Visiting the Mall of America

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Photos via Mall of America

Earlier this summer, I attended a travel blogger conference called TBEX North America 2016 primarily because of its location – the Mall of America. Yes, because the conference location was adjacent to this mall.

Located in Bloomington, Minnesota, about 15 minutes from Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, the Mall of America is far more than a place to shop. Featured on travel shows, the Mall of America is a hybrid of retail stores and tourist attractions. And it’s a big place, at 4.87 million square feet. Really big. To put it in perspective, this mall can fit seven Yankee Stadiums, 32 Boeing 747s, and 258 Statues of Liberty.

Besides massive space, here is what else you find during a visit to the Mall of America.

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Photo via SEA LIFE Minnesota Aquarium

SEA LIFE® Minnesota Aquarium
Underneath the mall, the SEA LIFE® Minnesota Aquarium is a 1.3-million gallon aquarium featuring a 300-foot ocean tunnel and being home 10,000 sea creatures. The low-lit, lower level location is easy to explore, with stops along the way for observing marine life such as jellyfish, seahorses, stingrays, and sturgeons. One neat attraction to take your time going through is the Shark Discovery exhibit. Here, you walk through a glass tunnel and view sharks and other ocean neighbors swimming below or alongside you. There are daily feeding times, where for a small fee you can buy food to hand to certain aquarium residents like stingrays.

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Nickelodeon Universe
In the center of the mall, Nickelodeon Universe is a fun indoor theme park with 27 rides and attractions. When I was there for TBEX, my friends and I spent time going on rides that fit with our style (there’s a number of ones with paces that go smoothly or get a little twisted). While we were there around Memorial Day Weekend, we got to try a new park attraction called FlyOver America. FlyOver America is a fully immersive, flight simulation ride that takes riders on an aerial tour of well-known U.S. landmarks and regions. Nickelodeon Universe also contains an indoor zipline that takes you 60 feet above the ground, and features special visits by costumed TV characters like Sponge Bob Squarepants and Dora the Explorer.

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Specialty Stores/Restaurants
The Mall of America has a good mix of major retail brands (think clothing, electronics, cosmetics, accessories, etc.) plus regional finds. Among them, the LEGO Store is where kids of all ages can let loose on this Danish toy with its Pick-A-Brick wall, play areas, and larger-than-life models such as over 34-foot-tall robot. Fans of American Girl will not just find the store but also an American Girl ® Bistro. And being in Minnesota, and near neighboring Wisconsin, find stores carrying everything from locally made cheese to Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers gear or other state-inspired products. As for dining, there are 50-plus restaurants, including national chains like Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Hard Rock Café, Rainforest Café, and Buffalo Wild Wings, to more regional brands like Caribou Coffee and A & W All-American Food. Consider Pizza Studio, where you can have a custom pie made; Crave American Kitchen & Sushi Bar, for a sit-down meal or Noodles & Company, which prepares noodles in Asian, Mediterranean or American style.

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Photo via Radisson Blu Mall of America

Hotel Accommodations
There are more than 50 hotels in various proximity to the Mall of America. The most direct one is the Radisson Blu Mall of America, as it’s connected to the mall via a skyway. I paid to stay here for the conference and liked how you could literally enter the mall from one of the hotel levels. It’s definitely convenient, for when you, um, realize that you need a last-minute extra pair of pants. That you pick up along with some Wisconsin cheese sticks and a cup of Caribou Coffee.

In short, if you happen to be in this area or thinking of a different kind of weekend getaway, the Mall of America might be the place to be. And shop.

How to Maintain Relationships While Traveling

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Photo by twentymindsomething via Flickr.com

“And you’re never around.”

Those words stunned me. To be on the receiving end of them was both confusing and painful. Although the backstory is not entirely mine to tell, out of respect for the other party involved, what I can say is that the sentence probably was directed toward the fact that I travel often. I do so for work, for fun, for vacation itself. Some people get it, others don’t.

Being the road can take you away from those most important in your life for a period of time, but it doesn’t mean that relationships would be put on the back burner. Based on my experience, here are my suggestions on how to maintain relationships while traveling.

