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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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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Kakamega Rainforest, Kakamega, Kenya

Adventure Awaits: Europe Bound!

Today, as I set off on a three week transatlantic, transgenerational adventure I reflect on what adventure means to me and think about this post I wrote for LifeStraw’s “Adventure Awaits” campaign. Reaching this point has been bittersweet with many mishaps and silver linings along the way. It will take another full blog post to discuss all that has gone on over the past few months. That said, I am thrilled to be bringing 11-year-old Sophia on her first trip to Europe along with my mom, sister and 13-year-old niece. We will be starting in London, taking the chunnel to Lille and then a train to Paris, where it all began for me. I went to Paris when I was 13 and decided on the spot that I would learn French and live in Paris someday which I did seven years later. That fateful trip changed my life and began a lifelong love of travel and exploring.

My husband was supposed to join me and Sophia with our 13-year-old son Max in Munich after my family left. However a turn of events which has left him at home with back pain for the past month means my 75-year-old dad will be taking his place. My dad will fly to Germany with Max, pick me and Sophia up at the airport where we will continue our journey through Germany and the mountains of Austria for the next ten days.

I cannot express the gratitude that my kids will be able to spend this special time with their grandparents. I am certain it will be an unforgettable trip which I deeply hope changes their lives and makes them fall in love with seeing the world as much as me. In the meantime, I will leave you with this post and all will be quiet on the blog for the next month. I look forward to taking lots of pictures and will have many stories to tell upon my return. Bon Voyage!

 

What Adventure Means to Me

To me, adventure means freedom. Freedom to dive in and to completely let go, living in the moment and forgetting my to do list. Freedom to feel alive, like my true self, and like I’m ten again. Adventure feeds my soul with curiosity, passion and unleashes a zest for life that makes my heart sing. For me, adventure means everything and is my world.

There is no better place I can embrace adventure than the outdoors and exploring the world. Being immersed in nature or traveling to new places brings adventure to life. Whether it is hiking in the Himalayas, learning to surf in Nicaragua, walking with the Maasai in Tanzania or simply exploring my own backyard in Minnesota, adventure awaits and can always be found.

Last February, I had the honor of traveling to Kenya with LifeStraw to join the Follow the Liters campaign to reach the one-millionth child to receive safe drinking water. LifeStraw began the Follow the Liters program four years ago in Western Kenya after realizing they could be a catalyst for positive change throughout the region. Children were getting sick and missing many days of school due to waterborne diseases and illness caused by drinking unsafe water. Some were even dying. The need was immense, and LifeStraw had the answer.

LifeStraw1million Campaign Kenya

I heard about LifeStraw’s Follow the Liters campaign through social media and discovered that they were running a contest to pick three adventurous storytellers to join the trip to Western Kenya to help document the campaign. I put together a video of my work, crossed my fingers I’d be selected and was thrilled to win a spot on their upcoming trip. I had never been to Kenya before and could hardly wait for the adventure to begin.

I left for Kenya on a Thursday afternoon feeling the normal pre-trip jitters of an exceptionally long 24 hours of travel ahead. I had a packet of detailed information about the program and the campaign but that was all I honestly knew. I was traveling alone and would meet up with ten of the 130 members of the international LifeStraw team in Amsterdam to continue our journey. I was taking a big step into the unknown, having no idea of what lay ahead for the next seven days. Thankfully I had done a lot of these kinds of trips before. In my view, the further I go out of my comfort zone, the more alive and adventurous I feel. These kinds of experiences are always the ones in which I learn and grow the most. These are the adventures that I live for.

We landed in Nairobi to a sea of darkness and sparkling lights. It was already ten o’clock in the evening and we would spend the night at a hotel before continuing our journey to Western Kenya in the morning. Despite the jet lag and pure excitement, I was so exhausted from all the flying that I slept peacefully. The next morning, we boarded a domestic flight to Kisumu, and then continued by car for another hour and a half to reach our base in Kakamega. If reaching Kakamega was an adventure, getting out in the field and visiting the schools would be even more exciting. Some of us would travel hours on bumpy gravel roads each day while others traveled by small boat to reach the most remote schools in the area. A few people on our international team had never left their home country let alone go to Africa. Most of us had no idea what we had in store for the next week.

