Drop Down MenusCSS Drop Down MenuPure CSS Dropdown Menu

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Beginning of Costa Rica - Eco Adventure Family Travel

Volcano, rainforest, beach!  We are going to walk the hanging bridges, zip-line the canopy rainforest, and white-water raft the river.  Guess where the Chic Family is going next?
YESSSSSS - we are heading to Central America, specifically Costa Rica (our first time in the region).  Have you been?  If so, what should we know?  If not, can I convince you to come with us?

So, this trip is going to be a little different from our previous ones.  For starters, we are doing two things that I said I would NEVER do in my life *sigh*.  The kids (and Rob) are thrilled at the itinerary.  I just want to survive.  Intact.  Here are a few things planned...

Hanging Bridges in Arenal (this is my speed)

Rainforest Night Hike (piece of cake, just don't touch)

Arenal Volcano Hike (still my speed, it's been dormant for years)

Arenal Ziplining (exiting my comfort zone)

Savegre River Whitewater Rafting (being the weakest swimmer of the lot including the 6 year old, this is full-on not my thing)
Sweet! Stars! Above! Please let the river be more like the picture below and less like the picture above.  My heart will be thankful.

Planning Costa Rica:

Route:  We initially started out with the typical tourist itinerary:  Arenal, Monteverde, and Manual Antonio for our first visit.  After looking at distances, we decided that this would put us in more transit than desired for our number of days.  Looking at the domestic air routes, we decided to cut out Monteverde and utilized flights between Arenal and Manual Antonio/Quepos.

It appears that the roads are good for a self-drive tour and would be our choice given more time and familiarity.  I noticed that M.A. is 3 hours from SJO International airport and I was thinking we should be closer on day of departure.  Don't worry, I think I found a winner for our final two nights (both accommodations and sight-seeing)!

Flights/Shuttles:  Costa Rica first appeared on my radar when I saw direct flights from our home airport to SJO - YESSSS!  With round trip tickets booked, it was time to figure out our in-country travel.  I freak out at the idea of a tight connection.  I'm sure 2 1/2 hours is fine, but I would be too stressed worrying about clearing customs and getting to the domestic airline in a timely matter on top of possible flight arrival delays.  Man, it sure is hard to pass on a 20 minute flight and choose the 3 hour drive to Arenal, but my nerves thank me.  Plus, it will provide the answers regarding a future (longer) self-drive trip.

Accommodations:  This is actually our first time traveling during Spring Break.  Now that the kids are older, we go on their school breaks, which means PEAK time.  I was finding that in November (when I first started planning), places were completely booked for Spring Break.  And, guess what else?!  The PRICES - Wow, Oh My, Heart Palpitations, PRICES.  I've since learned that Easter week is a very popular, very busy, very peak time in Costa Rica.  Thank goodness, I was booking almost 6 months out, so I managed to find some special places to stay and ideas for a future longer stay. 

Packing:  Guess what?!  We are going to finally realize my DREAM.  We are (wait for it) going to (take a deep breathe) travel with NO checked luggage!!!!!!  With kids!!!!!!  For the first time, we will not be able to overpack.  I am giddy with glee.  I'll let you know how it goes.  The quick summary though is we are utilizing packing cubes and carry-on spinners.  Each person responsible for their own stuff.

Tours: Here is where I begin to tremble. You will have to wait for our trip report to find out what we survive.

Our planned 9 day itinerary:

Arrive SJO (private shuttle to Arenal)

3 nights Arenal (fly NatureAir to M.A.)
- Canopy Ziplining
- Volcano, Waterfall, Hanging Bridges Hike

3 nights Manual Antonio (fly NatureAir to SJO)
- White-water Rafting
- Horseback Riding
- Beach

2 nights Alajuela (private shuttle to SJO)
- Night Nature Hike, Volcano

Depart SJO

Be back real soon with our Costa Rica Trip Report!

