Ebensee, Austria

A Hike on the Feuerkogel in Ebensee Austria

Located a short distance off the shores of Lake Traunsee in the lovely Austrian town of Ebensee is the hiking region of the Feuerkogel. Accessed either on foot or via cable car, the Feurerkogel is one of Austria’s sunniest high altitude plateaus with astounding panoramic views of the Salzkammergut lake region and the Austrian Alps. For those hiking enthusiasts, the Feurerkogel has a variety of traditional Austrian lodges where you can grab a delightful bit to eat or spend the night hiking hut to hut along the many high alpine trails. For us, it was yet another fabulous area for us to hike that was not far from our farm stay at the Landgut Wagnerfeld in Altmünster.

We left for Ebensee shortly after breakfast, following Hauptstraße/B145 south for about thirteen kilometers as it swerved around the edge of Lake Traunsee and finally turned inland towards the mountains. We passed through a lovely residential area that was built around the Traun river as we headed towards the cable car station. As I looked around at our surroundings, it was hard to fathom that such a beautiful town was once home to one of the most horrific Nazi concentration camps of all time. Today a memorial is all that remains of the Ebensee Concentration Camp. The barracks and camp were destroyed after the Liberation in 1945.

Ebensee, Austria

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Hiking Hut to Hut in the Gaistal Valley

Nestled within the Mieminger mountains to the south and Wetterstein mountains to the north, lies the stunning, idyllic Gaistal Valley. Stretching west from the tiny hamlet of Klamm in the region of Leutasch, Austria, this achingly beautiful landscape is home to miles of hiking and biking trails, farms, alpine refuges and mountain “huttes” (huts) where you can explore some of the most nostalgic, untouched nature in Austria. It is here we chose for our third and final day of hiking in Seefeld in Tirol, perhaps saving the absolute best for last.

We headed out after breakfast, excited about the day ahead. We had heard about Leutasch from the Seefeld tourist office as it is one of five municipalities in the Olympiaregion Seefeld and is particularly known for its awe-inspiring beauty. You could easily hike for days going hut to hut, dining on delightful regional cuisine and finding refuge in the traditional alpine huts. There are plenty of amazing long-distance hikes (enough to make me drool and want to come back).  For us, we only had the day so we decided to make the best of it.

We left shortly after breakfast, heading north on L14 for roughly 10 kilometers to the small town of Föhrenwald in Leutasch where we somehow got lost. Thankfully there was a hiking store in town that provided us with much needed directions and an excellent map of Leutasch and the Gaistal Valley. Otherwise we for sure would have been driving in circles through all the different tiny Austrian hamlets that make up Leutasch. We took a left on Leutascher Ache following the windy road passing through villages and farms until we reached the start of the parking area a little bit past the village of Klamm. Thanks to our stop at the hiking store, we knew to proceed all the way to the P5/Salzbach, the last of five parking lots, where we would begin our hike. There are 12 huts interspersed along the hiking trails through the Gaistal Valley, and we decided to visit two of them, the Gaistalalm and Tillfussalm.

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Rosshütte, Seefeld, Austria

A Panoramic Alpine Hike: Hiking the High Trail to Seefelder Spitze

I slept like a baby my first night in Seefeld. Perhaps it was the freshness of the Austrian mountain air combined with the blissful feeling of being at peace in the mountains. Or maybe it was the anticipation for the day ahead knowing that I’d finally be in the place I’d been longing to be for so many months: Way up high at the top of the world in the heart of the Austrian Alps.

The kids rose to the smell of scrambled eggs, freshly baked bread and strawberry jam. It was the first time we had a homemade breakfast in two weeks and I was enjoying the normalcy of cooking and having a kitchen again. I stepped out on our apartment’s spacious wood deck, rose my head up to the sky and smiled, letting the morning sun gently warm my face. We were going to have a wonderful day of hiking ahead. I was looking forward to checking out the Rosshütte Ski Area – one of two main Alpine ski resorts in Seefeld- which has a couple of fantastic panoramic hikes at the top of the Alps overlooking the Olympiaregion. After yesterday’s hike along the lower-laying plateau, I desperately craved to get up high knowing very well that the views would be breathtaking. Thanks to the Seefeld Tourist Office, we had a route in mind. It would be my children’s very first high alpine hike and I wanted it to wow them.

