Review: High Sierra AT 6

Backpacker on Wheels

High Sierra Wheeled Duffel Backpack review
(AT6 32”)

Side view of the backpack

Side view of the backpack

The backpacker mentality dictates that one shall never use a wheeled bag or else be considered a sell-out. To be honest the idea of giving up a backpack caused much consternation on our parts. We really wanted to keep to the core, with only what could fit upon our backs, with another smaller bag to carry on board.

Unfortunately, after considering how long our trip was, and with what we had to bring, and a stroller, plus items for the kid… well, it just wasn’t in the cards.

So we caved and started looking for something more practical. We really wanted something that would give us the best of all worlds. Lots of space, light to carry, durable wheels, and various carry handles. We dreamed of a bag that would have all of this, and then we heard of a couple that had the piece we really missed: Backpack straps.

Close up of the backpack straps

Close up of the backpack straps

After much searching, shopping and comparing we had almost given up. It seemed the bags available were incredibly expensive and almost experimental. None of them had hardly any reviews, were basically the price of 4 comparable bags without the backpack component.

Fortunately we stumbled upon the High Sierra Wheeled Duffel Backpack. A fantastic feat of engineering that was offered at an incredible price. The MSRP listed it at $380 (still a decent savings compared to other bags) but was usually offered on various retailers for less than $150. Even on Sierra’s own site they are currently offering it for a substantially cheaper price than the suggested retail.

To start with, the bag offers everything the pricier comparable duffel backpacks offer as well. It even comes in multiple sizes (we went with the AT6 32”) and colors. It can operate as a wheeled standing suitcase, with two rollerblade type wheels, and a sturdy retractable handle. Or it can be used as a duffel bag with a well-positioned center grip that is thick and strongly built. And of course, the best part is that there are two backpack straps hidden in the base of the pack, that actually allow it to be worn comfortably as a backpack.

The bag is extremely light when empty, coming in at only 11 pounds even with all of its features. It contains two separate chambers in the main pouch, divided by a zippered inner layer. Each one of these can be opened separately from the other from the outside as well, which is really convenient when packing for more than one person in a bag. These combined inner compartments can expand a few inches, during those times when extra space is required, by unzipping two different layers on the side of the bag. A third thin compartment rests along the outside of these two and gives a little more space for smaller items. All of these compartments are contained by two strong seatbelt like straps that can be cinched down to compress the space as tightly as needed.

Compression Straps

Compression Straps

Surprisingly, given the price and features, the quality of the bag is also very durable. The outer layer is made up of a sort of “duraweave” that is light, water resistant, and seemingly stainproof as well. So far none of our travels have even taken a slight toll on the bag, and it is holding up very well. To compare, our other cheaper duffel bag is looking like it went through a war zone, having experienced the same flights.

We really cannot recommend this bag enough. Usually we are hesitant to give anything 5 thumbs up but this bag is really phenomenal. Even if it didn’t have the backpack straps, it would be one of the best bags we have ever used. And the really surprising, and appreciated piece is that it comes at such a great price.

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Disney Parks Anonymous

Hello, my name is Jennifer and it had been three months since my last Disneyland trip. I fell off the wagon this past week all in the name of Zoë’s second birthday. And I cannot say that I feel bad about it. Disney parks can be an expensive habit, but the memories and happiness that are associated with them for me are worth the price tag.

Chad and I joke about being addicted to Disney, but honestly for the past 3 or so years, we have gone to Disneyland in Anaheim, California about every three months. I would love to say it was because we wanted to have fun with our daughter, but we were Disneyland annual passholders long before Zoë was even a thought in our mind. It really goes against everything we stand for usually, but we just cannot stop partaking in the fun.

When Chad and I were thinking of what to do to celebrate Zoë’s birthday, we were considering taking her to the zoo, or the beach, or even just going to the park. Both of us felt a little guilty at the fact that she would have to spend her birthday without family and friends and the fanfare that comes with that. Our guilt worked to our Zoë’s advantage, because we decided that only Disneyland Paris would assuage our consciences and make her birthday special enough. So on Saturday, we left Lisbon, Portugal and hopped on a plane for Paris Orly Airport.

Paris has two airports, Charles de Gaulle and Orly. I have never been in the Charles de Gaulle airport, but from what I have heard it is beautiful and efficient. Orly was obviously the more locally used airport, as we ran into language barriers almost immediately while picking up our rental car. The airport is not very well laid out and we ended up having to walk for 15 minutes with all of our luggage to get to another terminal to then pick up our rental car (really no shuttles?). These were really just minor inconveniences though, they were just magnified because we were all tired from traveling and wanted to get to our hotel. If you want to go to Paris and get there for much, much cheaper, use Orly Airport.

We found our hotel, The Park and Suites Prestige, on the British Airways website and we were able to use our “Avios” or credit card points to pay for the hotel room (as well as the rental car for this trip). When we arrived at the hotel, we were pleasantly surprised at the close proximity to Disneyland. We also were upgraded to a two bed suite with a small kitchen. We decided to get some dinner to go from the restaurant in the hotel and relax in our room and prepare for the following day at Disney Paris!

The next day, Zoë was kind enough to wake us at about 7 am, just in time to get ready, call both sets of grandparents, and eat our free buffet breakfast before catching the shuttle to Disneyland. The bad weather followed us again and it was raining (and continued to off and on all day).

