Travel Writer - Play Hard Have Fun

Travel Writer

How not to go overboard on a cruise ship

You hear it all the time: I put on 10+ pounds while on the cruise ship, and now it will take me a month to get back into those jeans that I love. And it’s no wonder, with the many hours of just sitting or laying around at the dinner table, during the many off Broadway type shows, in the lounge chairs, deck side, at the casino and being rocked to sleep in your 2X4 cabin. 

In response to such misgivings, 10 years ago, John “the Penguin” Bingham and Jenny “The Coach” Hadfield came up with an idea that combines all the benefits of cruising and staying fit into a 7-8 day adventure that you will write home about. 

Catherine and I met up with J and J (John and Jenny) back in 2011 or so.  As featured columnist for Competitor Magazine, spokesman for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s “Team in Training” program, and race announcer of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon and Half-Marathon Series, John is the unlikely hero of the modern running boom, having brought millions off their couches to the sport of running/walking after beating his own sedentary lifestyle of unhealthy excess to become an “adult-onset athlete.” Jenny is an accomplished endurance athlete and co-author of the best-selling Running for Mortals and Marathoning for Mortals book series. As well, she is a columnist for Women’s Running Magazine and Runner’s World.com. Together, John and Jenny are the proverbial who’s who when it comes to running, and on these cruises, John is the inspiration and Jenny is the brains.

Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 5.07.58 PM Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 5.08.04 PMThe gist of their trips is this: bring together a group of like minded runners/walkers and have them complete a staged Marathon or half Marathon over their 7-8 days. The distance is not done all at once but is instead split into several mini races over the course of the trip. Then, when it is all said and done, each individual has completed either 26.2 or 13.1 miles.  Destinations include the Caribbean, Alaska, and many parts of Europe. 

We have recently finished our 6th outing with them, and previous outings have taken us to different parts of the Caribbean 3 times and to Alaska once.  The other two trips were a bit more far flung as they include a land-based tour of Italy and a river cruise along the Danube. Catherine and I have a similar river cruise in the Southern France region, beginning near Marseille, this coming October.

While these cruises are amazing, they may not be for anyone, mind you. For example, if you are on-and-off a cruise ship for 7-8 days, so if you are one of those that insists on the race start at 8 am sharp you might want to keep collecting states or continents.  Additionally, if you calculate all of your marathon spending down to the penny, you’ll need to take a chill pill, too.  The pricing is not outrageous, but as I look at life in my 60’s, I think: as long as I get what I pay for, I am a happy man. If planning my 7th trip with them in October (and having signed up for another Caribbean cruise while on board one!) is any indication, then I am sure you’ll agree that this is a very cost effective way to enjoy the benefits of cruising and living an active lifestyle.

Furthermore, if you are the traditional competitor this type of trip might not be for you, as how the race winners are declared is actually left up to J and J.  Each day the passengers are briefed and (with the extra benefit of being the first off the ship) we are then given the opportunity to strategize how to get the coveted yellow hat. (My understanding of the yellow hat premise is that it mimics the Tour De France yellow jersey, with the one distinct exception: you get to keep the hat.) The winners might be the absolute fastest, both male and female, on a short 1 mile to 5/10k. It could also be something as random as who gets the King of Hearts out of the deck of cards as they are handed out at the finish line. You have to hear John tell the hilarious background story, as only he can, during one of his inspirational talks.

The overall winner is pretty cut and dry.  In the first briefing we are all given a rough outline of races for the week and the approximate distance, (or “ISH” a term coined by Jenny; for example, “a 5 mile-ish course that is somewhat hilly-ish”). Depending on which distance you select for each day for the marathon or half course you then have to calculate your exact time. Most, if not all, of these races are done without any time

keeping device, so it is the classic tortoise and the hare with the slow and steady usually coming out on top.

Both Catherine and I already have our autographed yellow hats so, for us, it is the company of like minded individuals, the picturesque settings, and the reasonable exercise routine, that brings us back.  That surely comes in handy when trying to counter-balance the endless opportunities to eat, lounge and sleep.

