A Weekend in the Italian Alps

IMG_7651

A few weekends ago we were lucky to sneak in a little grown up weekend in the Italian Alps!  My mom is here visiting and she generously offered to watch the kids for us so that we could have a couple of weekend getaways.  We were excited for the opportunity, but not sure exactly where we wanted to go-it needed to be within a 2 hour drive since we were just going for 1 night and we knew we wanted something snowy and cozy.  So I started researching and stumbled upon a new hotel in the town of La Thuile, Italy.

Nira Montana is a five-star, luxury hotel with a spa and restaurant in a cozy, chalet style.  Normally we are not luxury hotel kind of people-for us I think it’s a waste of money since we spend so little time in the hotel and prefer to be out sightseeing.  But in this case, we really wanted to relax and unwind and so we were looking for a hotel with a nice spa where we could hang out and enjoy the restaurant, bar, and amenities.  We were also looking at some places in Switzerland and found some four-star hotels for the same price or more that didn’t look as nice.  I think because the hotel is new, because La Thuile is a town that is just now becoming a ‘resort town,’ and just because it’s Italy, prices were lower than Switzerland so this place just seemed like more bang for your buck.

IMG_7563

We weren’t sure what kind of weather we would find when we got there since it was pouring when we left Geneva and still pouring by the time we got to Chamonix.  But once we drove through the Mt. Blanc tunnel, we came out into Italy and it turned into a winter wonderland!

It snowed hard all day on Saturday so it was a bit too foggy at the top of the mountains for skiing.  Instead we rented snow shoes and after a quick lunch went out to give them a try.  There were lots of snow shoe trails in the area, but we wanted a nice, easy one for the first time.  We hiked around a flat park and enjoyed the snow and the scenery.

So much fun and I liked that it didn’t require too much coordination!  After our walk, we headed back to the hotel ready to relax.  The spa was so nice with a pool with jets, hammam, multiple saunas, and relaxation rooms.  We enjoyed a couples massage that was pure bliss and then spent some time just relaxing at the spa.  So wonderful!!!

I could have stayed in the spa forever, but my stomach was starting to growl after our afternoon workout so we got cleaned up for dinner at the hotel restaurant.  Our room was small, but I loved the design-the whole place was very chalet-chic!

The food and wine at dinner were excellent and the service was impeccable.  We couldn’t pass up pasta since we were in Italy after all, but Lukasz had an interesting and creative appetizer of scallops with crushed pepper, olives, and popcorn (?!) that was really delicious.  After dinner we ended the night with a drink at the bar-they had a great drink list with some tasty winter cocktails.  Perfect way to celebrate a wonderful day!

IMG_7626

IMG_7604

The next day we woke up rested and relaxed and ready for more snowy adventures.  It had snowed all night and was still snowing and foggy up high so we decided to head out on the snowshoes again.  We went out for a couple of hours on a steeper trail this time and enjoyed the snow and scenery.  It was fun and definitely a work out!

We came back and relaxed in the spa for a bit and then enjoyed some pizzas at the hotel’s pizzeria before heading out.  We thought we might ski for an hour before heading home but the snow was really coming down and we wanted to make sure we got down the mountain before dark so we skipped it for this time.  We did make sure to stop at a couple of shops in town and picked up the most delicious chocolates at the town’s cute little chocolate shop where the chocolates are all made in-house.  Definitely not to be missed!

IMG_7661

We had such a fabulous weekend and I really cannot say enough good things about the hotel.  The service was absolutely wonderful and the staff were incredibly helpful and kind.  I loved all the little details like the goody bag we got when the shuttle dropped us off at the snowshoe trail-filled with sunscreen, L’Occitane chap stick, a snack, and bottled water-the air freshener for the car on the journey home, and the homemade biscotti we found in our luggage when we came home and unpacked.  This was the perfect place for a romantic weekend away, but the nice thing is that it’s also family friendly!  Who knows, maybe we’ll be back in the summer with the kids?!

