Dreaming of Rome
As an ambassador for Happyly, I'm proud to share ways to get families out and making the most of your time together.
If you're looking for travel plans to visit Italy, check out some of our recommendations for Dreaming of Travel: Rome. The eternal city is a lush destination full of so many stories and the opportunity to step back in time. You're going to find yourself wanting to discover more of this beautiful country!
Dreaming of Paris
As an ambassador for Happyly, I'm proud to share ways to get families out and making the most of your time together.
If you're looking for travel plans to visit Paris, check out some of our recommendations for Dreaming of Travel: Paris. The city of lights is a magical place to plan an international getaway with your family - from the rich culture, abundant history, and kid-friendly possibilities, you’re going to fall in love with Paris!
Dreaming of Ireland
As an ambassador for Happyly, I'm proud to share ways to get families out and making the most of your time together.
If you're looking for travel plans to visit the Emerald Isle, check out some of our recommendations for Dreaming of Travel: Ireland. We spent a week discovering the island and hope that some of our recommendations can help you on your way!
Be Our Guest at Disneyland Paris
When you're some of the biggest Disney fans, you've seen 2 of their 6 international locations, and you're an hour away, what do you do? You go,of course!
But how does Disneyland Paris stack up to the stateside parks? And how do you make the most of your time visiting a place that has to compete with the majestic history you're surrounded with in Europe.
Here's our take on getting the most of your Disneyland Paris visit!
Where to stay?
We chose to stay at a Disney hotel to capitalize on the on-site perks - proximity and Extra Magic Time. Disney has a plethora of properties, including 6 Disney hotels within walking distance of the parks and 2 Disney Nature hotels which are set further out and require a car to access. Disney also has a variety of Partner Hotels in the area that provide shuttle buses to the parks and may offer a little lower price per night of your stay.
We wanted some place that we could maximize our time at the resort and at the same time feel like we were getting an experience worth the price. We chose to stay at Disney's Newport Bay Club, a hotel right onsite and walking distance to Disney Village. Anyone familiar with the Walt Disney World set of hotels, Newport Bay is the equivalent of Yacht & Beach or Boardwalk, taking you back to a time of living on the water and enjoying the luxuries of full scale seaside resorts. The hotel is beautiful, just as her sister properties here in Orlando; and massive - we stayed on a wing that was quite a hike to get to, but that was located directly next to the indoor pool.
Deciding what you want out of a hotel is what works for your family. All Disneyland Paris hotels offer all-you-can-eat buffets and adult lounges on property, but not all have a quick service option for dining. We would have loved to have some of those conveniences, like an on-site restaurant for snacks on-the-go and a fridge in the room to store leftovers (or in our case, milk). Closest proximity to the park is the Disneyland Hotel, which would allow easiest access to the two parks and Disney Village. If you rather skip on big meals and have a fast option for food, then Disney's Hotel Cheyenne and Disney's Hotel Santa Fe both offer Starbucks on property, but are a little further out from the parks. Hotels with moderate pricing but with proximity to entertainment, Disney Sequoia Lodge & Disney's Hotel New York (currently rebranding to the Art of Marvel) should be considered. And if neither of those are in your price range, there are a host of offsite options, but you lose the perks that Disney gives you, like Extra Magic Time to enjoy attractions before the general public.
Disneyland Paris has also already started to implement extra security measures like scanning all bags (and people) before entering the hotel, which I applaud. It was our first touch of reality with the world we live in today; but it was welcome to see a proactive approach to make sure the magic isn't compromised.
Amount of Time?
This is all up to how much you want to do. We wanted the experience so we chose to end our trip here and wind down with some fun Disney days. We booked two nights because we wanted to enjoy two full days in the park. We arrived early enough to enjoy one park, leaving our bags with the porter and able to get settled in to our room after we finished our day.
The parks are located a walk away from the hotel, passing through Disney Village complex and then with a fork in the road to decide which way to go. The set up is very similar to Disneyland California and very convenient for anyone wanting to experience everything in one day. They have some of the big name restaurants they do stateside, like Rainforest Cafe, Planet Hollywood and McDonald's, but also have unique concepts like Annette's Diner (ode to the original Mouseketeer) and a character filled Wild West stage show at Buffalo's Bills.
If you want to spend any time checking out the night-time entertainment, there warrants an extra night just to enjoy a dinner show - and use that extra day to book an excursion to the surrounding area. Disney offers tours to chateaus and small countryside villages to get a taste of the beautiful region outside Paris that hosts their parks.
Disneyland Paris also offers great package deals that may also be worth skipping a stay in Paris and opting to make the commute to the city instead. We had considered this option when we found a package that would allow us to stay on property for 5 nights for the price of 3. The package also included tickets and granted children free admission - so ultimately we'd be getting a 5-day ticket & 5-night hotel stay for the whole family for the price of two adults on a 3-day package. One rate also included club level room, which would give you exclusive check-in and access to the club lounge, with refreshments and light appetizers served all day. In hindsight, the offer was too incredible to pass up - but we did, because we also knew we wanted to indulge in our first time in Paris. But someone wanting to shop savvy, it is every bit worth searching for a package like this!
Which Ticket to Get?
Absolutely buy tickets ahead of time and snag them on a deal, as they'll also be cheaper online than at the park. We had pre-purchased tickets off the Disneyland Paris site as they were running a deal that got Adults in for the price of Children tickets and we couldn't pass that up!
There are two parks to choose from, Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney Studios. We opted to purchase a 1 Day Ticket for each park and completely immerse ourselves in that park. And personally, we felt like a day in each park was more than enough time!
The tickets are sold on an attendance calendar so depending on when you visit, the cheaper it is (weekdays early in summer run cheaper than weekends or late summer). The parks also operate on hours depending on season, with Walt Disney Studios Park closing earlier than the original. During our stay, Walt Disney Studios closed at 8pm on weekends and 6pm on weekdays, so we opted to do the newer park first to maximize our weekend day at the park. Disneyland Park remained open until midnight either day. Since we had one park tickets and we wanted to capitalize on our energy and the late hours, we opted to save Disneyland for last.
Walt Disney Studios Park
Walt Disney Studios is the newer park, and reminiscent of Hollywood Studios in Orlando. It houses two of the newer attractions, Crush's Coaster and Ratatouille, which were our main objectives to see. Just like Disneyland, Paris still has the old FastPass distribution system - you don't have a limit to how many you get in a day and you can get your next one after the distribution window on your ticket opens up (which is usually at the ride time). So if you're lucky and get a FastPass for the exact hour you're in (which is possible), you can also get another pass within a few minutes and ride back to back line-free rides.
We made our way in and went directly for Ratatouille since we wanted to all get on a ride together and this one was it. We got our FP and proceeded to ride other attractions in Pixar Place, an ode to Disney-Pixar films like Cars and Toy Story. There we spun on Luigi, had a Slinky Dog Dash and then made it back over to experience Ratatouille. The ride took us on a 3-D adventure in a mouse's point-of-view through the restaurant featured in the movie and the streets of Paris - it was adorable and left the kids squealing!
We caught a few other attractions we didn't have back home, including Disney Junior Live which had different cartoons featured than they do in Orlando, which was exciting for the kids to see! We also rode the underwhelming attractions of Armageddon and the Backstage Tour. The one thing we had high on our list to see before we left for the day was the coveted Mickey and Magician show, which was fantastic! Housed in a theater, this is a production including live singing and stage effects - it was amazing to see the caliber of show that Europe delivers and really can speak to the level of performance this culture relishes in.
The park itself is overshadowed by the Disneyland Hotel, so upon approaching it, you see the beautiful grounds of their flagship property, but no sign of the iconic castle. You pass under the hotel into the ticket turnstiles and only after crossing the official entry of the railroad station do you see Sleeping Beauty's castle.
The park is very reminiscent of Disneyland California, in its simplicity, attention to detail and accessiblity of attractions. It goes back to a simpler time when things weren't as rushed and the experience was greater than the exposure. It had all the classic rides you expect at any of the flagship parks, with enhancements like HyperSpace Mountain (which was unfortunately closed for maintenance during our visit). The park had also just celebrated its 25th anniversary, so it had a sense of grandeur still in the air to celebrate such an event.
The details are so clean and crisp, but it did lack a little of the magic you find back home. We tried to pinpoint what, and couldn't place our fingers on it until after we left - atmosphere music. We're so used to having music ushering us along and making the pace for our walk, that we failed to notice that the parks didn't have much. You heard the faint music from the attractions as you passed by, but as you walk between lands, taking in the park and existing in the moment, there's no soundtrack to live by. Us spoiled Disney kids really fail to see how wonderful something so simple as this is.
The parks also operate on the classic FastPass distribution system, much like Disneyland California. They do have limited attractions offering passes so waiting in lines may be inevitable. But the parks do not nearly have the waits that the stateside parks do, outside the more popular attractions which beckon visitors. It's absolutely worth waiting in line for those, and even more so for waiting for the shows. The performances here are all live and it is incredible to see the magic of that experience come to life. It is also worth noting that all shows are done in a mix of English and French dialogue, so it makes for a truly memorable experience to get a bit of each culture combined.
