Why not Amsterdam?

Those of you who know me in the real world, have by now heard that I’ve decided to spend an unprecedented five weeks in Amsterdam this summer with my two kids (who are now a fairly travel-ready 12 and 14).  My son is at an age where he’s not interested in summer camps, and I was afraid he would play video games all summer if we stayed home.  An extreme solution, but there you go.

Friends reacted in one of two ways to the news: they either expressed profound jealousy or scrunched their noses and said, “Why Amsterdam?”

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Why Amsterdam?

Yes, five whole, entire weeks in Amsterdam (though we’ll probably do lots of day trips by train and one longer mini-vacation by car down the Rhine River Valley to Strasbourg and/or Colmar).  Here’s why:

1.  This video!

Okay, I didn’t actually see this video before I booked our trip.  But I did watch it multiple times with the kids to get them pumped up for our trip.  Lots of credit to the people at Visit Holland for the entire “Holland.  The Original Cool.” video series.  It’s fun and funny.

2.  I’ve never been to Amsterdam

Oh how I love traveling in Europe!  Who doesn’t?  But there’s one problem: because we lived in England for two years when the kids were young, I’ve seen most of it.  So have my kids, though they are quick to point out that places they don’t remember don’t really count.  Whatever.

Other big cities like London and Paris would have made great home bases for this trip, but I’ve visited both lots and lots and LOTS of times.  Amsterdam was new territory, and I was definitely craving new territory.

3.  It’s a cool, human-scale city

After much trial and error, I have discovered that I am happiest in medium-sized cities.  Big cities are exciting, but exhausting.  There are So Many Important Things To Do and See that sometimes it doesn’t even feel like a vacation.  Picturesque villages, on the other hand, can be pretty to look at…for about 20 minutes.  In between are those Goldilocks destinations that are charming, but without too much crime, congestion, and traffic.  I think Amsterdam is one of those places.  I’ll report back on whether I’m right.

4.  Awesome transportation connections

Another criteria for this trip was awesome transportation connections, and you can get to lots of great destinations from Amsterdam’s easy-to-navigate Central Station.  Let’s say the weather here gets a little iffy.  We can hop on a train to Paris, Berlin, Bruges, or Maastricht.  I may wind up renting a car for part of our trip (since train tickets for three people aren’t always cheaper than a rental car), but if I don’t, we can still cover a lot of ground.  Or not.  We’re still deciding.

5.  Iedereen spreekt Engels (everyone speaks English)

I speak English and Spanish well, and understand French well enough not to cause an international incident.  The advantage of the Netherlands over places like Italy, the Czech Republic, and Croatia is that 85% of people here speak English.  I don’t always shrink from language barriers, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t relaxing to know that pretty much anyone I ask for help can help me.

So, what are your favorite things to see and do in and around Amsterdam and the Netherlands?  We landed yesterday and are open to suggestions!

All posts in this series:

Why not Amsterdam
Getting to Amsterdam: Even the easy way was kind of hard
The Mystery of the Giant Pink Penis Lamp
Wait.  How long is a kilometer again?

June 3rd, 2014 | by Jamie Pearson 2 comments


My kid is ready to retire to Beaches Turks and Caicos

IMG_0883[1]When I was a younger lass, I visited the Turks & Caicos.  I was blown away by its natural beauty, rustic charm and English sensibilities.  I’ve always wanted to go back.

So when Beaches Turks & Caicos Resort Villages and Spa invited Chet and me to come take a look at their newest addition to the property, the Key West Luxury Village, I jumped at the chance.  And it did not disappoint–this new village is gorgeous.  You can grab a great room at the hotel-like Veranda House if you are so inclined or pick up a more deluxe villa (with a pool and butler service even!) if that’s more your family’s cup of tea.  Either way, you are going to get beautiful grounds, impeccable service and access to the resort’s excess of amenities and restaurants at an all-inclusive price–whether you are a couple, a family of four, or a bigger, multi-generational group of 12.  It’s great, not to mention super family friendly.

