When in Rome!

So Mia and I just got back from a whirlwind 10 days in Paris/Rome. When I tell you this trip was PHENOMENAL! With only 3 days in Rome, we really had to make good use of our time to see everything on our "must see" list but surprisingly we also discovered a couple neat little gems along the way (which of course, I'm going to share with you guys!). So here is my  list of the top five things to do/see in Rome.

1) The Colosseum. Dating back to 70AD, this ancient structure is the home of bloody battles and torturous executions. Go ahead and pay the extra 6 euros to get a guided audio tour which provides interesting information on the structures architecture, the gladiators themselves, the fights, and other interesting tidbits of information. We got there about 30 minutes before opening time, 9AM, which I strongly recommend so you don't have to wait in long security and ticket buying lines. I was blown away by the sheer magnitude of the structure and that fact that it was almost 2000 years old. To think of everything it has seen and withstood over time is really mind boggling. 

2) St. Peters Basilica- Built in the 1500's, this basilica was constructed in the rumored place where St. Peter was tortured and ultimately crucified by Roman Emperor Nero in 64AD. The sheer size and attention to detail is simply breathtaking, not hard to believe you take into consideration that it was largely designed by the esteemed artist, Michelangelo. St. Peters Basilica is also is also the burial place of the much adored Pope John Paul II (now officially a Saint). You definitely don't need to be Catholic, or even a religious person, to admire the beauty and intricacy of this structure. If you are able, I strongly recommend you pay the few euros is costs to walk to the top of of the top of the dome and take in the panoramic view of Rome. I'm not gonna lie, it was difficult, and for someone who is deathly afraid of heights and super close quarters, it was a nail biting climb. The staircase spirals very tightly in places and is super hot (we traveled in June) but once you climb those 551 steps, the view is simply breathtaking. Take your time and walk around (enjoy the breeze and fresh air!) and snap a few pics before making your way back down again. The halfway point back down has the Vatican gift shop where you can stop in to purchase any number of items blessed by the Pope himself, rosaries, figurines, post cards, metals, prayer cards, anything you can imagine really. 

3) The Trevi Fountain. Rome is famous for their numerous piazzas (plazas) with amazing fountains and quaint streets but the Trevi Fountain is a must see when in Rome. Day or night, this fountain is awesome either way (trust me on this- we went one day and the next night to compare). Make sure and take a coin to throw over your left shoulder, backwards which according to legend, means you will come back to visit one day. Located in the Pizaaas di Trevi (imagine that), this place is always packed, and at night the lights illuminating the fountain are so romantic. Street vendors come out at night to sell all sorts of wears from jewelry to Italian souvenirs. (Keep your purse/wallet/phone close- the area is ripe with pickpoketers!).

4)Palatine Hill: Just a short walk from the Colosseum, Palatine Hill is one of the most ancient places in the city dating back to 10BC. Be ready for a long walk, we ambled around these ruins for several hours, taking in the breathtaking beauty. Palatine Hill was once the home of various Emperors and nobility and have remained surprisingly intact over the past couple of thousand years! It was like walking through a movie set for a post apocalyptic movie, the flowers and green grass provided such a contrast to the obviously old and crumbling city around. Please don't skip out on seeing Palatine Hill while in Rome!     

5) The Vatican/Vatican Museum: You can't go to Rome and not hop on over to the residence of the Pope! Home of the famous Sistine Chapel, The Vatican is the richest country in the world. Yes, I said country. I didn't know this either but the Vatican is actually it's own country, residents being those born in the Vatican or with proven family lineage of residence. Inside the Vatican you can walk St. Peters Square, visit the Sistine Chapel which houses the famous painting by Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam (sorry no photos of this masterpiece- camera are strictly forbidden inside the chapel), and priceless works of art held within the Vatican museum by world renowned artists including Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Bellini. We opted for the guided tour by City Lights Tours which was worth every penny. A knowledgeable and energetic tour guide, Enza, lead a small group (14 people) around the Vatican, Vatican museum, and St. Peters Basilica, sharing with us fascinating history and facts. (We were also able to skip the lines- score!)

 

Now I know I said this was my top 5, but I'm sneaking in this last spot because after all this running around Rome you are going to want a good spot to sit back, relax, and enjoy a good drink. The area of Rome known was Trastevere is loaded with good food and plenty of places to grab a drink. We enjoyed wandering the little streets and alleyways taking in the scenery and liveliness of the area. Known as a vibrant collage hangout, Trastevere is located in the 13th rione (district) of Rome. We picked a spot at a local bar and sipped Nagronis after a long day sightseeing, it was the perfect spot to unwind and take in the local atmosphere!

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What are some of your favorite spots in Rome?!

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Leavin on a Jet Plane

Dear Readers,

TODAY'S THE DAY! Can you feel our excitement all the way through the internets?!

Today is the day we embark on our ten day adventure through Paris and Rome armed with only a backpack, a good camera, and our wits. We have planned, plotted, and practiced in preparation (holy alliteration Batman!) for this trip and the day has finally come. Don't miss us too much while we're gone, we promise we will take tons of pics, eat all the food, drink all the wine, and share all of our adventures with you. It'll almost be like you're there with us :) 

We will be posting from abroad to give you sneak peaks into what we are up to, and as always we have prepared some quality posts for you to peruse while we are gone. Make sure to follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook so you don't miss out!

See ya on the flipside!

XOXO,

Coco & Mia

 

Carolina Beach, NC. Family Weekend. What to do, where to go.

We are about a 3 1/2 hour drive from Wilmington, NC. and we try to visit this beautiful place often.  Wilmington is the "commercialized" part of this amazing area.  It's full of great restaurants, bars, museums, tours, and it's home to the USS North Carolina, a real life battleship open to tours all year round.  

Once you are in Wilmington and you continue driving south on US 421, you will encounter Carolina Beach.  Go a little further down and you can also enjoy (my personal favorite), the beautiful Kure Beach, and Fort Fisher.  

