Category Archives: travel

Travel: Luxembourg With Kids

Our quest while living in Ireland is to visit as many places in Europe as possible. If only those pesky things like budgets, school and work didn’t always get in the way. Am I right?

Over the holidays, while the kids were off from school, we had the opportunity to visit Barcelona, Luxembourg and Paris. I wrote about our experience in Barcelona here. I’ll write about Paris soon.

Luxembourg came about because we had a gap in our itinerary and we could easily reach it via train from Paris. Luxembourg is a country, but also a city. To distinguish between the two, Luxembourg City seems to be referenced when speaking of the municipality and not the country.

(image)

We ended up staying two nights in Luxembourg City, but only had one real day for exploring with our kids, ages 7 and 10.

If you ask them, they will say Luxembourg was their FAVORITE place on our trip. Part of their reasoning is due to happenstance and good timing – two things we all wish for when traveling!


WHERE WE STAYED
Hotel Novotel Luxembourg Centre
Pros:
– Amazing breakfast. Waffles, eggs, potatoes, all the breads, cereals, meat, etc.
– Gift for kids at check-in. This time it was a stuffed animal! Huge hit. They also gave the adults socks! (And, no, this is not an ad for Novotel.)
– Foosball table in the lobby. Area with books and video games for kids to play.

Cons: No real deal breakers for us, but because I did a pro list…
– No swimming pool.
– View from our room wasn’t that great –  mainly of surrounding buildings.


GETTING TO LUXEMBOURG
While Luxembourg does have an airport, we took the train from Paris. It’s only a 2 hour trip on the high speed TGV France – Luxembourg train, which is run by SNCF.

This train regularly travels at 186mph (300 km/h). It’s fast. We prebooked our tickets, so we had actual seat numbers assigned to us. There are bathrooms on board. There’s a train car with a cafe. We did not have wifi on our train. Maybe it was a fluke or maybe in the future they will have it.

Here’s the beautiful ceiling at the Luxembourg train station…

Once we were in Luxembourg, we did not feel the need to use public transportation.

Relatively speaking, the city core is pretty small and quite walkable.


WHERE WE ATE
I know you’re probably going to ask me what local delicacy we enjoyed eating while in Luxembourg.

Well. About that.

We ate at a Mexican restaurant called Chi-Chi’s and it was packed! I wouldn’t quite call the food authentic, but it was good. Best meal yet, the kids said. They got ice cream with their kid’s meal. Of course it was the best!

A random thing happened in this restaurant. I went upstairs to use the restroom. When I opened the restroom door, the first thing I saw was a man changing a baby’s diaper. I had that instinctive “oh no I’ve walked into the wrong restroom” impulse and took a step backward. He said, “Oh sorry! I had to change the baby and this was the only changing table.” I just said, “no worries” and went about finding a stall to use. That’s the first time that’s ever happened to me!


WHAT WE DID
We didn’t have any set plans when we arrived in Luxembourg. This was a bonus stop on our trip and after a quick consultation with our travel guide, Google, we decided to set out on foot to explore the old part of Luxembourg.

Fortifications of the Old City of Luxembourg
Luxembourg was very clearly built – back in the day – to be a fortress. They used the natural landscape with the river and steep hills to their advantage.

The fortifications that still remain including 17 km of tunnels became an UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Site in 1994. The tunnels are often referred to as the Bock Casemates.

The tunnel access was closed when we were there in late December, but we explored what we could above ground.


Impromptu Soccer (Football) Game
We walked down a steep hill from the casemates and along a paved path next to the Alzette River. As we were walking along, we found a soccer field/football pitch. (I couldn’t find a name for the field, but its coordinates are 49°36’49.7″N 6°08’04.3″E.)

Lo and behold, luck was on our side because someone had left a ball on the field. I’m not sure if that’s normal. It wouldn’t be in Ireland. We took advantage though and probably spent a good 45 minutes playing soccer as a family.

While I’d love for my kids to remember the cultural and historical experiences of our travels, what they will probably remember or enjoy the most are these spontaneous moments of family fun.

And how many 7-year-old Americans can say they’ve played soccer in Luxembourg? It’s a cool memory to have.


National Monument of the Solidarity
I wish the pictures of our day in Luxembourg were bright and cheery, but there was a snowstorm on the way. It was cold, grey and this eternal flame definitely caught our eye. The kids were hoping it would warm them up! Wishful thinking. 

National Monument of the Solidarity features an eternal flame. This flame and the surrounding memorial are a tribute to the lives lost in WWII. The memorial is also designed to remember the resistance of Luxembourg as it faced Nazi occupation.

Not a light-hearted topic, that’s for sure, but if your kids are learning about world history this is a great place for a conversation starter.


Tunnels, Stairs, Bridges, Elevators
Luxembourg definitely has that ‘fortress on the hill with the valley below’ vibe going on.

And the valley below is really far below.

Despite that, the city is completely walkable. There are pedestrian paths everywhere and it made exploring a lot of fun. Truly!

A tunnel through a tower-like structure? Of course we want to run walk through that!

My mention of the valley below is important because off in the distance we saw an elevator. Just an elevator. Outside. It was the most random thing and we HAD to check it out.

It turns out this elevator is not random. It is a completely intentional use of space. The award-winning Pfaffenthal Lift opened in 2016 and connects the “Pescatore” park located in the city center to the Pfaffenthal area at the bottom of the Alzette Valley. It can transport 300 pedestrians an hour.

Best of all, It’s free.

A tremendous amount of thought went into the design of this elevator. To learn more about it, here’s a great article from World Architecture.

It was wild to look down at the valley where we had just been walking and playing soccer. You can even see the train in the distance.


Villa Vauban – Art Museum
We were on the hunt for lunch and walking through a park when I spotted a sign for an art museum with FREE admission. Score!

Here’s a travel tip: The sign for a “free museum” is code for “clean bathroom.”

I didn’t know what our lunch situation was going to entail and everyone needed a restroom break. So, we popped into the Villa Vauban museum. I figured we’d get some culture, warm up from the cold, use the restroom.

Here’s where good timing and happenstance came into play. The very first thing we saw off the museum entrance was a room full of beanbags. Giant beanbags. And a disco ball throwing colorful lights all over the walls.

Best. Thing. Ever!

I did confirm the space was intended for the children to use – if they removed their shoes. We were the only ones there. The only ones! I sat on a bench while the kids played and read books. Handy Husband toured the museum. Everybody won in this scenario!

FYI – If you do visit the museum, you will need to check your backpack or other large bags in a locker. You’ll need a one euro coin to release the lock on the locker and you get your euro back when you’re finished.


Souvenir Shopping
To escape the cold on the way to lunch we also did a little souvenir shopping.

Kidding!

Just wanted to see if you were still with me.

There did look to be some very nice, very high-end shopping in Luxembourg if that’s the thing you enjoy doing with children in tow.

There is a shop at the Luxembourg Train Station that has some souvenir-type items, books, magazines, snacks, etc. Most of the reading materials were in French though.


SNOW!
The best thing happened in the afternoon. It started snowing! Legit snow!

My kids hadn’t seen snow in quite awhile and they were BEYOND ELATED.

If you’re 7 and 10 years old and have been wishing for snow and then it starts snowing while you’re on vacation, it’s pretty magical!


Did we enjoy our time in Luxembourg City? Yes!

Admittedly, a bit of luck and good timing was on our side during this quick visit.

While there are other museums and things to do in and out of the city, I don’t know that I’d plan a long trip with your family to this city. Start by seeing if there are things to fill up a day or two first and then go from there.

Happy Travels!


If you liked this Travel With Kids post, here are some others:

Travel: Barcelona With Kids

Travel: Belfast With Kids

Travel: Copenhagen, Denmark With Kids

Visiting Ireland: The Cliffs of Moher and Aran Island With Kids

A Day in Malmo, Sweden With Kids

Visiting Ireland: Galway With Kids

Visiting Ireland: Kissing the Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle

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Travel: Barcelona With Kids

When you’re living though a cold, damp winter in Dublin, a quick getaway to Barcelona, Spain, in December is a real treat!

Actually, in my mind, a trip to Barcelona no matter the time is AMAZING.

