Monthly Archives: June 2011

Universal Orlando Dining–Tchoup Choup, The Palm, and Bice

My husband and I are restaurant snobs. I think I’ve admitted that on here before. And so, when planning our trip to Universal I attempted to make reservations for the three major on site resort restaurants.

Imagine my surprise when not only could I not make advance reservations for them, but I didn’t need to make reservations. We managed to dine at exactly the times we desired by only calling ahead a few hours.

In retrospect, this plan came with a pretty significant bonus–we were able to check out the other two resorts for future reference. Because as is clear by now, we will be going back to Universal!

Tchoup Choup

The evening of our first full day was spent at the resort located the farthest distance from Portofino Bay–The Royal Pacific. This is the resort I’d orignally booked–and judging by the crowded, loud (but beautiful) pool we witnessed, the switch was a good choice.

Approaching Royal Pacific Resort from the water taxi

We took the resort boat from Portofino to City Walk, and then the resort boat from City Walk to Royal Pacific. This was the only time we almost didn’t make it onto a boat–there were always far more people waiting for the Royal Pacific boat than for either of the other resorts. I imagine this is because it is a larger resort than Portofino and it is farther away than Hard Rock.

Looking past my husband into the bar area

The main restaurant at Royal Pacific is Emeril’s Tchoup Choup. It looks, well, just like an Emeril restaurant from the outside, as you can see from the photo at the beginning of this section.  The almost-Vegas-esque look continues inside, where wine bottles line an entire wall and an infinity edge koi pond runs down the center of the entire room. Of the three restaurants, Tchoup Choup wins the award for best ambience.  Check out the poorly taken photos below…

The interior was kind of like being under the sea

A pond ran the length of the room

Two hand rolls and a shot of saki!

Tchoup Choup also wins the award for ‘the restaurant most able to get my husband plastered’. He ordered a large hot saki and enjoyed all of it throughout our meal. He also ordered a sushi handroll sampler appetizer that came with a shot of cold saki. I don’t like saki in the least bit, but I drank it just to keep my husband from consuming it! I have to admit, it goes very well with raw tuna and seaweed. I may just begin ordering saki with my sushi regularly.

The sushi appetizer was good, but the traditional appetizer we ordered was amazing. It was just a crab cake, but it was THE BEST crab cake I’ve ever had. Unbelievable.

This is the crabcake you are looking for...

My husband ordered the short ribs–which I thought was insane, given the fact that we were in a seafood restaurant. So I ordered the fish special of the day–trout stuffed with shrimp and lobster.

It was disgusting. Inedibly disgusting. The fish was dry and the stuffing was less the kind of stuffing you’d stuff a fish with and more the stuffing you’d fill a won-ton with. The only word I can use to describe it is spongy. I think at one point I actually poked it with one finger just to watch it bounce back. I shudder.

The fish of the day...looks pretty, tatsted terrible!

When the waiter noticed that I wasn’t eating, he inquired, and then insisted that they make me something else. At this point my husband was halfway through with his red meat and it was getting really late–Tchoup Choup’s service is as slow as it should be. So I just asked for another crab cake–because it was SO GOOD and I was actually sad when I took the last bite because I knew I’d likely not be back for years (yes, it was so good that I mourned its loss!) The waiter insisted on giving me some sort of side dish with the crab cake appetizer, so I agreed on some stir-fried veggies.

The second crab cake was as amazing as the first, and the veggies were an entree in their own right. I love mushrooms but never get to enjoy them because my husband hates them. Fortunately, the stir fry was chock full of all different kinds of mushrooms. My mouth is watering now just thinking about it.

While I did not like the fish special, it is possible that I simply ordered poorly–or that the fish was kept under the lamp too long whilst my husband’s short ribs braised (my money is on the second) but the food I did have was so great, the service was so wonderful, and the ambiance was so lovely that I’d definitely return to Tchoup Choup.

And yes, I’ll get another crab cake. And something with mushrooms.

