Hilton Minneapolis – Minneapolis, Minnesota

The last time I was in Minneapolis for work I was put up in the Hilton Minneapolis downtown but toward the end of the skyway. It is the third hotel I have stayed in for work out there and by far my favorite.

Despite the lobby being torn up for remodeling and the fact that every single time I went back to the hotel via the front entrance (rather than the skyway) I had to go through a different door the experience on a whole was quite lovely. I actually didn’t even mind the musical doors, it just made me chuckle.

The rooms were simple, clean and well equipped. Complete with hair dryer, nice sample sized shampoo, coffee pot and a TV with normal channels. Have you ever been to a hotel where they have cable but they have the strangest channels accessible?! So strange. The shower did not make strange squealing noises which seems to be common for me, and the temperate control was actually controllable.

They also had a really nice dining room/bar area. A REALLY great breakfast buffet full of fresh cut, not wilted sad, fruit. Fresh pastries, oatmeal, hard boiled eggs, tons of cereal choices, bagels, fresh lox and GREAT coffee. The gym on the mezzanine level was also nicely equipped, clean, new and not stuffy. I didn’t try to pool but plenty of other people did and they clearly loved it.

 

In addition to all the other pluses and a must have for any hotel in Minneapolis if you are there for work, is the connection to the skyway. Never have I spent more time in a place with such changeable and challenging weather. And while I still find it odd in concept, I find the skyway a complete lifesaver when getting to and from meetings pretty much year round. No more worrying about wearing or carrying things that work for both subzero or crazy hot and humid PLUS office. You can get from hotel to office without ever leaving a climate controlled environment even if it is several blocks away. Brilliant.

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Jurassic Park and The Mummy – Hollywood, California

My all time favorite movie as a kid was Jurassic Park. I saw it in the theater more times than any other movie, probably combined. When I went to Universal Studios for the first time 15 years ago I rode the Jurassic Park ride on repeat all day, even though it was pouring down rain and you get quite wet on the ride anyway. We would go Jurassic Park, then over to the Backdraft ride to dry off and then back to Jurassic Park. All day. Now, 15 years later Backdraft has been replaced with the Transformers so luckily when we went it was a beautiful sunny weekend. And we still got soaked.

I don’t know what it is about the ride, other than the intense nostalgia it brings up since I watched the movie so often as a kid. It is a river raft ride, not unlike Splash Mountain at Disneyland. The ride takes you through a mellow water cruise observing some very cute animatronic dinos, some of which spray water on you. Then there is a faux raptor breakout, and more dinos startle and soak you.

And then at the end you drop forever and land in a giant splash which actually doesn’t get you terribly wet but since you have already been soaked several times it wouldn’t really matter. This time around we got stuck on our first ride of the day, for several minutes in a not very comfortable part of the ride and managed to get some free passes. So we had the opportunity to ride on repeat without waiting in line, which we took full advantage of.

Since the release of Jurassic World they have updated the ride, it is quite a bit different than I remember. They also added a character attraction, where you can meet a raptor. I chose not to participate since the line was quite long. So instead I watched from a ways back trying to figure out if it was a very clever robot or a very good and possibly suffocating actor. I never did figure it out, either way people loved it and it was fun to watch.

Across the way is the Mummy Ride which is new to me. But given how old the movie was I assume has been a part of the park for quite a while. It has been added to my list of favorites  because it is an actual roller coaster in the dark that goes 45mph and then stops suddenly and reverses you back to the start.

The line did get pretty long at one point but it was never too terrible and with a single rider line we managed to not have to wait more than 10 min for any of our rides.

I couldn’t help but get my picture taken with one of the decorative mummies. Good lookin’ guy isn’t he.

All in all the lower lot of Universal Studios Hollywood houses the best rides, in my opinion. But with less to do in total you can’t really spend your whole day down there. We took a couple trips to do some back to back rides and then hopped back up to the main park where we spent most of our time there.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hollywood, California

I feel like it isn’t much of a confession to say that as an adult I am totally obsessed with all thing Harry Potter. It is certainly not a rare affliction these days. I had been wanting to visit the Orlando park since the second the build was announced, but living all the way out on west coast paired with a deep seeded need to see literally everything in the world caused it to be bumped down on the list more than once.

But then Universal Studios Hollywood made an addition to their park (yes addition, see the Universal Studios post for information) and then I waited a year. I waited a year on purpose because while I love all things Harry Potter, I love pushy frantic people a lot less. I very purposefully waited until the park addition wasn’t the hottest thing on the West Coast and then I slipped in for the weekend to FINALLY experience it for myself. It did not disappoint.