I could go on for days about our trip there, but I will let the pictures do the talking instead. If you ever have the opportunity and are even a bit of a Disney fan, take the day trip out here. You can take a metro from central Paris which will drop you off at the end of Disney Village and within a two minute walk to either park.
Any other tips?
Any Disney fan will agree, it is definitely worth the experience to see how cultures influence each of their parks worldwide. The parks are very similar but yet so unique in their own way. It brought us so much perspective to ride the Small World an ocean away and listen to the words with true relativity to our time here.
If visiting Disney is on your bucket list, make a stop here, its worth it. It's incredible to see what one man with a vision was able to create, all with one little mouse - that has changed the way the world experiences happiness.
So when you're taking a whirlwind European vacation and you're already 11 days in, what do you do?
Stay another 5 days in Paris.
Paris has been a dream of mine to visit. There's something about the city of love that just seems so appealing, and I jumped in to all the hype. And reality is that traveling within Europe is cheap! For the 4 of us to board a one way to Paris on a reputable airline with no strings attached (Air France) cost us $200 dollars (not Euros) TOTAL. We looked at possibly taking the Eurorail but the cost would've been relatively the same and the trip 4x as long. So we pulled out our passports and made our way to Fiumincio and prepared for another half day of travel.
Rome to Paris
Traveling out of the airport in Rome was one of the easiest experiences I've had in my entire life. We got dropped off at the part of the airport for "domestic" travelers - going in and abound Europe. We found the neatly lined desk with the Air France branding and promptly hopped in line for our Delta Medallion perks. Finding an airline that has partnerships and shared benefits is ... amazing! Our section already didn't have a long line, but in true European fashion no one was in a rush. It's not a horrible mindset to live by but we had two little ones in tow that had not had breakfast and standing in line to drop off our luggage was not how we wanted to spend more time. So our nice Medallion line had us seen right away, got our luggage priority boarded, and even got us special access to a security line that was minimally evasive and very quick. Ultimately, from the moment we arrived to the airport through security was no more than 20 minutes. Ah-ma-zing.
We had plenty of down time though, because we always planned with more time to spare just in case. And I'll say this, FCO is not a horrible airport to spend extra time in. It is absolutely immaculate and very kept up with! We found a bistro upstairs and grabbed ourselves a brunch with a mini bottle of wine each as relaxed & discussed all the possibilities in France. This leg of the trip we not planned to a tee, yet. We wanted the flexibility to change our plans, but we also knew there were certain things we wanted to do - like a champagne river cruise of Paris at sunset the night we arrived. Otherwise, we didn't have anything else set in stone (except our final stop)!
Our arrival to Charles De Gaulle was uneventful and very efficient. We were picked up by our driver, slightly late, but quickly escorted to the car. We were on the outskirts of the city so for the most part, the drive was relatively bland - we felt we could be anywhere else. But approaching the Paris proper and seeing the buildings age and become more detailed and ornate was ... breathtaking. We anxiously awaited spotting *the tower* for the first time, which we knew was going to be a sight in itself. But unfortunately, we didn't spot it and knew we'd have to wait until that night.
Our home in Paris was an adorable boutique hotel off Champs Elysees, Hotel Balmoral. We were two blocks from the Arc de Triomphe, so we always had prime view of its towering glory. But best of all, we were only a block from a metro stop. Once again, based off the size of our group, we got a suite on the top floor. But even by hotel room sizes, it was generous. We walked into living space with a flat screen TV, espresso maker, bistro table and with a loveseat that was turned into a bed every night. The substantial sized bathroom was right off the front door and had enough room for a family to utilize; so we could shower and get ready at the double sink all at the same time. Then to the left of the living room was a bedroom with closet space and another flat screen TV. Both main rooms had a little terrace to overlook the neighborhood, and it was as perfectly Parisian as you'd imagine.
We left the hotel to grab and early dinner/very late lunch and start some of our exploring. We ate at Le Vin Cœur, a bar/bistro right near our hotel and ordered anything traditionally French off the menu. Who would've known that steak sandwich (aka hamburger) was a French staple? But sure enough, the kids wanted to try and that's what they got ... with appropriately enough french fries (steak frites)! Chris and I decided on sharing escargot and a cheese platter. And of course have a glass of French wine to accompany all our delacies. The bistro was as French as it came. The waiters vaguely paid attention to us, patrons dined on their own and read the paper, and very often wines paired perfectly with cigarettes. It was so unlike anything American and I was loving it. Paris was so far off to a great start.
After our meal, we made it to the metro after a short walk down Champs Elysses to take the train to Port de l'Arsenal, where we would board our Seine River Cruise. With time to spare, there was a playground near by where we let the kids frolic for a bit before we did a little walk of the area to get our barings. The port is pretty standard with boat docks, many of them private and not much to see. But there was a lively bar/restaurant next to our dock where you could grab drinks as you waited, and though we would were inclined to partake, there were no other kids in the outdoor crowd, so we weren't going to invite ours.
We boarded our champagne cruise with drink in hand and opted to sit outside with prime views of left, right, straight ahead and up above. We learned that the water levels throughout the water ways in Paris vary, so we'd have to go through a lock system to start our tour. It definitely took a little time to go through, but what a fascinating process to teach the kids about, watching water levels officially change before making your way out to the main river.
Paris by boat is stunning, consuming and something I'd absolutely recommend doing to anyone. Especially at sunset. We didn't bank for night falling closer to 11PM though, despite summer hours. Our cruise boarded at 9, so we were in it for the long haul - but when 9 looked more like 5 we started doubting how soon we'd see the City of Lights shine. I won't divulge too much about the sights we took in, as words cannot explain how glorious it really is.
I mean, take a look for yourself -
But there are two things you have to note and the rest experience yourself:
1. Capturing that first view of the Eiffel Tower, regardless of how or where you are, is breathtaking! There's no way to explain the mix of joy, astonishment and true appreciation for where you are until you see such a monument firsthand.
2. Paris looks like it was hand-painted and you're walking through it, like a scene straight out of Mary Poppins. There's no way a city can be this beautiful. And I hope every single Parisian wakes up and appreciates the true beauty their city possesses and cares for it like a new toy for many years to come.
Our first night ended in a perfect way just by hap and circumstance. We left our river cruise with two sleeping babes in our arms. We knew we wouldn't make it with a walk back to the hotel, so we stood in line for a taxi. We were in line no longer than 5 minutes when a cab appeared and the family in front of us proceeded to enter. The driver called our attention in French, yelling "bébé" and motioning for them to leave and for us to come. We were by no means needing a cab based of our short time there, but his gesture warmed our hearts - taking care of our young kids to make sure they got home in the witching hour - there was not a more beautiful way for love to transcend language barriers. As slightly embarrassed as we felt to take someone else's cab, the ride was perfect - we rode with windows down with a slight chill in the air, gently playing classical music as we drove the immaculate streets of Paris. Nothing felt more Parisian than taking in the city of lights than with my two little loves in my arm being taken straight back to our abode by the sweetest Parisian we'd meet all trip.
Paris Day 2
After a good night's sleep, we were up to do more exploring, this time headed to Montmarte, the highest point in the city to take a bird's eye view of Paris. We decided to walk there, since we were only a short two miles from our peak, and we wanted to feel like locals and take in the sights up close. It was an experience to see the city slightly change as we changed neighborhoods but still continue to have the charm and appeal that beckons its visitors. We passed dated metro signs that you see in the Paris of old; we encountered street musicians playing the sounds that we will remember our trip by; we walked by street cafes in full Parisian style - drink in one hand, cigarette in the other; we walked quickly past patisserie that beckoned us in, but after a breakfast full of croissants, hazelnuts, and sugar we had to pass (for now); we basked in front of iconic Moulin Rouge in all its former glory (be warned though its neighbors aren't as glorisous); we hiked (literally) up stairs as we rose the elevation to get to the highest peak. We finally made it Montmarte where we were welcomed by Basilique du Sacré-Cœur and turned around to find a full view of Paris. It was exactly what we hoped for after the 3 mile walking tour we took ourselves on. If walking isn't for you, there's a Metro gondola right at the bottom of the hill that takes you all the way up; and your Paris Metro pass get you with a swipe!
From there, we decided to delight the kids, since they had yet to encounter an operating carousel and take them on a "train" ride through Montmarte. The trip would take us back down to the main strip near Moulin Rouge for an opportunity to get to learn about this region and all it had to offer. It was truly a cute way for us to delight in Paris and get to do something a little different and very relaxing; traveling with kids is about this. Compromise. You have to know when to cut your losses and do what can keep them engaged as well. After finishing our tour it was time for lunch, a late one at that - and we decided to head towards Jardin des Tuileries to delight them a little more.
