I recently stayed at the Loews Minneapolis Hotel in downtown Minneapolis for an extended weekend. The hotel itself was comfortable with a modern décor. Theoretically, the location was also good, across the street from the Target Center, two blocks from Target Field, and a five-minute walk to Nicolette Mall. Unfortunately, what we experienced inside this hotel did not match what we experienced outside.
Favorite in-hotel experience: Cocktails at Relevé
Location Advantage: Walking distance to event centers and restaurants.
Location Disadvantage: Weekend night crazyiness
Fun part of stay: Sharing a hotel with the Milwaukee Brewers
The Property Itself
Although the Loews Minneapolis Hotel has a small lobby, the area offers some low, upholstered, bench-type seating for ten or so people. Off the lobby, the Apothecary Bar offers drinks and snacks until 5 pm, when the bar upstairs, Relevé, opens. A Starbuck’s is just outside the hotel’s side door and across the hall.
The architect for the Loews Minneapolis Hotel came up with a strange design, probably for security. To access your room, you must take the elevator to the fourth floor where you exit and proceed to a different bank of elevators. The second bank of elevators require you to use your card key to get to your room’s floor. Since the fourth floor is public space both for the Relevé Champagne Bar and the dining room, people can’t gain access to your floor without a key.
Although Relevé specializes in sparkling wines, it is a full service bar with a limited Happy Hour menu. Check the hotel signs for hours. You may choose to sit at the bar or at a chair next to a small table.
We did not eat in the dining room because we chose to patronize Minneapolis’s excellent restaurants. Also on the fourth floor, you’ll find a grab-and-go market.
We booked a room with a king-size bed at the Loews Minneapolis Hotel. Although not huge, we found that it had ample room for two. My husband always claims the desk for himself, so I was glad to have an upholstered chair with a side table for myself. The calming grays-and-white went well with the accent wall of blue and green.
The bathroom had a contemporary green glass sink and a walk-in, tiled shower. The bath towels were small and rough. I’ve had bigger, softer towels at a Spring Hill Suites, and so thought the bath linens did not match the quality of the rest of the hotel.
The room contained plenty of power outlets, particularly at the long desk. The large screen TV, Keurig coffee maker, and bedside lamps completed the amenities in an otherwise spare room. Except for the rough towels, the room fit the chain’s “luxury” self-branding.
We were greeted every time we entered by a friendly and efficient staff. They opened the door for us, both when we left and when we returned. When we had a question, they had an accurate answer. The largely unseen housekeeping workers kept the room clean and well-stocked. In terms of the staff, Loews Minneapolis Hotel couldn’t have done better.
During the day, we found nothing undesirable about the hotel’s surrounding area, but on Saturday night, all hell broke loose just a half-block away. The sidewalks filled with partying and often drunken (or high) people. A fatal stabbing occurred that night just two blocks away. While the stabbing may have been an anomaly, the rowdy pedestrians probably were not. We had previously stayed at the Grand Hotel Minneapolis several blocks away, and we had experienced none of this.
We loved the short walk to Target Field and local restaurants but not the Saturday night madness. After serious consideration, we decided that we would probably not return to the Loews Minneapolis Hotel in downtown Minneapolis solely because of the neighborhood at night. Even though the Grand Hotel has changed ownership from Kimpton to Hyatt, we may return there next time.
We spent a weekend at Princeton University and Reunions in late spring. For Princetonians, every year is a reunion year. This year, approximately 25,000 alumni, dressed in flamboyant orange-and-black blazers and “beer jackets”, returned to campus. Tents cropped up with their beer spigots. At night, bands played into the wee hours. In order to get into the parties, though, you need a wristband that comes with paid registration.
In the past, famous alumni such as Brooke Shields, George Will, and Ralph Nader mingled with their classmates. (I’m still waiting for Michelle Obama and David Duchovny. I missed Jeff Bezos in 2017). The P-rade, a raucous 3.5 hour parade through campus, starts in the afternoon. Local people come just to watch the spectacle. While you’re waiting for the P-rade to begin, you can explore the campus and town.
