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

Is First Class/Business Class better than Economy for a baby?

This came up as a very contentious question when I asked my followers on Instagram. Many were adamantly against First Class with a baby. Some even said that several airlines don’t allow babies in First Class. Others said they 100% would if they could, or have and loved it.

Now, after having used an upgrade for a first class ticket cross country (from Boston to LAX), I feel like I can weigh in properly with my opinion.

Pros

Priority Boarding & Lounge Access

  • No waiting in lines
  • You are able to board last if you want to maximize freedom off the plane (I always do)
  • Some first/business class tickets include lounge access which is nice for food, changing areas and play areas for baby pre-flight

First Class Baby

First Class Baby

More Space

  • Easier to entertain your baby
  • More comfortable to hold her, share the seat or in our case,
  • Or… give the baby the whole seat and you & partner share the other seat, which we did…

First Class Baby

We even let her play a little on the floor. Not my favorite thing but helpful!

More attention by flight attendants

  • They are there to help you with tissues, ice, plastic cups (Rory loves chewing on them) or WINE FOR YOU (which I recommend on these long hauls).

More privacy

  • You can breastfeed easier. This is huge! 
  • You can sing, play games and pass the baby without disturbing others.

Cleaner

  • I am not sure if this is true, but it seems to be a bit cleaner than economy seats.

Better bathrooms

  • Given that a fraction of the amount of people use the first class bathrooms compared to the economy bathrooms, this is definitely true. Also, flight attendants clean it more often.

Cons

  • Annoying other people that paid up for a better experience.
  • It is expensive!

 

My Summary:

If you are able to afford it (or have an upgrade like I did), I DO think it is worth it on longer haul flights. Anything that can make it a little more comfortable for your little one will make it easier on you as a parent.

I do not think that you should worry about bothering others on the flight. Everyone has headphones and in the higher classes, you are further away from others than normal.

I personally think a sick, coughing person is way more offensive than anyone with a baby!

And I have to be honest, the actual first class on our particular United flight was in no way comparable to other first class/business class experiences I’ve had, particularly on international flights. We flew from Boston to LAX during the first week of January and it wasn’t super clean, few extra luxuries, food was not great and staff were just okay. BUT sure did beat the other options!

 

Other Good Options that I recommend (in order of preference):

Bassinet in Economy Bulkhead (alitalia)

Bassinet in Economy Bulkhead (alitalia)

Economy Bulkhead

  • Extra space to move around
  • Bassinet access for babies under 25 lbs
  • Occasionally only 2 seats so no extra person if you are traveling with a partner
  • Easy access to bathrooms & flight attendants
  • *** If you are going to request a bassinet, you have to CALL. Do not expect them to give you one even if you have a ticket with a lap infant. You have to call ahead as they don’t always have them.

Economy Plus Bulkhead

Economy Plus

  • Any bit of more space is key, especially for active, larger or older babies. Mine has always been active and larger for her age and not interested in napping in bright or loud places.
  • Priority boarding helps!
  • Better access to overhead space

Economy: 3 Seats Together

  • If you can buy an extra seat and have 3 seats together, that might be comparable to first class in my opinion!
  • I wouldn’t rely on getting an extra third seat for free as planes, especially high traffic routes between hubs, are often overbooked. Even if it says that the seat is open at check-in, standby passengers often fill it.

And at the end of the day, flying middle seat economy is HARD but doable and always totally worth it (especially when you land!).

 

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree? Tell me below!

Winter in Vermont at the Woodstock Inn and Resort

Each time I go back to my little Vermont hometown, I am reminded that I basically grew up in a storybook. Woodstock, Vermont is a bucolic little village nestled amidst rolling hills, hugging a charming center green and a briskly flowing river.  Stone, brick and cape houses line the ambling streets that make up this 3000 person town, every bend of it steeped in time.

The Woodstock Covered Bridge

The Woodstock Covered Bridge

It’s no surprise that my fellow New Englanders know of Woodstock, VT. I’d even say, many beyond the Northeast are aware of this popular weekend hideaway. For such a small town, its reputation precedes itself — and for good reason.

The hectic, digital day-to-day stresses are buried beneath the quiet splendor of village strolls, breathtaking hikes up Mount Tom or afternoons spent skipping rocks along the river.

Though you do get cell service here now (we didn’t when I was growing up), you just might want to turn off your phone and enjoy the rare and simple pleasures of this place.

When asked about Woodstock, the one word that usually comes to my mind is “quaint.” But don’t get my wrong,  that doesn’t mean it is boring! There’s a lot of energy in this 350 year old town, and every time I return, I see that energy increasing. I’d attribute a lot of that forward progress to the town’s centerpiece, the Woodstock Inn and Resort. (My father runs his jewelry shop in the heart of town, and has for the last 30 years, and he definitely agrees that the Inn is a huge factor in keeping Woodstock so relevant.)

Gillingham’s, the town general store

Some iteration of the Woodstock Inn & Resort has been welcoming guests for 225 years.That is crazy! I’ve traveled all over the world, filming some of the world’s best hotels, and that type of hotel history very is RARE, especially in the USA.

The Inn started out as a small bed & breakfast, and over the centuries continued to expand and gain more and more popularity. In the mid 1900s, Laurance Rockefeller, a former resident of Woodstock, bought the hotel and it was under his leadership for 50 years. He definitely helped to put it on the luxury hotel map, in a big way.

I am very fortunate to have had such a legendary resort in my hometown backyard. It has been part of my family’s story forever, playing host to special dinners, celebratory breakfasts, parties and even prom!

Woodstock Inn during Christmas

It was such a treat to return to the Inn just after Christmas and share this special hotel with my daughter, Aurora. I look for different things in hotels now that I am a mom and I have to say, the Woodstock Inn & Resort surprised me with being exceptionally family friendly. They had undergone expansive improvements when I filmed the property in 2013 for my Get Lost in Woodstock series but now, they’ve added even more luxurious detail to all the public areas and the guest rooms in particular. 

 

Fireside Ambiance

Fireplace at the Woodstock Inn

Fireplace at the Woodstock Inn

Ever since I was a little kid, I was drawn to the oversized fireplace that greets you as walk through the Inn’s entrance. The cozy feeling with the couches and sitting areas, beautiful wall color and attention to detail, makes the entire main area of the Inn so welcoming. I wanted to sit in on each sofa and relax with a cup of tea (you can actually do that during their daily afternoon tea time). We of course didn’t have spare moments for that with a 6 month old, but it was fun to daydream about as I hurriedly walked past these lovely areas with my tired/hungry/active baby. 

 

Legacy Suites

Having a little one with a strict bedtime of 7pm complicates hotel life a bit for us parents. After 7pm, it is lights out (and complete silence) so having an additional room is more than necessary. We absolutely loved the newly renovated Legacy Suite. Ours in particular was the Frederick Billings Suite, the legendary local that was a pioneer in the farm industry and a famous face in Woodstock. It was situated in the main part of the inn and had tasteful decor that highlighted Vermont’s farm history. 

Woodstock Inn & Resort

As you enter, there’s a long tiled hallway to the bedroom and adjoining sitting room. (You can see a walkthrough on my Instagram stories here) I loved how the suite was situated far from the door, with the bedroom set back against a lovely view of the Inn’s snowy backyard. This distance made the whole suite feel more private and like our own apartment as opposed to a hotel room.

Frederick Billings Legacy Suite

The stone bathroom and rain shower with Zents products was modern and chic. The separate sitting room was decorated in rich hues and woods, making it feel like a cozy study. Though it had a wet bar, TV and pull out couch, this room became our daughter, Aurora’s room. The Inn provided a crib and we set up her changing area and toys in here. It was perfect! She happily napped here throughout the day and fell asleep at 7pm each night, and mom & dad could close the door and relax.

