San Juan In A Day

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San Cristobal Castle

My great grandparents were born in Puerto Rico, so it was a “must-see” for us while visiting the Eastern Caribbean. San Juan is the capital of Puerto Rico and an unincorporated territory of the United States, purchased in 1898. Similar to American Samoa, Mariana Islands and Guam, Puerto Rico is an organized, self-governed territory consisting of locally elected governors and territorial legislatures. Founded by Spanish colonists in 1521, San Juan is the second oldest European-established capital city in the Americas. Half of Puerto Rico’s 2M people live and work in San Juan. Old San Juan is a colorful neighborhood of cobblestone streets and historic Spanish Colonial buildings from the 1500s. While visiting San Juan, we had to explore the historical, defensive fort San Cristobal.

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First stop, San Cristobal Castle~ Castillo San Cristóbal, also known as Fort San IMG_7251Cristóbal, is part if the San Juan National Historical Site and was built by Spain to guard Puerto Rico against land attacks. San Cristóbal was completed in 1783 on 27 acres of land and is the largest fort that the Spanish built. Built on a hill, Cerro de San Cristóbal contains cisterns (tanks to store water) that are 30 feet high and 60 feet wide which were used during the ages of the Spanish Colony. The cisterns doubled as bomb shelters during World War II. Tourists walk around at their leisure, exploring the grounds and reading the historical significance.

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IMG_7301Let’s eat!!!! At Barrachina Restaurant in Old San Juan, you can eat, drink and even get married!! There are usually people standing around waiting for their name to be called, a sign of how popular and fabulous the restaurant is. The piña colada is the national drink of Puerto Rico since 1978. National Piña Colada Day is celebrated on July 10th in the Caribbean. Ramón Portas Mingot claims to have created the drink in 1963 at Barrachina Restaurant. The piña (pineapple) colada (strained) is made with rum, coconut cream or milk, and pineapple juice. They offer virgin pina coladas for the kids. Try the specialty sampler or monfongo! It was our first experience eating monfongo, which is made of plantains.

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Special Sampler with grouper, calamari & plantain

Barrachina Restaurant Old San Juan is recognized as the king of “Paella”. They have been serving up creative Spanish and International cuisine for over 50 years.

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Monfongo

Mofongo is an African-Puerto Rican dish made of fried plantains. The plantains are picked green, before they are ripe and mixed with garlic and salt. Mofongo is served in a variety of ways but most commonly with fried meats and soup. The dish is often  packed with vegetables, chicken, beef, shrimp or octopus. Mofongo relleno has seafood inside along with braised meat or seafood poured over the top, pictured above. I would describe it as very firm, dense and not much flavor.

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Shopping District

Shopping!!! There are several places to shop in Old San Juan, Calle (street) Fortaleza,IMG_7286 Calle San Francisco, and Calle del Cristo to name a few. Calle del Cristo has higher end shops such as Coach, Ralph Lauren, Burberry, Tommy Hilfigger, Dooney & Bourke, Crocs, and Polo. You’ll also find galleries with Puerto Rican crafts, local cigar shops, clothing and shoes stores as well as boutiques and souvenirs.  Calle Fortaleza, also known as SoFo, has shops, restaurants and hotels for up and down the street for blocks. It is considered the main shopping district for Old San Juan. Calle San Francisco is the place to shop for artisans, skateboard & surf wear, street fashion and bistros. The Mall of San Juan, Plaza del Sol and Martemar Plaza are located in Calle San Francisco.

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$$ Saving Tips: The portions at Barrachina are huge, so be sure to split. We took a guided tour through Old San Juan, but it’s really not necessary to pay for a guided tour if you just want to shop and walk the streets of Old San Juan. The streets are accessible from the cruise ship and there is a lot to see and do. Bring your own sunblock, hat & bottled water as it is very hot! We were there mid-March and it was humid and sticky.