After breakfast, we set off on foot, heading to the base of the ski resort located about a 15 minute walk from town. When we arrived at the base of the mountain, we purchased a ticket to ride the funicular up to the Rosshütte mid-station located at 1760 m saving us a long, long hike up. We saw people hiking along the way but in my opinion, I preferred to save my energy (and especially the kids’ energy) for the top where the views would be astounding.

Rosshütte, Seefeld, Austria

Setting off on foot to the Rosshütte ski area (my daughter Sophia, son Max and father).

Rosshütte, Seefeld, Austria

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Hiking in Seefeld in Tirol, Austria

Our First Family Trip to Europe: Eight Days in Austria

This past June, my children and I had the wonderful opportunity to take a big trip to Europe. As an avid traveler and a Europe lover, it was something I had dreamed of doing for years and my husband Paul agreed that it was the perfect time to bring our middle school-aged children to Europe. The idea for the trip hatched after my mother decided to do a transgenerational girls trip with me, my daughter, my sister and my niece to London and Paris in early June. Since we were going all that way, why not add on our own family trip as well? Paul and I thought long and hard about where else in Europe we would like to go and after much consideration we chose Austria as it offered the perfect mix of hiking, mountains, history and castles for our family to enjoy. We bought a Lonely Planet guidebook  and began the arduous task of trying to decide where to go and what to try to squeeze in within 8 days.  I realized shortly after researching the trip that we could have used an entire month to truly get to know Austria. It is an amazing place especially for an outdoor lover like me. With careful planning we were able to figure out how to best schedule our time and see the best of Austria for our family of four.

As often happens in life, there were a few unexpected bumps along the road. Unfortunately a few months before the trip, Paul threw out his back and traveling anywhere was out of the question. By that time, we had everything planned and booked. We could have canceled the Austria portion of the trip but then my son Max would not have been able to go either as he was supposed to fly over with Paul and meet us in Munich. Thankfully my father was able to take his place and despite the disappointment that Paul couldn’t come, there was a silver lining. My dad got to spend twelve unexpected yet priceless days with his daughter and his grandchildren in Germany and Austria.

We met in Munich and head off to our first destination, the town of Schwangau near the border of Austria, where we spent two nights. The main reason for visiting Schwangau was to show my children King Ludwig II’s magical castle, Neushwanstein, where Paul asked me to be his wife 19 years ago. It ended up being a rather emotional visit since Paul was not able to be there with us but we still enjoyed exploring the castle, visiting neighboring Füssen, and staying in the beautiful Bavarian countryside. My thirteen year old son Max, who is already a whooping 6’1″ tall and has a voracious appetite, also truly loved the food! Thankfully we would find just as hearty and delightful food in neighboring Austria where we would be spending the next eight days before heading back to Germany to fly home.

The heart of our Austrian adventure began two days later when we left Germany for our short hour and a half drive to Seefeld in Tirol, our first stop, where we would stay for the next three days. We left Schwangau after yet another hearty German breakfast in an assault of rain. Ironically, it reminded me of the day of my engagement roughly 19 years ago when my husband and I rode the horse and carriage up the hill to see Neuschwanstein in the rain. The thick gray clouds blanketed the surrounding Alps and I was dismayed that what was supposed to be a beautiful drive was shrouded in rain, clouds and fog. It didn’t take long until we reached the Austrian-German border and had to do a quick stop at the nearest petrol station to get a Vignitte (a motorway tax that is imposed on all cars who travel on Austria’s autobahns). I had no idea that this was necessary until my dad told me how he once got a ticket in Austria because he didn’t have a Vignitte. Thankfully this time we were prepared and were only set back about 9 euros.