When we finally arrived at our hotel, we were welcomed with song and dance by the local Kenya staff, all wearing their blue LifeStraw t-shirts. I would soon discover that song and dance is an essential part of Kenyan life as we would be singing and dancing all week long with the school children. We spent the next two days training and getting to know our amazing international teams.

The highlight of the weekend was the group hike to the Kakamega Rainforest on Sunday. After we completed a long day of technical training, we loaded up into a long caravan of cars and headed to the outskirts of town where we did a forty-minute steep hike up to the top of Kakamega Hill. The views on top were absolutely stunning as all you could see where the lush, green tops of the trees. Somewhere out there in the sea of green lived the children of the schools we would be visiting over the next week.

Kakamega Rainforest, Kakamega, Kenya

Monday was the first day of the campaign and I was up at the crack of dawn hardly able to contain my excitement and anticipation for the week ahead. Although the sky was still an inky black, the world outside my window was alive with noise and commotion as drivers rolled into the parking lot thumping African rap music and fellow LifeStraw staff talked robustly as we all began to start our day. The smell of breakfast being served two floors below crept through the cracks of my door. Despite the early morning hour and my fatigue, the exhilaration of the adventure ahead filled my veins with a rush of adrenaline. I could hardly wait. Little did I know what a massive operation this would be and how incredibly inspired I’d feel by my time in Kenya. By the end of the week, we reached our goal and it was a monumental feeling to know that now 1,015,652 kids at 1,621 schools now have safe water.

LifeStraw1million Campaign Kenya

Demonstrating washing hands with safe water

When my flight took off over the African savannah I reflected on the miraculous realization that a week can truly change your life. I took a leap of faith when I boarded the first flight to Africa only seven day prior, feeling uncertain of the adventure and my own personal journey that loomed ahead. Yet I realized that it is only through taking chances that we will grow and thrive as a human being. The beauty of adventure is it can always be found for those who seek it, trust it and are willing to take the leap.

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Backpacking with a Purpose with Operation Groundswell

For the past two years, I’ve been a proud member of Impact Travel Alliance, a global community of change makers, passionate about transforming the travel industry into a force for good. Through this amazing network of sustainable travel organizations, writers and travel enthusiasts around the globe, I’ve learned a lot about how we can use travel to make the world a better place.

For the next several months, I am working on putting together a searchable database of the best ethical impact-focused and sustainable travel organizations on the planet. While I’m researching these different organizations, I will be sharing guest posts to uncover each organization’s unique mission and how you can travel for good. This guest post is written by fellow Impact Travel Alliance Media Network member Marissa Sutera (creator of Little Things Travel Blog) who introduces us to Operation Groundswell a Toronto-based organization whose mission is to create a more equitable, just, and sustainable world through travel and backpacking with a purpose.

Operation Groundswell

Operation Groundswell Ecuador trip

Backpacking with a Purpose

When seeking out more purposeful work to do while traveling, it can be challenging to dig deep enough to find the best route to take and the organizations that are truly carrying out positive work. In this interview you’ll hear from Justine Abigail Yu, Communications and Marketing Director at Operation Groundswell, who will be sharing her insight into what questions to ask when volunteering abroad, where to begin, and how to know what sort of impact you will make.

Operation Groundswell is a non-profit organization that facilitates experiential education programs on a host of social justice issues around the world. With ethical travel at the crux of their philosophy, they always work in partnership with local non-profits and charities on community-requested projects to ensure true sustainability. Their aim is to build a community of “backpacktivists” that are socially, environmentally, and politically aware of their impact in the communities they travel to and live in. Their programs are intentionally designed to uncover the intricacies and on-the-ground realities of each region they go to. With ethical travel at the crux of their philosophy, they always work in partnership with local non-profits and charities on community-requested projects to ensure true sustainability.

