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travel

Lådfabriken Bed & Breakfast - West Sweden

Images and text by Gabrielle. Some photos by Ben Blair too!

Okay you guys, before the trip gets too far away from me, I have two more Sweden posts! Today’s post is all about where we stayed once we left the city and started exploring the coast. In tomorrow’s post I’ll share our full itinerary, including museums and restaurants.

Lådfabriken Bed & Breakfast - West Sweden Lådfabriken Bed & Breakfast - West Sweden

There are 5 amazing accommodations we got acquainted with in West Sweden as we explored — Salt & Sill on Tjorn Island, Lådfabriken Bed & Breakfast, Evert’s Boathouse in Grebbestad, and Victoriahuset Hotel at Läckö Castle — plus one bonus spot: the Guest Studios at the Nordic Watercolor Museum. I think finding a place to stay is the hardest part any trip, so for those of you wanting to see Sweden, hopefully this will take some of the planning burden from your shoulders.

Lådfabriken Bed & Breakfast - West Sweden

First up, my favorite one to photograph, Lådfabriken Bed & Breakfast. I took a TON of photos at this home. In fact, everything you see pictured before the “click through” is from Lådfabriken. I told the owners it was the coolest house I had ever been to, and I meant it.

Lådfabriken Bed & Breakfast - West Sweden

The B&B is run by Marcus and Johan. They’ve put their heart and soul into the place, slowly transforming it over the past 7 years. Every knob, every fixture, every surface was lovingly pondered, and most additions/renovations are totally custom — designed and fabricated especially for this house.

They opened it to guests about a year and half ago. Though it looked perfect to me, they told me the house still has many projects ahead and they consider it to be at “toddler” stage — much more growth and change until the house is an “adult”. Hah!

Lådfabriken Bed & Breakfast - West Sweden Lådfabriken Bed & Breakfast - West Sweden

The B&B has 3 guest bedrooms, each one ridiculously charming, and each with their own bathroom. The bedroom we stayed in can be converted for a family — there’s a king size bed, and two twin size beds that hide in the wall. And the bookshelves include cute selections for the kids.

Garden at Lådfabriken Bed & Breakfast - West Sweden

The back of the house opens onto a beautiful garden that is steps away from the sea — you can take an early swim in the ocean before breakfast! Johan said that kids love to spend the day on that beach catching tiny crabs and then releasing them.

Breakfast table set at Lådfabriken Bed & Breakfast - West Sweden

I highly recommend a stay at Lådfabriken. The whole house will inspire you, and it’s worth the trip just to meet Marcus and Johan! I love that by staying here, you get to have conversations with actual locals. So often when we’re traveling, we really don’t get to talk to anyone except the hotel desk clerk — so I loved having conversations over breakfast with the hosts and the other guests and asking all my Swedish cultural questions.

Lådfabriken Bed & Breakfast - West Sweden

If you’re worried about not speaking Swedish, don’t be. Johan is Swedish, but commutes to Boston, and Marcus is from The Netherlands. They actually speak to each other in English. : )

More favorite hotels, plus our full itinerary with notes! Keep reading.

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Visit Sweden: Volvo Factory

August 21, 2014

Volvo Tour3

Photos and text by Gabrielle.

As part of my agreement related to this Sweden trip, I was asked to include the hashtag #inavolvo as I document our trip. A separate blog post about Volvo was not part of the agreement. So this post is not a sponsored post. But I wanted to write about what I learned at Volvo factory because I think you’ll find it interesting. I certainly did.

The Volvo factory is just outside of Gothenburg, and part of our itinerary included a visit to the facility to attend a safety demonstration and get the scoop on the Overseas Delivery Program. This program is pure genius and whoever figured it out wins the prize for… I don’t know, being a genius.

Basically, it’s this: If you live in the United States or Canada and you buy a new Volvo, you’ll get airfare for two to Sweden, plus a night in the Radisson Blu in Gothenburg (a lovely hotel, I included a photo of it at the bottom).

Why? For several reasons (free trip to Europe!), but the main one is that it actually brings down the price of the car. For reals. As a customer, you buy the car from your local U.S. Volvo dealer, then you come to Sweden, pick up the car from the factory, drive it around the countryside, or maybe take a side trip north to Norway. Then, you drop it off at the factory again, and they deliver it at no charge to your U.S. dealer. By doing this, it allows the car to be brought to the U.S. as “used” instead of “new” and the import tax is lower. Which, like I said, brings down the overall cost of the car.

So in a nutshell, if you’re buying a Volvo, taking a free trip to Sweden will get you the best price!

Fantastic, right?

Volvo Tour2

While we were at the factory, we met three couples from the U.S. who were all taking part in this Overseas Delivery program. One of the couples was taking part for the 5th time! The program has been going on for about a dozen years, and apparently there’s at least one couple who buys a Volvo every year, and then spends the summer touring Europe. Hah!

Keep reading, more info and photos ahead!

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Stockholm Day Two05

Images and text by Gabrielle.

We packed a ton into our Day Two Stockholm itinerary (see Day One here). And we loved it! There’s just so much to see. We started by meeting a tour guide, found via Visit Stockholm, at the hotel first thing in the morning. Her name is Elisabeth Daude and she’s a total Stockholm expert.

Stockholm Day Two03 Stockholm Day Two04

The first stop on our tour was a visit to the lake front to see the old palaces, and the building where the noble families historically met. We had a fun discussion about the roles royalty and nobility play in current Swedish political and social life.

Which reminds me, my favorite thing about tour guides is getting to ask a local all the million questions I have about the country’s culture and customs. With Elisabeth, we discussed two aspects of Swedish culture that I’ve been thinking about like crazy since our conversation — I’ll mention them at the bottom of the post so that I don’t get too distracted before I write up our itinerary.

Click here for the rest of our day two itinerary, plus lots of photos!

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Stockholm Day One08

Images and text by Gabrielle.