But Chet doesn’t think that’s what I should be telling you about when it comes to Beaches T&C.  He acknowledges that the rooms are nice–but, let’s face it, as a 9-year-old boy, that’s not really what draws him to a vacation spot.  As long as there is a toilet and a bed for him once he’s run out of steam (as well as access to a cold, refreshing apple juice), he’s good.*  So, instead, he’d like to me to tell you the top 5 reasons he thinks your family should hit the Beaches Turks & Caicos Resort Villages and Spa as soon as humanly possible.  They also happen to be the top 5 reasons he plans to retire to Beaches T&C after finishing the second grade.  He’s currently drawing up plans to seek angel funding for said cause.

IMG_1168[1]1.  The Kids Camp.  Chet’s now cool enough that he doesn’t want to cling to me 24/7 on vacation.  He wants some alone time where he can hang out with his peers, play kid cool and avoid my camera lense.  And he was able to do just that at the resort’s Kids Camp.  (Well, okay, I might have snapped a few photos there when he wasn’t looking).

The camp runs from 9am to 9pm–and has programs from babies up to teens.  For Chet’s age group, there were a variety of fun activities daily including sailing, snorkeling, volleyball, crafts and video games.  The counselors really get down on the kids’ level and encourage them to try new things.  Case in point:  Chet declined snorkeling with me, citing how far the reef was from the beach shore.  I could not even bribe him to head out with me.  But with the Kids Camp?  He was happy to make the swim and got to see some great fish for the trouble.  Knowing that he was having such a great time–and with trained, engaged counselors, too–made me feel less guilty about spending a few hours reading on the beach while kind waiters kept offering me rum drinks.

2.  Pirates Island Water Park.  As if camp wasn’t enough, Beaches Turks & Caicos is also home to the Pirates Island Water Park.  As the mother of water park aficionados, I’m here to tell you that the park did not disappoint.  It had several cool slides, a high octane surf ride and a lazy river.  Racing down the slides (and then relaxing on the lazy river) was really fun way to spend an afternoon.

IMG_1080[1]3.  Cruising on the Kitty Katt.  Sounds kind of dirty, doesn’t it?  But the Kitty Katt is Beaches T&C’s catamaran, run by the Island Routes tour company.  This 65-foot boat offers three-hour tours twice a day.  You’ll stop to snorkel, visit a deserted beach and then use the boat’s 8-foot water slide in the bluest of blue Caribbean waters.  Chet would have happily stayed on that boat forever.

4.  The XBOX 360 Room.   

You’d think, with so much cool stuff going on outside, a room full of video games wouldn’t be a draw.  But you may not be a 9-year-old boy (or a 30+ year old Dad, who, as I saw, were also great frequenters of the XBOX Play Lounge).  The Lounge has dozens of screens, with all the newest games, available for play.  You could easily lose your favorite video gamer there for a few hours if you didn’t forcibly remove them for dinner.

5.  This beach.

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I don’t think I really need to say anything more, do I?  But in addition to a great spot to play or just relax in the sunshine, the beach is home to Beaches water sports cabin.  You can grab a windsurfer, paddleboard, Hobie cat or paddle boat, part of the all-inclusive deal.

All in all, Beaches offers a great all-inclusive experience for families–with enough fun choices, indoors and out, to please even your finickiest family member.  So if Chet does manage to wrangle that funding for early retirement, I’ll happily return to the resort with him.

*As a parent that has to run around with said energetic 9-year-old boy, the room does matter to me.  And the rooms in the new Key West Luxury Village are spacious and very, very comfy.  There is also a full bar, with wine, beer and the hard stuff, that gets replenished every day–and is part of your all-inclusive experience.  Can you say win/win?

May 28th, 2014 | by Kayt Sukel 2 comments


An All-inclusive Family Beach Vacation in Mexico

All-inclusive family vacation in Mexico

Sunset at Playa Viva, a barefoot luxury resort near Zihuatanejo, Mexico

It’s been two weeks since our family met my college roommate and her sons at Playa Viva, an environmentally-conscious beachfront resort south of Zihuatanejo, Mexico.

I’m still struggling to describe the experience to friends.

Playa Viva is a remote, natural place where we played, swam, and adventured by day and slept in stilted, open-air casitas by night.  Also, we tutored local school children in English, released baby turtles, surfed, and learned to make tortillas by hand.”