Their aim is to build a community of “backpacktivists” that are socially, environmentally, and politically aware of their impact in the communities they travel to and live in.

Operation Groundswell

Meeting with our partners at De La Gente, a coffee cooperative in San Miguel Escobar in Guatemala

How can someone seeking a volunteer program abroad determine if they will actually be making a difference?

First and foremost, whatever volunteer project you work on abroad should be done in partnership with the local community. If you want to make even the slightest difference, be sure to find an organization that puts the needs of the local community first. Contributing to a project that your host community actually wants and needs is the first step towards responsible international volunteering.

But it’s also important to set realistic expectations of what exactly “making a difference” means. For many people, this requires a bit of a rethink. You’d be surprised (or maybe not) how many volunteers going abroad expect to “save Africa”, or Asia, or Latin America. And that’s just not the reality.

The majority of volunteer programs are often short-term projects that range from one week to a few months. So when you’re seeking a volunteer program abroad, consider the time you’ll be spending abroad and align that with your expectations. Because real talk – if you’re only going to be spending one or two-weeks in any given country or community, you may not actually make that much of a difference.

You’ll accomplish some things, of course: you’ll likely gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of development and what it takes to actually achieve social change, you’ll make a strong connection with a handful of people who you will hopefully stay in touch with, and you’ll contribute in some small way to a project.

But honestly, you’ll likely leave with more questions than answers. And that’s ok. This is a process.

“Change doesn’t happen overnight or even in a couple of weeks or months. Often, the work that you do when you return home, as a result of what you learned abroad, will be where you make the most difference.”

Just remember to have humility when taking part in work like this!

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The Five Best Family Hikes Along Minnesota’s North Shore

With the arrival of spring in Minnesota, there is no better time than now to start planning your next visit to the gorgeous North Shore of Lake Superior.  Less than four hours away from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, lay hundreds of opportunities to explore pure and relatively untouched nature. Extending for 150 miles along the rocky shoreline of Lake Superior from Duluth to Canada, the North Shore is a place of unspoiled beauty and pristine nature. Home to a multitude of scenic waterfalls, rivers, state parks and the 310-mile long Superior Hiking Trail, it is a hikers paradise and offers a treasure trove of opportunities to explore wild, relatively untouched nature.

The North Shore has been a special place all my life. Every fall since I was a baby, my parents would pack up our old station wagon and do the drive north to spend a weekend enjoying the splendid fall colors and hiking the wonderful trails. This tradition started before I could walk and ended when I left for college at the age of 18. Fast forward several years, the North Shore has once again become a place I visit often with my own family and our family hikes have continued.

For the past four years, we have been visiting with my children and have discovered the very best hikes that the entire family will enjoy.   This list of my top five favorites is a great start to creating family memories of your own. Feel free to add your favorites in the comments section.

 

Map of North Shore

Photo credit: NorthShoreVisitor.com.  

 

1. Gooseberry Falls

Description: Gooseberry Falls is a beautiful hike along the Gooseberry River which affords stunning views of waterfalls and lovely forest. There is a nice easy hike along the falls for all abilities and more moderate hiking if you prefer to go further. It can be slippery when wet.

Location: 12 miles northeast of Two Harbors along highway 61

Length of Hike: About five miles roundtrip (however entire park has around 18 miles of trails if you want to go further).

Highlights: The best part of this hike is exploring the cascading waterfalls and stopping to enjoy the fascinating roots of the tree trunks and forest flowers along the trail. It is a nice place to also bring along a picnic.

Tip: The trail alongside Gooseberry Falls is relatively easy and somewhat kid-friendly given the steps (but remember no guard rails or safety fences!). If you want to really explore this fabulous park, there are footpaths for miles on end on the other side following the river upstream.

Adventure Travel Minnesota North America TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking United States
Vail Resort

Travel Guide: How to Make the First Family Ski Trip to Colorado a Success

This year we decided to try something new for our family spring break. Instead of flying south to the sun, sand and beach that most Minnesotans crave by this time of year, we opted to head west for our first family ski trip to Colorado.

