The Mystery of the Giant Pink Penis Lamp

No sooner had we walked into our charming Amsterdam apartment, than we noticed a decor element that was slightly out of the ordinary.  Almost all vacation rentals — at least the ones I stay in — feature at least one tragic decorating decision.  Scented potpourri.  A few too many duck decoys.  A vase full of feathers.

Obviously people have different tastes, and these small details don’t detract from our pleasure.  We just… notice them.

Vacation rental decorating mistakes

See? SEE? I told you.

This time, the discordant item was what we came to refer to as “the giant pink penis lamp”.  Now.  I know I have a little bit of a reputation for hyperbole, so I’m including a picture to prove that, for once, I AM NOT EXAGGERATING.  Unfortunately, I didn’t think to include anything in the photo for size reference, but this thing is at least three feet tall.

We were mystified.

This is a really nice apartment — very classy, and in a great location.  If you haven’t done so already, go to the website and look at the pictures.  Since the lamp was tucked in the bedroom behind a chair in the corner, I decided that it must have been left behind by a bachelorette party and overlooked by the housekeepers.  My theory was confirmed by the “XXX” printed down the shaft, I mean side.

I amused myself by sending a picture of it to my husband and then put it mostly out of my mind.

An Amsterdammertje

Ahem.

The next day, while my kids and I were trying to thread our way through the omnipresent Amsterdam bicyclists, my daughter stopped in her tracks.  Naturally my son and I ran into her like a three-car pileup in rush hour traffic.  ”Oh!” she exclaimed, “I know what the lamp is.”

Lining the street were dozens of steel traffic bollards.  I have since learned from Wikipedia that they are called Amsterdammertjes, which is Dutch for “little ones from Amsterdam” (you can’t make this stuff up).  The three Xs on the side don’t denote pornography — on the contrary!  They are Saint Andrew’s crosses from the coat of arms of Amsterdam.  Of course!

Obviously pink was an unfortunate color for the lamp, though in all honestly, they don’t look that much less like a circumcised penis in blue, white, and brown.  They do keep cars from parking on the sidewalk though, so that’s something.

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 5th, 2014 | by Jamie Pearson 1 comment


Getting to Amsterdam. Even the easy way was kind of hard.

Even though I took steps to make our journey to Amsterdam as easy as possible (direct flight, checked bags, upgraded to economy plus), it was still kind of a grind.  Any time you spend ten hours on a plane going to Europe from the west coast, you’re going to feel it.

Traveling to Amsterdam with kids

After all these years, I still don’t understand why we have to get to the airport three hours early.  Why?  WHY?!

One thing we did differently this time was to take a daytime flight.  I actually kind of liked it.  In the past, we’ve always taken evening flights to Europe and put a lot of pressure on ourselves — and the kids — to sleep on the plane.  Nothing like knowing you have to sleep to make you completely unsleepy.  Am I right?  This time we snacked, watched movies, and played video poker instead.

Not to brag, but I also taught myself to speak Dutch on the flight over.  The KLM personal interactive entertainment systems were pretty standard, but the Berlitz language learning apps were awesome.

Visiting Amsterdam with kids

Other passengers watched American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street or popped sleeping pills. Slackers.

But frankly, I couldn’t see the point in learning to count to 30 and recite the months of the year in Dutch, so I skipped to the important stuff.

Dutch phrases for travelers

Don’t judge.

The flight was direct and uneventful.  For us fearful flyers, that’s a good thing.  In a burst of post-landing euphoria, my kids claimed that they “felt great” and “weren’t tired at all!”.  This lasted about 30 minutes.  It was 9am in Amsterdam and our apartment wouldn’t be ready for us until 4pm.

Luckily I had booked a family-sized room at the Schiphol Airport Yotel.  Do you know about Yotel?  It’s a cool airport capsule hotel where jet lagged travelers can nap, shower, relax, snack, use the internet and watch TV on long layovers.

Hotel airport Amsterdam

When you need a real airport nap, you can’t beat a capsule hotel.  Especially if it’s mildly spaceship-themed.

We almost had a disaster because Yotel isn’t set up for people who need to deplane, collect their luggage, clear immigration, and THEN take a long nap.  Yotel is located in the departures area, and we had exited into the arrivals area.  A passport control agent gave us a stern lecture, but eventually made an exception and let us back in. And I didn’t even have to cry!  We checked in and settled in for a 4-hour power nap.

Hotel airport Amsterdam

Home Sweet Yotel.

Everything looked brighter after our long nap.  Even my daughter, who had been lobbying hard for a taxi to the apartment (like the princess that she is), was willing to take the train from the airport to Amsterdam’s Central Station.  It was a pleasant 10-minute ride, or would have been if we hadn’t chosen backward-facing seats.

From the train station, it was a 10-minute walk to our apartment.  Or it would have been if I hadn’t taken a long detour that was mostly about not wanting to walk the kids through the Red Light district (at least on our first day), and being too lazy/arrogant to pull out a map.  I managed to turn our 10-minute walk into a 25-minute walk.  Over cobblestones.  With rolling suitcases.

The kids almost suffered a sense of humor failure, but my son rallied and speculated that I had taken this route to get more steps on my Fitbit (a super-addictive online socially competitive pedometer, for the uninitiated).  I hadn’t, but I would like to point out that the detour did help me totally crush it that day: 17,000 steps FTW!

In my next Amsterdam installment, I’ll tell you all about our apartment in the picturesque, canal-filled Jordaan, and the mystery of the giant pink penis lamp.

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 4th, 2014 | by Jamie Pearson 4 comments


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