Day one in Stockholm! Such a great day. We spent the morning with Karina Lundell, Head Designer at Polarn O. Pyret. I first met Karina a few years ago and she is fantastic — so talented and delightful to hang out with.

Stockholm Day One05

We started at the PO.P offices where Karina took us through the fall line, the holiday line and the outerwear line. We talked about the new fabrics and features and discussed Sweden’s famous outdoor preschools. (Completely outdoors! Even in the middle of winter!)

Polarn O. Pyret is a classic Swedish brand — any Swede could identify the signature stripes. And Victoria, the Princess, who recently had a baby, carries a PO.P diaper bag and has dedicated personal shopping hours at PO.P stores. She’s expected to dress the baby in this classic Swedish brand (and has even been criticized if she doesn’t).

Polarn O. Pyret Fall 20141

Each season, PO.P chooses a new theme for their line, and this fall it’s “cooking with kids”. Based on the theme, they created two new prints, plus kitchen accessories in the signature Polarn O. Pyret navy and red — a chefs hat, dishtowels, over mits, and aprons. I’m nuts about the polka dotted chef’s hat!

Stockholm Day One07 Stockholm Day One06

After the HQ visit, we went to Polarn O. Pyret flagship store in the Gallerian shopping center so we could see the complete wares. All those stripes!

Stockholm Day One09

Next up, lunch at Restaurang Prinsen with classic Swedish food on the menu. Can you guess what I ordered? Swedish meatballs — with mash potatoes and lingonberry sauce, of course! Really, really yummy. The restaurant has a perfect location for access to the best shopping in town. We ate outside and watches the fashionable people walk by while we chatted.

Lunch in Stockholm1

One cute little detail: I liked how the dinner rolls were stacked on a stick!

Click for more of our Day One report!

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Stockholm

Image and text by Gabrielle.

Good morning! I’m waving hello from Sweden! As I mentioned, we’ll be spending much of our time here in Gothenburg and West Sweden, but we’re starting our trip with a few days in Stockholm. Stockholm is gorgeous. Gorgeous and super cool. It’s like cool overload.

We arrived yesterday evening, checked into our hotel, then wandered around Old Town, and watched the sun set on the water. There were stages and live music, playing late into the night, all over the city. And twinkle lights hung back and forth across the cobbled streets. Pretty glorious.

Today, we’ll be getting a shopping tour of the city from the Head Designer at Polarn O. Pyret. Can’t wait to report!

P.S. — Our hotel room has a turntable and stack of records! Made me happy. We listened to the Eurythmics while we unpacked. : )

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Rootbeer Flavored Cookies

August 13, 2014

donut sign 21

Image and text by Gabrielle.

We were laughing yesterday about some of things our exchange students noticed about America. The first thing they commented on was how BIG everything seemed, from the moment they disembarked from the airplance. The cars, the freeways, the buildings, the stores — they were wide-eyed at how huge everything was in comparison to their own countries.

They also had a talent for zeroing in on the craziest or most extreme items in the grocery stores or on the menus at restaurants. For example, during his last week here, Chris purchased a package of Rootbeer Float Flavored Chips Ahoy Cookies. Have you ever heard of such a thing? Don’t they sound like the strangest concoction? I had no idea they existed! Another time, we were at an outdoor mall and stopped at Fuddruckers for burgers. Victor and Charles ordered the enormous 1-pound burger just to see what it was like! Of course, I had never noticed it was on the menu and had certainly never heard or seen anyone order it. It’s one of those things that’s much more of a novelty than an actual menu item. During the roadtrip, when we were stocking up on snacks, Charles requested a bottle of Easy Cheese — as a Frenchman, he prides himself on knowledge of the best cheeses, and wanted to see this mockery of cheese product for himself.

We didn’t mind at all when they pointed out the strange things they would see. America has a reputation for crazy food and lots of it, so I think they were pre-disposed to notice the oddest bits. And we know we did the same sort of thing when we lived in France. We couldn’t help but notice the large glass jars of snails at the grocery store — though I never actually saw such a jar in anyone’s grocery cart.

To balance out the extremes, we would also try to give them common experiences. Sample breakfasts might be a bowl of corn flakes or Cheerios, another morning might be donuts, or something more traditional like sausage and eggs. Beyond food experiences, they would join us for family screen time, or run errands with us.

It was fun to see our world through their eyes. And now, when I’m at the store, I’m more likely to notice any strange new food items that have popped up.

If you were making an itinerary for visitors to your own town, what are the strangest things, and the most common things, you’d put on the schedule? What do you think they’d notice about where you live? What would you hope they’d notice?

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Sweden!

August 6, 2014

Sweden

By Gabrielle. Photo here.

Oh my. I am laughing while I write this post. I am still in the middle of stacks of post-roadtrip laundry, and at the same time making a packing list for our next trip. We are going to Sweden!

This trip is just for me and Ben Blair. No kids. Just us as a couple. I keep thinking about that line, something about what parents really need after a family vacation is a vacation. Hah! There’s definitely some truth to it — a family vacation isn’t much of a vacation for the parents. So I’m delighted to have a getaway on the schedule just for the two of us.

But that’s only one part of why we’re going. We didn’t come up with this plan for a trip to Sweden, though it’s been on our travel wishlist for years — this is one of those opportunities that came to us via blogging (and yes, I’m completely aware of how crazy lucky we are!). Sweden’s Tourism Board reached out with a fantastic promotion. They’re sponsoring 4 different bloggers on 4 different trips, each one with a specific theme — The Explorer, The Foodie, The Eco-Tourist, and The Curator. Our trip’s theme is The Curator, and the itinerary is fantastic. It takes us up and down Sweden’s West Coast and includes things like art museums, historic neighborhood walks, famed restaurants, sculpture parks and charming hotels.