The Palm

Night number two found us walking along the garden path from Portofino to The Hard Rock Hotel. It was a beautiful walk, and not too far at all. It gave me the opportunity to make my husband take this photo of me…

Walking from Portofino Bay to The Hard Rock Hotel

…unfortunately it came out blurry, and there’s no making my husband do a retake. I shall live my whole life taking photos and very rarely have a good one with ME in it!

Truth be told, I didn’t even considering staying at The Hard Rock Hotel. It just

Lobby of the Hard Rock Hotel

didn’t seem like my style. How wrong I was. It was so very my style–the epitome of moderately over the top fancy hotel-ness. I would definitely stay there in the future…or I would, if Portofino bay wasn’t calling me back!

Before we were seated I made a pit stop at the ladies room. Why am I telling you this? Because it was the coolest ladies room I’ve ever seen. Yes, I took pictures…

Ladies room at Hard Rock Hotel Orlando

Still the ladies room...

I felt silly snapping photos until I turned the corner (it was made up of multiple rooms) and found another group of women doing the exact same thing! It was a really nice restroom!

The restaurant itself was everything a restaurant should be–cozy and romantic and relaxing.  It was also very dark, as you can see here…

Can you see my husband? Yeah...neither can I!

The service here was the kind of slow that I actually appreciate.  After all, if I’m paying this much for a meal, I’d like it to last a while!  We started off with the clams casino, which were good but not world changing.  My husband had the filet and I had one of the specials–a ravioli dish covered in (you guessed it) mushrooms!  They were filled with crabmeat.  Everything was good, but presentation was lacking.  I kind of got the feeling that the kitchen was feeling very rushed–to the point of throwing food out the door…

Clams Casino

My husband's filet and a side of creamed spinach.

My crab ravoioli in a mushroom sauce

All in all it was a good meal, but likely not worth the insane price.  Of the three restaurants, The Palm was our least favorite–but that’s not to say that we didn’t like it.  We liked them all!

Bice

We had no intention of dining at Bice, but on the last night of our trip we thought ‘what the heck–we’ve eaten at the other two ‘nice’ restaurants!’  And so we made a reservation an hour or so before we were ready to eat and showed up.  Have I mentioned that I love the ease of dining at Universal?

Bice was the only well-lit restaurant we visited all week.  With giant windows looking over the fake harbor and tinkling piano music in the background, it was almost romantic.  I say ‘almost’ because someone had decided to bring a screaming child to the most expensive restaurant on site. This is my husband being annoyed…

Fortunately they eventually took the screaming child outside.  And then we were happy.  See?  Happy.

Happy at Bice

I was feeling a bit queasy after that day’s activities (which included 100 degree heat, blasting cold air conditioning, an ill-advised lunch break glass of wine, and the Hulk) and I really didn’t want an upset stomach to ruin our meal.  So I did what anyone would do whilst on vacation–I ordered a glass of Proscecco hoping that it would settle my stomach.  And do you know what?  It worked!

For our meals we once again assumed our proper roles–the husband ordered meat and I ordered seafood.  He had his favorite dish of all time–osso bucco, served as it should be over a bed of risotto.  He loved it.  I had the sea bass, which I requested be served with mashed potatoes instead of roasted potatoes.  The server gave me a bit of a snooty attitude about that, but I decided not to care.  This was the only snooty waiter we experienced in all of Universal.  And, to be fair, it was only a moment of snootiness.

The husband's osso bucco

My sea bass with...gasp...mashed potatoes! And it was good, too!

The meal, like this portion of the post, was oddly brief.  I think we were there for a total of 45 minutes, and I had a drink, soup, and an entree.  I hate being rushed when dining, so Bice lost some points there.

The Verdict

As far as overall dining experience goes, I think the award has to go to Tchoup Choup.  While my initial meal wasn’t great, the service was wonderful, the ambiance was unbelievable, and the food I eventually ate was out of this world.  Heck–the stir fry was so good I failed to take a photo of it!

But put all of the dining experiences together, and, well, you get one great short vacation!

