Iceland: Touring the great unknown

When you think of vacation destinations, do you imagine endless stretches of beach? Great skiing? Beautiful nature trails with waterfalls? Did you realize that you were thinking about Iceland?

You can get direct flights from most major hubs and we had a toddler. Direct flights were our only criteria for vacationing abroad.  We set out for the land of Vikings and ice and we found a beautiful and diverse country.

The black beaches are made of smoothed lava rock. And although the sea was cold, we ended up taking off our coats and stretching out in the sunshine for a while.

The juxtaposition of thermal geysirs shooting up warm water, the steaming thermal jets and icy  Glaciers jutting through the hills was marvelous to experience first hand. We even went to a restaurant that cooked using the natural steam.

We didn’t get to experience the Northern lights, so Olivia wants us to go back with specific tours to see the wintery phenomenon. So, who knew that this journey would be the beginning of a lifelong love of puffins, glaciers and geological wonders?

Aren’t you dying to experience Iceland?

The Magic of Storytelling

What’s your favorite story? As an adult, you may not have one. But if you ask any kid what their favorite story is, their eyes light up and they give you the longest, most detailed summary that you’ve ever heard. Sometimes there is singing involved. Sometimes, there are different voices for various characters. This is the magic of storytelling.

Although, hopefully, the magic of storytelling doesn’t end with childhood. Reading lets us travel through different times in history when you read Homer’s Odyssey. Reading provides different perspectives and allows us to experience life through the eyes of another person like in “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. Sometimes reading allows us to process the world we live in through stories that seem farfetched and unrealistic until you catch yourself quoting phrases like, “Constant vigilance!” from the Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling or wondering if Chicago is the next district 13 as described in The Hunger Games series. Books travel with you overseas or at school when you reach for a tattered copy of Kitchen Confidential and it’s as though an old friend suddenly appeared.

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On February 4th, people around the world are celebrating the #magicofstorytelling by reading books to their children. Online, people are posting #shelfies, which are pictures of your bookshelf to promote reading at home. And the Walt Disney company has a drawing to win a library of hundreds of books for your child’s school and dozens for your home library. Please sign up here for a free entry, and show us your shelfie on twitter or Instagram by tagging @travelkids2 because I would love to see your favorite reads!

 

Lunar New Year: home and abroad

We’re rapidly approaching the date for 2017 Lunar New Year, which is January 27th this year. Lunar New Year is celebrated in most of Asia and, fortunately for us, is celebrated locally in many American urban areas. However, if this holiday is a mysterious entry in your calendar, let’s discuss Lunar New Year!

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We’ve been fortunate enough to spend Lunar New Year in Thailand and Australia prior to having our kids, so I can tell you that every country celebrates a bit differently, but Lunar New Year is celebrated for 7 days and is the traditional “start of spring” in many countries.

2017 is officially the Year of the Rooster in the Chinese Zodiac and people traditionally spend it by going back to their hometowns and spending time with their families. Prior to the holiday, people traditionally clean their homes to clear out the last year. Then, on the first morning of the year, people who are “Roosters” will visit families to bring luck to their homes by ushering in the “year of the rooster.” A party with food and the exchange of envelopes with money are given out to wish good fortune and wealth for the new year. We purchased envelopes for the girls to hand out to their friends in class.

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Domestically, you can share in Lunar New Year celebrations in many major cities.  In Chicago, we have a series of events and our own lantern festival in the crystal gardens at Navy Pier. There is also a wonderful exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago celebrating the Lunar New Year. I encourage you to check out your local tourism boards to find out if something great is happening in a city near you!

Baby’s first vacation: Florence, Italy

My husband and I are great believers in traveling with babies while they’re young. There are several upsides: Free airplane seat! (well, mostly. You still pay landing taxes and fees), no need to worry about whether they’ll eat the food! And they nap long enough for you to enjoy the Uffizi gallery. All in all, those are great reasons to take your baby to Italy!

We stayed at the Westin Excelsior which was gorgeous with inlaid marble floors, beautiful finishes and the luxe, upscale style that you hope for when dreaming about your first trip to Florence. The Westin is also close to all the main streets, museums and shops that we wanted to visit.

