I Believe in Wilmington, North Carolina

When Clay and I make plans to visit our parents, it hardly feels like a chore because both sets have chosen to retire in locations that are geographically desirable and vacation destinations in their own right. Thank you, Mom and Dad! So when we realized that we’d be able to drive down to Clay’s parents for the holiday weekend with only a slight rearranging of our schedules, we hopped into the car and headed south to Wilmington, North Carolina.

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Named after the Earl of Wilmington, Spencer Compton (1673-1743), Wilmington, North Carolina is a port city and considered a gateway to the beaches along the Cape Fear coast.  The most industrialized North Carolina river, the Cape Fear flows 200 miles and empties into the Atlantic Ocean near Southport, North Carolina and served as a main transportation route in to the interior of North Carolina during the colonial era. Downtown historic Wilmington stretches along the Cape Fear, complete with a riverwalk, cobblestone streets, restaurants, bars, and boutique shops.

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We arrived on Friday in the early evening hours. Clay’s parents offered to feed the kids and handle the bedtime routine and insisted that we go out for the night. They didn’t have to twist our arms hard – before we knew it we were dressed up and heading into downtown Wilmington. As soon as we found out that it was the kick off for the Downtown Sundown Concert Series, we paid $1 for wristbands, grabbed some beers, and  watched the sun set as 42, a Coldplay tribute band, performed with the USS North Carolina in the background.

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Afterwards, we walked over to Circa 1922 for dinner, where we had cocktails and the local snapper “escovitch”, which came with a warm bammy, pickled peppers, scallion and chayote. After our late dinner, we walked along the river underneath the stars.

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The next morning, we headed south and crossed the intracoastal waterway to Caswell Beach on Oak Island. This is our go-to beach when visiting Clay’s parents because it is low-key and almost always empty. Dolphin sightings are almost always guaranteed and we even had a blue crab that kept swimming our way in the waves. The kids thought he was cute – Clay and I thought he looked delicious.

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We spent hours body surfing and playing on the beach. As I mentioned in my previous post, we’re really enjoying this phase of parenthood and love that our kids are so adventurous and up for anything. The forecast for the weekend was touch and go for awhile but thankfully, we couldn’t have asked for a better beach day on Saturday. The waves were big, the sun was shining, and the occasional cloud provided much-needed cover.

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After the beach we stopped for frozen yogurt. So healthy.

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We showered and then played in the backyard for a little while before deciding we were hungry enough to head down the road to The Shuckin’ Shack. We had local beers and Saul T’s Steampot, which comes with a dozen oysters (we ordered 6 steamed and 6 raw),  a dozen clams, 1 pound of snow crab legs, 1/2 pound of steamed shrimp (we ordered them Old Bay style), corn, and slaw.

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The next morning, we went to church with Clay’s parents and out to breakfast. Afterwards, we headed over to Ocean Isle Beach. We stopped in OIB Surf & Java and purchased coffee and some gear before hitting the beach.

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The weather was starting to deteriorate but we didn’t let that stop us from going in the water. We made the best of the cloudy afternoon and body surfed until we decided to head back to Clay’s parents for dinner.

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After showering, Clay and I were tasked with picking up the pizza from Pizzetta’s. We stopped next door at Lowe’s Grocery Store and somehow ended up at The Beer Den. We chatted with other customers and the server about our love of beer and ended up taking home a growler for Clay’s parents.

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We headed back home yesterday morning, but not before snapping a picture of the kids with their grandparents. The drive home wasn’t the best – lots of rain but the not-so-fun drive was worth having a great date night out in Wilmington and two days at the beach. It was great being able to spend time together as a family and having four interrupted days with Clay – time is precious and we have made a pact to take advantage of every opportunity we have to do what we love most. Nothing is guaranteed in life. Might as well make the most of it and swim into crashing waves and eat fresh seafood.

