Hail Caesar (salad) !

For a little over three years now I have been working on changing my diet and lifestyle, one day at a time. At my age I figured it was about time. It’s not easy, but the potential outcome is so very worth it. I started my “Journey to Better Health” in December of 2006 when I began working with the people at the now-defunct LA Weight Loss Center in Oswego, NY. They looked at my weight, age, and lifestyle and set up a realistic dietary plan for the next 365 days. They changed my eating habits and schedules, and I added exercise periods into my weekly schedule. Over the course of the next year I introduced myself to new foods such as turkey burger, fruits & vegetables, and salads (not the macaroni or potato variety either) as just some of my new daily foods. And over that same one-year period, through this diet plan and moderate exercise, I lost 65 pounds! My primary care physician saw all of my medical numbers improve tremendously, and I felt great, not only health-wise but psychologically too. 

Over the past few years my weight has fluctuated, maybe gaining a little of those 65 pounds back, but then stabilizing at my current weight. Weight maintenance is not easy. There are so many temptations that can throw you off, and I honestly have fallen off the ‘skinny wagon’ many times. Portion size, exercise, and the recognition that you don’t have to cut out any food completely are three mainstays that help me in my “journey”. 

I don’t consider what I’m doing as a “diet”. I look at it as more of a “lifestyle change”, or without meaning to sound too deep, an “awakening”. Gone are my days of four Diet Cokes a day. No more Friday nights of getting pizza and wings. And perhaps the biggest change of all is no more snacking after dinner until bedtime. The deletion of those things and many more bad habits, balanced with a healthier meal plan and exercise, are now the way I ‘choose’ to live my life. Without making these changes I was running the risk of shortening my life dramatically; and that was something I wasn’t ready to accept. (Heck, I’ve got to write for you people.) 

Many times people think of diets as a penalty or sentence. With the plan I was working with, and the way I look at food today, I now never think of food as a negative. In fact, I now enjoy cooking more than ever at home. I also have found that grocery shopping is a lot easier. Did you know that you can save time and a bundle on money if you shop around the perimeter of most grocery stores? That’s where you find the fruits and vegetables, meats, breads, and dairy products. In the middle aisles are the Fritos, Apple Jacks, brownie mixes, and sodas. 

Eating out is not something that is impossible either when on a diet plan. Once a week I try to treat myself to eating out; whether it’s at a sit-down style restaurant, or fast-food. That’s right, I said “fast-food”. Eating healthy can be done anywhere. Over the past couple years I have jotted down the restaurants I’ve visited, up and down the Atlantic seaboard. And from local restaurants in Central NY to eateries found in between Boston and Key West, I’d like to tell you of some of my favorites. During this time one entrée has become my favorite to order when dining out – Chicken Caesar salad. I never was a huge salad eater and didn’t realize that something as simple as a Caesar salad could be prepared so many different ways, and have several different tastes. So, strap yourself in, and let me take you on a Chicken Caesar salad roadtrip. 

Starting first in our local area of Central NY, you can find a great Chicken Caesar salad at Oswego’s Press Box, Canale’s Restaurant, Ruby Tuesday, and the Port City Bakery. When it comes to fast-food restaurants, I’ve found that Quizno’s maybe makes the best fast-food Chicken Caesar salad around. With regards to some of the larger chain restaurants, I have found spectacular Chicken Caesar salads at Panera Bread, Cheesecake Factory, and the Olive Garden. There are only two places that I have visited that I wouldn’t place high on this list for Chicken Caesar salad, and that’s Applebee’s and Chicago Uno. Now that’s not to say that the restaurants general menus weren’t good. It’s just that I didn’t think much of the presentation and taste of their Chicken Caesar salads. 

Heading into New England I have found several great Chicken Caesar salads at some Boston establishments. Topping the list was Dolce Vita Ristorante in Boston’s North End and sitting 52-floors above Boston’s Back Bay is the Top of the Hub Restaurant in the Prudential Building. Not only their Chicken Caesar salad very good, but the view is breathtaking. I also have found several good Chicken Caesar salads in the Quincy Market district, including Ames Plow and Cheers. 

Into Florida Chicken Caesar salads continue to impress at several restaurants that I’ve visited. I found one of the most unique presentations at Disney World’s Saratoga Springs Resort. Their Turf Club restaurant makes a very tasty Chicken Caesar salad by giving you whole stalks of romaine lettuce and the other ingredients on the side. In the culinary world I think they would call this a “de-constructed” Chicken Caesar salad. Cool, very cool. But perhaps the best Chicken Caesar salad I have had at any restaurant is the one served at the ESPN Club at Disney World’s Boardwalk. One word- Perfect! Perfect size, perfect taste, perfect amount of dressing….you get the idea. And oh by the way, whenever possible be sure to order the Caesar dressing on the side. 