Kind of a mash-up of a beach vacation, a family exchange program, and a summer camp (except with way better food).

If you’re considering Playa Viva for a family vacation, you’ve doubtless spent a lot of time on their website and on TripAdvisor reading previous guests’ ecstatic reviews.  If you’ve arrived here, I’m guessing you’re still not quite sure what to expect from a family vacation at Playa Viva.

I can help.  Here is what you need to know before you go to Playa Viva:

The eco-stuff isn’t heavy-handed  

The Playa Viva website talks a lot about “harmony in nature” and “guilt-free luxury”.  Health and wellness feature prominently too.  Frankly, as a yoga-phobe, it made me a little worried.  What if I didn’t want to take a tour of the organic garden?  What if I just wanted to drink a piña colada and read a paranormal romance novel instead?

I needn’t have worried.  True, they use solar power, eco-friendly products, and virtually no packaged foods or plastic, but really it just feels like a good old fashioned decadent beach vacation.

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In which my college roommate and I try to get our once-a-decade photo together, and get photo-bombed by teenaged boys.

The waves are strong, but the beach is totally private

If you have young kids who aren’t confident swimmers, the waves right in front of the property can be a little strong.  Unlike Zihuatanejo, 30 miles to the north, Playa Viva’s beach is open ocean.  We found that the waves closer to the beach were fine for teens (or younger kids with a parent), but farther out got a little rough.  That said, our teens boogie boarded pretty much every waking minute and loved it.

Younger kids will love the pool, which is really warm and only about 4.5 feet deep at the deepest.  It’s adjacent to lots of shade and lounge chairs too — so lazy adults don’t need to get in to supervise.

You can walk an hour in either direction on the beach in front of Playa Viva and never see another person — it’s that remote.  For people who don’t like being asked to buy jewelry, hammocks, hair braids, and banana boat rides, it’s paradise.

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Releasing baby turtles at dawn at Playa Viva. Me: That one looks like he’s not going to make it. My animal-loving daughter (through clenched teeth): Oh, they’re ALL going to make it.

Two kinds of turtles nest here: leatherbacks and Oliver ridleys.  Local volunteers monitor the beach and move the eggs to a sanctuary where they can hatch safely.  We were lucky enough to have a clutch of eggs hatch on our first morning, so we got to release the baby turtles on the beach.

It’s reeeeeally casual

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Riding horses on the beach at Playa Viva isn’t fast, but it’s fun.

Now, what should you pack?  Are you standing in front of your open suitcase right now staring at some cute resort wear?  Linen?  Jewelry?  Take it all out.  Seriously.  Women will not need skirts or sandals with heels.  Men will not need collared shirts.  You might even wind up wearing the same thing every day and no shoes at all.  Playa Viva tells guests to bring lightweight long pants and long-sleeved shirts, and it’s good advice because dusk can get buggy.

Also, bring flashlights, rash guards for anyone who wants to boogie board, and sun hats.  Even our teens (who are normally too cool to practice safe sun) were willing to slap on a hat in the heat of the day.

The food will make you weep with joy

I am not a foodie.  Don’t believe me?  Check my Instagram stream.  In general, food has to be either really, really good or really, really bad to get my attention at all.  The food at Playa Viva falls squarely into the first category.  Everything is fresh.  Everything is locally grown or produced.  Inexplicably, my picky kids ate it all and raved: vegetables, fish, soups…they just chowed.  And the adults were even worse.  We all ate to the point of pain at every single meal.

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If your kids have always wanted (even secretly) to learn to surf, Playa Viva is the place to try it.  Small waves, warm water, and a great teacher.

Activities are fun, but can add up fast

Playa Viva’s rates include the following: round-trip airport transportation, your casita, all meals, beverages, and snacks, and daily yoga classes.  Tips, bar tabs, and excursions all cost extra.  Between beers and the smoothies the kids were ordering behind our backs, we were able to rack up a fairly hefty bar bill in a week.  Some of the activities were expensive too.  Here were the ones we felt were worth the cost:

  • Surfing lessons:  This was so fun, we did it twice!  The instructor was really good and got everybody up on longboards almost immediately.  Costly for a family of four, but easily the best thing we did.
  • Sierra mountain excursion: We rode ATVs way, way up into the mountains where we had lunch with a local family and toured their coffee and chocolate farm.  Highlights included meeting their pet javelina, learning to make tortillas by hand, and swimming under a waterfall.
  • Horseback riding: For not much money, local farmers will deliver two somewhat lazy horses to you and let you ride on the beach in front of Playa Viva on your own.  It’s entertaining, but good luck getting these animals to move fast.
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Accommodations at Playa Viva are luxurious in a natural and breezy way. Living with less felt really relaxing.