The board wants us to see as much of the West Coast as we can, so instead of checking into one hotel and using it as a base, we’ll be checking into a new hotel every night, each one in a different town. In fact, one of the trip sponsors is Volvo. When we arrive in Gothenburg, we’ll be touring their factory and they’ll loan us a car so we can drive to destinations up and down the coast. Should be amazing.

For sure it feels like a wild time to be taking a trip. August is crazy at our house. There is back to school prep, two birthdays, house guests, kid camps, etc. Not exactly prime vacation time for us as parents. But the ultimate reason we said yes to this trip to Sweden, even in the midst of August chaos, is our wedding anniversary. It happens on August 19th — right in the middle of the trip. We are awful about celebrating our anniversary. We almost always let August busy-ness push the day to the bottom of our priority list. So saying yes to this trip felt like intentionally carving out time to celebrate our marriage and carving out time to be together, just the two of us.

Oh man. I could not be more excited about this trip. Every time I look at the itinerary I get goosebumps. Even hanging out with Ben on the plane ride sounds dreamy as can be. We fly out on August 13th — that’s a week away. I’m giddy just thinking about it!

And now I’d love to know, have you ever been to Sweden? I’d love to hear about your favorite spots. Also, I’m curious how you handle trip itineraries. When we travel as a family we tend to keep things pretty loose and plan the next day’s activities the night before. But for this trip, our schedule is set and we essentially won’t need to make many decisions about the day’s activities. Kind of refreshing. How about you? Do you travel with a plan?

P.S. — Of the 4 bloggers participating, I’m the last to travel, so you can already see their reports when you check out #inavolvo and #westsweden on social media. I’ll be adding to the hashtags when I get there!

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Epic Roadtrip

Image and text by Gabrielle.

As promised, this post is about some of the logistics of the Epic Roadtrip. I’ll start with a few overarching details. We started the trip with 11 people — 8 Blairs, 1 French exchange student, 1 English exchange student, and a niece. In Las Vegas, the niece was picked up by another family of cousins, so we were down to 10. Then, during our stay in Salt Lake City, the French exchange student flew back to Paris (it was the end of a 3-month stay with us). So on the drive home from SLC to Oakland, there were only 9 of us.

We rented a 12-seater van for the trip. On some days there were long drives, on other days, were were only in the car for an hour or so. When we started out, the three teenage boys were in the 4th row, the three teenage girls (well, Olive is almost a teen) were in the 3rd row. Oscar, Betty & June were in the 2nd row, and Ben Blair and I were in the front row.

Click here for details on Food, Hotels, Itinerary and more!

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Salt Lake City

Image and text by Gabrielle.

We originally built this roadtrip around two family events. Cousins Week in St. George, and our nephew’s wedding in Salt Lake City. The overall trip was probably longer than we typically would have chosen, but it made sense if we wanted to attend both of those events. That said, by time we arrived in Northern Utah, we were definitely feeling travel worn — craving home-cooked meals and our own beds. So we tried to keep our schedules pretty simple.

Visiting Salt Lake City felt different than other parts of our trip. We did less of the touristy activities, and instead, tried to connect with family and friends in the area as much as we could. The touristy parts included a visit to Temple Square — where we stopped into the famed Tabernacle and were able to hear someone playing the astounding pipe organ — and a visit to the mountains as well. We drove up a canyon without a solid destination in mind, then stopped at Solitude Ski Resort to hike around and play in the creek.

The city heat was not as bad as Las Vegas or St. George, but still pretty intense. So it was fun to show the kids that with a short drive into the mountains, it’s like a whole different world. Lush green, cool and comfortable. No red-rock desert in sight.

The rest of our visit was family focused. It was refreshing to step away from the van and the maps and the tourist brochures and just hang out. The wedding was lovely. Spending time with old friends made us happy. And late-night talks with siblings and cousins at Grandma and Grandpa’s house was a highlight.

We woke up on Sunday morning with the plan of driving across Nevada to Lake Tahoe, and staying there for the night. It’s not the halfway point, but it’s a good place to break up the trip between Salt Lake City to Oakland. But everyone was bummed out by the idea of checking into yet another hotel. The kids brought up the idea of skipping Tahoe and driving all the way to Oakland in one shot. Everyone was on board with the idea, so we did! We cancelled out hotel reservation and prepared for a long haul drive. More audiobooks. More ice for the cooler.

Then, late last night we arrived home. There were cheers all around! Jumping on the beds. Exploring the house. Remembering we had pulled up the carpet in the family room the night before we left. Hah!

Within minutes of making it home, the whole family was in bed. We were exhausted and slept soundly. Oh my. The feeling of coming home just can’t be beat!

And thus concludes Epic Roadtrip 2014.

I’d love to hear if you’ve ever visited Salt Lake City. Were you there to ski? For business? To visit family? Any favorite things to do with the kids? Feel free to share — the comments on these roadtrip posts are such a great source of ideas!

P.S. — I have a post I’ve been working on with tips on logistics and what worked for us on the drive. I’ll try to finish it up and share it this week.

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Monument Valley

Images and text by Gabrielle.

After Lake Powell, we loaded up the car and started the drive to Moab. It’s not a short drive. Something like 6.5 hours. And making a stop at Monument Valley makes it even longer, because it’s off the highway several miles. But Ben Blair had always wanted to see it, and honestly, I felt the same way when I realized it was in Utah, and that I had grown up in Utah but had never seen it. For some reason, I thought is was either in Arizona or New Mexico (based on absolutely nothing but my lack of geography knowledge). I’m so glad we made the stop! I think it might be my favorite part of the trip.

You could make Monument Valley your end destination. There is a hotel right there, and a restaurant as well. From what I could see, you can hire a jeep that will take you on the road right next to the monuments, and there’s an excellent gift shop. But unless you’re particularly obsessed with spending time there, I would probably recommend it as a stop on the way to Arches or Canyonlands or Lake Powell, versus a destination in itself. All we really wanted was that epic view! We stopped for about an hour and that felt just right. Totally satisfying.

