Month

February 2017

Horse Races in Hot Springs, AR

I don’t think you can call yourself a true Arkansan if you’ve never been to the horse races in Hot Springs, Arkansas! Horse races… seriously? Yes! It’s way more fun than it sounds!

I had no idea what to expect since I knew nothing about horses or racing. But I’m always up for a trip, so I convinced Matt to turn our horse racing adventure into a weekend getaway to Hot Springs.

Hot Springs is located about an hour southwest-ish of Little Rock, and it’s a relatively small town. It’s known for Hot Springs National Park which is home to several natural hot springs. When you walk around town on a cold day, you can see steam rising from some of the thermal pools!

Accommodations

We stayed downtown near Bathhouse Row at the historic Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa. It’s the largest hotel in Arkansas and it’s been operating since 1875. I’m always wary of staying in older hotels, but they have renovated the bathrooms, added air conditioning, and updated the elevators. The hotel’s lobby is gorgeous and very traditionally decorated with large chandeliers and a grand staircase. The Arlington is rumored to be Al Capone’s favorite hotel, and room 442 was usually reserved for him! The hotel even has a water fountain in the lobby where you can drink fresh water from the thermal springs. We traveled to Hot Springs during the month of February, and it was still pretty cold outside. We loved using the heated outdoor pools and hot tub at the hotel. While I did enjoy our stay at the Arlington, I’m not sure I would stay there next time. I tried to appreciate all of the history surrounding the hotel, but I think I would have enjoyed something a little more modern. If you’re going to Hot Springs just for the horse races, then it’s a little far from the track. However, if you’re going to visit historic downtown Hot Springs and visit Bathhouse Row, then it’s in a perfect location.

Type A Tidbits:

Even if you aren’t staying at the Arlington, you have to go to their Sunday brunch! They have a fantastic buffet complete with a homemade donut station! Make reservations beforehand, and remember to bring a tip for the piano player in a tuxedo.

Things to Do

Oaklawn Racing and Gaming: This is the casino and track where the horse races take place. I was intimidated about betting on the horses… I had no clue what I was doing! Don’t worry though… this is a great place to learn! They’re very patient with new gamers and are used to explaining the rules and how the process works. You receive a book with all of the races scheduled for that day along with horse’s names, their stats, the jockey’s name, and the jockey’s stats. I’m sure there’s a lot of strategy behind horse betting, but I just picked whatever horse’s name I liked the best! Matt studied the book of stats, and he was much more successful than I was… but my way was more fun! No matter which method you choose, pick a horse and cheer them on! The minimum bet is $2 and there are several combinations you can bet on. You can bet on a horse to win, place, or show and every combo in between. I’m no expert on horse betting so I won’t pretend to be. Get one of those stat books… it’ll explain it all! Part of the fun is figuring it out as you go along. You can still have a great time even if you don’t want to bet. Oaklawn track has seating indoors or outdoors. We roamed all over, but our favorite viewing area was down by the fence right near the horses. The races really are a unique experience and you can expect to spend a full afternoon here.

Hot Springs National Park: This National Park is dedicated to the thermal springs and the history behind them. People used to travel from all over for the “healing and therapeutic” powers of the hot springs. The museum in the Fordyce Bathhouse is interesting to tour and a good place to start. Plus it’s free!

Bathhouse Row: If you want to partake in the natural hot springs yourself, then this is the place for you! Only two of the original bathhouses are still in operation. Quapaw Bathhouse is a modernized spa. They offer a full range of massages and other spa services. You can also visit just to enjoy the baths. There are four different pools fed by the natural springs. Each one is a different temperature, and it’s a neat experience to jump from pool to pool. Matt and I thought the baths were relaxing so we opted to do that before our couples massage appointment. Worth it! The idea of public baths was a little gross to me, but it’s not like that at all. Everything is extremely clean and well taken care of. And most importantly, no one is naked! It truly is a relaxing spa experience.  The other bathhouse still in operation is called Buckstaff Bathhouse, but we never visited it. While Quapaw is more modern, Buckstaff is more in line with the historical Hot Springs’ bathhouse.

Type A Tidbits:

Don’t forget your driver’s license when you go to the horse races! All gamers must be over the age of 21.

If you’re a morning person, try out Dawn at Oaklawn. It’s a behind the scenes look at the horses and their stalls the morning of the race. Guests ride a bus through the staging areas and a tour guide gives information over a loudspeaker. The tour guide answers any questions and explains to you what you’re seeing. Coffee and pastries are provided.

