5 Tips for a Family Adventure in the Arctic

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We’re approaching the three year mark living in Geneva, which means the future and where we will be living starts to be a little uncertain for us.  So with our sense of wanderlust, that means that we have been seriously assessing our bucket list and trying to cross off the things we have left that we want to see the most.  Lukasz was lucky enough to cover Finland for work at one point so he has had some great experiences in the Arctic…but the boys and I haven’t and I had two dreams for an Arctic adventure-1) to see the Northern Lights and 2) to dogsled.  Spoiler alert…unfortunately both of those items are still on my bucket list (!) but we had a wonderful adventure anyway in Northern Norway.

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We flew into Tromsø, Norway mainly because it was the most convenient and cost effective way for us to get to the Arctic.  Tromsø lies 350 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle and is the largest city in Northern Norway.  Because of its position on the sea and the warming effect of the gulf stream, Tromsø has a milder climate than other places at the same latitude.  Tromsø is also known as one of the best places in Northern Norway to view the northern lights.

When we went we had the craziest February weather that the locals we spoke with had ever seen.  A warm front had come through and melted all the snow just before we got there and we arrived to rain and incredibly strong winds.  There is normally at least a meter of snow on the ground in February, so it was very unusual.  We were a little bit panicked as to what we would do all week with no snow since all of our plans centered around snow activities, but in the end we still had a lot of fun.  Here are five tips for making the most of a family trip to the Arctic no matter what the weather!

  1. Rent a car and stay outside of the city.

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To really experience the beauty of Northern Norway (and increase your odds of seeing those magical Northern lights), you need to get out into the gorgeous countryside. We stayed three nights in one of these charming cabins on the Lyngenfjord in the tiny fishing village of Koppangen.  Looking out onto the sea, it truly felt like we were at the ends of the earth and in fact I loved the directions to the cabins which included “drive until you reach the end of the road and then you have arrived.”

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As I mentioned, the weather was not ideal when we arrived late Sunday night and unfortunately when we woke up Monday morning it was even worse.  We spent the day getting groceries for our couple of days at the cabin and just driving around to enjoy the scenery since it was too windy and rainy to be outside.

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Still gorgeous even in terrible weather!

As the sun set around 3 pm, we went back to the cabin to try and make plans for what we could do with the rest our time if the bad weather kept up.  We spent the afternoon playing games we had brought to the cabin, having happy hour with Arctic beers for the grown ups, and some afternoon sauna time.  All in all not a bad day.

We debated some options for the next day including driving two hours south to Northern Finland where we could take a snowmobiling tour and stay overnight the next night but the forecast looked about the same for there and we would be trading our charming cabin for more of a hostel type accommodation so we decided to just stick with where we were.  We also had a better forecast for the Northern Lights were we were so we kept our fingers crossed and hoped the lights would come out for us.

2. Play in the snow and enjoy nature…and watch for those famous Northern Lights!

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Thankfully on Tuesday we woke up to much better weather and those crazy winds had finally died down.  This was the day we were supposed to go dogsledding (the owner of the cabins, Alf, had arranged it with a place that only takes small groups out and is much cheaper than the tours in Tromsø), but unfortunately there was not enough snow left to do it.  The good news was that Alf was able to take his snowmobile and pack down some of the snow behind his house to make a sledding track for us, so we were able to take the kids out for some sledding and fun in the snow that remained.  In some places it was still quite a lot of snow, but the quality of it just wasn’t good from all the rain and warm temps.  You would take a step and simply sink down in it.  At any rate, we spent a fun couple of hours sledding and walking on the trail along the water’s edge.

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When there is much more snow, you can use these super fun looking kick sleds where the kids can sit in front and you walk/run behind it and jump on the rails for a ride when you pick up speed.  The property also had snow shoes, which would be a great way to get out and explore the surrounding mountains.  When researching our trip, I had read to make sure and plan plenty of activities so you’re not just sitting around waiting for the Northern Lights to show up.  Alas, we tried to cover our bases-but you can’t control the weather!!!  We were happy just to be able to get outside so that was a big improvement!