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A Stay at Landhotel Huberhof in the heart of Schwangau’s Countryside

After an amazing ten days in London and Paris with my mom, sister, and niece, it was hard to say goodbye. We had a magical, unforgettable trip together with three generations but it was time to move on to Part II of our European trip. My daughter Sophia and I boarded a short flight to Munich where we would be meeting up with my son Max and my father to continue our journey through Southern Germany and on to Austria for the next 12 days. The trip was bittersweet as it was planned over a year ago with the intention that my husband Paul would fly with Max and meet us in Munich. It would be our first family trip to Europe. A trip I had dreamed about since the day they were born.

As often happens in life, there were a few unpleasant bumps along the road. Unfortunately a few months before the trip, Paul threw out his back and traveling anywhere was out of the question. We had everything planned and booked. Thankfully my father was able to take his place and despite the disappointment that Paul couldn’t come, there was a silver lining. My dad would be able to spend twelve unexpected yet priceless days with his daughter and his grandchildren.

When we originally planned the trip over a year ago, Paul and I thought hard about where we wanted to go for our children’s first European trip. We wanted to make sure it was memorable and fun for the whole family yet most of all for the kids. Too many big cities and museums would tire them out and we all love being outside in nature. After much consideration of all the amazing places we could visit, we chose Austria as it offered the perfect mix of hiking, mountains, history and castles for our family to enjoy. If we were going to Austria, there was no doubt we would have to show our kids the very spot above Neuschwanstein where Paul proposed to me 19 years ago. It was right on the way to Austria from Munich.

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Warwick Castle

A Day Trip out of London to the Warwick Castle

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to get out of the big city and take a day trip somewhere in the countryside. As much as I love all the culture, art, museums, restaurants, tourist attractions and shopping there is to do in a city, after a few days I crave some fresh air and peace away from all the crowds and stimulation. It was no different with our recent trip to London. We had planned on four full days in London and knew that we would be able to cover all the things we wanted to do in three, meaning we would have time to do a side trip.

There are many options for day trips outside of London and it all depends on how much you want to spend and what you want to do. The most popular day trip is to Bath, the Windsor Castle and Stonehenge yet this trip can take over ten to twelve long hours to complete and the most economical way to do it is via tour bus. We wanted to do something a little different so instead we opted to hire a private driver for the day. We had used the same driver for our transportation from the airport to central London and Mr. Singh proved to be a fantastic guide.

Normally I am a huge planner however for this trip we decided to wing it. That was probably our first mistake because careful research would have told us that the Windsor Castle – home to the Queen and 900 years of history – was closed on the day we were hoping to visit. It is the most popular castle to see given it is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world and only an hour and a half drive outside of London. We didn’t realize it was closed until the morning of our day trip so we had to come up with a Plan B immediately. I knew that the girls would love to see a castle over Stonehenge so we decided on the Warwick Castle located about two and a half hours northwest of London. It was going to be a long day but hopefully worth it.

We left at nine am from our perfectly located apartment at the Citadines Trafalgar Square with our driver Mr. Dil Singh in a six passenger SUV. Dil was born in India but has been living in London for years and was a real treat. I sat up front as I like to always talk with the locals to learn as much as I possibly can about where I’m visiting. I told Dil that although we have been enjoying London it was a bit too touristy at this time of year and he wistfully replied “London is like a four bedroom house with 15 people living in it“. I laughed and agreed with his assessment of trying to fight the crowds of people walking the streets of Central London. It was going to be nice to get away from it all for the day.

