Sunday, July 31, 2011

Indy Wicked Weekend: My First Fam Tour of Edmonton

Car races, chuck wagons and witches, oh my.(Yeah, I had to make the reference.) These were just some of the experiences I had on my first fam tour of Edmonton, Alberta, a place I have grown to really appreciate after my fast-paced weekend trip.

It all began with the amazing hospitality and care I received from the Edmonton Tourism team. My guides, Christie and Michelle, were incredible hosts, very vibrant, friendly, helpful and accommodating. From the moment I stepped off the plane, I was welcomed openly. And for someone who has never participated in one of these press trips, it made it very comfortable and less intimidating. The tour was made even better by the people in my group. Not only were they extremely nice, but their outgoing nature made it easier for mine to come to the surface. From the beginning, we formed an admirable camaraderie with one another, which just made the experience all the more pleasant.

My first day was made even better when I finally reached the hotel, the Union Bank Inn, and checked out my room. It was beautiful, quaint and comfortable. It was equipped with a fireplace, a queen size bed, and many other standard amenities. The colors and decor were warming, relaxing, and I definitely felt like taking a quick nap before the evenings festivities began. With the short amount of time I had, I decided to unpack a little and warm up, since it was about 50 degrees and raining when I flew in. On the desk, Edmonton Tourism had left me a backpack full of small gifts, information and even a stuffed animal. I didn't have much time to do anything, even grab something to eat, even though I was starving and my stomach felt like it was going to cave in on itself. At that very moment, to my surprise, a knock came at the door, and a fabulous wine and cheese platter floated in front of me. Perfect! What a way to start the night--and somewhat satisfy my gnarling stomach before dinner.

For dinner on our first night, Christie and Michelle took us over to Edmonton's Old Strathcona neighborhood, the city's historic district. We went to Packrat Louie Kitchen & Bar, where a table awaited us with a pre-set menu. I ordered the goat cheese salad, with roasted pumpkin seeds, fresh strawberries and spinach; followed by grilled chicken atop petite roasted potatoes and steamed vegetables; and finished the whole thing off with a hefty helping of tiramisu. Our host for the evening, Karen, the director of travel trade with Travel Alberta, ordered us an array of wine options as well--which, of course, I was happy to accept.

One thing I will point out about these press trips, you will never go hungry. I was consistently fed, and each meal was twice as big as the portions I eat at home. Also, libations are always available and usually on the house, but since it's technically a work trip, I knew to keep the drink count to a minimum.

Upon leaving the restaurant, our shuttle carted us over to Hawrelak Park for the Rivercity Shakespeare Festival, where we enjoyed watching a performance of Othello, one of my favorite plays from the Bard. (My one vexation was that they did have a Caucasian playing Othello, which is not exactly authentic to the play, but I figured I could overlook it.)The play was outside, under a canopy, which was not the most ideal location since it was a relatively cold day for the season. I was wearing jeans, tennis shoes, a fleece and a rain coat, and I was still cold enough that I gave in and bought a hot chocolate during intermission. I confirmed with Christie that this was not typical Edmonton summer weather, so I can at least promise that people who visit at the end of July will not be greeted with fall temperatures on a regular basis.

On Saturday, our group gathered in the lobby early to head over to the Fairmont Hotel McDonald, one of the city's choice accommodations. We were taken up to the Jasper room where, once again, I was greeted with gorgeously set tables with everything already prepared for us. As we entered, we were handed glasses of fresh juice. Each spot at the tables had a fruit, yogurt and granola parfait, as well as complimentary water bottles to keep--another free item to add to my backpack full of goodies. Our group, which was the leisure travel crew, was joined by the sport and events group and the convention and meetings group for breakfast. Once seated, we all chowed down on our parfaits, the fresh rolls and croissants on the table, and the bouquet of fruit. Then, the hotel brought out plates of spinach and feta frittatas, turkey sausage and seasoned potatoes. Again, way more than I usually eat in the morning, but so delicious. The hotel staff gave us a tour of the facility once breakfast was over, and I must say that this Fairmont is just as nice, if not nicer, than the many others I have seen. (Just a note, if you haven't visited a Fairmont, I strongly suggest going to one, even if you don't actually stay there.)

