Thursday, September 26, 2013

How much travel gear do you really need?

As you gathered from this blog, our family obviously spends a lot of time travelling.  So you might assume, we must have all the "gear" to hit the road, looking pretty spiffy as we go.

But that's simply not the case.  Top 3 Packing Essentials?

Item #1: Pack your BAG.

Yes, we all have a suitcase.  In fact, we have had many suitcases because I find that air travel is really hard on them.  They break, crack, the wheels fall off, the handles jam, and you really can't get upset about it because that's just the way it is.   If there's any suitcase company out there who'd like to prove me wrong, I'd gladly test their product out.

For our round-the-world trip we took backpack style luggage, but that is a regret.  If we did it again, a good wheeled bag would have been preferable since it was too heavy for the girls, and most places we needed to carry it, wheeling one would have been easy (... possible exception in the pouring rain at the ferry terminal in Civitivicchia, Italy, trying to find the train station over cobblestones in the dark.  Come to think of it, a flashlight other than the iPhone would have been nice.)

Choose whatever makes you (and the kids!) the most independent, and if "wheels" are easier than "weight", that's the best choice.

Travel Essential #2: Then it comes to shoes.

Traveling, for our family, involves a lot of walking.  Both as a form of transportation and as a past-time.   We were very grateful for our decision to outfit each of us with quality, well-fitted footwear prior to leaving for Machu Picchu and beyond.  For our family, that meant Merrell and Vasque.  Not everybody has the same feet, and we chose what felt the best for each of us.  The girls' Merrell's made it as far as Thailand, when the overpowering scent of Egyptian camels required us to leave them behind.  The boys' were able to make it to Australia before the sand and sea destroyed the linings (I did tell them to not go in the water!) But my Vasque pair made it all the way around the world, and I'm still wearing them on hikes back in Canada.  Invest in good shoes.  Your feet (and your knees) will thank you.

Item #3:  Protect your eyes... quality sunglasses for everyone, including the kids.

Everyone remembers sunscreen (goes without saying) but the UV index is also meant for your EYES.  Sun damage starts when kids are young, and keeps accumulating as we age.  Good UV protection is essential for travellers of all ages, and not just for the fancy photos... The Vision Council recommends eye protection even on those overcast days when the sun isn't as bright.  And it is never too early to start wearing them.

All that other "essential" travel gear? Our family can either take it, or pack light!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Top 3 Reasons our Family Picks Travel (over just school)

It's a question I hear a lot.

"Why does your family travel so much?" comes the casual comment.

Then the kicker.

"Don't you think they are missing too much school?"

We do miss an above-average amount of school days.  In fact, the "number of absences" on the kid's report cards is usually right around the same as their percentage grade by the end of the school term (they actually count every block in the day in our district, if you can imagine.)  But since both numbers are in the high 80's or 90's I don't get that concerned.  They are still achieving great results, even though missing the daily routine.

How?  Well, because I am a firm believer that experiential learning actually anchors the theory taught in books... and the world is a wonderful classroom.  Why do we take our kids out of school during the year?  Here's our top 3 reasons.

1.  Family Field Trips
When I was teaching middle school full-time (life before we had kids) I would usually anchor my social studies unit plan with a field trip.  The "foods" unit in grade nine French had a trip to experience French cuisine, and the Fur Traders unit in grade 8 history went to Fort Edmonton Park, our local living museum.

Now that I'm a Mom, I still do it (though usually just for our kids, and maybe a friend or two).  School budgets being what they are today, this kind of thing is no longer in the curriculum.  But ask any teacher, and she probably wishes a trip to the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller COULD be the activity in grade 8 science...  We've gone to the places our kids have learned about and extended their knowledge.  And we've gone both close and far, to enhance their learning.  Are they missing school? I personally think it's bringing the book lessons to life.

