Road trippin’ Out West

I realize that spring break seems a lifetime ago as we head into fall, but I wanted to share a special itinerary with you in the hopes that maybe you’ll be inspired to start planning early for 2018….and as an added bonus, I can now book travel for you too!  Email me at jrichardson@smartflyer.com with any inquiries!  And now…..roll it back to spring break 2017 below!

IMG_1901

Spring break this year exceeded all expectations as we journeyed out into the great, wide open deserts, mountains, parks and highways of Southern Utah and Arizona.  For eight days, we experienced breathtaking panoramas and took advantage of nature’s perfect playground at every stop.   Southern Utah into northern Arizona may seem like a narrow focus, but in order to fully experience the ins and outs of this beautiful destination, you’d need repeat visits or way more than a week.  But alas, we packed in what we could and I’m excited to share our story.  Read on for details.

IMG_1688

Getting there – Fly into Las Vegas, NV and out of Phoenix, AZ, or do the reverse. It’s an easy 90 minute drive from Vegas to St. George and plus, it’s fun to spend an afternoon soaking up the action and oversized everything in Sin City.

Getting around – Renting a car from the Las Vegas airport is easiest. Be prepared for a long walk through the Vegas airport followed by a wait for the rental car shuttle to arrive and then another walk to get your car.

Where to Stay

The Inn at Entrada (http://www.innatentrada.com/) – In St. George, this country club-residence development is set on a golf course with suites that are actually individual homes with private driveways.  At the time of our stay, guests had access to the country club on site, including its pool, spa, tennis courts and restaurant.  I would return there in a heartbeat, stay a week and explore the St. George area.  Don’t expect cutting edge, but it’s perfectly comfortable and oh so spacious.

 

IMG_1360

IMG_1533

Amangiri – Located in Canyon Point, Utah, this property is nestled in an absolutely exquisite desert canyon.  The quality of the service did not come close to the scenic eye candy but for a one-night splurge, it was worthwhile just to be surrounded by the beautiful shapes of 150+ million year old rock formations and far removed from civilization.  The property is beautifully designed in a way that simply and tastefully juxtaposes the boulders that hug in from all sides.

 

 

IMG_4448

IMG_4520

IMG_4575

 

Hogan Glamping on Navajoland – For a departure from upscale hotels, this property is unique and incredibly fun!  We reserved through airbnb and slept under the stars in a traditional Navajo home, called a hogan, for a night.  Think camping in a wooden (or clay) structure with nothing but the sand under your feet.  We bought ingredients, pots and pans and a few flashlights and cooked out under the stars.  There is no electricity and the bathroom is a Porta Potty.   They have the most beautiful and friendly working dogs that watched over us all night long –  we fell in love with them!  Say hi to Baya and her kids from us if you go!

IMG_4620

 

IMG_4593

 

Enchantment Spa and Resort – Arguably the finest luxury property in Sedona.  Similar to the Amangiri in that the landscape is what really stands out.  The property is well laid out and the casitas are roomy and plush.  The spa is expansive, both in size and in treatment options.  The main part of the hotel boasts several tennis courts, a pool, two restaurants (plus lunch can be ordered pool side), a great open multi-use field and two boutiques.  The entire property is wedged between red mountains and blue skies almost every day of the year.  It is about a 10 minute drive from the town of Sedona and even closer to many hiking trails, including some right on property.

 

What to do
We spent two nights in St. George, which we used as a base for a day trip to Zion, a UTV experience in Sand Canyon Park and to explore St. George a bit.  We then drove to Canyon Point where we spent one night at the Amangiri. From there we drove just over the border to Page, Arizona where we “camped” out for a night before heading down to Sedona for four nights at the Enchantment.  Read on for more details.

Highlights in Utah – St. George is an amazing home base.  There are an infinite number of hiking trails to explore in the surrounding area.  If you don’t suffer from claustrophobia and are into history, venture out to do a Petroglyph slot canyon hike.  For a more open space, Snow Canyon and Sand Canyon State Parks are great options and both within 15 minutes of St. George.  We did not make it to Yant Flat (https://www.hikestgeorge.com/yant-flat-candy-cliffs-leeds-ut/, but I hear it’s pretty impressive as well.  Zion National Park (https://www.nps.gov/zion/index.htm) is less than an hour away (the Watchman Trail is perfect for families).

IMG_4898

There’s an impressive (for being in the middle of nowhere) organic market on the way in and/or out of Zion where you can grab snacks and a picnic lunch.

If you are the adventurous type, you can book at UTV adventure while in the area.  We booked a tour in Sand Canyon State Park (https://atvadventures.com/) and while it was incredibly beautiful and educational, our guide was conservative, so we were unable to let loose and take the “adventure” to the speeds we had hoped for. If you’re looking to go crazy on the UTV, I’d suggest finding another option in the area.

IMG_4373

IMG_4336

Canyon Point, Utah is nearly two hours east of St. George and the drive there is breathtaking.  The red rocks slowly fade into gray as you approach  Canyon Point, near the Glen Canyon National Park.  There are gorgeous hikes of all levels throughout this region, including the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (https://utah.com/hiking/escalante).  Since we were at the Amangiri, we  could not pull ourselves away and took advantage of the hikes on property.  From Canyon Point, it was less than a 30 minute drive to our next destination, Page, Arizona.

IMG_4578

 

Highlights in Arizona – Page, Arizona is a great starting point for visiting Northern Arizona.  The slot canyons here are so cool.  Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons are the most iconic but you can only tour through them with a guide as they are on Navajo land (http://lowerantelope.com/).  Unfortunately, along with the guided tour (only two companies in Lower Antelope – Ken’s and Dixie’s – and I heard somewhere that they are siblings) comes crowds and an insane number of pauses for iphone selfies and landscape pix (yep, I am guilty of it too-see below).  Still totally worthwhile though.  Canyon X is another slot canyon in the area that I hear is a bit less populated. You can also boat to the canyons from Lake Powell (link below).

 

fullsizeoutput_190b5

fullsizeoutput_198b4

Horseshoe Bend is another gorgeous yet crowded sight.  Go early before the throngs arrive and you’re more likely to have the dramatic landscape to yourself.  Once you park, it’s about a 15 minute walk on a dirt path to the viewing point.  Although we arrived with the rest of the fast-clicking iphone pack, I imagine that a sunrise arrival with a picnic breakfast would be the way to go next time around.

