Category Archives: beaches

Coney Island Nostalgia

coney island Home to the first enclosed amusement park in America, the famed Nathan’s 4th of July Hot Dog Eating Contest,  and the site of countless American tales Coney Island, New York was once billed as “Heaven at the end of a subway ride.” After decades of neglect, this once vibrant seaside attraction has been given a major facelift, but has that caused it to lose its historical charm?

My first trip to Coney Island was almost two decades ago when my husband – a Brooklyn native who grew up blocks from the famous boardwalk— and I spent a quasi-honeymoon weekend eating Nathan’s, watching a guy hammer a nail into his nasal cavity and holding on for dear life in Deno’s Spook-A-Rama. For a kid from the California coast, this place was a dirty, gritty, run-down piece of nostalgia. You could almost see actual fleas in the Flea Market. It was every stereotype I’d imagined Brooklyn to be… and I loved it!

In the years since that first visit, many of the things that gave Coney Island its uniqueness have vanished. The Nickle Empire, a nickname it earned back in its heyday when visitors could enjoy a knish and rides for five-cents each, is quickly becoming a Jackson Hole. {try to get out of there without spending at least $20} Gone are the rickety stalls selling oddities and baubles, carnival games with chipped paint facades and character. In their place sparkle the glowing beacons of chain stores and restaurants.

Come to Coney Island, eat at Applebees?

My youngest daughter sitting in the same spot her dad loved growing up, but seeing a far different Coney Island
My youngest daughter sitting in the same spot her dad loved growing up, but seeing a far different Coney Island

As Goliath thrill rides designed by the same folks responsible for Six Flags crowd into the new Luna Park, I wonder how long the Cyclone has left {not that I’d actually ever get on the thing}. It’s not that the “new” Coney Island won’t be a wonderful place in its own right, but rather that with the gentrification of the area comes the end of an era.

Certainly, there must be enough chain restaurants to sustain the appetite of those who love an afternoon outing at Applebee’s, endless breadsticks and bottomless appetizers. As dubious as eating fresh oysters from a stand on the Brooklyn boardwalk may sound, I’d still rather give those a go when in Coney Island.

The thought of heading to Whalburgers for fries in the shadow of the Cyclone is simply bonkers. Then again most people in Brooklyn are Mets fans and might not have a problem with South Boston’s own serving them up meat on a bun. You Yankees fans should be ashamed.

It seems that progress is steaming along down Surf Avenue. Sigh

Coney Island Mermaid ParadeI suggest you go visit Coney Island now. Soon the only mermaids marching in the parade may be Disney princesses and not Drag Queens.


Spanish Holiday – Hotel Playa de la Luz Rota, Spain

Spanish Holiday - Hotel Playa de la Luz Rota SpainSouthern Spain {Andalucia} has long been a favorite “holiday” destination for European travelers. This makes perfect sense when one considers the lovely beaches, amazing architecture, history, culture and cuisine.  I recall the first time I met a person on, “Spanish Holiday” while living in Spain.  Partly because – as an American– the term, “holiday” means something entirely different, but also because of the place we met – Hotel Playa de la Luz in my “hometown” of Rota, Spain.

Holiday goers -or vacationers, as we call them– flood into Rota during the summer months just as they do nearly all of the coastal towns in Andalucia. The favored casks of La Tintilla in local bodegas take a back seat to hard cider and flowing sangria, skin sizzles to a burnished bronze {in most cases, save the bulk of visitors from the UK and people like me who end up the hue of ripened tomatoes} on the beaches, and the night life rarely gives way at dawn.

What makes Rota differ from this typical Spanish Holiday foray, comes in the form of luxurious oasis just barely outside the city. I’d been living in Rota for nearly a year before setting foot in the Hotel Playa de la Luz, time lost that I’ve come to regret.

