What To See and Do With Kids: San Francisco

Moving on to part 2 of this little travel series (If you missed part one’s adventure to Portland, check it out here!).  Today’s location is one that is near and dear to my heart: San Francisco, California. I’ve spent a total of 5 out of the last 10 years living in the San Francisco Bay area–2 years while Jon was in grad school (when our only child had fur and four legs), and then a few years later when we returned for another 3-year stint with our kids.

While we never lived in San Francisco proper, we did spend enough time in The City to discover some special kid-friendly spots (which is really saying something considering I don’t think any actual children live in San Francisco any more). Read on for a few of our favorites!

DISCLAIMER: All tips and tricks are based on my limited and biased perspective. I am the self-proclaimed expert here because I have actually been to these places with actual children and have survived to tell the tale. I always love hearing from other experts, though, so if you have your own tips, tricks, or favorite insights to share please leave a comment at the end of the post!

San Francisco, California
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Where To Stay:
Since we were day-trippers into the city I  don’t have much solid advice for you on this subject. I will note a few tips, however, if you’re trying to find lodging in San Francisco:

  • Parking in The City is scarce and very expensive, so try to stay near a public transportation line such as Muni (the city’s bus and metro system), the cable car lines or, if you plan on exploring areas outside of the city, the BART (commuter train).
  • Try to find lodging in the city center.
  • San Francisco real estate is *ahem* quite pricey which drives up the hotel rates–consider renting through a vacation rental company such as Airbnb or VRBO.

What To Do:
Before I get into this I need to say one very important thing about visiting San Francisco: it’s cold. You may think that it’s warm because it’s in that land of eternal sunshine called California, but San Francisco is a land unto itself. A cold land. Do yourself (and your kids…and your sanity…) a favor and pack along some warm layers and a rain coat. You’re welcome.

Moving along to more exciting matters now…

My very-favorite kid spot in San Francisco, and one that I made a point of visiting frequently when we lived in the area, is Bay Area Discovery Museum (BADM). BADM is located across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco in the seaside town of Sausalito–which means the first part of your adventure to BADM involves a trip across one of the most famous pieces of architecture in the world.

Take some extra time to explore the bridge before or after you visit the museum–you can either pull over on the San Francisco side right before you get to the bridge (there’s a fun little gift shop and visitor center here), or cross over the bridge and drive up to the Marin Headlands for a birds-eye view of The Golden Gate.

Once you get to BADM park in the large fields out front and enjoy your day exploring the indoor exhibits (they’re all set up inside former army barracks) or take a trek outside to hike on the nature trails and play on the giant pirate ship play structure.

Once you get back into San Francisco, spend some time exploring Golden Gate Park. This giant park in the middle of the city is full of trails to explore, ponds to paddle on, and museums that pique every interest.

My favorite kid-friendly museum in Golden Gate Park is the California Academy of Sciences. The museum itself is breathtaking with a grass-covered roof and an indoor 4-story rainforest where you can climb through every layer of the rainforest. The museum also has natural history exhibits (DINOSAURS!!) and an aquarium. There are plenty of hands-on activities to keep little hands and minds occupied.

Another must-do when you’re in San Francisco is a trolley ride. I like to hop on the Powell-Hyde trolley at the Powell stop downtown. Get off the trolley at the top of Lombard Street where you get a great view of the “twistiest street in the world” (It’s not actually THE twistiest street in the world, but it’s definitely in the running for that honor and a visit there makes for some great photo-ops and entertaining tourist-watching).

After you’ve gotten your fill of watching cars try to navigate the zig-zags on Lombard Street, hop back on your trolley and continue down to the other end of the line at Hyde. You’ll get off near Ghiradelli Square, so take a brief detour to get some chocolate or ice cream sundaes at the Ghiradelli Chocolate cafe (Or, if you need an afternoon pick-me-up, an Irish Coffee at The Buena Vista next door).

While you’re in the area, visit Fisherman’s Wharf to watch the sea lions on the docks or take a boat ride through The Bay. And speaking of boats, this is also where you can catch a boat out to one of the most infamous (former) prisons in the world: Alcatraz. If you plan on visiting Alcatraz, definitely try to buy your tickets in advance–this is a popular destination and tickets sell out quickly during tourist season (Which, as far as I can tell, lasts from approximately January 1 – December 31 each year.).

If your kids enjoy animals (What kids don’t like animals?!) head over to the San Francisco Zoo. The zoo is a good sized with all of the expected animals (the giraffes even have a view of the ocean from their enclosure). There’s also an indoor rain forest exhibit, a train you can ride through the park, and an epic playground where your kids can let out their inner monkey. After you’ve seen all of the animals, head down the road for a little play time at Ocean Beach so your baby can eat sand and you can dip your toes in the Pacific.

What To Eat:
San Francisco is a melting pot of people and cultures, so I would recommend treating your dining experience as a trip around the world. You can visit Chinatown for dim sum (Do yourself a favor and head straight for the oldest–and best–restaurant in Chinatown: Sam Wo); Little Italy for pasta or 40-clove Garlic Chicken at The Stinking Rose; the Mission District for authentic Mexican food at La Taqueria; or Ethiopian food at Tadu in SOMA.

The Farmer’s Markets are also amazing and most of them operate year-round–check the current offerings by day or neighborhood here. While you’re at the market, grab some goodies that you can pack along for a picnic by the beach–maybe you can nibble your organic veggies and vegan cheese while you watch your children frolic in the waves.

Pure. Bliss.

I know that this just scratches the surface, so now it’s your turn! What are your favorite things to see and do with kids in San Francisco?

 

Ireland Adventure

I’ve always been a carpe diem-type person, and if an opportunity presents itself I’m likely to seize it before it has a chance to slip away. It makes perfect sense, then, that when Jon found out this summer that he’d need to travel to Ireland for work in a few weeks’ time that I would see this as an opportunity to seize.

Ever since we left Ireland three years ago I’ve been trying to find a way to get back there. Ireland will always be a second home in my heart, and I’ve been homesick. The timing of Jon’s business trip seemed ideal–I could bring Hannah (who is not quite 2 years old yet, and therefore still able to travel on a plane without having to buy her a ticket)–as our only child who has never been to Ireland I felt like she has been missing out on a big part of our family history. In addition, we could take advantage of the September sweet spot between the busy tourist season and the wet and windy days of…well…the rest of the year in Ireland. So, really, I just had to go.

I begged and pleaded my case with Jon and as soon as he gave me the affirmative “Well, we could look into this and see if it makes sense…” speech, I scheduled an appointment at the passport office so we could make Hannah a legit traveller and I started researching flights. Since Jon was traveling for work, he had to be in Europe a week before me and we had to book our tickets at the last minute after he received his final work schedule. In the end, though, we found a way to get me there at the end of his trip, and he was even able to take a few days of vacation during the time I would be there. I was actually going to carpe my diem after all!

Arranging to leave on a cross-continental journey alone with a toddler, while also preparing everything at home for your two school-aged children who would be staying behind, was a bit of a puzzle. It was a whirlwind of preparations, but finally travel day arrived and I braced myself for the journey ahead.

I don’t know if any of you have ever traveled with young children, but if you have then I’m sure you’ll agree with what I’m about to say: toddlers are the WORST. The worst travel companions, that is. I love my children, but I despise traveling with them when they are toddlers (even if they are really stinkin’ cute).

Babies: no problem. They nurse and sleep and snuggle and they’re easy-peasy. Big kids–even preschoolers–fine. They can entertain themselves with coloring books or movies or snack time. Some of them can even reason or understand the reward that awaits them on the other end of the travel. No problem.

But toddlers? Toddlers are a nightmare to travel with. They are set on their schedule and routine and their own cozy bed, and when they don’t have those things they scream. They are tired all the time but they refuse to sleep, so instead they scream. They can’t communicate their needs, and when they try to do so but you don’t understand, they scream. They are always hungry but if you feed them the wrong food or food in the wrong way or, God forbid, request that they not dump the entire juice box down the front of their shirt, they scream. They don’t have the attention span to watch a tv show or play with an app or read a book or color a picture, and when you suggest that they do any of these things they scream. They want to walk and explore, and when you make them sit they scream. Basically, they do a lot of screaming and the parents do a lot of hair-pulling.

You can see, then, why I was not-so-excited to be traveling alone on a 10-hour flight with a toddler.