I didn’t understand this until we got there (note my lack of geography knowledge mentioned above), but Monument Valley is part of the Navajo Reservation and managed by the Navajo Nation. I note this because it means that the National Parks pass which can be used at Yosemite, Zion, Lake Powell, etc., doesn’t work at Monument Valley. Just a heads up.

My oldest brother is a Navajo and before I was born, my family lived on the Reservation in New Mexico while my parents taught at a school there. When we settled in St. George, there were Navajo rugs, Navajo sand art, and Navajo turquoise jewelry in our home — and it wasn’t unusual to have friends from the Reservation drop by on their way north. So for me, it was fun to be on there and see the gift shop filled with gorgeous Navajo wares and have it all feel so familiar.

The funnest part: while we were taking in the view, a gorgeous storm moved in. We watched the clouds until the rain reached our view point. Then the kids ran for the van, while Ben and I stayed and let the rain soak us. I was in heaven! I love summer storms in the desert.

Sandstone Arch

After our visit to Monument Valley, we made our way to Moab so we could visit Arches National Park. Neither Ben nor I had been to Arches since college and it was fun to be back.

Arches is great for kids! It’s a relatively small National Park compared to Yellowstone or Yosemite or Zion. There’s one visitor center, a small gift shop, and even a Junior Ranger program — but there is no lodging within the park borders, and no restaurants or cafés either. And you can drive from one end to another in an hour or so. The way it works, is that tourists stay and eat in Moab — it’s just minutes away.

We did some kid-friendly hikes in the morning, then returned to Moab because a storm had moved in. We ate, swam in the hotel pool, and then returned to Arches after the storm. We were hoping to hike to Delicate Arch, but the road was flooded from the storm and we couldn’t get to the hike. So we went to Sand Dune arch instead. That’s Sand Dune arch above. Can you spot Betty?

Then, yesterday morning, we hiked to Delicate Arch. A longer hike, and hot! But worth it. Seeing it feels like you’re seeing nature’s most iconic creation. It really is remarkable, and sort of unbelievable — like it shouldn’t exist.

After the hike, we packed up the van, stopped for a late lunch, and hit the road once more. Next stop: Salt Lake City and Provo!

Now it’s your turn. Have you ever adventured to Arches or Monument Valley? Thoughts? Advice? Favorite parts? I’d love to hear.

P.S. — My Instagram stream is full of snapshots from our roadtrip. Feel free to check it out!

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Antelope Canyon at Lake Powell

Image and text by Gabrielle.

As I mentioned in the last trip post, we weren’t originally planning to stop at Lake Powell, but knowing it was on our way, we ultimately decided to squeeze it in. And we’re so glad we did!

Lake Powell was one of the main destinations for my family vacations growing up and I have a dear place for it in my heart. To me, the ideal way to visit Lake Powell is on a houseboat. I want to stay for 5 days at least, and have access to a motor boat for water skiing and exploring the canyons, and wave runners too. It’s a particular sort of trip and it requires a ton of preparation because you have to bring all food and supplies with you.

I suppose that’s why I didn’t put Lake Powell on the original schedule — I think I forgot you could enjoy the lake even if you only have one day, and even if you don’t have access to a house boat. : )

This was how our last minute day worked out:

We drove into the Wahweap area after noon, and looked for signs to boat rentals. We knew chances were slim, but we thought it was worth a try. But as we predicted, the boat rentals were taken. Waverunners too! Had we been there earlier, or had we been able to book via the internet (at Jacob’s Lake, where we stayed the night before, we didn’t have internet or cell phone coverage), I’m sure we would have had better luck. But no matter. We quickly made plan B.

We drove from the Boat Rental area to the Wahweap Swimming Area. We took our towels down to the beach and got in the water as quickly as we could. The sun was brutal that day! So it was heavenly to be in the water, and there were beautiful views of Castle Rock from the beach. After about an hour, we saw the sky changing and watched as a summer storm came in. When the winds reached us, we finished up our swimming and sought out a late lunch.

Since we couldn’t rent a boat, we decided to take a boat tour instead — we really wanted the kids to see what it was like out on the water. Boat tours launch from the Lake Powell Hotel & Resort (also at Wahweap), so we booked our tickets and ate lunch there at the hotel while we waited for our launch time. The boat tour was beautiful. It was an hour and a half and took us past the Glen Canyon Dam into Antelope Canyon.

One thing about Lake Powell: it’s not inexpensive. Well, if you want to swim only, it’s actually totally affordable. An annual National Parks Pass gets you in for free, and swimming doesn’t cost a thing. But if you want to get out on the water, the costs add up fast. A speed boat rental, plus skis, or a wakeboard, or a tube, is not cheap. Either are boat tour tickets. So our day at the lake felt like a splurge. But we all concluded it was worth it.

After the boat tour, we jumped in the lake one more time, swam for another half an hour, then said our goodbyes.

I hadn’t been to Lake Powell for years and it was interesting to see what it was like with the water levels lower than during my childhood. The peak water level was during 1983 and 84, and it’s much lower now, but still gorgeous. As a child, I assumed Lake Powell was universally loved. It had never occurred to me that there were many people who thought it was awful that we had filled in a huge section of gorgeous Glen Canyon. My teenage brain couldn’t really understand the issue until someone said to me: Imagine if we’d filled in the Grand Canyon, or even a section of it. And then it clicked for me and I realized what an insane manmade alteration we’d made. But still, I can’t help but love Lake Powell. It’s a magical place.

A last tidbit about the lake. The next morning, we drove over the Glen Canyon Dam on our way toward Moab. If you’re in the area, the Dam is worth a visit. On one side you see the Lake, and on the other side, you see the deep, deep, canyon with the Colorado River running along the bottom. All of sudden you realize that while you’re floating in the water in the middle of Lake Powell, you’re actually hundreds of feet above ground. So crazy!

Have you ever been? Did you go on a houseboat and stay for awhile? Or maybe camped on the beach? Or did you drop in like us, just to catch a glimpse and a swim?

