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Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

23 Jun

Family vacations for my crew are all about serious adventure, exhausting the kids, and having some new experiences along the way.  I strive every day of vacation to play hard and exhaust my kids physically and mentally.  I aim to stimulate their minds to total exhaustion.  At the end of the day, I hope that they are so tired and overstimulated that they forget to bicker and are forced into a sleep trance by 9 p.m. (which leaves me about 2 hours of quiet adult time to relax).  Flashing back to last summer, we took an adventure to Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica.  Hands down, this is the most beautiful place I’ve been so far, absolutely breathtaking.  Really this place had it all…plenty to explore, beautiful beaches, amazing people, and tons of adventure.

Manuel Antonio is one of the most popular National Parks in Costa Rica and thought by many to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.  It sits on the Pacific Ocean, and it is where the jungle meets the sea.  The monkeys and lizards roam freely on the beach, giving an amazing show and entertaining travelers several times a day.  The beaches are great for surfing,  horseback riding was amazing, and the dining was fantastic.  While the kids would vote the playtime on the beach was the highlight, I think I vote the zip lining as my highlight.  I have to admit that seeing my middle schooler (that knows everything) a little frightened was a bit entertaining.  If you’re reading this Son, stop now.  You might not like the next picture.  Overall for family adventures, Manuel Antonio has it all.

The lodging options are endless in the Manuel Antonio area.  There are rustic hostels to elaborate villas.  Since I was traveling family style and watching a budget is always a concern, I found our dream vacation spot right in the middle. After many hours of research and planning, I decided on a private home in the Tulemar Gardens gated community.  Best decision ever.  The waves on their private beach were perfect and the kids loved the boogie boards and sand toys.  There were cocktails served on the sand and the monkeys were always around to entertain you during the day.  The kids were happy (and exhausted at the end of the day) and I was relaxed.

After a full day of fun in the sun, we settled in to our comfortable home to enjoy a dinner on the patio while watching the sun set.  Casa Panorama was truly a perfect spot for a family or group of friends. Whether we were preparing a great meal in the gourmet kitchen or sitting in the hot tub, this was the perfect home away from home.

So, families looking for a big adventure to exhaust your own little monkeys, Manuel Antonio has it all.  There was always somewhere to explore, waves to ride, and monkeys to watch.

WARNING:  I am not a professional videographer.  Actually, I’m a pretty crappy amateur videographer.   So, if you are prone to motion sickness, watch this at your own risk.  At least it will give you a visual of my monkeys being entertained by some real monkeys and amazing scenery of the jungle meeting the sea.

Belize Getaway

15 Jun

In honor of my upcoming family vacation to Belize this summer, I’m feeling inspired to share my amazing experiences in Belize for Flashback Friday.  Just about 3 years ago, somehow I convinced the grandparents to watch my kids for a week (I’m sure this commitment was made after a fairly large consumption of wine) so my husband and I could get away for an extended break.  We took full advantage with a 9 day break from the kids and daily routines of life.  We headed to Belize with no kids, explored 2 very different regions, and had an absolute trip of a lifetime.  I’m not really quite sure how I ended up taking our 1st and only week away ever  to this tiny Central American country, but it was a decision that made travel my passion. Many people would ask why Belize?  I can only imagine that I came across it by chance and our airline flight miles made the final decision.  Perfect fate.

Let me first start off by explaining my family.  I grew up traveling a bit and enjoyed the family adventures from my childhood.  Still to this day, my parents are a couple of crazy jet setting retired folks.  Travel and adventure is in my blood.  My husband on the other hand, not so much.  He grew up in a small town alongside the corn fields and hog farms of the Midwest.  His idea of a travel was taking a 2 hour road trip and an international destination to him was Tijuana.  So when I booked our 1 and only getaway, since becoming parents, to Belize I was a going out on a limb.  (I say one and only, because I was pretty confident that the grandparents would NEVER do it again after spending a week with our “angels”).