Where to Eat

Some of our favorite restaurants were: Back Porch Grill, Luna Bella (try the arancini for an appetizer!), Purple Cow (for purple vanilla milkshakes!), and The Pancake Shop.

We really wanted to visit Rolando’s, but we never got the opportunity. It’s on the list for next time!

Hot Springs, Arkansas is an ideal spot for a relaxing weekend getaway. There are several things we wanted to do, but because it rained all weekend we didn’t get the chance. That just means we’ll have to go back soon!

Excellence Playa Mujeres Review

Excellence Playa Mujeres: View from our room in building 8

Last week’s post (check it out here!) was all about Mexico, but I don’t think it’s fair to just tell you how great it is and then not recommend our favorite resort! Excellence Resorts is a small chain of resorts throughout the Caribbean. They own five-star resorts in Mexico, Dominican Republic, and soon to be Jamaica (opens in 2018!). So far we’ve been to two, but I’d love to visit all of them!

We first stayed at an Excellence resort for our honeymoon, and it was perfect. I had a lot of specific expectations (surprised?) that I wanted for our honeymoon, and I read meticulously about our options before deciding on Excellence Playa Mujeres. I’ve outlined a few categories below that really made the Excellence stand out for us.

Price

I swore up and down that I did not want to go to Mexico for our honeymoon because that’s where “everyone” went. Umm, now I know why. Compared to other locations in the Caribbean, Mexico is by far the most cost-effective. Since we were shelling out literally thousands of dollars for our wedding, Mexico quickly became one of the top contenders. Excellence Playa Mujeres is a five-star all-inclusive resort which means EVERYTHING is included. One of my favorite things about the Excellence is they don’t try to stick you with hidden costs or crazy upgrades. Some resorts make you pay extra if you want to eat lobster. Hello? Of course I want to eat lobster, and I don’t appreciate you making me pay more on top of what I’ve already paid if I’m craving my favorite shellfish! Excellence’s prices include all water sports, group activities, all food AND drinks, 24 hour room service, and tips. The only things that are not included in your daily rate is the spa, fancy wine in the restaurants, and excursions. There are a few special add-on services not included, but they’re optional.

Type A Tidbits:

Bring your own sunscreen, bug spray, and medications! It is incredibly expensive if you buy it from the gift shop at the resort.

The spa and hydrotherapy circuit is worth every bit of the extra money, but wait until the day before to book anything… they offer daily specials!

Getting ready for our spa day!

Room

The rooms at Excellence Playa Mujeres are gorgeous! The entire resort is decorated in a modern theme so you really get the feel of a five-star resort instead of a casual beach vibe. That was important for us because we really wanted to distinguish our honeymoon from just another beach trip. We chose to upgrade to the Excellence Club category (more on that below) and we were assigned to building 8 on the second floor. We had a fantastic view of the  main swimming pool and the ocean. Our room was close to the restaurants and beach, but somehow it was still quiet. We were never disturbed by any loud music or noise. Each room has a jacuzzi tub and a balcony with a lounge bed big enough for two people. There’s a table and chairs on the balcony as well. The bathroom is the only area where there could be some improvement. The toilet area does have a door, but it doesn’t go all the way to the bottom or top. It reminds me of how a public restroom stall door is. For us it was fine, but for people wanting more privacy it could be a negative. The mirrors behind the sink were also hung by people a lot taller than me! I could see to do my makeup and hair, but only from my chin up. The shower in the bathroom, however, is fantastic! It has two different shower heads and a bench seat. There’s plenty of room to put all of your toiletries!

Type A Tidbits

Every room has something called an “X box”. It’s a cabinet next to your door that opens into the room and outside to the hallway. This can be used to put your dirty dishes in, and then housekeeping can remove them from the hallway in case you do not wish to be disturbed. It can be used to deliver room service too.

It’s important to note that room categories labeled “ocean view” mean exactly that. You can view the ocean from this room. I thought it mean ocean front. Ocean front rooms are extremely rare at resorts so don’t be disappointed when you arrive at your “ocean view” room and can barely make out the waves.

The mattresses at the Excellence are pretty firm. I like a really firm mattress, but it was even too firm for me. Not to worry! Just call your concierge and request a pillow topper. Ours was delivered within minutes and they set it all up for us. A pillow menu is also available!

The air conditioner shuts off if the balcony door is left open. This is obviously to save electricity. However, make sure your balcony door is latched all the way or you can come back to a pretty humid room!

The control for the ceiling fan is on the nightstand by the alarm clock.

The bottle opener is on the wall in the bathroom.

If your mini fridge isn’t getting cold enough, try pulling it out of the cabinet slightly to improve air circulation.

