Trip Review: Beaches in Turks & Caicos (Part 2 – The Activities)

A stay at Beaches in Turks & Caicos guarantees that you will never hear your kids utter the words, “I’m bored.”  This resort truly caters to kids of all ages with an incredible array of activities.  Each night, while preparing the turn-down service, housekeeping dropped off an itinerary with all of the special activities planned for the next day.  We used this information along with the weekly schedule for the Sesame Street character activities to plan each day in advance.  Inevitably, we were a little too ambitious with our plans and would run out of time to do everything, but we were never left wondering what to do next.  Finnegan and Declan slept well and turned in early most nights because they were exhausted from all of the fun by the end of the day.

The activities that we didn’t get to try were the ones geared towards older kids and adults.  One of the most impressive inclusions is free scuba diving for certified divers.  They also offer free snorkeling, paddleboarding, Hobie Cat sailboats, hydrobikes (which we wanted to try, but there is a minimum age of four so Declan wasn’t old enough), an X-Box Play Lounge, and a ‘night club’ for teenagers.

Listed below are of some of the resort activities that we did try.

Pools

There are at least nine pools (even though the Beaches website only lists six) and we tried almost all of them.  We even tried the adults-only pool that was located right next to our room before we knew that it was adults-only.  Oops.

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There are two kiddie pools attached to the main pools in both the French Village and Italian Village.  Because Declan doesn’t like wearing a floatie, these pools were a lifesaver because it was easy to keep an eye on both of them.  There are lifeguards at most of the pools, but they were not particularly attentive so I wasn’t comfortable relying on them.  In the back of each kiddie pool, the water was deep enough for Finnegan to practice his underwater swimming, which he did until his eyes were bloodshot.

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As an added bonus, there are swim up bars in both the Italian pool and French pool so you can easily grab drinks throughout the day to keep your kids hydrated.  If you don’t feel like going into the pool, you can also walk around to the back of the bar to order drinks.

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Water Park

We spent a lot of time during our first two days at the Pirates Island Water Park.  The pirate ship and water slides were perfect for Finnegan and Declan.  They loved running around this area with the other kids and going down the ‘big’ water slide.  Even Declan at 2.5 years old could go down all of the slides by himself.  They loved the pirate theme and Declan was impressed that ‘Captain Hook was all the way up in the scarecrow nest!’

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There is also a sprinkler area for the young kids and a tiny crab water slide for small toddlers to play on.

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We were also able to go on the lazy river a few times using the double tubes.  I sat on one side of the tube with Declan on my lap while Finnegan sat on the other side.  It was really relaxing and Declan started falling asleep both times.  I needed help to get both boys out of the tube, but it was never a problem finding someone willing to help.

Finnegan wanted to try the other water slides in the park, but he wasn’t tall enough to meet the 42” height requirement.  There is also a surf simulator for older kids that looked like it would be a blast.  If you’re not quite up for the challenge of surfing, you can also body board instead.

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Bobby Dee’s restaurant is located in the waterpark area and it’s shaped like a ship.  We didn’t eat any meals at this restaurant (which serves fare of the hot dog and French fry variety), but the boys had daily ice cream cones here as well as popcorn and cotton candy.

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Sesame Street Characters

We live very close to Sesame Place so Finnegan and Declan have had many opportunities in the past to meet the characters.  However, they’ve never had as much interaction with the characters as they did at Beaches.  There are signs posted around the resort with the list of weekly Sesame Street activities, including five different things each day.  From walkabouts with specific characters to science experiments with Grover to bird watching with Big Bird, the options were seemingly endless.  During our vacation, the boys decided to exercise with Elmo, go on a treasure hunt with Abby, and bake cookies with Cookie Monster.

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Baking with Cookie Monster was absolutely adorable and I would highly recommend it if you go to Beaches.

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You can also have pictures taken with all of the characters at the French Pool on specific days.  You can buy the professional photos for $50 each, which benefit a local charity, or snap your own.

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Declan with Elmo and Abby

There are other activities that you can do with the Sesame Street characters that have an additional fee, such as a breakfast with the entire crew, a nightly tuck-in with a character of your choice, or a morning cruise with Elmo and Abby.  We wanted to go on the cruise, but it is only offered one morning per week so it didn’t coincide with our stay.  I think it would have been a nice way to see more of the surrounding area.  The cost if I remember correctly (but we all know what happens to your memory after having kids) is $60/adult and ~$30/child.

Nightly Activities

Each night there is a different theme or activity that the resort hosts.  There is typically a show or activity for the kids and then one for adults.  We went to at least one every night during our stay and were not disappointed in any of them.