We took the metro to the Madeleine district, where we decided on Café Madeleine for lunch before the park. It looked like an American diner met a Parisian cafe and its animated atmosphere called us in. We were quickly and tightly seated in a booth made for two (but that's everywhere in Europe) and had the liveliest of servers. He kept the kids entertained with his antics and broken English questions to them, and we ordered a fantastic meal of more steak sandwiches & frites, French onion soup and I got the tastiest raspberry meets strawberry adult drink you could ask for!
With a quick walk to Jardin des Tuileries, we passed the Opera and the glorious sites that this side of town hosts. This definitely an area of elite and it was beautiful. If you need a recommendation of where to consider staying, the 1st or 8th arrondissement are both in locations prime for sightseeing; and especially with kids, you are in the proximity of lovely parks, full of delights to allow them to run off any energy. That's what Tuileries brought to us on arrival, a chance to let them run around a play. The gardens line up to the Louvre (but not the iconic pyramid that sits in front of it), so we got a look at the museum in all its glory. It wasn't on our list of things to do, because frankly, with kids we couldn't. But I have no regrets, especially after our experience at the Vatican and how crowded it was, it was a welcome blessing to be able to say we were okay without it.
Jardin des Tuileries has carousels and playgrounds for climbing, along with being dotted with cafes and full of people strolling. While they burned their energy, we decided we were going to have a picnic on Champ de Mars for dinner and make it a point to see the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night. Nothing sounded more enticing than to pack our own bag, bring our own wine, and enjoy a quiet night sprawled on the grass as the tower lit up. So we hurried the kids up and headed back to the hotel for some down time and quick naps, because tonight we were going to stay up until midnight. We had to - the night before it only lit up, and we missed it twinkle. And tonight the tower would sparkle every hour on the hour starting at 11 and we needed to see it!
Timing couldn't have been better - a quick trip to the corner grocery store and we packed up meats, cheese, bread, and bottles of very good (& very inexpensive) wine for us! Then at around 8pm we hopped back on the Metro with the Eiffel Tower as our final destination so we could enjoy play time in the park and have a relaxed evening while we waited for her to glow. And that we did have. We stumbled on a playground right next to Champ de Mars where E made a friend, who spoke zero English, while she spoke no French. But they played together nicely and you wouldn't know that language was even a barrier. We easily lost track of time around 9 because the night just throws you off with its showing off. When out of nowhere we hear the roar of the crowd because the tower lit up! And to our surprise, it was sparkling! The night before we were told it wouldn't do so until nightfall, and here we were at 10pm sitting on the Champ and watching this magnificent tower glitter with the most magical sunset to paint the sky. This was breathtaking. And more than anything we could've dreamt of.
Paris Day 3
We used the next morning to sleep in a little and have "breakfast in bed" to wind down from the late night. Today we were off to see Notre Dame and spend the day exploring Luxembourg Gardens. The day started off cold, cloudy and rainy, but it didn't stop us. We had dealt with this and we had more exploring we wanted to do. So we walked to see Our Lady where we did our own guided tour of the cathedral and relished in all its beauty. It was overcrowded as anything else we experienced, but it didn't make it any less of an honor to be there, standing inside of history in all its glory.
After touring Notre Dame, we headed over to get the one coveted meal I wanted on this trip - crepes! We found a place in Quartier Latin, Le Creperie which was perfect more than just by its name. I got as I wished - a Nutella crepe with strawberries accompanied by a mimosa; Chris ordered a savory ham & cheese crepe to balance out our meal, and if I could, I would have ordered more! We decided to burn those much needed calories with a walk to Luxembourg Gardens, followed by some play time.
Luxembourg Gardens is similar to Tuileries in that its an immaculate garden with public access but a lot more family friendly. Upon entering the gardens, we found boat racing going on in the Grand Bassin duck pond - we needed to join in! So for about 5 Euros your kids can rent toy boats for 30 minutes and enjoy sailing them against each other. After racing, we ventured around and stumbled on to a playground, but unlike Tuileries, this one was not free. A cover charge of 1 Euro per person (adults included), got you access to a gated playground - the Mecca of all playgrounds! This place was massive; from sand pits to swings and slides, every corner there was a different set of playground equipment to be devoured by kids. Ours were in heaven!
And quite honestly, this became the best way to end the trip. We decided to call it an early evening, have another picnic dinner at the hotel and prepare for an early wake up call for the last leg and probably the most anticipated by the kids - Disneyland Paris!
Europe by Sea
For 7 days of our 17 day Europe trip we opted to cruise through the Mediterranean to visit some key ports. We wanted to see a variety of places in one swoop on this trip and with two little ones in tow figured this was the easiest way with a limited amount of time. We've seen places we wouldn't necessarily fly to, so why not do this in Mediterranean where there's so much we want to see. It is one of the easiest, cost effective vacations you could ever ask for in the - but is it the way you want to see the Europe?
Here's some points to consider-
Read on about our cruising trip and decide for yourself how you want to see Europe!
Day 1 Civitavecchia
So two days after we arrived and explored Rome, we headed to the Port of Civitavecchia to embark on a week of cruising the Mediterranean. We opted to do the cruise because we found an unbeatable deal on Norwegian Cruise Line, who with their Free at Sea offer, we were able to book the kids in the room with us for just the cost of taxes. The offer also gave us an additional free selection from Unlimited Open Bar (pay gratuities and taxes only up front), Shore Excursion credit, free Speciality Dining OR free Wi-Fi on board. Though a few of these options sounded tempting, we knew we'd get the best bang for our buck with free Wi-Fi since we wanted to plan as we went. And then with working through a travel agent, we earned enough on-board credit to cover stateroom gratuities and the cost of drinks we did buy on board.
So day 3 of our Europe Trip was our first day to cruise & finally relax since stepping foot on Italian soil. We set a private charter to pick us up from our hotel and drive us about an hour away to the Port of Civitavecchia. Private sounds fancy and every bit expensive, but it was the way to go. For a group of 6, we paid about $30 a person to have a guaranteed way to get there, without the stress of taking a train (the cheapest way to go). On the train, you do have the option to reserve a seat, but the price of that was close to what we paid for our driver and with a guarantee we'd arrive on time. With Italy being notorious for sudden workforce strikes, we wanted to have a stress-free way to start part 2 of our vacation - which wouldn't come with a train. The transfer granted us someone at our door on time, and drop off directly under the cruise ship.
Boarding the Epic was by far the easiest experience I have ever had boarding a ship, and that's a lot to be said as we have some of the most well-run ports in Florida. And I would not be exaggerating when I say we were checked in, through security, commemorative picture taken, and boarded in about 15 minutes time! We went straight to lunch and let the rest of the day ease by, as we had nowhere to be, and could kick back, relax and enjoy that beautiful Italian sunshine as we waited to embark on the rest of our journey.
Day 2: Livorno, Pisa & Lucca
Our first stop brought us to the port of Livorno, better known for Pisa and Firenze (aka Florence). We chose to skip Florence, which is rare for first timers, and headed to a place of more significance - Lucca. Lucca is where my paternal great grandfather was raised and we knew being so close to our homeland we had to pay our respects to the city we had roots in. We hired a private driver via Your Tour in Italy and we decided the itinerary for the day based off what we wanted to do. Once again, a private driver was every bit worth it since we were at liberty to design our day and it surprisingly, was much cheaper than the cruise ship rates for a group preplanned excursion.
We chose to stop in Pisa to see her famous tower on our way to spend the rest of the day in Lucca. Pisa was a sight to see, particularly because there is nothing else in the city other than l'duomo, the baptismal building and the bell tower, better known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It's magnificent to experience something so obscure in person and really comprehend that yes, it is standing and there are people in it too! Hearing the bells ring definitely drove the point home, kind of like staring at a phenomenon you wouldn't think could exist let alone work. Pisa has nothing else to it, other than a little town square and lots of street vendors selling you souvenirs with the tower stamped all over it. Those aspects of our trip made visiting a little somber; its one thing to see tourist shops in Orlando where everything feels made up for a show. But to see these places rich in history have their streets filled with "artifacts" you can wear, definitely takes away some of its ancient beauty. I couldn't even bare to take a true picture of how tourist rich and tacky Pisa could look because its not what I want to recall. The photo below of my 6 year old holding the tower up is the only way I want to remember it, when I remember nothing else at all.
We then made our 30 minute drive through the beautiful Tuscan countryside to Lucca, which resides within thick city walls. Outside of Lucca proper, felt like any other city you were entering with store and gas stations dotting the roads. But within the walls is old Lucca, captured in time. It is absolutely stunning with its immaculately kept interior and the small town charm we didn't find in Rome. We were dropped off to visit the cathedral, Cattedrale di San Martino, which was humbling to know that I have family that have prayed within these walls. After we walked to a square while in search of the building my great grandfather studied art at and instead found a carousel! The kids made a friend after their ride and though one didn't understand the other, they played just the same. We decided to get a proper view of Lucca - so the six of us rented a surrey! The city walls are a city above a city - big enough even drive a car on at parts, so we decided to explore the city overhead! We pedaled the city walls filled with restaurants and beautiful walking trails. And the city itself is just as charming, wrapped up in simple traditions and a quieter lifestyle. It is much more manageable to see but we also barely scratched the surface in seeing it. The best part though was getting to see a place my family has called home, a place that has some of our beautiful history, and getting to share it with the next generation of our tree. We ended our day in Lucca with lunch at Ristorante San Colombano, a restaurant on the wall covered in trees and pigeons with fantastic fresh food. And amazing local wine!
