Saturday, January 24, 2015

I Was Almost Sucked Into the Timeshare Vortex

I apologize for not getting around to last week's Friday Feature.  I was a little preoccupied trying to get out of a timeshare presentation I had signed up for while simultaneously planning another trip to Disney World.

It all began when I discovered a timeshare deal for a resort in Orlando, FL.  The deal included a 3 night stay in Orlando, two 1-day tickets to an amusement park of my choice (Disney, Universal or Sea World) as well as a 2 night stay in Daytona Beach, all for $198.  All we had to do was listen to a little 90-minute timeshare "presentation" highlighting the resort's amazing features.

It seemed like an awesome deal so I went ahead and signed up knowing that we could cancel in the next 7 days if we needed (or wanted) to.  After reading the reviews of the resort and discovering that we technically didn't qualify to take advantage of the deal we decided to cancel.  Even though we met the minimum salary requirements we didn't meet the employment requirements (you can't be a full-time student or unemployed).  The salesperson gave me a really hard time about cancelling and eventually I got a call from the manager at the resort who told me that we could just say we were employed and still take advantage of the deal.  I couldn't take his word for it because there was a glaring clause in the terms that said we could be charged $350 plus the regular package rate if it turns out we were unqualified participants.  All in all it took a few days for the cancellation to be confirmed but it left me with a huge desire to take Stink back to Disney World.

This was the part I was struggling with a few days ago: making the decision to spend our savings on something that made us happy versus hanging onto it in the off-chance we would need that money decades down the road.  Eventually I talked myself into it and began booking the trip.

This Disney trip is going to be almost a mirror-image of our trip last spring- one day each at Universal, Epcot and Magic Kingdom- with a few different tweaks.  First we plan to stay in a Hilton that's within walking distance to Universal with a park-to-park ticket so we can visit both of the Harry Potter parks.  I am INCREDIBLY excited to visit the new Harry Potter theme park.  My eyes start leaking just thinking about riding on the Hogwarts Express.  Second we're staying at Disney's Beach Club Resort instead of Shades of Green.  Now that Brandon is out of the Navy our military discounts are a thing of the past.  Third, this will be our first trip to Disney World as a threesome.  Both prior trips included other family members so I'm excited to make this trip mostly about Stink (with the exception of Harry Potter of course).

I'm a little nervous to be going during the busy month of March when spring break crowds like us flock to Orlando. Still, I'm hoping that by signing up for Fastpass+ and steering clear of the more popular thrill rides that we'll have a third Disney vacation under our belt.  Now I just have to wait 2 more months until that happens!

Family Photo on our last trip to Disney

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

12 Trips in 12 Months

Thanks to fellow blogger Travel Morgan Travel I'm feeling pretty inspired to start the 12 Trips in 12 Months challenge.  By planes, trains, or automobiles a trip is a trip.  The destination matters not, even a weekend jaunt around your own state counts.

We've got plenty to do around Connecticut and I try to take Stink somewhere at least once a week.  After all, getting out of the house is as much for me as it is for her and day trips really help to get us out of the winter doldrums.  Still, I yearn for real overnight vacations and this challenge will help inspire me to find new destinations both near and far.  Therefore I'm going to tweak the challenge slightly to 12 New Trips in 12 Months.  New attractions, new destinations and more importantly new experiences.

I've still got to fulfill January's challenge but I have a Groupon voucher to a children's museum here in Connecticut that we haven't visited yet so that will be on my to-do list for this week.

I'm thoroughly looking forward to the next 12 months!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Living In The Present

I've been having a real problem lately with making travel plans.  We're technically on a student's budget for the next few years but we also have a significant (to me) amount of savings from the premature death of my father.  He died at the age of 54 to lung cancer, gone 6 short weeks after getting diagnosed, and his death affected me greatly.  At first I told myself I would use this inheritance frugally, trying my best to stretch it out over my lifetime.  However over the past few months I've been reflecting on my father's death and am now considering spending the money much sooner than that.  After all, he worked his entire life to save money that he never got to spend on himself.  His death has been a painful yet enlightening lesson for me about the brevity of life.  Nothing helps one appreciate life more than death.  Nothing makes one think more about living life to the fullest than losing a loved one.

Still, every time I consider spending this money I feel incredibly guilty.  What if we need this money 10 years down the road?  Is spending this money on travel a foolish decision, despite the fact that travel makes us happy?  Am I making poor choices?