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Grand Canyon

Image and text by Gabrielle.

This was an especially fun stop for me because I hadn’t been to The Grand Canyon since I was very small, and only had vague memories of it. As I write this, I can see my thoughts on The Grand Canyon are a bit scattered, so I’ll write things up in a list form. That way, I’m less likely to forget things — and I can skip from topic to topic freely. : )

- First, The Grand Canyon is BIG. So much bigger than it was in my head. In fact, while we were there, we read that you would have to rocket up into the Earth’s atmosphere several miles in order to see the whole canyon at once. So when we took in a view from the edge, the canyon seemed massive, and yet we knew we were just seeing a bit of it.

- I’m not particularly afraid of heights, but peering off the edge of the rim, down into the canyon made me catch my breath. I kept feeling like it was the view from an airplane. The canyon is so deep — a mile deep in places — that being on the edge of it feels insanely high.

- From what I could tell, if you’re at The Grand Canyon for one day, it’s mostly about taking in the views. Even the hikes we went on were on the surface and were all about ending at a great view looking down into the canyon (at other National Parks, even in one day, you can interact with the park a bit more). If you want to go below the rim and really get into the canyon, plan on a multi-day commitment or maybe even a legit backpacking experience. Someday, I’d love to hike with the whole family into Havasupi Falls. I hear you have to get hiking permit reservations over a year in advance! (But that could totally be a rumor.)

- We were on The North Rim. The South Rim is much more popular and touristy than the North Rim, and most of the famous photos you’ve seen are taken from The South Rim. But we loved the quieter option! We picked it because it was less driving based on where we were coming from, but we were delighted with our choice. The North Rim still has a grand lodge, grand views, a visitor center, food options, and a gift shop — but it feels calm, and there are fewer people than at any other National Park stop we’ve made. The North Rim and South Rim are only 12 miles across from each other, as the condor flies — but the drive between the two is over 5 hours.

- It was a super hot day, so after we’d taken in some of the short hikes off of the Visitor Center, we hung out at the lodge and listened to the Ranger talks. One was about the California Condor and one was about the Grand Canyon Rock Formations. We learned that at a few years ago, the California Condor population was down to 22 birds, and predictions of total extinction were everywhere. But hopeful conservationists have brought the population up to over 400 birds. They are still endangered, but the progress is good! The rock formation session was essentially a geology class and we loved it. Flashbacks to middle school earth science class! All the ranger talks are free.

- Speaking of the Lodge, the old school National Park lodges are fantastic, and this was no exception. Grand views, huge old leather chairs, an amazing dining room.

- Many of the National Parks have a Junior Ranger program specifically geared toward that park. Oscar and Betty did the program at Yosemite and another one at The Grand Canyon. The programs are free. The kids pick up a booklet with instructions and after they fulfill the requirements — things like taking in nature observations or asking a question of a Park Ranger — they are sworn in as a Junior Ranger and receive a badge. My kids LOVED this.

- The drive coming to The North Rim surprised us. The landscape changed from red rock desert to forests and grassy plains and grazing bison. It felt like I was in Yellowstone land!

- We had originally planned on staying two days at the Grand Canyon, but switched up our plans so that we could fit in Lake Powell as well. And that was good. We took in the views, hung out at the lodge, took advantage of the Ranger talks, and had a more physically relaxing day than we’ve had at other parks.

- We stayed at Jacob’s Lake that night. It’s a hotel about 15 minutes outside of the park, famed for it’s homemade cookies! The next morning, as we went to the little shop to round up some breakfast, we ran into our niece Lindsey, who is working at Jacob’s Lake for the summer before she heads to college. The best sort of surprise!

Yay for the Grand Canyon! Have you ever been ? North or South rim? Any tips?

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Zion National Park

Image and text by Gabrielle.

Well now! We’ve done a bit of traveling since my last post. On Friday, we went to Zion. On Saturday we went to the Grand Canyon. And earlier today (Sunday), we went to Lake Powell. I’ll write about the Grand Canyon tomorrow, and I’ll write about Lake Powell on Tuesday. But today, I want to share a little report about Zion National Park. Since I grew up so near Zion, it’s the National Park I know best and I’ve visited most. I love getting to share it with my kids.

Zion is the sort of place where you could spend a week or more, but it’s small enough, that you can also get a good taste of it in a couple of days. Earlier in the week, as part of Cousins Week festivities, my mom had taken the kids to Zion to tube in the Virgin River, so when we visited on Friday, we considered it Day Two at Zion. And we didn’t even have the whole day — we had some tasks in St. George on Friday morning, and it was already early afternoon by the time we arrived at the park.

So we kept it simple. We started by watching the IMAX movie about Zion. I was nostalgic about it and was excited for the kids to see it, but man oh man, I was surprised to watch it and realize it felt dated and a little cheesy. Oh dear! But, the nice thing about the movie, is that while we watched, a summer storm moved in. By the time we got out of the theater, the temperature had dropped from obscenely hot to totally reasonable, and everything smelled all-caps AMAZING.

One funny thing: During the movie, there’s a flash flood scene, and right when it was happening, all the cell phones in the theater started buzzing with texts about a flash flood warning in the area. For a minute, I was wide-eyed and wondered how in the world the movie triggered the alerts. Then it finally dawned on me it must be storming outside the theater. Silly me, I know.

After the movie, we hiked to the Upper Emerald Pool. It’s the perfect hike for a family of all ages — uphill enough to get your heart pumping, but ultimately short and sweet, with lots of beautiful water spots along the way. The hike was particularly wonderful because everything was so fresh from the storm, and grey skies kept the sun from beating down.

Once we reached the Upper Pool, we cooled our feet in the water, scrambled around the rocks and dunked our heads per family tradition. There’s no swimming allowed there, or we would have jumped right in, clothes and all.

