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.



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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Sunglasses are more than a fashion statement

When my son was a toddler, he would tear up every time we went out in the bright son. He eventually grew out of it but he’s always been very light sensitive. So when The Vision Council invited me to a webinar, I was intrigued.

According to a recent report (PDF) by The Vision Council, 40 percent of U.S. adults do not wear sunglasses while outdoors and more than half of parents do not protect their children’s eyes with sunglasses. When you combine that with the fact that children will accumulate 80 percent of sun exposure by the time they are 18, you can see that there’s a real need, beyond fashion, to have sunglasses for your children.

Sunglasses on vacation

Shades – especially in the ocean.

We’re a sunglasses family. My daughter wears glasses, so each pair of glasses she has owned has been transition lenses (and parents, please, get the anti-glare, too – your photographs will thank you!)

We even kept her last pair of glasses when she got new ones, and she uses those while swimming. She wants to be able to see and have her eyes shaded, and you just don’t get that in a pair of swim goggles.

When we travel, sunglasses are a must for the whole family. And I’ve now learned that it’s more than just shading your eyes from the sun, it’s protecting them from the sun’s rays, too. Sunburn of the eye is real, in the form of photokeratitis. When you’re out and about on the beach, on a boat or anywhere for that matter, sunglasses protect you from the sun, which is strongest between noon and 4 p.m.

The Vision Council has a handy tool to check where in the world the UV rays are the strongest. Just go to, type in your ZIP code for the UV index in any city. Puerto Rico, because of its location near the equator, has the strongest UV rays in the U.S. Internationally, Australia has the highest.

I saw a report on the news at some point that said most cheap sunglasses have as good or better UV protection than more expensive lenses. If you’re unsure of what kind, if any, your sunglasses have, most eye doctors have a UV meter and will test lenses for you. Scratches on lenses will diminish the protection, so it’s better to spend a few dollars for a new pair than pay for eye damage later.

Transition lenses

What happens when transition lenses are in a netted pouch.

We always travel with sunglasses for the whole family. But now, I’m going to make sure we each have a good case for our sunglasses to minimize the risk of breaking them in our travel bags and to protect them from scratches. So the next time you’re worried about sunscreen and skin cancer, take a moment to grab those sunglasses. Your eyes will thank you.

Disclosure: I was compensated for attending the webinar and writing this post, although the opinions are my own.

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A bewitching history and future travel stop in Salem

After taking a history course in college, Witches, heretics and religion, my interest was piqued for a trip to Salem. Although it was a short period of time, the Salem witch trials caused such a stir that it has created a tourist destination and something the world still talks about and studies nearly 400 years later.

Salem Witch Musem

Salem Witch Musem

On a recent vacation to Massachusetts, we had a day trip to Salem, which started with the Salem Witch Museum. A bit hokey for the cultured tourist, this exhibit takes you through lighted displays and storytelling to give you a sense of what happened in the 1600s in Salem. It was presented clearly so my kids were able to get the full picture without asking a million questions.

After the show portion, we were taken into a second area where we were walked through the history of witchcraft, from pagans to witch stereotypes to the Wiccan religion.

After the museum, we walked through Salem, which also is famous for being the home of the Parker Brothers, creators of Monopoly and many other board games. The Salem Museum, which is free, is a small museum that has displays about the witch trials, a town fire in the 1800s and a special exhibit on Monopoly.IMG_9973

We also walked through the cemetery, which has gravesites that are several hundred years old, as well as an area dedicated to the victims of the witch trials. We stopped at a statue of Samantha from Bewitched, which was filmed in Salem.

IMG_9983After investigating the witch hysteria, we walked to the water and the pier and had a great lunch with lobster rolls and clam chowder. We walked through a few shops, which were bustling with tourists. The city itself is much more than its witch history and is a great place to stroll, eat and shop.

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

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Bringing an old deck back to life

My husband and I have argued about our deck for years. The original owner of the house built it himself. It’s one of the things that made us fall in love with the house – a multilevel deck, brick paver patio and partially surrounded an above ground pool.

Deck before

Deck before

We should’ve heard warning bells when the owner had it inspected before we moved in and had to rebuild the steps because they weren’t spaced properly. A few years later, we found that he didn’t anchor the posts properly, either, and the deck started to shift with the freeze/thaw cycle. A couple of times, we had handymen in to cut and repair the posts to make the deck level again. It’s currently a bit uneven and sloping towards the pool.

Before giving up and taking a chainsaw to the whole thing, I set out this summer to stain it to see if it was still tolerable. My husband, who travels a lot and took the first staining job several years ago, thought I was crazy and wanted no part of it.

After I bought a couple of gallons of stain, I saw a commercial on TV for Behr’s DeckOver. The commercial reeled me in, and I returned the stain and came home with the DeckOver. The advertising says the thick paint/stain would bring new life to an old deck, help seal up smaller cracks and give the deck a slip-resistant finish. When I was having my color added to the base, the guy at the store told me that the paint also would reduce the heat of the deck by a bit.

Deck After DeckOver

Deck After DeckOver

I started with the upper portion of the deck because it is the smallest and it’s the part that we look at the most, right off of the kitchen. I used a power washer to clean the deck and take some of the current stain off, although there wasn’t much left of it.

Twelve gallons later, we have most of the deck covered, with two coats on the walking parts (the instructions recommend two coats on all but we’re lazy like that and the railings took forever). I’ve been taking the job slowly, doing parts here and there on evenings and free weekends. My husband joined in a few times when he was in town, and the kids tried a few swipes of the paintbrush before getting bored and heading off to other pursuits.