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Old San Juan

 

 

Labadee, Haiti

 

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View From the Ship

When planning a trip to the Eastern Caribbean, initially I was hesitant to spend time in Labadee, Haiti. After researching Haiti, I learned that Labadee is a 260-acre port built in 2009 along the northern coast of Haiti- truly a private paradise. The resort consists of lagoon-like bays, very touristy and guarded by private security. Guests are permitted from leaving the area. Royal Caribbean International leases the beach-rimmed peninsula from the Haitian government through 2050.

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The minute you step foot on the island, you’ll be greeted by the welcome band, playing traditional music and dancing. Make your way through the excursion desks,IMG_7117 pick up a colorful map and you’ll see an open-air shuttle that takes guests to the various stops on the island. I wasn’t feeling great that day and didn’t plan on getting off the ship so my husband and kids explored. I decided to get off later and met up with them. While wandering around looking for them, I felt very safe.

What is a Labadoozie? Wait staff walk around all day selling the Labadoozie made of Orange, Pineapple, and Papaya Juice, Coconut Cream, Dark Rum, Coconut Rum, Grenadine and crushed ice. Royal Caribbean provides all of the food for the barbeque, bottled water, and cocktails (for purchase) on the island from on-board the ship.

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Time for zip lining!!! The Dragon’s Breath Flightline is the longest zip line over ocean in the world! The scariest part may be the ride up to the zip line, 500 feet above the beaches, in an open safari vehicle, along a winding road. The tour includes an orientation and then the practice begins over at the “Little Dragon” zip line. Enjoy the thrilling ride down at 40-50 mph overlooking 2,600 feet of gorgeous beaches and the Caribbean. The zip line ends at the Dragon’s Breath Rock, where you can step off the zip line and play in the ocean or wander on over to a jerk-chicken style barbeque.

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Arawak Aqua Park

The first thing that we spotted upon disembarking the ship, were the inflatables. It was like a huge jungle gym afloat in the Caribbean, perfect for families. Arawak Aqua Park includes fun, floating trampolines, water slides, a riding and rolling log, as well as several other floating toys.

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Dragon’s Splash Waterslide~ This saltwater slide is fun for the entire family! My husband went down at a snails pace and couldn’t quite get the rhythm while our kids came barreling down doing spins. The slide is just under 300 feet long and ends in a 18-foot splash area. The pathway to the slide is called Columbus Coves’ forest where you’ll climb a stone pathway through the jungle to reach the Dragon’s head. The waterslide pass is good for the entire day!

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There is so much to do in Labadee!!! We cruised into the port on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas ship. As you can tell by the pictures, it was an overcast day with bright sun and then rain the next minute. In addition to the excursions that we participated in, there is a DreamWorks Photo Safari, Dragon’s Tail Coaster, Haiti coastal cruise, lounge chair & cabana rentals, yacht sailing, Sandbar Island Adult Party, beach bungalow rentals, full day beach bed rental, kayaking, historical walking tour, sport fishing, snorkeling and jet skiing. We are definitely doing the jet skis next year!

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Shopping!! Shop for beautiful handmade, local artwork, woodwork and crafts. Some of the vendors can be pushy and I read in reviews, that they can be aggressive as well. We did not experience any aggressive vendors. The shopping area is separate from the lounging beach area and the vendors cannot leave the shopping area. I noticed beautiful jewelry, sculptures and purchased an ornament. The shopping area is very clean and strategically placed on the pathway to the waterslide, inflatables, and jet skis.

Interesting Facts~ Royal Caribbean employs 200 locals at Labadee and allows another 300 to sell their wares on the premises. Royal Caribbean pays the Haitian government $12 per tourist.

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Fabulous day in Labadee

We will definitely be heading back to Labadee next year for Spring Break!!! Ironically, it was our favorite port in the Eastern Caribbean.

