Oahu Travel with Toddlers: Our Favorites as a Family

At this point, our 14 month old has 15 flights and 15 hotels/rental houses under her tiny belt. I wouldn’t say it has gotten easier, but we all have learned –often the hard way– how to travel together, better. The most important lesson that we learned when traveling with her is to pick the right destination for her interests and stage in her development. We made a little checklist on where we can go now with our little energizer bunny and that is how we selected our big summer trip this year.

Note: It’s challenging to anticipate your child’s needs when you plan trips in advance because we don’t always know where they will be emotionally/physically/mentally in months from now, but it is important to make your best guess and adjust your destination around that finding. 

Braving the flight!

Our checklist for travel with Aurora at 14 months:

  1. Not too far by plane (under 5-6 hours direct)
  2. Lots of outdoor areas for play including water
  3. Relaxed atmosphere where most things will be nearby 
  4. Culture that embraces family life with lots of child friendly activities, hotels and dining

Where did we land?

HAWAII! Oahu to be exact. Just about 5.5 hours on one of my favorite airlines–Hawaiian (not an ad)– and we were in a warm, tropical, kid friendly paradise. Aurora’s favorite thing to do is touch, splash, drink or generally be immersed in water so that led us to be thinking of warmer climes with lots of pool and ocean possibilities. Oahu has the ideal mix of accessibility for kids, a really strong, welcoming culture and some of the most beautiful beaches that I’ve ever seen.  

We spent 7 full days on this island, exploring (in between naptime) and here’s our top list for best experiences with a toddler. 

 

OUTDOORS

WAIKIKI BEACH, HONOLULU

Beaching in front of Hilton Hawaiian Village

This may seem surprising but Oahu’s famous beach is also an ideal place for children. With Diamond Head soaring at one end, a lively vacation atmosphere, and the novice surfers catching waves further out, the whole beach feels iconically Hawaii.  Since these island are also known for warm water year round (during our late August the water was in the 80s) the temperature is extremely comfortable. The waves are gentle enough to be safe for young kids, under parental supervision. We could carry Aurora in passed the break and then use her swim floaties, or a small inflatable tube with leg holes, to help her float. 

The only drawback is this beach is naturally, very popular. To avoid the crowds and have more space, we loved spending time at the beach in front of the  Hilton Hawaiian Village. This is the widest stretch of beach and a bit away from the busiest central area of Waikiki so we could always find ample room for our towels and sand toys.

Beach chairs are available to rent but we spent most of the time in the water or digging in the sand, so it wasn’t necessary for us. 

The sand is very clean and quite soft but be careful as it can get HOT during the day. We always had Aurora in covered swim shoes while we were at the beach to protect those tootsies. 

 

SUNSET BEACH, NORTH SHORE

Just under an hour from Honolulu, the North Shore is home to world renowned big wave surfing. That doesn’t mean, however, that all of its beaches aren’t kid friendly. It just depends on the time of year. From May to September, waves are much smaller, making the North Shore beaches ideal for families. 

Sunset Beach is a pristine stretch that runs along Kamehameha Highway. It actually took my breath the two times that I’ve stopped here. The sunburnt coral sand, the vividly blue water, and the palm lined backdrop made this whole place feel like it was a dictionary definition of paradise.  There are no facilities nearby so pack what you need– especially water, towels, beach toys and sunscreen– so you can make the most of your time here. 

We drove up North early and arrived at Sunset Beach before 9am so we could enjoy two blissful hours of frolicking in the water, building sand castles and collecting seashells before the sun even reached its peak.  

 

DUKE KAHANAMOKU LAGOON,

HILTON HAWAIIAN VILLAGE WAIKIKI BEACH RESORT

I didn’t think that a man-made lagoon, set just off the real beach, would be where I’d want us to spend time but I was wrong! The Lagoon is actually a great place for families with young kids. For starters, there are no waves–just a very gradual incline. This allowed both my husband and I to sit on the sand and watch Aurora splash in the shallow water, without worry. She loved this independence as she freely walked around, sitting in the shallow water and giggling at the fish flitting near her toes.

The Lagoon is great for little mermaids

At the Lagoon, the Hilton Hawaiian Village also offers kayak, SUP, paddle boat and aqua biking rentals. We tried out the paddle boat and kayak, both with Aurora on board. The kayak turned out to be more kid friendly as it was easier to keep her sitting still on our lap since we didn’t have to paddle with our feet. 

 

EXPERIENCES

 

WAIKIKI AQUARIUM

I wasn’t sure how Aurora would react to her first aquarium visit but I was astounded by how much she loved every minute we spent here. The Waikiki Aquarium is set on the water next to a living reef and it 115 years old–the second oldest in the US. Though there are over 3000 marine specimens, inside it is not overwhelming and doable in a morning or afternoon. Inside, many tanks have padded ledges, allowing little ones to get a better view of the aquatic wonders in the tank.

A highlight was catching the octopus feeding, when we saw an incredible day octopus devour his shrimp and change colors just inches from us. We learned that he is given toys for enrichment and sometimes his food is given in a jar that he has to open–what!

Octopus Feeding

Aurora also was fascinated by the top predators tank, the largest in the aquarium, which gave an up close view of jacks, grouper and shark in the same space. I was amazed to see a chambered nautilus, a prehistoric species that has been unchanged for millions of years. 

Top Predators Tank

Outside, a rescued Hawaiian Monk Seal swam and played in the waters as Aurora happily clapped on in awe. The aquarium has attempted to reintroduce this monk seal back into the wild but the efforts have failed, so she’s happily hanging out in her habitat at the Aquarium and in doing so, sharing the plight of this critically endangered species. 

Details:

Adults are $12 and Children under 3 are free! 

Waikiki Aquarium Website

 

HONOLULU ZOO

Kid Petting Zoo

It’s hard to believe that there is a full zoo right in the heart of downtown Waikiki, but it is true. We stopped here after a healthy breakfast at nearby Da Cove. This was Aurora’s first zoo experience and she was very interested in all the wildlife especially the gibbons. Overall, highlights were the elephants, tiger and the rhino. There is also a petting farm and Aurora was able to pet some friendly goats. 

It’s not large and there are some renovations going on so certain exhibits were closed, however we felt it was still worth a stop especially with animal-loving kids!

Details:
Adults are $19, Children under 3 are free!

Honolulu Zoo Website

CULTURE

ALOHA FESTIVALS

For the entire month of September, Oahu hosts events, parades and festivals that celebrate Hawaiian culture, tradition and history. We were lucky enough to be in town for the opening ceremony and Royal Court Investiture. A new king, queen, prince and princess were crowned in a regal ceremony modeled after the historical ceremony of Hawaiian royalty. All of this took place on the lovely grounds of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.   

Royal Investiture

Aurora loved the live music and hula that followed the Investiture. While she might not have understood the historical significance of this event, she was definitely interested in the bright costumes and lively atmosphere. 