  • Bring back souvenirs. Think about picking up a small token or treat as a gift for someone or some people. It doesn’t have to be pricey, like a magnet or candy. Or perhaps you will come across what can be referred to as “a found object.” For example, in Copenhagen, I bought licorice for about roughly $2.50 USD each to give to relatives and friends. In Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Sweden, licorice is popular but comes in a salty version – opposite from its American counterpart. Or if someone I know wants learn more about a country or city I’m seeing, I grab an extra map or brochure for him/her.
  • Use technology to keep in touch. Unless you’re totally off the grid, it’s a given that Facebook, email, IM, Skype, and texting apps keeps you connected. So use it. I try to go online at night (especially if my time zone is earlier) and check and comment on friends’ posts or just drop a quick note to say hello. I email and, if I can, text people like my folks or sisters (or potential boyfriend) to see how their day is going and tell them what I’m up to.
  • Schedule some solid time at home. For now, I make it a point to be around home during holidays, personal milestones, and family events. I also try to schedule lunch dates, dinners, or outings with friends at least monthly or biweekly. Also, consider offering a hand or doing a favor. If a friend needs some help – like a house sitter – be open for it.
  • Accept personal differences. Like other topics, people can react to traveling differently based on their perceptions. Drawing from my humble opinion, I’ve learned to provide the basics of my trip (where, when, and what for) before I go and save more details for when I get back. I take reactions as they come, and try to avoid feeling the need to explain if necessary. Those who genuinely understand will. Those who don’t, for their own reasons, won’t.

5 Ways to Save On Travel Necessities Before Your Trip

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Photo by Matito via Flickr

What’s your method for saving money on travel necessities? Share in the comments below.

 

5 Surprising Things about Cincinnati

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Before my visit in Cincinnati, I didn’t know much, if anything, about it. After spending a recent weekend here, I learned a few interesting things about this city near the Ohio River. Here are five of them.

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1) Flying into Kentucky
On a flight to Cincinnati, you might be surprised to discover that you don’t actually arrive in Cincinnati. Actually, you land in Kentucky, specifically at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, which is about 15 minutes or so from Cincinnati. Instead of heading straight there, make a stop in nearby Covington, Kentucky. Its MainStrasse Village has German roots with a Main Street, U.S.A. feel. Its center square is the location for various festivals such as an Octoberfest and it’s lined with shops and restaurants housed in buildings from a past era. Good eats picks include Otto’s, an American bistro known for its fried green tomatoes and twist on the native dish, Kentucky Hot Brown; Frida 602, a mezcal and taqueria with décor inspired by artist Frida Kahlo’s Blue House in Mexico City; and Bouquet, a farm-to-table restaurant whose menu is dictated by what ingredients are in-season.

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2) Over-the-Rhine
Cincinnati has 52 neighborhoods, with one of its oldest being Over-the-Rhine. When the first wave of German immigrants came to the U.S. in the 1830s, many settled and founded in early Cincinnati neighborhood, so much that their native language became the spoken word and their culture thrived. Over-the-Rhine’s name comes from this legacy. Workers lived north of the Miami and Erie Canal and nicknamed it “the Rhine” after the German river, so their settled area was like going “over the Rhine.” Breweries and drinking establishments flourished here up until Prohibition. As residents moved out, and the Over-the-Rhine faced hard times. its revitalization began in the mid-2000s with a wave of artisan restaurants being ushered in. Find many of them along Vine Street. This section has become hotspot, with a medley of eateries, shops, and bars. Stand outs include: Taste of Belgium, for a great waffle fix; Senate, with the most amazing gourmet hotdog combos; The Eagle, for delectable fried chicken; Graeter’s, a hometown ice cream shop known for its Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip; and Holtman’s Donuts, for their maple bacon option. While Vine Street is about food, O-T-R’s Main Street has its share of finds such as Gomez, for innovative Mexican fare; Japp’s Since 1879, once a hair store but now a hip nightspot; and contemporary art murals created as part of ArtWorks Cincinnati.

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3) Quite a Beer Legacy
Speaking of German beer, by the late 1800s, Cincinnati was producing a serious amount of suds in Over-The-Rhine, so much that there was no need to export it outside of Ohio. By 1890, the city was the third largest beer producer per person in the country. Prohibition severely changed that, causing many breweries to shut down for good. Yet it wasn’t entirely over. In 2009, this legacy began its comeback with the resurgence of the brand Christian Moerlein. Now, over a dozen craft breweries and micropubs are in operation. Among them, Rhinegeist Brewery is housed inside the original Christian Moerlein bottling facility. In a sense, it’s a 21st century beer garden with long picnic style tables and cornhole, ping-pong and other games going on. Another brewery is Taft’s Ale House, named for our 27th President and Supreme Court Justice, William Howard Taft. It’s located inside a former church and features items relating to Taft and his wife, Nellie. Yet Cincinnati’s brewing past still lingers. Plus in recent years,an underground network of abandoned caverns used for cooling German lager have been discovered. See one of them on an escorted tour with American Legacy Tours.

