Jul 10, 2018

Museum of Intrigue - amazing!

Interesting how Destiny is more than a shopping and eating venue; it also has unique entertainment such as racing cars, rope course, mirror maze, and now the Museum of Intrigue. John and I love museums but we had never heard of this one mainly because it is new.  It is also very innovative and a bit hard to explain.  The museum is 9000
sq. feet with areas set up in a variety of sets: rain forest, art gallery,
Salem, medieval dining room, archaeology, and more – all unique and interesting. Adventurers purchase one of the 16 different adventure books.  They are designed according to level of difficulty and to the number of players it is designed for. There are some for all age levels and some perfect for multi-generational fun. The price varies according to the level of difficulty.  There are also live, role-playing staff members who will help but only if you can convince them, in their role playing
job, to do so. Common staff roles are the professor, the archeologist, the scientist, and doctor.  One might be able to bribe the archeologist with a bone – “If I give you this bone I found if you help me…” The adventures indicate the number of minutes which corresponds to the price; however, once the adventure starts player can stay as long as it takes. There will never be another group playing the same adventure and new adventures are added all the time plus some are retired only to be reintroduced in a slightly different format. Each adventure uses the entire museum space.  

John and I tried the easiest level adventure – Still Life.  We had to create a still life with object we were directed to find. We had to find baby doll pictures which led us to picture frames with a still life that could only be seen with special glasses. Each still life had another image we had to look for. Once we found all the still life articles we returned to where there was a table with an outline of the articles we needed to complete a still life which then opened a picture frame with a picture of the still life.

While trying to solve my
adventure I was intrigued by the settings that are used in other intrigues.  Plus there are secret rooms, hidden messages and other unique features. They have a small party room set up as a speakeasy which would be a great place for a birthday party – food can be ordered and delivered.  It is possible to reserve the entire museum for an event; which may also be more economical than purchasing the intrigue for many people.  It would be a unique way to celebrate any occasion.  

I chatted with Jono, the Lead Designer, who was as interesting as
the museum.  He just finished his masters at Syracuse University. He said that it is often the older person who is the best at solving the intrigue but the Professor said his two youngsters loved their experience which was designed without the need to read and they are anxious to return to do more.  I want to return to try the Salem Witch Trial but that is best done with three or more because one person – unknown to the rest of the group – is the designated witch.  John showed an interest in the book called “Containment.” 

Jul 4, 2018

Taking the Train across the United States

One of the best ways to see the USA is by train.  John and I recently took the California Zephyr from Emeryville, Ca. to Syracuse.  If you are considering a cross-country train adventure here are some things to consider. 

1. Why the train?  Avoid the traffic, no need to book accommodations along the way, meals are included with some tickets, and it is faster than driving. Taking the train allows one to relax and enjoy the scenery plus some portions of the train routes travels through areas not accessible by car. 
2. Which route? There are several scenic train routes across the
United States including the California Zephyr from Emeryville (San Francisco) to Chicago and the Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago. From Chicago it is possible to connect to New York, Washington and other destinations.  
3. Buying the ticket: Ticket
prices vary with the season.  There are special rates for senior citizens.  Once the ticket is purchased – if bought on the Amtrak website – check back occasionally to see if the price has changed.  If it is less expensive than the ticket purchased contact them for a refund. There are multi-ride tickets and other parameters that should be investigated ahead of time. 
4. Which accommodation: If you are not up to sitting in coach for several days then check out the variety of accommodations available. The choice is yours: roomette, bedroom, bedroom suite (two adjoining bedrooms) and accessible
bedrooms.  Some come with toilet, shower, and sink while others have only a toilet and sink. 
5. Meals: If you opt for sleeping accommodations then all meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) will be included in the cost. Breakfast and lunch are on a first-come, first-serve basis but dinner will be at a scheduled time.  The attendant will come to
your cabin to find out what time you’d like dinner. If meals are not part of your ticket a cafĂ© car is available.
6. The views: All windows are large but the dome cars allow for a more panoramic viewing.  If you want to spend time in the dome car get there early as the seats are quickly filled.  On some portions of the trip an informational narration is provided.
7. Packing: It is possible to check your luggage or to store it on
the luggage rack of the car you are assigned to.  If you have a sleeper car pack only the items you will need in a smaller bag so that larger bags do not take up unnecessary room in the compartment. 
8. Attendants: Each car has a designated attendant who will answer questions and will take care of making and unmaking the beds.  A tip for good service is appreciated.  The wait staff in the dining cars will also appreciate tips. Red caps are available in most stations to help with boarding
the train. 
9. Package tours: Amtrak has a special department for booking train, hotels, and tours.  Popular packages include one to Glacier National Park and/or other national parks.  They offer special family packages and even rail and sail packages
10. Tips: Arrangements can be make for taking along a bike
and/or pet.  Smoking is only allowed at designated stops.  Relax, expect delays. By law, Amtrak is supposed to receive priority over freight trains but that doesn’t always happen. Some, but not all trains, have Wi-Fi. Sign up for their customer loyalty program to garner points for future trips. 