Best experience: Seeing old friends
Favorite non-reunion experience: Visiting the art museum.
Most innovative class costume: 2009, Super Mario Bros.
Although I did not go to Princeton (other than taking a few classes), I’m a part of it. My husband and I lived in graduate student housing while he worked on his dissertation. Since then, we return every year to Princeton University and Reunions. The open campus in central New Jersey is not just for alumni, though. Its art museum houses a world-class collection. The world-class Firestone Library puts on exhibits that are open to the public. Sporting events bring in a lot of spectators. And Richardson Auditorium hosts classical music concerts. Off-campus, McCarter Theater, a well-known regional theater not officially part of the university, puts on fabulous shows. If you’re an architecture junkie, you might visit to see the collegiate Gothic or the new, more innovative buildings.
The old parts of the university look exactly as you’d expect at an Ivy-league school, constructed in the collegiate Gothic style. And, yes, many buildings are covered in ivy. Nassau Hall, the iconic building at the entrance to the campus, was once occupied by the British during the American Revolutionary War. Like many well-endowed universities, Princeton is constantly expanding and renovating. History is everywhere, but so are modern buildings. Lewis Science Library, designed by Frank Gehry, sits on Washington Avenue. The all-glass Sherred Hall, home of the chemistry department, was designed by Frederick Fisher and Partners.
The Art Museum
For a small, free museum, the art collection found inside is remarkable. The European galleries contain works by Fra Angelico,Goya, Monet, Van Gogh and Cézanne. Currently, the museum has a fascinating exhibit titled “Gainsborough’s Family Album” featuring Gainborough’s portraits of himself and his family. Another room contains Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States. The modern and contemporary galleries contain art by Georgia O’Keefe, Warhol, de Kooning, and yes, Tom Wesselmann. You’ll find galleries devoted to photography, Asian art, African art, Ancient, Byzantine, and Islamic art — and more.
The One-and-Only P-Rade
The 25,000 attendees include Princetonians and their families all dressed in class costumes. They gather for the P-rade on Saturday afternoon, a 3.5 hour extravaganza that starts at 2 pm. The oldest alumni lead the way, followed by the 25th reunion class. After those two groups, the classes count down from oldest to youngest. The P-rade has marching bands, bagpipe players, Mummers, orange cars, and a few floats. Everyone has a blast, from toddlers to nonegenarians — and beyond. Joe Schein, from the class of 1937, was the oldest attendee. As always, he walked the route despite being over 100 years old. To get a true glimpse of Princeton University and Reunions, you need to either be there or, if you can’t, view a photo gallery.
Two and a half days in Alexandria, Virginia? For me, that’s about perfect, especially when it comes to dining in Old Town. Since the DC metro stops right at the end of King St., you can easily combine visits to both Alexandria and Washington. Below I’ve reviewed some of my favorite restaurants in Alexandria, VA. The historic section may be small, but it has plenty of dining options. We stayed at the Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa, and everything below was within walking distance.
My favorite meal, hands down, was at Vermillion, a small, cozy restaurant on King Street. You won’t find white tablecloths here, although the food certainly deserves them. The chef creates dishes that sound simple but are really a complex melding of flavors and textures. Even the butter is house-made.
The menu changes with the season, so you can’t expect everything to be the same; however, you just know from the first bite that you can’t go wrong with anything.
Cocktails are excellent, and they have a wide selection of draft beer. The wine list is limited.
Recommended:roasted Wellfleet oysters; anchovy toasts (two tiny pieces); prime New York strip steak; Skuna Bay Salmon; Marcona almond tart.