Our travel day to Ireland went something like this:

6:00 Wake up, make breakfast, get the kids ready for school
8:00 Drop David off at school
8:45  Go to the grocery store and stock up on food that my kids might actually eat so their grandparents have a reasonable chance of success in feeding them for the next week.
9:30  Go to the gas station and fill the car up with gas so the grandparents can cart the children around all week
10:00 Get the last load of laundry out of the dryer and finish packing
11:00 Make lunch for the two children who are still home with me
12:00 Grandparent helpers arrive! Review with them the 38-page Childcare Manual that I compiled to ensure they know the who/what/where/when/why of the offspring I’m leaving in their care.
12:30 Drop off Jacob at preschool
1:00  Drive grandparent chauffeurs around to the kids’ schools and activity locations and explain the overly-complicated drop-off and pick-up procedures
2:00 Meet my brother in law (who is driving us to the airport) at home. Load my bags, car seat, stroller, baby carrier, backpack, and baby into his car. Drive to the airport
3:00 Schlep my 5,000 essential travel items through the airport to the baggage check-in area. Get shuffled to 3 different locations before an actual human is willing to help me check in (the computers don’t like checking in babies, by the way).
4:00 Finally get through airport security! Buy a burrito for linner (lunch-dinner) because who knows if/when I will get another chance to use my own two hands to eat again.
4:30 Settle at the airport playground to eat my linner burrito while Hannah runs around screaming in a place where it is socially acceptable for a toddler to scream.
5:00 Call the boys to FaceTime with them before we board the plane. David is sick. He has a headache and is throwing up (As it would turn out, David would be sick the entire duration of our travel and wouldn’t go back to school until after our return. His grandparents who stayed home and cared for him now have infinity crowns in Heaven.).
6:00 Board the plane an hour before take-off because that is how much time is required for 200 people to find their seats, argue over who gets which overhead storage bin, and browse the SkyMall magazine.
7:00 Takeoff!

So, you see, by the time our plane even left the runway I was exhausted. I’d already had a full day of running around and chasing children, and yet there were miles to go before I’d sleep.

Hannah actually did great on the flight. She was in a good mood and I was able to get her to fall asleep in my Ergo baby carrier after just a few hours of flight time. Unfortunately, my joy over the well-traveled toddler was about to end.

I was standing in a hallway in the middle of the plane bouncing Hannah to keep her happy and asleep when we hit turbulence. The flight attendants asked me to return to my seat and buckle my seatbelt for the time being. Normally this would not be an outlandish request, after all, the seatbelt is there for my safety, but I knew the real consequences of this request. A sleeping toddler who is in an upright position sleeping in a carrier will almost certainly awake once they are squished into a narrow airplane seat and restrained with a seatbelt. I didn’t really have a choice in the matter, though, so I went back to my seat.

As soon as I sat down Hannah woke up. And she was angry. She wanted to keep standing and bouncing, and she was going to let me–and everyone else on the plane–know how she felt about this situation. So she did what toddlers do best: she screamed. And screamed. And screamed. I tried to comfort her but until I could stand up and resume the mommy rock-bounce, there was nothing I could do.

As if the stress of having a tired, angry toddler screaming in my arms wasn’t enough, some gentleman sitting a few rows behind me thought it would be prudent to also let me know how he felt about the situation. I’m sure my crying baby was quite the personal insult on him because he started yelling across the plane, “Won’t someone shut that thing up!” and other helpful, encouraging words. He was so helpful, in fact, that the flight attendants requested him to stop lest he be escorted right off the plane.

After 10 minutes that felt like 10 years, we were past the turbulence and allowed to get out of our seats again. The flight attendants were super helpful after the whole guy yelling incident and they moved me to another seat that had more room…and that was as far away from the yelling guy as I could get. Hannah fell back asleep right away (as I knew she would), but I was so angry and stressed out that I just sat in my seat brooding for the rest of the flight.

Our first flight ended in Amsterdam, and I had an 8 hour layover before our final flight into Ireland. I had found out that it’s very convenient to take the train from the Amsterdam airport into the city center and, since I had time to kill, I decided to give it a try. When we disembarked from the train in Amsterdam, however, I realized that I was grossly unprepared for the weather. The city was in the midst of a tempest and the only thing we had to keep us warm and dry was our airplane travel clothes (pajamas), plus a blanket I stole off the plane. I was already there, though, so I decided to walk around the city for a  bit before heading back to the airport.

We managed to find some yummy pancakes to eat, but I didn’t have the energy or the rain gear to do much else.

We returned to the airport, changed into the clean set of clothes that I thankfully had in my backpack, and spent the rest of the day exploring inside where it was warm and dry. The day is mostly a blur because I’d already pulled an all-nighter with a toddler. I was in survival mode. As a consolation, at least they had these giant tea cups to sit in.

Finally it was time to board our last flight, we made the short journey from Amsterdam to Cork, we arrived, a taxi took us to our hotel, Jon met us at the door, he carried us into bed, and then I didn’t wake up for 14 hours.

And that, my friends, was the longest day of my life.

The next afternoon I woke up totally refreshed and ready to go. We looked out our window and we’re greeted with the most spectacular view of Cork city.

Jon was finishing up his last day of work in Cork, so I met up with some friends at a park down the road.


Joanne had been my neighbor when we lived in Cork, and her two children were two of our boys’ best friends. Joanne had a friend from growing up, Leah, who lived the next neighborhood over. Leah’s son was in David’s preschool class, and so us 3 moms had spent many days together with our children. When we lived in Ireland our kids had played together on “the green” in the middle of our neighborhood nearly every day and us moms had spent endless hours getting to know each other over cups of tea. Reconnecting with Joanne and Leah (and their new children who had not yet been born when we left Ireland) was the perfect start to my little Irish adventure.

Over the next few days we did exactly what I had set out to do in Ireland: we visited the people and the places that we missed.

We went to our old church and caught up with our “family” there.


We went to museums and the zoo and parks.


We visited historic churches and rang the bells in their bell towers.


We attended playdates and birthday parties.


We had afternoon tea and dinners with our friends.


We visited dear friends of ours from California who had recently moved to Cork.


We walked on the sea cliffs and breathed in the fresh, salty air.


We went to a castle.


We listened to trad in a pub.


We drank tea and had a pint in our local.


We ate the local delicacies.

(No, not that.)

We walked the streets that we used to call home.

We spent a whole week living out all of our favorite things with all of our favorite people, and it was perfect.

But, as with all good things, eventually it came to an end. At the end of our week I was sad-happy–sad, because I knew that I wouldn’t be back again for a long time, but happy for the experiences this week that would never leave me.

Thank you, Ireland, for a lifetime of memories squeezed into a single week. I love you so much that it was even worth traveling to you with a toddler–and that’s saying a lot!

Until next time, Ireland–I miss you already!

The 10 Stages Moms Go Through When Their Husband Travels For Business

There have been times in our marriage when my husband has been gone traveling for work more than he has been home.

Case in point: Ireland.

When we returned to the U.S. after living in Ireland we had to fill out bunches and bunches of legal and tax paperwork. One of the documents required us to fill in a calendar for every day that we lived abroad and note whether we were “in country” (Ireland) or “out of country” (NOT-Ireland). What we discovered upon completion of that calendar confirmed exactly what I had suspected during that year abroad: my husband travelled a LOT. In fact, he was “out of country” more than he was “in country” that year. This means that I spent slightly over half of that year alone with our children in a foreign country (I am now accepting sympathy cards). Is it any wonder, then, that I gained 10 pounds when I turned to scones and sugared-laced tea for comfort that year?

His new job doesn’t have him traveling nearly as much as he did in the good ‘ol days (ha!), but that doesn’t mean we’re totally off the hook. There will always be customers and conferences and…I actually don’t understand a thing that he does, but it seems to be quite important. So, travel. Sometimes. Not as much, but sometimes.

This week Hubby happens to be in Europe preparing the way for my own European arrival/reunion with him in a few days (More on this later!!!!). The first part of his trip is business travel and, meanwhile, I’m here at home holding down the fort.

I’ve been through this husband-on-business-travel gig enough times to know what to expect by now. But just in case you were wondering, these are the stages (of grief?) that a mom goes through while Daddy is away:

Stage 1: Acknowledgment
When you see that black town car or shiny white Prius Uber pull up to your driveway, you know that this “travel thing” is really happening. His ride to the airport has arrived, and there’s no turning back. Acknowledge this new reality, and release him. You’ve got this, momma.

Stage 2: Jealousy
Your husband will send you a photo like this from his business class seat on the airplane:

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(Actual photo sent to me by my husband as he sat on the plane sipping champagne while I changed my 4th poopy diaper of the day.)

Yes, he will lament how this is “just business” and “no fun”, but you know the truth. Sitting on an airplane with unlimited and uninterrupted entertainment and snacks at your literal fingertips is just about as close to heaven as you can fathom. And then he’ll arrive at his destination and go out to Michelin-starred restaurants THAT HIS COMPANY PAYS FOR while you eat leftover mac ‘n cheese with your kids for the third night in a row.

Yeah, rough life, buddy.

Stage 3: Busy bee
In order to occupy your mind with something other than his absence, you purposefully over-schedule yourself. Why, yes I can bake muffins for breakfast every morning and do that extra volunteer project and wash the car and scrub the garage floors! And, yes, I will go to your birthday party and weekend BBQ and farm festival and the Alice and Wonderland Tea Party at the library. Just get me out of this house before I explode.

Stage 4: Responsibility
You realize that during this period of time you are solely responsible for the health, safety, discipline, and literal life of your offspring. There is no Daddy here to back you up, no extra person to stay home with the kids at night while you run out to do such-and-such, no partner to converse with and determine outcomes. You are it, the one and only parent. And that? That is a lot of responsibility.