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Historic Occoquan, Virginia

7c3cbedfcfd1640ee69795dc3ceb31d5On Saturday morning we found ourselves wandering around Occoquan, Virginia thanks to a rained-out plans and a quick Google search that informed us that May 19th was Discover Occoquan Day. We put on our rain jackets and drove a handful of miles so we could discover the quaint little town ourselves. While I had been there once before – I had brunch at The Secret Garden Cafe – we had yet to visit Occoquan as a family. Clay flew back into town on Friday night from a far away land so we were thrilled have him home for the weekend and took full advantage of having the time to explore the area due to cancelled baseball games.

Located about a half-hour south of Washington DC, Occoquan was established in 1804 along the Occoquan River. The Dogue Indians settled in the Occoquan valley – naming the area Occoquan, which means ‘at the head of the water’. The infamous Captain John Smith explored the Occoquan River in the early 1600s and during the civil war, the post office passed along letters between the North and the South.IMG_7661Currently the town is home to antique shops, restaurants, little boutiques that cater to artists, walking ghost tours, and Music on Mill – which is a free family-friendly concert series at River Mill Park. Throughout the town are remnants of the industrial settlement founded by colonists – grist mills and tobacco warehouses being the most prominent.IMG_7666.jpgThe Occoquan River is a tributary of the Potomac River and serves as part of the boundary between Fairfax County and Prince William County. Located at one end of historic Occoquan, River Mill Park has a walkway along the river and a foot bridge that is perfect for gazing at the mighty Potomac.IMG_7667We walked around the town for awhile and popped into stores when they struck our fancy. We knew we wanted to eat lunch in Occoquan and settled quickly on Cock & Bowl – a Belgian cafe that instantly transports you as soon you step inside.IMG_7705Clay had been wanting to try this place for awhile and when it comes to beer and waffles, you don’t have to twist my arm very hard. Located in a former house, Cock & Bowl is a small restaurant with an atmosphere that can only be described as cozy European chic (is that a thing?).IMG_7693Our kids are fairly adventurous eaters so the fact that there wasn’t a kids menu didn’t slow us down. Because we wanted to try as much as the menu as possible, we decided to split a bunch of items as a family. We ordered French onion soups, a traditional Belgian waffle, a marinière bols de moules (a classic mussel bowl), and pommes frites.IMG_7691Everything was quite tasty but we all agreed that the pommes frites may just be the best fries we’ve ever had. While I still want to go to Belgium sooner rather than later, it’s nice to know that I can get my pommes frites fix without having to fly across the pond.IMG_7689I actually didn’t opt for a Belgian beer this visit – the Crispin Brut Cider caught my eye because I love anything dry and often find cider too sweet for my palette so I wanted to try what an extra dry cider tastes like. Verdict? I really liked it and look forward to trying other extra dry ciders once the weather cools down in the fall.Moms-Apple_Pie-Bakery-5919d3a13df78cf5fa499307After lunch, we walked down to Mom’s Apple Pie Bakery. This place is always recommended on Facebook groups and local foodie blogs as the place to go for pies. We opted for individual slices to go – I went with Sour Cherry and Clay chose Southern Pecan. The kids declared that they did not like pie (???) and opted for a sugar cookie instead. We also grabbed a couple of cannolis to eat later that day. I’m happy to report that I found Mom’s Apple Pie Bakery to live up to it’s reputation. The pie was really good. Like really good – one of the best cherry pies I’ve ever had (I’m allergic to pecans but Clay says that his pie was very tasty). And the cannolis? Oh.my.goodness. Amazing.IMG_7712After Mom’s Apple Pie Bakery, we walked over to Grind N Crepe on Commerce Street. Clay and I had coffee while the kids played in the courtyard. We thoroughly enjoyed the coffee – we had the house blend – and after looking at their menu, I very much want to go back and try their crepes.IMG_7681On our walk back to the car, we encountered the world’s friendliest cat. It was the perfect feather in the cap to our few hours in historic Occoquan. The rain didn’t stop us from experiencing a community rich in history, food, and drink – don’t let it stop you either.