Opening Ceremony for the Aloha Festivals

We won’t be in town for the following events, but the block party and flower parade look incredible!

All the Aloha Festivals are listed here

 

WAIKIKI STARLIGHT LUAU

A luau is more than just dinner and a show. It’s a chance for the whole family to learn more about Hawaiian culture through the stories, dance and music. The Waikiki Starlight Luau takes place at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, with a view of the ocean. 

Waikiki Starlight Luau

The children’s buffet was the right height for kids and had a lot of kid friendly options. The hula was wonderful and seeing Aurora try to dance along with the performers brought many smiles from onlookers. 

Details:

$111 Adults, $71 for Children 4-11, Children under 3 Free

Website: Waikiki Starlight Luau

 

DINING 

 

While there’s a lot of restaurants on Oahu that we have on the mainland, we found some incredible local fare that also worked well for young appetites. 

The Street Food Hall by Michael Mina

The 12 food stalls inside this modern, vibrant food hall has something for everyone at all hours of the day. We came here 4 separate times at different times of day–breakfast, lunch, happy hour and dinner!

Breakfast at Mi Almita

The food is prepared to order, using fresh ingredients and at affordable price points. They also have a  Street Party pass that allows you to sample 7 of the restaurant stalls and 3 of the bars, at a 

Burger Hale at The Street Food Hall

Our favorites were: 

  • The Myna Bird a tiki bar with great $5 piña coladas
  • Mi Almita for a delicious al fresco breakfast including mochi pancakes and loco moco
  • Burger Hale for sliders and hand cut fries–this was great especially for Aurora
  • Little Lafa for an easy grab and go savory lafa

    These piña coladas are incredible at The Myna Bird

Details: 

2330 Kalakaua Avenue, Suite 330
Honolulu, HI 96815

Website: The Street Social House

 

HIGHWAY INN

With local owners and a long legacy of serving up authentic food in an approachable setting, the Highway Inn is a must stop for those that want to taste real Hawaiian food. 

Local Specialties at Highway Inn

We stopped in the Kaka’ako location for lunch and tried out signature dishes like lau lau, poke and kalua pork. Each were rich, flavorful and different than we had anywhere else. Aurora was a fan of the lau lau and kalua pork and I couldn’t get enough of their sesame poke. The restaurant was packed, with local residents and tourists alike. If you are in the know, you come here.

Next time, we are coming for breakfast because we saw the pancakes go by and look amazing. 

Details:

680 Ala Moana Boulevard #105
Honolulu, HI 96813

Website: Highway Inn

 

da COVE HEALTH BAR and CAFE 

da Cove is another local favorite serving up fresh smoothies and juices, unique omelettes and a wide variety of acai bowls. For keiki, they offer omelettes and Aurora really liked the smoothies! We went to the location near Diamond Head, which is close to downtown.

Healthy spread at da Cove

Details

3045 Monsarrat Ave #5,
Honolulu, HI 96815

Website: da Cove Heath Bar and Cafe

 

Moku Kitchen

Family friendly restaurants can be COOL and that certainly is the case at Moku Kitchen. The busy atmosphere, wide variety of mouthwatering dishes and drinks and attention to kids here made Aurora and her parents very happy. I can’t say enough about the delicious food–I had a steak that I’ll never forget. However, I think Aurora had the most fun. They have table toys that they let you borrow to keep your little one occupied. When Aurora is occupied, her parents can relax. This restaurant understands the needs of families!

Details

660 Ala Moana Blvd,

Honolulu, HI 96813

Website: Moku Kitchen

 

ABC STORES

These “everything” shops are all over Honolulu and they helped us out on several occasions. From pool floaties, to organic milk, string cheese to fruit, they made it easy for us to grab what we needed on the go. There are so many locations, you will definitely see at least one. 

ABC Stores are so useful!

 

HOTELS

 

HILTON HAWAIIAN VILLAGE WAIKIKI BEACH RESORT 

If you have children, the Hilton Hawaiian Village Resort is resort is fantastic for your needs.  As mentioned above, the expansive property is on a wide stretch of beach, that is not trafficked by many others as it is the far end of Waikiki Beach. In addition to the Lagoon, there are multiple pool areas and even a pool with water slides. All the pools are very kid friendly and your child will have lots of other kids to play with!

Our view from the 14th floor of the Alii Tower

In addition to all the fun water experiences, the HHV also has well landscaped walkways, ponds and streams so just walking through the property is fun with children. There are ducks, turtles and all sorts of colorful fish to admire. Occasionally we could see several parrots and macaws that had their own areas in the center of the resort. 

Exploring the HHV grounds

We stayed in the Ali’i Tower, which made this large resort feel a bit more intimate. This tower has its own check-in and concierge, as well as priority seating at some restaurants. It’s also very centrally located on this widespread property, making it a breeze to walk to the restaurants, shops, pools and beach. Guests in this tower even have access to their own pool, restaurant and bar on the second floor. This unique access made it easy for us to take a quick dip in the pool, grab some food or always find an available lounge chair. 

The living room of our suite.

Our room was great for Aurora. It was a king suite on a high floor so our view was astounding. There was no balcony, which we preferred, as balconies with kids can be scary. A crib was provided and the living room, 2 bathrooms and bedroom were very spacious. The mini refrigerator was crucial for storing milk and snacks for Aurora. We converted the desk area to her changing area. We were in a suite so the two rooms was a lifesaver for us when Aurora napped and went to bed. We were able to eat takeout, watch tv and move about in our own room. 

Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort

2005 Kalia Road

Honolulu, HI 96815

Website: HHV

 

THE LAYLOW

For a more boutique experience with that just exudes style, The Laylow is a special find in Waikiki. The stylish coffee bar and open air restaurant, Hideout Waikiki, is a huge draw unto themselves, but for kids, the POOL is definitely the place to be. Daily free shave ice and frozen fruit treats are offered complimentary. There are lounge beds in the water which turned out to be endless fun for our little climber. 

Great beds at The Laylow

The rooms have retro Hawaiian vibe that I really enjoyed and since we opted for a Corner Suite, we had a separate area that worked well for Aurora’s crib, which the hotel provided. The was ample space and two balconies with views. 

Daily free shave ice by the pool

The location is excellent as well. Just next to the International Marketplace, we were steps from many dining options, shops and coffee, as well as just a five minute scenic walk to the beach. Valet parking handles the cars and were very efficient, so it was easy to come and go when were headed out on an adventure. 