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4) History with the Underground Railroad
In the mid-1800s, as the debate over the practice of slavery split national opinion, the U.S. was divided between free states and slave states. Ohio’s place in this part of our country’s history is connected to the Underground Railroad, where the Ohio River Valley was a key site for freedom seekers to head up north. In downtown Cincinnati, near the banks of the Ohio River, the National Underground Freedom Railroad Center traces how slavery came to the Americas up through the U.S.’s post-Civil War Reconstruction with historical imagery and artifacts. The center also covers the effects of modern-day slavery and human trafficking.

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5) A Ton of Bridges
Bridges might not sound exciting, but Cincinnati has some iconic structures connecting the city to Northern Kentucky and other locations in Ohio. Its most noted one is John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, which links Covington to downtown Cincinnati. Opened in 1867, it’s a nice way to go back and forth over the Ohio River. Plus pedestrians and cars have their respective paths. Though Roebling’s name might not ring a bell, this engineer’s modern marvels are well known. Roebling was said to use this baby blue colored bridge as the prototype for the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened about two decades later. For a relaxing walk, the locally-called Purple People Bridge (it has a more official sounding name) can only be crossed on foot. It connects from Cincinnati’s Sawyer Point to Newport on the Levee in Northern Kentucky.

 

 

 

Review: Fathom Cruise to the Dominican Republic

 

On their voyage to the Dominican Republic, Fathom offers shore excursions similar to other cruises, but also hosts activities focused on creating a social impact. Passengers are escorted into local communities for hands-on projects involving education, reforestation, economic opportunities, and sanitary conditions. With their booking, passengers can select about three or so impact options. In picking mine, I weighed over what I wanted to do and how I thought I could be helpful with. Or at least I felt comfortable doing.

Our options were:

  • Reforestation and Nursery (Yes)
  • Community English Conversation and Learning
  • Student English Conversation and Learning (Yes)
  • Concrete Floors in Community Homes
  • Water Filtration Production
  • Recycled Paper and Crafts Entrepreneurship (Yes; I was a last minute signup)
  • Cacao and Women’s Chocolate Cooperative (Yes)

Most of what I learned about these excursions happened when our ship was en route from Miami to Puerto Plata. Passengers are divided into section groups where we meet with a Fathom Impact guide to learn more about its mission and the Dominican Republic. There were other info sessions such as a Spanish 101 lesson and guidance on practicing English with students.

On land, Fathom collaborates two nonprofits: IDDI (which focuses on transforming rural and urban communities for the better) and Entrena (whose mission involves education and training.) Their reps joined us for our activities, giving background history, and acting as interpreters when needed.

So, how do it go? Here’s my quick recap.

Reforestation and Nursery
On Tuesday afternoon, after docking in Puerto Plata, my group headed to a tree nursery where mahogany and orange tree seedlings are prepared to go be permanently planted in a hillside forest region. Our IDDI guide gave us insights about how clearing trees for agriculture led to erosion and other resulting environmental impact overtime. On the site ground relating to this project, we worked in various teams handling different tasks. Some of us dug up seedlings from existing trees and transplanted them in a shade house where they will mature a bit before being planted at their new home. At the shade house, we worked in teams to put fertilized soil into bags and then putting seedings in these bags. We found out that the next scheduled excursion would head to the forest areas where these seeds/seedlings would be placed. I worked up a good sweat, got a little dirty, and felt I played a valuable contribution.


Cacao and Women’s Chocolate Cooperative

Two days later, I visited Chocal, a women’s chocolate cooperative in the town of Altamira that provides local women with meaningful work without having to go far from their home and families. We got to meet these employees and were shown step by step of the production process. We learned that nothing goes to waste here, as cocoa nibs are also sold and discarded shells are made into fertilizer. Our work involved tasks such as making chocolate molds and sorting and separating good beans from bad ones. With the latter, I wasn’t sure if I was picking the right ones or the wrong ones – our guide was pretty quick with going through her pile – but hoping that I didn’t make extra work for Chocal. We were mainly given about 20 minutes or so per project, but it seemed our contributions helped lightened their load.

Recycled Paper and Crafts Entrepreneurship
With this excursion, I met the women who work for RePapel, a co-op which recycles discarded office paper and turns it into products such as sheets and greeting cards. These ladies were lovely, greeting us with a lively introduction, and breaking out into singing while we worked. At each station, they showed us to process from A to Z. We saw the salvaged office paper get shredded by hand (literally, these women rip paper apart), and then scraps get mixed with water to form a pulpy solution. The solution goes into a container that gives the paper its base. Once it dries out, it gets flatter. Our assembly line was going quickly, but I got to work on a few sheets. RePapel also produces handmade coasters and jewelry, but our allotted time and my slow hands didn’t get me far on this end. But the enthusiasm of the ladies of RePapel made our experience a fun one.