Up next…in case you are still hungry, a review of the ‘other’ dining options at Universal Orlando:  Mama Della’s, Sal’s Deli, Finnegan’s Pub, Mythos, and the unavoidable Hard Rock Cafe.  How did we not gain weight on this trip???

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Check Out My Guest Post on Teaching Traveling!

As you will see in a moment, it is only appropriate that this post is duplicated on one of my other blogs, Existential Midlife Twitch.  Thanks for reading, and please feel free to check out Existential Midlife Twitch for more about me and my crazy plans for a year away from work.

As you can see from the multiple badges on the right side of this page, Blog on the Run is not my only blog.  I also have an Educational travel blog, a real-time travel blog, and my new blog devoted to my career break.  Why all of the blogging?  The short answer:  because I love it.  The long answer: because it is a great way to share the things I’m doing and an even greater way to meet new people who are traveling a similar path.  I’ve met so many great people through my various blogs who have made my travels easier and more fun, who have supported me during less than ideal times, and who provide inspiration to keep following my own (sometimes crazy) dreams.

Take Lillie, owner and blogger on Teachingtraveling.com.  She did what I’m hoping to do, but on a grander scale–she took a year off from her teaching position to travel the world.  How great is that?  And even better, her site is full of other people doing the exact same thing.  Finding sites like these makes me feel so much better about my own decisions.  After all, if other people are doing it too I can’t be that insane–right?

That all being said, check out my guest post on teaching traveling.  It tells the story of how I came to the decision to take this year off…and it features a really embarrassing photo of me that I willingly shared, connected to my awful trip to Paris last summer.

Traveling with Electronics: Necessity or Nuisance?

The desk in my London hotel room; iPhone not pictured (because it is how I took the picture!)

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks pricing and comparing dSLR cameras.  I’d really like one and feel as though I can almost justify the cost based on how much traveling I’ll be doing this coming year.

Speaking of traveling, I’ll also be doing a lot more writing this year from places other than home.  Which means I need (want?) a better computer.  I currently travel with a little Toshiba netbook I purchased for our Europe trip last summer.  Do I want to write my whole book on that piece of crap?  Not really.

So let’s say I purchase a camera (which I will do) and a macbook (which I may do.)  Problem solved, right?

Now I need a way to carry all of that crap, often on a plane.  Additionally, I get to worry about bumping, breaking, scratching, or otherwise harming said expensive equipment.  Add to that the fear of having any of it stolen and I’ve just created three new problems!

I’m not arguing that travel should be free and unfettered by technology.  I’m perfectly happy being fettered by technology.  You’d have to pry my iPhone from my cold, dead hands (that would also be clutching my passport and my Visa card, the only other two things a person needs when traveling!)  I’ve just never had big, heavy, expensive technology.  Sure, losing my iPhone would really suck.  But would it suck as much as losing a thousand dollar camera?  No.  No it would not.  If my Toshiba netbook is stolen…well…then that robber just got a really crappy netbook.  Congratulations!  Do I worry about it as much as I would a Macbook Pro?  Of course not.

So the question is–is it worth the work and worry?  What do you think?

 

 

Disney World vs. Universal Orlando vs. Las Vegas

My husband and I love Las Vegas. I love Disney World. But would we love Universal Orlando? Read on to find out how Universal stacks up against Sin City and The Happiest Place on Earth…

Where is this?

My husband decided to spend his two personal days this year enjoying a long weekend at Universal Orlando. There were several reasons for this. One, he knew I’d already be in Orlando having just spent a week in Disney with my mom. Two, he wanted to see The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. And three, it was closer than Vegas–the only other place we’d consider flying to for ‘just’ a long weekend.

We hoped that we could make a short Universal trip as much fun as a Vegas trip. It seemed like everything we like about Vegas was also available at a Universal Orlando resort–and Orlando is in our own time zone.

