Friday Favorite- National Parks Passport

Friday Favorite

Today’s Favorite Travel Product: National Parks Passport Book

National Park Passport Book
National Parks Passport Book

Earlier this year we visited the Shenandoah Valley National Park. Honestly, it was the first true effort we put into showing our kids a National Park. We made a point to stop at a ranger station to pick up park maps. As we made small talk with a ranger he asked us if we had a Passport he could stamp.

Skyline Drive- part of the Shenandoah National Park
Skyline Drive- part of the Shenandoah National Park

Initially, I panicked. We had passports, but didn’t have them with us on our trip to Virginia. Although it took a few seconds, I concluded that he didn’t mean a real passport. With disappointment, I answered “no”. I also made a mental note to figure out what kind of passport he referred to.

Months later we visited Smoky Mountain National Park. We enjoyed collecting park maps and interesting tidbits about the area. Several times throughout the day I thought of the passports (admittedly, for the first time in months.) I took the time to ask one ranger if he knew about the passport. With a dramatic eye-roll he assured me that I was still in the US and didn’t need a passport. My husband couldn’t stop laughing (and reminding me that I’m a blonde) so asking someone else was out of the question.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee
Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee

Fastforward to our most recent visit to a National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway Asheville. I literally bumped into a display of Passports! Without even pausing to check the price or features, I purchased one.

We unwrapped the plastic right in the visitors center and got our first official cancellation. According to the book: “these ink markings record the name of the park and the date of your visit. Cancellations are free of charge and are usually available at a park’s visitor center.”

Cancelation from our visit
Cancellation from our visit

Again, I hadn’t even taken a peak at the passport prior to purchasing and using it for the first time. However, once we were back on the road and I got a minute to go through it- I wasn’t disappointed! The pages contain compact, but helpful information on the more than 400 sites in the National Park System.

The book is divided by color-coded region. Each section contains locations by state, as well as a brief description of the geographic area. There are many pages in each section for stamps and cancellations, as well as extra pages in the back.

Color coded regions
Color coded regions

Also included with the passport book is a large map. The kids are already looking for future destinations and planning our route!

To avoid missing out on cancellations as you travel (and the embarrassment of asking for one!), order yours today from the National Parks website.

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Christmas At The Biltmore

Photo Credit: The Biltmore Company
Photo Credit: The Biltmore Company

 Is there a more magical time of year than Christmas? Our family loves EVERYTHING about the season, from a live Nativity to visiting Santa.

Always on the lookout for new traditions, I’ve had the Biltmore on our list for years. The rich history of ‘America’s largest house’ began at Christmas. And there is no house in the world that celebrates in such grand style! Therefore,  I couldn’t think of a better time of year for our children to visit for the first time.

These two can't wait to explore this massive house!
These two can’t wait to explore this massive house!

On the day of our visit, we arrived early. In fact, we actually picked up our tickets the night before so we could expedite our morning. Also, you can purchase tickets online. There are many options, and rates are discounted when purchasing in advance. Additionally, some days require an advance reservation. Visit their website for further details and to purchase tickets.

Waiting patiently for the doors to open.
Waiting patiently for the grand doors to open.

The ticket office and gate open 30 minutes prior to the house. Arriving early allowed us to avoid lines, park and shuttle to the front door. We even had time for a few quick pictures in front of the house.

Audio guides are available in both adult and children’s versions. Although originally doubtful of how much we’d enjoy them, I would say they made the experience 100% more exciting. Audio guides can be purchased at ticket office or once you arrive at the house.

The kids using their Audiotour handset.
The kids listening carefully to the handheld audio guide.

I initially worried I would spend much of my time assisting our 4-year old with the device. However, after giving him a quick demonstration he remained completely independent for the rest of our tour. The children’s version features narrative by the family’s favorite dog, Cedric. Equally as informative as the adult version, the guide provided education as well as entertainment!

Miller couldn't get enough of Cedric's commentary about the special house!
Miller couldn’t get enough of Cedric’s commentary about the special house!

Although impressive any time of year, when decorated for Christmas the house hits another level of fairytale-like charm.

The largest tree inside Biltmore House is the Vanderbilt traditional 35-foot-tall Fraser fir in the Banquet Hall.
The largest tree inside Biltmore House is the Vanderbilt traditional 35-foot-tall Fraser fir in the Banquet Hall.

If I had to express one negative from the day, it’s that my children are ready for an upgrade to our Christmas decorations. The “measly” 10-foot tree in our family room doesn’t quite compare to the 35-footer! The conversations have already started about going bigger next year…ha!

There are 62 decorated Christmas trees inside Biltmore House for the 2016 celebration!
There are 62 decorated Christmas trees inside Biltmore House for the 2016 celebration!

