by: Heidi Bloomer
Paris is so special because it is celebrated as one of the most beautiful cities in the world and filled with renowned attractions. My family and I were excited to check it out for ourselves and cross it off our own “must-see” list this summer. It was a first visit to France for all of us and my 30th country! We enjoyed leisurely days of sleeping in, biking under gorgeous skies, seeing famous sites, experiencing the culture and shopping galore.
From the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower, and everything in between, we agreed. Paris has something for everyone.
We originated from Chicago, IL and flew Delta from ORD to Detroit and then onto Paris. Delta is our preferred airline and our loyalty throughout the years has paid off so many times. We still had several global upgrade certificates banked from COVID days. We used them on this trip to enjoy perks of convenient in-flight food and good sleep! For the return flight, we all flew Air France, a partner of Delta, directly back to Chicago. This was such a treat. Delta and Air France have consistently delivered us excellent customer service and we will continue to make them our preferred airline for travel.
ARRIVING, LUGGAGE, ACCOMMODATIONS:
We arrived on a Monday morning and decided to take an Uber into the city. This ended up being a bad idea in that it took two hours due to the morning rush-hour traffic. We couldn’t check into our Airbnb until 3 pm, so we used an app called Nannybag. This is a super cool concept. People are available to “nanny” your bags - at malls, restaurants, shops - for a nominal fee per hour, while you wait for accommodations. Most hotels will allow you to keep bags onsite until your room is available, but this was especially useful to us this trip because we were staying at an Airbnb without that option.
For this trip we decided to keep things simple by staying in one location the entire duration of the trip (six days). This allowed us to unpack once and just enjoy. Our Airbnb was neat - and super economical compared to the hotels available during this time of peak season.
We booked a private guide through Boutique Bike Tours. Our guide, Marie, was amazing. We leisurely biked the city streets for hours and snapped pics at all the must-see spots. Boutique Bike Tours offers small group and private tours. I would highly recommend to ensure you don’t miss a single hot spot.
We did a one-hour river cruise, complete with champagne, as well! This provided an alternate view of some of the same key spots. There are a variety of boat tour companies available and each vary in length, time of day, and amenities. Choose the one that suits you and Bon Voyage!
Of course, we went to the Louvre and saw the Mona Lisa. The lines were extremely long and it turns out this is a relatively small painting! We snapped a pic from afar and called it good. The Louvre is huge! A person could easily spend days there and get lost.
If going up the Eiffel Tower is a goal, book ahead! We booked a few weeks before our trip and only had one option available that worked for our schedule. We ended up with a 9:30 pm slot which turned out to be incredible. We saw a lovely sunset and by the time we came down the tower was lit up and sparkly. Dreamy!
There are many French products including beauty care, purses, accessories and clothing, which are much less expensive when purchased in France. Be on the lookout for your favorite French brands (e.g., Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Cartier) as you just may need to make shopping a priority!
We ate some amazing cuisine. The restaurants 6 New York and Junglii were two of my favorite places. We also had our pick of at least a dozen cafes within a few steps of our apartment. The whole family enjoyed coffee and fresh pastries each morning. My husband and I connected each evening over champagne. We only made a reservation at 6 New York - otherwise it was easy to walk in and find seating everywhere else.
This was a non-negotiable activity for our family. In addition to achieving so many travel milestones on this trip we now have bragging rights of visiting all the Disney parks in the world.
Tickets: We booked ahead of time and picked the days as well. This is a current requirement due to COVID and park capacity. We chose two, one-day/one-park tickets: Disneyland and Walt Disney Studios. There is also a “Disney Village,” much like a smaller version of Disney Springs in Florida, which is connected to both parks and the train station. The Village offers additional shopping and dining options.
Transport: There is an option to book your visit with bus transport to and from the parks. We added this option but would highly recommend against it. The bussing is only offered one time each way, takes 50 minutes (without traffic), and involves lots of waiting. After one time of using this option, we voted to take the train for the other three trips. This proved to be inexpensive and easy!
Accommodations: As noted above, we stayed at our Airbnb in the city. Staying at an official Disney-branded hotel is always a fun experience, but we did not feel it was necessary for us this time around. Note: The main Disneyland Hotel is closed for renovations at this time anyway.