Hanging out on the open air roof deck of Hideout

Details:

The Laylow, Autograph Collection

2299 Kuhio Ave,

Honolulu, HI 96815

Website: The Laylow

 

Oahu has hands down been one of our best trips as a family — and that is a BIG STATEMENT since traveling with a toddler is very challenging. We definitely had our share of difficulties–Aurora caught a sickness, she battled jetlag and we had some napless days. But what mattered the most is we were able to spend so much quality time together–whether getting tickled on the bed, splashing in the surf or gazing at the multicolored sunsets each evening. Oahu just made it easy to enjoy our time with each other. It’s so naturally interesting and beautiful, even just a walk together was fun. We found it so easy to get around, restaurants were beyond accommodating to children and if we ran out of swim diapers/sunscreen/milk, there was always a place to grab it close by. The local Hawaiians we met were so kind to us, and showered Aurora with love, it made us feel truly at home here.  The aloha spirit is still in our hearts back at home and I feel that our family bond was only strengthened by this trip together.

Waikiki Sunsets

 

Your Summer Guide to Santa Monica with Little Kids

Santa Monica is one of America’s most famous beach towns and as you can imagine, summer brings an influx of traveling families from far and wide.

As a local and a mom, I spend (almost) every single day here in the summer, figuring out a fun, nearby activity for my daughter. Bonus points if we can find an outdoor activity with water to cool her off a bit!

After lots of trial and error, we’ve found our top summer spots for daytime play with toddlers in Santa Monica.

*All these activities are generally for walkers, but we still did many of them when Aurora was crawling only and still had a great time!

 

Pools

The Annenberg Beach House is only open in the summer but they make the most of it with a ton of family friendly activities, many of which are free! Access to the pool itself is $10 and comes with showers and changing room facilities and access to a snack bar and game room. 

Annenberg Beach House Pool

The pool is a clean, refreshing place to cool off. There are abundant lounge chairs with umbrellas but they are often occupied. This place is popular especially during hot summer days, so planning to go during off times (before noon or after 4pm) if you want to avoid a crowded pool or full lounge chairs. Busy or not, it is still one of the best pool experiences in Santa Monica!

Another great thing to note: the Annenberg Beach House has programming throughout the summer with many free kid friendly events! The Santa Monica Public Library does an especially cute “library day at the beach” (see above) which comes with books, crafts and live storytime. Check the Annenberg events schedule here

 

Splash Pads

Annenberg Splash Pad

Annenberg Beach House Splash Pad

There are two splash pads worth checking out: the Annenberg Splash Pad and Tongva Park. The former is located down on the beach, with tables, chairs and umbrellas as well as a little lawn area which makes it easy for parents to sit and watch their littles running (and screaming) through the water. The water is very warm and the area is usually not too crowded, but I’ve never seen it empty either. Later in the day, there’s often some shade which is very nice for delicate little skin. Bring a bucket or ball for even more fun and don’t forget a towel. 

Tongva Park Splash Pad

Tongva Park Splash Pad

Tongva Park’s Splash Pad is located inside their playground area. Surrounded by rocks, this splash pad is very aesthetically pleasing but note that you (aka the parent) have to push a button to turn the water on and it turns off when you stop pushing. This makes it more environmentally friendly but a little more work. The water here is pretty chilly so make sure it is a warm day! There is usually no shade here. 

 

Santa Monica Pier

Pacific Park

The Pier is the icon of Santa Monica, and I think the Pacific Park rides are the ultimate summer experience for kids of all ages. I was curious if my 14 month old would have as much fun here as older kids, but I needn’t have worried–she had a blast! 

Inkie’s Air Lift

There are 3 rides in the Pacific Park area for little ones with an adult. We weren’t comfortable letting her go alone yet, so we stuck to those three that we could join: Inkie’s Wave Jumper, Inkie’s Air Lift and Sea Planes. Each ride is $5 for both adults and for kids — which can add up quickly — so we picked the two that looked the best to us: Sea Planes and Inkie’s Air Lift. 

Sea Planes ride at Pacific Pier

The Sea Planes ride was the most relaxed, with cute 4 seater planes slowing lifting up and down as they twirl. Inkie’s Air Lift is the same but are you in hot air balloons, facing your little one and can control the spin as you want. We skipped the Wave Jumper though it looked pretty cute, just because the bounces were a little more aggressive than we wanted for our little one but I’m sure it’s great for older kids. You can see a listing of all the rides here

 

Santa Monica Pier Carousel

This historical landmark is 105 years old–built in 1922! The beautifully restored horses really take you back in time and it was a joy to take our daughter on her first carousel experience here. It is only $1 for adults and children under 3 are free, so cost is not an issue. To me, Aurora’s smiles, waving and astonishment at the moving horse was really a worthwhile experience. 

 

Playgrounds

North Beach Playground

Playdate with Ezra at North Beach Playground

This new playground is clean, modern and covered with the soft, spongy flooring that makes it feel very safe for little ones. There are no sand or water features here, but that is okay as you do have a beach access path just across from it. I like the far side for little kids, which has a slide, a teeter-totter, infant swings and some fun swirly rides. This park can get busy, especially on the bigger kid side but overall it feels very safe and clean. The only downside is there is very limited shade. 

 

South Beach Playground

South Beach Playground with friends

How can you not love a playground that is shaped like a ship! This very large playground is set along the beach path, across from the sand and adjacent to some parks. The whole space huge with swings, sand, grass, trees and a variety of play areas. There are some tables on either end and there’s even a little shade. The only downside is you have to follow your child closely because there’s a lot of obstructions so you can lose them pretty easily. Also, I don’t love that majority of the structures are made out of concrete but still, it’s pretty great regardless. 

 

Cayton Children’s Museum

Sienna and Aurora in the ball pit

If you need a break from the sunshine, the brand new Cayton Children’s Museum is a super interesting interactive space for all ages and interestes. From a little market and diner area, to a “vet office” to a ball pit and giant water table—there’s so much to do here. There’s even a real helicopter and firetruck inside for kids to explore. 

Girls at the “diner”

I love the mix of areas that promote imagination and pretend, as well as the tactile areas like the sand and water tables. There’s a playspace that changes as well– sometimes there’s large foam shapes for building, another there’s costumes for dress up and I’ve even seen a sing-a-long music group.

For those under 2 years old, there’s a padded, protected space that is a nice, calm retreat for younger kids.

Under 2 Play Area

The only downside to the museum is it can get very busy, so just be sure to keep close to your little one as some older kids and summer camps are usually running around full speed. 

Firewoman!

 

These are just some of our summer favorites in the area. Hope they help your little one have even more fun in this family friendly beach town!

Luxury Getaway for Families in Los Cabos, Mexico [VIDEO]

I can’t say enough about this resort. The Montage Los Cabos is the ultimate luxurious getaway for families.

A sandy beach, plethora of pools and mouthwatering dining– the new Montage Los Cabos is luxury family travel at its FINEST. On my first trip to Cabo, we brought our 11 month old toddler to this resort, located right on the tourist corridor, in hopes of some rest and relaxation for us parents. I had no idea what to expect from Los Cabos, and what we found was beyond all expectations. Turns out, this property knows how to make families feel so welcome.