As for the Northern Lights, you need two things to be able to see them…1) the electromagnetic activity that causes the lights and 2) clear skies to see them.  Unfortunately for us, that evening there was plenty of activity but the clouds just wouldn’t part to give us a clear view.  The cabins have a hot tub that was so fun to sit out in and watch for the lights and when the activity finally started we could see the sky lighting up behind the clouds, but no clear views of them.  The nice thing about renting a car for a trip like this with kids is that if there are forecasts for clear skies and high activity somewhere, you can get tips on where to drive and wait for them and the kids can just relax or sleep in the car until the lights come out.  We didn’t wind up having clear skies a single night out of our trip, which is just all the more reason I need to plan a trip back to this beautiful part of the world!  Next time we will stay for longer as I think that’s the best way to really increase your odds of seeing the lights.

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Would have had front row seats to the show if those clouds just would have parted!  

3.  Take a boat ride

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Since this was our second trip to Norway, we knew that one of the best ways to experience the fjords is to get out on a boat!  We had read that the views of the the Lyngen Alps are stunning from the other side of the fjord so on Tuesday after playing in the snow, we headed out on a car ferry with no aim other than to see the views and drive around a bit on the other side of the fjord.  The kids of course loved the car ferry…we packed lunches and ate them on board and we enjoyed the views from the top deck too, which was one benefit of having such warm temperatures!

The scenery here was absolutely breathtaking and I was in photog heaven!!  It was fun to just drive around and find beauty around every corner.  I can only imagine how beautiful it would be covered in deep snow!

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On Wednesday we enjoyed a leisurely drive back to Tromsø, taking the slightly longer route so that we could see the scenery that had looked so gorgeous on our late night drive in when we arrived.  It definitely didn’t disappoint!

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4. Experience the “City”

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Tromsø is certainly more of a town than a city with a population of around 75,000 but it also has the world’s northernmost university that makes it feel like a young and fun little town.

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We stayed at the Radisson Blu, which was a good base for exploring the town.  A highlight for the boys was Polaria, the most northern aquarium in the world.  While it is quite small, there is enough to keep small children entertained for a good hour or two including a couple of movies about the Arctic and the Northern Lights, Arctic sea life, seals that have a feeding show daily, and a small play area with slides and soft toys.

After an outing for the kids, we decided we needed an outing for us as well so we ventured to Mack, the world’s northernmost brewery, for a pint.

Also worth visiting is the interesting Arctic cathedral on the other side of the bridge into Tromsø.  And we really enjoyed a dinner at Da Pinocchio-service was great, pizzas were delicious, and they had a small play corner for the kids.

5.  Go Meet a Reindeer

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One of the first things I booked for this trip was a tour with Tromsø Arctic Reindeer Experience mostly based on their excellent reviews on Tripadvisor.  The indigenous Sami people own the reindeer that roam in Northern Norway and this is an experience where you get to meet the reindeer in their winter pasture and learn a bit about the local Sami tribe.  This type of thing can sometimes be a bit hokey, so I wasn’t quite sure how it would go, but I have to say it was absolutely the highlight of our trip.

You are transported by bus from the Radisson Blu to the Sami camp about 25 minutes outside of the city.  Once you’re there you meet a few of the members of the Sami tribe who explain all about feeding the reindeer.  Then you have about an hour to feed the reindeer and you can also choose the option of going for a ride in a sled pulled by reindeer.  We had chosen to do the sledding but unfortunately no snow still!  Even without the sledding experience, it was still a wonderful day.

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After feeding the reindeer, the kids got to try their hand at lassoing-which they thought was so awesome!  Then there was a delicious lunch around a fire consisting of reindeer stew or a vegetarian stew that was fantastic, plus cake, coffee, and hot chocolate.  After lunch a member of the tribe spoke about local Sami culture and passed around some of their gorgeous handicrafts.  He also led us in a joik, which is a sort of folk song the Sami express to honor someone or something in their lives.  It was beautiful and quite moving.  Everyone we met at this experience was so incredibly kind and welcoming and most especially, they were so wonderful with our children.  I cannot say enough about how special the experience was and I would absolutely recommend it!