We caught the shuttle and were dropped off at the entry walkway to the park. As we walked up, we were impressed at the beautiful Disneyland Hotel that had a massive Mickey Mouse Clock at its pinnacle. To enter Disneyland you actually walk under the hotel. Someday we will have to pay the probable small fortune to get a room there. Zoë is fascinated with clocks right now, so she yelled “o’clock” the whole time she was running up to the entrance.

All in all, we had an amazing time at Disneyland Paris. We rode all the fantasyland rides first, as it was Zoë’s birthday, we rode Pirates of the Caribbean, we took turns riding Space Mountain 2, and we walked around a lot and tried to find edible food and alcoves to keep out of the rain.

There are five things that I felt made Disneyland Paris a bit disappointing:

1) Cigarette Smoking Everywhere.

To most of us Americans, smoking cigarettes around children is a big no-no. I personally do not worry too much about second hand smoke in an outdoor area, but the amount of cigarette smoking in the park was sometimes overwhelming. The funny part about it is that there are designated smoking areas, and the park rules state that smoking is not allowed except for in those areas. Regardless of the rules, people will literally take their children on a ride, get them back in their stroller and light up a cigarette.

If you are coming straight from somewhere like California,where smoking is pretty much taboo, the smell of smoke could be upsetting, but if you have been in Europe for any period of time it probably won’t bother you as much, as smoking is prevalent everywhere in Europe.

2) Lack of staff.

This ties in a bit to number one of this list, the lack of staff makes it impossible to enforce the rules of the park. There were people smoking everywhere and children in areas that were cordoned off, where in the American Disney parks they would be asked to leave the area.

The lack of staff also caused inefficiency. It was especially frustrating when it came to wait times on rides. Since there were usually only two team members per ride (one getting people on the ride and one getting people off the ride) there was no one to change the wait times listed for the rides, and also no one to change the formation of the lines. This meant that often the wait times were longer than posted, or you would have to go around and around the lines like cattle being herded when there was no wait for a ride. Both of these situations were not of dire importance, but added to the overall feeling of chaos in the park.

3) Food.

This part is really hard for me to write, because as you all know, I love food. I am not picky about my food, it does not need to be gourmet, it just has to be flavorful. In this area, Disneyland Paris lost completely, which was very disappointing, as Disneyland Anaheim has amazing food, so my expectations were high.

If you would like McDonalds type hamburgers and fries, or foot long hot dogs (okay so the buns were good at least I guess), reheated pizza or pasta, or donuts, then Disneyland Paris is for you. The food that we had was all pre-packaged and rather unappetizing. I am not going to lie, one of the main reasons I love Disneyland Anaheim is because of the marvelous baked goods and meals, as well as the candy. The carmel apples especially are one of my favorites and I look forward to having at least one every trip. Disneyland paris had none of these things. It was very sad, I found myself wanting to leave the park to eat, and that is a first for me.

4) Cleanliness and upkeep.

The grounds of the Paris Disneyland were definitely not up to par as far as cleanliness and upkeep go. This ties into number two of this list, as I would think it would be impossible to clean and maintain that much space without any staff to do it.

The park was littered with cigarette butts and food wrappers. The waiting areas for the rides often had graffiti. The arcade was filled with games and kiddie rides that were not operating and also covered in graffiti and old food and drinks. There were cobwebs everywhere, which is not that big of a deal to me, but was a marked difference from the original park. And last but not least, the gardens and plants were overgrown and riddled with weeds. It looked like my old back yard. In summary, the park looked dingy, uncared for and made me worry about what Zoë touched most of the time.

5) Overall cultural differences.

I do realize that Disneyland Paris is in Paris, France not Paris, Texas. I assumed that there would be differences not only on the rides, but in the behavior of the tourists in the park. I was prepared for it, I had been living in Europe (albeit Lisbon, Portugal which is totally different from France) for two months. I was ready to be an experienced world traveler and not have any culture shock. Well I was wrong, the tourists at Disneyland Paris for the most part were rude and pushy. For example, if you wanted a picture with a Disney character, you had to push your way through a mob of parents pushing their children to the front of a huge semi-circle around the costumed person.

The Crowd Around Snow White

The Crowd Around Snow White

Zoë and I's Only Chance to Get a Picture With Donald Duck-We Were First To Get There Too!

Zoë and I’s Only Chance to Get a Picture With Donald Duck

Another example, if you were to be waiting in line for a long period of time, and a new line opened up for some reason, you would literally have to run to get in the new line, even if you were the next to go. People seemed to have no guilt about getting ahead by any means necessary.

But not all of Disneyland Paris was negative. There are five things that I feel you must experience at Disneyland Paris, they are:

1) Visit the Dragon in Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.

Underneath Sleeping Beauty’s castle, by a special path, there is an area where a realistic looking animatronic dragon lies. It was so fun to watch, I would definitely recommend checking it out.

The Dragon

The Dragon

2) Ride Space Mountain 2.

For all of you Space Mountain lovers out there, Space Mountain 2 blows it out of the water. It is faster, longer and even goes upside down numerous times (I couldn’t tell how many times because it was so dark, weird how that works…).

Space Mountain will be my favorite ride always in both Disneyland Anaheim and Paris from now on. If you love Space Mountain, or any roller coaster for that matter, you must take the time to ride this one.

3) Ride Casey Jones and Storybook Land Rides in Fantasyland.

Most of the rides in Fantasyland in Paris were pretty similar to the Anaheim park, which is great because those rides are really fun anyways. But Casey Jones and Storybook Land at the Paris park are different and actually much better.

