St. Petersburg

We hear so much about Russia in our history and our news channels. What is it to be Russian? What makes them proud? What can they build? To answer my questions and to put a face onto the unknown other, we traveled to St. Petersburg.

Built along the Neva river on contested land, Peter the Great built his city as a modern, beautiful marvel to rival other contemporary capitals in Europe. Further down the Neva, Peter built his “summer palace” as a direct response to Versailles. Additionally, he then built Peterhof as the “dasha,” or summer home of the Tsar, as a country escape from his official capital. Its beautiful gardens and working fountains were a marvel of technology at the time.

 

Although, honestly, I’m not sure who would have wanted that escape. The city has been voted the most beautiful in the world several times for good reason.  St. Petersburg is, foremost, a town of palaces. Each building a unique testament to wealth and privilege painted in pastel colors and decorated with statues of ancient gods and symbols of plenty. It is clean, smoke free, litter free and proud of its heritage as Peter the Great’s chosen capital.

Unbelievably, the interior of these palaces are even more startling. The talent that went into the inlaid flooring, gilded ceilings and paneled walls is unparalleled. Peter and his descendants drafted architects, designers and artists from Scotland, France and Italy to make their vision a reality.

The churches with their golden cuppolas and glittering mosaics speak to their strong faith which seems to be the foundation of its residents, who thrive on the banks of the Neva River. The buildings and street stalls that surround them comprise the backbone of St. Petersburg main industry: tourism. The maroushkas, porcelains, t-shirts and children’s toys offer you a piece of St. Petersburg’s rich history. I bought two of whatever I could carry.

And so, St. Petersburg is demystified. It is a beautiful westernized European city. The citizens speak English and Russian. They are capitalists with a long memory of different days.  They enjoy the same music and really good caviar that we prize in the United States. They are people as we are people. And if you have an opportunity to travel there, I hope you accept the chance to visit this beautiful city.

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France: Disneyland Paris

I love traveling and experiencing new foods, places and cultures, but these are fun activities from a grown up perspective. So when Isabella dramatically died of boredom on her tour de chateaux, we knew it was time to change up our itinerary. Luckily, we had planned for our threenager to be in full force and had booked a special detour just for her and Olivia.

DISNEYLAND PARIS!

We live in the United States, but this was our first trip to any Disney resort. We did internet research from Dedicated to DLP, Disney promotional videos and listened to input from friends who Disney often in the States. We knew that on-site guests have access to early entry to the park and that we would benefit from purchasing a dining plan. We purchased our tickets directly from Disneyland Paris but we used the French speaking site because it’s literally more expensive to get the same package when you book in English. We also reserved character dinners two months in advance, which is the limit for Disneyland Paris (DLP). We had better luck calling Customer Service directly (yes, we called France directly from the U.S.) than trying to reserve online. They did speak English and were very pleasant over the phone.

Lodging: We stayed on-site at the Sequoia Lodge. It was close enough to walk to the parks and far enough to remove ourselves from the parade crowds at the end of the day. It is themed in a rustic “American style, Western-pioneer” motif. If your kids like playing cowboy or out in the woods, this is a pretty cool place to stay. The hotel common areas were gorgeous. They also had an on-location Disney Store with exclusive DLP pins, clothing and suitcases.

Mom notes: The room met our needs with two double beds and en-suite bathroom. I would compare the room to a Howard Johnson or Holiday Inn. They provide a cute Mickey Mouse Shower gel and shampoo, but they do not provide conditioner. We opted for breakfast with our accommodation. It was a light buffet with assorted breads, cereals, cold cut meats and cheese. If you want to take advantage of the early “magic hour” then I suggest booking breakfast at 7:00 or 7:30AM. By 8:00AM, the line was extremely long with lots of hungry little princesses and Avengers waiting for an open seat.

The walk from the Sequoia to Disneyland Park was great. It took us past a beautiful pond with a hot air balloon and straight through Disney Village. There were very kitschy, cute restaurants and lots of various shops to visit. I loved that we could hit the shops outside of the park on our way back to the hotel and not carry everything through the park all day.