Some highlights & recommendations:
-All kids are greeted with a wagon full of stuffed animals for their choosing
-The beach is NOT rocky–very swimmable with gentle waves for little ones
-There is an awesome kids pool and sand area
-The Paintbox Kids center is super fun and has a daily schedule of activities
-We opted for the 1 bedroom King Suite, which had a sliding door that separated the living area from the bedroom, allowing us to have the lights on during our daughter’s naps and early bedtime
-The Montage has recommended babysitters for a much deserved night out
-The Spa Montage is another MUST for the grown ups–get a treatment or just lounge in the serenity pool!

Weekend Guide to Geneva, Switzerland

Geneva, Switzerland is often associated with international affairs or luxury goods– which is not a bad reputation at all. But there’s a lot more to this city. Despite its long history which goes back several thousands of years, Geneva is surprisingly young and modern.

Geneva in the spring

It wasn’t until my second visit to this second most populous city in Switzerland, that I realized how much Geneva has going on and how it is a perfect city for a weekend visit.

 

WHERE TO STAY

Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues

My heavenly bed in the exceptional suite

In a city of many 5 star hotels, the Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues stands out amongst the rest. Situated on the water, just across a foot bridge in the center of the city, the location alone is enough to make it an ideal homebase for any walking traveler. But it is the service and the history wows the most. You’ll be greeted by name just about every time you enter and surprise treats like heavenly macarons or handcrafted pastries are left in your room each night. 

Facade of the Four Seasons Hotel Des Bergues

If the rooftop gym, hammam spa and breathtaking breakfast spreads aren’t enough, don’t miss Izumi, their Japanese Peruvian restaurant that occupies the top floor and the outdoor roofdeck, a rarity in this city. 

View from the roof

Each morning, you’ll wake up to views of swans gliding along the lake and the sun peeking over snow-capped peaks. This is Geneva at its finest. 

 

WHAT TO DO

 

Savoie Steamship

Explore the majesty of the coastline by boat in a historical paddle steamship. La Savoie, one of beautiful Belle Epoque ships in CGN’s fleet, offers lunch and dinner cruises. Linger over a well crafted 3 course meal, complete with an accompanying full bar, as the Swiss coastline comes to you. 

Delicious lunch onboard this Belle Epoque ship

 

A stop on our fun TaxiBike tour

A speedy way to get a lay of the land is on a TaxiBike tour–and no, you do not have to pedal! Knowlegdeable tour guides take you on a route throughout the city, stopping at special sights and tailoring your tour to what you are most interested in. I learned a lot and saw areas of Geneva that I never would have found on my own. They also met us right in front of our hotel–how easy!

 

  • Explore Carouge

A personal favorite, this charming village within the city is a perfect place to spend a leisurely few hours, popping in and out of boutique shops and sampling treats from the many patisseries.

Saturday Farmers Market in Carouge

If you plan your visit on a Saturday, you’ll be fortunate enough to run into the farmer’s market where beautiful fruits, flowers, cheese, and other locally crafted products are on offer. 

 

Waiting for the tram up the mountain

To get an aerial perspective of Geneva, head over the French border to Mont Salève. Zip to the top of the mountain by tram in under 5 minutes. From 1100 meters up, you can enjoy spectacular panoramic views of the city, the lake and surrounding mountains. A bonus is the delicious lunch that is served in the cozy restaurant inside. 

View from the peak!

 

WHERE TO EAT

 

Cottage Cafe

Cottage Cafe

A lively little brick house set in the middle of a park, the Cottage Cafe is an ideal spot for a breakfast, al fresco happy hour or a cozy dinner. I’ve been to this cafe twice years apart and loved it both times. The extensive menu has so many small plate options–you can try a little bit of a lot of these mediterranean inspired dishes. The cheese and the vegetable dishes stand out, as do the spritzes!

 

Cafe du Centre

 

A classic French brasseries that feels like it hasn’t changed since it opened 150 years ago. Serving unpretentious French specialities and fresh seafood, this restaurant is popular among the locals as well as travelers. 

 

Il Lago

It is always a special occasion when you step into the dimly lit Il Lago, at the Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues. This elevated Italian imbues elegance in every bite–and every detail of the presentation. From the bread to the olive oil, the cocktails to the post-dessert handmade chocolates, clear your night so you can savor it all. Standouts include the truffle papparadelle and the filet mignon. 

 

GETTING TO GENEVA

 

  • By Air

Geneva Airport is high tech but small enough not to be overwhelming. Fly direct from major hubs in Europe or directly from Boston or New York City. From the airport, book a shuttle or take an Uber into the city center. 

  • By Train

The Swiss train system is very efficient and the train into the city center is an easy, pleasant journey, particularly if coming from the Lausanne route along the water. 

 

  • By Car

Driving in Switzerland is quite easy and very well marked. Be sure to follow the speeding limits carefully as their are automated speed checks and you might receive a speeding ticket in the mail after you return home without ever being stopped while there. 

Since traffic and parking is an issue in the city center, it is recommended to go car less if possible. If not, you can drive to your hotel and park your car for your stay. 

Opt instead to use the easy tram system, Uber, bikes or your own two feet for the easiest (and prettiest) way to get around. 

VIDEO: Falling in Love in Geneva, A Love Story starring my parents

This past April 2019, my parents celebrated their 50th Wedding Anniversary. To commemorate the event, we traveled back to Geneva, Switzerland–the location of their honeymoon back in 1969. See the Swiss love story that unfolded.

The Catalina Island Guide For Everyone

My second time visiting Catalina made me fall even more in love with this island just off the Southern California coast. This time around, I was not pregnant and it was one of my first trips away from my infant daughter–meaning MOM WAS OFF DUTY! I was ready to dive into all the experiences on Catalina that I couldn’t do the first time around.

What always gets me is how This island is popular for all types of travelers–from the wee ones to the older set, the luxury seekers to the adrenaline junkies. With 48 hours to enjoy, I chose to do a little bit of everything.

THE OUTDOOR ADVENTURER

Highlights: I enjoyed a whole new perspective of Catalina from the treetops. The Aerial Adventure ropes course has routes for beginners to the experts. The beautifully designed courses subtly blend in with the surrounding nature. Challenge yourself to jump off platforms, maneuver around and balance feet above the ground.

Tips: Work up your confidence by starting with one of the two beginner routes. Once you get the hang of the ropes and clipping/unclipping, you can move on to the intermediate and advanced routes.

Cost: Adults, $49.95, Children/Seniors/Military: $39.95

Also check out: Zipline Eco Tour

THE LUXURY SEEKER

Highlights: The former Wrigley residence, the Mt Ada hotel is only accessible for those staying in one of the 12 guest rooms– unless you have a lunch reservation. Step inside this former Wrigley residence to enjoy a memorable lunch on their wraparound patio, which might be my favorite view of Catalina Island. The three course lunch includes your choice of champagne, wine or beer.