Our most recent adventure started in Tampa, with a 7-day itinerary.

TAMPA, FLORIDA

KEY WEST, FLORIDA

CRUISING AT SEA

BELIZE CITY, BELIZE

PUERTO COSTA MAYA, MEXICO

COZUMEL, MEXICO

CRUISING AT SEA

TAMPA, FLORIDA   

During this outing, we got to experience the Gasparilla festival (and got plenty of much needed pirate outfit ideas). In Belize, we hit a couple of watering holes with music to choose from and explored the streets where anything and everything you could ever want to buy was on hand. (My favorite phrase heard: “I have all the junk you don’t need at half the price.”) We later made history by being the first to ever hold a race of any type at the Mayan Ruins of Altun Ha.

The last race on the trip, the Amazing Race, is the one we all look forward to. Just imagine 100+ pirate-costumed runners and walkers crisscrossing the major churches, fountains, and other tourist attractions trying to follow the clues and get all required pictures (and in correct order!) along the way. One year, a boy genius put in all the GPS coordinates, used Google search, and ended up going through a hospital to get his group first place. Catherine and I usually take a more laid back approach and just go bar hopping in preparation for the award ceremony at Senior Frogs or the like.

They say money can’t buy happiness but cruising with John and Jenny comes pretty darn close.

What Do You Get For 50,000 Aveda Points

My partner, Catherine Popp, saved up and was able to convert her 50,000 Aveda points for the  Pure Privilege, 7 Tier, Sugar Ridge Resorts, 3 night stay, for two, in Antigua. 

Getting the points converted was easy enough but in the back of your mind you always wonder what you are actually going to get with such a deal. The flight was a bit pricey and trying to book the flights in March and April were more costly if not impossible. Transportation was not included but I did tried to use our regional upgrades for Business class but the demand for those seats outweighed our current Double Diamond Status. But the black out dates were reasonable and a standard room with breakfast included sounded like a great deal.  Throw in a 60 minute massage for each of us and full use of the facilities there and seemed like the potentially perfect Valentine’s Day gift, so we took the chance. As it just so happens, Delta, our carrier of choice, was advertising the gift of travel for this occasion as opposed to the typical flowers and/or candy.

When arriving in a foreign land for the first time, there can be a lot of guesswork and apprehension, but in Antigua, the entire experience from getting off the airplane to getting to the resort was flawless, though it does help to be near the front of the plane. Antigua has a very upscale airport for a Caribbean destination. Our bags were waiting for us instead of the other way around and the airport had plenty of customs and immigration agents to keep everyone moving along.  A dispatcher working for the government-run taxi gave us a fare quote, and even though we shared a van, the ride to the hotel was quick and efficient.

The resort claimed to cater to the world’s most discerning travelers in a secluded hillside setting overlooking the lush natural beauty of the west coast of Antigua and the Caribbean Sea. Check in was first class: everyone asked our names and shook our hands, and the rum punch offered while we waited was a very nice touch.  Transportation to our room was required since the 60 guest rooms are built on the hill for the great views of the surrounding area and harbour.

The resort had four types of rooms and I was not expecting the deluxe suite, but to our surprise, the standard room included an outdoor, private, plunge pool which was especially nice after our 5-mile run the next day. 

Dinner at Sugar Club that night was well prepared and reasonably priced, and once again all the staff members were delightful and attentive.  Local entertainment could be heard from our terrace so after dinner we made the short walk to Jolly Harbor to listen to the live band. We had to buy tickets for drinks and the somewhat arbitrary exchange rate was a bit confusing since the entire island seems to enjoy going back and forth between US and the East Caribbean dollar on a whim, but turns out the Valentine’s Regatta was taking place that weekend, so it did not take long for the outdoor dance floor to fill up. 

The next morning, the buffet-style breakfast at the hotel, complete with a cook to take your egg order made, made breakfast a worthwhile trip after our slow 5-mile run. 