There are many things to do in Carolina Beach, and most of them are family friendly (and that's why I love this place!).  Here are my top places and things to do with the whole family:

1. OBVIOUSLY, THE BEACH.

Carolina Beach can be crowded in the summer time or holidays, but even so, it's still provides a great place to relax and get some vitamin D from the sun.  You can also go down to Fort Fisher if you are looking for a more secluded beach... there are very few restaurants and stores down at Fort Fisher but the beach is beautiful and peaceful.

2. TAKE A STROLL DOWN THE BOARDWALK

Honestly this boardwalk is amazing.  It's full of shops, restaurants, bars, ice cream parlors, and doughnut shops.  In the summer, you can find live music and fireworks every week.  Kids can freely run and play while enjoying some good live (and free) entertainment.  

3. SEASIDE AMUSEMENT PARK

Yes, there is a permanent amusement park right by the ocean.  Located at the boardwalk, this amusement park has rides for all ages.  It's free to walk around and each ride takes 2-3 tickets.  You can purchase tickets at one of the stands around the park, or you can get an armband (better deal) for $25 and have unlimited rides.  There are no big roller coasters, but you can find your typical Ferris-Wheel, Carousel, giant slides, pirate ship, and many others.  And don't forget to get some funnel cake!

4. ENJOY SOME GOOD HOTDOGS AFTER A DAY AT THE BEACH

We tried Island Hots... and I loved it.  Their menu has hot dogs for every taste, and their onion rings are to die for. (probably the best onion rings I've had in a long time).  Hot dogs go great while sitting on their outside patio, enjoying the weather.

5. TASTE SOME CRAFT BEERS

There are many breweries in the area.  We tried Good Hops Brewing in Carolina Beach.  LOVE IT! What I love the most about this place, it's kid and pet friendly.  I don't feel bad about bringing my six year old with me because they actually have board games, and outside games to entertain everyone. Dogs are allowed inside and outside (must be on a leash), and they even have a doggie water station for our furry friends.  And the beer?  Awesome.  a must try!

6. VISIT THE AQUARIUM

Just a few minutes down Carolina Beach, you will encounter Fort Fisher, home to a beautiful North Carolina Aquarium.  You can enjoy many exhibits including a huge tank which is home to sharks, eels and many, many gorgeous and colorful fish.  You can also meet their albino alligator, Luna!

7. FORT FISHER AND MUSEUM

If you are in a history mood, you can also go across the street from the aquarium and take a look at the actual fort.  There is a small museum with civil war artifacts and lots of history!

8.  GO FISHING

If you enjoy fishing, there is nothing better than spending a couple of hours at the fishing pier.  You can buy a license in the store and pick your spot on the beautiful pier.  The view is breathtaking and the kids have lots of fun.  If you are a little more adventurous, you can try the Jetty at Fort Fisher, but I believe you need a license through the state park to fish here. (don't quote me on that one)

9. RENT A BIKE

Riding a bike is a perfect way to get around the area.  Ride a bike around town, or on the beach.  Enjoy the weather with the whole family

10.  USS NORTH CAROLINA

On our way back home, we stopped at the USS NORTH CAROLINA site.  This impressive battle ship is open to the public for tours every day of the week.  This is a great history lesson for the kids (and adults).  The USS NC is a beautiful memorial and it's actually fun to see the inside of this colossal ship.

Whether you are into history, ice-cream, or just want to put your toes in the sand, Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and Fort Fisher are full of family fun, endless entertainment, and unforgettable memories.  

To learn more about the area click here.

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Pigeon Forge, TN: Where to eat, What to do.

When we decided to go to Dollywood, we drove close to four hours from the piedmont of North Carolina to the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.  It was a nice (curvy) ride.  The view was spectacular as the mountain range appears in front of you.  

We stayed at the Willow Brook Lodge in Pigeon Forge.  The room was clean, the beds were comfortable, and they have an indoor and outdoor pool.  Our daughter loved this place since we were able to use the pool and the jacuzzi at night, before bed. They also have complimentary continental breakfast every morning, which was nice.  

On our way there, we passed the town of Gatlinburg, about ten minutes outside Pigeon Forge. The main road looks like a typical beach strip...but in the mountains. You see bargain souvenir stores and lots of mini-golf places everywhere. There are numerous restaurants, shops, arcades, and family friendly places. MagiQuest ads and Dixie Stampede billboards are everywhere luring people to get tickets. The atmosphere is relaxed and safe.  

RELATED: Dollywood, fun for the whole family

We chose to play "putt putt" at Hillbilly golf.  

This mini-golf course is arranged down a huge hill, and you are transported to the top by riding a rail cart 300 feet up. Once at the top, you descend the hill playing 18 holes through all sorts of machinery, and mountaineer equipment. The course is one of the most unusual mini-golfs I've seen. It was lots of fun for us, especially when I made three holes-in-one and hubby only got one. (insert smiley-mischievous face here ). 

At dinner time, we were recommended to go to the Old Mill Restaurant and eat some good old-fashion southern cooking.

This place was very neat. The restaurant looked like an old cabin on stilts from the outside, overlooking a creek. There was a wait for dinner, but it was worth our while. They bring you corn frites, with a sweet butter with a maple-ish flavor. We ordered the corn chowder, fried chicken (which came with mash potatoes and green beans), and hubby ordered the chicken and dumplings which were exquisite. The dessert was my favorite part. Blackberry cobbler with homemade vanilla icecream.  I honestly have no words to describe it, since it was so fresh and so overwhelmingly delicious. Everything was included in the price; appetizer, main course, and dessert. You can't beat all that food for a very reasonable amount.  

Needless to say, we came back the next day for breakfast.  Again, the price included eggs, a stack of pancakes, bacon, corn grits, and potatoes. They provide you with fresh orange juice and your choice of an alternative drink.  I got coffee, of course, which was perfectly brewed.  

The Old Mill area included a few shops around the restaurant. Their own general store, a pottery store, farmhouse kitchen store, a creamery, and a candy store (where I got lots of candy). This was a great place to spend a few hours browsing around, eating and admiring the beautiful landscape.

Overall, Pigeon Forge as well as Gatlinburg, are very family oriented places to spend a good ol' weekend; even if you don't end up going to Dollywood park, you can still find a million things to do around town.  