Prior to our visit, I read “The Agony & the Ecstasy” by Irving Stone. While it’s a work of fiction, it brought great context to the magnificent cathedrals and artwork of Florence. I knew who created each masterpiece and in a way, what that meant to the artist and the town itself. We visited the Duomo, which is a famous Cathedral built by Brunelleschi. With its inlaid white and green marble exterior, it’s truly unique and worth experiencing in person.

Of course we stopped by the Uffizi, which was an invention of Cosimo d’Medici. He wanted offices for the magistrates of the city near the Palazzo Vecchio. However, being Medici, he couldn’t have a plain edifice built. The black and white tiled floors and beautifully detailed rooms are an apt house for the Renaissance masterpieces that now reside there. My favorite piece was a painted tabletop by Michaelangelo. You can clearly see how sculpture influenced his painting style. It was everything I had imagined as I was reading his “biography.”

And finally, although Florence was everything I had hoped, it was still a family trip. We all got to play dress up at the Medici palazzo. There was a carousel in the main square that lit up at night. We went to the Disney Store when we discovered it on the Vei deCalzaiuoli and bought a Minnie Mouse doll(a consistent favorite). We ate a lot of gelato and discovered Isabella’s love for an aromatic Italian stew. And we bought shiny red shoes for Olivia, because her daddy said Italy makes the finest shoes in the world. As always, a little something for everyone.

Ciao!

Roadtripping: Oxford MS

This week, eyes are on America as we conduct another Presidential Inauguration.

But how much of the United States have you really seen? Most people haven’t visited all 50 states and even if they do travel regularly, they bypass some of the neat college towns and small cities that make America the diverse, wonderful place that it is today.

We sought to remedy this issue last year when we decided to road trip from Chicago down through Houston, TX. Highlighted here is our first southern college towns: Oxford, MS.

I went to a small college and Mike went to University of Michigan. We never really got the whole tailgating, weekend football experience in the way that fans of Southern Superstars like Alabama, Florida State or Tennessee experience it. So last Thanksgiving, we packed everyone in a minivan from Enterprise Rent-a-car and set out for BBQ, football and family bonding time.

Two days in, we arrived at Oxford, MS (with a pitstop in Nashville, TN) in time for a huge football game and tailgating experience. We stayed at the Graduate Hotel in Oxford. In all honesty, we chose The Graduate because of its amazing pink interiors. Pink carpeting, pink lobby, Pink stained wood floors. It was a Travel Kids paradise. It was also within walking distance of the campus, downtown Oxford and a really neat, kitchy place.

The fans of Ole’ Miss are amazing. The families were friendly and happy to chat about the college, their football team and Mississippi in general. The food on the square is a Southern Delight – try eating at Ajax or City Grocery for a good meal with children. The tables are nicely set, but they will remove glassware and are very family friendly.

Beyond football, the town square is delightful. Holiday decorations were already up in late November and the shops on the square were full of cute outfits, fun trinkets and Ole Miss paraphenalia.

If your current football affiliation doesn’t prevent you from visiting Oxford, you should swing by. I just found out that a college friend is moving there and I will unabashedly stop by at the first opportunity!

 

Packing for family trips

Today I read through the Luggage List for their recommendation for the best luggage brands of 2017. I’m always interested in new gear that could make travel easier o more convenient for our family.  For our most recent trips, this is how we do it.

For our stuff: For our family of four, we pack one large suitcase for boots, flip flops, clothes and med kits . In a second suitcase, we pack trip specific gear like life jackets, raincoats and Tupperware.

I know that it sounds like a lot of stuff, but I also know that we have the safety gear that we need such as like lifejackets that fit the girls. Since they’re so small, we can’t take for granted that tours or hotels will have gear that fits them. It’s my husband’s call in life to be prepared for anything, so we travel as light as we can, but plan for everything that we need.

We also pack Tupperware to store breakables or souvenirs.  If you don’t have any delicate items, then fill it with shoes or items worth segregating from the rest of your luggage. It doesn’t seem that difficult to deal with since we check all our bags in the lobby.

I own Samsonite luggage, which is highly rated as the best luggage for average travelers at a moderate price point. I know people who have Tumi luggage and love that brand, but I’ve never had issues with my Samsonite and it’s really easy to pick out in an airport because mine is pink!  A brand that I’m dying to try is Away luggage. If anyone has tried it, let me know what you think!

On the Plane: I finally reconciled myself to the fact that we can’t travel anywhere with only our carry-on luggage. As a matter of convenience, I don’t suggest carry-on bags at all.