I finished off the morning with a lovely, relaxing canoe ride down the North Saskatchewan River. Thankfully, the water was not too high or fast, so we were able to handle the current pretty easily. Although, my canoe had trouble keeping a straight course, mostly because there were three of us and we could not manage to get a steady paddling rhythm--much to my chagrin as a Colorado girl.

The afternoon was spent in a mall. For those of you who don't know, Edmonton has the largest mall in North America--yes, even bigger than Mall of America. West Edmonton Mall features an indoor amusement park, the largest indoor water park, a ropes course, two mini golf courses, an NHL-size hockey rink, and over 300 stores. We ate lunch at a place called Deluxe Burger, a place known for its clubby feel and unique burgers, as well as its mini shopping carts full of fries. We wandered through the many wings of the mall, completely overwhelmed by all the attractions and stores. A few of my group members and I decided to make a skate around the ice rink, which was full of some humorous spills and many embarrassing moments we will all cherish for a long time.

After a quick stop off at the hotel to freshen up, we walked over to the Art Gallery of Alberta to Zinc Restaurant. Since it is in the art district, Zinc changes its dishes seasonally based on featured exhibits, and we certainly got an artistic treat. All the dishes were relatively small, manageable portions. We started with a cheese and olive plate, simple and tasty. Then we had a deconstructed lobster salad, with the lobster meat placed on a small spoon next to the greens. The main course was a beef tenderloin with mashed potatoes and vegetables. Our dessert was olive oil cake, which was surprisingly delicious, especially paired with a little vanilla ice cream. The whole day was topped off by a wonderful performance of the Broadway hit musical Wicked, the untold story about the wicked witch of Oz. I had seen the play a couple years ago, but it was just as good as I remember.

Our final day of the trip started off with a pancake breakfast at Fort Edmonton Park, one of the city's prized attractions. It is literally a living history museum and Canada's largest historical park. Our breakfast was served in the fur trading fort, which was rebuilt to look like the one used back in 1846 when traders sold their pelts to Native Americans in the area. After we ate, we toured through the park, starting in the earliest years, and then made our way into the frontier year of 1885, followed by what the city would look like as the new capital of Alberta in 1905, and finally into the modern city of 1920.

When our quick trip through time came to an end, we boarded the shuttle and headed over to the Edmonton Indy at City Center Airport. The Edmonton Indy is the 11th race in the IZOD IndyCar Series Circuit and one of two races that happens in Canada, so it was a pretty special event to witness, even though I'm not much of a race car fan. What made it more enjoyable was the fact that we had our own suite that overlooked where the pit crews were, so we had a front row view of the action. (We also had an open bar and a massive buffet of free food.) It was actually quite interesting to walk through the stalls and vendors at the race and watch all the fans, certainly a great people watching environment. Plus, wandering around the venue helped kill a little time, since the cars had to speed around the course 80 times. I will admit, it got a little boring, and the fact that it was so loud made it difficult to carry on a conversation with anyone. However, I survived and left feeling happy that I got to take part in something I never would have done.

Edmonton has a wide variety of dining options, which I witnessed during the Taste of Edmonton, our next stop on the agenda. There were choices for every palate, and the menu even included options that were vegetarian-friendly and gluten free, which was great for one of the girls in my group. Our first stop was the beer garden, where I sampled some of Canada's craft beers. The Aprikat from Alley Kat Brewery was particularly good. Then we walked around to the various vendors and selected our fare for the evening before hopping back onto our shuttle and making our way to the final stop: Northlands for the Chuckwagon Derby. The Capital EX Chuckwagon Derby features 36 drivers and their teams, all competing in 12 heats for a generous cash prize. I'm not sure I'll do a great job describing this, but basically, three teams, consisting of a driver controlling four horses pulling a wagon and two men riding two separate horses, line up at the start line. When the whistle blows, one man throws a small stove into the wagon, then the wagon has to do a figure eight around two barrels before doing a full lap around the arena. The other two riders follow, and must finish within 25 feet of their wagon when it crosses the finish line. Whichever team completes it the fastest with the fewest mistakes, wins. Simple, right?

The trip ended with a few final drinks with my host Christie and new friends, Kristine, Mo and Doug, then getting a couple precious hours of sleep before catching a horribly early 6 am flight. But it was worth it.

And I must say, for my first press trip, it was a truly incredible experience, and one I hope to have again soon.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Catering to Emerging Tourism Markets

China and Iraq, two countries with seemingly nothing in common. Except for the fact that they are both being heavily targeted by the hospitality industry, but in two different respects.