Stage 5: Fear
What if someone gets sick? What if an intruder tries to break into our house? What if there’s an earthquake and I sleep through the whole thing? I’d better pack a first aid kit, a baseball bat and an earthquake survival kit just in case.

Stage 6: Cray-cray
It’s been a long day (or week or month). Too long. Why do these kids always cry? Why do they always need something? Why do they want to eat EVERY. SINGLE.  DAY? Why do they have so many questions? You are going actual crazy. You call your mom/best friend/therapist for reassurance and a swift kick in the pants. Remember: you’ve got this, momma.

Stage 7: Grief
Oh my GOSH I miss him so MUCH!!! I promise I’ll never nag him again about his socks on the floor in front of the laundry hamper!!! Just please come home and hold me in your tender embrace! It gets so bad that you start watching Sarah Mclachlan pet adoption videos so you can feel sorry for someone other than yourself.

Stage 8: Exhaustion
Stick a fork in me, because I’m done. I’m going to take a nap now. It will last for approximately 8 billion trillion years, and don’t anyone dare try to wake me up.

Stage 9: Excitement
Ack! It’s almost over! He’s coming home tonight!!! QUICK!!!! Clean the house, wash the dishes, shove the laundry into the closets, groom the children, and recycle the wine bottles–we don’t want him to know how we actually live while he’s away.

Stage 10: Relief
He walks in the door and you melt into a puddle of spent motherhood at his feet. You survived, but barely. Now don’t let him claim that he needs a nap after all of his travel. Mommy: out. You’ve got this, daddy-o.

Safe travels, Hubby, and I really do love you! Thank you for working so hard for our family…even if I do work 10 times harder here at home 😉

 

 

 

What To Do In The San Francisco Bay Area

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In a few weeks we have a good friend from Ireland who will be coming to California for the first time. Ok, ok…she’s more than a friend. She’s my all-time favorite babysitter, and I’m kind of hoping she’ll fall in love with America and move here forever. And by “here” I mean the spare mattress in our guest room. And since I want her to love America, I thought I’d give her some ideas of top-notch destinations to see once she arrives.

I logged in to my blog to pull up a post on what she should do when she visits the Bay Area only to realize that I have never written that post! How have I lived here for 3 years and never given you all ideas of what to do when you come? Better late than never, so here are a few of my favorite things to do in the San Francisco Bay Area:

San Francisco:
If you are coming to the Bay Area, it’s likely because you want to visit the foggy city. Even though it’s only an hour away from our house, I don’t venture up to San Francisco that often. I have kids with small bladders and it’s a bit of a to-do…and it’s cold in The City (California has made me soft–so soft that minor temperature changes have become deterrents. I’m sorry.).

There are hop-on-hop-off tour buses in the city that will take you to many of the top landmarks, or you can buy a MUNI (bus) pass to get around quite easily. If you have your own car, you may want to just park it somewhere that doesn’t cost more than your mortgage and walk or take public transportation within The City because parking here is no bueno. San Francisco is only 7 miles x 7 miles, so it’s totally do-able to see most things by foot anyway.

Now, on to my favorite spots to visit in the city.

Golden Gate Bridge (duh)
I always start my venture over the bridge at the view point and visitor center on the San Francisco side of the bridge. If you’re driving your own car you can park for $1 per hour while you hop out to look around and shop for Golden Gate souvenirs. I always walk out on the bridge so I can look up at the copper spans and down into the deep blue water.

After stopping by the view point I like to drive over the bridge and up to the Marin Headlands. You park up by the old Army barracks and take a short walk out to the best view of the bridge anywhere–you’re slightly above the bridge looking down at it, and it’s absolutely breathtaking.

If you’re feeling more adventurous you can rent a bike on the city side and ride over the bridge on 2 wheels (there are several spots to rent bikes, but we got ours at the Sports Basement when we did this ride pre-kids). You can ride over the bridge and right back to where you started, or you can ride all the way to Tiburon and catch the ferry back to the city.

Fisherman’s Wharf
This is a fun area to explore. There are lots of (overpriced) shops and restaurants, and even a Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. Go check out the sea lions on the pier, eat some bread bowl clam chowder, or even charter a boat out around the San Francisco Bay (highly recommended). We like to walk up to the Buena Vista for an Irish Coffee and then over to Ghiradelli for free chocolate samples and ice cream.

Fisherman’s Wharf is also where you catch the boat out to the most infamous prison in America: Alcatraz. If you want to visit Alcatraz, plan ahead–the only way out there is by boat, and spots fill up quickly. Your best bet is to buy tickets ahead of time and reserve your spot online as soon as you know the day that you want to go out to the island.

Trolley Rides
Speaking of Fisherman’s Wharf, there’s a great spot to watch the trolleys turn around in front of the Buena Vista and, if you want to, go for a ride! Taking a trolley ride is a lot of fun and about as iconic as you can get! I like riding the route between Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square (shopping, hotels, restaurants, and more shopping). This route passes close to Lombard Street if you want to hop off and check out the twisty-turnies.

Golden Gate Park
Go for a walk on the gorgeous trails, rent a boat at the Stow Lake Boathouse, or check out some of the museums–the California Academy of Sciences (where you can walk through a 3-story rainforest biodome and view a myriad of sealife in the aquarium) is my fave.

Chinatown and Little Italy
There is so much to explore in these little neighborhoods of San Francisco. Eat your way through the streets, poke your head into the little shops, and enjoy the world-class people watching.

Catch a Giant’s Game
San Francisco loves their hometown heroes, the San Francisco Giants (Baseball, people. They’re a baseball team.). Head over to AT&T park for a game or, if you’re like me, just nosh on some garlic fries while enjoying the gorgeous views over San Francisco Bay.

San Francisco Zoo
I loooooooove zoos! Every time we travel I have to see the local zoo, and I love visiting the local zoos where we live. The San Francisco Zoo is a good-sized place with all of your favorite animals: giraffes, monkeys, penguins, polar bears, lions, and a tropical rain forest building. There’s also a cute little train ride that goes around part of the zoo and decent food in the cafes. It’s definitely worth checking out if you have an open day!

Bay Area Discovery Museum
This is more for those of you who are traveling with little companions aged 1-7 years old. Just over the Golden Gate Bridge in Sausalito, I love this children’s museum for its interactive exhibits, indoor/outdoor play spaces, and pirate ship playground overlooking San Francisco Bay. Insider pro tip: the first Wednesday every month has FREE admission!


Day Trips From San Francisco:
Outside of The City there is still plenty to do! Here are a few of my top picks:

Wine Country
Take a tour bus out to Napa or Sonoma for a day of wine tasting and soaking in the beautiful scenery. Or, if you still want to go wine tasting without the crowds, head south toward the Santa Cruz Mountains (where we live!) and sample dozens of local wineries in a single afternoon.

Beaches
From San Francisco your best bet is to head over to Half Moon Bay so you can dip your toes in the Pacific. Continue south to Santa Cruz if you want a day of amusement park fun at The Boardwalk: rides, fair food, and a giant wooden roller coaster await.

The Redwoods
Ummmm…some of the biggest, oldest living things ON EARTH. Need I say more? It’s worth a trip. Some forests to check out if you’re near San Francisco: Muir Woods (12 miles outside of the city), Big Basin, Portola Redwoods State Park, or Butano State Park.

Silicon Valley
Now, I’m partial to Silicon Valley because this is where we’ve been living for the last few years. It really is a unique spot to visit, especially if you’re into technology and tech companies. All of the big tech companies are based here, and many have visitor centers you can check out: Apple, Google, Facebook and Netflix to name a few.

Monterey and Carmel-By-The-Sea
These are some of my all-time favorite coastal towns. They’re just so quaint and beautiful and slow-paced that they make you feel a million miles away from any care in the world. If you make it to Monterey, be sure to check out the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, go sea kayaking with the marine life, or go out on a whale-watching tour. If you’re in Carmel, drop everything you’re doing (which is probably not much of anything if you’re in Carmel), and eat brunch at Mission Ranch. Just trust me on this one, and send me your thank you card later.

Now that you know what to do, all you have to do is come enjoy your own San Francisco treat!

Back To America

Right now I am sitting in my parents’ house in Washington state–the very same house that we spent our last night in before we left for Ireland just over one year ago. It’s strange and surreal and altogether wonderful to be back. Back to the familiar, back to our loved ones, back “home” (whatever that means…I’m still trying to figure it out). The journey back to America had its ups and downs but, if I have learned anything this year, it’s that the best adventures rarely go according to (my) plan.