We were even able to order room service and hang out for a few more hours with my parents while Aurora happily dozed next door. This is a parents’ dream! We had the best of the Inn’s dining and didn’t have to disrupt our daughter’s sleep. 

Room Service dinner with the parents!

 

Red Rooster

Breakfast at the Red Rooster

What a delicious way to start the day! My parents met us here at The Red Rooster for breakfast and we all followed our noses to the two rooms filled with a sumptuous breakfast buffet. Fresh fruits, made-to-order omelets, a variety of homemade pastries and specially crafted breakfast treats awaited our empty plates. I was especially excited to see the giant, serve yourself maple syrup stand! (As a Vermonter, it runs in my veins of course 😉 

VT SYRUP! YES PLEASE!


Happiest Hour

A favorite of my parents’ for decades, Richardson’s Tavern has not lost any of its signature warm ambiance. The dimly lit room is where you want to be to unwind fireside after a wintery day, holding a drink and enjoying pub style bite.

Red Rooster Cocktail Bar

Red Rooster Cocktail Bar

I also was impressed by the newer bar at the Red Rooster. A brighter version of the tavern, the bartender makes excellent cocktails here and I loved the elegant style of this space and its marble bar.

 

Retro Game Room

Game Room at the Woodstock Inn

Retro Game Room at the Woodstock Inn

Even in the game room, the Inn retains its personality here. This classy area showcased working vintage pinball machines and a long wooden shuffleboard table. There was a pool table, a fireplace and more–no wonder it was packed! These games might have been out of Aurora’s age range, but hey, they sure entertained her competitive parents very well.

 

Woodstock Athletic Club

I am very familiar with the Woodstock Inn’s Athletic Club as I used to be a part of the Woodstock’s high school tennis team and these were our home courts. All guests of the Inn have free access to the pool, gym, tennis courts and workout classes. We opted to take a dip in the pool as Aurora finds pool time SUPER exciting. I think she thinks we are all taking a big bath with her. We splashed around and enjoyed ourselves for a morning.

 

Suicide Six Ski Area

We left Aurora with her grandma and myself, my husband and my dad hit the slopes of Suicide Six! My first time of skis was on this bunny hill and I spent too many afternoons and weekends skiing all these trails with my dad and friends throughout the years.

Located just 15 minutes from the Inn, this mountain is perfect for those that are into a fun, laidback day on the slopes. A brand new quad eliminated any lines for us and their snowmaking and grooming made for excellent conditions on the trails that were open.

Skiing with my dad at Suicide Six, like I did as kid!

By no means is this a large mountain, but its trails are beautifully cut through the forest (I even saw animal tracks as I skiied down). The classic lodge makes you feel like you are back in time and reminded me that this is one of the oldest ski areas in the country.

 

Billings Farm & Museum

Aurora did join us for a tour of Woodstock’s signature Billings Farm & Museum. It was so nice that the Woodstock Inn provides all guests with free entry to this unique local historical site and working dairy farm.

We did a self guided tour of the stables, the goat shed, chicken coop and cow barn. DO NOT MISS THE BABY COW NURSERY. It might be one of the cutest, up close experiences I’ve ever had baby animals. The baby cows were unbelievably friendly and social–they kept licking Aurora and nibbling on my clothes. She (and I) was shrieking with delight!

We were fortunate to make the talk about cows with a farmer in the dairy barn. Aurora’s eyes widened as she viewed her first full grown cow. The farmer on site gave us a lot of amazing information about these cows, how Billings Farm cares for them, their breeding, and their personalities! Aurora and I even got to brush one! 

It was with a heavy heart that we checked out and had to bid farewell to Woodstock. However, just like it has been throughout my life, the Woodstock Inn & Resort was the perfect backdrop to so many special memories with my parents, my husband and especially, our daughter.

I still cannot speak more highly of this resort’s appreciation for its out-of-towners as well as its locals. 

There’s something about the energy of this hotel that just brings about the most joyful times, no matter what time of year.

On our next visit, Aurora will be walking (!) and I am sure that we will have a whole different story to tell! Hopefully, more baby cows and maple syrup will be included. 

 

 

Pienza Tuscany family trip

Baby Travel Essentials: How To Travel to Italy with a 5 Month Old

Taking a 5 month old on a 13 hour direct flight trip, across many time zones, for 10 days should not be taken lightly. But I’ve dedicated my life to travel so I wasn’t going to let that intimidate me (re: I was intimidated but pushed through). Why did we decide to put ourselves through that?

Pienza Tuscany family trip

  • My husband had time off, which he rarely does.
  • I had the opportunity to stay at an amazing Tuscan hotel (look up La Bandita Townhouse if you like luxurious, historic hotels in charming villages)
  • Italy is a special place for me as my grandfather was born in a small town near Naples (where the Ferro comes from) so pasta and red wine are in my veins!
  • My husband’s first time was last winter on our babymoon and he fell in love with the country too
  • We figured, the earlier that we start traveling with the better, the easier it’ll become for our baby, and us!

Italy family trip

After having the good and the challenging (ahem, 26 hours of flying with a 5 month old), I can say that it was one of the BEST trips we’ve ever had. It was completely different than the go-go-go style of my old life, but I embraced this new type of travel and had so much fun sharing Italy with my little one. Here’s how we did it.

 

Serious Preparation

I read tons of blogs, polled friends and basically, had Amazon boxes at my door every day. There’s a lot that you can do to make your travel easier and I was prepared to find all the hacks. 

Be an Organized Packer

This a big part of the preparation. Every piece of clothing (yes, even tiny socks) was rolled and placed in a labeled Ziploc bag. This made it much easier to dress her each day and keep the suitcase organized throughout the trip. Used clothing went back in the same bag unless it was very dirty, in which it went into a bag labeled “Dirty.” All of this organization helped us to change her quickly and not lose things while in transit. 

 

BRING

  • Large Suitcase for Checking
    • Get a large checked bag where you will put all your heavy items, your own clothes and things that you or the baby won’t need in transit. For me this was where we packed the clip on high chair, breast pump, monitor, nightlight, extra bottles, toys etc.

  • All Bedtime Essentials
    • Gather all the things that help your bedtime routine & bring them! I packed a our nightlight, monitor, her own sheets, extra lovees and pacifiers so I could make her sleeping situation as close as possible to home.
  • A good Baby Carrier
    • Our Tula Baby Carrier was my favorite because it was so supportive and worked well for dad or mom. It was a lifesaver on our walks around cobbled towns where a stroller would have been impossible.
  • A Clip on High Chair
    • This depends on the baby. Aurora was too small for most high chairs at restaurants so having our own helped. However, if you baby can sit up well on their own and fits in most restaurant high chairs, don’t bring one. If you do bring one, this Inglesina one is what I recommend.
  • Stain Remover, Soap & Detergent
    • I brought small bottles of each stain remover and soap from my favorite all natural line, Puracy. This was great so I could wash bottles in the sink without worrying about what soap would be available there. I also brought the Dreft Laundry detergent sink packets which came in handy when clothes were very soiled. 
  • An Extra Lovee or 2
    • We brought 3 and only came home with 2. Lovees get lost and they are very hard to replace when abroad.
  • 2 Outfits + 1 Pajamas/day 
    • Generally, I feel like aim for 2 outfits per day + 1 pair of PJs and you will have plenty. Not all will be too dirty to rewear and you can mix and match to make new “outfits.” Be sure to bring a few things that work for the opposite weather, as you’ll never know. It was way colder than predicted so I was very reliant on the warm jacket I brought and heavy socks!
  • A Well Organized Diaper Bag
    • Forget my own bag, this is the bag that I used all day, every day. My favorite diaper bag EVER is by Pacapod because not only are they functional, with cute (ie. MAP PRINT!) pods to house your bottles and diapers but these bags also are so stylish. I was not embarrassed to be carrying the Fortuna bag around Italy. No one could tell it was concealing lots of toys, blankets, extra socks, teethers and diapers.

