Earlier this year, Ken and I went to the Hyatt Hill Country Resort and Spa in San Antonio, TX. My sister and her family had recently moved from Pittsburgh, PA to the Dallas, TX area, and had learned about this resort during one of their trips to Dallas while house hunting. It quickly became a favorite for everybody, my niece and nephew included!
My niece and nephew liked it so much, in fact, that we decided to celebrate their birthdays there (my nephew turned 10 and my niece turned 3, just two days apart). So, my dad flew down too, my sister and her husband and kids drove from Dallas, and Ken and I flew on a nonstop from Baltimore to San Antonio.
The driving entrance to the hotel area is somewhat unassuming and covered by lots of trees. There are a few resorts in the area that seemed similarly “hidden.” The GPS on our phone though took us right where we needed to go! Reservations are needed to enter the parking area (names are checked on the first day, then you’re given a parking pass) to ensure that non-guests cannot come onsite to use the pools and other amenities.
We booked a King room, and then were offered an upgrade option to a 1 bedroom suite upon check-in for an extra $25/night. We decided to jump on the offer.
When you walked in the door to the room, a bathroom and closet was on the left, the door to the bedroom was straight ahead, and the living room was on the right. The living room was a good size and had a lot of places to sit. (Which was nice since, during our stay, family members were always in-and-out of our room … 5 adults and two kids!)
There was balcony access from both the bedroom and the living room.
The bedroom was a decent size.
The bathroom was very basic. I would’ve liked to have seen some slightly higher end finishes in a 1-bedroom suite, but it was perfectly functional.
The large hallway closet was great.
But really, let’s get onto the REAL attraction of this hotel … the grounds and activities!
The Lobby Area
I’ll let the photos do the talking here!
Then, there were a lot of outdoor seating areas to sit back and relax.
Even though it was May and in Texas, the area had plenty of trees and shade so it never felt exceptionally hot or humid. (Of course, constantly going in and out of the pools helped with that too!).
I think that’s about enough for one post! I’ll cover other parts of the Hyatt Hill Country Resort and Spa, like the pools, the “Ramblin River,” S’mores, and outdoor movies in a part 2!
Our Mardi Gras madness continued! Our third day in New Orleans started with a trip to Mardi Gras World. (It’s open year-round, not just during Mardi Gras). Mardi Gras World makes and stores a lot of the parade floats. I was a little worried that, since Mardi Gras was currently underway, that perhaps it would be empty or not as fun to see.
Luckily, my worries were unfounded! This place was a photographer’s dream (er, in our case, an amateur photographer’s dream!)
Mardi Gras World
It’s a bit off the beaten path, but Mardi Gras World operates a free round trip shuttle from various hotel stops in New Orleans. Luckily, our hotel was one of the stops, so we didn’t even have to go anywhere to pick up the shuttle! They don’t stop at every hotel automatically though, so you do have to call in advance to arrange the shuttle pickup.
During the tour of Mardi Gras World, you get to stop at various “stations” all throughout the warehouse to see artists designing, constructing, and painting floats. The guide mentioned that as soon as Mardi Gras ends one year, the designs and constructions start for the next year!
Here were some float designs posted!
So many art supplies. And my god, the STYROFOAM. SO MUCH STYROFOAM.
I cannot imagine the tremendous talent and patience that it must take to make rectangular styrofoam slabs and construct them into an amazing Mardi Gras Float like these!
We bought a few souvenirs in the gift shop after the tour was over (and after we spent a ton of time taking lots of photographs!), and then took the shuttle back to the hotel. The shuttle ride unfortunately took quite a while because traffic was a mess. That’s what happens during Mardi Gras Season in New Orleans! Lots of closed roads to accommodate the parades. But, we didn’t mind being able to relax and rest our legs on the bus.
French Quarter During Mardi Gras
After we were dropped off at the hotel, the next order of business was getting lunch! And more walking around the madness that is the French Quarter during Mardi Gras.
This dude in a motorized scooter had gotten into an argument with a guy in an SUV, and they were racing in the snail-paced traffic.
And beads in trees EVERYWHERE!
And, of course, a stop at Cafe du Monde for some beignets and hot chocolate. It was, expectedly, MUCH more crowded than our off-season visit in October 2008! There was a long line, but it moved quickly.
We stopped by a mask shop and bought a fun Mardi Gras mask (just for our display shelves at home!).
Then, we headed back to the hotel for a while. We had Bourbon Street balcony party tickets for later that night, and wanted to get some rest since it was likely to be a late night. (I’ll cover the Bourbon Street Balcony Party in an entirely separate post).
