Trains. One thing we (and most travelers) love about Europe is the trains. We actually considered doing the entire trip by train, but we only had 3 weeks of vacation total, so we did fly around some. I had always wanted to take the Eurostar high speed train through the Chunnel (because why not?), so we opted for a detour on our way to Italy. Where better to celebrate our wedding anniversary than Paris?
At some point in the near future, I’m going to write an article about how we manage to do all this travel on a budget. My husband calls me the “extreme couponer of travel.” This particular expense, however, is definitely not one of those examples. Also, since he’s probably reading this, I’ll warn him to stop reading right now, because I never told him how much this little jaunt actually cost us.
Knowing we have such a wish list for future trips and that we’d likely only do it once, we decided to splurge on Business Premiere for $365. Per person. So, at more than $700, let me just say that it is the most expensive breakfast I’ve ever had. Honestly, other than the food, the business class car was, well, kinda meh.
Like business class flying, there are some perks. However, we never used the exclusive business class lounge (the trip takes less than 3 hours). Nor did we take advantage of the taxi booking service (which we totally should have, but that’s another story).
Shame on me for not doing better research. I’m fairly certain we could have gone with Standard Premiere ($152-$183 pp), which also boasts “spacious seats.” The only other advantage the Premiere class has is flexibility, but I’m pretty sure that even if I had to pay a a change journey fee, it wouldn’t be nearly difference in cost between Standard and Business. Of course, next time I’ll probably just go Standard ($76-$136 pp) and spend that extra nearly $300 pp on something else!
I know, I know… I said I didn’t think we’d ever go again; however, now I say we’re quite likely to take train. While not the pinnacle of luxury, wow boy, is it ever convenient! You can get to both St. Pancras and Gare du Nord stations easily (we take taxis because I pack way too much luggage to mess with subway systems), it’s less than three hours between London and Paris, and the ride is so wonderfully smooth, even at nearly 300 kilometers per hour (186 mph). And if you’re afraid of the Chunnel, don’t worry. Even then the train goes 160 kph/100mph and the Chunnel is only 31 miles long. You’re out of it before you really realize it and back to enjoying the beautiful countryside.
Once we said good-bye to the lovely Queen Mary 2, we set off on the first leg of our European adventure by train from Southampton to London. We had wrestled for quite some time about just hiring a car and visiting some of the wonderful bookstores in Wales; however, we knew The British Museum alone would eat an entire day.
Having been to London, I tried to let this leg be all about what my husband, Wayne wanted to see. Plus, I always have so much fun visiting places through other people’s eyes! One thing we did all across Europe was visit every interesting-looking art store we happened upon. We found a gem right up the street from The British Museum. I picked up some new sketch pens that I carried around for the next two weeks without using even once. ::shrugs::
I think I have 200 pictures from inside The British Museum that I’m happy to bore anyone with if they ask, but since the Rosetta Stone gets asked about most, here it is – not nearly as large as one might picture. Plus? Doctor Who money!
In addition to museums, we did a lot of your typical touristy stuff, like paying way too much for lunch at Harrod’s, riding the tube (Mind the Gap!), and enjoying traveling by both double-decker bus and by taxi.
If you’ve never been to London, don’t even bother with an Uber. Taxi cab drivers in London are the best in the world. They know absolutely everything and are the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. And don’t you just want to say you’ve ridden in a hackney carriage? #BiggerOnTheInside However, weather permitting, walking London rocks.
Now I’m told the weather can be dreary in England, but I’ve never experienced that, having enjoyed lovely weather each visit. I think we had some clouds and sprinkles one day out of four; however, even on a cloudy day, the gardens around London are beautiful. One of the benefits of being your own travel agent is really getting to make the trip your own, so I purposefully booked a hotel right around the corner from Kensington Palace so I could see those gardens every day.
If I had any advice to give on travel in London, I would suggest:
Four days is not nearly long enough for London. Next time we go for more than an airport layover, we’re taking two weeks, at least, with one whole week in London.
Do a river cruise, for sure. You see things from a perspective hard to obtain otherwise.
Take a taxi cab. Seriously.