If you have young children, you already have a diaper bag, or a backpack full of spare clothes, bibs, sippy cups, snacks, crayons and stickers. If you’re in a hub or large airport, then you’ll also have a stroller gate-checked. No one needs to carry a backpack, stroller and a carry-on through the entire airport. Simplify your life for $25 and check your bags at the lobby and forget about them.

We’ve been very fortunate with our bags but when a bag is lost, we use the spare clothes in our back packs until we retrieve the luggage the next day.

The duffle: For trips of at least 7 days, we also pack a duffle bag. On the trip out, the duffle is empty and packed into a side compartment of our luggage. On the trip home, it’s full of clothes or soft items in order to make room for souvenirs that we’ve purchased. We don’t always buy things abroad, but we’ve found carved wooden oars in Hawaii, tapestries in China and other unique items that were too special to leave behind. We’ve never regretted making extra room and for that, we love having our duffle on hand!

 

Travel Tuesday: Mexico City

 

We’re planning our first family trip to Mexico this year. As a preview, here is the thought process behind these trips and how we determine where to travel with the children.

Where to stay:
Mexico is a large country. Several families prefer the beautiful resorts in the Yucatan peninsula for ease of planning. There’s nothing wrong with an all-inclusive easy vacation. If that’s in your budget and what you need to re-charge, go for it! Every state in Mexico is worth discovering, but my go-to for a quick weekend trip to re-charge is Mexico City or, as it’s now officially known, Ciudad de Mexico (CDMX).

The capital city is large and houses sixteen distinct areas to visit. We usually stay in the Polanco area home to great shops, cafes, restaurants and museums. A little something for everyone.

If you have are a member of either the Marriott or Intercontinental loyalty clubs, then consider staying in the hotels of your choice. Both are large, clean and friendly to travelers. The room fees are reasonable and if you have points, it can be even more affordable. Save your pesos, because there is a lot to do.

What to eat: Mexican cuisine is among the best in the world. You can purchase food from street vendors lining Hildago Parque, or try upscale offerings at J by Jose Andres, Pujol or Quintonil.

If you don’t want to plan your meals ahead of time, be assured that wherever you go, there will be a café with postres and good coffee.

What to do: If you happen upon sunny weather, you can enjoy outdoor literary festivals, 5-10K runs or events set up by CDMX. These outdoor events are free and very family friendly. In the past we’ve seen outdoor track and field events, drum corps, zumba classes…every corner was a fresh surprise.

If you are interested in arts and culture, there is a plethora of world class museums: the home of Frida Kahlo, The Museo Nacional de Arte and a real hidden gem: the Museo Soumaya. This museum, filled with art and sculpture collected by Carlos Slim, is free to visitors. When we visited, the “Thinker” by Rodin was prominently displayed along with many other Rodin pieces. There was work from Rembrandt, DaVinci…and on loan from the Vatican, Michaelangelo’s Pieta. Amazing art that you might wait hours to see at the Louvre was within arms reach at the Museo Soumaya. A MUST see for any art lover.

If you need a long weekend getaway, please consider CDMX. You’ll fall in love with Mexico all over again!

The shoes you choose

 

As a parent, you slowly give up on the expectation that you can travel light. From diaper bags to backpacks full of stickers and crayons, you know that you now travel in full diva mode: Everything plus shoes.

So here’s my quick guide to traveling with the correct footwear.

  1. Boots
  2. Walking shoes
  3. Beachwear

BOOTS

When Olivia was 2, we traveled to Lisboa and Porto. It rained the entire trip and our two year old completely soaked trough her shoes the first day while jumping in puddles. As a parent on vacation, we say embrace the puddles. We went out that afternoon and bought he a pair of shiny red GEOX boots and didn’t look back.

Boots are a must have for trips. No matter where you travel, there will be an element of inclement weather. As soon as you embrace boots, you’re ready to enjoy your vacation anywhere free of worry. For a trip to Scotland last May, we bought BOGS boots for the girls. They each got to pick colors that they liked and we didn’t worry about wet feet after walking Hadrian’s wall.

Walking Shoes

We tend to mix our itineraries between day trips and urban settings. As Americans, we usually purchase Stride Rite lite-up shoes. I love the quality of the shoes and the moment you’re abroad, your child is the ONLY one in light up shoes. We’ve had local parents remark on the girls shoes in Italy and Austria with delight. And in countries where you stroll at night after dark, I can always see my little ones without hovering too closely.

