Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Firming Up Plans for D.C. and Germany

I simply love planning vacations.  From picking the destination to researching hotels and activities it's a big adventure to me, even before I step on the plane or set foot in my car.  To be planning two separate vacations is just double the fun.

In December we'll be taking a road trip to Washington, D.C.  After reading blogs like The Points Guy I've decided to sign up for a few new credit cards since none of our cards earn any type of travel rewards.  One of the cards I got was the Hilton Reserve which will now give us a free 5th night when we stay 4 nights in a row at a Hilton hotel.  Because of this we decided to extend our stay in D.C. from 3 nights to 5 nights and I'm so glad I did because I've found a ton of things I want to visit while in our nation's capital.

After researching activities in D.C. I never realized how many attractions there are free.  FREE!  That word is music to my budget-minded ears.  I sent off an email to our Congressman to set up tours to see the White House and US Capitol, both of which are free to US citizens.  The US Capitol tour could be set up immediately but the White House has to be requested with a range of dates and then we will find out about 2 weeks before our trip if we can go.  I assume this is because current events can change the availability of the White House to the public and therefore they can't plan anything too far in advance.  Completely understandable.  Still, I'm really looking forward to seeing the White House decorated for Christmas.  Other free activities we plan on doing are visiting the Smithsonian National Zoo, the National Air & Space Museum and of course the National Mall.  We're planning a child- and dog-friendly trip so we plan on taking Oso with us around the National Mall, though dogs are not allowed under the covered areas of the monuments so we will have to take turns with that.

In regards to our trip to Germany we decided that we would again use Hilton's 5th night free offer and stay 5 nights in Munich and then take a train over to Paris for 3 nights.  We were considering other cities such as Zurich, Prague, and Vienna but Paris won out and I'm really looking forward to seeing the City of Lights.  Whilst in Munich we plan to take two days trips to Neuschwanstein Castle and Salzburg, Austria.  I am still researching activities to do in Paris but our vacation budget can only stretch so far and we might have to cut some activities from our itinerary based on how much we've saved.  So far my list consists of the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower and perhaps a hop-on hop-off bus tour around the city.  Since this will be Lottie's first international trip I don't want to pack too much into our days.  I like to think of this trip as a little introduction to western Europe and nothing more.  Since we plan to come back again some day I don't really feel the need to do everything in 9 short days.

I'm so excited that everything is starting to come together for our trips.  D.C. just needs a few more tweaks to the itinerary and then it's done and I can really dive head first into our European trip planning.  

Friday, August 1, 2014

Friday Feature: Ballynahinch Castle Hotel in Recess, Ireland

In 2011 Brandon and I took a wonderful vacation on the Emerald Isle. We spent 12 days circling the island, beginning in Dublin and ending in the rugged Connemara region of western Ireland. The last 3 nights of our trip were spent at the Ballynahinch Castle and I can say without a doubt that it was one of the highlights of our journey.

Ballynahinch is pronounced exactly as it's written: "Ball-ee-NA-hinch" and you say the word quickly as though the syllables are going to trip over each other as they roll off your tongue. The hotel is located in County Galway near the village of Recess. It's tucked away in the rolling hills of the Connemara on 450 acres of pristine forest. A river running through the estate is perfect for fly-fishing and the estate has many trails for walking and hiking. You won't find large flat-screen TV's at this hotel. Instead you will find roaring fires in every room of the hotel with plush cushioned chairs for reading and small end tables for setting a cup of tea.
The lobby at Ballynahinch

Dining at the Ballynahinch Castle could not be more superb. The hotel has a formal restaurant but if you're not in the mood for dressing up you have the option to dine in the pub as well. You can even request to order from the restaurant's menu if you choose. My lunch favorite was the seafood chowder with roast beef sandwiches. My dinner favorites were the Irish beef and Connemara pork. Their homemade ice cream is worth trying at least once during your stay.
Delicious Irish beef

The accommodations at the Ballynahinch Castle Hotel were beyond luxurious. We splurged and booked the Superior Double Room which was about $300 per night but if you sign up for the hotel's newsletter you can take advantage of some really great deals. A few weeks before we were set to travel the hotel offered a free third night for booking a two-night stay. I called the hotel and they booked us for the third night for free, bringing our average nightly rate to about $200.

Our Superior Double Room
The spacious bathroom
Our Superior Double Room boasted floor-to-ceiling windows with a door that walked out onto a private patio with views of the river. It had three telephones (one right next to the toilet!), a king sized canopy bed and a large relaxing tub in the bathroom. Much of our time was spent outside the room though. We spent hours walking the castle grounds and reading by the fireplace. The butlers would come around every hour or so to stoke the wood and coal fires and would offer us complimentary hot tea served on a silver platter. The quality of service and friendliness of the staff was exceptional.

The Verdict: ★★★★★ We were treated with the utmost care and everything we experienced from the ambiance to the food to the accommodations was excellent. I would highly recommend this hotel.