Getting there 

We took M40 due north passing the rolling green hills of the countryside, talking away.  About an hour into the drive, my niece noticed with concern that the speedometer read 100. Silly me told her not to worry and that we were going 100 kilometers per hour not miles per hour which converts into approximately 62 mph, our standard speed limit on most US Highways. I then launched into a speech on how Europe and most of the world go by km/h and how we are different in that regard. It took our driver Dil three attempts to correct my mistake because I thought he was joking. After all these years I honestly had no idea that England does indeed use miles per hour! When it finally got through my head that we were truly going 100 mph we told him to slow down. He was just going with the flow of traffic but for us, it felt a bit nerve-wracking because we never drive that fast in the US even on huge open highways in the middle of South Dakota. We continued our drive in the slow lane being passed by everyone but at least we felt more relaxed. Poor Dil was mortified that he upset us which we assured him that he did not. It is just one of those cultural differences that comes with traveling (not to mention driving on the other side of the road!).

We arrived at the Warwick Castle just before lunch and it unfortunately began to rain. The skies were dark and gloomy yet it gave the entire place a rather mystical feel like you’d imagine when visiting a medieval castle in the English countryside. Based on the website, I wasn’t sure what to expect with the castle. I had imagined it would be like some over-the-top Disney-like place but it actually ended up being pretty darn cool and a great first castle for the girls to see. Best of all, it wasn’t mobbed with tourists like most of the other attractions we’d seen.

The Warwick Castle was built by William the Conqueror in 1068 on the grounds of a burg (hilltop settlement) dating back to 914. Located in Warwick at the bend of the River Avon, in 2001 the castle was named one of Britain’s “Top 10 Historic Houses and Monuments” by the British Tourist Authority. Its long, fascinating history of well over a thousand years is what brings many tourists to its grounds and you can easily spend an entire day exploring the castle and taking in some of their shows, activities  and attractions.  For us, we only had three hours which was enough to see most of the grounds, visit the Great Hall exhibits and take in some of the Birds of Prey show. We had also purchased tickets to the Castle Dungeon Tour which includes creepy encounters with live actors and special effects but unfortunately our show was unexpectedly canceled. Ironically, a tourist had fainted during the horror show and paramedics had to be called. Maybe it was a little too scary?

The Castle Grounds

The entrance to the Warwick Castle is located at The Stables Courtyard where there is a small restaurant and cafe, gift shop and ticket office. Once you purchase your tickets, you follow the gravel roads that surround the great walls, battlements, towers and turrets of the castle. It is quite majestic! There is a fun maze for the kids surrounding the castle grounds as well as a beautiful park and historic Mill and Engine House all outside the walls and Central Courtyard. If you want to make a day or even a night out of your visit, you can attend some of the shows during the day or evening, and even spend a night at the Tower Suites, Knights Village Lodges or try Medieval Glamping. There is plenty to do and keep you busy.

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The Great Hall

My favorite part of the castle was the Great Hall and State Rooms. It is the only furnished part of the castle and is loaded with history on all the past inhabitants who lived in the castle over the years. There are even wax replicas of some of the most famous residents and at first glance they look eerily real. I could have spent a lot of time inside this part of the castle but the girls were constantly on the go and had more fun running around the maze than reading all the plaques about history.

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The Mill and Engine House

Behind the castle right next to the river lies the Mill and Engine House which is interesting to visit and affords a gorgeous view of the river and the castle’s 64 acres of lush, rolling landscape and gardens. If it wasn’t raining, it would have been lovely to spend time viewing the gardens.

By 1:30 pm, we were all famished and the dining options at the Castle were disappointing. We decided to drive a bit further to Stratford-Upon-Avon, known as “Shakespearetown” since it is the birthplace of William Shakespeare. We arrived around 2 o’clock on a Sunday which happened to be Father’s Day so the town was bustling with activity. We settled on a lovely Italian restaurant for lunch and only had a few minutes to run over and peak at Shakespeare’s birthplace and family home. We regretted not having more time because Stratford-Upon-Avon is a lovely, charming town that we just happened to fall upon. Next time as I always like to say!

We arrived back in London a little past six exhausted from such a long day of travel but a bit refreshed. The country air had done us well! It was a quick shower, off to dinner and bed way too late as usual. But of course it was all very worth showing the girls their very first castle.