Jun 26, 2018

Carnival Cruise to Catalina and Ensenada

We were in Las Vegas for our granddaughter’s high school graduation. It was special because her father, our son, was an administrator at the school so he personally presented her with her diploma.  A cruise was her gift from her parents and our son wanted all of us to go along making it a family cruise. The Carnival Cruise sailed from Long Beach, CA, to Catalina Island then to Ensenada. John and I are newbies when it comes to big ship cruising.  We have done many river cruises but they have been all-inclusive and never more than 30 people.  

We flew from Las Vegas to Long Beach and stayed at the Best Western because they offered free transport to/from the airport and cruise pier. They also have a package for those who want to leave their vehicle. In the morning the hotel transported us to the cruise ship where a porter was waiting to tag our luggage and transport it to our room.  We were early so the line was not long and check-in was better organized than the only other big ship cruise we went on.  Being early meant avoiding the
lines and having time to explore the ship. Once everyone else arrived there was the compulsory safety drill which was done in the theater and more civilized than the cruise we took in January. 

We enjoyed the cruise more than we thought because we loved how the grandchildren participated in so many events and got
to bond together. They would check the daily schedule and make their plans but we all met for dinner. Besides celebrating a graduation we celebrated two birthdays.

When we arrived in Catalina John, the younger, and his wife went scuba diving and declared it wonderful.  Most of the other family members went into Avalon, the main city on the island, and wandered around.  John
and I stayed on board because we had visited Catalina previously. With so many people off the ship it was a great time to relax in the sun. 

In Ensenada most of the family went horseback riding which they said was awesome as they followed a trail up into the mountains.  Two others went on a wine tour.  We didn’t see
anything that interested us so once again we stayed on board and relaxed in the lounge chairs.  However, I learned later that there were a couple of activities we would have enjoyed but I didn’t see them on the web site.  The next time I will make sure I check with the onboard tour desk. 

John signed up for the onboard tour of the ship which turned out to
be so much more than he expected… and longer.  It started with coffee and donuts at 9 a.m. and then toured the entire ship, returning to the lounge about noon where there were more refreshments.  He
didn’t get to drive the ship but thoroughly enjoyed the tour. He learned that for one week the ship, which carries 2000 passengers, serves 1,400 lbs. of prime rib, 45,000 eggs, and 12,500 cans of soda. He was impressed with their effort to recycle. The leftover food is liquefied and fed to the fish.

We enjoyed all the evening activities (I was one number away from wining the big bingo jackpot) and our grandson came in second in the paper airplane contest. We will do it again…soon, I hope.

Jun 18, 2018

The Queen Mary

Most people know that the Queen Mary was a luxury ocean liner but forget the important role she played during WW II. When the grand ship was converted to a war ship and painted navy grey. The stateroom furniture and decorations were removed and refitted with triple-tiered bunks. The crystal, paintings, and other valuables were put in storage and
the fancy woodwork was covered in leather. The Queen Mary became the largest and fastest troopship involved in the war carrying as many as 16,000 men in a single voyage. Her high speed and zigzag course made it impossible for U-Boats to catch her.  Hitler offered $250,000 and the Iron Cross to any U-boat captain who sinks her.  It never happened, she could outrun a torpedo. 

Many famous people sailed the Queen plus the D-Day Declaration
was signed by Winston Churchill on board. He said that she was “Built for the arts of peace and to link the old world with the new, the Queen Mary challenged the fury of Hitlerism in the battle of the Atlantic.  Without their aid, the day of final victory must unquestionable have been postponed.” I was surprised to see that the suites did not appear sumptuous by today’s standards. It is said that she is haunted by ghosts of some of her passengers, crew, and soldiers. And, yes, they now offer a haunted tour. 

While in Long Beach, CA, John and I booked a tour of the “Queen.” The tour included a tour of the main areas and a 4-D attraction, “The Queen Mary Story” that included getting sprayed by a wave. 