Our driver, Luca, comes highly recommended for anyone wanting to get to know Italy! He did our regional tour but is also a private driver throughout Italy and very much made this way of seeing the country one to consider. He was knowledgable of the Tuscan region, as he calls Livorno home, and was respectful of our time. He allowed us to see what we wanted without feeling rushed, but also gave us an insider's view of a place we otherwise wouldn't know how to tackle. He ended our time there with a stop in his wine shop in Livorno, where we got great Tuscan wine and oils to ship home at very reasonable prices. A free tasting did not hurt to end the day, where our kids enjoyed our time together as much as we did.
Day 3: Cannes & Monaco
We arrived to Cannes as our second stop; France is a country I have always coveted to get to know! The French Rivera is every bit as beautiful as I anticipated, with quaint homes dotting the cliff and beaches. Our itinerary took us to visit Eze, a small hillside walking village on the coast; and Monaco, the country known for its glamour and wealth, and its small square footage.
We arrived early and in true European fashion, our guide right on time, not a minute earlier. This time we booked via Viator, who paired us with Gregory, a local guide very familiar with both Monaco and Cannes. We started with a captivating drive through the hillsides to Eze, even taking in the Alps with her snowcapped tops in the distance as we headed west. Eze’s allure is that its an adorable cliffside village with boutique shopping built spiraling up with narrow passage ways and labryinths to get lost in. The view from the top of the botanical gardens, overlooking the sea, was the peak of the visit (pun intended) to get a full view of the French and Monaco coast that surround us.
After our quick stop there, we made it to Fragonard Parfumeur, a perfumery in the region known for perfumes. And even though this was very much a solicited stop with obvious business opportunities, I welcomed it. We got a preview of what the greats of Chanel and Estée Lauder do, who also have businesses in this region known for the fragrant flowers that bloom here. Best of all, we got a little something unique to bring home – French perfume that can only be found here – the type of souvenir that is always appealing.
Another short drive over and we made it to Monaco, every bit as elite as it sounds. The streets are tight & winding and full of luxury everywhere! Everything about this tiny country is screams big money – it is very proper, crisp and pristine. I understand the appeal of it now, as it is absolutely gorgeous with bountiful views of the sea on one side, and of luxurious homes on the other. We visited the palace, walked the cathedral that Princess Grace wed in, and even got to see one of her daughters being police escorted back to her home. A little added bonus for our visit was that we got to first hand experience the tracks of the Grand Prix, which had just happened a few short days ago. The sound of cars racing is something I’ll always remember about weekend mornings of my childhood, when my dad would wake up early to watch these famous races, that we were now experiencing firsthand. That we got to ride the roads that were so much part of our life and we had a "taste" of racing is an experience I won't forget.
Day 4: Palma de Mallorca
Day 6 we headed to Palma de Mallorca, an island off the coast of Spain held back in time. This stop was amazing! We once again were able to do what we loved – discover a city on foot! We stopped by the Cathedral, explored the Arab baths, and walked down their Las Ramblas. We finally stopped for tapas at a street side restaurant where we drank the best sangria we’ve ever had. We finished our trip by heading up to Bellver Castle, situated on a hill looking down at all of Mallorca. The stop was a welcome change of pace to the car trips we had conformed to and made us feel like we were truly on vacation.
Day 5: Barcelona
What a stark difference even moving slightly over is! France to Spain were so different culturally than Italy and it really did feel like you made a transition to new terrain. But we were so limited in time in these new places that we felt like we barely got to scratch the surface in getting know these beauties!
We decided before we arrived to Barcelona to discover this city as we went. We had a full 12 hours at this port since this was another embarkation point. We chose to board in Rome though because of the distance from the city to maximize our time sightseeing. Whereas in Barcelona the port is in the city and proxmity to get there and back does not affect your time to explore. We also decided on just a double decker bus tour to get a scope of what we wanted to see. We mistook the sheer vastness of this city - it is HUGE and not a place that can be easily explored! And to add insult to injury, it was rainy and cold the day we got there. So we made the best of it and explored the city by bus, with stops to check out some of the hot spots.
We did hope off the bus at Sagrada Familia and Parca Guell, but because you can’t just get tickets on the spot, we weren't able to tour. Tickets are time stamped and sold in advance, which I applaud for being very organized and meticulous (really, this type A love this). So we handled it with grace, accepted our plans for the stop in this city, and enjoyed the rest of the bus tour. And we definitely made plans to come back for an inclusive trip in Spain, to explore another family heritage stop and get a better grasp of this beautiful country.
Day 6 Day at Sea
In between all the running around, on our way back to Italy we got a full day at sea. And with that full day at sea we also had the best weather to match. So you better believe we took full advantage of a day to unwind and relax poolside, and also start prepping for part 2 of our trip.
Before we even packed, we found out that NCL also offered laundry service for a flat price as long as it fit in the provided laundry bag. And since we wanted to pack light, we utilized this service to minimize what we packed on this trip and also extend it over an additional week. The day at sea we got our clothes back, washed and pressed and were able to pack for our departure in a few days.
While we handled adult stuff, the kids played. Like most other cruises, there was plenty of activity on the boat to fill both the days and nights. NCL's kids club age policy is 3 so both our kids were old to spend some of their time there, which gave us a chance to enjoy dinner just as the adults on most nights. The kids club also provided great activities by age, including a evening of parades and shows put on by the kids themselves.
Cruising is great, don’t get me wrong. But for us, we felt like we missed out a little. Let’s say those past 4 days were what I earlier called an appetizer of each place. And though without this trip, I don’t think we would have ever just made it over to Mallorca or Cannes, we definitely wish we had more time in the others. And the trade out could’ve been to just discover the places we missed. We also definitely missed out on having the culture and food surround us at night. We got immersed in what we were experiencing we just weren't quite ready to get back on the boat when it was time for it!
Day 7 Naples & the Amalfi Coast
We ventured back to Italy, and into Napoli, the birth place of pizza (though we didn't spend much time in Naples or have pizza). We were there long enough to be picked up again by our guide from Your Tour in Italy and make our way to the Amalfi Coast. We were given a brief history lesson of Naples, discovering that the land we were driving on was created thanks to Mount Vesuvius’ destruction of Pompeii, which at its prime was coastal. We made our approach to Sorrento, where we would get a unique view of the peninsula as we drove the coastal highway. But an accident cut that plan short and we were detoured to backroads. And this was proof in the adage, take the road less traveled. I’m sure the drive down and through Sorrento is absolutely stunning, but we got to explore parts we would’ve never known. We got exclusive peeks at life in these small coastal villages and how beautifully serene it was. How simple life is high up and this far out form the hustle.
We made it to Positano, where we were given time to explore this coastal town by foot. As most small village, its lined with shops, has a central church, and many great places to eat. Its easy to get lost and lose time just exploring here, as life seems so much simpler when there are far less choices. We made it down to the beach, which is covered in dark rocky “sand” and the sea lined with boats. It really is a picturesque location that postcards are made of. After exploring we made our way to La Tagliata, a restaurant built on a cliff where mama cooks in the kitchen and we eat food served family style, with unlimitless wine and a shot of limoncello after our desserts (yes, plural).
After a delicious, hearty lunch and a sleepy ride back to the “mainland” we made it to Pompeii, where we had a guided tour of this city frozen in time. Its quite an experience to first hand hear these stories, and see the monster Vesuvius looming behind us. The city of Naples is still plagued by earthquakes, and Vesuvius remains a dormant but active volcano, which being there in person to see is both fascinating and terrifying. The stop provided to be a little much for the kids, as all they got to see were rocks everywhere, but our guide did a wonderful job of keeping them engaged and entertained. And luckily we had a tour short enough to keep them happy, but long enough to keep us engaged.
Cruising got us but an appetizer of all these places and its really made us long for so much more. To say that cruising here was enough is not even close to the truth. These individual countries need entire dedicated trips to explore them, because even though neighbors, they're truly unique stories on their own. So naturally whats our first thought, how do we get back here soon? Because we caught this Europe bug and we can't help but want more of it!
We also thought cost would make a drastic difference cruising, and I actually don’t think it would. Sure, we got a great deal for the 4 of us to have a floating home for 7 days - guaranteed food, sleep and transportation for a week of our trip. But there are still costs, like the excursions to explore and experience these magnificent places. And most of these are not just managable on foot, so you'd have the residual cost regardless of how we traveled. We also wanted to indulge in the delicacies each of these places had to offer. So there's another expense added to the trip - a very well worth it expense, but one that just made cruising a tad bit more expensive. The food we were given as part of the cruise didn't cut what we wanted to experience.