 

Garland adorns the grand spiral staircase. They use 7,527 feet of fresh evergreen garlanding during the season, made of mixed white pine and Fraser fir. The garlands are replaced weekly to maintain a fresh look and fragrance for guests. Faux garlands add another 1,200 feet in Biltmore House.
Garland adorns the grand spiral staircase. They use 7,527 feet of fresh evergreen garlanding during the season, made of mixed white pine and Fraser fir. Faux garlands add another 1,200 feet in Biltmore House.

Of course, in a house the size of Biltmore it’s hard to pick favorite areas. Personally, I couldn’t get past the amount of work needed to maintain each room. Obviously, Mrs. Vanderbilt had a lot of help, but still!

My favorite room was the one where Cornelia Vanderbilt was born, and subsequently had her own children.

Beautiful baby cradle!
Beautiful baby cradle!

My husband and children were partial to the lower level of the house. Brent enjoyed the kitchen, while the kids couldn’t get enough of the bowling alley and swimming pool!

A bowling ally in a house?!?
A bowling alley in a house?!?
Even without water, it's easy to imagine how wonderful this pool must have been for parties!
Even without water, it’s easy to imagine how wonderful this pool must have been for parties!

The audio guides moved along at a nice pace. We all felt like we’d gained so much appreciation for the history by the end of our tour.

Upon exiting the house we strolled over to the stable to enjoy some treats.

Delicious bakery items!
Delicious bakery items!

After getting our car we headed over to the Biltmore Conservatory, and Antler Village.

We were transported to a tropical garden inside the conservatory.
We were transported to a tropical garden inside the conservatory.

On our short drive between the Biltmore House and Antler Village, we had to stop and admire the beautiful grounds. The 8,000 acre property boasts gorgeous views of the mountains and quiet forest ponds. Every inch is breathtaking!

The reflection in the still pond couldn't have been more picturesque!
The reflection in the still pond couldn’t have been more picturesque!

Our children were equally as excited to visit the winery as we were once they learned there would be a grape juice tasting at the end!

I love how memorable this experience was for them!
I love how memorable this experience was for them!
Don't miss the winery history or complimentary wine tasting!
Don’t miss the winery history or complimentary wine tasting!

We finished off our Biltmore House day at the Farmyard. The kids loved the playground and petting zoo!

For my city kids, petting goats and chickens is always exciting!
For my city kids, petting goats and chickens is always exciting!

It’s safe to say our family started a new Christmas tradition! We hadn’t driven off the grounds before the kids started talking about “next time.”

Christmas at Biltmore- a special new tradition!
Christmas at Biltmore- a special new tradition!

I can’t imagine a more perfect time to introduce our kids to the Vanderbilt legacy. The Biltmore House made quite an impression on them and they will look forward to future visits as much as I will.

For more information about the Biltmore and to plan your visit, visit their website.

*The Biltmore Company hosted our visit*

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Prayers For Fire Relief

fire

For weeks, several states in the South have been battling wildfires. Dry conditions led to unprecedented acreage burning out of control.

As of 9:00PM last night, mandatory evacuations went into effect for Gatlinburg, Tennessee due to a nearby fire.  Gatlinburg attracts 11 million visitors each year and boasts many awards for being one of the top tourist destinations in the US.

In addition to the wildly popular town, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been forced to close several trails and areas.

We visited Great Smoky Mountain National Park earlier this fall. It's one of our favorites!
We visited Great Smoky Mountain National Park earlier this fall. It’s one of our favorites!

Join us in praying for the firefighters, those in affected areas, and for favorable weather conditions!

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How To Baby Proof Your Hotel Room

Hotel rooms are full of dangers for baby!
Hotel rooms are full of dangers for baby!

I distinctly remember the first few times we stayed in a hotel room with our infant daughter. My stress level was off the charts. Unfortunately although she was several months old, she wasn’t sleeping through the night. I worried she would wake other guests. I stressed that I might not be able to get her to sleep in an unfamiliar environment. I wondered what I would do if she woke up too early. Our first few hotel nights with a baby were anything but restful.

But then we turned a corner, and suddenly she slept through the night. As we approached another vacation requiring a hotel stay I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that I had nothing to worry about.

I had been so preoccupied worried about sleep, I failed to prepare for the fact that my daughter was now crawling. Our home had long since been baby proofed. In fact, our home was baby proofed prior to the birth because I’m THAT Type A! So somehow it didn’t occur to me that I would struggle in a hotel room with a mobile child.

You can tell this girl is TROUBLE when she's on the move!
You can tell this girl is TROUBLE when she’s on the move!

I’m pretty sure our first hotel visit with a crawling baby required complete furniture rearrangement, a few trips down to the front desk for backup, and even a run to Target for “supplies.” It would be easy to assume based on that one experience that we never traveled again. But, of course, that hasn’t been the case! I lived, and I learned.

