Through my Lens: The Essence of Fall Camping

The photographs below are from our recent (and last for the year) camping trip to Old Forge, NY. This quaint little town is a base camp for many Adirondack activities such as paddling, hiking, and scenic train rides. We love it because it’s only a 2 hour drive from our house. The crisp, damp air is always wonderfully refreshing. See you in the spring ADK!

Neighboring campsite decorated for fall

General Store goodies!

 

Hurricane Iselle is a comin’

I grew up in Florida. I know a thing about hurricanes. The season lasts for half a year!

Rain and stormy weather is typical during the sticky hot summer months in Florida,  just as is tropical storms and hurricanes. Luckily, I lived in the central part of the state so we had some protection.

Floridians know to have water, batteries, and non perishable food on hand should the power go out. Often times, though, the outages are short lived and the damage is minimal. Typically our pool would be close to overflowing and our screen porch would be put to the test thanks to the high gusts of wind. One time school let us out early. I recall sitting in the half lit school hallway waiting for my mom to pick me up. We went to blockbuster on the way home to stock up on movies. However, it was sunny the rest of the day, and we went to school th next day like nothing had ever happened. Because it didn’t. No hurricane. After I got married, we built a house near Jacksonville Beach; the house came WITH metal storm shutters. Luckily, we never had to use them. Tropical depressions, storms, and hurricanes have only ever been minor inconveniences due to wind and rain. I have never experienced anything severe.  Continue reading

Kids + Vacations = ?

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I’ve found that the first question that I have received after people find out we are going to Hawaii is “Are you taking Xander?” My typical response involves me raising my eyebrow, making a confused face, and replying “Ummm…. why wouldn’t we?” Yes, I believe parents should get away occasionally because there are certain things you can’t do when you have a kid in tow, but for me Kid + Vacation = Fun. I can’t imagine NOT taking my son; I want to show him the world.

I realize that isn’t always the case and many probably disagree with me.

There’s probably a long list of reasons why they don’t agree. Some kids aren’t accustomed to travel or have trouble sleeping in beds other than their own or don’t do well with altered schedules and new situations. Or perhaps taking a family that includes 2, 3 or more kids means more work than relaxation.  Or maybe parents think a kid vacation means only doing boring kid stuff.

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Hawaii on a Budget?!!!

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LIARS!

I bought this book when I was planning my honeymoon, and I’m pretty sure I bought it because of the “From $80 A Day” subtitle. I soon discovered that Hawaii was not totally affordable, and I wasn’t going to half-ass my honeymoon. I mean, most of the “value” accommodations are poorly reviewed and described as “need a deep/thorough cleaning.” So we went on a Southern Caribbean cruise instead- for half the money. We’ve dreamed of going to Hawaii since then, though. I even booked us a Maui hotel when Xander was a toddler. But then, the airfare suddenly skyrocketed and never went below $1200 per person, so we cancelled and went on a Western cruise for a quarter of the cost.

Is it really possible to visit Hawaii on $80 a day? HECK NO! Well……perhaps we factor in inflation since 2002. Is it really possible to visit Hawaii on $99 a day? Okay I just made that number up. My point is there’s NO WAY unless you seriously rough it. Finding a place to stay and eat for under 100 bucks a day is barely doable, really. Figure in a car, gas, and doing something other than sleeping, eating, and sitting by the pool or beach, well, we’ve way surpassed $99 per person now. That being said, I do think it is possible to see Hawaii on a budget. Even in 2014. But who wants to travel all to Hawaii and skimp on things?

Maybe the 3rd time is the charm? We are going to Hawaii!! First things first, though- finding a reasonable, affordable places to stay.   It’s not an easy task if you want but I think we finally did. Okay, I’ll admit there was a slight splurge…. We are easy going people when it comes to hotels or rentals. Yes, we enjoy the occasional splurge (ahem), but we have been known to camp, try Days Inn motels, or utilize Hotwire. When we book condos or houses, we always look for air conditioning and a prime location. Nick likes it to be cold at night, and I enjoy picturesque water views and close proximity to well-reviewed eateries, markets, and activities. Xander just wants a pool.

So, we looked all over Maui at multiple hotels. I really wanted that killer view but without the 500+ price tag. I finally found that million dollar view/well-reviewed/under $400 room at Napili Kai Beach Resort, but it didn’t have any air conditioning! DANGIT! Even with the trade-winds, I’m pretty sure Nick would have killed me.  I knew at that point it was time to head over to HomeAway.