Casey Jones is an actual little kid roller coaster that whips around corners and up and down little hills. Zoë loved it, as did we. It was like a toddler Thunder Mountain Railroad.

Storybook Land was different in that each boat did not have a tour guide and the tiny scenes from Disney movies were different than the Anaheim park for the most part. It was fun to see something different.

It was not only that these rides were really fun and different from the originals (for both us an Z), but because they are hidden in the back corner of fantasyland there was literally no wait for either of these rides. Whether you have little ones or not, try out these rides.

Zoë and Chad on Casey Jones

Zoë and Chad on Casey Jones

4) Take the tour of the Nautilus.

One of Chads favorite movies growing up was “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” I have often heard him talk about how this movie instilled his love of adventure and underwater exploration. I must admit, I have never seen the movie, but being able to tour the submarine that was in the movie, the Nautilus, made me want to see it.

The Nautilus tour is just a walk-through of the submarine, but there are some surprises that keep it exciting. It was a great way for us to get out of the rain and let Zoë run around a little without worrying that she would run off or hurt herself.

Zoë and the Nautilus

Zoë and the Nautilus

5) See “Dreams” the Fireworks show.

It was our second and last day at the park, we powered through and made Zoë stay awake until 11:00 pm to see the fireworks show, titled “Dreams.” It is Disneyland Paris’ 20th anniversary and the fireworks show highlights all the films that are dear to France’s heart, such as Ratatouille, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Peter Pan, and Beauty and the Beast. Pretty much any of the Disney movies that were set in Europe, were showcased. The effects and fireworks were amazing though. It was unfortunate that it was on so late, but I could understand why they had to as the sun did not set until 11pm there.

All in all, I do not know if I would venture to Disneyland Paris again, but the memories that we made there while celebrating the second birthday of the most important little person in our lives, will make it special forever. It was truly wonderful, not because of where we were, but because I was with my two favorite people. Now I know this for Zoë’s next birthday and we can do something a little less extravagant (yeah right….)

Wednesday Write-Up: Crazy Blessed

This past week has been a whirlwind of fun and stress. I have never felt so blessed and crazy at the same time, I often feel crazy and I often feel blessed, but at the same time?…never that I can remember. So maybe that is a fallacy as I am continually blessed and continually crazy… wait is the craziness starting to show? Ummm…

Three days ago, we celebrated Zoë’s second birthday. It really does blow my mind that this beautiful girl is a real little person that ripped out entered this world from my body just 24 months ago. I know, it’s so cliché to say how time moves so fast, but dammit… it does. And this amazing trip that we are on, is moving fast as well. We are now in Budapest, Hungary after three days in Montevrain, France (near Paris) at Disneyland Paris and a day long layover in Berlin, Germany. We have a little over a week here and then we are off to Greece, and then Taipei, Taiwan. I think I am still in shock that this journey is ours. God has indeed blessed us greatly.

So, we celebrated Z’s birthday at Disneyland Paris (more about the park in my Friday post). It was a great time after we got used to the fact that we were not at the Anaheim Disneyland and embraced the differences.

I have had to embrace differences in many things recently. Mostly with my precocious toddler. The “terrible”, or as my mother-in-law kindly calls them, the “teaching” twos are now a full-blown hurricane in our family. All of a sudden, in the last few months, Zoë’s favorite word is “no”, or when she’s told she cannot say no to us, she uses “not.” Temper tantrums are a very common side effect of saying anything to her that she doesn’t want to hear. She has been hitting us and sticking her tongue out at people that say hello to her. She has been acting out a bit, and I am having a hard time disciplining her consistently, it can be difficult in general, but especially while traveling. It is hard in different cultures and when you are always on the move, to make time-outs as scary as they should be. Not only that, but as soon as I get a bee in my bonnet to change the way I discipline her, she becomes a perfect adorable angel and I can’t even think of having to discipline her. I mean come on, look at that cute face!

Photo By Jennifer Mitchell

(c) andthreetogo

Photo by Jennifer Mitchell

(c) andthreetogo

Luckily, we have not had anyone say anything to us about her behavior or our handling of it. I know back home, many people like to give their “help” or “opinions” when a child is having a melt-down, so in this way I am glad to be away from America. The language barrier is helpful for once! Honestly I think that if someone was to tell me that I was parenting Zoë incorrectly, while she was on the floor of a store, crying and yelling, I would probably punch that kind helpful person in the mouth. Ok, so I wouldn’t punch anyone, but between my screaming daughter and someone trying to talk over her and judge me, something has got to give, right?

This adventure of ours is a constant learning experience, for me, Chad, and Zoë. We are all learning how to be kind and listen to each other. We are all learning how to be patient with each other, and how to be firm as well. When do we get a summer vacation from learning these life lessons and everything is simple and smooth? Anyone know?

All these things that we are learning are making us better humans and people of faith. I am thankful for that. I am thankful that I am on this incredible trip, that I have a wonderful husband, and that I have a smart, stubborn, and active daughter. I am just really freaking grateful!

To all of you moms and dads out there, whether you have traveled or not, what has helped you get through the twos?

Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6

Lagos: The Sunny South

Since landing on Portuguese soil, everyone we have met has told us that we NEEDED to spend some time in the Algarve. That the beauty, warm weather and beaches in that area were the best Portugal had to offer. We kept saying that we were going to go, but life here in Lisbon kept us busy for a month or so and the Algarve was put on the back burner.

But our time in Portugal was growing short, we had made definite plans to start traveling again and going south for some sunshine was put back on the plate.