Spanish Holiday - Beach front tapas at Hotel Playa de la LuzNestled on a stretch of nearly pristine beach -a welcome change from the beach I leaved near on the other side of town– the hotel is practically a world away from the bustle. Though Rota itself is a small town, Calle de María Auxiliadora being its one fairly busy main boulevard, in high season the crush of people can be difficult to manage. The hotel gives you a place to enjoy the natural beauty of this part of Spain in a simple, yet luxurious setting that is still close enough to the town when you want to stop in at Bar Christina for amazing tortillitas de camarones – or shrimp fritatta– dance the night away, or roam the quaint little shops and gypsy stores.

La Gaviota, the onsite restaurant takes the best of local ingredients and whips up outstanding tapas. As I type my mouth is watering in memory of their alcauciles rellenos, a stuffed artichoke that is worth the airfare from the states. Once you’ve stuffed yourself with Spanish delights you’ll need a way to burn off those extra calories. The hotel features four tennis courts, a gym, and several pools. You can even ask the staff to arrange horseback riding on the beach for you. If you ride, this is a can’t-miss activity. 

For Americans, the rooms by seem small and sparsely decorated. Getting used to that was a tough one for me, but this is pretty much the standard with nearly any level hotel in this part of Spain. I suppose the idea is that you’ll be spending so little of your time indoors, they’d rather focus on elevating the common spaces. 

Playa de la Luz does this really well. Their white-washed facade and intricate Moorish tile work is evocative of old Hollywood glamour.  Take a stroll along the marble inlaid beach walk and you’ll feel as though Clark Gable is waiting on that yacht in the distance to whisk you away.

Spanish Holiday - Luxury Sunbathing at Hotel Playa de La Luz Rota, SpainTips for Families

The hotel features a playground for kids, separate adult and family pools and during the months of July and August childcare services are available.

Day Trips Nearby

Jerez {35 minute drive} visit a Bodega -Harvey’s is one of the more famous ones– stop by the Royal Spanish Equestrian school to see the famed Lipizzaner horses, eat at the Mercado de Abastos.

Cadiz {45 minute drive} Cadiz is one of my favorite towns in all of Spain. It has everything a large metropolitan city could want without the issues that come with being a city of size. To me its a bit of Paris meets Madrid. There are a plethora of galleries and museums, lovely public parks with sculpted gardens, and an immense amount of history as Cadiz is the oldest continually inhabited town in Spain.

Hotel Information

Address:  Avda. de la Diputación S/N
                     11520 Rota (Cádiz) Spain
                     Tel: 1+ (34) 956 810 500
Website: Hotel Playa de la Luz

Reservations line: 1+ (34) 902 418 428

Tips for Viewing the Assateague Island Pony Pinning

photo credit: Bonnie U. Gruenberg
photo credit: Bonnie U. Gruenberg

At around ten years old I got the best Christmas gift any kid could ever ask for – my first horse. Well, technically she was just a hair too short to be called a horse. I loved her all the same. She and I would while away many a summer afternoon in the shade of an outcropping of trees that sprung up around a little stream carved out at the base of a leaking water tower near her stables. While she nibbled on sweet watercress, I’d read (and reread) the classic; Misty of Chincoteague.

The story of how Paul and Maureen longed to buy one of the ponies that swam across from Assateague Island, was pure romance to my preteen soul. It didn’t hurt that my pony was a Paint with a large white marking on her side. It was one of those bittersweet books that crawls into your heart and makes you somehow enjoy the sad parts as much as the triumph.

Far removed from that stream by the water tower – my horse long passed – I now live close enough for a day-trip to Assateague Island. Taking my family down there is a treat. The beaches are far less crowed than the rest on the Delmarva peninsula, nearly pristine and yes… there are still wild ponies. 

surfing off Assateague Island MarylandThe population of the herd is kept under control in part by the annual Pony Penning (now called the Pony Swim) which remains nearly the same as described in Marguerite Henry‘s classic. On the last Thursday of July the Volunteer Fire Department of Chincoteague, Virgina – aka the Saltwater Cowboys– drive the herd on a short swim from Assateague to Chincoteague at slack tide. Here the foals are separated from the herd. 

The first foal to make the crossing will be named King or Queen Neptune and raffled off at the carnival that evening. The rest will be sold at auction, the adults returning to the island to live wild and free. 

