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What to Do in Helsinki and Everything Else You Need to Know

What to Do in Helsinki and Everything Else You Need to Know

If you are wondering what to do in Helsinki, this post will blow you away. There’s so much to see, do, and eat in this charming European city. Known for it’s fabulous winter sports areas and refreshing summer temperatures, this Nordic country is a good bet when looking for an off-the-beaten path, quirky, and breathtakingly beautiful city to visit.

Helsinki is full of surprises…delicious, fun, interesting surprises. It boasts an urban vibe while also being crazy friendly. It is sleek, yet warm, full of function as well as tradition. I consider myself honored to have experienced this wonderful Finnish city. And I hope you get to experience it too!

Amos Rex Museum skylights

The skylights of underground Amos Rex Museum pop up at street level in unusual shapes.

What to do in Helsinki

Here’s everything you need to know regarding what to do in Helsinki…and everything else.

I didn’t know much about Helsinki in particular and Finland in general before I visited. Honestly, that’s half the fun of travel, experiencing the most fascinating things you never knew existed. Helsinki blew my mind with it’s rich history, awe-inspiring architecture, and variety of tourist destinations. Here’s a few I really enjoyed.

Amos Rex

Helsinki is filled to the brim with interesting art, like the collection at Amos Rex Museum, and it’s all housed in immaculate, intriguing buildings. The curving mountainous skylights at the Amos Rex Museum are breathtakingly beautiful, but also functional as they provide light to the museum below. This museum houses 20th-century and contemporary art collections and exhibitions. It just opened last year but has quickly become a tourist hotspot. Over 10,000 people visited within the first few weeks it was open! I can see why!

When I was here. there were two amazing exhibitions. There was a collection on display by the famous painter Magritte, and it was amazing. Only thing missing was his most famous painting, Son of Man (man wearing a bowler hat with a green apple in front of his face).

However, the showstopper for me was Floating Monolith, by Studio Drift. A gigantic block that looked like concrete literally floated in the middle of the gallery, untethered and without any visible wires. It defied logic, and was so very cool to see in real life.

Floating cube Amos Rex Museum, Helsinki Finland

This floating cube defies logic, gravity and physics. Or it’s a fantastic ruse.

Soumenlinna

Want to go back in Nordic history? Then make sure you visit World Heritage Site Suomenlinna. It is an 18th-century military sea fortress turned nature area, spread across several islands linked together by bridges. Suomenlinna is filled with ancient-looking cobblestone walkways and centuries-old artillery and defensive walls. Mixed in are modern touches like a local micro-brewery and several restaurants. Walking trails cross rambling park land and waterways with bridges abound.  Popular sights include the King’s Gate drawbridge and Suomenlinna Museum, which tells the story of Finland’s military history.

During the summer, Suomenlinna is a huge hit with locals. Families, lovers and everyone in between all swarm to the island for picnics and scenery. When we visited it was relatively quiet, but crowds gather when the weather warms. Trees blossom, flowers spring up, grass greens and locals love it. You will too.

Suomenlinna Helsinki Finland winter

Suomenlinna is very important in the history of Finland, from the time the country was part of Sweden and then Russia before its independence.

Oodi Central Library

A library is a tourist attraction? Uh…yup! The brand new Oodi Central Library in Helsinki is a masterpiece! Honestly when it was suggested we visit the library, I rolled my eyes anticipating extreme boredom. Quite the contrary. Never have I seen a library more innovative, inviting, and thoughtfully-designed.

Library Oodi, Helsinki Finland

Opened less than two years ago, Oodi is a masterpiece inside and out.

Oodi was warm and inviting and lives up to its goal of being the free, open-to-all “living room” of Helsinki. It’s architecturally interesting, lively and filled with people. No one was stage whispering “Shhh!” in here! I totally could have hung out there all day. It has two coffee bars, a cafe, meeting rooms, kids play area, recording studios, 3D printers, sewing machines and tons of places to relax. (Oh, there are books there too I’m told.)  Locals can access all of this and more with just their library card.

Library Oodi top floor interior, Helsinki Finland

The interior top floor of Library Oodi slopes upwards, giving views of unusual perspective.

Loyly Helsinki Sauna

There are something like 2 million saunas in Finland, and there are only 5 million people in the country! Finns adore their saunas! If you visit this tremendous country, it’s mandatory to check out at least one of their saunas. When I was in Helskini, I visited an uber-cool and luxurious sauna, Loyly Helsinki. It seriously rivaled a health club. Their public saunas fit about 20 people each. They are co-ed and swimsuits are required. (Thank God.)

Loyly sauna entrance Helsinki Finland

Loyly sauna is positioned right at the water’s edge, with striking architecture.

I tried both the smoke and regular sauna and both were HOT. So hot that I even dunked into the freezing Baltic Sea to cool off…3 times! It was unbelievably cold AND just the ticket after baking in the sauna. The whole experience was surprisingly refreshing. Once again travel expanded my horizons.

Loyly Sauna ocean plunge, Baltic Sea, Helsinki Finland

After baking in the sauna at Loyly, guests are encouraged to dunk in the freezing cold Baltic Sea.

Kids activities

Helsinki can be a fantastic family destination, with a variety of things to do that will keep the kids occupied and happy:

  • Helsinki Zoo: Situated on an island, Helsinki Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the world. (Established in 1889.) It boasts 150 animal species.
  • Sea Life: This Aquarium offers lots of colorful fish species and even sharks. There’s also an ocean tunnel at Sea Life where you can walk below the sharks…if you dare.
  • Amusement Park Linnanmäki: Unlike amusement parks in the US, the entrance to the park is free of charge. Linnanmäki was opened in 1950 and still has a vintage feel. The most popular ride is the wooden rollercoaster from 1951. Would you ride it? Uh, I’m OK with missing that one I think!