We left Cork on Friday night, July 25th. This also happened to be Jon’s last day of work in Ireland, so he basically got home and we loaded up the taxi with our 12 bags, double stroller, travel crib, and two car seats for our ride out to the airport. It was a crazy feeling to be leaving one adventure for another, to say our final goodbyes to this wonderful place that we had come to know as home:
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The plan for Friday night was to fly on the last flight of the night out of Cork, spend the night in London, then wake up early to catch the first flight of the morning into Seattle. After we got checked in, however, we realized that our flight to London had been delayed an hour. Oh well, we thought, that will give us time to eat some dinner before we board. As we were eating our dinner, an announcement came over the speakers to notify us that our flight was delayed again. And again. And finally, at the time we were supposed to be drifting off to sleep in our hotel in London, our plane arrived:
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The hour-long flight to London was uneventful, and we even landed at the brand-spanking-new Terminal 2 at London-Heathrow. It is a beautiful terminal that had only been open for about two weeks:

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Unfortunately, if you land at 11 PM at a brand new terminal that has only been open for two weeks, there are no signs or people to direct you on where to go once you land. It’s nothing more than a brightly-lit, stainless steel-encased ghost town. Which wouldn’t be a problem if you knew where you were going. We did not know where we were going.

Well, we knew where we were going, we just had no clue as to how to actually get there. We knew that our hotel was at Terminal 4, which we thought would be easy enough to find since it’s IN THE AIRPORT. Silly us. Turns out, London-Heathrow has a circumference of 25 miles. Nothing is easy to find. Nothing. Especially a hotel that is in a totally different terminal from where you are and it’s now 11:30 and the shuttles have stopped running for the night and the only person you can ask for directions is a cleaning lady who’s texting while she pushes her mop aimlessly down the corridors. So, what do you do in this situation? You ask the cleaning lady for directions. And she tells you to go through the underground tunnel. So you do. For 45 minutes:

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Just when you think you’ve entered the tunnel that someone finally dug all the way to China, you pop out at Terminal ? where there is an exit to a street. You spy a “Hotel Hoppa” bus and run frantically for it with your two small children and arms full of luggage. The driver says he’s on his last round for the night so you push your way on and find the only available space in the middle of a crowded aisle. It’s at this point that the bus driver tells you he does not go to your hotel, but he’ll take all of your cash and drop you off there at the end of his round anyway. So you empty your wallet into a fanny pack he has hanging off a bar at the front of the bus and hope he can actually manage find the elusive hotel at Terminal 4.

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So you ride the Hotel Hoppa bus to every other hotel in this city-within-a-city-airport and curse your decision to choose a “convenient” hotel. Eventually, just after midnight, you arrive at the hotel. Thankfully the children have already fallen asleep in the stroller so you just wheel them up to the room and dump them into bed. No screaming, thrashing, arguing bedtime tonight, thankyouverymuch.

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You hardly sleep because the hotel room is too small to set up a crib, so your squirmy toddler has to share a bed with you. He likes to lay across you and pull your hair in his sleep. Oh well, at least somebody’s sleeping. You’re actually thankful when the alarm goes off at 6:00 because you know you can get up and take a hot shower, and hopefully that will wake you up enough to make it through the next 12 hours of travel.

So, you see, the first part of our journey was the “downs” of the “ups and downs”. But every down must have an up…right? From here on out it was up, up, up–all the way up to the magical world of Business Class travel.

Now, we are normal people. Coach-Class people. People who have only ever wondered and dreamed about what it would be like to be Business-Class people. And, for the first and probably last time in our lives, we found out. Our Business-Class experience began with a visit to the exclusive British Airways lounge where we feasted on freshly-baked pastries and fruit and lattes and whatever else we fancied:

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After our tummies were full we got some wiggles out in the play room before it was time to jet out (no pun intended).

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This day was also Jacob’s 2nd birthday. We told him he was a very lucky boy to travel around the world on his birthday because he would have the longest birthday ever (32 hours, to be exact). Jacob posed for a quick birthday photo before we boarded our plane:

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Jacob loves Things That Go, so his big birthday gift this year was a trip on the Big Plane. He was pretty stoked:

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When we found our fancy-pants Business Class seats they greeted us adults with champagne and our tiny travelers with orange juice. They were already speaking my Love Langauge:

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After I got the boys situated in their seats I reviewed the 4-page guide that explained all of the wonderful things about flying in Business Class. Wonderful things like a gourmet menu (I chose the Caprese salad, steak, and chocolate mousse) and a fine wine list. Wonderful things like a gift bag full of spa essentials to keep you refreshed and fuzzy socks to keep your toesies warm. Wonderful things like outlets at your seat so your iPhone battery stays fully charged throughout the flight. First among the Wonderful Things, however, is the fact that the seats lie down completely flat to make full-length beds. And there are dividers you can raise so you don’t even see your children. And you can put on a movie for your kids while they’re lying in their comfy beds eating the free jelly beans and candy bars and whatever else they fancy and they’ll fall asleep. For 5 hours. Ahhhhhhh….

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So, yeah, Business Class is amazing. And I’m glad that I got to do it at least once in my life so that now every time I pass those seats on my way back to Coach I’ll know exactly what I’m missing.

Before we knew it, the flight was over and we were touching down in Seattle. After we got through passport control and customs (an hour-long ordeal) we finally made it to baggage claim where we were greeted by our much-missed family. Many hugs and kisses and high-fives were exchanged.

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We managed to collect all but one of our bags–the missing one, David’s suitcase, was mistakenly claimed by some unsuspecting passenger. I’m sure she was quite surprised to get home, open up the bag, and find nothing but 3-year old boy clothes and a wet towel that I had shoved in at the last minute when we were rushing out the door. When she realized her swap, she returned the bag to the airport and they promptly drove it down to us. David didn’t really mind, though, because he was too busy playing with squirt guns in his undies to notice some missing clothes:

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We all slept well that first night and our jet lag was nearly non-existent (thanks to our super-comfy flight over).  The next day, Sunday, we had a family celebration at my parents’ house for Jacob’s birthday. And, this being our first full day back in America, we ‘merica’d it up with burgers and corn on the cob and watermelon and Goldfish crackers and Funfetti cupcakes and all kinds of wonderful American goodies.

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Jacob (and by Jacob, I mean David) had fun opening his birthday presents:

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It was an all-around wonderful day with friends and family and food and fun.

 

The next day, Monday, we drove up to Everett to take care of some business at our house. While we were there we met with the U.S. moving company that will be moving our THIRD shipment of STUFF to California (how do we have so much stuff?!?!). In addition to our business, we also had some time for a bit of fun. And, as you can tell by our faces, it was a LOT of fun:IMG_7954Yep, that’s right: Costco. Oh, how I’ve missed the gallon-sized jars of peanut butter and the adorable children’s pajamas and the num-num-nummy jalapeno-artichoke dip. Seriously, I missed Costco more than just about any other U.S. location. And now that we have visited Costco, it’s official: we’re back. Back in the land of the big and the plentiful and the unusual. Back in America.

It will take some time to get settled in again (especially since we still have months to go before we can finally settle into a house in California), but I can say one thing for certain: it is so very good to be back.

 

The Best Of Ireland Awards

Yesterday marked one year since we arrived in Ireland. ONE YEAR! I can’t believe how fast this year has gone…and yet, at the same time, it feels like we have lived here forever. We have been to more places, seen more things, met more people, tried more food and experienced more in this year than at any other time in our lives.

People often ask me what the best part of Ireland is and, the answer is, there are many “bests”. There is no way I could possibly limit my favorites down to one thing. So I won’t even try. What I will do, however, is offer you a compilation of the best things we’ve actually experienced here in Ireland. I now present to you:

The Best of Ireland Awards (According to me, of course!)

Best Natural Site: The Cliffs of Moher
IMG_2049I can’t think of anything more spectacular than moss-covered cliffs that plunge 400 feet into the ocean. They’re seriously amazing.

Best Museum: Titanic Belfast
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OK, so for starters, the museum is in the actual shipping yard where Titanic was built and the front of the building is a scale replica of the size of the great ship’s hull. The exhibits are fascinating, there is an amusement park-style ride that takes you through the ship building process, and the cafe serves scones on White Star Line china. What’s not to love?

Best Monument/Historical Site: Newgrange
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Probably the oldest building you’ll ever see (it’s 5,000 years old, making it older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian Pyramids). Just don’t take your kids with you or you might get kicked out for unruly behavior.

Best Holiday Celebrate In Ireland: St. Patrick’s Day

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If you thought the St.Patrick’s Day parade in your town was fun, then wait until you see how Ireland celebrates! St. Patrick’s Day is definitely the most festive holiday we’ve been a part of here.

Best Time To Visit Ireland: Easter Week
IMG_2496The flowers are blooming, the sun is starting to find its way out of winter hibernation, and the towns are starting to come back to life. Easter falls right at the beginning of the official Irish tourist season, so shops and museums that have been closed for the winter will again welcome you in–plus the crowds won’t arrive for another month or two. There are lots of special activities and festivals throughout the country during Holy Week, making this the perfect time to visit.

Best Castle to Explore: King John’s Castle, Limerick

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I’m a self-professed castle-holic, as you will know if you’ve read this blog for any length of time. We have seen a LOT of castles here in Ireland. It’s hard to chose just one favorite castle, but I’m going to have to give this award out to King John’s for their fabulous renovations and hands-on exhibits. I mean, where else will you get to dress up like a knight in shining armor…in a REAL medieval castle?!

Best Irish Food: Scones
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I’m obsessed with scones, so this is no surprise. They’re just the best thing ever. Period.