Many major hotel chains in the United States are implementing changes in an effort to cater to Chinese tourists coming into our country, while at the same time making headway into building properties in certain regions of Iraq as economic development continues to boom.

Chinese tourists.
Just this week, both Hilton and Starwood introduced new programs that focus on the well-being of Chinese guests. Starwood's program, called "Starwood Personalized Travel," will offer specific services for Chinese travelers, such as in-room tea kettles, slippers and translation services. The hotel is also updating its menu to include fare from China.

Hilton'a program is called "Hilton Huanying"--which is the Chinese word for "welcome." Basically, every Hiton hotel that has this service will employ a front desk worker that speaks Mandarin, provide a Chinese television station, and offer a full Chinese breakfast that includes dim sum, congee (rice porridge) and fried dough fritters.

These initiatives prove that the Chinese are slowly taking over the world. I mean that in the best sense. Their country and their corporations are becoming incredibly influential in our world, and Chinese travelers are expected to have a big impact on the travel industry. It's a similar trend that happened a few years ago, when Japan became a major mover in the economy and hotels started featuring rice, dried seaweed and miso soup on menus. You cater to the people who are going to provide the most business--or more appropriately the biggest amount of revenue. In my opinion, I think it's a smart move, because it shows that Americans can adapt to another country becoming a big world power. When America grew into a international powerhouse, every country made sure to teach their kids English and employ people who could communicate to foreign tourists from the U.S. Now, we have to do the same thing and prove that we can be multicultural.

Erbil, Iraq. Credit: WSJ
In Iraq, both Marriott and Best Western plan to build hotels in the city of Erbil. The properties are on course to be the first U.S. hotel brands in the region, and other companies have expressed interests in moving there.The Erbil Marriott will have 200 rooms and four restaurants and lounges and will open in 2014. 

Many companies have been hesitant to enter the country due to civil unrest and perceptions of corruption in the corporate world. While there is still some question as to whether or not these locations will be successful--or safe--many in the travel industry believe that northern Iraq, near the border of Turkey and Syria, is much more stable and presents a great deal of potential.

I wish I could say that I would visit Iraq, but there is definitely a sense of uncertainty when it comes to traveling there, especially for Americans. Many countries in the Middle East have been affected by political upheaval this year, like Egypt and Lybia. Those events crippled their tourism businesses as many visitors fled for home or canceled trips, and big cruise companies dropped ports from voyages. I know that any tourism income Iraq had before the war has certainly disappeared, and it has been struggling to get back on its feet for a long time. I think the fact that hotels are starting to invest in property there is a promising sign that the economy is turning around and that business is starting to boom in Iraq. I certainly hope it gets to a point where people feel comfortable enough to go there, even with all the fighting and turmoil, which, God willing, will end soon.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Freelance Gig Finally Pays Off

After working for over a year at my freelance writing gig, completing all of my assignments through research done online or speaking over the phone to tourism and convention bureau representatives, all my hard work has finally paid off. Next weekened, I am actually being sent on a travel writing assignment to Edmonton, Canada!

Not only do I get to visit a new destination and experience everything that Edmonton has to offer, but I get to do it the way a real travel writer does: Free of charge. That's right, my trip is being completely covered by the Edmonton Tourism group, all expenses paid. That means flight, hotel, food and activities. The only thing I need to pay for is any souvenirs or personal purchases I make along the way.

I was just sent my full weekend itinerary today, and I cannot wait to go on this trip. The great thing about these kind of promotional events is that they schedule a lot of exclusive activities for you that probably would not have been an option on a regular vacation. For instance, I get to see the musical Wicked during my stay, which originally might have been too expensive for me to buy. Also, I get to see the Edmonton Indy, one of the few race car competitions in Canada--something I would have never done otherwise. It's exciting, and now I am counting the days until I hop on that plane and head up to visit our neighbors to the North.

Finally, I get a glimpse at my potential future as a professional travel writer. And hopefully I can make some connections along the way to help further my career. It may only be one trip, but it's getting me one step close to my dream.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Would you do a digital detox?

Imagine arriving at a hotel to check in and before they hand you the room key, they demand your cell phone, iPod and any other kind of electronic device you may be carrying. You stand there in utter shock. How can this person ask you to give up your phone, your main means of communication, your life source? Are they nuts?

