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#noregrets

Travel with Friends

We are really, really fortunate to have great friends that we love to vacation with.  We most often travel with my former college roommate (and med school classmate), her husband, and two girls who happen to be almost the same age as our two girls.  Our first big trip together was to a medical conference in Cancun when our girls were just little (ages 3-6).  The trip was such a success that we have repeated it multiple times.  In fact, my girls really only consider it a true vacation if this family gets to go with us.  We have been to Mexico three times (Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and San Jose del Cabo) and Hawaii once (Maui).  We have been camping with them every summer for 7 or 8 years now and also do a girls’ weekend every holiday season.

When we all get together, one of our favorite topics is rehashing past trips and planning for future ones.  Half the fun of traveling is in the planning and that fun is even greater when you share it with someone else.  In the many months that often pass between seeing each other, we share multiple messages about this VRBO or that AirBnB.  We debate the various merits and downfalls of resorts and camping sites.  We share our research about zip lining and food tours.  We compile shopping lists and lists of activities that we must do.  We meal plan and share the packing list.  You know, I’ll bring the salt, you bring the Ziplocks.  I’ll buy the wine, you bring the beer.

We have tried pretty much every style of vacation with our friends.  We have camped in trailers, stayed in all inclusive resorts, stayed in separate VRBO condos in the same resort and on our last trip even shared one large penthouse suite (yes, it was a blast!).  Somehow, with these friends, it all works.  I don’t think that would be true of everyone but this family is the one family I can honestly say that we can vacation with under just about any circumstances.  This has a lot to do with the kind of people they are.  It also has something to do with the fact that we have vacationed together a lot and know how to anticipate and prevent problems by now.  But mostly, they are just great people and that makes it work.

So, what do you look for in a vacation partner family?  First, I think that having kids of similar ages is a must.  That way, the interests and abilities are likely to be similar.  When our kids were younger they loved to swim (with us in the pool), build sand castles, collect shells, do crafts and play simple games.  Now that they are older we go zip lining, take long beach walks, body surf in the ocean, ride bikes down treacherous trails and let them explore on their own with in a safe distance.  Another plus is that they can all tolerate a similar amount of waiting and walking and time between meals.  It’s tough to have a two-year-old who needs to eat every hour and take a daily nap combined with a 12-year-old who needs privacy and freedom and adventure.

The other plus with similar aged kids is that we can mix it up. Nothing kills a vacation faster than sibling squabbling.   The best antidote for sibling squabbling is friends.  I can take the two younger girls shopping and my friend can take the two older girls to the beach.  The older girls can have a little freedom and walk down the street one block for ice cream while the younger girls do a puzzle on the dining room table.  When they all reunite, bliss reigns supreme (or something like that).  Seriously, though, it helps to shake things up a bit.  Having friends with you increases the odds that everyone will get what they need, when they need it, and even have someone like to do it with them.

Another attribute that I think is key in happy friend vacations is at least a modicum of economic parity.  I know, I know, I hate to bring this up.  Money is a touchy subject but one that has to be negotiated and agreed upon in order to pull off a successful friend vacation.  I love that our vacation partners are reasonable about money.  I know they won’t agree to take a vacation with us unless they can afford it.  We have reasonably similar incomes and reasonably similar ideas about how to spend our vacation dollars.  As I mentioned above, we ended up sharing a penthouse suite on this last vacation.  It was a huge unit with plenty of privacy for everyone.  The shared cost factor made it possible for us to afford some luxuries we wouldn’t have been able to afford on our own. Most importantly, we all agreed at the outset that it was worth it.  My friend and I are both very happy to pay for an ocean front condo when we are on a beach vacation.  We are also pretty likely to eat breakfast and lunch in said condo in order to save some money.  We will splurge on nice dinners with drinks but if we want a drink at happy hour we will make it ourselves in the condo instead of ordering from the resort bar.  We talk ahead of time about adventures and excursions and agree on one or two that everyone will like and that we can afford.  When we get there, we won’t be spending wildly nor feel that we have to keep up with each other.  We know that no one will be stressing about money and that is essential to a relaxing vacation.

Finally, you want vacation partners who are flexible.  We all know that the unexpected happens when we travel.  The last thing you want is a tantrum throwing, inflexible, stressed out travel partner.  If you travel enough, some gnarly stuff is going to go down and when that happens you want someone with you who remembered to pack a good attitude.  I’m pretty sure I can’t even remember all the things we have been through with our vacation partners but there have been hotel rooms that didn’t get booked (anyone need a roommate?), reservations that got lost (how will we keep these kids happy while we wait???), menus entirely in Spanish (we took college Spanish, right?), beach walks interrupted by lightening storms, ocean sick kids on boats, dropped ice cream cones, transit on local Mexican buses, poop in hot tubs (that was your kid, right?), sand in shoes, vomit in beds, head injuries, lacerations, and one really epic screaming fit in the middle of a lake on a paddle board.  And you know what? These people that we travel with took it all in stride.  No big deal.  We shared a hotel room, we kept the kids entertained, we found food for everyone to eat, we danced on the beach, we held hair while kids vomited and cleaned up afterwards, we closed lacerations and evaluated for concussions, we scooped up the ice cream and put it back on the cone (ten second rule!), we emptied shoes of sand and we helped our oldest daughters mend their friendship after that really epic screaming fit in the middle of the lake on a paddle board.