We did not visit Lake Powell (http://www.lakepowell.com) because of time restraints but I wish we had.  If you plan in advance, you can rent kayaks or even paddle boards.  Motorboat rentals are another option, as well as guided boat rides.

About an hour from Page you can visit the Eastern Rim of the Grand Canyon:  the least talked about entry to the most talked about site in the region.  There are very few ways to enter the Grand Canyon through the Eastern Rim because it borders private Navajo land.  We used a company called Sacred Edge Tours (http://www.sacrededgetours.com/) and for an entire day, we drove to on dirt roads to different scenic overlooks of the Canyon and did not see a single individual all day.  We spotted wild horses taking advantage of the vacant acreage and a few abandoned hogans (traditional Navajo dwellings), but that was about it.   Despite the bumpy, sometimes lengthy drives along dirt roads to get to each scenic overlook, the quiet and secluded routes were quite awesome and talking to our Navajo guide gave us meaningful insight into the Navajo’s history, way of life and current struggles of the Navajo.  We were coming from Page and grabbed lunch beforehand at a cute, casual restaurant called River’s End Cafe (http://www.raftthecanyon.com/rivers-end-cafe/).

 

IMG_1895

From Page, we drove to Sedona by way of Flagstaff for a quick dinner pitstop  (http://brixflagstaff.com/).  We then continued on to Sedona, which was about another hour south.  In Sedona we stayed at the Enchantment Resort and Spa (http://www.enchantmentresort.com/).   Enchantment is a very pretty property in yet another gorgeous setting amidst the red rocks.  We stayed in a casita, conveniently located just across the way from the hotel’s pool and its two main restaurants, boutique, concierge and reception area.  Our room was a one-bedroom with two queen size beds, a generous living room with a queen size murphy bed, and a dining area with a small kitchenette.  It had two full bathrooms and was well-appointed.  The hotel has a huge, full-service spa where I was treated to a wonderful massage.  There is a meditation room, fitness center, sauna and steam rooms, adults-only indoor and outdoor pools and relaxation area, a juice and smoothie bar and a restaurant called Mii Amo.  Enchantment was a great place to end our vacation with some downtime at the pool and plenty of space for the kids to explore and engage in all the activities on site.

Early one morning we did the obligatory Pink Jeep Tour, which was overpriced but fun (https://www.pinkjeeptourssedona.com/sedona-guided-tour/?gclid=CIas0-aWo9YCFduNswod3EIPyw).  I’ve heard the Broken Arrow tour is the best one but the timing didn’t work out for our crew so we opted for the Diamondback Gulch tour.

IMG_4933

IMG_4936

We also rented UTVs here as they’re widely available along the main strip in Sedona. We had a great time and had plenty of laughs tearing through dirt paths, except we had to share many of those paths with hikers, which put a damper on any hopes of a Mario Andretti experience.  We incorporated a few hikes during our stay at the recommendation of the hotel’s concierge, all of which were terrific and approachable for our kids.

 

IMG_4955

We ate dinner at the Enchantment one evening, in their highly acclaimed Mii Amo.  We must have hit it on an off night because our meal was mediocre at best.  Another night we went out to Mariposa Latin Grill (http://mariposasedona.com/), where we enjoyed a great meal with even better service.  I have also heard that Picazzo’s (http://www.picazzos.com/) and Javelina Cantina (http://www.javelinacantinasedona.com/ are good, casual meal options in Sedona.

During the 120 mile drive to the Phoenix airport on our way out, we all agreed that this part of the country more than merits a second visit, hopefully before too long.

IMG_1544

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Charleston On My Mind

Given all the attention Charleston gets these days, it goes without saying that this special little city offers a rich low-country experience to visitors looking to fully immerse in the deep traditions of the South.  Lately, however, there are some developments in town that are adding an exciting new dimension to Charleston.  Below is a compilation of my top picks of the moment!

Stay:  The Dewberry Charleston (http://www.thedewberrycharleston.com/) is a beautiful, brand spankin’ new hotel on the scene.   In fact, when we were there last weekend, only a portion of the rooms were ready for occupancy and the spa was not yet completed.  Didn’t  matter though, because I was sold on the lobby area, lounge and restaurant. All were done in rich woods and marble with a casual, mid-century modern flair.  I was not surprised to learn that the space was created with the influence of a Brooklyn-based design team.  It’s hard to believe the structure was once an eyesore of a federal building.  The first “grand”, luxury property to grace Charleston in years, I am rooting for this gem!

BEJQ0909

If you like to compare and contrast before deciding where to rest your head at night, have a look at these smaller but very special properties as well, all of which have mastered the art of fusing chic, modern luxury with low-country tradition:  The Spectator Hotel (http://thespectatorhotel.com/), the Restoration Hotel (http://www.therestorationhotel.com)  and the Zero George (http://zerogeorge.com/).

DOTE4137

Eat:  Le Farfalle (http://lefarfallecharleston.com/) is a relative newcomer on the Charleston dining scene that delighted our entire family. The interior is open, airy and casual.  The menu features delicious, inventive Italian fare (loved the tuna milanese) and the service was top-notch. Turns out the chef/owner wet his feet in Manhattan before taking his talents south.

IMG_9805

IMG_9803

Some of my other current faves for dinner in Charleston are The Grocery (http://www.thegrocerycharleston.com/),  Lana Restaurant (http://www.lanarestaurant.com/) and The Ordinary (http://eattheordinary.com/), with Henrietta’s at the Dewberry Hotel (http://www.thedewberrycharleston.com/drinks-dining) on the top of my list for our next visit.  For lunch, I love Butcher & Bee (http://butcherandbee.com/) and look forward to trying Park Cafe (http://theparkcafechs.com/) next time around.  And of course, Husk(http://huskrestaurant.com/) is fast becoming an institution in this town.

For a more traditional Southern dining experience, you may want to reserve at a Charleston institution like Slightly North of Broad (aka “SNOB”) (http://snobcharleston.com/) or McCrady’s (http://mccradysrestaurant.com/) for dinner, and High Cotton (http://highcottoncharleston.com/) for live jazz brunch. Hominy Grill (http://hominygrill.com/ is another local classic open breakfast through dinner. I always get a good laugh when I look at the Vegetables section of their menu, which includes “macaroni and cheese”, “deep fried cheese grits” and “french fries” among its veggies.