IMG_7639

 

 

Top Ten Travel Moments of 2015

We had some big adventures in 2015 in places near and far from home.  Here are some of my favorite moments from our travels last year.

IMG_2598

1.  Singapore-

Last spring we went to visit our good friends who are currently living in Singapore.  We spent two weeks in Asia and had an amazing time.  We loved the time we spent in Singapore wandering through Chinatown and Little India, touring the botanical gardens, Sentosa Island, eating at the hawker stands, and spending time with our friends.  For me the highlights were a fun dinner at Level 33 with this amazing view and Singapore Zoo where we had breakfast with the orangutans.

 

IMG_2773_2

2.  Jogyakarta, Indonesia-

After Singapore, we went to Indonesia and rented a villa with our friends.  It was an absolutely incredible trip and I cannot possibly pick just one favorite moment.  We loved the artisan town of Jogyakarta and had so much fun hunting for treasures in the town where it at times felt like we were the only tourists.  Our villa was owned by a French furniture dealer with an impeccable eye for design.  One day we toured the incredible temples, both Buddhist and Hindu, and another day we had the best 4th birthday party for Jonah complete with a cake that the sweet owners of the villa gave us.  One of the funniest memories from this trip was when we left the kids with baby-sitters and went to dinner with our friends at a lovely little b&b down the road.  They picked us up in their car and served us a fantastic meal, then proceeded to tell us that we would be driven home by motorbike!  I’ve never been on a motorcycle and in the dark through the rice patties of Indonesia did not really seem like the ideal time to try it, but walking through said dirt roads between rice patties didn’t seem like a good option either so off we went!  What an adventure.

 

3.  Bali, Indonesia-

We parted ways with our friends for a few days and headed to Bali for some tropical bliss.  We had so much fun swimming in the pool of our villa, visiting the beach, watching the sunset at Jimbaran Bay, and going on a day trip to Ubud.  At Ubud we saw the monkey forest where they jumped on us as we fed them bananas and then stole Jonah’s ice cream outside of the park!  Now I know where the term ‘cheeky little monkey’ comes from!  We also saw the terraced rice patties and sampled tea and coffee at a beautiful little agro-tourism place.  Highlight of Bali for us was Ubud and hanging by the beach.

 

4.  Rome, Italy-

We spent a fun few days in Rome in May where we walked until we dropped and watched history come alive for our little guy.  Of course you can’t go to Rome without enjoying some delicious food-the boys enjoyed gelato every day and we had the most delicious cacio e pepe at a restaurant recommended by Anthony Bourdain.  I still dream about that meal-pure perfection!

 

5.  Burgundy, France-

In June we kicked off the summer with a long weekend in the Burgundy region of France, just a 2.5 hour drive from Geneva.  We found a hotel deal and stayed at an awesome chateau that provided little gift boxes for the boys and even one for the dog!  My highlight of this trip was somehow finding ourselves at a fancy, multi-course French dinner at the chateau since nothing else was open or nearby and we had a hungry family to feed.  Wonder of all wonders our boys behaved like angels and the restaurant was very welcoming (even giving the kids coloring books and crayons along with the multi-course kids meals!).  We had fun sampling mustard and following the ‘owl trail’ in Dijon and sampling wines and touring the former hospital of Beaune.  We also tried escargot and drove through the beautiful vineyards of the region.

 

6.  Chamonix, France-

This one wasn’t technically a trip as we are lucky enough to be just an hour from this mountain town, so we go here quite often for day trips.  However, over the summer we had lots of visitors and I took the opportunity to play tour guide and finally go up the cable car to Aguille du Midi to see the Mont Blanc views.  While the views were amazing, nothing could top the Helbrunner, a cable car that goes straight across the mountains from Aguille du Midi into Italy and is 30 minutes each way.  It was absolutely incredible being in between these towering mountains and staring down at the crevasses and intrepid mountaineers who were taking the long way to the peak we were heading to.