This was our first time visiting Barcelona and we only had two days to explore the city. Before we left I did a little online research so I had an idea of what was available to do in the city and of interest to our family (our kids are 7 and 10).

When we landed in Barcelona on December 26, it felt like an Irish summer. I kid you not. The locals were bundled up in parkas, but my kids were like, “WE FOUND THE PROMISED LAND AND IT’S WARM!” In case you’re wondering what my kids call warm these days – high 50s Fahrenheit.

All the loose plans involving indoor attractions were scrapped. Instead, if there was a theme to this trip, it was let’s stay outside as long as possible! Even if the wind kicks up! And it did.


WHERE WE STAYED:
Novotel Barcelona City
Pros:
– Their breakfasts are super hearty and delicious (eggs, potatoes, meats, breads, cereals, fresh juice, fruit, etc.).
– Kids get a present at check-in. This time it was a lollipop and a Minions bracelet.
– Play area for the kids with toys and video games.
– This Novotel is located next to Glories Shopping Center with shops and restaurants and around the corner from a metro and tram station.

Cons:
– For all the stuff we ended up doing, we had to either walk or take the subway. Granted, the things we wanted to do were spread all over the city. It would have been nice to have been on the beach, but that’s just personal preference.

The View From Our Hotel:
We didn’t have a beach view, but we did have a view of Torre Glòries lit up at night!


WHERE WE ATE:
I honestly cannot tell you the names of any of the restaurants where we ate. They all ended up being hole-in-the-wall establishments that looked sketchy, but had amazing and inexpensive food.

We also stopped at a couple of grocery stores to buy apples, oranges, water and cookies. We always buy the cookies! You have to see what sweets everyone else is eating, right? Just nod and say, “yes.”

One night we ate sushi from a huge supermarket store – CarreFour. Honest to goodness, the food selection in that grocery store was amazing. If you buy loose fruit though (ones you bag yourself) make sure you weigh it before you take it to the checkout counter. Live and learn.

Oh, and because one of my children would rather starve than eat sushi, he got a McDonald’s Happy Meal. Don’t judge. Sometimes travel is all about survival. Plus, it’s sort of interesting to see what’s in a Happy Meal in various countries. In Spain you can get tomatoes instead of fries. That’s totally what my kids did!

HAHAHAHAHA! Not! Just wanted to see if you were paying attention.


TRAVEL CARD (BARCELONA CARD):
You can purchase a Barcelona Card that includes free admission to many attractions AND all your public transportation – even the train from the airport. Generally speaking, these type of tourist cards can save you a few bucks if you’re hitting a lot of attractions. It’s best to price things out before you purchase one though.

We ended up purchasing a Barcelona Exrpess Card (2 day), which gave us the transportation option and discounted (not free) admission to some attractions. While we did use a lot of trains and buses in two days, we didn’t end up using any of the discounts the card offers. I’m not sure if we came out ahead or not on that deal, but it was nice not to have to worry about train and bus tickets all the time.

If you do buy a Barcelona Card there is a small discount for purchasing it online in advance of your trip. You will receive a voucher that can be redeemed at various tourism offices for the card. It was slightly confusing/frustrating to find the tourism office at the airport. That’s because we didn’t deplane into Terminal 1 or 2, so we had to go on the search for the tourism office. Also, you are supposed to print out your voucher prior to redeeming it. However, enough people don’t do this in advance that the customer service agent handed us an email address where we forwarded our online voucher and he printed it out for us.


WHAT WE DID:
Beach

One of the first things we did was find the beach! Barcelona is located along the Balearic Sea, which is part of the Mediterranean Sea. The sand had a coarse texture and was a medium-brown, almost clay color. I’m not sure why, but I found that tidbit interesting.

No one was in the water when we were there, but plenty of people were hanging out on the beach or walking the boardwalk. There are restaurants, playgrounds, bathrooms and feet washing stations all along this area.


Sagrada Familia
Sagrada Familia is one of the most famous landmarks in Barcelona. The temple is famous for different reasons. First, its architect is the famed Antoni Gaudí. As a result, its design is definitely unique. Second, the temple has been under construction since 1882. That’s 135 years of construction – give or take some work stoppages here and there. According to the temple’s website, construction may be complete by the first third of the 21st century. So by 2033. Maybe?

If you’ve read Dan Brown’s latest book, Origin, then you’ll know Sagrada Familia was featured pretty prominently in the storyline. I really enjoyed that book, by the way.

Partly because of the book, but mainly based on what we already knew about Sagrada Familia, this was the one “adult” thing we were going to do while in Barcelona. We got to the temple just after its opening time and ALL the tours for that day were sold out.

Whomp, whomp.

Learn from our mistake! We should have either gotten there earlier or bought tickets online prior to our trip. It looks like they sell tickets up to two months in advance. Kids 10 and under are free. I think we could have waited in line for general admission tickets, but the line was crazy and the process confusing. For ticket tips, this website was helpful after the fact.

My kids did not feel sorry about our misfortune one bit because do you know what’s right outside of the Sagrada Familia? A playground.

It is a pretty epic setting in which to play.


Park Güell
Park Güell is considered to be another of Antoní Gaudi’s masterpieces. It was originally intended to be a residential development and work started in 1900, but the project was scrapped by the owner, Eusebi Güell, in 1914. The land was sold to the City of Barcelona and became a park in 1926. Park Güell was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

Tickets to the ‘Monumental Core’ of Park Güell are available online up to 3 months prior to your visit. We were able to walk up and buy tickets, which are sold in time bands. As an example, we arrived at 11:15 and were able to purchase tickets for entrance to the core between 12 and 12:30. I don’t know if this would be the case during peak tourist season. You can stay as long as you want once inside, but you have to enter within the time on your time band. 

What did we do while we waited for our entrance time? Well, most of Park Güell is a large public park with trails, picnic areas, restroom and a playground. You don’t need a ticket to visit a public park! 

So, we played on a playground.

We walked the paths and explored Gaudi’s handiwork. It really does boggle your mind to see the intricate paths, arches, benches, etc. that his vision created. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Park Güell is located on the top of a hill, so when you walk the paths you will be rewarded with impressive views of Barcelona and the Balearic Sea. 

Just keep climbing…you’ll get there!

Once inside the Monumental Core – the ticketed area – we saw more of what is in the public park. There’s also a Dragon Stairway, the HypoStyle Room, Nature Square (under rehab when we were there), gardens and the Laundry Room Portico.

Plus, you have access to the Porter’s House, which is now a history museum. The wait to get inside the museum (below) was 45 minutes. There was no way my kids were going to cheerfully handle a 45-minute wait for something that doesn’t involve a rollercoaster. That’s my reality and the museum wasn’t a high priority for me anyway.

If I would have realized the wait was going to be 45 minutes for the museum and knowing that you can sort of see some of the things in the Monumental Core from the free areas of the park, I wouldn’t have bought the entrance ticket. I don’t want to discourage you from buying a ticket though because maybe you’ll get more out of it than we did.


Playgrounds
In between our walks to various attractions or walks to the subway stations, we kept stumbling upon public playgrounds. It almost became a running joke there were so many of them! The park situation was definitely a way to motivate our kids to keep moving.

“Let’s go find another park, kids!”

From what we saw, Barcelona has done an amazing job of creating outdoor spaces for its residents (and visitors!) to enjoy.


Teleférico de Barcelona – Cable Car
The one thing we REALLY wanted to do as a family in Barcelona was ride Teleférico de Barcelona – the cable car. I don’t think my kids have ever been on one and certainly not in Spain! We set out to find one of the cable car stations only to arrive and realize that it was closed due to high winds. 

Whomp, whomp.

These things happen. You can’t control the weather while on vacation. You also can’t always rely on an attraction to update their website with these type of closures. We were just one of many tourists caught off guard that day.

It would have been awesome though!


Castell de Montjuïc
We didn’t let a little cable car closure ruin our day! After all, we got to ride the funicular railway to get there (that was new for us) AND there’s always another park to find!

The closest “park” in this instance was the one surrounding Montjuïc Castle (Castell de Montjuïc).

Montjuïc Castle is located on a high point above Barcelona with panoramic views of the sea. The castle site was used as a place to defend Barcelona for centuries. It became a military museum in the 1960s.