Do:   My top activity picks are as follows –

Downtown, the horse-drawn carriage rides give insightful, scenic tours around the historic part of the city.  Each tour is a little different depending on the guide and the area covered so even if you’ve been once, it’s worth a second go round.  Palmetto Carriage Works (http://palmettocarriage.com/) and Old South Carriage Company (http://www.oldsouthcarriagetours.com/) are good options to consider.

A tour of Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began, is a must   (http://www.fortsumtertours.com/) for history buffs.  The kids will surely enjoy the boat ride over and exploring the fort ruins and the many cannons.  There is plenty of open space for running around as well.

A bridge walk (or run) over the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge – or even halfway – is a fun activity that also offers stellar views of the city.

thumb_IMG_7338_1024

thumb_IMG_5985_1024

The bridge connects downtown to Mount Pleasant. You might begin on the Mount Pleasant side, take an abridged stroll on the bridge, and then relax on a park bench while your kids entertain themselves at the awesome playground under the bridge at the Mt. Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park.  There is also a long dock at that park, for yet another look at Charleston harbor and downtown. How many church steeples can you spot??   Nearby, you can visit the USS Yorktown, a World War II aircraft carrier and home to the Patriot’s Point Maritime and Naval Museum (https://www.patriotspoint.org/).

Sullivan’s Island beach is my favorite beach in town (I use the term “in town” loosely – it’s actually about a 20 minute drive from downtown) and from there you can grab a bite at The Obstinate Daughter (http://www.theobstinatedaughter.com/), located on the only commercial “strip” (blink and you’ll miss it) on Sullivan’s Island.

thumb_IMG_6991_1024

If the weather is not cooperative, the South Carolina Aquarium (http://www.scaquarium.org/) and the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry (http://explorecml.org/) are good options downtown (I would say 10 is the max age at the museum).   If you are at the museum and need a lunch break during or after your visit,  Rue De Jean (http://www.holycityhospitality.com/39-rue-de-jean/) is a yummy bistro (they have pretty good sushi too!) practically across the street.

thumb_IMG_7390_1024

If you are seeking culture in the form of live entertainment,  check out what’s playing at the Dock Street Theatre (http://www.charlestonstage.com/dock-street-theatre.html), the Footlight Players Theatre (http://footlightplayers.net/events/)  and the beautifully rebuilt Gaillard Center (http://www.gaillardcenter.com/).

IMG_9786

If you are looking to do some shopping, King Street is lined with stores, from local boutiques such as the high-end Bob Ellis Shoes to chains such as J.Crew, and many in between.   Worthwhile is one of my favorites, with a unique and carefully edited selection of clothing, jewelry and homewares (http://shopworthwhile.com/).  The Magnifilous Toy Emporium (http://www.magnifilous.com/) is a great spot for kids (and right near the Children’s Museum, mentioned below).

This past visit we also browsed through a few galleries downtown.  We spent a while in Robert Lange (http://www.robertlangestudios.com/) – great space with a cool assortment of local art, some of which we are thinking about adopting for our own walls.

IMG_9760

There are several amazing, historical gardens and plantations under an hour from downtown Charleston that are worth visiting:

Charlestown Landing (http://www.southcarolinaparks.com/ctl/introduction.aspx) is an awesome place to visit for the entire family.  With over 80 acres of gardens, interactive educational “exhibits” on colonial history, walking trails and biking trails, you could easily spend an entire day here.

Boone Hall Plantation (http://www.boonehallplantation.com/) is one we just visited and a must-see.  On property there is a terrific live performance about Gullah culture. If you’re lucky, you’ll go on a day when Jackie is performing – she is incredibly talented and gives soulful, deep insight into the history of the Gullah people and slave history of South Carolina.  You will also get to see some of the slave quarters that were occupied during slavery at Boone Hall.  If you have time, take the Plantation Coach Tour also, during which you will learn about the plantation’s history as well as its current use as a working farm.  They have seasonal pick-your-own fruit on site during the spring and summer as well.

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens (http://www.magnoliaplantation.com/) is another historical gem which not only features beautiful gardens, but also provides rich historical tours about “Gullah” culture and slavery, as well as the historical significance of rice growing in and around Charleston.

Middleton Place (https://www.middletonplace.org/) has breathtaking gardens as well, and a fascinating area where craft artisans reenact the work done by slaves on the plantation at one time.  We brought a picnic and spent hours exploring Middleton.  Our kids loved playing with the sheep roaming on the huge open field by the picnic area.

IMG_6376_1024

That’s it for now, y’all!

A Home Away From Home

Sayulita Residence - Kie & Coe

 

Sometimes when I dream about vacation, a part of me gets excited to leave my “at-home” responsibilities behind as I check in at the hotel’s reception desk.   However, when I travel with my children or extended family, more and more often I find myself looking for that perfect house where we can all be under one roof and not have to deal with the logistics – or expense – of multiple hotel rooms.  When my early-rising kids wake up with energetic bodies and voices at 6am, it’s a relief not to have to worry that they will disturb other hotel guests.  It also makes for a calmer experience when we don’t have to compete for lounge chairs or a spot at breakfast.  On the other hand, it’s really the pits to pack everyone up and travel for hours, only to arrive at a rental home that is a huge disappointment.

Enter Kid & Coe (kidandcoe.com), a meticulously compiled selection of alluring properties that are child-friendly.  Their collection is gorgeous and expanding all the time and their site is so easy to navigate – you can explore by destination, type of vacation or even last minute availability.  So next time you’re planning a vacation, or if you simply enjoy being “virtually” transported to beautiful properties both far and near, check out kidandcoe.com.