 

7.  Brac, Croatia-

What could be better than a girls’ weekend in Croatia?! We flew into Split and took the ferry over to the tiny island of Brac.  The town we stayed in was adorable with its five restaurants and hidden beach coves.  We biked to the beaches, lazed around, drank wine, and went out to the clubs in the ‘party town’ nearby.  Such a fun time!

 

8.  Iceland-

I have wanted to go to Iceland for as long as I have been obsessed with travel (so a while now!) and this past summer, we finally made that dream a reality.  I can honestly say that every moment was magical and I would like to engrave every moment of that trip in my memory.  From hiking on a glacier, to pulling over along the side of the road to admire and say hello to the gorgeous Icelandic horses, happy hour drinks at Scandi-chic Kaldi in Rejkyavik, standing inches away from puffins enjoying their afternoon meal, and relaxing in the naturally hot river of Hveragardi-everything lived up to and exceeded my expecations of this place.  But the real highlight was seeing the much photographed Glacier Lagoon, Jokulsarlon.  I really had to pinch myself to believe that real life could be so beautiful.  I could have stood for hours admiring the blue ice floating in the lagoon before drifting off to sea.  There are so many places I want to see in the world that there are not a lot that can lure me back.  Iceland is different though, I’m already talking about when we can go again!

 

9.  Brussels and Bruges-

Lukasz went to Belgium a few times for work last year so we decided to take advantage of having his mom here to watch the kids and I went out to meet him for a weekend!  This was a perfect trip to do without the kids since we are big Belgian beer fans.  We took a chocolate and beer tour where we walked around town first sampling chocolates and then sampling different beers including the one that won the ‘best beer in the world’ award.  It was such a fun tour and needless to say we weren’t feeling quite our best the next day (Belgian beers are STRONG!).  But we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to explore, so the next day we rallied and took the train into Bruges.  We loved this charming town and had so much fun wandering the cute alleyways and walking along the canals.  A great little weekend getaway!

 

10.  Corsica-

We ended the summer with a fun trip with friends to the French island of Corsica.  The scenery at this place is just stunning and it seemed like every curve we drove around brought more jaw-dropping beauty.  We had a blast with our friends and the kids all had a great time playing at the beach and swimming in the pool.  My highlight was when Lukasz and I snuck away for a little date night and had dinner at the most romantic setting I’ve ever seen.  The restaurant was tucked into a tiny little cove and the sunset was spectacular.  I don’t even really remember the food-it was seafood and good-but the setting along with the Corsican wine was pretty unforgettable!

We were lucky to have some amazing adventures last year and now we are gearing up for our travels this year.  On the bucket list are some trips closer to home so we can take advantage of our prime location and avoid so many flights since we now have four tickets to pay for now that Mason is 2!  We are thinking Tuscany, south of France, Provence, Amsterdam, Norway, and Montenegro.  But who knows exactly how the travel calendar will actually shape up.  I hope your 2016 has lots of adventures-happy traveling!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colmar at Christmas

IMG_7311

The day after Christmas we headed to Colmar, which may just be the most adorable town in France.  Colmar is in the Alsace region of France near the German border and has been on our travel list for a while.  When we found out that their Christmas markets were open until New Year’s, we decided that it would be a great way to finish off our holiday season!

IMG_7298

Colmar is an absolutely gorgeous small town with its German style half-timbered houses and canals that remind you of Venice.  In fact, the neighborhood on the canals is called Petite Venise and in summer you can rent boats and paddle around town!  Colmar is about 3 1/2 hours from Geneva and after we settled into our hotel, we had a magical time walking around the 5 different markets all around town.

