Saturday, October 25, 2014

Why I Suck at Travel Blogging

This past week I began making a list of articles to write for the Friday Feature, so I can finally begin to post them every Friday instead of when I remember to.  I began by going through all the places we've visited but as I went through our photo albums I realized that many of places we visited we have no pictures for.

Zero.  Zip. Zilch.

And since I'm one of those blog readers who thoroughly enjoys seeing pictures along with posts I decided to cross out all the ones that we don't have pictures for.  So no post about our stay at Omni Hotel's Mount Washington Resort.  No post about our Thanksgiving dinner at the Plimoth Plantation.  Neither place would have gotten a good rating from me anyway but it still makes me sad that we don't have pictures from many of our travels.

You see, I'm the type of traveler that enjoys living in the moment.  Therefore it takes real effort to pull myself out of my vacationer's haze and take time to record it via photos and video.  When we took major trips like our ones to Peru I brought along a travel journal which helped immensely.  I often go back and read about our time spent in the Amazon and my journal entries help me to remember things that we did that I would have otherwise forgotten.  But the pictures are another story.  We took many but being a very amateur photographer my photos didn't turn out that well.  It turns out the rainforest is a very difficult place to take quality photographs when you don't know what the hell you're doing.

So right now I'm going to start to make the conscious effort of taking more photos, better photos, while on our travels.  It won't be easy with a toddler in tow but once I get in the habit of taking pictures I hope that it will become more natural for me.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Feature: Essex Steam Train's North Pole Express

Last year Brandon and I had the opportunity to take Stink on the Essex Steam Train's North Pole Express as part of a group event with our adoption agency.  She wasn't quite a year old but we were hoping she would enjoy being around the other kids and getting her first glimpse of Santa Claus.

To say she enjoyed herself was a complete understatement.  This kid had a blast!  There are 4 departure times for the North Pole Express, all in the late afternoon or early evening.  Our departure was 7 pm and we chose to dress Stink in her warm footie pajamas for the trip (pajamas are an encouraged outfit for this event but I didn't see any adults partaking in that)

Where's Santa?!
Each train car was assigned a special elf who got us in the Christmas spirit by singing Christmas songs, playing games and getting us ready to meet Santa and Mrs. Claus.  The train winds its way through central Connecticut until...we reach the North Pole!  You can see the North Pole decorated for Christmas and Santa waves to you as the train stops to pick him up.  We were the last train car so Santa visited our car first.  He brought a special little toy for each of the kids as he made his way through the car, shaking hands and letting the children sit on his lap. 

Meeting Santa Claus
Meeting Mrs. Claus
After Santa left the elves brought out hot chocolate and sugar cookies for everybody.  Warm and delicious!  The train stopped to turn around and we made our way back to Essex, passing by the North Pole again for another look and to drop Santa off to finish getting ready for Christmas. 

In love with the baubles and bangles that our elf was wearing
No train ride is complete without hot chocolate
The Verdict:  ★★★  Our whole family loved the North Pole Express but at $30 per person for coach class tickets it's on the pricey side and gets expensive for larger families to do.  We'll probably go again but not every year.  First class tickets are $63 and they come with plush armchairs and a cash beverage service with alcoholic drinks. 

When to Go: I recommend any of the time slots available because in Connecticut it gets dark pretty quickly so everyone will be able to enjoy the festive Christmas lighting in the train cars. 

Other Tips and Tricks: BOOK EARLY!! Tickets went on sale this year in early September and within the first 3 days they had sold 90% of the tickets for the season.  We tried getting tickets the first week of October and they were all gone.  Also, if you're bringing young children I suggest feeding them first or bringing a snack with you.  The cookies and hot chocolate are served about an hour after the departure and you don't want to have kids distracted by hunger when they should be enjoying the ride!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Waiting for the Next Big Thing

This past May marked 5 years that we've been living in this house.  That's the longest I've ever spent in one place in my entire life.  Sure, we lived in the same general area, but after a few years we always ended up moving, even if it was just across town.  Some people might hate that kind of lifestyle.  There were times when I envied the kids in high school who all knew each other from kindergarten.  But as an adult I've learned to embrace my wanderlust and now I find myself getting a little antsy to experience my next big adventure.

The problem is that I've got a while to wait.

Brandon was recently accepted to the University of Connecticut which means we'll be staying in the area for at least 4 more years.  The good news is that there's a 99.99% chance that we'll be doing a study abroad in Germany as part of the dual major program that he plans to pursue.  So a summer semester taking classes and then (hopefully) the fall semester as part of an internship with a German company.  I'm hoping for fall because then we'll get to experience Oktoberfest and the Christkindlmarkts of Germany.  Awesome sauce. 