 

DO NOT BRING

  • Travel Crib
    • They are heavy and another thing to carry that you don’t have hands for–your hands need to be on the baby! Call your hotel and ask for a crib or if you are staying a hotel, look into services where you can rent baby gear.
  • Diapers
    • I LOVE our eco friendly, super thin yet absorbent Bambo diapers. But diapers take up a lot of room. I brought a bunch in her diaper bag a few extra in my large suitcase for the first day or two until I could get to a grocery store. In our town, the options were limited (and no, these were not dye-free or all natural) but it was a temporary solution and worked well. Plus, we saved a ton of space. Hey, your baby is “going local!”
  • Too Many CUTE Outfits
    • I was excited for her outfits and for photo opps, so I overdid it on cute clothing and Aurora never wore the same thing twice. In retrospect, she could have worn a few of those super cute outfits again. I would suggest packing only a few of those “special outfits” and stick with more of the comfortable basics. Tutus are not comfortable in a baby carrier.
  • Too Many Toys
    • I limited it to 2 books and one Ziploc of small, lightweight toys. I even think this was too many! We ended up buying her a few things and of course, she was most interested in every day things as we were out and about (like water bottles, spoons, plants etc).

 

Consolidate Your Big Gear

Did you know that you can find a car seat and stroller in one? You can and it is called the DOONA! We didn’t know about it until I talked to the veteran baby travel mama, Natalie DiScala. (This blog post from GQTripping also confirms the love of the Doona).

We purchased Natalie’s Doona car seat/stroller as her son had outgrown it and it was a game-changer for us. This nifty little stroller folds up compactly into a car seat and was key for getting us in and out of the car quickly. We saved space in our trunk and didn’t have to deal with a stroller and carrying a car seat at the same at the airport. Aurora never loved being in the car but I felt that she didn’t HATE this car seat as much as others.

Also, I still use this a lot now for quick trips when I don’t have our car seat, and just used it on a recent trip home for the holidays. Aurora was very comfortable in it and even slept in it a few times. Anything to cut down on the big gear makes traveling easier. You can find it here on my travel tips list on Amazon

Pienza, Tuscany

 

Use a Baby Carrier

I mentioned this already, but the quickest and easiest way to move around a new destination is with the baby strapped on! My girl loves it especially now that she can face out and see the world. This kept her engaged and happy as we toured through towns. My husband ended up wearing her more because he liked it.

We’ve used 4 different carriers and this Tula is my pick for Aurora’s weight (16lb) and for wearing a baby for a long time. It is more supportive than the others and the baby feels very securely fastened. I also like that it has a little pocket for your phone or wallet in the front. She seemed very comfortable in it!

 

Stay in One Spot

Before baby, my trips were FAST PACED. I’d spend a night or two in spot and then move on to the next place. I’ve even done two week long work long trips where I’ve moved hotels EVERY night. Not ideal, but totally doable… without a baby.

Now with Baby A, we decided to find ONE home base. Be careful when choosing this location as you will be spending a lot of time there! It will be your jumping off  for day excursions (and it’d be nice if you can walk out your door to things. I loved that we could walk to happy hour with the baby, or I could jet out to shop while she napped and my husband stayed in.

Keeping your new “home” in one spot, will really help your baby to adjust to the new environment, schedule and time zone. She will get used to the new rhythm and her new space. Plus, you’ll save yourself the headache of packing everything up, transporting your family and then unpacking again if you limit it to one spot.  

Once you are settled, you can enjoy more!

We chose Pienza, a small but not too small village in Tuscany, that was smack in the middle of the picturesque Val D’Orcia. This region is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its stunning rolling hills, farmhouse and cypress trees. It is exactly what you picture when you hear “Tuscany.”

Pienza also happened to be about 15-20 minutes from many medieval villages and famous towns like Montepulciano and Montalcino, which was the perfect length for day trips.

Note: Some babies like the car and won’t mind longer car trips. For us, Aurora hates the car so we really could only handle 30 minutes max in a car as it was often a loud, stressful ride…

 

Consider Your Accommodations

We got lucky that our incredible boutique hotel, La Bandita Townhouse, almost felt like our own swanky Italian apartment. We had a magnificently modern suite, with a separate room for Aurora. This meant that nap & bedtime, we could close the door and read, relax or even one of us could go shopping (guess who that was… :).

It also had a lovely lounge and honor bar, just outside our door and our monitor reached here! This meant we could both sit in the lounge, listen to records, have a glass of wine and plan our next day, all while baby Aurora snoozed peacefully just steps away.

Another huge benefit of this hotel was the location. We were literally on the best street in town, so we could walk out the door for coffee, a snack or just a stroll, without ever having to get the car. This made us feel much more free and allowed us to use our windows of awake time with Aurora wisely.

Not all hotels will be this baby friendly. Having a separate room is crucial, so looking into rental houses or apartments, would be very wise. Also, having a kitchen would have been great. We managed just fine with a mini fridge and espresso maker, but a kitchen is certainly important when your baby is moving onto solids too.

Put Your Baby on the Right Schedule for the Destination

We decided to make Aurora’s schedule 9am to 9pm to accommodate the Italian lifestyle and allow us to go out to dinner. As were crossing time zones, her time was all messed up anyway so it was almost easier to do this than force the usual 7 to 7.

Do One Big Excursion Per Day

During the day, maximized her awake and napping time. In the morning, we always did breakfast at our hotel then a quick walk outside. After, we had a little floor time in our room so Aurora could stretch her legs, then it was nap time. During the first nap, one of us would go out and explore town while the other plotted where we’d be off to when she woke.

 

After she woke up, we’d take a bottle for the road and drive to a new town for lunch and exploring. Lunch was our big meal out as she was rested and happy. We’d walk around the town, maybe make another stop at a farm, vineyard or village on the way home and then get her back to the hotel so she could get a solid afternoon nap.

Very few times she fell asleep in the car, and in those instances, we’d continue to drive around the beautiful valley. We never strayed too far from home though just in case we had to get back right away.

After her second nap, we’d go out for a happy hour drink or a sunset stroll. Then, play time back at the hotel and a cat nap. She’d wake usually around 630pm so we’d get her ready for an early dinner in town. We always just walked to a nearby spot, which was a huge benefit of our town and hotel. The Italians did think that we were crazy wanting to eat dinner at 7pm or 730pm and often we were the first people in the restaurant–but at least we got to eat out!

 

Just Roll With It

There were many times were the schedule did not go so smoothly. She’d miss a nap or wake up early, or just fuss her whole time awake. That happened and though it was stressful at the time, we still reminded each other how awesome it was that we were even there. Sure, she was fussing but we were in Italy, eating amazing food, seeing beautiful things and we were together, so felt like it was all worth it. I’d rather be with a fussy baby in Italy than a fussy baby at home, right?!

One night in particular while we were out at the one dinner we had to drive 10 minutes too in Bagno Vignoni, Aurora was especially cranky. She wouldn’t be contented, no matter what we did–walked her around, held her, bounced her etc. It was very stressful as this was a very nice restaurant and it also was…very quiet. Not a great combo for a cranky baby.

The older Italian couple at the table nearby turned to us and said, “We’ve all been there. Don’t even worry. She is perfect.”  They even offer to hold her, which we took them up on. She was giggle and we exhaled. In those heightened moments, it was the perfect reminder that babies will be babies and most people get that and aren’t bothered as much as we were.

 

Trust us, it is worth it!

Each day was an adventure but each day was so special and memorable. I know Aurora might not remember the piglets she petted or her first taste of mozzarella or Tuscan bread, but I do think it impacted her ability to be versatile and open-minded to the new. She smiled at strangers, looked intently at everything from her baby carrier view and settled into her new sleeping situation and timezone faster than we could imagined.