Beach Party

We arrived on Friday, which is Beach Party night.  The party started ~6:30PM with a Sesame Street show about Big Bird’s fear of the water.  The kids sat in front of the stage in the sand where they were encouraged to sing along during the show.  Declan was wiped out from playing in the sun all afternoon so he fell asleep during the show, but Finnegan enjoyed it.  They also had a woman making balloon animals, a bounce house and face painting.  Finnegan waited in line for a balloon sword and was thrilled to jab at everything in sight for the rest of the night.  There was also a buffet dinner set-up at the beach party, but we decided to try one of the restaurants instead.

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Movie Night

I learned that there is nothing more adorable than watching Despicable Me 2 outside with dozens of kids belly laughing.  Once a week, Beaches hosts an outdoor family movie night and serves fresh popcorn.  The movie didn’t start until 8PM, but Finnegan and Declan both took long naps during the day so they managed to stay awake and laugh through the entire movie.  Earlier that night, Beaches also had an Oscar Sesame Street Show, a Kid’s Dance Party and a movie trivia contest.

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Chocolate Party

Finnegan began counting down the minutes to the start of the chocolate party as soon as I read him the list of Sunday activities.  I think he was a little disappointed with the actual event because it wasn’t quite what he expected (think candy bars everywhere, chocolate statues and a chocolate fountain).  In reality, there were several buffet tables set-up with mostly chocolate desserts that were probably a little too rich for most kids.  I’m sure chocolate loving adults appreciated it more than the kids.  Notwithstanding, they each picked out two desserts to sample before calling it a night.

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Sesame Street Parade

Tuesday night is the parade and it’s another must-do with young kids.  In addition to the characters, there were drummers, a stilt walker, and pirates in the parade.  It is relatively short, but very interactive.  The characters stop to pose for pictures and generously hand out high fives.

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Kids Club

When we go on vacation, we prefer to spend as much time as possible with our kids since we both work full-time.  This time was no different so I never actually dropped the boys off at the Kids Club, but we did stop in on two occasions to participate in some of the activities with the Sesame Street characters.  I think it’s great that the characters are brought into the kids club several times a day to entertain the kids and lead the activities.  I also appreciated that the nannies didn’t mind whether the parents dropped off their kids or stayed in the room to watch.

I thought the Kids Club for the 2-5 year olds was crowded at times and there was always at least one kid that was really upset about being dropped off.  In comparison, the infant center looked amazing.  It was brand new and practically empty with a much better staff ratio.  The Kids Club is open from 9AM-9PM every day and there is no extra cost.

Train

There is a cute (and very slow) train that you can also ride.  It only takes about 10 minutes and is worth doing just for the pictures.  It is not a very exciting ride since it just goes out and back (very slowly) along the main entrance to the resort.

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There are many more activities at the resort that we didn’t have time to try and many excursions off the resort are also available.  In addition to the typical tours exploring nearby uninhabited islands and sunset cruises, there is a Sandals Foundation reading trip that’s offered on Thursdays.  I didn’t ask whether kids can go on this trip, but I think it would be a great experience for them.  You are paired up with a volunteer and will go to a local school to read and interact with kids between the ages of 3-10.  You are encouraged to bring a new or gently used book so something to think about if you’re planning a trip to Turks & Caicos.  One of the best parts about traveling is meeting new people and gaining an appreciation for what life is really like in the country.  This would be a great opportunity to get away from the resort and get a flavor for the local schools and teachers.

What activities would you look forward to the most at this resort?

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Trip Review: Beaches in Turks & Caicos (Part 1 – The Resort)

Smiling faces and extra hands greeted us everywhere we turned during our recent stay at Beaches in Turks and Caicos.  It is hard for me to imagine an easier place to travel as a single parent with two young kids in tow. I brought Finnegan and Declan to Turks & Caicos without Russ and I was nervous that I was going to be stressed out the whole time and regret my decision to book the plane tickets all together. The reality was much happier. This wasn’t our typical trip exploring a new country or learning about a different culture, but it was a vacation. And it really did feel like a vacation – even for me.

Beaches is the family friendly version of Sandals. There are two Beaches resorts in Jamaica and one in Turks & Caicos. The resort in Turks & Caicos is the largest and it is absolutely enormous. There are four different ‘villages’ within the resort and it’s easy to walk between them.

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The Caribbean Village is the oldest part of the resort, but is centrally located and the rooms are close to the ocean and kid’s club. The Italian Village has the largest pool and is close to everything, including the beach. The one thing that I didn’t like about the Italian Village was the tower design for the rooms. Some of the towers were six stories high, which would have been inconvenient with two small kids.

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The French village is very close to the water park, but it is set back away from the ocean. Finnegan liked the pool in the French Village the best. Their favorite restaurant (sushi of course) is also located in this village along with an amazing coffee shop.

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We stayed in the Key West Village, which is the newest part of the resort. Our room was in the East Village located at the very far end of the resort. We loved our room and after I rented a two-seater wagon from the Kid’s Club for $10 a day, I didn’t mind the long walk to other parts of the resort. I actually appreciated all of the walking because it was my only form of exercise during the trip. If you travel there with young kids, you should definitely plan to bring a stroller or wagon.