I may not be that dependent on my phone, I barely use it to search the internet or listen to music or play games, but obviously I rely on it to stay in touch with people and check my email when I'm not near a computer. So the idea of going even a day without it does seem like a stretch. However, I think I could do it, probably easier than other people.

This is a trend going on in the hospitality industry, where hotels are offering "digital detox" packages to people, a way to completely "unplug" and get away. This is the kind of vacation I fully support, especially for those people who are permanently attached to their phones, to the point where it is an addiction. What makes these packages even better is that those who agree to them get either a discount on their hotel room or extra amenities. For a cheaper room, a free meal or spa treatment, I would gladly give up my electronics. I do not know many people who would do the same, but maybe I am the exception.

Feel free to read more about these "digital detox" packages in this article. And I encourage everyone to consider actually partaking in one.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Sam Adams Drank Here: A Patriotic 4th of July in Boston

When I agreed to take a trip to Boston to visit my best friend, Fourth of July weekend seemed like the perfect time of year. What better place to celebrate our country's independence than in the city where it all started? What made the trip even better was that it ended up being a reunion with all of my high school friends, who now live all over the country. I knew the weekend would be epic, and I was not disappointed.

Within the first couple hours of getting off the plane at Logan International Airport, my friend Stephanie and I met up with three of the other girls, Hannah, Elise and Emily, my friend who lives in Boston. After dropping our bags at the hotel, we ventured over to Newbury Street--a quaint high-end shopping area--and found a cute place for brunch called Trident. There, we immediately embraced the theme of the weekend: a Red, White and Drunk Mimosa. It's made with blueberries, white grape juice, cranberry juice and Champagne--absolutely delicious and the perfect kick off to the weekend.

After scarfing down our breakfasts, we headed back to the hotel to meet up with our friend Christi who had just arrived. If you do not already know, Boston has a strict rule when it comes to buying and serving alcohol. First, you cannot purchase it on Sundays or holidays--so we had to stock up that afternoon on necessary libations. Second, there are no happy hour deals in the city, because the rule is that establishments cannot have any kind of deal that would promote excessive drinking, for instance half-price beers or $5 cocktails--these are the moments I truly appreciate Chicago's nightlife. Anyway, we headed over to the local Shaw's grocery store, where I learned about another interesting Boston rule: If you have an out of state ID and you are under 25, you cannot buy alcohol at the grocery store. Luckily, most of the girls I was with were 25, so that was not a problem.

We made our way to the hotel, drinks in hand, when we were abruptly stopped in the lobby. Here is another little travel tidbit for you all: Apparently, you cannot bring outside alcohol into a hotel--or at least not The Colonnade in Boston. If this is in fact a global policy, it should be prominantly posted on the hotel's website and all guests should be informed of it upon check-in so as to avoid these kinds of awkard and frustrating encounters. (I would also like to note that hotel employees should be trained to better handle these incidents, since a guest's happiness and comfort are the most important thing to maintain in the hospitatlity industry.) I will spare you the details of the events that occurred over the next two hours, but in the end, the hotel won--to some extent.

Where the Colonnade certainly regained points was with its rooftop pool. While the pool itself was relatively small, the seating area was very comfortable and spacious, with lots of lounging chairs, couches and tables. And the wait staff was very attentive, friendly and accommodating. (And the drinks were not bad either, depsite being a little pricey.)

When in Boston--especially during the Fourth--it's a must to go on the Freedom Trail. Whether you hit every landmark along the way or not, it is worth checking out some of the incredible buildings, old graveyards and historic locations where some of the most famous events occured in our country's past. While my friends and I were unable to make it the whole way--due mostly to key stops at certain pubs, including the first tavern ever in the nation, the Bell in Hand--I would say the Trail was one of my favorite parts of the trip.