Is Playa Viva for you?

Playa Viva is in the middle of nowhere, four miles down a dirt road.  Cell service is spotty, and wifi is slow.  If you have an emergency, you will get lots of help from the staff, but things may not move as quickly as you’d like.  Also, there aren’t very many flights into and out of Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo every day.  If someone in your family has diabetes or a life-threatening food allergy, this is probably not the place for you.

(I speak from experience, unfortunately.  Though it was not the resort’s fault, my son fell and chipped his teeth while we were at Playa Viva.  Of course this happened on a Sunday, so getting any dentist on the phone — in America or Mexico — was hard.  In the end, we went to a 24/7 clinic in the local town of Petatlan for antibiotics and pain killers, and flew out the next day.)

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Without television, video games, and social media, my kids were forced to play together, which was totally gratifying.

Playa Viva is in a natural location.  Nature has bugs in it.  And crabs.  Sometimes the bugs buzz around the mosquito netting over your bed and the crabs fall in the pool.  Really, it’s all part of the charm.  Plus, the other creatures we saw more than made up for it: baby turtles, leaping stingrays, breaching whales.  However, you need to be honest with yourself.  Do you hate camping?  Does the thought of not flushing toilet paper gross you out?  If so, Playa Viva might not be the place for you.

If, on the other hand, you like the idea of your kids spending a week outside, far from televisions, video games, social media, processed foods, and many of the other controversial elements of modern life, practicing their middle school Spanish, learning how to make tamales, and playing in the surf, Playa Viva is definitely worth a look.

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I kind of wanted to slip this little cutie into my suitcase, but he was pretty determined to get to the sea.

April 25th, 2014 | by Jamie Pearson 7 comments


Visiting Aruba with Kids

For the last three years, my husband has been traveling to Aruba about every six weeks for his consulting gig working on solar and wind power on the island. As this winter in Minnesota has been declared the coldest in 139 years, the kids and I decided it was time for us to go too.

Aruba was a Dutch colony for many years and is now independent, but still a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The culture is a fun mix of Dutch, Afro-Caribbean and Latin American. Here are five of my favorite activities with kids on Aruba:

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1.  Snorkeling over Rocks, Reefs and Shipwrecks

The hype about the crystal clear water and colorful tropical fish is not overstated. I was impressed at how easy it was to see gorgeous fish. My previous snorkeling experience was all in Costa Rica which tends to have murkier water. Aruba can’t top Costa Rica’s jungle wildlife but easily exceeded it’s sea life. You can buy cheap snorkeling gear at any supermarket and hit the rocky beaches and mangrove beaches on your own. Organized tours are nice if you want to get to some of the less accessible areas like shipwrecks. Protect your back and the backs of your legs as you’ll be floating face down and the sun is STRONG!

2.  Climb through Rocks and Caves

My kids wanted more time at these three rocky locations: Ayo and Casibari Rock Formations and the caves at Arikok National Park. Ayo and Casibari are small, free parks with huge boulders of volcanic rock in the middle of the desert in crazy piles. A short trail takes you up, over and through the rocks with plenty of detours for little ones to explore. Our favorite cave at Arikok is Guadirikiri which has 2 huge chambers with natural skylights letting in some sunshine. A flashlight is handy in the caves- we got by with cell phone lights and a tiny Hannah Montana squeeze light my daughter happened to have clipped to her bag.

Things to do in Aruba with kids

3.  Get on a Boat

Seeing the island from a different perspective is fun and the sea winds feel great on a hot day. A word of warning: when traveling with kids, avoid any boat tours that advertise an open bar or you may find that wind whipping your neighbor’s rum and pineapple drink all over your legs while your daughter complains that the loud music hurts her ears. I speak from experience. Next time, we’re going for De Palm Tour’s Seaworld Explorer Semi-Submarine with windows in the hull to see what’s going on below the surface.