What to Do: If you're looking to spend some time outside the castle grounds there are many attractions in the area that are worth visiting. Ballynahinch Castle is located near the Connemara Loop, 50 miles of breathtaking scenery and tiny towns. Or opt for a smaller loop and drive around the N59 through Letterfrack and Clifden. One of the must-see places in this area is the Kylemore Abbey which boasts a Victorian walled garden and Gothic church and has been home to the Benedictine nuns since 1920. Admission into the Abbey is about $16 for adults (children 10 and under are free) and includes access to the gardens and church with free guided tours. Photography is permitted. For the John Wayne fans, keep an eye out on the N59 near Oughterard for a tiny sign that points out The Quiet Man Bridge. If you blink you'll miss it!
The Quiet Man Bridge
When to Go: I recommend the springtime, though fall would be nice as well. In May the lambs are running around the fields and while it's still a bit rainy it's also before the peak tourist season so the roads and attractions are less crowded. Dress in layers and always bring a rain jacket or umbrella with you even if the skies are sunny.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

What I've Been Up To

It's been a hectic few weeks here.  Brandon is preparing to go out to sea for a short while and every time we think he's leaving and Charlotte and I get ourselves ready to be a lonely twosome, things get pushed back.  A trip to visit my family has been postponed until he is for sure going to be gone.  I am looking forward to a little road trip though.

In the meantime I've been planning two trips, one domestic and one international, and this week I hope to start getting into the real planning phase of these two adventures.  The first trip will be a 3-night vacation to Washington, D.C.  Even though I've grown up on the East Coast I've never actually visited D.C.  I've driven through it plenty of times but spent any time there to wander around the National Mall, Arlington Cemetery or the White House.  December will be a perfect time for us to visit because by then Brandon will be out of the military but his college classes won't start until mid-January.  I think 3 nights will be plenty of time to cover the things we'd like to see there but we may extend it by a day once I start researching all the attractions in the area.

Our second adventure is going to be a weeklong trip to Munich, Germany with a possible side trip to Austria.  Brandon and I would really like to visit Switzerland but we will be on a budget for this trip and since Austria and Switzerland are so similar when it comes to scenery we decided to go with the more budget-friendly Austria.  But first I will have to plan out the D.C. vacation to see how much money is left over in our vacation budget for Germany.  If there isn't enough money to spend at least 6 nights in Europe then we might wait until we save up more funds.

So that's what has been going on here.  I'm hoping to write more in this space in the coming weeks, once Brandon is gone and I have more time to devote to myself.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Making the Switch From a Point-and-Shoot to a DSLR Camera

For some reason I've always had a point-and-shoot camera.  Even though they always frustrated me because the pictures I took never turned out the way I envisioned them I just stuck with it because I figured that learning how to operate a DSLR camera would just be too hard.  I'm not a professional photographer and I don't make a living by taking photos of sunsets or food porn and posting it on this blog. 

So why the switch?

Well frankly it's because we have a toddler and a point-and-shoot and toddler don't mix.  My camera only takes 1.3 frames per second on the action setting, an average DSLR camera takes more than twice that amount.  That and I just so SO bitter about the way my pictures turned out on our trip to the Amazon jungle.  It was such a once-in-a-lifetime trip and my damn camera would always focus on a leaf or a branch instead of the animal I was trying to photograph.  Very few of my pictures were even worth putting in a photo book. 

So I decided it was time to make the switch.  This week I purchased a Nikon D3200 camera with 3 lenses.  My friend and fellow blogger is going to show me how to use my camera to take better quality pictures.  They certainly won't be professional quality but they might be nice enough to put on the walls in our house for guests to see.  I'm also hoping to take better travel photos for this blog and maybe years down the road, when we're living abroad, I might be able to start generating income (or at least some readers!). 

What kind of camera do you use for your everyday photography?  What do you like most and least about it?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Two Years Ago

On this day two years ago Brandon and I were boarding a plane at JFK to travel to Iquitos, Peru where we would spend 8 amazing nights in the Amazon jungle.  This is a little video montage from our trip.  It's an experience I will never forget!!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Friday Feature: KidCity Children's Museum, Middletown, CT

Brandon and I first discovered KidCity Children's Museum through the recommendation of a friend of ours who also has small children.  Charlotte had just learned how to walk and with her new mobility we needed to find indoor places she would enjoy because it was the middle of winter and we are not outdoor people when it's below freezing.

KidCity is just south of Hartford about 45 minutes from where we live so a day trip requires a bit of planning with a toddler.  We usually visit in the afternoon, after she's had a good nap.  The museum is 3 levels but the basement level, also known as the "Toddler Sea Caves", is only open to children 2 and under.  Older siblings are welcome to join on designated days but we found that not many parents follow this rule and unfortunately have had to deal with older kids in the toddler room every time we visit.
Toddler Sea Caves
The main floor has lots of individual rooms with various themes: spaceships, fishing boats, farms and a play kitchen and post office.  The top floor has a musical room with a global theme that includes a seesaw, slide, and a rope bridge.  There is also an area for playing dress-up and running a television show as well as a quiet nook if your child needs a place to chill out.