2.  Sports
Katie was asked to be the "absentee helper" in her grade four class this year.  It is up to her to gather assignments for kids who are away.  She asked for an assistant, since she realizes she is the one who will need the most help. This year we are headed to Vancouver for Western Canadians, and (hopefully) London, England for the World Championships at Easter.

Competitive sports have taught our children lessons about practice and perseverance, and the ability to achieve when it matters.  All four kids have had the opportunity to compete at International Levels... whether in rugby, hockey or dance.  It has taken them (and us!) to tournaments around the world, and they missed school because of it.  We'll count that as "gym".

3. Family Time
Now that our oldest has graduated from school and moved out on his own, I am truly seeing how little time we have together!  Between work commitments, and school, and sports, our lives are BUSY.  And we don't want that "busy-ness" to be the only memories we have as a family.

There's a quote at the end of my book that sums up how I feel:

"Of all the wonders in the world, the greatest wonder of them all, was sharing it with you."

Every day, we prioritize what is important in our life by how much time we spend on it.  We all have the same 24 hours.  But we don't know how many of them we will get.   SEIZE THE DAY.

We get to choose what we do.  Our "five months away" underlined for me that the most important wasn't all the stuff we collect, wear or purchase.  It is our time together, doing things we love, sharing the world.

It 's pretty easy to practice spelling, and math, in the sand.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

California Dreaming

Two thousand one hundred miles, plus change.  3400 kilometres in metric, just to make it seem even further.  That's quite a road trip if you have six kids along.  Which we did.

This summer, we decided we would drive back from the National Irish Dance Championships in Anaheim, California in the first week of July.  We counted a couple of extra days after the competitions to see Disneyland and the beaches, and then planned a week to drive home.  Home being almost straight north, to Canada.  It was a long way.

One of the main reasons our family travels is our Kids' Sports. We have followed rugby teams to international matches in Las Vegas, and hockey teams as far as Germany and Austria.  Dance has taken us to Chicago, Boston and Scotland (ironically, not to Ireland, yet!)  It's a great opportunity to see new places while the kids participate in the sports they love, with their friends.  Things childhood memories are made of!

And with all the beautiful young ladies, of course our son and his teenage friends don't need much convincing to come as a support crew.  Go figure.  Our California trip included our two dancing girls, and our son and three of his friends.

Highlights? Well, not the traffic between Huntington Beach and Malibu.  The scenic beach drive was a good idea in theory, but with street lights every block or two, not in practice.  We were in high danger of overheating the RV.  And saw mostly the back of the vehicles in front of us, during a never-ending rush hour.  But it did give us a sense of just how incredibly big Los Angeles (and all its related suburbs) really is.

The beaches south of LA were just like the movies.  We were shocked at how quickly they changed as we went even slightly north.  The water temperature dropped, and by the time we had gone six hours, we didn't want to get into the water.  Brrr.

We made it through the streets of San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge and up to the Redwood Forest.  Very impressive, though of course our RV wouldn't fit through the giant drive-thru tree.  We settled for a group photo instead.

The California coast is very pretty.  But the road between Eureka and the inland highways in Oregon is not something I want to repeat, unless I am driving that cute little convertible next time.  Logging trucks and holiday trailers on a narrow windy mountain road are not a good mix, and I managed to get a little carsick.  The kids, thank goodness, were fine.

As we made our way north, we realized that the more direct Google-recommended route through Utah was worth heeding. By hour #18 we were still in California, and we could have been all the way home by then.  But, we reminded ourselves, we had chosen the alternative scenic route.  It was exhausting


Once across the US-Canada border, with home in our sights, we paused for a bit of a reward.  After 30+ hours behind the wheel, we shook out our travel weary legs for a bit of water-water rafting fun!  Great way to cap the long drive, and add a final zing of excitement.

Traveling with teens? Make sure to stop and do some of the activities they can talk about.  Give them a "Kodak moment", and join in the fun.  You are only as old as you act...


Monday, April 22, 2013

Boston on my Mind

Boston is really on my mind.