 

 

The Amazing Race Excursion, St. Maarten

 

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Fill the cup up with sea water using a single sponge

 

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Ferry Ride

We’re always looking for something fun an exciting to do as a family while on vacation. Our kids are very athletic and love to be outside. So, after reading about Tri-Sport Eco Tours – The Amazing Race, we were all in!! Since our favorite family game is Clue, a scavenger hunt was right up our alley. The Amazing Race tour is the perfect way to sightsee while running (or walking) through St. Maarten. 3 hours of fun for $75 per person. A staff member was waiting at the meeting location to lead us to the ferry for a short ride over to the race starting point.

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Reading the Challenge Card

Enjoy the gorgeous views while sailing on over to the starting point. The waters of St. Maarten are emerald-green with tropical breezes and colorful umbrellas lining the white sand beaches. We were fortunate to meet fun and energetic competitors on the ferry. Upon arrival, the guide suggested that we team up in groups of 4-10, so we teamed up with two other people. Then, it was time to choose a team name. After careful brainstorming, we came up with Team Mana (magical power).

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Philipsburg

Next, the guide starts handing out the first clue and reviewing the rules. Pay close attention, to ALL of the rules as we learned the hard way and took a penalty. E.g. don’t use your phone to research answers on the quizzes. You may use your phone to snap pictures of sites and structures that you’ll need to remember later. Keep in mind, there is a quiz at the end of the competition so be sure to read the information on the monuments and statues. The guide ran through the rules very quickly and people were talking all around us.

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Team Mana

Team Prep~ Get to know the strengths of each person on your team. For example, my knee wasn’t real strong at the time so we chose another team member for the intense exercise drills. Choose a team leader and know who can interpret the clues fast and reiterate to the rest of the team. Since our family of four was on the team, we chose a ‘non-family member’ to spit out the clues to avoid any arguing. Ha! Most of all, designate a photographer to capture all of those candid moments.

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Ready, Set, Race!!! Let the race begin through 2.5 miles of downtown Philipsburg. Each team is IMG_7340issued clues and must use those clues to find the location of an item, which may be in a shop, store window or a symbol on a building. The guide encouraged our team to walk the race and take in all the sights; however, our team consisted of an IronMan and an avid runner so we all chose to run the race!

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Racing through Philipsburg

The website mentions bonus point challenges consisting of mental and physical challenges such as building a sand castle or sampling foods. We were not presented with bonus challenges.

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If you have questions during the challenge or if you’re heading the wrong direction, there are friendly staff in bright green shirts along the way to assist. At one point our entire team was running the wrong way and the other teams were following us, so the staff turned us around. Ha!

IMG_7377The finish!!! Keep in mind that the team who crosses the finish line first doesn’t necessarily win. The final score is calculated based on the finishing time AND the total points for the challenge.  Our team crossed the finish line first but did not result in the most points. Either way, we’re winners in our own right and scored a bottle of rum! It was refreshing to have a cold cup of rum punch (punch for the kids is available) at the finish. The staff is really fun and friendly. Although, I do believe the rules could have been outlined or explained more clearly.

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Winners!!

IMG_7354Tips~ Definitely wear tennis shoes, a hat and apply sunblock. A bottle of water is provided, but I highly recommend bringing your own. It was a long, hot day and we were running a lot and would not want to be limited to one bottle. Eat a hearty breakfast as only a small snack is provided at the end and there isn’t much time to go out to lunch afterwards if returning to a cruise ship. Most importantly, have FUN and LAUGH a lot.

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Book your tour at:

https://www.trisportsxm.com/the-amazing-race-tour-9.html

Eiffel Tower in December

 

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There are only two places in the world where we can live happy: at home and in Paris ~ Ernest Hemmingway

When you think of Paris, the Eiffel Tower has to be the first thing that comes to mind. My mom and I planned a trip to Paris and London in 2014 and had an amazing time running all over the place. I truly believe that you will never regret making memories through travel with the ones that you love. First stop, Eiffel Tower!! After all, it is the one of the top recognized structures of the world and the most visited monument with almost 7 million people per year. After touring Paris in the winter, le croissant and French onion soup are a close second! The Eiffel Tower, named after Gustave Eiffel, is built of wrought iron and located on Champs de Mars. The iconic tower was built from 1887-1889 for the World’s Fair.

