My Venice Tips

I’ve only been to Venice once, but I learned a handful of things during my trip to this  surreal northern Italian town. My tips for the first time visitor to Venice include:

  1. Book a private water taxi from the airport.

It’s a splurge, but so worth it! There’s something very special about being whisked away from the airport in a private speedboat and approaching the floating city via the water. The taxi will drop you off directly at your hotel or as close to it as possible (an added convenience when you consider your wheeled luggage and the fact that Venice has 400 bridges with a ton of stairs). I recommend booking online ahead of time because it is more expensive at the airport (100 E versus 120 E). There is a bit of a walk to the airport dock, but our boat was waiting for us when we got there. If it’s raining the boat has a covered sitting area.

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  1. Stay in a small hotel off the beaten track, yet close enough to the main sights.

Why? I liked the idea and feel of “going home” for the night. Our small, quaint hotel had that feel. Also, I feel like you get more personalized attention when you stay some place small. We stayed at Locanda la Corte. It has a private dock (yes, it requires one bridge crossing) and a staircase you must scale to get to your room (but the man at the front desk will carry your luggage for you to the room). There’s a garden and courtyard where you can have breakfast or an afternoon drink. Breakfast is included in the room rate and offers meats, cheese, eggs, fruits, toast, cereals, and assorted beverages. Wifi was strong and I had no problem using it in my room (Room 106) The men at the front desk were friendly, helpful, and personable.  If I ever come back to Venice, I’d love to book one of their apartments because I’d enjoy the opportunity to shop and cook in my own kitchen. There’s an abundance of fruits, vegetables, and fish you can buy at various outdoor markets. Our hotel was an 8 minute walk to St. Mark’s Basilica or the Rialto Bridge.

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  1. Reserve “skip the line” vouchers for St. Mark’s Basilica.

I am so glad we did this! The regular line was ridiculously long. There was a “line” for the skip the line, but we were inside within 5 minutes for a mere 2 E per person. The guards do check to see if you are wearing appropriate attire. It was 90-odd degrees so long shorts were fine, but I brought a scarf to cover my shoulders. They have paper gowns to cover your legs or shoulders if dressed inappropriately.

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  1. Get up early and walk the empty streets of Venice.

It’s a different experience seeing the city as it wakes up. The streets are empty, the gondolas are sleeping with their blue covers, and the streets are peacefully quiet except for cooing of pigeons. If you enjoy taking pictures, this is the time to snap photos of the sights since you most likely won’t have any random strangers photobombing you.

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  1. To find the best food, use TripAdvisor instead of picking those touristy places you stumble upon.

It’s downright tempting to pick a café positioned by the Grand Canal or in a popular campo or piazza. I mean who wants to go down a small alley to a 5 table restaurant when they are in Venice for the first time? Well, it wasn’t until after too many lackluster meals and a quick check of their 2-star average review rating on TA that I had this “Ahh-Ha” moment. Yes, I had done my research ahead of time and had addresses of excellent foodie restaurants, but we didn’t eat at those places. We were lured by the ambiance or location of an outdoor, waterfront restaurant, but ultimately we regretted this. Alas, on our final night we did finally make reservations at one of my bookmarked restaurant. Guess what….? IT WAS AMAZING. Lesson learned!

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{Trip Report} LAVA LAVA LAVA

NOTE: This trip report details the Big Island portion of our 2 week Hawaiian adventure. To read about Maui, click HERE.

Day Eight:  Even though we had to say goodbye to Maui, a new adventure awaited us on the Big Island. We flew via Hawaiian Airlines (booked for $100 per person via Orbitz.com), and we found the quick flight pleasant and refreshing (mist shoots out from overhead- a welcome after sitting in the hot airport). The plane flew over Maui, so I ‘sorta’ got to see the road to Hana. The staggering terrain looked lush, unpopulated, and very, very green. I determined in that moment to come back and see more of that beautiful island.

We soon lost sight of Maui, flying over the azure waters before making our descent to Kona. The ride was so brief; maybe 20 minutes total flight time- barely enough time for the attendants to pass out juice cups.

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Outdoor baggage claim

We landed on time and pulled right up to the outdoor airport. Literally! We hopped off the plane, walked through a flimsy fence to a covered waiting area. The airport was basically a cluster of pavilions! Xander kept saying “This isn’t an airport.” Our suitcases arrived promptly, and we picked up our Malibu rental from National soon thereafter. The agency had many more fees than Hotwire estimated- $75 more! I wasn’t happy about that.

My first reaction when I saw the Big Island from above was to say “wow!” Its has a unique, unusual, surreal landscape. Rugged black lava rock is everywhere. There’s so much of it that it’s shocking,  and … well, pretty cool.

I spy lava!

I spy lava… AND a peace sign.

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#TBT- Fort Myers Beach vacay, 2012

One of the vacations that I never blogged about was our 2012 trip to Ft. Myers Beach. I think the reason behind it was that as soon as we returned to NY, I began looking for employment. I was prepping my resume, getting my fingerprints, and applying for my license. This trip was  a celebration trip- I was finished with my Master’s of Science in Teaching degree. Granted I had to finish my final project while ON this trip, but once I clicked SEND, I still had half the trip to savor and party like a rockstar.

I love Ft. Myers Beach (FMB). I have been vacationing here since elementary school. During my childhood, FMB was were we went to celebrate the end of the school year and my birthday during Memorial Day weekend. Thus, it seemed fitting for me to celebrate the conclusion of my degree here.

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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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{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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{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 Penhttps://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} Long weekend in Vermont

{Trip Report} Long weekend in Vermont

We have officially been married 10 years. I give mad props to Nick for dealing with me. For our anniversary, we will be celebrating for a couple weeks. Why not, right?! The perfect gift for me will always be… a … Continue reading