And not just because it is has been front page news this past week, but because of the impact of disasters, both natural and man-made, on the people connected to it.

We were just there.  My husband and our two daughters and I just walked those tidy streets and met those friendly people.  Bostonians opened their arms to the World Championships of Irish Dance, and we flooded their hotels with wigs and sparkled dresses and tapping feet.  We spent ten days in the Boston area, and we had an amazing time.

My travel blog was about to be posted on Patriots Day. I held back for a week, and now feel the best thing is to celebrate everything good about Boston.  And encourage families to visit.  We share your pain, applaud your strength, and admire your fortitude.

Our family joined friends, and we signed up for the "Hop On Hop Off" Bus, and took advantage of the included admission to the "Boston Tea Party" exhibit.  Our kids ages 9-15 learned the history of the beginnings of the American Revolution, and the role Bostonians played in the birth of the United States as an independent country.  The interactive play was both entertaining and educational, letting the kids act out characters, yell out encouragement in a big "Hazzah!" and throw the tea bales off the ships into the sea (earning souvenir feathers for their attempts).  We got to experience the interior of a pilgrim's ship, and feel connected to the 17th century players.  It was a highlight of the trip.

Another must-do (for Mom and Dad, anyway) was a quick lunch at the Cheers bar.  Iconic from the 80's sitcom, the small downstairs pub on Beacon Hill delivered with simple pub fare and good cold brew... Samuel Adam's just to be local.

The excursion to the New England State would not have been complete without taking in a Boston Bruins game.  In fact, our Dance Dad would have probably called the trip a miss if it had not have been happening in the home venue of his all-time favourite hockey team, with a chance to visit the Boston Gardens.  As luck would have it, with the NHL strike over and a condensed season in progress, we had a choice of three possible games that week, tickets bought online.  Hubby picked the Original Six classic: Bruins versus the Habs.  Complete with the rivalry chants, the crowds celebrated in full style both pre-game at the neighbouring Hurricane O'Reilly's and post-game as well.  Families were welcomed into the pubs (YES!), so if a father-son game is on the itinerary, hockey in Boston is a must.

You can't predict the future.  Or guarantee that you won't be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  If you are familiar with our story, you already know that we experienced several instances of near-miss events, where a major tragedy occurred within weeks of our visit or immediately prior to our arrival.

Our hearts go out to all those affected by the horrible life-changing events in Boston last week.  How easy it could have been our family, our event sabotaged by the twisted actions of others.  But if we give power to those people, by living scared or intimidated, we give them more than they are worth.

Go hug your kids, your parents, those who are your world.  And then go out and explore it. Together.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Cape Cod, a perfect off-season retreat

Our girls are both competitive Irish dancers.

Their sport started modestly, with local classes from the age of 3, through the ranks of beginners and novice, prizewinners and Championships.  The exchange for the hundreds of hours of practice and training has been the opportunity to compete on a World Stage - and this year, the 43rd annual "Olympics" of Irish Dance was held in Boston, USA.

We arrived in Boston a few days early, and headed south to Cape Cod.  Since it was our first adventure to the New England States, we hoped to explore a bit of coastline and sample the local seafood and chowder.  Provincetown was still very quiet (end of March is early in the season), but still eclectic and colourful under the grey skies.

We had a wonderful cozy night at the Provincetown Inn, excellent off-season value including breakfast for 4, under $100/night.  Our amazing oceanfront view was transformed to a winter wonderland with a heavy dump of wet snow while we slept.

Dinner was recommended at a local eatery called Napi's, and was artfully prepared with fresh ingredients then served by a friendly hostess.  Our daughters enjoyed the collection of seafaring treasures displayed on the walls and shelves, and had a rousing game of "I Spy" while we waited for our meals.

The hotel featured a turn-of-the-century fireplace with sofas pulled close, and the quiet of the building created a perfect refuge from the storm.  The next morning, we headed for a quiet seaside hike across snow-covered paths to the water's edge, where only a few gulls braved the chill.