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Our room was the least expensive one available at the time that I made our reservation just a few weeks in advance of our stay and it was even nicer than I expected.  When we made our reservation, the rooms were 65% off the published rack rate.  We booked a one bedroom concierge villa and it included more space and amenities than we really needed. The villa included a living room, four-person dining room table, kitchen with industrial grade appliances, a fully stocked bar and refrigerator, washer and dryer, and bedroom with a king sized bed. There was even an Xbox set-up in the living room, but I’m too old and the boys are too young to play video games. The room was also very close to the beach and we could see the ocean from our front porch.  With all of the amenities that are included at this resort, it was surprising to learn that we had to pay for internet access. Since Skype was our only option for keeping in touch with Russ, I paid $42 to have internet access for the week.

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We spent very little time in our room outside of nap time and bed time (which is really the point of going to a tropical destination during a frigid Northeast winter, isn’t it?) so I would have been perfectly happy staying in the cheapest room at the resort. There are 44 different room categories from which to choose and they vary dramatically in terms of price.

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Everything that I read about Grace Bay beach before arriving was true. The ocean is a brilliant turquoise and the sand is as soft as powder. The area in front of Beaches is the most crowded strip of sand on Grace Bay beach, but it’s easy to take a short stroll to find a spot that you can have all to yourself. We only went to the beach once because Declan didn’t like the sand getting stuck to his hands or the sun glare. There were very few people on the beach when we went right after breakfast and the water was crystal clear and extremely calm. Finnegan was more interested in building sand castles than swimming so we didn’t test out the depth of the water, which is funny since it was one of my reasons for choosing Turks & Caicos as our destination.

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The best part about the resort was the friendliness of the staff. Everyone greeted us with a smile and made us feel like they were happy to help. Have you ever noticed how most bartenders in tropical locations seemed mildly (or outwardly) annoyed when you order a frozen drink? Not so, at this resort. They gladly made our strawberry daiquiris (non-alcoholic of course) and didn’t make us feel guilty that they had to clean the blender yet again.  As an added bonus, many of the other guests were extremely friendly as well.  One woman in particular was like my own personal angel.  I started calling her Saint Heather because she always seemed to magically appear any time I could use an extra hand.  On our first night at the resort, Finnegan had a blister on the bottom of his foot tear open and was having a hard time walking back to our room.  Declan was sound asleep in my arms so I couldn’t carry both of them.  (This was the reason that I raced over to the kid’s club in the morning to rent a wagon!).  Right on cue, Saint Heather walked by and offered to give Finnegan a piggy back ride all the way to the restaurant where we had dinner.  She even went back to her room and got a band-aid and antiseptic to clean his foot!  Another time, she walked by as the boys were complaining that they were hungry and she gave both of them animal crackers.  Thanks again Saint Heather from Ottawa!

On the downside, we did have a bit of a mix-up with our luggage when we arrived and it was ‘lost’ for 24 hours. Because of our short connection time in Atlanta, I packed strategically and we had everything that we needed for our first day except toothpaste and sunblock because I didn’t want to deal with having liquids in our carry-on. The manager at the front desk was extremely apologetic and personally delivered toothbrushes, toothpaste, a razor, and a stuffed Grover doll for the boys. He also told me that I could purchase sunblock in the resort gift shop and they would cover the cost, which they did at check-out – no questions asked. It’s not clear how or why the luggage was misplaced, but it was delivered to our room the next day with everything in order so it was only a minor inconvenience. Problems can easily arise during a hotel stay and it’s the manner in which they are resolved that really counts. I thought the staff at Beaches handled our situation perfectly and left us happy customers.  Just look at this smile.

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Overall, we thought the resort and the staff were amazing. We would gladly return for an easy and relaxing vacation that involves no planning.

Have you ever stayed at this resort or another Beaches? What did you think? If not, would you consider this type of all-inclusive vacation?

Next up will be a review of the activities at this resort. Hint: they are amazing!

The Lodge at Pico Bonito Review: Luxury in the Rainforest

We stayed at The Lodge at Pico Bonito for three nights at the end of November.  The lodge is located near La Ceiba, Honduras on the border of Pico Bonito National Park.  This eco-lodge in the rainforest has 22 rustic, but well-appointed cabins that are spread out for privacy.  Our cabin had two queen beds and plenty of room for our family of four.

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Pico Bonito Cabin

While the lodge is popular with hard core birders, there are plenty of other activities and adventures to keep an entire family entertained.  They even offer a Family Adventure package that would be the perfect spring break trip for an active, adventurous family.  The package includes whitewater rafting, snorkeling, guided hikes, and a trip to the Cuero y Salada wildlife refuge.  Our boys are a little too young for whitewater rafting and snorkeling, but they enjoyed the other adventures, which are fine for kids of any age.