For more pictures of Pigeon Forge and Dollywood check out our Pics tab.

Always,

Mia.

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Dollywood, fun for the whole family!

My daughter’s 6th birthday came up quick this year.  One afternoon, about a month before her favorite day of the year, hubby told her how much fun he used to have at Dollywood as a kid.  “Dollywood? What is that?” she asked, and there, we started pulling up pictures online, attempting to recreate a good visual representation.

RELATED: What to pack when traveling with kids

Goggled pictures are not enough to satisfy our (whole family’s) need for exploring and experiencing new places. So we packed our bags, bought tickets online, and jumped in the car towards the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. 

We drove through the amazing panoramic route of the Smoky range passing the town of Gatlinburg, TN and towards Pigeon Forge.  There’s plenty to do in just these two towns; from mini-golf in every corner, to racing carts, MagiQuest, and hundreds of restaurants for all tastes. 

RELATED: Pigeon Forge, TN Where to eat, what to do

We found our way into Dollywood easily, as there were signs and posters about it all around town.  The park opens sharp at 10 am, so we made sure to arrive by 930 am, to beat the big crowds. Well, there was already a huge crowd of people parked in the very ample parking lot, but we got a good spot.  (NOTE: if you want to save your $12 parking fee, look into taking the free trolley from Patriot’s Park in Pigeon Forge).  As soon as we stepped out of our car, there was a multi wagon tram waiting for us. The conductor was kind enough to remind everyone boarding of remembering their parking lot letter “Cotton Candy –C”.   I noticed how the other lots were also named after cutesy things like Butterfly Lot for B, and Apple Jack lot for A.  One thing is for sure, their transportation for guests is superb. They are incredibly efficient at picking up/dropping off guests in their respective lots in a timely manner.

We went inside the park with no problem.  You could see how, even though it was still early, the crowds were getting bigger and the lines longer.  We had the opportunity to ride a couple of roller coasters with basically no wait, but as the day progressed, our wait increased to about one hour per ride…even for the little kid’s rides.  Believe me, waiting in line for over one hour with a six year old is no fun.  We didn’t do this, but I highly recommend to get the fast pass and skip the wait!

The park is old, but very beautifully decorated.  It gives you the feeling that you are walking through an old western town.  The rides are OK.  Nothing too out of the ordinary… roller coasters, water rides (splash), bumper carts, and other old country themed rides which were nice.  If you’ve been to Disney, or other major parks (Six Flags, Carowinds) then you might find this park rating just below on a technological scale, but in a way competitive if we talk about décor and ambiance. 

They play only Country music throughout the park, which goes with the theme.  There’s a bald Eagle exhibit inside the park, which I thought was odd.  Well, it was cool to see a bald eagle so close(but all animals in captivity make me sad, so I didn’t really care for this section).

We ate in a little sit-down restaurant in the park. The food was good, of course, a little pricey; but that was expected. There are plenty of places to eat (the hot dogs smelled soooo good!); from little stands, to food trucks and snack areas.  

We had plans to watch one of the many shows offered around the park, but the weather didn’t want to cooperate with us. It poured, and poured for a while. 

We sought refuge in a little souvenir shop, where we bought rain ponchos (they were selling those by the hundreds…literally!).  When the rain subsided some, we ventured to the misty, now empty streets of Dollywood.  What looked like a constant parade in town, now looked like a ghost town from a movie. 

Everyone had disappeared into the stores, restaurants, and shops seeking a dry refuge from the rain. As we were walking trying to decide what to do next, it started pouring again. Our ponchos came in handy, but we resolved to leave as we realized there was not going to be much to do while it rained.

We were exhausted, wet, and hungry.  Time to go eat some good ole southern cooking.   

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Marie Laveau: Business Woman, Voodoo Queen

I have been to New Orleans before, and I’ve read a lot about it’s history and mystery on many occasions. This time around, we decided to take a walking cemetery tour to hear more stories and the history of one of the many fascinating cemeteries in the city.  

So we scored a good Groupon, and booked a tour with Witches Brew Tours (by the way, they are great, check them out if you are ever in NoLa! No problem redeeming the groupon).  

Armstrong Park

Armstrong Park

beautiful trees all around

beautiful trees all around

The stories were fascinating. Our tour guide, Andy was fantastic. He kept us entertained with a good mixture of humor, spookiness, and history. We toured Armstrong Park with its many gorgeous trees and sculptures, and we walked our way to the Saint Louis Cemetery number one built in 1789.  

Inside the cemetery

Inside the cemetery

 

There, we listened to his tales about a strict Catholic cemetery in a segregated society where skin color didn’t matter after death. As long as you died Catholic, you could be buried there. But, beware of vampires! Andy told us how it was a common practice to decapitate the body, placing the head at the feet facing down, and stabbing the heart with a wooden spear all to prevent anyone suspected to be a vampire to return as such.

Why?

Well, interestingly enough, another practice in New Orleans was to keep the deceased body inside a coffin that was placed in an above the ground tomb and bricked in for a year and one day. Because of the usually hot weather of the region, this tomb act as an oven and the body decomposes rapidly leaving only the bones behind.

This process takes approximately one year. On some occasions though, either because of the weather or because the person was really a vampire (maybe), some corpses remained, skin and all, but as the muscles atrophy, and the skin dries up, the gum line recedes, and the fingers look long and bony giving the impression of a very thin person with large canine teeth and long monster fingers… a vampire.    

In this cemetery we also saw other interesting tomb sites, including one of a person that hasn’t died yet. Yes, you guessed it (or maybe you are waiting on me to tell you), Nicolas Cage’s massive pyramid tomb is in this cemetery, next to one of a queen. A voodoo queen I should add.  

Nicolas cage's tomb

Nicolas cage's tomb

This is the real tomb of marie leveau... according to the guide.

This is the real tomb of marie leveau... according to the guide.

 

This is the story that fascinated me the most. Marie Laveau was a creole woman borne in the late 1700’s who worked as a hairdresser for the wealthy white women of the town. Due to carelessness or lack of a sense of prudence, these women would talk freely about their affairs and other ailments in front of her and all other house servers.   