Travel doesn't have to mean going full speed ahead.  Sometimes the best part is allowing yourself some down time, without over-scheduling your family into every possible activity to see and to do.  Kids need to learn to sit and engage in thoughtful conversation.  They need to be given time to rest and focus, especially if their daily life is hectic.  We all need balance.

This quiet, reflective time, especially before a major competition with its accompanying stress and pressure and physical demands, allowed our family to "refuel".  Cape Cod in March.  Ideal!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Warm up in Panama, perfect for teens

Let's face it.  By January, those of us living in the Northern parts of the planet are getting pretty tired of the dark and the cold.  A winter getaway boosts our Vitamin D levels to help us beat those winter blues, naturally.

If you are looking for a new destination that is both family friendly and affordable, why not give Panama a try?

We found daily flights routed out of the major airline hub of Houston, TX which connected daily to our home airport.  Though long in travel time, the direct routing and good connections actually reduced our time spent in transit.  We landed in Panama City, but in the next couple of years international flights will become available at the new airport closer to the resorts, now under construction.  A taxi service offers at the airport shuttled us safely across the (very busy) city to the resort area of Decameron.  Resorts by Sheraton, Riu, Hilton and all the majors offer many economical choices, several 5* with inclusive options, depending what your family craves.  Most are located on uncrowded sand beaches where searching for shells is just as enticing as playing in the gentle waves.  There are also privately owned condos and houses available, and grocery shopping is easy.

Rent a car

We had no troubles with driving in Panama.  The highways are mostly new, and though can get crowded with trucks and buses, it is easy to navigate and enjoyable to explore.  Once in Decameron, there are a couple familiar rental agents to choose from, without the stress of driving through the unbelievable traffic of Panama city (we saved that for the experts!)  If you have a smaller group, or prefer to leave the driving to others, the local bus system is every efficient and economical, but a basic knowledge of Spanish would make it easier.

What to do with teens?

Ziplining through the jungle canopy was at the top of our list.  When in Hawaii a couple of years ago, Katie was too young to participate and has never let us forget it.  This time, she sailed above the trees and over the waterfalls with the guidance of our guides.  We drove up to the mountaintop to El Valle de Anton - Cocle province, a beautiful scenic drive in itself.  The tropical rainforest was lush and musical with birdsong. 

If your teens are into extreme sports, then a visit (or even a stay) at Nitro City is a must. We enjoyed our late lunch in the chilled atmosphere of the outdoor patio and watched as a quad towed wake-boarders across the infinity pool. Skateboarding, jet skiing, kitesurfing and a realm of other outdoor adventures are available, and the pool tables and video games entertain on rainy days.  Though we didn't choose to stay long, our teens were happy to have visited even for a short time.

Diving with whale sharks in the right season (November to Feb) and world class surfing (Feb - May) are other options unique to Panama.  A few hours to the village of Santa Catalina.  A day trip to the island of Coiba offered top notch snorkeling with the biggest fish in the sea, followed by a geography lesson at the National Park on Coiba, the island that was once a penal colony and is now one of the best diving locations in the world.  We managed to swim with sea turtles, schools of fish of every size and color, and even spotted a seahorse while floating in the calm, clear waters of the Pacific.

A trip to Panama would not be complete without visiting the Canal.  The Panama Canal museum had an interactive exhibit where visitors can steer their ship through the locks, controlling the throttle and the wheel in an attempt to not smash into the sides and sound the alarms... it was great fun, like a shipping game of Mattel's "Operation."  Next, in Panama Viejo (Old Town), a follow-up visit to the international version of the canal museum explained the construction of the major shipping channel from another perspective.  The contrast allows visitors to see two sides of the same story, a valuable lesson about history in itself. 

