in Atlanta by 11:30. Then I finally took a shower, had some lunch, and got ready for a choral gig at GA State at 1:30, which I would be doing the rest of the week. No rest for the weary!

Empty house ready for new owners!

As I’m sure you can tell, I thoroughly enjoyed this trip. I didn’t just write about the good stuff. It was almost all good stuff, and I’d happily do any of it again!