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Clockwise from top: The Grand Lucayan’s Reef course; UNEXSO dolphin swim; High Rock Lighthouse
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Clockwise from top: Old Chinatown; St. Lawrence Market; Toronto Harbour
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Clockwise from top: Hogwarts at Universal Orlando; Daytona Beach; Disney’s It’s a Small World ride; Cape Canaveral
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Clockwise from left: The Willis Tower; Millennium Park; Portillo’s Chicago dog
Sometimes a day trip just isn't enough.
For those occasions when you need to get not just out of town but into a whole new state — or country, for that matter — we offer a quartet of trips, from Chicago to Toronto, from Orlando to the Bahamas. Best of all, each one of them is accessible via a direct flight, meaning no layovers in Atlanta or worries about making your connection in Charlotte. Because less time spent in the air means more time spent exploring your destination. For more easy travel options, check out our list of nonstop flights from Richmond.
The Bahamas are now as accessible as the Outer Banks
As the son of an aeronautical engineer, I harbor an irrational fear of flying.
Maybe it's knowing that my dad once rebuilt the rear differential of his pickup — only to have the entire back axle fall off on a busy highway.
I was willing to get over all that when I was asked to check out a budget flight and resort package that came online in the fall from Vision Airlines . The deal, first offered in November, promised $29 nonstop flights to Grand Bahama Island that even my phobias could not resist.
Arriving in the Bahamas on a chartered flight arranged by the carrier for members of the press and Richmond-area travel agents, we taxied up to the airport concourse and discovered it strung with a banner reading "Ministry of Tourism and Aviation welcomes Vision Airlines familiarization trip."
The Grand Lucayan resort was no less hospitable: Lemonade at check-in, complimentary doodads and brochures from tourism groups, a banquet featuring an amazing dish of steamed conch and sweet potato, and an appearance by the Royal Bahamas Police Force Band decked out in pith helmets and dress whites.
I spent most of my visit relaxing by the pool with its bar and restaurant, but also available were golf, horseback riding, sailing, ocean kayaking and an on-site casino (though the latter was a bit more Dan Tanna than Danny Ocean). And of course there were beautiful beaches featuring clear blue waters populated by the aquatic cast of Finding Nemo. I also couldn't resist renting a motor scooter for $20, acclimating myself to driving on the "wrong" side of the road in this former British territory.
After a too-short 36 hours, I was back in Richmond wondering where I got the tan and the throbbing headache.
But not for long: I actually ended up experiencing this mostly pleasant whirlwind twice — first as part of the "familiarization trip" (paid for by Vision) and again with my wife to celebrate 15 years of blissful marriage (paid for by me).
There's plenty to love about Vision's packages — about $1,200 for two people to fly nonstop and enjoy a four-day resort stay overlooking the crystal-blue Atlantic. (It's worth $50 a night extra to face the ocean.) The flight takes just two hours, so a morning departure means Bahama Mamas on the beach by noon. Compare that to a cramped car ride to the Outer Banks — three to four hours on a good day — and a Bahamas trip begins to feel doable.
My solo visit with the travel agents had been well-steered by tourism officials, so when I returned with my wife, we decided to go "off the reservation" a bit.
We traveled by rented car east of the resort's private beaches to check out Lucayan National Park. It was breathtakingly beautiful, with the same white sands as the resort. The park, named for the indigenous inhabitants of the Bahamas who were discovered by Christopher Columbus during his 1492 journey (his first stop, Hispaniola, was part of the island chain), includes a beautiful nature trail and a network of underground and underwater caves advertised as among the longest in the world. Popular with scuba divers, their entrances are open to the public.
Also available at the park are guided canoe trips through a brackish inland waterway full of native wildlife — which we unfortunately discovered were supposed to have been booked back at the hotel. But the park's network of trails still gave us the overland view, which turned out to be fascinating, if not all that exotic. We spotted a raccoon and a few sea birds that nearby signs indicated account for the majority of the local fauna.