Also on-site at the lodge is a Butterfly Farm where they raise over 40 species of butterflies, including the Blue Morpho.  We went when it was raining and a little cool so many of the butterflies were resting, but there were still at least five different species that were active, including an impressive Blue Morpho.  It was a thrill for the boys to chase the butterflies and ‘explore’ the small paths.  I can only imagine how impressive it would be to visit when the butterflies are very active.  We learned that butterflies rest with their wings closed, while moths keep their wings open.  This trait makes photographing the butterflies extremely difficult.

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In addition to the Butterfly Farm, there is a serpentarium with a wide variety of venomous and non-venomous snakes.  The most memorable was an aggressive cottonmouth.  I’m not sure how they feed that snake without getting bit, but I certainly wouldn’t want to draw the short straw for that weekly event.

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On the walk back to the lodge, our guide Joel caught a few anoles for the boys to hold.  Could they look any happier?

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We are not foodies so we rarely talk about food on our blog, but if you are staying at the Lodge at Pico Bonito, there are not many dining options available to you.  Unless you rent a car, your only option is the restaurant at the lodge.  Thankfully, it is a great option.  They have a diverse breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu, including the typical kid’s menu.  We really looked forward to our meals every day because the food and service were as fantastic as the setting.  You can enjoy your breakfast surrounded by hummingbirds, drinking orange juice that is freshly squeezed from the orange trees growing on the property.

The meal costs can add up, but breakfast was included in our room rate and one of our excursions also included lunch.  While everything we tried was fantastic, we thought the seafood options were the best.  Our favorites were the fish tacos (only $8), scallops and risotto, and the fish of the day that could be prepared to your liking.

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Another factor that’s important to consider when staying in a rainforest lodge is the quality of the guides.  Your chances of spotting wildlife increase dramatically with professional guides with eyes that are trained to spot insects and animals that blend in perfectly with their surroundings.

We stayed at the much more expensive Bosque del Cabo in Costa Rica last year, but I think the Lodge at Pico Bonito offers a comparable experience at a fraction of the cost.  The only advantage of Bosque del Cabo is the number of mammals on their property.  It isn’t common to see monkeys at the Lodge of Pico Bonito, but there are excursions that you can take to greatly increase your chances.

Don’t be afraid of visiting Honduras because of a few dangerous cities.  We never felt unsafe during our entire trip, even at the San Pedro Sula airport.  You can also fly to the La Ceiba airport, which is a short drive from the lodge, but based on the cost and connection times, it made more sense for us to take the three hour van transfer from San Pedro Sula to the The Lodge.  It was also a nice way of seeing more of the country and the drive went by quickly.

Stockholm, Sweden: Venice of the North

I learned that Stockholm was often described as the ‘Venice of the North’ on my flight over to this beautiful city thanks to the friendly Swedish-American woman seated next to me on the plane.  It was a phrase that I heard several times during my very brief stay in the city.  I had to travel to Sweden for work and even though I was only there for a one-day meeting, I was able to spend most of Sunday afternoon exploring the city thanks to the inconvenient flight options.  Business travel rarely affords this kind of opportunity for sightseeing so I tried to take full advantage of the opportunity despite considerable jet lag.

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I stayed at the Sheraton Hotel Stockholm, which is perfectly located for exploring the city.  It is a short walk from Stockholm Central train station and Old City is easily reachable on foot by crossing one of the many city bridges.  The hotel has a modern Scandinavia feel and seems to attract a mix of business and leisure travelers.  My only small complaint is the hotel is somewhat loud during the day because of all of the foot traffic and rolling suitcases on the hardwood floors.  The location, friendly staff, and large rooms (by European standards) more than made up for the day-time noise and I would happily stay at the Sheraton Stockholm hotel again on my next visit to the city. 

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I was in Stockholm in late October so it wasn’t the ideal time of the year to visit, but the weather was still crisp and pleasant – not as cold as the forecast would have led me to believe.  More than one Swede said their winters are not nearly as bad as the biting winters of Chicago.  I don’t know if that’s true and I won’t be rushing to book a winter time vacation to find out.  A visit in July or August would be ideal, but late October turned out to be a decent time to visit as well.

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Stockholm is undeniably beautiful and the Old City, also known as Gamla Stan, is completely charming even with all of the touristy kitsch shops.  I spent a few hours walking around the Old City, including veering off to some quieter spots and generally getting lost from time to time.  The buildings, streets, people, and even the garbage cans are photogenic.

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After having lunch at one of the many restaurants in Gamla Stan, I checked out the Royal Palace, which is so massive that it’s difficult to photograph.  Here is an aerial image from Wikipedia to give a sense of scale and layout. 

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It is guarded by soldiers as well as jungle creatures, but is still generally accessible by royal palace standards.