 

Mallorca Residence - Kid & Coe

 

 

 

 

I Heart Iceland

 

DSC_0051

When I think of summer travel, cold weather doesn’t usually come to mind.  But Iceland has been on my radar for some time, so we decided to close out summer 2015 with a vacation that included five nights there and ended with a few nights in Paris (which I will cover in my next post!).  While five nights is nowhere near enough time to see all of Iceland, we certainly got a healthy dose of culture, nature and adventure.  We focused our trip on the south coast because of its relative proximity to the airport and Reykjavik, and because that region is rich with activities and diverse landscape.
IMG_3232
Although it’s a significant expense, I highly recommend using a tour guide in Iceland. The country’s infrastructure is fairly undeveloped (aside from Route 1, the “Ring Road”, which loops around the the entire island) and many of the hidden treasures require driving on unmarked, unpaved roads. The guides all drive “super” jeeps with 4-5 foot tires that they masterfully inflate and deflate depending on the ever-changing terrain.  If that weren’t enough, the special historical and personal perspective of a native adds so much texture to the experience. Because Iceland is so sparsely populated, you are less likely to meet and intermingle with locals outside of Reykjavik, so a meaningful part of your cultural exposure comes from a good guide.  Our guide was like a walking wikipedia of Iceland – he shared volumes of fascinating historical facts and anecdotes, not to mention lots of cool Norse myths which our kids loved.   We booked him through South Iceland Adventures (http://www.siadv.is/).
DSC_0059
He picked us up in his “super” jeep each day and had a full itinerary in place, including national parks, volcanoes, waterfalls, glaciers, geysers and black sand beaches, just to name a few of the highlights of our three action-packed days with him.  We took walks and hikes at every destination so that we could explore on foot and experience each magical destination with all of our senses. We spent a day doing the famous “Golden Circle” tour as well, which included visits to the country’s most famous geyser (Strokkur), waterfall (Gullfoss, or Golden Falls) and national park (Thingvellir National Park).
In addition to our daily tours with Svavar, as he was called, we went on an unforgettable sunset ATV expedition in the shadows of Mt. Hekla (which included an Icelandic coffee shop experience we will never forget!) and snowmobiling on the 4th largest glacier in the country (Myrdalsjokull). We arranged the ATV and snowmobiling tours through South Iceland Adventures as well and fully recommend both experiences.
We ended our visit to Iceland in Reykjavik, where we had just a day to see the city with a map as our guide.  We managed to work in a visit to the Saga Museum (http://www.sagamuseum.is/), a stroll through the city centre, a few great meals and a visit to the awesome Hallsgrimskirkja Church (http://www.hallgrimskirkja.is/).  Basic info is below, and you can read on for a detailed itinerary.
DSC_0881
Where to stay – Seems there are more and more options every month, as tourism grows rapidly throughout the country, from cutting edge boutique hotels to farm stays. The Ranga Hotel (http://www.hotelranga.is) was our base for the South Coast.   Ranga is practically an institution.  We reserved two of their basic rooms – one for the kids and one for my husband and me.  Our rooms were fine, but I hear that their themed suites are the real attraction.  In Reykjavik we stayed in a spacious one-bedroom apartment at the Black Pearl (http://www.blackpearlreykjavik.com/), a luxury apartment/hotel near the center of town. It was clean, modern and sophisticated with a beautiful, full kitchen.  The kids had plenty of room to spread out in the living area where the sofa opened to a queen size bed and we arranged for a rollaway for our third child.  Black Pearl is not a full service hotel but they do have a helpful concierge on site from 7am-10pm each day, who can arrange anything from car transfers to dinner reservations to breakfast delivered to your apartment.  We loved it!  We also considered the 101 Hotel (http://101hotel.is/), which is a true hotel done in a chic, modern style. If you want to do Reyjkavik on the cheap, the Kex Hostel (http://www.kexhostel.is/ looks super cool and clean.
IMG_3430
 IMG_3434
Getting There – We flew Iceland Air, but there are a number of airlines that fly nonstop.  Make sure to grab a snack from Joe and the Juice at Keflavik Airport.  Their juices, smoothies, coffee and sandwiches are delightful!  If you are planning on guided tours during your stay, you’re best bet is to pre-arrange airport transfers rather than to rent a car.  After pricing out a number of transportation options, we discovered that they’re all costly!  We ended up booking a car and driver through the Black Pearl. They were super responsive, organized the offered the most cost-effective and comfortable transfers for our family.
Where to eat – In the south, the restaurant at the Ranga is very nice, not to mention convenient if you’re staying there!  For you adventurous eaters, get ready to sample smoked puffin, reindeer carpaccio and Icelandic lamb.   Whale is another delicacy you will likely see on menus.  Stop at Fridheimar (fridheimar.is), the country’s famous tomato farm, for lunch on the day you do the Golden Circle tour. Fridheimar is located inside of a huge, meticulous greenhouse. Everything on the limited menu was delicious.  In Reykjavik, The Fish Market (http://fiskmarkadurinn.is/english/) is a must for dinner.  The Laundromat (http://www.thelaundromatcafe.com/en/home) is great for breakfast or lunch, or even a casual dinner.
Tour Guides – There are many, but we had a stellar experience with South Iceland Adventures (siadv.is).  We worked directly with Kristin to organize our tours. She was patient and helpful.  Svavar was our guide. We thought he was terrific, though I am sure all of their guides are top-notch.
Wish we had time for:  Vatnajokull Glacier, including its famous the Glacier Lagoon tour (http://icelagoon.is/).    The Husavik region, including Lake Myvatn and Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe (http://www.visithusavik.com/attractions/lake-myvatn/).  A visit to the Westman Islands (http://www.visitwestmanislands.com/) off the south coast.  A sea angling tour where you go out fishing and then bbq your catch on board for a terrific meal (bookable through South Iceland Adventure at siadv.is). River jet experience (http://www.icelandriverjet.com/). Visiting more remote hot springs, which are located throughout the country.  An additional day to explore Reykjavik.
DSC_0081
Day 1 –  After a 5 1/2 hour flight from NYC, we arrived at Iceland’s international airport, Keflavik, close to midnight.  Since it was pitch black outside, one might expect the 1.5 hour ride to the Ranga Hotel to be uneventful.  Not so!  Gutta, our driver, stopped on the side of the road suddenly and urged us to get out of the car and look up.  We saw the amazing Northern Lights dancing magically through the sky.  Incredible! Unlike anything we had ever seen!  Not long after, we arrived at the Ranga Hotel, welcomed by a huge stuffed polar bear reared up on its hind legs.  The Ranga is designed in the style of a log cabin, with a few small cozy seating areas throughout.  It has one restaurant with windows for walls so that you can marvel at the beautiful landscape during meal time, and two inviting and intimate bar and lounge areas.  The standard rooms are decent but nothing to write home about.  Check out the themed suites for a more exotic experience.  There are a number of outdoor hot tubs for guests’ enjoyment.
IMG_3238
Day 2 –   Breakfast buffet in the Ranga’s dining room.  Svavar, our guide, picked us up at 11am because of our late arrival the prior evening. He was young, friendly, laid back and adventurous. We quickly discovered his knowledge of and passion for Iceland’s history, which he generously shared with us during our time together.  We visited two waterfalls that were not only beautiful, but so accessible.  We were able to climb up a staircase built into the peak alongside one of them and we had the chance to walk along the banks of the river that fed into the fall. As for the next fall, we were able to do a 360 degree walk around it and experience its force from behind.  We were in awe of the beautiful rainbows from every angle.
IMG_3230
IMG_3228