 

The biggest hurdle was of course, the flight, but I need a whole other post to talk about that…coming soon!

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

What are your tips for traveling with a young baby? Please drop your comments below!

 

Xoxo

Kelley

 

Traveling to Sonoma, California with a 4 Month Old Baby

In California, I think the best place to experience the fall season is in Sonoma County. I was craving a little bit of that crisp air, auburn hues and autumnal feeling so I decided that Sonoma would be the perfect getaway with my mother and my 4 month old daughter.

Baby at SFO

Sleepy baby at SFO

TRANSPORTATION: Flight + Rental Car

Just a quick one hour flight from Los Angeles, we landed in SFO and had a two hour drive ahead of us to Sonoma. All things considered, this wasn’t too bad of a commute! I made the mistake of booking an off-site rental car company, but besides that hiccup, we were cruising north, crossing the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and admiring the countryside in no time.

Tip: Call your rental car company and ask for a child safety seat to be added. Ours was only $42 and well worth it since we didn’t have to carry a heavy car seat.

baby with wine!

TOWN: Healdsburg

We chose Healdsburg as our homebase. I had visited only once before for the day but was immediately smitten by the quaint town green, the charming mom & pop shops, along with the fine restaurants and posh hotels. This town has the right mix of class, charm and dose of energy to keep it interesting. It also happens to be smack in the middle of some of the most picturesque areas of wine country.

Tip: Make sure you are in walking distance of a main town so you can pop in and out of the hotel for food, shopping and groceries. It’s great not to have to drive!

Harmon Guest House

HOTEL: Harmon Guest House

The hotel is always very important to me but this time, it was EVEN more important as I knew with a young baby, we’d be spending a lot more time in the room. I also wanted a hotel that was very close walking distance to the town center so it’d be easy for the three of us to get out quickly or go to a nearby restaurant.

Hanging in Healdsburg

I was very happy to discover the brand new Harmon Guest House. The sister property to the well known, high brow Hotel Healdsburg, the Harmon Guest House was just a block away and boasted large suites and a rooftop restaurant. I was definitely interested in a suite as with a 4 month old, bedtime is around 7pm but that doesn’t mean that my mom and I wanted to go to bed then either. Having a separate room allowed us to put her down for bed, then order diner and have a glass of wine together.

Tip: Book a suite or a room type that has two separate rooms. You don’t want to be forced to have lights out at 7pm and you don’t want to put your baby in a bathroom for bedtime!

We opted for their Founder’s Suite. It came with a private outdoor terrace, which was surrounded by bamboo and greenery which helped to make it feel more private, even though it faced the glass hallway and other rooms.

The suite was quite spacious with the living area that had a coffeemaker and sink, refrigerator and countertop area. There was a small desk and a rather small couch and coffee table. Given that there was a lot of empty space, I felt the furniture was a little small in comparison to the room. There was also a bathroom (no shower) out here.

The bedroom as large and had a very, almost too soft, feather bed. There was a tub that worked well for bath time with Aurora, though I had to get in too! The outer sink and vanity area was lovely and the shower/toilet shared a very large separate space. It could have almost been another bedroom, it was so large!

A gift for Aurora from the hotel 🙂

Little details like daily coffee and pastries, sparkling water on tap in the hallway and the rooftop just above, definitely made this stay very comfortable. I have to say, the staff, from the valet to the front desk, went above and beyond to help us in all ways–and felt genuine and sincere in doing so.

TIMEFRAME: Midweek!

We traveled mid week to minimize the crowds even though we were in the high season. The Crush as it is known, draws lots of tourists from the Bay Area and beyond and for good reason. The scenery, the golden light and the activity on all the vineyards made this prime time to visit.

Tip: Travel to Sonoma during the week makes the rates much better and it is far easier to get around. Weekends get hectic!

ITINERARY: 1 Destination per Day

We picked up one big adventure per day and aimed to do that after her first nap. With one good nap down, we at least knew that we were in better shape for the rest of the day, even if her second nap wasn’t as great. Sleeping in the car is hit or miss for our girl, but for others, they can use a car ride for the first nap and get them to their destination sooner.

Cuties

I had a list of vineyards to check out and we stopped at many of them. However, we didn’t stay at all of them. Some were not kid friendly, not as scenic as we thought or were just too quiet. It is hard to gauge that until you see it for yourself! The ones we did stay at though were fantastic. After our wine tasting, we would either have a picnic there or stop somewhere for a bite, before heading back home for an afternoon nap. My mom enjoyed some shopping in Healdsburg while I put the baby down for a snooze.

DINNER: Takeout to the room

Unless you have someone like a nanny or babysitter, you will need to be in the room when baby goes to bed. For us that meant we would start bedtime at 6 or 6:30 and she’d be asleep by 7-7:30pm. So our evening outings were limited! We were able to sneak in a 5pm happy hour here and there, but mostly, we either grabbed food to go at 5pm or one of us snuck out after the baby went to bed to pick up food. As long as you have good food options nearby and a separate room to enjoy them in, it’s actually kind of cozy!

Tip: Choose a hotel that is close to restaurants with takeout options–ideally walking distance!

Hotel Healdsburg

 

Below I have rounded up the most scenic and BABY FRIENDLY stops from our trip to Sonoma:

Arista Winery

You turn off the main road into this stunning property, and wind your way up a hill past rows of grapevines glistening in the sun. At the top, there is a small tasting room that is very elegantly decorated. Though reservations are needed, and we didn’t have one, the obliging winemaker allowed us to sit outside, which was our preference, and conducted a personal wine tasting for us before the reservations came. This was ideal as we could sit and entertain Aurora and not have to worry about her disrupting others.

We liked that the wine tasting was an abridged version so we got the “cliffnotes” on all the wines. Also, we were outside and enjoying the Japanese inspired landscaping while two of us were on sipping delicious wine and one had a her own lovely bottle.

 

Dutcher Crossing Winery

Aurora had fallen asleep in the car and not wanting to wake her, I actually went in, explained the predicament and they allowed me to shuttle a wine tasting outside so my mom and I could enjoy together, even though we were in a parking lot.

Eventually the curious little bugger woke up and we all went into the tasting room. It was bright and airy, but the real selling point here is the well landscaped vineyard. You can tell they take great pains to keep every detail in line. It was truly breathtaking. The wines happened to be big, bold and wonderful as well. We had a great winemaker, Collyn, guiding us through the tasting in an unprententious and fun way. I ended up joining the wine club and now when I sip those special bottles, I am reminded of such a wonderful afternoon with my best girls.

 

Dry Creek General Store

This is THE place to get lunch in the area but guess what, it is actually delicious. We checked out the funky shop that is a mix of old time general store and fancy provisions, while we waited for two excellent sandwiches. My barbecue chicken was the perfect to go meal for lunch at a winery. It’s also well located right in the middle of a lot of great vineyards and just 15 minutes from Healdsburg.

 

Bella Vineyards & Wine Caves

At the very end of a lovely road is Bella Vineyards, famous for its tastings in the wine cave. The cave goes into the side of a mountain and is very interesting inside, but I loved the outside even more. The farmhouse, the views and the laidback atmosphere made this a place you wanted to linger.

MacRostie Vineyard

Perched on a hilltop with unobstructed, sweeping views, this one called to us every time we passed it. We finally stopped and while we loved the greeting with a taste of chardonnay and the intimate setting, we didn’t stay as it was too quiet and a bit serious for a baby. We were going to loud, up and down, singing songs and playing with toys and we felt the other guests there would be bothered by that…

 

Other favorite spots in Healdsburg…

 

Hotel Healdsburg

We came here for happy hour and enjoyed it at their modern, ivy clad outside decks. It was just a few steps from the Harmon Guest House so it was perfect for a quick drink before bath time!