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My next stop after Gamla Stan was the island of Djurgården, another one of the 14 islands in central Stockholm.  Djurgården is home to many museums and a beautiful footpath along the water that is perfect for walking or running.  It is the best place that I found to run during my short visit to the city and you will have plenty of company on the trails, which is always reassuring in a foreign city. 

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You could stay in Stockholm for two weeks and still not have enough time to visit all of the major museums in this city, many of which are located on Djurgården.  Being there on a Sunday was unfortunate since many of the museums were either closed or had shortened hours.  I had every intention of visiting the Vasa Museum, but ran out of time and energy before jet lag really kicked in.  It will be at the top of my list for my next trip to Sweden, which will hopefully include the entire family.  I would also love to take the boys to Junibacken, which is located near the Vasa Museum, to play and learn about Swedish storybook characters like Pippi Longstocking.

I finished my day of sightseeing with dinner at the hotel.  I was too tired to venture out again and didn’t feel like bundling up to brave the cold wind.  My trip was far too short, but I gained an appreciation of the city and a desire to return again soon.

Alexandria, VA and Hotel Monaco (Kimpton Hotel)

We went to Alexandria, VA this weekend and celebrated another birthday – this time for Rosalita, our shar pei!  Since we adopted Rosie, we don’t know her exact birthdate, but she was a puppy when we brought her home so we are reasonably sure she was born sometime in mid-August.  Since Finnegan’s birthday is June 18th and Declan is July 18th, we’re going with August 18th for Rosie.

The genesis for our trip was a great deal on Jetsetter for Hotel Monaco, a pet-friendly hotel in Old Town, Alexandria.  If you haven’t signed up for Jetsetter’s daily email deals, you really should because they offer incredible deals on really nice hotels (sign up here).  Hotel Monaco is one of the Kimpton hotels, which are known for being both pet friendly and kid friendly, and this one definitely didn’t disappoint on either front.

Our room wasn’t ready when we tried to check-in early on Saturday, but the staff happily held our bags and agreed to call us when our room was ready.  The hotel has a fabulous location on King Street in Old Town, Alexandria so we decided to walk around.  We didn’t get very far because Finnegan and Declan thought it was great fun to play in the plants outside the hotel.

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Once we lured them away from the bushes with promises of searching for a candy store, we only made it one block before they spied the fountain outside of City Hall.  Since there were other kids in the fountain getting their feet wet, we agreed to let them go in as well.  While all of the other kids were careful to only get their feet wet, ours ran like wild men straight for the fountain and it didn’t take long before Declan did a face plant and was soaked from head to toe. DSC09246

Declan had to be forcibly removed from the fountain shortly after the face plant incident because he refused to keep his clothes on.  He kept screaming NAKED at the top of his lungs, which we probably let him get away with far too often at home.

But Finnegan had a great time.

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While we were trying to form a game plan about what to do with two kids that were dripping wet, the hotel called to tell us that our room was ready.  Problem solved!  When we checked in, we requested a pet bed and two bowls for Rosie, which were promptly delivered to our stylish room.

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We decided to let Rosie eat and rest while the rest of the family checked out the hotel pool, which claimed to be heated.  It was mildly warm, but I like my heated pools VERY warm.  After swimming, Russ and Declan napped while Finnegan and I hit the Kid’s Hour in the lobby.  The kid’s hour included lemonade and animal crackers, as well as a Wii and other games like tic-tac-toe and a giant version of Connect 4.  Finnegan drank his weight in lemonade – I think because he liked helping himself – and ate copious amounts of animal crackers before we roused Russ and Declan for dinner.

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We tried to attend the wine hour before heading to dinner, but the boys only sat still long enough for me to drink half a glass.  Since we skipped lunch we were getting very hungry and an early dinner sounding pretty appealing.  We went to the Mai Thai restaurant based on a suggestion from the hotel and had a great meal.  We are spoiled with a very good Thai restaurant near our house, but the one thing it’s lacking is good noodle dishes, which Mai Thai had in abundance.

After dinner, we walked around town and hung out by the water while the kids ran off their excess energy.

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We made one final stop for ice cream before calling it a night.

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Alexandria is an extremely dog friendly destination.  There are many restaurants with outdoor seating where dogs are welcome and there are no shortages of water dishes down King Street so you don’t have to worry about carrying water for your pup.  While we were in town, we also had lunch at Bittersweet Café with Rosie, which we highly recommend.  They have an interesting menu of breakfast options with a southwestern twist, as well as sandwiches and baked goods.  They even had pupcakes (mini doggie cupcakes) with a milk bone biscuit that we bought for Rosie to celebrate her birthday.

Next Up: Mount Vernon and the Air & Space Museum

Have you been to any really pet-friendly destinations or hotels?

