Tag Archives: family travel

Family Trip to Ireland, Part One: Dublin

Our trip to Ireland last week was one for the ages — we traveled with my parents, drove the entire breadth of the country in a 9-passenger van, and visited the farm where my grandfather grew up and where my mom’s cousins still live.  It was a multi-generational experience that we’ll never forget.

We started out in Dublin, which is where my Dad’s Dad was born.  Rather than go our normal Airbnb route, we found that hotel rooms were actually a better fit for this part of the trip.  Since we had four adults traveling, we could get two rooms and split the kids up.  We knew we’d be spending very little time in our rooms because the two days in Dublin were PACKED with activity, so having a kitchen wasn’t a necessity.  We stayed at the Jurys Inn Christchurch and the location was super convenient to everything.  And it included breakfast, which is always a bonus with my children who wake up starving every day.

We arrived in Dublin mid-afternoon and got lunch at a cool restaurant called Bull and Castle near our hotel.  We walked around a bit, strolled along the Liffey River that runs through the city, walked across the famous Ha’Penny Bridge, and did a bit of shopping on Grafton Street (which Bridget was super excited about because it’s mentioned in her new favorite song, Galway Girl by Ed Sheeran).  Then we headed to Croke Park, a huge 80,000-seat stadium in Dublin, to watch a Gaelic football match!  This was the first time in all our travels that we’ve gone to a sporting event, but I don’t think it will be the last.  It was so much fun!  My Mom’s Dad played Gaelic football in the 1940s for a team in Galway called the Tuam Stars and he used to play in Croke Park — it was absolutely amazing to see the stadium and know my grandfather played there when he was young.  Gaelic football is also really exciting to watch; it’s fast and requires a level of athleticism and agility that is incredible to watch.  Everyone was totally into it — we had a great time.

The next day, which was actually my Dad’s birthday, we did a Hop-on/Hop-off Bus Tour.  We’ve done these in a few places, and although it’s definitely tourist-y and a bit cliched, I think it’s one of the best ways to get an overview of a city, learn some history, and be able to choose which sites you want to see in more depth.  Dublin is not a huge place, so we were able to see the entire city and get off at a bunch of cool stops to explore. 

The first place we went was to Phoenix Park, which is 7x the size of Central Park in Manhattan, and home to the Dublin Zoo and the Irish White House.  In the park is a herd of “wild” Fallow Deer that was originally established in 1660.  They roam the park at will, but because they are so used to people, they’re not skittish and we were able to walk right up to the herd.  Another family there had a bag of carrots with them which they shared with us and we were able to hand-feed the deer — it was like being in a Disney movie! 

We got lunch at a tea room in the park, then hopped back on the bus and headed to Trinity College, where we walked through the gorgeous library and saw the Book of Kells.  Somehow the boys had all learned about the process by which scribes created books like the Book of Kells and they were all excited to see it and were telling me how it was created and decorated before we even got inside.  Any time my kids get excited by history and start teaching me what they’ve learned, I consider it a win.  The library itself is just breath-taking.  I totally had ceiling envy the whole time.

Then we hopped back on the bus and took it to the Guinness Storehouse where we had a tour of the brewery and a pint in the Gravity Bar, a 360-degree glass room at the top of the factory tower overlooking the whole city.  The tour was really cool and even the kids loved it — it was really visually interesting, full of cool facts and information, and the perfect birthday outing for my Dad.

Dublin was a really cool city — it felt very international and we heard tons of different accents and languages being spoken as we walked around.  Because it’s fairly small, I think you could get to know it really well pretty quickly. And there were so many fantastic shops and restaurants that we saw and wanted to explore but just couldn’t fit them in just two days.  I would love to go back again.  I think we all would!

For the next part of our Ireland adventure, we picked up a 9-passenger van and headed west to Killarney, Galway, and Connemara!  Coming soon!

Why We AirBnb

Traveling with a bigger family can be expensive.  Obviously buying six plane tickets or train tickets adds up, but we also have other added complications because of the size of our group. We almost always need advance dinner reservations if we want a table at peak times because it’s hard to squish six extra people in.  That means we always have to plan dinners at least a day or two in advance, which isn’t always possible. We can’t rent a standard size vehicle because they only have five seat belts, so we always have to upgrade to an SUV or van, which is, of course, more expensive.