Five Places to Travel This Summer in the Continental United States

The United States is quite amazing – each state offers a unique landscape, climate, culture, and attitude that is worth exploring beyond a fifth grade textbook. While I believe that traveling the world is worthwhile and I have the goal to visit as many countries as I can afford before finally kicking the bucket, I also strongly believe in traveling within the United States. Our enormous country offers a variety of landscapes that are as beautiful as they’re unique. Fun big cities, charming small towns, and people from all walks of life. As much fun as international travel can be, it’s important not to discount adventures within the United States. So for those looking for places to travel this summer within the United States beyond Myrtle Beach, the Grand Canyon, and Disney World – this list is for you.

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Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan

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The are very few places in the world that I find more beautiful than the Leelanau Peninsula in northwest Michigan. The vast sandy beaches, crystal blue/turquoise water, and incredible scenery rival any beach in the United States. If you’re like me and love cherries, northern Michigan is a little slice of heaven – or at least a slice of cherry pie. Stay in Glen Arbor, run down the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes, make your way across the Leelanau County Wine Trail, and kayak along the Crystal River.

Ogunquit, Maine

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Continually voted one of the best US beaches, Ogunquit has three and half miles of white sand beaches along with rocky cliffs overlooking the ocean. Walk along The Marginal Way, take a lobster charter boat from Perkins Cove, eat at the Lobster Shack, and spend the afternoons on the beach. This is New England. This is Maine. This is heaven.

Kansas City, Missouri

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Sigh. Who knew that Kansas City would hold such a special place in my heart? Not only is it a great place to live – it is a fantastic place to visit. Go treasure hunting in West Bottoms with a beer in hand, eat BBQ at KC Joes, catch a show at Kansas City Live! in the Power & Light District, and wander around Union Station. If you have time – catch one the major league sporting events. And don’t leave town without visiting the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Dahlonega, Georgia

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Nestled in the North Georgia mountains, Dahlonega was the site of the first major gold rush in the United States in 1828. Also known as the heart of North Georgia wine country, the surrounding area has multiple vineyards and wineries that welcome visitors. Historic downtown Dahlonega has fantastic restaurants (you can’t go wrong with Bourbon Street Grille), wine tasting rooms, art galleries, antique shops, and bars. As far as where to stay, there are multiple cozy bed & breakfasts in town (check out Yellow Daisy and Mountain Laurel Creek), rent a cabin in the woods (like Cavender Creek), or even sleep in a yurt.

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

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Located in Cascade Mountains in southern Oregon, Crater Lake National Park offers hiking trails, ranger programs, scene drives, and some of the darkest skies in America on moonless nights. Stay in the park at Crater Lake Lodge or the Cabins at Mazama Village and see for yourself what John Wesley Hillman called the “Deep Blue Lake.”

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Obviously this list is nowhere exhaustive and only serves to spark some ideas of places in the United States that one may not immediately think of when brainstorming summer travel destinations. Whether you visit the Pacific Northwest, the West, the Great Plains, the Midwest, the South, New England, or the mid-Atlantic, there is beauty and adventure to be found. Happy and safe travels.

Whirlwind Trip to Colorado Springs

Back in October 2015, we were stationed at Fort Leavenworth and making the most of our Army-sponsored time in eastern Kansas. However, we were beginning to feel the effects of living in a land-locked flat state with no large bodies of water nearby. So when I casually mentioned to Clay that Colorado Springs is only an 8.5 hour drive from Fort Leavenworth, the lure of the Rocky Mountains was enough to gloss over the idea of spending 17 hours in the car during a 72 hour weekend. And before we knew it, we planned a quick trip to Colorado Springs!

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I-70 stretches across Kansas for 424 miles. For approximately 420 miles of the trek, the landscape looks exactly like above. Exits are far and few between, especially in the dark of night. Despite not leaving until 5pm, we managed to drive through Kansas before checking into a hotel around 11pm (we gained an hour going from central to mountain time zone) in Burlington, Colorado, a small town just over the border.