As we were landing into this simple and relatively poor country, my husband was busy looking and watching out the window.  He looked at me in shock and said something along the lines of  “where the hell are you taking me?  Why didn’t we just go to Hawaii?”  At that moment, I promised him it would be great, but I really crossed my fingers and hoped more than you can imagine that my research was correct.  I was pretty confident in my planning of our Belize trip, but I knew that my role in my family’s future for vacation planning was riding on this decision.

Well, it all worked out and overly exceeded our expectations.  This tiny little country in Central America is a true gem.  Situated on the Caribbean, you get a Latin American feel, with a flair of the Caribbean culture, and add a dash of Mennonites (yes, as in the German religious folks that don’t use electricity).  Unique, diverse, and amazing.

We started our trip off with a 90 minute drive to the Ka’ana Resort in San Ignacio (a region near the Guatemalan border).  We were stunned by the beauty and detail that was put into this resort.  Over the next 4 days, we explored and learned.  We visited Mayan ruins, caves, and dined on some of the most amazing foods we had ever experienced.  You truly felt that you were the only people at this fabulous boutique resort and I loved every second of living the life of a celebrity.

After our Jungle adventure, we hopped on a quick 20 minute puddle jumper off to the island of Ambergris Caye.  This busy little town still has dirt roads, filled with golf carts, restaurants, and gift shops.  The Caribbean Sea was as blue as pictures showed and our hotel, Victoria House, was perfectly situated just far away enough from town for relaxation, yet close enough to enjoy the hustle and bustle.

The last half of our trip was spent lounging on the beach, exploring the town of San Pedro, enjoying oceanfront massages, and of course taking advantage of Belize’s incredible water activities.  Being that I am not a scuba diver,  snorkeling and fishing  filled our desire for new adventures.  Under the sea was better than I could of imagined…sting rays, sharks, and bright colored beautiful fish.

So, I’m off again to the beautiful country of Belize, but this time with 4 wild, crazy, and adventure seeking kids.  I know it won’t be nearly as relaxing (actually it won’t be relaxing at all), but there will be plenty of adventures and stories to tell.  Reflecting back…I think I picked the perfect place for our summer adventure.  More posts to come, but with a wild & crazy family twist!  As they say in Belize…you’d better Belize it!

Mexican Vacation…Family Style!

7 May

With summer approaching, I feel that I must share what I consider the perfect easy tropical getaway.  With my crazy busy life this past week, I’m posting a “Flashback Friday” memory on a Monday instead.  I’ll just call this one my “Magnificent Mexican Monday”, in honor of Cinco de Mayo perhaps.  Better later than never, right?  So, all you  families out there looking for that last minute summer getaway, here’s an idea for you…

A tropical vacation…sipping an ice cold fruity drink while relaxing under a palm tree.  Hot days full of adventure and warm summer nights, all while enjoying fabulous local foods.  This is the type of trip we all dream about.  But, in the reality of real life, with multiple kids, and a busy family life, making this happen can be tough.

The reality is that many tropical destinations are not easy vacations.  They can be hard to get to, get quite pricey, and some destinations even require special vaccinations.  This is especially hard when traveling with a large family.  One of my absolute favorite places for an easy and reasonable dream vacation is the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.  Direct flights from most major cities and no special pre-travel vaccinations needed.  It is reasonably priced, has great dining, beautiful beaches, and more activities than you could imagine.  It is touristy enough that you have all the modern comforts, yet it still has the feel of a smaller fishing village.  Also, the summer is the low season, so you can really rock it on getting a great deal.