Perhaps I overthink my decisions too much.  Perhaps I worry too much about being judged by family and friends by my spending.  Some days I feel so impulsive yet so regretful the day after.  I wish I knew how to embrace spontaneity a little more and let go of the the feelings of regret.  I wish I knew how to stop worrying so much about the future and live more in the present.  It's definitely something I need to work on this year.  

Friday, January 16, 2015

Friday Feature: Killarney National Park, Killarney, Ireland

Killarney National Park is an expansive 26,000 acre wooded area in County Kerry that ended up being one of the major highlights of our trip to Ireland.  Complete with mountains, lakes, castles and even 15th century abbeys the park has something for everyone to enjoy and we found ourselves wishing we had spent more time there.

Our trip through Killarney only included a short one-night stay so we left Kinsale very early in the morning so that we would arrive at around 9 am.  Our first stop in Killarney National Park was Ross Castle, a beautiful tower house built in the 15th century.  Only guided tours are taken through the castle and photography is strictly prohibited but the tour is informative and the antique furniture in the castle dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries would have made my mother swoon.

If you're pressed for time you can still peruse the museum on the lower level instead of waiting for the next tour.  If you have all day to spend at Ross Castle there are boats for hire that you can take around Lough Leane.

After Ross Castle our plan was to find the Muckross House and Gardens.  We drove along the main road and eventually saw a tiny sign that said "Muckross House" with a small parking area.  Surely this wasn't the official entrance for Muckross House?  We continued driving a little more but after a few miles we didn't see another entrance so we turned around and parked.  There were 4 or 5 gentlemen around with jaunting cars who offered us a ride to Muckross House which wasn't in sight of the car park area.  We declined, not wanting to fork over 70 euros for a buggy ride but were soon informed that Muckross House was a 4 km walk.  Clearly we had parked in the wrong area!  We negotiated with a young jaunting car driver ("jarvey") to take us on a one-way trip past the Muckross House up to Torc Waterfall and then back down to Muckross House for 35 euros.  This ended up being an excellent decision because we really enjoyed our jaunting car ride and the waterfall was stunning, something we would have never seen had we simply parked next to the Muckross House.  Our jarvey was very informative, pointing out various highlights of Killarney National Park along the way.

Brandon with our jaunting car and horse (his name was Major)

Our view along the Jaunting Car ride
Torc Waterfall

Ironically our jarvey dropped us off at the Muckross House right next to a giant parking area so we did find the main entrance, just in a very roundabout way.  When we arrived at Muckross House we were disappointed to learn that they too only offer guided tours and the next one wouldn't be for another hour and a half.  Instead of waiting around we decided to tour the beautiful gardens and then head back to the car.  In hindsight I wish had stuck around for the tour, I'm sure we could have found plenty to keep us busy for an hour and a half.
View of Muckross House from car park area
Just a small portion of Muckross Gardens

The 4 km walk back to our car was quite picturesque, a different and smaller road than we had taken on the jaunting car.  We stopped by the 15th century Muckross Abbey along our way where I marveled at some of the newer gravestones in the cemetery.  Exactly how does one manage to be buried next to a 15th century abbey in a national park?

Our walk from Muckross House to the car park

By the time we reached our car it was only 3 pm but not wanting to inconvenience our B&B hosts we left to check in to our room.  The next day we began the Ring of Kerry which also goes through Killarney National Park.  This time we only made a quick stop to check out the Ladies' View before heading onto the rest of the ring and the remainder of our journey through Ireland.  We only saw a small snippet of all that Killarney National Park has to offer and I wish we had the time to prolong our stay.  Perhaps on our next trip.

Ladies' View in Killarney National Park
The Verdict:  ★★★★★ Killarney National Park is one of those places you really must see while in Ireland.  Whether it's for a few hours, the whole day or an entire week, set aside some time to visit.  It's easy to find and offers a multitude of activities to fit anyone's interests.

When To Go: We visited Ireland in May and the weather was so wonderful.  During wintertime when tourist season is low many attractions close early or altogether.  Ross Castle is only open for tours March through October.  If this is your first (or perhaps only) trip to Ireland I recommend going in the spring or summer.

Other Tips and Tricks: Purchase the Heritage Card for 25 euros and get free admission to dozens of attractions across Ireland including Ross Castle and Muckross House.  But first tally up the cost of each attraction you want to visit to be sure that it's worth a good deal.  Because Brandon and I had to cut Muckross House and Dublin Castle from our itinerary at the last minute we actually paid more for the Heritage Card than we would have if we had paid admission to each attraction. 

Child Friendly?  Kids will love Ross Castle and taking a jaunting car ride.  While the Muckross House may not interest them they would enjoy checking out the traditional farms which depicts an Irish working farm from the 1930's and 1940's.  The farm even includes a petting area.