Student English Conversation and Learning
On our final day in Puerto Plata, my group headed to a grade-level school about 20 minutes or so from our port. Led by Entrena, my group met with students from different grades that appeared to have had previous instruction in English. We begun with a warm-up group session where we introduced ourselves, and then begun our first lesson paired up with about two or three students. I joined two other women in going over letters and numbers with two girls, and, then after a short break, two boys. We referred to our instruction manual to guide us in the lesson, but also adjusted it to fit with maybe a word or number that needed more practice. What really helped was that the students were polite and eager to learn – we even wrote in their school notebooks a mini progress report.

Wrapping Up
Fathom’s impact activities are scheduled during the morning and afternoon daily. However, it’s good to allow yourself some downtime, to rest and see the local area. Overall, I would say that Fathom is off to a good start, but I would suggest some tweaks such as more detailed explanation about the activities and perhaps allotting more time on specific tasks as supposed to doing a mix of everything. As for the ship, the Fathom Adonia features amenities including a library, spa, gym, a buffet area, two restaurants (one with a $25 per person surcharge), wine bar, and a pool/hot tub area.

If you’re interested in taking an upcoming cruise, click here for a savings discount.

Disclosure: I was invited to attend this Fathom excursion and share this discount link. However, this review is entirely of my own opinion.

Taking a Fathom Cruise to the Dominican Republic

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All images courtesy of Fathom Travel

I’ve got some exciting news to share! Next week (May 8-15) I will be a media guest on a Fathom Travel cruise to the Dominican Republic, leaving from Miami and docking in Puerto Plata.

Having launched its ship, the Adonia, in April 2016, Fathom Travel currently offers separate round-trip voyages from Miami to the Dominican Republic and Cuba. Belonging to the Carnival brand, Fathom takes a different approach to ocean voyaging with a “travel with purpose” mission. While each destination differs on this aspect, passengers will either become involved in immersive cultural experiences or participate in various community projects.

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For their Dominican Republic cruises, Fathom’s choices of impact activities may extend to:

  • Visiting a women’s cooperative that produces chocolate (it’s chocolate; how could you say no to doing that!);
  • Interacting with students and adults through helping them learn English;
  • Planting trees through a reforestation and nursery program;
  • Turning recycled paper into craft projects;
  • Building projects involving the installation of water filtration systems and concrete flooring in community homes.

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While impact travel is central to Fathom’s mission, cruise excursion options also extend to tours of certain areas and popular activities such as ziplining or snorkeling. As for their Cuba cruises, Fathom broke serious ground in making history as the first cruise to sail from the U.S. to Cuba (setting off on May 1) in 50-plus years. That’s big!

On my Fathom cruise to the Dominican Republic, I will be posting as continuously as I can through Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. And putting a trip recap on here too. So please do follow along!

 

Product Review: Squeeze Pod

photo 1Recently I did a piece for a travel website on Squeeze Pod, a line of single-use toiletries designed to be completely leak proof and made from natural ingredients. I was curious to learn more about them, not just for the story, but as someone who can’t pass up on having a solid hair conditioner or facial cleanser while on the road.

Sold in packets or grouped kits, Squeeze Pod pods extend to shaving cream, shampoo, conditioner, mouthwash, body wash, hair gel, moisturizer, and what’s called a toilet odor eliminator.

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Having gotten a Squeeze Pod Gimme Shelter kit to renew as part of my assignment, I put it to the test. Here’s my take on these pods:

Opening is a snap. I found the pods themselves to be easy to open. They have teardrop design, where you hold and bend the tip in its back away from you. You’ll know you’ve got it open when you hear a snap. Each toiletry pod comes in a set of two or three inside a packet, which I was fumbling with and ended up having to use scissors to open. So I would say to open the packet before you go and put the pods in your 3-1-1 clear bag. (Squeeze Pod states their pods are TSA friendly.)

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The pouring is easy. Like its namesake, you squeeze the package to get its contents out. I test moisturizing lotion and found it to be between not too light but not greasy. The oil-based citrus scent is nice; it’s noticeable upon applying but it’s not heavy and seems to gradually fade.

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Good for hotel stays. I can see Squeeze Pod working for certain types of travelers over others. Due to the pod packaging, which is not recyclable, I’m not sure if it would suit a backpacker due to what he/she might have access to rubbish bins for properly disposing of the used pod packaging. However, I definitely see it’s good for business traveler and of course the common goer with hotel or other set accommodations. Another neat item is that for every two Gimme Shelter kits purchased, a third goes to a charity that supports women and their families. Prices range from individual packs at $2.79 up to a 12-pack for $30.00 ($7 more for the odor eliminator) and specialty kits about $12.99.