We woke up bright and early for the parades on Fat Tuesday! We had grandstand tickets at the Hotel Intercontinental, and the parades start around 8AM on Fat Tuesday.
The Zulu parade comes first.
Krewe of Zulu
This year’s Zulu parade had an amusement park theme, and I was so tickled to see the Cedar Point float. That was an amusement park I went to many times as a kid!
The most coveted “throw” from the Krewe of Zulu are little handpainted coconuts. Apparently those riding in Zulu are no longer permitted to throw the coconuts into the crowds. They have to gently hand them off to people. So, more experienced Mardi Gras goers come prepared with little baskets and nets that they can extend to the float and hopefully get a coconut placed in their basket!
Like the orange basket below which says “coconut please.”
We were enjoying the parade, but damn, we were getting cold. The winds that day were 30+ MPH, and as I mentioned in our previous Mardi Gras posts, we were woefully unprepared clothing-wise.
As Zulu was wrapping up, we decided to go inside the Hotel Intercontinental to get some lunch. Many restaurants are closed on Fat Tuesday, and since we were right there, we decided that the hotel was a good option. We warmed up with some soup and hearty burgers.
We stayed inside for a while longer until we started to hear marching bands playing outside the hotel again. That was the sure sign that the next parade, Rex, was starting up.
Krewe of Rex
Rex, Latin for “King,” reigns as “King of Mardi Gras.” It is one of the last parades of the entire season.
Apparently a big piece of one of the floats had fallen off earlier during the route! That big shell-looking thing was being towed in the back of a truck!
And, of course, lots of folks were dressed up for the occasion, including this guy wearing thong underwear on his head:
There was a bull float that came by that seemed to be incredibly popular. Although it took me a while to find out the information, it seems to be that it symbolizes the last meat eaten before Lent.
Right as the parade was wrapping up, we started to head back to the hotel to get packed up for our flight that was departing that evening.
After our gorgeous ride onboard the Amtrak Cascades Line, we arrived at the Seattle train station around 10PM. We quickly found a taxi and took it to our hotel, the Grand Hyatt Seattle.
We stayed for two nights, and both nights were free. A year earlier, I had applied for the Chase Hyatt credit card, which offered a bonus of two free nights. Although the Grand Hyatt Seattle may not have been the most valuable use of those two nights, the night were expiring within a month, so it was time to put them to good use! We booked a “City View with King Size Bed, floors 23–30.”
We arrived at night, so please forgive how dark the photos are!
From the door to the room was a long-ish hallway, with the bathroom on the left and the bedroom area straight ahead.
The room was not overly spacious, but it did have room for a small sitting chair and a decent size desk and chair as well.
The bathroom, on the other hand, was very spacious and had a lot of luxurious finishes.
There was a separate tub and shower.
And, there was plenty of countertop space, which is always a plus!
I really couldn’t believe it, but somehow I forgot to take pictures of the lobby and exterior of the hotel. That’s what happens when you basically have about 24 hours to see the sites of a major city! It was fairly generic.
The location was great. It was about a 20 minute walk to Pike Place Market, and it was a lovely walk, with lots of shops along the way. We Uber’ed or taxi’ed to most of the other spots in the city, like the Space Needle area and to the port the next day for our cruise departure.
The service at the hotel was decent. We had shipped our luggage ahead (more on that in a future post!), and the Grand Hyatt had received it the day before and had it sent up to the room after we checked in.
One minor complaint though on our arrival. We hadn’t eaten anything since we left Vancouver. So we were damn hungry and looking to grab a quick bite to eat. We asked at the front desk if there was some sort of quick sandwich or takeout place, or even just a nearby fast food place that was open. It was nearly 11PM, and according to our quick searches on Yelp, our options were fairly limited. The front desk staff said, “No, the only option at this hour is Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. Mention you’re a guest and you’ll get a discount.” This seemed pretty suspect that Ruth’s Chris was the only other option available. I explained that we were just looking for something quick and inexpensive. They said no, everything in that area was closed. So, we were annoyed. We went up to the room and unloaded our luggage.
Then, we decided to venture out to walk around and see what we could find on our own. I had found a restaurant while searching on my phone that was a few blocks away and still open. We started to take a different exit from the hotel, and lo and behold, there was a deli LITERALLY ATTACHED TO THE HOTEL. Like, we didn’t even have to exit the hotel to get to the deli. I guess the front desk staff had forgotten about this place? Or maybe they get more of a kickback for sending people to Ruth’s Chris? Either way, I can’t be sure. Ken and I ordered sandwiches from the deli and went back up to the room to devour them. Just what we had been looking for! Something quick and easy before crashing in bed after our long day.