Studying abroad won't happen for some time because Brandon has to become advanced enough in the German language to be able to work as his internship so we're thinking 2018 we will get to move.  That's 3 more years in this house, in this town.  What's a travel bug to do?

Travel of course.

So for now I'm (im)patiently waiting for our trip to D.C., then our trip to Europe next May.  Perhaps I can squeeze in a weekend trip to NYC to see the Christmas decorations.  I've always wanted to see NYC during Christmas. 

I've been participating in multiple rewards programs to try and earn enough rewards to be able to afford all this travel without breaking the bank.  The newest program I discovered is the Barclaycard Travel Community.  You can earn points by submitting stories about your travels, similar to a review left on TripAdvisor.  If you link your Barclaycard the points will be added to your account.  2,500 points roughly equals $25.  If you don't have a Barclaycard you can still earn Amazon giftcards but at a much lower rate: only $5 per 2,500 points.  I'm also working on earning free Marriott Rewards through their PlusPoints program but that ends next month.  Still, every little bit helps and hopefully by the time we travel to Europe next May I'll be able to pay off a significant portion of our trip with rewards points. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Friday Feature: Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular at Roger Williams Park Zoo

Every October the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, RI hosts a Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular.  Walk the trails around the zoo in the dark and marvel at over 5,000 illuminated pumpkins in various themes.  Brandon and I have gone to the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular twice and love it.  I'm sure we will go again this year.  Last year's theme was the 50 states and for 2014 it will an alphabet theme.  On top of the new theme for each year the carvers also display pumpkins with iconic figures.  The first time we went in 2011 I remember there being a pumpkin of Steve Jobs and I'm also certain that this year there will be one of Robin Williams.
New Orleans

Pacific Northwest
The trail takes about 45 minutes to walk.  It opens up at 6 pm and closes at 11 pm so you can expect to be walking along the trails in the dark.  It is very very crowded when the gates first open, full of families with young children who want to see the pumpkins but also need to still be in bed at a reasonable hour.  If you're not one of those families I recommend waiting until after 8 pm to stop by the zoo.  The trails will be much less crowded and you will have a better experience.

For families with young children (like us), strollers are allowed on the trail but the zoo does not have any available for rent in the evenings so be sure to bring your own.  I recommend bringing a small umbrella stroller instead of the bulky jogging stroller that we used last year.  With so many people on the trail it's hard to maneuver a large stroller, especially in the dark.
At the beginning of the trail you can have your photo taken and it's available to view and purchase at the end of your journey.  The pumpkins aren't super scary so if you're a thrill seeker then you might be a little let down but the zoo made a great effort to make this a family friendly event.  At the end of the trail is the Laughing Tree, the grand-finale of the whole spectacular.  There are small pumpkins hanging in the tree, giant pumpkins on the ground that spew fog from their mouths and creepy music playing. 

The Verdict:  ★★★★★  At $12 for adults and $9 for children the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular is very reasonably priced.  It's an event  you can attend every year without feeling like you're seeing the same old things over and over again.

When to Go: The Spectacular is held from October 2 to November 2nd this year.  The least crowded days are Monday through Wednesday, Halloween night and all the nights following it.  If you really hate crowds or have kids who can handle staying up super late, go after 8 pm.  If you want to make a day trip of it, visit the zoo in the afternoon (they close at 4 pm), head into Providence for some dinner and then be back around 5:30 to get in line.

Other Tips and Tricks: Bring layers with you because while the weather may be mild when you first get to the zoo it can get rather chilly an hour later.  After all, this is Rhode Island in October.  Also, if you decide to bring your camera please please PLEASE do not be that obnoxious person that uses their flash on the trail.  Having dozens of flash cameras go off in the dark does not make for a pleasant walk. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Iceland, Anyone?

While researching our trip to Europe next year I read an interesting bit of information about IcelandAir: if you book a flight directly through their website you can stop over in Iceland for up to 7 nights free of charge.  It's like taking a second vacation without the extra cost of transportation.  And since we had just recently watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty I jumped at the chance to go to Iceland.

And now it's officially on our itinerary.

We've allocated 3 nights in Iceland to check out some of the major sights, with the hope that we'll be able to visit again on another trip to Europe.  I'm super stoked to add a little adventure and wilderness to this trip which had previously been chock full of nothing but busy city life and culture.  I think Iceland will bring some nice balance to this vacation.  After all, isn't that the purpose of life?

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.