After all of that, I can honestly say, I really wouldn’t have it any other way.  The right travel partners exponentially increase the fun, lighten the load, enrich the memories and enlighten the journey.

Solo

Traveling solo with my daughters is something I’ve done since they were babies.  It’s not unusual to find us in the car, traveling to Spokane for some “big city” time, journeying to our cabin on the river or headed to my parents’ house for a visit.  When my oldest was 10 months old I flew solo with her to Boston to visit my sister.  By the time my second child was born, my sister had moved to San Francisco.  So I bundled up my youngest when she was six months old and flew to California with her.  A few years ago the girls and I flew from our hometown to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.  We got through customs, hailed a taxi and arrived at our resort in one piece.  We spent the night there alone, went to brunch the next morning and were joined later in the day by my husband who was traveling to Mexico from a work function in California.  Needless to say, we’ve covered some ground with just the three of us.  Sometimes it’s daunting to be the only adult with two young children.  There’s a lot of “mom”, “mom”, “mom” and not a lot of peace and quiet.  Over time, though, we’ve kind of figured this out.  Plus, the girls are older now and pretty responsible and could basically travel by themselves if I would just get out of their way.  And give them some money, of course.

If you’ve followed along with us so far, you also know that last summer the three of us flew across the Atlantic Ocean together, arriving in Paris.  Once there, we met my mom who was staying in the flat with us.  When she left a week later, my husband arrived for a few days.  So while we flew there solo, we meet up with family once we arrived and were not ever truly left to our own devices.

Until the day my husband left for Budapest.  Then it was just the three of us.  We had already planned to leave that day for the Loire Valley for a mini getaway.  So…..we locked up the apartment, bought some new leggings at Gap, (yes, Gap, hello global economy) and hopped a train to Tours.  Despite all our adventures so far, I have to admit to some trepidation as we pulled out of Paris and chugged down the line towards the countryside.  Staying in a big city is one thing.  Most people speak fairly good English.  There are grocery stores, wine shops, restaurants, hospitals.  There’s a pretty good chance that all my needs and most of my wants will be met.

In the countryside things are a little more, well, French.  English is NOT spoken by everyone.  Restaurant interactions have to happen in French.  Shopping and buying happen in French.  It’s sudden immersion in a foreign country in a way that just doesn’t happen in the big city.

Despite all the potential for disaster, the biggest adventure in the French countryside at the end of the day was driving.  Yep, driving.  After taking the train from Paris, I rented a car in Tours and managed to get the three of us to our lodging at Chateau de Pray just outside of Amboise.  Before picking up the car I did a quick Google search about “driving in France”.  I spent approximately 30 seconds determining that driving in France looked pretty straightforward.  Drive on the same side of the road as Americans? Check!  Steering wheel and gas pedal on the same side of the car?  Check!  Automatic transmission?  Check!  Road signs with internationally recognizable symbols?  Check!  And most importantly, a navigation system.  We were set.  Our car was an adorable Mini Cooper that we immediately named Sweet Cheeks.  As in”Sweet Cheeks, please deliver us in one piece.”  Or “Sweet Cheeks, what were you thinking?”  You get the picture.

At the end of the day, all I can say is thank goodness we were in very small towns with very little traffic.  Turns out that a 30 second Google crash course on driving in France is completely inadequate.  The assumptions I made about the road signs were like most assumptions.  Ridiculous and inaccurate.  My understanding of right of way is so not French.  I got honked at.  A lot.  I was probably sworn at, too.  Deservedly.

Of Sweet Cheeks’ many virtues, perhaps the greatest was her ability to find the shortest distance between two points.  She could, for example, find the quickest way to get from our lodging to the chateau we were visiting that day.  Never mind that her chosen route took us down the roughest, most narrow, most remote roads in the Loire Valley.  No concern of hers.  It was the shortest distance between two points.  If I thought about it too much, it would freak me out a bit.  What if we broke down miles from nowhere?  What if we got a flat tire jostling through all those pot holes?  What if she didn’t know where the hell she was going?  I could have let my worry stop us.  I could have stayed at our chateau, happily ensconced in good food, good wine and a warm swimming pool.  I could have gone back to the known quantity of Paris, or even stayed home for that matter.  But if I had done that, we would have missed out.  We would have missed out on a grand adventure and a lot of laughs.  We would have missed out on amazing food and wine.  We would have missed out on spending some really great time together, enjoying life and each other.  It turns out that some of my favorite memories with my girls are these times when it has just been the three of us.  So we cranked up the volume on our road trip playlist, sang along, and trusted that Sweet Cheeks would take us where we needed to be.