Get out of London. The United Kingdom in its entirety will take your breath away.
T2 in London has tea that is NOT AVAILABLE in the United States. If I knew then, what I know now, I would have shipped myself a CASE of the Scots Breakfast tea.
In 2019, Wayne and I took a trip to Europe with our dear friends, Tess and Donald. Because I have a love of all things Art Deco and because, well, it’s a freaking OCEAN LINER, we decided to take the Queen Mary 2 across. Because we desperately needed some downtime from work and life, we completely unplugged the entire voyage. And, since I wasn’t carrying around my phone, we don’t have a ton of pictures. One morning, Wayne got up crazy early to get some pictures of the ship, so it looks like we were the only people on the ship! But OMZ the Art Deco! :::swoons:::
Some notable differences between a Cunard ocean liner and other cruises:
The service – While we didn’t actually have the place to ourselves, QM2 does not feel crowded like a cruise ship.
The decor and general upkeep – Art Deco gorgeous! I may have to redecorate my entire house now. #inspired
Activities – Some of what we did: watercolor painting lessons, fencing lessons, participated in a fashion show, had proper afternoon tea, enjoyed a book club, indulged in the Godiva lounge, sampled port flights, went ballroom dancing (well, watching really – everyone was so good!)
PLUS: The spa, the pool, and (yes, it really has one) the planetarium.
A whole new meaning to “formal night” – There are parts of the ship (basically all but one deck) you’re not allowed to enter on formal nights if you don’t have the proper attire. They’re not joking.
Entertainment – With the exception of one (omg they were really really bad) singing duo, the entertainment was great. I don’t recall other cruises having guest lectures.
Alcohol – or lack thereof. One of the things I hate most about a Carnival cruise? Drunk people. Not on QM2. While most do enjoy a snifter of brandy or a martini after dinner, getting drunk would simply be gauche.
The Roaring 20s:
Would we have changed anything? Not much.
We went from NYC to Southampton on the first week of our trip. We all agree if (when) we go again, we would take the Southampton to NYC direction after visiting Europe, instead. Going from west to east, you lose an hour each day. Plus, Wayne and I were spent two weeks in Europe after the week-long voyage. We could have used the rest on the way home! And going east to west, we’d have one hour added each day; thus, we would have skipped the jet leg completely.
Spend more girl time!! Tess and I were overly (unnecessarily) concerned about our husbands getting bored and didn’t get to spend that much time just the two of us. The first thing we wanted to do when we got back was plan our next girlfriends’ cruise (no offense, boys)!
Select the second seating – We had the first seating, and with the formal nights, I had to be in the salon by around 3 PM to be ready for dinner. That really cuts into the day.
If you’re considering a transatlantic, and you’re not going all out for a Royal or Grand Duplex Queens Grills suite, I recommend a standard balcony room at the Britannia level. We were on the fence about Britannia club or Princess Grills, but the food is all the same and the service at all levels is white glove.
Since we will be on vacation for our anniversary, we ordered our gift early – a little something to have fun with building up to the trip. I am extremely pleased with the quality of the product and the customer service we got from Conquest Maps.
The sleek, modern look of the map is accentuated by edging that gives the feel like it’s leather-bound. It has canvas stretched over cork on a wooden frame, which makes the map sturdy, without being overly cumbersome to hang (it weighs only around 12 pounds).
If you are hoping to flag every city or state you visit, this is probably not the map you need. Even at the larger 36″ x 24″ the map area detail itself is really more suitable for tracking countries. They do carry a nice United States map for folks interested in tracking states visited.
We found personalization easy enough; however, the wide-open design form field might overwhelm someone without a design background. Once ordered, we had proofs from the company within a day, along with some recommendations, and updates of the changes within another day.
In addition to email updates along the way, we received text messages when our map was shipped, when it was out for delivery, and when it had been delivered. The map came well-packaged and arrived completely damage-free.
The map comes with two different colored blue pins. While pretty, we opted to also purchase three different metallic colored pins that complement the modern look of the map. This will allow us to mark our individual travel before we met and our travel together since. We may pick up one more metallic color to use in planning and marking our future trips. We’ll likely start thinking of where to go on the next big trip during our upcoming vacation.