The worst thing though, is that we can’t usually fit in a single hotel room — the limit there is almost always five people as well — so we need to rent two rooms.  Obviously doubling the cost of accommodations is a big hit to the wallet.  We’ve also run into difficulty where hotels don’t have adjoining or even adjacent rooms, which means Matt and I separate and each take two kids.  That’s a pain in the butt, to say the least, and when coupled with the significant additional expense, it makes hotels not very appealing.

Before moving to England, we’d never used Airbnb before, but now we use it almost exclusively.  It is THE BEST source for family accommodations, in my opinion.  For far less than the nightly cost of two hotel rooms, we’ve rented entire apartments where every kid has their own bed and there are two bathrooms and a living room with couches and a television, and the best part — a full kitchen. 

My kids wake up hungry, but when we’re staying in a hotel we have to all get showered, dressed, and ready for the day before we can go eat.  Having a full kitchen means the kids can be eating breakfast while Matt and I get ready and by the time we leave the room, we’ve already eaten and can start whatever that day’s adventure is straight away.  It also means that Matt and I can usually get a cup of coffee in before we head out, which makes everything easier to handle.

The other great thing about Airbnb is that the hosts are usually really happy to help us plan our travel.  Our hostess in Rome arranged the van that picked us up at the airport and had treats for the kids and bottle of wine for Matt and I awaiting us on our arrival.  Our host in Praiano arranged the car service that drove us from Naples to the Amalfi coast and back and gave us restaurant recommendations for our stay.  Our hostess in Edinburgh stocked the kitchen with croissants, yogurts, fruit, coffee, and milk so we’d have breakfast on our first morning because we were arriving very late and no stores would have been open.  Our host in Chamonix coordinated our ski rentals with the shop in French so we didn’t have to deal with the language barrier.  We’ve had really great experiences and excellent assistance from our Airbnb hosts. 

We don’t even look for hotels anymore when we’re traveling because we’ve had such success with Airbnb.  Our one bad experience, when we couldn’t get in to the apartment near Disneyland Paris, was a complete fluke and we were compensated for the night we weren’t able to be in the apartment. 

Another bonus is that, with an apartment, you have a little more space to spread out than you do in a hotel room.  When we were in Edinburgh, one afternoon was really cold and wet and we were all hungry but because the weather had turned quickly, every restaurant nearby basically filled right up with people escaping the cold. After trying 3 or 4 places and being told there was a 45 minute to one hour wait, we walked to a take-out place and got food to go, hopped in a cab, and went back to our apartment.  We ate at the kitchen table, snuggled up on the couches in the living room and watched a movie, warmed up, rested a bit, then went back out that evening to the Christmas markets.  If we’d have been in a hotel room, we’d have been crammed in with little space to relax and would have had to eat basically sitting on the beds or on the floor.  Apartments give families more flexibility.

Plus, the places we’ve stayed have been SO MUCH COOLER than a boring old hotel would be.  Our apartment in Rome had two lofted bedrooms, and the coolest entrance ever — that’s it in the first picture at the top of this post.  Our place in Naples had the funniest entrance ever — basically a tiny hobbit door in the immense full-size door that even the kids had to duck to get out of.  Matt could barely fit! 

Our place in Edinburgh had a gorgeous view from the kitchen window.  Our place in Praiano looked right out on the Mediterranean and we ate breakfast on the patio every day.  Our place in Chamonix was directly below Mont Blanc.  We’ve had way cooler experiences in these quirky places than we ever would have had in a hotel room.

Traveling with a big family can absolutely be complicated and stressful, but Airbnb has absolutely made our travels more fun and for far less money we’ve had better accommodations.  I can’t imagine we’ll ever go back to hotels!

If you use this link to book your travel on Airbnb as one of my friends, you’ll get a travel credit for your reservation!

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Visiting the Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix, France

The Aiguille du Midi is a gondola ride that goes from the village of Chamonix seemingly vertically to almost the tip top of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps.  This single experience was, without a doubt, one of the very coolest things I’ve ever done in all my life.  I cannot recommend it highly enough; none of us will ever forget it.