Hank’s Oyster Bar
We lunched at Hank’s Oyster Bar, also on King St. and my second favorite dining experience in Alexandria. The restaurant has a typical long, dark bar in one room and a small, bright dining room in the other. You can eat in either room.This casual restaurant has a large selection of oysters — 7, the day I ate there — so of course we had to start with oysters on the half shell. (My favorites were Glacier Point and Salty Wolf. )
Neither one of us could resist the Maine lobster roll with Old Bay-seasoned fries. Yum! Stuffed with sweet Maine lobster meat, easy on the mayo, they were worth every penny.
In a distinctive touch, Hank’s serves a small bowl of chocolate chunks when the bill arrives.
Recommended:oysters any way you like them; Maine lobster roll.
We stayed at the Kimpton Lorien Hotel and Spa on King St. Their brasserie, Brabo, is a hopping place. For convenience, we ate there twice, for Happy Hour and for dinner before we left for home. We thoroughly enjoyed both the food and the drinks. My husband was a huge fan of Le Burger, a hamburger topped with gruyere, black truffle aoili, and pickles. The only dish I wasn’t wild about was the roasted cauliflower with capers. The flavors just didn’t meld.
Recommended:mussels mariniere; cheese and charcuterie board; Bartlett pear and goat cheese salad; Le Burger.
After a full morning and early afternoon of sightseeing, I turned once again to King St., this time closer to the waterfront. I had wanted to try The Warehouse because of its excellent reviews; however, the day was so gorgeous that I couldn’t bring myself to enter the darkened interior. Instead, I opted for The Wharf and its sidewalk seating area. (They also serve inside, in a dark and clubby space.)
I ordered a glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc and a crab cake. The food and service were competent, good without being excellent. Of course, what I really wanted was to enjoy the day, and The Wharf gave me that.
Recommended: Sidewalk seating for lunch.
One of my favorite restaurants from past visits to Alexandria was Bastille. I had high expectations, and I was disappointed. The restaurant has located to a more traditional building that makes it feel somewhat staid and like any other French restaurant. Gone are the exciting, modern vibes of a farm-to-table restaurant.
The chef offers a Monday pris fixe bistro menu of three courses for only $29. They also offer $29 bottles of wine. Both are great deals. Still, the waiter actually asked me how I would like my duck confit cooked. (Duck confit is a dish slow-cooked in fat to preserve it.) The dishes were flavorful and artfully plated, but all far too salty, as if prepared by a smoker.
Recommended (if you don’t mind salty food):duck confit with roasted pear, greens, and potato chunks; filet of beef with fries; arugula salad with salmon rillette, radishes, and cucumber
In early May, I took an Alaska cruise on the Norwegian Joy. My husband and I weren’t always cruise people. But when we decided several years ago to give it a try, we chose Norwegian Cruise Lines most because of its “freestyle dining.” We’ve been hooked ever since.
Most Memorable: whale watching; cruising Glacier Bay
Best Food: Le Bistro on the Joy
Most Surprising: We expected Juneau to be more of a city than it was.
Most Disappointing: The foggy/rainy weather often obscured the views.
We decided on an Alaska cruise on the Norwegian Joy because the price seemed reasonable and the incentives were right. Unbeknowst to us, we had booked not only the first week of the season, but also the inaugural sailing of the Joy after a massive renovation. Many passengers chose the cruise specifically to experience the ship as a (sort of) brand new addition to NCL’s fleet.
We tend to cruise for the excursions. Other people cruise to cruise. Norwegian makes it easy for both types of travelers.
The Joy’s itinerary doesn’t always include Glacier Bay, and that was a must for me. The ship cruised round-trip from Seattle, stopping in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, and an evening in Victoria, BC to satisfy foreign port regulations.
Although technically not a port-of-call, the day spent cruising through Glacier Bay is an all-day affair, with national park rangers providing lectures and commentary in public areas and on the TV.
The Ship: Joy, Indeed
We absolutely loved the Joy. The Observation Lounge, two-stories of glass viewing at the bow with small seating niches extending to the forward stairs, surprised us since we had not experienced anything similar on other ships.