Fast Passes: The main tickets include entry into the park. You’ll want to download the app and link your tickets ahead of time. Many of the rides have individual fast passes you can buy on your app, after you enter the park for the day. The cost per person, per ride, seems to vary depending on supply and demand on that day at that time. If someone from your group doesn’t want to go on that ride, you can uncheck them and avoid paying for their slot. The pass assigns you a timeframe of one hour for that ride. If you have an active pass, you must wait until the timeframe has “started” to order another one. We utilized a mix of regular wait times and Fast Pass. We were able to get through seven rides at Disneyland from 10 am - 4 pm, including a break for lunch and a parade: and four rides at Walt Disney Studios from 10 am - 1:30 pm including time for our lunch. If you don’t need to go to every ride or event and are ok doing some Fast Passes, you could totally do both parks in one day. If you’d prefer not to pay for the Fast Pass and/or you want to hit up everything - then definitely allow for one day in each park.
by: Heidi Bloomer
We ate well… very well. A lot of restaurants are closed for business on Sundays. Businesses that remain open typically break mid-day between lunch and dinner. This is something to note especially if traveling with children, or partners who like to eat on schedule. Darjeeling Express is number one on my list to highlight. Chef and Owner of Darjeeling Express, Asma Khan, was the first British chef to feature in Netflix’s Emmy nominated Chef’s Table. The restaurant offers three eight-course dinner tasting menus, lunch a la carte and Sunday brunch. Reservations highly recommended to secure a coveted spot. We were able to visit on a special “Supper Club” evening, where Ms. Khan spoke to the patrons – it was very rewarding!
For an authentic and upscale British dining experience, try the “Fish and Chips” at Gillray’s Steakhouse. We came upon this gem because it was conveniently attached to the Marriott where we stayed, but also came recommended by the concierge as the perfect place for pre-theatre dining. Gillray’s had instant menu appeal because of their commitment to using locally sourced farm ingredients. Diners also enjoy a quick and quirky history lesson via original satirical political cartoons displayed throughout the restaurant. James Gillray, the restaurant’s historical namesake and “father of political cartooning,” created these cartoons.
My daughter and I saw Mamma Mia. The whole family saw Wicked. (This was the second time seeing Wicked for my daughter and I because we love the story so much!) My ten-year-old son loved the London Eye. Maybe because it reminded him of the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel back home in Chicago. We booked a “tour guide” through Tours by Locals (Elizabeth) from 9 am to 3 pm one day. She was knowledgeable and kind. She went at our pace and took time to understand and highlight the things we were interested in. My son asked at least 100 questions. I’m quite sure he learned enough to cover History/Social Studies for at least a semester. The world is truly our classroom.
We stayed at the Marriott County Hall – and if given the chance, I would be happy to stay again. This hotel has family rooms as well as spacious king and double rooms. It appeared recently remodeled but maintained the integrity and vibe of the historic building. The location and proximity to an array of famed attractions can’t be beat.
Safety and COVID restrictions
Compared to other trips I’ve taken out of the USA over the last year, this one was a breeze for COVID with easy-to-navigate COVID protocols. That doesn’t mean I didn’t check daily leading up to the trip to verify I hadn’t missed something. I typically check the airline info page as well as find a local government page for the country and specific area we are visiting. This time all countries on our itinerary, as well as the transit city (Amsterdam) accepted our (USA) proof of vaccination cards and didn’t require COVID testing. We voluntarily tested the day before we left just to be respectful – and we tested the day before our return to the USA per protocol. The USA accepts an antigen test – so we tried the “self” kit that is proctored this time. This promotes increased flexibility by allowing us to take the test on our own instead of having a local agency come to our hotel or going to a local facility.
Next on this itinerary: Finland!
Piercing blue skies. Untouched white snowscapes contrasted by patches of majestic pine forests waiting for visitors to lay the first snowmobile tracks. Air so clear we could see Russia in the remote distance.
The inspiration behind our trip to Finland came from the fact that my daughter’s BFF from our ‘Shanghai Days,’ lives in Helsinki. (My family previously lived abroad in Tokyo, Japan & Shanghai, China.)
These two besties last saw each other in January 2020 and never got a proper goodbye due to our abrupt move back to the US. They have been diligent at staying connected despite the time zone difference and social calendars of two teenagers. They schedule calls, prioritize check-ins via text, and just generally make a beautiful effort to stay friends. It was such a joy to be able to reunite them in person. They are already planning their next reunion in the US.
I love the concept that travel can turn someone’s ordinary into your extraordinary. Friendships like this one are beautiful examples of that.
All I’ll say is that we tried Reindeer (their main source of protein/meat in Finnish Laplan) and it was delicious!
We met Heather, the owner and operator of Heather Helsinki’s Tours for a history/food tour. We lucked out again with another knowledgeable and sweet soul. We like to include some element of “formal” learning in all of our travels with the kids, so they have a richer appreciation for the places we visit.
Then we headed to Kakslauttanen in Finnish Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle. This was definitely a once in a lifetime bucket list experience. I hate the chill of winter and even I was able to get lost in the surreal moments and forget about the cold. We met many local families and business owners, enjoyed delicious local food, snowmobiled, went dog sledding, went for a reindeer sleigh ride and slept underneath the stars in a glass igloo.