Next we drove up to the Myrdasjokull Glacier, where we went on an hour-long snowmobiling tour. After bundling up in neon orange snowsuits at the base of the glacier, we got a brief tutorial on how to operate the snowmobiles before setting off on our adventure.  Aside from the sheer rush of zooming across a vast open space on a snowmobile, we were amazed at the drastic changes in temperature, light, topography and views we saw from atop the icy mass.  Our guide stopped a few times to tell us about the glacier’s history, including how it has evolved and continues to change over time. We had the chance to get off our snowmobiles and walk around up there as well.  Felt like we were on the moon!
IMG_3094IMG_3049
 After coming down from the glacier, we drove to a lava sand beach (called  Sólheimasandur) just a few minutes away, where we saw the remains of a US Navy jet that crash landed there in 1973.  With nothing but black sand all around, the glacier we had just visited clearly visible to the north and the Atlantic Ocean just a short distance to the south, it was quite a setting.  There was not another soul in sight and the kids had a ball running on the sand and “checking out” the plane close-up.
IMG_3153
IMG_3145
Then it was back to the super jeep, where Svavar warned us to hold on tight as he took us on a bumpy, speedy adventure around the beach, climbing up and down the uneven surfaces of the sand, rocks and through water.   We eventually made our way back to the Ranga Hotel for dinner.  As if we hadn’t had enough excitement for the day, the menu at the restaurant featured smoked puffin, reindeer carpaccio and Icelandic lamb stew, along with plenty of mainstream options.
DSC_0167
Day 3 –  Svavar picked us up at 10am and we went to Thorsmork National Park, where we started out with a hike up a grassy hill to a cave, picking blueberries and crowberries along the way.  We noticed bird feathers and carcasses, loose sheep wool and what looked like fox footprints along the hike.  All of our “findings” felt like treasure to the kids!  Before getting back into the car, we filled up our water bottles in a nearby stream, after Svavar assured us that the water throughout the country is pristine.
DSC_0001
DSC_0002
As we drove deeper into the park, the landscape changed to volcanic sand and rock.  There, we climbed up to what Svavar called the “Elves Church” – because the rock structure looked like a church steeple and lore has it that elves live throughout Iceland, this structure is rumored to be a place of elf worship.  We all made our way up what felt like a hill of quicksand, into the “church”.
IMG_3316
We also hiked to an ice cave located at the base of a glacier.   The kids had a blast trying to figure out how to make it across a stream to get to the cave.
DSC_0032IMG_3260
It wasn’t until we arrived to lunch at the Volcano Huts, a small and very remote restaurant inside Thorsmork Park, that we caught sight of another person that day.   After refueling our stomachs, we drove through rivers and on unpaved roads back out of the park and headed to a pre-arranged (through South Iceland Adventures) sunset ATV tour.  Svavar left us with Unnar, a wonderfully warm and kind man who was our ATV tour guide.  Unnar took us off-roading through the most gorgeous countryside – lush and green.  It was crazy  to think that in the space of just a 20 minute car ride we had come from black, rocky volcanic surroundings to this setting that felt a bit like Switzerland.
DSC_0168
DSC_0125
We zoomed through the mountains on our ATVs and at one point we were faced head-on with what turned out to be a herd of about 50 Icelandic horses, running in our direction.  We pulled aside, stopped our ATVs and sat in awe of these gorgeous animals as they ran right by us, so peacefully.
IMG_3390
IMG_3392
As if nothing had happened, we resumed our ride and Unnar paused to tell us we were going to an Icelandic coffee shop.  Although I was so energized by the thrill of the ride, I couldn’t help but wonder how a coffee shop could exist in what looked to be uncharted territory.  Just a few minutes later, we stopped again and Unnar invited us to follow him into a cave. He told our children that trolls live in the cave and that they are generally afraid of people but they like younger people. He encouraged our kids to lead the way into the cave, which turned out to be quite large.  At the back of the cave was a fire pit.  Unnar made a fire and took from his bag contents he had packed for hot cocoa, coffee and delicious cookies.  We all sat by the fire enjoying this Icelandic coffee shop experience.  It was truly magical.
 Eventually, we exited the cave and took our time heading back to base as the sun set.  There, we met and got to feed some Icelandic horses that  belonged to Unnar and his wife.  They are gorgeous, docile “pets” to many Icelandic people!  After spending some time with the horses, we returned to the Ranga Hotel for a feast of unusual delicacies once again.
DSC_0178
Day 4 – On our last day with Svavar, we did the famous “Golden Cicle” tour, which included Gullfoss (which means “the Golden Waterfall”), the Strokkur geyser and surrounding geothermal area, and Thingvellir National Park.  All the sites on this day were incredible but it’s worth noting that the this tour was meaningfully different from the prior days because of the busloads of tourists we encountered at Gullfoss and Strokkur especially.  While we were mesmerized by the sheer expanse and force of Gullfoss, the experience definitely felt less authentic than our South Coast tours because we were now among hundreds of other tourists.
IMG_3442
IMG_3452
 Strokkur was also filled with tourists standing around, waiting for the next explosion.  I’m glad we stopped there but we didn’t feel the need to linger for too long.   That said, we did take a great little walk up the surrounding red rocks to a pretty lookout point.  Last but not least on the Golden Circle tour was Thingvellir National Park, which straddles the fault line between the United States and Europe.  It’s also the site of the first meeting of Parliament.  We hit it on a beautiful day and basked in the sunshine as we strolled through part of the park, which didn’t feel nearly as busy as the other Golden Circle sites.
IMG_3463
On this day we stopped for lunch at Fridheimar, a famous tomato farm that serves a limited but delicious and incredibly fresh lunch.  They have basil plants on every table with scissors so you can cut some into your lunch – doesn’t get more farm to table than that!
DSC_0085
After the Golden Circle tour, we took at breathtaking drive through the countryside into Reykjavik.  We were craving Thai food so our guide took us to a restaurant called Banh Thai near the center of town.  Dinner was yummy and we enjoyed a short walk through the city on our way back to the Black Pearl, stopping at Eldur and Is for delicious ice cream (try their crepes too!) along the way.  After satisfying our sweet tooth, we prepared for the next morning’s excursion to the Blue Lagoon.
Day 5 – The same driver who took us from the airport to the Ranga on our first evening also drove us to the Blue Lagoon, where we had pre-purchased tickets (through the Black Pearl) to bathe at 10am.  Although this destination was swarming with tourists too, we loved it.  Make sure to bring along flip flops for your feet as you navigate your way from the locker room to the lagoon. While the facility is kept clean, you need to do a fair amount of barefoot walking to get to and from the changing area to the swim area.   We spent more than an hour relaxing in the lagoon and had a good laugh smothering healing clay (available at no additional charge) all over our faces.  If you really want a spa experience, you can book a massage, which is given in a private and quiet area of the lagoon.
IMG_3511
After we arrived back in Reyjkavik, we grabbed a casual lunch at the Sea Baron (http://saegreifinn.is/?page_id=1333), which is known for their ultra fresh and impressive variety of fish kabobs.  The place is tiny, but really cute and nautical.  We tried a bunch of different kabobs, including whale!  After lunch we toured the Saga Museum, which, true to its name, features an exhibit that walks you through some momentous and historical sagas that have occurred in Iceland.  The exhibit is set up as a life-size diorama that you walk through with an audio guide. If you are traveling with kids, you might want to check out the exhibit before taking them through – one of our children stayed back as he was uncomfortable because of some bloody scenes depicted along the way.  At the end of the exhibit there is a fun Viking dress-up area where we spent some time re-enacting Iceland’s history.