We made the final decision to go and check out this gorgeous destination after Chad got a tattoo from an artist named Pedro that lives in the Algarve and invited us down to check it out. (By the way, Chads tattoo turned out amazing! If you ever want a tattoo in Lisbon, check out Pedro Soos at Queen of Hearts.) Pedro even invited us to stay at his house, but we decided that we would stay in a hotel as Zoë can be rather loud and we hate to inconvenience anyone. Everyone we have met here has been so welcoming and hospitable and friendly, I just love it!

Instead, I booked a room at the Iberlagos Apartments. Despite some bad reviews, the price and location seemed worth the chance.

Iberlagos Apartments

Iberlagos Apartments

Chad researched the best way to get down to Lagos in the Algarve, the trains cost about 25 euros a person, and took three hours, or there was a bus, but we were worried about being stuck on a bus with a toddler for 3 hours. We wanted to see a bit more of Portugal, and take our time to stop if we wanted, so we decided to rent a car. The price of renting a car was just a bit more than taking the train, even with the price of gas and such. Although I will say that our jaws dropped when we had to pay 65 euros to fill up our “economy” car. Yikes! Still, even with the price of fuel, renting a car was not too expensive and gave us some autonomy.

So early in the morning, a couple Mondays ago, we took the metro to the airport and picked up our rental car. We excitedly got Zoë settled in her car seat and headed out to what we thought would be a couple of hot sunny days on the beach.

There are a couple of options when driving in Portugal, you can take the back roads, or the toll highways. If you take the toll roads it costs about 30 Euros and gets you to Lagos in about 2.5 hours. We wanted to take the slow roads so we could see what the country side looked like, it only took about 3.5 hours and it was fascinating to see the small towns and landscape.  Portugal’s landscape is so similar to California, especially northern California. We felt like we were home. The way was fairly simple and we only took a wrong turn one time that set us back about 10 minutes. The signage along the way was pretty easy to follow, and google maps helped us out as well.

We arrived in Lagos, to the address of the flat we rented and found a horribly dilapidated building that looked like a mix between a prison and a crack house. It just didn’t seem right, the pictures didn’t match what it showed on the web, the description of the place according to other patrons reviews didn’t match either. It didn’t have any signage to say it was the vacation stay rentals that I had found and decided on. I started to freak out a little on the inside…if we were staying in this building, I would never live it down.

We stopped and I ran inside a restaurant and asked where the Iberlagos Apartments were and was massively relieved when the helpful woman told me they were down the way a bit.

We reached the apartments finally (after having to stop one more time for directions) and realized that the address they had on the website was incorrect (obviously) and that the grounds of the apartment complex looked well-maintained. I breathed a sigh of relief and we set out to find the reception office. It was a little hard to find, but we finally noticed the tiny sign that said “Recepção”. We checked in and were shown to an apartment with an amazing view of the pool, grounds and beach below. It had a small patio, which was exactly what I wanted.

The apartment itself, was small, a studio with a murphy bed, a small kitchen, and a bathroom with 2 showers (couldn’t figure that one out). It was musty, like no one had been in the apartment except to drop off the clean linens in quite some time. Regardless, it was clean and I was happy that it had such a beautiful view and direct access to the golden sand beach below.

The View From Our Patio

The View From Our Patio

The only unfortunate thing about this trip was that the weather was cold, around 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and windy. Yes, yet again, the cold weather was following us. We decided not to let it get us down and put on our swimsuits to go down to the pool. I was there to work on my tan, and I was going to even if I froze doing so.

There were two pools, an adult pool and a large kiddie pool that had a Super Mario Brothers looking toadstool waterfall in the center for the kids to run through. The water was freezing, but Z wanted to walk around in the water and luckily she has a loving father that is willing to suffer for her.

We were told by the “lifeguard” that we needed a pass to enter the pool area, so Chad ran and got the pass (it would have cost us 4.50€ a person otherwise). Then he told us that we were not allowed to use the lounge chairs without renting them either. We laid in the grass for a bit and then the cold got to all of us and we headed back to our apartment.

We went to the grocery store and picked up some local cheese, meat, bread and wine and had dinner on our apartment patio. Zoë went to bed and Chad and I sat bundled up in our warm clothes and took pictures of the sunset from our patio. It was a great start to the trip. I prayed that the weather would improve the next day so we could have some fun together.

The next morning Z woke us up bright and early and we headed down to town for some breakfast at about 8:00am. It was only about a 10 minute walk, a beautiful seaside walk. I loved it! Not only did I love the walk, but the weather was already warm! It looked like it was going to be a hot day!

We ate some breakfast at a cafe, it was really nothing special and headed down to walk by the water. All along the way there were kiosks of people selling tickets for boat rides to see dolphins or to the grottos, or for fishing trips. We stopped and talked to a few of them and decided to get tickets for a sailboat trip out to the ocean, with a speed boat trip through the grotto and sea caves. It was 2 hours long, 15 euros a person (Z was free) and the sailboat was fully fitted with a restroom and bar.

We were supposed to check in to board the sailboat in 45 minutes. We only partially rushed home to get our things, thinking that the walk back to the apartment was quicker than it was.

As I was putting sunscreen on the babe, Chad tells me we are supposed to check in at that moment! We ran around, threw some stuff in my purse incase we decided to swim, and ran to the car.