Tips: Take a golf cart up to the hotel for a scenic drive.

Cost: $62 per person

Also check out: the Island Spa Catalina to pamper yourself poolside.

THE WATER BABY

  • Kayaking off of Descanso Beach

Highlights: The waters around Catalina are crystal clear and a stunning turquoise shade of blue. Appreciate their clarity upclose from your own kayak. You can opt for a guided tour or just taking one out on your own and either way, you’ll be rewarded with a breathtaking coastal views and new appreciation for California’s rugged beauty.

Tips: Take the Journey to Frog Rock tour to be treated to insider knowledge on the island and a stop on a breathtaking beach only accessible by boat.

Cost: $22 Single Kayak, $30 Double Kayak; Frog Rock Tour: $54 Adults, Children 25% off

Also check out: Snorkeling

THE HISTORY BUFF

Highlights: I wouldn’t say I seek out every museum when I travel but I am sure glad that I toured the recently built Catalina Museum. The building itself is a work of art and the exhibits are fascinating. Walk through on your own or take a guided tour to learn about the stories that give this island its unique personality. From Hollywood starlets to presidents, baseball heroes to wartime tales–Catalina’s history is truly unexpected and exciting.

Tips: Come for one of their monthly outdoor movie screenings located on the roof. Do not miss the Bird Park exhibit that shares the quirky history of the exotic bird sanctuary that once existed in town.

Cost: $17 Adults/Children (under 15) Free

Also check out: Wrigley’s Catalina

THE FAMILY TRIP

Highlights: Just under the water, there’s a whole new world of marine life. Dive into it without ever getting wet on the Undersea Expedition. It’s a safe, comfortable way for an up close look at the vivid Garibaldi, the impressive kelp forests and maybe an occasional dolphin if you are lucky.

Photo courtesy of Catalina Undersea Adventure

Tips: Be prepared for lots of photo opportunities both in the submersible and above the water when they sail back on the surface.

Cost: $39.95 Adults/$37.95 Children

Also check out: Glass Bottom Boat Voyage

THE FOOD FOCUSED

Highlights: A circular bar, comfortable booths and water views, the Avalon Grille tastes as good as it looks. Menu signatures include the hangar steak and the pan seared scallops and I particularly loved the tempura green beans.

Tips: This restaurant is popular so definitely book ahead. And order yourself a Wrigley Martini for me.

Cost: Appetizers around $18, Entrées around $35

Also check out: Bluewater Grill

IMPORTANT TRAVEL DETAILS

Where to Stay: The Pavilion Hotel

Personally, I wouldn’t want to stay anywhere else. The waterfront location is an easy walk from the ferry and perfectly situated to access all the main spots in Avalon by foot.

I love the tropical courtyard where you can enjoy their included (hearty) breakfast spread in the cool mornings or toast to a fun day next to the fire pits during the complimentary wine hour. The crisp, nautical rooms are spacious and comfortable and the included bike rental was very helpful for getting around.

Cost:  $180 to $350 per night, dependent on season

Getting There: Catalina Express

The ferry ride is half the fun of going to Catalina, in my opinion. With many departures daily, this hour cruise covers the 22 watery miles in just an hour. Sip on bloody marys in the Commodore’s Lounge or soak up the sun on the outer deck. You might even spot a dolphin or a whale! Cost: $74.50 Adult Roundtrip/ $59 Children Roundtrip/ Under 2 years old Free

The Best things To Do in Santa Barbara

My Tips on How to Explore this California Beach Town

Santa Barbara is a captivating beach town that to me, feels like nowhere else on along the pacific coast. It has a distinct, down-to-earth yet kinda quirky personality that is nestled in the midst of mountains, shoreline and sunshine.  For a Santa Monica resident like myself, I try to escape to SB a few times per year as it is a scenic 2 hour drive and a world away from the touristed, trafficky LA hotspots. Since so many people have asked for my favorite things to do when I go, I decided to post up some highlights.

Surrey the City

When I first arrive in a new town, I usually like to walk, jog or bike the streets to get a feel for the place. But in Santa Barbara there’s an even more unique and hilarious method of getting around– the Surrey! This ‘tuk-tuk meets bike’ is powered by your own two legs, but you can have the help of a partner, or even the whole family! You aren’t in a hurry in a surrey (wow didn’t mean to rhyme) but that is the beauty of it. You sit back, enjoy the scenery and easily stop whenever you want to take a photo or grab a bite.

I suggest taking your surrey along the beach front path and stopping at Shoreline Beach Cafe for delicious bites and drinks, right in the sand. I rented our surrey from Wheels of Fun, conveniently located right near the beach and at the start of the Funk Zone.

Kayaking Along the Coast

Santa Barbara has a spectacular coastline. Cove beaches, gentle waves and palm tree studded stretches of sand. The way the coast curves in and out makes for jaw-dropping views as the sun sets and I always envy the people drifting along the sailboats in the horizon.

I think the best way to appreciate Santa Barbara’s best asset (IMO) is by getting IN it! Swimming is wonderful but I prefer kayaking the deep blue waters to cover more ground, take photos and hang out for a few hours. The on-the-water vantage point lets you appreciate the shoreline to one side, the endless blue to the other and all the marine life all the way to the sea floor, below your paddles.

There are a few good options for kayaking. I’ve paddled the harbor and really liked the “front door” look at the breathtaking boats in the marina as well as the reverse perspective of the town from the water. It is also very family friendly since it relatively calm and can be done in an hour.

It also doesn’t hurt that on our paddle, sea lions were swimming alongside our boat. I’d recommend this harbor tour to set you up with kayaks and a guide

If you are looking for something a little more unique and more adventurous, the four kayak excursion at Refugio State Park might be more your speed. This 3 mile tour covers one of the least developed parts of California’s coast, which means LOTS of wildlife. Your guide informs you about all the plants and wildlife that makes these waters home. I also like that there’s even a stop to have an included lunch on a secluded beach. Learn more about the Refugio State Beach Kayak tour here.

Surfs Up

Whether you are a local looking to improve your skills or a visitor wanting to check off “surfing in California” from the Bucket List, it’s a good idea to pick up a board and head out. You are in California after all.

But many of our waves are no joke and I wouldn’t recommend diving into surfing as a novice–without some guidance at least (I always go out with a guide as I am still learning as well).

Santa Barbara Adventure Company offers that guidance, and the gear, so you can get out on the waves confidently and safely. Choose from a 2 or 4 hour lesson, which comes with boards, wetsuits and instruction– no matter what level you are at. You surf at a nearby beach that has gentle waves and is free from rocks which is a perfect place to learn. It’s also only 15 minutes away so you can still make it back to town for a well deserved post-surf lunch or happy hour.