How to get to Helsinki: Finnair

Look, there are probably a lot of options to get to Helsinki from the US. However, the luxurious personal service I experienced on the official airline of Finland, Finnair, was pretty darn special. Finnair recently invested heavily in its fleet by adding 13 new Airbus A350 wide-body jets over the last few years. And they also added a direct flight from LAX to Helsinki. And I had the good fortune of being  on the inaugural flight between these two amazingly different destinations. It’s a 10.5 hour flight which goes over the North Pole, Greenland (that is icy) and Iceland (that is green) all the way to Finland. If you can splurge on Business Class, the lay flat seats are like a little cocoon of heaven.

Finnair inflight map to Helsinki

Flying on Finnair to Helsinki was a dream, direct from LAX and so comfortable.

When to go to Helsinki: Helsinki weather in Spring won’t freeze you to death

I visited Helsinki in April and thought it was the perfect time to go. It was coldish but not freezing. Typically, in April Helsinki weather averages to be about 39 degrees. Winter tends to last through mid-May. Coming from LA, the Helsinki weather was fun and different and made me appreciate the sun and warmth back home. It was novel to see the last remnants of snow in a couple of shady spots. Honestly, it was all rather lovely. One day was even legit Spring-like.

You will need to pack a heavy coat, hat, scarf, and gloves. It can get chilly year round, especially at night. You could go in summer when the average temperature reaches a balmy 65 degrees, but it’s crowded and can get pricey. The best part of going in Spring was that there were almost no crowds. By the way, it also gets crowded in winter because these hearty Scandinavian folks love their outdoor snow sports.

What to eat in Helsinki: Everything

I enjoy good food, so I was honestly very worried about what I would eat in Finland. Was every meal going to be like the food in Ikea? Not always. (Fun fact, Finland used to be part of Sweden so the food does seem kind of similar). My meals were all really delicious. If you want smoked fish and gamey reindeer meat, you can definitely find it. But if you want contemporary cuisine and international restaurants, you can find that too.

Helsinki Finland pastry shop

The Finns do a fantastic job with pastries, including these traditional berry-topped numbers.

I ate in some swanky restaurants and was definitely impressed with each of my meals. I did not go hungry! One thing I couldn’t make myself try is the Finland favorite, salmon soup. It looked as disgusting as it sounds. I could not do it. You find it EVERYWHERE though and the Finns adore that stuff. Next time I come to Helsinki maybe I’ll be brave enough to try it. Maybe.

steak tartare, Restaurant Emo, Helsinki Finland

Delicious steak tartare from Restaurant Emo in Helsinki – every dish here was out of this world.

The top restaurants I experienced:

  1. Restaurant Emo is located in the middle of the city center. It is described as “modern European with a Nordic twist”. Delicious.
  2. Story is a restaurant/café found in the Old Market Hall in Helsinki. It offers traditional market fare, incorporating the ingredients found at the market and nearby sea.
  3. La Maison is exactly what you think it is: a charming French bistro. It’s the kind of place that makes you remember you are in Europe.
Cafe Maison seafood salad, Helsinki Finland

This fresh seafood salad at Cafe Maison was created from 100% locally raised ingredients.

Where to stay in Helsinki: Hotel Katajonkka

I stayed in a Helsinki prison. No really. I did! The Hotel Katajanokka was once the Helsinki County Prison, dating back to the 1800’s. Prisoners were still being held here as late as 2002. You’d never know that by looking at this magnificent hotel though. Look for a post soon on this modern, service-orientated hotel. https://www.hotelkatajanokka.fi/en/

Hotel Katajanokka interior hallway Helsinki Finland

The Hotel Katajanokka in Helsinki used to be a prison – until 2002!

Bottom line

If Helsinki is not on your bucket list of places to visit, it should be. It’s a city designed to welcome visitors. Don’t let the fickle Helsinki weather scare you away! Open and friendly, the Finns love to show off their jewel on the Baltic Sea.

Kiwi.com – book cheap flights, trains & buses


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9 Fun Things to Do With Kids in Las Vegas

9 Fun Things to Do With Kids in Las Vegas

Las Vegas is known by some as Sin City, but that moniker has not been fair for at least 20 years. Yes, it is possible to find plenty to entertain an adult in all the ways you can imagine (and some you can’t even). There is also a very strong family component to the Las Vegas Strip. We’ve taken our kids on enjoyable vacations there several times, and there are tons of fun things to do with kids in Las Vegas.

Whether your kids or big or small, we’ve got a bunch of options for you to consider as you make a list of things to do with kids in Las Vegas. Depending on where you plan to stay during your visit, some of these activities may be very close to your hotel. Regardless, it’s easy to get around with the Las Vegas Monorail trains that connect some of the destinations. Plus there’s always our good old friends Uber and Lyft, especially if it’s too hot to walk.

Vegas neon sign

Las Vegas is chock full of neon art, practically anywhere you look.

Fun Things to Do with Kids in Las Vegas

There;s even more fun things to do with kids in Las Vegas than we’ve listed here (in no particular order). But this is a good start. You may not have time to visit all of these activities, so there’s always a good reason to go back!

1. Roller Coaster – New York, New York Hotel & Casino

Rocking and rolling around and through the hotel and casino, this rollercoaster is legit. Complete with a full loop, the Big Apple Coaster begins and ends in a gaming arcade. The full carnival and electronic games here will entertain the family members who are too short to ride (or too chicken like me).

2.Bellagio Fountains – Bellagio Resort & Casino

Free to the public every 15 – 30 minutes, the Bellagio Fountains are choreographed to music favorites. Dancing waters mingle with water jets that spout 460 feet into the sky. The whole show is quite a spectacle.

Breathtaking views of the Bellagio Fountains from the top of the Eiffel Tower at Paris Las Vegas

3. Eiffel Tower – Paris Hotel & Casino Las Vegas

A slightly smaller version of the real thing in France, the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas includes a high-speed elevator to the top. A lookout platform allows guests unparalleled views of the Vegas Strip, the surrounding city and the mountains beyond.

