Travel

Northern European Cruise on Royal Caribbean

Northern European Cruise on Royal Caribbean

Our visit to London this summer was the starting point for a longer vacation in northern Europe, something we had wanted to do with our children for awhile. After researching options, we decided on a cruise so that we could easily explore multiple destinations without a lot of effort traveling from one city to the next.

Our cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Sea started in Southampton, England and included stops in Bruges (Belgium), Oslo (Norway), Hamburg (Germany) and Le Havre (France). Although we did a lot of planning in advance to research the cities and cruise excursions, we didn’t necessarily plan activities for each of the stops. Some cities we left pretty open-ended, while others we had a full 12-hour itinerary packed into our day. I think this kept things pretty balanced and allowed for wandering around and exploring, while also ensuring that we hit the destinations on our must-see list.

Here are a few favorite photos (among the hundreds I snapped) along with a rundown of some of our favorite sights in each city.

Bruges, Belgium

cruise-bruges-2

Bruges was one of our less planned cities. I think ‘eat chocolate’ was our primary objective in Bruges, and we were definitely successful in accomplishing our mission. We spent our day wandering around the cobblestone streets of the city square, visited several chocolate shops and the Chocolate Museum, and ate Belgian waffles for lunch. The highlight was an outdoor city market, where we found local craftspeople selling art, vintage items and handmade wooden toys.

Oslo, Norway

cruise-oslo-2

Visiting Oslo was a big factor in the decision to choose this particular cruise, since I had never traveled that far north and I was eager to see the landscapes surrounding the fjords. It was also one of our more ‘planned’ destinations. We had a list of sights we wanted to see in our 1-day stop, and we ended up purchasing an Oslo Pass which gave us access to museums and public transportation. The ship docks right in the center of the city (the dock is shown in the top photo above), so it was easy to walk and jump on local trams and buses. Our day included The Viking Ship Museum, The Fram Museum, The Kon Tiki Museum and The Oslo Opera House.

The Fram and Kon Tiki were both great museums for kids. The Fram Museum houses a large polar ship that children can explore and see what it was like for the early explorers who went on expeditions to the Arctic circle.  We also planned a visit to either the National Gallery or the Edvard Munch museum (to see the famous painting, The Scream), but the National Gallery was closed on the day of our stop and rain late in the day caused us to return to the ship early.

Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg, Germany

It rained during most of our visit to Hamburg, making it difficult to explore the city. Our first stop was The Miniature Museum, but we didn’t purchase advance tickets and arrived to find the first available entry was too late in the day. We moved on to visit St. Michael’s, and then decided to head for cover in a tour bus since the rain was getting worse. Once the rain died down, we walked along the dock and stopped at the U-Boat Museum, which was definitely the highlight of our visit to Hamburg. Despite weather conditions, we enjoyed Hamburg quite a bit, probably because we spent more in time in restaurants (eating wonderful food) than any other city on our tour. If we had more time, I would have definitely visited the Philharmonic to see the architecture and exterior light/video display, but hopefully it won’t be our last trip to Hamburg.

Le Havre, France

cruise-normandy-2

Le Havre was the last stop on our cruise before returning to Southampton, and though we were only in France for a day, this portion of our vacation likely warrants its own post. When we booked the cruise, we planned to take a train to Paris for the day. But violence in Paris caused us to change plans, and we opted for the Royal Caribbean excursion to the D-Day beaches of Normandy instead. This ended up being an amazing part of the trip. The day included stops at Pointe du Hoc, Omaha Beach (one of several beaches invaded by Allied forces on D-Day during WWII), the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, and the Caen D-Day Memorial Museum. Each location made a big impression on Jason and Jenna, from standing in giant bomb craters to walking through the mass of gravestones to eating their first authentic French meal to traveling over present-day Omaha beach via virtual reality headsets. In fact, our visit to Normandy left a pretty permanent imprint on Jason’s mind, as he is now completely fascinated by all things related to WWII.

That’s the rundown of our amazing summer vacation. I can’t imagine we will ever top this trip, but I’d certainly like to try!

 

Trip Report: London

london-report

We recently returned from our summer vacation, and I’ll be sharing a couple of posts about traveling in Europe with children. First up: London.

Our London itinerary included a mix of visiting major sights, wandering around the city, and partaking in iconic British experiences – like riding backwards in taxis, eating fish and chips, and posing for pictures in red phone booths (which can still be found all over the city).