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Sadly, we learned on the bus back into town about the perilous position this particular Sami tribe is in.  The Sami people do not own the land they work, they are simply granted the rights to use the land by the government.  However, the government has plans to turn this land that this particular tribe uses into an industrialized harbor.  The Tromsø Arctic Reindeer Experience started as a means to use tourism to show the government that the land has value as it is and hopefully to change the government’s mind and allow the land to remain untouched.  So even more reason to go visit and to support this wonderful place!

So that’s our trip and our top recommendations to have an amazing trip to the Arctic-no matter what the weather!  I’ve got big ideas to hopefully return one day and do a road trip through Northern Norway and into Northern Finland and maybe we will get lucky and see those mystical lights next time. 🙂

A Week in the French Alps (and my skiing saga)

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The week between Christmas and New Year’s, we headed for the mountains to the family friendly resort of Le Grand Bornand.  Unfortunately this was the third winter in a row that there has been no snow at the end of December in the Alps, but luckily the resort had snow cannons so the boys could still do the ski school we had signed them up for.

We stayed in the basement apartment of a chalet that we had found on AirBnB and the accommodations were cozy and charming.  The family who owned the chalet was so sweet and they even left a bottle of local wine and a wheel of local Reblechon cheese for us.  The village in the Haute Sauvoie region is one of the largest producers of this cheese and you can see the little farm shops selling their cheese throughout the village and its surroundings.

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We never really went on vacations when I was growing up, let alone winter vacations so it’s a new experience for me.  Living in Geneva, this type of holiday is now pretty much mandatory and as a family we have really enjoyed the winer fun!  The boys love staying busy with winter activities-this time it was ski school (first time for the little one and the big one was so pleased with himself and his great progress)-and in the afternoon we had some relaxing time playing games at the chalet, sledding, or going for an easy hike.  It was great and quite relaxing!

Before we left we had debated canceling due to the lack of snow but I’m so glad we still went.  There was enough manufactured snow to keep us busy and we had gorgeous sunshine every single day.  After a gloomy couple of months in Geneva, it was wonderful to soak up some Vitamin D!

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And here goes my skiing saga…

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This is my third season skiing since we moved here and I feel like I am not really much better than when I started, nor do I enjoy it any more.  Learning to ski as an adult is hard!!!  I can’t seem to get out of my head and get over the fear factor and the whole time I’m skiing I feel anxious.  I’m pretty sure it’s not supposed to feel like that, but I don’t know how to get over it.  Meanwhile my kids make it look so easy and have no fear…my older son (who is 5!) has already far surpassed me and my abilities.  I feel torn between wanting to stick with it and conquer my fears and just giving up and sticking with the winter activities I do enjoy like snowshoeing and winter hiking.

I do know that every year when the ski season is over I feel so happy to have my weekends back again!  I thought it would just be something we did while we lived in Geneva, but now that the boys have learned how to ski (and I see how important it is to get confident while you’re young!), I feel like ski holidays might become a part of our lives.  Definitely not yearly but enough to keep up their skills.  Will have to decide if I will continue or just be content to enjoy the mountains and the aprés ski.  Anyone have any advice?!

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Whether skiing or not, I do love the mountains and feel so lucky to live only an hour away from such gorgeous mountain scenery!

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Zurich at Christmas

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Christmas has long past, but we had a great weekend getaway to Zurich a couple of weeks before the holiday.  We had been meaning to get to Zurich for a while now and since it sounded quite festive at Christmas,  we figured it was high time we check it out!  We stayed at the the Hotel Helvetia in their large family suite, which was within walking distance to Old Town and right next to a tram and metro stop.  I loved the Kiehl’s cosmetic products they offered and the restaurant did a great brunch.

Our favorite market was the beautiful Weinachtsdorf in front of the Opera House.  This market is a newer addition to the city at Christmas time and it’s very well done.  Lots of cute stands selling interesting trinkets, good variety of food to choose from, plenty of gluhwein, and my favorite-the hot chocolate with Bailey’s stand!  There’s also an ice skating rink and a carousel that our kids enjoyed.

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On Sunday we took the train out to Rapperswil, a lovely mediaeval village about thirty minutes from Zurich.  With over 200 stands, this market is one of the largest in Switzerland.  The highlight for the boys was definitely the donkey ride around the market.  Very fun!