Growing up in Minnesota, Colorado has always been a popular place for spring break given its proximity, variety of terrain, cheap flight options and the ability to even gut it out and do the drive (you can make it in around 15-16 hours). As an avid skier, I made the drive to Colorado at least a half a dozen times over the years and most recently have enjoyed the short two hour non-stop flights from Minneapolis-St.Paul International Airport (MSP) to Denver. The launch of more no-frills airlines into MSP such as Sun Country, Frontier, and no-frills Spirit Airlines have put pressure on hub-based Delta to keep prices down. All that means Colorado is very accessible yet a family ski vacation is not cheap. Adding on car rental, lift tickets, lodging, food, gear (if you have to rent it) and ski lessons (if necessary) can make a family ski trip to Colorado a very expensive one.

I confess to being a bit reluctant about the notion of skiing in April given our notoriously long, cold winter in Minnesota. However spring skiing in Colorado proved to be an extremely fun, memorable family vacation and although we weren’t wearing our swim suits on the beach the weather in Colorado was equally delightful with baby blue skies, bright, warm sun and fresh mountain air kissing our face. In fact, we had so much fun that we agreed to do it all again next year.

So how did we ensure that our first big ski trip to Colorado would be a success? With careful planning, research and a bit of luck.

Here are my top 6 tips on how to have a fabulous, memorable family ski trip without busting the bank. 

All smiles for a family shot at Mid Vail

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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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LifeStraw1million Campaign Kenya

What a Week in Western Kenya with LifeStraw Taught Me: Water is Life

I rose with excitement and anticipation to the pre-dawn sound of the birds outside my hotel room in Kakamega, Western Kenya. Although the sky was still an inky black, the world outside my window was alive with noise and commotion as drivers rolled into the parking lot thumping African rap music and fellow LifeStraw staff for the LifeStraw Follow the Liters Campaign began to start their day. The smell of breakfast being served two floors below crept through the cracks in my door. Despite not having a huge appetite in the early hours of the morning, I knew that the omelette and perfectly ripe mango I had that morning at 6 would have to fill me up until dinner time.

I jumped out of bed, untangling myself from my mosquito net and quickly dressed in my uniform for the day. A blue LifeStraw t-shirt, a long pair of gray cargo pants, closed-toe hiking shoes, sunscreen, hat and ponytail. Today was to be my first day out in the field and I didn’t want to be late. Despite utter exhaustion, jet lag and concern that I had only slept a little over an hour the night before, I could hardly wait. It was the start of our campaign to reach the one millionth child to receive safe drinking water. Little did I know what a massive operation this would be and how incredibly inspired I’d feel by the end of the week.

Given the size and scale of the campaign, our international team of 130 LifeStraw staff and volunteers were divided up into 15 teams with the goal of reaching 3-4 primary schools per day all in different parts of Western Kenya. My team was called “Team Crocodile” and was lead by Rebecca Masoni, the local Area Coordinator for LifeStraw. We also had local Sub-Country Coordinators Vincent, Patrick and Dorice (known as Mama LifeStraw) and Dehli-based Raju, myself, and mother and daughter pair Detria and Sophia, from California. Over the course of the next five days, our team alone would reach 15 primary schools and 11,923 school children throughout Vihiga, Hamisi, Khwisero, Butere, and Lurambi counties in Western Kenya. 

By 6:30 am, the parking lot was jammed pack with a motorcade of SUVs, drivers and enthusiastic LifeStaw staff and volunteers all setting out to start the day. Some of the teams had already departed as early as four in the morning to reach some of the most remote schools. We were lucky to have the region surrounding Kakamega meaning our daily drive to reach the first school would only take about two hours.

As we left our base, we set off into the rising sun leaving behind the chaos of early morning in Kakamega. Markets of fruits and vegetables stands were being set into place. Clumps of shoes, clothing and homewares were laid out on colorful blankets across the dirt ground. Motorcycles of entire families and buses packed to the rim were scurrying around. Children in their school uniforms of baby blue and white, pink and green, maroon and navy blue, were walking alongside the road heading to school.