Cruising with kids is absolutely, positively, 100% the way to go. They had so much distraction on the ship once we got back, and the energy to spare, that dropping them off to play was not even a question. They delighted in so much that they did that we have no regrets in taking this kind of trip just for providing a true break from them from touring. The pouting leaving the ship should say it all!
But if you and yours have an adventurous spirit and taste buds to match, then stay off the boat. You'll get so much out of having a guide that knows and prides in their home country shuttling you around on YOUR schedule and being able to navigate these countries down your own path.
The experience was great and it definitely left us wanting more - to explore more courageously and take the road less traveled next time. But on the other hand, man, did we love these views ...
A Rome Adventure
Our first big international trip was just this past summer with a 3 & a 6 year old on a 17 day trip from Orlando to Rome, around the Mediterranean and ending in Paris. We've done trips out of the country before, but never to this caliber.
And if I'm being completely honest, I had some reservations - let's call it the fear of the unknown. I started to make up reasons why we couldn't or shouldn't do this for an unrealistic moment. They're too young, it's too far, it's too long, it's too much. But then the spirit of adventure and logic set in. We got on our first flight, and I left any worries stateside - the adrenaline of travel is form my liquid courage.
We were flying Delta with a connection domestically to start the trip. I chose to do this as opposed to connecting closer to Rome, just so we could limit going through immigration and booking a long layover to match. We also chose to fly Delta because we found an excellent rate, in Basic Economy though. It was our first time flying on this entry level fare - no bags or prior seat selection included - but we also knew we'd have perks being Medallion members (like free bags) that eliminated the cost. Lucky for us, Delta offers family seating, so in the weeks prior to our trip I called and requested assignment as I was traveling with two young kids. The seating is in the very back of the plane, but it worked out perfectly the day of our trip. Both kids were up extremely early and both had outgrown the trick of a rocking plane lulling them to sleep, so I only had to graciously apologize to one row of people for E's pint sized punch. She actually fought it all the way through our dinner time lay over in Atlanta, until take off to Rome; where after a minor screaming fit ensued, she was no longer able to fight sleep.
Our arrival into Rome was pretty self explanatory and not at all complicated. The airport is very immaculate and the ease of getting around is a dream. Really, it was the arrival you'd want in a new country and such a welcoming start to our trip. We hired a driver for pick as opposed to waiting for public transportation or a taxi, since we wanted a secure source to get us to the hotel upon arrival. The service was fantastic and efficient; we were greeted with a sign with our name and led to a Mercedes minivan for our trip through Rome to our hotel, Best Western Hotel Spring House. Both of which I'd highly recommend.
Best Western Hotel Spring House is located right next to the Vatican, a quieter part of town, but still busy. We chose it less because of proximity to major sightseeing hubs, but more because of location - my parents were staying at a nearby B&B and we wanted to be nearby to get together during our trip. Also, there weren't many hotels available to accommodate a group of 4 (in one room). After some in-depth research, the hotel proved to be *perfect* for families. We had to book a family room/suite because of our size, which in this case consisted of dual-level room with two beds and a bathroom not of European size. The top floor loft had one king bed under skylights for some incredible morning sun when we woke; while the bottom floor had a queen, closet space, in-room safe, mini fridge, and a bathroom big enough for a family (with shower only though). Because our rooms weren't ready at arrival and as an act of hospitality, we were comped breakfast during check-in, which was a great added bonus. We prefer to book hotels that serve breakfast when possible, as morning food varieties don't matter much with kids, so we want the option to eat where we're at.The hotel including it for us was a generous gesture that makes recommending them all that more worthwhile. And for anyone questioning the Best Western brand, its not at all what I expected.
Our arrival day was made up of a LOT of walking (10+ miles) and self guided tours! We strapped on the toddler carrier for E and prepared J for a lot of standing, as we purposely left the stroller at home. We made the decision early on in our planning process to bring a carrier and started the research for one with a a higher weight limit that could also be easily be packed. We went with the Ergo, and actually found a reseller on Facebook Marketplace where we paid saved a good chunk of change on a excellent condition carrier that had been lightly used. It would have been worth every penny of full price though because it definitely getting around manageable and traveling with one less items a dream!
We created Google Maps prior to our trip, dropping pins of sites we wanted to see and then mapping out walking tours according to our pins for each of our 3 days there. Rome is very walkable - I knew it was a major city and expected traffic, but major roads are very avoidable if you want to trail down cobblestone paths. We even made it fun for the little ones by providing them with scavenger hunts in the city that the could do. J was equipped with an old iPhone to take pictures (and load games as necessary), scavenger hunts - both city specific and generic, and a notebook, both for doodling and writing his adventures. The combination of activities definitely made the trip unique for him in how he'd see the city.
We stopped for pizza at a cafe by our hotel, gelato by the Pantheon, marveled at Trevi, watched street performers in piazzas, got lost various times which all ended up being beautiful detours, and finally ended up in the Jewish Ghetto around dinner time. I had received a recommendation to dine at Ba'ghetto Milky -it looks like a dimly lit small cavern upon entering and was fairly empty, which was a welcome sight for hungry & exhausted travelers. The restaurant is meat free, offering minimal fish options, which was a bit of a surprise but also a fun change of pace (to not force our traditional selection). I ordered a fettuccine with truffle sauce and have been dreaming of it ever since; European portions are not nearly as generous as American but not was the perfect amount! Chris got a local fish dish which was delicious but quite honestly not as impressive as my pasta. And the kids ordered an eight slice pizza to share - and finished it themselves if it’s any testament to our day! Yes, we were famished, but the food was more impressive than our need to devour it and hands down we will recommend this restaurant over again. Plus, the neighborhood is up and coming district, full of rich history and stories you don't always hear about Rome - if you can carve time to get to know it personally, absolutely do.
We didn't mind the walk now that we had indulged so opted on the two mile venture back to pass spots we hadn’t yet. It was also an excellent excuse to pack in more calories in the form of dessert cannolis, a first for the the kids (and which they loved it)! We also had some beautiful views of the sun setting in Rome and a chance to enjoy the carousel in the square by the Castel D'Angelo. The unique beauties of this cities, how do I even start to explain the emotions they evoke? Rome by foot was worth every blister and leg cramp we had after the first day.
We decided to book both our tours of the Colosseum and Vatican in one day, since we had the unpredicatability of travel on our other two days there. We booked both with Angel Tours, off a recommendation, and the tour operator easily accommodated our requests and made two tours in a day feasible. We started on what ended up being a private tour at the Colosseum and ventured to the Roman forum before ending slightly before lunch. We hopped in a taxi and grabbed a bite to eat near our hotel, so the boys could change into pants (no knees for visiting the the Vatican) and headed back to meet our guide for our small group tour.
Were back to back 3 hour tours a lot? For exhausted travelers it could be. But was it worth it? Even more so. Both our guides were very knowledgable and attentive to our kids, keeping us engaged and sharing the treasures of these gems. Having an actual person to guide versus an audio recording is also the only way to go. We could ask questions to learn as they explained; and many times we were surprised with how much more we learned. Best of all, they save you a lot of time, which is worth the extra money. Otherwise, you face lines to buy tickets and lines to get in and lines for just about everything else. And this was at the end of May, which isn't even their peak holiday season yet.
We ended our day of tours with dinner in Trastevere, a neighborhood off the beaten path. We wanted to explore Rome like a local and only wish we had a little more time here, but an evening stop made up for a whirlwind day. We had fantastic dinner outside at Trattoria da Gli Amici - or Restaurants of Friends as it literally translates to. It was a cute little cafe with outdoor seating in a lively piazza. The restaurant next door even provided music for us to dine by - along with a few street musicians who came by our table to perform for spare change. The food was superb, as we ordered just about everything off the menu to build a family style meal of sharing. Bread is always served on the table and the bottles of wine at the price of American glasses were refreshing on this warm evening out. And if you need any more of a recommendation here, the restaurant does incredible things with its staff - they employ veterans and those with special needs that typically can't get jobs anywhere else. What charming people to meet and humbling to know you crossed their path & gave their job a purpose. We were the lucky ones that evening which was simply stated, perfect.
After arriving back from cruising for a week, we had one more full day planned in Rome. We scheduled this purposely so we could explore any new parts we missed, or go back and see the things we loved one more time. We opted to move hotels this time, and stayed near their financial district at Best Western - Hotel Artdeco. Though the room was spacious and the bathroom generous, this one fell short of the family feel we had at the previous hotel. We were fortunately near many shops to pick up groceries as needed. Which came as a blessing in disguise, as J had a stomach bug manifest that very morning. So after we checked in, Chris offered to stay behind (since he had a chance to explore Rome in a past life), so J could rest. E and I made way with my parents to have lunch in the city center and then walked over to visit the Spanish Steps. E, in traditional Italian fashion, ate a pizza on the steps as we took in the sights and sounds around us. And after a few hours of exploring and a scoop of gelato later, we headed back to check on the boys.