With the best of beaches, history, sports activities and cultural exposure, Panama offers families a safe, relaxing winter getaway at affordable prices.  Oh yeah, did I mention beer costs about 70 cents... #goLearn.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Jasper in January, Alberta Canada

Since the release of our family adventures, many folks have asked me for recommendations of the perfect destination for an educational trip with their kids.  The world is full of opportunity, but I am going to start with something right in my own backyard...

Jasper Alberta Canada 

A three hour drive west of the city of Edmonton, Jasper National Park is nestled along the Alberta -  British Columbia border in Western Canada.  And in January, it is a winter wonderland.

To get there:  Our family travels in our SUV, equipped with 4 wheel drive and winter tires.  This allows us enough space for luggage, and makes for a safer, happier trip.  It also allows us the freedom to explore independently once we arrive.  ViaRail offers a passenger train service, and there is the MagicBus ski transfer, but we prefer the freedom of our own vehicle.

What to pack:  Think winter in the mountains... the temperatures are unpredictable and can fluctuate more than 40 degrees Celsius in 24 hours.  Seriously.  So be prepared for anything: ski pants, warm coats, hats, mitts and boots.  We always add a swimsuit for the hot tub.  And bring whatever gear will match your planned activitiy: skiing or hiking, skating or sledding.  First plan your "to do" list, then pack what you'll need to do it.

Family Fun:
SKI:  Marmot Basin offers downhill skiing for all ages and abilities.  It is a world class resort, with high speed quad lifts and chalets. Rental packages are available on the hill.  Lessons are offered for kids, and there is babysitting service for younger ones.  Our kids started skiing at about age 3, and there are many children on the lower "bunny slopes."  It is a great place to learn to ski.  Teens will be challenged by the double-black runs and terrain park, and the many trails through the woods.  The snowboarders in the family will have a lot of options as well.  Rentals plus lift tickets and a hot lunch for our family of 5 was about $500.  Pretty high for multiple days, but was okay when the next day, we planned to do something "free."

HIKE:  Maligne Canyon is frozen, and a walk from Bridge No.5 will take you along the frozen river up to the waterfalls and caves.  Tours are available, complete with ice grips for your boots.  Your family will learn the geology of the Rocky Mountains, and may even spot ancient fossils imbedded in the canyon walls.  Deer and elk frequent the area, so keep your eyes open for wildlife, and experience the beauty of nature.  Make sure to take your camera!  Check Jasper Trail Alliance on Facebook for current trail conditions, cross country ski trails and other hiking locations.

SKATE:  At the JPL and Pyramid Lake Resort - free.  There are a couple of lakes where the snow is removed, revealing the smooth ice surface of the mountain lakes... skates can be rented, and hot cocoa is available to share in front of a roaring bonfire.  You can even challenge your kids to pond hockey, or a quick game of curling once your feet get sore.

Other ideas:  Dog-sledding is something we have always wanted to try. There is also a wonderful Day Spa at the Sawridge Hotel for a Mom's Time Out, and our kids always love the hotel pools.  If you go mid-day, you will probably have the whole place to yourself!  The town of Jasper offers unique gift shops and restaurants of every price... try Fiddle River for a taste of elk or buffalo, with kids menu offered as well.

Where to stay:  With our family, we prefer a kitchenette suite with a wood-burning fireplace.  This trip we found the Jasper Inn for $140/night.  It has a great pool and indoor hot tub, and a restaurant with breakfast buffet for $10/person.  If you'd like a secluded mountain experience, the Jasper Park Lodge is unbeatable (though pricey) and Pyramid Lake Resort is now open year round.  Check out for our reviews.

Jasper in January - many special deals offered by hotels, and free activities planned for family fun.  It's a great time to explore the Rockies, whether you live just up the road or continents away.


When we think family travel, we don't have to go far.  Some of the best destinations are only an hour or two (or maybe three!) from home.  The biggest thing is to take the time, whether it is for a week or just a couple of nights, and spend it with your kids.  Play together, learn together and build the relationships that will carry forward with the best memories of time well spent.