After hitting every red light along the way (it seems so cliché that that happens every time one runs late don’t you think?), we made it to the marina. I jumped out of the car to go check in 15 minutes late. A lady was looking for us and told us where to go… Chad went and parked the car, I ran and helped him get Zoë out of the car and the lady ran with us to where the sailboat was already sailing away. Lucky for us, people running late happens often, and they had a motor boat on standby ready to take us to the sailboat.

We made a rather embarrassing entrance onto the sailboat, and after a few moments and some quick instructions from the skipper, we were running after Z, trying to make sure that she didn’t fall over board. She is such a brave little kid, she had no problem getting her sea legs and wanted to help them raise the sails too. It was so much fun to watch her.

The Sailboat

The Sailboat

Helping to Raise the Sail

Helping to Raise the Sail

A Natural Little Sailor

A Natural Little Sailor

After an hour on the sail boat, we hopped on a motor boat to go to the sea caves. It was fascinating and fun! Zoë thought we were looking for Captain Hook’s treasure cave, and she kept calling out for the Lost Boys. It was incredibly cute.

Captain Hook!!!

Captain Hook!!!

Entering a Sea Cave

Entering a Sea Cave

After seeing all the caves, we returned to the sailboat and then to the port. We walked to have some lunch at a restaurant by the dock, I was starving! I had some pretty good typical Portuguese bacalhau (salted cod) and Chad got the most amazing stuffed baby cuttlefish I have ever had. He had to practically put a barrier around his plate so he could eat some without me stealing it off his fork.

We drove back to our apartment and went down to the beach below our apartment. It was the Dona Ana Beach, and it had bathrooms, and a restaurant and bar right on the beach. We laid out in the sun while Z played in the sand. The water was freezing, so I did my best to stay out of it, but my two year old told me what to do, and finally I relented.

We stayed on the beach until the sun went down. It was a great day. Z went to bed and Chad and I spent another night, this time a warm one, sitting on the patio, enjoying our blessed life.

Hanging Out on Our Patio

Hanging Out on Our Patio

The next day we checked out of our apartment, sad that we didn’t plan to stay one more day, ate breakfast and then started the drive home, more tan and happy than we were when we arrived.

On the way back to Lisbon, we stopped by Pedro’s’ house and had lunch with him and his lovely wife, Vanessa, and their two amazing and smart kids, Lilo and Bruno. I had such a great time getting to know Vanessa, Pedro and the kids. That is one of the things I love most about traveling, getting to know new people, making new friends, and learning more about other cultures. It was truly the best way to end our trip to the Algarve.

We have been back in Lisbon for almost two weeks now and we have spent that time preparing to leave for the next leg of our journey. I love Portugal and am sad to say good-bye, especially to all the lovely people that I have gotten to know. I know we will be back though, we have so much more of Portugal to see and experience.

Tomorrow, we fly to Paris, France, to celebrate Zoë’s second birthday at Disneyland Paris! I am very excited! I will have so much to tell you on Wednesday! Until then, ciao!

Wednesday Write-Up: Same Same but Different

This week has been one of quiet contemplative stress for me. On Saturday we are leaving Lisbon for Paris, France. We are taking Zoë to Disneyland Paris for her second birthday (one more Disney park off the list!) as a surprise. Yes, I know she probably won’t remember it, but she will see the pictures later and know that her parents were awesome and spoiled her rotten (right?!). Lisbon is so much like our home town that it has been easy to acclimate to being so far away from what we know and are used to. For this reason, among others, I am a bit sad to be leaving, but I really do feel that we need to explore Europe a bit more.

There are many similarities between Portugal and Sonoma County, California, such as the landscape, the weather, and the wine (although I have to say I like the wine here better, and only have to pay 2 Euros for a bottle—sorry Sonoma County). The biggest difference I have seen between Portugal and Sonoma County is the family friendliness.

Many of you parents out there may never have experienced this, but when I was living in America I was sometimes shunned from places because I was toting along a child. On any given day, I can peruse my Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest feed and I will see parents apologizing for bringing their children along with them, whether it be to a restaurant, or on a airplane flight (seriously… those people that made up candy bags for the whole plane apologizing for taking their babies on the plane thats viral on Pinterest…I just want to slap them…thanks for starting that trend lady).

I can’t really blame those parents for wanting to apologize though, because at the same time, there are people complaining about parents bringing their children to those places. It is a strange conundrum that American parents find themselves in. Everyone seems to love that you are having kids, but then once you have them you are supposed to hide them away, only letting them emerge from their room to go to an educational play date or a labeled child area, such as a park or playground. And if you decide to take your child everywhere with you, which I did, you had to be prepared for rolled eyes, sarcastic and rude remarks, and an overall feeling of being unwelcome whether your child was being a perfect angel or was throwing a full blown tantrum.

Being here in Portugal, I have had to deal with some post traumatic stress from my time raising Zoë in California. I am incredibly careful, to the point of paranoia, about Zoë making noise in a restaurant (heck, even taking her into a restaurant made me grind my teeth preparing myself for the looks) or running around the table while Chad and I finish our espresso when we finish a meal. When I would go grocery shopping, I would freak out that Zoë would grab something off the shelf, which I would then have to remove from her steel grip, causing a tantrum and I would have to leave the store red-faced and shamed.

What I have found in this lovely country, is that people love your child(ren) and want you to take them with you. More often than not, we will get frowns when walking into a restaurant, and as soon as they see our little curly haired cutie, their faces light up and the rest of the time we are there, they try to engage and entertain Zoë. She often leaves with a piece of candy or a lollipop, I guess it’s a good thing we didn’t stick to the “she will have no sugar until she is 2 years old” plan we had before she was born. Regardless, people seem to love children here and I have not had one eye roll or rude remark since being here. My parental PTSD is abating now with the therapy of family values in this wonderful country.