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Holiday in Aruba - One Happy Island (12 Days of Christmas)

Day 1 - Arrival (Christmas Eve)
Day 2 - Merry Christmas
Day 3 - Tippy Point to Tippy Point
Day 4 - Gold Mine Ranch - BEST DAY EVER!
Day 5 - Baby Beach
Day 6 - Arikok National Park and Aruban Nightlife (kid-style)
Day 7 - Mangel Halto and Beach Pets
Day 8 - Donkey Sanctuary, Ayo & Casibari Rock Formations /
New Year's Eve (unforgettable ARUBA-style)
Day 9 - Happy New Year!  Mt. Hooiberg
Day 10 - Stranded in Aruba - Resort Time
Day 11 - Another Family First: Jet-skiing!
Day 12 - Departure

Well, all I can say is I had no idea we would find so much to do on tiny One Happy Island Aruba.  It may be tiny, but the hearts of Aruba are HUGE and we are thankful for our time with the locals during the holiday season.  THAT was the difference with this trip and last year.  This time we immersed ourselves into the local scene.  We lived in a residential area away from the hotels, we drove through the neighborhoods (can you believe it is possible to get lost on an island that is only 75 square miles (5 at the widest point, 19 in length)), ate where the locals ate, drank with them, and celebrated the end of 2015 with the warm people.  I am still recovering from New Year's Eve, more on that later, but let's just say Arubans take their end of the year festivities SERIOUSLY!  

What follows is our trip report - maybe you will plan your trip to Aruba after reading about the awesome time we had as it is a great family travel destination!

Day 1 - Arrival (Christmas Eve)

I was prepared for a mess entering Aruba at Customs and Immigration, but was pleasantly surprised that everything went very smoothly.  Last year, we arrived to be pressed into a crowded space and it was unorganized.  Not this time.  They have streamlined the process and in fact, you can fill out your ED (Embarkation/Disembarkation) card online ahead of time.  We swiftly exited the airport, but not before stopping at Duty Free by baggage to stock up on alcohol.  You can take one hard liquor or 3 wine per adult, before paying tax.  We had 5 adults :) The agent didn't even check us when we passed through.  We were supposed to be greeted with a waiting driver to take us to our rental, but it never showed up.  Oh, I get it.  This is island life.  Go with the flow.  Took a few minutes for us to settle into our new lives.  Shrugged shoulders, hopped in a taxi and headed over to 38 Spaan Lagoenweg, Pos Chiquito.  We were greeted at the house, given keys, a rental van, and arranged for a chef to come prepare our Christmas Eve dinner.  OH MY GAWD talk about the GOOD LIFE!!!!

Our house was AMAZING! We had our own private beach. The water can be rough on some of the beaches, but there is a barrier of boulders protecting our beachfront so we had perfectly calm swimming waters. The girls settled in immediately and we let them run off without worries.

Square coin!
Local Beer!

We were all mesmerized by our first sunset (and every one of them after). It's amazing how quick the sun dips once it touches the horizon. The girls stared in awe and it warmed my heart to capture the moment.

Rob gave me major props for finding this beach house for our stay. I loved that he could just relax and not worry about carting loads of stuff around or fighting for a shaded spot on a crowded beach. Being very close to our own bar that had very flexible hours ;) was the icing on the cake!

Day 2 - Merry Christmas!

We couldn't be bothered to leave the house today.  Toes in the sand for Christmas.  We did venture out to celebrate Christmas dinner at Flying Fishbone.  Still barefoot at dinner, toes in the sand.  It's a pricey meal, but it was a special experience.  Good vibe, good food.  All tourists though.  The locals told me that they don't go here, which made total sense after eating where they eat, more on that later.

Santa followed us to Aruba!

Plenty of sea urchins hidden in the rocks.  
Thankfully, we did not step on any, but we wore water shoes when venturing past the boulders as it was quite rocky.  For the most part, they are in the nooks and crannies of the rocks.  The girls enjoyed the waves and were able to manage them quite nicely.  The tide goes out and it's very shallow for a good distance as you can see in the pictures, so I would not worry even for younger children. 

Day 3 - Tippy Point to Tippy Point   

We drove the entire island south (Baby Beach) to north (California Lighthouse).  Had a fantastic lunch at Red Fish in the middle.  Finally, we finished the afternoon at Eagle Beach surfing waves.  Sand decorated every strand of hair on Molly's head.