Best Irish Drink: Barry’s Tea
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Barry’s Tea will forever be that taste that reminds me of Ireland. On my last trip to the grocery store I bought a giant box of Barry’s Tea with enough tea to last me through the apocalypse (or at least until the next time I make it back to Ireland).

Best Place Off The Beaten Path: Ballycotton Cliff Walk
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This cliffside walk is one of the most beautiful, most peaceful places I’ve ever been. The views are incredible, and every corner you turn takes a bit more of  your breath away. Truly spectacular. Also, for the first time in nearly 180 years, this year they are allowing the public to tour Ballycotton Island and lighthouse (via a guided boat ride and tour). I can only imagine how stunning the views must be looking back at the cliffs from the picturesque island.

Best Chipper: K.C. & Son & Sons, Douglas (Cork)
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There’s a reason why hundreds of people queue up outside K.C.’s each night: it’s dang good food. K.C.’s has the right mix of juicy, greasy, succulent-ness that you expect from a good burger or pile of fish and chips.

Best Farmer’s Market: Mahon Point (Cork)
IMG_1486This weekly farmer’s market is one of the best-run public markets I’ve ever been to. All of the food is fresh and local, sold by the farmers who produce it–and everything is incredible. Fresh cheese, home-baked bread, crisp veggies, straight-from-the-farm meats and fresh-from-the-sea fish–anything you could ever want for your weekly shopping. Plus they have woodfired pizzas and what I lovingly refer to as “crack curry” because it’s just so addictive.  Nom nom nom…

Best Scenic Drive: The Ring of Kerry
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Seeing as The Ring of Kerry is on every tourist’s agenda,  this choice is a bit cliché. But it really is incredible, and every tourist to Ireland should see it at least once. Driving The Ring takes you through mountains and valleys, past lakes and waterfalls, and along sweeping ocean cliffs. There are countless hikes that you can take just off the main road if you want to explore a bit more of the beauty, or you can just stay in your car and take it all in.

Most Unique Irish Experience: Bunratty Castle Medieval Banquet

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This was one of our family’s favorite experiences–my kids still talk about our dinner in the castle and ask when we can go back ther. Picture this: you arrive at a medieval castle and are greeted by people dressed in medieval costumes. These people then serve you bottomless wine, feed you a meal fit for a king, and serenade you with music. Did I mention you’re in a REAL castle?! Did I mention there was wine?!

Best Bike and Foot Trail System: Cork Bay Railway Walk

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This is a rails-to-trails system that follows the bay from Cork city out to a town called Passage West. There is an entrance to the trail right down the hill from our house, so we have spent many, many hours exploring these waterfront miles. The trail even goes directly to Jon’s office, allowing him to walk home from work on a peaceful trail when he wants a break from the usual commute. One section of the trail also leads to Blackrock Castle and cafe, the perfect place to stop in for some lunch or tea while you’re out exploring

Best Stone to Kiss: The Blarney Stone

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Some say that the Blarney Stone will give you the “gift of gab”. I think it may just give you canker sores and a strained neck, but it’s still worth giving a little smooch.

Best Big City to Explore: Dublin
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Everyone from Cork has just stopped reading this blog as I have pronounced heresy. Sorry, Rebels, but Dublin IS bigger and it’s my pick for city explorations. Take your pick of museums, cathedrals, pubs and parks–as well as trendy restaurants and upscale shopping. If you’re looking for a big city in Ireland, this is it!

Best Festival: Youghal Medieval Festival
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A medieval festival in an actual walled medieval city. Need I say more?

Best Island: The Great Blasket Islands
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This was one of my favorite day trips that we took in Ireland. A somewhat crazy boat ride takes you out to an ancient island that was finally abandoned half a century ago. We spent our day on the island exploring ruins, climbing grassy hills, and frolicking on sandy beaches with hundreds of basking seals. I would go back there in a heartbeat.

I could go on and on about all of my favorite things in Ireland, but I’ll show a wee bit of restraint and stop myself there. Ireland is an amazing place–an amazing place that I have been fortunate enough to experience for one whole year.  You will always be near and dear to my heart, Ireland!

 

 

 

 

Castledaly Manor Retreat

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Now that the clock is officially ticking down our last days in Ireland, I’m starting to feel the pressure: the pressure to organize and pack and make appointments and settle accounts and say goodbyes. It’s crunch time, yet I’m still in a bit of denial about the whole “I only have 3 weeks left in Ireland” thing. It was wonderful, then, to escape last weekend for some much-needed respite. Our church was taking a retreat in Castledaly, a “town” (there are only a couple of houses and a shop, so I don’t know exactly what to call it) near Athlone right in the middle of Ireland. Since Jon is still in Korea I was a bit nervous to go alone with the boys–but then I heard that there would be babysitters available. That was all the convincing I needed, so we loaded up the car for our last Irish weekend getaway.

We left Cork early Friday morning so we could spend the day in Dublin before meeting up with our friends in Castledaly. Friday happened to be the 4th of July, American Independence Day. Not surprisingly, in Ireland there are no community parades or firework shows on July 4th. And, even though we were the only ones celebrating here, we still dressed in our red, white and blue with pride.

I decided that we needed to do something special to celebrate the 4th of July. Something American.  And there is nothing more American (nay, anything more Seattle) than good ‘ol Starbucks. So, on our way out of town we stopped by the only Starbucks in southern Ireland for some hot chocolates.
IMG_6634With our tummies happy, we were ready for the road. We arrived in Dublin at about lunch time, so we stopped by Avoca on our way into town. Avoca is a foodie paradise, a bit like a gourmet cookery shop meets country farm shop. The store downstairs sells everything from kitchen gadgets to specialty foods to handmade charcuterie from their on-site butcher. Upstairs there are two cafes that offer all sorts of mouthwatering nummy-ness. We all enjoyed a tasty lunch–that is, after tripping people with my stroller on three separate occasions, having David nearly lock himself in a bathroom, spilling a tray of food and breaking a glass bottle of lemonade, and calming Jacob down from a minor meltdown over a dropped M&M. I’m pretty sure they won’t be inviting us back to Avoca any time soon, so I’m glad I got to enjoy at least one meal there.

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The whole drive up to Dublin I’d been holding out hope that the incessant rain would let up a bit so we could spend the afternoon at the Dublin Zoo. Unfortunately the weather had other plans, so I had to change mine. I have made a pact with myself that, whenever I have the kids with me, I must choose the easier option. Not the thing I want to do, but the easier thing. In this particular case, dragging two already-tried boys through the zoo in a rain storm was not the easy option. Thankfully, I had a Plan B: the Dublin Imaginosity Children’s Museum.

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Thankfully, the children’s museum was wonderful and the boys loved every minute of it. We spent several hours playing in the an post (post office), the supermarket, the restaurant, the bakery, the doctor’s office, the construction zone, the T.V. station, and the costume stage. We also played with toy trains and climbed a 3-story tall rocket ship jungle gym. The rain even stopped for a good 15 minutes so we could check out the rooftop garden:

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After our fun afternoon at the children’s museum it was time to continue our drive out to Castledaly, about an hour west of Dublin. Our final destination was Castledaly Manor, a gorgeous 18th century manor house.

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Up until a few years ago, the house was being used as a posh hotel. Now the house is owned by Bible Centered Ministries, an international Christian ministry that focuses on reaching out to children and developing churches. They also host camps and church groups at Castledaly Manor, which is how we came to stay there.

Now, I’ve been to my fair share of church camps and retreats–and most of them involve sleeping on a worn out mattress in your sleeping bag  and eating reheated food from a can. Castledaly Manor could not be further from that church camp stereotype. The “house” (what do you call a mansion with 25 bedrooms?) is set in an idyllic country setting. The absolute peacefulness of the area is what struck me first. The kids, on the other hand, were taken with the slides that were built into the hills…IMG_6712

…and the tire swings hanging from centuries-old trees

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…and the swings in the gardens
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…and the fields to play frisbee inIMG_6777

…and the secret gardens to discoverIMG_6804

…and the pitches for playing soccerIMG_6805

…and the ponds for throwing rocks.IMG_6858

The house itself was incredible. It was built in 1780, which makes it the same age as the United States of America (ironic, since we arrived here on the 4th of July!). The interior was luxurious with marble fireplaces, grand staircases and picturesque window seats. They were even kind enough to include four-poster beds for the children to jump on.

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There was a huge industrial kitchen where we prepared our meals (and by we, I mean the few brave souls who are, in my mind, miracle workers). Keeping with the “living like kings” theme of the weekend, we dined like royalty. Every meal was incredible and everything was homemade (including the best salsa I’ve had in Ireland. Hands down.).

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Our food was served in the grand dining room (Jacob is the only one in this photo because we were the only ones up at 6 AM eating our breakfast. Sigh…).IMG_6744

There were also beautiful sitting rooms where we could relax and hang out together:

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Perhaps my favorite part of the house, however, was this huge window at the landing of the grand staircase. All I could think about every time I saw it was, “how much would it cost to replace this thing if my kids throw a ball through it?”.