Something else that is different that goes along with the family friendliness here, is that the safety rules are a bit different from America. If someone was to give Zoë a piece of candy back home, I would tell her not to eat it, but to let me check it first. You can never be too safe when it comes to razor blade and drug laced candy back home. Here, in Lisbon, and the rest of Portugal for that matter, it seems a non-issue, everyone gives her candy, from the fruit vendor to the restaurant owner. It’s just what is done here, with no ill-will, but just to make your kid happy. I like this difference. This makes me feel that Zoë is safe and that I am able to keep her safe. The bad guys are not so prevalent here (I know that there are bad guys everywhere, but I seriously doubt someone will give her an LSD laced sticker here).

It will be interesting if we ever go back home to beautiful Northern California, how will I teach Zoë not to speak to ANY strangers, when here I tell her she should always respond with a hearty “Olá” when someone addresses her. You will have to tune in and see what happens with that, because, honestly, I have no idea how I will make the distinction to her as she grows older.

This culture has so many similarities to Sonoma County California, but still the differences are noticeable. These differences are why I love to travel…I want to see what the world holds for me, what different cultures deem as acceptable and as taboo. I crave this change of culture, scenery, and especially food (you knew I would mention food at some point right?!). More adventures to be had in the near future and more stories to tell you! Thank you all for reading!

Lovely Port… Ahem..I mean Porto

So this past week we have been running up and down Portugal. We were trying to fit in all that we wanted to see before we leave for the next stop on our journey. We have a little over a week before our next destination. I am splitting these trips into two posts because there is just so much that I want to say about each. I am going to start by telling you about our trip to Porto.

We had really been wanting to check out Porto, which is a city in the north that everyone raves about as being “the” place to go wine tasting. Chad and I had originally considered staying in Porto, which is the second largest city in Portugal, instead of Lisbon. It was a hard decision, but the descriptions of Porto reminded us too much of home, so we chose Lisbon. As some of you might already know, we are from Sonoma County, California and have been surrounded by vineyards and wineries in all directions most of our lives.

We arrived on a Wednesday by train, which took about 3 ½ hours and cost about 25€ each. I love taking trains. I love feeling the soothing rock of the cars click-clacking along. I love being able to walk around and stretch my legs as much as I want to. I especially love the fact that there is usually a snack/dinner car where I can get something to eat or drink when I want to. This method of transportation makes it incredibly easy to travel with a toddler in my opinion. Zoë had a great time playing with the seat table and drawing and being able to sit in her own chair, she already wants to be a big girl.

We arrived mid afternoon and were able to hop on a metro immediately that took us directly to our hotel. Chad found a place called Hotel Da Norte, that was relatively inexpensive and like I said, as soon as you walk off the metro stop, there was the hotel right in front of us. It was nice not to have to search for it.

The hotel staff was lovely and helpful, making sure that we got a room big enough for a toddler crib for Z. The room was very clean and although the view was not beautiful, there were many windows that let the sun shine in (and give me a dose of vitamin D without having to sit in the horrible cold weather outside).

Zoë Checking Out the Room

Zoë Checking Out the Room

Porto is in northern Portugal and is bordered by the ocean on one side and a huge river runs through it, so it makes sense that it is a bit cooler than Lisbon. I was prepared for it, and yet it still made me a little cranky. I think I hid it well, although maybe Chad noticed a little.

Trying to Smile Through The Cold

Trying to Smile Through the Pain of Being Frozen

We decided to walk down to the river front and get some seafood for a late lunch. It was a big mistake. The river front is tourist central, which doesn’t really bother me usually, but the food that they served was disappointing and overpriced. The local dish, called Francesinha was really the only thing offered, besides hamburgers and hot dogs for the most part. I decided to try the local favorite and was served a lukewarm sandwich made up of one slice of cheap white bread, a some ham, sausage and cheese topped with a chili sauce that lacked any flavor at all. Luckily, my meal came with french fries, so I did have something to eat. Chad had calamari rings that looked as though they were probably from a bag. Poor Zoë got a hot dog on a moldy bun. She was okay with it though, as she only eats the hot dog anyways. Still, this was not the type or quality of food we had become accustomed to. We hurriedly finished our overpriced cardboard fare and decided to do some sight seeing.

We decided to do the Hop on Hop Off Red Bus again, but this one also included a boat trip down the river to look at Porto’s six famous bridges and a free tasting at one of the port wineries. We started with the boat trip. This was fun, but a bit disappointing as there was no information given about the bridges or the landmarks on the shore. It was simply just a boat ride up and down the river. They dropped us off on the other side of the river, where all the port tasting rooms are and we headed by foot to the tasting rooms that were on our voucher. They were the furthest ones away, but I needed to warm up a little and the brisk walk took care of that quickly. Just a quick note for parents of toddlers out there, the sidewalks were very well maintained and we pushed Zoë around in her stroller quite easily the whole trip.

The Six Bridge Boat Trip

The Six Bridge Boat Trip

Warming Up With a Walk

Warming Up With a Walk

We tried a red and white port at Krohns, the first port winery we came upon that we had a free tasting. Then we walked up the hill a bit more and went to Cockburns Port Winery, and there we tried three other ports, a tawny and two reds. I must say that the ports were divine. I loved them all. The walk back to the bus stop was merry. I was warm from the port and ready for the next adventure to begin.