After turning onto a series of winding roads that took us to the south coast, we discovered a squat cinder-block restaurant with a palm-frond-covered patio. Overlooking a beach dotted with local children splashing in the waves, it offered a selection of Bahamian beers.
The beers are worth the trip. Kalik is the Heineken of the island chain, a tasty lager that's good with food. (Coincidentally, Kalik is owned by Heineken International.) Another local lager, Sands, is fiercely defended by natives as a close competitor to Kalik. Bahamian Brewery & Beverage Co. produces Sands and also makes Strong Back, an excellent stout that rivals Guinness for flavor but easily beats its English counterpart for alcohol content.
Beers aside, if it's a taste of native cuisine you crave, the reality of Grand Bahama will burst your bubble. Deep-fried conch fritters are available in abundance, as if the seas surrounding the island were filled with boiling grease, but the best food we had probably came from the resort's room service. We ordered in on the last night, enjoying a stateside-style meal worthy of the eateries scattered throughout the foodie-friendly Fan district.
All in all, the trip left both of us wishing we had more time to explore. Our one regret was that our return flight left the island before noon, meaning we had to be back at the airport by 10 a.m. — too early an end for a sun-kissed winter holiday. —Chris Dovi
Grand Bahama Nature Tours: Daily trips include kayaking, biking, sightseeing and beach tours of Lucayan National Park. Most are priced at $89. gbntours.com
Garden of the Groves : The 12-acre wildlife habitat has an indigenous botanical tour that also provides glimpses of native and migratory birds and butterflies. Admission is $15 for adults and $10 for kids. thegardenofthegroves.com
Dolphin Swims: The Underwater Explorers Society (UNEXSO) offers interactive tours that allow participants to swim with dolphins. Tours are available daily. In addition to dolphin dives, other tours through UNEXSO include wreck dives, exploration of nearby undersea caves and a shark dive. Some scuba packages (certified divers only) are around $100, but the dolphin swim, available even if you just graduated from water wings, is $169 for adults — or you can just watch for $82. unexso.com
Paradise Cove : Take a day trip to Deadman's Reef on the island's southwest side, and you'll get to see plenty of tropical aquatic life around this living reef. Both snorkel and glass-bottom boat tours are available. deadmansreef.com
Golf: Two 18-hole courses, the Lucayan and the Reef, are associated with the Grand Lucayan resort, and they're available to guests — for an additional charge. grandlucayan.com
Port Lucaya Marketplace and Marina: This outdoor mall-style experience includes boutiques filled with clothing and discount perfumes, duty-free liquor, and local and international jewelry designs, as well as restaurants that range from mid-priced fried seafood to high-end fusion. Or you can visit the many outdoor stalls filled with locally made handicrafts. Glass-bottom and catamaran boat tours depart from the marina. portlucayamarketplace.com/lucaya
The Great North
Don't be fooled: There's more to Toronto than a film festival
"No, no — not Taur-ahn-tow," Justin said between swigs of red wine. "It's Trah-no. Two syllables, at most."
Right, two syllables, I thought, assessing my surroundings. Twenty Canadians were occupying five tables in an Irish pub. One was dressed as a cowboy; another was decked out like a low-level pimp, with a purple faux-fur hat and costume-store cane to match. Others wore Santa hats. Everyone was singing — something about Yogi Bear.
"Andrew, you're coming out with us?" asked Jordan, another impromptu companion, plotting an alcohol-fueled walking tour of downtown Toronto.
There was no way I was missing a bar crawl with 20 Canadians.
Not six hours ago, I had touched down at Toronto's YYZ Airport, on the Saturday before Christmas, woefully unprepared for the weather, wearing just a jacket and a thick sweater. No hat. No gloves. I did remember my wool socks. As I made my way from the airport, it turned out that Wellesley Manor , the boutique hotel where I was staying, was almost directly across the street from my metro-station exit, and thankfully so — a light snow flurry had started up.