London is a great city to visit with children. The biggest surprise was that many of the major landmarks have playgrounds in close proximity. This offered the perfect way to burn off energy after standing in lines and being well-behaved in churches, museums and other crowded spaces. The playgrounds can be seen in more detail in our trip report video.

Here are the favs from our 48-hours in London:

The British Museum

British Museum with Google Street View

We visited the British Museum on the day we arrived in London, so we were jet lagged and exhausted but determined to make use of our limited time. We had explored the museum in advance using Google Street View, which allows you to move through the galleries and explore the installations via virtual imagery. This helped Jason and Jenna get familiar with some of the major pieces in the museum (like the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon sculptures) before we arrived.

St. James Park

map-stJamesPark2We nested St. James Park in-between touring Westminster Abbey and visiting Buckingham Palace. Walking (and, for Jason, running, and, for Jenna, cartwheeling) through the park was a welcome break from the crowded spaces of Westminster. The playground in the park is really nice, has an outdoor cafe with ice cream nearby, and is right on the path toward the palace. We arrived at the palace too late to see the changing of the guards, but we also missed the crowds and still managed to watch the guards pace back and forth in front of the palace.

Afternoon Tea and Other British Fare

London Food TourWe played up the local cuisine of each of our destinations well before travel time, so eating was a big part of our vacation. Afternoon tea was the highlight of our tour of British foods. We chose the St. Ermin’s hotel for afternoon tea, as they have a menu specifically for children. Other must-try items were Fish and Chips and Traditional English Breakfast, which features black pudding and baked beans. I even found a British pub that offers a vegetarian version of this meal.

The London Eye

View of Big Ben and Westminster from London Eye

The London Eye was on our ‘maybe’ list when we arrived. We ended up purchasing fast passes on the day of our visit, which allowed us to skip most of the line. The view is incredible and allowed us to spot another great park and playground and what looked to be an outdoor theatre just steps from the Eye. After a brief stay in the playground area, rain caused us to take cover, otherwise we would have definitely explored more.

London was a highlight of our visit to northern Europe and definitely a city we would like to visit again. I couldn’t post pics of our London trip without remembering our first attempt at a family selfie. Before we left, our neighbors convinced us we needed a selfie stick so that we could shoot family photos without handing phones and cameras to strangers. As it turns out, capturing selfies is not so easy. We diligently attempted to use it once during our entire 2-week stay in Europe. Here are a few of the outtakes:

London family selfies

Other cities on our summer vacation were: Bruges, Belgium; Oslo, Norway; Hamburg, Germany; Normandy beaches in France; and Windsor, England. So many great adventures to share!

Summer Vacation

beach2015-1

We just returned from a trip to South Padre Island, a beach along the southern-most tip of Texas. Having visited Texas beaches along the gulf before, my expectations were fairly low and I left home with a ‘just happy to get away’ mindset. But once we arrived, I found that the South Padre beaches were not only nice, they were also relatively uncrowded for this time of year. J and J had a blast fighting the waves, boogie boarding and swimming in the hotel pool. We also visited Schlitterbahn Water Park, which I think the kids would list as their favorite part of the trip. My favorite was the Birding and Nature Center (where we fed birds right out of our hands) and, of course, the views of the ocean which provided quite a few opportunities to snap some gorgeous vacation photos. (more…)

Digital Image to Printed Page: Custom Journals for Kids

My process for creating awesome and inexpensive custom travel journals for my children - so easy to create these on your phone.

Remember in the 80s when you made collages out of cut-up magazines, stickers and other print ephemera? Maybe you don’t. Anyway, these days collaging has gone digital, and my children love taking photos and layering on all sorts of drawings, stickers, text and other digital effects.

As soon as I saw how much my daughter loved taking pictures with her new phone, I introduced her to A Beautiful Mess, an app that let’s you add doodles, text, filters and other effects to photos. Soon after, she introduced me to Pic Collage. It’s been photo-editing bliss ever since.

With all of the images we captured at Disneyworld recently, I decided to up our game in the photo documentation area and create journals for Jason and Jenna using some of my photos along with some of the photos they ‘enhanced’ in their favorite apps. (more…)

Surprise, We’re Going to Disneyworld!

How to surprise your children with a trip to Disney: tips and a boarding pass template.