Flashing back to the peak of the recession a couple of years ago.  I was in search of finding the perfect family vacation and taking a week away from real life.  I needed the flights to be easy and staying on a budget was important.  After pricing out a few U.S. trips and realizing how expensive that option became, I started moving south.  With the help of some saved up frequent flyer miles and flexible dates, Cancun was the way to go.  Knowing that I am not a huge fan of the huge mega resorts, but still love having the option of a different restaurant every night, I decided on Playa del Carmen.  Just an hour drive from Cancun, on a beautifully constructed highway, this was the perfect first international trip for our young family.  We were able to score a great beachfront condo and were just steps from the famous 5th Avenue promenade.  We hit a local grocery store for snacks and beer, avoided the huge tourist traps, and found some great unique excursions that didn’t have to break the bank.  We visited a Mayan ruin, snorkeled in cenotes, fished, swam, and overall just relaxed.  Our tour guides treated us like friends, showed us the best the area had to offer, and were an amazing help with our kids.  It doesn’t get much better than relaxing on a boat and eating fresh guacamole while the kids are fishing their little hearts out.

The locals of Playa del Carmen were some of the most family friendly people I have ever encountered!  They catered to my family and actually seemed to enjoy my free spirited (another way of saying wild and crazy) children.  We played in the rain during a Tropical Depression (perfect opportunity to take a break from the sun and teach the kids about bar hopping).  We let the kids indulge in soda, stay up late, sing on the street corners, and run around in Mexican wrestling masks.  We totally let loose…family style!!

Red Fish Lake, Idaho

26 Mar

Better late than never, the saying goes.  I had planned on writing this post for Flashback Friday, but things got busy on the home front.  I was preparing for a quick grown-up trip over the weekend (story to come) and the preparations took over my Friday.  So, I’ll just call this one a Magnificent Monday Memory…

Red Fish Lodge, in the Sawtooth National Forest of Idaho is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.  I can say that I had spent a fair amount of time in Idaho before this trip.  I always thought of Idaho as just a crossing point from the amazing mountains of Utah to the beauty of Montana.  I wasn’t totally convinced on making the long trek for just a weekend visit to hang out in Idaho.  Was I ever wrong!  I was in absolute in awe.  Between the natural beauty of this lake front property and the picturesque design of the resort, it was almost surreal.  Everything was built from logs, spread out, and as cute as can be.  They have a lodge and rustic individual cabins spread throughout the property.

When we arrived after a LONG day of driving, there was live music playing on the front lawn.  The grown ups were enjoying an afternoon beer, while the kids ran around eating ice cream and just being kids.  Red Fish Lodge looked like one of those camps you saw in a disney movie from a generation ago.  The kind of place that you really thought didn’t exist, except on a movie set.  I knew at that point, it was going to be an amazing weekend.  There was something for everyone.  Boating, fishing, “insane” mountain biking trails (according to my husband who had a quick lesson in how unskilled of a rider he really was), hiking, and relaxing.  There was an outdoor grill and an ice cream stand.  Perfection!  My oldest son, fished his heart out, while the youngest of the bunch spent his days carrying the tackle box and pushing the girls from the dock.  He renamed himself “Pusher-woosher” in fact.  The kids rode their bikes, played on the shallow lake and explored to their hearts content.  The kids were dirty, messy, and exhausted every night!

Red Fish Lodge is a hidden gem, high in the mountains of Idaho.  What a great find!  The only regret we had was not staying longer.

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

17 Mar

Costa Rica boasts a reputation of being an ultimate destination for adventure seeking travelers.  Being the Mom to 4 active, adventurous, and energy filled kids, I felt that this could make the perfect vacation.  Wow, was I ever right!  The only problem with Costa Rica is that there is so many great family friendly places to visit, it’s hard to decide.  I spent hours researching locations and took into account so many different factors.  I was seeking out an area that would keep our kids entertained and hoped to find a hotel that did not just cater to newlyweds or retired couples.  Also, the price needed to be reasonable, we are not really interested in tapping into our kids’ college funds to pay for a 3 night hotel stay.