Here are a few tips I’ve learned about how to make a hotel room safe for babies. (Also, if I’m being honest, some of these tips aren’t directly related to safety, but sanity. Doing a few of these things will help keep YOU sane in a small space with a small person!):

  • Move everything dirty or breakable to out of reach locations: Place the trashcan on the bathroom counter. Unplug the lamps and store them in the closet. Anything you can eliminate from reach will help.
  • Prearrange for Pack N Play or Crib: If you aren’t traveling with your own, call ahead and make sure to reserve a place for your child to sleep. This can also double as a play pen for when you need to shower, or keep them safe.

    Pack N Plays are absolutely necessary for safe sleeping in a hotel room!
    Pack N Plays are absolutely necessary for safe sleeping in a hotel room!
  • Unplug The Phone: My children are being raised in the cell phone generation. The only time they ever see an actual phone is when we stay in a hotel. To this day, they are fascinated with it. Fortunately, now I can tell them to just leave it alone. But for years, I had to unplug it to avoid accidental calls.

    A "real" phone is such a novelty these days!
    A “real” phone is such a novelty these days!
  • Always Latch Door: This may go without saying, but always make sure to latch your hotel door from the highest point.
  • Outlet Covers: Outlet covers are cheap and small. They are so easy to travel with and definitely provide peace of mind. Occasionally we’ve stayed in hotels that provide them (Ritz Carleton!) but most will not so it’s better to just pack your own.

    The Ritz Carleton wins our award for best baby proof hotel!
    The Ritz Carlton wins our award for best baby proof hotel!
  • Painters Tape: Traveling with painters tape can also be a lifesaver when attempting to quickly baby proof a hotel room. You can use it to secure blind cords out of reach, and hold cabinet doors shut.
  • Disinfectant wipes: If you recently read my Sick On Vacation post you know that I have a slight fear of germs. Of course, that is magnified when you have very small children who want to stick everything in their mouth. Although I trust hotel rooms are cleaned thoroughly, I always like to quickly wipe down items like the remote control.
  • Keep Bathroom Door Closed: This one is pretty self explanatory. It allows you to avoid dangerous issues like hot water from the bath tap.
No amount of baby proofing is going to make a hotel room completely safe!
No amount of baby proofing is going to make a hotel room completely safe!

Of course no matter how hard you work to baby proof a hotel room, it won’t replace attention to your child. Hotels can be awesome ways for your family to break out of the normal routine and explore new places. However, it’s important to realize that travel will involve some work.

Do you have any tips for baby proofing your hotel room?

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Friday Favorite- Oprah’s Favorite Things

Friday Favorite

Today’s Favorite Travel Product: Oprah’s Favorite Things 2016 List

Oprah's Favorite Things

Okay, I admit, this is an awfully broad “favorite.” However, I *think* she’s on to something. Initially inspired by the hit song from The Sound of Music (“My Favorite Things”), Oprah has annually published her list for close to 30 years.

While the lists always include extreme and outrageous items, I love browsing her items for inspiration. This year’s list includes several things I’d consider perfect travel products!

Here are a few that caught my attention:

Verloop Knits Trio Gloves: “Anyone who’s ever searched for a lost glove will love this touchscreen-friendly interchangeable trio: It’s a pair and a spare, so you’ll never be caught cold-handed.” — Oprah

Orbit Key Finder: “Attach an Orbit to your key chain, download the free app, and find your keys with your phone (at the push of a button, Orbit chimes loudly). It works in reverse, too: Press a button on Orbit to find your cell—it rings even in silent mode. Genius.” — Oprah

Travel Cord Rolls: “Do you know how much time I waste digging through my bag for my earbuds or a charger, only to find them tangled together? With these fun compact cases, your wires will never get crossed.” — Oprah

Canary and Canary Flex Security Devices: “Give the gift of peace of mind: The Canary security device can monitor the goings-on at home (or outside, with the Canary Flex) in live HD video via the app—and allows you to view and react instantly: If motion is detected, it’s recorded and sent to your phone. If it’s an emergency, you can call the police from the app. And if it’s just Mr. Whiskers on the prowl, you’ll know that, too.” — Oprah

Beats by Dr. Dre Powerbeats3 Wireless Earphones: “I didn’t realize I needed a new pair of Beats, but this wireless version has Fast Fuel, a quick five-minute charge that yields one hour of playback. Now that’s my jam!”  — Oprah

 WOLF Travel Jewelry Case: “Toss this small but spacious jewelry box into your carry-on and you’re ready to hit the road. It has seven ring rolls, four compartments, and three necklace hooks—and is almost as gorgeous as the bling within.” — Oprah

Alta Fitbit: “This iteration of Fitbit is splash-proof, so you can leave it on during your post-workout shower or when you’re taking a bubble bath, like I do. Besides tracking sleep, steps, and calories burned, it shares call and text notifications.” — Oprah