Marie Laveau took this opportunity and created an empire. Have you heard the saying, knowledge is power? Well, she was a visionary that possessed and gained all the means necessary to build her metaphorical kingdom.  

She would gain information by paying the helpers of other wealthy households for details about their landlords. She kept promises to all the rich and powerful men that came to her for help. She would always keep their secrets and cater to their needs.

 

Here’s how she did it. She used the spectacle of magic and combined it with her catholic rituals and beliefs to create "Voodoo" rituals.  This way she presented to her customers her knowledge of secret desires and/or information she had (privately) gathered from her client’s servers without their knowledge. All the gullible rich ladies really thought she was magic and that she knew all these things about them by invoking the spirits. And since she kept secrets and catered to the men’s desires she was well respected by the male society of the town. Marie Laveau made her business by collecting information behind people’s backs and making strong symbiotic friendships with the right crowd.  Marie Laveau was powerful, she was a voodoo queen.  

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But she was also aging, and she saw the opportunity to continue her legacy with her daughter, also named Marie Laveau II. Her daughter assumed her role impersonating her in many instances, and her granddaughter after her, and as years passed, people started to believe that Marie Laveau was forever young and beautiful, immortal if you wish.  

Three women, one name. That’s why when you try to find a picture, or a portrait rather, of Marie Laveau, they all look different. No one really knows what she looked like (people didn’t walk around with their smartphones snapping pictures of celebrities back in the day) as she was one and three at the same time, a holy trinity made voodoo queen.  

Marie Laveau’s death was kept silent in order to keep her legacy and business going with her daughter. Her mausoleum at the Cemetery is said to be occupied by her granddaughter rather than her, but there are speculations that she was buried in a different tomb, the one next to Nicolas Cage’s pyramid.  Go figure.  

marie leveau's tomb after it was re-painted and repaired

marie leveau's tomb after it was re-painted and repaired

Marie Laveau’s influence can be felt all around New Orleans. Her tomb (which is, according to the guide, one of the most visited tombs in the US) has been vandalized (was completely painted bright pink), repainted, and repaired to conserve this popular landmark. Voodoo practitioners and other curious tourists leave offerings by the tomb and request a wish to be granted, they then mark the tomb with three X’s and walk around the mausoleum and knock on it three times. Don’t quote me on this one… I’m just repeating what Andy (our guide) said. Obviously, marking the tomb with an X is considered vandalism, so you better not get caught.

Her tomb before it was vandalized and repainted

Her tomb before it was vandalized and repainted

 As of April 2016 no one is allowed inside the cemetery unless they are accompanied by a certified tour guide, or unless they are visiting a family member’s tomb (and have proof of this). This strict measure might change in the future, but for now they want to prevent the tombs from being vandalized by uncaring people.  

Besides her tomb, the New Orleans Historic Voodoo museum on Dumaine St, established in 1972, is the oldest authentic voodoo artifact museum in the city. It has many of Marie Laveau’s belongings. Around the city it is easy to find plaques of the places where she used to frequent and live with her daughters.  

House where she lived with her daughters

House where she lived with her daughters

Being a creole woman in a segregated society didn’t impede Marie Laveau from being powerful and having a legacy that carried for over a century. She found ways to play with people’s minds, making them believe she was a powerful priestess. As far as actual magical power, no one knows to what point this is true, but one thing is certain; she was powerful in the way she arranged her business, to the point that she was  recognized and remembered as the Voodoo Queen now and for generations to come.  

**** Read other articles about New Orleans here****

We want to hear from you! What good tour guides and places do you recommend?  

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Best Booze List: Top 3 spots for booze in NoLa

It shouldn't come as any big surprise that we had to give you a separate top three list of the best places for booze in NoLa.(Read: Foodie Love: NoLa Edition here) Our husbands are members of a beer club, our friends own a craft beer store, our best friend is a former bartender, and we have been known to drink mixed drinks from princess cups for game nights. 

So without further ado: our top three list of booze spots in NoLa:

1) Lafitte's

Said to be the oldest bar in the United States is conveniently situated on Bourbon Street. This bar is an old pirate bar, and boasts only the use of candle light, no modern day convinces here (well they do have a bathroom- but c'mon it's a bar!) Lafitte's has the BEST hurricane (and trust me, we tried alot) in NoLa. Made to order, no pre-made mixes, this drink is made with real juices and lots of the good stuff. Not only are the hurricanes out of this world, but the bar itself is just awesome. It's old and dark, lit by candlelight and housing a piano in the back where every evening someone is pounding the ivory and crooning out good jams. It really is a great place to hang and soak in all that NoLa has to offer. This place was always packed, and we didn't always get a seat (we may or may not have frequented this place many times over our five day trip- don't judge- it was research!), so be prepared to take it to go (yes did I mention, open container city?!), or stand outside. However you do it, get a hurricane at LaFitte's!

2) The Carousel Bar.

Located at the Hotel Monteleone (off Royal Street) is probably one of the neatest actual bar set-ups I've seen. The bar is a slowly revolving carousel seating only 25. It opens at 11am so be sure to get there when it opens otherwise you won't be able to get a seat. We were lucky enough to arrive fairly early and snagged one seat. We rode once around and shared the love with another soul who was waiting for a spin around. This bar has all the enchanting, bright, giddiness of a real carousel plus the best Bloody Mary I've ever had. I'm not a fan of Bloody Marys but it was 11AM so it only seemed appropriate to order one. I'm glad I did because this thing was killer. Not only did it taste great, but it looked like a piece of art. (I could have eaten a whole jar of just those pickled green beans by themselves). 

Of course, I also had to try a sazerac while we were there too, after all, it is a New Orleans specialty. A sazerac is typically made with whisky, absinthe (yikes!), bitters, and a sugar cube. I'm not a huge whisky fan so it was a tad strong for me, but if you are in NoLa, you have to try one. My husband loves whisky so this drink was right up his ally. Perfect to sit and sip on. 