Pet Friendly?  Killarney National Park is very pet friendly but places like Ross Castle do not allow pets.  Still, this would be a wonderful destination to take your pet as many of the hotels and B&B's around Killarney accept pets.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Planning a Toddler-Friendly Vacation

Our recent trip to D.C. didn't quite turn out as I had planned.  In fact, it turned out nothing like what I had planned.  So many activities had to be cut due to various circumstances and I went home feeling as though I didn't really get to see the city at all.  It left me feeling quite concerned about our upcoming trip to Europe and how Stink would be able to handle such an exhausting vacation.  But after a few days I realized that I could use our D.C. trip as a learning experience and tweak our European vacation a bit to hopefully make it more enjoyable for us all.  Here are some tips I'm using that might benefit you as well.

1.  Don't skip the naps but take advantage of them

For 2 of the 3 full days we had in D.C. we went back to the hotel for Stink's naps.  They were long naps and I'm sure she needed them but it was vacation time that went to waste sitting in a dark hotel room.  The one day we stayed at the National Mall during Stink's nap she did equally well and we took that as an opportunity to explore the Smithsonian Natural History Museum at our leisure.

With Europe we plan to do the same thing, especially in Paris.  The Orsay Museum isn't exactly toddler friendly but who's to say we can't enjoy impressionist artwork while Stink is sleeping?  With only 3 nights in the city we will probably be spending a lot more time in playgrounds than we want but during naptime we should still be able to do things we enjoy that Stink wouldn't be interested in.

2.  Get your child used to stroller naps

As I pointed out in Tip #1 we spent most of our afternoons in a dark hotel while Stink napped.  While it was beneficial to her we really should have practiced getting her used to stroller naps before our vacation.  Spending a whole day shopping or walking outside during her naptime would have made the transition easier for her and us.  Stroller naps are especially important if your hotel is far away from places you are visiting that day.

3.  Group activities by location to prevent wasting time (and energy) getting to each place

 One thing I didn't plan well for our D.C. was all the walking that was involved.  Being on a budget I didn't plan to use public transportation that much.  Furthermore, many of the places on our itinerary were in opposite directions.  Once we calculated how long the walking would be from location to location we realized that we couldn't do everything for that day and we were left having to pick and choose.  Lesson learned!

For Paris I've decided to group our activities around certain areas of central Paris.  One day will be spent hanging around the Eiffel Tower, the next day will be spent in the Ile de la Cite.  Because our B&B is not close by we will take public transportation to get there quickly and then spend our energy walking around that small area, instead of tiring ourselves out by walking to and from each destination.

4.  Have a back-up plan...and then a backup plan for the back-up plan

Nothing sucks more than to pay admission to an attraction only to discover that your child isn't interested in anything there or that it's way too crowded for your little munchkin.  I've also made the mistake of getting my heart set on an outdoor activity only to have it rain during the few days that we were in the area.  With family-friendly vacations it is extremely important to have back-up plans and rainy day activities.  Not every day is going to be sunny and not every museum is going to capture your child's attention.  Know where local playgrounds are located so your kids can burn off some energy before visiting indoor attractions and have 2-3 options available in case your family has to switch plans at the last minute.

5.  Pack appropriate distraction toys

Our diaper bag is nothing more than a gray backpack which makes it much easier for traveling.  Still, our D.C. vacation taught us that we haven't exactly updated Stink's stash of restaurant toys in a while.  What 2 year old would be interested in a few baby rattles and a board book?  So we went online and purchased a few age-appropriate toddler toys for our upcoming trip as well as some new apps for our iPad.  The novelty of the toys itself would be enough to keep her distracted but the fact that they are more interactive than her old toys is extremely beneficial as well.

These are tips that can be applied for either domestic or international travel but I will probably end up writing a second post after our European vacation that focuses on international vacationing with toddlers.  I think by then I will have lots of wisdom to share  but hopefully all the lessons won't be learned the hard way!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Friday Feature: Captain Hook Cruise, Cancun, Mexico

Before we get to today's Friday Feature I would like to say that my thoughts and prayers are with France this week.  My heart is heavy with grief over the terrorist attacks that happened in Paris and I hope the killers are brought to justice.  Perhaps one day we can be free to express ourselves and have different religions without animosity towards one another.  Perhaps one day we can all just live our lives in peace.