New York City has been a favorite destination of mine for decades and it’s fun for me to see how the city has changed over the years. I know a lot of people who don’t want to go to NYC today because they’re old enough to remember its not-so-distant dark past. In the 70s and 80s, the dangerous city warned people away as it hovered near bankruptcy, cutting firefighters and police officers to the quick and cautioning people that being out after 6 PM meant risking your life. Looking back, I should have been afraid, too, but having earned a lifetime membership in the International Thespian Society as a kid, MY New York got its heartbeat from its theatre. It never occurred to me that maybe New York wasn’t the place to travel with kids.
Luckily (and with a great deal of strong leadership and hard work), real change from a tourism perspective began to show around the late 90s. By the time our older (now 26 and 28 years old) kids were old enough to start appreciating travel, taking kids to New York was considered relatively safe, so long as you took certain safeguards. Interestingly, the first time I took my kids to New York was the first time I ever felt a pang of nervousness and a genuine awareness of which neighborhoods we visited at which time of day. We avoided Central Park and only used the subway once (just to show them what it was like).
Today, I have no qualms whatsoever taking kids to New York. Obviously, parents must take the same general, common-sense precautions they should when traveling with children to any big city, but I would, and have, visit all five boroughs with kids. Perhaps a sign of the times, however — we had to have an impromptu Internet Safety lesson when we realized our stalker was tracking our every move on our son’s (now private) Instagram account. While we’re well-practiced at obscuring personal details to throw the stalker off our scent (I’m rarely where the Internet says I am at the time of my posts), we had neglected to share these good online habits with the kids. Once we got back off the grid, we all felt perfectly safe everywhere we went in the city.
Now we have learned over the course of many family vacations that life is easier of you settle a couple of things before you ever leave home. One, every child gets a set amount of spending money that they may spend however they wish. This eliminates any “will you buy me… (ice cream, toy, etc.)” conversations and meltdowns. Two, have each person select one “must-do” thing that interests them, and then fit in other small things around those plans as we had time and interest. This helps a lot with age differences and with the inertia that comes from trying to force everyone to agree on everything. Generally we find that everyone ends up picking something that everyone enjoys, even if it isn’t something everyone would inherently choose themselves.
Emma selected the Central Park Zoo. I absolutely adore Central Park – a love that grew out of my running hobby, but like a lot of “touristy” places in New York, I had never been to the Central Park Zoo. Tip learned the hard way: if you go to the self-serve kiosk, you can only buy the “Total Zoo Experience,” if if you just want the zoo (and petting zoo), skip the kiosk and get in line.
The zoo itself if pretty small so it only took us an hour or so to see everything. We spent the rest of our afternoon exploring the rest of Central Park. The kids enjoyed Alice and Wonderland, but seemed to enjoy climbing all the rocks the most.
You never know who you’ll run into in Central Park
When the Central Park skating pond isn’t frozen…
Playing in Central Park
Harwood said he wanted “food” – meaning anything ethnic and/or not easily found in the South, so Harwood got to recommend where we ate. In addition to the massive amount of street food, Harwood also chose: Serendipity 3, Max Brenner’s, “real” NY Pizza delivery, Cafe Lalo, Sprinkle’s Cupcakes, and Tony’s Di Napoli. This was great fun, but be forewarned of the 10 pounds you’ll gain if you give a male teenager with no metabolism cap all food decision authority.
My choice was a no brainer since my Yankees were playing the Red Sox. It was off to Yankee Stadium, baby! The lesson learned on this one: if you’re going to take kids, consider an afternoon game. Poor Emma feel asleep somewhere around the 6th inning since the game didn’t even begin until 7:30.
Exploring the Hayden Planetarium
My husband selected the American Natural History Museum that, despite the crowds built up by the afternoon (driven indoors by the rain, I presume), was a huge hit with the tween, the teen, and the adults. In hindsight, we would do museums on weekdays and other not-as-touristy stuff on weekends. The cafe is expensive for not particularly good food, so I recommend hopping out to the slew of food trucks lining the streets around the museum for lunch instead.