4. Aquarium – Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino

The Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay is very well designed, complete with open tanks to touch manta rays and squishy sea cucumbers. Neon-colored fish swim in enormous tanks. Our favorite was the moon shaped jellyfish, which undulate in slow motion.

Tickets are $25 for adults, $19 for kids.

5. Bodies…The Exhibition – Luxor Hotel

Fascinating to many and gross to some, the Bodies…The Exhibition showcases real human bodies and organs preserved through a special process. The Exhibition provides an up-close look inside our skeletal, muscular, respiratory, and circulatory systems. They even show a healthy lung next to a smokers’ lung to show the damage smoking can have on our bodies.

Tickets are $32.

There are many discount tickets available if you search through our affiliate sites.

6. Cirque de Soleil – various hotels

There are a total of six Cirque de Soleil shows in Las Vegas, and five of them are suitable for the entire family. Our family favorites are “O”, which happens above and below the waters’ surface. The other is Michael Jackson ONE. ONE is set to Jackson’s famous hits and features impressive dances inspired by his performances. Read more about the best Cirque de Soleil show in Las Vegas for families here.

Ticket prices vary by show, and start at $79.

Zebras "O" Cirque de Soleil Las Vegas

These zebra creatures as a central image in the incredible “O” by Cirque de Soleil in Las Vegas – photo credit: Veronique Vial

7. Water Park – not hotel located

When the weather is hot (and Las Vegas can hit above 100-degrees in the summer), a water park is a fun way to cool off. Kids love Wet ‘n’ Wild Water Park Las Vegas because of the water tubes, lazy river and other daredevil slides and activities.

8. High Roller Ferris Wheel – The LINQ

The world’s tallest “observation wheel”, this enormous High Roller ferris wheel has become a staple of the Las Vegas skyline. It can be seen from the planes landing at McCarran International Airport and pretty much anywhere else in Las Vegas. Cabins that can host up to 40 people each are slowly rotated around the circle, with fun views and really good air conditioning.

Tickets start at $25 for adults, $10 for kids (children under 6 are free).

9. Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum – The Venetian Hotel & Casino

Famous the world over for the lifelike wax figures invented by Madame Tussaud back in the late 1700s. Madame Tussaud’s  Wax Museum in Las Vegas has something for all ages. Pose with Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper and Beyoncé, along with old Hollywood stars and modern sports celebrities.

Tickets start at $19.

Captain Jack Sparrow Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum Las Vegas

Captain Jack Sparrow was a huge hit with our kids at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in Las Vegas.

Where to Stay in Las Vegas with Kids

We’ve stayed at several hotels on the Las Vegas Strip with our kids, and our favorite so far as been Vdara Hotel & Spa. Free of smoke, Vdara is also casino-free so they offer a cleaner and more healthy environment. All of Vdara’s rooms are large suites, with mini kitchens and a fold out couch for the kids.

Vdara is part of the MGM Hotels group, and rooms start at around $100/night.

An favorite hotel for families is the Paris Hotel & Casino Las Vegas. The hotel’s replica of the Eiffel Tower sports amazing views of Las Vegas in all directions, and the restaurants and kid-friendly. Our girls loved the Creperie on the main lobby floor, where fresh crepes are made to order (nutella and whipped cream seemed to be a big hit).

Paris is part of the Caesars Entertainment group of hotels, and rooms start below $100/night.

At night, the Eiffel Tower at Paris Las Vegas shines like a beacon across all of Las Vegas

 

 

 


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Tips for Navigating the Aruba Airport

Tips for Navigating the Aruba Airport

*Our visit to Aruba was hosted by the Aruba Tourism Bureau, and we are grateful for the experience. As always, the content and thoughts expressed here are our own.

Our family just returned from the gorgeous Caribbean island of Aruba, and we loved it there. Since we had never been here before, we didn’t know how easy or difficult navigating the Aruba Airport would be. I googled “tips for navigating the Aruba airport” and since nothing helpful came up, I’m writing this now so others can find their way easily.

Everything about Aruba is friendly and laid back. The beaches are postcard pretty, the people are so nice and welcoming, and the ocean is the bluest, aquamarinest, turquoisest I have ever seen. When you get off the plane upon arrival at Aruba’s Queen Beatrix International Airport, you feel immediately lulled into a relaxed state and slower pace. We call it “Island Time” because everything slows down, including your need to care.

Queen Beatrix International Airport departures entrance

The departures area of the Queen Beatrix International Airport in Aruba is quite colorful. (photo from Aruba Tourism Bureau)

In order to help maximize your enjoyment of this beautiful destination, let’s get you prepared for navigating the Aruba Airport when you arrive (easy!), and when you leave (not as easy, but still not bad if you leave enough time).

Tips for Navigating the Aruba Airport

It’s a small airport with one runway and eight gates, so the walks aren’t long and it’s very clean and spacious. There are a few things you’ll want to know as you deplane and prepare for customs, and when you are departing and fumbling with your passport and papers.

Delta Airlines at Aruba airport

Arriving into Aruba Airport was a breeze for us! (photo from Aruba Tourism Bureau)

Arrival at Aruba Airport

Granted, we arrived after 9 pm when most flights had long ago deplaned all their passengers. As it turns out, arriving that late does have some advantages. As we walked directly off the plane and into baggage claim, we saw there were just three baggage carousels. Since I am a veteran over-packer, we had checked bags to accommodate my need for wardrobe options. But if you can carry-on, even better.

inside Aruba Airport

The new buildings and terminals at Aruba Airport are really quite stunning, full of colorful art and design. (photo from Aruba Tourism Bureau)

Tips on Arrival at Aruba Airport:

