It’s January and snowing. Good news if you’re skiing, not so much if you’re dreaming of warmer climes. Right now, I could definitely be soaking up the heat shimmering off Miami’s South Beach (current temperature 71 degrees). Ok, so that might be a little chilly for sunbathing, but luckily there’s more to do in South Beach than hang out with beautiful people by the water.

Just one block from the beach is Ocean Drive, one of the most happening streets you’ll find anywhere. Lined with chic bars, small eateries, beachwear vendors and souvenir hawkers, it’s a hangout for both casual tourists and the “be seen” crowd — not to mention bikini-sporting sirens, sexy surfers, laid-back Harley dudes, business people, roller bladers, joggers and bicyclists. The eclectic crowd reminds one of Amsterdam or Vegas, but with a small town vibe that makes everyone feel at home.

If you’re into people watching, find a patio perch at one of the bars or cafes that line Ocean Drive. If you’re lucky, you might be visited by the roaming cigar girl who will tempt you with a selection of fine cigars (another reason to love this town!). For dinner, seek a small Cuban diner for authentic local cuisine (your hotel concierge should be able to recommend one).

Speaking of hotels, although Ocean Drive boasts many fine accommodations, if you’re on budget, stay one block over on Collins Avenue (aka, the A1A). Last spring we stayed at the Carlton Hotel, which at $150 plus tax and resort fee, seemed to be a good deal given the location. The rooms were a decent size, the beds were super comfy, and the pool area provided a secluded alternative to the beach. Although the property showed its age, the modern décor made it fun.

To be fair, most of the hotels in South Beach are housed in older buildings, many done in Art Deco style. It’s part of the area’s charm, especially at night when Ocean Drive lights up like a tropical Christmas tree.

In addition to being a destination in itself, South Beach is a short cab ride to the Port of Miami for travelers departing or returning from a cruise. Try to book more than one night’s stay, though, or you may find yourself pining for a longer retreat on a snowy day back home!


If you’re like most grown-ups without kids, you probably haven’t been to your local natural history museum since junior high. Yawn, you say? Well, you might be surprised. Sure, you can still find those creepy dioramas with lifelike stuffed animals. And of course there’s the scintillating hall of minerals, which was actually kind of cool the first time you saw it, but may not inspire a repeat visit.

One area that’s received a facelift, at least in Denver, is the dinosaur exhibit. In the past few decades, paleontolgists have made some interesting discoveries. Dinosaurs, it seems, are the ancestors of birds, not reptiles as was previously assumed. Ok, so maybe that’s not news to you…but did you know that we’ve only discovered about two percent of all the dinosaur species that ever existed? For instance, the gigantic vegetarian puertasaurus was discovered two years ago in Argentina. And the bambiraptor, a one-foot high miniature menace discovered in 1995, is currently on display as part of a special exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

This special exhibit also features new information about how dinosaurs walked, including a 1:7 scale moving t-rex that, even in such a diminutive form, still caused me to shiver as I watched it pace. Also impressive is the full-size tyrannosaurus skeleton, mounted much closer to the ground than the one at the museum’s entrance, making it possible to imagine how easily a grown person could fit in its mouth! And if you’ve never seen a triceratops skull, now’s your chance to realize how huge these animals were.

Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries runs through January 4. The next free admission day is December 7. If you go, I highly recommend making time for two other permanent exhibits. The multi-level exhibit, Prehistoric Journey, is as impressive, if not more so, than the special exhibit. Lots of bones, but also dioramas (yay!) with creature features you’ve never seen before. You should also seek out the small, but fascinating collection of gem carvings created by Russian artist Vasily Konovalenko. Look for it on Level 3, wedged between the Botswana and South American dioramas.

It seems like fall is the time to go to Las Vegas. Everyone I know has a trip planned there soon. Heck, I considered it myself before I finally admitted that I shouldn’t vacation someplace with blackjack tables when I’m trying to be…uh, frugal.

Still, the cool desert breeze calls to me. Temperatures average 50-80 degrees in October–nice enough for shorts during the day, but cool enough to sleep at night…or at least put your stuff so nobody steals it.

If you plan on visiting Vegas soon, allow me to share a few hotel recommendations (and warnings) based on personal experience.