When we planned our trip to Chamonix, this was the only thing besides skiing that we felt was a MUST DO.  But, because the gondola can only operate in the right weather conditions, we almost didn’t get the chance.  We spent the first two days of our trip skiing; overnight that second night, the weather in Chamonix turned and it snowed.  When we woke up on Sunday morning, we went to the ticket office and were told that because of the snow and high winds, the gondola wasn’t open yet and to check back at 10:30AM.  We were totally bummed, but went and got some hot chocolate and croissants while we waited for the next update.

When we got back, thankfully the ride was opening!  The sky had cleared, the clouds had lifted, and we were on our way.

The ride up takes about 20 minutes, with a stop halfway where you switch from one car on the lower set of cables to a second car on the higher set.  The village of Chamonix sits at about 1035m above sea level (2277 ft); the first half of the gondola ride takes about 10 minutes and seems like a fairly gentle incline — rising up to 2317m (5097 ft).  The second half of the ride takes you up to 3777m (8310 ft).  Our ears popped and Gabe was freaking out a little bit, but that’s what Gabe does.  Then we got on the second cable car and looked up.  And then Gabe wasn’t the only one freaking out a little bit.

I thought for sure that there must be another relay point we just couldn’t see between where we were and the top; looking at the cable stretching up in front of us I felt completely sure that there was no way on earth that we were going to follow that line straight up.  It looked physically impossible.  And yet, that is what we did. 

As we glided over the snowy, rocky mountainside, sitting in a metal box dangling from a metal rope hundreds of feet above the ground, I felt this weird combination of exhilaration and fear.  We were hanging in space, suspended over a mountain and a glacier.  It was both breath-takingly gorgeous and spine-chillingly terrifying.  As we rose, the gondola swung a bit each time we passed one of the three pylons holding the cable aloft (one of which is 70m tall!).  Each time, everyone in car gasped a little.  There was a general sense of amazement and a feeling like everyone there was holding their breath.  It was intense.

At the top, we stepped out of the cable car and had to walk across an open air bridge…

…that looked across this incredible vista…

…and up at our eventual destination. 

The wind was absolutely whipping and it was about -15C and within 5 seconds my hands were numb and stinging.  On the other side of the bridge we went into a bit of a tunnel carved out of the ice.  In there were a few mountain climbers who had taken the Aiguille du Midi UP, but were making their way DOWN on their own.  They had ropes and ice picks and gear that I can’t identify and were attaching crampons to their boots and they were going to go OVER THAT GUARDRAIL and climb down the mountain. 

I made the children promise right then and there that if they love me they will never, ever do that.

We walked through the building to an elevator that brought us up to the very top.  Because of the altitude, everyone’s ears were popped and it was, to be absolutely honest, a bit hard to breathe normally.  We all had headaches off and on, and I got dizzy walking up the scariest staircase on the planet, all metal and snowy and hanging off the edge of a mountain.  But it was 100% worth it for what came next.

When you stand at the top of the world and look out, you feel both tiny and immense.  The Alps stretched out beyond us in every direction forever and ever; at that moment we could see France, Italy, and Switzerland all in one panorama.

It was a perspective change that you don’t forget.  We are these specks on the Earth, so insignificant in comparison to the mountain.  And yet, there we are, standing at the top.

The last part of our tour was called Step Into Void.  It’s a glass box built off the side of the building that hangs out over a 1000m drop.  In order to convince my brain that it was okay to walk out there, I had to look straight ahead.  Once I was in the box, I looked down, and even though I am not afraid of heights, I felt my knees go a little weak.  I may have cursed out loud.

Bridget was the only one who, throughout the entire experience, never hesitated, never felt a tingle of fear; she loves this stuff, eats it up.  She’s the one I’m going to have to worry about going over guardrails and climbing down icy mountains. 

Owen went in the box, but only with Matt beside him.  Quinn declined entirely.  And Gabe, who spent the entire time up until that point near tears with fear and anxiety, watched the rest of us Step into the Void with his back against the opposite wall, refusing to even look.  And then, when everyone else had gone, quietly asked if he could have a go.  He’d worked up the courage; he knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime.  And he slid out into the glass room, looked out and down and up and raised his hands in triumph. 