After we had seen all of the market, we wandered through the rest of the village and it was really lovely.  We were glad we made the trip out, especially after sampling the most delicious apple donuts with vanilla cream!  I was expecting the kind of apple cider donut we get back in the U.S., but it was really just a ring of apple with a deep fried coating.  Yum!

We made it back from Rapperswil just in time to head to the Singing Christmas tree performance at Werdmühleplatz and Jonah and I even got to participate!  It was so fun ringing the bells and singing Christmas carols.  Definitely a memorable experience.

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We enjoyed wandering around the Old Town and seeing all the gorgeous lights.  There is another Christmas market in the Old Town, but most of the stands had closed for the day by the time we made our way there.  It was still very picturesque to wander through the city!

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On Monday morning we were hoping that the Opera House Christmas market would be less crowded since school was still in session in Zurich…and luckily it was pretty empty when we arrived.  We almost had the whole skating rink to ourselves-much different from the packed scene Saturday night!

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I loved the different food selections at this market.  The boys had pizza, I had some fantastic Japanese ramen and Lukasz had Indian.  Everyone was happy!

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Zurich is a beautiful city and now we want to visit in the summer too!

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Before we left we had one last stop to make.  I had read that candle dipping is very popular around the holidays on the Swiss German side-so much so that there are places set up just for the holidays where you can pop in and dip some candles and even drink a coffee or hot chocolate in between waiting for your layers of beeswax to dry.  Even kids get in on the action and there are vats of beeswax that are much lower so they can easily reach.  I thought the boys might enjoy so we stopped in to the pavilion on the Bürkliplatz and tested it out.  It was very calming and the boys were enthralled-for about the first 10 minutes!  Full disclosure I did wind up finishing all 3 candles on my own, but it was a really unique and fun thing to do.

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Also, only in Europe is it totally normal for kids to be dipping string into vats of scalding beeswax!!!  But after explaining it to the boys and of course helping the little one, they were quite careful and cautious.  At any rate, we were glad we tried it out and we came home with a very special souvenir.

I’d definitely recommend a weekend in Zurich at the holidays.  There’s plenty to do, in fact we didn’t even see everything we had planned for, but we did have a great time!

Now Christmas feels like it was ages ago; sorry for the late post!  But here are some ideas for Valentine’s Day since it’s just around the corner.  🙂  A romantic weekend in Lyon is a perfect way to celebrate…or a cozy weekend in the Italian Alps!  So many options in this beautiful corner of the world.  ❤

Paris En Famille

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We spent a magical weekend in Paris this past fall when my mom was visiting.  She’s dreamed of visiting Paris since we moved to Europe six (!) years ago, so it was high time.  And the boys were also very anxious to see the Eiffel Tower so we decided to travel en famille for a long weekend.

Lucky for us, Paris is just a 3 1/2 hour train ride on the TGV so it’s quite easy to access.  We stayed at a perfectly located Airbnb apartment just a 5 minute walk from the Louvre and had a great weekend exploring the city.  Since my mom has a hard time walking for miles, we did the Hop On-Hop Off bus one day as a way of seeing what we wanted to see without as much walking.  Even with the metro, there are lots of stairs up and down, so the bus was an ideal way for people with limited mobility to get around.

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I think there’s clearly no bad time of year to visit Paris, but fall was especially beautiful.  We had mostly good weather and the leaves changing color all over the city were gorgeous.  Since Lukasz and I had only visited Paris on our own before, I did a bit of research and was surprised at just how much kid friendly stuff there was to do.  Here is a list of some of our favorites:

  1. Pictures and Posing at the Louvre-

Since our guys are just too little to drag through the crowded museum, we settled for showing them the famous pyramid and letting them have a little run around one of the courtyards.  We have a few books about Paris, so they were excited to see this iconic sight.

2.  Jardin des Tuilleries-

Our two little wild men had a great time strolling running through this famous park, drawing with sticks on the dusty paths, riding the carousel, and stopping for hot chocolates with a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower.  There is also a small playground (more for older kids) and a paid area with mini trampolines.  Definitely a great place to burn off some steam when your littles need a break from sightseeing!