After a half of hour, the paved roads ended and we began our trek along the bumpy, pot-holed dirt roads of rural Kenya. The roads that always remind me of what it is like to get around in the developing world. The urban landscape began to fade and the beauty of rural, Western Kenya greeted my hungry soul. The lushness and greenery such a delight to see after so many months of colorless winter back at home.

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We passed several single-plot farms growing maize and tea surrounded by traditional mud huts interspersed by small rural towns of nothing more than a few shacks and rundown buildings. Women walked side by side gracefully balancing 20 liter jerrycans of water on top of their head while farmers worked the fields. Children frantically waved and yelled “Mzungu!” (foreigner) as our car passed them by along the way. As the morning dew began to lift off the horizon, the beauty of the landscape took my breath away. It was spellbinding.

The arrival

An hour and a half later we reached the entrance of our first school, the Khanirir G. Jeptorol Primary School in Hamisi. A faded hand painted wooden sign stood proudly at the gate beckoning us to enter. Our caravan of three SUVs slowly drove up the dirt path to the school, to the sound of laughter, cries of joy and song. As we got out of the car, a large cow bell was rung and out came 500 excited school children dressed in green and pink uniforms, running out the open doors of the school rooms thrilled to meet us.

As much as we ached to say hello and greet the children, I quickly learned that proper protocol is of utter importance in Kenya. The first thing our team had to do was go inside to meet the Head Teacher and cover a few formalities. We briefly introduced ourselves and went over the plans for the next two hours. At the first school, we would be installing five LifeStraw Communities. Each LifeStraw Community can serve 100 children and five would serve the entire population of the school.

While our drivers began installing the LifeStraws, our team assembled inside a large circle with the children surrounding us, for introductions which of course involved song and dance. This was my absolute favorite part of the presentation!  It is hard to put into words the feeling of being surrounded by hundreds of joyous children singing, dancing, clapping and laughing together as one. By the end of the week, I couldn’t get the songs out of my head and still wake up in the middle of the night singing them.

Since I had such a hard time capturing my experience into words, I created this short video of some of the footage I took during the week. Every time I watch the video it makes me smile. Hope you can get a sense for what my week was like by viewing it

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Kakamega Rainforest, Kakamega, Kenya

The Journey to Reach the One Millionth Child with Safe Water in Kenya

“Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step”. –  Lao Tzu

I left for Kenya on a Thursday afternoon feeling the normal pre-trip jitters of an exceptionally long 24 hours of travel ahead. I was flying from Minneapolis to Amsterdam with a five hour layover, and then I had another eight hour flight to reach Nairobi. I knew that it was going to be a long, exhausting journey yet I was exhilarated all the same to be off on a trip into the unknown.

I boarded my first flight with anticipation wondering what was in store for me when I finally arrived in Kenya. I had been chosen to join LifeStraw’s Follow the Liters campaign to reach the one millionth child to receive safe drinking water. I had a packet of detailed information about the program and the campaign but that was all I honestly knew. I was traveling alone and would meet up with ten of the 130 members of the the LifeStraw team in Amsterdam to continue our journey.

LifeStraw, a part of the Vestergaard global health company, began the Follow the Liters program four years ago in Western Kenya after realizing they could be a catalyst for positive change throughout the region. Children were missing many days of school due to waterborne diseases and illness caused by drinking unsafe water. Some were even dying. The need was immense, and LifeStraw had the answer.

With over twenty years of experience working on global health issues in Kenya, Vestergaard understood that Western Kenya was the perfect place to launch the campaign given the fact that it is one of the most populous, rural parts of the country which is in dire need for safe water. At the end of 2014, 158,000 school children were reached during the first Follow the Liters Campaign. Four years later, we would be reaching one million kids! I could hardly wait to be a part of it.