Upon checking into our hotel, located on George 5th, the Eiffel tower was located to the right a couple of blocks down. We were fortunate enough to be able to walk to the tower during the day and at night, walking anywhere in December can be bone chilling cold.

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A quote from one of my favorite movies, Sabrina~ “La Vie En Rose: It means seeing life through rose colored glasses, but only in Paris where the light is pink”

As you can see, in the picture above, the Eiffel Tower in December is often surrounded by gray clouds, blistery cold wind and rain or mist. The tower stands 1,063 ft tall, which equates to an 81-story building, making it the tallest building in Paris. As the elevator takes passengers to the observation deck, it can be a little scary looking down. If you are afraid of heights as my mom is, close your eyes. At one time, the Eiffel Tower was the tallest man-made structure in the world and remained such for 41 years until the Chrysler Building in New York was built in 1930. The Eiffel Tower is the second tallest building in France.

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View from the lift

As we reached the site of the Eiffel Tower, I was taken aback by the number of guards carrying automatic weapons pacing back and forth, of course this was in 2014. I was familiar with high levels of security as well as police in the United States at touristy areas, but couldn’t remember at that time seeing military with semi-automatic weapons. I wasn’t sure if I felt safer or if it made me more aware? The picture above on the left is standing on the observation deck and the picture to the right is standing in line.

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The tower has three levels which visitors can explore. The first & second levels have restaurants while the upper level, also known as the observation deck (906 feet high), is a fantastic place to take pictures. If you love to climb, tickets are available for visitors to access the tower via stairs. Keep in mind it takes 300 steps to reach the first level. No thanks! I could barely climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but then again those stairs are leaning. We opted to take the elevator (lift) complete with large glass, viewing windows.

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View from the top

$$ Saving Tips~ There are several different modes of transportation to/from the Eiffel Tower. Check with the concierge if you are staying at a hotel or preview a map. We walked from our hotel. It is not necessary to book a tour of the Eiffel Tower, but may be convenient if you are traveling with an elderly family member or small children to ensure less walking, waiting and standing. Many of the tour companies pre-pay the tickets to bypass standing in the line. Some of the tours include dinner at the restaurant within the tower. Others tack on sailing the Seine River. If traveling in the winter, there isn’t a need to purchase the fast pass Eiffel Tower tickets because the lines are short. Save your money and purchase the regular ticket. It was a total of 20 minutes from the time we stood in line until we were at the top of the tower.

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Port Falmouth, Jamaica

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After four years of construction, the $220-million, purpose-built Historic Falmouth Cruise Port, opened in 2011. Located on the north coast of Jamaica, Falmouth is the capital of Trelawny parish. It is 60 miles from Ocho Rios port and 18 miles from Montego Bay.

Prior to exploring any port, always do your research first. When sailing with Royal Caribbean, we made it a point to read the customer reviews on Jamaica. Most were fair, some were poor relating to safety and theft. All of the reviews about Falmouth Port were favorable, as vendors are approved, the port is well guarded and only cruise ship passengers can get in. So, we decided to browse around the port and see what it had to offer. Normally we book an excursion or tour when in port, but this time we decided to explore on our own.

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Jamaican Patty

First stop, Jamaican patty!  What is a patty? It’s a type of pastry filled with meats such as ground beef, pork, lamb, chicken, lobster, or fish and mixed with spices, vegetables and cheese. Patties are similar to a turnover but not sweet. Turmeric is added to give the pastry a golden yellow color. Patties are common in Jamaica, the coast of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Patties are considered a meal often eaten with coco bread.

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Hair braiding

252Why is hair braiding so popular in Jamaica? Cornrows got the name due to the raised braid in a continuous row. In the Caribbean, braids are known as canerows, which is an ancient traditional African hairstyle using an underhand style very close to the scalp. Cornrow braids originate from Africa dating back thousands of years. Cornrows are a specific type of braid, small and tight. They are very popular with Jamaican men and women. Cornrow braids are also appealing to tourists and for this reason, hair braiding is available all around the port.