3. Being Mini-Foodies-

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While you generally won’t find kids menus at most restaurants (French kids eat what their parents eat), we found everywhere we went quite receptive to kids and perfectly willing for them to share a full size entree.  When we would stop for a drink and a snack, the waiters would bring the kids a syrup to drink along with a small snack of popcorn or bread which was much appreciated!  Generally the brasseries are more casual, thus making it a laid back option to dine with kids in tow.  And what’s not to love about crepes, pastries, and croissants as big as your head?! The other thing to note is that most restaurants don’t open until 7 or 7:30 for dinner, so staying in a self-catering accommodation is a nice option if you don’t want to have lots of late nights out with the little ones.  If you have older kids, there are some food tours that sound amazing…Paris by Mouth is one I’ve heard great things about.

4. Stepping Stones at the Palais Royal-

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We stayed close to the Palais Royal, so we had to check out the famous black and white stepping stones, which the kids enjoyed hopping and climbing on.  The palace is also supposed to have great gardens, but unfortunately we didn’t have a chance to check them out this time as we had other things on our agenda!

5. Notre Dame Cathedral Playground-

Although it’s small, the playground between the river and the Notre Dame Cathedral is a perfect place for the kids to burn off some energy-especially if they had to wait in line to get into the cathedral!  If the weather is nice, you could pair it up with a boat ride along the Seine as there are several tour companies docked just across the bridge.

6. Eiffel Tower-

Of course no visit to Paris is complete without a stop at the Eiffel Tower!  It was certainly the highlight of the trip for the kids and for my mom too.  We went around 4:30 pm along with some snacks and champagne we picked up at the store on the way there.  The nice thing about visiting in the fall is that it gets dark earlier so the lights were turned on at 6 pm, which left us plenty of time to check it out and then head back for dinner.   The kids had a great time playing at the playground (with the most amazing Eiffel Tower views), and they were mesmerized when the lights came on and then even better the twinkly light show.

7. Jardin du Luxembourg-

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My favorite part of the trip was whiling away a sunny morning at the Jardin du Luxembourg, just like the Parisian aristocrats used to do.  The park itself is incredibly beautiful and there was so much for kids to do.  From sailing miniature boats on the little pond, to pony rides, to playgrounds, there are lots of options to spend a whole day here.  All the activities, even the enclosed playground, comes with a fee so be prepared, but fees are minimal.  Our kids had an absolutely magical time riding ponies through the fall leaves and sailing boats along the pond.  If you travel with kids to Paris, make sure you put this park at the top of your itinerary!

Paris is a great city to visit with kids and ours certainly had a great time.  What are you favorite kid friendly tips for Paris?

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Exploring the Douro Valley

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Travel and Leisure magazine named Portugal as one of the top travel destinations for 2016 and maybe because it’s been on our travel radar also, or maybe it’s just been in the spotlight lately, but we’ve been seeing articles about the Douro Valley all over the place.  After seeing pictures of these terraced vineyards clinging to the hills above the broad Douro River, we knew we had to go see it for ourselves.  Locals like to say that in the Douro, they have 3 months of winter and 9 months of hell as temperatures soar to above 40 degrees Celsius during the summer months.  Fall was actually a perfect time to visit-the temperatures were mild and comfortable and the colors in the vineyards with the vines changing colors were just spectacular.

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After researching quite a bit, we knew that we wanted to stay in one of the quintas, not just a hotel but a wine-growing estate.  We needed to see where the magic happens!  😉  Our first night we stayed at Quinta do Vallado in Peso da Regua, about an hour and a half from Porto.    We were greeted with a welcome glass of Port when we arrived and we had just enough time to stroll around the lovely grounds before making our way over to a complimentary wine tour and tasting.

The wine tour was very…long thorough, which we probably would have appreciated more without the kids!  Let’s be real, we were just in it for the free tasting at the end. 😉  But anyway, it was informative and they were fine with us having the kids along-and thankfully the kids were well behaved! We really enjoyed the wines and port we sampled and only wished we had enough room in our luggage to bring back a case!

Since there was not much around the hotel, we had made a reservation before our arrival to have dinner there that night.  It was a three course meal with wine pairings and they prepared something also for the kids.  The food was great and the service too, and it was just a lovely evening.  We had the suite in the newer building and the room was very spacious with a gorgeous slate bathtub and also complimentary fruit and a mini bottle of wine.  Love those little touches!