  1. The bathrooms are super clean if you have to go. You will have some time to kill before your bags arrive (remember, Island Time), so might as well!
  2. You will need that customs form they gave you on the plane, so keep it handy with your passport.
  3. After claiming your bags, you will go through local customs. This took us just a few short minutes. Our passports were stamped, the customs form was torn in half, and the remaining half was handed back to us with our passports.
  4. It’s important to remember this remaining half of your customs form. You will need it when you leave, and you absolutely won’t want to go through the long and laborious process of getting a new one if you lost it.
  5. Taxis will be waiting outside to the left, with a fairly long queue during daytime hours. At the front, an attendant will ask your destination and then give you a slip to hand the taxi driver. This slip will tell you the exact fare you will pay upon arrival. Fares vary according to destination. We stayed at the wonderful Tamarijn All-Inclusive Resort in the Low-Rise Hotels area, and the fare was $29 US. The High-Rise Hotels area is farther away, so expect a higher fare if headed there.
  6. If renting a car, all the rental agencies are just across the street via a short crosswalk from baggage claim. The rental cars are right there waiting, and our whole process was quick and easy.
  7. If you are driving, the navigation is a little tricky. GoogleMaps did not work for us here, but Waze worked great. There are all sorts of little quirks and odd turns on the roadways that will keep you alert!
Aruba Airport architecture

Colorful architecture and friendly buildings greet travelers at the Queen Beatrix International Airport in Aruba. (photo from Aruba Tourism Bureau)

Departure from Aruba Airport

Our hotel suggested we arrive at the airport three hours before our flight – which we have NEVER done anywhere in the world. Maybe our family likes to live on the edge, but it has never been a problem. In Aruba, we understand now why they recommend this. Knowing it was a small airport, we planned to arrive two hours beforehand. We all have Platinum Priority boarding on American Airlines, as well as Global Entry passes to breeze through US customs. Boy are we sure glad we did, because the entire process took us 1.5 hours before reaching the gate area.

American Airlines at Aruba Airport

We flew American Airlines to Aruba, and thank goodness we had Priority status! (photo from Aruba Tourism Bureau)

Tips on Departure from Aruba Airport:

  1. When they say to arrive three hours before your flight, they mean it. The lines were very long.
  2. Luckily we had Priority boarding access on American Airlines, which diverted us to a far shorter line to check in at the counter with our bags. It still took about 20 minutes to reach the counter, with two agents working the Priority line of maybe 10 people deep. Three agents were working the regular line, which had at least 75 people waiting.
  3. Keep your passport handy, because you will need to show it A LOT. We counted eight separate stations where we were asked for our passports. Check-in at the counter was #1.
  4. Once checked in, you proceed to Aruba customs to depart. Outside this area, a man seated at a desk asked to see our passports and boarding papers (#2).
  5. Inside this same area, a woman tending the very short line asked to see our passports again (#3). She directed us to automatic kiosks.
  6. At these kiosks, we stood on the little feet symbols on the floor, scanned our passports (#4) and posed for our photos to be taken by the machine. The gates opened, and we were approved by Aruba customs to leave the country.
  7. From there, you will go through security with all your carry-ons, etc. No TSA Pre-Check line, so shoes come off and laptops out.
  8. Then you are ushered into a large room with two baggage carousels, where you will reclaim your luggage that you just checked at the original counter.
  9. With your luggage, you will then go through US Customs. There is a huge benefit to doing it here, rather than the long lines we typically experience on US soil. We were especially happy, because our connecting flight was only 55 minutes from the time our first flight landed. There would have been no time to go through customs, security, and make our gate in time.
  10. If you have Global Entry, now is the time it will pay off. There is a separate line inside the door to the right, and no one was waiting here. We flashed our Global Entry cards and passports for the guard to check (#5) and proceeded to the kiosks. This whole process took just minutes.
  11. The line to present our papers to the US Customs agent was very short – versus the line with no Global Entry, which was very long. We presented our passports and papers for approval (#6) and passed through the gates.
  12. Important: This is where you will need to present those little slips of paper from your original Aruban customs form.
  13. Leaving this building, we rechecked our bags by placing them on the correct conveyor belt. There are two belts, so don’t confuse which airline you are flying or your bags will end up gawd knows where.
  14. Then we stood in another line to show our passports to the door attendants again (#7). This line was waiting to go through security again – shoes off, laptops out.
  15. Once through this second security checkpoint, we were finally within the gate area. This area is very clean and has nice shops, duty–free, and a few restaurants. Not sure why someone would want to eat sushi in an airport, but hey. Lots of other food choices.
  16. We proceeded directly to the gate, with barely enough time to visit the restroom before boarding. As we boarded, of course we were asked to show our passports one last time (#8).

Although this might seem like a long, exaggerated list of departure rituals, it went smoothly and easily. And people in Aruba are so nice! No grumpy guards or surly customs agents. Since we were so relaxed from our beautiful vacation on the island, we were remarkably calm throughout the process.

Our advice? Allow for the three hours to avoid that inevitable stress and impatience we can sometimes feel when waiting in lines at airports. Better safe than sorry in this case!

 

 

 

 

 


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Things to Splurge on During Your Next Vacation

Things to Splurge on During Your Next Vacation

Everyone likes to save money when traveling, but there are some things you just need to spend a pretty penny on. Certainly when our family travels, we know not every vacation will put us in the lap of luxury. Still, we try to find at least one splurge on each trip to make it feel even more special. Whether it’s a delicious meal, an exciting excursion, or a place to stay, there are plenty of things to splurge on during your next vacation. Sometime we let the kids choose one thing each.

snorkeling with DePalm Tours in Aruba

Boating in tropical places like Aruba tend to go with snorkeling adventures and colorful fish.

Ava might choose an excursion, and Triton might go for a fancy meal. Sophia will want to go clothes shopping, and you can pretty much find Jon getting a massage. Whatever floats your boat doesn’t have to break the bank.

