Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Yep, I've finally joined Facebook (thanks to those of you who've e-mailed me and said things like, "Why aren't you there? It's EASY!" or "Seriously? You're not on Facebook? WHY?")

So if you'd like to be my Facebook friend, do a search for Niki Burnham. I think there are five profiles that come up with that search, but you'll know which is me. I promise.

One nice thing about Facebook? I found this phenomenal review of Flirtin' With The Monster, with some really flattering comments about my essay, "Role Models." Made my day.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

This Just In: A New Book!

Excuse the commercial interruption, but big news. There's a new book out, with a contribution from Yours Truly, that I'm excited to recommend.

If you're a fan of Ellen Hopkins, whose amazing books include CRANK, BURNED, and GLASS, check out the all new FLIRTIN' WITH THE MONSTER, a collection of essays about Ellen's work. The very first essay, titled Role Models, was my contribution. Other authors include Terri Clark, Gail Giles, Micol Ostow, and even "Kristina", whose real life story is told in CRANK and GLASS.

Interested? I'll have all the details on my site in the next few days. In the meantime, you can check out an excerpt right here.

Let me know what you think!

The Happiest Place On Earth, Part IV

Next stop: Castaway Cay!

Imagine you had Disney's deep pockets, two cruise ships, and a wild imagination. An island in the Bahamas comes up for sale. And hey, you have those Pirates of the Caribbean movies in production and you'll need a place to park that monster prop, The Flying Dutchman, afterward, unless you plan to tear it apart. What do you do? Hmmmmm...

How'd you like to wake up to that view on a Friday morning?!

Disney bought the former Gorda Cay in mid-90s, dredged enough sand to allow their cruise ships to dock, and has been maintaining the space for its cruise ship passengers ever since. After days racing around Mexico, Grand Cayman, and Key West, we were ready for serious lounging. We spent the morning doing exactly that--with plenty of sunscreen, of course--right here on the shore:

I read a big chunk of Elizabeth Boyle's latest Regency-era romance while sitting in one of the chairs. Bliss!

Disney rents snorkeling gear, floating tubes, and bicycles for anyone who's interested. We opted to rent bikes just before noon, and explored the abandoned runway before heading off down this gorgeous bike path. Hard to believe, but we had it all to ourselves:

Off to the left of the bike path is an unspoiled expanse of rocky beach and blue, blue water. I stopped to take this photo at a gap in the trees:

After lunch, we went fishing (Disney offers several excursions, and since I love to fish, I signed up for bottom fishing the minute it was available), then had a little more time on the beach before heading back to the ship. The end-of-day view is my current desktop wallpaper:

Next, in Part V: The Other Happiest Place On Earth

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Happiest Place On Earth, Part III

Third stop on the Happiest Place Adventure: Cozumel/Playa del Carmen/Tulum.

So as the ship pulled into the dock at Cozumel, I was watching CNN, where the topic of the morning was the H1N1 virus. They were going on and on about how awful things were in Mexico City, and saying that perhaps Americans shouldn't go to Mexico. There seemed to be a general panic on CNN, but we weren't worried. We were already in Mexico, for one, and for two, Mexico City is a LONG way from Cozumel.

Our fellow cruisers weren't worried, either, because none of them had bothered to watch the news and the whole Swine Flu Insanity was just getting started. They'd been far too busy with cruise activities to bother with CNN. (We didn't tell them to run to their stateroom televisions, either.) Another reassuring sign: the U.S. Coast Guard parked alongside us.

The crew waved to all the kids disembarking the Disney ship, which thrilled the kids to death. We heard more than one kid ask something along the lines of, "Hey, Mom, are those REAL AMERICANS on that Coast Guard boat?"

I think most people on our cruise headed to the various bars, beaches, and resorts on Cozumel. We opted to take the ferry across to Playa del Carmen, then catch a bus headed for Tulum so we could tour the Mayan ruins. Of course, we soon learned that the ferry between Cozumel and Playa del Carmen is frequently referred to as the Vomit Ferry. While we were fine, we did see several folks go for the barf bags, and one poor kid was still giving up the better part of his breakfast after we docked in Playa del Carmen. (Don't linger near the bushes at the top of this hill, should you visit in the near future.)

Thankfully, he seemed fine before we boarded the bus for Tulum. Though it took nearly two hours to get to Tulum from Cozumel (ferry-walk-bus), it was well worth it. The sun was out, the sky was clear, and the ruins weren't crowded at all. I've been to the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza before, and was told Tulum wasn't as good, so I was prepared to be underwhelmed.

This is NOT underwhelming:

Best of all, the ruins at Tulum are perched high above a beach! After we toured the ruins and got a crash course in Mayan culture, we took the stairs down to the beach and swam for an hour. I waded into the surf with my camera to take this shot:

I tried to wait out Speedo Man before taking a picture. Really, I did. I finally gave up and figured the beautiful scenery balanced out the not-so-beautiful Speedo Man.

Once we were back onboard the Disney Magic a couple hours later, we went to our room and were tickled to find that the room attendant had put my sunglasses to good use when he'd come to clean:

And though I couldn't get a picture of it, just after dinner we hit a highlight of our cruise: fireworks at sea. I nabbed this photo from Disney, because to leave fireworks out of the blog due to my cruddy nighttime picture-taking ability would be a crime:

Tip of the day: Pack Bonine if you're prone to seasickness. Chew one an hour or so before you get on a boat (or the Vomit Ferry.) It works.

Tomorrow, in Part IV: Eat Your Heart Out, Gilligan!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Happiest Place On Earth, Part II

Next stop: Grand Cayman.

Woke up early and hustled off the ship when we docked at Grand Cayman. First, because I'd never been there and I'm always excited to see a new place. Second, because I'd lined up a day with the wonderful folks at Fat Fish Adventures and couldn't wait to get going.

