Monday, April 29, 2013

The Gaggle of Girls Getaway

I was recently able to enjoy a “gaggle of girls getaway”.  Unlike the typical “mommy vacation” where 3 or 4 close friends may take off for a weekend of exploring wineries, this venture involved some 35 women coming together from as far north as Maine and as far west as Hawaii to a vacation hotspot in South Florida. The sheer size of the group presented certain challenges and limitations. Anytime you are working with a group larger than the number of passenger seats in a standard taxi cab there are transportation questions. When you add considerations such as unique dietary needs, nightlife tastes, and personal travel allowances, organization and planning become imperative.
Location is always tricky. With a large group you need a spot with adequate affordable lodging, easily accessible (preferably by foot when possible) things to do, and plenty of food options to keep the masses happy. For our purposes, we met up in the fun and quirky beachside town of Hollywood, Florida. Hollywood is a mere 10 minutes from the Fort Lauderdale International Airport. FLL is a very easily maneuverable airport and is serviced by all major airlines including budget options like Southwest Air. Another option is Miami International Airport, distance from Hollywood and cost of transport made this less attractive to our group; we all stuck to Fort Lauderdale.  Cab fare from FLL to Hollywood runs at $25 one way. If traveling with a gaggle, coordinating arrival times with 1 or 2 others can help cut the cost of cab fare to and from your lodging.

There is a time and place for large, corporate hotels. I personally enjoy the amenities and familiarity of easily recognizable brands on many of my travels. When traveling with a gaggle though, especially in a town as unique and quirky as Hollywood, FL, small and independent is the way to go. We opted for the Angelfish Inn, a small independently owned establishment just a block from the broadwalk and beach. This brightly colored 1950s inn boasts 11 rooms that are each configured and decorated differently. The feel in each room is fresh, bright, beachy and fun. Each room has a small kitchen stocked with all the necessary cooking dishes and doodads- this helps cut down on costs of eating out and allows those with special dietary needs to eat healthily.  We teamed up in groups of 2, 3, 4 roommates per room, and split the already very low rates.

Wherever your gaggle goes, one very important thing to note is make sure the establishment has a central gathering spot. We found over the course of our four day vacation that we often just wanted to sit and talk, sharing coffee and cocktails, often in a fashion array of fully dressed, pajamas, and bathing suits. The Angelfish Inn had the perfect spot for this- a tiled courtyard with a large covered seating area next to a fish and turtle pond. The shaded top was a must in the South Florida sun, and the fact our gathering spot was outdoors was helpful for the smokers of the group so they were not constantly getting up to leave. The size of the group gave each individual a lot of freedom to meander in and out, someone was always sitting there ready to chat. Had we been at an establishment without a central sitting area, it would have been an entirely different (and less enjoyable) vacation.

As previously mentioned, splitting cab service from the airport is one way to cut costs. Another option might be utilizing a shuttle service.  Our inn’s proprietress Karin hooked us up with a local shuttle service- Howards Transportation, headed by affable driver Howard (a friendly man and good driver, who had a voice that sounded eerily like one of the regular drivers on HBO’s Taxicab Confessions. ) We utilized Howard’s services one evening to cart the whole slew of us to an evening event.  The cost per person was minimal, not having to worry about finding enough cabs or rental cars- priceless. Transportation is also a consideration when choosing a venue. Hollywood beach is a very pedestrian friendly vacation spot, with a large broadwalk (that isn’t a typo, they call their boardwalk “The Broadwalk”)  that is lined with many shops, restaurants, and bars. We were able to walk and buy everything we needed. The beach was a short 2 minutes from the inn, grabbing a few beach chairs from the inn’s owner we could head out and hit the sand was an easy process.
We were fortunate that the inn’s owner is a prior wedding and event planner and knows the value of organizing activities ahead of time. With her guidance we planned several group outings that proved to be a lot of fun. These events included transportation (thanks Howard!) and were prepaid, which took last minute budget worries off everyone’s shoulders. In the Hollywood/Fort Lauderdale area there are a lot of fun touristy venues a large group of ladies might enjoy. Our two big events were the Junglequeen Riverboat dinner cruise and an excursion to the ladies club, “La Bare”.
The Jungle Queen boards in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Boarding begins with the typical tourist photo op (that they try to sell to you later). Seats are prepurchased or purchased at the ticket window and seats are assigned. As the Junglequeen heads down the Intercoastal Waterway, the driver gives a float by home tour of the rich and famous. As you salivate over the mansions lining the waterway, keep your eyes open for tropical birds and manatee. We found even with a large group, we were able to be seated together and enjoy the views. After about an hour of water time, the boat delivered us to a small island. The kitchy space was occupied by tropical birds in cages and carefully planned foliage. We were escorted into a large, oddly dark, dining room where we sat on long picnic tables. Servers walked around with heavily sauced ribs, chicken, and cold peel and eat shrimp. Accompaniments included beans and cole slaw. There were limited alcoholic beverages offered- a few domestic beers, white wine, pina coladas and a very red, very weak rum punch. For a slight upsell, you could have your drink served in a keepsake coconut. Following the meal, we were treated to a somewhat funny magic and comedy show. The boat ride back to the dock under the moonlight, was a nice way to cap the evening.
Our evening at LeBare also included kitchy design, heavily sauced ribs, and comedy (albeit probably unintentional.) Howard and his associate driver delivered two vanloads of gussied up, giggling 40-60 yr old women to the South Florida institution. We were escorted in and given a large swath of tables from one side of the main stage to the back wall. As a result, some of us had great views while others felt disassociated and away from “the action”. Drinks were predictably expensive- any time you go into a club like this you can expect pricey beverages. The main attraction at LeBare of course, is not the drinks. Male “dancers” basically strip down to skivvies and gyrate on the stage. This is not a “full monty” experience, but the dance moves are suggestive enough to make grown women blush. The dancers varied in skill and physique, and we all agreed it was a tad bit disconcerting how young some seemed. Not because they were too young to be dancing- but because it emphasized how “mature” we were! The evening was full of a lot of laughter and it was a fun (and quite different) addition to the vacation plan line up.

Our gaggle vacation ended as all vacations do- entirely too soon.  We made our way back to our respective states with many memories and several thousand photos to show for the journey. The lesson I took home was that it certainly IS possible to plan a vacation for a large group and keep everyone entertained and happy. The secret to this is careful planning and organization- and finding an establishment that can really give your group the personalized attention you need to keep *everyone* satisfied. So girls, gaggle on!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The age old travel question is, is it the journey or is it the destination that really matters? I would argue both are important. The journey can be one that is luxurious and decadent- first class breakfast eaten on fine bone china served with mimosas and a smile, as the clouds float by beneath. It could also be one filled with adventure and challenge- facing personal fears head on and taking life by it's hand as if yelling, "I'm still here!" Maybe that's on a bike, or with a walking stick in hand, or high upon the mast of a tall ship. The journey most definitely matters.

The destination does too. It is there you will reconnect with your children. It is there you will see your mate with new eyes as he holds your hand and walks you down that beach. It is there you will face the thrill of snow and ice as you fly down that mountain. It is there you will awaken refreshed and renewed after that cleansing scrub and sauna hour. It is there you will laugh with your girlfriends, meet your new love, win your first poker game, get freckles on your nose, try escargot finally, fly high in the sky from a parasail, dance under the moonlight, reel in that big fish, and when it is all over- go home feeling like all the day to day tasks that funded that travel fund were worth every second.

I'll be sharing my journeys and my destinations here. I invite you to share your own where you wish!