Krohn Port Winery

Krohn Port Winery

Zoë Being Silly at Krohn Port Winery

Zoë Being Silly at Krohn Port Winery

Cockburn Port Winery

Cockburn Port Winery

After we arrived at the bus stop, we realized that the busses had stopped running an hour before. So we had another opportunity to warm up with a walk back to the other side of the river. It was actually pretty cool, the bridge was built by Gustave Eiffel and you could see the similarities between the design of the bridge and (the pictures I have seen of) the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

The Bridge Designed by Gustave Eiffel

The Bridge Designed by Gustave Eiffel

We then got to take a Funicular up the hill back to the area where our hotel was. A funicular is a small trolley car that acts like an tram mixed with a elevator. It was a lot of fun riding in it up the hill, it was probably one of the highlights of the day for me. It’s the small things like that that fascinate and enthrall me.

The Funicular

The Funicular

By that time, it was dinner time. We walked around for a while and noticed that all the restaurants near our hotel were closing. It was only 7 pm! We were lucky and one of the ladies taking her outdoor tables down gave us the name and directions to an amazing restaurant called Casa de Paraiso II. The seafood was fresh and cooked perfectly. The restaurant had wonderful house red wine, and their half portion meals were big enough to feed a small family. All three of us had full bellies as we made our way back to our room for some much needed sleep.

The next day, our little alarm clock, named Zoë, woke us up early enough to check out of our room by 8:30 am. We went and had some typical pastries at a snack bar and made our way to one of the nearby bus stops to catch the red bus and see the sights of Porto. There were two lines the busses take and we got on the one that took us out to the neighborhoods of mansions built in the 1950’s instead of around the center of town with all of the castles and cathedrals. So, yes, we were not very lucky with the red bus on this trip.

We jumped off the bus as Zoë fell asleep for her nap so we could sit and enjoy lunch for awhile before she woke. We ducked into a little cafe as it began to rain and had a lovely lunch of spaghetti (yep, that was me) and Chad decided to take a chance and had an awesome plate of francesinha. The local fare was vindicated from our horrible food at the river front the day before. We drank some red wine and waited for Z to wake up. It was great to have some time to relax with each other and have an uninterrupted conversation. Zoë had another hot dog when she woke up (I swear we feed her more than just hot dogs!) and we left the cafe happy.  Our time in Porto was up, we had to run back and get our bags from the hotel and catch the metro to the train station back to Lisbon.

There were things I really loved about Porto, but I must say that our little overnight trip was marred by the very cold weather and my first sub par meal since entering this amazing country. I am glad that we chose to live in Lisbon for the time we have been in Portugal, but would not hesitate to spend some more time in Porto.

Wednesday Write-Up: Who Needs a Night Life?

This past week Chad, Zoë and I have been doing a little traveling to other parts of Portugal. We visited Porto, in the north, for a couple of days and just got back today from a trip to Lagos in the south. I plan on writing more about these two vastly different cities on Friday in my travel post, so subscribe so you can read all about it.

We got back to Lisbon today to a huge city wide party. Tonight is the Saint Anthony Festival, which starts in the early evening and continues all night. And it is going on in every neighborhood, currently the song “What a Feeling” is playing loud enough on the street below that we can hear it perfectly in our fifth floor apartment.  People are laughing, talking, singing along to the music. It sounds like a really fun night.

I have to say I am a little jealous. I am incredibly blessed that my amazing daughter is in bed and, pardon the cliche, is sleeping like a baby through all the noise. I will not jinx myself and say that I wish she would stay awake later…heck no, I would never wish that…I enjoy my evenings while she is asleep. Sometimes though I do miss being able to go out on the town after dark. Especially when it is right outside my front door.

I sit here and think how I wish I could go outside with everyone else, and then I realize how much more I have seen of the places we have been because I do not go out late at night. Not only that, but it also helps to be woken at 6:30 or 7 am everyday so i get the most time possible to partake in real life in the cities we have visited.  A special thanks to Zoë for being my little human alarm clock.

This journey is completely different from Chad and I’s pre-baby travels, and for the better I think. Zoë has made every part of this adventure acutely more special and fulfilling. I not only get to experience different and wonderful cultures, but I get to see how they enthrall and excite Zoë. It is a better feeling than I can even describe.

So I willingly give up my night life (despite being a tiny bit envious), because living on the road with my toddler, is the most exciting and worthwhile venture I could ever undertake. Being a mom is rad, that is all I can say.

I am off to bed early…Good night all!

Traveling With a Toddler: 5 Apps That Will Save Your Life

Okay…I admit that I exaggerated a bit in the title of this post. But, for anyone that has traveled with a toddler, it can seem like life or death sometimes (cue dramatic music). How much stress can one parent stand before we keel over, am I right?

Whether you go on a quick road trip, a 10 hour flight, or are trying to navigate through a new city, smart phones have made it a little easier for us. I want to share with you the five apps that have really helped us along our journey with Zoë so far.

ENDLESS ALPHABET

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I know, I know…this is coming from the first time mother that said she would never let her child look at any screens until said child was at least 2 years old…. Hahahahah. Yeah, well life has a way of changing our thoughts and ideas, and sometimes for the better. Although I try not to plug Zoë in let Zoë play video games or watch TV too much, this educational game has been a wonderful addition to our daughters entertainment, for those times that a screen is absolutely needed.