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Every morning and evening we gathered for prayer, worship and teaching. This weekend our theme was “Jesus is greater” and we went through Matthew 12 where Jesus declares himself to be greater than three things (the temple, Jonah, and King Solomon, if you want the Cliff’s Notes version of the teaching). It was a rich time of teaching, learning and reflecting.

While we grown ups were busy doing our grown-uppy things, the kids went off to “kids camp” in another part of the house.  An amazing group from a church in Dublin came over just to watch our kids and help us out for the weekend. The kids had a wonderful time playing games, reading Bible stories and making crafts with their new friends from Dublin. They even took our kids outside to play in the afternoon so we parents could have a little time to ourselves. It was pretty much the best thing a parent could ever wish for.

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At night time we put the kids to bed and then had a little more fun (shhh, don’t tell the kids that we actually have fun after they go to bed or they may never go to bed again). On Saturday we had a table quiz night. Each round had trivia questions or activities we had to complete in a set amount of time–and it all ended with some rousing renditions of popular songs being performed with–ahem–gusto. We were having so much fun that I didn’t even mind being up past midnight (well, at least I didn’t mind until 6:00 the next morning when Jacob decided it was a good time to start our day).

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After three days of playing, resting, learning, eating, visiting, exploring and enjoying it was time to say goodbye to Castledaly Manor. I would have been happy staying there for a few more weeks, but it was time to head back to reality.

Since the manor is out in the middle of nearly-nowhere, there was no cell phone or internet connection available outside of one room in the house that had a wifi hot spot. So, I went into the wifi room and set my GPS for “home”, and we started driving. I got about half an hour away from the manor when my GPS decided it was tired of trying to think without direct access to a satellite, and the screen went blank. I had no idea where I was, and all I could see were cows and grass and bushes and the empty little one-lane road I was driving on.

I had paper maps in my car that had never been opened because I rely on technology too much and don’t really know how to properly read a map. So, I opened the map and realized that “middle of nearly-nowhere” was not on it. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to find my way all the way back to the manor through the windy country roads, so I just decided to keep driving. I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew it was somewhere (or, at least, would eventually be somewhere). I finally got to an intersection that had a road sign (Good! There are places somewhere!). One of the towns listed on the sign was not on my map, but the other one was. I decided to drive toward “place on my map”–and it worked!

As soon as I got to the “place” my GPS made contact with her satellite again and we were back in business. I would have loved to stay and explore the town we were in, called Birr, as there was a HUGE castle and a quaint town center. I couldn’t convince the boys to get out of the car, though, so we kept driving (with my SatNav happily refreshed!):

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The next town we came to was called Roscrea and, again, there was a huge castle and all sorts of fascinating ruins to explore. The boys still wanted to sit and smash Cheerio’s into their car seats, so I just parked the car outside an old church and snapped a few quick photos. I love the juxtaposition of this scene: a 1,000 year old round tower and church facade with a Tesco grocery store in the background. It’s just so…Ireland.

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Shortly after leaving Roscrea we connected with the motorway and we made it back home in time for dinner.We had a great time at our little retreat, and I’m so glad we decided to go. This weekend was just what I needed right now–a last reminder of the people and places that make Ireland so special.

Canary Islands Vacation

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Last week was a big week for us with much to celebrate: my birthday, our wedding anniversary, and Father’s Day. With all of these big events happening in the same week, we thought it would be exciting to take a once-in-a-life time family vacation. Our destination: Lanzarote in Spain’s Canary Islands.

We left for Lanzarote in the wee hours of the morning on Sunday, June 8th. Our taxi to the airport picked us up at 4:00 in the morning and we boarded our plane before the summer sun even had a chance to greet us:
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We decided to try out Ryanair, a budget airline, for the first time. We’d heard mixed reviews about the airline: yes, it’s cheap (we’re talking $15 tickets from Dublin to London…CHEAP) but it comes at a price. Ryanair has very strict baggage requirements and you pay extra for every little thing, so we’ve been hesitant to fly with them and our kids and our 5 billion things that our kids require every time we leave our house for even 5 minutes. In the end, though, they were much more lax than we’d heard, we had comfortable flights and, most importantly, we saved ourselves loads of money.

Landing at the Lanzarote airport feels like you’re going to crash into the ocean. It was quite thrilling. The runway is only a few meters from the beach, so as you’re dropping down from the sky at 100 MPH it feels like you’re actually dive-bombing into the sea. Luckily we landed on solid ground and our vacation could continue as planned:

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We rented a car for the first few days so we could explore a bit of the tiny island before retreating to the confines of our resort and the beaches for the second half of the week.  As we were driving from the airport out to the resort I was struck by the landscape. The whole island of Lanzarote is volcanic, and in the late-1700’s there were non-stop volcano eruptions for 6 straight years. As a result, the topography consists entirely of volcanic rock and, when you approach the ocean, sand. There are no plants (except for the palm trees the resort-builders have planted) and almost no native wildlife (except for fish and bugs). I kept getting the sense that we had actually landed on Mars rather than being 78 miles off the coast of West Africa:

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The land is so barren, in fact, that there are no sources of fresh water on the island. This could pose a problem for anyone who, you know, wanted to survive for more than 24 hours. Thankfully the resort builders thought this one through, too, and they have built desalination plants all over the island. These desalination plants turn the plentiful salt water from the surrounding ocean into clean water (well, clean enough to wash your hands with and take a shower in…you still can’t drink it or anything). I’m pretty sure the island also keeps the bottled water companies in business year round with the demand for drinking water.

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When we got to our resort (the Lanzarote Gardens, if you’re keen to know) we checked in and dropped our bags off in our room. We had a bungalow, a nice two-level place with a kitchenette and two outdoor patios. It was perfect for our family and right across the way from the swimming pools and children’s areas. Then, after we’d gotten settled in, it was time to explore Lanzarote!

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For our first full day in Lanzarote we decided to go out on a glass-bottomed boat tour. We met our boat in the nearby town of Playa Blanca (Well, actually every town in Lanzarote is “nearby”. You can literally drive from one end of the island to the other, in any direction, and be there in about an hour).

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The boat ride itself was lovely. We had a jovial captain who grew up on the island in the pre-resort days when there was nothing on the island but a few fishermen’s shacks down on the beach. He gave us a brief history of the island as we sailed past beaches and towns and soaked in our often-missed sunshine.

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Unfortunately, the “glass-bottomed” part of the boat was a bit disappointing. We saw a few fish and sea urchins and a starfish when we were close to the harbor where our boat docked. Other than that, though, there was not much to see in the water. Despite the lack of underwater viewings, we thoroughly enjoyed our little boat ride.

The next day, Tuesday, was my birthday! It was definitely one of the most memorable birthdays I’ve ever had. We spent the day exploring Timanfaya National Park (also known as “Fire Mountain Park”):

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Upon entering the park you are greeted by hundreds of camels, just waiting to give the obliging tourist a ride up into the lava-rock hills:

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We were more than obliging, so we saddled right up and went on our first family camel-trek. Our camel (who we nicknamed “Rocky”) hated us. He kept glaring at us and trying to sit down when his camel friends were scurrying up the path. Sorry, Rocky–I wouldn’t want to carry four heavy people (including two squirmy, kicky, hair-pulley little people) anywhere, let alone up a mountain. But we thank you, anyway. It was an epic adventure:

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After our camel ride we drove to the top of the mountain where there is a visitor center and restaurant. It being lunchtime on my birthday, we decided to go into the restaurant for our afternoon meal. There were floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding the restaurant for a 360 degree view of the park. It was breathtaking:

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Amazing as the views were, though, that was not the best part of the restaurant. No, the best part was the food–or, rather, the way they cook the food there. You see, instead of cooking with a boring old stove they cook over the heat of a volcano. That’s right, a volcano BBQ. The volcano we were perched upon still produces a good amount of heat and fire, so they set up their cookery right over one of the hot spots. I’d never seen anything like it before (and, by the way, everything was delicious!):

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While we were dining we could also look out the windows from the restaurant and watch a steam show. One of the park rangers would dump water into special vents that were placed over some of the hot spots in the ground and steam would burst out, kind of like a geyser. Cheap thrills, folks:IMG_6113

After lunch we hopped on one of the waiting buses for a 40-minute guided tour of the park. We gazed down into calderas and marveled at the 30 different types of lichen growing on the volcanic rocks and drove through the middle of ancient lava floes:IMG_6271

Our tour of Timanfaya concluded our exploration of the island. There were a few more sites we could have visited, but we really just wanted to spend the rest of the week relaxing at our resort. So that’s exactly what we did.