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Before Friday night, we were unaware that Burlington, Colorado is known for the Kit Carson County Carousel, the only surviving menagerie by Philadelphia Toboggan Company Carousel. Our hotel was overwhelmingly decorated with carousel details and greatly advertised it’s proximity to the museum. The Kit Carson County Carousel is the only antique carousel in America that still has the original paint on both the scenery panels and on the animals. In other words – it’s kind of a big deal to those interested in the antique carousel world, of which we are totally not card-carrying members. At breakfast, I’m pretty sure we were the only people not in town for the carousel (we were also the youngest by about 40 years) and I think I heard carousel music as I drifted off to sleep (Clay did not – he can sleep through anything – a perk of having gone to war, I suppose).

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By 9am, we were back on the road and excited for the two-hour drive to Colorado Springs. In case you were wondering, eastern Colorado looks exactly like western Kansas. Not a mountain in sight. Womp. Womp.

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Woohoo! Our first mountain sighting occurred about 60 miles outside of Colorado Springs. We kept our eye on the prize as we finished the last stretch of the drive – positively giddy after experiencing almost 500 miles of flatland.

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Situated on Fountain Creek, Colorado Springs is 6,035 feet above sea level (with varying levels throughout the city) and positioned near the base of Pikes Peak (known as America’s Mountain). Pikes Peak is on the eastern edge of the Southern Rocky Mountains and is the second most visited mountain in the world, after Mount Fuji in Japan. Since we knew we were going to spend the rest of the afternoon hiking in Garden of the Gods, we grabbed lunch at Phantom Canyon Brewing Company. Not only were the beer and food good, the restaurant was extremely kid-friendly as well.

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Garden of the Gods is a public park owned by Colorado Springs that hosts breathtakingly beautiful red rock formations that were created during a geological upheaval along a natural fault line millions of years ago. Popular with rock climbers, hikers, and even those just wanting a leisurely stroll, Garden of the Gods has more than 15 miles of rugged trails and a 1.5 mile paved trail that winds through the heart of the park and the most iconic formations.

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We opted for a more rugged trail because we wanted to climb as many formations as we could (totally encouraged!) and keep away from the tour groups. When we first started, we passed a group on horseback – when the kids are a little older we will definitely partake in such activities but for now, hiking is much more our speed.

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Unfortunately, we realized we forgot our Kelty about 200 miles into the trip but thankfully we always keep the Ergo in the car. I carried Violet on my back for the majority of the hike and Weston was a rockstar climbing and keeping up with me and Clay on the trail.

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Because the weather was perfect, there were many rock climbers on the formations. As long as climbers register with the Visitors Center and have proper gear, climbing is allowed in the park. We did our fair share of climbing as well because it is pretty much impossible to pass a bunch of giant boulders without giving into the urge to climb them, even while wearing a toddler strapped to your back.

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The little guy was super thrilled to have climbed this formation all by himself.

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We couldn’t have asked for a better afternoon in the Garden of the Gods. We spent close to four hours exploring the park doing one of our favorite family activities – hiking in the fresh air. While driving almost nine hours one-way just to see mountains over a three-day weekend may seem extreme to some, it is extremely important to us to show our children as much as the country (and the world) as we can. During our hike, I was reminded of a favorite quote by Frank Lloyd Wright – “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.” I can only hope that as parents, we foster an environment that encourages our children to be students of nature. After an afternoon of hiking, we checked into our hotel and grabbed dinner at a cute little Italian restaurant.

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The next morning, we went to Manitou Springs, which is the epitome of a mountain town with unique shops, historic homes, and incredible views. There is also a penny arcade, various mineral springs, and annual events that fall on the eccentric side – such as the Fruitcake Toss. It is a popular destination because of it’s location at the foot of Pikes Peak. We grabbed a cup of coffee at Red Dog Coffee and walked around the town until it was time to head to the train station.