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Breakfast was included with the room and it was a really nice spread.  Before we checked out we took turns having massages, which were so good and so incredibly relaxing.  It was a great stay and we were sad to only have one night there to enjoy.  We arrived just after the harvest had finished, but if you decide to come in the fall you might want to time it for harvest-you’d even have a chance to stomp the grapes since they still keep this tradition alive here!

We were surprised that the Douro Valley is such a foodie area-we stopped for a very gourmet lunch at Castas e Pratos before driving to our next destination farther along the Douro River near the town of Pinhao.  The Douro Valley has typically been a fairly impoverished region aside from the estate owners and although tourism is rapidly growing in this area, you still see the juxtaposition of  fairly poor towns next to luxury hotels and restaurants.  The Douro Valley is quite a self sustaining region, which has been their key to survival.  It is a microclimate that is ideal for growing grapes, but also plenty of other things too-nuts, fruits, olives, citrus, and family gardens as well.

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Our last night we stayed high up in the hills at Quinta Nova de Nossa.  The roads were a bit hair-raising to get here, but the views from the top were well worth it.  So about this hotel…I have a mixed review.  It was our most expensive hotel so I had the highest expectations for this one; and after staying at Quinta do Vallado, we had a great experience to compare it to.  The staff at Nova de Nossa were courteous, but not overly friendly.  We had booked the suite, as they said it was the only room that could accommodate a family, but we were not informed that it had twin beds.  And more than that, two of the twin beds were those incredibly high sleigh beds that you have to have step stools to get in.  The decor of the place was very old-fashioned…and not like hip, vintage old-fashioned; just like my grandparents house old-fashioned.  We had dinner at their restaurant since you are virtually in the middle of nowhere and there is nowhere else to go.  The food was good, but there were only two options…that night it was either octopus or veal which I wasn’t very excited for.  They had said via email that they had a kids menu, but when we asked that night there was only one option, which was beef.  We don’t eat beef, but after some confusion with our server they did wind up preparing some really delicious pasta with tomato sauce.  And my final gripe-they offered wine tastings, but it was 8 euros to taste 3 wines.  Which wouldn’t have been a big deal had we not had the experience the previous night where we got a two hour tour and tasting of about 10 wines and ports all complimentary as guests of the hotel.

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Now on to the plus side.  The views were absolutely stunning.  Which I think is a big part of what you pay for.  The port tonics were delicious and the grounds were extensive with paths to explore them.  There is a beautiful infinity pool which I imagine must be heaven in those hot summer months.  They have baskets for guests to pick fruit from their orchards when it is in season, which would be really fun especially for the kids.  There is a bar where you can also get a sandwich or small snack to eat, and in retrospect we probably should have just done this for dinner.  They also have lots of areas both inside and outside to lounge and relax and also some games you can borrow in one of the sitting rooms.  And for me, their saving grace…we realized after we got home that we had left my younger son’s stuffed cat that he takes everywhere in the room we stayed in.  I emailed them and not only had they found it, but they mailed it to us free of charge…it arrived in just a few days.  They saved the day!

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We had one more day to fill before our flight home at 8 pm, so we headed down the scary road to Pinhao for a sailboat tour on the Douro River.  Our guide was so informative and it was a very relaxing way to spend the morning.  There had been heavy showers overnight and a drizzle in the morning, but thankfully the weather cleared just in time for us to set sail.

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We had lunch in Pinhao and admired more beautiful tiles before making one last stop at a quinta we had read about, Quinta do Seixo owned by Sandeman, the famous port producer.

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In the interest of time and our sleeping toddler, we skipped the tour and just went straight to the tasting.  I did a wine tasting and Lukasz had a port and chocolate tasting that was divine.  They were also sweet to bring a big orange juice to the kiddo who was awake still.  The views from their vineyard were amazing and the good thing about being a big producer is that they sell at the airport so we were able to bring a few bottles home without the luggage restrictions!

Our trip to Porto and the Douro Valley completely exceeded my expectations and I was surprised at just how kid friendly this trip was.  The people we met, especially in Porto were so warm and kind and the scenery was sensational.  I’m so glad we finally made it back to Portugal and now we are already plotting our next trip to this beautiful country-maybe Lisbon and the Algarve?!