Travel Pillow Organizer: “Don’t worry about snoozing and losing your valuables on board. Slip your phone, passport and glasses into the pockets of this memory foam neck pillow, and never touch that grimy seat-back compartment again. Every passenger will be asking, ‘Where’d you get that?'” — Oprah

Raven Carry On and Check In Set: “My mind is blown: These suitcases have a built-in charging station, tracking capability and a weight sensor (buh-bye, overage fees!). They practically come with a college degree—smartest luggage ever. And the apple green shade was created exclusively for me.” — Oprah

BK718 All-In-One Backpack: “For busy moms: a water-resistant, pocket-filled backpack that doubles as a diaper bag. For Mom’s biggest fan: a mini version for #twinning moments.” — Oprah

To read the complete list and more details on each of these products, visit her website.
What do you think? Are you interested in any of Oprah’s Favorite things this year?
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Best Places In U.S. To Spend Thanksgiving

thanksgiving

Growing up, my Thanksgivings were anything but predictable. Some years we spent with family, while others included friends. And the best years involved both. Many years we hosted at our house, while other years we traveled. I’ve sat around countless tables all over the country- from grandparents’ to restaurants’- to celebrate the holiday.

Thanksgiving with family is always wonderful!
Thanksgiving with family is always wonderful!

My all-time favorite Thanksgiving memories involve the years we spent in New York City. After watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on TV for years, nothing compared to being there in person! If I could convey 1 “travel must-do in your life”, being at the Macy’s Parade would probably top the list.

Because of my upbringing, I view Thanksgiving with wide-eyed possibility. The destinations are endless. As strongly as I desire to host at my own house, I also want to give my kids adventurous memories. Additionally, it’s definitely a balancing act considering all the different families involved.

Thanksgiving in Orlando with the Disney crew
Thanksgiving in Orlando with the Disney crew

Recently Trips To Discover posted a list of the 14 best places in the U.S. to spend Thanksgiving weekend. Not surprising, the first 6 places listed are places I’ve spent the holiday! A few of them are wonderful because of the extra special happenings (ex. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade), while others boast terrific weather for late-November.

According to the post, here are the U.S. destinations listed as the top places to spend Thanksgiving:

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Hawaii

Orlando, Florida

New York City, New York

Chicago, Illinois

Scottsdale, Arizona

New Orleans, Louisiana

Santa Barbra, California

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Plymouth, Massachusetts 

 Keystone Resort, Colorado

Williamsburg, Virginia

Las Vegas, Nevada

Lake Tahoe, California

Read the full article (here) for suggestions on lodging and activities in the areas.

"Thanksgiving

Where do you like to spend Thanksgiving? Would you consider any of these “best places” to spend your holiday?

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Best Thanksgiving Food

Thanksgiving Turkey

Whether you’re traveling for Thanksgiving or staying home, I assume you plan to eat. It’s kind of the whole point of the day. I mean, besides giving thanks, of course!

And unless you’re really, really lucky, you’ll probably be cooking SOMETHING to add to the meal. Since my husband is the cook in our family (well, the good cook!) I usually assume the role of sous chef. Though I only assist with the actual cooking, I certainly assert my opinions about the actual food.

I’ve never been a huge fan of turkey (I know, a true Thanksgiving sin), so the side dishes are super important to me. I prefer “stuffing” to “dressing.” Although this will be my first Gluten Free Thanksgiving so I’m having to re-think this side. I’ve heard awesome things about the Trader Joe’s Gluten Free Stuffing Mix.

Though our presentation *might* not be worthy of Pinterest, the taste was ridiculous!
Though our presentation *might* not be worthy of Pinterest, the taste was ridiculous!

I also love all things sweet potato. Last year I posted a recipe that we used- Ice Cream Infused Sweet Potatoes. They were absolutely as good as the name would suggest. Another one of my favorite Thanksgiving foods is green bean casserole. I grew up with a very traditional recipe and could never imagine making any improvements.  However, several years ago I tasted a more “real food” version and honestly like it even better. Thanksgiving is NOT the time to worry about calories, but this green bean casserole is truly superior.

Lest you think I’m a complete health freak with my Gluten Free Stuffing, and “real” green beans, let me tell you my absolute FAVORITE part of the meal. In my opinion, a Thanksgiving meal isn’t complete without Ocean Spray Jellied Cranberry Sauce. No substitution will do.

And then of course, a thanksgiving meal isn’t complete without dessert. Personally, I do not think fruit qualifies as dessert. So I forgo pumpkin and apple pie for the less traditional, Death By Chocolate. My sister-in-law made this a staple at our Thanksgiving meals, and I am grateful!

The best Thanksgiving dessert!
The best Thanksgiving dessert!

What are your meal “must-haves?” If you are traveling for the holiday, will you bring your favorite dish or just hope the host is on your same page?

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