Chiang Rai: Northern Thailand

One trip that we still haven’t blogged much about is our 2011 trip to Thailand and Cambodia.  We wrote about the last few days and our time on the beach in Krabi, but we also visited Chiang Rai, Bangkok, and Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Finnegan was 20 months old at the time of the trip and Russ’ Facebook statuses clearly document his trepidation about taking such a long flight with a toddler with gems such as “I’m prepared for this (departure day) to be the worst day of my life” or “I fully expect this trip to end with our names on the no fly list” and he even recently stated, “I can’t believe we had the balls to fly to Thailand with a 20-month old.”  But we did – and you should too.

There is no denying that it’s a long flight.  It’s about 24 hours of travel time from the east coast, but Finnegan did great on both flights and it was completely worth the effort.  And we used this trip as our motivation to break Finnegan of his bottle.  We were worried about finding clean water to wash his bottles and we were not sure if we would be able to easily find pasteurized milk.

We arrived in Bangkok late at night and since we’re gluttons for punishment, we decided the best way to plan our trip was to stay one night at an airport hotel and get back on a plane the next day for an 80 minute flight to Chiang Rai.  Most first trips to Thailand include a visit to either Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai – we chose the later because it’s smaller and located closer to the Golden Triangle region where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet.

We stayed in Chiang Rai for two nights and did a Golden Triangle tour that included a visit to a touristy town in the hills with the Akha tribe, a ride on the Mekong River with a short stop in Laos at another very touristy island (Don Sao), and a visit to the excellent Hall of Opium, which covers the history of the crop and the devastating effects it had on people.  We booked our guide through the hotel and she was really good – her English was great, she was willing to talk about her life, and she loved Finnegan.  In general, the culture is extremely accommodating of children and Finnegan received a lot of extra attention because of his blond hair and blue eyes.

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On our second full day in Chiang Rai, we went on a bike tour and elephant trek with Chiang Rai Cycling.  The ride was really beautiful and took place mostly on back roads and farm trails.  We stopped at a small temple, a rice ‘factory’, and the White Temple (or Wat Rong Khun).  The White Temple is one of the most incredible places that I’ve ever seen.  If you go on a sunny day, you definitely need sunglasses since it can be blinding with the small pieces of mirror and glass that are incorporated into the designs.  Finnegan had a tough time without them.

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After the White Temple, we rode to a park and then took a long-tail boat to an elephant camp.  We met up with the tour guide’s niece waiting for the long-tail boat and she and Finnegan became fast friends.

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She came with us on the long-tail boat ride, which Finnegan obviously appreciated!

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At the elephant camp, we bought bags of food to feed them and then took a one hour trek through the river and forest.  Elephants are amazing creatures and while it was neat to sit on top of one, I would not be in a hurry to take another ride.  They offer 3-hour treks, but trust me when I say one hour is too long.  Finnegan enjoyed the ride and the scenery was nice enough, but I was relieved when the hour was up.

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We thoroughly enjoyed the day and were really glad that we used the Chiang Rai Cycling company since the guide was patient and their equipment was in great shape.  We rode in the back of a truck on the way home.  I’m sure this picture will make some parents nervous and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit nervous at times, but we went with the “When in Rome” philosophy.  It actually seems pretty safe compared to the common practice in SE Asia of having entire families (sans helmets) ride on the back of a motorcycle.

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We spent our two nights in Chiang Rai at the Le Meridien hotel.  It’s a large hotel with a beautiful infinity pool that generally gets very good reviews.  Our room was huge with a nice walk in shower that Finnegan loved.  The only downside to this hotel is its location outside of town.  At night, you either have to take a cab to town (which adds up) or eat at the hotel restaurant.

Perfection at Pax House (Dingle, Ireland)

We had our best B&B experience ever in Dingle – so much so that it deserves its own post.  From the rooms and the view, to the incredible breakfasts and friendliness of the other guests, everything at Pax House exceeded our expectations.  John, the owner of the B&B, and his staff – especially Margaret – truly seemed to love what they do and made everyone feel at home.

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We stayed in a family room that included a patio and sliding glass doors with beautiful views of Dingle Bay.  There was a king-size bed and a single bed in the room and an enormous bathroom.  I wish I took pictures of our room because the house must have been renovated since many of the pictures on their website were taken.  The focus of this picture was obviously the chickens (hi, chickens!), but you can see the patio and some of the view:

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Okay, so a lot of B&B’s have beautiful rooms in a beautiful location – so what really made our visit to Pax House so special?  Two things:

1.)    Margaret & the Chickens

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In addition to Finnegan & Declan, there were two other boys staying in the B&B. Margaret told the boys if they were good for breakfast, she had a special surprise for them.  While we were eating, she prepared four buckets with scraps to feed the chickens and told the boys that the chickens at Pax House lay extra special eggs and they had a magic oven in the kitchen to cook these eggs.