On our hike up the hill to the museum, we found the coolest set of slides. They were as steep as this picture indicates and a clever use of space.

We decided not to go into the museum, but the grounds around the castle were gorgeous.

We were SUPER glad for our Barcelona Card and the public bus that came every 15 minutes from the castle to take us back down the hill. I don’t think mama the kids would have made it. Later that day our activity trackers showed we had walked 98 flights of stairs – most of those were on our hike UP to the castle.

Side note: Also located on the Montjuïc Hill are the stadiums from the 1992 Olympics. You can tour them for free. We didn’t do this, but did go by them and they looked very neat. The stadiums are now used for concerts and sporting events. 


Parc de la Ciutadella
Parc de la Ciutadella is a 70-acre park in Barcelona that is home to the Parliament of Catalonia, Museum of Natural Science, the city zoo and a large fountain.

I was told December in Barcelona is orange season and the season did not disappoint. One of my favorite things about Parc de la Ciutadella was all the orange trees. And, no, I didn’t try to pick one. I thought hard about it though!

Instead, I bought a big bag of local oranges for Handy Husband to carry around in his red backpack. He was so appreciative of the extra weight the healthy snack.

That’s the parliament building in the background, by the way. I will briefly mention that while we saw support for Catalan independence everywhere, we did not see any protests during out quick visit.

The other showstopper in Parc de la Ciutadella is the fountain called Cascada. It’s more of a structure than simply a fountain. It was created back in 1881 and then a few years later added onto and embellished to be more impressive.

I was impressed.


Did we enjoy our time in Barcelona? YES. Definitely.

I know there were some hiccups to our visit, but that’s just part of travel. Our attitude determines if it’s an adventure or an ordeal. Some of the things that didn’t happen led to some other cool things that did, so I’ll call that a win!

It was fun to experience a place that is so different from most anywhere else we’ve visited. It was also a good opportunity (and a humbling one) to practice our Spanish language skills, which are, at present, very poor. Although, in most cases, people speak English quite well.

There were plenty of museums and other indoor attractions that we did not make time to visit with our kids during this trip and that’s okay. Being outside was an enjoyable December treat!

Happy Travels!


P.S. Handy Husband is a fan of this 20L Deuter backpack to carry around our snacks and gear while being tourists. My daughter now wears these Skecher boots in a woman’s size. They have a tennis shoe sole, but the look and warmth of an UGG boot and have been awesome this winter while traveling.

*affiliate links used in this post*


If you liked this Travel With Kids post, here are some others:

Travel: Belfast With Kids

Travel: Copenhagen, Denmark With Kids

Visiting Ireland: The Cliffs of Moher and Aran Island With Kids

A Day in Malmo, Sweden With Kids

Visiting Ireland: Galway With Kids

Visiting Ireland: Kissing the Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle

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Visiting Ireland: Talking Statues

If you’re visiting Ireland or the Dublin area anytime soon, there’s a cool new feature in town.

Statues that talk!

And I’m not talking about the ones that ‘talk’ after you’ve spent the night at the pub.

I’m talking about ones that can call your phone.

visiting ireland oscar wilde

With a lot of support, an initiative called ‘Talking Statues’ was commissioned by Sing London, whose projects “set out to connect people to each other and to the public spaces we share.”

The statues use humor and drama to tell a story and connect the listener with Dublin’s history. Plus, these stories are written and recorded by some pretty famous folks whose work you might have read, heard or seen.

10 statutes in Dublin now ‘talk’ including Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw.

I’m excited for the next time I take my kids into the city because we have the opportunity to engage with history in a way that sounds different and fun.

visiting ireland - hear joyce here

If you have no plans to visit Ireland, why not never fear. There’s one city in the U.S. with 30 talking statues – Chicago.

How cool would it be to hear from The Tin Man, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Leif Erikson, Nicolaus Copernicus or Benito Juarez while walking around the city? Pretty cool!

Some of the people involved in Chicago’s Talking Statues are David Saltzman, Johnny Galecki, Steve Carell and David Schwimmer. Oh, you know it’s got to be good!

Sing London has also animated statues in London, Manchester, Leeds, Bedford and now Dublin.

visiting ireland - o'connell statue

Whether you are a tourist or a local, this is the type of engagement with history that I love. It’s free. It’s entertaining. It doesn’t take a lot of time. And you’ll probably learn something new.

Happy Travels!


Learn More: Talking Statues Dublin 

Learn More: Talking Statues


Here are more posts about visiting Ireland.

The Cliffs of Moher and the Aran Islands with Kids

Galway with Kids

Our Favorite Irish Castle Tour with Kids

Belfast with Kids

 

 

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Visiting Ireland: Our Favorite Castle Tour (with kids)

I grew up on the West Coast of the United States. The places and structures we consider old there aren’t old at all when compared to, well, basically everywhere else in the world.

That perspective, in part, is why I find castles so fascinating.

Ireland has a number of castles – some of which date back to the 12th century.

The thing you need to know about castles is they are not one size fits all. They range in size, in function, in grandeur. It’s interesting to visit castles of all shapes and sizes because they each have an interesting story to tell about their place and purpose in history.

When I’m visiting castles in Ireland, it’s never alone. That would make absorbing the interesting historical and cultural information way too easy. I need to challenge the few remaining brain cells that survived that never-ending My Little Pony phase by touring these castles with Thing 1 and Thing 2 my precious offspring (ages 7 and 10).

I’m drinking the Kool-Aid convinced we lead a more enriching life because of these learning experiences.

So far, our favorite castle to visit in Ireland with kids is Dalkey Castle, which is about 30 minutes south of Dublin and easily accessible via the DART.

Dalkey Castle is not the biggest, the fanciest or the most well-known castle in the area.

So what made the tour our favorite?

That’s easy! The specific information that was presented and HOW it was presented.

The Dalkey Heritage Center clearly gets the importance of the entertainment factor when it comes to the overall tourist experience. This was the first time we’ve visited a castle where our tour was conducted by professional actors in period attire.

The eyeballs in my children’s heads about POPPED out of their sockets when Rupert the Archer walked around the corner in the graveyard with his bow and arrow. They could tell this was not going to be your average tour experience.

favorite castle tour - bowman

Rupert shared very specific information about what kind of bow you would use to defend the castle, how far it would fly, what kind of damage it would do to a human.

If it sounds a little horrible, it was and it wasn’t. The 15th century was a pretty horrible time. Rupert the Archer was telling it like it was, but I suspect it was a little downplayed for the young ears.

All the kids and even a few big ones on the tour got to hold one of the bows.

favorite castle tour - crossbow

Rupert the Archer also shared other tricks for defending the castle.

There was only one castle entrance, as you can see below, where the stairs are located. Above the doorway is a little rectangle that continues up to the second floor. That’s called the murder hole. Anything and everything, included boiling urine was thrown down that hole onto the heads of invaders.

I’m just going to say it…that would keep me from invading a castle. Regular urine wasn’t bad enough…they had to boil it too?!?

favorite castle tour - diagram of castle

Along your tour you will meet some friends of Rupert the Archer. These might include the Cook, the Barber Surgeon and/or the Coin Minter.

On our tour we met the Cook who also filled in as the Barber Surgeon.

You will NEVER look at a barbershop pole the same after hearing about Barber Surgeons in 15th century Ireland. Trust me. If only they knew one or two things about germs.

favorite castle tour - minting coins

The kids did get to mint their own coin too.

They got a demonstration on coin minting and then were able to work the tools themselves.

No fingers were harmed during this process. Although, there was one close call. I still cringe.

favorite castle tour - minted coin

On the grounds of Dalkey Castle is St. Begnet’s Church and Graveyard.

Notice the small opening on the far back wall of the church. There on the bottom left?

favorite castle tour - church

That was originally a normal-sized door.

Apparently so many bodies have been buried on this site that the ground has been raised up significantly in the past 600 years.

Think about that for a moment.

favorite castle tour - stocks

Even the adults in our group RAVED about this castle experience.

From what was presented to how it was presented, we took away from this experience far more information and understanding about this period of history than we had from some of the other Irish castle tours.

Put this tour on your list and make time for lunch in Dalkey. It’s the cutest Irish village and you’ll be happy you did.


For more information on planning your visit to Dalkey Castle, click here.