Here are some tips for viewing the Assateague Island Pony Pinning.

Information on the 2015 Chincoteague Pony Swim

Date: July 29th, 2015

Time: Slack Tide (usually between 7:00 am and 1:00 pm

Admission: To view the swim is free

Parking: (free) Chinoteague Combined School – 4586 Main Street, Chincoteague, VA 23336

Other activities on Chincoteague Island Saturday, July 25, 2015:

  • 28th Annual Chincoteague Island Blueberry Festival (9:00 AM – 4:30 PM at the Chincoteague Center)
  • 90th Annual Chincoteague Fireman’s Carnival (7pm – 11pm at the Carnival Grounds)
  • ‘Misty of Chincoteague’ playing at the Island Theater (Check the Theater for show times)

Wild Ponies of Assateague Island Just as when I was that awkward book nerd who’s only friend was her not-quite-a-horse, I’ve mixed feelings about this tradition. In my ‘logical brain’ I understand the need to control the size of the herd. Can’t have them breeding and eating themselves out of a home. On the other hand, softhearted soul in me sees a certain cruelty in breaking ‘families’ apart.  

For now I think we’ll stick to spending lazy summer days on Assateague Inland, enjoying the sun, searching for a new shell for the collection, and keeping an eye out for wild ponies.

Not that they’re that hard to spot….

Roaming the roads Wild Ponies on Assateague Island Maryland


California Dreamin’ – #IGTravelThursday

California is home, or was. Somehow after over a decade living on the East Coast, I still consider myself a Californian.  It isn’t that I don’t love where I live now, but more that California is a part of me.

That said, I don’t often find myself back home. When I do, I drink it, breath it, take it into me like I might never get back again. Whether it’s toes in the sand on my favorite beach, watching the sun rise out of the desert dunes, or losing myself in the forest, California always sparks the best day dreams – and some of the best Instagram travel stories too.


A photo posted by Lara D (@dipaolamomma) on

Nothing beats a California Sunset.  

On horseback, one of my favorite ways to explore anywhere!


A photo posted by Lara D (@dipaolamomma) on

And of course, what is better than a California wine to end any day? Doesn’t matter where you are!


A photo posted by Lara D (@dipaolamomma) on

The great thing about an Instagram Travel story, is it  stays with you no matter where you are – or how cold it is there!


I’ll just pretend I’m back here and ignore the snow outside. #sandiego A photo posted by Lara D (@dipaolamomma) on

Finding travel daydreams on Instagram is one of my favorite things to do. Reeta from House of Anais has taken me all over, from Finland to Slovenia, through lush green fields in England. And that’s just in her post for this week! 

Do you have a great Instagram travel story to share, or want to find more? Join the monthly Instagram travel-related linky hosted by Skimbaco Lifestyle, and click through all the Insta-Travel-Awesome below.


Should You Rent A Vacation Home?

A soft breeze dances through your hair, bringing with them the briny scent of the sea. Echos of crashing waves mix with the songs of seagulls as you dig your toes deep into warm sand digging for that cool spot beneath. There is nothing like beach life. If you’re planning this year’s escape to the shore, you should be thinking about renting a beach house.

Yes, I am advocating turning your back on turn-down service, giving up housekeeping and traveling concierge free.

I’ll give you a moment to get over the shock.

Wild Horses of the Outer Banks -Renting vs Hotels - Beachfront Stays

When the suggestion of renting a beach house in lieu of hotel was first made I scoffed, openly. My memory of rented beach houses involved condos packed in like sardines along the California coastline, and inhabited by Frat Boys, drunken twenty-somethings, and transplanted surfers. Nope, I was sticking to Egyptian cotton sheets and room service, thank-you-very-much.

Then I started to do a little research. As it turns out there are plenty of perks to beach house rentals:

  • There aren’t many hotels that offer on the beach (not just beachfront) properties. Renting a home can give you “total access” that is well worth the price tag.
  • Should you have more than the ‘standard’ 2.5 offspring, like I do, the cost of beach house rental can actually work out to less than the cost of a hotel.
  • There is something relaxing about having a kitchen to cook in, rather than eating out for every meal.
  • You can save money by having meals at home. (see above)
  • If you shop right, there won’t be a Frat Boy in site!