The ship was built in Scotland at the height of the depression providing work for hundreds. The
Queen, named for the consort of King George V, set sail on May 27, 1936 setting a new standard in transatlantic travel. In 1967 she retired from sea and is now an iconic Southern California attraction and hotel.  During her sailing life she carried 2.2 million passengers during peacetime and 810,000 military personal during the Second World War. Interestingly, on the day she was launched a well-known English psychic predicted,
“The Queen Mary will know her greatest fame and popularity when she never sails another mile or carries another fare-paying passenger.”  The popularity of air travel spelled the end of luxury ocean travel. On her last voyage she left Southhampton filled with passengers who wanted to say they had made Her last voyage.  Not all of them made it to Long
Beach at the end of the cruise December 9, 1967.  According to our guide, Dennis, the ship had no air conditioning and as the ship sailed south it got hotter and hotter. It was too hot for some passenger so they disembarked at various ports along the way.

The tour was interesting and the 4-D somewhat interesting but I learned that after 6 p.m. one can board the vessel and wander around without paying. There are several dining venues. We lunched at the Chelsea Chowder House with a great view of the harbor. The Carnival Cruise ships moor adjacent to the Queen Mary is a Russian sub, The Scorpion, which patrolled the Pacific for 22 years. It is now a museum vessel.

After leaving the Queen Mary we boarded the free Passport bus that connects most of Long Beach’s attractions: The Queen Mary, the Aquarium of the Pacific, Shoreline Village, downtown, and shopping and dining areas.

Jun 11, 2018

Catalina Island - Island of Romance

I was surprised my children were not familiar with the song “26 Miles” by the Four Preps. Twenty-six miles across the sea, Santa Catalina is a-waitin' for me, Santa Catalina, the island of romance…

John and I have been to Catalina twice and there is more than romance – there is fun, adventure, and relaxation. 
The easiest and least expensive way to get to Catalina is by ferry from San Pedro, Long Beach, Newport Beach or Dana Point. It takes a bit more than an hour. We could have taken a helicopter from Long Beach, San Pedro, Burbank, or John Wayne Airport.  Carnival cruise line also stops on
some cruises. Avalon, the island’s main town, is small so everything is in easy walking distance. The public bus has a fixed route up the canyon to Wrigley Memorial and the Botanical Gardens. People can rent a golf cart or bike, and there is a sightseeing tour in a motor coach, which is what we did, and a shuttle bus service or taxi van service to the Airport in the Sky, Two Harbors, or the interior campground. 

The island has been inhabited for at least 8000 years. During that time is was home to Native Americans, and visited by the Spanish who named the island in honor of St. Catherine. More recently, until 1970, it was owned by William Wrigley, Jr. of chewing gum fame and owner of the Chicago Cubs. Wrigley developed it into a resort island and it was used as the Chicago Cubs spring training site for several years. Visitors can learn more at the Catalina Island Museum.

The Casino is the iconic landmark in Avalon Bay.  You can’t miss
it.  If you plan to gamble you will be disappointed because it isn’t that kind of casino.  The name comes from the Italian meaning a “gathering place.” The large building contains a movie theater, ballroom, and more. We took the 90-minute walking tour and saw where the big bands played to the enjoyment of their famous guests.

On our recent trip our son and his wife went scuba diving in the kelp fields and declared, “It was awesome!” On our first trip John and I took the Sea Wolf Semi-Submersible Vessel and saw the marine life through our own porthole five feet below the surface. There are a variety of
boat tours to see the dolphins, seals, and glass bottom boats to view the fish. We also took the Avalon Scenic Tour of the town including the home of Norma Jean Baker, better known as Marilyn Monroe. There is also a Hummer of the Avalon Canyon Trail Tour or the one to Mr. Ada for great views of the area. For the adventurous there is zip lining, rock climbing, and/or the unique Aerial Adventure where you can swing and slide from tree to tree.

Don’t miss viewing the buffalo herd. While filming “The Vanishing American” in 1924, the production crew imported 14 bison from the Great Plains.  They never left the island and over the years the herd has increased. 

The island has changed little in the last 50 years… they like it that
way and so do the tourist.  There is a 20-year waiting list to buy/own a car. The fun continues with swimming, stand-up board paddling, kayaking, relaxing with a spa treatment, and golfing. There are a variety of accommodations. To avoid the crowds and take advantage of great values consider visiting in the spring or fall.

Jun 3, 2018

Things to do in Vegas

There is always something new to do in Las Vegas including

special events like the return of Barry Manilow and other performers but, no matter how many times you have been to Las Vegas you can always find something new and different to do – plus enjoy your old favorites. If you don’t like vocalists there is always Cirque
du Soleil presentations and freebies such as the spectacular music, water and light fountain held on frequent intervals outside Bellagio. Most of the major casinos offer some sort of free entertainment.