And I thought, “THIS.  THIS IS WHY WE TRAVEL.  THIS IS WHY WE DO THESE THINGS.”

Even if we hadn’t skied, the trip to Chamonix would have gone to the top of my list of favorite destinations for this single experience alone.  It was inspiring, it was humbling, it was exciting.  If you can go, you should go.

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A Weekend in Stuttgart, Germany

germany_hohenzollern-view

We flew to Stuttgart, Germany for a long weekend over the kids’ half-term break in October.  Autumn is the right time to go to Germany; it reminded me a lot of New England in the fall.  The weather was chilly but not freezing and the foliage was gorgeous. 

Once again, we rented an Airbnb rather than get a hotel room.  It usually makes more sense for our family since we’d need two hotel rooms, however in this case I think a hotel might have been better.  Although our apartment was perfectly nice and had plenty of space, we didn’t actually need the kitchen at all — not once did we cook OR eat in the apartment — and it was located pretty far outside the city center.  Looking back, we’d have been better off spending a little more money on two hotel rooms downtown and not having to drive 20+ minutes minimum to get to anything we wanted to see.  Regardless, though, we had a nice place and a rental car, so it wasn’t really a big deal.  Just a thought for next time.

The first day of our trip was the only one with rain in the forecast for the afternoon, so we planned an indoor activity that day.  Sensapolis is an indoor amusement park that, to be honest, I really wasn’t that excited about before we went.  I figured it would be basically a big indoor playground, which would keep the kids happy for a few hours but that wouldn’t necessarily be that cool or special.  I was so, so wrong.  It was the COOLEST indoor play place I’ve ever seen.  There were enormous play structures with different themes: a space ship with tons of crazy slides of differing levels of speed and twistiness (some of which were so fast and steep that the two younger children weren’t even allowed on them), a giant castle with secret passages and dungeons to explore, a woodland climbing playground made entirely of natural materials with rope bridges and cargo nets, rock climbing walls, a zip line, a pirate ship playground, and the scariest, most difficult ropes course I’ve ever seen or done.

I am not exaggerating when I say I was absolutely astounded at the level of difficulty of the ropes course.  I have no fear of heights.  I love roller coasters and you can’t make them fast enough or twisty enough for me.  I’ve done obstacle courses in the military, run obstacle races for fun, love zip lines and really would like to try bungee jumping.  And I was terrified on this ropes course.

I went through it with Gabe and Bridget and about 15 seconds into it, I was shaking both with fear and exertion.  I would have absolutely dropped out and not finished it if there had physically been a way to do so.  The course was made of ropes and actual tree branches and logs and was suspended from the ceiling about 3 stories in the air with no net whatsoever underneath it.  In fact, it hung above the food court and a concrete floor.  I didn’t realize until I was on it how ridiculously high above the ground it was or that the climbing elements were all free-swinging.  It required real strength to get from one obstacle to the next because they would swing away from each other if you didn’t hold them together with your legs and arms, and then you’d be hanging in a split 50 feet above the ground.  Several times the distance between two obstacles was far enough that I had to let go completely of the obstacle I was leaving and lunge forward to catch hold of the one I was going to next; if that was the case for me, it was even worse for Gabe and Bridget.  I was shaking, sweating, and swearing through the whole thing.  Bridget, who has even less fear of these type of things than I do, at one point summed it up: “This seems unnecessarily hard, so much so that it’s not actually that fun.”  I agreed.

When we finally got back on the ground I told Matt it was insanely, ridiculously, appallingly difficult and it was a good 10 minutes before the adrenaline rush subsided and my hands stopped shaking.  Naturally, Matt had to try it then too.  He came back in a full sweat and confirmed my claim: it was the hardest ropes course he’s ever done too.  I am sort of proud I did it, amazed that my two older kids did as well (twice, actually, because they went back with Matt when he went through), and relieved that Matt agreed with me that it was incredibly difficult.

We spent probably 5 hours at Sensapolis and the kids would have stayed longer, but Matt and I wanted to get outside once the weather cleared up.  We headed over to Schloss Solitude on the outskirts of Stuttgart where we wandered around the grounds and gardens and took in the views.  It was gorgeous.  We didn’t do the inside of the castle, because it’s only possible to go inside with a guided tour but we missed the timing for the English language one; to be honest, we were all perfectly happy to walk around outside.