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We knew hiking to the summit of Pike’s Peak was out because our children are young so when we learned about the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, we knew we found our source of transportation up the mountain. I purchased our tickets online (we had the option for Violet to sit on our lap but opted to buy her a seat to give us flexibility – well worth the $20 in our opinion) the week prior because trains can sell out before the day of departure.

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The seats are designed to face toward each other in groups of six (three on each side). We sat next to an older couple from Denver – our assigned seats were the closest four to the window but there really isn’t a bad seat on the train because the windows are so large. Before long, we were on our way up!

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Colorado has 54 mountains over 14,000 ft. Pikes Peak ranks #31 at 14,115 ft. and is the highest summit of the southern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. The mountain raises 8,000 ft. above downtown Colorado Springs (the city is already 6,000 ft. above sea level). So while we were over 14,000 ft. at the summit, the train itself only ascended less than 8,000 ft. The Pikes Peak Cog Railway has almost 9 miles of track and the railway itself is the highest in North America, which means that the views on the way up (and down) were outstanding.

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When we went to Alaska, I was disappointed to find out that the majority of the pictures I took failed to capture the majesty of the mountains. Unfortunately, I feel the same way about the pictures taken this trip so please understand that the following pictures to do justice to the majesty of Pikes Peak. The majority of Colorado Springs falls in the Eastern Plains Zone, which extends up to 6,000ft. Pikes Peak encompasses four distinct life zones – the Depot (6,000 – 8,000ft), Montane Zone (8,000 to 10,000 ft), Subalpine Zone (10,000 to 11,500 ft), and Alpine Zone (11,500 ft. and above). It was really cool to see changes that accompany each distinct life zone on our ride up the mountain.

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Pikes Peak has a clear tree-line at 11,5000 ft because the Alpine Zone (tundra) does not contain trees because of it’s high altitude. The lack of the greenhouse effect at such high altitude causes the cold climate in the alpine tundra. As soon as we reached the Alpine Zone, there was a noticeable temperature drop. While the weather was 80 degrees in Manitou Springs that day, the temperatures hovered around 30 degrees at the summit. Pikes Peak is home to one of Colorado’s largest bighorn sheep herds and we were able to see a few on the ride! Unfortunately, there were too far away to show up in a picture taken with my phone.

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When we reached the top, we had about 30 minutes to walk around and explore before needing to board the train for the decent. We bought round trip tickets but hikers have the option to purchase one-way tickets – either for the decent or ascent. Some people were grumbling at the lack of time at the summit but for us with two young kids, it was the perfect amount of time. At the peak, the partial pressure of oxygen is only about 60% of that at sea level.

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From the top, you can see up to five states on a clear day (Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and New Mexico). Views are to be seen from every direction – Garden of the Gods, the Continental Divide, various reservoirs, and summits of other peaks.

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We walked all around up top. There is a gift shop/restaurant at the summit but we didn’t waste our limited time visiting there other than to use the restrooms. We came for the views – not subpar food and cheap souvenirs.

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The Army is everywhere. Ha.

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Violet was no match for the high altitude.

She fell asleep after about 20 minutes at 14,000 feet.

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And then continued to sleep the entire descent. Weston joined her shortly after boarding. We’ve discovered our children’s kryptonite – altitude!

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If you’re wanting to go to the top of Pikes Peak and unable to hike/unwilling to drive, I highly recommend the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. The experience did eat up a large chunk of our day but the opportunity to soak in views at 14,000+ ft. made it worthwhile. While we did enjoy the train, Clay and I do hope that the next time we’re on top of Pikes Peak, we’re there because we hiked the 13 miles trail ourselves.