 

Campo Fina

You’d never guess that this a bustling bar, bocce court and outdoor seating if you stepped in the front door. But clearly, word got out as when we got there around 5:30pm, the back area was packed. We grabbed a drink and ordered takeout to be enjoyed later at the room. It was really a delicious meal and fun atmosphere.

 

Pizzando

We had take out from here two times in our four nights and we were glad we did. The pizzas and pastas were incredible–I especially loved that bolognese. Their arugula salad had a tasty lemon dressing too. Perfect for an easy meal in the room.

 

The Shed

It might be overhyped but we did stop by to grab some bread, cheese and a cupckae for a little late lunch on our suite’s terrace. The bread was fantastic but that cheese.. I still think about it.

 

Oakville Grocery

We grabbed salads here and took them to go, to be enjoyed at a vineyard! They had a lot of great wine and some nice local products as well.

 

The Toy Chest

I had to include this back-in-time toy store as a must stop for anyone traveling with kids. They had a great mix of modern toys and old-time classics. I love family run toy shops and it was nice to see one in action!

 

Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar

The pumpkin ice cream was out of this world, and all the other flavors at this artisanal ice cream shopped looked amazing as well. The apple pie wasn’t our favorite but definite come her for some ice cream!


Overall, we felt Sonoma County was very baby friendly since it was relaxed, very welcoming, and had a nice, slow pace. Many of the streets we drove on were so breathtaking, we had to pull over just to admire the beauty in all directions. I am so happy that we did this trip and though we couldn’t see and do everything at the fast pace we wanted too, it was nice to slow down and appreciate the simple beauty all together.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Babymoon Ojai Valley Inn

Where to take a Babymoon

Let’s face it. Of all times in your life when YOU (or your partner, bestie, sister, daughter) deserves a vacation, it is when she is carrying around another human life in her belly. Babymoons are necessary and relieve a lot of pressure, put mom-to-be in a great mood and can be a unique way to see a destination in a different way.

For me, it meant slowing down. Not the action-packed itineraries, with lots of outdoor pursuits, physical adventures and the evening wine or cocktail hour. Babymoon meant relaxation, early bedtimes, delicious foods and a more nurturing approach to travel. Honestly this change of pace was great! I feel like I experienced each location in a whole new way.

Babymoon Kauai

Whom do you take on a Babymoon?

So, who is coming? The most common person to escort you on this babymoon is obviously your partner. (They got you in this mess in the first place right!? KIDDING) It is an important time away from the routine of normal life to really focus on the two of you. If you are first time mom-to-be like me, it’s especially important to take to appreciate your remaining weeks together as a couple before you become a family. Your partner also knows you best and will pamper you, which is what you need now more than ever.

I also recommend babymoons with close friends. You won’t be able to take time like that away from your newborn to hang out with friends the way you used to so it can be very rewarding to spend that extra QT with those close friends that are important in your life.

I also LOVED going on a babymoon with my Mom. What better person to help me transition into motherhood than my own mother! Plus, I knew it was one of the last times that I’d get to travel just with her, even though bringing my daughter on our yearly adventures will be just as fun too. Consider bringing a supportive family member that you want to spend time with and whom will enjoy the slower pace that babymoon offers. 

And as much as I love company, solo babymoons can be very personally fulfilling. Sometimes you need time to yourself, to read, get a pedicure, talk to the new life growing in your belly and appreciate the remaining quiet moments before your bundle of joy arrives.

babymoon ojai

Where should you go?

Babymoons also tend to be closer to home. Most pregnant ladies don’t want to sit on an extended plane journey so keeping it under 5-6 hours by plane is usually the most comfortable. Ideally, the closer the better!  (I didn’t follow that advice entirely and did fly to Europe for a 3 week trip while 20 weeks pregnant as well as Japan for a 2 week film shoot at 16 weeks, but you can read about those two trips here.)

Driving distance or short flights are best in the earlier stages of pregnancy. When you get to the third trimester, I’d suggest limiting your babymoon destinations to those within an hour or two home.

 

If you only have time for one babymoon, make sure it is the type of trip that you are craving now. Those pregnancy cravings can even apply to travel, ladies! I outline 5 types of babymoons in this post and where you can go to get your FIX!

 

If you are craving…something TROPICAL?

Go to KAUAI!

Lush, quiet, healthy and untouched: Kauai might be the most perfect of the Hawaiian islands for an expecting mother. The rhythm of nature dictated our stay here, with early mornings spent snorkeling Poipu Beach, leisurely days shopping in Kailua, picking shells on a secluded beach on the North Shore and grabbing fresh açai bowls topped with pineapple and passion fruit. By evening, the islanders stop to hold their breath as the sun sets in a dramatic fashion, sending up a fiery finale before nightfall.

Hanalei Beach Bump

My mom and I traveled to Kauai when I was at 23 weeks and I felt great. It was the right pace and I had a lot of energy in that second trimester to handle full days at a leisurely pace. The 6 hour flight didn’t bother me at all and I made sure to stay hydrated and walk the aisles frequently. There’s a lot of “mother energy” on this island too so it felt like the right place to be!

Where to Stay:  Ko’a Kea Resort

This intimate, boutique hotel is classy but cool. You won’t feel pressure to grab a pool seat and staying on the property to eat will result in some of your favorite island meals. Poipu’s famed calm waters are perfect for floating with sea turtles and catching those all-star sunsets.

Tip: Get a prenatal massage in their waterside cabana!

Where to Eat

Java Kai, Kailua: Healthy salads, delicious coffees & teas and Instagram-worthy breakfasts

Little Fish Coffee, Poipu: Fresh smoothies, pitaya bowls and bagel sandwiches bring in the customers but linger with the chickens at this rustic, local favorite.

Fresh Bite Kauai, Hanalei: Seek out this Hanalei food truck to grab a to-go organic salads, hearty sandwich and side of sweet potato fries.

Plantation Gardens, Poipu: Set inside a resort without feeling commercial, this restaurant is laidback but top quality, serving up local fish dishes like banana leaf snapper and coconut shrimp.

Postcards Cafe, Hanalei: A charming Hawaiian bistro feel with pastas, fresh catch and great salads. Grab one of the outdoor tables for an intimate feel.

 

What to Do

Snorkel with sea turtles in Poipu, stop at a crafts market in Hanalei, get a drink at the St. Regis Princeville, see a luau and take a boat tour of the Na Pali coast.

 

If you are craving…something NATURAL?

Go to OJAI, CA

As a Santa Monica local with a serious travel addiction, I cannot believe it took me 4 years to get to Ojai. It is only an hour and a half drive away into the valley of the Topatopa Mountains but if felt like a whole different world. My husband surprised me with a midweek Mother’s Day getaway and even though this babymoon was only one night, it was exactly what we needed!

The quaint village has delightful bookstores, ice cream shops, hippie boutiques and mom & pop restaurants. There are easy walks, creekside (paved) bike paths and just so much lavendar scented fresh air, mom and baby bump will feel the benefits of all this healthy energy.

Ojai Valley Inn Babymoon

Where to Stay: Ojai Valley Inn & Spa

Not the most affordable option, but if you want to splurge, I highly suggest this resort. Their adults-only pool is where I posted up for the majority of the day, alternating between a pool floatie and a mountain facing lounge chair, with my cucumber spa water in hand. The expansive grounds are lovely for strolling or biking and their spa is like a mini village wiht a juice bar, free yoga classes and all the treatments. While our room didn’t stand out, it was the location that really made this place special.

Tip: Grab picnic supplies in town and pull up an adirondack chair by the fireplace to watch the “pink moment,” Ojai’s famously hued sunset magic hour.

Babymoon Ojai Valley Inn

Where to Eat

The Nest: We almost went back the second day, it was THAT good. Whether you want fish tacos or a fried chicken sandwich or a salad, this outdoor hotspot is the place for lunch. Order the meaty Tireman if you are ravenous.