Thankful for some well heeded advice and medicines to match, J was feeling better and was ready to explore. So our long awaited trip to Villa Borghese was our next stop. We booked our hotel here, due to its proximity to the park and the fact that we had mapped out a day to check it out exclusively (obviously plans had changed). So we made the 20 minute walk over, exploring Italy on foot again, and arrived to the Italian version of Central Park. It was full of life, with skating lessons being taught, a playground full of children laughing, a train passengers to explore, and visitors strolling the tree-lied park on a mild June afternoon. We spotted tandem bikes for rent by the hour and we knew we had to explore in this fashion.
The park is full of pathways that lead everywhere - beautiful fountains, a gallery, another hidden nook or even right to the zoo. Due to our late afternoon arrival and to our kids' dismay, we were not able to visit. But had plan A worked out, we would've spent some time exploring to indulge in this park even a little more. Once we rode every crease & crevice and realized we were ending in the prime spot for the kids, we returned to the playground and let them run more energy out on the playground and play some arcade games situated nearby, with some county-fair like rides.
Our dinner plans took us back to Trevi fountain to the twice recommended Vineria Il Chianti. We gathered that the proximity to the tourist hot spot to may take away some of its local charm, but the raving reviews were enough to lure us in. There is a small courtyard on arrival where you can dine and people watch in the piazza. But if you prefer a more intimate setting, the restaurant itself is situated in a charming villa with dim lights and hidden rooms, including a tea light lit hallway that resembles a runway to the bathroom. The menu was full of amazing feasts that it made it hard for us to decide on just one, so we didn't. We had a beef steak with enough servings to feed 4, a pasta with Bolognese sauce, and the kids had the most fantastic wood-fired pizza for our one last goodbye to this Italian deliciacy.
We ended our evening's adventure with another goodbye to gelato and a trip to drop off some postcards for friends back home. We couldn't find a more loving souvenir for the kids to give then sending postcards back got friends. We tied it in with the objective of getting J to practice his penmanship and spelling by sending mail to his friends back home - a thoughtful souvenir for them, a fun activity for him, and a wonderful memory for all of us. And before we departed Trevi's sight, we hopped back over one more time, with coins in hand and wishes to be sent. We kissed our metals, threw them over our shoulders and hoped we'd soon be back to make more of these memories.
How do I even start describing how amazing this place is? It was mentioned Italians are proud people, hesitant to speak to you if you don't know their language and relatively inhospitable once they realize you are a foreigner. I didn't find any of this to be true. We had nothing but wonderful, warm interactions with everyone we met. It's everything you see out of a movie, with big boisterous greetings and dinner tables full of love. No one ever felt like a stranger and these welcoming gestures left us wanting more. From the gentleman working in the gelato shop giving E candy as she patiently waited for her cone to be filled; to the reserved waiter having a staring contest with J until he laughed. These people have left an impression on my kids and have so much more on me.
Italy has been all I dreamed of and more. There's not a magical age to do this nor know when to start. Too young? There are families literally everywhere, so no, we're not the only crazies walking around with a sleeping tot on our back. We decided what was right for us and now was perfect. Plus, now that we started, we have opportunity to keep coming back; there will be no "what if" dialogues, because we have and now we're on for more. We love this place already and if we didn’t, our last couple days have solidified our desire to adventure more.
Why You Need to Take a Cruise
Best vacation ever? We think so!
Anyone who's spent their time at sea will come to appreciate how truly relaxing a cruising vacation is. We LOVE to cruise and try to take at least one a year to discover a new island in the Caribbean (or more recently, the Mediterranean coast)!
1. Your carefree vacation starts the moment you step on ship. We can't say this enough and there's proof in the pudding! Have you ever seen a cruise terminal vs. an airline terminal? Two completely different worlds. It all seems easier when you cruise - from the moment you check-in until you step on board - and that's because it actually is! No need to worry about long security lines where shoes and laptops need to be removed; or praying for decent seat arrangements; or trying to sort out unpredictable flight delays and changes - you're on vacation from the minute you arrive!
For someone who has never cruised, your stress-free vacation starts the moment you drop your luggage off with a porter, because it will be delivered straight to your stateroom. Yes, you'll still go through the standard protocol of checking travel documents, receiving your boarding pass (known as your cruise ship ID card), and security checks. But then, then your vacation really starts! Once you board, it's time to pull out that swimsuit and grab a spot by the pool because you have nowhere else to be for the next few days!
2. You get to pack light. What else are you going to do on island time? Whatever you want! Which loosely translates to "don't worry about getting all dolled up every day, you get to unwind and relax." What to pack should be the least of your concerns. No need to coordinate a ton of outfits or worry about bringing shoes to match - all you really need to get by is a swimsuit, coverup and lots of sunscreen!
We're usually at one suitcase when we travel, and cruising is no exception. We pack a few interchangeable shirt & bottom combos, a handful of swimsuits (because they never dry fast enough), items to workout in (which will work for excursions that require a little more manpower too) and then a couple nicer items to wear at dinner for the nights we choose to eat at one of the flagship restaurants. Cruises do have a suggested attire when entering dining rooms, but aside from that, you don't have to worry about packing the "right" thing.
And if you're still worried about not packing enough, all cruise lines offer some kind of pay for laundry service. Disney Cruise Line even has washers and dryers for guest to use themselves, laundromat style - just bring detergent and spare change! Our cruise through Europe on the Norwegian Epic offered us a midweek laundry service for a reduced set price. All we had to do was fill a bag, inventory it, send it to be cleaned, and we had it back the next day with clean clothes to wear through the second half of our vacation!
3. You can eat whatever, whenever, as much as you want. Unfortunately it all still has calories. But good news, is that it's all included in the price of your fare. And trust us, there's food galore!
One of the greatest things about planning a cruise vacation is knowing there's not too many surprises in what it'll cost you. Your per passenger price includes standard meals on board, from quick service dining by the pool to seated dinner in their main restaurants. AND there's no limit to what you get! This especially makes it great for traveling with kids (or picky eaters) because what a blessing it is to not have to plan a meal fit for all.
The experience you'll have dining all over the ship in their inclusive venues is enough to keep your appetite satisfied. But cruise lines do have specialty add-on restaurants, where you can book a "fancier" dinner usually at a flat rate. Unless you're an avid cruiser looking to change things up, or a cruiser wanting to celebrate a special occasion, there's no real need for the upgrade. We spent our honeymoon on Royal Caribbean's Liberty of the Seas, and we made it a point to have one night to celebrate one-on-one. After months of madness called planning a wedding, it was nice to have a quiet night just the two of us, in a restaurant that offered even more superb service.
4. You can relax whenever you want. There's that island time again! Because really, it exists. Try to find a clock somewhere onboard - it's hard to come by and that's really a good thing! Want to sleep in and order breakfast in bed? Go for it! Want to take a snooze by the pool? Just remember to lather up and turn over to keep your color even. Need to sneak back to your room for an afternoon nap? It's the perfect time to escape before the evening's festivities begin.
Want to splurge and relax? Spa services are available on board for an additional fee. And though we're not usually ones to use them, we decided that we deserved it on our 2017 "end of the year" cruise on Carnival Magic. And it was so worth it! We booked spa level rooms that granted us access to the sauna and steam rooms at our leisure - our only regret was not using it more! We dropped the kids off at their respective kids' club and we snuck off for some time to unwind AND gear up for the new year, in a way we'd never get to at home.
5. The amenities are great. The bigger the ship the more there is to do, though every ship has a great selection of something for everyone! If the pools with live band weren't enough, many have been upgraded to include water park/play areas or amazing water slides to take your fun at sea up a notch. We cruised Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas where there literally were activities on every corner. Kiddie to adult only pools, putt putt, ropes course, an arcade, sports court, A CAROUSEL and so much more!
For adult only fun, ships have a variety of bars and clubs that each uniquely cater to every type of fun seeker. If gambling is your escape, most ships have a floating casino (available once you reach international waters) - Disney is the only that does not incorporate this in their brand. And more recently, to accommodate growing demand to help limit surprising costs, most lines have introduced a form of unlimited drink package (both non-/alcoholic). We've tried it and its a total benefit for someone who plans on enjoying their trip, without watching their bank account. Just prebook the package and you're ready for arrival - you know what it's going to cost you for adult libations and you can start drinking once you get on the boat!
6. The live shows are included. The caliber of productions that you're going to see is beyond anything you'd expect, especially as cruise lines continue to progress and enhance their offerings! And believe us when we say what you get is fantastic! Disney Cruise Line has always been top notch in their theatrical productions, and can delight children (and kids at heart) of every age. But more recently, we've been able to experience Broadway shows at sea on two separate lines, which truly left us blown away.
Back in 2017, we cruised Allure of the Sea and caught a production of Mamma Mia! which was as great as the touring production we saw a few years before that. And this was in addition to the outdoor stage shows, live musicians, ice skating productions and even a parade this ship offered, all in the same sailing. More recently on Norwegian Epic, we made time to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (and no, not because it was my namesake). I had watched it a few years back and enjoyed it - the ship production really rivaled what we saw on dry land, even on a much smaller set.