As I hinted in this post at the end of the year, we had a big surprise in the works for our children’s Christmas present. It was a crazy hard secret to keep over the 6+ months of planning. In the end, our pet fish nearly caused an unintended reveal on Christmas Eve. My daughter spotted my husband leaving the house to take the fish to a friend’s. I’m not sure how well his story about Jeremy wanting to “practice having a fish before buying one” covered our secret, but it was all he could think of at the moment. (more…)

A Tour of Tastings in Napa Valley

A Tour of Tastings of the Non-Wine Variety in Napa Valley We recently returned from a trip to Napa Valley and, while we certainly enjoyed the wine, the highlight of our trip was definitely the food. Here are a few ideas for tastings in Napa Valley of the non-wine variety:

Gourmet Food Tour

I learned about the Gourmet Food Tour (1) of downtown Napa through a website called Peek, a travel tour site featuring off-the-beaten path tours and activities in major cities in the U.S. and Europe, including Napa. We didn’t take the tour, but now that I’ve discovered I love the food as much as the wine in Napa, it’s definitely on my list for next time.

Wine and Cheese Pairings

Many of the wineries feature food and wine pairings as part of their tastings. Two of my favorites are the St. Supery Cheese and Wine Pairing Class (5) (great if you want to understand how different food flavors influence the taste of wine) and Domaine Carneros (2) (perfect if you want a light snack while sampling the sparkling wine and enjoying the amazing views from their patio).

Napa Valley Distillery

If you enjoy hand-crafted cocktails as much as wine, Napa Valley Distillery (3) is a must-see destination on your itinerary. I like to go just for the display of tiny bottles. It’s located inside of the Oxbow Public Market, which is worth the stop just for the selection of gourmet food, drinks and home decor accessories all under one roof. The distillery features an extensive collection of bitters, spirits and syrups, all of which can be sampled in their shop for free or you can attend a Craft Spirit Tastings.

Gourmet Grocery Stores

There is no shortage of places to stock up on gourmet foods in Napa Valley. In addition to assembling your picnic fare, many of these offer samples of locally produced culinary treats, including oils, vinegars, cheeses and tapenades. We visited Oakville Market (4) and Dean and Deluca (6).

Olive Oils

The Napa region is filled with olive oil shops and at one point my husband and I joked that we had purchased more olive oil than wine during our trip. In addition to oils, many of these shops also feature flavored balsamic vinegars and tapenades, all of which can be sampled for free. We visited Olivier (7) and St. Helena Olive Oil Co (8), but there is also Lucero Olive Oil and several others.

Culinary Institute of America

One of our favorite stops during our trip was the CIA (9). For food enthusiasts, the school offers a variety of tours, tastings and demonstrations, mostly during the weekend. If your visit falls during the week as ours did, you can still visit the large gift shop, Ghiradelhi Chocolate tasting center or one of the school’s restaurants. We stopped at the cafe and enjoyed a basket of organic cherry tomatoes direct from their garden.

Photo Challenge: Texture

I haven’t participated in the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge in quite a while, but this weekend’s trip to Yosemite has me in full-on picture taking mode. The theme this week is Texture, something this park has in abundance.

Here are a couple of my favorite Yosemite texture shots so far:

Fallen Tree at Mariposa Grove

Fallen Tree at Mariposa Grove Yosemite National Park

Detail Views: Boulder and Tree

texture-details

View of Half Dome from Glacier Point

Half Dome at Glacier Point

Yosemite Valley Near the Village

Yosemite Valley as seen near Yosemite Village

All photos were shot with a Canon 6D. The landscape views were shot with a Canon 24mm-70mm f/2.8 II lens and the detail views were shot with a Canon 50mm f1.4 lens.

 

Travelogue: A Beach Trip to the Gulf Coast

Planning an end-of-summer beach trip? View ideas for visiting the Orange Beach / Gulf Shore area with children.

A few weeks ago we took an extended weekend trip to the beach. Although we live in Texas and could have visited the beach along the Texas coast, we decided to head further east where the beaches tend to be nicer and better suited to swimming.

There are a lot of great destinations along the coast, but we decided on Orange Beach, which is in Alabama about 30 miles west of Pensacola, Florida. The beaches have beautiful white sand and the water is perfect for swimming.