Things To Splurge on During Your Next Vacation

Local Cuisine

Grocery shopping and food trucks are acceptable during your journey, but when you travel pick one meal that showcases the local flavors. We’re not talking the tourist traps. Ask residents where they eat that really showcases what their city is all about. In Omaha, Nebraska, it’s absolutely V. Mertz, where the chef uses fresh, local ingredients to create a spectacular menus in this hidden Midwestern gem. In Midtown Manhattan, there are several places within walking distance of most hotels, including Joe’s Shanghai for dim sum. Ask a local in New Orleans for the best place to find Creole or Cajun cuisine, and it most likely will not be the famous ones.

lemon dessert at V. Mertz

Ordering a decadent and delicious dessert is a great way to splurge.

Your meal may be moderately priced or on the higher end, depending on the city you’re visiting and what the locals suggest. Go for broke if you must, in order to experience the best and most delicious meal on your vacation.

Get Adventurous

There are always those once-in-a-lifetime bucket list experiences you simply cannot put a price tag on. Going rafting in New Mexico down the Rio Grande or sailing in Kauai are two amazing, authentic local experiences perfect for our family. We always try to do a boating trip on visits where there is water. It’s such an incredible way to experience sea life and the oceans when you travel. Double points if there is snorkeling or kayaking as part of the day!

white water rafting adventure

Vacation adventures like white water rafting may be pricey, but they deliver memories to last a life time!

If you’d rather experience the scenery by air, try a helicopter tour. There are many places that take you above the city to see a different view of your vacation destination. We loved our experience in Las Vegas, where we buzzed above the Grand Canyon, Colorado River, and the Las Vegas Strip! Even small towns may have helicopter tours available. Don’t hesitate to ask the locals or a concierge at your hotel.

front of helicopter in Las Vegas

Sightseeing in helicopters is like nothing else – the views are incredible.

Where to Stay

When you decide to splurge on your hotel stay, your experience is bound to be unique and flawless. We’ve stayed at many fantastics hotels, and the very best give you a vacation-worthy experience without ever leaving the hotel. Resort hotels often offer photo-worthy architecture, activities for the whole family, and dining experiences. Check out hotels that include breakfast, have complimentary happy hour, and concierge services. You may even consider a resort that includes food or spa accommodations on site, an all-inclusive hotel where meals and drinks are included.

Dining room at Tamarijn Resort Aruba

Expansive buffets like this one at the Tamarijn Resort in Aruba make all-inclusive resorts a wonderful splurge.

Splurge!

Even if you have a strict budget for your vacation, there are places in your financial plan where you can stretch a bit. Try that one local meal that tickles your taste buds, or add a little bit of adventure to your trip with an outdoorsy escapade. Don’t forget that a great hotel can make a vacation perfect. These things to splurge on during your next vacation have made our trips memorable and exciting.

What are your favorite indulgences on vacation?


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Visit Chichen Itza With Kids

Visit Chichen Itza With Kids

*This experience was sponsored by the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba and MariturDMC, and as always, the opinions expressed here are our own.

As global travelers, our family has always dreamed of visiting all 7 Wonders of the World and now we can cross one off the list. On our recent visit to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, we set out to visit Chichen Itza with kids in tow. These Mayan ruins have withstood the test of time and still remain magnificent in their history and grandeur. It’s an easy and interesting destination with kids.

Chichen Itza was originated on this land in around 600 A.D., and is now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. From our luxurious resort accommodations and family vacation at Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba, we hopped into a tour group organized by our very capable Maritur guide, Sergio. We were so glad to take a guided tour to learn much more about this historic site. I think if we tried to visit it ourselves, we would never have come away with so many amazing stories. Besides, the pressure of trying to parent and play tour guide at the same time is just too much for most of us. We prefer to let the professionals handle the guiding!

Chichen Itza with kids

Chichen Itza with kids is a fun adventure for the whole family.

We wondered if we could visit Chichen Itza with kids and avoid them getting bored or cranky. The resulting experience was quite enjoyable for all, so the short answer is YES.

(Even if the girls did keep calling it Chicken Pizza.)

Tips to Visit Chichen Itza With Kids

The drive from the Riviera Maya to Chichen Itza was a little more than two hours. Traveling in a shiny black SUV with AC and phone chargers, our family was a bunch of happy campers. Sergio told us about what we would be seeing, giving us the backstory and history of the site along the way. (The girls had their headphones on the whole time listening to music). Those of us that listened to Sergio learned a ton!

Here are some highlights and tips from our visit to Chichen Itza with kids:

Go Early

Two reasons: crowds and heat. Like many places around the world, Chichen Itza is a popular tourist destination that draws more than 1.5 million people a year. Getting there early will afford you some spectacular photo opportunities before some silly yahoo gets in the way of your perfect shot. Given the right position, we were actually able to get photos with nearly no one in the photos.

Chichen Itza main temple

If you get to Chichen Itza early enough, you can capture photos like this with no people.

Bring Water/Hat/Sunscreen

There are not a lot of trees on the enormous 1280-acre grounds at Chichen Itza. In fact, during its reign the facilities had absolutely no trees at all – all the trees onsite now have grown after the fall of the Mayan civilization. Because of this sunny disposition, it is usually pretty warm here (as in HOT). Bring shade and water with you. I drank two whole bottles of water while we were there, and never needed to pee. The girls actually poured cold bottled water over their heads.

Chichen Itza iguanas

Chichen Itza is literally crawling with iguanas.

Do Your Business at the Park Entrance

If your kids are anything like ours, they never say they have to visit the bathroom when you ask them. Then, after you’ve already started your excursion, they announce that they have to pee. Take our advice, visit the restrooms at the park entrance – there are none inside the park and you will be in there a long time. There are also snacks and drinks if anyone is feeling a little peckish after the drive.

Go Directly to the Temple

Best to walk directly to the Temple first and get your photos. We managed to get several shots before people walked into the frame, and were happy with the results. Also, listen to you tour guide because he/she will give you a rundown on the significance of what you are seeing.

wall with skeleton heads at Chichen Itza

Yes, those are skeleton heads carved in this wall at Chichen Itza to honor the ancient Mayan tradition of human sacrifice.