We spent countless hours at the resort’s 3 pools. David and Jon are part-fish, so they are right at home when they’re in the water:

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The water was a bit cool for my comfort (If the water’s not warm enough for me to fall asleep with a pina colada in one hand and a good book in the other, then I’m just going to stay on dry land). Jacob felt a bit the same way as me, so we set up shop on the lounge chairs. We had a good vantage point from our poolside perch to watch David jumping and splashing and sliding to his little heart’s delight:

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Just across the street from our resort was Las Cucharas beach, a lovely white sand beach with a swimming area and plenty of space for water sports (windsurfing seemed to be the most popular choice). We spent a few afternoons at the beach building sandcastles…
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…and frolicking in the ocean:IMG_5803

There is a beautiful promenade that follows the coastline. I followed the promenade for a few miles one day and couldn’t see the end of it, so I’m not sure how far it actually goes if you want to walk/run/cycle the whole thing. We had a great time walking down the promenade and taking in the stunning views:
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Another favorite resort activity we enjoyed was Kids Club. Kids Club is a magical place at the resort where parents can drop their kids off so they can run off and enjoy a few hours swimming or beaching or napping. While Mom and Dad are off doing boring grown-up stuff the kids play games, make crafts, and get hyped up for the World Cup (alright, I’m sure that’s not the case most of the time, but this being the first week of the World Cup–and Europeans being obsessed with soccer–it was kind of a big deal):

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There were also two playgrounds at the resort where we could take the boys to run around and burn off some of their boundless energy:IMG_5836

 

After playing hard all day, we were usually pretty hungry. We had a half-board package at the resort (breakfast and dinner included), so we enjoyed most of our meals at the on-site restaurant. Everything was buffet-style–lots of meats, potatoes, pastas, salads, and international cuisines:

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There was even a separate childrens’ buffet with kid-friendly fare like hot dogs, chicken nuggets, spaghetti, and Jell-O. Lots and lots of Jell-O:

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We all agreed that the best buffet in the restaurant, though, was the dessert buffet. Ice cream, pies, cakes, cookies, fresh fruit and even a chocolate fountain. Yummmmmmm….IMG_5774

Each night there was entertainment at the resort. There were shows for adults–Chinese acrobats, musicians, dancing, theater–but we didn’t see any of them because they didn’t start until 9:30 and, well, we’re old and that’s our bedtime. We did, however, go to the kids’ dance party “Daisy Disco” most nights after dinner. David and Jacob loved singing and dancing and parading around the room with clowns and throngs of other children:

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On Thursday Jon and I celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary! It was a special day, so we celebrated with some special activities. We went for a family walk on the beach and re-created one of our favorite wedding photos. My how our family has grown in the last 9 years!

IMG_5865Jon and I also treated ourselves to massages at the resort. The spa is located in a cave behind a waterfall–pretty incredible:

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For our final anniversary celebration we went out to a nice dinner in town. The menus–as with everything in Lanzarote–were written in three languages: Spanish (because we’re in Spain), English and German (the last two languages being for the tourists. There are LOTS of German tourists in Lanzarote):

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We went out for Mexican food and it was delicious. We drank margaritas and ate burritos and jalapeno poppers. We had a wonderful time, despite having our third- and fourth-wheels (our children) with us for our romantic evening out. And, just so we wouldn’t forget this memorable anniversary, the kids also decided to get sick at dinner. Jacob threw up all over me and had a diaper explode with diarrhea (sorry, TMI?) but, like I said, it was…memorable.

Our poor kids spent the last couple of days going in and out of yucky sickness. This meant that they also had a hard time sleeping–which meant none of us slept. One morning Jacob was up almost all night so, at about 5:00 AM, I decided to take him for a little walk to see if I could get him to fall asleep. We ended up walking up and down the beaches for two hours–my poor sick baby never fell asleep, but we did catch a beautiful sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean:

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Despite everyone feeling a bit yucky, we still managed to squeeze in some fun during our last couple of days in Lanzarote. We even found “The Fish Spa”–a very unique experience, for sure! You basically put your feet in these giant fish tanks where swarms of little fish nibble dead skin off your feet. It sounds weird…and it is. But it was fun and kind of tingly and I’d do it again!IMG_6014We blinked and then it was Sunday again, time to go back home. Sunday happened to be David’s day to be sick, so we stuffed plastic bags in our pockets (to contain the inevitable sickness), packed our bags, and headed to the airport. Poor little David was so sick that he fell asleep in the airport waiting for our plane…and he didn’t wake up until 5 hours later when we touched down in Ireland:
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Volcanoes, camels, beaches, swimming pools, boat rides, sunshine, and some good quality time with the people I love the most–I couldn’t ask for a better vacation (well, maybe minus the sickness). Many memories were made, much fun was had, and much joy was celebrated. It was definitely a vacation none of us will ever forget!

Foods of Ireland

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you’ve probably realized a few things about me: I can’t wait for my next adventure, my kids are pretty rad, and I love food. I love eating food, I love cooking food (when my rad kids aren’t getting in the way), I love reading about food. I even love just looking at food. This is not a new thing. In fact, my mom has always joked with me that all of my memories in life are somehow tied to food–what we were eating at a certain pivotal point in my life, the restaurant we visited on a vacation, the food that was served at an event. It is no wonder, then, that the food of Ireland has enthralled me.

Much of the food in Ireland is similar to food available in America. There are a few culinary delights that stand out to me, though, and I’d like to share them with you. Some of these unique-to-Ireland foods are common throughout the country, and others are more indigenous to my “native” County Cork (which, by the way, produces the best food in the country. It’s a foodie’s dream, really). Now, here are some of my favorite Irish foods:

Potatoes: In the case of the Irish, the stereotype is true: they love potatoes. At the grocery store there are at least a dozen varieties of potatoes to choose from (and none of them are the basic Russet baking potato that is prevalent in America). Every meal is served with some form of potato: mashed, fried, baked, roasted, boiled, stewed. The humble potato still reigns supreme.

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Tayto Crisps: And, while we’re on the topic of potatoes, let’s not forget about Tayto crisps (a brand of potato chips). The traditional flavor is cheese and onion, although many varieties are available. These chips are so popular that one of the largest amusement parks in the country, Tayto Park, is named after them.

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Cottage Pie: This is also known as shepherd’s pie (although cottage pie is typically made with beef  and shepherd’s pie uses lamb). Meat, veg, and gravy topped with–you guessed it–potatoes. It’s easy to make, delicious, and one of my favorite ways to use up leftover mashed potatoes. Win, win, win.

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Lamb: I can not get my 3-year old to eat any meat, with one exception: Irish lamb. My son will quite literally eat a whole leg of Irish lamb if it is offered to him. It’s both interesting and completely disturbing. I don’t blame him, though. The lamb here is fresh and succulent (probably because the sheep here are so dang happy. They spend their days contentedly roaming the lush green rolling hills out in the countryside without a care in the world. Except perhaps the butcher. But I doubt they even notice he’s coming for their intent efforts at grazing all day. When one of their sheep friends go missing they probably just assume he’s wandered off to some other lusher greener pasture on the other side of the hill).

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Offal: Pig’s hooves. Yep. Pig feet. I see them every week in the butcher but I can not, will not bring myself to eat them. Offal actually refers to any bits of the animal that you would not find in your typical Michelin-Star restaurant: ears, eyes, internal organs and such. Scrumptious. Much of traditional Irish food originated in peasant cooking where it was not only practical, but absolutely necessary to eat “everything but the snout” (which, I understand, can be quite rubbery).

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Clonakilty Black Pudding: Don’t let the name deceive you. This “pudding” is not referring to a smooth and creamy dark chocolate dessert. No, this is blood sausage, generally made from pork blood and oatmeal (yummmmm….). It is a key component to the Full Irish Breakfast (see next entry):

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The Full Irish Breakfast: Mom always said that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. The Irish have taken this sentiment to heart, and the traditional Irish breakfast is enough food to put you in a coma (or gear you up for a day of hard labor on your farm). The “Full Irish” consists of black pudding, sausage, rashers (bacon), eggs, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, potatoes, baked beans, toast, and tea. You can go to any restaurant in the country and order a “Full Irish”–just bring your appetite!

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Fresh Seafood: Ireland is an island. Which means the country is literally surrounded by oceans teeming with seafood. There is not a single day that goes by and I don’t see a truck or a stand on the side of the road selling fresh Atlantic fish that was caught that morning. I’m a bit of a seafood-phobic so I don’t take advantage of the abundant offerings. But if I were a lover rather than a hater, I’d be spoiled for choice. Pollock, Cod, Hake, Plaice, Monkfish, Prawns, Mussels–all just sitting there in the water waiting for some hungry person to come eat them.

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Scotch Eggs: A hard-boiled egg, wrapped in sausage or black pudding, breaded, and fried. What’s not to love?

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Pies and Pasties: When someone refers to “pie” in Ireland, they are usually talking about a savory meat or vegetable pie rather than granny’s caramel apple pie. And when they refer to “pasties”, they are usually talking about hand-pies (think of a gourmet Hot Pocket), not the–ahem–little patches that women might wear in place of a brassiere.

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Rocket: It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…ROCKET! This leafy salad green (called Arugula back home) is the hip health food of the moment in Ireland. Restaurants and grocery stores advertise rocket as if it’s actually a rock star, not a piece of glorified lettuce. There’s even a guy at my farmer’s market called “The Rocket Man” who makes gourmet salads and juices with rocket. But The Rocket Man may actually be a rock star (I mean, check out that ‘stache!):

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Fresh Dairy Products: You do not have to go far in Ireland to find a farm. In fact, the majority of the land in Ireland is farm land. As a result, you do not have to go far to find good, fresh dairy. Big chain grocery stores stock dairy products from the local dairies, which is pretty awesome. Fresh-from-the-cow milk, country butter, natural yogurt, cream cheese, panna cotta, clotted cream–enough lactose to fuel a nation.