Finally as we finish this leafy roadtrip we come to the end of the line, literally. Key West. In the country’s southernmost city I have enjoyed many Chicken Caesar salads. (And I don’t think those were the margaritas talking either.) On the famous Duval and Front Streets of Key West sit some fantastic restaurants. Fogarty’s, Island Dogs, The Rooftop Café, Caroline’s, Red Fish Blue Fish, and The Grand Café all rest high on my list for great tasting Chicken Caesar salads and one-of-a-kind atmospheres. After all it’s Key West. What’s not to enjoy? 

Now I know that you may be thinking, ‘Is this poor guy a slave to Chicken Caesar salad the rest of his life?’ But that’s really not the case. When I go out I often will mix it up with wraps and light sandwiches for lunch, and fish or poultry for dinner. Having a Chicken Caesar salad is something I choose, and enjoy. 

So whether you’re in the midst of making some changes for yourself or know someone that is, the bottom line is- don’t punish yourself. Rather, relish the idea of getting the opportunity of trying new things. You’ll be amazed at the results. I know that if my dad were alive today he wouldn’t believe what my daily diets looks like. I was always the picky eater of the family. You know, pizza, burgers, steaks, and potatoes, …lots of potatoes! 

Please don’t think of what I’ve done over the past few years as being easy, it’s not. But also don’t think of it as being impossible either. As the old motto goes- “Heck, if I can do it…..”  It simply comes down to a matter of what you want for a quality of life. And for me, that made all the difference.

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Relaxing at Hyatt’s Coconut Plantation

Most likely when you think of vacationing in Florida you think of the hot spots of Miami, the Keys, Ft. Lauderdale, or the tourist mecca of Orlando. But a few years ago my wife, Rachel, and I found a fantastic getaway. Located about 10 miles south of Fort Myers Beach and 15 miles north of Naples, is the quietly growing community of Coconut. By using our Hyatt Vacation Club membership, we now try to make the Coconut Plantation on Estero Bay and the Gulf of Mexico an annual getaway.

Flying into Southwest Florida International (RSW) gets our vacation off on the right foot. Perhaps one of the cleanest and most enjoyable airports in America, RSW sets the tone of relaxation from the moment we landed. With a dedicated area on the ground level of the airport, getting a rental car is as easy as renting a car can be. And we’re off on vacation!

A drive of less than 20 minutes find us at our destination- The Hyatt Vacation Club’s Coconut Plantation. Off the Tamiami Trail and onto Coconut Drive, the Hyatt Regency Hotel at Coconut sits against the sun-filled sky. All of the amenities at this 4-star resort are available to those staying at the Coconut Plantation, located less than 1/4 mile further down the road. In between these two resorts is a gorgeous golf course called Raptor Bay. With water and sand placed strategically throughout the 18-holes, Raptor Bay turns out to be an enjoyable round of golf.

The first thing you will notice when walking into the main lobby of Coconut Plantation is the one-of -a-kind scent of what else? — coconut oil! From the beautiful mahogany wood floors to the warm two-sided fireplace, and welcoming “come sit in me” chairs, the Coconut Plantation screams, “Get ready to relax!”

We traditionally start our retreat with lunch at the Corkscrew Restaurant, located poolside at the Regency. However keep in mind that saying ‘poolside’  may be somewhat confusing for first-timers, because both the Regency hotel and the Coconut Plantation resort each boast 5 pools each! And between both locales, and the golf course, visitors can choose between 5 distinct restaurants.

Settling into our room is always a treat. Each room at Coconut Plantation has a beautiful lenai, with each screened in patio offering up a unique view. Whether the view is of the golf course or the resort’s pool area, each is always a relaxing. With studio, 1-bed, and 2-bedroom units available, the HVC quality never wavers. With granite counters in the bathroom and kitchen, cool tile floors in the living area, and comfortable carpets in the bedrooms, the Coconut Plantation is a fabulous home away from home.

With cascading waterfalls, a 1000-foot lazy river, and pools ranging from a kiddie pool to the adult pool on the veranda, Coconut Plantation has enough water to cool you from the typical 80-degree temperatures. Tennis and basketball courts, bike rentals, and an air conditioned fitness center are just a few of the other amenities for guests. And whether you’re taking in the rays at the Regency or the Plantation, their poolside beverage servers are the epitome of relaxation and luxury.

When we finally force ourselves to leave the grounds of this multiple resort, the south Gulf Coast offers an array of fun options. Less than two minutes away sits the vast condo/shopping area of Coconut Point. With hundreds of famous name stores, dozens of restaurants, and luxury living accommodations, this community is a modern twist on an early 1900’s city. The city of Naples is about 15 miles south of Coconut, and their pristine beaches, unique shopping, and outdoor restaurants make this a must-stop every time we’re in the area. The famous Fort Myers Beach area is just to the north of our resort and  is always ready to offer up fun til the early morning hours. Picking shells on the beaches, taking in the sunsets at the pier, and great food and drink at the Yukatan is a typical afternoon and evening at FMB.