 

One of the things that has always made me more loyal to Disney than other amusement parks is their ability to transform a dusty strip of land into a whole new place full of charm, and character. It is quite frankly magical. I know it is all fake, façades, false front, forced scale building to appear taller, miniatures and faux landscaping. But I love it all the same. Universal Studios in my opinion anyway, for the first time, managed to capture this in the creation of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

It was flawless, from the cobble stone streets, the crooked buildings to the music and smells pumped into the air. However the most magical thing I think was the wands.  For a not so low price you can pick your wand and then walk around to all the windows in the village and perform “magic”. Done I am assuming through some remote connection between specific wands and window displays (it doesn’t work with a pen or lip balm tube I tried). A brilliant business move while also being one of the sweetest things to watch as delighted kiddos all dressed up as witches and wizards zoomed around the park feeling like they too are magical.

There quite frankly isn’t a lot to do in this section of the park, though I think we spent most of our time there all the same. It felt calmer, they had better food vendors, the shops were less intrusive (lower lights, calmer music, more continuity in the trinkets being sold) plus this being a dead ended portion of the park there wasn’t as much through traffic so there were more places to sit and catch a break from all the crowds.

In The Wizarding World of Harry Potter there are two rides, one interactive show, several performances, two staged photo opportunities and of course the wands. As well as a restaurant, several outdoor vendors, two souvenir shops, a candy store and a joke shop. We made a point to do everything in the park and while I loved it all I stand by my earlier statement that the best thing to do is just wander around and take it all in.

The two rides were on the opposite end of the spectrum one being the small kiddie-coaster “The Flight of the Hippogriff” which is a lot of fun but really mellow and quick. We only rode it when there was no line since it goes by so quickly. The other “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” is quite the ride. It was the first thing we did on our first day, and it was a blast. But then we turned back through the line and road it a second time and that was all I could take. For some reason the motion simulated rides (those with small motion made more intense by projecting rapid motion on a screen or a 3D screen) make me a tad ill. I can drop several floors on the Tower of Terror or scream through a huge coaster but get me on one of those simulators and I nearly puke.

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I loved the ride and I wanted to go again but since almost all the rides at universal are the simulator type I was feeling a tad green by the end of the trip and just couldn’t stomach it. But it is clearly incredibly popular the line time was an hour plus the whole trip.

The other major draw to the park is the Butterbeer, going in I was convinced I wouldn’t like it and nearly skipped out on trying it. Try it, you will love it. I did a little research after finally giving in and it turns out it is the number one customer satisfier at the parks. That’s not to say the parks aren’t impressive, it IS to say the Butterbeer is that good. It tastes a bit like butterscotch and I don’t quite know what else. It is vegan, gluten free and is also free of corn syrup. All requirements allegedly from J.K Rolling herself to ensure that the maximum number of guests could enjoy it. It is pretty expensive and the serving at the street vendors are HUGE. Which is super if you know you like it, but if you are like me and slightly hesitant I would suggest getting it with your breakfast at The Three Broomsticks. We ate there both days as they offered hearty options and a drink of your choice with your meal, which includes Butterbeer (either frozen or non frozen). We chose frozen, it appeared to be a more manageable serving. Which even in the smaller size I couldn’t finish. It was amazing but oh so sweet, again the smaller size is key unless you know what you are getting yourself into.

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For more information check out my post on Universal Studios Hollywood.  And please  let me know in the comments below if you have been, what your favorite thing was and if you plan on going to the park in Orlando as well. I can’t decide if I should still make the trek out to the original park or if Hollywood was good enough.

Pike Road – Carlton, Oregon

Let me start of by saying I am totally biased. Oregon has the best wine tasting in the country. It probably mostly has to do with the fact that I can drive 10 minutes in any direction and hit a winery. And a lot to do with the fact that for now at least, it is not a horribly expensive outing.

Last summer for a town event I visited a new tasting room in one of my favorite small towns. The winery/tasting room being Pike Road, the town being Carlton. Carlton is known locally for producing the best pork that is distributed farm to table style to most restaurants in the area. But it also happens to be one of my favorite places to spent an evening.

Pike Road is a somewhat new addition to the town located in an old bank building, the vault which is still in use stores the wine bottles. The manager was pouring for us the night we were there. An extraordinarily kind and knowledgeable man who gave us the history of the winery, the sustainable practices they continue to maintain, the types of grapes and fermenting used to create their unique wines. I don’t think I have ever walked away from a tasting with more information and the wines we outstanding.