We spent the remainder of the day strolling through the streets of Reykjavik and made our way to the impressive Hallgrimskirkja Church, which you should not miss!  Both the exterior and interior architecture are incredible. Make sure to visit the church’s tower for terrific views of the city.

For our last night, we treated the family to dinner at Fish Market.  The food was amazing!

IMG_3589

IMG_3597
IMG_3595

Weekend in Turks & Caicos

DSC_0130
Turks & Caicos is easy to love because just a three-hour, nonstop flight (from NYC) can transport you so quickly to welcoming powdery soft beaches, warming sunshine and a super mellow vibe.  I recently spent a long weekend there – left home at breakfast time and by lunch, I was in flip flops and a bathing suit, relaxing by the pool.
DSC_0066
We spent the first night at the Amanyara (http://www.amanresorts.com/amanyara/home.aspx), which had me at hello.  The property is exquisite and the service is so perfect that I would actually be curious to know how it is they they train their staff so flawlessly.  The staff seem to levitate in and out of your presence at all the right times.
DSC_0003
The hotel is the only private property located inside of Marine National Park on the otherwise sparsely occupied northwest coast of Providenciales. As if that were not enough to make you feel like you’re on a deserted island, the accommodations are comprised of villas, each surrounded by lush landscaping to maximize guest privacy.  The hotel is designed in a modern, Asian style, from the architecture to the furnishings to the service.  In fact if I just loaded a bunch of pictures onto this post without words, one might guess that these photos were taken in Bali.
My husband and I were there without the kids, which brought the zen factor to an even higher level. Although children are permitted, I would imagine this hotel might not be ideal for families with young ones –  no kids club, waterslides or pool toys.
All meals can be prepared by a private chef, pool side at your villa (most villas have gorgeous infinity pools).  We took advantage of this amenity for our first lunch and it was heavenly.  The hotel has a spa, tennis courts and a host of non motorized water sports if you’re too antsy to sit on the breathtaking beach with a book or a cocktail.
We opted to have dinner at the hotel restaurant, which was located on a lagoon and lit only by candlelight and torches.   Although a menu was provided, we basically created our own meal and the service could not have been more accommodating.  We sat for hours basking in the beautiful setting.  The next morning we visited the spa and had massages which, not surprisingly, were spot on.
After one night we transferred to the Gansevoort (http://www.gansevoorthotelgroup.com/hotels/gansevoort-turks-caicos), located on a beautiful stretch of Grace Bay.
DSC_0159 DSC_0170
The Gansevoort was an altogether different experience but still great.  We were in a very pretty and spacious one bedroom suite with a terrace overlooking the ocean. The property is quite compact and I actually liked that the pool, beach and restaurants are all very close to one another.  We thoroughly enjoyed our buffet breakfasts and one dinner at the restaurant on property.   For anyone looking to enhance their mind-body wellness, there is an exhale spa (http://exhalespa.com/locations/turks-amp-caicos) where you can decompress with a massage or energize with a core fusion fitness class.
DSC_0205
We ventured out one evening to Coco Bistro (http://www.cocobistro.tc/), which was terrific. The last time I was in Turks & Caicos the food was very mediocre
(and very expensive) everywhere, so I didn’t have high expectations.  But Coco Bistro blew us away. The setting alone, amidst of the largest palm grove on the island, was worth the ride. Fortunately the food was impressive as well.  If you go, you might also want to check out a cute bar/restaurant just down the beach from the Gansevoort called “somewhere”.  Although the drinks were nothing to write home about, the barefoot beachfront setting was pretty amazing.
DSC_0128

The Doctor Is In: Travel and Skincare

I love a good beach vacation just as much as the next person, but I admit I am always tormented by my concerns about sun damage.  I hope I’m doing an okay job of protecting my family’s skin from the effects of the sun and try so hard to be mindful of applying SPF despite the annoying process of getting everyone to sit still while I rub in gobs of the stuff all over the kids’ bodies (no spray for us!).

I reached out to my dermatologist’s office to see if they would answer some of my most burning (no pun intended!) questions about SPF and travel and was so pleased when they agreed to the interview below.  Hope it’s helpful to you as it was to me!  Thank you to Gramercy Park Dermatology (http://www.gramercyparkdermatology.com/) for taking the time to answer these questions.