3)Tropical Isle

Next on our stop of must-go places for a drink is right on Bourbon Street (shocker I know), Tropical Isle, home of the famous hand grenade which boasts the title of "New Orleans Most Powerful Drink". Now I have no idea what's in this fluorescent green concoction, and I'm sure I could google it, but what's the point, this drink is famous on Bourbon Street so just jump right in and give it a try. I mean really, they have a to-go window in the wall so you don't even have to go in, grab one on the way to wherever you're going (cash only though at to-go just FYI).

They come served in an obnoxiously large and ridiculous cup which I feel are part of the fun of them, bright green straw and everything. They are even topped with a tiny, plastic grenade. You can either order on the rocks or blended (we opted for blended). 

I wouldn't say that I would want to drink a ton of these bad boys, they are pretty sweet and pretty potent, but if you are in NoLa, you most definitely have to stop by and try one (you can even bring home your cup as a souvenir!).

*** Read these related articles about NoLa Food, drinks, and places!

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Foodie love - NoLa edition

So everyone with half a brain knows that New Orleans is famous for it's food. Throw a rock in any direction and I guarantee you'll hit at least six places worth eating at, so I'm gonna give you my top three picks for good eats. (Trust- this was HARD to narrow it down to only three).

1. RED FISH GRILL

The first stop once we landed and checked into the hotel was to Red Fish Grill (thank you airport shuttle man for the recommendation). The restaurant itself is gorgeous from the decor, to it's prime location on Bourbon Street, this place has more than just good food, it has great ambiance.  

Now, I know I'm a Southern Girl from the Carolinas and all but I have never been a big grits eater (I'll tear up some cream of wheat though). Despite my lack of love for the grit family, I always like to try new dishes (especially when traveling) so I thought "when in Rome!" and ordered the shrimp and grits. Take a look at this divine concoction: 

These Parmesan cheese grits were like puffs of clouds from the heavens, so light and airy. And as if they weren't good enough on their own, they were topped with roasted tomatoes, fried okra, jalapeno buttermilk ranch, prosciutto cracklin', and of course, shrimp. Everything was cooked to perfection, and the unique combination of flavors and ingredients was like sensation overload in my mouth. 

This was hands down my favorite meal of the trip (and I don't even like grits!)

2) REMOULADE

We found this gem really by accident because the place we had intended to eat at had a line out the door and we were hungry. The menu looked tasty so in we went. Remoulade is also on Bourborn Street and has a sort of classic diner, soda shop feel. Checkered floors and retro -looking bar really cemented the look. The menu had some pretty cool items, which being foodies and all, we had to try (duh). Crawfish pies and turtle soup for me, and classic jambalaya for Mia. So check out this crawfish pie:

Crawfish pattie

Crawfish pattie

Louisiana crawfish tails, jasmine rice, veggies, herbs and seasonings all fried in a delectable little pie. (Reminds me of an empanada or mini shepherds pie). They came out nice and hot, flaky pastry outside and steaming goodness inside. These are definitely worth a taste if you are in the area. 

The turtle soup was awesome, great combination of flavors. Even you non adventurous eaters would enjoy this, no weird textures or flavors. 

Turtle soup

Turtle soup

Mia tried the jambalaya (which  means of course I sampled hers too- that's how we do). And in our opinions, this was the best jamablya we sampled during the whole trip.

Jambalaya

Jambalaya

 

3) NEW ORLEANS SCHOOL OF COOKING

The third and finale must eat stop on our trip was at the New Orleans School of Cooking (check out our blog post about the cooking demonstrations offered here). Not only was it awesome to watch our food being prepared and cooked right in front of us, but we were given the recipe to duplicate at home! This gumbo was the BEST we encountered on our five day trip.

 

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It was so light and airy. Great combination of spices and flavors. Each table had an array of hot sauces which could be added depending on each persons personal hottness preference (sidenote: I like it HOT). But even if you don't add any additional kick- it was by far the best gumbo I ate. 

 

I know I said I was narrowing down my list to top THREE spots to eat but c'mon, can you really visit New Orleans and not stop by Cafe du Monde for beignets? Established in 1862 in the French Market it is world famous for their beignets. Be prepared for standing room only, this 24 hour coffee shop is ALWAYS packed. We got super lucky and snagged a table on a Thursday afternoon and man were they worth it. They came out hot, piled with powered sugar. We left with powdery hands and shirts, but with happy stomachs.  

 

Have you visited New Orleans? What is your favorite spot to eat?

*** Read these related articles about Food, Drinks, and places in New Orleans

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New Orleans School of Cooking

If you are looking for a fun, interactive way to learn a little (and eat a lot) of authentic Cajun cookin', look no further than New Orleans School of Cooking demonstration classes. Located right on St. Louis Street, The New Orleans School of Cooking offers classes, that typically last two hours, in which time a professional chef will cook a three course meal in front of an audience of roughly 60 guests and then, you guessed it, everyone chows down!

When we visited New Orleans, we needed a good rainy day activity (since Friday was POURING pretty much all day) and this seemed like a good way to pass some time (eating is always a good way to pass the time in my book). We signed up for the class which demonstrated gumbo, jambalaya, and pralines and served water, lemonade, and beer from a local brewery, Abita. 

Our chef for the class was Ms. Anne, an adorably witty lady with 20+ years experience in the kitchen. She loves to cook, and you can tell. She was fun, hilarious, and knowledgeable without being boring, keeping the entire class engaged as she mixed, stirred, simmered, and boiled her way to a meal fit for a queen.

The dining area was smallish- eight tables which could seat eight people a piece. The kitchen area had a large mirror overhead which enabled the entire room to watch the meal being prepared. Ms. Anne walked the entire group through the prepping and cooking of all three dishes interjecting her witty commentary along the way (seriously this lady was a hoot).

I gotta say, we tried a lot of gumbo in our 5 days in NoLa and this was by far THE BEST, hands down, of any restaurant we tried. It was light and filling, PACKED with flavor (I'm not saying I did, but I may have had seconds).

TRY MY RECIPE!!!!  RELATED: GUMBO a la Mia

While the jambalaya wasn't as earth shattering as the gumbo- it was still pretty darn good. Fresh andouille sausage? Yes please! Guests were encouraged to come up for seconds, we definitely didn't leave hungry. 