After our quick stay in Vancouver, it was time to make our way to Seattle, the embarkation city for our Alaskan cruise. And what a scenic journey it was!
As I mentioned in the introduction for this trip report, I kinda tripped upon the Amtrak Cascades Line as our method of transportation from Vancouver to Seattle. To recap:
My original plan was to just stay at an inexpensive hotel near Vancouver Airport, and then drive the following morning to Seattle. (Our flight wasn’t arriving in Vancouver until like 12:45AM, so I didn’t want to start driving so late at night. But there was one issue. Rental cars were INSANELY EXPENSIVE. A ONE DAY rental from Vancouver to Seattle was going to be $199 CAD (About $150 USD.) I swallowed my pride and made a reservation, but I couldn’t help but think that there had to be a better, and cheaper, way.
And lo and behold, there was! I came across the Amtrak Cascades option! I had read that it was a very picturesque way to get from Vancouver to Seattle, and much more relaxing than a drive. Even though we have Global Entry these days, the line at the Canadian-US border crossing can get very long, so the train seemed like a good option to minimize the delay as well!
Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station
We arrived at Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station about an hour before the train departure.
We weren’t sure what kind of Canada customs or exit processing there would be. There was a dedicated line for the Cascades line, since it was crossing into the United States. There was also a dedicated line for business class passengers.
We walked around the station for a little bit.
After a short while, they started processing the passengers, including checking our passports and providing seat assignments.
Amtrak Cascades Line Business Class Review
Amtrak Cascade Line’s business class consists of seats in a 2–1 configuration, which I had learned long before our departure. However, I wanted to make sure that we were on the “coast” side of the train. Since the train was heading south to Seattle, that meant we wanted to sit on the right side of the train to have the best views of the coastline. But, I was never able to figure it out in advance if the coast side was the “2 seat” side or the “1 seat” side.
At the check-in, we were assigned seats in the “2 seats” side of the train. I asked the agent if that was the “coast” side, and she said no. That traveling south, that’s the “1 seat” side. Even though it meant not sitting next to each other, we opted for the “1” side. But, as a bonus, she was able to give us two single facing seats, instead of sitting one in front of the other.
Since we still had quite a while before the train departure time, I went outside and took some photos of the exterior of the train.
Views from Amtrak Cascades Line, Vancouver to Seattle
This train route has been touted to be one of the most scenic in the world, and I dare say that I have to agree! [Photo overload to commence]
It’s worth pointing out that since we were traveling south, and seated on the west side of the train nearing sunset, it was incredibly sunny! Ken wore his hat and sunglasses even on the train!
Seriously, SO scenic. I couldn’t take my eyes off the outdoors.
At the Canada-US border crossing, everyone had to stay in their seats while US Customs and Border Patrol officials boarded the train and checked passports. We were stopped for about 20 minutes or so at the border, and then the train continued on.
Photo Tip: The glare from the windows of the train really could have affected our photos if we had not had our polarizer filters on our SLRs! Seriously, if you do this train ride, be sure to have a polarizer filter, otherwise your photos will be filled with glares!
I walked around to some of the different cars and took some additional photos.
As we got closer to Seattle, farmland started to mix in with the coastal views (which were still scenic!)
And then, the sun started setting farther below the horizon.
We arrived in Seattle, disembarked, and took a taxi to our hotel, the Grant Hyatt Seattle. Highly recommend Amtrak Cascades!
After our first jam packed day in New Orleans, I think we managed to cram in even MORE stuff the next day! We started out with brunch in a New Orleans neighborhood called the Magazine District (we took an Uber there from our hotel since it was about a 15 minute drive. Also, more on where we ate in New Orleans in a separate, future post!).
After brunch, we walked around the Magazine District. It was such a cute neighborhood!
Of course, many of the houses and business were decorated for Mardi Gras!
One of the interesting things we noticed during our trip to Mardi Gras is that there are a lot of um, I’m not sure how to describe them, missionaries / preachers / religious folk trying to remind Mardi Gras goers about Jesus. To the point that they were even skywriting about it:
The next photo is not from the Magazine District, but from Bourbon Street, where we saw a group of men carrying a cross down the road.
Anyway, after the Magazine District, we decided to walk around the French Quarter to take in all the daytime Mardi Gras revelry.
Chuckling at the bead whore sign!
And bra decorations on the balconies!