Charlotte had many favorite spots at KidCity and it's hard to pinpoint which one she likes the most.  On our first visit to KidCity, when she was about 14 months old, she was pretty freaked out by the Toddler Sea Caves.  Maybe it was the brightly colored painting or the underwater theme itself but we didn't hang out there for very long.  On our second trip she was a few months older and more comfortable running around with the older kids on the upper floors and again, we spent little time in the toddler room.  While KidCity has activities for children ages 1 to 8, mostly of the museum is geared toward preschoolers.  Still, Charlotte has an amazing time when we visit so even toddler can find enjoyment in giant rubber fish and playing with magnetic blocks.
The Farm Room

The Verdict:  ★★★★★  It's hard to find a good children's museum that's for the really young kids and KidCity really hit the nail on the head when planning their exhibits.  Admission is a modest $8 for adults and children ages 1 and up but KidCity is also participating in the Blue Star Museums program which offers free admission to active duty military members and their families from Memorial Day through Labor Day. 

When to Go: Weekdays and sunny days are naturally the least crowded times to visit KidCity.  The rooms are small and with lots of running children it can get pretty hectic when it's crowded.  Our first visit was on a cold winter weekend and there was a little too much going on for Charlotte to enjoy herself but an older child would probably have not even noticed.

What to Bring: There is a locker room to hang coats, backpacks, etc and a small space to park strollers if you choose to bring one.  They also have a snack area to enjoy a packed lunch but food and drink are not allowed in the exhibit areas of the museum.  The best part about KidCity is that they have large totes in all of the bathrooms filled with essentials like diapers, wipes and even spare pairs of pants so if you forget something you are free to take what you need from the tote and continue enjoying your day at the museum. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Friday Feature: Mystic Aquarium, Mystic, CT

Every Friday Feature I've written so far has been about attractions we've seen or hotels we've stayed at during one of our vacations.  Over the next few weeks I've decided to shift the focus to local Connecticut attractions.

The first CT Friday Feature is Mystic Aquarium.  I first visited this aquarium in 2006 when Brandon and I began dating.  It is pretty expensive compared to other aquariums, $29.95 for an adult and $21.95 for children ages 3-12.  A family of four would spend over $100 on admission alone.  This year we decided to purchase a membership to the aquarium so we visit about once or twice a month.

The attractions within the aquarium are quite unique.  The facility has 3 beluga whales (originally there were 4 but sadly one died this past March from respiratory illness) in the main outdoor tank.  Juno is our favorite whale and by far the most curious one.  He particularly loves the small children, babies in strollers and people in wheelchairs.  Juno is usually the whale hanging around the viewing area, inspecting the guests.
Mystic Aquarium also houses African penguins, sea lions and fur seals outside, but on cold winter days the penguins are brought indoors.  The aquarium also has a large indoor exhibit, daily sea lion shows and opportunities to watch the handlers feed the sharks and sting rays.  
In another building of the aquarium they show a 4D interactive film (currently Rio) and a really unique multi-level Titanic exhibit.  I have always been intrigued by the tragedy of the Titanic so visiting this exhibit never gets old for me.  There is an area where children can go down below and explore the engine room, multiple videos that explain how the Titanic was found at the bottom of the ocean and information about the lives lost on that April night in 1912.  The exhibit opened up in April 2012 on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic and is now a permanent part of the aquarium.  Charlotte's favorite part of the Titanic exhibit is walking across the floor display of the shipwreck site.
The Verdict:  ★★★★  Mystic Aquarium really is a must see for anyone visiting the area.  There is a lot to do for adults and children alike, and while admission can be prohibitively expensive there are a few ways of saving money.  The aquarium is constantly offering discounts; for example, Dads get in free for Father's Day weekend and for the entire month of July 2014 the aquarium is offering free admission to military members and veterans.  If you don't fall into either of those categories you can check out the 2014 Mystic Pass Card which includes free admission to the Mystic Aquarium, the nearby Mystic Seaport and offers discounts on other shops and accommodations in the area. 

When to Go: Summer is by far the most popular time to visit Mystic and is also the most crowded.  Winter time is very quiet with few field trips or tourists visiting but if it is too cold then many of the outdoor exhibits are closed due to the dangers of ice on the sidewalks.  From May to September there is a temporary outdoor exhibit where you can feed birds, something young children especially enjoy (there is an additional fee).
 What Else to Do:  Mystic has lots of attractions to keep one busy.  Across the street from the Mystic Aquarium is Old Mistick Village, a picturesque place for shopping and eating.  Driving toward downtown Mystic will lead you to Mystic Seaport where you can explore the a 19th century fishing village and board an authentic whaling ship.