View looking into our room
Our concierge had our room decorated one night while we were at dinner!
View from our balcony at Excellence Playa Mujeres

Excellence Club

Excellence Resorts have two different categories for guests. You can choose to be in the regular guest category or you can choose to upgrade to the Excellence Club. Knowing this was our honeymoon, we upgraded to the Excellence Club when we first booked our dates. Some people decide to wait until they’re at the resort to see if they can upgrade for a cheaper price, but I didn’t want to risk it being all full. Some of the things included in the Excellence Club are private check in/check out, use of the Excellence Club beach, access to Excellence Club private pools, an upgraded room location, better selection of liquor in the mini fridge in your room, and use of the Excellence Club Lounge. Were those things worth the extra price for us? Yes, yes, and yes! And we would do it again if given the choice. After the stress of the wedding, I could not wait to lounge on the beach. The Excellence Club beach is quieter and more relaxing. The chairs and beach beds are more spaced out so it gives you a little more privacy, and they’re nicer and more cushioned than the non-Excellence Club chairs. There are more waiters/servers per guest so we were checked on more frequently. In the mornings the beach concierge offered us mimosas, bottled water, or champagne. In the afternoon, our Excellence Club Beach concierge would come around with snacks and appetizers. This doesn’t happen in the non-Excellence Club section. Matt loved the Excellence Club lounge! It had a full bar, free wifi, and snacks served all day. It was pretty close to the beach so he could stop in to use the restroom or grab a snack without having to go all the way back to our room. I enjoyed the private check in/check out. We were exhausted from traveling all day by the time we arrived at the resort. The last thing I wanted to do was wait in a long check in line. When we arrived we were handed glasses of champagne and cold towels and whisked away to the Excellence Club Lounge. We immediately began chowing down on food while our concierge took care of all of the check in process and luggage. Would we have had a good time if we hadn’t done the Excellence Club? Of course. This resort is fantastic with or without the Excellence Club. But to me, when I’m on vacation I like to really get away from it all and be made to feel special. Excellence Club definitely lived up to my expectations.

Type A Tidbits:

Don’t be afraid to ask your concierge for anything. They are there to help you and make your stay perfect!

Matt with our Honeymoon door banner

Beach

It’s pretty hard to find sugary white sand in the Caribbean outside of the Gulf of Mexico (Florida) and Mexico itself. Excellence Playa Mujeres has the perfect sand texture and color. The water was also crystal clear and extremely calm… almost too calm. I really like to play in the waves, but the ocean here is more like a lake. Some people really prefer that because it’s easy to swim and snorkel. I guess I like to hear the crashing of the waves, but that really wasn’t a thing here. It definitely didn’t spoil the beach for me though… it was just different. We never experienced any sand flea bites or jellyfish stings. A lot of seaweed does wash up on the beach, but they have employees whose job it is to keep the beach groomed. They would rake the sand and remove any trash or debris multiple times a day. They had a tractor that would clear the seaweed periodically as well. This didn’t affect our day at all. It’s a beach… of course there is seaweed!

Type A Tidbits:

Beach beds and palapa/chairs can get taken pretty fast. Your best bet is to get their early. But please don’t be one of those people who puts your book and towel on a chair and then doesn’t come back until after lunch. That’s rude!

View of the Excellence Club Beach
Watching the sunrise from the Excellence Club beach

Food and drink

Excellence Playa Mujeres has ten restaurants and eleven bars spread throughout the resort. You are always near a drink and a snack! There are so many restaurants that we didn’t even get to visit them all… and we really tried! There were a few nights where we had dinner at one restaurant and dessert at another! What? I loved the creme brûlée at Chez Isabelle (the French restaurant)! There are restaurants for every cuisine you could want: Asian, French, Italian, Indian, Mexican, Seafood, plus a few others! One of our favorites was the casual restaurant on the beach, Los Olas, that served lunch. We could walk over barefoot in our swimsuits and get the special of the day. The food varied between burgers, hot dogs, or traditional Mexican. Matt loved the wood fired pizza grill by the main pool. They would serve made to order pizzas throughout the day. There were a few times he went missing right after we ate lunch only to come back with a pizza! We also loved the 24 hour room service. Our sleep schedule was really off during our first night at the resort. I woke up at 2:30 in the morning and ordered caesar salad and chocolate cake!