All of the beaches in Aruba are public.  It was great fun just driving around and getting out here and there.  It's very easy to drive in Aruba.  There is a main road (1A/1B) that goes from one end to the other.  It is also very easy to get to all the must-see sights on the island as well.  Don't worry if you end up on a dirt side road.  A lot of the roads are like this.  We had a van and it was fine for our whole trip, including into Arikok (except for the portion where you need a 4x4).  But, Arikok is very easy to navigate and there is signage for the sights.   

The herd of donkeys that roam near Baby Beach. A guide at Donkey Sanctuary said that they are going to try to round up these remaining donkeys for their safety when they relocate the sanctuary to Fisherman's Pass.

Baby Beach is a great beach to take younger children. Calm shallow waters without any worries. Shaded palapas are available all along the large beach. If one is not available, the trees provide plenty of shade as well. You can rent chairs and cabanas. Big Mama's is an option for food and drinks.  We only stayed a couple hours on this day because we wanted to explore the island, but we love Baby Beach so much that we did return another day (see Day 5).

We were hungry after reaching the middle of the island and saw this restaurant (Red Fish) on the side of the road. It isn't beach side/view, but it was a very enjoyable meal. Good food, comfortable set-up, friendly service.

After lunch, we made our way over to the California Lighthouse. Unfortunately, it is undergoing renovations. It's at the tippy of the island and provided great views. We saw a nice restaurant, but didn't get a chance to try it as we had already had lunch. It was starting to get hot, so we cooled off with a refreshing coconut. Back into the van and we headed towards the hotels to show my parents where we stayed last year (Tamarijn) and the beach (Eagle Beach). It was quite crowded, but the big plus of having a car is we just drove along a tiny bit away from the hotel and had more space than one could ever imagine on the same beach. Plenty of shade by the trees. Great size waves for the kids (they do so much better than me).

Day 4 - Gold Mine Ranch - BEST DAY EVER!

Oh! My! Sweet! Stars! Above! - We went horseback riding on an EXPEDITION as a FAMILY in ARUBA!!  This was so freaking AMAZING!  Just our family and one guide.  All of us riding independently on our own.  These gentle horses have our hearts.

After our introduction to horseback riding in Ireland, I just knew we would have to visit a ranch in Aruba.  I selected Gold Mine Ranch and contacted them prior to our travel.  They were very responsive and we selected Sunday morning for a private tour (they are closed on Sundays, but will do a private tour).  We were the only tour for the day and enjoyed our very personal Private Paradise Tour.  It was about 2 hours of riding the entire time with a couple stops for pictures.  We rode independently (a first for me and Molly, since in Ireland we each had a handler).  Kenny was our guide - the "horse whisperer".  After my initial nervousness, I could not have been more relaxed.  I thoroughly enjoyed the whole adventure.  I can't remember her name, but Kenny's kind partner even followed us a bit at a distance in her car to make sure we were all okay.  The sights we saw from horseback were amazing.  The huge waves from the coastline crashing at the cliffs - such a thrill!  The vast desert - Rob kept commenting that he felt like he was in the wild, wild west of his childhood imagination.  From start to finish, this was so much fun for us to do as a family.  After our ride, we each fed our horse a carrot to thank them for being so gentle.

Our itinerary:
  1. Gold Mill Ruins
  2. Budui Beach
  3. Wariruri Beach
  4. Baby Natural Bridge
  5. White-Sand Dunes
  6. “Rancho Beach”
  7. Indian Trail
  8. Hidden Valley
  9. Hidden Lagoon
  10. Boca Grandi (Private Paradise Tour)
  11. the Old Mine path of Bushiribana (Private Paradise Tour)


Having worked up quite the appetite, we were THRILLED to discover this Cuban gem - AG Rincon Criollo!  When I went to find their page on Facebook, I discovered that I had already "liked" them.  Ha ha!  The food was great and I wished that we could have returned during our stay.  The restaurant doesn't look like much from the outside, but just go on in.  Trust me.  

This pic is from their Facebook page.

Cuban Creole Tray - make sure you get the fresh hot sauce!

It may seem like we pack in a lot during our trips, but we ALWAYS make time for relaxing each day!