For example, when looking at the temple you see steep stairs on all four sides of the pyramid. Except those are not stairs. They were built as part of the human sacrifice rituals that took place at the top of the temple. When the priests would behead the people being sacrificed, they would roll their heads down those “stairs” to the waiting masses below. Fun times!

Allow Time to Wander

The entire campus at Chichen Itza is enormous, with so many interesting buildings and architectural monuments to see. Plan for your visit to last about three hours at least. With so many buildings and places of significance, it may seem easy to become overwhelmed. Actually with a tour guide the layout all made sense, and we knew what we were looking at. Sergio narrated while we walked, and we got a crash course in Mayan history, culture and people.

Chichen Itza serpents

The serpent was worshipped as an important cultural symbol at Chichen Itza.

Avoid Sunday Visits

On Sundays the residents of Mexico are allowed to visit Chichen Itza for free, and many do. This is a great way to experience this Wonder with families and many kids running around. If you prefer your visit to be a little less busy, you may choose to go on another day of the week. (Hint Hint!)

Chichen Itza columns

This columns are what remains of Chichen Itza’s version of a shopping mall. The kids were automatically drawn to it.

Visit a Cenote Afterwards for a Swim

After our tour, Sergio took us to the nearby Sa’amal Cenote near the town of Valladolid. This is an ancient cave now filled with fresh water, complete with fern covered walls and tropical fish. We were so happy to cool down in the clear, fresh water and splash under the waterfall. I even got brave and jumped off a platform some 25+ feet into the water – it was a blast. There was something very special about this swimming hole, knowing it has been here for thousands of years.

Sa'amal Cenote near Chichen Itza

After our tour of Chichen Itza with kids, we swam in the incredible Sa’amal Cenote nearby.

Our family highly recommends this excursion while you are visiting the Riviera Maya. If you are staying at the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba, they can arrange the tour for you so you can visit Chichen Itza with kids and enjoy the entire experience!

floating in Sa'amal Cenote near Chichen Itza

The fresh, cool water of Sa’amal Cenote was so delicious that Triton had to float under the waterfall sprinkles.

 

 

 


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Family Vacation at Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba

Family Vacation at Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba

*This experience was sponsored by the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba, and as always, the opinions expressed here are our own.

When we told the kids we were going back to Playa del Carmen in Mexico, they nearly jumped up and down with excitement. We were there a couple of years ago with two other families, and had so much fun exploring the Caribbean side of Mexico near Cancún. However, this recent visit promised to be even more spectacular. After all, we would be enjoying our family vacation at the 5-Star Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba on Mexico’s Riviera Maya.

beach club at Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba

Beach palapas with comfy lounge chairs await guests at the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba.

We’ve loved our stays at other Fairmont Hotels in the past, including the Fairmont Hotel Claremont in Berkeley, and the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in Seattle. But I gotta tell you folks, the luxurious Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba topped them all. It was absolute paradise on the Caribbean oceanfront, and an ideal place for a family vacation to unwind, relax, play and explore. Good bits of all those things were accomplished, and more – read on for details!

Family Vacation at Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba

First, let’s get something out of the way. Mexico and Playa del Carmen are absolutely safe places to visit for Americans. There is no more reason to worry about traveling to the tourist areas of Mexico as there is traveling to any major city in the US. Besides, most of the resorts like the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba are all-inclusive so you could spend your entire stay at the resort.

Our family has traveled many times to Mexico over the past several years, and have always felt 100% safe and secure. There are so many amazing things to see and do here!

El Puerto Restaurant at Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba

From the walkway leading to the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba lobby and El Puerto Restaurant, the evening lights were so beautiful.

Activities for Kids

Of the luxury hotels on the grounds of the Mayakoba Resort, the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba is the one most suitable for families. In fact, they go out of their way to welcome kids of all ages – even surly teens! (Oops, did we say that out loud?)  There is a great Kids Discovery Club next to the main pool, where they will watch your kids while you lounge or play golf. Some other things here that make it perfect for kids:

  • waterslide at the main pool
  • another pool at the beach if you want to do a combo sand/pool day
  • Boat rides along the surrounding canals – so amazing
  • So many cool animals and birds to spy on and chase
  • Iguanas for DAYS (we must have counted two dozen in one outing)
  • Menu items conceived specifically for kids, with poolside service
  • Lots of interesting day trips to the neighboring sites are easily arranged with the concierge. (We visited the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza).
Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba main pool

The main pool at the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba is so well designed, with nooks and crannies for families to tuck into.

There were so many families with kids staying here during our visit. Families were American, British, Dutch, German and Mexican, along with a smattering of other nationalities. Never did our kids feel out of place or unwelcome, even in the fanciest restaurants onsite.

Beach Activities for Kids

The beaches in front of the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba are pretty epic. Crystal blue water is comfortably warm but still refreshing. There are no waves, so even the smallest kids can run into the sea safely (with parental supervision of course). We must have bobbed around in the water for more than an hour, just floating and chatting and looking for the small fish that darted away from our grasps.

Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba beach pool

The beach side pool at the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba has a disappearing edge overlooking the beach palapas and crystal blue ocean.

At the beach, the hotel makes toys available for guests’ use, as well as ocean kayaks, boards and other watercraft. We were feeling too lazy to take any of these toys out for a test drive, but many others did with huge smiles and laughter. Here are some watersports included in your stay:

  • Guided catamaran tour
  • Use of sea kayaks, Stand-Up paddle boards, traditional snorkeling, masks, boogie boards, beach balls and sand toys
  • Beach volleyball
  • Beach games and competitions
The beach pool at Fairmont Mayakoba

Playing in the beachfront pool at the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba – could have stayed here for weeks.

Boat Rides on the Canals

The Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba is set on some 240 acres of beachfront tropical property, crisscrossed by a series of canals. Much of the Yucatan Peninsula is dotted with cenotes (seh-no-tays) – round, fresh water tunnels or caves that are so fun to explore and swim in. These cenotes are fed by an underground aquifer that overflows to create canals which flow to the ocean. The Fairmont is built at the edge of a series of canals, and you can even take one of the resort’s boats from the lobby to your casita.