The danger, of course, was in the comparison. How would Universal compare to the Disney vacation I had just enjoyed? How would Universal compare to a Vegas vacation, which was the kind of trip we intended to replicate? The answer on both counts–Universal would be more fun and less expensive. Double bonus!

Disney vs. Universal

Fun!

Also fun!

I love Disney because it is easy to have fun there, it is a controlled environment (read: there are restrooms everywhere), and it is generally beautiful. Universal had all of the same qualities and then some.

 

Resort Comparison:

As you can see from my Portofino Bay Resort review, the resort was beautiful. It was also easier to navigate than a Disney resort and much less filled with screaming children. But the the thing that gave Portofino Bay the advantage over a Disney resort was the pool area. Not only was it blissfully quiet (you’ll notice that I almost alwasy combine the word ‘quiet’ with the word ‘blissfully’. It’s a teacher thing!), but in Universal they actually trust you to act like an adult and sit in the pool whilst sipping a drink.

Flash back to my first (and only) day at the pool at Animal Kingdom Lodge in Disney World. I’d had a long, hot day in the park. My mom was taking a nap. I got myself a mojito–brand new Libba Bray book in hand–and positioned myself on the sitting ledge of the deep end of the pool. I hadn’t even managed to sigh a sigh of relaxation before a Disney lifeguard approached me–very nicely, mind you–and told me that ‘Florida law requires drinks be kept at least six feet from the pool’s edge’.

My reply to him was less than nice. ‘Really?’ I said. ‘Florida law? So I’m not going to be able to do this at Universal, either?’

‘Sorry m’am’, he replied.

My reponse was a rather huffy–‘Well, I guess Vegas wins’, which was the title of the angry post I immediately wrote on my real-time travel blog.

As I came to find out, this was total crap. Even if there is a Florida law, only Disney pays attention to it. I spent at least an hour each day at Universal happily sipping my mojito, reading my kindle, and enjoying the cool escape of the pool–all at the same time! And of course I took the opportunity to point out the in-pool drinking in yet another real-time travel blog post, which you can view here. It contains a crappy iPhone photo of a woman IN the pool WITH a drink!

See the drink, Disney lifeguard? Universal wins!

Dining Comparison:

In addition to the resort and pool experience, the dining experience at Universal is superior. You don’t have to make reservations six months in advance–or even six minutes in advance–and the food is fantastic. We enjoyed meals at Mamma Della’s, Mythos, Tchoup Choup, The Palm, and Bice; all were fabulous and dining reviews–with photos–are coming soon.

Entertainment Comparison:

This is not to say that Universal is better than Disney in every way. Disney’s rides are much better–and isn’t that the point of a theme park vacation? Well–only kind of. There is also something to be said about being able to get on those rides in a reasonable amount of time. Which brings me to my next comparison–Disney’s Fastpass System vs. Universal’s Express Plus Pass.

I am glad that Disney offers fastpasses. I suppose I am also glad that Disney offers fastpasses to anyone who knows how to use them (which is a surprisingly small amount of people). But if I’m being honest, I like that Universal offers the Express Plus Pass only to people willing to pay for it–because I am willing to pay for it.

Selfish? Absolutely. Honest? You betcha.

The Universal Express pass is so much better than the Fastpass system. First of all, it really is more of a front of the line pass than a Disney Fastpass. A fastpass puts you in a shorter line. The Universal Express Plus Pass allows you to walk past the normal line–you can wave if you’d like, but that’s just mean–and typically plops you off right at the boarding area. You then ride–and go right back to the beginning of the ride to ride again. And again. And again. While those same people stand in the standby line, watching you.

I may be a jerk–but how great is that?

Additionally, there’s no backtracking involved. I ended up jogging through all of Fantasyland to get a fastpass for Pooh only to find that I was 10 minutes wrong about the time that I was allowed to claim another pass–so my choices were stand there for ten minutes or jog back to the Teacups where my mother was waiting (I chose to jog back.)

Universal’s Express Plus Pass is more than worth the extra cost of staying on site. Add to that the early-entry to The Wizarding World (which I will discuss in a later post) and I’d say that’s the best perk I’ve found. I–and surely thousands of others–would pay dearly to have the same benefit in Walt Disney World.