On my second day in Boston, my friends and I took part in another Boston tourist staple: A Duck Tour. Ducks were built back in the early days of World War II to help allies unload cargo and soldiers in areas where there were no dock facilities. The vehicles, known back then as DUKWs, were half boat and half truck that could run on land and water. Of Boston's fleet of Ducks, we had the privilege of riding on South End Sara, and our conDUCKtor was Frim "DucKarma" Jolly: Boston's Good Time Guru. For the next 80 minutes, we were led by our guru-guide through the streets of Beantown, where he pointed out all the "FIRSTS" of the city--the first public garden, the first public school, the first free-exchange library (you get the idea). When the Duck made its way onto the Charles River, our guide took a little break and let us take the wheel--or more accurately ME! Yes, I had the privilege of driving the Duck through the high-traffic waters of Boston. While our trusty guide was right beside me, nerves got the best of me at times, and I worried about possibly crashing into the boats floating next to us. Alas, no such thing happened, and I returned safely to my seat to enjoy the rest of the journey. When the river portion of the tour was over, we headed back through the city to where we began. And by the time we disembarked, we were starving, craving some much needed New England Clam Chowda. (Say it the Boston way.)

Emily took us to Legal Seafood for a late lunch, where we met the final addition to our group, our friend Sari. We all orderd a cup of chowda, followed by random plates of muscles, oysters and fish and chips. In an effort to be a bit more adventurous and outgoing--even though I consider myself a risk taker--I ventured to try some of the slippery, slimy specimens my friends were happily scooping out of shells. It is true, I had never tried an oyster or a muscle before this moment, so I figured, there is no time like the present. With that thought in my head, I slid the oyster onto my tongue, let the taste and texture briefly register, and then swallowed it down without another second to waste. Not bad, but I'm not sure I would order a whole plate for myself. As for the muscle, well, let's just say it was lucky I was able to keep it down. Perhaps it was the texture or the fact that I had to chew it, but something did not sit well. Despite not being a fan of these particular dishes, and even though Legal Seafood is a chain, I definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys seafood.

Our evening contained even more dishes from the ocean, as dinner took place at a sushi joint called Haru, located in the Prudential Center, or as the Bostonians call it "The Pru." Since part of this trip was to celebrate three of the girls' birthdays and one of them getting engaged, a sake bomb was certainly in order. I've only ever done a sake bomb where you poor the liquor into the beer, so attempting to slam the table, resulting in the shot glass dropping, was kind of a challenge. Some of the girls were able to get it, but my attempt failed, so I just plopped it in myself. We finished off the rest of the sake and shared a heaping plate of colorful, scrumptious rolls, which I would consume again. When dinner ended, we headed to Prudential Tower where we ventured up to "Top of the Hub," where drinks and dessert were waiting. One bottle of Champagne, four decadent desserts and seven signature drinks made our special girls night almost complete. Of course there were toasts and tears devoted to our long-standing friendships that have been able to survive both time and distance. Once again, I have to credit the transportation in this country, making it relatively easy to bring seven high school friends from across the country together in one city for a memorable weekend. It certainly was amazing. With the somewhat foggy view of the city before us, we cheered to our lives both in separate parts of the world, and together for these few precious days.

For those of you who are still with me, and have not gagged from my sentimental storytelling, I will spare you events from the rest of the evening, as they mostly involve bar hopping, drinking and meeting many Bosotn locals.

Fourth of July arrived with a bright morning and eighty degree weather, the perfect environment for our patriotic activities. We woke up early so we could snag a good spot at the Old State House, where we heard the Declaration of Independence being read from the very balcony it was first proclaimed from back in 1776. I will admit that I do not know the Declaration well, and some of it was tough to follow since the diction in those days is far more sophisticated than our simplistic prose, but it was still extremely moving to hear those words stating our separation from the Bristish, our country's determination to be free and to dictate our own lives.

The final flourish of the weekend was, of course, the fireworks. To make sure we got a decent viewing spot, our crew departed early to stake territory on the esplanade right next to the river. Unfortunately, a lot of prime grass space was already taken at 5:30, but we figured we would have better luck on the Cambridge side--at least that's what our Cambridge compatriots told us. But before we could get there, we stumbled upon a prime spot on the Harvard (Hahvad) Bridge, right in the middle of the river with a perfect view of the island from where the fireworks would be set off. Since we had a lot of time to kill before the show, a few of us braved the crowds along the water to go in search of sustenance. We returned with arms ladened with hot dogs and sausages and fried dough, oh my. We popped open some of our previously purchased drinks--yes, the very same we could not bring into the hotel--and proceeded to enjoy our dinners.