Osteria Monte Grappa: Talk about locally sourced! The menu here features salads from local farmers, handmade pastas and wood fired pizzas, plus excellent friendly service.  

Ojai Deer Lodge: Fun for a beer (for your travel partner) and live music, this is a kitschy, cowboy stop with some wild decor located a little bit outside of town.

Babymoon Ojai Valley Inn

What to Do

Browse the boutiques, relax by the pool, take a bike ride, have a honey tasting at the local honey shop Heavenly Honey and explore the outdoor Bart’s Books.

 

If you are craving… something ALPINE?

Go to Northstar at TAHOE

My husband and I took our LAST flight together before the baby to have a wintry weekend. Just an hour flight from LAX or Long Beach and you are in the heart of the snowcapped peaks of Tahoe.We landed in Reno and took a 40 drive over to Northstar Resort, one of the most luxurious of the Tahoe resorts. The village is completely self contained, making it a one stop destination and easy for a weekend escape. We spent time exploring the village, doing yoga and even taking the gondola up to the slopeside Ritz Carlton Tahoe to indulge in some complimentary s’mores at their outdoor fire pit.

Note: Our babymoon fell during the winter but Tahoe is amazing in the summer, spring or fall as well!

Tip: Plan your weekend escape for a Mountain Table Dinner to enjoy an incredible, multi-course meal at the peak of Zephyr Lodge.

Where to Stay: Northstar Lodging

I loved our mountain chalet which we reserved through Northstar Lodging. It had a balcony, fireplace, kitchen and cosy living room. It was exactly what we wanted for a babymoon weekend!

 

Where to Eat

Inxpot Cafe: Grab a breakfast burrito at this village hotspot next to the gondola. It is best enjoyed outside by the firepit!

Rubicon Pizza Co.: An easy lunch in the village right next to the ice skating rink. It might not be the best pizza you’ve ever had but it is a solid choice and moderately priced.

Tavern 6330′: We loved dinner here with its live music and classic menu choices like iceberg wedge salad and steaks. Definitely split that lobster mac n cheese!

Babymoon Northstar Tahoe

What to Do

Take a guided snowshoe tour, grab a stick and roast marshmallows at the Ritz’s “Marshmology,” curl up by the fireplace with a good book, do yoga in town at Tahoe Yoga.

 

If you are craving… something Mediterranean?

Go to Catalina Island, CA

I enjoyed this babymoon with a group of friends in early March. It was so nice to go on a group trip like this so everyone could do exactly what they wanted to do. Since I was the only one pregnant, my activities were more mild compared to the parasailing, ziplining and jeep tour options.

Selfie View Catalina

However, I still had a blast exploring this incredibly unique island that is just about an hour off of the coast of Southern California. The main town of Avalon is the ideal hub with seafood restaurants, shops and lovely walking streets. I am so happy that I rented a golf cart, the main mode of transportation, to cruise around the rolling hills that surround Avalon Harbor.

I also spent time at the Descanso Beach Club, a secluded, sandy area of beach which also offers kayaking and SUP.

Tip: Definitely do the Frog Rock Kayaking tour if you have time!

Where to Stay: Pavilion Hotel

Located on the main street, across from the water, this gem of a hotel offers an ample daily breakfast and evening wine & cheese hour, both complimentary. The rooms are clean, nautical and cute, plus the courtyard area has quiet lounge spaces and firepits.

Where to Eat

The Lobster Trap: A local favorite with no-frills fish dishes and a lively atmosphere. We all loved the ambiance here.

Bluewater Grill: Great for a light lunch and lemonade out on the water, this is the most waterside restaurant you will find in Avalon!

Avalon Grille: Excellent dining with a fun bar scene, this is definitely THE place for dinner on the island.

Kayaking Catalina

What to Do

Cruise around in a golf cart, book a prenatal massage at the Island Spa Catalina, rent a kayak at the Descanso Beach Club

 

If you are craving… EASY.

Go to Santa Barbara, CA 

It’s not just because it is easy, Santa Barbara is a beautiful coastal California city with a stunning beachfront. But it also is easily accessible by train, meaning NO CARS NEEDED! That is what sold my husband and I on this one night, weekend trip. We hopped on a train in the morining from LA and enjoyed the ocean views before we disembarked just a couple hours later in the heart of SB.

We stayed near the water, kayaking with sea lions, eating at a beach bar, hanging by the pool and exploring the Funk Zone. Great food, great sunshine and just an easy, breezy, stress-free getaway. Isn’t that what you want for a babymoon?

Where to Stay: Hotel Californian ($$$$) or Harborview Inn ($$)

The swanky Hotel Californian is brand new and just steps from the water. The service, the style and the location make it hard to beat.

But if you want something more affordable, just next door is where we stay: the Haborview Inn. We loved the pool and water views and how convenient it was to the beach!

Lucky Penny SB

Where to Eat

Lucky Penny: Sister to The Lark, Lucky Penny is an order at the counter/sit outside at communal table pizza joint. Spoiler: this is some of the best pizza in California!

Shoreline Beach Cafe: Located RIGHT on the beach, the classic California food and sand-in-your-toes location made this an A+++ for me.

Sambo’s: A perfect spot for huge pancakes, egg burritos and even more. The menu is huge, the coffee is flowing and the atmosphere is what you want from a popular diner.

surrey bike SB

What to Do

Rent a Surrey Bike and cruise along the beach path, take out kayaks in the marina and see sea lions, go to Figueroa Brewery* for live music, explore the eats and wineries* of the Funk Zone, pack a picnic for the Amtrak train back!

*(your partner can enjoy the booze for you but it is still fun sober, trust me!)

Kayaking Santa Barbara

***

Most of my babymoons favor the West Coast since that is where I am based, but I have other recommendations for East Coasters! Here is my short list: 

  • Charleston, North Carolina
  • Chatham, Cape Cod (MA)
  • Vero Beach, Florida
  • Woodstock, Vermont (my hometown!)
  • Greenport, Long Island (NY)
  • Skaneatles, NY

 

Catalina Island Avalon Harbor

Escapes from LA: Catalina Island

I have to be honest. If you asked me to hop on a plane anywhere for a quick getaway, I’d say ‘take me to the Mediterranean!’ Who doesn’t love indigo water, crystalline shorelines, charming villages, locally made food and abundance of outdoor cafés? However, European destinations along the Med tend to be quite pricey, not to mention a long flight for us Americans (especially for other Californians like me). But that’s why I couldn’t be more surprised, delighted, and borderline obsessed with this European-esque destination that I recently discovered in my own backyard.

Avalon Harbor Catalina Island

Catalina Island is not exactly “new.” It’s been inhabited for at least 8000 years, originally by the Native American tribe, the Pimungans. More recently, William Wrigley (yes, like the chewing gum) owned the island and brought his baseball team there for their annual spring training from 1921-1951. And of course, Hollywood also fell in love with Catalina, using it as the location for many early films as well as the playground for the stars and show biz elite. After visiting for myself for the first time, I can see why this island has been so popular for so long.

 

WHEN TO GO

I visited with a group of friends in early March, far outside of Catalina’s high season, which typically runs from June through September. Off season, or shoulder season travel is one of my all-time favorite travel hacks. It generally results in a much better experience overall because you aren’t battling crowds, lines and high prices. My tip would be to travel in either March through May or late September through November, to maximize best weather and least amount of people. However, don’t forget that it is Southern California so even December or January could have perfect weather!

Avalon Harbor Catalina Island

We also opted for a weekday stay as opposed to the popular weekend trips, arriving on a Monday and departing on a Wednesday. Like off-season travel, weekday travel usually means better rates and less people so you can focus on enjoying the destination without as much hassle.