The pool and exercise room were both very inviting, but since I had already run that morning, the pool won. It was long enough to do some laps, so I didn’t feel so bad about enjoying a frozen drink afterward while taking in some Vitamin D from the sun.

By this time, I was starting to learn why so many people love Antigua.

We were really looking forward to our Valentine’s Dinner at their formal dining room, Carmichael’s located on the top of the hill behind our room.The hotel seemed to provide transportation to just about anywhere nearby, including three beaches, and so a van to and from the restaurant was provided. The walk up the stairs to the restaurant was not required but we could not resist getting in a bit more exercise prior to dinner.  We are always looking for any and all types of exercise, so after dinner, so the 1-mile walk to the nearest beach was right down our alley.

The Valentine’s meal did not disappoint, and with the sunset in the distance I can easily say I hit this one right out of the park. Our waitress was exceptional, quickly alleviating our fears about Catherine’s meal choice since she is Gluten sensitive.  Her smile was captivating and she really seemed to enjoy her job. She greeted us again at the Captain’s Club for breakfast the next morning and she even still had a big smile on her face.

A word of caution about making appointments for your 60 minute massage treatments, however.  We failed to do so upon check in and the parlor closes at 5 pm and are not open on Sunday.  Not to fear, though– we were there when they opened on Monday at 8 am and were able to get the last two appointments later that day. In the worst case scenario, they would have tried to fit us in on Tuesday, the day of our departure, but everything worked out okay.

The Jolly Harbour area had plenty of restaurants, bars and shop, but it was admittedly sad to see the once majestic Grand Princess Casino abandoned and for sale. I hope, one day, that someone will buy give this huge building a true facelift, but the Jolly Harbour resort and Tranquillity Bay were also nearby so there seemed to be plenty of alternative options.

We looked at extending our stay, which can be easily done through the Sugar Ridge Website, but $595 per night was out of our price range, and so our last night started out with the manager’s reception. The newly appointed manager made his way around to most of us which was a nice personal touch. A hard downpour of rain tried to dampen our spirits but the rum punch, too, flowed like water. During the raffle, we met our new best friends for this trip, Christie and Jim.  They were a unique pair, with Christie being a Air Traffic Controller in Philadelphia and Jim a Captain at Johnson and Johnson. Hearing Christie’s stories of controlling several of Jim’s flights was very entertaining.   

Once again the small world theory came into play when we learned that we all had a mutual friend.  We all had a relaxing dinner at Miracle’s, right across the street from the hotel. There the Grilled Whole Lobster dish was to die for. Time flew by and it started to sink in that we will be back because it was now clear that Antigua is a true Gem in the Caribbean.

Check out and taxi back to the airport were simple enough. We returned the survey they slipped under our door along with the preliminary bill the night before.

It was sad to hear the announcement at the gate for other individuals who would take the last business class seats for the flight home.  (Not really, I will just use regional upgrade requests for our trip to Cancun in April, and Delta does an excellent job no matter where you sit in the airplane.) 

Looking back, it was a fantastic weekend and the entire experience. What we got for 50,000 Aveda points was well worth it. Next time, we will have save up 100K points, as Christie did, so we can stay even longer.

Antigua, we will be back.

Tony Copeland-Parker

Travel Writer

Is the upgrade worth the 2.5 hour sales pitch?

After check-in at the Grand Mayan Acapulco, we were sent to see a second staff member for our actual room key. I knew what was coming next.

Our first room was a one bedroom without a kitchen, and she mentioned that for an upgrade to a suite, all I needed to do was listen to a 90-minute sales presentation of their property.

This week was acquired through an Interval Travel special deal, and so this was an opportunity for us to see the property and, potentially, make a purchase. Since time is not of the essence for us, I figured the sales pitch was worth the upgrade.

The sales presentation started over breakfast with numerous questions concerning the Time Share we currently owned. The sales lady seemed NICE enough and had been pitching properties for the last 10 years. She seemed very knowledgeable and tried her best to assure us that she was simply going to show us how her company had moved away from the timeshare concept to a property ownership program.

