Airbnb is a winner for London family accommodations

I searched and searched and looked again. I read every review and blog and could not find any affordable rooms for a family of four in London. We could do two rooms, we could do a b&b, and I found many triples but no four-person rooms fit within our budget.

When I go on vacation, I like to spend less on the room and more on the sights. A room is a place to rest and lay your head, but the experiences are what makes our trips memorable.

Rented flat in Earl's Court London

Rented flat in Earl’s Court London

So I started looking at Airbnb and narrowing our choices. I had never used the site before so I did my homework and made sure the place had good reviews and that the owner was responsive. I researched the area (we stayed in Earl’s Court) and the transportation options nearby.

For the same price as one hotel room, or a little less, we had a two-bedroom flat with kitchen, washer and dryer and wifi. It was everything we needed and more for our 10-day stay in London.

Living room of rented flat

Earl’s Court rented apartment

Yes, it was on the third floor and we had to hike our luggage up there, but it was well worth it. Our block was in between to underground stations and bus stops were right outside, too. We never took the bus but always saw many others doing so. The grocery store was a couple of blocks away and we were able to stock our kitchen for some homemade meals and to pack snacks or a picnic.

Restaurants and pubs were close, too, and we felt like we had everything we needed. We met the owner, who lives on the first floor, and one of his employees gave us the key and showed us how everything worked.

We were very pleased with our stay and I’m glad we went with a flat, especially with kids who need snacks and some downtime.

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Surviving a flight to Europe with kids (thanks, Delta)

This was a trip of firsts – first time taking the kids overseas, first time using Airbnb and the first time flying business class on delta. All three experiences went off without any major issues and made our spring trip to Europe one to remember.

We used Skymiles to book our trip over the Easter school break and I did it well in advance. I was surprised to find that business class on the redeye to London was only 2,500 miles more per person so we booked that without thinking twice!

Delta lay flat seats to Europe

Kicking back in Delta business class to Europe

It was well worth it. We were able to visit the sky club for snacks before the flight, and the kids were thrilled with the lie flat seats. Dinner was amazing, especially for an airline meal. Shrimp appetizer, salad, a main course and dessert. The kids thought some of the food was a little too fancy but the adults loved it.

The business class seats also came with a travel pack with headphones, ear plugs, tissue, a comb and some other things you may need while traveling. I have to admit, the lay flat seats were a little strange while flying. I felt like I had to incline just a bit so I didn’t feel like I was sliding around.

During dinner, the attendants come around and ask if you’d like to be woken up for breakfast, and then you place your breakfast order. We had a choice of omelettes or yogurt and granola.

It was a smooth flight, the kids slept well and we were up and ready to explore London.

Delta business class fold flat seats

So many buttons for the seat in Delta business class

Getting through London Heathrow was easy and we were able to find the underground and purchase our passes easily. The trains had plenty of room for luggage and it was a great way to se some of the countryside as we traveled to our rented flat in Earl’s Court. I’m glad I didn’t book a cab – it would have been a lot more expensive and we wouldn’t have had the time to figure out the train system.

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Bringing the Outside In at Mauna Lani

Yoga can be relaxing, but when your view is whales playing in the ocean, it can become hard to concentrate. But I wouldn’t trade Oceanside yoga for any other option.

We stayed at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows near Kona, Hawaii, on the Big Island in January 2014. A few of the mornings, the locals were cold when the temperature was in the 70s. Coming from the Polar Vortex epicenter in Michigan, 70 degrees felt like a mid-summer 90s.

We had an ocean-view room, which had a great lanai for morning coffee while listening to the waves. The rooms were spacious and had a color scheme that reflects the local area. Getting to the actual room was different than most hotels, because you have to either take an elevator or stairs to a different level than the entrance, walk across another section and then take another elevator or stairs to the hotel area near the ocean. Although a small inconvenience when you have your luggage, it’s a great route during the day to see all of the views of the interior and exterior of the complex.

The hotel has an open concept, with a river meandering through the interior courtyard, stocked with various types of fish. The hotel offers a walking tour for guests to learn about the different types of Hawaiian sea life.

Walking in, one of the first views is a koi pond, and the interior gives you a relaxed vibe with a waterfall cascading over panels of glass. Starting your day with breakfast at Bay Terrace is a great way to linger over a cup of coffee while looking out over the ocean. The breakfast buffet had a large number of choices, including a traditional Japanese breakfast section.

I also ventured out to the fitness center. It’s a little ways away from the hotel itself but makes for a nice morning stroll. Shuttles also take you to the center or shopping areas in the complex. After a pilates workout, I took the path through the Hawaii Mauna Lani Historic Park to walk through the petroglyph fields. It’s a scenic walk and the best way to travel back to the hotel and oceanfront. The walk near Mani Lani also includes fish ponds, where I was able to see an eel playing hide and seek under the bridge.