Today's Friday Feature covers a dinner cruise we took on our vacation in Cancun, Mexico.  I say "dinner cruise" but really it's a booze cruise, with an open bar during the entire trip.  That doesn't mean the Captain Hook dinner cruise is bad, but you should be aware that there will be drinking involved.  And when the drinks are free that might mean a lot of drunk people.

At the time Brandon and I were vacationing in Cancun we were fairly young and still childless.  As I do with every vacation I had planned a variety of activities for us to try: snorkeling, swimming with dolphins, a romantic dinner and...the booze cruise.  We're not big partiers but I couldn't resist booking a reservation on a pirate-themed dinner cruise with an open bar.  I had read plenty of great reviews about Captain Hook and one thorough reviewer suggested tipping the waiter at the beginning of the cruise to ensure a steady stream of drinks throughout the night.

When Brandon and I boarded our ship we were given our first drinks (I stuck with rum and coke, Brandon enjoyed vodka and orange juice).  There were only 2 waiters for the entire ship of about 75 guests and they were very rushed to get everyone seated with a drink before the ship set sail.  When my waiter came back I tipped him $20 and we enjoyed watching some hilarious games that the crew organized with the guests.


Throughout the night our waiter kept visiting us frequently, providing us with fresh drinks before we were even finished with the previous ones!  Needless to say we were pretty tipsy by the time dinner was ready.  Brandon isn't a huge seafood fan so we both ordered the steak dinner which was overdone and not very flavorful.  Did we care?  No, we had way too much to drink by then.  Should we have cared?  Probably.  The dinner cruise now offers chicken and vegetarian dishes which they didn't have when we sailed so if we were to go again I would try the chicken instead.

After dinner the climax of the show begins with the meeting of another pirate ship and a battle between the two crews.  It's complete with sword fighting, swinging on ropes from ship to ship and lots of yelling.  After the fight breaks up each ship goes their separate way and the deck turns into a dance floor for the rest of the evening.

Our $20 tip went a long way for the night with our waiter seeking us out on the dance floor to hand us more drinks.  Brandon noticed that every time the waiter made his rounds there were only two drinks on his tray: mine and Brandon's.  We had a wonderful night of partying and tipped the staff again at the end of the trip.  Taxis were conveniently located outside the marina to give drunks like us a ride back to our hotel.

The Verdict:  ★★★★ With the exception of the meal aboard the ship our cruise was excellent.  However we knew that we weren't going for the food so our expectations weren't exactly that high.  The price of the cruise is well worth it if you plan on drinking but for someone going just for the food and entertainment it is pretty pricey.

When To Go: We booked our trip in the middle of the week in December and while it was still crowded the weather was perfect with clear skies and a balmy breeze.  Cancun in December is so lovely! 

Other Tips and Tricks: I'm going to pass along the secret I learned and say tip early in the evening!  With one waiter for every 25-30 guests you don't want to be overlooked the entire night if you expect to get good service.

Child Friendly?  This is a bit of a trick question.  Children are welcome aboard the Captain Hook and we did see kids on our cruise but I personally would not recommend bringing children.  The only child appropriate part of the cruise is the pirate fight and to me that's not enough to make it worth taking my kids.  Hire a baby-sitter and have a fun evening out or choose a more appropriate cruise without the alcohol.

Pet Friendly?  No

Friday, January 2, 2015

Friday Feature: Connecticut Science Center, Hartford, CT

I've learned over the past few days that I really do suck at multi-tasking.  Trying to blog while sitting on the couch with a movie in the background does not make for good writing.  Yet sitting at my desk with my husband typing on his computer next to me is a distraction as well so here I am back on the couch with no movie in the hopes that this post will be a little more well-written.

This week's Friday Feature covers the CT Science Center.  Stink and I first visited the science center when she was about 14 months old.  We went with a friend who has two older children and while Stink didn't get anything out of the science center itself she was perfectly happy tagging along with her two best friends.  This fall we decided to take her back when I read that the center had added a few new toddler-friendly exhibits and we were happily surprised to discover that there were so many more things for Stink to explore.