You actually have to travel under the Disneyland hotel, a beautiful pink chateau in its own right, to get to the park. This is, as they say, where the magic happens.

What to do with a 3 year old and 6 year old in Disneyland Park? Well, we visited during the 25th Anniversary which includes special costumes, parades and attractions in the park. We definitely bought new costumes and they wore them the whole time we were there.

We spent most of our time in Fantasy land because that’s where the girls’ favorite rides were: Tea cups, Flying Dumbo and the Alice in Wonderland labyrinth. We did each a few times and you  know what? It was ok. They had a blast and we had a good time being with them. And we did take them through the 20,000 leagues under the sea ride and driving the motorized cars in Discoveryland. There was something fun for everyone.

In the end, vacations are about getting away from the everyday grind and spending time with the people you love most.  Whether it’s grabbing the special blue donuts with star sprinkles or just watching a little blue fairy dancing joyously in her new costume, the magic of Disney is making those memories together.

Maui: a lesson in time management

The best travel advice I’ve ever given is that you have to be open to trying new experiences whenever they present themselves. It’s not always planned or well-timed, but the experience always outweighs the inconvenience in my opinion.

When Olivia was a baby, Mike told me that he was going to extend his time in Hawaii by a couple of weeks for a job he was doing in Maui. The problem was that time conflicted with Olivia’s first Father’s day. As usual, Mike came up with a perfect solution.

The inconvenient part is that I has actually just started a new job a few months previously. How was I going to let my boss know that I was taking a week’s vacation with one week’s notice? Brain-storm: I was going to work the whole week. REMOTELY.

Now for those of you who have never worked from home, or had flexible work schedules, this probably seems mind blowing. I had never worked remotely either. But when I worked through it, I would be able to do my job on local hours if I started my day at 4AM in the Hawaii-Aleutian time zone.  I could work until 5PM Central time and still have half a day left in Hawaii for a whole week.  I had to try.

We stayed at the Wailea Beach Resort in Maui for the week because it was closest to Mike’s job site.  Our days went like this: I woke up at 4AM and worked from my laptop with my team on-line. I took conference calls and managed until 7AM local time (noon in Chicago) when Olivia and I went down to breakfast and my husband went to work.

Then after breakfast, we came back to our room and Olivia played with her books, toys and iPad in the morning until it was time for me to sign off for the day. around noon local time. Then we packed up our stroller and went to the pool, took walks along the shore until she fell asleep at nap time and played on the beach in the afternoons. In the evening we would meet Mike for dinner or he would come back to the hotel and swim with us.

Vacationing in Paradise isn’t difficult. If you have a small child, you don’t have to leave your hotel. You don’t have to do anything more than hang out at the beach with your SPF50 and your little ones. We shopped at the local ABC store and just hung out.

It was 100% worth the extra effort on my part. I just didn’t acclimate to local time during the week. I fell asleep really early, but that worked for us and was factored into our plan.

So if someone asks if you could make a trip to Maui work, say yes! You absolutely won’t regret it.

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!

 

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!

Have Kids; will travel

My husband is probably the best travelled person I know. He travels courageously. He researches routes, points of interest, availability of tickets online so that you can skip long lines. He’s kind of the best. He does quite a bit of legwork when we travel on the Where and the How.

When we had our first born, he adjusted his research scope to include restaurants that would best placate a small child and children’s museums and attractions. I hope to share our experiences with others who travel or are interested in specific locations domestically or internationally.

What’s MY role you might ask? I pack for tiny, opinionated people including shoes and backpacks and toys. Sometimes I strenuously vet my choices; other times I buy something cute and hope for the best.  Sometimes I pack so much for them that I neglect to pack socks for myself. These things happen.

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As for experiences, I’ve forgotten shoes on a plane and had to have United Airlines representation search a closed plane to recover them. I’ve bought strollers in foreign countries when my arms just could NOT hold a 15 pound kid for one more minute. Along the way, we’ve had a lot of fun and a lot of situations that we can finally laugh about way after the fact.

So, enjoy our stories and observations and please feel free to email me with your questions or comments! I’d love to hear about your adventures too!