We spent most of our time relaxing on the beach and didn’t seek out a lot of activities beyond lounging and playing in the sand. But we did explore the nearby area a bit, so I thought I would share some ideas for taking a beach trip to this part of the country with children.

Where to Stay

Planning an end-of-summer beach trip? See our picks for visiting the Gulf Coast area with children.
The beaches along the Gulf Shore, Orange Beach and Pensacola region are filled with affordable, family-friendly hotels and rental properties. We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn in Orange Beach. It’s located right on the beach so you can easily transition back and forth between beach and swimming pool. I highly recommend getting a room with a beach view. The photo on the left above is the view from our room. Sitting and watching the activity below was lots of fun for our children, who had only visited the beach once before this trip. You can also rent chairs on the beach, which is a nice option when you know you’re going to be coming and going and you don’t want to lose your spot (or leave your personal belongings to ‘reserve’ it) while you’re gone.

Where to Eat

Planning an end-of-summer beach trip? See our picks for visiting the Gulf Coast area with children.

When it came to meal time, we mostly looked to the area immediately near our hotel. Wintzell’s Oyster House definitely turned into our favorite dinner spot, and we ate there twice over the course of our trip. We also stopped at The Gulf on our way into town. I love this location. It’s right on the beach so the kids could play in the sand while we sat on sleek lounge furniture under umbrellas enjoying lunch. The kids’ favorite meal destination was Lulus. They have a large play area in the center of the 3-restaurant complex that includes a sandbox, an elevated rope course and many other just-for-kids activities.  Plan on spending awhile here. I wasn’t sure whether to include this location under ‘Where to Eat’ or ‘Things to Do.’ It’s a bit of both and the wait for a table seems intended to build in plenty of time for play. During our visit, we chose to eat at the upscale Lucy B. Goode (and the food was wonderful), but in retrospect I think the original restaurant, Lulus, would have been a more child-friendly option.

Things to Do

Planning an end-of-summer beach trip? See our picks for visiting the Gulf Coast area with children.

The beautiful beaches are reason enough to visit this part of the country with children, but the Gulf Coast area also has many bays that are perfect for taking boat rides. There are many options for renting boats and/or going on tours. We read about several dolphin tours and even saw a pirate-themed cruise pass by one afternoon. If we were staying longer, I definitely would have looked into the pirate cruise for the kids. Since our trip location was partly driven by visiting friends and family, we were able to spend an afternoon taking a ride on a friend’s boat. This was a highlight for Jason and Jenna, who loved sitting at the front while we raced along the water. 

This was our first trip to the Gulf Coast, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be our last.

Yosemite: A Photography Packing List

Trip to Yosemite: A photography packing list with top app recommendations for photographing Yosemite

Next week, we’re heading on a trip to California that will include a few stops, including Yosemite National Park. I’m crazy excited about visiting Yosemite, mostly for the opportunity to take pictures with my new camera.  Here’s my list of essentials for the trip:

The Basics

Lightweight jacket / Comfy walking shoes / A backpack

Serious Gear

My camera / My Favorite Lens / A Lens I Rented Here / A Grid System for Chargers, Batteries, etc.

Just For Fun

I recently bought some film for my vintage Spectra Polaroid camera. I haven’t had much success with it yet, but if I’m ever going to get some good shots, I’m thinking Yosemite just might be the place.

The Impossible Project Polaroid Film

Essential Apps

  • Canon EOS Remote: One of my favorite features about my new camera is the ability to connect to my phone. This app makes it all possible.
  • VSCO Cam: This has become my go-to app for editing and filtering my iPhone photos
  • The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite: I haven’t explored this app very much yet, but the contents look amazing. It is based on the author’s book of the same title and it provides comprehensive recommendations on where to shoot, settings to use, time of day, etc.
  • National Parks Yosemite Guide: This is the official guide to Yosemite and it provides a general guide to what to what to see and do in Yosemite along with maps for getting around.

 

Note: post contains affiliate links

 

Our Vacation Story on Steller

We just returned from vacation, and, on the way home, I realized it was the perfect time to try out the new storytelling app that I downloaded a couple of weeks ago. Its called Steller, and it allows you to create a digital storybook with your photos, videos and text. Our vacation was pretty awesome, and this app is a great way to capture our favorite moments.

You can view it by clicking the image below:

our vacation story on the new Steller app
Check out my story on Steller.