 

 

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Visiting Ireland: The Cliffs of Moher and Aran Islands (with kids)

I can’t believe we waited over a year to see Ireland’s #2 tourist spot, the Cliffs of Moher.

The #1 tourist spot in Ireland, by the numbers, is the Guinness Storehouse. Tourists have their priorities!

As much as we enjoyed the Guinness Storehouse, the Cliffs of Moher just might be my favorite spot in all of Ireland. So far.

When visiting the Cliffs of Moher, most people will home base out of the city of Galway.

I wrote about visiting Galway here. It’s not a big city, so you can hit all of the high points in a day, maybe a day and a half. That leaves plenty of time for excursions like the one we took to the Cliffs of Moher and the Aran Islands.

Since we do not have a car, we booked a one-day guided tour with Galway Tour Company.

We selected them based on careful research luck of the draw, in all reality. They had availability for the sites we wanted to visit on the day when we could visit and a coupon code. I do love a good coupon code! They have absolutely no clue who I am, but we had a great experience.

If you’re curious, we booked this specific tour for the Aran Islands and the Cliffs Cruise.

TRIP HIGHLIGHTS:


Riding The Ferry to the Island of Inisheer (Inis Oirr)

(ferry image courtesy Doolin Ferry)

After leaving Galway, our first stop of the day was in the small town of Doolin where we took the Doolin Ferry over to the island of Inisheer.

While the boat does has stabilizers, whatever that means, you are traveling over open ocean. It was a bit rollercoaster-ish, which added to the excitement. It should be noted we were traveling on a relatively calm day!

The good news, if you are prone to seasickness, the ride is only 15 minutes on the express ferry. Otherwise, it takes about 30 minutes.


Inisheer (Inis Oirr)

In terms of land mass, Inisheer is the smallest of the Aran Islands. In terms of people, it is the second smallest. The permanent population on the island is approximately 260 people.

Our ferry had 190 passengers, which means in the course of a normal day, tourists will definitely end up out-numbering the locals.

I couldn’t help thinking about how much I complain about Amazon deliveries to Ireland. I can’t even IMAGINE living on an island where everything they consume has to be ferried over. I saw restaurants, but I did not see a grocery store, so I don’t know how that works.

As soon as you get off the ferry, you will be asked by many different locals if you want to rent a bike (they have kid bikes and helmets too) or take a horse and carriage ride. Either of these activities are 10 euro per person. Make sure you have cash!

I wish we would have rented the bikes because the island is only 3 km wide. It would have been easy to cycle around and see the sights in our allotted time of about 2 hours on the island.

However, we were starving. Okay, it might have just been me, but it was either eat at noon on the island or wait until 3 p.m. for a late lunch. 3 p.m. is like my snack time, people. Not lunch. There was no way me and my stomach the kids were going to survive in good spirits until 3 p.m. for lunch.

So we headed to the pub. Yes, kids can go into pubs in Ireland.

After that, we did some exploring around the island.

Inisheer has a really lovely swimming beach.

I managed to snag a picture without any humans in it, but yes, people were actually swimming on this grey day.

In addition to a beach, the island also has a cemetery, an abandoned church, a small castle, a fort, a lighthouse and a shipwreck you can check out.

The shipwreck is also visible from the ferry just before you dock in Inisheer.

You can see a glimpse of the castle and fort on top of the hill in the below picture.

If jumping on rocks and playing on the beach is not your kids’ thing, there is also a nice playground right behind the beach.


Cruising Along the Base of the Cliffs of Moher

After a couple of hours on the island, we boarded the Doolin Ferry, but instead of heading straight back, we cruised along the base of the Cliffs of Moher.

We had quite a few Princess Bride fans onboard our boat and they were VERY excited to see the Cliffs of Insanity!

I was too! I knew it was going to be cool to stand on top of the cliffs, but seeing them from the Atlantic Ocean just completed the entire experience.

The captain will get you as close as is safe to the cliffs. Parts of the cliff break away periodically, so in the interest of safety, they don’t get too close.

Unfortunately, my youngest kiddo did start to feel a little seasick during this cruise, which lasted about an hour. Thankfully, he returned to normal just minutes after we reached dry land.


Visiting the Cliffs of Moher

After a quick stop for a late lunch for the rest of the tour group (we went to the chocolate shop instead – who are the smart ones now?!?!), we headed for the Cliffs of Moher.

The nice thing about going on a guided tour is that your admission to the various attractions are all included in your tour price.

I think we had about 90 minutes to explore the top of the cliffs.

We felt safe enough taking the kids along the northern cliff route toward the round tower.

It was well fenced, with a (mainly) paved path and steps. It’s about a 5 – 10 minute walk to the tower.

You can pay an extra 2 euro to climb the 25-foot tower. I felt 700-feet above sea level was plenty high, thank you very much.

The views were – I don’t have adequate words – spectacular.

This below photo is looking back at the south side of the cliffs. Those black specks on top of the cliffs are people.

As you can see, it was a relatively calm day and the water was exceptionally clear. I felt incredibly lucky that we had some blue sky during our visit. That doesn’t always happen here!

Our tour guide told us the south side of the cliff walk was more dangerous and without railings, which is why we started our hike on the north side.

Since our kids did a good job of not going completely crazy hiking responsibly, we told them we would hike up a little way on the ‘dangerous’ part if they held mom or dad’s hand THE ENTIRE TIME.

Well, the first part of the cliff walk on the north side is completely fenced in with rock slabs, so that was safe enough.

There was a point when people jumped the fence and were hiking on the wrong side of the path though. The unprotected side. The side that occasionally breaks off and drops 700-feet into the Atlantic Ocean.

I probably would not have done that even if we didn’t have our kids with us.

It was a good lesson in, if your friends jump off a cliff hike on the edge of a cliff, would you do it too?

NO! Because your mama will find out and ground you until you are 107!

We did get a lovely family picture while at the top of the cliffs.

Yes, I was sporting the always glamorous wind-whipped look.

And my precious son. He was sporting the ‘tongue sticking out of his mouth at the camera’ look.

I did not notice this until much later.

So no, we will not be sending out Christmas cards this year! At least not normal ones where everyone is smiling at the camera.

There is a neat visitor center at the cliffs. It’s built into the earth just like something out of Lord of the Rings. That in and of itself is cool!

There’s also a cafe, gift shop and restrooms.


Coast Road and The Burren

After we finished hiking around the Cliffs of Moher, we boarded the coach for the 2-hour ride back to Galway. We took the coast road back to the city and I had my eyes glued to the landscape the entire time.

You will travel through a region called The Burren. Burren means great rock and I’ve never seen anything like it! I’d like to go back and explore The Burren National Park.

In total, our trip lasted 10.5 hours. We left Galway at 9 a.m. and returned at 7:30 p.m. It was a long, but amazing day. If you were taking a Cliffs of Moher tour from Dublin, you would probably leave around 6:30 a.m.


GUIDED TOUR TIPS:

We’ve been on a couple of guided trips while in Ireland. Both times our kids (ages 7 and 10) have been the only children on the trip, but no one seems to mind and the tour groups almost always offer a child discount. If your trip says kids go free, you still need to book them a spot. Otherwise, they might not have a seat on the bus and you won’t be able to go on the tour. If you have any questions about this, call or email the tour company to confirm your reservation.

The great thing about a guided tour is that your day is completely planned out for you. You don’t have to think about where you are going or how to get there. Just sit back and enjoy. The flip side of this is that you and the kids have to go with the flow and your schedule is not your own. That’s why I always pack water, lots of snacks and plenty of things for the kids to do while on the bus. On a day like this one, you’re going to be on the bus for over 4 hours, so make sure that is something your kids can handle.

A guided tour means the tour guide is going to be talking while you’re on the bus. When the guide is talking, the passengers need to be quiet so everyone can hear the information. If your kids aren’t at a stage where they can do that, you might want to wait before taking one of these tours.

Don’t be late! You’re sharing a bus with 50 other people. Don’t be the person that returns to the bus 5 minutes late. Not only is it rude, but it throws the schedule off for everyone.

These large coaches usually (not always) have a small restroom on board, so keep that in mind and plan accordingly.

Don’t switch seats on the bus when you get back on after a stop. People get really irritated by this. Also, your driver will let you know if you can leave items on the bus and if it will be locked.