Over the course of the next few hours, the area around the river became more and more packed, making it difficult to get anywhere. If you decide to go to Boston for the Fourth, and choose to sit on the bridge to watch the fireworks, here is a little piece of advice: Use the bathroom well in advance. With less than an hour before the show was scheduled to start, Emily, Stephanie and I decided to make a quick dash to the restroom, thinking we would have plenty of time to get back. Little did we know that the police would proceed to close down access to it just as we were trying to get back to our group. I begged with the guard to let us through the barriers, since we had been in before and all our friends were there, but his sympathy was nonexistant. So, in a desperate attempt to rejoin our group, we scurried over to the side of the bridge and down the grass so we were somewhat out of view, and then leaped over the railings before any of the officers could turn around. My heart was still pounding when we reached our crew, and my leg was throbbing from slamming it into the rail, but the fireworks were totally worth it.

You know that feeling of complete and utter aw when you witness something so spectacular that it takes your breath away? That's what watching these fireworks was like. First there was general excitement about them actually starting, then joy and exhiliration as each new fire cracker burst into a different image, and then just pure amazement as the final couple minutes of gut-wrenching, tear-enducing explosions went off in a fit of color and smoke. It truly left me speechless. Emily was in tears. Smiles spread across all our faces. The perfect end to a truly perfect weekend.

Friday, July 1, 2011

90+ and Sunny: My Week in Myrtle Beach

There is always that fear when you go on vacation that weather in your planned destination will be miserable, while everyone back at home enjoys days of clear skies and high temperatures. For my week in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, this was not the case. Within minutes of arriving, I was greeted with 80 degree, humid and sunny conditions, and it pretty much stayed that way the whole trip.

My first taste of the salty, moist Myrtle Beach air came as I stepped off the plane and onto the airport tarmack, a pleasant introduction to the quaint ocean town. (Little did I know at the time I would grow to despise the airport, but that story will come later.) Once inside the terminal, I met up with my friend Matt, who went to college with me in Milwaukee and now lives in Pennsylvania. We proceeded to reminisce briefly while grabbing some lunch and waiting for our other friend, Bob, to arrive from Newark, where he had been delayed an hour. (This would be the first of many flight delays experienced on this trip.) To kill time, Matt and I grabbed the rental car and took a quick drive over to one of the main stretches of Myrtle Beach, which can only be described as a garish bargain area meant for underage college partiers. I can honestly say I have not seen so many flashy tourist shops selling character and sports merchandise and shoddy clothing, at least not since spring break freshman year when we went to Panama City Beach, Florida.

Once Bob arrived and we had the rental car packed up and ready to go, we drove the 20-some mile distance to the Litchfield Resort, which would be our home for the next week. Along highway 17--which I got to know very well over the course of the trip--I noticed dozens of cheap looking seafood spots and cheesy mini golf courses. Two things I was desperately looking forward to enjoying. And how could I not in a place that's known for its delicious, fresh seafood and unlimited array of mini golf? When in Myrtle Beach, right?

Driving through the pristinely kept front gate of the resort, I felt centuries away from the abject scene we had witnessed earlier. Private condo units set steps away from fresh-water lakes surrounded by lengthy reeds, cranes sauntering through the brush searching for their afternoon meal. Families sat under an awning, fishing, carrying on without a care in the world, while other guests basqued by the pool, soaking in the last of the days light. Our condo sat at the end of a long winding road, #91. We had arrived at last. We quickly changed into our swimsuits and headed over to the beach where we planned to spend most of our time. Most people had packed up for the day and were making their way into their beach-front homes for some dinner, leaving the oceanfront practically bare. As I toed the rushing waves, the slightly cool water refreshed my travel wary body, preparing me for the long week ahead. After a quick walk down the beach and through part of the resort, we made our way to the grocery store to stock up on food necessities and libations--though Bob's grandfather had stocked us up nicely before we arrived.

My first meal in Myrtle Beach was--of course--seafood. I also got my first taste of a local favorite: hushpuppies, basically little balls of fried dough. While the fresh fish was seasoned perfectly and melted instantly in my mouth, I was most impressed by the technique used to cook my food. The restaurant had placed all the ingredients into a brown paper bag, and baked it. When it arrived at the table, the waitress broke open the bag and dumped it on my plate, with the fish landing squarely on top of the rice and vegetables.