Getaway

I’ve always loved a good getaway.  You know, just a brief respite from day to day life.  A few days spent in a neighboring city or a weekend relaxing at the cabin, free from responsibilities and interruptions.  Vacations, of course, are usually one long, decadent getaway.  But during an exceptionally long vacation, sometimes you need a getaway from your getaway.  After two great weeks in Paris, we were getting just the slightest bit city weary.  So we hopped on a train bound for the Loire Valley.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not really that spontaneous.  I’d like to be, but I’m not.  Months before I had planned this mini getaway, knowing that a change of scenery might be just the ticket after a lot of togetherness in a tiny apartment in a bit city.  But I digress.)

We grabbed lunch at the Monoprix, hopped on the train and headed to St. Pierre des Corps, a relatively large train station close to our final destination of Amboise.  I picked up our rental car at SIXT, right by the station.  I had some angst about the rental car.  After all, I was the only adult with two children in a foreign country where I can’t even read all the traffic signs.  My original plan was to rent a car in Paris and drive to Amboise.  By some stroke of good luck and genius, I changed my mind and took the train out of the city.  Driving from the train station to our hotel was definitely rural but still difficult.  I was the navigator, translator and driver.  It took about 30 minutes and by the time we arrived I felt like I had more than earned my glass of wine.  As a side note, if you are driving in a foreign country, study the road signs ahead of time.  Trust me.  The rest of the world does not drive like Americans.  They just don’t.

We stayed at Chateau de Pray, just out of Amboise.  Our room was bigger than our apartment in Paris and beautifully appointed.  The loft sleeping area for the girls was an added bonus.  The grounds were amazing, the service impeccable.  The heated pool felt like our own private oasis.  Buffet breakfast in the morning (additional cost) was convenient and delicious.  A definite win and would be ecstatic to stay here again someday.

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Terrace at Chateau de Pray

We spent some time meandering about the town of Amboise.  We loved the specialty market where we stocked up on oils, vinegars, salts and wines at a fraction of the prices found in Paris.

One of the big draws of the Loire Valley of course, are the historic chateaux dotting the countryside.  You could spend weeks seeing all of them.  We picked two, based on our own interests and enjoyed them thoroughly.  I was able to drive to them both with the help of the car’s navigation system.  The first we saw was Chenenceou, a grand estate with glorious gardens and a labyrinth.  There is a cafeteria on site, lunch for three was €40.  We also visited Cheverny, known for it’s hunting dogs.  It is a smaller chateau but offers the excitement of feeding of the dogs at 11:00 every morning.  The girls loved this but found the chateau less impressive than Chenenceou.  Next to Cheverny is a storefront that offers free wine tasting of some of the regional wines.  A few shops and restaurants can be found on the quiet street next to the chateau.

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Chenenceou
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Gardens at Chenenceou

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Roses at Chenenceou

Another big draw of the Loire Valley are the multitude of vineyards and tasting rooms scattered over the region.  There are some truly beautiful wines that come from the Loire Vally that are accessible and affordable.  We stopped at Caves du Pere Auguste one afternoon.  I had a lovely tasting there which included a fabulous history of the wines of the region.  They even offered a grape juice tasting for children!  I bought five bottles of wine there for €30.  Ridiculously inexpensive, amazing wine.  Carting five bottles of wine back to Paris, first by train and then by metro was no small task and I cursed myself at least 100 times but, the wines and I all survived.

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The crowning glory of our time in the Loire Valley was our dinner at L’Orangerie, the restaurant on site at Chateau de Pray.  A Michelin Star restaurant, L’Orangerie offers impeccable food and service.  Reservations are a must.  My children were accommodated and treated like princesses.  The meal lasted for three hours and they made it through the entire thing without complaining!  The food is local, fresh, French and delectable.  My entree of blue lobster and beets with beet broth still has my mouth watering.  There was an endless supply of bread.  The cheese course was stunning.  The dessert of wild strawberries with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream was perfection.  There are multiple wine choices and a sommelier to assist you.  The prices were reasonable, particularly for the children who were able to order a children’s meal for €18.  This included their appetizer, amuse bouche, entree, bread, and dessert.  This was fine French dining at it’s best and a splurge I won’t ever regret!

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Salmon cream foam
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Dessert

My only regret is that we didn’t have more time in this beautiful valley.  This a place I could easily spend weeks, exploring, biking, drinking wine, hanging out with my fellow travelers.  Once you’ve seen Paris, plan a getaway, get off the beaten path and discover the gems.

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