If live theater isn't your thing, most cruise lines also offer a variety of other options, including comedians, guest karaoke, live bands, and movie under the stars. We've had some of our more memorable nights as a family cuddling under a blanket and letting the kids doze off under a star filled sky. Just pick a seat, grab some popcorn and enjoy a movie by the pool. Those have always been an absolutely perfect end to our cruises!
7. Don't like to plan? You don’t have to! Everything's scheduled for you - that is, if you want to follow a schedule. Each ship has a cruise director and his staff of employees that coordinate and handle all activities. There's everything you could want to do from games, shows, art auctions, cooking classes, exercise classes, and more!
Every night in your stateroom along with turndown service, you will be provided a detailed daily schedule of what there is to come the following day. Have your pick of what appeals to you! You can start your day with a class at the gym, spend time at the pool, check out an art display, test your luck at BINGO, take a cooking class and then still make it back in time for lunch (and start all over again after that).
If keeping it low key is more your style, you can also opt to do NOTHING AT ALL. Even when docking at your scheduled ports, you don't ever have to leave the ship. For us, we love a good excursion, especially if it's to discover a new country and her people. And we'll definitely return to the ones we love to experience to see it all over again. But there are times when the offerings on the ship are more enticing, and your port day plan can be to stay on the boat all day long! We did this when we cruised the Disney Dream with the kids, and opted not to go to Nassau. We had been a handful of times and there wasn't anything we particularly wanted to do. Instead, we chose to take advantage of an empty ship, which still had scheduled activities, and allowed our kids to meet characters, have play time in the kids club, and enjoy the pools ... all without a crowd!
8. Your kids will have a great time too! Our kids have each been cruising since they were a year old, and it's been by far the best trip we can take as a family, especially with littlest of ones. If all the activities above aren't enough to convince you to cruise, than consider what else there is to do for your tots!
Depending on how old or young they are, there's a selection of activities that cater to each age. Typically cruising can start as early as 6 months old, so strolling the ship or letting them nap while you relax is exactly what you both need. You're limited to paid babysitting services for the littlest of the bunch, but it's worth your while if you're looking for an evening of conversation. For some ships, starting at age 2, your little ones are welcome to their kids club, where they can mingle with other kids their age while being supervised by a host of professional, fun-loving staff! Ships also typically offer this service free of charge until late night (10pm), so it gives parents a chance to grab an uninterrupted meal and post-dinner drinks and still call it an early night (because who are we kidding, staying up late nowadays is non-existent)! You may also keep your children playing after hours (usually until 12), but that comes at a nominal fee. Then for your big kids, they can explore tween and teen rooms; each giving them a safe haven to hang out with kids their age, while giving you the peace of mind of knowing where they are!
Beyond the kids club, unlimited food (and soft serve ice cream), pools, games, and so much more, cruise lines have also done a great job of catering to families by offering a specialty dining experience - like breakfast at sea with characters from Dr. Seuss (Carnival) or the gang from Madagascar (Royal Caribbean).
Disney Cruise Line itself, the pinnacle of fun for kids, offers daily meet-and-greets with Mickey and friends all over the ship, and special appearances by a host of other characters and princesses. You can pay for your kids to get a special princess or pirate makeover (similar to the parks) to adorn the rest of their trip. And you get to end one night at sea in a pirate takeover with fireworks to match (the only cruise line that does this). Disney, like the parks, has taken their experience up a level for family fun and if its something you're considering, definitely book a Disney before your little ones outgrow the magic!
9. You get to visit a ton of places all at once. Beyond all the reasons above, our number one incentive for cruising is the selection of stops we visit. If you've got a vagabond soul (like us) and you're eager to explore - but sometimes all you need is one day. Some of these stops, though beautiful and culturally enriching in their own right, are also new and unknown to us. Cruising gives us the option to see a handful of different places at once without the individual plane ticket prices. From there we can decide which ones we want to come back to spend a little more time at!
Aruba, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Haiti, Dominician Republic, Puerto Rico, the Virigin Islands, Curacao, Grand Turk, Grand Cayman, Mexico, Belize - we've seen them all! And more recently, we jumped on a Mediterrean cruise and got to explore parts of Italy, France, Monaco, and Spain, all in one swoop! It definitely gives us a taste of what we want to see so much more of - and reason to start planning where our next adventure is!
10. Your real world can't sneak in. And if you need any more reason to go, it's because cruising is your one true way to disconnect. Cell charges for roaming on international waters are ridiculous. The first thing you will want to do after setting sail, is to turn your phone to airplane mode. Or like my husband loves to do - turn it off completely!
Cruising really does encourage an atmosphere to unplug, though cruise lines are customizing ship ready apps to keep you connected while on board. It's all a matter of figuring what makes sense for you, all while staying present in your family vacation. I keep my phone on me to make sure I'm capturing all our memories at a moment's notice; my husband locks his phone in our in-room safe only to see it once we're back home. Regardless of how you see it, you're disconnected from work, emails, social media and all those other distractions - and there can't be a better way to spend quality time with your loved ones!
So do we have you convinced? Need anything more? We've cruised the major lines (Carnival, Disney, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean) a handful of times each - all of which have great offerings for couples and families alike. There really is no right or wrong choice in what you choose, as each is different and will give you a unique experience from the other. For us, that's what we love about trying each out and figuring out which line is a right fit for us (right now, we don't have one)!
Ready to take the leap and need help planning the perfect trip for you? Let me know and we can find the right cruise - from ship to destination(s) - for you!
A London Holiday
Did London meet my expectations? I always go into my travels with a nervous excitement, so it lowers my anticipation a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled for the prospect of travel, but between balancing the logistics of a trip and “blindly” planning to visit a new place, I simply go in expecting to have a good time, whatever that may be. Sure, we didn’t know what to expect but it definitely was not what we got; we fell in love with London more than we ever knew we could!
For an outsider’s perspective, the easiest place to compare London is to New York City. It’s a very vibrant, cultural melting pot with non-stop action and excitement, much like NYC. It has distinct neighborhoods laid out similarly to a map of the Big Apple, each having its own unique appeal. It’s an older city that has the charm of preserved history meets the state-of-the-art infrastructure that gives it new character. London above all has a timeless beauty to rival that of NYC, and the pride in which its citizens have to keep the city pristine is inspiring.
Now don’t get me wrong, I will be the first to shout from the rooftops about how much I love the city that never sleeps! But from the architecture to the people to the activities to the food, we were truly blown away by all London has to offer!
So how’d we get here?
We caught the Europe bug this summer after spending 2 ½ weeks visiting a handful of countries. We knew we wanted to come back soon, but never anticipated how soon. We had started looking into trip options for the week between Christmas and New Year’s in July, knowing we were cutting it close in the affordability window. All our searching was turning out empty, as every option we considered sat on costing more than what we were willing to pay. I then stumbled upon direct flights on Virgin Atlantic to London Gatwick from Orlando using Google Flights and the price hit our sweet spot.
We quickly jumped over to do a search of hotel prices to see if it was too good to be true, and sure enough it wasn’t! We booked a refundable option until we solidified all our trip plans, and then after some more research and waiting for the Europe flight prices to hit their lowest point, we booked!
We knew from the start it was going to be a Christmas surprise – we always talked about how the kids have too much stuff and the next holiday trip was going to be their gift! We were originally considering a Disney cruise as our New Year’s plan, but because of the peak week and higher demand, the cost rose beyond what we wanted to pay. We would cruise Disney in a heartbeat, but we wanted to ring in the New Year in a way we never had before, and since we had done already cruised Disney, we searched for something with a price point we felt was reasonable. And in turn, this trip ended up costing us LESS than that cruise would have.
Unbelievable, right?! We were able to take our family across the pond for a Christmas week holiday for less than cruising the Gulf of Mexico right next door.
Sound like something you want to do?
Here are some things we took note about London that we feel will help make this a trip for you!
1. Flying into London is EASY and cheap! There are DIRECT flights from Orlando (MCO) to London Gatwick (LGW) for cheaper than flying into some US cities. We booked Virgin via Delta and scored a price cheaper than going to NYC, San Francisco or even Phoenix (to watch the UCF-LSU game) for the same time period. We did book an Economy Light ticket, which is a new pricing structure most major airlines introduced to make traveling a bargain. But very important to note, it eliminates immediate seat selection and a checked bag. Yes, we know it’s not for everyone, especially those traveling with kids (we’re crazy, right?)! But having loyalty to an airline allowed us to check our one bag free (Delta Medallion status via their AmEx credit card). And Virgin made seat selection a breeze thanks to their loyalty program, Flying Club, which allowed us to select our seats 72 hours before our flight departure. All you have to do is register and apply your membership number and you're granted an additional 48 hours to choose (you'd otherwise pick an available seat at check-in).