The setting was so festive with all the lights everywhere and lots of vin chaud flowing!  The kids enjoyed hot chocolate, the pens with animals, the Christmas lights, and the rides.  They rode a carousel and then found the highlight-life size horses that galloped around a track.  There was a snow machine that blew foam snow out and Christmas carols playing…it was great!  Except for the fact that we sent Jonah on his own and my husband (the overprotective one) convinced me that he was going to fall off.  I had a minor panic attack for the first lap as he went around and I envisioned him falling off this high horse onto the bricks (of course this attraction would never fly in the US…no safety belts, no age limits-just parental judgement, and no soft landing aside from some pine branches strewn over the bricks!).  But Jonah did great and loved it so by the second lap I was able to relax.  The boys loved the horses so much that we rode them at least once every day we were there!  I hope they will remember it forever, but if not I’ll be happy to show them the pictures and tell them the story.

The next morning we walked the markets again to see the town during daylight.  And we also found the most delicious breakfast spot.  Bagelstein had American style bagels with a French twist (fois gras bagel anyone?!).  It was a super cool little cafe and very friendly staff-we may or may not have had breakfast there the next day as well. ;)

IMG_0629

I would love to visit this town again in the summer, but truly it is gorgeous anytime!

In the afternoon, we drove along the Alsace wine route.  This region is famous for its German style rieslings, gewurtzraminers, and also pinot noirs.  We stopped and walked through one little village that was having its own Christmas market and then stopped at another village to do a tasting and buy a few bottles.

IMG_7395

Riquewihr

IMG_0656

Dambach-la-Ville  

IMG_0655

Colmar is only 30 minutes from Strasbourg, so we drove over and enjoyed walking around the lovely Old Town.  The Christmas market in Strasbourg is very famous, but unfortunately it was already finished for the season.  By this point, we had gotten our fill of Christmas markets, so it was nice to just wander around a bit.  We had a delicious dinner at Hotel Rohan where we tried one of the local specialties, tarte flambee, basically a very thin crust pizza.

IMG_7396

We were so impressed by the huge, Gothic style cathedral that was constructed from 1176 to 1439.  Until 1874, it was the world’s tallest building and even today remains the sixth tallest church in the world.  The building is really beautiful and you can view it from the inside as well.

IMG_7397

On our last morning, we wanted to go ice skating and ride what was apparently the largest indoor carousel in Europe, but unfortunately neither opened until late afternoon so we decided just to head back home a bit early.  We had a really great time and absolutely enjoyed this part of France.  We’d love to go back sometime in the summer, there are even more things to see and do including a stork sanctuary in one of the towns on the Alsace wine trail.  The region is famous for their resident storks and many of the towns build nests on the tops of the buildings for the storks.  We drove by the sanctuary, which is closed in winter, and we were lucky enough to see some storks in their nests as well as in some of the nests on top of the buildings!  It was a great trip, for sure.

IMG_7375

 

Visiting the Christmas Markets

We had a busy and fun Christmas season around here!  Since we were traveling in the U.S. for the whole month of December last year, we missed out on all the Christmas markets so this year we were extra excited to check them out.  I think we hit all the popular ones in the area and by the end of our quick post-Christmas break to France, I was a bit glad that the season was over.  But it was fun while it lasted!

IMG_6704

  1. Our first stop was to the one holiday place we squeezed in before our trip home last Christmas since they are open year round-Le Hameau de Pere Noel, a.k.a. Santa’s House!  This place is really adorable and the level of detail they have put into it is great.  You go from room to room of Santa’s childhood and current homes and even see the room where the elves live complete with elf-size beds, tables, and food.  Santa’s kitchen looks like he’s just stepped away from an extravagant feast and there is an infirmary where an unfortunate reindeer is recovering from too much Nutella.  At the end, the children creep past “Santa” who is snoring in this bed while he rests up for the big day.  There’s a sweet little creperie where you can enjoy a crepe and hot chocolate before mailing off your letter to Santa at the post box and then stop by the shop on your way out to pick up some sweets or Christmas trinkets.