You have to fight to get seats in this area, particular when the ship enters Glacier Bay. Most of the best seats were taken by 5 am that day, although I found a window seat in one of the niches by arriving a few minutes before 6 am. Good thing I was still on East Coast time!
The Observation Lounge has its own bar, plus three continental breakfast/snack areas. One of the ship’s Starbucks is located adjacent to the bar, although you can get regular coffee at one of the two longer food areas. On Glacier Bay and at-sea days, the crew sets up Irish coffee carts.
But the Observation Lounge isn’t the only attractive area in the ship. Our mini-suite with balcony was comfortable and even roomy, although storage was reduced from some of the other Norwegian ships we had experienced.
We loved the District Brew House, with its draft and bottled beer as well as cocktails, not so much for the drinks but for the bright and modern atmosphere. With its rugged, wood-and-glass décor, we felt as though we had left the ship for another space.
Having cruised before only in the Caribbean, the arrival and departure schedules of this cruise took getting used to. We docked in Juneau at about 2:00 pm. Our first excursion departed at 3 pm and was expected to last until 8:30 pm. Like everything else on this cruise, we arrived back at the ship late, after the all-aboard time. Fortunately, if you book excursions through the cruise line, they guarantee that they won’t leave port without you.
We chose the Mendenhall Glacier and whale-watching combination excursion, hoping to get as much out of the port as we could. On the coach ride to the glacier, we saw a few bald eagles and a black bear, just out of hibernation.
The tour allowed an hour at the Mendenhall Glacier site, although we could have used more time, especially since the line in the women’s restroom was 15 minutes long. We were able to walk down to the edge of the lake, photograph the glacier, walk up to another viewing point — but couldn’t explore the visitor’s center in addition to that.
Also in the Juneau area . . . .
From the glacier, our coach bus took us to our whale watching tour on a relatively large, heated boat with an open top deck for viewing. As with many of our stops in Alaska, it was in the 40s and drizzling, but that didn’t stop us from climbing upstairs to witness from above the pod of orcas right next to the boat. We also saw several humpbacks, including a mother and her male calf.
Skagway looks like a typical gold rush town with its boxy wooden buildings, albeit it now occupied with jewelry stores and souvenir shops.
We chose to ride the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway one way to the top and then to take a coach to a suspension bridge, then through the Yukon Territory back to the ship.
Thanks to the entertaining commentary, the train ride helped us understand the history and the geography of the area. While the weather obscured more than we would have liked, the ride offered some memorable views, including the sight of the train’s engine passing through tunnel ahead. If you do this and plan to go only one way, choose the left side for better views.
And into Canada . . . .
Crossing into Canada at the top end of the ride, the skies turned miraculously blue, with white-capped mountains in the distance.
I expected more of the suspension bridge — I had thought we would take a short hike to it when it was more or less a roadside attraction — but the stop was worthwhile regardless, with gorgeous views of the river below and the white-capped mountains beyond. The ride through the Yukon Territory was socked in by fog, thus obscuring what we had expected to see. We did see another black bear walking alongside the road.
We secured seats by 6 am on the port side of the Observation Lounge. Starboard would have been better; however, we had our window seats. With Irish coffee in hand, we delighted in sailing past frolicking sea lions and mountain goats on the way to the glaciers at the head of the bay.
Yes, the day was cold, foggy, and drizzling. Everyone feared that we wouldn’t be able to see the glaciers. True to the park ranger’s word, we shouldn’t have worried. Still, we missed a lot of the supposedly spectacular scenery, making me want to return in future later in the season.
I consider cruising Glacier Bay one of the highlights of our trip, equaled only by seeing the pod of orca whales. Even if it’s raining, you have to go outside to get a feel for the bay and to hear the thunder of calving glaciers.