The CT Science Center is comprised of 4 very large floors with roughly 3-5 exhibits per floor with the exception of the first floor which has the gift shop, ticket area, cafeteria, 3D cinema and a water play area.  Brandon and I always start on the top floor and work our way down, stopping at the water play area last.  We always bring a change of clothes but shoes still get soggy and wet so it's always best to do wet things last.  Because of Stink's age and the fact that there are SO MANY things to do at the science center this post will focus on toddler-friendly activities only, with a smattering of preschool stuff because my sister and Ninja joined us on a trip in November.
Lobby Floor
Inside the Gift Shop

The top floor (Level 6) has the rooftop garden (closed in winter!) and quite a few toddler friendly activities.  The first activity is the Digging for Dinos pit as soon as you come out of the elevators.  Stink could spend all day just at this exhibit but at this age she tends to fling the tiny rubber "sand" with her brush and that doesn't make for a pleasant experience for the other kids.  Next we stop at the River of Life exhibit which has all the live animals at the science center.  There are aquariums with freshwater fish, tanks with turtles, snakes and insects and a marine touch tank.  There is a small play area for kids 7 and under called Critter Corner but it houses creepy insects like tarantulas so the older kids usually climb on it as well.  On the same floor in the Smart Energy exhibit we get our role-playing fix by playing in a little energy efficient house equipped with a kitchen, table and chairs and some books.  Last week Stink discovered how awesome it was to pick everything up with oven mitts on.

Stream Table in the River of Life

The next floor (Level 5) doesn't have nearly as many activities for Stink-aged munchkins but we still stop here for a bit.  One side houses the Sports Lab and Picture of Health exhibits which we skip completely but Ninja thoroughly enjoyed putting various helmets through crash testing and Brandon and I enjoyed racing each other with our mind powers.  The key is to relax your mind so it's no small wonder that Brandon won every time.  Across the hall is the Invention Dimension and Exploring Space.  The Invention Dimension has lots of puzzles and Legos and a small nook with giant blocks for kids ages 5 and under.  We like to hang out in this nook because Stink has perfected the art of building and destroying structures.  After a while I manage to persuade everyone to visit my favorite exhibit, Exploring Space.  It's a fantastic exhibit but unfortunately doesn't hold Stink's attention for long.  She enjoys pushing buttons and blasting off into space in the Lunar Lander but other than that she's done.  On to the next level for us.

Level 4 houses the temporary exhibit which is currently Grossology and had one of Stink's favorite activities: a slide and tunnel.  Who cares that she's sliding down an esophagus, landing in a giant stomach and then weaving her way through an intestine tunnel?  She could ride that slide for hours if we let her.  Ninja found some other cool activities here as well.  I mean, what 5 year old boy doesn't enjoy making various fart sounds with a tube and piece of rubber or playing a giant-sized game of Operation?  Unfortunately the Grossology exhibit will be leaving at the beginning of March and Stink will have to say goodbye to her giant stomach slide.

Stink's favorite activity in the science center: the stomach slide

Across the hall on Level 4 is the Sight and Sound exhibit as well as the Forces in Motion exhibit.  Stink enjoys the Interactive Video Floor which changes from pianos to bubbles to balloons every few minutes.  She also helped Ninja build a car to race down a hill in the Forces of Motion exhibit but for the most part this area of the science center is a little too old for her so we make our way down to the bottom floor, Level 1.  There is no Level 2 or 3 in the CT Science Center.

Cut up a paper cup and send it flying!
Level 1 has the water area as soon as you walk into the science center and hand over your ticket.  It's an unfortunate location because that's the FIRST exhibit your kids see and of course the first place they want to visit.  So far we've been able to distract Stink enough and jump on an elevator without her kicking and screaming to play in the water but I fear our time is coming.  Still, it is an awesome exhibit and one you shouldn't miss.  You can use Legos to control the flow of water down a platform, float rubber balls along a current and play with other water toys as well.  Smocks are provided but they only come in one size and are too big for Stink so we just skip wearing it.  Outside the water play area are giant cushy blocks for building forts and houses and a quiet dark little nook with a small bookshelf filled with books.  Conveniently located next to the water play area is a family restroom.

The Verdict:  ★★★★★ The Connecticut Science Center has done a really good job at providing exhibits that are appropriate for all ages.  We were so pleased with our experience this fall that when we returned with my sister and Ninja we decided to go ahead and sign up for a membership.  It will be a place that has activities Stink can grow into over the next year so each visit will have new and exciting things for her to discover.

What to Bring: An extra change of clothes for the kids is recommended for the water play area.  The science center provides racks to hang your coats but if you need something more secure there are coin-operated lockers on the main floor.  The cafeteria has a Subway but there is also a seating area for those who bring their own lunch.

Other Tips and Tricks: The CT Science Center has an excellent military discount.  On Veteran's Day admission is free for active-duty members and their families receive 50% off the admission rate.  In addition the science center gives a 15% discount off annual memberships.

Child Friendly?  Definitely!  If your child can walk then they can enjoy the science center.  Maybe not to the extent of the older kids but they can have a fun day nonetheless.  As I said before, it's a place that kids can grow into. 

Pet Friendly?  No