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Colorado continues to be a place that we hope the Army will send us someday. And even though we didn’t spend much time there, we were there long enough to know that we’d be very happy nestled within the southern Rocky Mountains. It doesn’t take much to fall in love with Colorado and we looked forward to the next time we’re breathing in that crisp mountain air.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Las Vegas (With Kids…)

I had been to Las Vegas a handful of times throughout my childhood and despite it’s reputation as a city of sin, I have many fond memories of our trips there. Back in the 1990s, there had been a push to make the city more family-friendly and apparently my family took full advantage but many are saying that some 25+ years later, Family Vegas has died. And after our overnight stay there, I agree. While there are remnants of the family-friendly Vegas I remember, it’s definitely not the same..probably because what happens there, now stay’s there.

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We stopped for one night in Las Vegas last year during our epic road trip over spring break. The Grand Canyon and Disneyland weren’t enough – we just had to show our children Sin City. Grand Canyon National Park is only about a four-hour drive to Las Vegas, the majority of it through northern Arizona.

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The Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge (completed in 2010) spans the Colorado River between Arizona and Nevada and replaced the original Route 93 that literally ran along the Hoover Dam. It is the second-highest bridge in the United States after the Royal Gorge Bridge and is quite impressive. As it should be because it’s the world’s highest concrete arch bridge. Our kids knew that Disneyland was on our itinerary, so let me tell you…they were excited to stop and see the Hoover Dam. It’s every child’s dream.

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An engineering marvel, the Hoover Dam on the Arizona/Nevada border has damed the Colorado River into Lake Mead since 1935, irrigating two million acres and generating enough electricity to power 1.3 million homes. It’s also a popular tourist destination – most likely because it offers an interesting stop for people traveling from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas – like us! We skipped the tour and chose to look at it from afar before continuing onward, much to the relief of the kids.

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Weston is obsessed with architecture, particularly towers and skyscrapers. Being able to see the tallest observation tower in the United States, the Stratosphere, was a highlight for him. We chose to stay on the strip because we wanted to do Vegas right and settled on the Excalibur Hotel and Casino. I had stayed there as a kid and loved it. Unfortunately, it is not the same Excalibur that I knew and loved.

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And let’s just say that the kids were not impressed with what they saw while Clay was checking us in. I’m chalking it up to us just doing our due diligence of exposing our children to as much as the United States as we can – even the seedy underbelly. #parentsoftheyear

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You haven’t lived until you pushed a stroller on a casino floor trying to find the elevator to our room with two children in tow. Do we know how to do Vegas or what?

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VEGAS BABY!

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We ate dinner at a counter-service place in New York, New York because they had about 100 beers on tap. Priorities.

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After dinner, we walked down to Bellagio to watch the fountains.

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I think I was making this face the majority of the time while out on the Strip with our children that night. We stay out until about 9pm soaking up all the sights before heading back to the hotel to play arcade games in the child gambling hall in the basement of the Excalibur. It was like old Vegas minus Bugsy Siegel.

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Our kids were enamored with the non-licensed costumed characters. But not as much as the guys pictured was enamored with the showgirls. $100 that this scene is his Facebook profile picture.

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My biggest complaint about the Excalibur is that the hotel got rid of the majority of the medieval interior decorations that were prevalent when I would stay there in the 1990s as a kid. There would be knights walking around, it felt like you were literally in a castle, and it really did feel magical. And now, other than the exterior, it is just another non-descript hotel. Womp womp.

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Soak it up, kids.

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The next morning, we walked around the Strip some more and took advantage of the emptier streets. Apparently if you don’t stay out too late and don’t have your kids with you, one gets to sleep in while in Vegas.

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The kids liked the interior of the Luxor. No need to go to Egypt kids – this will suffice.

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After a couple of hours, we were ready to hit to road for California. If you have made the drive from Las Vegas to the Los Angeles area, then you are aware of how painful this drive is through the desert. There is literally nothing aside from Fort Irwin and Barstow, California between the two major metropolitan areas.

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But we were able to eat In & Out so it wasn’t too bad. It was the perfect fuel for the next leg of our trip – Disneyland!