All the literature and cruise excursion materials warned us that we would experience rain in Ketchikan no matter when we visited, since the town measures its annual rain in feet, not inches. Remarkably, the day dawned with brilliantly sunny skies and temperatures that climbed to the low 60s.
We chose the “Rainforest Adventure” excursion that took us by Kodiak boat to an uninhabited island with towering trees and a moss-covered forest floor. Our guide gave us a knowledgeable 1-mile tour of the flora around us. We saw starfish on the island’s rocky shore and a few bald eagles perched on other islands.
Ketchikan was the only town we wished we had had time to explore beyond our excursion. When we had booked, we were supposed to return to town at 12:30 pm. Knowing that we weren’t scheduled to sail until 2:30 pm and that all-aboard times are generally 1 hour before sailing, we figured we’d have an hour. Nope. We were told upon arrival that all-aboard time was 12:45 pm, exactly when we arrived back (late) at the dock. The crew was so disorganized at this port that we had to stand in line for at least 30 minutes to board.
And, Last, the Food Aboard the Joy
Service was shaky throughout the cruise, even in some of the specialty dining restaurants, which we had always loved. In Cagney’s, when we asked for a wines by the glass list, our server said that she didn’t have one. Say what? Other servers, especially in the complimentary dining rooms, seemed perpetually in the weeds. Either that, or the kitchen wasn’t yet up to the task of serving 3000+ people.
We visit the Garden Buffet only if we have to due to time constraints because, well, we aren’t buffet people. Others eat there exclusively because of the variety of selections. If nothing else, the buffet is worth visiting for the macarons, cookies, and ice cream.
We ate most of our breakfasts and lunches at the complimentary Savor or Taste. Although I prefer the chairs in Savor, the two dining rooms are virtually indistinguishable since they serve the same menus. The two dinners that we ate there were good, even if the service was spotty.
Premium Dining Options
Le Bisto, NCL’s French restaurant, was the best dining experience we had, with excellent service, appetizers, entrées, and desserts. The Dover sole was deliciously delicate and pan-fried to a perfect brown without being overcooked. My husband’s filet of beef was better than what he got in Cagney’s. Profiteroles for dessert were out of this world.
Ocean Blue, one of the à la carte restaurant that carries an upcharge even for dining packages, likewise had excellent service, although our surf-and-turf entrées weren’t as good as we had hoped. Our other courses were outstanding. The hamachi ceviche perfectly balanced the bite of lime with the heat of jalapeño. The appetizer may have been the culinary highlight of my trip, even if the meal as a whole didn’t measure up to that at Le Bistro.
My major disappointment was Cagney’s, the cruise line’s signature steak house. We ate there twice. The first time, my rib-eye steak was decent, not great. The second time I ordered a New York strip for a better experience. My husband had no issues with his filets. Really, though, the best part of the meal was the tuna tartare appetizer. Maybe it’s just that we’ve experienced much better steakhouses.
The Verdict is In
I would return for an Alaskan cruise on the Norwegian Joy in a heartbeat. The NCL Bliss is supposedly almost identical, so I’d book that in place of the Joy. The ship is amazing, and the food is good. Excursions tend to be more expensive than in the Caribbean. Based on how late we arrived back at the ship every day, I wouldn’t book a private tour company for less. Norwegian holds the sailing for its own excursions, not for others.
My husband and I traveled to Wellington New Zealand for spring break, which was, of course, the country’s early fall. We arrived exhausted but ready to explore.
Most Memorable:Eating oysters and drinking champagne on the waterfront
Best Food: Logan Brown
Most Surprising: The intimate feel of the capitol city
Most Disappointing: I wanted to stay one more day.
Although the seat of the government was originally located in Auckland, South Islanders complained about the distance. In 1865 it was moved to Wellington, located at the tip of North Island and the geographic center of the country. The Wellington Harbour, as seen above, is a bustling shipping and boating hub with restaurants and “sheds” lining the waterfront.