After hours of research, I decided that my family would explore the Arenal Volcano region, while staying at the Los Lagos Resort.  La Fortuna is a small town about 3 hours from SJO and sits right at the base of the Arenal Volcano.  While the volcano was not currently active at the time, it was still a great sight to see.  The general area is filled with amazing and entertaining activities that kept the whole family busy.  We hiked through the hanging bridges, where saw amazing bugs, birds and reptiles (a dream come true for little boys).  We walked down several hundred steps to view the spectacular La Paz waterfall and even took a quick swim in the river .  Also in the area is the El Silencio trail where we were able see hear howler monkeys howling in the distance at dusk.  I have to admit it was a little eerie, but hey  it worked as a great discipline method for the rest of the trip.  We could just bring up staying the night in the jungle with the monkeys and the kids immediately did as we asked.  Yes, I do use bribery and false threats at times as my discipline method.  Fine parenting moment.

Los Lagos Resort ended up being the perfect base camp for our family.  It is by far, not the most luxurious hotel in the area, but it is not anywhere near a budget hotel either.  I’m always in search of hotels that have a good mix of people also.  I would go nuts at a hotel that was so full of kids where it felt like a daycare center, yet being surrounded by a bunch of honeymooners would be equally tough.  My goal of traveling with my family isn’t to scare every young couple out of ever procreating (and trust me, my family could have the potential of doing just that).  This hotel was the perfect mix of all types of people, exactly what I love.  The rooms were clean and the bugs were minimal in our room.  Remember, you are in the rainforest of Costa Rica.  There was an outdoor patio, so we could enjoy the morning with our coffee while the kids slept a little later each morning.  The room rates were reasonable and included an amazing breakfast buffet in the price.  We slept great each night and started off each day  with a full stomach!

While the rooms were great, the grounds of  Los Lagos were even better.  There were several hot springs at a variety of temperatures to explore, three watersides, all sorts of structures to jump from, and a swim up bar.  What more could I ask for?  They had a crocodile, frog, ant and  butterfly farm, as well as a hike from the property up near the volcano.  Part 1 of Costa Rica was absolutely amazing and we can’t wait to visit again.  As they say in Costa Rica, “Pura Vida”!

Tales of Yellowstone with Kids

9 Mar

Yellowstone is an amazing part of the America West.  Being the first National Park in America, it is by far one of those destinations that we all dream about visiting.  How could you not?  The amazing rolling hills, wild animals roaming the range, and the infamous Old Faithful.  I too, had the same exact idea.  I really wanted to experience Yellowstone in every way possible.  I hoped to someday take in the sights, the smells, and the sounds of rivers and birds.  I desired to enjoy the cool evenings, while observing the amazing star lit sky.  A couple of years back, I did some research and off the family set to discover the American West icon of Yellowstone National Park.

Real camping, as in tents, is not really my thing.  I love the idea of camping and the great outdoors, but for some reason I just can’t bring myself to sleeping in a tent.  The thought of cramming 6 people in an area the size of a bathroom, surrounded by a thin shield of fabric, seems a little primitive to me.  RV rentals for our family are the way to go.  It is just like a small hotel on wheels.  You can experience the outdoors when the weather cooperates and sleep in a heated and bear proof shelter.  So there it is, I planned and we set out for another crazy adventure.  4 kids, 2 grown ups and a  dog, loaded up and ready to experience a piece of America’s finest .  Bikes, scooters, fire wood, toys, and enough food for a small army.  Oh, I can’t forget 2 wardrobes for each person because of the unstable weather predictions and all the stuff for a mobile birthday party as well.  We were loaded and ready for some fun.

The journey began with a quick stop at Bear World in Rexberg, Idaho.  This ended up being the highlight of the trip.  Bear World was amazing!  We drove through their reserve enjoying the animals wandering freely and coming right up to the windows.  There was a petting zoo, rides for the little ones, and our birthday princess even was lucky enough to help feed a baby bear.  The kids could have spent half a day there.  Looking back, we should have spent more time enjoying this little gem, but I was running on a schedule.