When looking at the entire experience, a Universal vacation is much more our style. But then we don’t have children–nor will we ever. On our next Orlando vacation we will do a backwards trip–we will stay at Universal and visit Disney for a day or two. How wild is that?

Universal vs. Las Vegas

What we do in Vegas...

...and what we do at Universal.

We’ve been to Vegas twice–two summers in a row, in fact–and we don’t even gamble. So why do we go to Vegas? Because it is a place where we can really get away. We spend our mornings by the pool, our afternoons napping, and our evenings eating in wonderful restaurants and taking in fantastic shows. This was the kind of vacation we were looking for at Universal–something fun, entertaining, and relaxing.

We absolutely found all of these things.

Resort Comparision:

As I’ve already mentioned, the resort and resort pool beat out our Vegas trips (we’ve stayed at MGM Grand and Paris Las Vegas.) It was beautiful, quiet (blissfully so!) and relaxing. The pool kicked butt, and the transportation was phenomonal–much better than the sorry excuse for public transit that is the Las Vegas monorail.

Entertainment Comparison:

The entertainment at Universal is vastly different than Las Vegas entertainment, of course. Comparing Cirque do Soleil to The Revenge of the Mummy is far from applese to apples. But personally, I’d rather enjoy a full day at a theme park than a 90-minute performance in Vegas–no matter how fantastic that performance may be.

Dining Comparison:

The food is better in Vegas. There is more variety in Vegas; in fact, I’d be hard pressed to find anywhere on earth with a better density of fantastic and varied dining experiences. But the food in Universal is good–I’d say better than Disney’s food. I didn’t partake in any of the counter service offerings, but the restaurants we visited were great. I’d choose Bice over California Grill any day–and I make this comparison having had almost the same meal at each place. And while the view isn’t as stunning from Bice, it’s pretty freaking fantastic.

Given the above, I’d still say that Universal wins. Why? One word: cost.

Our meal at Bice, the most expensive restaurant on site at Universal, was half as much as we’ve spent at The Bellagio, and it was enjoyed in a room with tinkling piano music, not the dinging of slot machines. A glass of Prosecco was $9–it would be double that in Vegas. A four-day-two-park pass to Universal was less than the cost of one ticket to Cirque’s LOVE–though LOVE is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. And yes, Portofino Bay is a bit more expensive than MGM Grand–but when you add in the difference in ‘other costs’ (food, entertainment, and airfare) and take into account that Portofino Bay is just plain nicer, it still wins out.

Dollar for dollar, you get more at Universal. And I’m pretty darn cheap. After all, each dollar saved is a dollar more that I can put towards my next trip!

But What About…?

You may be wondering why there isn’t a Disney vs. Las Vegas section of this post. That is very simple. You see, they are both wonderful in their own way, but they are so very different from each other there’s really no point in comparing them. They exist at opposite ends of the vacation continuum–though the continuum is really a circle, so they ARE similar in some ways. But Universal exists evenly between the two, and that’s why I love it there. At Universal I can be half kid, half adult. And that’s what a vacation is really about.

My Blogging Addiction Continues

There comes a time in the lifespan of a blog when the blogger thinks to herself  ‘gee I wish I could write about X, but my blog is all about Z’.  When that happens, one has no other choice but to start yet another blog.

Thus, I’d like to introduce you to the newest addition to my blogging family.  It’s called Existential Midlife Twitch, and it documents all things related to my year away from work.  Of course, everything travel-related during that year will still be posted here (or in real-time on Virtual Passenger, or from an educational angle on The Suitcase Scholar!)  But if you are interested in ‘the other side of Tracy’, check it out.  It will be updated daily…or at least that’s what I’m planning at this point.

Up next on Blog on the Run–several posts on Universal Orlando, including a three-way destination comparison and a detailed description of the Wizarding World.