Speaking of happy hour… THE FuNk ZoNe

It’s no secret that the Funk Zone is the fun place to be, especially from 4:30 to sunset. Every time I visit it, it feels different and to be honest, even better! My last time touring the FZ, I was pregnant, so I had a very sober look at all the wineries, breweries, cocktail bars and little shops in between. Let me tell you, if I thought it was awesome sober, imagine how great it is if you can have a drink or two.

After sipping our way through many, here are the stops in the Funk Zone that stick out.

Figueroa Brewing Company: The outdoor patio and frequent live music made me love this place, even though I don’t love beer.

Kunin: The Cape Cod beach vibe of this place made me fall in love immediately and it was lovely to post up a high top and linger over a glass of local pinot noir.

Test Pilot: I can’t help but love a good cocktail and a good cocktail in a perfectly decorated tiki style bar? My love overflows. Definitely stop here if just to admire the ship wheel lamp that adorns the main bar.

Wine Not?

The ideal way to experience the wine country near Santa Barbara is to do so worry-free. Booking with Santa Barbara Wine Country Tours takes away the hassles associated with transportation, itinerary, and they even provide lunch and cold drinks. You are spending the day drinking wine, so you aren’t driving so you’ll need a shuttle service anyway (much easier than trying to find ubers at some of these more remote locations).

SB Wine Country Tours offers one tour in particular that I think looks incredible. It is a Cupcake and Wine Tour, where you eat your way through a cupcake & wine pairing, explore Los Olivos and have lunch at a small winery. The town of Los Olivos is so charming and perfect for an afternoon visit. Plus the wineries that they takes you too, like Sunstone and Brander, make each stop intoxicating. 🙂

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For more of my favorite things to do, check out my 24 Hours in Santa Barbara video!

What are your favorite things to do in Santa Barbara? I am always looking for new things to try on my next trip!

xo

Kelley

How To do a Day Trip to the Channel Islands


If you’ve been to the Southern California Coast, chances are you’ve seen the Channel Islands. On clear days, they rise up out of the Pacific, faint outlines in the distance. They’ve always beckoned me. I would gaze at them and wonder how could islands exist in plain sight that I haven’t explored? They appeared to be such a California adventure–hiking, kayaking, epic views and immersion in nature. I finally gave into their ‘siren call’ and made the voyage out. This was something that I didn’t think was possible while having a baby girl at home! I did it all in one day and was able to get back home in time to tuck Aurora in. Here’s how.

The Channel Islands

Still cannot believe that this is epic landscape is in my backyard

The Channel Islands are comprised of five individual islands differing in size and together they make up the protected area of Channel Islands National Park. To access them, you take a ferry or boat out of Ventura Harbor. The main island of Santa Cruz, the largest and most accessible, has a campground, 15 hiking trails, and the main anchorage of Scorpion Bay.

Plan Ahead

The island is all pack in and pack out, so it is vital to plan out your day ahead of time. There aren’t any public structures, besides restrooms and changing areas, so you need to have everything you need with you. (see my packing list below) Since I had limited time, I wanted to maximize each moment that I had out there, so I decided to book an experience through Santa Barbara Adventure Company.

Pablo from Santa Barbara Adventure Company

SB Adventure Company is a highly rated mom-pop shop that provides a variety of adventures on the mainland and off, all year round. Their high reviews and years of experience in the Channel Islands put me at ease. It was important to me to have good guides too so I could learn more and feel safe and secure out on the water.

Craving something active–and especially something that I can’t usually do with a little one– I booked the Adventure Sea Cave Kayak tour. This would give me a guided tour of the famous sea caves along the coast of the island. Plus, I love being on the water and this was about as close as I could get, save for swimming in the chilly temps! Guides, kayaks, gear were all included, so all I had to do was show up at the dock!

How to Get There:

It can be done in a day–even from Los Angeles!

I left my house a little after 7am and jetted up the PCH to Ventura Harbor. Watching the surfers catch early waves and the sun yawning up the sky made the drive very scenic and quick! With the detailed directions of where to meet at Ventura Harbor, I had no problem finding SB Adventure Company when I pulled in.

Island Packers is the ferry service that brings you out to Santa Cruz Island and they have several ferries back and forth throughout the day. As I was doing this in March, a lower season, there were less ferries scheduled than in the summer, for example. We had planned to take the 9am out there and the 3:30pm ferry back.

The ferry itself is a lovely ride! Coffee is served on board and the hour ride was smooth and breathtaking. We even had a surprise escort of dolphins on the way over. What a refreshing start to the day.

First steps on Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island

This island is simply majestic. It was in full bloom from the recent rains, so the hillsides were covered in wildflowers as our ferry pulled up to the dock.

View of Scorpion Bay

Once on land, our guide walked us over to changing area where we could get the necessary clothing for kayaking. They had wetsuits, water shoes, helmets and life jackets waiting for us. They even had waterproof holders for cell phones, which I definitely recommend!

Ready to GO

I opted to wear a wetsuit just on my legs, to make sure I wouldn’t be chilly in the water. However, the sun was out so I didn’t zip it all the way up–a long sleeve shirt was perfect. I brought along water and all my GoPros.

Kayaking

Down at the beach, the kayaks were waiting for us. After a quick safety briefing, my guide, Pablo, was pushing me into the clear waters. As there were a few other tours that day, we opted to go in the opposite direction first to get an unobstructed access to the caves.

The glassiest water

With the water so deep and clear, the impressive kelp forests engulfed us. Pablo told us about this incredible plant and he even encouraged me to give them as taste. Honestly, it was not bad!

Floating snacks 🙂

We ventured into our first cave–following his lead and turning once inside. I had been worried that it would be difficult to turn but it wasn’t bad at all. We just had to time it with the waves.

Incredible kelp forests

We passed around an island where there is loud and quite impressive blowhole. This blowhole was formed by years of sea water crashing into the rock and needed a way to get out. You can get close to it but be warned, you will get wet!

The Blowhole!

Pablo pointed out endemic plants and birds as we paddled by. It was nesting season so we noticed one cave full of birds nests and hungry chirping baby birds. Having a guide like Pablo point out and explain more about specific plants and animals gave so much context to the whole experience that would have been lost if I just went out on my  own.

Learning about the unique flora and fauna on these little islands

We stopped at Geology Cove, a quiet area where you can see clearly see history of the formation of the island through the delineated layers of Earth. Pablo explained how animals used to be able to walk here from the mainland, and over time, the ocean rose and the channel between the islands and the rest of California grew deep, stranding many types of plants and animal here such as the scrub jay, the deer mouse, the spotted skunk and the adorable islands foxes!

Pitstop for a quick viewpoint hike

Our next pitstop was at a rocky beach, where Pablo helped us pull in our kayaks for a quick viewpoint nature walk. The 360 degree views of the island from here were well worth the stop. The beach itself even had some of the most beautiful seashells that I had ever seen!