Catalina Express Ferry

GETTING THERE

Catalina Express

Catalina Island is visible from Santa Monica all the way down to Laguna Beach, but this large SoCal island is actually much further away than it looks. The Catalina Express offers daily shuttles via high speed catamaran that whisk you out into the Pacific and get you onshore in about an hour. It’s also a fun ride! We departed from Long Beach and I sat outside, enjoying the salty breezes and the watery views. We even had a dolphin sighting! Note: there is a full bar for those that want to start the party the moment we leave the mainland.

Luxe Tip–> For those that have less time and the itch to splurge, there are helicopters that can bring you over in just 15 minutes!

 

WHERE TO STAY

Though it is possible to experience Catalina for the day, I would recommend staying at least one night, ideally two. During the day, the main town of Avalon is usually busy with other daytrippers and the cruise passengers. However by night, the town empties out and you can enjoy the calm, quiet beauty of this island gem.

Pavilion Hotel Catalina Island

Pavilion Hotel

As I am the “Hotel Snob,” where I stay is very important and I would stay at the Pavilion Hotel again in a heartbeat. The well appointed property is located right on the main street, in the center of Avalon. It has water views, as well as a sunny complimentary breakfast and daily wine hour on the patio.  I particularly loved all the outdoor seating areas, fire pits and secluded loungers in the garden. This small hotel felt tranquil and private, even though it is just steps from the hustle and bustle of downtown Avalon.

 

The rooms are crisp and sea-inspired. New and clean, I wouldn’t call them extravagant in any way, but I wasn’t left wanting for anything. The separate sink and vanity area also served as a mini kitchenette with coffee and mini fridge. Of course, I would have loved it if the hotel had a pool but that is a rarity on Catalina Island in general.

 

WHERE TO EAT

Avalon Grille Catalina

Avalon Grille

This is one of the nicest options on the island and I’d recommend that you book it for one special dinner. The elegant menu has everything from well cooked steaks to local seafood to a mouthwatering burger. Definitely order the fried green beans to share! Also, as I’m always all about the atmosphere, I felt that the classy interior makes it work for a romantic night but the wraparound bar also makes it accessible for cocktails and appetizers. It was even busy on a Monday night, proving that the islanders love this spot as well.

 

The Lobster Trap Catalina

Image courtesy of Catalina Chamber of Commerce

The Lobster Trap

Another great dinner option at a lower price point is The Lobster Trap. This seafood joint is an institution in Avalon and you will be overwhelmed by the local “Cheers” vibe the minute you walk in. The owner was handing out shots, our makeshift table was on top of a pool table and there was a live lobster running across the table. However, the service couldn’t be friendlier and the no-frills seafood plates were fresh and delicious. I could see how a dinner here might turn into an all night affair as the bar was hopping, even on a Tuesday at 7pm.

Catalina Bluewater Grill

Image courtesy of @darinainwanderlust

Bluewater Grill

This one wins for best location as it is set on top of the water. We came for a sunny lunch and had a tremendous view of the Avalon Bay as well as fun, casual fare like shrimp caesars and fish tacos. I’d definitely go back for dinner or to check out their bar in the evening. Just like Europe’s sunny outdoor patios, the Bluewater Grill is a place you’d want to hang out for a few hours with a coffee or a cocktail.

 

Lloyd’s of Avalon

You have to give a lot of credit to a candy shop that’s been in business since 1934. They make all their own chocolates, salt water taffy and fudge, and even claim to have served Marilyn Monroe.

 

Scoops Catalina Avalon

Image courtesy of Scoops Instagram @scoopscatalina

Scoops

As always, I sought out the best local ice cream on Avalon and all locals pointed here: Scoops. This is the place to go for the best homemade ice cream and gelato. Beware though, in the summer the lines can get long!

 

WHAT TO DO

There is a LOT that you can do on the island, ranging from outdoor exploration, hikes, shopping, scuba, water sports and more. Normally the adventurer, I toned it back to focus more on relaxed, soft adventures as I was 7 months pregnant and I am happy that I did.View of Avalon Harbor Catalina

Golf Cart

Not only is the golf cart THE mode of transportation on the island, I find driving them to be so fun. It feels like you are on vacation! There are self guided routes that you can take to access the best vistas of the island and to take in a variety of landscapes.Golf Cart Catalina Island

 

Island Spa Catalina

Island Spa Catalina

This secluded hideaway is located at the end of Avalon’s main drag and it really is an oasis. When you step inside, the private courtyard has sun deck, a beautiful pool, a lounge area with sea views, and even a spa café. Take a class in their Wellness Studio or indulge in a massage at their spa. Or just grab a day pass for a day of R&R.

Descanso Beach Club Catalina

Descanso Beach Club

Just a 15 minute walk from the center of town along the water, the Descanso Beach Club was probably my favorite experience in Avalon. The sandy beach is bookended by natural cliffs on one side and the Catalina Casino on the other, making it feel like your private beach oasis for the day. If you come early, you’ll have it all to yourself but as the day wears on, the beach club kicks it up a notch. The outdoor bar and restaurant definitely becomes the place on the island to party!

Kayaking Catalina

The crystal clear water is not just perfect for swimming, you can hit up Descanso Beach Ocean Sports to rent an SUP or kayak. Take it a step further and go on a kayaking tour. I highly recommend the guided 2 hour kayak tour to Frog Rock. Our morning paddle out on the glittering water was breathtaking and I loved learning more about the life under the water from our knowledgeable guide. We stopped on a beach only accessible by kayak to rest, take photos, and enjoy some freshly made cookies. Pebble beaches, giant rocks, arid cliffs and glittering ocean–were we sure this wasn’t the Mediterranean?

 

Catalina Casino

Catalina Casino Tour

I am not going to lie, this walking tour was a bit a slow for me as it is geared towards an older set. But if you are a history buff, you will definitely appreciate the access to the first theatre in America that was “designed for talkies” as well as the pink art deco ballroom. From the top of the Casino, the views of Avalon and the bay might be some of the best on the island, so for me, that was the highlight. Plus, the Casino is the icon of Catalina so it important to understand its significance.

 

And More Adrenaline-Pumping Adventures

Many of my friends were able to partake in the more adventurous activities and the best reviews came from the East End hummer tour where my friends saw the island’s famous wild buffalo, parasailing 800 feet above the water, ziplining through canyons, and tight rope walking along the tree top ropes course.

East End Adventure Catalina

Image courtesy of the Catalina Island Company

Though I’ve mentioned the popularity of Catalina Island, I am actually most awed by the fact that the island is mostly untouched! 88% of the island is a nature preserve and the town of Avalon, the main hub of Catalina, is only home to 4000 residents. The rest of Catalina belongs to the bald eagles, the bison, the fox and the rest of the flora and fauna that live on or around its shores. For an island that is in plain sight of one of the US’s busiest cities, I am so impressed that it has retained its natural landscape and retro charm. Though you don’t need a passport to get here, it surely feels like you step off of the ferry into another world entirely.Selfie View Catalina

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Stay tuned for my video of this incredible island oasis COMING SOON!

 

xoxo

Kelley

Best (and worst) Food in Setouchi, Japan

I am not ashamed to admit that the quality and variety of food factors greatly into my overall impression of a place. As someone that seeks out groceries and restaurants that are as clean and close to the source as possible, I have high expectations when I travel. To be honest, I often find that international destinations actually do have less processed cuisine than use over here in America.

Miyajima street eats

Well my experience in Japan took local food to a whole new level. I had been to Japan once before, exploring the Tohoku Region with CNN. It was there that I realized that Japanese food is not just sushi. However, the sushi still is really good but on this 2 week exploration in Setouchi, I had two very good reasons to push the boundaries of the culinary side of Japan.