Most of the casitas at the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba sit along beautiful waterways. Ours even had a private rooftop pool!

From a least two different locations, guests can take a complimentary boat tour of the canals. This was a highlight of our trip, and the entire family still talks about that hour+ boat excursion. As we left the dock near the main pool and restaurants, our captain narrated the vistas. Our boat traversed though waterways both wide and narrow, and our favorites were deep crevices with fern-covered rock walls on either side.

Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba boat tour

Our boat tour of the waterways that wind through the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba was a fun way to see the natural flora and fauna of the area.

Along the way, we saw plenty of iguanas. But we also saw a young alligator, dozing in the jungle grasses at the water’s edge. We ventured close enough for photos, but not too close! There was also a wide range of tropical birds, colorful fish and plenty of turtles to entertain us along the way.

baby alligator in Mayakoba, Riviera Maya

Far from the hotel along the waterways, we spied this little guy from the boat.

Hotel Layout

The Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba is laid out across it’s many acres, woven into the natural environment. All the rooms are either private or semi-private casitas. Our room was enormous, with a living room large enough for the pull out bed and a cot for the kids. (For some dang reason, these girls refuse to sleep in the same bed – something about Ava being a kicker). The master bedroom and two bathrooms were equally spacious – I mean really large.

Casita living room at Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba

The spacious living room in our casita at the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba – plenty of room for the girls to avoid each other!

On our private deck, there were stairs up to the roof level. When we explored this space, we found a giant area for sunbathing or shade and OUR OWN DIPPING POOL! On the roof! Overlooking the beach and ocean!

Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba master bedroom

Bigger than our bedroom at home, this gigantic master bedroom in our casita at the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba opened on to a wrap-around deck overlooking the waterways.

There was another guest room underneath ours as part of our semi-private casita, with views to the canal. I don’t think there were guests staying there during our visit, since we never saw other people coming or going.

Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba casita master bathroom

Even our master bathroom at the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba was enormous, complete with soaking tub and huge shower.

Relaxation for Adults

Since our girls are now teens, we are afforded a small amount of time without them. They are old enough to get themselves to the pool and back, or stay in the room unattended for longer periods of time. Because of this, we headed to Willow Stream Spa on property, and are so glad we did.

Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba

The front entrance of the Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba beckons us to relax and enjoy.

We both tried the signature “Chocolate – Food of the Gods” Massage, where a special blend of Mexican chocolate beans are ground into a paste. Spread onto your body, the chocolate makes you smell like a giant Kit Kat bar. Evidently, the spa’s special blend helps your skin sluff off the old and bring forth the new. After rinsing off my candy bar coating in the in-suite shower, I must say my skin did feel great. This was followed with a more traditional massage treatment that included the scalp, which I love.

Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba chocolate massage

We loved our Chocolate – Food of the Gods massage at Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba.

In addition to treatments, the spa has a fantastic workout facility including daily yoga and other group exercise options. There are wet and dry saunas as well as separate whirlpools for men and women. On the spa building’s roof, there is another giant pool for relaxing or swimming laps. Very impressive and well-designed complex.

If golf is your thing, the 18-hole/par 72 course is postcard perfect, and was designed by Greg Norman. El Camaleón Golf Club winds through the forest canopy, over to the oceanfront and then back

Convinced Yet?

The Fairmont Hotel Mayakoba gets five giant stars from our family. ‘Nuff said. Go!


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Packing List Essentials for a Family Vacation

Packing List Essentials for a Family Vacation

Whether you think the best part of a family vacation is a journey or the destination, I think we’re all in agreement that packing is the worst part! Getting ready to take your whole family on a trip can be frustrating, but when you plan ahead, your vacation can start out without a hitch by using these packing list essentials for a family vacation.

If your family is anything like ours, it’s a mad scramble at the last minute. Things get packed and then unpacked, outfits are assembled and ultimately missing one important item when we get there. Often when packing, the girls forget important beauty products like a hair brush or deodorant. It’s crazy making!

suitcases in trunk of car

Even at the last minute, things can get shoved into an already overpacked suitcase.

That’s why we now have lists for our lists. We share these few tips here to help you avoid some of our previous travails!

Packing List Essentials for a Family Vacation

Don’t Forget the Electronics

I know we are contradicting ourselves here, and moderation is key to the kids’ use of electronics. As much as we want to have our kids “unplug”, having our devices (and chargers) can be an asset on vacation. We nearly ALWAYS forget the chargers, or a specific cord, or a cube to plug into.

Keep these electronic components on your list for what goes in your luggage.

One nice things about taking a road trip in a Kia Cadenza is the readily equipped Apple Carplay or Android Auto. There are fewer gadgets to pack as your devices easily connect to your Kia!

Bring Layers

Even if your destination has a fairly predictable climate, the places you visit while there may not. Indoor restaurants, hotel rooms, and museums can get downright chilly when they are being liberal with the AC! Make sure each member of the family packs at least a sweater or hoodie to layer on top of clothing. We usually make the kids bring them on the plane if we are flying somewhere. It’s almost always too cold or too hot inside a plane, especially when that lady sitting in 11C has her air blasting right in your face.

organized man's suitcase

Yeah, our suitcases never look like this inside.

If the weather is expected to be cold, don’t forget the winter gear. Here are the minimum packing essentials for clothing regardless of the weather.

  • undergarments
  • shirts
  • pants and/or shorts
  • sneakers
  • flip flops and/or dress shoes
  • socks
  • pajamas
  • sweater/cardigan/light jacket/hoodie
  • gym clothes/shoes (yeah maybe)

Packing clothes can be challenging at any age. You may not know what types of outfits to bring for your trip, and with family photos at every turn, you want to look your best.