We made our way to Jackson Square and the St. Louis Cathedral area. We just walked around the area for a while and we didn’t even take that many pictures, mostly because we had visited that area extensively on our previous trip to New Orleans in 2008!
The entire area was packed!
We couldn’t believe it, but we were getting hungry again thanks to all the walking, and stopped by and grabbed some lunch. And then, you guessed it, we resumed walking! There was this cute open-air (but covered. Is that a thing?) market. We walked through there and did some people watching!
And then, just more photos of the stunning French Quarter. I am IN LOVE with all these gorgeous buildings.
We had grandstand tickets for the Bacchus parade later that night, so we started to head back to the hotel. Our legs were aching and we tried to decide between walking back to the hotel and taking an Uber, and we just decided to keep on trekking on our sore legs.
And wouldn’t you know it, just like the previous day, we tripped across another parade on our way back to the hotel! (Not sure which krewe this is though!)
It was during this parade that I was NAILED RIGHT IN THE FOREHEAD with an enormous BAG OF BEADS that was thrown from the floats. From that moment, I was very cautious of entire bags of beads being thrown. I much preferred the strands!
We stood around and watched the parade for a bit.
We relaxed at the hotel for a short while and then headed to the grandstands area for the Krewe of Bacchus.
It was COLD that night. Really, it was cold our entire trip. When we packed for our trip, I had seen that the lows in New Orleans would be like 50–55. Compared to DC’s lows of like 20 at that same time in February, 55 seemed downright balmy and we didn’t pack anything heavier than a fleece for a jacket. But man were we regretting it that night! I wish we would’ve packed our heavy winter coats! Sitting on cold metal grandstands didn’t help much either!
Anyway, a word to the wise, even if the weather seems “warm” for winter compared to northeast standards, pack a heavy jacket (and dress in layers).
See, these women were smart. Heavy coats!
The parade was running crazy late. Like probably 2 hours late. But when it did finally get started, there were these two gorilla floats among the first floats. People tossed their beads AT the floats! I guess this is pretty common knowledge, and we quickly joined in, trying to toss our beads at the two gorilla floats!
Then the bulk of the parade started. Like the other ones we had seen, it mostly followed the “float followed by marching band” order. Although there were some horses mixed in on the parade too!
The parade was the same night as the Super Bowl, and this guy marched in the parade watching the Super Bowl from a TV on the back of an SUV!
After a while, the wind really started to kick up, and we were getting even colder. The parade kept getting “stuck,” and sometimes there was a 5, 10, or even 15 minute wait in between the different floats and marching bands. We decided that we had seen plenty of the parade, and we wanted to go back to the hotel to warm up.
We would need to cross the street of the parade route to get back to our hotel, so we walked several blocks down the street to Canal street, where the parade route was not operating, and waited for a break in the parade and for police officers to temporarily open the street barriers (we had seen law enforcement do this several times during the other parades we had watched.)
And we waited. And waited. And waited. And the police officer there wasn’t opening the gate to cross the street, even though there were long breaks in between the floats. There was a huge crowd forming waiting to cross the street, and people started to get pushy. Somebody asked when he would open the gate to cross, since there were no floats within sight. With an extreme attitude tone, the police officer said to the crowd, “Why don’t you all just go enjoy the parade?”
And we’re like, wait, what? Does that mean he won’t open the gate at all? Ken and I were cold getting pretty tired, and I was starting to envision some sort of stampede. Someone else asked where they could go to cross the street, and once again, with that terrible attitude, he said, “GO ENJOY THE PARADE.”
Ken and I broke free from the crowd and walked back up St. Charles Avenue several blocks to another police-staffed barrier. We had just missed a opening, so at least we knew that gate was staffed by reasonable officers allowing people to cross the street. So, we just waited for a few minutes at the gate.
Then, when there was a break of a few minutes in between the next float, the police officers opened the gate and allowed people to cross.
We still have no idea what the problem was at that first crossing point. We had seen people crossing there previously, and if the police officer didn’t want to open the gate, we don’t understand why he didn’t just say, “I can’t open the gates right now, but there’s a gate about 4 blocks away that they’re opening during breaks in between the floats.” I certainly don’t envy New Orleans police officers during Mardi Gras, and I’m sure it’s terribly stressful, but all our other encounters (including at the place we finally crossed) were just so pleasant. That “GO ENJOY THE PARADE” command just really irked us. Not a good way for law enforcement to represent their city.
We had a short walk back to our hotel. We decided that we weren’t even terribly hungry, so we just skipped dinner, cranked up the heat in the hotel room, and cozied up for the rest of the night.