The pool was nice and cool, a perfect refresher for a hot Hawaii day. Mani Lani also looked to have a new pool under construction, so more swimming options would be available in the future. The trails along the ocean are perfect for strolling or exercising, and you can’t beat the view.

Disclosure: I traveled with my husband for this trip and was not compensated for this post.

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Hawaii Island sets the scene for adventure lovers

Miles of volcanic rock, waterfalls, steaming craters and lava flowing into the ocean. Everywhere you look, Hawaii Island, commonly referred to as the Big Island, gives you another scene for another adventure.

After spending a week on the island, we found that it wasn’t nearly enough time to explore all of the sites and activities. But we tried. Here’s where our adventure took us:

Volcano: We drove up to (mountain) to see the famous Kilauea crater. Alas, no lava was visible from our national park vantage point and some sections of the road were closed due to previous lava flows. We did see several steam vents, reminding us that the volcano is still active. We had a chance to hike through the Kīlauea Iki Crater, which made us feel like we had landed on another planet. Uneven ground, rocks cracked against each other and steam from the Earth painted an amazing terrain. Right across from the crater, we walked through a tunnel created by a previous lava flow.

Kayak and snorkel: We drove out to the Kona Boys to take a kayak and snorkel tour of the Kealakekua Bay. The waves were a little rough during our day, so no dolphins frolicked near us this time. However,

Ziplining KapohoKine Adventures: I’ve ziplined before but this was my first experience on a dual line. It’s tons of fun to go along side someone, and the sights here are amazing. The staff is fun, which makes it a great experience.

Driving along the coast. We drove from Hilo back to the Kona side by the north coast. Not nearly as twisty as the Road to Hana in Maui, this drive is nearly as spectacular. Plunging cliffs, raging waterfalls and crashing waves give you the sense of the untamed island.

Whale watching. We were on the Big Island in January, so the whales were in full Hawaii mode. We took a catamaran cruise from Ocean Sports, behind the Marriott Waikoloa and were thrilled with the wild ocean show that the whales put on, including lots of tails, a fin slap and a full breach, which we were told is pretty rare.

One thing that we didn’t get a chance to work into our schedule was the observatory and stargazing at the top of Mauna Kea. Since my son says he wants to be an astronomer when he grows up, I hope to bring him to this paradise one day so he can commune with the galaxy.

Disclosure: Many activities were provided to us. Reviews were not required and not endorsed. The opinions are my own.

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Hawaii Island: Big fun at Waikoloa Marriott

Hawaii Island, sometimes referred to as the “Big island,” is full of big volcanoes, volcanic rock, big beaches and big fun. And a great place to make your home base when visiting is the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa.

Of all of the resorts we visited on our trip, the Marriott ranks first for family-friendly fun. The complex includes an infinity pool, a pool with a waterslide and a pool with a beach sand zero entry point, in addition to a couple of hot tubs. With the beach just a few steps away, this is a perfect location for any water-loving family.

Out of the water, but right next to it, are some great paths to explore Anaeho’omalu Bay beach and ancient fish ponds. An ancient Hawaiian dwelling is partially preserved and in the evening, the fish leap through the air in the fish ponds.

The rooms at the Marriott are spacious. We enjoyed the extra space for a sitting area and the large balcony. We slept with the door open to the ocean, with the crashing of waves as our sound machine. The room came with a fridge to chill our wine and house some leftovers.

When checking in, we received a couple of coupons, which gave us a welcome Mai Tai and a discount for a meal. We had the Hawaii Calls buffet for dinner one night and it was full of seafood, a carving table, salad buffet and tons of dessert choices.

If swimming isn’t your choice, there are a ton of other activities right on site. The activity desk on the beach provides exercise (morning yoga beachside is worth it after a long flight), and the whale-watching tour on the catamaran had us in awe with the active whales who were flipping tails, slapping fins and breaching. A short shuttle ride away, or alternately a paved path through lava rocks, the Marriott spa and fitness center got me moving with pilates, and the tennis courts and lap pool looked like a great way to work off some of the wonderful food.

Speaking of wonderful food, the open air mall Kings’ Shops are across the street, with different restaurant choices and shopping.

We didn’t have our kids on this trip, but if we were go to back, this would be the choice. The resort amenities, location of other activities and spacious rooms would be the ideal location for a family.

Disclosure: I traveled with my husband for this trip and was not compensated for this post.

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Carnival Breeze has family fun for all

We chose our most recent cruise based on two factors — finding a ship that had activities for the kids and finding an itinerary that had interesting ports. We found the best if both worlds with the Carnival Breeze.