 

 

Universial Studios – Hollywood, California

My mom and I do a girls weekend every year and this year I managed to convince her that we needed to visit Universal Studios and in particular Harry Potter world. We are die hard Disney fans, so despite making a nearly annual trip to Los Angeles we have only been to Universal Studios once before nearly 15 years ago. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was added to the park about a year ago so we decided it was finally time to get down there and experience it for ourselves.

I decided to go the easiest route possible and booked a package through the Universal Studios website. There were several hotels on the site offering packages, but I picked the Sheraton which is about a five minute walk to the front gate of the park. Once the transaction was processed they sent me an email with my hotel confirmation and the park tickets to print out and off we went.

Well, actually then we waited a couple months and flew from Portland to Burbank, caught a seven minute cab ride from the Burbank airport to the hotel and THEN off we went. We got in really early on a Thursday and our tickets were for Friday and Saturday. We had every intention of just having the hotel keep our bags until 4pm at the normal check out time but they actually let us check in at 10am which was really nice. We got changed, walked up to the Universal City walk, grabbed lunch and then made our way back to the hotel pool. After several months of rain back home it was really nice to just sit in the sun and relax. We both got a tad burnt (remember to pack sunscreen always). The hotel had a very nice pools with cabanas, outdoor seating, a lovely gym and restaurant. They even delivered drinks and snacks poolside. It was pretty much perfect.

The first morning in we were allowed to enter the park an hour before opening hours, we hit the ground running and rode everything in Harry Potter twice (which turns out was only two rides) and then had a giant breakfast at the Three Broomsticks. I wrote all about my love of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in another post so you can check out the details there. The one thing that I wish would have been more obvious in planning though was that the Harry Potter attraction is in fact a part of the Universal Studios Hollywood park. The one in Orlando is a separate park, with a separate ticket cost and I could find no where that explicitly said that for Hollywood it is the SAME park with no extra ticket cost. It turned out fine but I went in not feeling 100% confident that this was the case.

Universal Studios Hollywood boasts a lot more “big rides” than Disneyland but said big rides are almost all motion simulator rides which are not my favorite. I would rather ride a baby roller coaster and physically move the same amount my brain thinks I am moving. For this reason my least favorite ride at Disneyland is Star Tours even though I love Star Wars. But we were here so I sucked it up and rode all the rides but two. I could not ride Transformers with all its 3D action and Shrek which claims to be 4D (do I even want to know what that includes?).  It also has a lot of shows which are a hoot. My favorite the Waterworld show, it is a ridiculously melodramatic 20 min show  in the theme of the 1995 Kevin Costner movie.  You get very very wet, you will laugh, and you will get to see a plane crash on the water. It is fun.

We also went to the Behind the Scene’s Special effects show, the studio tour and my personal favorite the Animal Actors show. This pup was  much better behaved than my own golden. I need to hire these guys to train Seti.

Part of the park is Simpsons themed which is also a lot of fun. The chicken and waffle sandwich at Cletus’ Chicken Shack is great, as are the tacos at the Bumblebee Man’s Taco Cart. I wanted to get a giant doughnut but it was hot so we settled on the soft serve ice cream instead. It was the better choice but I had to at least pretend I got to take a bite of the classic Lardo Doughnut. The Simpsons was after all created by an Oregonian.

The Simpsons ride was quite fun, despite being yet another motion simulator but I did enjoy it quite a bit more than the Despicable me ride that is across the park closer to the entrance.

As I mentioned in the Harry Potter post I really enjoy faux buildings. I don’t know what it is, something about the love of miniatures or maybe just the appreciation of how much work goes into making something look and feel real when it has been fabricated. Which is the say the “downtown” area was delightful, there is a small New York section and a Paris section which was a lot of fun to goof around in.

And then of course there was the lower lot which houses the Transformers ride (which my mom bravely rode without me), the Jurassic Park ride (my all time favorite) and the Mummy (a new favorite)  which I talk about in my favorite rides post.

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the park, and I will most certainly being going back someday.

Things to note when planning our trip Universal Studios Hollywood:

  • The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a part of the park (no extra ticket required).
  • Go early, take a mid day break and come back after dinner. The crowds are notably worse mid day.
  • The studio tour is a great way to see something and sit in the shade, so don’t skip out.
  • The lower lot is always way less crowded but there is also less to do, so jam in a bunch of repeat rides while you are down there as the trip in quite a haul (down four HUGE escalators).
  • Don’t forget sunscreen and to hydrate, it is pretty windy in the park since it is up on a hill so it doesn’t feel as hot which makes it easier to forget those things.

