Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Tickets to Paradise!

Last year I signed up for a vacation service that isn't really much of a service. It gets a list of companies that are promoting timeshares and provide free lodging for people who then have to endure a sales pitch, and promises you that you can choose where and when you'd like to be pitched to, while only having to pay sales tax for your hotel stay.

Okay, that kinda works. Sign me up.

My first stop was Atlantic Beach, NC, at a time when I felt I'd really need a vacation. Got that right. I was chewing on my desk (not really a desk; just a folding table I've been stuck at for over 15 years now), having gone through considerable heck this month getting out a book earlier than I'd planned.

So without making any kind of to-do or to-take lists (!!! I always do lists!), I took off early on a Friday. Thought I'd avoided the huge thunderstorms that were rolling through the state, but it began to rain again as I got into the car, and I drove INTO the front as it progressed to the coast.

Downpour! Lighting! Bumper-to-bumper traffic! Well, actually the traffic was doing very nicely in keeping safe distances. Luckily, I kept an even greater distance, because at one point the truck in front of me threw its brakes, and when I hit the brakes… Nothing happened—for about a quarter-second that seemed like a year. Then "SSSSSHHHHH" (no squeal), and the brakes began to grab. Just in time. Whew!

But the conditions continued. I was giving a quick glance at a highway marker (somewhere 70 split off from 40. I'd already been fooled by signs that didn't bother to mention they meant 70 BUSINESS, so I was really peering, if doing so quickly) when all of a sudden this WHITE MASS starts bouncing toward me. What the—? Couldn't swerve because there was traffic. Then the mass developed wings. Oh, just a huge wad of paper. I plowed into it, relieved.

WHUMP!!!!! There was something solid inside that paper. The right front of the car lurched into the air and back down, but seemed okay. Behind me, a highway truck swerved onto the side of the road, so I suspect they picked up the debris. I stopped soon after and checked the car. No damage. (Actually, there's a tiny dent in the hood), but the alignment and such seem A-OK. Whew.

So I'm driving. And driving. And finally the rain lets up for the most part. After quite a few miles, there's finally a marker post that shows that I'm on highway 40.

But I'm supposed to be on 40/70. Damn! Lost 70 somewhere! Later, lots of people told me that yes, 70 does separate from 40 fairly anonymously, though going the opposite direction on 70, the merge onto 40 is very well marked. Luckily for me, the Mapquest directions I'd printed out showed an alternate route, 40 to hwy 24. That way was just a bit longer, but apparently it was what the universe had decided for me. I found my correct exit, where a rest stop also lay. Inside I double-checked directions with the manager of the place. He told me to go down two more exits if I wanted to avoid some towns and business routes. So I did, and I could tell it was faster.

BUT I finally got to Atlantic Beach, yay! Checked into the timeshare office, where I got initial papers and they peered at my ID and such. Got to the hotel.

It was the Holiday Inn Doubletree, the only high-rise hotel in Atlantic Beach. "Every room an ocean view!" That's easy when you're on a razor-thin island that has Atlantic on one side and Intracoastal Waterway on the other, if you count the IW as ocean. From my room (as most, I suppose) I could see both.

According to the Festiva timeshare folks, it had once been the Sheraton, but Hurricane Irene (Aug. 2011) had hit it hard, completely flooding the first story. The Sheraton had done a slip-shod repair job, lied to their insurers about how much money they'd spent, and then been caught. They'd had to declare bankruptcy on the hotel, and the Hilton had scooped it up for $1.3 million, a steal. Now the Hilton is still repairing/upgrading the place.

I flashed my "Hiltons Honors" card (it's free, people. You should get one. I have ALL the hotel free cards, and thus get all the perks) and they switched me to the Honors floor. I asked one of the hotel workers just what made the Honors floor so special, and, after pondering the question, she said, "Well, the rooms have the special clocks." She pointed at the clock she happened to be repairing for me, the one that didn't tell the correct time, but had an iPod port, which clocks on other floors did not. "And in the future the rooms will have more things that the other rooms won't."