When I decided to travel to Toronto, I knew virtually nothing of Canada save for some lame hockey jokes, maple syrup and obscure references to Rush. (Neal Peart!) The trick to Toronto, as I quickly found out that Saturday night, is to head east and west. A long walk due south on Yonge Street that afternoon, while directionally informative, yielded me nothing but a route to the harborfront, a runny nose and knowledge of the locations of name-brand retail outlets and, ahem, adult establishments. It's touristy, which is fine — on Yonge Street is where I found the Irish Embassy Pub and Grill , home to a decent beef burger (albeit a pricy one at $17), a pint of Toronto-brewed Steam Whistle pilsner and a gaggle of thirsty Toronto folk.
And the city abounds with experiences that could be classified as typical but are worthwhile nonetheless. The Toronto International Film Festival , held annually, takes place in September this year. Maple Leafs hockey and Raptors basketball round out the winter months; the Argonauts, Toronto's Canadian-football team, begin playing in June.
But a true native experience of Toronto means trekking horizontally along side streets and east-west avenues into the neighborhoods, which is where the city's great diversity exists. (And I do mean trek. Toronto has excellent public transportation — metro, streetcars and BIXI, a formidable bike-share program — but the city is highly walkable.) Of the roughly 2.5 million people living in Toronto, about half were born outside of Canada; more than 140 languages are spoken citywide. From Wellesley Manor, a straight shot south gets you to the financial and entertainment districts, where you'll find the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Steam Whistle Brewery . But everyone goes there.
So, on Sunday, nursing a hangover, I heeded the advice of my makeshift companions and headed to Old Town Toronto — locals call it the Distillery District — where you'll find the St. Lawrence Market .
On Saturdays, it's a palace-sized farmers market; on Sundays, head across the street, where a vast indoor Sunday Antique Market is set up. After spotting a set of four crystal wineglasses, I haggled with one merchant and bought the set for $20.
From there I took the metro back north to College Station, then hoofed it along Gerrard Street East — the site of Old Chinatown, where you'll pass a number of Chinese and Vietnamese food markets and hucksters hawking fresh produce — to wind up at Hammersmith's . At this relatively new diner opened by a young couple, the food served is anything but your standard bacon-and-scrambled-eggs feast. Get the duck plate: It's one duck egg, duck hash (duck meat mixed with diced potatoes and caramelized onions) and four pieces of toast, all for $13. The best part? Hammersmith's serves brunch until 4 p.m.
After a short rest at my hotel, I ventured, by taxi this time, to Queen Street West, just south of Chinatown and Little Italy. It's a young, artsy neighborhood — plenty of bars, art galleries and hip restaurants.
If you don't set foot inside The Drake Hotel , you're making a mistake. The dining room within is upscale and chic (think low lighting, wood paneling, corner lounge seating scattered about), but not stuffy; the upstairs lounge, encased by exposed-brick walls and open to the night sky above, is especially nice.
According to bartender Cameron Hutton, the menu changes four times a year, and the cocktail menu "changes every three months, if not sooner."
I sat at Hutton's bar, admired the glint off the bottles of bourbon, and ordered an Old Fashioned. Sipping slowly, I thought: Next time, I'll need more than a weekend.