4.  Hit the Trails with a Horse

As I hadn’t been on a horse since a visit to Bryce Canyon when I was 10, the kids and I signed up for the one hour no-experience necessary horseback ride through the desert towards the beach with Rancho Notorious. We had a great time and a wonderful guide who made sure the kids were safe and comfortable in handling the horses. While we had a view of the beach, the longer tours go onto the beach and my kids would have liked to do that but I was afraid of having a sore behind for the next few days. I know, I’m a wimp!

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5.  Go Shopping

Yes, there are plenty of fancy shops selling luxury bags and diamonds along the high-rise hotel strip but that’s not my thing. We loved the downtown market with little stands selling crafts, woven bracelets, T-shirts and tropical dresses. My kids were also thrilled with their buys when they later saw the same things for sale along the strip for more than twice what they’d paid. Super Foods supermarket, known locally as “the Dutch supermarket,” is also worth a visit. Typical Dutch treats like appelflap apple turnovers, suikerbrood bread with sugar crystals, Gouda and Edam cheeses are displayed side by side with cactus fruit and papayas. Yum.

If you go

There are a bunch of nice hotels right on the beach which are great if you’re going for a few days. If you’re staying for a week or more, it’s worth renting a car and staying at an apartment. We loved our 2 bedroom apartment at Aruba Tropic Apartments. The seven apartments all face inwards around a pool and shady pergola. My daughter made friends with kids from the Netherlands and Argentina at the pool and the place is so small that we felt comfortable letting our kids (ages 9 and 11) play in the courtyard without constant supervision.  Read more about Aruba Tropic Apartments.

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The entire island is only about 25 by 8 miles so getting anywhere takes only a few minutes. We hit a different beach every day- sandy for swimming and wave jumping, rocky or mangrove for snorkeling.

Seafood was delicious at Marina Pirata. Sit on the deck for dinner so you can see the fish when they turn on the lights under the water. Want some more sea food? At de Zeerover, they catch it in the morning and serve it in the afternoon. Big baskets of fresh shrimp, fish, and french fries. The Old Conucu House Restaurant has great traditional Aruban food- try the funchi, like a thick pancake served as a side with many meals.

April 23rd, 2014 | by Jenny Jensen 1 comment


A Small Ship Family Cruise to Alaska

Years ago, before my husband and I had kids, we did a 2-week overland vacation in Alaska.  While it was wonderful — highlights included rafting on the Talkeetna River, touring Denali by bus, foot, and bike, and exploring the Kenai Peninsula on our own — I’d like something a little different when I (eventually) take my kids.

Like many parents, I love the idea of cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage on a small ship.  What’s not to love?  Someone else cooks, you see fascinating places, and travel while you sleep.  Un-Cruise, one of the sponsors of our Smart Parents Guide to Adventure Vacations, offers the following family and wallet-friendly itinerary:

Alaska Family Cruise

A family cruise to Alaska. Zebra hats optional.

Un-Cruise Adventures Top Family Trip for 2014

It’s a family discovery on an adventure cruise in Alaska’s outback! Unleash your inner explorer aboard the 84-guest Safari Endeavour as you cruise wilderness waterways and into Glacier Bay National Park on the 7-night Discoverers’ Glacier Country.

Together with young kids and teens, parents and grandparents alike, it’s about the luxury of experience—details, wilderness and wildlife, adventurous activities such as kayaking, paddle boarding, and guided hikes, and indulging yourself, just a little.

Along with the exclusive activities, these INCLUSIVE experiential luxury adventures include attentive service; meals; premium spirits, fine wine, microbrews; exclusive transfers; port fees/taxes; and spa services, including a complimentary massage. Kids 12 and under receive a “Kid Adventure Log Book” on all departures (refer to booking code: KIDLOG), and save 25% on select “Kids in Nature” departures and stateroom categories.

Book your family on a 2014 Alaska adventure today! Click here for more information.

April 21st, 2014 | by Jamie Pearson Comment