Great. I had a clock. Oh well, it was a gorgeous room, and there were safety handholds out the wazoo in the bathroom, as well as a shower wand. The room temperature controls didn't work that well (I just can't figure how to work these things in ALL the hotels in which I've stayed, and I've had hotel workers explain them to me. And then wonder why they couldn't get them to work either.), and you could tell where some of the things like door knobs had been in the old design that were different from the new, because no one had repaired the walls. There were mammoth lines of caulk throughout the bathroom, like things had been too-hastily installed and they didn't want any leaks. I angled the TV so it faced the lounge chair, and the TV shut off. The guy had to come up to duct tape the connections because they were so loose. Then he fixed the curtains, which closed only within 6" of each other, so you gave the neighbors a good view. I might think I was the first resident of this particular room, but the ottoman had a huge stain on it.

Still, the room was really nice. Comfy bed. Wish it had had a blanket instead of one of those too-heavy duvets all the hotels use these days. You either freeze or sweat to death. (Which is why being able to control the room temp would be nice.)

We were right on the beach, or about two or three stories above it (and yet that first floor could still be flooded, yeek) and though the main restaurant had no Yelp raves, the hotel's beach cafe was top-rated. And closed. As were many of the places in Atlantic Beach; tourist season begins in mid-March.

The beach at Ft. Macon. Can you guess what other picture on this blog is from there?

So the first night I drove to the causeway to the Channel Marker Restaurant and had a dee-licious meal!!! It cost a bit more than what I'd hoped to spend, but sometimes you just have to splurge, right? The next day after the timeshare talk I went to El's, an old-timey drive-in that's top-rated and legendary for its shrimp burgers. I had one, and decided they could up the quality 100% if they toasted the bun. They should also hand-cut their onions for the onion rings, which tasted like they'd been made in a factory. That night I dined at the also legendary Sanitary Restaurant and Fish Market, whose Yelp reviews did not look promising, but EVERYONE said I had to eat there. It's just something one does when one is in Atlantic Beach.

I don't know why. Perhaps they wanted me to indulge in poor service. I mean, really poor service. I had to borrow cocktail sauce from the next table, told my waitress (when she finally decided to show) that I needed some of my own. She said she'd be right back with it, and that was the last I saw of her until she came with the check. I asked her about dessert, and she told me I could get it myself on my way out.

People around me were asked if they wanted lemon in their tea. Not me. People around me got drink refills when they'd finished what they'd been given. They were told what the specials were. They were told what was available for dessert. Not me. I guess my waitress, the one the people around me DIDN'T have, didn't think all that was needed.

And the food was not good. I've had worse, but not at "must try" restaurants.

Wish I'd noticed that high-rated Shelfari was across the street from the Doubletree. Diners were raving as they came out (but that was my final night at AB, after I'd already eaten). I did manage to luck onto Flipperz at Emerald Isle, a little hole in the wall with terrific food and friendly waitresses.

For touristy stuff, I narrowed the possibles—and there are a LOT of touristy spots within an hour of Atlantic Beach!—down to Ft. Macon (thought that was in Georgia!) and the NC Aquarium. Neither takes too long but gives you some great stuff to look and marvel at. I worry that the animals at the Aquarium didn't have large enough habitats, though. Poor things. Kids at both attractions were having swell times. Ft. Macon had a decidedly different kind of beach than did the Hilton, plus there were all kinds of "no swimming" signs there. Families strolled the beach while they waited for something to snag on their fishing lines.

PS: I LOVE my new Olympus camera! It's got a 24X wide zoom on it that can have you looking right into a seagull's eye at the distance of a mile. Cool.

Okay, so I'll get to the timeshare deal. They said it would last 120 minutes. I clocked the entire thing at just a hair under 3 hours, much better than the 5-hour ordeal I'd had in DC in 2013. (That came with a violent case of flu and corporate lies as well.)