The next day we got up and headed south to Hohenzollern Castle, which is the ancestral seat of the Prussian Royal Family and one of the coolest castles I’ve seen so far in all of Europe.  We did take the guided English tour there, and it was great.  To make the experience even cooler, the Royal Family was actually in residence that day, an event that is apparently fairly rare; no one lives there and the family actually only visits a few times a year, so it was sort of a lucky coincidence to be there on a day they were there too!  Even better, the reason they were there was because that night was a party at the castle celebrating the relationship between the Prussians and the Romanovs, so the Romanov Royal family was there too!  This was super, extra exciting to me since I studied Russian in the military and have a particular interest in and affinity for the Romanovs; to be there that day while they were there too felt like a little gift!

The castle itself is gorgeous but what makes it most special is its location situated on top of a sharp rise looking out over the most gorgeous valley in all directions.  It was a serious hike up the paths to get to the castle up top, but the views were absolutely breath-taking.

hohenzollern-hill

We had lunch at the castle too, enjoying some traditional German foods: rote wurst, wiener schnitzel, and curry wurst, which we all really loved.  After lunch we trekked back down the hill to the car and headed toward our next destination: Triberg Waterfalls in the Black Forest.

This was one of my very favorite things we’ve done so far in all of Europe.  The waterfalls are stunning, but the forest itself was just as amazing.  We hiked the paths, searched for fairy houses, and just breathed in the smell of autumn.  The Black Forest was one of those places where, as soon as we arrived, I felt peaceful.  I felt happy and calm and definitely like there was some magic going on in those trees; if you’d said people claim to spot fairies or gnomes on Black Forest paths I’d have nodded in agreement and kept a sharp lookout.  Some places are just magical like that.

triberg-falls

As we strolled through the forest paths, we occasionally walked past little booths where Park Guides sat.  Outside each of them hung a picture of a squirrel with something written on it in German.  Finally Matt and I figured out that you could buy a small bag of peanuts from the Park Guides and that squirrels would, theoretically, come up to you in the forest and eat peanuts out of your hand.  Obviously I immediately bought one; I was instantly imagining myself traipsing around the forest like a Disney Princess with woodland creatures following me and eating from my hand.  I didn’t take into account, however, that the squirrels must actually come up to you to eat from your hand, and they won’t do that when you’re walking through the forest with three boys who make enough noise to scare off a bear, never mind a tiny woodland creature.  Bridget also wanted to Disney Princess it up, so we tried to walk AWAY from the boys while still keeping sort of together.  No luck.  I didn’t see a single squirrel.  The boys spent half the walk pretending to be Army guys taking cover behind fallen trees and rocks and shouting military instructions to each other, and the other half trying to climb the trees and shouting at me to look how high they’d gotten.  And then they ate all the peanuts, since we wouldn’t want them to go to waste and the squirrels were clearly not coming for them. 

kids-in-triberg

Our last day in Germany was spent at Ludwigsburg Palace at the world’s largest pumpkin festival.  The actual biggest pumpkin ever in the world was on display, sitting next to a Smart Car which was dwarfed by the pumpkin.  Kind of crazy!  We are pumpkin and spaetzle pizza (SO YUMMY) and cinnamon sugar pumpkin seeds (less yummy).  The kids climbed Rapunzel’s Tower — like the actual tower that inspired the story — and we just soaked in all the autumn goodness.  Good final day.

ludwigsburg-palace

There were fewer people in Germany who spoke English than we’d encountered in France or Italy, which meant we had to work a little harder to communicate, but that was okay.  The roads were so smooth and wide compared to England; driving was lovely.  And although we DID go on the autobahn, the fastest we drove was 140 kilometers per hour — only about 85MPH. 

We had a lovely weekend and I would definitely go back, especially to explore more of the Black Forest area or to either the Porsche or Mercedes museums in Stuttgart, which we just didn’t have time to see.  We’d also like to go to Munich, which we couldn’t fit in on this trip but which looks amazing.  Every time I check a location off our list of places to see, I add three more!

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