It’s MLK Day 2019. As I sit in the airport lounge waiting for a flight back to Atlanta I realize I never posted any of my travel for 2018!
A quick recap to start and then I will post a more details later based on feedback and interest. My first trip of 2018 was a quick cruise on the Carnival Elation for our anniversary in January. The cruise sailed out of Jacksonville and having just started a new job I was looking for a few days of relaxation without a long travel schedule. We experienced a first on this cruise, someone was murdered the first night. When we arrived in the Bahamas we were not allowed to debark until the local authorities had investigated, we found out later all the details, but it made the whole cruise feel sad for me.
The next trip up for 2018 was in February, it started with a trip to NYC with my husband and girls. We stayed in the heart of Times Square and the main purpose of this trip was so that my theater loving daughter could see Hamilton. My girlfriends met me in NYC and from there we flew to Barcelona for a Mediterranean cruise on the new MSC Meraviglia. This trip and the ship is definitely worthy of a follow up post. In summary, the ship was amazing, customer service is a bit spotty, but most importantly we experienced a once in lifetime event of snowing in Genoa and waking up to 10 inches of snow in Rome! Our stop in Malta was beautiful and this island is definitely on my must return list for a longer stay and further exploring!
In April we did a short trip to Las Vegas for a long weekend leading up to a work conference for me. We stayed in Lake Las Vegas area, saw the Absinthe show at Caesars Palace and had a wonderful dinner at Gordon Ramseys Steakhouse at the Paris Hotel. To summarize go for the mushroom’s alone at Gordon Ramsey’s, although the Sticky Toffee Pudding for dessert is also a must have.
December started off with a cruise to Bermuda on Royal Caribbean with my sister. LOVED Bermuda and all the specialty dining on the ship, not sure I love the RC experience as much anymore, but had a great time and a lot of fun with my sister. Sailing out of New Jersey was terrible as far as getting to the port and onto the ship. I felt communication on the ship wasn’t great either, but anytime sailing is time well spent.
My first trip to London this
summer far exceeded my expectations! This is such a unique city that is full of both old and new and doesn’t conform to anything. I spent 6 days here and a return visit is a must, I feel like I barely scratched the surface.
We arrived in London late evening and took a cab from Heathrow to our rented flat in the City of London. I learned much later this is actually the Financial district, but we were really close to the Tower of London and Monument of the Great Fire and tube station so it worked out well. Our apartment was really nice and well maintained with a lovely roof top deck which excellent views of the City! We booked using City Marque which is no longer in business and I would say our experience was good, but probably wouldn’t book with them again. You don’t really talk to anyone, all handled through email and your check in is with codes and key box in the lobby. I had read reviews that others had issues getting access to their apartments with this company and if there ever is an issue it’s 24-48 hours before you can get in touch with anyone as most of the staff is based in the Philippines.
On our first full day we decided to sleep in and walk around our neighborhood. We found a small grocery a couple blocks away and picked up some breakfast items and drinks that were really reasonably priced. That afternoon we visited the London Eye and had afternoon tea at a nearby hotel. I probably should have researched the tea room a bit but while very pricey it was still fun and the highlight of the afternoon when my youngest daughter created some fun. She reached for a sugar cube using the very dainty and fancy sugar cube tong, just as she had secured the cube and was about to place it in her tea cup the sugar cube flew out of the tongs and across the table, ricocheted off my husband’s water glass and landed into my son’s water glass. It all happened so fast but sounded like a rock concert in this very stuffy and very quiet tea room, we all giggled and knew that we had brought a bit of our crazy family to the UK experience.