If you know my daughter, you’ll know she did her research on the care of all the animals that work for these experiences – including the reindeer, huskies and horses. These magnificent creatures are all so beautiful and well taken care of. Unfortunately, we didn’t see the Northern Lights this trip (bad timing and uncooperative weather), but this just gives us an excuse to visit and try again!
Apart from the arctic resort, we stayed at the Hilton Airport Hotel Helsinki which was beneficial due to being an airport-hotel location. Rooms and food were what you would expect from a convenient stay with a reputable commercial brand. We also stayed at the Hilton Strand Helsinki a couple of nights which offered great location, solid dining options and rooms that were on the small side but nice and met our basic needs.
Our hearts (and minds) are full of wonder given the new experiences, massive history lessons and family time over this Spring Break vacation.
by: Heidi Bloomer
During the month of April we had the opportunity to spend quality family time in St Thomas, USVI, for a long weekend with my parents and my brother and his wife/kids. This was a welcome break from the long stretch of never-ending Midwest winter this year. A great time had by all and super relaxing. Another place added to the “would definitely return and recommend,” list!
Ultimate Chef Services of the USVI was amazing. They come directly to your Villa and cook custom menus with authentic fresh flavors of the Caribbean. This is a perfect option for a group. We also had some yummy beach bar food and treated ourselves to some delicious meals at both the Caribbean Fish Market and one of the most famous beach bars in the islands -- Iggies Beach Bar.
We chartered a boat to accommodate four adults and three kids with Local Legends. It likely could have fit two to three more people on it, if needed. Apply sunscreen liberally as the boat offers minimal shade. Captain Kyle was an excellent host and driver. We cruised around St. Thomas and St. John’s, stopped three times to snorkel in crystal clear waters and made it to Lime Out - a famous floating taco spot on the water! Local Legends also does charters to the British VI, but we opted out due to short stay and knowing it would have added a layer of complexity due to current COVID-19 protocols. The highlight was definitely visiting Lime Out for lunch! Documented as a “Top 100 Things To Do In The World,” by Time Magazine - it is a taco floating bar in Coral Harbor, St. John, USVI. The drinks were tasty as well! Captain Kyle got us there safely from St. Thomas. We devoured the tacos so quickly there was no time for photographs. You’ll have to visit yourself to see (and taste) their deliciousness!
We visited Coki Beach (local, beach bar, beach side food & beverage service with music), Magen’s Bay (big, empty in the morning, but cars lined up to enter by noon, limited food service, quieter/family friendly), and Secret Harbor (small beach, sort of rocky so wear water shoes, with a nice restaurant (Sunsets) on site, and a dive center with a snack bar). We navigated each with ease and felt safe and comfortable with each of them. During our stay, the weather was perfect - 82 and sunny every day – with random five to ten-minute showers (mostly at night).
There are a plethora of Airbnb options scattered throughout the island. We choose to stay in the Red Hook area. Villa Mirino was a five-bed, four-bath house that easily slept ten people, plus could probably accommodate two to four more (if kids), as well as a pack-n-play and/or a crib. The lanai was huge, and the views were stunning. The grill and pool area were awesome! When traveling with multiple generations and staying for a shorter time, it really makes a difference to have access to a private pool and amenities. Nap attacks happen quickly in the Caribbean and you want to crash somewhere easy and breezy.
Safety, COVID And Other Logistics
COVID: USVI currently requires a test up to five days prior to your flight for unvaccinated travelers. If fully vaccinated, no testing is needed. Simply fill out a travel application form a few days before traveling and you will get a QR code to use. When you land in the USVI, you will get a temp check at the airport, show the QR code scan you received, and you’ll be on your way. To travel back to the mainland, no testing is needed. However, the check-in process at STT airport is generally horrible and inefficient. I recommend arriving a minimum of two to three hours before your scheduled flight.
Also in regards to flights, I noticed that flights were frequently late going to and from the island from all points of origin. If you have connecting flights to make I would suggest building in a decent layover time (one-and-a-half to two hours) to ensure you don’t have any issue with making layovers.
In April, masks were still mandatory at the STT airport, but were not mandatory at anywhere else on the island. When we returned from our trip we got to experience being in the Atlanta airport as the federal mask mandate in airports was officially lifted. What a site to watch people slowly take off masks as the “mask required” signs were being taken down. Another moment in history for the books.
Car Rental: Amalie Car rental was amazing. Easy to book online via email. What I liked the most was their personal service. Someone met us right outside baggage claim and got us all set up into the car. It was the most efficient activity at the airport and only took about 15 minutes max. Upon return, they met us on the curb of the airport check-in desks and we were off in 30 seconds! While one might think the island would be walkable, it’s not. Getting around was definitely easier in a car. Taxis are not as popular, there is no Uber, and depending on where you stay -- walking is a maybe. Know before you go: Roads in USVI are not marked well, especially in residential areas and you drive on the left side of the road. Perfect for the adventurous soul!