Giving Back through Retail

LifeStraw is not a pure one-for-one program (like TOMS shoes) because the needs of the retail market and local market on the ground in Kenya are quite different.

For each LifeStraw product sold in retail markets in Canada and the U.S, one child receives safe drinking water for a year. It is not a “buy one give one” model but instead a comprehensive program implemented and adapted for the needs of the local market. For each school LifeStraw serves, they provide ongoing training, education and follow-up for a minimum of five years. It is a long term commitment that employs local staff from the community to ensure sustainability of the program.

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LifeStraw1million Campaign Kenya

International Women’s Day 2018: In Honor of the Women and Girls of Western Kenya

“If we don’t empower women, we don’t allow them to unlock the potential of themselves and their children”. – Melinda Gates

Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day, a day celebrated around the world in honor of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Women and girls have made a tremendous amount of progress over the years however much work still remains to be done especially within the developing world.

In honor of this special day, I wanted to share a few of my recent photos of some of the inspiring girls and women I met in Western Kenya last week with LifeStraw. It was a truly life-changing trip that fed my soul with joy, compassion and hope. I can hardly wait to share more!

Over the course of a week, our international team of 130 LifeStraw staff and volunteers, rose at dawn and were off on the road by 6:30 am to reach the schools. We were divided up into 15 teams with the goal of reaching 3-4 primary schools per day. Our days were long but incredibly exhilarating and rewarding as we provided training and installation of safe water filtration systems at each school.

At our demonstrations on how to use the LifeStraw Community (a water filtration system that treats unsafe water making it safe to drink), it was almost always the girls who were up front and center participating in the program. Many of the girls were selected to be prefects in charge of maintaining and cleaning the LifeStraw Communities, a tremendous honor.

I was thrilled to see that in all the primary schools my team visited (15 in all ) and in the 11,923 school children we met, there was not a wide gender gap as you normally see throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and the developing world. In fact, girls and boys have reached gender parity in schools and that is a huge sign of improvement and success.

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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 Plan, Valparaiso, Chile

A Stroll Through Valparaiso’s Cerro Bellavista

“Valparaiso, how absurd you are…you haven’t combed your hair, you’ve never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised you”. – Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)

One of the most famous Chilean poets of all time, Pablo Neruda spent a big part of his life living in the winding hills of Valparaiso at his house called La Sebastiana. Perched up high above city, La Sebastiana afforded Neruda sweeping views of the sea and bustling world below which inspired Neruda with much of his great work. Located in the neighborhood of Cerro Bellavista, an area favored by artists and writers, La Sebastiana (which is now a museum) is just one reason why Cerro Bellavista is worth a visit.

Cerro Bellavista is also home to a large, fascinating collection of street art including the Museo a Cielo Abierto, a labyrinth collection of outdoor murals painted in the 1990s by various Latin American artists with the goal of reinventing the neighborhood. You could easily spend a morning or afternoon just checking out Cerro Bellavista as there is much to see and it is quite different from Cerro Alegre and Concepción.

We headed over to Cerro Bellavista on the afternoon of our last day in Valparaiso. The staff at our hotel told us we could take the city bus (local bus O or 612) from Cerro Alegre or we could simply walk. Given my love of exploring a city on foot, we decided to walk and once again I’m glad we did as we were able to get an in-depth and more personal view of daily life in Valparaiso.

As we left our hotel in Cerro Alegre we headed slightly north uphill to the start of Avenida Alemania and followed its winding path along the hills. It was the first time that we were clearly in a residential neighborhood and it felt good. There were no tourists walking around this part of town, toting cameras and taking selfies. Just people going about their day-to-day business.

Along the way, I noticed that even the houses, concrete walls and garages were painted and decorated in brilliant art. Once again, Valparaiso did not cease to amaze me. Art every single step of the way bringing life to a rather messy, run-down city.

Some of the street art painted on residential garages and walls…

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Although these works of art are not as well-known as some of the more popular masterpieces located down below in the trendy Cerro Alegre and Concepción, they resonated with me. I wondered the true meaning and symbolism behind each piece. 

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