You do have to do some leg work though. We started renting beach houses four years ago. Resources are leaps and bounds above where they were then. Sites like Airbnb, Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBO), FilpKey, and HomeAway make finding the right house both easier, and not. You really have to know what you’re looking for when you wade into these waters.

Consider This…

How close is the beach? If you have to schlep your kids and gear a mile to get to the sunny shore, you might want to reconsider.

Is the beach access public or private? Public beaches tend to be more crowded, but also have several points of access to the shore. Private beaches can be less crowded, yet can also be harder to get to.

 Lifeguard on duty? Be sure to check with your rental company to see if your beach has Lifeguard service. If it does not, be sure to have a plan for water emergencies.

How do you access your beach house? See “Know The Road” below for why this is an important consideration.

Be sure about the type of beach you are visiting. More info below.

Get a detailed outline of what amenities are included in your rental. Do you need to bring towels, kitchen utensils, laundry items, toiletries? Where is the closest place to restock, if you need to?

What other activities are available beyond the beach?

Get to “know” who you’re renting from. There are a lot of large rental companies that offer amenity-packed, “tracked” homes which could be a perfect fit for you, or not. There are also tons of independent homeowners and smaller rental companies that offer more personal service. Know who and what you’re dealing with.

Don’t see photos that show you want you want but you really like the ones you see? Ask for more. We failed to do this with last year’s rental and ended up with a “beach” that was really just a corner of sand off the retaining wall of the property. The owner was a Real Estate broker skilled in using adjectives to disguise the shortcomings.

Know The Road

This applies mostly to beaches on the East Coast of the United States. I don’t recall beaches in on the West Coast or in my travels in Europe, where you could drive on the beach. There are hundreds of properties in North Carolina alone that are accessible only by four-wheel drive vehicles.

Lesson 1: Four Wheel Drive (4WD) and All Wheel Drive are not the same.

Lesson 2: When the sign says “Only Four Wheel Drive Vehicles Beyond This Point”, pay attention. It isn’t a suggestion. When staying at a 4WD accessible home, we personally helped a couple push their Prius out of the sand. Each day brought a new crop of cars stuck in the sand. The cost of having your car towed back to the road can be upwards of $250.  

Lesson 3: Bring quarters and a tire gauge. You’ll need to air-down (let air out of) your tires before hitting the beach. When you come back to the paved road you’ll need to put that air back, facilitating the need for quarters at the air pump and a gauge to make sure you get it right.  

Be Sure About The Beach

As I mentioned above, doing your research can help you avoid getting stuck in a corner (literally) One summer we rented a gorgeous home in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The beach was beautiful but brutal. The shore was rocky to the point of being nearly impossible to traverse, the ocean floor – even worse. This was a shock for us, and for our feet which were not protected with water shoes.  Be sure to ask the rental owner about the condition, size, and location of the beach relative to the home.  

Read The Fine Print

Rental homes come with contracts, most written by legal types who love to play the word game. You know, the one that makes you go cross-eyed and sign just to get away from the monotonous gobbledygook. Force yourself to… Read. It. All. Then ask questions about anything you don’t understand. Never send cash or a check – ever. If the owner isn’t willing to take the hit on the measly credit card fees, that should be a red flag.   


Take Pictures

Not just great shots of the sun rising out of the waves, or the kids lounging on the deck. Take photos of every room when you arrive. Make sure they are time/date stamped (any smartphone has this option) and do the same when you leave. We’ve only had one property take anything from the security and cleaning deposit. We were charged for a broken fixture that wasn’t broken when we left. Oddly enough, this was the same property with the bite-sized beach.

Yes, there is a lot to consider when renting a vacation property. That said, of all the travel we do – and we DO – rental homes from the beach to Tuscany, have been among some of our favorite stays.

photo credit: Podere Salicotto
photo credit: Podere Salicotto

Oh, did I just drop Tuscany on ya? Stay tuned for tips on renting villas and townhomes in Europe!