Category Archives: travel reviews

Loews Annapolis – Girls Night In

Sometimes even the promise of fun with your favorite fab females isn’t quite lure enough to get you through all the prep and primping involved in a girls night out. Maybe what you need is a girls night IN? Um.. what is that? That’s exactly what I recently asked the folks at Loews Annapolis hotel. The answer has become my new favorite thing. 

Travel, I love it, but boy can it get exhausting when you’re the one in charge of everyone. From the booking to the packing, to the occasional refereeing I earn that room service wine.

Girls night in at Loews Annapolis HotelTo be honest, I’ve daydreamed of escaping to a hotel all alone just to save my own sanity. Hole up with a good book and an even better bottle of wine, that’d do it. Until the folks at Loews Annapolis reached out and invited me to come down for a girls night in with some fellow bloggers, creatives, and journalists – now pals.

Before that invite I hadn’t ever really put much thought into enlisting my friends to abscond with me to a hotel, sans kids, just to enjoy ourselves. Cue the “I coulda had a V8,” forehead slap.

What a brilliant idea. I’m stealing it!  

How to have a Girls Night In…

1. Pick a Hotel with a GOOD Restaurant

BAROAK at Loews AnnapolisYou cook all the time, a Girls Night In is your chance to have someone cook for you. Don’t settle for blah! Find a hotel that has a good -if not great– restaurant on property. This will let you indulge without the need of designated driver. BONUS, your yoga pants are just steps away in the room.

Nestled inside the modern-nautical themed Loews Annapolis is port of culinary bliss – BAROAK. What it lacks in pretension it quadruples in flavor and creativity.  Here fresh and local meet over live music and an extensive craft beer menu.

Chef Marcus Donovan – right hand knife to Chef Teddy Folkman who’s moules fromage bleu are legend – served up a tasting menu that took Chesapeake Bay food traditions and tossed them a curve.  Fried oysters topped with pickled shallots have the familiar flavor of a mignonette topped raw oyster, but with crunchy, creamy and somehow more brine that the classic. Pair that with a Scoville Jalapeño IPA from local Jailbreak Brewery and it’s sweet, spicy, salty, crunchy, creamy, mildly hoppy HAPPY town!

Rumor has it that Chef Marcus might be turning Maryland’s iconic Smith Island Cake into deep fried nirvana – I’ll take one for the team and taste test that for ya. I’m selfless like that.  

2. Bathrobes 

That ratty robe you wear at home might be perfect for pop-tarts and lukewarm coffee, it is NOT fit for your Girls Night In! Loews Hotels know their way around a robe.  In fact, the only hotel robe I’ve ever purchased to bring home was from a Loews property {yeah, purchased… that’s it}   It simply is not possible to be anything but relaxed when donning a fancy hotel bathrobe. Go ahead, try to prove me wrong.  

3. Get Your Girlie On

Treat yourself in a little ‘beautification vacation.’ Loews Annapolis arranged for a lovely couple from a local nail salon to come in and give fabulous in-room mani-pedis. While not every hotel may be willing to go that extra mile, there is no reason you can’t make an appointment at a nearby nail studio, set up treatments at the hotel spa, or go old school and do each others nails like back in middle school. Just no freezing the bras, m’kay?    The great thing about Loews hotels in any city, is that they will go that extra mile to make your stay everything you want it to be. This is a brand that really does treat you like family when you stay. Heck, they’re even renowned for welcoming fury family members in style. {be warned if you click on this link you may die from the adorable therein}  

4. Remember Girls Just Wanna Have FUN

 Just because you’re not hitting the club, doesn’t mean there isn’t fun to be had. S’mores outdoors are fast becoming a hotel trend. Toss a robe over those PJs, grab that bottle of bubbly and head out to the fire pit. Hey, it’s your party you can s’more if you want to.  Not up for ooey gooey bliss? How about ordering that non-Disney flick on the hotel menu, having room service send up some pizza and wine? It’s your turn to have a good time.     It’s also okay to toss some adventure in there too. We had a soggy blast setting sail aboard the Schooner Woodwind, rain and all. Find that fun thing to do in the city where you stay, and do it. No kids, no hassles, just you and your gal pals. Most any hotel concierge will help you set up your outing.   

 

A photo posted by Lara D (@dipaolamomma) on

Now, go start plotting your escape. Not only is it totally okay for you to make time for YOU, you’ve earned this!