Air Canada offers direct flights to Toronto from Richmond. —Andrew Zaleski
Dakota Tavern: According to bartender Cameron Hutton, this place has a tendency to get packed at night: More than 300 people sometimes line up for music shows here. It's a country bar, with regular live-music performances, but you won't feel awkward showing up without cowboy boots. thedakotatavern.com
Pizzeria Libretto: The pizzas here are certified by the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association, which means they're right out of the Old Country. pizzerialibretto.com
Bungalow: I spent nearly an hour trying on various tweed jackets and Cary Grant-style fedoras at this one-stop-shop for vintage clothing and furniture. And no, I'm not ashamed to admit it. bungalow.to
The Standard: As its name implies — perhaps to the chagrin of the proprietors — The Standard serves up typical Italian food. But it's good. For $35, you'll get a generous helping of spaghetti and meatballs, a glass of Sensi Chianti Docg, and a Jack and Coke. thestandardoncollege.com
Pravda Vodka Bar: Here, you'll find red stars, a portrait of comrade Lenin and copious amounts of vodka from Russia, Poland, Finland and elsewhere. pravdavodkabar.com
Toronto Islands: For less than $7, a short ferry ride from the docks at Queen's Quay will take you to this group of islands located in the city's inner harbor. History buffs will appreciate visiting the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse on Hanlan's Point; erected in 1808, it's the oldest stone building in Toronto. Those more interested in lounging can head to one of the point's two beaches, which are open in July and August. But fun for the whole family requires a trip to the Centreville Amusement Park, which is open daily from June through August. An all-day ride pass for a family of four costs just $86 online. centreisland.ca
Orlando delivers the theme-park goods, but be prepared
Let me begin by saying my family had an awesome time during our recent vacation to the great state of Florida. After a week and a half spent at an excellent Disney hotel, trips to two amazing theme parks and a few days spent on a beautiful beach, who could complain?
For starters, the panicked arrival of a team of paramedics is never a good vacation omen. But after an hour in the sultry summertime Florida sun, queued up and baking like bratwursts as we waited to experience the magic of Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park, this was exactly the ill omen we got.
That omen became harder to ignore when the paramedics passed by again, this time with their adult patient strapped to a gurney, hooked to an IV drip and oxygen mask, and clad from head to toe in Hogwarts memorabilia. A plastic wand dangled dramatically from her otherwise limp hand.
As the father of two Potter-obsessed pre-teens, maybe I should have left right then. But I didn't. And $600, three sunburns, two hearty-but-inappropriate-to-Florida-heat English-style meals, and at least two dehydration-induced fainting spells later, my wife and I re-emerged from Potter's world wondering where the magic had gone.
Not that our daughters noticed. They were under Potter's spell from the moment we walked through the gates of this theme-park-within-a-theme-park.
When the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in June 2010, it was heralded by Universal as the only place on earth to experience the authentic world of Harry Potter. There's no doubt that this re-creation of Potter's alternate universe of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and the English village of Hogsmeade is a genuine triumph.
But Universal executives perhaps should have given more consideration to the wisdom of situating their faithful re-creation of a northern-England village in the heat and humidity of Central Florida without making a few accommodations for the inevitable crowds and the subtropical climate.
Perhaps these same execs wandered the grounds of Disney World and were fooled into believing that anyone could pull off the same effortless trickery. Since opening in October 1971, the "Happiest Place on Earth" has become the premier example of mass crowd control, so much so that its methods have been studied the world over.
Let us examine, for instance, the art of the queue.
In Harry Potter's imaginary town, we waited for an hour under a blazing sun to enter Ollivanders Wand Shop. When we finally made it inside, Mr. Ollivander himself appeared, selected a single child from the crowd of 50 or so and proceeded to try a variety of wands until one "chose her." After some amazing pyrotechnics, he announced that the wand in question would be happy to be purchased by her parents for about $40 in the gift shop. He assured us that other wands would be waiting there to choose our own kids. Ollivander knows his wands: About six seemed to speak personally to my older daughter.
While I queued up to buy, my wife decided she'd take the girls and meet me in a nearby replica train platform. It was, she said, a good place to find shade.
It was also a good place to find a hundred or so bodies sprawled in various stages of exhaustion. The perpetual soundtrack of the park, the classic John Williams-penned Potter score, lost its feel of suspenseful wonderment pretty quickly and became instead an ode to misery.
Meanwhile next door, we waited the same hour for Disney's vapidly stalwart It's a Small World ride. Opened the same day the park first greeted guests 40 years ago, the ride lines you under a shaded canopy that blends into the street façade of the park's Fantasyland area. Oscillating fans move air across the tightly packed bodies, making the wait eminently endurable.
None of this is to say that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter isn't its own magical kingdom. Indeed, it's well worth the trip, despite my grousing — so long as you're careful about finding water and shade.