While we munch on our gumbo and jambalaya, Ms. Anne prepped some pralines for dessert. I love me a praline, and was surprised to see how easy they seemed to whip up (Mia promised to make some when we got home- I'll let you know if she delivers).

After the meal we were encouraged to look around the little country shop, which is actually the entrance to the facility. It was filled with various local sellers of spice mixtures, hot sauces, cooking implements, and general kitchen-y wares.

Overall this was a really fun way to spend a rainy afternoon, we ate a great home cooked meal, came away with a couple recipes, and had fun chatting with the couples seated at our table who were also vacationing in NoLa.

If you are interested in booking a class while you are on vacation, you can visit the link www.neworleansschoolofcooking.com for more information!  

**Read more about New Orleans food, drinks and places HERE!

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How to travel the world on a budget

It's no secret, we love to travel, and traveling can get expensive, especially when you take a vacation with the family.  We try to take as many trips as the wallet allows.  We are not rich, nor we have a secret stash of money under our mattress.... We budget our money rigorously, so we can do what we love the most; making memories around the world. We have gathered some tips and ideas to help you also save up, and whether it is for travel or anything else you love, we hope you find these tips helpful. 

1. TURN OFF THAT LIGHT. 

I'm starting with the less obvious, most misunderstood way to save. It might not sound like a lot, but turning off lights and appliances that are not being used can save you some in your monthly electrical bill, especially if you are still using incandescent light bulbs. IF you are still using those, consider switching to CFL or LED bulbs. I promise you'll see the difference in lighting and savings. While regular incandescent bulbs use 60 or more watts, CFL and LED are energy efficient and only use 10-18 watts (and LED bulbs can last up to 20 years!) saving you lots of money a year if you add up all the bulbs in your house. Do the same thing when you are brushing your teeth or showering... turn the water off when not in use. Save money and help preserve our earth!

2. DON'T BE TEMPTED TO WINDOW SHOP.

I know, I know. This one is hard. For instance, I just love to go to stores like Target or Walmart or the mall to walk around and look at goods. Sometimes I do it because I have time to spare, but 9 times out of 10 I end up buying something I don't even need. Even if it's something small, if you don't need it, don't buy it and save that money!

3. MAKE A LIST

My friends will tell you, I like lists. I make a list for everything, and over time, I've come to learn that this actually saves me time and in many instances, money. Going to the store when it's only absolutely necessary was discussed above, but when you go, make a list. Only get the items on your list. For example, you can always make a schedule of recipes for the week (there's another list) and make your shopping list for the items you will need to have all your meals. Also, another good tip is to buy your non-perishables at whole-sale stores. You may pay a little more up front, but will end up saving money in the long run. Oh and before I forget, do not grocery shop while you are hungry! Your list will go to waste if your hungry stomach is demanding your brain to void the list and grab every edible item there is. True story.  

4.  LEARN HOW TO COUPON

If you have the extra time, couponing is a great way to save on your groceries and toiletries. It takes time and dedication, but you can get many things for a few cents and even free when you find a good deal. But beware! with this method, you will be tempted to buy things on sale that you do not need or that you will never use! It's happened to me, and to many people I know. Grocery stores have modified their rules on coupons over the years to prevent people from getting dozens of the same item at once, but there are always ways around it. Don't be tempted! If you want to learn the art of couponing you can check many websites that will teach you step by step how to do it and will give you a list (love lists lol) of deals by grocery store.  I use www.southernsavers.com and coupons.com for my coupons and information.   Using Groupons for amazing deals on restaurants (on special occasions or when you travel) and other services and items is a great way to save some money when you find the right product (but as always, don't forget to read the small print to avoid misunderstandings).

5. COOK AT HOME

Unless it's a special occasion, cook all your meals and don't eat out. I think this is what saves us the most money. Note, that this also includes your morning coffee...and nobody loves a good cup of Starbucks more than me! I make my own coffee each morning and pack my left overs for lunch that day. Each member of your family can do the same and save. Just think. The average cup of fancy coffee is $4-$5 (if not more), the average lunch including a drink could be $10-$15.  So if you visit the coffee shop and eat your lunch out every work day, you are spending about $75 a week (in the low end of price), plus your weekly groceries for the meals you do cook at home. If you and your spouse have the same habits, you are spending $150/week. I'm sure you can do math, but just to reiterate that is $600 a month that you can be putting towards your dream vacation.  -** see some ideas for delicious easy recipes***

6. BEING FRUGAL IS NOT BEING CHEAP!

Maybe it is because I'm not super techie, but I don't need the latest Iphone every time a new one comes out, or every apple device that actually does the same thing than the other (talking about iphone, ipad, iwatch...same thing, different size). Me personally, I only need a good laptop, a reliable phone, and a good camera (for our field of work). If you don't work with technology or computers, why spend hundreds on stuff you don't really need?  

I also, like most women, like to dress well. I don't like fancy clothes, but I do like for things to look nice. That's totally OK. BUT I have no need to buy a $300+ purse or $200+ shoes when I can get what I need for less than half that price. Well, if someone wants to gift it to me, I gladly accept it, but I'd rather save my money to go see the world. Material things are just that, material that the brand makes you believe you need.  Let me tell you a secret... you don't need that, but you do need to take vacations.

7. NAILS, HAIR, AND OTHER NON-ESSENTIALS

For years I would spend $150 or more getting my hair done every few weeks, or $30+ every couple of weeks getting my nails done. That adds up, quickly. One day, I wanted to take a trip out of town (before we started traveling often) and my husband informed me that we couldn't afford it that month. Fine, I thought; no big deal. But the more I thought about it, the more I envisioned myself with my toes in the sand for the weekend. I also had a hair appointment scheduled for that week, so I made a deal with hubby. I canceled my hair and nail appointment, and voila! extra money to get out of town!  This doesn't mean that I wanted to look like a slob, so, eventually taught myself how to fix my hair and do my own nails. Doing your own nails is especially easy when you take your time. I also learned how to give myself a hair trim and how to color my own hair (although this is still a work in process, it has worked pretty well so far). I understand that this is not something everyone can do, but it's a big saver if you are able to learn to fix your own hair and nails. This also applies to hubby's hair and children's hair. I became our little family hair dresser.