How We Chose Our Summer Vacation

A friend recently asked how we go about deciding where to travel and how we plan our trips so I decided to document the process of how we actually ended up choosing our summer vacation this year. Back in January, I daydreamed on National Plan for Vacation Day and brainstormed possible locations for our summer vacation. Due to Clay’s current position, he can only take leave during a specific week in July so we didn’t have the luxury of hunting for deals   and choosing a date and location in our usual manner. When we received the dates for Clay’s leave back in February, we sat next to each other on the couch with our laptops and started pricing out some options.

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Deerfield Beach, Florida

We first checked vacation airline packages. In the past, we’ve had great success with bundling flights and hotels directly on airline websites. We used Delta Vacations for our trip to Scotland, American Vacations for our trip to the USVI, and Southwest Vacations last summer for an extremely last minute trip to south Florida (I’m currently working on that post – we literally booked the trip the day before we left because we had to wait for our HHG to arrive).

When looking at vacation packages, we focused our search on the Caribbean. We looked at resorts on a variety of islands but the more we researched, the more we realized that we just weren’t feeling the beach for our big summer trip this year. We also looked at some cruises but none of the dates worked and to be honest, a cruise vacation just doesn’t appeal to us right now. We decided that we wanted to go somewhere we’ve never been before and spend the bulk of our vacation exploring. We kept referring to one of our favorite family summer trips – our New England road trip with stops in Newport, Cape Cod, and Ogunquit. We explored, we relaxed, and we ate delicious food. That is pretty much our trifecta for a perfect vacation.

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Marginal Way, Ogunquit, Maine

Okay – so we knew that we didn’t want to go to the Caribbean, we didn’t want to go on a cruise, and we wanted to go somewhere we’ve never been before. We briefly looked into going to Alaska again because we only scraped the surface when we went seven years ago but we only have a week. When we go next, we’d really like to spend at least two weeks exploring America’s last frontier. We also looked at Wyoming, Montana, and British Columbia but nothing struck our chord for this summer. We also thought about going to Maine again and combining it with a trip to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island but we just weren’t getting really excited – which is surprising because we do really want to go to all these places!

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Ben Lomond, Scottish Highlands

Just Do It.

Frustrated that our search wasn’t turning up anything that we were super crazy excited about, I remember turning to Clay and saying, “You know what? I just would really love to take the kids to England this summer.” And he immediately responded, “Me too. Let’s do it!” Back when we were brainstorming, we initially ruled out Europe because we’re hoping to get stationed there and reasoned that it makes better financial sense to wait and travel throughout Europe if (if!) that happens. However, planning our lives around the if’s isn’t really how we want to live.

We immediately began researching flights and hotels and realized that a week in England would cost us less than a week at an all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean or a 4-day Disney Cruise with a balcony room. It was decided – for our trip this summer, we would be going to England! We spent the next few weeks researching flights and found that our cheapest option was to fly into Manchester Airport in Manchester, England and out of Charles de Gaulle Airport outside of Paris, France. And that is the story of how we incorporated Paris into our trip. We bought our airline tickets and then began researching various lodging options.

Rough Itinerary 

We didn’t finalize our lodging until last week. Up until then, we didn’t really know how we’d be spending our time after landing in Manchester and leaving from Paris. First – we made a list of our must-sees/dos. We determined that our non-negotiables are London, Bath, Stonehenge, and Paris. We are not approaching this trip as a once-in-a-lifetime trip – we know we will be back so we’re not going to put pressure on ourselves to see everything – especially with two young kids in tow. It will be their first international trip so we’re giving ourselves grace when it comes to seeing all the things!