Deck After DeckOver

Deck After DeckOver

We still have some of the bottom portions to do, along with the lattice that surrounds the deck to hide the underside. I’m considering investing in a paint sprayer for the lattice after having painted a few smaller pieces that make up our deck gates.

Ideally, I’d rather have a stain to have the wood grain show through. However, in the shape that our deck is in, this product is ideal to seal up some of the cracks and provide a surface that is perfect to surround our pool. The slip-resistant finish is so much better than slippery wood and has reduced slip and falls from our kids and their friends. I’ve recommended it to my mother and some neighbors who need to paint their front porch decking and steps. The finish, which feels almost like a fine grit sandpaper, is great for stairs, especially in a wet Michigan summer or icy Michigan winter.

If you’re looking to revive a deck or have a deck or stairs area that has heavy traffic, I highly recommend Behr’s new product. We’re falling in love with our deck again just in time to enjoy it during the summer.

Disclosure: This is not a sponsored post and I was not compensated in any way. This is my personal opinion of Behr DeckOver.

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A short journey to Quebec takes you a world away

I’ve always wanted to visit Quebec, and mostly Montreal. People talk of the city as a “little Paris” and the European vibe it offers. If you drive there, even renting a car from the airport, you’ll have a quick lesson in French. The signs for compass points are in French, as are the stop signs and other navigation signs.

It is the law in the province of Quebec to speak French first, so most will greet you with a bonjour, and then a hello if you give them a puzzled look. We only ran into one gentlemen who was appalled that we did not speak French. When I told him I had taken Spanish in school, he said he thought maybe that was a good choice for living in the U.S.

The plane ride from Detroit was short, just over an hour. Our first stop was the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth in Montreal. We had a tour of the city, old and new, stopping by the beautiful Notre Dame Basilica and wandering through the Just for Laughs festival, which was taking place that week. We were treated to a Montreal bagel hot out of the oven and were taken up to the top of a hill to view the city below. Bikers are everywhere in the city and you can rent bikes at several stations throughout the city.

Montreal has an underground city, but we found it a bit difficult to navigate and directions were not clearly marked. We tried to walk through it from our hotel to another section of the city but came up to ground level a few times and back down in our attempts. We ended up giving up and walking at street level. However, I can see how that would be a huge bonus in the cold winter months.

Our next part of the trip took us to the Fairmont Tremblant in the Laurentian Mountains. A beautiful ski village, Tremblant is also bustling in the summer with many visitors, shops and outdoor activities. Activity passes are available for gondola rides, mountain cart rides and countless kids’ activities. I took a gondola ride to the top and opted for the birds of prey show. In addition to the hawks, owl and eagle, we were treated to Mother Nature’s own show when a deer wandered near us. The views to the village are gorgeous.

The resort has several small pools – a regular pool, therapy pool (a little warmer) a cold pool and a hot tub. I had a Swedish massage at the spa, which took away my knots from traveling. Down the mountain, the resort has a beach area, which you can pay to enter or access with an activity card. No transportation is provided and it is a good yet healthy walk, especially up part of the mountain on the way back.

We used the resort’s complimentary bikes to take a ride through the many paved trails. Living in a very flat part of Michigan, the hills were a welcome yet challenging pace but we were rewarded with fantastic views of the river and several deer.

Our last stop in Quebec was the Fairmont Chateau Montebello, a huge log cabin structure that used to be a private club. The walking paths are along the water’s edge, the outdoor pool is clean and warm and the indoor pool is huge. I did not go for a ride but the horses looked happy and healthy as they were readied for the days’ activities.

The breakfast buffet at all three resorts were similar, and I had my fill of maple crepes at each. Alas, we didn’t leave any time for the famous Canadian poutine, but we’ll have to venture back again for that experience. Also, the hotels have a dog on staff! At most locations, you can sign out the dog for a walk or just give him or her some pets in the lobby.

Disclosure: This was a work trip for my husband and I was along for the ride. These opinions are my own and are in no way compensated.

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Bay Harbor brings style to resorts in Michigan

Not much can beat a warm summer day in northern Michigan. And a stay at Bay Harbor makes it even better. In late June, my family and I stayed at the Inn at Bay Harbor for a few days. The weather was perfect, the resort pleasant and the views spectacular.

We used the complimentary bikes one day and rode on the path towards Petoskey. The bike path was in perfect condition with lots of bike and walking traffic. It was shaded so although it was a very warm day, we had the cool breezes of shade on our side. A few openings in the trees provided spectacular views of Lake Michigan.

Downtown Petoskey is just a short drive away, with all of the walkable shopping and cute parks and restaurants for whatever strikes your fancy. We stopped for a music performance in a park, and the kids had fun exploring a toy store and a garden store with fairy gardens on display.

We had a couple of fantastic meals at the South American Grille and Wine Bar. A local Northern Michigan seasonal salad really hit the spot.

The kids had a blast at the pool, which is placed near gorgeous views of the bay. We took a break to walk the shore and find Petoskey stones, of which we found several. We wandered down to the volleyball net and had a short family game.

The rooms are nice and comfortable, with a bedroom, living room with a murphy bed and kitchenette, creating the perfect space for a family vacation. A small balcony overlooking the lake is a great way to end the day.

At dusk, we headed to the fire near the lake and made s’mores and my husband and son played catch on the lawn. Just a few days at Bay Harbor and we were well-rested and recharged.

Disclosure: My husband traveled here on a work trip. My kids and I were along for the ride. This review is my own opinion and is not compensated.


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