I didn’t have our big camera with us, but I took some iPhone photos that might be the best I’ve ever captured in Zion. The light was just spectacular that day!

After the hike, we knew we had time for one more thing before we drove back to the hotel. We gave the kids a couple of options and they chose a visit to Grafton — the ghost town that’s near the park. We hadn’t been back since we filmed in Grafton for Olive Us, so the kids were excited to see it, and our exchange students were fascinated by the idea of a ghost town as well.

I think it was one of our best days on the trip (at least so far). Not too much driving, and a good balance of indoor and outdoor activity. I keep looking at the photos from that day on my Instagram stream because they make me grin.

Have you ever been to Zion? Do you have a favorite hike or activity there? I’d love to hear!

P.S. — If you grow up in St. George, when you say Zion, you pronounce it Zi-yun. But when I talk to people that grew up in other places, many pronounce it Zi-yawn. What’s your preferred pronunciation?

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Cousins Week Begins

Image and text by Gabrielle.

On Sunday afternoon, we dropped the kids off at Cousins Week, and we picked them up yesterday afternoon (Thursday, if you’re keeping track).

What is Cousins Week? It’s an annual tradition, hosted by my sister, Sara and her husband, Steve. All cousins age 8 or older are invited. They go to Sara & Steve’s house in St. George, and have this sort of kid-paradise vacation. There’s a ton of swimming in the backyard pool (which is essential because St. George is crazy hot), the kids can stay up as late as they want, they can eat dessert for breakfast if they want, and they get a break from their typical schedules.

Lots more about Cousins Week. Keep reading!

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Las Vegas Boulevard

Image and text by Gabrielle.

Waving hello from Las Vegas! We’re staying at the Golden Nugget — it’s in the old school downtown part of the city. And we’re having a fabulous time!

I have such nostalgic feelings for Las Vegas. Growing up in St. George, Utah, meant Vegas was our nearest big city. St. George has grown like crazy in the years since I left for college, but while I was a kid, it was a small town. So when we needed Costco, or a mall for school shopping, we drove to Las Vegas. My first concert was in Las Vegas. And the Las Vegas airport is the one I would fly in and out of.

We didn’t spend a ton of time in the casinos, but we’d drive by all the neon with wide eyes. And I remember a family vacation where we stayed at a hotel/casino called The Imperial Palace.

The Fashion Show Mall would also draw us to Las Vegas Boulevard, fondly known as The Strip. That mall had expensive stores like Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. We couldn’t afford those stores, but my mom would make a point of having me window shop there so I could see the current styles — those window shopping trips were part of my early design education.

I also came to understand that gambling was infused into life in Las Vegas — that even in the suburbs, there were slot machines everywhere — in the grocery stores and the pharmacies and every possible spot.

I remember the Vegas skyline changing when I was in my teens. I remember the Luxor pyramid being built, and the Mirage and the MGM Grand. But the next big growth spurt — the Bellagio and the Venitian — happened after I’d moved away from St. George. The whole strip has continued to develop like crazy and when I’m in Las Vegas I no longer feel oriented. The suburbs have also grown like crazy and it’s easy to imagine that most residents of the Las Vegas area probably rarely interact with the touristy, casino part of the city.

My kids haven’t ever really been to Las Vegas. Since my hometown is so close, we usually just drive through on our way to see cousins. But we thought on this roadtrip is would be a good destination. Vegas feels very American. Lots of neon and shopping and commercialism. A contrast to the very natural National Parks, and something fun for our exchange students to see. This is also the main spot on our trip where they’ll be able to shop.

Vegas is contrasts. The shopping is as good as the biggest cities in the world — I think I counted 6 Louis Vuitton shops over about a mile of the Las Vegas Strip. Hah! The newest growth spurt brought in fine dining, and luxe spas. Of course, the city has always been known for great concerts and performers. There are even world class art exhibits now. And all of that shares real estate with endless, dark, smoke-filled casinos and the trashiest shows you can find anywhere. In the same brochure where you can get info on Seigfried and Roy, you can also find tours to the Grand Canyon. Much of the city is for adults only, but at the same time, there are a surprising number of attractions designed to attract families with young kids.

Our hotel is on Fremont Street. Sassy Sally and Vegas Vic of my childhood are now part of a walking district. There is a roof over the whole street making it a semi-indoor space, and the entire ceiling functions as a giant screen. The whole outdoor walking area is air conditioned! I mentioned Vegas not being eco-friendly on Instagram and there were comments that Vegas has actually done a ton with water recycling — which I was comforted to know! But when you’re in this desert oasis, surrounded by a million light bulbs and outdoor air conditioning, it’s hard not to wonder how much energy it takes to power this crazy place. (No judgment from me, I promise. I can’t pretend I’m awesome at being earth-minded. I’m a tourist here just like everybody else.)

Our hotel, The Golden Nugget, has a real live gold nugget on display. The biggest ever found. From Australia. But it’s not much of a draw. Instead the pool is the thing. First, because it’s super hot out and cool water feels amazing. And second, because the pool surrounds a salt water aquarium full of sharks. But that’s not all. There’s a water slide at the pool and it goes through the shark tank!

We were laughing with the kids and wondering what it would be like to be part of a Vegas hotel/casino planning team, trying to come up with more and more jaw-dropping attractions. We imagined a conversation like this: This pool is pretty nice, but it needs something more. Hmmm. How about a giant aquarium that you can see when you swim? Wait. How about a giant aquarium full of sharks?! And what if there’s a water slide that goes by the shark tank? No. Even better: What if the water slide goes through the shark tank?! Bingo!

Las Vegas is a city where creativity and talent abound. And at the same time, everything gross about our country is present there and in full view. But one thing that I observed on this trip: Everyone in Las Vegas seems like they’re in a good mood! There are no desks in the Golden Nugget hotel rooms. No one comes here to work. Vegas is all about play.