If you go:

Stay: Rent a studio or roomy two bedroom apartment at the Citadines Trafalgar Square. The location could not be more perfect as you are within walking distance to all the main attractions and tons of shopping and dining options. This is the second time I’ve stayed at this hotel and if I go back, I will stay there again. Tip: Ask for an apartment on a lower level if you are going in the summer as the air-conditioning isn’t great and these rooms are generally cooler.

You can also stay at one of the available lodging near the castle if you truly want to take it all in. I personally think the glamping option would be a blast.

See: The Warwick Castle is an excellent option for children. Plan on a minimum of 2 1/2 – 3 hours to visit the castle however there are plenty of other activities you can do if you want to make a day out of it. The Castle offers birds of prey shows, a dungeon show, and much more. Plus it has a lovely park behind the castle for a picnic if the weather is nice. If you book your tickets in advance online, you can save 30% which is huge as the castle tour is not cheap.

Learn: To learn more about the castle and view all the different attractions, visit www.warwick-castle.com

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Sophia on top of the Eiffel Tower

Highlights of Our Three-Week Family Trip to Europe

I will never forget the one-page article I read decades ago in Newsweek by a prominent female journalist about the importance of transgenerational travel and how it changed her life. I was in my late 20s at the time, living and working in Chicago and had just returned from skiing in the French Alps with my parents. I was soon to be married and start a family of my own yet I could not let go of the love and joy I felt traveling with my parents as an adult. The article talked about how the writer had traveled the world with her mother well into her mother’s 80s and how that time together journeying around the world were some of their most sacred, special times ever together as mother and child. It struck a chord with my soul for I too had always traveled with my parents and they were the ones who introduced me to travel at a young age and gave me my wanderlust soul.

Decades and trips later, I have continued to travel with my parents to such far-reaching places as the Himalayas of Nepal, the Andes of South America, the perched villages of Provence and the European cities of Prague, Paris and London adding my sister into the mix. These times together have been some of the most sacred memories of my life and without question our shared love of travel meant that at some point we would have to introduce our own children to exploring the world.

The idea of a transgenerational trip to Europe launched a few years back when my mom, sister and I did a trip to London, Paris and the south of France. We knew that we wanted to do a girl’s trip once again with my mom yet include our daughters. We just needed to wait until they reached the age where they could handle all the walking and traveling. With my daughter Sophia at the age of 11 and my niece Hanna turning 13, this summer was the prefect time to do a three-generational trip to Europe and it was planned.

As the time for our departure approached, there was a last minute change of plans. My husband had planned on flying over to Europe with our son Max to meet up with us at the end of the girl’s trip yet he injured his back and couldn’t go. Since the trip was already planned and mostly paid for, we changed plans and had my father fly over to Europe with Max and take my husband’s place. We would be doing another transgenerational trip, this time with my dad, my son and daughter, throughout Germany and Austria. Despite the disappointment that Paul couldn’t go on the trip, there was a silver lining. My dad was able to come and get to spend 13 days with his grandkids exploring the Austrian Alps.

All in all, it was an absolutely amazing trip with lots of silly travel mishaps, magnificent moments and fun stories along the way. It will take me quite some time to put the entire journey into words but I’m excited to start sharing our trip with this first post on some of the main highlights. I hope you enjoy!

Our route: First a flight from Minneapolis to JFK then London. Four days in London with a day trip to Warwick. Next the Eurostar to Lille, the TGV to Paris and then a flight to Munich where we met my dad and Max and picked up our car. The rest a driving tour through Germany and Austria.

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My Epic Family Travel Guide to Costa Rica

Last Spring, we did our first big family adventure trip to Costa Rica and it was one of our best family trips ever. Trying to figure out the best place to bring two kids, ages 10 and 12, was a bit of a challenge but after researching Costa Rica I knew it would be the perfect place for an unforgettable family adventure and I was right.