The Flight of the Hippogriff and Dragon Challenge roller coasters were both top-notch. And the wait to board the Dragon Challenge — a line that creeps along mostly inside the shade of the exactingly replicated (and air-conditioned) Hogwarts castle — was enchanting. This was in part thanks to tons of CGI smoke and mirrors, including lifelike holograms of Potter characters.
The rest of Universal Orlando makes the visit plenty worthwhile, too. Rides and shops inspired by characters from Marvel Comics, Dr. Seuss and Hanna-Barbera round out the experience.
My own personal favorite souvenir was found at Hogwarts. Butterbeer — an imagined concoction of butterscotch flavoring and vanilla soda that's a nonalcoholic favorite of Harry and his pals — is, to quote Ron Weasley, "bloody brilliant."
AirTran and JetBlue airways offer direct flights to Orlando from Richmond. —Chris Dovi
Downtown Disney: A sprawling "town square" complex of gift shops, clothing boutiques and restaurants that vary between elegant and just plain awesome, Downtown Disney brings out the kid in mom and dad. Plus, there's a Lego store. Free admission (though, as they say, there's no such thing as a free lunch). disneyworld. disney.go.com/destinations/downtown-disney
Cape Canaveral/Kennedy Space Center: It's worth a couple hours round-trip in the car to visit the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, check out a real Saturn 5 rocket or, if you time it right, watch an actual rocket launch. Admission is $43 per adult or $33 per child. kennedyspacecenter.com
Daytona Beach: Hard-packed sands made this wide beach, located about 60 miles from Orlando, the original site of what has since evolved into the Daytona 500 NASCAR race. Visitors still can drive (albeit very slowly) on these same beaches where sunbathers now frolic. It's $5 per day to drive and park. Free to walk from nearby parking. daytonabeach.com
Daytona International Speedway/Daytona 500 Museum: Tour the famous 2.5-mile-long Daytona 500 track and see NASCAR memorabilia dating to the early days of stock-car racing and its rum-running roots. Or pay $135 for a Daytona Ride Along. The Speedway Tour, a walking history tour of the track, is $15 per adult, $10 per child. Or the All Access tour, a walk that explores the garages and other behind-the-scenes NASCAR secrets, is $22 per adult, $17 per child. daytonainternationalspeedway.com
Daytona Flea & Farmers Market: Where else can you buy bags of fresh Florida citrus and other local Central Florida produce, grab a new set of tires for your minivan, get a haircut, and stock up on an array of Chinese throwing stars? Located just west of the Daytona International Speedway, admission is free. Try the boiled peanuts. daytonafleamarket.com
My Kind of Town
From local eats to live theater, Chicago delivers entertainment
Before we get to Chicago, let's get one thing straight: Rosie O'Donnell and I go way back.
I've followed her career ever since she was on Star Search in 1984, and in 2001, I attended a taping of her first talk show in New York City. It was toward the end of the show's run, and I actually got to play a pop-culture name game with Rosie, during which I won a camcorder. So when I found out that her new talk show was based in Chicago, I had to go. (This wasn't without precedent: My first visit to Chicago, in 2009, was to attend a taping of the late, lamented Oprah Winfrey Show.) I got lucky — The Rosie Show gave me tickets for two tapings.
While seeing The Rosie Show was certainly a highlight of my trips — more on that later — there are plenty of reasons to visit Chicago, which may explain why I've been three times in the past two years.
One of the best is that a flight from Richmond to Chicago can be as short as two and a half hours. The first two times I visited, my friend Janet and I stayed at the Omni Chicago Hotel , located in the heart of the Magnificent Mile and surrounded by first-class shopping and dining. Nicely sized rooms (all suites) and great service made things even better. After learning it was Janet's birthday, the concierge surprised us by leaving cake and a bottle of champagne in our room to enjoy after we returned from dinner.