Have you ever been to Las Vegas? Have you ever been there with kids? What are your favorite spots in the city, or favorite attractions? And whether you’ve been there or not, I’d love to hear about your impressions of the city. I think it’s so much fun! But I can only handle a couple of days and then I’m ready for something a little less neon. : )

P.S. — When we lived in New York, our neighbors would be wowed when they heard we were flying into Vegas (on our way to a family reunion). To them, Vegas was the coolest possible destination. Is that how you think of it, too?

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Yosemite Summer Sunset

Image and text by Gabrielle.

Oh my goodness. Yosemite. This place! This place is heavenly.

It’s our first visit here and we’re already thinking about future trips and imagining what it will be like to visit in the winter (ice skating!), or spring (legendary waterfalls!), or fall (fall color? I have no idea what happens here in the fall. Hah.).

We drove here this morning in a giant rented van. Eleven people. Me and Ben. Our six kids. Our two exchange students (one from France, one from England). And my niece Roxcy, who happily joined us at the last minute. That’s a lot of people! And a lot of teenagers. : )

The weather is hot, but we have a cooler full of icy water, we jump into the river whenever we get the chance, and we have lots of audiobooks.

Actually, I need to mention the audiobook tip before I forget. Janssen told me about an app called Overdrive and it’s genius. You use it to look up your local library — for example, we looked up the Oakland Public Library system — then you log in with your library card, and you can instantly read any e-books or listen to any audiobooks that your library has in their collection. Best part: totally free! Amazing right?

Anyway. The trip started this morning and it feels good to get going. This is the first stop of many. We’ll be here two nights, then it’s on to the next destination. Have you ever been to Yosemite? What are your favorite spots?

P.S. — In case you’re curious, we’ve been listening to Speaker For the Dead today — it’s the second book in the Ender’s Game series. Are you an Ender’s Game fan?

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Travel Advice

June 5, 2014

suitcases lined up blair family

Image and text by Gabrielle.

Something a little lighter today. I was reading this list of travel advice from Anthony Bourdain (I like him a ton), and loved so much of what he had to say. One of the standout tips he offers is to read fiction on the flight set in the location you are headed to. He says, “Fiction is in many ways more useful than a guidebook, because it gives you those little details, a sense of the way a place smells, an emotional sense of the place.” Isn’t that great?

Another thing he mentioned is that he prefers to check his baggage on flights. I was a little surprised when I read it, because I feel like for years all travel advice has pointed to carryons, carryons, carryons. I have some friends who are passionate about having a carryon-only policy. They make no exceptions. Even on long-haul trips, they prefer to travel as light as possible. And they also carry some concern about lost luggage — it’s too big a risk in their eyes and they’re not willing to hand off their suitcase to anyone else.

But I admit, I also cheered when I read Anthony Bourdain’s luggage advice, because I feel the same way! I arrive at the airport, and I can’t wait to get rid my luggage and see it transported away on that magical moving belt. Especially if I’m traveling with the kids! For me, going through security with the least possible amount of stuff is ideal. And then, if we happen to be there early, we’re free to roam around and see what the airport has to offer — maybe even take in a sit-down meal, or get a pedicure — without having to watch our baggage. Heading down the gateway, finding our seats, settling the kids — all of it is easier with no luggage dragging behind us.

I realize that sometimes, we simply don’t have a choice — when we moved to France and when we moved back to the U.S., we used every checked baggage and carryon option available to us. And when I’m traveling for a big conference — like Alt Summit which is coming up in June — I often have so many supplies that a larger suitcase is essential, which means checking it is essential too. But on most of my flights, I only bring a roller bag, so I really do have a choice between carrying it on and checking it.

I should note, that even if I’m boarding a plane without a carryon, I still carry a tote with my laptop/book/magazine and other essentials. But if possible, I prefer to hand off my actual luggage to someone else.

A silly topic, I know — I guess I wanted an excuse to share the article on travel advice. : ) But now I’m curious. Where do you fall on the checked baggage versus carryon baggage debate? Any strong opinions? And if you read the Anthony Bourdain article, I’d love to hear if any tips stick out to you.

P.S. — The tricky thing these days is the luggage fees. They’re the worst! I’m always looking for a workaround to avoid them, though I fly so many different airlines that I don’t have a good system.

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Offline

May 27, 2014

Blairs at Sequoia National Park

Image and text by Gabrielle.

Getting back to business on the Tuesday after a holiday weekend always feels like a challenge to me. You too? But the long weekend was wonderful and even though the house is a mess and I feel behind on work, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Totally worth the effort and the aftermath! Things I want to remember from our trip:

- We spent the first few days at Sequoia National Park. We hadn’t been to a National Park since we moved back to the U.S., and I was so happy to be there! I love getting the park brochure — designed with the standard black band. Love everything about it! And I grinned when we bought a year-long parks pass. We have plans to hit the Grand Canyon, Zion, Yosemite and more this year, so I know we’ll put it to good use.

- For the next few months there are 9 of us, while Charles from France is visiting. Our car only has 8 seat belts, so we rented an extended-cab van for the trip. It was nice for the kids to be able to spread out.

- Sequoia National Park makes for fun photos. The trees really are magnificent! We took some of the less-traveled hikes through the ancient trees, and it felt like sacred ground. (You can see more of our photos here.)

- We enjoyed learning the difference between a redwood tree and a sequoia, and we also learned a ton about black bears, which are common in the park. Oscar especially loved learning about the park animals. After a kid-friendly lecture on American Lions by a park ranger, Oscar asked, “Can a cougar jump farther than a Kangaroo?”

- One of the major highlights was finding a picturesque swimming hole, and getting it all to ourselves for at least an hour — which felt remarkable on such a busy holiday weekend.

- I brought my laptop on the trip and didn’t open it once. And we didn’t get phone coverage in the park either. So I was basically off-line for 4 days. Delicious!