Our second full day we woke up early and took the train to Paris for the day, this makes for a long but very fun day! If I did this again I would spring for a higher class fare as the train was absolutely packed with not one open seat in coach and was a bit hot and sweaty in the heat of summer. It was fun to watch as we entered the tunnel though and arriving at Gare du Nord we picked up an Uber and headed to the Louvre for our tour. We used Paris Muse and our guide had designed a very fun scavenger hunt through the Louvre making it fun and historical for the kids. From the Louvre we headed over to the Eiffel Tower and went all the way to to the very top, I am not scared of heights but the swaying elevator to the top had me a bit nervous! The views from the very top are amazing, but it is enclosed so I very much enjoy the second level more since it is open and allows you to walk all the way around for magnificent views and a breeze which is nice on a hot summer day!
Our third day we met up with our tour guide early who walked us to the Tower of London where we saw the Armory, the Torture Rooms, Line of Kings, and of course the Crown Jewels! We also had some great pictures of the Tower Bridge and of course the famed Ravens of the Tower. The legend is that the six Ravens at the Tower protect it and if Ravens depart then Britain has fallen. From the Tower we took a private car with our guide for a tour of London, we watched the changing of the guard and saw Buckingham Palace. We also visited Piccadilly and of course Westminster Abbey. The tour and history through Westminster was amazing and seeing all the famous dignitaries, poets, writers, and more buried within – it was just wow and so much history!
On fourth day we ventured beyond the city to visit Stonehenge and Windsor Castle, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to visit Stonehenge but my daughter wanted to go and I was so glad we did. The ancient math and science that was used to create this structure and the gorgeous drive out to the site was fantastic! We again used a private tour guide, he was from London and very knowledgeable, not sure that I would recommend him as he always seemed in a rush to get done early. It was a very convenient and comfortable way to visit both Stonehenge and Windsor though.
We ended the day with a tour of Windsor Castle, watched the guards, toured the Castle, viewed the doll house….there was so much to see here and the grounds are beautiful. We even got a glimpse of Eton College through the trees!
Overall from the food to the history we had such a wonderful visit and I can’t wait to go back! We packed so much into our brief stay and didn’t have the opportunity to visit any of the larger museums so look for more on London after my next trip!
In the Southeast if you ask most people where the best beaches are, the list is long and opinions are strong! Often overlooked and about 6 hours from Atlanta are the beaches of Jacksonville (Jacksonville Beach, Neptune, Atlantic, and Ponte Vedra). I lived in Jacksonville for about ten years while growing up and spent many weekends and summer days in my teens on and around the beaches. I find they are the perfect blend of old time cottage beach feel you get from Tybee Island and Folly Beach mixed with great restaurants and shopping you find in the larger resort areas from Destin to Gulf Shores.
Where to Stay
There are several options for lodging in the “Jax Beach” area from chain hotels like Courtyard by Marriott, Holiday Inn, Four Points by Sheraton, and Hampton Inn which are all beach front as well as the local One Ocean Resort (pricey). One Ocean is a great couples getaway hotel, but definitely splurge for a balcony room! The rooms and bathrooms are smaller than average (great for couples – not families) but come with complimentary in room snacks and refreshments along with personal butler the service is excellent. For this trip we decided to rent a beach cottage from vrbo.com that was across the street from the beach. For me the real advantage of renting a home is additional space, full kitchen, additional bathrooms, and little touches like beach chairs and sand toys so you aren’t over packing the car with sand for the trip!
Where to Eat
We spent our first day at the beach just enjoying the ocean and excellent weather, for lunch we stopped at an old local favorite Bono’s BBQ (several locations in and around Jacksonville – smoked turkey is my personal favorite) before heading back to the beach. When heading to the beach in Jacksonville plan on packing your drinks and snacks and make a day of it, we have a pop up canopy that we bring to stake our piece of paradise for the day.
A trip to Jacksonville Beach isn’t complete for me without a trip to Taco Lu, a local Baha Mexican restaurant with an extensive Tequila list, but more importantly the best taco’s ever. Get there early as the wait can be as much as 2 hours on weekends, but it is always worth it! The Mexican Street Corn is a must try along with a Banging Shrimp Taco.
Another local favorite is Singleton’s Seafood Shack in Mayport where fresh caught seafood is served daily, it is in the name so be prepared, it is a shack! The service is fast, food is excellent, and portions are large though which makes this a favorite among locals and vacationers.