Since our trip, many friends of mine have been asking for advice on how to plan the perfect Costa Rica trip so I decided to put together a Family Travel Guide and am hoping this will become a new series of mine as I begin to bring my children out into the world. There is so much I want them to see and explore!

A family shot at Arenal Volcano.

Why Chose Costa Rica?

Costa Rica continues to be one of the hottest destinations in Central America for nature loving and thrill-seeking tourists. Not only is this small country one of the safest in Central America, Costa Rica’s well-developed tourism industry affords numerous options for all different kinds of travelers: Eco, Adventure, Luxury, Beach, Solo and Family. Furthermore, Costa Rica’s insane biodiversity makes it a place where nature enthusiasts can see some of the most unique species of flora and fauna on the planet, a lot of which is endemic to the country. To put it simply, Costa Rica offers the perfect combination of awe-inspiring beauty, nature, beaches, rainforests, volcanoes, culture and adventure for people with all sorts of interests. It is an amazing place!

Where to go with older kids in Costa Rica:

Costa Rica is home to tons of beautiful beaches and resorts along the Guanacaste coastline which is ideal for families especially with younger children. You can make it really easy by staying in an all-inclusive resort offering children clubs, childcare and as many activities as your heart desires. Plus most of the resorts are just a hop, skip and a jump from Liberia International Airport making it a very easy beach and sun vacation. However, our two kids, ages 10 and 12, are not into laying around the beach and swimming all day. Nor are we!

Instead, we wanted to give them a more cultural view of this amazing place and seek adventure as well. We didn’t want to stay in just one location and preferred to move around a bit to give them a real feel of the different parts of the country. That was the hardest part with the planning as we didn’t want to move too much as that would be stressful for everyone. With nine days, we decided on three unique places staying three days each per place and allowing travel time: Manuel Antonio, Arenal and Rio Celeste. We felt these three destinations would each have something a little different and unique to explore and we were right.

Getting around:

Costa Rica is home to two international airports, centrally located San Jose and Liberia in the north which is only an hour drive from the beaches of Guanacaste. Unfortunately we made the mistake of purchasing our tickets based on price and chose Liberia which would have been fine if we stayed in Guanacaste. Little did we know, it was going to be a long haul (about four and a half hours driving time without stops) down to Manual Antonio where we began our trip.

Flying internally in Costa Rica is easy but not cheap and it is on small planes which I try to avoid. Initially we were going to rent a car for the entire trip but decided to break it up by using a driver for part of it and minimizing the stress. We hired Morpho Vans for a few of the long legs of our trip and it ended up being fantastic. We loved kicking back and having a local driver who could tell us all about Costa Rica and do the driving for us. One word of caution: Be sure to rent a car with all-wheel drive so you can handle some of the bumpy gravel roads and water crossing in some areas. Also, get a GPS!

An overview of our route:

We landed in Liberia at 11 am and had to make it all the way down to Manuel Antonio that day (from A to B). It was a long day but we made it just in time for sunset. We spent two full days in Quepos/Manuel Antonio, then drove back up to Arenal/La Fortuna with Morpho Vans, rented a car and spent two days at Arenal. We dropped off the car in La Fortuna, and had Morpho Vans pick us up to bring us to Rio Celeste where we spent the next two days before returning back to Liberia to catch our flight home.

All in all, our trip gave us an amazing overview of the country and each place offered unique things to see and do. We did not visit the beach area of Guanacaste or the Osa Peninsula. You could easily add on one of these destinations if you have another 2-3 days to spare.

Our route

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You can see the Grand Canyon off in the distance

A Weekend Skiing the Arizona Snowbowl

“You can ski in Arizona?” asked a friend confused. “How on earth can you ski in a desert”? Until a few years ago, I would have also been equally in disbelief that it is actually possible to not only ski but ski real mountains in the state of Arizona. Little did I know, the college town of Flagstaff, Arizona, located about two and a half hours north of Phoenix, is home to the Arizona Snowbowl, Arizona’s best skiing.