Peter, from Fat Fish, met a group of us at the Hard Rock Cafe in George Town, then drove us across the island (which is small and very, very flat) to where he'd moored his jetskis. Lemme tell ya, Peter owns some sweeeeet jetskis. We hopped on and followed a boat piloted by his friend Neil, who spends part of his year in Grand Cayman and part of the year running a dive operation out of Spain (yeah, I'm thinking Neil has it way too hard.)

As soon as we hit the open water, I thought, I'd better not do something stupid, or Neil will be fishing out my cell phone from the remnants of this SeaDoo, looking up my parents' number, and explaining to my mother why I'm fish food and how it's all my own fault. Then, of course, I went faster. The water was so blue and clear and smooth, how could I not?! Plus, Neil told me it'd be more fun if I hit the gas harder, so I gunned it.

Our first stop was Stingray City, a natural sandbar off the coast of Grand Cayman where stingrays have congregated for years, lured by food from tourists and locals alike. The stingrays--mostly female--are tame, as they've become accustomed to human interaction. When I cut power to the jetski, this beauty swam right up:

I think that particular stingray was about 7-8 feet down, as she was a good twenty or thirty yards away from the sandbar. The water was just that clear.

We hopped off our jetskis and swam the last few yards to the sandbar, since the water's shallow enough to stand there. The stingrays immediately congregated all around us, searching for squid handouts. They'd swim all around your ankles, up your back, along your elbows, you name it. You'd think it'd be frightening, but it's not. It's more like being attacked by giant portobello mushrooms (friendly mushrooms, of course!) Check out the ray Neil and I are holding (grainy photo being the result of a cheap-o, disposable underwater camera):

This one only liked me for my squid. I fed it a couple handfuls--which was something akin to feeding lint to a vacuum cleaner--then off it went, in search of another meal.

After Stingray City, we snorkeled off Rum Point for a little while (Neil came up with a huge conch shell), jetskiied some more, then headed back to shore, where Peter was waiting to take us back to the Disney Magic. I took a shower, then headed to the top deck in search of fresh fruit and shrimp. I'd just gotten done telling my husband how happy I was we'd decided to take a cruise and how it was so much more fun than I expected it to be, when this guy sat beside me:

Do you think Stitch is allowed a glass of wine now and then? (My guess is no.) We finished off the night hanging out on the verandah, watching the sunset as the ship left Grand Cayman. Gorgeous!

Tip of the day: If you are ever so lucky as to visit Grand Cayman, book an excursion with Fat Fish Adventures. Huge thanks to Peter and Neil for making my first visit to Grand Cayman so incredible!

Tomorrow, in Part III: The Vomit Ferry

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Happiest Place On Earth, Part I

Disney claims it's Anaheim, but I figure Orlando is close enough, in Disney-speak.

I've spent the last three weeks on the road, with multiple stops in Orlando, Florida. While I'm typically not a Florida person (despite being born in Key West, I've lived most of my life in colder climates), I've truly enjoyed the last three weeks.

First adventure: A Disney Cruise!

I travel a ton, but have always balked at the idea of a cruise. I like to be flexible with my plans, seeing whatever interests me most on a given day. If you're vacationing at a hotel and don't like it, you can go somewhere else. You can eat in whichever restaurant catches your attention at whatever time of day you please. But if you're on a ship? You're stuck with their food, their schedule, their rooms. However, after watching a Travel Channel show about the Disney Cruise Line, I thought, "Hmmm...that looks pretty cool. And they go to Key West. And Grand Cayman. And I can take in the Mayan ruins in Tulum. Not bad!" And though I like Disney as much as the next person, I've never wanted to spend a vacation with Chip and Dale. But the Travel Channel show made it clear that you can see Disney characters...or not. There are lots of things to do on the ship that do NOT involve Mickey. (Spa, anyone? Late-night sports bar?)

So off I went to Orlando, ticket in hand to board the ship at Port Canaveral. And within two seconds of stepping aboard the Disney Magic, I knew I'd made the right decision. You tell me, is this not spectacular?

I love the elegant, Art Deco lines. And the interiors were just as gorgeous. Check out these shots, taken inside a suite:

(Note the officer demonstrating proper use of the life vest on tv. Reassuring, huh?! "Welcome to our ship. Here's how NOT to drown....")

All the polished wood was to die for. Far more swank than 99% of hotels. But the best part of a Disney cruise is OFF the ship. As we left Port Canaveral, a group of dolphins jumped alongside, escorting us out to the Atlantic. (I asked my husband how much Disney had to pay dolphin trainers to pull off that particular trick.)

From there, the ship went to Key West. I took the Trolley around the island, then toured Truman's Little White House. And yes, I did eat a Key Lime pie on a stick. For all of a minute, I wondered how many laps it'd take around Deck Four to burn it off. Then I decided it was so good, I didn't care. (Plus, it was so overwhelmingly sweet I doubt I'll ever eat it again!)

I had the chance to see where I was born, in a barracks building at the Navy health center. Very fancy, isn't it? I bet everyone on the cruise ship would trade their rooms in a cold minute to stay here. The barbed-wire fence gives it quite the prison ambience:

I also had the opportunity to see alligator heads for sale. If you've ever purchased an alligator head, please enlighten me. What does one DO with an alligator head? Put it on the mantel? Make a lamp out of it? Hide it inside your mailbox to scare the mailman? (No, I didn't buy one. The photo was enough for me.)

Finally, I wrapped up the day by engaging in some Mallory Square people-watching from an amazing vantage point (namely, my verandah!) Doesn't this look like the best place to hang out at sunset?

Tomorrow, in Part II: Nic vs. The Stingray.