Deep Sea Fishing
We booked a private excursion with seadancercharters.com (Ask for Captain Dennis) who took us out of Mayport for a full day of fishing, he is a seasoned fisherman and was great working with adults and the kids to make sure everyone was catching fish and having a good time. We caught Barracuda, Red Snapper, Sea Bass, and more….no sharks on this visit though, maybe next time!
For some sand free time either outdoors in the water park, batting cages, go karts, or mini golf or for rainy day entertainment at the indoor arcade and laser tag Adventure Landing is a great family entertainment complex. I really enjoy that water park is large enough to keep the kids (and adults) entertained but not so large that you spend all day walking and waiting in lines. As an added bonus Taco Lu is right next door so after a day in the park you can grab a yummy taco as well!
Day Trip – Ichetucknee Springs
With over 900 freshwater springs Florida has the largest concentration of springs and most are located in the North/Central part of Florida. Ichetucknee Springs are located about a 90 minute drive from Jacksonville (south of Lake City) and are easily accessible by major interstates (I10 & I75). The Springs and River are located and accessed through the Ichetucknee Springs State Park, cost is $5 per person to go tubing down the river or $8 per car for swimming. We decided to go tubing and rented our tubes locally (there are multiple tube and kayak rental companies as you approach the park entrance), once you enter the park (North entrance) you drop off your group along with tubes and then one person drives the car to the takeout point (South entrance). There is a free shuttle provided by the park to bring you back to meet with your group before heading down the river.
Swim shoes – not required and not really needed but there is a lot of sea grass and in some of the more shallow areas the little ones can get squeamish.
Water bottle – Nothing disposable is allowed on the river so bring a hard plastic water bottle with you for a drink along the way
Swim Mask – This is a great to have item for going tubing or to use while swimming in the springs to see the fish, if you plan on a visit to the Blue Hole a snorkel is helpful as well.
It’s cold! – Be prepared that the spring water is cold even on a hot summer day
Groups – When you rent your tubes the company will tie them to the car with a rope, take the rope with you as this is a great way to tether the tubes together and keep the group together.
You can choose 3 different entry points – the North entrance is only available in summer and is limited to number of visitors per day, the trip will take about 3 to 3-1/2 hours to the South (last) takeout point or 2 hour trip to Dampier’s Landing takeout (where your car will be parked). If you tube all the way down to the last takeout it’s a 15 minute walk back to parking lot or the park provides a free shuttle back. There is also a midpoint launch which is about 2 hours to the South takeout point or for a shorter experience for first time tuber you can park at the South entrance and enter at Dampier’s landing and go about 1 hour to the takeout point and ride the shuttle back.
If you have the time either before or after your tubing there is a small swimming area to the left as you walk towards the north entry point, it’s slippery and the water is cold but it is really beautiful! A little bit of a walk (10 minutes – about a 1/2 mile) but a must see is the largest spring in the park, the Blue Hole. It is surrounded by woods but shines bright blue as you approach, you can enter the spring for swimming on a wooden platform, the current can be a bit strong and this is definitely the coldest spring in the park. As you swim over the underwater cave opening it’s really an amazing and beautiful view, in my opinion this is the most beautiful spring in the park.
Lastly just enjoy the beautiful scenery and the tranquil flow of the clear water, you will also surely see many birds, turtles, otters, and possibly even a manatee!
When I think lasting memories and trips that I still recall and smile about, visiting Ireland for an all-girls trip ranks at the top of the list! Our itinerary was aggressive and includes just the southern loop of Ireland, adding an extra 1-3 days to this trip would be well worth the extra time to see some other towns, but for us it was a the perfect balance of fun, driving, and time away to just bond.
Day 1 – Arriving in Dublin – We arrived early morning and we were very tired, although we had gotten a once in a lifetime upgrade to FIRST CLASS! We were so excited we stayed awake the whole trip! So first thing we did was pick up ther rental car and check in to our hotel for a 3 hour nap.