Day 5 - Baby Beach

So, we returned to Baby Beach this day because Rob found a dive shop right next to it (JADS) the previous day.  Being the non-swimmer, I was less than thrilled at the thought of little Caitlin diving or especially, myself.  I told him I was game as we walked over to check it out and promptly breathed out a sigh of relief to find it fully booked.  But, the dive instructor was actually quite convincing that I could handle this.  He sure made it sound easy peasy.  I told Rob that I am onboard for next time.  That time will be too soon.  Btw, there is a great bar next to the dive shop.

What?  Fully Booked?  I'm not relieved or anything.

So anyways, we were advised by our beach house's caretaker to try the local restaurant Zeerovers, just down the street from our house. 

THIS, yes, THIS is what Aruba means to me! I will recall the meals here when I look back on our adventure.  Great location, great people, great food, great music, great beer. We LOVED it so much that we had two dinners here and would have many more had we not made the awful mistake of leaving Aruba.  Here's the inside info - first, you get in line at the entrance.  This is where you will order your fresh catch.  It's very inexpensive, so keep ordering.  Make sure you get all the sides too.  Then, you go find a seat and wait for them to bring out your basket of cooked food.  Oh, if there is a long line for ordering, you can go up to the bar and and get a Balashi (or bucket of Balashi) for while you stand in line.  

Cooks working hard on your delicious meal!
Order up!

Preparing the fresh catch!

Day 6 - Arikok National Park and Aruban Nightlife (kid-style)

I was most looking forward to visiting Aruba's national park.  We didn't bother getting a 4x4 and just drove our rental van even though we knew we would not be able to go to the natural pool.  I figured there would be plenty enough of other things to see in the park and I was right.

Visitor's Center - this is located at the entrance and is where you buy your conservation ticket to enter the park.  You also pick up a map, but basically (if you travel by car), there is only one paved road.  There is also a more adventurous gravel road which we opted to bypass.  There are plenty of hiking trails.  We drove straight through on the Northern Loop stopping along the way at scenic points and overlooks.  

Boca Prins is an absolutely stunning beach. From the moment you come upon it and take the wooden steps down, you won't be able to take your eyes off the cliffs. The waves are wild and swimming is prohibited due to the undercurrents. My pictures do not do it justice. Like, look at my pictures and just know that I am the world's worst photographer.

Caitlin and Molly escaping us to head over the sand dunes of Boca Prins

Me and my dad!
My dad took this amazing pic of me and Rob.  Oh wait.  His thumb.  Yep, my dad.

Going to the edge!
Peering over the edge!

Fontein Cave - Duck your head!

There's a park ranger at this cave and he will explain the history and show you the ancient writing.  He will also lock the gate and take you on a detour for your spa treatment ;)

I'm not kidding about the spa treatment! FISH pedicures! I know!
My kids couldn't figure out why all the big fish were avoiding their feet and going straight for Rob's.  They understood after I told them that daddy must be providing quite the buffet.  This is what I loved about Aruba - such unique experiences and sights amongst the happy locals.

Multi-tasking: feeding AND being eaten alive!

Guadirikiri Cave - Hello BATS!

This cave had natural light at the interior through a hole in the ceiling.  Read the signage at the entrance, so you can do your part to not disturb the bats.  I was the last one to exit the cave because I stayed back to take more pictures, so I really got to see the bats swooping around.

Vader Piet - wind farm is actually outside of the park's boundary.  We exited here at the end of the park rather than backtrack.  This road will take you to Baby Beach.  It's kind of cool to drive along the wind turbines.  There are Do Not Enter signs all along indicating this is military training property.

We really enjoyed driving through and seeing the nature reserve and its arid landscape.  Next time, I would like to come back and hike with a guide and get a 4x4 to drive the more rugged landscape.

In the evening after dinner, we thought ourselves capable of following a couple left, left, roundabout, right, left at the Y directions so we headed out to enjoy some Aruban nightlight with a visit to the Cas di Luz, House of Lights in Seroe Preto San Nicolas.  We actually found it!