One of my favorite Vegas museums is the Mob Museum where the
true story of the mob is revealed along with the myths and legends. The Mob Museum opened on Valentine’s Day 2012 in the very building where some of the Kefauver Committee hearings to investigate organized crime were held in the early 1950s.  The courtroom has been restored to the way it looked during the hearings. When we got into the elevator to take us to the third floor to start our tour a video informed us of our Miranda Rights. It set the mood for the tour! There is always a lot to do. On my “gotta’ do the next time list” is the Museum of Neon Art – the night tour.

Looking for some educational activities for the younger set then visit the Lied Discovery Children’s Museum which opened in 2013 in a new location next to the Smith Center in Symphony Park. It has many family-orientated, hands-on learning experiences with a focus on science, the arts, and culture. It is a fun learning experience for all ages.  The Summit, a 70-foot climbing tower ascends all three floors with interactive activities along the way.  

A personal favorite, and one of the most unique experiences in the desert, is flat water rafting. The tour puts into the Colorado River at the foot of the massive Hoover Dam and floats down the river through 12 miles of Black Canyon. The slow moving, wheelchair accessible, trip allows time to marvel at the canyon walls and includes a stop at a cave and a beach for lunch. Transportation between the city and the put-in area can be included if you don’t have your own transportation.

Renting a car in Las Vegas is rather reasonable as long as you return it to the same location.  A favorite out-of-Vegas trip for most people (tours are offered, if you don’t have a car) is to Red Rock where there is a one-way, 13-mile scenic drive plus a nature center and several hiking trails. One of my favorite trips was to Valley of Fire State Park; one I plan to revisit on my next trip. There are petrified trees, petroglyphs dating back more than 2000 years and, of course, a visitor’s center.  

On this trip we attended our granddaughter’s high school graduation. It was even more special because her father, our oldest son, is a school administrator at the same high school so he was able to personally hand his daughter her diploma. Sometimes people are amazed to realize that Las Vegas is more than gambling.  Actually, most of the gambling is confined to two distinct areas; however, there are slot machines in stores, gas stations and the like. We seldom stay on the Strip.  This time we stayed at La Quinta Inn & Suites Airport South for less than $100 a night including breakfast, transportation to/from the hotel airport and Strip, and a great pool. 

May 26, 2018

Mystic Stamp Company

I have never been a dedicated or diligent stamp collector and decided the time had come to see if what I had was worth anything.  An internet search of places near me that would evaluate stamp collections brought up Mystic Stamp Company in Camden.  I called and was told I could drop off my collection any day they were open. 

I expected to find a little old man with a green visor and a magnifying glass bent over examining stamps in a dusty, old store front.   Boy, was I wrong.  The first indication that I had it all wrong was the crowded parking lot and the spiffy building.  I asked the receptionist. “Who belongs to all those cars?” “The workers.”  Turns out that over 100 people work at Mystic
 Stamp Company doing everything from designing first day covers to evaluating collections to creating their catalog.  I asked about tours and they said they do tours but prefer that people call ahead for a reservations but I was in luck there was someone available togive us a tour. 

Shawne Denison, the guide, started the tour in the lobby where there is a Confederate printing press on display. We proceeded down the hall of honor with a Z Grill stamp poster displayed.  I had never heard of Z Grill so Shawne explained it to me but I did know that the Jenny Inverted plate was the rarest of stamps. In 2014, Donald J. Sundman sold his Inverted Jenny plate block to an anonymous buyer for around $5 million! Sundman is the owner of Mystic Stamp Company, it was gifted to him on his 19th birthday by his father. Nice. 

Needless to say there is a lot to learn about stamping so they have a
special training room.  All stamps are catalogued according to the numbers in the Scott Stamp Catalogue where all stamps are listed both American and worldwide.  

There are people who sort stamps and file them according to the Scott Catalogue number and/or by topic. If I was going to start or continue collecting stamps – which I am not – I would collect by topic.  There are just too many stamps worldwide so it gets confusing.  I think I’d focus on US presidents but there are people who collect only Elvis or Lady Diana Stamps.  The file cabinets are extensive. 

Some employees put single stamps into mylar cards for filing. No large boxes of loose stamps like the one a man brought in while we were there. It is possible to buy a grab-bag of stamps and for that they have a tumbler that keeps them from sticking together and it also weighs them ready for shipping. Another area is devoted to filling orders.  They get about 75,000 pieces of mail each month and send out 150,000 mailings. After someone complained about a stamp company sending out mail that has been automatically stamped they started putting stamps on all mailings.  There is one area that has envelopes with stamps organized by weight ready to go. 

One department takes care of customers. They have a toll-free
number where orders can be placed and questions answered. Amazingly, customers can receive stamps on approval. Shawne said, “You can trust most people.” They try to process orders within 48 hours.

Working here must be a Valhalla for philatelists. One primary buyer travels all over the US buying big stamp lots and collections. To say we were impressed would be an understatement.