8. BARGAIN WITH THE CABLE AND CELLPHONE COMPANIES

You see a great deal for cable/satellite TV. You call them, and set everything up. You are happy for a short period of time, and suddenly, one day, you open your monthly statement and your rate has doubled. You all know this story because it happens to everyone. What I do: call them up and bargain. Before I do this, I do my research and I make sure to have their competitors comparable rates and offers on hand. That way I can subtlety throw in there their competitor's current offer to get a reaction. If you have paid your bill on time and don't call every month with a bogus complaint (yeah, they won't help you if you are a bad client), they will give you a deal. I do this every 6-12 months with each company (cable, internet, cell)- basically when they increase my bill- and that way I keep my rates stable. If they don't want to reduce or change my plan, I will switch to whoever gives me a good rate.  

Another good idea (if you are not a super obsessed TV show fan like sometimes we can be) is to cancel your cable or satellite all together and just get a streaming provider like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon to watch your shows and movies. Also, most network channels offer their last 5 episodes of popular shows for free streaming online, if you must have certain shows. There is a big difference in $120+ Cable bill and a $20 streaming provider a month. If you can survive without live TV and DVR, cancel your cable, stream your shows, and save that money.

9. HAVE A YARD SALE

I know this is not something you can do every week, but at least once a year have a big yard sale with all your old stuff. Clean out your closet, the kids's old toys, and all the "junk" accumulated in the garage and sell it out. You can also sell your stuff on craigslist or offerup.com. Some thrift stores will buy used clothes and toys if it's in good condition for a reasonable amount. Do this once in a while to clean out your house, and make extra travel money. You can also consider donating your gently used clothes, toys, and household items to your local womens shelter for extra good Karma.  

 

10.  SAVE A PENNY

Always be on the look out for bargains, deals, and best prices when it comes to buying the things you need. Make a list of things you want (not need) and set a separate budget for those. It's OK to give yourself a gift once in a while, but budget your expenses. For things you need (food, clothes, toiletries) find ways to get good quality things for less. Visit farmer's markets for fresh produce, buy wholesale when possible, and shop at specialty stores that offer organic products for less. I find that stores like TraderJoe's carry many items for way less than the chain stores simply because they are not the commercial brands that we are used to. I also shop at Aldi's and similar stores in the area. Save a penny if you have one to spare. You would be surprised on how much you can save little by little.

We are always open to other suggestions and ideas on how to save.  Whether it's to travel or to buy something you really want, how do you budget your money?

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International Travel with Kids 2: COLOMBIA

Cocora valley

Cocora valley

After traveling all around the coffee triangle region of Colombia (and enjoying their world renowned coffee every chance we got) we found it was easier to transport everyone by renting a small bus vs. individual taxis or vans. The kids enjoyed it because it felt like a school field trip every time we rode our bus (the littlest one having never ridden a school bus for a field trip was particularly thrilled by the experience). I’m grateful all our kids were well behaved, and of course, I’m grateful that they all listened to my safety warnings and followed them to a T.

When traveling with kids, especially on long trips, I find it very important to make each child feel comfortable in order to get their best behavior.  As an example, I always make sure to pack my daughter’s precious blanket. We don’t leave home (overnight) without it. I also made sure to pack her favorite drinking cup, one toy, and her favorite, weather-appropriate, outfits. These small details made her feel secure and it made the environment a little less scary for her.  Also, please always make sure they have comfortable shoes for long walks, that way you don’t have to deal with foot blisters and other issues that can potentially ruin a good time.

RELATED: INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL WITH KIDS PART 1: COLOMBIA

giant man

giant man

I always carry a cross body bag, big enough for my personal belongings, a few snacks, and a bottle of water. Refillable bottles that have a snap-hook that you can attach to your bag are very convenient. I like to be hands-free and carry everything on my cross body bag. I also carry a travel size bottle of hand sanitizer, tissue, and band-aids (believe me; you’ll thank me should you need these).

We laughed a lot in this trip. Hubby is 6’5” and needless to say, he looked like a giant compared to most locals. This was pretty hilarious especially when he realized that he his feet hung out of the South American standard beds, and he had to watch his head through many door frames and other structures.

somebody didnt fit through the door of the bathrooms

somebody didnt fit through the door of the bathrooms

We had a scary moment when we thought one of us lost their wallet with all personal information and identifications (it is always a good idea to have a photocopy of yours and your child’s documents stored in a safe place while you travel).

But don’t worry… we found it!

One of my favorite places was Salento, Quindio.  We climbed the Alto de la Cruz and all of its 250 steps.  We were exhausted once we got to the top, but it was totally worth it.  The views of the town and the mountains were breathtaking.  I also thought it was very curious to see so many stray dogs walking around, and none of them looked malnourished (although some were thirsty).  We noticed that the locals, and hundreds of tourist, feed and pet these very friendly dogs all the time. So, living on the streets might not be too bad for them after all.  They get sheltered by local vendors when needed, and the town is their playground.  

brother giving a stray dog some water.

brother giving a stray dog some water.

We also had some small injuries and scrapes.  Kid #4 got a splinter (a very small splinter) and cried bloody murder for a good twenty minutes while uncle and dad tried to remove it. Picture this: Lunch time; the water park's restaurant area packed with people trying to eat; a four year old screaming but moved to the grassy area just outside the restaurant to minimize a spectacle (that didn’t make it better btw).  Dad is holding her so she doesn’t move, uncle is performing an improvised cutaneous amateur surgery, well, that’s the way it seems from a distance judging by the screams and kicks... and suddenly it stops. The splinter is out and magically she feels nothing anymore. The rest of the crew recovered their original color as their faces go back to normal from the bright tomato red they had turned with embarrassment. Immediately, Kid #3 starts to cry. She also has a splinter that was conveniently painless until she saw it. Repeat. Buy everyone ice-cream after the ordeal.