Triton and I recently rid ourselves of this stress with Stitch Fix. This worked so beautifully on our recent trip to Santa Barbara! Their ready-made vacation wardrobes are perfect for men and women, and you can even have the Stitch Fix box delivered directly to your hotel. No fuss, no muss!

car trunk packed full of suitcases

Boy did we pack that cargo area, but we brought everything and the kitchen sink!

Safety First

Always pack a first aid kit! You can get a ready-made kit or shop for individual items essential for a safe trip.

If you’ll be outdoors, make sure to pack the sunscreen and bug spray. Keep burns and bites away with high-level SPF lotions and Deet-free bug repellant. When we are traveling to an exotic destination like Playa Del Carmen or Costa Rica, we head to REI to grab some heavy duty bug juice. We even tried the treatment where you spray your clothes before packing them, and it works!

Keep the Kids (And Yourself) Entertained

You’ll definitely want some stuff for everyone to do during the journey or even on vacation downtime. (Remember, we’re discouraging the use of electronics all the time!) Bring some books that your teens will love to read. You may want to pack a few easy, fun reads for yourself or your spouse as well!

reading at the beach

Our girls love a good book at the beach, and sitting under a tropical palapa is the perfect place to read.

If you want to laugh, try David Sedaris’ latest release, Calypso, stories of his Carolina vacation home.

If you’re ready to laugh, cry, and think, try A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, a story of an old curmudgeon who strives to find meaning in life.

Not an in-the-car or on-the-plane reader? Play some family-friendly car games (if you’re not behind the wheel) or listen as your family has some hilarious fun! Exploding Kittens is a family favorite. Players draw cards until they find the “exploding kitten” with lots of hilarity in between.

Another favorite of our family is UNO, which we just played while visiting family in Seattle. The competition can get pretty fierce – it’s so much fun!

Starting with these packing list essentials for a family vacation will help your journey and destination be smooth for all members of your travel crew. Keep safety, comfort, and fun in mind, and you’ll be ready to travel anywhere!

Check out some of these favorite packing essentials that help us fit everything perfectly with our family of four!

OEE 7 pcsOEE 7 pcsSpaceSaver Premium ReusableSpaceSaver Premium ReusableThe Chestnut 12The Chestnut 12Autoark Standard CarAutoark Standard CarArxus Travel LightweightArxus Travel Lightweight

*2DadsWithBaggage participates in affiliate marketing programs, and even though those terms are outlined on our blog we like to say so here anyway.


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Planning for Spring Break in Palm Springs

Planning for Spring Break in Palm Springs

With a week off from school and Daylight Savings Time almost over, the kids are itching for a family vacation. We’re planning for Spring Break in Palm Springs this year, and are so excited about all the possibilities. What to do? What to wear? What to pack? What to eat?

Palm Springs pool lounges

There is nothing more relaxing than lounging by the pool in Palm Springs.

It’s fun to plan a vacation, particularly when going to a warm weather location like Spring Break in Palm Springs. Our family has a ritual check-list, and thought we would share it with you here. Does your family have a similar routine?

Planning for Spring Break in Palm Springs

  1. Check the daily weather report obsessively. Start 3-4 weeks in advance and mentally plan the potential list of items you will bring based on the weather outlook on that day. Change your mind daily as the weather fluctuates until you are exhausted. End up packing shorts and shirts, which will be perfect because you are in beautiful Palm Springs.
    Taking the Palm Springs Aerial Tram to the top

    We can’t wait to take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the top of the mountain for some gorgeous views.

  2. Research hot new restaurants, and weigh dining options against tried and true family favorites. Seek input from foodie friends who have been there recently, and cross-reference with Eater and Open Table recommendations to develop your top list. Ask the kids what they want while there, and compromise your dining selections so they can have their favorite dishes at least once while there at places like Cheeky’s and Lulu California Bistro. Make reservations well in advance!
    Cheeky's Palm Springs

    The Pineapple French Toast at Cheeky’s in Palm Springs is out of this world.

  3. Leave plenty of downtime on your agenda. There is a reason we need vacations, and that is to RELAX. Make sure in your list-making that you have a line item for downtime every day, even if you have to schedule it. There is nothing more relaxing than a nice nap in that warm Palm Spring sun.
    Pooltime in Palm Springs

    There are so many pools in Palm Springs, we’re not sure we can sample them all!

  4. Make sure you pack all the chargers and connectors. I cannot even tell you how many times I’ve had to google “nearest Apple store” so we could grab an emergency laptop charger or pair of headphones that *someone* forgot to bring on vacation. Really, it is worth your sanity to bring every power cord in the house, even if you find out it actually powers Alexa. Don’t worry, she will live while you’re gone.
  5. Don’t overpack. Really this advice goes for any trip. Once you have lugged one too many bags through the cobbled streets of some remote Italian village, you’ll know the wisdom of packing light. No one will notice if you wear the same outfit twice. Honestly, this is not the Paris runways.
  6. Bring at least two swimsuits. Palm Springs is a world of swimming pools, and you will undoubtedly find yourself in at least one a day. They never seem to dry completely in the hotel bathroom, and there is nothing worse that putting back on a cold, damp swimming suit. Makes your skin crawl.
  7. Prepare to enjoy the great outdoors. Some of the most beautiful places in the world are right at your footsteps in Palm Springs. Hike Indian Canyon. Take in a round at Escena Golf Club. Bicycle  through the historic post-modern streets. Ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the top of Mt Jacinto.  So bring your sports equipment and hiking shoes – it’s not just about laying by the pool.

    Hiking through the rocky terrain is a perfect break from lounging by the pool.

  8. Lay by the pool! Why did we plan a vacation in Palm Springs anyway? Exactly.

What other things do you love doing in Palm Springs? We’re planning for Spring Break in Palm Springs  now, so please shout out your recommendations so we can add them to our list of to-do’s!

Goofy pool antics in Palm Springs

Who knew that pool floaties could double as Easter bonnets?