 

 

Fall Fun in Porto

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Portugal has been on our list for a long time now and since we have only spent a night in Lisbon, we knew we needed to go back and check out more of the country.  After doing some research, Porto and the Douro Valley seemed like the perfect fall destinations and when our friends who are from Porto assured us that it is quite kid-friendly, we were sold!

I must say, we have been to a lot of beautiful cities, but I think Porto may be the most photogenic city I’ve ever seen.  Between the beautiful tiles, colorful Ribeira houses, and the wide Douro River, this place is absolutely a photographer’s dream!

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We stayed at Cardosas Boutique Apartment and could not have been happier with our stay.  We arrived at our hotel on our anniversary, which I had mentioned when we booked because we were looking for a babysitter for one night so we could enjoy a dinner out.  We were so surprised upon check-in to be greeted with rose petals on the bed, a bouquet of fresh flowers, the most delicious chocolate cake, and a small bottle of port.  What a way to celebrate!  The apartment itself was spacious, centrally located, and beautifully decorated.  Sarah, the property manager, also babysat for us one night and she could not have been sweeter.  A gem of a place that we would highly recommend!

We had never done one of the Hop on/Hop Off bus tours, but since the things we wanted to see were a bit spread out and it was super cheap, we decided to give it a try.  The kids loved it and we were happy it included discounted admission to the Sea Life aquarium.

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On our first full day we had fun exploring all the beautiful architecture of the city.  We hit all the main sites including the Ribeira district along the river, the Sao Francisco church, and the Se cathedral.  Mostly though, we just enjoyed wandering and seeing beauty around every corner!

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The beautiful Sao Francisco church

Loved the colorful Ribeira neighborhood

The picture above is of a rabelo boat, a traditional Portuguese boat built to haul people and cargo, specifically the port wine that the town is famous for.  The boats are now used to carry tourists instead, but they are still beautifully made.

And oh my-all this gorgeous blue and white tile!  Love! ❤ <3<3

Another beautiful spot is the Sao Bento railway station.  There are 20,000 hand painted tiles in this station depicting important moments in Porto’s history.

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There are stunning views from the Se Cathedral!

 

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After a busy day of seeing some beautiful sights, we were ready for a bit of a rest.  Luckily there was an outdoor market happening right outside of our apartment along with a little cafe where we were excited to try port tonics (my new favorite drink) made of muscatela port and tonic.  Delicious!

Speaking of delicious, we enjoyed some great food in Porto-highlights were our dinners at Tasco and Cantina 32.  We went to Tasco the night we had a baby-sitter and really enjoyed it.  Helpful tip–Cantina books up like crazy, but they open unofficially at 6:30 pm and you can come grab a table if you don’t stay too long.  A perfect option with the kids!  And finally, don’t forget to try the famous local pastry when in Porto-pastel de nata.  I may have eaten my weight in them because they are sooooo good!  The best ones we had in Portugal were at a little cafe next to the bookstore Lello.

On Saturday we hopped on the bus and headed out towards the ocean!  The morning started out drizzly, but turned into a gorgeous, warm fall day.  We spent the morning at Sea Life aquarium, which was quite small, but the kids enjoyed it.  Then we had lunch down by the ocean before heading back downtown for some afternoon port tasting.  We like to include a little something for everyone when we travel! 😉

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Amazing views on the drive out.

 

The Hop On/Hop Off tour also included free port tasting at a few different cellars so we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sample some.  All of the port houses are on the other side of the river, across the Dom Luis bridge in Vila Nova de Gaia.  There’s also a little playground right next to the river on that side, so it was a good place to stop after our tastings to let the kids burn off some steam.

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After the tastings, we took the cablecar back to the top half of the bridge where we stopped for some breathtaking views and then it was just a short stroll back to the apartment.

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On our last morning, we visited Lello, the famous bookstore that inspired J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series.  This little shop must be amazing without the crowds, but unfortunately word has gotten out and it is so packed you can hardly even browse without being knocked out by a selfie stick.  Even in spite of the crowds, I am glad that we got the chance to pop in and take a peek.

We are so glad we had the chance to explore the gorgeous city of Porto!  We were sad to say goodbye, but it was time to pick up our rental car and head to the scenic Douro Valley.

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