Elephant Belly Cave

Our last kayak adventure was to Elephant Belly Cave. This was by far the largest cave that we saw. We paddled inside and even shot through a narrow path way for a little adrenaline rush! I didn’t think I could do something like this but Pablo made it simple and put my fears at ease.

Shooting through the passage

Hiking and Picnic

Back on the island, we changed into dry clothes for a short hike and lunch. Visitors are required to stay on one of the designated hiking trails in order to minimize human impact on the island.

We elected to take the hike along the cliff over Scorpion Bay for those photogenic views. A special treat was because it was springtime walking through the waist high wildflowers was truly an experience I won’t forget.

Up here we found the perfect spot for a picnic. Channel Islands Provisioners, the recommended food provider of SB Adventure Company, had supplied us with adorable, trash free packed lunches. The vintage napkin and farmers market sourced ingredients won me over right away! After all that paddling, it was nice to have a delicious, healthy lunch all packed and chilled in an individual cooler just waiting for me.

Farmer’s Market sourced lunched from Channel Island Provisioners!

Exciting Ferry Home

After a slew of photos, it was time to board the ferry back to the mainland–but the adventure was not over then. On board, just as we were cheersing a day well spent with beers, the captain alerted us that he saw whales. Before I knew it, we had changed course and were speeding in the direction of 3 gray whales, migrating up the coast. They crested and dove, giving us a show of tails and spouts. Who knew that this was a whale watching tour too!

What a DAY

The dolphins wanted some attention too and just after, we saw a mega pod of around 700 dolphins–the most that I’ve ever seen and probably ever WILL see. It was literally jaw-dropping. They bounded in our wake and swam up along side the boat, leaping out of the water with joy. I was giddy!

This photo does not do justice just how many dolphins we saw!

We pulled into Ventura Harbor at 5pm and it was a coastline drive home. On my ride back, I couldn’t believe how much I’d done and seen in just 8 hours. It renewed my love and appreciation for California, for nature and for making time for mini adventures throughout our lives. I believe it is always important to take a step back from the day to day grind and just immerse in nature. It is good for the soul, the body and the mind.

Thank you SB Adventure Company for taking all the stress out of planning this epic California day for me!

Ventura Harbor

Packing List:

  • Sunscreen
  • Refillable Water bottle
  • Fast drying athletic clothing for kayaking
  • Sneakers
  • Sunglasses
  • Backpack
  • GoPro (if you are like me and want to photograph on the water)
  • Lunch & Snacks!

***Note to Moms: I know many of you follow my adventures with my daughter and know that I am still breastfeeding. I was able to pump and preserve all my milk during the trip–no problem. SB Adventure Company was very flexible and helpful when it came to making time for me to pump and finding privacy. For that I am very grateful as well.

How to do Easy, Fun, Local Trips with Babies

As new parents, you are home more than you’ve ever been. And if you are anything like me, you’ll get stir crazy. I also am very used to traveling a couple times per month, so this whole “staying home” thing gets to me quicker than most.

I’ve found that in lieu of longer trips, which take a lot of mental and physical preparation, as well as the return adjustment period; easy, local trips are the way to go. You want to avoid planes, time changes and long car rides–especially if you have a baby that doesn’t love being in the car (ours does NOT).

Find a Nearby Destination

For us, that means locations that are 2 hours or less in driving distance from Santa Monica. Luckily, we have lots of great options. We can do the desert, the beach, the moutains and lots of unique places in between. This is a major reason why we moved to California!

 

So far for our local trips, we’ve taken Aurora to (not counting anything on a plane):

Venice (3 weeks)

Lake Arrowhead (2 months)

Idyllwild (5 months)

Huntington Beach (6 months)

Newport Beach (8.5 months)

 

Book an Upgraded Room

Okay, so you’ve found that perfect location but what do you now? Renting a hotel room works but realize that if you are going to share one room with your little one, you will need to have lights out at bedtime. This means, you also will either go to bed at 7pm or you will have to tiptoe around and hang out in the dark. Not the best option (though we’ve done that in Huntington and let’s just say, we ate room service in the bathroom… not awesome). If you are going with the hotel route, definitely upgrade your room so you can have a separate room with a door where your baby can sleep peacefully while you order room service in the other room.

 

Book a House

Usually more affordable option, and often more comfortable, is booking a house. Even if you book a tiny bungalow or a 1 bedroom, you’ll be able to let your baby nap in a separate room. This means that you can actually enjoy nap times and also, have a nice dinner, watch a movie and basically take advantage of all that sleeping time to relax with your partner. You also will have a kitchen, which is very helpful for baby food preparation and cooking in.

 

 

Get a Babysitter

Now I have never done this, but I imagine that if you feel comfortable with a hotel babysitter service or finding a local person to babysit, that is a great option for you to have a day or evening out. Personally, I would be a little hesitant to do this unless I brought someone with me to babysit. However, if it were a vetted person that was provided by the hotel, I would consider it. If this doesn’t feel comfortable to you, skip this tip and read below.

 

Go with the Baby’s Schedule

Like all travel now, it will revolve around your baby’s daily schedule. We are on the two nap a day schedule so for us, our day looked like this:

7am: Wake Up

7-10am: Breakfast for baby, cooking breakfast for parents, play time, coffee and hanging out

10am-11:30am: Nap time for baby/Parents could clean (yay!), relax, watch tv or one person could go out for a bit

11:30-2:30: Feed baby then out the door. We used this 3 hour window to explore and have lunch out. One day we walked around Balboa and Aurora got way too many presents at the toy store. The other day we took the ferry over to Balboa Park and checked out the silly rides, walked to the beach and found a playground and found a nice lunch spot.

230-4ish: Baby Naps somewhere in here. Parents relax or one person goes out. 

4-6pm: Sunset stroll. We either put her in the stroller or baby carrier and took a nice walk around the neighborhood. Afterwards, we brought her back for play time, dinner, bath and bed. *Note: the stroll is better with wine.

7pm: Bedtime for baby. Dinner and fun time for parents!

Sunset stroll

 

Have a Stay Home Date

On our recent trip to Newport Beach, I knew that we were going to be spending a lot of time in our Airbnb. We were staying on Balboa Island, which is pretty quiet anyway, so we were looking forward to our nights in.

To make these nights a little more exciting, I decided that we should each take “charge” of a night. The person in charge had to come up with a theme, get the groceries ahead and cook the dinner. (Cleaning up is a bonus!) They must inform the other person of the theme and any “dress code.” Also, if games or movies are involved, be prepared!

Coconut Shrimp

My husband took the first night and went with a James Bond theme as he knows my obsession with Bond movies. We both dressed up, even though we were just in our rental home’s dining room, and drank shaken martinis and ate steaks. We washed it down with a Bond movie.