Our first day was spent lounging lazily on the beach (after a quick three mile run on the beach, which, in the humidity, felt like 10 miles). We made sure to lather up on sunscreen and drink plenty of water, but despite my efforts, I still managed to develop a red, slightly raw, color on my shoulders. Probably one of the most unfortunate things that can happen on vacation is getting burned the very first day, so I encourage everyone to load up right away, even if you're dying to get some color. Trust me, you'll thank me later when you get to enjoy every single day out in the sun, rather than just one or two.

In the afternoon, we ventured back to the airport (trip #2) to pick up Ashley, our fourth and final companion. Back at the condo, we cooked up an impressive plate of chicken kabobs and roasted vegetables, pairing it with the first of many rounds of cocktails. Once we finished dinner, we made ourselves some drinks-to-go and went for a relaxing stroll on the beach to watch the sunset. Past experiences on the ocean in the evening told me to grab a sweater or something in case the sea breeze forced a chill, but to my surprise and pleasure, there was absolutely no need for another layer. The warmth seemed to dominate the day and barely waned at night. As we traipsed along, each of us pointed out the house we hoped to someday own, the massive beach-front properties that gave no indication that we were in a recession. Mine was modern, painted blue with white trimmings and a spiral staircase between the upper and lower deck.

Our second full day, we experienced the true pain of a heat index that tops 110 degrees. All those days I begged for warmer weather, I will now no longer complain. We could barely stay outside for a few minutes before feeling like we were melting. But as much as everyone wants to hear about we baked out in the heat all day, I know there are others things to talk about. That night, we made our way to Broadway at the Beach, where we enjoyed large platters of scrumptious sushi. We then spent the rest of the evening walking around a shopping area, sampling local wine (very fruity and sweet), indulging on scoops of ice cream and freshly made fudge, and trying on various cute outfits (at least that's what me and Ash did while the guys enjoyed a beer in the bar across the way).

The next evening, after making a nice meal of pasta and garlic bread, we headed over to one of those ultra cheesy mini golf courses to take part in some much needed physical activity. We encountered waterfalls, caves, rivers, and lots of other obstacles typical of good quality mini golf courses. The whole night was filled with laughter, music, fun and cake batter vodka--all Matt.

Wednesday was Matt and Ashley's last full day, and we spent it lounging at the pool and relaxing. Since it was so hot out, we decided to spend the afternoon inside and went to see a movie. After the film, we headed over to a seafood joint Bob raved about called Nance's. We all got a platter of delicious seafood, swordfish, crab, oysters, lobster and of course, hushpuppies. After finishing our meal, we headed over to the pier to listen to some live music over the crashing waves. Yes, it was all country, but still a nice experience, and a prime opportunity to people watch.

On Matt and Ash's final say, we spent the morning on the beach, enjoying the waves and the sun. Bob and I drove them to the airport (trip #3) and dropped them off for their flight to Atlanta, where Matt would be catching a connection to Detroit and Ash would be making her way back to Milwaukee. No more than 10 minutes after leaving, Matt called to tell us the flight was delayed and he would miss his connection, so we turned around quickly (trip #4) to pick him up. We ventured up North to a different shopping area where we found a really great fish market, where the guys got full platters of crab legs, crawfish and potatoes--a guy's dream. It was pouring rain outside, so it was no surprise when we got a call from Ash telling us her flight was delayed out of Myrtle Beach and she needed to be picked up. So we made the best of their extra night and revisited out college days with a game of beer pong--or four or five games.

Our last full day was spent taking Matt to the airport (trip #5) and then heading over to downtown Myrtle Beach where we had lunch on the beach and wandered around some of the cheaper areas of the city. By mid afternoon, it was time to take Ash to her flight, (trip #6). After dropping her off, Bob and I went back to the condo and made the best of the rest of the day by going to the pool and then making a quick dinner. But just as we were finishing our meal, we got a call from Ash telling us she needed to be picked up again. Trip #7. The evening was spent on the phone to Delta getting Ash some compensation for her troubles, and then enjoying some delivered pizza and a rented movie. Unfortunately, Ash had an early flight out on Saturday morning, so Bob took her to the airport around 5 am, (trip #8 for him). Once we packed up and had some food, we made locked up the condo and made our way out.

Even though my trip was not as touristy as it could have been, I know there are plenty of tours and attractions I could have participated in. The bottom line was I didn't want to leave; the entire trip was exactly what I needed. A relaxing week spent in the sun with some of my best friends. The weather was absolutely perfect and it was just the distance from Chicago that was necessary.