Though the region offers beautiful public beaches and the two resorts have 10 pools between them, the best part of our stay at the Hyatt Vacation Club’s Coconut Plantation is always a trip to their private beach located at Big Hickory Island, across Estero Bay and on the Gulf of Mexico. Privacy and more relaxation is the order of the day when spending time at the beach. With complimentary lounge chairs, umbrellas, and ice-filled coolers for your favorite beverages and snacks, a day at this beach will surely spoil you for future excursions.

Though this region eluded our vacation getaway radar for some time, we now have it locked in and look forward to our visit nearly every year. For more information about The Coconut Plantation or the Hyatt Vacation Club, contact 1-800-Go-Hyatt and mention this column.

Saratoga of the South

Have you ever been to Saratoga in the winter? And while there, have you enjoyed 80 degree temperatures while swimming or walking around in shorts and sandals? Well no, not if you’re talking about Saratoga, NY. However, if you’ve been to the Disney Vacation Club’s Saratoga Resort & Spa at Walt Disney World, Florida you know what I’m talking about.

I love being a member of the Disney Vacation Club (http://dvc.disney.go.com/), with the Saratoga Resort & Spa as my home resort. Situated within a five-minute walk of Downtown Disney, this Victorian-style resort sprawls out over what used to be the Disney Institute, and meanders through the championship 18-hole Lake Buena Vista Golf Club. Complete with a 5-star spa and fitness center, four pools, two restaurants, and a general store, the Saratoga Resort & Spa takes visitors back to the bygone days of old Saratoga.

With its studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom villas, the Saratoga Resort & Spa engulfs its guests in old-world elegance and charm, while pampering them all the modern amenities one expects when on vacation. Two years ago my family and I stayed in a two-bedroom villa for a week. During our stay we started each day with breakfast in our full-sized kitchen, complete with stainless steel appliances, cooking utensils, plates, silverware, and granite slab countertops. We cooked our breakfast with the food we pre-ordered prior to arriving at the Saratoga Resort & Spa. The eggs, muffins, orange juice, etc. were fairly priced and brand-name quality. The beauty was that our refrigerator and cupboards were stocked with what we had ordered when we arrived. This meant one less hassle to worry about, and more time to enjoy at the parks. The bedrooms came with a king-size bed in the master and two queen-size beds in the other, along with two full-size bathrooms. The master bath also had a Jacuzzi tub. Our greatroom area was spacious enough to comfortably have dining room table in one section, as well as a sofa and a couple of chairs in the remaining space. Off the greatroom was a large balcony with a couple chairs and a table that overlooked the well-manicured grounds of the Saratoga Resort & Spa.

And just recently my wife and I enjoyed five days at The Saratoga in a deluxe studio villa. Though it didn’t have a complete kitchen, it did have a microwave and refrigerator in the small kitchenette area. But for just the two of us, that worked out just fine.

Getting around the Disney World resort is always easy. From the time you land at the Orlando International airport until the day you depart to head home, Disney transportation is seemingly at your disposal. From the airport (MCO) we boarded the Disney Express that took us directly to the Saratoga Resort & Spa. Now check this out, by signing up for the Disney Express (free to all Disney resort guests), not only did I get free transportation to and from the airport, but they also got my bags from the airline and delivered them to my room! Let’s see, I don’t have to rent a car, I don’t have to wait for my bags, and I don’t have to shop for groceries… Yep, I’m on vacation!

Once settled in, the Disney transportation system would basically take me to wherever I wanted to go. My family and I simply walked our of our room to one of the many bus stops, and waited no more than 5-10 minutes for the bus we needed. The air conditioned buses are always clean and comfortable. Only at night are they crowded, as park-goers scramble back to their rooms after a long day at the various Disney parks.

The Saratoga Resort & Spa has one large pool in the common area, complete with water slide and pool-side bar. There are several other pools situated throughout the resort that may be closer to your actual room. Many also come with full-size outdoor hottubs too. The larger pool area is also home to the On The Rocks pool bar, to help quench any thirst you may have. Dining at the Saratoga Resort & Spa is fantastic. The Artist’s Palette and Turf Club Bar & Grill offer guests a wide variety of lunch and dinner options. The Turf Club has one of the most unique presentations of Chicken Caesar salad that you’ll ever see. Of course, only being minutes from the Downtown Disney area, offers up even more dining options. I highly recommend the newly opened Paradiso 37, and their mangled margaritas, while The Earl of Sandwich is always good and perhaps the best value found anywhere at Disney.