Endless Alphabet is a free app that teaches children how to spell words such as “xylophone” and “yodel” by mixing up the letters and making the child place the letters in the correct order like a puzzle. After the letters are placed correctly, there is a quick little explanation and cartoon showing what the word means. It’s cute and fun. I can honestly say that Zoë learned her alphabet and the phonics of the letters already because of this game (although I would love to say it was time and hard dedicated work on my part).

The game is updated periodically with new words and there is never any need to pay for anything. This game is a must have for you toddler parents out there, if you have a iPhone or iPad, download it here now! Unfortunately it is not out for androids just yet.

CURIOUS GEORGE: CURIOUS ABOUT SHAPES AND COLOR

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This app has been hours of fun and learning for Zoë so far (and hours of quiet time for me or time that I can be productive). This game is not free , but the $2.99 is well worth it. Zoë has learned not only shapes and colors, but how shapes interact with each other and make things. This is a wonderful learning game and I would highly recommend it!

Unfortunately, this game is only made for the iPad or iPhone as far as I can tell. You can check it out on iTunes here.

GOOGLE MAPS

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Okay, so this is not an app for toddlers. But when you have a toddler that is mid-tantrum, or tired, or hungry, you have to be able to find where you need to go easily, quickly and without error. Google Maps helps me with this. Google maps not only has driving directions, but also gives directions if you are walking or using public transportation. Not only that, but 99% of the time you can just enter the name of a business and you will be shown the way within a few seconds, you do not even have to know the address! This has made it easier to get where we need to go no matter what mood Zoë is in!

This is a free app and you can check it out here.

WHATSAPP

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Again, this app is not really for toddlers, but this is app provides an awesome way to keep in contact with family and friends back home. This app lets you text for free from anywhere in the world. Not only can you text, but you can send video and pictures, too! My family gets at least three or four videos and pictures a week, keeping them abreast of how Zoë is growing, what she new words she has learned, and pretty much all around keeping them a part of her life (and of course mine too, but who wouldn’t rather see a cute two year olds dimples than mine?). There are a couple of the problems with the app, one is that the other party has to also have the app in order to get your texts. The other problem being that it is $0.99, but in comparison to the cost of one international text (usually 50 cents or more for one) this is a real steal. Check it out here.

SKYPE

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This app is along the same lines as WhatsApp, except that you can video chat or call with Skype. This is the way that we keep in touch with family and friends back home when we actually want to talk to them. It is free to sign up and you can use Skype on your smart phone or computer. Also, you have the choice to either make a completely free call to someone else that also has Skype, or you can pay a nominal fee and call peoples regular phones. Most people nowadays have smart phones (and if they don’t already, they should take the plunge) so the probability of your friends or family not being able to get Skype are slim. This app is an excellent way to keep in touch with those you left while you are on the road. Check out Skype here.

These are the apps we have used most so far, what apps have you found to be “life-savers”? I always welcome suggestions to add to our traveling arsenal!

Wednesday Write-Up: The Small Things

It is the small things that change my day, either negatively (like my day last Wednesday…please try not to judge me harshly for my whining) or positively.

Today was a day where the small things have affected me positively. It has been an absolutely wonderful day! Thank you God!

We haven’t really done any touristy type things so far this week, Zoë and I have been playing around while Chad has tried to get all of his work accomplished before we head to Porto tomorrow for two days. I am very excited to see a new part of Portugal! This week has pretty much been a normal week, except today was amazing!

It may seem insignificant to some of you, but yesterday I finally found a salon where they have a waxer! The only kind of hair removal I had found here so far was laser hair removal (scary!), Nair, and a good old fashioned razor. Sorry, but none of these are for me, I need some beeswax and a couple of fabric strips to get rid of my unwanted hair.

So, back to the salon…Not only did the receptionist speak decent english (thank goodness, as my portuguese is still sub-par to say the least), but it’s literally two blocks from our apartment. I immediately made an appointment for myself to get the god-awful excess hair removed from my body. I have not been waxed since we were in Curacao over a month ago. For those of you that know me, you know that I am not really that hairy of a lady. I honestly do not have to shave my legs more than once every month or so (I really do realize how blessed I am by this). But my eyebrows and underarms…that is a whole other story. After letting my underarm hair grow for over a month, let me just say, I looked like I should have been at Woodstock. I finally caved and shaved them. It was a sad day for me, but it really had to be done, I could’t wait any longer and wasn’t willing to try the laser on such a sensitive area of my body.

I am now a hairless and happy woman! The esthetician was professional, personable and proficient in her work. It was so nice to be pampered for an hour today. I left feeling like I was walking on air, although that could have been the 10 pounds of hair I left behind.

Another thing that made this day wonderful, was that Zoë did not throw one tantrum all day, actually listened to my instructions, and we had a great time playing all day long! It was eye-opening to me how much her moods affects mine and vice versa. I guess I should get used to that fact, two females living together can cause some serious turmoil…poor Chad. Now I know how my parents felt, well just slightly…they had three girls and a boy…there were about 10 years there that someone was going through puberty in that house. That, to me, sounds like hell on earth…props to you Mom and Dad!

Chad and I have made some plans to leave Lisbon, we have booked and completely planned our next two destinations, which is very exciting to me. It is bittersweet though, I really love Lisbon. If Thailand doesn’t work out for us, I already told Chad I think we should consider coming back to Lisbon to stay.

The next two destinations are so different from where we expected to go, but God has other plans for us obviously. And I love that we are blessed to be able to do all this. Life is good. God is good. Now I just need to make sure my attitude stays good. Thanks for staying with me through the good and bad times my friends!

Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. James 5:13