ME:  Do you like a specific brand of SPF for the face? For the body?

DR: I like the Neutrogena products, particularly Ultra Sheer Dry Touch, La Roche Posay Anthelios and Elta MD – all for the face and body.

ME: Would you use different SPF if you are going swimming v. if you are staying dry? Or is it just a matter of reapplying after a swim?

DR: I have all of the above SPF products and use different ones for different applications. If I am swimming, I’ll wear a higher Helioplex Neutrogena and reapply every two hours. If I am staying dry, but am outside, I still reapply to the body but to my face I like ColorScience SPF powders especially if I have makeup on.

ME: Do I need to apply SPF first thing in the morning or is it okay to apply closer to 10am and allow the skin to get a bit of Vitamin D early in the day?

DR: I put SPF on first thing in the morning. We know that approximately 15 minutes of transient sun exposure, which you likely get from walking around or driving in the car, is sufficient and still penetrating despite your SPF product. I also have had my vitamin D level measured and do supplement as directed by my own physician.

ME: Do I need to apply SPF under a UV Protected rash guard or UPV clothing?

DR: As long as you do not plan on removing the clothing, then it should be sufficient. Remember these clothing pieces are rated based on the tightness of their weave. So there is a difference in UPV clothing.

ME: If we are traveling to a non-beach destination, i.e., a hiking or biking trip, do we need to apply SPF under our clothing as well as exposed areas, or is it safe to assume our clothing will provide sufficient protection under those circumstances?

DR: Again, it depends on the clothing you are wearing and the weave. If it is a cover-up with seemingly open holes then you will need to apply. Just as a point of reference, a white t-shirt is an SPF of 4! When hiking, consider the altitude that you are out – the higher the altitude, the more SPF you require.

ME: We are taking a road trip and it is a beautiful, sunny day? Do we need SPF in the car?

DR: Yes!! UVA comes through glass even in tinted car windows (where the films are going there to block UVB).

ME: We feel like we have been diligently applying SPF but we notice new freckles appearing. Does this mean we are not being careful enough or that we are using the wrong SPF? Or is this to be expected on certain skin types?

DR: It may mean all of the above. I recommend more liberal application of at least an SPF 30. Most of us don’t apply the right amount. The studies to characterize SPF are based on the thickness of the product in a square 1 centimeter area. In real practice, we all skimp on the amount we apply partially because it is easier to blend in less. There are certain skin types that are prone to developing freckles or sun spots – but good UV protection is the mainstay of youthful skin.

ME: What if my spouse has olive skin and I have fair skin – should we apply our SPF differently in quantity or frequency? Do we need tu use different brands based on our different skin types and protection needs?

DR: The person with olive skin is less likely to show signs of sun injury with burning as the person with fair skin may. The person with olive skin will tend to tan and maybe develop some pinkness. The person with fair skin will require less UV exposure before they burn or blister, both signs of injury to the skin. The brand does not need to be different but the person with fair skin can’t afford not to be vigilant with their liberal and regular applications. Both skin types will age with UV exposure – it will just show more in the person with fair skin.

ME: I like to go out for a walk on the beach early in the morning when on vacation. Do I need to apply SPF if I’m walking at 7:30am?

DR: Yes!!

ME: Can my kids use the same SPF as I use?

DR: The FDA indication is for babies 6 months and older. There are gentler

formulations for babies and kids. One particular product line is by Neutrogena. These lines tend to have more physical blockers than chemical blockers – mostly because kids don’t mind looking opaque. We also recommend an SPF 30 for babies and kids.

ME: Any chemicals to specifically avoid or look for in SPF?

DR: Look for a broad spectrum UVA and UVB product. Buy a small size and make sure you like it.

ME: We are going to the rainforest where it is warm but very shady. Do we need SPF?

DR: Make it part of your every day routine and before you know it, it’ll be the same as brushing your teeth!

 

Be a Tourist at Home

IMG_3810

Sometimes all it takes is a single day trip within your own city to feel like you’ve taken a vacation.  This past weekend we went to visit the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.  Despite the misty weather, the day was perfect.  The ferry ride transported us to a historical wonderland where we learned about our country’s (and my family’s) history. We basked in the beauty of Lady Liberty (she is even more impressive close-up) and could see all the way from the Verrazano Bridge to the northern stretches of the New York City skyline.  The self-guided audio tours of Liberty Island and Ellis Island were equally interesting for my children as they were for us, and there was plenty of open space for the kids to play.

IMG_3783

Make sure to buy tickets well in advance if you want to go up to the crown.  Pedestal access and grounds tickets are easier to come by.  If you go, consider departing from Liberty State Park where tickets tend to sell out less quickly and there is plenty of parking if you plan to drive.  You can also ferry to Liberty State Park from the World Financial Center.  For more information and details, cut and paste this this link in a new browser:  http://www.nps.gov/stli/planyourvisit/index.htm

IMG_3815   IMG_3827  IMG_3899

Weekend Getaway, Anyone?

It may be too late to plan a local getaway before December break, but come January you might just crave a weekend of peace and quiet to recover from the holiday craziness. Now is the perfect time to boo
If you are prepared to shell out the big bucks:
Winvian (http://www.winvian.com/) – A 113 acre property nestled in the Litchfield Hills with 18 spacious cottages, each decorated with a different theme. Plan on at least one dining experience at the restaurant, whose chef trained under Boulud and DuCasse.  Treatments available at their on-site spa.  Approximately a two-hour drive from NYC.
The Wheatleigh (http://wheatleigh.com/) – This luxuriously restored 1873 mansion located in Lenox, MA was originally built as a wedding gift by a father for his daughter.  Features two restaurants, one of which is set in a windowed alcove overlooking the property’s gorgeous rolling hills.  Massages and private yoga classes available upon request. Complimentary snoeshoeing on property. Several internationally renowned museums located within a 10-40 minute drive.  Approximately three hours from NYC.
                                 winter-13505549207QU
If you are looking for luxury at a “discount”:
The Inn at Kent Falls (http://www.theinnatkentfalls.com/) – A charming bed and breakfast in Litchfield County that caters to the discerning traveler (sweet dreams on Frette linens) looking for an escape from the city. Yoga, pilates and spa services available upon request. Snoeshoeing and skiing at Mohawk Mountain. Approximately a two-hour drive from NYC.
                                winter-sun
Bedford Post Inn (http://www.bedfordpostinn.com/) – Although this Bedford, NY inn has just eight rooms, the amenities are impressive – two terrific restaurants (The Farm and the Barnhouse), the Yoga Loft, where you can practice your downward dogs daily, and afternoon canapes by a toasty fire. Approximately a one-hour drive from NYC.
Buttermilk Falls Inn (http://www.buttermilkfallsinn.com/) – This 72-acre bucolic inn is located in Milton, NY just off the Hudson.  Ten rooms plus eight guest houses and cottages for larger parties.  Homemade, full breakfast and afternoon tea served daily, and an evening farm-to-table experience worth writing home about.  Spa with an indoor pool on property.  Approximately a 1 hour 45 minute drive from NYC.