They are currently VERY into red Mickey Mouse high tops from the GAP x DISNEY collection. I don’t know that I trust them for all day hikes, but they’ve worn them all day over Winter break and the feedback is great.

Beachwear

Even when we travel to cooler locations, we usually stay in at least one hotel with a pool. I recommend throwing a pair of flip flops into the bag just in case. They’re lightweight and lie flat on the bottom or side of a suitcase with minimal disruption to the rest of your gear. You can buy cute pairs of flip flops online at GAPKIDS , or wait until you go someplace warm and pick up a pair locally. Either way, you can enjoy the pool with the kids without worrying about the floors in the hallways or locker rooms.

And my last advice is to wear your walking shoes on the pane home and pack any fragile souvenirs in your boots! Enjoy!

Fantasy Friday: Your 2017 dream location

If you could plan a trip anywhere in the world in 2017, where would it be?

1390It’s a brutal 5 degrees in Chicago today and I can’t help but imagine all the wonderful destinations that I could travel to this year. But if I had to narrow it down to my top 5

  1. St. Petersburg, Russia.
  2. Singapore
  3. Bogota, Columbia
  4. Monaco
  5. Nepal

St. Petersburg: I’ve never been to Russia, and they are building up to host the World Cup in 2018.  The city will be at it’s best advantage and the exchange rates are increasingly beneficial to US travelers. If you’ve never visited Peter’s castle, the Hermitage or the home of Catherine the Great, now might be your time.

Singapore: Singapore includes everything I love. Great fusion style foods heavily influenced by Chinese, Asian and Indian cuisine. A warm island climate. Plenty of big name international stores, museums and urban hot spots. I would visit for the street styles alone.

Bogota, Columbia: We had an aborted trip to Columbia booked in 2009 that remains a gaping hole in my passport. Beyond, my personal desire to visit,  Columbia is revived and ready for visitors after a long civil war. I’m interested in visiting the museums, parks and trying a new flavor of Latin cuisine. The route from Chicago requires a lay-over in Mexico which is just a plus in my book.

Monaco: I blame Grace Kelly. We recently watched “To Catch a Thief” and I fell in love with the glamour of Southern France and started reading about Kelly’s real life transition to royalty. The glittering coast is supposed to be the finest in the Mediterranean and I can’t wait to see it for myself. If I could manage to attend a glittering gala, I might actually die of happiness.

Nepal: the country is mostly recovered from the great earthquake of 2015 that wrecked Kathmandu. To my mind, no other country is as remote or awe inspiring as Nepal in literature or travel. In reality, locals are friendly and inviting to travelers and provide an authenticity to their delight in receiving your tourist dollars. Speaking of which, for budget conscious travelers, you can get by on less than $50 a day. Making Nepal as affordable as it is majestic.

And there you have it! My top 5 daydream destinations for 2017. We’ll see if I make it to any of these or if the new year has entirely different plans in store for us!

 

365 Days of Disney

As a parent, I didn’t steer my kids towards Disney movies or toys nor does Disney hold a place of unusual prominence in our lives . However, in 2016 that changed due to several reasons.

  1. I have an almost three year old that is obsessed with jewelry.
    No one has better jewelry than a princess.
  2. My five year old began to read and the books that hold her interest are primarily about strong willed young girls like her. Her stories of choice involve Merida, Ariel and Mulan.
  3. Disney introduced a Latina princess.

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Elena of Avalor was introduced in June 2016 and quickly became the princesa favorita in our familia. Along with having long dark hair and beautiful brown eyes, Elena peppers her speech with Spanish phrases and latin flavored songs. My girls relate to a princess that looks like them and highlights use of Spanish language in a positive manner when relating to family and friendship.

Her best feature, at least to my girls, is that she has a little sister named Isabel. Disney has long featured singular princesses, but as with Frozen, the Elena of Avalor series highlights the special bond of sisters and the prominence of having a close knit family that you can depend upon.

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So to honor and document this new factor in our lives, we are celebrating 365 days of Disney! We’re combining our love of family and travel with our new infatuation with all things Disney.  I hope that you look forward to seeing how we’ve incorporated these smart, special characters into our lives. I’d love to hear more about how you celebrate these characters in your lives as well!