If you are booking back-to-back tours with the same tour company, they usually offer a discount, so don’t be afraid to ask!

Last, but not least, take layers! Irish weather – I don’t care what the weather forecast says – is unpredictable. Be prepared for wind, rain, sun…did I say rain? All of those.


Our day spent exploring the Cliffs of Moher and the Aran Islands was even better than I imagined it would be. Partly because we were going to an amazing place and lucked out with the weather, but also because we had a great tour guide who was funny and informative.

All in all, I’m so happy we finally visited this iconic spot in Ireland. Without a doubt it is a true treasure not just for the people of Ireland, but for the world. Be sure and put it on your bucket list!

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Visiting Ireland: Galway With kids

Over the past year we have spent long weekends here and there visiting different parts of Ireland.

Every place we visit is new and exciting for our family – it’s a perk of moving to a new country!

Our kids are 7 and 10 and they are definitely becoming seasoned travelers.

Last weekend we finally made our way from Dublin over to the beautiful city of Galway.

Galway has a population of approximately 80,000 people. It is also the home of National University of Ireland Galway (NUI Galway). Approximately 17,000 students attend university at NUI Galway each year.

LOCATION

Galway is located on the west coast of Ireland. The River Shannon is located to the city’s east. To the west is Galway Bay, which opens into the Atlantic Ocean.

Galway is a 2.5 hour train ride from Dublin’s Heuston Station. It is a great hub for tourists who want to visit the Cliffs of Moher (to the south) and Connemara (to the north).

(map)

TOURIST HIGHLIGHTS

Galway is not a big city. In a long day (or a day and a half), you can see all of the major tourist attractions in the city itself. After that, you’re going to need a car or a tour bus to see the sights outside of the city.

For a PDF of a Galway city map with attractions, click here.

Here are some places we visited:


Galway Cathedral

Galway Cathedral is not an old church, but it is impressive.

The church is located along the River Corrib and is free to visit. They do ask for a 2 Euro donation.

This was a good place for my kids to:
1) Practice their inside voice.
2) Not drink the holy water.
3) Not play with fire from the why were there so many?? hundreds of lit candles.

The cathedral also offers a unique opportunity to teach kids about sound and acoustics. In particular, what happens when you make fart noises in an echo-y building. The wrath of God mom. That’s what happens.

The part my kids most enjoyed was the beautiful mosaics on the walls. We had an interesting whispered discussion about how mosaics are made. At least, that’s what I think we were talking whispering about.

By the time our 20-minute visit was over, I was wondering why the tour hadn’t included any communion wine.


Eyre Square

Eyre Square is a park smack in the middle of Galway and half a block from the train station.

There’s a playground, green space, benches and statues/sculptures.

There was also a water fountain around the base of one of the sculptures that would have been  a TON of fun to play in if I had brought a second pair of shoes for each kid, towel, change of clothes, sunny weather, etc. I really dropped the ball on that one.

Eyre Square gave me one of those “thank God there’s a playground” moments though. We can offer kids all sorts of fancy experiences, but simple is usually best.

Look! There’s a swing and something dangerous to climb on! Go have fun while mom and dad figure out where the heck we are and how we are getting to the next place (in peace).

Everyone wins.

The copper sculpture at Eyre Square (above) represents the red sails of the iconic Galway Hooker boats, which are unique to the area.

So, now my kids know what a hooker is!

My work here is done.


Fishery Watchtower Museum and River Corrib Path

Galway has a beautiful path/sidewalk system along the River Corrib. You can walk from the NUI Galway campus down to Galway Bay on these paths. It’s fantastic! Truly.

Plus, if it rains (it will) there are plenty of trees to duck under for a little protection.

Along the way, you’ll be able to see evidence of the fishery system – past and present.

Random fact: the city can let 1 million gallons of water through that dam (below) in 4 seconds!

Be sure and visit the teeny, tiny Fishery Watchtower Museum. Your dining room might be bigger than this museum, but it’s probably not as tall. The watchtower was an actual place from where officials kept track of the salmon count in the river and of any illegal fishing activity.

The museum is free to enter no matter how many questions you ask the staff. I asked a lot! They were so helpful.

Also along the River Corrib Trail you will see poetry plaques such as this one…

The poetry plaques were erected by the Galway Civic Trust and the poems all refer to Galway and its waterways.


City Museum

The free museums in Ireland are really top-notch and Galway City Museum is no exception.

The museum does a fantastic job of explaining the history of the Galway area – including the significance of the Galway Hooker. Much to Handy Husband’s disappointment, we raced through all of those parts and made our way to the hands-on Sea Science section.

Science for the win! But in all reality, our museum visits go much better when I don’t have to say “DON’T TOUCH” 50 gazillion times.

Also, there are decent bathrooms in the museum that don’t cost 20 cents to use. Knowing where free bathrooms are in a new city is super important! I don’t want anyone to have a situation!

(image)


Spanish Arch

The Spanish Arch, one of 4 built in 1584, is right outside of the Galway City Museum.

All you’re going to do is walk through it, maybe do a little parkour if your parents aren’t watching.

It takes 4 seconds.

There is history and significance to the arch though and you can read more about it here.


Latin Quarter and City Centre

I’m not exactly sure where the Latin Quarter ends and the rest of the City Centre begins in Galway. I’m not even sure why it is called the Latin Quarter. Clearly, my knowledge base has limits.

Regardless, there is plenty for the eye to take in while visiting Galway.

There are a ton of shops (department stores and speciality shops) and restaurants (pretty much any type of cuisine you can imagine) in this area, which is mainly a car-free zone.

And tourists too. So. Many. Tourists. In. August.

When it rains, they will scatter…usually into a pub.

Our favorite restaurant was the Pie Maker.

We ordered our savory pies for takeaway since the restaurant has approximately 2.5 tables. Be sure and check out the copper ceiling…it took 60 hours to install.

If your kids don’t like savory pies, I can pretty much guarantee they will enjoy the apple pies!

There are also all sorts of fun alleys and side streets to walk down in Galway’s City Centre.

I usually tell the kids we are taking a shortcut when I spy an interesting looking side street/alley/crack between the buildings.

Sometimes that ends up being true…


Walking and the Salthill Promenade

Galway is a walking city. Be prepared to lace up your shoes and hit the sidewalks and promenades.

Try to wait until the weather is ‘nice’ though. Walking some of these stretches on a oh no we are going to blow away blustery day isn’t quite as enjoyable.

If you walk down the Salthill Promenade, there is a small amusement park and an aquarium. We did not visit this aquarium because while it received great reviews, we’ve visited a lot of amazing aquariums in the past couple of years. We were on the hunt for something different.

At the very end of the Salthill Promenade there is a diving board. Even on a “cold for everyone else, but warm for Ireland day” there will be people diving off the board into the bay.

I think my kids would have done this. Me? No. Way. No way. Brrr.

(image via Irish Times by Andy Newman)


River Cruise

If you need some time to CHILL and would like to see some scenery too, then I’d highly recommend the Princess Corrib cruise up the River Corrib.

You can sit inside or outside on this boat, so weather should not be an excuse for skipping this excursion.

The peaceful cruise is narrated by the captain (who was driving the boat in his stocking feet), so you can’t help but learn a few things along the way. About the river, not the captain’s feet.

One of the things you will see on the cruise is Menlo Castle.

It has quite the story behind it involving a fire and a missing body.

I was just blown away by how beautiful ivy looks on an abandoned castle.


OTHER HANDY TIPS

Luggage Storage: If you need a place to store suitcases, there are lockers at the train station. However, we used the ‘Left Luggage Facility‘ at Big-O Taxis. It’s right around the corner from the train station and across the street from Eyre Square.

Hop On, Hop Off Bus: We hopped on this bus tour when we first arrived. It was a spontaneous decision and it was SO helpful in getting our bearings on where everything was in Galway.

Train Tickets: If you are traveling with kids, make sure you buy (or at least price out) a family ticket on the Irish Rail site. Sometimes that option takes a little more searching, but it does exist

Food on the Train: These longer train rides do serve sandwiches and snacks from a food trolley. They aren’t the greatest or the most affordable. Dublin’s Heuston Station has great options for buying sandwiches, salads, sushi, etc. to take on the train. The train station in Galway does not, but there is a Starbucks. I’d recommend buying food from Marks and Spencer, Tesco or Dunnes before boarding the train in Galway for the return trip to Dublin.