For anyone looking to explore several of the city's attractions in a day, the "Hop On, Hop Off" trolley via the Chicago Trolley & Double Decker Co. stops at 14 different spots along the lakefront and downtown area, from Millennium Park to the Field Museum. As the name implies, you can stop at the attractions you wish to see and then get back on the trolley at your leisure.
Entertainment options are abundant in Chicago, from Broadway shows at the Apollo Theater , where Million Dollar Quartet, a musical about Sun Records legends Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, runs through May, to improv and sketch comedy at Second City , which helped launch the careers of Stephen Colbert, Bill Murray and Tina Fey.
For theatergoers on a tight budget, the League of Chicago Theaters operates Hot Tix , where you can get tickets for as much as half off on the day of a show by ordering online or going to one of two box-office locations.
Chicago is also home to a number of world-class restaurants, but for my money, a trip to the Windy City isn't complete without indulging in two of the city's specialties — hot dogs and pizza. At local chain America's Dog , I had to try the Richmond dog. Covered in macaroni and cheese and bacon, this was comfort food at its finest — and most filling.
I also couldn't pass up a Chicago-style dog at Portillo's . Complete with a poppy-seed bun, tomatoes, peppers, onions, pickle, relish and mustard (ketchup is forbidden on a Chicago dog), this is the real deal. If you can manage it, save room for the chocolate cake — melt-in-your mouth moist with icing that had just the right amount of sweetness.
The best pizza in Chicago? Who knows for sure, but thanks to a local's recommendation, I discovered an unusual native variety at Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co. in Lincoln Park. Start off with some Mediterranean bread, and then order a Pizza Pot Pie. This dish consists of triple-raised Sicilian bread dough that's made from scratch; homemade sauce; and a special blend of cheeses, sausage and fresh mushrooms.
As for The Rosie Show, my first visit was a "test show" with Molly Shannon of Saturday Night Live fame as a guest. The second show I attended featured 11-year-old aspiring fashion designer Ben Clearie and his idol RuPaul, Sara Blakely (the inventor of Spanx), and a performance by The Commodores. By show's end, I had a coupon for a free pair of Spanx, and we were dancing in the aisles to the sounds of "Brick House."
Unfortunately, the program is now taping without a studio audience, but check Rosie.com to see if that changes. (The producers have already revamped the set at least twice, so who knows?) In any case, if you run into Rosie in the Windy City, be sure to tell her that Debbie sent ya.
American and United airlines offer direct flights to Chicago from Richmond. — By Debbie Leslie McCaffrey
The Art Institute of Chicago: Housing more than 300,000 works of art, this museum's treasures include American Gothic by Grant Wood, Edward Hopper's Nighthawks and 33 works by Monet. Admission is $18 for adults; $12 for children, students and seniors; and free for children under 14. artic.edu/aic
Lincoln Park Zoo: Open 365 days a year, this free, family-oriented wildlife park is home to more than 1,000 mammals, birds and reptiles. Follow the zoo on Twitter@lincolnparkzoo for the latest exhibits and programs. lpzoo.org
Skydeck Chicago: Offering spectacular views of four states, the Skydeck at Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) features The Ledge, a glass balcony experience extending four feet outside the 103rd floor. $17.50 adults, $11.50 children under 12. theskydeck.com
Wrigley Field: The Cubs, historic ballpark on Chicago's North Side was built in 1914, making it the second-oldest in the major leagues behind Fenway Park in Boston. Prices vary. chicago.cubs.mlb.com
Howl at the Moon: Dueling piano players take requests and play sing-along standards like "Sweet Caroline" and "Piano Man" at this piano bar, part of a national chain. Avoid the $5 cover charge by checking in on Foursquare or Yelp. howlatthemoon.com
Navy Pier: Take a stroll and enjoy the Chicago skyline, the boats and the statues (a bronze of comedian Bob Newhart greets you at the entrance). A number of cruises launch from here, including architectural versions from Shoreline Sightseeing (shorelinesightsee ing.com) that examine the history of the city's modern architecture along the Chicago River. navypier.com