Night two was my night– I went with a tiki theme and made coconut shrimp, teriyaki pork and had a speciality rum drink. I brought some island decor and sourced local shrimp while down there. With the reggae on, we enjoyed a “tropical” evening, despite the fact that it was raining outside.

A little cheesy? Sure! But if you aren’t able to leave the house, you might as well mix it up and make the nights memorable and different from your usual nights in at home.

 

Try not to Bring a Lot

I say try, because I know that this is hard. It is harder to pack for a baby when you are driving because you are able to pack more! Here’s some advice after overpacking and being buried alive in the car a few too many times.

  • Wash Clothes
    • If you have rented a house, count on the washing machine to save you from bringing too much clothes. If not, I brought dreft packets for some sink washing.
  • No tub
    • Check out the sink and bathtub situations and if you can avoid bringing a bathtub, do it. Those things are huge.
  • Bring a clip on high chair.
  • Limit toys.
    • Your baby will be in a new place so that is very exciting already and there’s lots to explore. I have lost so so so many toys on trips.
  • Bring outlet covers.
    • You can’t babyproof a whole hotel room or house, but I did wish I had a few extra things like outlet covers, especially now that we have a very fast crawler.
  • Bring pre-made baby food
    • I didn’t want to be blending my own baby food there and didn’t know what sort of kitchen utensils they’d have, so I brought a freezer pack that had all my own baby food ready to go. I made a few ahead and put them in these small food containers.
    • I also brought along my favorite freshly made purées from Yumi and these excellent fresh pouches from Once Upon a Farm. Both require refrigeration so be sure to get a good size freezer pack for the ride.

Trust me, these little local trips are worth it! They are good for your mental health, your relationship and it is good for your little one to see and do new things! I know Aurora was very excited the whole time and enjoyed all the “new” around her. The more you travel with them, the easier it gets for all of you!

Where to Travel to in 2019

I was honored to speak at the LA Travel and Adventures show for the third time this past weekend. This year I decided to share more top destinations for 2019. I chose to give you alternatives to some more well known, more touristy places. By the way, the more touristy options are popular for a reason! I love all these places listed. However, if you want more value, more authenticity and just less tourists (I do!) than this is what I suggest.

Instead of South Africa, go to… CHAD

Zakouma National Park, Chad

Chad’s Zakouma National Park is proud to have bounced back from nearly decimated wildlife populations due to poaching. Their conservations efforts have led to a park teeming with life. However, access is limited. Come 2020, only those who’ve made large donations to the park can enter so get in now while you can!

 

Instead of Thailand, go to… VIETNAM

If you are in the market for a beach vacation with history, amazing food and that laidback Southeastern Asian vibe, Vietnam is your best bet. Far less touristy than the very well known beaches and islands of Thailand, Vietnam’s central coast has over 2000 miles of sandy while beaches, not to mention a ton of new hotel openings ranging from a luxe Anantara, a J.W. Marriott and mom & pop beach bungalows.

 

Instead of Beijing, go to… SUZHOU

Suzhou’s Canals

If it is Ancient China you seek, you will have a hard time finding it in the smoggy, trafficky city of Beijing (I swear the traffic there is the worst in the world). Suzhou, a stunningly preserved city that was the summer playground of the emperors, is a step back in time. You can float down canals of the old city, walk through working silk factories (silk was discovered here) and partake in calligraphy lessons. Not to mention, there are over 250 gardens for you to find your zen.

What makes Suzhou even better–no cars needed! Fly to Shanghai and take the 35 minute bullet train into the city and you are all set.

 

Instead of KYOTO, go to… SETOUCHI

Iya Valley, Setouchi, Japan

Kyoto has long been touted as the cultural place to go in Japan. Well, though beautiful, this city is VERY popular. Instead, check out the region of Setouchi to the south. Just a bullet train or short flight away, this watery region is all coastlines and islands. Seaplanes, biking paths, kayaking by temples–there is so much outdoor adventure in addition to all the authentic local culture. Soba, Sake and Kobe are from here. Stop by the oldest onsen in Japan for the ultimate relaxation or stay in a farmhouse in Iya if you want to feel like you are in the Japan of centuries ago.

 

Instead of Cinque Terre, go to… SESTRI LEVANTE

Sestri Levante

In Sestri Levante, you’ll find a seaside, medieval village with local kids licking gelato scoops and old men gossiping on benches. This is real Italy and a great value for that seaside Italian escape. Far less crowds and far more authenticity awaits you in this Ligurian charmer.


Instead of Barcelona go to… GIRONA

The walls of Girona

Girona is like one of Barcelona’s medieval neighborhoods, but without the chain stores, throngs of tourists and cheesiness that accompany a big city. Girona’s stunning look has made it an important location in Game of Thrones, and walking through the walled streets you can really see why. Quite classy with excellent Catalan food (you can have Michelin here if you like) and charming bed and breakfasts (Check out Hotel Nord 1901), the walled city of Girona is wonderful stay. Bonus: you are 20 minutes from Costa Brava!

 

Instead of Caribbean Cruise… MEDITERRANEAN CRUISE

Monaco, from the Viking Star

Hit up some of Europe’s poshest ports via cruise, and not have to deal with teh prices and hassles of visiting on your own. The cruise lines tend to attract a tamer crowd more interested in the local history and stops, than the party scene. Plus, I recommend that you choose an embarkation or disembarkation city that you want to stay a few extra days in so you can really dig into one spot.

 

Instead of Cancun… Zihuatanejo

Just a quick flight from LA, this Mexican beach paradise lacks the high rises and spring break feel of Cancun, in favor of local fisherman, thatched palapas and sunset that will knock the mezcal out of your hand. Whether you stay at the bougie Thompson Zihuatanejo or a smaller boutique hotel, you will want to be near Las Ropas Beach.

 

Instead of Hawaii… Tahiti

Tahiti has captured the heart of the US all over again, this time with Obama vacationing there for weeks and Moana capturing the hearts of all the kids out there. Now, Tahiti is not just for honeymooners or the rich & famous. The once exorbitantly expensive flight over has been cut down to only $330 each way (FrenchBee.com, SFO to Tahiti). Air France and other airlines have followed suit and cut their fares.

If you want highend, try The Brando on its own private island. For a more cultural and affordable experience, Tahitian pensions (bed and breakfasts) are great options.

 

Instead of Rio de Janeiro… SALVADOR

Salvador’s Pelourinho Neighborhood

The capital of Bahia, Salvador as an edge. Afro Brazilian culture meets Portuguese colonialism, and all of this is set on a coastline. You will have a much more local experience as soon as you set foot here. Don’t miss the multi colored buildings of Pelourinho, the old village.

My recommendation is to use Salvador as a base to explore the surfing in Itacare or the waterfalls and grottoes of Chapada Diamantina, both short flights from here.

Agree? Disagree? Have places to add? Leave them in the comments!

xoxo Kelley