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Gubbeen Cheese: Made on a family farm in West Cork, this cheese is a local delicacy. It has a smooth, rich, savory taste, similar to white cheddar, and it is buttery soft. Gubbeen cheese is made from milk that comes from the family’s cows that graze in their seaside pastures on the farm. And it makes a darn good grilled cheese sandwich.

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Banoffee Pie: A dessert made from bananas, toffee (banana-toffee = banoffee) and cream piled high in a pastry crust. You can find this pie in any coffee shop, tea cafe, restaurant, or supermarket in Ireland. They even have banoffee-flavored yogurt and pudding.

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Scones: Perhaps the single most-consumed food in Ireland (after potatoes, of course), scones are an integral part of daily Irish cuisine. Every time you visit a friend or go to a cafe for a “cuppa” (tea, that is) it is expected that you will be offered freshly-baked scones. Some are plain, some are “fruited” (with raisins or sultanas), all are delicious. They are typically round, about 3 inches across, and about 2 inches high. Scones are typically served with butter, homemade jam (which you can buy in the supermarkets here) and, if you’re lucky, cream (whipped cream or clotted cream…yummmmmm):

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Barry’s Tea: Tea is the lifeblood of Irish culture. If you took tea away from the Irish, the Irish would simply cease to exist. True story. But not just any tea will do. No, you must drink “Gold Tea”, a black tea blend and, more specifically, you must drink Barry’s Gold Tea. None of that hoity-toity herbal stuff. I mean, sure, between cups of Barry’s you might try some Jasmine tea or some orange-spice Chai just to say you’ve done it once in your life, but the purists stick with the real tea. Barry’s tea.

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Elderflower: I think I had heard of Elderflower before we moved to Ireland, but I certainly had never heard of eating it. Turns out, Elderflower is downright delicious. In Ireland you can find Elderflower cordial (concentrate that you add to water to make juice), Elderflower syrup, Elderflower liqueur, and Elderflower tea. Elderflower is made from the flower of the elderberry (which grows plentifully in Ireland) and it has a sweet, aromatic flavor similar to lychee. It is the perfect refreshing summer drink.

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So, there you have it. Now you all know why my pants fit a bit more snugly now that I’ve been living here for a year–Ireland really is a food-lover’s dream come true. The whole idea of “eat local” was born here and, really, it’s the only way people have ever eaten here. With an abundance of fresh ingredients and regional treats, Irish food offers the perfect mix between comfort food and gourmet offerings. All I have to say is, if you’re coming to Ireland, come hungry!

Ballymaloe House and the Ballycotton Cliff Walk

“To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with.”
-Mark Twain

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I have an amazing husband. He is kind and dedicated and handsome and talented. He makes me laugh (a lot). He pushes me to stretch my limits and try new things. He is the source of much of my joy, and he is who I choose to divide my joy with. In a couple of weeks we will be celebrating our ninth (what?!) wedding anniversary. I love him. And, even after all this time, I like him (a lot). It was our joy, then, to sneak away for a special date this weekend to remember just how much we really do like each other. After we dropped the boys off at our favorite babysitter’s house for a day of jumping on trampolines and splashing in the kiddie pool (THANK YOU, KELSEY!!!) we drove 30 minutes out to the Irish countryside in East Cork. Our destination: Ballymaloe House. IMG_5291 Ballymaloe House (pronounced Bally-ma-loo) is the site of  a world-famous cooking school, a boutique hotel, a crafts and cooking shop, a cafe, an award-winning fine dining restaurant, farms and gardens. The property stretches over 400 acres so, as you can imagine, there is plenty to see and do there. Parts of the estate have been around since the original Norman castle rested on this site in 1450, although the “modern” house was completed in 1820. The grounds are gorgeous. As you come up the drive toward the house you pass a self-maintained golf course, towering rhododendrons and arching trees forming arboreal tunnels. You know when the driveway is that good that you’re in for a real treat.

We were at Ballymaloe to take advantage of their posh lunch in the restaurant. And when I say posh, I mean uber-fancy. Fancy enough that the restaurant’s website provides geo-coordinates for you to use if you want to, you know, land your private helicopter on the property. Even though we arrived in our humble car instead of a helicopter, we were still treated royally.

When we arrived we were first led to a large sitting room where our drink order was taken. While we awaited libation we could recline on plush sofas or sun-bathed window-seats to contemplate our idyllic surroundings:

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With wine in hand we were then led to the formal dining room. There were more pieces of cutlery at each place setting than I had fingers to count them. It was at this point that I sighed a heavy sigh of relief that we had *correctly* chosen to leave our rambunctious boys at home. Although I know they would have had fun playing swords with the pickle forks and picking their noses with the mustard spoons, I’m not so sure the other patrons at the restaurant would have enjoyed the entertainment.

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The food was absolutely heavenly. Ballymaloe revolutionized the farm-to-table movement in the 1960’s, and they are known the world over for their fresh take on modern Irish cuisine. To this day all of the ingredients on their menu are sourced right here on their own property. In fact, the day’s menu is not finalized until after the garden has been cultivated and the fishermen dock with the day’s catch. This means that the menu is unique from day to day and meal to meal, and every morsel you eat is the definition of “fresh”. The meat, eggs, vegetables, milk, and herbs come from the farms on Ballymaloe’s 400-acre property. The fish are reeled in from the Atlantic Ocean–the same Atlantic that provides the gentle sea breeze you feel as you wander the gardens of Ballymaloe. The baker starts her ovens at 6:30 each morning to bake the day’s bread. All of the foodie-things that I wish I could do at home but know that I would never in a million years actually do.

For lunch I had “Roast free range chicken with fresh herb stuffing, roast butternut squash, summer cabbage & redcurrant sauce” and Jon had the “Glazed loin of bacon (what we Americans would call ham) with crushed swede turnip, summer cabbage & Irish whiskey sauce” (see, even the names of the food are beautiful!). The food was gorgeous and we unabashedly took photo after photo of our dishes. Perhaps the best part of the meal was that after we finished eating, we were offered more meat and veg. Now, I’ve been to places where they refill the bread basket, but never anywhere that will give you more of whatever you like.  We also split a serving of “Goujons of plaice” which were basically posh fish fingers that I actually enjoyed. And if you know me, then you know what an achievement that is. I usually hide in another room if there is seafood being served, but I happily ate not just one, not two, but three fish goujons. I was quite proud of myself.

Then, the crowning glory: dessert. They rolled out a dessert trolly laden with cakes and pies and berries and a giant ice bowl full of freshly-churned ice cream for me to oggle. When it came time to make a selection I could hardly bear it. What to choose? I wanted it ALL. We finally settled on two plates of desserts to share: rhubarb tartlets with caramel ice cream and French chocolate cake with Irish strawberries. We ate ourselves silly, but wouldn’t you, too?

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When we got the bill at the end of our meal we both vowed to not eat for the next month so our stomachs and our bank account could recover. Perhaps we’ll return some day in our private helicopter but, until then, we will fondly remember this once in a lifetime meal.

After Jon rolled me out of the dining room we browsed the Ballymaloe shop, a cross between country store and gourmet cooking shop. We bought the Ballymaloe bread-baking cookbook (which, by the way, has a whole chapter on scones!!!) and a small measuring cup (because this week Jacob wanted to see what would happen if he threw my glass measuring cup onto our tiled kitchen floor. Spoiler alert: the glass shattered). IMG_5299
Then we wandered around the Ballymaloe House gardens where we found a plant with the world’s largest leaves:

IMG_5302 …and picturesque ponds: IMG_5304
We could have spent all day at Ballymaloe (or, more likely, several days), but we had one more destination on our whirlwind date. We got back in our car and drove 10 minutes down the road to Ballycotton, a historic seaside fishing village. We parked our car at the far end of town at the entrance to the Ballycotton Cliff Walk, perhaps the most beautiful seaside walk in Ireland (at least, according to us): IMG_5341
The trail winds along the edge of the cliffs that drop off straight into the Atlantic. It was a well-maintained trail that, had we chosen, we could have followed all the way to Roches Point (about a 5-hour walk in one direction). The views were stunning (made all the more sensational with the addition of the bright summer sun) and we felt peace wash over us with each step we took. At one point, the walk actually caused Jon to remark, “I think this is the most fun we’ve had in Ireland.” IMG_5316
After walking about 3 miles down the trail we decided to end our walk at a rocky beach before doubling back to our car. We stayed at the beach for a few minutes watching the waves crash over the rocks jutting out into the ocean and collecting smooth skipping stones to bring home to the boys as souvenirs. IMG_5338
Our day in Ballymaloe was more than just a date, it was magical. It was a day full of joy, divided between me and my love. Well, and  maybe I had a little joy left over to divide with the French chocolate cake. I’m all for equality here.