Reading many online reviews before we left, I found it hard to believe that people said they didn’t have enough time to see everything they wanted to see on the ship.

I never made it to the spa, the “secret” deck, serenity area, movie theater or any of the specialty restaurants, and we were on the ship for eight days, so now I know what those reviewers were talking about.

Granted, four of those were port stops, but we had 3 1/2 sea days that were completely unscheduled. We even skipped dinner in the main dining room twice so we’d have more time to do what we wanted.

We spent the majority of one sea day near the waterpark. While my son was hanging with his friends at Camp Carnival, my daughter, the little fish, spent the entire day in the waterpark area, going down the slides and playing in the water. She even lost a tooth somewhere in the waterpark (alas, it was lost at sea!)

On sea days, the lunch barbecue, Fat Jimmys, generally has a short line but it is worth the wait. My kids couldn’t get enough of the pizza, and we also enjoyed the Tandoori section, which never had a line but had some outstanding choices for a buffet.

The Red Frog pub is a great place with a great vibe to grab a drink, sing some songs and let the kids try their hand at shuffleboard.

Although my children hate it, I require one of the formal evenings to be family photo time. We take advantage of all of the backdrops before and after dinner so I can get our annual family photo.

We were on the 8-day southern Caribbean trip so we had three full sea days and four port days. Our stops were the Turks and Caicos, Dominican Republic, Curacao and Aruba. Each stop felt a little short to get to really know any of the locations but just long enough for a little exploration, recreation and relaxation.

But the ship itself really stole the show. The swimming pools were warm enough to be comfortable, the shows were entertaining and the kids club, as usual, kept our kids begging to stay as long as possible. My son went to one of the night “parties” and stayed out much later than we did.  The kids came back from different events with colored T-shirts and other crafts, and they are now experts at making towel animals.

We even did trivia together, laughing and arguing over whose answers we were going to choose as a team.

As for my husband and I, we were able to head to the adult comedy show one night and have a couple of dinners alone.

If you’re looking for a cruise and want entertainment for the whole family, the Carnival Breeze should be at the top of your list. Too big to feel overly crowded yet small enough to get to know your way around, the ship had everything we could ask for  — and more.

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Cruising again with Carnival is a Breeze

After a year and a half, we decided to cruise again (see my review of the Carnival Conquest in 2012). We’re booked for an 8-day Southern Caribbean cruise for Thanksgiving week on the Carnival Breeze.

No cooking, no cleaning, no snow, no cold. Just floating away to warm islands. I’m so ready, especially as I sit here and type this on a cold, wet day.

The last time we cruised, Carnival offered Future Cruise Certificates. You could purchase one onboard for $100, get $100 onboard credit for your current sailing and get $100 off on a future sailing. A great deal, so we took them up on it. (Sadly, it’s no longer offered.)

We redeemed that credit and decided on the Breeze, due to the features on the new ship – waterslides, a ropes course and a great sports area – all activities that our kids will love.

My daughter had such a good time at Camp Carnival on the previous cruise that she memorized the entire “Freddy” book, and I can recite the open lines because I’ve heard it so many times (2003, a dreary day …). She’s ready to make more towel animals and to move up an age group on this trip.

We’re also visiting four islands new to us (two new to my husband): Dominican Republic, Turks and Caicos, Curacao and Aruba. We only have one excursion planned. For the other locations, we’re going to beach, explore and relax. Perfect.

Are we worried about cruising after the bad press? Not at all. We’re traveling on a new ship, and we’ve been on previous cruises with no issues. And what better way to vacation than to have a kids club that your kids want to go to? Let it begin!

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Seven years and counting at Crystal Mountain

We first went to Crystal Mountain in the summer of 2006. I recently found the photos of my tiny, toddling children who loved the splash park and building your own stuffed animal. We also made tie-dye shirts that year, and if I would have kept all of them, we’d have a closet full.

Crystal Mountain cottage

Crystal Mountain cottage

This fall, we went on our annual trip to Crystal Mountain. We’ve been there to ski in the winter, to soak up the sun in the summer and to play in the fall. We haven’t made a springtime trip yet, but I’m sure it’s just as fun.

We’ve stayed in the cottages around the water park and it’s a great central location. There’s always a list of the day’s activities nearby and we’re close enough for an ice cream from the pool concessions.

Crystal Mountain Coaster

Crystal Mountain Coaster

This year, my daughter was big enough to go on the Crystal Coaster by herself. It felt a bit slower this year, which was good because in past years, it was pretty fast. For the first time, the kids tried laser tag. The only part they didn’t like was being paired up with some other kids who weren’t as into it as they were, so the games were a bit slower. Breaking it up into more age groups might fix that, though.