Summer in a Ski Town – The Resort at Squaw Creek, Lake Tahoe

Gorgeous views from the lobby of TheResort at Squaw CreekIt may seem odd to think about visiting a destination best known for world-class skiing when the only snow you’re likely to find is in a cone.  As it turns out some ski towns have nearly as much to offer in the summer. The Resort at Squaw Creek, Lake Tahoe makes for a great base camp to test that theory. 

The Resort at Squaw Creek, Lake Tahoe

All about the lake – Nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Lake Tahoe itself is the largest Alpine lake in North America. Boating, kayaking, and stand-up paddle boarding are just a few of the ways to enjoy this stunning natural wonder with water so clear in some spots that you can see to a depth of around 70 feet.  At times it reminded me of the waters off the east coast of Jamaica.

(photo credit: Squaw Valley Lodge / CC BY-SA 2.0)
(photo credit: Squaw Valley Lodge / CC BY-SA 2.0)

What is there to actually do at a ski resort in summer?

The simple answer? Lots!

Hike through stunning mountainsides dotted with waterfalls, hidden lakes, and a rainbow of beautiful wild flowers. 

Waterfall on the Shirley Canyon Hiking Trail - Lake TahoeTake an aerial tram ride up 2,000 vertical feet to High Camp where a pool, museum, outdoor activities, bar and cafe await with stunning views from an elevation of 8,200 feet. 

Go horseback riding on trails that cross streams and wind up into the mountains giving breath-taking views of protected forest ranges. Who knows, you might even run into a local or two. We met up with a Black Tail deer who could have cared less that we were there, she was so busy munching.

Horseback riding at Alpine Meadows - Lake TahoeOr, you could just hang out by the pool. The Resort at Squaw Creek has large recreation pool, plunge pool, 120-foot water slide, a children’s pool and 3 outdoor all-season whirlpools.

Worked up an appetite? The food scene at Lake Tahoe holds its own with the well-developed tastes of Foodies visiting from the San Francisco bay area. The Resort at Squaw Creek boasts three eateries open year-round, as well as two open seasonally.

Stop in for breakfast at Cascades and indulge in a buffet that features great artisanial eats like local honey, cheeses, and pastries. Don’t miss the build-your-own Bloody Mary Bar. 

Build-Your-Own Bloody Mary BarHave Sweet Potatoes Deli box you up a lunch for your outdoor adventures. Their quinoa and tomato salad is sublime.

Signature cocktails share center stage with gorgeous views, and innovated, gourmet dishes at Six Peaks Grille. Fine dining by the fire? I’m in.

Crispy Duck with Blueberry Confit - Six Peaks Grille at The Resort at Squaw Creek, Lake TahoeThe Spa, aaah! In my mind no hotel property should be allowed to call itself a resort if they don’t have a great spa. Squaw Creek earns their “resort” cred with a spa that Condé Nast Traveler named among the Top Five Resort Spas. 

It may not be the biggest, but it melds perfectly into the “nature vibe” of the area making the experience immersive, and unique. I thoroughly enjoyed their Coconut/Honey Sugar Scrub treatment, and highly recommend asking if Norma-Jean has any openings when you book any treatment at the spa.

How are the rooms? It just so happened that during my visit The Resort at Squaw Creek was celebrating it’s 25th anniversary by getting some work done. Rooms are in the process of being updated with modern amenities, like: marble tiled bathrooms with separate soaking tubs and separate showers, and chic resort decor. The rooms are actually more like micro-apartments with a kitchen stocked with utensils, appliances and tableware, making them great for families.

I will say that the refrigerator in my room was odd. The shelves were so narrow that you couldn’t fit a full-sized wine or soft drink bottle in without laying it flat.  

The Resort at Squaw Creek - Renovated RoomThe renovations are being done in two stages, the first complete already with the rest expected to be finished by the time ski season arrives. I’d suggest calling the property to book your room so you can request one that has been updated.

Tips

If you’re flying in from the East Coast, consider departing from New York if you can. JetBlue has recently opened up a non-stop route from JFK to Reno.

The Resort at Squaw Creek is about an hour drive from the Reno airport. Don’t bother renting a car, there is shuttle service from the resort to just about anywhere you want to go. Instead, make a reservation with Sierra-Tahoe Car Service.  Not only will you get a reliable ride in a full-sized SUV with room for your family and gear, you’ll also be able to take in the sites on the scenic drive up to the resort.

The holidays are a great time to stay at the resort. In fact, there are some great sales coming up just for that time of year.  They won’t be advertizing these prices so be sure you’re in the know by signing up for info

Sunset on Lake Tahoe

 

As you know, sometimes I get the opportunity to visit places as a hosted guest of the destination. I was hosted on this trip. That said, I received no compensation and was not required to write a review of any sort. Everything you just read is 100% my honest opinion, because you deserve nothing less!  