2.  Next, I was lucky to get away with the ladies for a day trip to the Montreux Christmas Market, probably the most popular market in the area.  The setting for this market is just stunning with the lake and the snow-covered mountains, but I have to say that I was disappointed with the actual items for sale-nothing that interesting and way overpriced!  Despite the lack of any actual shopping, we still had a great time drinking vin chaud (hot wine), wandering through the crowded stands, having a long, lovely lunch, and just enjoying uninterrupted conversations for once!  I would still recommend this market just for the lovely setting, but don’t expect to do your Christmas shopping here!  ;)

3.  The Village des Flottins is advertised as an alternative to the Christmas markets and it is in Evian, France.  This was probably my favorite of the season just because it was so different-it really was like stepping into a fantasy book.  Elaborate creatures were created by these huge, carved sticks, woodland characters were walking around among the crowds and playing instruments, fires were burning in metal cans, and candles were everywhere.  Many of the structures were made for kids to climb, sit, and play in and there was an alleyway that had different games and inventions for the kids to try out (for free!).  The boys went on the most magical carousel ride where the music was played from an old-fashioned, hand-crank machine.  The people working at the carousel were all in costumes and they blew handfuls of feathers into the air as the children went around.  It was really so unique and we all really loved this market.  There was nothing for sale except for a stand with food and drinks, but the tiny streets of Evian have some lovely shops that were open longer hours for the holidays.

4.  The last big market we checked out was in one of our favorite towns, Annecy, France.  This market was not huge but in a pretty setting along the canals of Annecy with the mountains in the background.  At night, there is a light show on the Hotel de Ville that’s really fun.  We got some vin chaud and chocolat chaud to enjoy while we watched and it was really the highlight of the market.  There were lots of interesting stands at this market and Annecy itself is a great little town for shopping with a large mall and lots of unique, small shops.  There was also an ice skating rink at the smaller market near the shopping mall.  Annecy is beautiful at any time of year, so we knew this market would be one not to miss!

We weren’t quite ready for the Christmas season to be over, so the day after Christmas we went to one of the cutest little towns in France  which happened to have five Christmas markets that stayed open until New Year’s Eve.  I will recap our trip in the next post!

Fete de L’Escalade

It’s been a busy, fun holiday season and wow has it flown by!  We started off December with the biggest Genevois celebration, the Escalade.  We missed out on this event last year since we were visiting  the U.S., so we were excited to see what it was all about.

IMG_6996

Basically the gist is that every year the Genevois celebrate a failed siege on their city by the Savoie in 1602.  Legend has it they were alerted in the night of the attack and a woman helped launch the counter-attack by pouring her hot cauldron of soup on the invaders.  The celebration includes a 5k run the weekend before the actual event.  For the event itself, there are lots of festivities around the old town where people dress up in period costumes, sell hot wine, beer, and food, ride around on horseback, fire cannons and muskets, and basically take a step back in time.  There is also a parade and the kids all dress up for the parade and for Escalade parties at school.  Think the Geneva version of Halloween.

It was pretty interesting to see and did feel a bit like we had stepped back in time.

IMG_6916

Jonah loved the dress up party at school and the kids even got to help make vegetable soup to be sold to all the students and families.  Unfortunately Mason was sick for his dress up day, but luckily he’s still little so didn’t know what he was missing!  He was well enough to go downtown with us and was thrilled to see horses and ponies trotting through the streets!

IMG_7024

I think the best part of this tradition is the breaking of the marmite, a soup cauldron made out of chocolate.  It’s usually filled with even more sweets, so a sure-fire favorite for the kids!

 

 

Weekend in Lugano

A few weeks ago we spent a long weekend in the Italian side of Switzerland.  We’ve been wanting to visit the canton of Ticino for a while, but with snow forecast in the Geneva area and a forecast of sun and high 50’s in Lugano, the time seemed right.  In fact in Locarno, a neighboring town in Ticino, they claim to get 2300 hours of sunshine a year.  With its milder climate, delicious pasta, and Italian language it’s hard to remember that you’re still in Switzerland!