Afternoon Tea at The Grand Floridian–A Review

My mother and I have a favorite Tea Room. It is about two miles from our house, filled with mismatched china and doilies…and it is closing.

We’ve celebrated most major life events–birthdays, graduations, holidays–at this tea room. So it made sense to me, when I realized we’d be in Walt Disney World over Mother’s Day–to make an afternoon tea reservation at the Grand Floridian’s Garden View Tea Room.

I didn’t tell my mom what her surprise was for the day, but I did give her one hint while on the monorail heading toward the Grand Floridian. I asked her where we’d go for mother’s day if we were at home. Upon exiting the monorail she checked out the sign posting the various offerings of the Grand Floridian. As soon as she saw the words ‘Tea Room’, she knew where we were headed.

Mom entering the Grand Floridian

We approached the hostess stand maybe eight minutes before our reservation. Big mistake. We were asked to come back at our designated time–they wouldn’t even take our name until exactly 2:20, the time of our reservation. The woman was also not very nice about it.

After stealing some electricity for my iPhone at an outlet near the stairs, we returned to the hostess table and were seated at the first table inside the door. It was a smaller room than I’d imagined, but very comfortable. My mom took the sofa-esque bench that ran the length of the wall–I took the chair. There were pillows available for the sofa-area and I think this was the most comfortable my mother was all week. Thus, the Garden View Cafe earns an A+ for decor and comfort.

Pretty setting

I chose the Grand Tea and my mother chose the Buckingham tea–the only difference was that mine came with pate (which my mom ate) and champagne (which I drank, of course!) The ‘meal’ was served in three courses–first, scones with jam and cream, second, several tea sandwiches served with an onion tart and pate, and finally the dessert options–a choice of two pastries.

The food was nothing to write home about, but it wasn’t awful either. I don’t recall what was in each sandwich, but I know that one was pear and blue cheese (quite good), one was cucumber and cream cheese (good) and one was a curried chicken salad (very good). There were two other sandwiches the likes of which I do not remember, but that likely just means that they weren’t fabulous. Perhaps one was shrimp?

The onion tart was excellent–one of the best things I ate during the entire trip (though it was only two small bites.) I liked the flavor of the pate but not the texture or how it looked–and I’ll eat almost everything. Oddly, my picky eater mother at most of it for me.

The scones were good, as was the cream, but the fruit tart that accompanied it was almost too sweet to be edible–I only had a small bite. Dessert was good–but when isn’t dessert good, right?  I did, however, feel a little badly eating the swan.  It was almost too cute to consume…almost.

The best part of the meal was being able to leave the craziness of the Magic Kingdom and sit somewhere air conditioned, comfortable, quiet, and beautiful. For that reason, I’d recommend this experience. If you are looking for fine dining–this isn’t it–though we both left comfortably full.

Why I Love Having a Travel Blog

Each month I make exactly zero dollars and zero cents from this blog.  But I love it.  I have loved it for years now.  Why?  Because it gives me a reason to take photos.  It motivates me to do things I may not have done ordinarily, just to be able to share them.  It gives me a way to remember everywhere I’ve been and what I’ve enjoyed–or not enjoyed–there.

But lately I’ve discovered another purpose.  This blog connects me to amazing, helpful people who will, no doubt, make my travels better.

I’ve been reading about social media a lot lately, which is ironic given the fact that I’ve been blogging for almost two years now.  And equally ironically, I’ve been learning that social media is not about broadcasting YOUR LIFE, but instead it is about having conversations with others.  For whatever reason, as of late, the universe has been showing this to me first hand.

Take, for example, Vanessa–the previously mentioned amazing woman giving me advice about Halifax.  Add to that today’s Amy–see her comment in my ‘Maritime Plan’ post–with her detailed description of everywhere I could possibly want to go on the Maine coast.

When I started this blog, I thought that perhaps I was helping other people plan better trips by sharing my own experiences.  I now realize that the opposite is true.  Having this blog enhances my own travel experience exponentially.

And for that, I am extremely grateful.