We definitely enjoyed our visit to Galway! I’m going to follow up this post with another one about our excursion to the Cliffs of Moher, which might be my new happy place.

If you have any questions about Galway, please don’t hesitate to ask. I can’t promise the answers you are looking for, but I’ll do my best!

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Living in Ireland: Back After a Month in the U.S.

It’s flat out STRANGE to visit the United States after living in Ireland for a year.

I tried to put my finger on why exactly.

In part, I think it’s because I’ve changed. Evolved, shall we say? How could you not after moving to a foreign country?

But when I went ‘home’ I realized how much HADN’T changed. There is something comforting in that though.

I also realized that I’d gotten used to being slightly uncomfortable ALL. THE. TIME. while in Ireland.

You can try to look and act local in the face of constant new experiences, but as soon as you open your mouth you see a flicker of “you’re not from around here” pass across someone’s face.

This is especially funny when someone asks me for directions. I take it as a huge compliment that the poor soul assumes I’m a local. Fake it ’til you make it! But then I have to respond to their question and I can visibly see them trying to decide if I REALLY know what I’m talking about. Don’t worry. I mostly do.

When I’m in the United States, I’m not special at all.

Oh, we all know I’m SPECIAL, but what I really mean is I fit in. When I was back, I noticed I fit in, which is a weird thing to be acutely aware of.

That lady at Panera just assumed I’d been in her restaurant quite regularly because I was quick to order. I always get the same sandwich though.

The guy at the gas station just assumed I’d remember what zip code the credit card I hadn’t used in a year was attached to. I did…after a long, awkward pause and a quick prayer.

And the lady at the rental car company…well, let’s just say she should have asked me how long it’s been since I’ve USED my driver’s license, not if I have a valid one or not. Rest assured, I surprisingly remembered how to drive.

Our visit to the U.S. went by super quickly. I’m beyond grateful that I have this quirky blogging job that allows me to be home with the kids and gives me the freedom to work from anywhere. Even from a farm, 10 miles from civilization with slow-as-molasses internet. Talk about roughing it!

I was worried the kids would not want to return to Ireland. Not because they don’t like it here, but because it’s fun being with friends, cousins and grandparents. Thankfully, they were ready to go home. They missed daddy and all the things they normally play with.

Apparently, the neighbor’s cat missed them too. We call her Mittens. I’ve stopped wondering what her actual name is.

(In case you are wondering what my daughter is doing in inside-out pajamas, she is painting her LPS to look like Warrior Cats from her favorite book series. It’s a messy activity best done outside.)

I was a little concerned the kids were having a hard time adjusting when they announced they were going outside to play ‘cold weather survival.’

It was 62 degrees Fahrenheit.

Definitely not my idea of summer temps, I’ll grant them that.

We also needed to stock up on food because Handy Husband’s idea of stocking the refrigerator does not include food things like fruits and vegetables.

I’m teaching the kids how to ring up the groceries because I have dreams of one day just giving them a list and sending them to the store. These are important help your mama life skills.

Now, folks. Jet lag is real and it can whoop your behind. This happened to me the last time we did the 8-hour time change.

I’ve figured out what works for me though. The magic formula is to stay up all day and then sleep for 14 hours straight.

I kid you not, it works every time!

Handy Husband’s idea of overcoming jet lag is to go for a 4-mile hike the day after we land.

He’s so helpful.

I told him the 14 hours of sleep had me feeling pretty good, but no, no.

A hiking we did go!

We did get to see some awesome views of this lighthouse though.

Meanwhile, can you spot which kid and husband are mine?

Finally, we eased back into Irish life by going for a bike ride and discovering my favorite thing of all time a carnival.

This is what happens when I let the kids ride ahead of me.

But!

Here’s the good news. I think.

My boy, who has a healthy fear of these death traps, decided to get on that big sky swing.

If he showed even the slightest sign of being scared, I was prepared to go all mama bear on the entire carnival to shut that ride down, but my concerns were not warranted.

He had a fantastic time. Funny how you blink and they’ve done some growing up on you.

All in all, I’m so glad we had the opportunity to spend time in the U.S. this summer.

The place of your birth has a strange tug on your heartstrings. I realized this when I got teary-eyed listening to the national anthem being sung at a rodeo. Legit tears in my eyes, people.

Someday I’ll be back, but until then I’m happy to be home in my own bed in Ireland.

 

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Always Take The Trip

I read an article recently where the author shares the best parenting advice she ever received was to “always take the trip.”

Here’s an excerpt from Annie Reneau’s article:

“My friend Kelly has three stellar kids who are a bit older than my own three. I consider her and her husband to be model parents, so one day I asked her for her best piece of parenting advice. I thought she’d say something about love or discipline or consistency, so her answer took me by surprise.

Always take the trip,” she said. “When you question whether or not you should go on the vacation, just do it. Spend the money. Take the time. You only have a limited number of years together as a family before your kids get busy with lives of their own, and building memories and having new experiences together are things you’ll never regret.”

I took that advice to heart. And now, when I think back on my 16 years of parenting so far, the times we’ve traveled as a family stand out the most. It’s not just about “being on vacation,” but about the various positive ways travel affects us, both individually and as a family unit.”

Yess-ity, yes, yes, YES!

I never received this advice, but I have to agree with the thought process.

In large part, it’s why we decided to move to Ireland when given the opportunity.

For our family, travel means time for bonding and shared experiences. Travel means exposing all of us to cultures, experiences and ways of life that we might not otherwise see in our day-to-day routines. Travel means broadening our world view and gaining understanding of how interconnected our world is. With travel comes empathy, resilience, flexibility, confidence and fun.

I don’t always equate travel with vacation – especially with young kids in tow. But, I think we’re reaching that point. I hope. HA!

Let’s talk reality though.

Travel might seem impossible for some given life stage, finances, circumstances, etc. We’re all adults here with real responsibilities and sometimes that sucks.

I remember just starting out in life and not having two nickels to our name. Or not having paid vacation time.

I remember being a kid and hardly ever taking a trip because someone had to milk the cow(s) and feed ALL the livestock and how do you find a house sitter to do that? I’m sure finances played a role too, but let me assure you, farm life is not for those with wanderlust in their souls.

It seems to me the SPIRIT of ‘always take the trip’ does not mean you have to spend your life savings and a year traveling the world. A big chunk of people don’t have money saved for even a small emergency, let alone a trip.

Here are some alternatives to spending thousands of dollars that I think help achieve or start you down the path of achieving what the spirit of “always take the trip” means. Mainly these alternatives are through the lens of cultural experiences, as that’s what we are currently most interested in with our two kids.

  • Day trips to a place new to you – city, park, tourist attraction, etc.
  • Hike and picnic in a park or national forest.
  • Go to a festival or fair.
  • Visit a museum. Many museums off free or reduced rates on special days during the summer. Reciprocity membership agreements between museums can be a fantastic way to save money too.
  • Watch a travel show together to learn about different parts of the world.
  • Go to the library and check out books on different countries.
  • Practice charting routes on a map. Google Maps is great, but there’s something special about unfolding a paper map. How many different ways can you get to a dream destination? How long will it take? What can you see along the way?
  • Spend a night or weekend camping. Or sleep under the stars in your backyard.
  • If camping isn’t your thing, try house swapping for the weekend. Here are some tips on this practice by Rick Steves.
  • Start learning a new language. Listening to music in a foreign language can be a fun way to learn too.
  • Try cooking food from different regions of the world  – maybe corresponding with those books you checked out from the library.
  • Visit a church different from your own religion.
  • Host a foreign exchange student.
  • If you don’t normally take public transportation – try it! Try taking a bus or train and let your kids help figure out schedules and tickets.
  • Spend an afternoon volunteering as a family. Volunteer Match is a site that helps you find volunteer opportunities tailored for particular age groups: kids, teens, etc.
  • Start a family saving jar where you can put money aside for a trip.


Bottom line? Whether you are in staycation mode or vacation mode, you won’t regret the times you unplugged and spent time with your kids.