Day 7 - Mangel Halto and Beach Pets

There are beach pets EVERYWHERE in Aruba.  Lots of strays.  Because of all the ridiculous fireworks, scared strays (and many pets) were running off.  As a result, we gained our own beach dog and beach cat.  They both took refuge with us and we happily enjoyed their company.  They don't spay/neuter resulting in all the strays.  We learned that the ARF (Animal Relief Foundation) Aruba is set up to help people take home a new friend.  Apparently, a lot of vacationers fall in love with their beach pet, enough so that the ARF will gladly assist with the logistics of meeting the requirements for transport.  There is no quarantine coming into the U.S. because there is no rabies on the island.  We learned that our stray wasn't actually a stray, but lived two houses down from us.  

This morning, we saw our neighborhood fishermen catching bait with a cast net off our beach. We ran up to watch and they let us feed the pelicans with some of their bait, okay - lots of their bait (sardines). They use the bait to catch red snapper offshore and sell it to Zeerovers, so we probably ate some of their catch.

Another day, another beach. After dorking around our beach most of the day, we ventured out down the street to Mangel Halto beach. We saw a lot of dive tours come through here and our beach because there are supposedly some good reefs offshore to explore. Mangel Halto has a great local feel to it, but there were a few other tourists that had found this VERY calm beautiful beach. Shallow waters, hidden alcoves, shaded mangroves (and palapas), and sandy beaches made this spot a hit with the kids providing them plenty of good old exploring!

There's a bar next to the beach. It looks a little sketchy at first, but go on in. Trust me. All friendly locals.  There's a great wooden deck with ladder down to the beach.  Caution, the ladder is broken, but there are multiple stone steps to enter or you can just enter from the sandy beach side where there are also a bunch of palapas.  That's the neat thing about this beach - it's not just a wide long stretch, but full of hidden nooks and crannies for finding your comfy spot. 

Day 8 - Donkey Sanctuary, Ayo & Casibari Rock Formations
New Year's Eve (unforgettable ARUBA-style)

We knew that we wanted to do our sightseeing during the morning before the hot sun.  These were all easy sights to find and explore.  Having our own car was perfect as we could just hop in and go directly to places on our own.

Donkey Sanctuary - Save The Donkeys of Aruba!  

This was a treat for us to see the good work of volunteers at this nonprofit.  The donkeys are not native to Aruba, but have been on this island for over 500 years providing the primary mode of transportation until cars.  They have survived disease, vehicles, and mistreatment to find this safe haven.  We were enchanted by their friendliness.

You can learn about their history on the porch of the visitor center and can also feed them from behind the fenced porch. This is a quick, but easy and delightful place to visit.  Next, we drove towards the rock formations.

Fred Flintstone Style!  Ayo and Casibari Rock Formations took our breathe away.  Had a BLAST climbing up, under, around, and over all sorts of crevices, nooks, and crannies of these magnificent monolithic boulders.  It was a big day in earth history when volcanic activity pushed the seabed up to form the island of Aruba millions of years ago.  I was fascinated trying to imagine this as I thought about my footprint.

Ayo Rock Formation

Our timing could not have been better planned.  We were the ONLY ones here and it made it so much more special to let the kids wander and explore.  They whooped and hollered in excitement when they found snake skin and were off to hunt.  

Snakeskin - Something bigger lurks!

I would advise you to wear a hat, comfortable shoes, and bring water.  It is shaded under/in the boulders, but there is still plenty of open space where it is full sun.  Molly got overexposed and started to feel queasy as we were leaving.

Casibari Rock Formation

This rock formation was a little busier, but I found it slightly less impressive than Ayo.  It's different and worth seeing though.  It was a little trickier to find because you see it and then you don't.  No worries, you can find it too.  Molly was still feeling a little queasy, so Rob sat with her while I went up Casibari with Caitlin.  There are two ways up - easy and adventurous.  Of course, we did adventurous!  We got to the top and admired the views - watch your hat, it's quite windy up there.  

We must have been carrying on in our excitement or something because when we got back down and told Rob to go up, Molly refused to be left behind. Even though she wasn't feeling well, she insisted she was going to check it out.  My little trooper.

These three sights took no time at all and we were done before lunchtime. Headed back to the beach house with plans to go back to Flying Fishbone for our New Year's eve dinner.  However, Molly went straight to bed from sun overexposure so we ended up not making it out.  I carelessly had forgotten to pack the children's  Tylenol and Rob could not find anything in any of the stores.  If you have followed our previous travels, you will recall that Caitlin was injured in Ireland.  Traveling with kids, this is my greatest fear - injury or illness while traveling.  Like before though, we were lucky and all turned out fine.  She was all better by evening.