Cuvée – Carlton, Oregon 

There are a lot of really great restaurants in the Yamhill/Willamette/Tualatin Valley area thanks in part to our robust wine industry. Up until recently I had focused most of my time dining at restaurants in the Portland area, there are so many great places there you could go out every night and never run out. Having recently moved out of the area has given me the excuse to branch out a bit and boy was I ever happy to have given that chance after enjoying an unforgettable meal at Cuvee in Carlton, Oregon.

The restaurant resides on the main street of Carlton, about half through through the one stop sign town in the heart of Oregon’s wine country. It offers dinner on a prix-fixe menu, letting you decide soup/salad, a main entrée and a dessert or a starter. I had been wanting to go for a while. So when I happen to be in town for an event with a friend we jumped at the chance to eat dinner there.

Everything looked too amazing to choose. So we chose to share, I chose the asparagus leek soup (hot) it was amazing. We shared pomme frites, even more amazing. Then we split the salmon and lamb stew, saying the entrees were a religious experience would be an understatement. The sauce on the salmon was quite literally the best thing I have ever eaten. And the lamb stew was so tender and full of flavor I think both of us nearly passed out from sheer ecstasy.

By the time our entrée rolled around we were already full but we pushed ahead anyway because it was too good not to, and then we pushed ahead again for the dessert we chose to share which was a crème caramel. I have never tasted anything so rich and so light at the same time. It was gone in an instant and we have both been dreaming about going back ever since.

Aside from the exquisite food, the waiter was incredibly kind and friendly. The dining room was bright and quiet. I could not recommend a better French Restaurant in Oregon and think even a drive from Portland is worth it.

Apartment - Lisbon, Portugal

I have really at this point covered most everything we saw in Lisbon and Sintra but I did want to cover a few other topics regarding the area before wrapping up this series, nearly a year after we went!

As I have mentioned we like to try to stay in apartments or houses rather than hotels when we are traveling. This isn’t always the case, if we are only going to be somewhere for a couple days hotels serve quite nicely. But for longer trips we really try to establish a home base so that we can retreat back and have some time to ourselves. Traveling can be quite taxing. Everything is so different, not only the language but all small things too like street signs. All the newness is a lot for your brain to process, you often don’t realize how tired you are until you sit down and stop for a moment. Having that relaxed place to go back to can really make a trip that much more pleasant. Having enough space so everyone can have a little alone time in the process is also, as they say, priceless.

We really lucked out on our apartment in Lisbon, I went back and fourth so many times on so many different options and in the end just sort of shut my eyes and pulled the trigger. I am sure any of the options we were weighing would have been lovely but we loved the one we picked and would probably stay in it again if we ever make our way back.

The service was impeccable, we found the place and booked through vrbo.com but the apartment is one of a few managed by Rent Experience a Lisbon business. If the apartment we stayed at was not available again we would rent one of the others managed by the same company. They had shuttles to pick up and drop off at airport, in both cases the drivers were there early and got us to our destination in record time. The man who let us in to our apartment showed up on time, spoke perfect English provided maps, directions, showed us where everything in the apartment was and how it worked. He even told us about a new a couple sites we hadn’t heard of that we visited and loved.

The apartment was also perfectly situated, nearly everything we wanted to see was in walking distance, we were only two blocks from a grocery store, two blocks for public transit stop, and four blocks the main square in the Baixa. We were also surrounded by cafés and restaurants. Plus the street wasn’t busy so we didn’t have to hear road noises all night.

And the apartment itself perfectly fit our needs. Clean, light airy, modern and enough space for everyone to get some alone time. Or in our case enough space for the healthy half of us to avoid the sick half of the family.

 

Directly across the street was Fabrica Lisboa a café that we visited more than once, they had great coffee and pastries as well as excellent sandwiches and salads. It was simple food but comforting and the ladies that worked there were nothing but kindness.

The apartment building also had a lift for those of us that needed it, which wound up being used a couple time but mostly by our luggage, we were on the fourth floor and the use of it for hauling up suitcases was a brilliant suggestion by our driver. The building also had a locked lobby. It was very nice knowing we were tucked it safe and tight not knowing the city very well. But as promised we had no trouble. The entire trip was easy comfort and kindness. If anyone wants to pay me to go back to review things it wouldn’t be a hard sell (hint-hint). 

In a nutshell we loved Portugal, we talk about it all the time and dream of going back often. If you are fortunate enough to be thinking of going or planning a trip I hope that my posts have helped you in some way.