You spend 20 minutes chatting with a salesperson so they get to know you and what key words you respond like a dog to. Then they pass you along to a fast-talking, utterly charming woman who's been an owner of a timeshare since Day 1. She gives an overview of the system: a network of resorts you can choose from, and that when you buy in, you buy X number of points per year. Each resort, each week or partial week of the year, number of bedrooms, etc., costs a different number of points. You can go out of network and stay at slightly related resorts for massive savings, or choose other more distant relations for merely considerable savings. Lucky for me, I've been price shopping on a number of dream vacations, and saw that the prices were indeed extremely reasonable. Except an Egyptian tour. But the one they were showing lasted longer than the ones I'd been looking at, and included a bunch of stuff like camel rides, sailing on the Nile, personalized this and specialized that, that I hadn't been checking for.

Peppertree is a gated community. They like their security.
Then I hopped into a van and they took me down the street to Peppertree Resort, which is their place in Atlantic Beach. It sprawled enough that I had noticed it on the way to my hotel, and thought that was where the rich folk went when they came to party in AB.

I was shown a 2-bedroom sample unit. WOW. Sumptuously furnished, it came with kitchenette, 2 bathrooms (the master bath had whirlpool tub), sleeper sofa in the living room, laundry closet, balcony overlooking the ocean. (The unit was in the building by far closest to the sea, I'd noticed.) The resort had 2 outdoor pools, 1 indoor pool, 1 jacuzzi, tennis courts, basketball courts, a very large covered area with picnic tables and grills, and a private beach. (Most beaches in AB are NOT public ones!) They will soon have a fleet of golf carts to ferry people about the resort. Every Monday morning the resort has a meeting to tell residents about the many activities that will be going on that week. Personnel are available to fix one up with other residents of a similar recreational bent, or to be your friendly opponent in a game of tennis. And of course, one can choose from spending an entire week, a weekend, or mid-weeks at the resort.

I was told that Hurricane Irene had hardly left a mark on the resort, but that annual maintenance fees (I knew about them beforehand; they're the real expense) were where repairs like that came from.

Back to the office, and a little film showed me Paradise Island's resort (definitely on my bucket list!), and all the fabulous things one could do there, things I've always dreamed of. A modest cruise tour of the Greek isles was one of the few overseas things that were in network. Guess where I've always wanted to go?

Then they started shooting me figures. Good golly, I could probably afford that. After a while they showed me a level a little less than their premium one. Looked good, but I couldn't really do ALL that vacationing until I retired. Then they brought out their bottommost level.

It was the right amount of vacation time. (And if it's not, I can borrow points from the end of my contract, 40 years into the future. This means that 40 years from now, I won't be able to take vacation, but I don't think that'll be the problem. Though paying the maintenance fees might. Still, I have plans for a movie deal to finance that.) It was definitely the right price, less than a very nice used car (I'd been window-shopping the week before, as I'll have to get a new car next year).

And I signed. Yes, they charge 16.9% (or higher), but I knew I could get refinanced. (Actually, it took a bit of work on my way home to find a bank where I could do that, and wound up getting a credit card that has 0% for 15 months, which should be enough time to pay it off with a little shuffling of funds. Not like my credit union, which wanted to freeze both my savings accounts—which MUST be kept liquid, especially this year!—until the loan was paid off.) So. Affordable. Not too much vacation; not too little. And those Trafalgar tours I've been eying are on a significant discount when purchased through Festiva. After that I can go with Festiva's tours and resorts. (And oh wait, I haven't used up my vacations with the original company I talked about in Paragraph #1. I have three years to go through those.)

Now that the cats are gone I'm in Travel Mode!!! When I can no longer travel, I'll go back to being That Crazy Cat Lady and find someone to buy my program, or maybe leave it in my will to some unsuspecting relative who'll then have to pay those annual maintenance fees. (Hi, Jen and Chelsea! Hi, Danny!)

So. Who wants to come with me to Paradise Island? Or maybe Universal Studios Florida? London? Paris? Cairo? The Greek Isles? You do? Let's talk.

(And if you want to try out Festiva, contact me. If I can refer you, I get $$. You can refer someone else and get your own money reward later.)