Even at the fast clip we have in museums, we didn’t see but maybe half of all the museum has to offer and we were there when the museum opened. It really is worth carving out an entire day AND planning out what you want to see so you know what you can leave for the next trip.
A quick thought on being there when it opens: don’t bother. The line is deceptively long (seriously the place is gigantic) and if you wait another 30 minutes, you’ll walk right in. We experienced the same at the Smithsonian Museums in Washington DC.
In addition to our pre-selected “must-dos,” we all agreed on a couple of places we wanted to see. In all the times I’d been to New York, I’d never seen the Statue of Liberty, so we carved out a morning to visit, along with a trip to Ellis Island. We enjoyed the boat ride and did a small amount of sightseeing, but I have to say, like with many places that solely exist to draw tourists, I can probably live the rest of my life without feeling the need to do it again. We had intended to look up my grandpa who came through Ellis Island from England as a kid, but found out you can access all the same information online for free without waiting in line (no, there’s no giant book you flip through – it’s on the same Internet you have at home).
We had much more fun wandering through the stores selling all the things the kids love. We hit Dillon’s Candy Bar, the Nintendo Store, The Lego Store, Strand Books, and a group favorite, Forbidden Planet. We collectively chose to skip stuff like the Empire State Building, Top of the Rock, and the 9/11 Memorial. I’ve been to each of these and can say I’ve never seen a kid who didn’t look bored there. With so many (fun!) kid-friendly things to do, there’s really no reason to stick to tourist traps.
One of Emma’s favorite local amusements was the Hippo Playground in Riverside Park, since hippos are her favorite animal. We thought about making the trip to Coney Island to hit up Luna Park, but that train ride takes OMZ fo-ev-ah, so we decided to wait for another time when we could see the mermaid parade. The list of things we did not get to do is long and the kids are already asking when we’ll go back. I go at least 3 or 4 times a year for various reasons, so I’m sure they’ll get another chance soon. I’m thinking they need to see New York at Christmastime – that’s when the city is REALLY magical.
It’s almost time to say goodbye to summer, so we’re taking one last trip to the beach. I hesitated a good bit before agreeing to the trip — so much suffering going on in Houston and Florida from Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. My friends in these areas insist they’re okay, including the ones in Avon Park who are still without power. But they won’t leave because of the looters and there is little good I can do down there right now other than be completely in the way. My husband convinced me to take a romantic weekend getaway to relax and shake off the worries of the world for a few days.
We’re going to one of our favorite places, Hilton Head. While packing, I started thinking about the big coastal towns in South Carolina and how they all have completely different personalities. If you’ve never been, allow me to introduce them to you.
At the top of the state is Myrtle Beach (and North Myrtle Beach). Since so much of our family is from that area, we end up spending a lot of time there. Myrtle Beach is a tourist town. Think Pigeon Forge, Branson Missouri, or the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, but with an ocean instead of mountains or a giant waterfall as its focal point. If you get bored, there’s no helping you.
Charleston sits just south of the center of the coast and if you’re looking for someplace that oozes Southern, this is it. I prefer the beaches over Myrtle Beach simply because they’re less crowded. The charming downtown area has a crazy number of amazing restaurants and some touristy stuff, but not like the loud “WELCOME TO VEGAS” feel of Myrtle Beach.
The southernmost spot on the South Carolina coast is Hilton Head Island and easily my favorite of the three. My husband and I visited a couple of times when we first dated, but then my husband had a horrible experience there and refused to go back for several years. Thankfully, he eventually disassociated the place from that experience and we returned, loving it even more than we did before.
Where one visits Myrtle Beach to play and Charleston to “experience,” one goes to Hilton Head to relax. Everything runs a little bit slower in this calm and laid back place.We like the Omni Hilton Head Resort, but there are plenty of fantastic resorts to choose from. Savannah Georgia is only an hour away, making for an awesome day trip. Among my top suggested Hilton Head to-dos: The bike trails, Pinckney Island, shopping the outlet malls, some of the most challenging golf courses I’ve ever seen, and my favorite — absolutely nothing. That’s our plan for this weekend. Hang out by the pool, spend some good quality time together, read a book, maybe write some, and a whole lot of napping. Bon Voyage!