Rentals are ideal for us on longer vacations because we can cook our own meals, bask in the larger space, and enjoy amenities that often don’t come with standard hotel rooms. The downside, obviously, is the lack of housekeeping, the hassle of dealing with a booking, and the slight risk that the place won’t be as advertised. To avoid that risk, I only rent from well-reviewed, well-photographed rentals. When searching for rentals, I prefer to use Homeaway.com instead of VRBO.com simply because I like the website layout better (though they are pretty interchangeable). It’s always best to research the area prior to searching, as you can be more specific with your search. For example, I knew I wanted to stay in the Kihei area of Maui. If I had not narrowed down my search, I would have been faced with 5,447 rental choices and 25 towns. I also like to filter my results by price and preferences like “air conditioning” and “waterfront.” Homeaway.com owners can pay to have their results show up first, so sometimes you can find a gem by scrolling through all the results.

I have had a wide variety of owner experiences. Some are better than others. I ended up finding one property that boasted $100 per night rates and an amazing view, but the owner was extremely vague in her 1 line email responses back to me. For example, she told me there was no need for a contract because she had the ‘aloha spirit.’ Then I noticed she had an AOL email address. I immediately had an ‘ahh-ha’ moment as a familiar, yet annoying electronic voice from the 1990’s sang ‘You’ve Got Mail’ in my head. RED FLAGS! I restarted my search and ultimately found the perfect spots.

During our extended stay in Hawaii next month, we will be staying at 3 different properties. Each are well-reviewed and well photographed. Two basically sit on top of the water, and of course, they have pristine pools and central air. The third is located in a dense fern forest near the National Volcano Park which will be ideal for driving at night to go see the lava glow. Two are very reasonably priced, and one is more than I would normally pay (not pictured below). My in-laws will be joining us for part of the trip, and after emailing the owner of the Kihei condo, I was referred to another stellar unit that was next door! All the units have multiple beds or bedrooms, full kitchen, outdoor balcony or deck, coolers, beach chairs/toys, free WIFI, and ample space for stretching out. AND they are all very affordable. We figure we can save additional money by buying groceries and eating some meals in. Though I am sure we’ll off set that by eating dinner at Mama’s Fish House. LOL!

Based on the $99 per person a day budget goal set by Frommers, our family of three only has less than $130 per day to spend on food, car, gas, and activities. Yikes. And let’s not even talk about airfare. Sorry, Frommer’s…. that AIN’T gonna happen.

Condo sneak peek. PROOF you can stay in a nice spot on Maui and Hawaii for under $500 per night:

Kihei, Maui ($183 per night including taxes/fees)

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Volcano Village treehouse, Big Island ($169 per night including taxes/fees):

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{Recipe} Squash, Squash, Squash

Even though I am eagerly awaiting summer and consistent warmer temperatures, I still find myself obsessed with winter squash! (Okay, I’m also obsessed with sweet potato, but that’s a different blog post.) Though it is not to be mistaken with summer squash as I still haven’t developed a taste for that. Well, I’ll eat it fried. Then again, I’d probably eat anything fried!

It’s a relatively recent fascination. I had never consumed acorn squash, for instance, until last year. My CSA share, thanks to Early Morning Farms (neighbor to my place of employment), expanded my horizons and taste buds. I fell in love with a variety they grow called delicata; its a long cream colored squash with dark green lines. It is divine! Unfortunately, it is long gone from the stores, so I have been consuming butternut squash and acorn mostly in recent months to fill the delicata-void.

So how do I eat it? Occasionally I’ll make a soup with it, but largely, I just bake squash. I love the texture this way, plus it’s simple to prepare. Yes, it takes a little bit of time in the oven, but basically you just cut in half, remove seeds, brush it with something, and bake. EAT!!

Squash is sometimes referred to as a power food because of its health benefits like being a high source of potassium, antioxidants, and nutrients known as carotenoids (like beta carotene). I try to follow a whole food and high fruit/vegetable diet to help curb my chronic urticaria and improve my overall health, so this is definitely a fruit (yes, because it has seeds) that is often found on my dinner plate. Tonight I’m eating it alongside some yummy chicken!

 

Ingredients:

1 acorn squash (or butternut or delicata)

Favorite “grease”

Seasonings, to taste

 

How to bake:

Preheat oven to 375

On a cutting board with a sharp knife, carefully cut squash of choice lengthwise. Scoop out seeds (which you can later bake and eat) and membrane. Use your favorite grease…. like butter, olive oil, margarine spread, or coconut oil, ….. and brush the insides. Place the squash skin side up on a baking sheet. Bake for approximately 45 -60 minutes. The skin will brown and the insides will be very soft. Afterward, season as you like. Sometimes I simply use kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper, and other times I use my favorite garlic salt. It doesn’t need much.

Easy! And hardly a recipe at all.

Acorn Squash is readily available year round

Acorn Squash is readily available year round

Xander says it reminds him of a pumpkin.

Xander says it reminds him of a pumpkin.

I bake mine skin side up!

I bake mine skin side up!

Ready to eat!

Ready to eat!