2. London is relatively inexpensive. We came into this hearing the exact opposite, but after living it for a week, we beg to differ. Yes, a last minute trip to London can cost you, especially when it comes to flight and lodging prices. But if you start planning early, you can find a bargain on hotel rooms or vacation rentals. Once there, the average pricing is pretty standard, if not cheaper, than stateside. Granted the exchange rate hurts a little since it favors the GBP; but “dollar for dollar” prices were not what you expect from a BIG city, a la that of NYC, Vegas or San Francisco. Most meals we kept under the $50 mark for all 4 of us. We did take an occasional splurge on something fancy, like attending a West End show or partaking in a unique activity, but more than made up for it with $3 (or 2 GBP) drinks.
3. They accept credit cards virtually everywhere. No need to worry too much about hitting the ATM up before traveling, as most major cards are accepted from the minute you get off the plane (but do make sure you have a Visa or Mastercard handy). They do not take the US dollar and you will need the GBP if you wish to make cash purchases.
If it gives you peace of mind to have cash on you, then bring a minimal amount of pounds. We like to avoid the currency exchange shops with higher exchange rates and pesky transaction fees, so we find a bank partner ATM and make the withdrawal there. For us, we bank with Bank of America and they have a partnership with Barclay’s. For any cash needs, we could use a Barclay’s ATM and only get charged the currency conversion (no transaction or ATM fees)! Most major US banks have a partnership with international banks, so find out if your bank offers one to save you any additional fees.
4. Skip renting/chartering a car, public transportation is the way to go! The train into London was the easiest mode of transportation we’ve ever taken leaving an airport. We left customs, found a kiosk to buy tickets and then headed to the South Terminal to catch the train one floor up. The National Rail runs every 30 minutes and is roughly a 30 minute ride to London; from there you can hop over to the local Underground that will get you to your destination.
We highly recommend getting a Visitor Oyster card, as not only does it give you a capped Underground fare per day, but also allows you discounts to many attractions. You can prebook a Visitor Oyster card and have it mailed to you, but you will pay the shipping fee from the UK to US (roughly $4 for standard untracked or $12 for Express tracked shipping ). If you rather not pay for shipping, you can purchase one on arrival ONLY at the airport (there is a 5 GBP fee for the card either way) and all you need to do is “top it off” with the amount of fare you need to travel. And best of all, kids under 12 travel free on most trains so you will only need a card for each adult (though a 5-11 year old may need a National Rail ticket to get into London). Once you’re done with the card, you can return it to receive any unused funds back (it will come in pounds though).
5. You can’t go wrong with where you stay. London is so vast and spread out that unless you intend to stay and play in one area ONLY, then really where you stay is of no concern. The area that sees the most foot traffic and is the true hub of the city is Piccadilly Circus (the Times Square of London), but everything else is either a walk or short tube ride away. We opted to stay over in Tower Hill in the City of London (aka their financial district). Sure, it wasn’t in the heart of everything, but it had one thing that could not be beat – an Underground station one block away that got us EVERYWHERE! We could not be happier with that perk, because at the end of a long day, nothing tops walking ONE BLOCK back to your hotel from your train.
6. Find a place to stay that suits your needs. As mentioned above, proximity to the tube station was enough for us. We’re walkers (no pun), so we knew we’d be exploring on foot wherever we went (seriously, we logged 80 miles of walking on this trip). But we had to get there first. There was no main reason for us to stay in one neighborhood over another as we intended to explore the whole city.
We also prefer a hotel to a vacation rental, particularly with little kids – because the convenience of on-site dining and disposable amenities a phone call away eliminates the stress of finding an open store in the middle of the night. We did make pit stops though and stocked up on snacks to have, and our hotel had a decent size mini fridge in the room that was filled with tea, coffee, and water bottles every morning. We stayed at the Novotel London Tower Bridge and we were impressed with the brand, particularly the simple practicality of the room; the clean, crisp boho contemporary look of the hotel; and the price tag that came with it. It was cheaper than most AirBNBs in London and got us all that we needed!
7. The city is extremely family friendly. Bring the kids, they’ll LOVE it here! From riding the tube to looking at Christmas lights to playing in parks to finding random holiday markets filled with goodies … you name it, there was plenty to do! And they enjoyed every minute!
There are several FREE museums in London to explore, including the Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert (museum of art & design), British Museum and Tate Modern (art museum) to name a few. If you don't mind dropping some pounds (no pun), visit the famous London Zoo and get an up close and personal experience with the animals that call it home. Or make time to visit WB Studios to see THE Harry Potter movie sets (be warned, tickets sell out fast, so this is something that needs to be booked months in advance)! Or just do a Harry Potter walking tour to see the actual places that inspired the movies - there's nothing like being there in person! If you want to see London from above, visit the London Eye; there are several other attractions including the SEA LIFE Aquarium and Shrek's Adventure! nearby.
And if all else fails, there are several parks with adorable playgrounds to keep them entertained while you rest your feet from all that exploring. Our kids played on the wooden sculptures of St. James Playground with Buckingham Palace as their backdrop. They climbed a rope course in Regent's Park (the park that is said to be the kite flying playground of the Banks children in Mary Poppins). And they made friends with Londoners at Hyde Park as they raced around the various playground delights. Bonus for parents, these parks are extremely clean and their restrooms are CHILDREN ONLY, which we felt was a gracious gesture to assure that these sacred play spaces were preserved for our little ones.
8. Come during Christmas! It is absolutely beautiful! Just about ever corner of this city has something the rings the Christmas spirit. Despite us traveling after the actual holiday, it still felt like we were gearing up for the big day with the excitement that surrounded the city dressed up in lights.
And if there wasn't enough to do already, the city has Christmas markets everywhere, along with carousels and ice skating rinks to stop you in your tracks! We enjoyed skating at the Natural History Museum in particular. Above all, make sure to visit the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. Or if you rather not ruin a fair experience for your children (or yourself, really) ever again, don't visit it. We will never be able to go to another fair without having to significantly lower our expectations after our over the top afternoon there!
9. If you can’t come during Christmas, come during spring/summer. We’d absolutely take this city on with warmer weather, a little more sunshine, and the excitement of soccer (better known as football) to match! We'd love to see how the city scape changes as the new seasons bring in new beauty! And the new appeal of more outdoor activity with mild weather! The cold didn't keep us from doing anything, but we'd also love to see how much more we could do when its warmer out and it beckons outdoor play!
10. Pack appropriately! Winter was cold here, but not dreadfully cold. We lucked out and didn’t get rain, though we think we only saw the sun for one day. The weather is funny; sometimes the coldest days felt warmer than the ones projected to have higher temperatures. And it all dealt with cloud coverage, moisture and wind. Best advice, layer up – we wore an undershirt, sweater and jacket, with warm socks, gloves, a hat/beanie, and good walking shoes. I would usually bring a scarf for additional clothing to pass on to the the kids (if needed) and would suggest packing an umbrella if you’re worried (or just buy one there).
We managed to take everything we needed in one suitcase for all 4 of us – and I’d recommend packing light too! There are plenty of shopping options there in case you forget something, including a TK Maxx (yes, TK not TJ) for some discounted brand name shopping.
11. Try the staple foods! You can’t miss out on traditional feasts like a Full Monty breakfast (we recommend the one from The Breakfast Club), fish and chips (you HAVE to go to Poppie’s for that), or Indian cuisine (eat at Delhi Brasserie) to name a few. Pret A Manger was a wonderful on-the-go stop for fresh eats every morning and we enjoyed shopping the food corrider at Harrod’s, where we grabbed fantastic cronuts from Bread Ahead! We also couldn’t resist the beckoning charm of Chinatown near Leicester Square and had a wonderful dinner at Canton.
But THE one thing you HAVE to do is afternoon tea – what a fantastic tradition that rivals no other. There are various locations that offer a host of adorable theming options, but we chose to go with The Winter Wonderland Tea at Chesterfield Mayfair. Their menu hosts a variety of options inspired from the candy of Hardys, the famous London candy shop which inspired the likes of Honeydukes. We sipped tea flavored like candy, dined on delicious sandwiches, and devoured sweets to match the theme. All at your leisure and with unlimited supply. Once done, you can head to the candy cart to take sweet treats from Hardys home! It was amazing and more than we could ever expect from this timeless tradition.
12. Make sure to write a bucket list and tackle it. Here's a quick preview of some of the must-do's from our list:
13. Map it out. If you're a visual person (like me) and rather have a mapped out version of what to do, we use Google Maps to create day trips and plan activities in the same vicinity. This made sure we weren't hopping all over the place and also helped us to check off all the activities we wanted to hit. We could then pop open the map while we were out and about and had a true gauge of where we were going with landmarks labeled!
Feel free to borrow the one we created (or we can help customize one to fit your vacation needs)!
You guys, London was AMAZING! And with kid its was very manageable (no stroller and all)! Put it on your bucket list to visit, if it's not already there.
And if you need help planning this trip (or any other) - from finding flight deals, a home away from home and/or planning activities, let Adventure Somewhere help get you there this year!