Marathon season is in full swing. Don’t worry about how you’ll get to the race—take Amtrak and focus on setting a new PR instead! Boston Marathon Held in early spring, the Boston Marathon’s historic course starts on Main Street in the rural New England town of Hopkinton and finishes near the John Hancock Tower in…
We are finally home from our family vacation to Arizona. While I’m certain I would visit my brother and sister-in-law regularly no matter where they lived, I can admit that I appreciate that they happen to live somewhere that’s wonderful to visit. I’m sure he says the same about me when he visits and gets to hang out on the ocean. 🙂
My brother and I try to get together at least once a year, either by him coming to South Carolina, my going to Arizona, or a shared vacation meeting up somewhere. People who say they’re close to their siblings, yet go years or decades without seeing them, completely baffle me. I’m not judging, just confused. Even my employees who have to travel 9,000 miles to see their families in India manage to do so every couple of years; however, I’ve seen others who can’t be bothered with a four hour train ride. Life is too short to keep putting off that visit until next year!
This year, we took my in-laws along. We had a long-promised birthday gift vacation that my father-in-law hadn’t been able to accept due to health issues, but this year he was determined that he and my mother-in-law would cross the Grand Canyon off their bucket list, despite his recent stroke. Once again, life is too short to put that bucket list item off year after year. They were not disappointed. It is gift-from-God majestic.
On our Grand Canyon days, we stayed at the historic El Tovar, quite literally on the canyon’s South rim. The rooms themselves, like many historic hotels, were simple, but nicely decorated. Because of the thick fog hanging in the canyon the first afternoon, we spent a lot of time chatting with other tourists as we warmed ourselves by the main lobby’s enormous fireplace. One note on the Grand Canyon? Don’t bother with the Grand Canyon Railway. It is incredibly overpriced for the experience.
Dinner at El Tovar was great, though. My brother had warned me to make dinner reservations and I’m glad we did – the dining room fills up even in the dead of winter! I very much enjoyed the roasted half duck with cherry merlot sauce, but I don’t believe any of us cared for either of the two types of rice side dish that came with our entrees. Breakfast, on the other hand, could not have been lovelier. While not a perfect view, the dining room does provide a nice way to watch the sunrise and see the colors on the canyon walls.
We spent our Sedona days at the beautiful and scenicJunipine Resort, about eight miles from town. Sedona is to the western mountain desert as Gatlinburg is to the Smoky Mountains and Myrtle Beach is to the coast — absolutely loaded with tourist stuff and a whole lot of family fun. We did not take a pink jeep tour but we did visit the Chapel of the Holy Cross (whose gift shop is larger than its chapel – not kidding). Wonderful views.
The last part of the week we spent back in Phoenix, where, besides the Grand Canyon and visiting with family, we had the highlight of our trip in spending an afternoon on the Desert Belle on Saguaro Lake. We also enjoyed the Desert Botanical Garden, Butterfly Wonderland, and, of course one of our favorites, Old Town Scottsdale. If you’ve never been, but like art, put Scottsdale on your bucket list. While you’re there, be sure to visit The Sugar Bowl. Yum.
My brother also introduced us to some of his favorite restaurants. Although according to my brother, Claim Jumper really messed up by removing steak chili from its menu, it turned out to be my father-in-law’s favorite meal of the trip. In between all of that, my mother-in-law fit in a massage and hair styling, I got my nails did, and the boys went shopping for guns.
On the way home we detoured through Washington DC just in time for the Women’s March. I didn’t get to see anyone I knew there, despite having at least 10 friends and relatives participating. It was fun to watch my Facebook feed as my friends from around the country posted pictures from their various cities (Raleigh, Lansing, Knoxville, New York, Columbia, just to name a few).
I’ll save the political stuff for another post, but I will say that this day of togetherness and solidarity was the perfect end to a wonderful vacation enjoyed with people I love and respect. Please – don’t be so wrapped up in your own life or work or politics or anything else that keeps you from spending time with your people or with God. If you wait for a wedding or a funeral to have either around, you may miss them both.