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Margaritaville

 

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Margarita Hot Tub

Of course we ended up at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville!!! Complete with a pool, swim-up bar, mini version of Dunn’s River Falls, and a hot tub shaped like a margarita glass (pictured). Even though it is very touristy, we loved grabbing lunch at Margaritaville- something different than the cruise. As you step foot off of the ship and into the terminal, you’ll be greeted by red-roofed, Caribbean-style buildings, housing, and businesses. There were musicians performing in the center of the port and plenty of craft markets, rum and jewelry stores. We felt very safe and no one approached us to sell merchandise.

Despite what you may think, Jamaican music includes much more than just reggae. There is Jamaica folk, ska, rocksteady, dub music, dancehall, jazz, mento and reggae fusion. The music culture is a fusion of elements incorporating Trinidad and Tobago.

Tip~ don’t sample rum unless you plan on buying a lot! My husband was sampling several different types and then we were obligated to purchase and ending up giving it all to our room attendant as we carried on luggage.

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For those of you who like to venture out a bit and explore, check out some of the architectural sights such as Falmouth Court House and St. Peter’s Anglican Church. We did not explore outside of the port; however, several tourists complained of being hassled by vendors. I would recommend booking a tour through a tour company and not walk around on your own if you’d rather not be hassled.

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$$ Saving Tips~ Discuss cost of hair braids with the vendor prior to getting your hair braided. Please note, you can bring alcohol on board the ship and they will hold it for you until departure but you cannot take it to your room.

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Strike Zone, bottom fishing in Maui

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Probably fishing is my first passion ~ Luke Bryan

img_3059Our son is at one with the ocean and all he wanted for his birthday was to go bottom fishing. There are so many options to choose from in the islands, so we needed to do a little research to find out what the tours offered. Our main question was, “do we get to keep what we catch?” On Strike Zone, they split all the fish that is caught so that everyone gets to bring some home. Plus, all of the gear is provided, no experience necessary and you don’t need a fishing license. Lunch and drinks are provided as well. This was perfect for our son!!!

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There is certainly something in angling that tends to produce a serenity of the mind.  ~Washington Irving

The boat leaves out of Maalaea Harbor first thing in the morning and it is about a 6 hour trip. They use 4 poles to high-speed troll on the way out to the spot where they will bottom fish. Enjoy gorgeous views of Maui as you ride along the Pacific. Each person is given a ping pong ball with a # on it. When a fish is on the line, they call out a # and whomever has that # gets to reel it in. Hanapa’a! Try your luck at marlin, yellowfin, skipjack tuna, mahi mahi or ono. Once you arrive to the bottom fishing destination, drop your pole for some snapper, trevally, wrass, sea bass and maybe even a shark!

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I love fishing.  You put that line in the water and you don’t know what’s on the other end.  Your imagination is under there.  ~Robert Altman

It’s what’s for dinner!!! Below are the fish that my son brought home for me to cook. Top row is ta’ape (bluestripe snapper) and bottom row is palani (eye-stripe sturgeon).

For more information on Strike Zone tours call 808-879-4485.

 

A day in Galveston

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A picture is worth a thousand words so they say.

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Hilton Galveston Island Resort

When I think of Galveston, I think of horse-drawn carriages, spring break, The Strand, the Seawall and 4 wheel bicycles. We had 24 hours to see all we could see in Galveston before boarding a cruise to sail the Caribbean. What to do? It was the first time visiting Galveston for all of us. We chose a hotel located right on the famous Seawall, the Hilton Galveston Island Resort. We had ocean view from our room, a much different ocean than what we are used to in Hawaii.