For the budget-minded:

The Graham and Co. (http://thegrahamandco.com/) – A 20 room hotel located in Phoenicia, NY, at the foot of the Catskills Mountains.   This property goes for a modern, campy feel.  While the vibe is quiet (board games are readily available) and there are no restaurants on site, just a few steps away are a decent selection of eats, including my personal breakfast favorite, Sweet Sue’s.  Hunter and Belleayre mountains are a stone’s throw away if skiing is your thing.  Approximately 2.5 hours from NYC.

Puglia on My Mind

 

When I began thinking about my family’s summer vacation last March, I quickly honed in on Europe because I wanted a cultural experience for our children.  At the same time, I did not want the pressure of having to sightsee and be on our feet all day, every day. While browsing through hotel options in Europe one day, I came across Borgo Egnazia, located in the Puglia region of Italy. Immediately, I was drawn to Borgo’s beauty and proximity to so many day trip options. The hotel looked pristine, sophisticated and child-friendly – just the trifecta I had hoped to find. Read on for the skinny and continue reading for the details.

securedownload-4

Accommodations: Borgo Egnazio in Fasano, Italy (Puglia region – in the heel of the country) (http://www.borgoegnazia.com/). Traditional rooms, villas and casetas available. Spa, tennis, golf, beach, multiple pools and restaurants, including one adults-only pool and restaurant.
Restaurants to note: The hotel food was very good. Also, Il Poeta Contadino in Alberobello (http://www.ilpoetacontadino.it/en/), Anticalama in Pezze di Greco (http://www.anticalama.it/), La Cantina (http://www.ilristorantelacantina.it/chisiamo.asp),
Activities: Swimming at the hotel’s beautiful pool and outings to nearby historic and UNESCO world heritage sites. Tennis, golf, pool, beach, spa, biking all available at or near hotel.
Good to know before you go: Although the coastline and the Adriatic Sea are beautiful, this stretch of Italy is more about dramatic coastlines than about perfect sandy beaches.  The hotel has two terrific kids clubs with activities daily to accommodate kids of all ages.

 

securedownload-3

securedownload-51

The uncut version:

We flew from JFK to Rome overnight and then took a second, one-hour flight from Rome to Bari, which is one of two main airports in Puglia (the other is Brindisi). After arriving in Bari, drove a rental car 50 minutes to our hotel, Borgo Egnazia (http://www.borgoegnazia.com/). When we finally made it to the dirt road leading to the hotel, surrounded by olive trees on both sides, we had a good feeling. Moments later we were greeted by a warm staff and an exquisite property.  The hotel is traditional looking on the exterior with classic modern, luxury interiors.  It is modeled after a small Italian village with private villas and casetas built around a central piazza, or public square, where events such as dinner and live music, movies and themed festivals take place almost nightly.

securedownload-68

Our caseta was a two-bedroom, two-bathroom house with a living and dining room and three huge, private outdoor terraces. We were centrally located between the hotel’s  beautiful spa, gym, tennis courts and bikes, which are available for guests’ use. The hotel also has a golf course across the street and two nearby beaches accessible by foot or by shuttle from the hotel entrance.

securedownload-32

We spent half of each day relaxing at the hotel and the other half exploring one of the many nearby, historic towns, several of which are UNESCO world heritage sites. Two of our favorites were Alberobello and Polignano a Mare.


securedownload-28
securedownload-37

Alberobello is known for its trullis, small circular homes made from dry stone with conical shaped roofs. We had a terrific time strolling through the more historic portion of the town, stopping often to talk to locals and listen to live music in small parks. We also visited a museum here, Trullo Sovrano (http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g580227-d1860833-Reviews-Trullo_Sovrano-Alberobello_Province_of_Bari_Puglia.html).  Housed inside the only two-story trulli we saw, it gave a great perspective on what life might have been like long ago in Alberobello.  There is a very touristy side to Alberobello too, with tons of boutiques and restaurants housed inside of modern-day trullis.  We all enjoyed walking in and out of so many trullis!

securedownload-49

Polignano a Mare is a historic town perched on a cliff above the Adriatic with stunning views of the sea around every corner.  We spent hours exploring its narrow, windy roads.  We also visited a nearby fishing village called Savelletri, where we were able to walk down to the sea with gelatos in hand! Each of these towns had its own special charm, architecture and authenticity.  In the few hours we spent in each place, we were able to get a glimpse into what life is like for the locals there.

securedownload-50

The food in Puglia was delicious and fresh everywhere, and very simply prepared.  We ate plenty of orecchiete, or ear-shaped pasta, locally caught fish, pureed fava beans with chicory, all of which are traditional “apuglian” dishes.  We had a few especially memorable meals. One was at a restaurant in Alberobello called Il Poeta Contadino (http://www.ilpoetacontadino.it/en/), which my husband and I went to one evening while the kids were back at the hotel with a babysitter. Set inside a converted stall, it is rustic and charming with beautiful arched stone ceilings and chandeliers throughout. The menu was traditional apuglian, and our meal was just perfect.

securedownload-72

We had an unforgettable meal at Anticalama (http://www.anticalama.it/), located in a converted olive oil press about 15 minutes from our hotel. We had a multi-course meal of delicious pastas, grilled vegetables and fish on a grape vine covered terrace overlooking an olive grove with trees up to 700 years old.


I wish we had more time in Puglia – this beautiful region offers so much more than we were able to cover in a week.   Thank you, Puglia, for hosting us this summer!  We miss you!