If you have more ideas to add to my list, please let me know! I’d be so happy to hear how you spend time with your kids in the spirit of “always take the trip.”

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That Time I Was SURE I Was Going to See a Unicorn

Most of us are never far from a camera. It is 2017 after all.

We can document the fantastic and the mundane all we want. I can’t tell you how many pictures I have of the inside of my children’s noses just because they used my camera phone for 4.7 seconds while I wasn’t looking. I especially love the videos they make of their noses when they think they are taking a picture.

Don’t worry. I won’t show you pictures of that. How about a nice sunset instead?

Ahhh….


Here’s a story of a recent time I wished I had a camera, but didn’t. THE HORROR!!!

Over Easter we visited family in Florida for what can only be described as an epic week of fun and relaxation. We rented paddle boards to use in the early mornings while the ocean was as clear and calm as glass. We also used them when the water wasn’t clear and calm as glass. You can imagine how that worked out.

Wet. Very, very wet.

We didn’t have fancy dry bags with us to protect our phones – clearly a necessity. Time on the water was just that – time to enjoy, truly enjoy, being on the water. Emphasis being ON the water, not IN the water. If we were lucky.

The first morning out, Handy Husband and I were paddling up the coastline just inside the swim bouys and I thought I saw a fin. EEK!

Turns out, I saw TWO fins. DOUBLE EEK!!

Thankfully, they weren’t shark fins. Were you worried?

They were dolphin fins.

The dolphins were taking a leisurely swim up the coast. So leisurely that Handy Husband and I were able to catch up to them and follow their journey for about 15 minutes. They’d dive under the water and several seconds later surface. Each time we could hear them blowing the air out of their blowholes.

At one point, as the dolphins started to swim farther out to sea, we passed them and they were probably 8 feet from our boards.

SO CRAZY CLOSE!


We weren’t trying to get that close. It was just hard to keep track of the dolphins when they went underwater. I have no doubt they knew where we were, but they didn’t seem particularly concerned with us.

Pretty much that entire 15 minutes I kept saying out loud, “I can’t believe this. This is amazing. I can’t believe this. This is AMAZING!!!!!!”

Except I was yelling it so that Handy Husband could hear me over the roar of the ocean. He just kept nodding, like “Yeah, I get it, I get it. You can calm down now.” AS IF!

I’m not easily impressed anymore. Perhaps I’m even a bit jaded, but this experience…words – even those shouted across an ocean – don’t do it justice.

The next morning I practically poured the coffee down Handy Husband’s throat to hurry him out the door to the beach. I was pretty sure our next paddle session would be a bit of a letdown compared to yesterday’s, but I had to get out there to see what the ocean had in store for us.

HAD. TO.

I was hauling my board toward the again calm water when a couple walked past me and said, “There’s a manatee out there, if you hurry, you can catch up to it.”

SAY WHAT????

No. Way. No WAY. No way!

Basically, there’s no way this was happening again and no way I was going to a) catch up to a manatee and b) find a manatee in this big, vast ocean.

But, people, that’s exactly what happened. Honestly, it was even cooler than seeing the dolphins. And we all know how I freaked out over the dolphins!

We caught up to the manatee, which was also taking its sweet time swimming up the coast. It would surface and dive similar to how the dolphins did. We paddled behind it for awhile and then we lost it. It was gone.

Just after I was sure that was the last I’d seen of my new friend, the manatee, I paddled over a really long, wide, dark shape.

HOLY SEA COW!!!!!!!

Yep. I paddled right over the manatee. There aren’t enough exclamation points!!!!!!

I almost peed my swimsuit.

Then, the manatee surfaced literally 3 feet behind my board. I could see its whiskers!

I didn’t know what to do. I’m yelling at Handy Husband to make sure he’s seeing this. He is, but what can he do? Nothing. Nothing but watch the spectacle unfold.

The manatee went under the water again and I was so scared it was going to come up under my board, that I dropped down to my knees to hold on. That probably wouldn’t have helped, but it seemed prudent at the time.

Manatees are gentle, plant-eating creatures, but I’m confident I don’t want to fall on top of one in the wide open ocean. I don’t even like it when seaweed touches my leg.

After a few seconds of “WOAH, WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN” the manatee surfaced far enough away from me that I felt comfortable getting back up and resuming my paddling.

I think the manatee and I made a connection after that encounter. A bond, if you will.

As if saying so long suckers goodbye, the manatee surfaced one more time within a paddle’s distance of my board, causing me to freak out again, before disappearing into the ocean and swimming away.

At this point, we were a 30-minute paddle away from our beach house and I rode that adrenaline high all the way home.

And for the second time in two days, I returned to the house yelling “BEST DAY EVER” to all of the groggy-eyed adults and kids present. I think they secretly liked it when I woke them up this way. We all love smug exercise people before we’ve had our morning coffee, don’t we???

Did I wish I had a camera with me both days? Oh, you bet I did. I was so glad Handy Husband was with me. No one would have believed me otherwise that we had two incredible encounters in two days with sea creatures. Plus, I really wanted to share the experience with my kids! Now all I can say was, “you had to be there” and “the early bird gets to see dolphins” and “Na-nana-naa-nah!” and other annoying things like that.

On the third day out, I was pretty sure the only thing left to see was a unicorn. I’d already been incredibly lucky right? How much luckier could one person get? Unicorn lucky.

But, alas, my luck had run out. For the remainder of our trip there were no unicorns, no dolphins, no sharks, no turtles, no manatees. We didn’t even see a fish! And I thought to myself every darn day, “Why do people paddle board? My arms are ACHING! This is hard!” Oh, right…Mother Nature…gorgeous views…be happy enjoying the great outdoors…good workout. Sure, sure. But I wanted to paddle with the dolphins and the manatees! I hadn’t seen a unicorn yet!  *insert a toddler-sized foot stomp here* 

I’ve had time to reflect on this whole paddle boarding experience. It’s an interesting metaphor for marriage. Didn’t know I was going there? Me either when I started writing this post.

Hear me out. The totality of this paddle boarding experience, much like a healthy marriage, was not perfect, but it is something you’d never want to miss out on.

Of all the people on the planet, I was out there with the one person I’d chosen to spend my life with. The one person I continue to choose and who chooses me back. Sometimes it’s exciting and sometimes it’s routine. Sometimes it’s hard work and the wind is blowing against us. Sometimes disaster strikes and we have to figure out how to survive. Sometimes we’re giddy with excitement because we can’t believe THAT just happened.

Even if I could document the experience with a camera, it would never capture the whole story. That’s why comparing our lives to someone else’s is just silly. I can tell you about it, and you can probably relate, but you won’t ever really get it. Because it’s unique to us. You weren’t there. And every day, without any guarantees of what lies in store, we choose to get up and do it again.

I know I am incredibly lucky and blessed. I daresay, unicorn lucky. More and more, I realize it is not stuff or status or the trappings that matter. It is the moments, the experiences, the relationships that I value the most and that make me the happiest.

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Travel: Belfast with Kids

When we were considering a move to Ireland last year, we took a bus tour through Northern Ireland. Our bus stopped in Belfast for approximately one hour. Long enough to grab a sandwich, but not much else.

Earlier this month we took a long weekend and headed north to spend more time in Belfast.

GETTING THERE FROM DUBLIN:

It is approximately a 2-hour train ride from Dublin’s Connolly Station to Belfast Central Station. I recommend booking your tickets in advance if you are traveling with a group. This just saves you the headache of finding a seat all together. Plus, the kids get to see their names above their seat (that’s how you know it’s reserved).


These type of trains have a food trolley, a bathroom and outlets to charge iPads. In other words, my kids have no reason to ever leave… or look up when mom wants to take a picture.

You can also take a bus from the Dublin airport to Belfast. Buses leave regularly outside of the arrivals terminal and you can buy a ticket when you arrive.

WHERE WE STAYED:

We stayed at the Radisson Blu in the Gasworks District. We didn’t have a particular reason for choosing this hotel other than we had points to apply to the stay, breakfast was included in our rate and we could walk to the hotel from the train station.