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The weather on the Gulf is very unpredictable. In fact, ships are delayed coming into port and pulling out due to heavy fog at times. The ocean is less blue and more gray than Hawaii. Needless to say, we were not there for the ocean. We were off to sight see! Situated right on the seawall, we grabbed a 4 wheel bike and peddled on down Seawall Blvd. The 4-wheel bike was a first for all of us. Tip: ride in the back seat to take frequent breaks from peddling and the front passengers are unaware. Bike rentals are available all along Seawall Blvd. I can’t remember how much we paid but it was fairly inexpensive and by the hour.

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The Strand

First stop, The Strand historic district. The Strand is 5 blocks spanning from 20th to 25th street fronting the wharf. It is lined with Victorian style buildings full of restaurants, antique stores, and curio shops. I love seeing the massive cruise ships all in port visible from all streets. The Strand hosts all kinds of festivals throughout the year and is a major tourist spot. The actual street, created in 1830, is called Avenue B but has been referred to as “The Strand” named by a German jewelry store owner who thought it sounded better. The Strand is named after a street in London and means shore or riverbank. Galveston is known for it’s horse and carriage rides, trolleys, county museum, factory outlets, galleries, beef jerky shops, and confectionaries.

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The Strand suffered catastrophic damage after the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. Many buildings and businesses first floors were entirely wiped out.

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La Kings Confectionary

Best part about La Kings Confectionary, a throwback from the 1920’s, their products are available for order on line!!! So, no need to hand carry or shove all of their yumminess in your luggage. Tourists are drawn into the shop by the sweet aroma filling the air outside. It smells like waffle cones and homemade caramel sauce. La Kings uses 19th century methods of making candy, using traditional equipment. Our kids loved the 1920’s soda fountain that serves malts, shakes, ice cream sodas, sundaes, splits, and floats (pictured above). La Kings also makes Purity ice cream founded in 1889 on Galveston Island. Some of the award winning treats are: fruit slices, salt water taffy, handmade chocolates, pecan logs, divinity, and pecan pralines.

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Pleasure Pier

As we rode bikes along Seawall Blvd., a pier in the distance became larger and larger as we approached. It was Pleasure Pier! Since we rented the bike by the hour, we chose not to explore the pier, observing from the road instead, listening to all the screams coming from the roller coasters. In addition, you can’t walk on without a $10 per person walk-on pass. We didn’t want to pay $40 to take a look around. $26.99 per person will get you unlimited rides. Family packages are also available for $89.99 2 adults/2kids, $94.99 3 adults/1 child or $99.99 4 adults.

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Port of Galveston

Strolling around the Strand we ended up at Galveston’s Pier 19, where we noticed a huge offshore oil driller, the Ocean Star. The jack-up rig is now a museum which visitors can take a self-guided tour. The oil drilling equipment is on display and visitors can learn about oil to gas production. Admission is $9 for adults.

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Black Pearl Oyster Bar

When in Rome….we smelled the wharf and instantly craved oysters on the half shell. After asking around town, several locals mentioned the Black Pearl Oyster Bar located at 327 23rd Street. Yelp rates the restaurant 4 stars- another good sign. When we saw people waiting in a long line outside the door, we knew it had to be great! Oysters are severed as Oysters Rockafeller with spinach cream cheese; Oysters Haelen topped with crab meat, cheddar, and bacon; or Oysters Diablo with spicy diablo sauce, shrimp, and cheddar. Other menu items include Po-boys, sandwiches and fresh salads for lunch. Choose specialties such as, barbecue shrimp, crab cakes, fish tacos, crawfish etouffee, ribeyes or grilled pork chops. For seafood options, try the hand-battered fresh fish and choose from flounder, snapper, salmon, ahi tuna, talapia, or catfish. Yum!!!

1975205_10153988257281838_2938178253686608160_nDining in Galveston~ there are a ton of restaurants located up and down Seawall blvd. After returning our 4-wheel bike, we popped into The Rainforest Café. Not exactly unique to Galveston or Texas for that matter, but we always love a great chain restaurant that we don’t have back home.

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The Strand