- We got home from Sequoia quite late on Sunday night, then repacked the van and headed up to Stinson Beach the same night. We had planned to go in the morning, but wanted to avoid the legendary traffic, so we put the kids in their pajamas and made the 1 hour and 15 minutes drive at 11:30 that night. Everyone got to sleep in the next morning. : ) We stayed in a beach house with Jordan’s family and Liz’s family.

- The weather on Monday was ideal! We spent the whole day on the beach. At one point, Ben Blair and I had a race — it was the first time I had full-out sprinted in years (yes, I realize I don’t exercise much). It felt so good!

- This was the first Memorial Day in quite awhile where we didn’t visit a military cemetery. It was definitely a different sort of Memorial Day for us.

- Though we went went through several bottles of sunscreen, the kids still ended up with sunburns. Me too. Boo! So several of us are spending quality time with our bottle of aloe vera gel.

Overall, such a happy trip! Traveling is a hassle. There’s no doubt about it. Packing up. Figuring out how to feed everybody. Navigating to a new place. Messed up sleep schedules. But  in my experience, it’s worth it every time.

I hope you had a wonderful weekend as well!

P.S. — Have you ever had a run in with poison ivy or poison oak? I am highly allergic to both and have awful reactions. Apparently, I contacted some poison oak in our yard a few days before our trip, and all weekend my leg was an itchy, ugly mess. So gross! I’m guessing I have a few more days of this and then I should be on the mend. 

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Criticism

May 5, 2014

Hugging Olive

By Gabrielle. Image snapped by Ben Blair.

How sensitive are you to criticism? I suppose no one loves to receive criticism, but it does seem like some people can handle it better than others. I know I feel my body brace when I’m about to hear or read something about myself that’s critical. And I think the weaker my relationship is with someone, the easier it is for me to hear criticism from them — meaning, a comment from an anonymous stranger on the internet is easier for me to handle than if Ben Blair decided to criticize me.

I was thinking about this as I flew home from Atlanta yesterday. While I was there, Laurie Smithwick was my roommate, and we stayed up late talking, talking, talking (the best part of these types of get togethers!). She told me about a couple, friends of her parents, who are both writers. The wife knew she was super sensitive to criticism of her writing, even construction criticism from her husband — a fellow writer who very much wanted her to succeed.

But she discovered a trick. She found that if her husband prefaced any suggestions or edits or critiques with, “I’m no expert, but…”, that she could receive the words more easily. Of course, as a writer himself, he is an expert, but using the phrase “I’m no expert” really seemed to help.

I thought it was a genius tactic! Simple and worth a try. When I’m feeling especially sensitive, or can see that one of my kids is, I hope I’ll remember to use it (or request it of the person critiquing me).

I’ve also heard sensitivity issues can align with personality test profiles (like Meyers-Briggs). I’ve been tested before, but I always end up in between two designations — and then never seem to remember what they are. Hah!

How about you? Do you know your personality classification? Do you consider yourself sensitive? Do have particularly sensitive children? Would this trick work for anyone in your life? I’d love to hear!

P.S. — Yesterday, Olive embarked on a 2-week trip to France with a group from her school. Very exciting! It happened last minute. Another student dropped out on Thursday, and since Olive’s passport was ready to go, they offered the spot to her. Amazing! I was in Atlanta when this happened, so Ben Blair took care of all the errands and getting her prepped. He’s a champ.

I arrived at the SFO airport on Sunday morning from Atlanta, then Ben and Olive met me there and we got to hang out for a couple of hours before her school group checked in. We had a leisurely breakfast, and I trimmed Olive’s bangs in the airport bathroom. : ) The photo at top is me hugging her goodbye. We miss her like crazy already.

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Speaking

April 30, 2014

Ben Silbermann and Gabrielle Blair. Alt Summit Keynote, January 2014.

By Gabrielle. Images of me interviewing Ben Silbermann of Pinterest, taken by Justin Hackworth for Alt Summit. 

More travel ahead for me! Plus two speaking engagements that I’m very, very excited about. Tomorrow, I’m flying to Atlanta to speak at the Mom 2.0 Conference. It’s one of my favorite conferences! I’m really looking forward to the trip. I’ve only been to Atlanta once before, and it was basically a drive through, so I’m excited to get to know the city a little better and see what it’s all about.

For sure, I’m most excited about the wonderful friends I’ll get to see! The funny thing about working online is that you don’t really have co-workers. So getting to be with my internet friends and peers in real life — and getting to talk shop the whole time! — is dreamy as can be.

Ben Silbermann and Gabrielle Blair. Alt Summit Keynote, January 2014.

The second speaking engagement I’m still a little stunned about. Next week, I’m headed to New York. I was invited to the Moms + Social Good Conference. And I’ll be on stage with Ambassador Samantha Power, the American Ambassador to the U.N., interviewing her about the work she does and her life as a mother, and how they overlap. I could not be more honored to have been asked! Also, I’m very intimidated. So I’ve been working hard on the list of questions I want to ask and trying to get feedback from everyone I can.

Incidentally, I really enjoyed this peek into a-day-in-the-life of Ambassador Power in New York Magazine.

You can find more about the Moms + Social Good conference, or add your name to the waitlist, here — scroll down to see the list of speakers, and find out why I’m feeling so intimidated. : )

Tell me, Friends. Do you get nervous when you have to speak, or make a presentation, in public? For work, for the PTA, for church, for book club? And if you had to give a big speech, would you prefer to do it TED-style with slides, or would you like an interview format where you respond to questions? I’d love to hear!

P.S. — It’s a remarkably busy day at our house and I feel like I want to distinguish it with a mention because it’s so unusual. I’m packing for tomorrow’s early flight and trying to get my work done for both today and tomorrow. This evening, we’re hosting the high school track team dinner — Maude says to expect 50 people! The girls from Olive’s church group are also coming over to climb the trees. And Ben Blair is helping out at Oscar’s Cub Scout meeting tonight. I’m already imagining how good it will feel to get in bed tonight. : ) Happily, things calm way down next week.

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