As we pulled into our campground, we set up camp and watched the dooming dark clouds slowly cover the sky.  From the corner of our eyes, we couldn’t help but notice the biggest motorhome we’ve ever seen pull into the camp site next to us.  Amazing!  This must have been a coach for a celebrity.  Was I ever wrong!  It housed an older couple and 6 standard poodle show dogs. This was a complete circus act in my opinion, but who am I to judge?  The owners of this pack of dogs fenced in a large area and  somehow took a liking to my 4 kids (I guess if you own this many dogs you must be patient).  The kids were entertained and happy all evening and they surely had their animal fix for the day!

We slept great all night in our heated RV and didn’t even awake to the bear destroying a cooler on the other side of the campground (another reason why I’m not fond of tents).  Early the next morning, we awoke to a wintery white dusting of snow, but beautiful blue skies.  Not much snow on this late summer morning, but enough to know that the air was COLD!  Off we set to explore, learn, and take in the beauty of Yellowstone National Park.  The next 40 miles were long and slow.  Slow and long.  We followed behind car after car after car.  In between asking “are we there yet?” 4000 times, we kept busy scoping the countryside looking for anything that moves.  Then around a bend it all came to a dead stop.  Cars and people were on the side of the road, so of course we followed.  We assumed it was something amazing.  Through the shivering, whining, tears, and about 30 more minutes we finally spotted a very cute and small, yet unimpressive bird.  The European and Asian tourists were snapping photos and all of the retired folks had out their binoculars and bird books.  My kids were less than excited.  I realized at that moment, we should have told them that Bear World was Yellowstone.  After a couple more of these stops and a quick walk through a few natural hot springs, we finally arrived at Old Faithful.  It was packed, so we found a seat and waited.  We waited and waited and faithfully it happened and in 2 minutes it was over.  No fireworks, no music, no F-16’s.  The grown-ups appreciated this amazing natural sensation, but our Disneyland generation of kids were far from thrilled.  We made a quick stop at the gift shop, stocked up on souvenirs and away we went. The dark clouds were on the horizon again.  We realized that we had 4 squirmy kids needing to burn some real energy.  We went back to camp to enjoy the indoor pool and playground at the West Yellowstone KOA.  We ended the night with some more poodle puppy love, s’mores, another dusting of snow and luckily no encounters with any bears.

The last day we decided to skip the National Park and enjoy the small and quaint town of West Yellowstone.   We enjoyed ice cream & comfort food, saw a few real cowboys, and had a blast taking pictures with some life sized stuffed animals.

Bear World was the highlight of this adventure and the huge indoor swimming pool was close behind.  I was able to experience the the beauty of Yellowstone and Old Faithful, while crossing it off my bucket list.  The kids remember their fond memories of this trip, which I’m sure were different than mine (6 poodles groomed to look like a cross between a lion and camel didn’t do it for me).  Traveling with kids is all about a little give and take, a ton of patience, but still an amazing trip for all!

Olvera Street, Los Angeles

2 Mar

Being a California native, every year we take at least one trip out to Southern California to visit family and friends.  We have done all of the theme parks and beaches, but sometimes we are looking for something a little different.  Being a family of 6, amusement parks can get quite pricey and even we can get beached out.  I love to plan different adventures, where the kids will learn a little something and have a blast doing it.  Flashing back a few years, we decided to explore Los Angeles. We found a great Los Angeles vacation rental and set out to explore another side of Southern California.  One of our favorite adventures was Olvera Street in Los Angeles. Really, it was the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon in the beautiful California weather.  Great food, awesome people watching, live music, a great photo opportunity, and of course a cold beer on the patio.  The kids loved picking some special trinkets from the  souvenir carts and even learned some great history about one of the oldest areas of Los Angeles.  It was like a mexican vacation in an afternoon.  What a great day and a must do for our family again this summer!

Can this picture be any funnier?  Fake mustache, sombreros, ponchos, banjos, and a donkey…