First, Margaret had the boys feed the chickens:

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Then each boy retrieved their special egg from the hen house.  Finnegan could hardly contain his excitement at this point and I was worried his egg was not going to make it into the magic oven, but he held it together.

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Margaret brought all the boys inside, collected their eggs, and went into the kitchen to cook the eggs in the magic oven.  At this point, many of the other guests were intrigued and hung around to watch the reaction of the kids as well.  Margaret kept popping her head out of the kitchen to let them know that the eggs were almost ready.  After a few minutes, she emerged with a tray of eggs wrapped in paper towels and twine.

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And inside to the boys’ delight were chocolate Cadbury eggs!

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Finnegan said he was going to save his magic egg forever, but Declan had to eat his immediately.

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Forever for Finnegan really meant about an hour, which is still pretty good self-control for a chocolate-loving, not quite four year old little boy.

It was such a great way to start the morning each day!

2.)    Special Touches

As if Margaret and the magic eggs were not enough in the ‘special touches’ category, Pax House offers so many other things to take your stay from great to extraordinary.  For example, each night when we returned to our room after dinner, there was a teddy bear waiting on the bed for the boys with a warmed up lavender pouch inside.

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They also had rubber ducks for the boys to play with in the bathtub and lots of special touches for the grown-ups as well.  You could order pre-dinner drinks and really great appetizers to enjoy on the balcony or your own patio, which isn’t typical for a lot of B&B’s.  John was happy to share his insights on things to do in the area and even make helpful suggestions for other parts of your Ireland itinerary.  John and his staff make it a point to learn everyone’s name so you really feel like you are part of their family.

The only slight downside to this B&B if you are staying with young kids is the 1km walk into town (without sidewalks for part of the way).  It was well worth this minor inconvenience to stay at Pax House – I would gladly make that trade again if we ever find ourselves back in Dingle (and I hope we do).

Doolin and The Cliffs of Insanity (aka Cliffs of Moher)

The drive from Connemara to Doolin took us a few hours, which went by quickly with nice scenery along the way.
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Although I never got completely comfortable driving in Ireland, the uneasiness began to abate during this drive.  Doolin is also on the coast and its location is ideal for exploring both the Cliffs of Moher and the Aran Islands.  We opted for a budget stay at the Doonagore Farmhouse, which turned out to be a wise choice.  The  Doonagore Farmhouse is a combination B & B and small farm, which was a big selling point for the boys.  Much to the boys’ delight, there were two newly born calves in the field adjacent to the B & B and a friendly donkey as well as a swing set.  (To its credit, I never smelled even a trace of farm animals during our stay).

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The location of Doonagore Farmhouse also made it ideal as it was a short drive from the town and less than three miles from the Cliffs of Moher.  And, most significantly, Mary, the proprietor of Doonagore Farmhouse made our stay very enjoyable.  The accommodations were quite reasonable, the food was good and Mary was a very caring host.  Her presence never felt intrusive, yet, she was always there when we had a question or needed something.  When our car didn’t start in Lehinge, she got worried and spoke to the car service for us.  Mary also fielded telephone calls from my friend Ian who tracked me down at Doonagore Farmhouse and let me use her phone to return his calls.  Mary was like having a mother looking out for you while you are staying at her B & B.  And her mild-mannered and low key approach made for a welcoming atmosphere.
We dined at O’Connor’s our first night, which is Irish pub grub at its finest (I am still thinking about the baked salmon I had at O’Connor’s).  They are known for traditional live Irish music, which we did get to sample, but really gets into full swing after hours.
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Since it was only 7PM and still light out and the sun was shining, we decided to visit the Cliffs of Moher that first evening.  That was a good move too as they stop collecting admission fees after 6PM so we got in and parked for free.
The Cliffs of Moher are spectacular.  Much like the Grand Canyon, it is a place you have to experience in person to fully appreciate.  We all enjoyed the hike up to the top and did a small section of the cliff walk, which I would also recommend (it was difficult with the boys as it is a tad dangerous given the heights so we played it safe and stayed far from the edge).  It was very windy at the top, and the boys enjoyed running around with a tail wind that gave them Usain Bolt-type speed over 100 meters.  From every vantage point at the top there are remarkable views and breathtaking vistas.  We spent close to two hours at the cliffs and could have spent more had it not been after 9 pm (and it was still light out).  After our first evening in Doolin, we forgot all about our car trouble from earlier in the day.
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You can’t visit western Ireland without a trip to the Cliffs – definitely one of the highlights of our vacation.

Antwerp – Mostly Places I Didn’t Get to See

I went to Belgium at the end of April on business and I didn’t expect to have much down time to explore.  I was right.  I barely saw anything outside of meeting rooms and my hotel room, except for the views out of the car window on the hour long drive from Antwerp to the work site.