 

The International Spy Museum: Cloaks, Daggers and 007

International Spy Museum  

Across the street from the Old Patent Building in Washington, D.C.’s Penn Quarter neighborhood sits a building that looks rather unassuming. Don’t let the brick façade fool you into thinking that there is just another museum inside. You’d fall prey to a well-crafted cover. This is the International Spy Museum, and you’ve never seen anything like it.

The mission we chose to accept:

  • Establish Cover Identities.
  • Infiltrate operations at 800 F St NW, Washington, DC, United States – 20004: International Spy Museum.
  • Test family travel compatibility.
  • Get out alive.

There may have been more to it, but the message self-destructed in two minutes.

When you enter this exhibition of espionage it is rather apparent that you aren’t at the Smithsonian any more. Check your identity at the door and get ready to enter, “Spy School.”

An elevator whisks you into an antechamber where the lights dim and a panoramic screen alights with a history of the importance and impact of spy-craft throughout the ages. As the lights come back up you’re escorted into a room where you’ll choose and memorize your Cover ID, an important step in your mission.

Offical Letter from the Canadian Ambassador and signed screen play from Argo

Our kids loved this! Okay, so did I. (could you tell?)

The International Spy Museum is the only public museum in the US solely dedicated to the spy-craft, history, and contemporary role of espionage. Open since July 2002 and in development since 1996, the museum features the largest collection of international espionage artifacts ever placed on public display – many have never been seen by the public. (Yes, that lipstick pistol is REAL!) These artifacts – from a 1777 letter by George Washington authorizing a New York spy network (ahem, fans of Turn) to a 1980s coat with a camera concealed in a button – really do serve to “uncover” the real-life impact of espionage.

This really is an immersion experience, how “deep” you go into your cover is up to you.

Once you choose your cover you move on to the next area where a lesson in the tools of the trade awaits. The kids got really into the interactive portion; climbing through air ducts, searching for listening devices, learning the lingo. My husband and I – both big fans of the show “The Assets,” as well as movies like “Argo” – were drawn to the video screens where the actual players in these real-life dramas tell their own stories. The irony of the kids pulling us away from the TV was not lost on me.

Other exhibits we found both intriguing and educational in our journey into the hidden world of intrigue include:

The Secret History of History – This series of galleries chronicles the history of spying from biblical times to the early 20th century. There is even a reconnaissance pigeon display. Leave it to the French to play fowl.

Spies Among Us – These exhibits, films, and videos examine espionage through World War II, showcasing real-life spy stories. I’m sort of a romantic when it comes to this period in history. Sitting in a mock bunker and listening to encoded radio messages sent by the French Resistance and trying decode them was almost like being in a time machine.

Exquisitely Evil: 50 Years of Bond Villains – This was my favorite! It takes you from the 60’s and Dr. NO all the way to Skyfall. Ian Flemming’s typewriter, Bond movie posters in nearly every language , and hello… Duran Duran music! More than just geekery for nerds like me, the exhibit shows the evolution of how the pop culture vision of the “Bad Guy,” has been influenced by the changing times, and fears. This area is also the most fun for kiddos. I won’t give anything away but let’s say I got startled by something here and the kids are still laughing at me. When a museum becomes part of family lore, you know it had to be good.

I’ll admit to having been a bit disturbed by the final exhibit, The 21st Century. Until that point most of our visit dealt with the historical past, it felt a bit fantasy – like a place you were just visiting. When you get to this final stop you’re made to really think about here-and-now issues; weapons of mass destruction, cyber warfare. Those hit close to home. Framed against all I’d already seen, I couldn’t help but think, “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.”  

Luckily the last stop on your visit is the gift shop. Nothing like exercising the credit card to make you forget cyber crime… doh! Actually this is the perfect ending. The shop is packed with books written about and by spies, fun trinkets, toys the kids “had” to have and even some of my favorite British treats. I’d hoped for Sean Connery, but happily settled on taking home some chocolate dipped Digestives biscuits.

Family Travel fun at the Interantional Spy Museum

International Spy Museum 411

Address:

800 F St NW, Washington, DC 20004 – Phone: (202) 654-0950

Parking:

The museum is partnered with this nifty service called Parking Panda. You can purchase a guaranteed parking space in advance of your visit for as little as $16 depending upon when you go. That is pretty darn cheap for DC! There are several public garages nearby as well as some (very hard to get) metered spots on the street. 