There were lots of palm trees and a small park full of them next to our hotel.  But despite the palms and claims of sunshine, there was a definite chill in the air!  Our visit was during the off season so we didn’t have to fight any crowds, but unfortunately many of the tourist attractions (mostly the funiculars up to the mountain peaks) were closed.

IMG_6528

We arrived on Friday afternoon and were surprised by the great view from our hotel room.  When we left Geneva it was rainy and dreary but about 4 hours away in Lugano, the sun was out!  Our hotel was Ikeadorable and had an indoor pool, which mostly made up for the fact that it was a steep 15 minute climb from the center of town.

We had fun walking around down by the lake and taking in the scenery.  There were already some Christmas lights out, but the big Christmas tree in the main square wouldn’t be lit until the next weekend.  The town was cute and we were happy to find restaurants that were open before 7 pm unlike here in our area!

IMG_6563

 

On Saturday we drove over to the town of Locarno since it was only about 30 minutes from Lugano.  Locarno is on Lago Maggiore, the second biggest of the Italian lakes.  We had read about the funicular up to the Santuario della Madonna del Sasso-a church built in 1480 with impressive views over the town.  Again our timing wasn’t the best because the funicular was closed for renovations, but luckily it was an easy drive up to the top.  This time our timing actually was perfect because the sun setting over the valley was absolutely stunning.

IMG_6629

 

IMG_6628

 

IMG_6627

Saturday night we went back to Lugano where we enjoyed dinner semi outdoors in this lovely passageway.  The service everywhere we went was very warm and welcoming.

IMG_6625

On Sunday, we took the one funicular in town that was open up to the top of Monte Bre.  Lovely views, but the restaurants at the top were closed and it was downright cold at the top, so we didn’t stay too long.

It was a great little getaway and if we are here long enough, we’d like to go back to this area in the summer.  We wanted to visit Bellagio on Lake Como, only about 45 minutes from Lugano, but there just wasn’t enough time to squeeze it in.  All the more reason to go back!

IMG_6646

Halloween!

We had a fun Halloween weekend this year…and given that Jonah got a stomach bug last Halloween and missed out on the festivities, I’d say it was a million times better than last year!  We missed our annual trip to the pumpkin patch, but we picked apples early and found a nice, small pumpkin there.  Then I found an even bigger and better one at the grocery store on Friday, so we had fun carving it on Halloween morning.  I was impressed that Jonah drew the face all by himself this year!

IMG_6302

On Saturday evening our sweet neighbors volunteered to host everyone for food and games before the main event of trick or treating.  The boys were beyond excited to see all their friends in costume and they had a blast at the party.

IMG_6342

IMG_6323

We ended the evening on a trick or treating “trek” around our neighborhood and the village nearby.  Trick or treating is not very common here, but because of the large amount of expats in the area there are neighborhoods and pockets all around Geneva and the surrounding villages that participate.  We got lucky and hit about 10 houses all in one neighborhood, but then had a looong walk to end at the village next to us where the Dads were waiting while drinking beer and watching sports passing out candy. ;)  Luckily the kids were all wired with excitement so there were no complaints about the long trek.  It’s funny because what they got wouldn’t have even compared to the haul they would have made in the States, but my boys have never trick or treated in the US and the other kids who have did not seem in the slightest bit disappointed.  For them, the evening was a big success and loads of fun.

IMG_6338

On Sunday Lukasz left for a business trip, but I ended the festive weekend with the boys at a Trunk or Treat organized by Lukasz’s work.  The kids scored loads of candy, stuffed their faces with snacks, and had fun in the costume parade.

IMG_6347

At this point Mason was beyond done with posing for pictures in his costume, but you get the idea. ;)  We had a great Halloween and I’m so happy that even far from home in a country that doesn’t really celebrate this holiday our boys got to experience some real Halloween fun!