flying back home

flying back home

Despite the minor incidents everything went well until our way back home. We had another eight hour layover in Panama. By that time we knew the airport like pros. We knew exactly where the AC area was, and what restaurants were good. About an hour before boarding hubby started to feel queasy. He looked pale and clammy and I knew that something wasn’t right. “Maybe it was something he ate?” I thought, but we all ate the same thing and we were feeling alright so that couldn’t be it. Then I saw hubby pacing back and forth. He was holding his right side. The flank area of his body, he said, was throbbing. The pain made him so sick that he was vomiting. I knew he was not going to be able to make it on a plane for 4 hours in that condition. I knew he was passing a kidney stone (he suffers from this often). Even if he wanted to board the plane, the airline clerk saw his pale face and asked me what was wrong. I told her I suspected a big kidney stone. Well, apparently they don’t let you board a plane (at least not in Panama) if you are or look sick. He looked terrible. Even my five year old daughter knew something wasn’t right. So our group gets split in two and we stayed in Panama while the rest flew back home. Luckily, the medic at the airport clinic was incredibly nice and gave hubby something for the pain. He was able to stabilize him and after a couple of hours his pain was bearable. The airline was also (to my surprise) very cooperative. They placed us on the last plane back to the States that night, and although we missed our connecting flight, we were glad to be home.  

Read about: tips on what to pack when traveling with kids

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International Travel with Kids part 1... It is Possible!: COLOMBIA edition

We love to travel abroad.  Last summer we packed our bags and took a plane to Colombia. This beautiful, diverse South American country had so many things to offer, we should’ve planned for more than the two glorious weeks we took.

Always have a"fun-kit" on hand for long layovers

Always have a"fun-kit" on hand for long layovers

We traveled with four kids, ages ranging from 8 to 4. Let me tell you, yes I was nervous at first because for three of the kids, it was their very first time on a plane. We spent the weeks before the trip preparing them for any possible scenario. Fortunately, although they are little, they are smart kids. We went over safety rules, different foods, how to behave on a plane, cultural differences, language differences, and safety rules one more time. I was satisfied that they had learned at least a little after my constant (almost obsessive) repetition. By the way, we budgeted our finances in order to travel with the whole family.  It takes effort, but it's totally worth it! (click here for how to budget to travel).

The day came. Five adults, four kids, lots of bags…. Well, not really, we tried to travel light.  We knew we had an eight hour layover in Panama, so we were prepared. (See What to pack TIPS when traveling with kids ). We had activity books, portable DVD player, cards and little games for them to play…and snacks; plenty of plane-friendly snacks. BUT, we didn’t count on the almost infernal heat at the non-air conditioned airport. Neither one of us had ever traveled through that airport before, so we didn’t know what to expect. Apparently the airport was under construction and only a very small part of it was air conditioned. Well, needless to say, we spent 7 of the 8 hours in the AC area. The kids were comfortable enough and really tired by the time we got in the last plane to Colombia. They all fell asleep.

When we finally arrived to the city of Pereira, one of the main cities in the heart of the“Coffee Triangle”, we realized that hubby’s bag was missing!. The airline in Panama failed to transfer it to the next airplane. After the aggravation of setting up a lost-bag claim, we were greeted by some of our family that lives there. They had also rented a bus to fit us all and transport us around. 

We had to accommodate all of us in a small three bedroom apartment. It was tight, but it wasn’t terrible. It was hot thought (thank God for fans and micro-fiber cooling towels). We toured the city the first day with no problems. We also had to shop for hubby’s clothes since he had nothing to change into.  Note to self:  sizes in other countries are slightly different from the US.  Large there is NOT like a large here. 

We quickly learned the lesson in apparel shopping, but not before we had already purchased some items.  That didn’t stop us from having fun. 

Hotsprings waterfall in the background

Hotsprings waterfall in the background

Our first destination was a natural hot-springs pool park of Termales of Santa Rosa, up in the central mountain range, about one hour from where we were staying. It was hot in Pereira, but this place was cool and comfortable, although it got a little cold at night fall. The hot-spring in this area was a natural volcanic spring that flows from an impressive waterfall at 158° and reaches the pool area at 104°.  Once the water enters the pool it is combined with cold water to make it comfortable and soothing. You can even smell the volcanic residue in the air. It was amazing and the kids loved it. 

DESTINATION #2

After this day experience, we went to a sports/waterpark complex called Confamiliar Risaralda- Parque Consota, and stayed in a beautiful cabin while enjoying a semi-private pool and all the amenities of the park. Fresh coffee was served each morning by their friendly staff dressed in typical- coffee region attire.  In the meantime, hubby’s luggage was still in limbo.

DESTINATION #3

Way into day four, we were able to recover the luggage, along with the comfortably fitting clothes of a 6’5” man.  He was happy, and we moved on to the next destination; a country house outside the Pereira.  We relaxed for two days laying in hammocks and cooking out in the outdoor kitchen.   The kids had a wonderful fenced space to play around and breathe in the fresh air and also fishing.

DESTINATION #4 was a Coffee-themed amusement park.  We all enjoyed this place tremendously.  Filled with roller-coasters, water rides, theater, music, and eco-friendly walks, this coffee-themed park was both informative and fun.

Back in the bus to:

DESTINATION #5

Kids are singing, and we are all admiring the view.  We arrive to “Salento” and first on our list is horse-riding in the Cocora Valley, part of the central Andes Mountains.  Horse-riding in the Andes was, in my opinion, what the kids (and the adults) enjoyed the most.  The gorgeous views of the mountains, and the small colonial town of Salento, Quindio, with its multicolor colonial architecture were breathtaking.  Salento also had dozens of small stores full of handcrafts and souvenirs for tourist.  The locals are friendly and the food is fantastic. (Read our blog about the local food!).

We spent the rest of the days in between walking around the city, shopping, and eating local food.  The kids behaved great and we felt safe and confident to even go out at night (we got a sitter for that ).

Night view of the city

Night view of the city

Read about the interesting encounters (with pictures), and the adventure back home… which includes a complication, in Part 2.

Also stay tuned for a complete list of what to pack when traveling with kids.  See more pictures in our gallery (Pics & Art) tab.

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New Orleans 2016

Our next big trip coming up in a few weeks! Stay tuned for great travel adventures and amazing pictures