This is the view in front of the hotel:


What was great about the Radisson Blu for kids? Well, let me tell you. The kids got a welcome packet when they arrived with “jellies.” Jellies are gummy bears or fruit snacks. The packet also included an activity book and a scavenger hunt. Their favorite part of the packet was the vouchers they could use in the bar to buy popcorn and hot chocolate.

Yes, kids are allowed in bars in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Hotel bars are pretty tame by bar standards though. In this case, you have to walk through the bar to get to the breakfast area.

This was the first time my kids spent “money” by themselves at a bar/restaurant. They did not want me to go with them, so I watched from the lobby. It took an extra long time because 1) my kids are shorter than the bar and 2) the bartender thought the kids were with the other patrons who were ordering drinks.

But they accomplished their mission and were completely tickled with themselves. It was a good life lesson for them in being polite, how to order food, waiting patiently, etc.

And no one seemed to find it strange that the kids were alone. In the bar.

When in Northern Ireland, I guess…

As for a negative, the hotel restaurant had good food, but the service was slow. They seemed either unorganized or understaffed the night we ate in. Also, if you want to stay in the heart of downtown Belfast where a large number of restaurants and shops are steps away, this hotel’s location is not going to be as ideal for you.

NOTE ABOUT CURRENCY:

The Republic of Ireland (Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, etc.) uses the euro. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, which includes Great Britain, Scotland and Wales. The  currency in the U.K. is the pound.

EXCEPT. In Northern Ireland, banks can print their own bills. So, there might be 6 different 5 pound notes in circulation. Different colors, different sizes. It’s confusing. All of the pound notes from all of those different banks are accepted at retailers, attractions and restaurants in Northern Ireland.

The only caveat is if you go back to London. Only the Bank of England notes are accepted there. You can’t use money you got from an ATM in Belfast back in London. But you can use the money from an ATM in London in Belfast. Like I said, confusing.

Many attractions will quote you prices in pounds and euros. Also, some places will accept euros, but will give you back change in pounds.

Here’s more about that situation.

WHAT WE DID:

Remember, this is a post mainly about traveling with kids, so keep that in mind. 


W5 

W5 is an interactive discovery centre or as I like to call it, a hands-on science museum for kids. The W5 stands for who, what, when, where and why. Clever, right?

The museum features a really cool climbing attraction – a sort of 3-D climbing sculpture. This was my 9-year-old daughter’s favorite part.

There are hands-on learning stations on different levels of the museum with a big emphasis on architecture and motion.

We built cars that moved, we built forts and buildings with blocks, we learned how to fly a plane in a simulator and so on.

There is a cafe in the museum, but you can exit the museum and reenter during your visit. The museum is located inside a mall-like space called Odyssey Pavilion. I don’t remember any shops, but it had several restaurants and a movie theater. It was nice to be able to leave our coats and backpacks tucked away in a locker in the museum while we went to lunch.

Considering we spent close to 6 hours at W5 (I know, CRAZY) , we feel we really got our money’s worth out of our less than €36 family admission fee. I would recommend starting your visit as soon as the museum opens to avoid crowds and school groups.

W5 Website


Titanic Belfast

Visiting the Titanic museum is reason alone to go to Belfast – even if you don’t have kids.

(You’d probably get more out of it if you didn’t have kids in tow, frankly. Or that could just be my experience with 6 and 9-year-olds. I’m sure yours stop and patiently read every display.)

Titanic Belfast is broken into 3 visitor experiences:

1) The Titanic Belfast museum experience: Walk through displays covering the building of the ship, what the ship looked like, what went wrong and the search for the sunken ship. This includes an amusement park ride (it’s not fast or scary), which was my children’s favorite part.

While the museum is fairly interactive, to get the most out of the museum experience, you have to be willing to stop and READ. That part tested the limits of my 6-year-old’s attention span, but the rest of us really, really enjoyed it.

This video will give you the best overview of what’s there. (Hopefully the link works.)

2) SS Nomadic: The SS Nomadic was, among other things, the Titanic’s tender. The vessel has been preserved and sits in dry dock next to the Titanic Belfast museum.


Touring the Nomadic was quite interactive for my kids. In other words, there were plenty of things they could touch! The self-guided tour illuminates the experience you would have received 100 years ago on board the Nomadic while being ferried to the Titanic.

You’ll also have the opportunity to learn about the work the ship performed in the decades after the Titanic sank.

3) Guided Discovery Tour: This is a one-hour guided walking tour (much of it is outside). You’ll learn about the drawing offices where the plans for the Titanic were designed. You’ll also learn about the hidden meanings and metaphors behind the museum’s design. The thought and care that went into constructing this museum – not just as a tourist attraction, but as a memorial – was astonishing.  My kids were fairly attentive for 3/4 of the guided tour – mainly because they got to wear headphones.

If you want to do the Discovery Tour, you need to book your tickets in advance. We purchased a combo pack that included all three experiences. It included 2 souvenir photos and an activity packet for the kids. Considering those souvenir photos were the first family photos we’ve had taken in a long time, it was totally worth it. Cheesy, but worth it.

If your kids are toddlers, I’d wait before spending money on the Titanic Belfast. They (and you) will get so much more out of it if they are just a little bit older.

We ate in one of the museum’s cafes and had a great meal. The Belfast Baking Company is right across from the museum (really good scones, by the way) or you can walk over to the W5 building to eat in a restaurant there.

Titanic Belfast website


River Lagan Towpath (Walkway)

If you’d like to walk along the River Lagan, there is fantastic paved trail through the heart of Belfast. You can walk from the Botanical Gardens to the Titanic Museum and beyond. Bridges cross over the river at several points to get you back and forth to various tourist attractions.

Depending on when you’re out walking, you might see something like this:


Ulster Museum and Botanical Gardens

We walked through the botanical gardens, but it was raining and February, so we did not get the  full experience. We also did not go inside the Palm House, which is part of the gardens. Mainly, we were on a mission to get to the Ulster Museum.

The Ulster Museum is free. They ask for a donation, which we were happy to give because it was truly a great museum – especially for a free one.

The museum offers a little bit of everything: natural history, art, science, geology, animals, native people and history.
My kids had fun exploring the exhibits, touching animal pelts, looking at rocks, trying on masks and more.
I had a teary-eyed moment reading about The Troubles. That is what Northern Ireland refers to as the 30-year period of conflict beginning in 1968. There was so much tragedy. So much loss.

I was in my early 20s when the peace accord was reached. All I really remember were the bombings all over Belfast. I didn’t understand why people were driven to do what they did.

Understanding the “why” is important in preventing such unrest from happening again or something like it from happening elsewhere. Ulster Museum helped me understand the “why” and refreshed my memory on the facts as they happened chronologically.

My kids didn’t fully understand this part of the museum and for now I’m okay with that. Let them be little.


Victoria Square

If you like to shop, Victoria Square is a good place to visit. It’s mainly indoor with an outdoor vibe. We popped in there to pick up a cord from the Apple Store. The mall has sit down and fast-food restaurants if you need sustenance. I’m not going to say the restaurants are all authentic – there is a TGIFridays after all. Crazy, I know. No, we did not go there.

You can also take tours of the glass dome, which shows off views of the city.

Learn more.


The Big Fish Sculpture

Along the River Lagan is The Big Fish, which was commissioned in 1999 to commemorate the regeneration of the River Lagan. The skin of the fish is made out of ceramic tiles, which show historic images of Belfast. The sculpture is approximately 30-feet long, so it makes for quite the photo opportunity!
I still don’t know why she wanted to kiss the fish. My kids have very robust immune systems.

Learn more about the fish.


Beacon of Hope Sculpture

Also along the River Lagan is the almost 60-foot tall Beacon of Hope Sculpture. It was built in 2007 and the lady in the sculpture stands on a globe representing peace, harmony and thanksgiving.

The sculpture’s artist, Andy Scott, said of the sculpture, “I hope that the figure is adopted by the people of Belfast as a symbol of peace and reconciliation, and as a shining beacon of modernity and progress.”

Learn more.


We had 2 1/2 days to spend in Belfast. It really was not long enough – especially since we spent most of our time at W5 and Titanic Belfast. We barely scratched the surface on things to do and explore in the area, so we’d love to go back!

I am happy to have had a second chance to explore this city and highly recommend you include it on your Travel Bucket List.

To learn more about things to do in Belfast, click here.

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