 

 

 

 

 

{Trip Report} The FL Keys for Winter Break

Those who live in colder regions of the USA typically get a wonderful week off in February called ‘Winter Break.’ Throngs of people take advantage of the time off from school to get an actual break from the brutal winter weather. Most of us are plain SICK of snow and freezing temperatures by February. Last year I regretted not booking a warm weather vacation, but I did check for last minute deals: there were none left. Flights were booked solid with the exception of a few $1,000 seats left. Um, no thank you! I vowed not to make that mistake again. I budgeted our family of 3 approximately $2,500 (see expense report at the bottom) and began to research possible destinations that would fit my small (teacher) budget. In the end, the Florida Keys won.

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Saturday: We are loyal Southwest Airline customers, especially after they integrated the A/B/C lineup concept; we despised the first-come, first-serve lineup gig they had years and years ago. Eight or so years ago we got rid of all our credit cards and signed up for the Visa Southwest Reward card. We get points for all our purchases, and we find that it helps fund our vacations. For instance, last year we cashed in our points and scored six free round trip flights to places like Florida and Puerto Rico. We currently have three free flights waiting to be used for our next trip. Since Southwest bought Airtrain, more and more international flights are coming available; soon we’ll be able to use our points easily to book flights on Southwest.com to Aruba, Mexico, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Bermuda, and the Dominican Republic. In a nutshell, we love Southwest, and we used points to help ease the cost of flying down to Florida during a prime time.

Our nonstop flight out of Buffalo was set to depart mid afternoon.  We were a little anxious about our flight being cancelled or delayed due to a storm that had wreaked havoc in many nearby cities. Just the day before we had received an additional 9″ of snow.

At 7:30 in the morning, Southwest text me to say that our 3:30 pm flight was already delayed. That didn’t sound promising! We hit the road just before noon and made it to Buffalo with plenty of time to spare. We were ushered to the prescreen TSA line where we didn’t have to remove our shoes or sweatshirts. They did test Nick’s hands, though. They also pulled his carry on because he had a big, big box cutter in it. Awesome.

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Garden Dreaming…

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The backyard is still covered in a glassy layer of snow, but the crocuses and tulips have started to pop out from the cold earth. Winter still has a firm grip on upstate New York despite the fact that the first official day of spring has come and gone. I’m hoping winter releases us soon, because I am ready for warmth and color. More specifically, I’m ready to plant my new veggie garden.  Once the snow has melted, I will tend to the dirt and prepare it for planting. Depending on the weather, I will be able to direct sow some things in April. Hopefully.

Last year, my garden consisted of jalapenos, green and red bell peppers, carrots, peas, cauliflower and a variety of herbs. This year I plan to utilize my second garden more and move my sunflowers to the front yard. Between these items, my CSA farm share, and pickings from the fruit farm next door, I will have PLENTY fresh fruits and vegetables. Many of which will be organic.

C’mon spring!!!

Garden 1:

Green beans (1st time!)

Jalapenos

Bell Peppers

Carrots

Garden 2:

Blueberries

Basil

Thai Basil

Thyme

Parlsey

Chives (1st time!)

And something else? Maybe zucchini?

To Be Built Tomato Area:

Grape

Beefsteak or Roma

{Trip Report} NYC Holiday Style

I’m sooo behind on my trip reports! Since December I’ve been to NYC, FL, and Lake Placid; plus, I have another trip in a week. I must get cracking! Okay, so here we go….. All last year I thought about going to NYC for a weekend. Originally, I hoped to go in June. But, plans fell through. As the year grew older, I realized that a holiday trip would be ideal. Christmas decorations make the city such a magical place, so in December I made the trek with some beautiful friends of mine. 

DAY 1: With Dunkin Donuts coffees and a full tank of diesel, Keri (my next door neighbor) and I set off for NYC in the morning in my trusty Jetta. The drive through NY, PA, and NJ was mostly boring, though we did cut through some mountains near the end of the four hour trek. We opted to stop once for some lunch and a bathroom break. I had no desire to drive into Manhattan or compete with the aggressive taxi drivers, so I valet parked at Seacacus Junction at exit 15x off the NJ highway. As we unloaded our bags, the valet raised an eyebrow, and questioned us: “and HOW long are you staying?!” Okay, so we may have packed a ton of shoes and wine, but this was a much needed girls trip! We definitely regretted our packing choices as we lugged those heavy bags around the train station, then on the NJ train to Penhttp://leighuf.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=1044&action=edit&message=10n Station, and THEN to the Metro, and THEN on the E train, and FINALLY the three blocks to our hotel. Both Keri and I had sore muscles the rest of the trip, but we had plenty of wine. And shoes.

Packing Must Haves

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NYC digressions

*I think helping a neighbor’s son with his common college application essay may have prompted this post. Hmmmm…

Ahhh, the BIG apple! This infamous city has grown on me.