Excellence Club beach staff kept us hydrated
Calamari for lunch

Type A Tidbits:

Remember the dress code for dinner! Guys must wear dress pants! They will turn men away for wearing shorts. I have heard of the resort having a few pairs of dress slacks that can be loaned out, but just bring your own for goodness sake. Girls must adhere to the “resort casual” dress code too. I usually wore maxi dresses with sandals to dinner. They frown on shorts for women, but if it’s dressy shorts with a nice top then you should be fine.

We brought our own insulated mugs for our drinks, and I’m so glad we did! Our drinks stayed colder longer, and the frozen cocktails didn’t melt. If you ask nicely, the bartenders will make your drink in your own mug so you don’t have to pour it and make a mess.

No reservations are needed EXCEPT for the Hibachi table at the Asian restaurant.

Any drink can be made without alcohol. Message me if you’re interested in their drink menu!

Service

I cannot speak more highly of the employees at Excellence Playa Mujeres. They do a tremendous job of keeping the grounds looking nice while smiling at the same time. Every time we passed a groundskeeper or housekeeper they stopped to greet us. They take such pride in their jobs, and it really shows. Every member of the Excellence Club has access to a private concierge. There were several times we stopped in to ask a question or get an extra towel. We even asked if we could have more cookies in our mini fridge instead of peanuts. Not only did they fulfill that request that day, but they made sure we had extra cookies the whole rest of our trip. Somehow they all remembered our names every day too! Since the staff knew it was our honeymoon, they hung a decorative banner on our door for our arrival. When we came in from dinner we would have towel animals and truffles left on our bed.  We were at the resort over Christmas holidays, yet the staff never once complained about having to work. They even did extra things to make it special! We had Christmas cookies in our room on Christmas Eve, and Santa came to visit at lunch on Christmas Day. One day we went out into the ocean and came back to our chairs to see that the beach concierge had set us up with fresh clean towels without us even asking. We chose to tip extra on top of what was included in our daily rate, and I’m really glad we brought $1 and pesos. These people work so hard to make sure you have a memorable trip, and they deserve the extra tips.

Santa came to visit the beach on Christmas Day
Santa and his helpers

I’m sorry this post is so long, but I do love some details! Hopefully this helps anyone that already has a vacation booked at the Excellence, or maybe it’ll inspire you to reserve your room now!

Feel free to leave any questions in the comments or email me!

Why Mexico Should be Your Next Beach Vacation

Believe it or not, it’s time to start planning your summer getaway! Being from the south, I love a good Florida beach vacation! However, sometimes it’s fun to mix it up a little bit. Mexico has so many things to offer, and it’s more affordable than most people think!

1. Scenery

Mexico offers some of the most gorgeous views around. The sand is sugary white (just like Florida’s!), and the water is crystal clear. One thing we always try to do at the beach, is get up early enough to see the sunrise. It’s so peaceful to be the first ones down to the beach before the day gets busy. It gives you time to soak up your surroundings and appreciate the beauty Mexico has to offer. Also, the water is calmer and the wildlife a little more active in the morning. If you aren’t a morning person, there’s plenty of wildlife to see on a snorkeling excursion or even just wading in the waves. If you’re looking for something a little more adventurous, Isla Mujeres is a prime spot for diving with whale sharks during their migration between May and September.

2. Activities

I’m perfectly happy with being lazy on the beach and reading my book for a week, but Matt would much rather be busy the whole time! Besides diving with whale sharks, Mexico offers a lot of other fun beach activities. If you’re staying at an all-inclusive resort, most will have water sports included in your cost. Who doesn’t want to snorkel, kayak, Hobie Cat, sail a catamaran, or paddle board their day away? There’s plenty of land activities to do too! Zip lining, riding an ATV through the jungle, and exploring the Mayan ruins are just some of the more popular ones. No matter what your preference is, there’s plenty to choose from.

3. Cost

I’m not going to pretend Mexico is “cheap”, but I will say that it’s more affordable than you realize. Southwest Airlines (my favorite airline ever!) now offers international flights that can easily fit into a budget. Right now (and in the foreseeable future), the US Dollar is strong compared to the Mexican Peso. This means you get more for your money! There are also several great family friendly resorts that offer great all-inclusive family packages.

4. Food!

Let’s talk about the best part… Food! The food choices and quality can vary from resort to resort, but our experiences have always been fantastic. From five-star fancy desserts to fish tacos from a hut on the beach, they’ve all been excellent. Matt’s favorite part is always how fresh the fruit is. He says it tastes way better than any fruit we get here in the States.

So before you go and book that same ol’ condo at the beach for the tenth year in a row, consider venturing out and trying something new! If you aren’t sure where to start, you can read a review of our favorite all-inclusive resort here!

Leave in the comments where your favorite beach vacation is!