Nearest Metro Station:

Gallery Place/Chinatown stop.

Hours of Operation:

Open Daily 10:00 am – 6:00 pm (Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas day)

Admission:

$21.95, Adults (ages 12-64) $14.95, ages 12+

$15.95, Seniors (65+), Military & Law Enforcement

$14.95, Children (ages 7-11)

FREE, Children (ages 6 and under)

SPY Combinations:

$27.95, Operation Spy + General Admission

$27.95, Spy in the City + General Admission

$39.95, Spy in the City + Operation Spy + General Admission

$24.95, Operation Spy + Spy in the City

My International Spy Museum Tips

  • Take the Metro!
  • Buy your tickets in advance, the lines can get long
  • Plan on a minimum of three hours
  • Push buttons, turn knobs, look closely there is more to see than you’ll notice at first glance
  • If there is a long line for an activity station, come back later. Groups tend to dwindle and if you miss something you’re really missing out
  • I highly recommend purchasing the full combo ticket for your first visit

 

(Lead Photo Courtesy of the International Spy Museum)

 

 

Busch Gardens Williamsburg Food & Wine Festival: Family, Fun, & Food!

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Wouldn’t it be fabulous if you could zip around the globe in one day, making stops at your favorite spots and giving jet lag the slip? Until the descendants of Gene Roddenberry come through with that molecular transporter we were promised, you may just need to take a trip to Busch Gardens® Williamsburg.

Yes, Busch Gardens® Williamsburg is an amusement park that can take you around the globe in a single day (or a couple if you’d like.) 

As an Ambassador for the park, my family and I recently visited the park to put this concept to the test. Was it a coincidence that we just so happened to be there for opening weekend of their annual Food & Wine Festival?   

Yeah, no.

Don’t get me wrong I love a log flume as much as the next girl, but really you’ve seen one you’ve seen ’em all. Now if you’ve got goat cheese crepes and a Côtes du Rhône, that’s my kind of thrill ride!

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Deemed, “The Most Beautiful Theme Park in the World”, Busch Gardens® Williamsburg takes you on a global adventure featuring rides, shows, and YES food from delightful destinations like: Italy, France, Ireland, Scotland, Greece, Canada and Germany. Grab their mobile app on iTunes or in the Google Play Store to help you navigate better than Columbus! Trust me, it’s much better than using a standard park map.

Talk about globe trotting!

The park also boasts an array of wildlife, making this more than just a spot for wild rides like Verbolten. The teen daughter suckered me into riding this one. Um, it drops you… on purpose! I literally did not stop screaming for the entire ride – maybe a few minutes after as well. We all fell in love with the majestic, and a bit mischievous Clydesdale horse and big fluffy sheep in Scotland. The cheeky nine year old had to ask why the Bald Eagle didn’t have any pistachios. 

Damn you Colbert!

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My anglophile offspring were in dazed by the swinging scene in England where Busch Gardens® Williamsburg has welcomed another British invasion with their London Rocks show. These kids watch far too much Dr. Who.

Sculptures and sculptured gardens mark your entrance into Italy. Grab a gelato and stroll through a piazza dotted with shops that feature Florentine glass and fun Italian-esque baubles. I loved that many of the rides here played off a Da Vinci theme. It opened up some great conversations about the time we’ve spent in Italy and the places that my husband’s family still lives. Other than that “center” in Florida, I can’t think of another theme park that sparked such amazing conversations. 

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One thing Busch Gardens® Williamsburg does really well, is mixing rides for all age groups into each area you visit. The big kids can test their nerve on Loch Ness while the smaller thrill seekers can ride the mini Clydesdales just feet away. As the day winds down, and feet get tired, hop on the REAL steam locomotive train that circles the park and revisit the palaces you loved most. 

Another great way to find a respite during your day is a private cabana. We rented one for the day, and it was BRILLIANT!

Nestled in the Wild Reserve next to Lorikeet Glen, our cabana included seating for four, a lockable storage area, FOUR Quick Queue® passes, a spacious mini-refrigerator, EIGHT bottled drinks (we grabbed VitaminWater, bottled water and sodas), PLUS complimentary photo. Note the photo is one of those where you look ridiculous screaming on a roller coaster, not the photos with the Clydesdales – learned that one the hard way. The Queue® passes alone are $20 a pop, and we all know how NOT cheap drinks are in a theme park, combine that savings with having a place to rest and store the loot you found in France and the cost of a cabana makes total sense. They start at $70 in the low-season and go up to $120 during peak times.

kaytie and the dale

The culinary portion of our global tour took us from crepes and wine in France, to beer and cheese in Belgium, gaspatcho (one of my favs!) and sangria in Spain to bangers and colcannon in Ireland. Each country featured dishes authentic to the culture they represent, and paired with iconic adult libations of each nation. The festival also featured the Art of Food, with exhibits highlighting culinary artistry from melon carving to cake artists that had been featured on Food Network. Nibbles range from $4 up to about $14 for wine tastings.