  • Monte Carlo – My husband and I stayed here on our honeymoon. It was brand new back then, very nice for the price. We loved the Italian restaurant (enough to visit it on subsequent trips) and the hotel has a brewpub. We also enjoyed Lance Burton’s show. The only drawback was the long walk to get from the strip to the elevators–typically a hike in most Vegas hotels but for some reason it seemed really long here.
  • Circus Circus – I stayed here with the hubby while he was on business. We were in one of the annex buildings, not the main hotel. In the middle of the night, we were awoken by the fire alarm and had to evacuate the building. It seems the wiring had caught fire in someone’s room. After 45 minutes of standing around in the parking lot, they let us go back in. We didn’t actually catch fire, so I guess that’s a selling point.
  • Imperial Palace – We stayed here with our bowling league several years ago. I remember being less than impressed (but it was really cheap). And they had a fabulous Asian restaurant in the basement with great food and amazing service.
  • TI (aka, Treasure Island) – Back when TI was about pirates, and not babes in boots and bottle service in the bars, it was a great place to stay. And the original free show in front of the hotel was worth standing around elbow to elbow for 30 minutes or more. Alas, TI has traded pirates for pretentiousness (not an upgrade, IMHO). However, if you come across a good deal, the rooms are large and comfy. Plus, if you can get one that overlooks the show, you can enjoy watching stuff blow up without having to listen to the crappy soundtrack.
  • Bally’s – The rooms at Bally’s are large and clean, a great deal for the price. Plus, it’s connected to the Paris Hotel so you don’t even have to go outside to enjoy a stroll or a bite to eat in “France.” Ask for a room on the Paris side and enjoy the Eiffel tower lit up at night.
  • Flamingo – My husband stayed here once on a business trip. He recalls a strange smell in the room and the furniture was a bit worn. That was some time ago, so perhaps they’ve redecorated since then. Still, for the going rate of $80 a night, I think you can do better. If you’re really hankering for a slice of old Vegas, try the Four Queens downtown. The rates are extremely reasonable considering the good reviews it gets online from people who have stayed there.
  • Rio Suites – Flying standby out of Vegas (not a good idea, btw), we got stuck in town when we couldn’t get on a flight. We chose the Rio because the rates were decent and the rooms are all suites. The accommodations weren’t huge, but they were nicely appointed. The hotel restaurant was tasty, too. But the best part was the rooftop bar with an amazing view of Vegas. I would stay here again, but even if I didn’t I would go back for that view!

Where’s your favorite (or least favorite) place to stay in Vegas? Add a comment and let me know!

Got Gas?

The cost of oil is finally starting to come down, yet the pain at the pump hasn’t subsided; I’m still passing the $60 mark every time I fill my car’s tank. Most major airlines have increased their fuel surcharges as of late, and just announced that they don’t plan to lessen the surcharges to reflect the lower price of oil.

If the high prices have threatened to put the kaibosh on your vacation plans this fall, check out TripAdvisor’s “Affordable Getaways” feature. Simply enter your hometown and choose how far you want to go (a full tank, half tank or quarter). Bing-bam-boom, you’re presented with five destinations within the desired range, along with the distance from your town and the estimated cost of gas to get there.

You can get this far on the site without logging in. If you click on the “Get Your Guide” button for a particular destination you’ll be asked to login or setup a TripAdvisor account. They only require email, so it’s a quick and easy setup. (My experience is that they don’t send an excessive amount of email unless you sign up for a bunch of alerts.) Once you’ve accessed the online guide for your chosen locale, you can see the top 10 hotels, restaurants, and things to do as rated by TripAdvisor’s users.

Although the coverage isn’t exhaustive, it’s a well-designed service that will undoubtably give you some ideas for getaways closer to home.

If you’re following my Carnival guest blog, the third and final part has been posted. Check it out!

As always, thanks for reading and feel free to share your comments and questions…!

Part two of the Carnival guest blog is up – ports of call on our Mediterranean cruise. Check it out!

Hey everyone, check out my guest post on Carnival Cruise’s “Splendid Things in Life” blog. This is part 1 of 3, re: our Mediterranean cruise on the Carnival Freedom. It was also our first cruise ever, so if you have thought about cruising, but have reservations, you may find it especially interesting.

Hope everyone is enjoying a great summer!