Guests to the Saratoga Resort & Spa, as well as all other Disney resorts, are always able to enjoy Extra Magic Hours at the four Disney World parks. Extra Magic Hours are times at selected parks that resort guests can ride the rides and visit the attractions between one and three hours before or after the parks are available to the general public. And it is worth it? Imagine no lines for the newly refurbished Space Mountain, and you can ride it three times in a row at 7AM! Or how about no lines for Expedition Everest at the Animal Kingdom, and ride the spectacular roller coaster to your heart’s content at midnight! It’s all possible with Disney’s Extra Magic Hours.

Guests to the Saratoga Resort & Spa will experience the luxuries of a world-class spa, arcade, fitness room, championship golf course, and general store. Add these bonuses to its serene setting, convenient location to Downtown Disney, and the A+ service to be expected from Disney, and you truly do have the ingredients for a magical vacation.

For more information on the Saratoga Resort & Spa or the Disney Vacation Club, contact Maribella Quinones at 866-240-3817.

Disney’s Best-Kept Secret

Imagine strolling along Main Street USA one day, followed the next day by a Kilimanjaro safari. On your third day you could be rocketing into space on the Space Shuttle in the morning, then soaring through the Napa Valley on a hang glider at sunset. To top everything off, picture yourself taking a 4-day cruise to a private Caribbean island. And doing all of this with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Sounds like a wild dream, or the aftermath of one of your college weekends? Nope; it’s not. It’s a possible week using the power of the Disney Vacation Club.

The Disney Vacation Club offers its members the luxury of guaranteed, quality vacations each year, at the finest resorts on the planet. Quite often, depending on membership, vacationers can enjoy vacations and weekend getaways many times throughout a year. The DVC allows its members to visit the Disney resorts or choose from nearly six hundred other locations around the world when planning their next vacation.

The beauty of the DVC is that the one-time membership is good for fifty years, and can be passed on in a will, or even sold at a later date. When I became a Vacation Club member in 2004 I selected the 200 points a year membership. My membership coordinator, Maribella Quinones, guided me through the process with clear explanations and sample planning years. And though memberships start at 150 points per year, to fully take advantage of the membership I moved up to the 200 point level. Of course greater memberships are available, but I was comfortable where I was. My tour of the Saratoga Resort & Spa at Disney World grounds and facilities was breath-taking. Rooms range from studios to three-bedroom villas. The three-bedroom is actually a two-story home! Many of the rooms at Saratoga overlook Downtown Disney or the Lake Buena Vista championship golf course. Just a five minute walk to Downtown Disney, everything else that Disney World has to offer is within minutes of the Saratoga Resort using their incomparable transit system. However, while at the Saratoga you may never want to leave their grounds. With beautiful pools and hot tubs, a state-of-the-art fitness center, world-class spa, general store, and two restaurants everything that would make a memorable vacation is at your fingertips. Since joining DVC has added the new Animal Kingdom Villas and Bay Lake Villas at the Contemporary as Disney’s latest Vacation Club resorts.

An example of how I could use my membership might go something like this. In January I could choose a studio room at the Disney Wilderness Villas with my wife for a 4-day, 3-night weekend stay for around 50 points. Then in July I could take the family for a 7-day vacation at the Saratoga Resort for around 150 points. Having used up my allotment for the year, I could then “borrow” from next year’s points and enjoy a 3-night weekend getaway in September at the Disney Boardwalk for around 50 points. The following year I could plan to take a week-long cruise to the Bahamas on the Disney Cruise Line by using my points and borrowing from the next year’s allotment if necessary. Keep in mind that additional points can always be purchased and added to a membership. If a cruise isn’t for you, how about five days in the Bahamas, a weekend at Boston Harbor, or wine-tasting in Tuscany, Italy? You name it, the DVC can likely make your dreams come true….it’s a ‘Disney thing’. From California to Hilton Head, Disney World to Vero Beach, the Disney Vacation Club has the map covered with incredible places to stay. One of the nicest aspects of a Disney vacation is that when I arrive at Orlando International airport I am greeted by Disney Express employees who load me on a shuttle and take me directly to my resort. My baggage is collected for me and delivered to my room a couple hours later. To me, that’s a vacation! No baggage claims, no rental car, …no hassles. Once I’m checked in at the Saratoga Resort & Spa I can play 18-holes of golf at one of Disney’s five premiere golf courses, take in Happy Hour at the pool, enjoy a magnificent dining experience, and enjoy the nightlife of Pleasure Island, all within five minutes of my room!

The Disney Vacation Club may seem similar to time-shares that you have seen, but it is truly so much more. It is an opportunity to vacation throughout the world, while at the same time knowing that Disney quality is a guarantee everywhere you go. Known as ‘Disney’s Best Kept Secret’, the DVC is quickly becoming Disney’s ‘best vacation value’. For more information regarding the Disney Vacation Club, or to order your own informational DVD, call Maribella Quinones at  1-800-341-4074  and mention this AS I SEE IT column.