New Year's Eve - OH MY GAWD!  I still can't hear a thing.  I'm pretty sure I bear a few scorch marks on my skin.  C.R.A.Z.Y.

Arubans take New Year's Eve SERIOUSLY. Every resident had an arsenal. Last year, we were at the low-rise area and thought - how cool, there are fireworks all over the island. Well, let me tell you. It was nothing like being IN it. Like, legit, in the middle of explosive fireworks. Our neighbor to the left would set one off. Then, in response, our neighbor to the right would set a larger/louder one off. Back and forth, each side upping the ante. At one point, this crazy ass neighbor had what looked like a bazooka and was shooting flames in our direction. I wondered what was going to happen at midnight. Wouldn't they all have run out of fireworks by then?! Nope. No worries there. I've never seen anything like this on New Year's eve.

Happy New Year 2016!  Would you believe my kids slept through the whole thing?!

Day 9 - Happy New Year 2016! Mt. Hooiberg

We welcomed in the New Year with a morning hike up Mt. Hooiberg (541 ft. volcanic formation).  The girls did GREAT!  I took a lot of breaks.  Conflicting step counts - 562 on wiki, 642 painted on the last step.  I couldn't count them because I was too focused on breathing.  I'm going with the bigger number though.  Bragging rights, dude.  

We did nothing else the rest of the day, but sit beachside.  Last sunset here.  I'd say 2016 is off to a great start - One Happy Island! 

Day 10 - Stranded in Aruba - Resort Time

So, we were supposed to go home today.  But, couldn't find flights (darn).  No flights for tomorrow either (double-darn).  We had to leave our beach house because it was booked.  So, we moseyed on over to a resort (Holiday Inn Resort Aruba).  It's a hard life!

This was actually a good move.  A bit of activity and tourist-watching proved entertaining for all.  I was worried about the beach palapas situation, but since we came in the afternoon, we were able to set up a base camp and enjoy the beach before checking out the town for dinner.  Though we had good service and comfort for dinner, the food was definitely lacking (I missed my Zeerovers).  I also missed the space of our house once we were caged in with the two clowns.  BUT, I was very grateful to still be in Aruba!  Always.  

Day 11 - Another Family First: Jet-skiing!

Still in Aruba.  We found a fantastic place for breakfast just outside the hotel (Dushi Bagels & Burgers).  New York style just boiled and baked bagels before heading back to the beach where we had a THRILLING new family experience.

Having gotten out of diving (gulp), I was feeling a bit adventurous. I'm normally not one to sign up for water-based activities. I blame my weak swimming skills. But, I was eyeballing the tour hut next to our palapa and somehow mustered up some courage to go sign us up to JET SKI - YEAH!!!!

Wowsers!  Anther family first.  Molly with me.  Caitlin with Rob.  All returned to shore safely.  Whew.  First, we took a boat over to Eagle Beach.  Even that was exciting - coasting by the shoreline.  Absolutely gorgeous view.  

Guess what we did afterwards? Ha ha. What else? We went back to the beach/pool. The kids easily made friends and had a fantastic last day.

For dinner, we decided to try the restaurant next to the hotel property (Pelican Pier). The food was so-so, the service was a bit inattentive, but the location was good for our last (for real, this time) sunset in Aruba. The kids liked feeding bread to the fish and that kept them from getting too antsy.

Goodnight Aruba, Tomorrow We Go Home

Day 12 - Departure

Just to wrap things up, want to let you know that departing Aruba was easy peasy.  You will clear U.S. Customs in Aruba meaning several more stations to go through before you get to your departure terminal.  Everything is very clear about where to go next and what to do for each checkpoint.  We gave ourselves the 3 hours recommended time, but it probably took 30 minutes total.

I LOVE Aruba.  The people, the island, everything.  I recommend this destination for families looking for somewhere safe and easy to take the kids.  There is plenty to do.  And plenty of relaxation.  Get a car and explore.  Let me know if you end up loving One Happy Island as much as us.