As an avid skier, I confess to believing that there was no way that the Arizona Snowbowl could possibly compare to the skiing in Colorado, New Mexico, Montana or Utah, all places I’ve skied over the years. Yet after a long weekend skiing the Arizona Snowbowl with my father and two children, I realized that the skiing is actually pretty darn good and worth the trip. If you live in Phoenix and want a taste of the snow and mountains, then even better!

Flagstaff, Arizona

The Arizona Snowbowl is located in Flagstaff, Arizona about 2 1/2 hours north of Phoenix. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

With an average of over 240 inches of annual snowfall and normally beautiful sunny blue skies, the Arizona Snowbowl has the longest ski season in Arizona as well as the largest beginner terrain in the Southwest. It is a great place to go with kids as there are plenty of nice long cruiser runs, a good ski school and it is very family-friendly. For those who want more challenge, you can take the Agassiz lift up to the top at 11,500 feet and climb up to the Upper Bowl where there are plenty of double black diamonds to take your breathe away. For moderate skiers, there are some nice blues and blacks where you can fly down at breakneck speed and feel the thrill of spring skiing in February. Best of all, are the incredible views on top where you can see the Grand Canyon off in the distance.

Flagstaff, Arizona

View of the sunrise over the mountains from our hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona

So why on earth did we travel from Minneapolis to Phoenix to ski in Flagstaff, Arizona over President’s Day Weekend? Simple. My parents live in Tucson and Flagstaff offered the perfect meeting place for us to do a three-generational ski weekend. We had tried Utah, New Mexico and Colorado before so we decided why not try something entirely new. Plus it is free to ski for those over 70 so my dad was pleased to ski for free.

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El Matador State Park, Malibu, California

A Beautiful Morning at El Matador Beach in Malibu

“The best way to pay for a lovely moment is to enjoy it.” – Richard Bach

After spending three glorious days in San Diego, it was time for us to head up the coast and check out LA. I haven’t been to LA in years and thought it would be good place for our children to experience. Unfortunately our timing couldn’t have been worse as it was New Year’s Eve weekend meaning everyone was off enjoying all the sights and beaches. Traffic was horrendous, the crowds at Santa Monica Pier and Beach were insane and even our excursion to the stunning Griffith Observatory ended up being stressful due to the swarming crowds and congestion.

After the relaxing, serendipitous past few days watching sunsets and playing on the wide open beaches in San Diego, LA felt like a madhouse for the kids. They were both cranky and miserable, seeming to take after their mother in not liking crowds. Everything we did ended up being filled with complaints and irritation but I guess I couldn’t blame my children. As a LA rookie, I had no idea that traffic could be so bad and that the city was so spread out. It took hours to cut across and there was nothing worse than sitting in wall to wall traffic when one of the kids was hungry, grouchy or had to use the bathroom.

It took two days to realize that we would need to come up with a better system for navigating the city and also find a little bit of peace and solitude for me and the kids. That meant finding a beautiful, relatively uncrowded area where we could relax but did not take hours to reach. At first, I thought I was dreaming that we could truly find such a place but after a little research on Google maps, I realized that our hotel in Agoura Hills was not far from several amazing State Parks. In fact, the Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach in northern Malibu was only about a twenty-five minute drive away without traffic. We were in luck!

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel and set off early to explore El Matador Beach, one of three separate but distinct beaches that make up the Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach. Our drive took us through the winding, lush valley which ended at Pacific Highway 1 along the coast.

We arrived at the small parking lot atop the bluffs of El Matador State Park a little past ten o’clock and gratefully got one of the handful of parking spots in the tiny lot. At first sight, I knew we were in for a very special morning. The sky was a brilliant blue, the sun was warm and bright and best of all, the tide was rolling in. Soon it would be low tide and we would get the added bonus of seeing El Matador’s tide pools!

El Matador State Park, Malibu, California

What a place for a picnic!