Rental Car Recommendation: Dooley Car Rental (http://www.dan-dooley.ie/)
In Ireland the roads are tight and in remote areas not well maintained, plus you are driving on the opposite side of the car and the road, for most Americans this is a challenge and you can expect a few scrapes, dings, and dents along the way. Most of the standard rental car companies charge very high CDW fees along with high deductibles for damages and do not cover damages for tires, windows, hubcaps, and mirrors which can add up. With Dooley you can get Super CDW coverage with no hidden fees. My advice is pay the extra for Super CDW, it’s worth the peace of mind.
Navigation: Ireland can be tricky to navigate, the interstate system is very good, but I highly recommend an alternate to just a printed maps or directions since many road are not marked in more rural areas and after the sun goes down it’s very dark as well. A couple options to consider are, purchase a data card for your Garmin (if you have one) or a Garmin loaded with UK and Ireland maps. I purchased mine from Amazon for about $40 (Detailed Maps of the United Kingdom and Ireland), it was an easy insert into my Garmin and was fairly reliable (95%). The other option is to “rent” the Wifi with the rental car so you can connect using iPad or navigation system from your smart phone or if you have an unlocked phone using maps from your phone.
On our first day in Dublin we just walked around! Highlights included Trinity College (College Green, www.tcd.ie), to visit the “Book of Kells” and the Guinness Storehouse Tour (www.guinness-storehouse.com) was a really cool experience. The view from the rooftop Gravity Bar with your complimentary pint in hand is worth the price of admission.
Hotel Recommendation: We stayed at the Croke Park Hotel (www.doylecollection.com) located across from the large Aviva Stadium in Dublin. This is a larger and more modern hotel, with spacious rooms, free car park, and our rate even included an excellent breakfast each morning. The hotel is a quick cab ride to the Guinness Storehouse or Temple Bar area as well or about a 20 minute walk into the city center. The service was excellent and I was really surprised at the size of the rooms and the bathroom by European standards. It is not in the “heart” of Dublin so if that is what you are looking for this isn’t the place, but for us it was perfect!
Day 2 – We headed West from Dublin towards the Galway – this is opposite of most guidebooks and itineraries that I found, but I wanted to get to the countryside. We stopped in Galway and parked at the Cathedral. We toured the Cathedral and then walked around enjoying the colorful streets between the River Corrib and Eyre Square. I wish we had more time to stay over in Galway, it was a charming town and everyone was incredibly nice. I am Catholic so I enjoyed reading about the history of the Galway Cathedral.
Our original plan had been to see Kylemore Abbey in Connemara, but we were excited and ready to visit the Cliffs of Moher so loaded in the car and headed towards County Clare.
This is a treacherous drive with many winding and very narrow roads and switchback roads, I have never screamed and laughed so much in my life. Definitely the highlight of our trip, but the drive up and the spectacular views.
This was the Ireland we had all dreamed of and it did not disappoint!
The car park is across from the actual entrance and then short walk across to the visitor center with bathrooms, snack shop, and gift shop.
We decided a trip to Ireland would not be complete unless we spent the night in a castle, we chose Dromoland Castle (www.dromoland.ie) and booked a room rate the included both dinner and breakfast. We were upgraded to connecting suites which were very large and beautiful. The service was impeccable, the grounds are just beautiful, and the food was excellent. The castle is located in Newmarket-On-Fergus, Clare, Ireland.
Day 3 – Bunratty Castle
After our full breakfast and touring the grounds at Dromoland we made the short drive to Bunratty Castle and the Folk Park. Bunratty is a fully restored castle and village which was very well done, really helped to “see” what Irish life in and around a castle around the turn of the century was like. The current castle structure dates back to 1425 and was later restored in the 1954 by Lord Gort. There is a timeline of the restoration located on the lower level of the castle, most bypass this and take the stairs (19 stairs) up to the castle entrance. The castle contains many 15th and 16th century furnishings, tapestries, and works of art and you can even take a walk down to the dungeon off the main hall.