Once we had our must-dos, we read hotel reviews, figured out how much we are willing to spend, and found some options that worked for us. Hotel rooms that sleep four are few and far between in Europe so a lot of people find Home Away and AirBnB more economical for families. We looked into that option but ended up choosing three different hotels for our trip. In order to save money, we pre-purchased all three reservations (i.e. no refunds). We saved about $500 by not choosing the higher-rates that allowed for a refund should we cancel our reservation. We’re comfortable doing this because we figure that if something happened that would force us to cancel our trip, it would be so catastrophic that eating the cost of our lodging would be the furthest thing from our mind.

So what’s our plan? We will fly into Manchester, England, rent a car, and drive down to Cotswolds, and stay in a little country estate hotel for three nights. During our time in the Cotswolds, we will explore the English Countryside and go to Bath, Stonehenge, and anywhere else our hearts desire. We will then drive to London, return our rental car, and spend two nights at a hotel near Paddington Station. After our time in London, we will take the Channel Tunnel (Chunnel) to Paris, stay at a hotel near the Eiffel Tower for two nights, and fly out of Charles De Gaulle the following morning. While we’re not huge planners when it comes to vacations (we prefer to see where each day takes us), we will be pre-purchasing tickets to Stonehenge, the Eiffel Tower, and the Chunnel because we are traveling during peak season and we’re not masochists.

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Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs, Colorado

I’ve learned something over the years that I tend to repeat to myself as a mantra in many facets of life – if it were easy, everyone would do it. Yes, traveling on a budget requires time, effort, and a certain amount of sacrifice. Over the years, we have never regretted spending money on travel. At all. That being said, we do not have an unlimited vacation budget and have to get creative in order to make our trips happen. We’ve flown economy in middle seats, we’ve taken 3000 mile+ road trips, we’ve stayed in the smallest room a nice hotel has to offer, we’ve only eaten two meals per day, and we’ve chosen many free activities (hiking, swimming, exploring cities) in foreign lands over ones that require admission. There is nothing I love to do more in this world than exploring a place I’ve never been before. I absolutely cannot wait to experience England and France this summer with the people I love most in this world. To me – that is what life is about. To love and to explore.

Are you going anywhere this summer? How do you go about planning trips? Do you enjoy planning travel?

Oh Malibu…Our Trip Southern California

Back in the spring of 2015, we were a bicoastal family for a week. The kids were in Wilmington, North Carolina with Clay’s parents while Clay and I spent a week in Southern California.

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We took an early morning direct flight to LAX out of RDU last Wednesday. The flight was unremarkable in a good way I suppose, although flying coach nowadays is about as much fun as getting a root canal. But we arrived safe and sound and ready to begin our child-free getaway.

Disneyland – The Happiest Place on Earth

Last year’s Spring Break involved an epic road trip across the southwest with stops in Albuquerque, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Disneyland, Tombstone, and more. That previous fall, when brainstorming ideas for our spring adventure, we realized that we had reached the point in our parenting journey when taking the obligatory family Disney vacation no longer seemed like an overwhelming feat of strength. While my childhood was peppered with the occasional visit to Disneyland and Disney World, Clay had never been to a Disney park prior to this trip and we had never been together, so the only experience we had to pull from was almost 20-years old! Because we’re suckers for California and appreciate the idea of working our way up the Mickey-scale, we decided to make our first family Disney experience at Disneyland – the happiest place on earth.

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What I knew as Disneyland as a child has actually morphed into Disneyland Resort, which consists of Disneyland Park, Disney California Adventure Park, and the Downtown Disney District. There are three hotels that are considered part of the resort (complete with the $$$ mark-up!). And honestly, the only perk of staying at one of these hotels (that we could gather), is that registered hotel guests are given an Extra Magic Hour at one park on select days (see Extra Magic Hour), which wasn’t worth the extra $$$ to us. There are a lot of hotels within walking distance of Disneyland Resort, so while staying on property is super convenient at Disney World, it’s not really necessary at happiest place on earth. We’re Marriott junkies so we stayed three nights at the SpringHill Suites, which was only a short 10 minute walk to the park. And it had a CVS on the first level – doesn’t get much more convenient than that, folks.