After breakfast we moved on to tour some of the types of rooms available at the Grand Mayan Acapulco as well as other properties in Mexico and South America. We went through several show rooms that were to represent the different styles of available within their properties. She told us that a new property would be opening up in Argentina next year and kept mentioning that this was a very new concept and that all companies would be moving in this direction over the next year.

Right now we own a week at the Marriott property during spring break in Panama City, Florida. However, we have to pay maintenance fee and taxes on it each year; theirs is more of a pay-as-you-go-once-you-own model, instead of levying yearly fees.

They offered to buy our property and then give us credit off the purchase price for a week at their properties in exchange for the tax write-off they would receive from the Mexican government. They started running numbers and tried their best to get us to write a check. When the lady finally gave up she had her manager come in to sign us off, as they put it, but he gave it one more try.

I really was not interested but he did not give up without a fight. His final try was to give us a monthly amount for their lowest end unit with no money down. Finally, I was able to sign our names to our close out document saying that we were not interested and we understood that we could not tour their properties again for 2 years. We were then sent to see the man that would authorize our 10% discount off all purchases during our stay.

Little did I know that this was but one more sales job for a new product they had. his time, It was a three year plan for a very low-cost unit, just so we could “get our toes in the water.” As we shook our our heads no, he too gave up and asked some questions about the people we had met and how the presentations had gone.

The room that they finally gave us was great. It did not have a view of the beach but the patio was a good size and included a plunge/cool pool with two lounge chairs. The suite included a full kitchen, a large shower in the bathroom area, and a whirlpool bath in the bedroom area.

The property, too, was in pretty good shape. The building, they told us, is 9 years old, and they are always working on it since the nationals typically come in groups of 8-10 and put a lot of wear and tear on it. (This is a very popular destination for the nationals that drive in from Mexico city just 4 hours away.) There was a Mayan theme throughout with large structures of sculptures, pillars and carvings, which subtly obscured the property’s slight short falls. The trained eye could find small things, but none would be classified as eyesores, and there were people everywhere watering and sprucing up all day long.

They had a huge pool out back with a lazy river next to it and plenty of pool chairs and lounges available. Since not even half the chairs were being used, this made it hard to believe that the place was 80% full (as we were told by the saleswoman). Also we really didn’t see many people anywhere, but as the entire complex included 4 different properties that covered several miles, it is possible that the 80% were staying in the other properties.

The beach area was rather nice but, since it is a public area, there were some problems. For example, if you chose to lay out under some of their thatched-roof-covered lounge chairs, many a vendor would walk by offering massage or asking you to buy their wares. Additionally, the sand was a dirty brown, and so I could only bring myself to put my toes in the water.

Of most concern were the nearby guys offering horse rides. It seemed like a great idea at first, but as we all know, horses go where horses go. The horse guides seemed to do a good job picking up behind their horses, but as you walk the beach, you can clearly see that, in some cases, they were not so careful. Horse remnants could be found all along the beach which did not make for a very pleasurable swim in the water.

There were a few bars in our building and near the pool, but the restaurant situation was a bit confusing: one was being repaired and the two other main restaurants would have specials on some days would be closed all together on others. When they were open, they offered themed buffets and one outdoor buffet the day before we left. Prices to eat and drink were reasonable and the entire staff were both friendly and very helpful.

Going back 6-7 years, Acapulco was the place to go. Today, it is still trying to recover from the travel slump caused by the drug wars taking place on the other side of mountain. During our stay, They even had a shootout near a local police station, and as it turns out, the State Department does not even allow their employees to travel here. This would explain why we had to go thru Mexico city to get here: that there is simply not enough traffic to justify non-stop flights from Atlanta, etc.
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Don’t get me wrong. This is a great property and the upgrade was worth the 2.5 hour sales presentation. We felt very safe in and around the Grand Mayan and even went for several runs along the beach and nearby golf course. April is their off-season, which enabled us to stay there at such a low rate ($54 weekly) and get the upgrade so easily. I would do it again in a heartbeat since 2.5 hours was a not a lot of time for a great upgrade at this property.

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