Firstly, we were shooting one entire episode just on the best local food and local drinks in the Setouchi region. Secondly, I was pregnant during the entire shoot, which greatly limited my fish intake to those with low levels of mercury (and I hate to say it, a lot of seafood around the world is very high in mercury). So I was ready to dive into noodles, tempura, local game, river fish and various wild looking snacks that I grabbed from street vendors on the way.

You can watch the video to go deep into all the top dishes, restaurants and traditional cuisine of Setouchi. However below, I’m going to recap my personal favorites.

 

Udon Noodles: Thick and Thin

I got quite the education in Japanese noodles. I had no idea how many types of noodles this country could lay claim too! Also, many of the regions in Japan have their own signature noodle. In Setouchi, it was udon. To understand the intricacies of this chewy, satisfying, slurpy noodle, we went to the source: the Nakano Udon School.

Nakano Udon School

 There, classroom style, we learned about udon, from the ingredients to the finished product. Our very entertaining teacher was strict, in a funny way, and she required that after we prepared our noodle dough out of flour, salt and water, we had to wrap it and dance on it to make it soft. Yes, dance. She blasted “YMCA” and other 70s dance hits, all while yelling at us to keep dancing.

I definitely burned off the calories to eat my creation, which we did at the end. After the dancing, we flattened and then folded the noodles so we could cut into long, even strands. Mine weren’t as perfect as hers, but they did taste good!

Hiroshima Udon

We also ate super thick, gelatinous Shinsho-ji Udon at a Gokando, a beautiful garden in the Hiroshima prefecture. The was a whole different style of udon, rolled as thick as 3 straws and placed in a communal hot water pail. From there, we used wide chopsticks to fish out one long noodle strand and place it in our own bowl. There was a selection of delicious toppings, which you can add to your taste. I loved the salts and chilis!

Shinshoji udon

 

Soba Noodles (Handmade by a singing mountain local)

I love all sorts of noodles but I think that Japanese soba noodles are my favorites. I love the buckwheat flour used in them, giving them that earthy flavor and grainy texture. I also usually love the salty broth that they are served in. 

My favorite soba noodle award goes to the lovely woman below, who cooked a lunch feast for us in her home/restaurant in the Iya Valley.

Handmade Soba in Iya valley

Located on the edge of a cliff road, we took off our shoes and walked into what felt like her home (her home actually was attached). She watched us with delight as we ate all the deliciousness that she had prepared for us, including heaps of these soba noodles.

Our dessert? A song! She was a famous singer and unprompted, she stood up and starting singing a ballad in Japanese. Now that is a memorable way to end a meal.

 

Matcha Tea

Matcha tea iyaI drank copious amounts of tea while in Japan–it is served at every meal! But I developed a new love of matcha tea when we tried it at a roadside stop of another tiny mountain town in the Iya Valley. We were welcomed in with song, dance and costume by the proprietor, a spry, smiley older woman that is known for her enthusiasm.

Matcha Green Tea Iya Japan

She showed me how to grind the matcha using a traditional grinder, then she placed heaping spoonfuls in my cup, covering them with hot water.

As I sipped this rich, green liquid, she pointed out the window at the verdant mountainside across the river. That was where the tea leaves of this same matcha were grown. It only made it taste that much better.

 

Tempura

I’d had tempura before in the States so I thought I “knew” tempura. Well, I was wrong. Tempura in Japan is not the thick or greasy style that I’d had before. It is instead, delicately battered and just lightly fried, which only brings out the flavor of whatever delicious vegetable, starch or meat that was lucky enough to be “tempura-ed.” I loved all the tempura vegetables that we tried specifically the lotus, pumpkin and squash.

Tempura Shrimp Onomichi

However, I think my favorite was the tempura shrimp which we enjoyed in Onomichi (see above). The most exotic? Tempura wild deer. It was actually delicious!

 

Shabu-shabu

What a perfect meal! Shabu-shabu is also known as hot pot. It is when a large pot of lightly seasoned broth is served boiling with various raw vegetables, starches and meats. The meat is usually very thinly sliced beef to make for quick cooking. Not only does everything taste so flavorful, it is prepared exactly as you like it! And I love that it felt relatively light since no oil is used!

Shabu Shabu JapanWe enjoyed Shabu shabu feast up in the mountains of the Iya Valley, at our kominka. A local woman prepared so many dishes, in addition to the shabu, all from locally grown, raised and hunted sources. I never wanted to stop eating!

Shabu Shabu Japan

 

 

Kobe Beef

Of course this beef has international acclaim but I have to say, it lives up to the hype. I enjoy a good steak every now and then, but the grass fed, tenderly aged kobe beef is a totally different dish.

We went to Kobe Misono, the restaurant that launched the worldwide chain known as “Benihana.” It was fun because we were able to watch the expertly trained chefs prepare and cook the kobe beef right in front of us. What was impressive was how little was need to transform these perfectly cooked morsels into some of the best meaty bites I’d ever have. Just a little salt, a drop of oil, a sear on all the sides and done. Pop that in your mouth and you’ll know why kobe beef has such a big fanclub.

kobe beef kobe misono

 

Arima Cider Teppo Water

Arima Cider Teppo Water

In the hot spring town of Arima, everything revolves around the legendary hot springs. Not only do you soak in these therapeutic waters, but you can DRINK them too! Grab a bottle of the Arima Cider, made from the local hot spring water, and you’ll feel like a kid again with that bubble gum flavor! I don’t love soda but I did love this drink!

 

Favorite Meal: Kaiseki at Ryokan Kurashiki

There wasn’t one dish that I loved here–it was all of them. The whole 4 hours of this tasting menu experience was made memorable by the exquisite service and talented chefs behind each bite. I shouldn’t be surprised, the Ryokan Kurashiki is known to be one of the most luxurious ryokans in Setouchi! There was no detail overlooked.

Ryokan Kurashiki Kaiseki

The menu is seasonal and since it was late fall, early winter, we enjoyed root vegetables and wild game, as well as locally caught fish. The presentation of each course was mind-blowing. Tiny personal grills allowed us to grill our own meat, individual shabu hot pots and ornate bites displayed in fruits. There was even a wasabi root on the table with a grater so we could grate our own fresh wasabi!

 

….Dishes that I did NOT love:

Just for fun, I wanted to include a few things that I tried that I did not love so much. Every culture is bound to have food that you don’t like (see you later, France’s foie gras) and there are many American dishes that I despise too. But in Japan the list was short. Here are a few.

Kakiwai Miyajima

Fermented Oysters

Miyajima is known for having fresh oysters and you see them in every style. While I don’t go crazy over an oyster, I don’t mind them. However, I found out that I do not like them fermented. We went to a lovely coffeehouse overlooking the slope down to the sea on this magical isle. It was there that I tried their signature fermented oyster. Not only was the visual not appetizing to me, I did not enjoy the taste. I ate it to be polite and of course, for the camera, but to be honest, I did not go back for another bite. Those I was with did like it a lot so clearly it was just a matter of taste.

 

Salt Ice Cream with Red Bean

Salt Ice Cream Red Bean Paste Japan

Ice cream is everything to me so I had to try the popular salt ice cream with red bean paste when we stopped at one of Japan’s roadside food marts (they are incredible by the way!). So the verdict? It definitely looks better than it tastes. This soft serve ice cream is extremely salty–so much so that it was hard to swallow. The slightly sweet red bean paste had little flavor and was an odd textural combo with the ice cream. I didn’t despise it but I definitely didn’t see the appeal, particularly with how much sodium must be in each lick!

 

Calpis Water

Don’t be fooled, this is not water. This opaque, white drink is actually made with milk and lactic acid, so it is fermented milk water. It has a strange, slightly fizzy feel on your tongue and the flavor was not enjoyable in my opinion. I prefer the green teas or sparkling waters that I found at the food marts instead!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Have you tried any of these before? Tell me what you thought!

 

xo

Kelley