Another first this year, the kids were old enough to try a bike trial. We took an easy one and it was a beautiful trail and the kids loved it. I’m sure that there’s more mountain biking in our future.

Crystal Mountain lasertag

Crystal Mountain lasertag

We were there for Labor Day weekend and the weather was still hot — hot enough for the pool to be packed and the pool full of action. The kids took a break and climbed the rock wall. There’s also a nice sand area near the pool for smaller kids.

The cottages are perfect for our family. It has a kitchen so we can pack our food, have a quick and easy breakfast and snack without worrying about leaving. It’s also close enough to walk over and grab a pizza from the Crystal restaurant when we don’t feel like cooking.

Crystal Mountain pool

Crystal Mountain pool

And of course, we made tie-dye shirts. A tradition we have, and the kids need a new one each year because they grow out of the last one. It was the last getaway of the summer and we made sure it was a memorable one.

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Exploring Massachusetts beyond Boston

This summer, we spent a nine days in Massachusetts – and drove through Boston once without stopping. We were all around the attraction that most travelers come to see, instead making stops in Salem, Cape Cod, Nantucket and Plymouth.

As a history buff, I wanted to see the places that I’ve read about since I was a child. Salem turned out to be much more than a historical town, and we loved the downtown area and the waterfront.

Arts Dune Tours Cape Cod

Arts Dune Tours Cape Cod

We stayed at a couple of spots on Cape Cod and were able to see several areas. A trip to Provincetown was well worth it to experience the colorful downtown and have some adventures. First, we went on a whale-watching tour and say a couple of different types of whales. Then, we went on Art’s Dune Tour. Sure, we have dunes in Michigan, and the famous Sleeping Bear, but Provincetown has some historical dune shacks that are now artistic retreats. The dunes are full of rose hip, that we tried for the first time. Somewhat bitter, you peel the skin with your teeth and eat only that, leaving the insides behind.

Nantucket has been on my list for a long time, and it wasn’t nearly enough time to explore the island.

Rounding out our vacation, we toured Plimouth Plantation to learn about the pilgrims and the Wampanoag and how they lived. (As a grammar nerd, the explanation for the plantation spelling is that many variations were used in writings that have been found, and Plimouth was the most common spelling).

Plimouth Plantation

Plimouth Plantation

A few miles away, we drove to downtown Plymouth to see the Mayflower II, which was recently refurbished and back on display, and Plymouth Rock, which is a rock on the beach. The pilgrims actually landed at Provincetown first, but then ventured to Plymouth for access to more land and resources.

There are a ton of things to do in Massachusetts, both leisurely and historically. Our trip was a nice blend of the two and I’m glad that I was able to show my kids some things that they’ve been reading about, too.

Disclosure: A portion of this trip was due to my husband’s work travel but this post was not requested or required, and opinions are my own.

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Nantucket, the island of stories

I’ve read so many books that have been centered on or featured the island of Nantucket that I almost feel like I know what it’s like to live there. Well, not really but with a book and my imagination, I’ve come to love a place I’ve never traveled to – until now.

Nantucket

Nantucket

Taking the high speed ferry from Hyannis, we were transported to the island in about an hour. Parking was not too difficult to find, although it came with a cost and a short shuttle ride to the dock. The boat was fast, so stepping outside for a view can make your hair look like the bride of Frankenstein.

Once off the boat, you’re in the “downtown” area that’s filled with tourists, shops and wonderful smells of food. Our first stop was the whaling museum, where we were able to touch a whale’s tooth (huge!), touch the baleen from a whale and learn about items made with whale parts. The museum also has a rooftop deck to give you and overview of the harbor – a perfect photo opportunity.

We stopped briefly at Children’s Beach, very close to the ferry dock but on the small side for a beach. We decided to rent bikes and headed out with our map to Dionis Beach. A good 3 ½ miles later, we arrived hot, sweaty and ready to jump in the water. A short path through the dunes and we entered the beach, which was not crowded but had a good amount of sunbathers.

Nantucket Dionis Beach

Nantucket Dionis Beach

Bikes are somewhat expensive to rent so get them early and get good use out of them. If we had more time or stayed the night, we would’ve headed to Sconset, but instead took a shorter route to a closer beach.

After cooling off and playing for a while, we biked back, returned our bikes and went in search of food. After fueling up, it was time to get in line for the ferry back to Hyannis.

It was a quick trip. If you’re up for a day on the island, take the early morning ferry and the late evening ferry to get the most out of your day. If we had more time, the island aquarium was on our list to check out (and is working on an expansion). The views and storied beaches did not disappoint, and now when I read a book about Nantucket, I’ll be transported back to my island getaway.

Disclosure: Family trip, no compensation received. These opinions are my own.

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