From Bunratty we took a very scenic drive through Adare and down to Killarney where we spent the night at the Killarney Royal Hotel in County Kerry. The hotel is right in downtown Killarney and very close to the Killarney National Park. This hotel was older and charming, but the rooms again were surprisingly large by European standards with double sinks and shower/tub combo in the bathroom. The selling point of this hotel besides location is the service, everyone from the porter to front desk went above and beyond to accommodate our needs (including making me a hot ham and cheese sandwich at 1 in the morning!). They had a bar area where we saw many of the locals drop in to eat as well.
We had dinner at The Porterhouse Restaurant and Bar, just a short walk from the hotel with a great pub atmosphere, excellent food, and live music. We got lucky and were able to grab a table, but make a reservation for dinner as it get busy and this is a popular spot with the locals as well.
Day 4 – Killarney National Park and Dingle Penisula
We hired a carriage tour to Killarney National Park through the hotel. We had an excellent Jarvey (driver) who was 4th generation and provided and excellent commentary on Killarney, the Park, and local folklore. We visited Ross Castle within the park, a 15th century tower and keep, the trip was about 2 hours and really lovely.
After a quick lunch at the hotel we headed to the Dingle Peninsula. We only had the time for Dingle or Ring of Kerry and we decided it was Dingle. The drive to Dingle was beautiful, full of green pastures, sheep, and beautiful beaches along the way. We walked around the towns and did some shopping and by the time we headed back to Killarney it was dark. I won’t say how we ended up driving through a field in the dark of night, but there was plenty of laughing and screaming along with the most gorgeous view of the night sky that I have ever experienced. It was an exciting and fun driving time, that being said I highly recommend heading back before dark or staying the night in Dingle!
Day 5 – Blarney Castle
We had another beautiful and scenic drive south to visit the 15th-century Blarney Castle. We did kiss the Blarney Stone, but this is not for the faint of heart (or anyone who is afraid of heights and winding claustrophobic staircases!).
The grounds of this castle make it worth the trip in my opinion, the gardens are beautiful and we spent 3-4 hours just walking around and taking pictures. I was glad that we are previously toured Bunratty Castle which was restored as it made walking through Blarney Castle easier to “visualize” how it must have looked in the 15th century.
We asked the gift shop cashier for her recommendation on lunch, she suggested The Lemon Tree Restaurant. It was just a short walk from Blarney Castle with a cozy atmosphere, great food, and good service.
After lunch we headed back to Dublin, we were all pretty tired from our whirlwind trip but enjoyed the scenic drive into Dublin where we spent another a quiet night at the Croke Park Hotel before heading to the airport the next morning to fly home. I can’t wait to see this beautiful island again, ideally like to include Northern Ireland on my next trip and more time in Dingle/Killarney area!
Glamping at Cloudland Canyon
Some people live to be outdoors and think camping under the stars is heaven. Others (like me) enjoy the outdoors and can appreciate a great hiking spot, spectacular mountain views, playing in a lake, but at the end of the day a nice soft bed and warm shower make it all that more enjoyable. So in an effort to satisfy my children’s desire to camp and my desire for a few creature comforts we happened upon Yurt camping at Cloudland Canyon State Park.
Cloudland Canyon is made up of 3,485 acres of varying elevations with excellent hiking trails that can accommodate novices to expert (aka in really good shape!). The park is located in NorthWest Georgia about 30 minutes from Chattanooga. The park offers all types of campsites from backcountry to RV with full hook up. They also offer cottages and a pioneer campsite, but it is the Yurts that I fell in love with!