The first time I set foot in Manhattan in 2004 I wasn’t smitten. I found NYC to be overwhelming, smelly, crass, and packed to the seams with people, honking taxis, and obnoxious sounds. It kinda frightened me; it was sensory overload. I sat on the red double decker tour bus, amazed at the sights yet feeling incredibly small under the soaring buildings we passed. A vivid memory from the trip was a taxi ride. I recall jumping in a cab near Central Park during an intense thunderstorm one hot August afternoon. The welcome relief from the humid, wet air was short lived; the driver roared the car toward a massive puddle, and the water shot up like a tsunami to soak a dozen smartly dressed professionals waiting to cross the street. The driver deviously laughed as the people yelled obscenities at us. I sat back, silent, as I watched horns pop out of the driver’s temple. I was horrified.

Okay… I may have exaggerated one part. Regardless, it left a lasting impression.

In retrospect, I have realized something (call it self-reflection): I was young and naive and uncultured. No that doesn’t excuse the taxi driver’s actions…. New York City was nothing like my innocent Disney-esque hometown Orlando or any “biggish city” that I ;had ever been to. Heck, I was a naive young 20-something living in the middle of New Hampshire at the time! I had a bubble complex. I was unaccustomed to the “hard knock life” of big cities.

Since then, however, I’ve blossomed into a foodie, obsessed with farm to table cuisine and international dishes; I consider myaself an adventurer who longs to travel and embrace the change and tastes of unfamiliar places. I have since seen and experienced much more of the world. In short,  I now have an intense curiosity: I am a wanderlust.

Perhaps my 2004 NYC trip was the turning point?

Since then I’ve visited  other true big cities like London, Rome, Florence, and Barcelona. I’ve become more confident in foreign situations, like navigating large unfamiliar airports by myself in Japan (where they temporarily lost my bag), Spain (where I had to practice using my Mexican sounding Spanish to find out where to go), and South Korea (where I had to spend the night … and HAD to locate the next book in the Twilight series- in English of course).  I’ve learned how to deal with language barriers on public transit systems in Paris, Monte Carlo, and Naples; how to “fit in” at community mess halls in remote parts of Yukon, Canada; and the importance of not taking a nap as soon as you arrive on the other side of the earth. I’ve learned to embrace unusual travel activities such as Zorbing down a hill, jumping backwards off a waterfall into a dark New Zealand cave filled with glowworms, snorkeling with sting rays in the Caymans, ziplining in the rainforests of Belize, or landing on a glacier in Alaska. Additionally, I’ve learned to appreciate different varieties of food, customs, and appearances. Nothing beats a warm croissant from a Parisian bakery, or champagne with a splash of Kir from a French bistro, or the smell of fresh lavender in Provence, or hot chips with a splash of vinegar in a dark London pub, or figuring out how to eat noodle soup without a spoon in Japan, or  receiving shot of limoncello with a glass of free champagne courtesy a cute Italian restauranteur in Italy, or accidentally ordering a huge seafood meal with oysters and shrimp in Barcelona (btw, I hate seafood), or being reminded to take off your shoes before sitting on the floor at your table at a restaurant in Tokyo.  Ahh, but I digress…..

New York City, the international mecca in all her beautiful glory, overwhelmingly appeals to me now, and I can’t wait to see her soon.

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{Trip Report} Southern Caribbean Cruise

Warning: This trip report is rather long! It’s nearly 6400 words, in fact! I mostly detail my experiences in the ports of call rather than the cruise ship experience. I’ve cruised numerous times to the Caribbean and even to Alaska and the Mediterranean. I now have diamond status on Royal Caribbean, so for me, the ship is a means of transportation. It is not the destination. I do love food, so I will take note of that in my report. The purpose of trip reports, in my mind, is to help future travelers and to document the vacation experience so the memories are never forgotten. We traveled with our neighbors: Sal, Meow and their two little kiddos.

Day 1: PRECRUISE

The Sleep Inn of Buffalo, NY is where I laid my head the night prior to our trip. We had enough points to book two free flights to San Juan (a 400-odd dollar per ticket in savings), but we had to fly out of Buffalo, a two hour drive from home, at the crack of dawn. We like the Sleep Inn because they offer modernized rooms and an excellent sleep and park package (my opinion changed later… more on that at the end). My alarm went off at 3:45 a.m., announcing the beginning of our vacation. Xander popped up exclaiming, “See, I’m not cranky!” We had a quick breakfast, before meeting the shuttle. We texted our travel partners (who were flying out of a differ airport) with a pic of our exhausted, yet excited faces, and they returned the favor. Our uneventful Southwest flight took off at 6:15 and landed on time in San Juan, Puerto Rico at noon.

Ahh, hello San Juan. It’s been 10 years since I’ve seen you last! And how I have missed you!

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