A company driver picked me up at the hotel at 7:45AM each morning and I typically didn’t get dropped off until 9:00PM or 10:00PM.  I was in meetings all day and then we had group dinners at night.  I can say that the food in Belgium is very good and I was never disappointed in a meal.  I did have one Westmalle beer on my last night, but I have to say that I wasn’t impressed.  Westmalle is a ‘Trappist’ beer that is brewed in an abbey by monks.  There are only seven Trappist beers and their website says the taste of the beer can vary widely so perhaps I just received a not so good batch or it wasn’t stored or poured correctly.  So much for enjoying a good Belgian beer!

Antwerp is a very nice city.  The shopping looked fantastic and I saw so many kids store that I was dying to check out, but the stores all close by 6PM so I didn’t get to partake in that activity.  I did go for a few very short runs around the hotel and was blessed with really nice weather the entire week.  I didn’t realize how far north Belgium is located until we were sitting outside at dinner one night and the sun didn’t set until 9PM (in April).

I stayed at the Hilton and the location is fantastic.  The rooms were nice and the staff was friendly.  It is close to everything and it’s a great area walk around and explore.  It’s very close to the cathedral:

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And many restaurants:

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Town Hall, a very impressive building, is right around the corner:

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You can go for runs along the river and through this castle:

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I got enough of a taste to know that I would like to go back and explore the city and the rest of the country with my boys.  Since my company has a significant presence in Belgium, I think I should have other opportunities to return and include an extension for some personal time.

Have you been to Belgium?  What were the highlights for you?

In the Land of Giants: Redwoods Trip Review

Breathless.  And a little intimidated.  And completely in awe.  That’s how I felt when I saw one of the giant Redwoods for the first time.

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We visited Redwood National Park in September as part of a ten day trip to Oregon & Northern California, which also included a visit to Crater Lake.  Since we were coming from the north, we started our visit in Jedediah Smith State Park, which might have been the prettiest part of the park.  Calling it ‘a park’ is a bit deceiving since there are many different sections spread out over a large area, portions are part of the National Park and others are part of the State Park system, and not all of it is contiguous.

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We did our first hike in the Stout Grove, which is consistently ranked as one of the top hikes in the Redwoods and it lived up to and exceeded all of our expectations.  This ‘hike’ is great for kids because it is short (0.6 miles) and flat.  While I was mesmerized by the trees, Finnegan was invigorated and ran most of the way.  Declan slept for most of it, but woke up before we reached the end of the trail.

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What makes the Stout Grove especially impressive is the lack of any smaller trees to block the views so all you see are the giant redwoods surrounding you.  It’s one of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever seen.

While we were in the area, we also started the Boy Scout Tree trail and just turned around when we were ready to head back since the entire hike would have been way too long for us (5.6 miles). This trail had a lot fewer people and we enjoyed the small portion that we covered.

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It was hard to decide where to base ourselves during our three night stay since the park is so spread out.  We decided to stay in the Elk Meadow Cabins in Orick because they were centrally located and it was great to have a cabin to spread out and a kitchen for cooking simple meals.  As the name implies, the cabins are located in a meadow where Roosevelt elk are frequently seen.  During our stay, we often saw many elk in the field across the road and on our last morning, they were right outside our cabin.  We got quite a show when a young male showed up and tried to challenge the older male for the harem.  We watched for almost an hour as the older male consistently chased the younger one away.

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Back to the cabins.  They were absolutely perfect and I’m glad we decided to stay here.  Each cabin includes three bedrooms, including one with bunk beds, and two bathrooms plus a living room and kitchen.  The area is remote so you need to stock up on groceries before you arrive and be prepared for no cell phone reception.  Our cabin was extremely clean and it was really nice to have a small washer and dryer because we were able to pack fewer clothes for the trip.

We spent the next few days almost entirely outside exploring different areas of the park.  We hiked in the Lady Bird Johnson grove, which was very close to the cabins.

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We went to Patrick’s Point State Park and visited the Yurok Indian village.  We hiked a few of the spur trails to the various rocky points and could hear the sea lions, but couldn’t see any of them. SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSCSONY DSC

We also spent a day at Fern Canyon – another must see destination when you’re in the area.  We would have LOVED to hike the entire James Irvine trail and finish at Fern Canyon, but we were too lazy to try and coordinate a drop-off or pick-up and doing the out and back version of the hike with the kids seemed too daunting.  We settled for doing a short hike up the canyon and then coming back on the final stretch of the James Irvine trail.  Finnegan loved walking on the boards through the canyon and then getting his feet wet as we went farther up.  There was a decent amount of water in the canyon so it was tough staying completely dry, but it’s worth getting wet.  This is where Jurassic Park 2 was filmed.  And where we found the most banana slugs.

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We really enjoyed our three days in the park and could have easily spent a few more days in the area.  The Redwoods are high on my Dad’s list of places to see, so I’m hoping we get the chance to head back out west with my parents to see the tall tress again soon.

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