These adorable and incredibly spacious tent like structures are elevated off the ground, rain proof (I can attest to this as our first night it poured rain with fierce winds and not one drop of water came in), they are HEATED (what a bonus for fall and those cold nights that pop up – also allows for comfortable camping in winter), have electricity (central light along with 4 outlets for charging phones or a power fan for hot summer nights), vented sky dome and ceiling fan (this is lovely for summer as well to allow heat to escape). Inside the Yurts have wood floors and sturdy furniture made of pine which includes a futon (that fold into double bed) and a bunk bed/futon combo so that you can comfortable sleep six. There is also a small bar area with stools for playing cards or indoor dining and a great shelf for storing camp goods.
TIP: Yurt 7 is closest to the bathroom facility. Yurts 3 & 6 are directly across from the playground. Yurt 5 is closest to the West Rim trail, but it’s easily accessed from any of the Yurts (although Yurt 1 is at the very front and a little longer walk to the trail).
On the outside most have a space right out front for easy parking to load and unload, along with a fire ring, picnic table, outdoor water spigot, and lovely decks on front and back (some are on the side as pictured). The bathrooms and showers are a short walk and include family bathrooms as well which is so nice for families with small children! Another great plus for this campground is there is a playground/picnic area in the center of the yurt village, this is a great place for the kids to play while parents are making dinner.
If you are new to camping this is a great facility to try, I suggest a weekend trip 2 nights/3 days. This facility is well suited for an adults only weekend, family weekend, or girlfriend getaway!
Camp Menu Ideas:
Dinner Idea – After arriving and unpacking my favorite first night dinner is Tacos in a Bag and campfire cones. I pre-cook the ground beef at home and add my taco seasoning so it’s just heat and eat when you arrive. The below recipe is plenty for 4 people.
Recipe: 1lb precooked ground beef
1 packet taco seasoning
At home cook ground beef and drain, add taco seasoning packet and ½ cup water cook for 5 minutes. Place seasoned meet in disposable foil pan and cover with foil and freeze.
1 bag lettuce shreds
1 snack pack of Dorito’s single serve bags (I normally buy the 12 pack and use any leftovers for snacks over the weekend).
1 bag shredded cheese
1 jar taco sauce
Any other topping can be purchased as well based on your preferences!
The Yurts have a fire ring/grill so bring charcoal or wood (can also purchase wood from camp office), start your fire, heat up your taco meat and dinner is served! Bring along graham crackers, marshmallows, and Hershey bars and you can have s’mores for dessert!
Breakfast Idea-A really easy and very delicious breakfast that I like to serve is stuffed waffles. This may sound complicated but it’s actually very easy and big hit with the kids and adults!
Recipe: 1-2 boxes of Eggo Waffles
1 jar Nutella
1 jar peanut butter
1 pint strawberries washed and sliced (again prep this at home before you arrive)
Small tub soft butter
This is a fun and hands on breakfast for kids as well. Take two waffles and spread/fill with desired toppings, then cook in hot frying pan either over fire of camp stove each half separate in butter, once brown smash together with spatula (like a grilled cheese) and remove from heat when warm, brown, and melting chocolate/marshmallow goodness is coming out!
There are so many things you can do but among my favorites are:
- Cards – These are a must and lifesaver when it rains, I always bring a simple deck and some Uno cards
- Glow Stick Balloons – Purchase a pack of balloons and one $1 pack of 10 glow sticks from any Walmart or Target, blow balloon up just a bit, activate glow stick, insert in balloon and finish blowing up. This great fun for tossing back and forth, playing keep away, etc at night in the dark. Just have extra balloons as they pop easily when they land!
- Walking Stick Art – As you hike the trails find a great stick that you can bring back to your campsite. From home bring 2-3 small rolls of duct tape (use to wrap top of stick 5-7 inches and prevent splinters) for handle at top along with 2-3 bottles of craft paint and cheap foam brushes. Then paint stick using imagination and you have a great keepsake from your camping weekend!
- Chattanooga Aquarium is just a 30 minute drive and great day time activity away from the campground
- Lookout Mountain, Ruby Falls, and Incline Railway are also about 20-40 minute ride and other great day time activities