The Busch Gardens® Williamsburg Food & Wine Festival runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from May 23 – June 29th for 2014.

Busch Gardens Collage

The whole family had a blast, we can’t wait to head back for Halloween!

 

This post was made possible in part by my participation in the Busch Gardens® Williamsburg Ambassador program. My family and I were provided park passes in order to experience the park and share with my readers.  All other items, including the Cabana, food and wine (oh the wine), I paid for. My opinions and those of my family are 100% our own – because YOU deserve nothing less!

Family Travel: Savannah, Shrimp & Residence Inn… Oh My!

Being a big family has never kept us rooted at home. Given the opportunity, we pick up and go! Planes, trains and automobiles? We’ve done that. This summer we set out to explore the Gulf Coast. The adventure began with taking the kids, and even our car, along on the Amtrak Auto Train to Florida’s glimmering shores. Waving a fond farewell to Florida, we hit the road, landing in Savannah, Georgia.

If I had to use one word to sum up our stay in Savannah it would have to be, Magical.

To be honest, choosing to stay in Savannah was more a strategy than a burning desire to see the place before I die. The logic? The kids could only last a maximum of eight hours in the car before a hierarchy emerged and people started to be marked for elimination. Not good. So Savannah it was. Lucky for me -card carrying member of the Residence Moms Club- there were a few Residence Inns (RI) to choose from. Little did I know what amazing stay we’d have at the the RI Historic District.

From the moment we pulled up in front of the charming brick building -nestled amongst art museums, city trolley tour stops and historic landmarks- we were made to feel like family. A friendly valet welcomed us, helped with bags and made the kids giggle (a very “luxury property” touch). The desk staff got us checked in, in a jiffy, then gave us a mini tour of the property, from the fire pit crowning the sparking pool and courtyard, to the full dining area and bar, the place as an “Old South” feel and true Southern Hospitality.Obviously the kids loved the pool most of all. That and they Eggs Florentine, grits and fresh waffles at the free breakfast bar. My kids love to eat. I enjoyed having a full kitchen (hello, eating out with a family of 6 can break the bank) stocked with groceries that the RI staff picked up for me and had delivered to our room, swoon.

The staff were so much more than hospitality workers, they became our personal tour guides, recommending places the locals go to eat, indulging my obsession with Johnny Mercer and “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and pointing us to an awesome dolphin tour. We got to see WILD baby dolphins!

My absolute favorite part of our visit to Savannah (other than the Shrimp and Grits at The Boar’s Head Grill and Tavern on the Riverwalk) was the afternoon we spent at Bonaventure Cemetery. Yes, I drug my kids into a cemetery as a family activity, don’t judge. In the visitor’s center, most people grab a map and go, in a rush to go find the Bird Girl. We lingered, and boy was it worth it. We met a lovely Southern Gentleman, a  member of the historical society and a treasure. He entertained us with an oral history of Savannah in a way no book or website could. We learned about the founding of the city, why the cemetery is laid out the way it is, how it was inclusive of several religions at a time when this was a rarity in the south. Some of the stories he told us were simply jaw-dropping. Like the one about his 200 year old obelisk that made it’s way into the Georgia soil all the way from France.

How did it end up in Bonaventure, and why? Well it was purchased by a local businessman who wanted to save the particular plot it resides on, for the day he meets his eternal rest. Where does one go to purchase a several ton marble obelisk from France? Why, eBay of course! True story.

Bonaventure was also the perfect place for me to hone my very-amateur photography skills.

From encounters with wild dolphins to a not-so-spooky walking ghost tour, amazing eats to quaint cobblestone streets, Savannah is a magical place imbued with true Southern hospitality, steeped in history and the perfect place for a family adventure!

 

Disclosure: Our stay at the Residence Inn in Savannah was compensated as part of my participation in the Residence Inn Moms Club. I was under no obligation to give this property a favorable review. As ALWAYS my opinions are my own. That said, you should stay at this property, words really can not describe how wonderful our stay was.