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Torrey Pines State Reserve, California

Why I’ll Always Love Torrey Pines

“When you leave a beautiful place, you carry it with you wherever you go”.-  Alexandra Stoddard

There are some places in the world that seem to cast a spell on you, and always drive you back. For me, one of those places is Torrey Pines State Reserve in San Diego. Every time we visit San Diego, I feel an incessant pull towards visiting the park on the first night we arrive so I can watch the sunset across the beach. I am never disappointed and I am always mesmerized by the sheer beauty of this magical place.

Located along the rocky coast of the Pacific Ocean between La Jolla and Del Mar, the 2,000- acre Torrey Pines Reserve affords one of the wildest stretches of land along the Southern California coast. Named after the nation’s rare pine tree, the Pinus torreyana, this beautiful wilderness area offers several hikes affording spectacular panoramic views of the ocean and craggy cliffs leading down to a vast, unspoiled beach. It has been a favorite of mine ever since we first visited San Diego for Spring Break in 2015.

Since I am somewhat of a fanatic about sunset, we always try to plan our visits to Torrey Pines at least two hours before sunset so we can first do a hike in the park and then play on the beach before watching the sunset unfold. There are two places you can park your car depending on how long of a hike you want to take. If you want the shorter option (which is great with kids), you can drive your car all the way up to the top of the bluffs and park near the visitor center. The only downside is that someone has to hike back up to get the car at sunset. If you want a longer hike, you can park your car at the beachside parking lot or even out on the street for free. From the beachfront, you can walk up the long, winding road to the top of the bluffs and then hike down to the beach.

This time we unfortunately arrived a little too late to do the hike and only had time to play on the beach. I forgot that the sun sets very early in the winter and the park closes at sunset (which tends to be a little after 5 pm in December).  However, as soon as I saw the sky my disappointment disappeared. We were in for a special treat. The clouds, the sun and the light beams aligned. We could have had fog or no sunset at all. How lucky we were to have such good luck!

As the kids walked along the beach, playing in the water I snapped away at the changing light. Soon I realized my daughter was the perfect subject to capture the serenity of the place. Where earth meets sky, waves strike land and the smell of salt water satiates your soul.

Torrey Pines State Reserve, California

Torrey Pines State Reserve, California

Torrey Pines State Reserve, California

I watched my daughter walk along the shore and was engulfed in this moment of time and beauty. At eleven, she is still a girl but it won’t be long until she become a young lady. If only I could bottle up her innocence!

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Duck, Outer Banks

What to Do Off-Peak in the Outer Banks

The Outer Banks, a 130 mile stretch of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina is perhaps best known for its endless beaches and luxurious vacation homes for rent for those craving a beach vacation in the heat of the summer. However, there are many other amazing things to do in the Outer Banks when you visit off peak and best of all, the hordes of crowds have long gone home.

My husband and I took our two children to the Outer Banks in the middle of October and it was a magical time to visit. First of all, I hate crowds so having stretches of beach all to ourselves was delightful. Second, I am not a person who likes to lay in the sun. If I’m on a beach, I need to be doing something active and it is just too darn hot in the summer to be very active. If we had visited in the high season of summer, we would have had an entirely different experience and perspective of the Outer Banks. October in the Outer Banks was magnificent!

We stayed in the quaint, less developed seaside town of Duck. After much research, we found a wonderful home to rent that was less than a five-minute walk to both the beach for sunrise and the Sound for sunset. Duck is more upscale than the other popular hyper-developed towns of Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills which were developed long before Duck. Those towns felt like row after row of enormous vacation rental beach homes looking out at ugly strip malls and lacking character and charm. The only advantages I saw in staying there is you have close access to the beach and also many of the restaurants in Duck shut down for the season in October. We found ourselves doing at least a thirty minute drive to dinner each night but staying in Duck was worth it given its unique charm and character.

Duck, Outer Banks

Where else would you find an oversized red Adirondack Chair with a beautiful sunset like this all to yourself? Duck, Outer Banks

If you go off-season, here are some of the highlights of wonderful activities you can do.

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