Design Mom » travel The Intersection of Design & Motherhood Fri, 26 Aug 2016 20:02:12 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Mont St. Michel — Pilgrimage Report Wed, 27 Jul 2016 14:02:14 +0000 Design Mom


By Gabrielle. Photos by Ben Blair.

As I mentioned, last week, Ben Blair and the 4 oldest kids — Ralph (18), Maude (17), Olive (15) & Oscar (11) — took a pilgrimage to Mont St. Michel. Those of us left behind — Betty (10), June (6) and me — missed them like crazy and distracted ourselves with Paris.

Happily for anyone who is curious, as we drove to the South of France yesterday, I interviewed Ben Blair and the 4 oldest kids about their pilgrimage experience, and I’ve typed it all up, ready to share.

First, let’s talk about some basics. Once you know the path, anyone can make a pilgrimage, but it’s common to go with a group. We heard about this particular group from Charles. He’s Ralph’s dear friend and he lived with us in Oakland a couple of years ago. Charles did this pilgrimage with his scout group, and this time around, Charles’ father Eric, came on the hike and helped us make arrangements ahead of time.

This pilgrimage was led by Bertrand, owner of a bar called The Secret Knight, and author of a book called The Mystery of Mont St Michel. Bertrand has gone on the pilgrimage over 50 times! In addition to Bertrand, there were other experienced pilgrims in attendance — about ten of them.

The pilgrimage is free, though it’s customary to offer a donation (approximately 20 euros per day). You bring a rack backpack with clothes, a towel, sleeping bag, tent, hat, etc. But y0u don’t need to pack food. You can bring snacks (of course), but you purchase meals at stops along the way. Which is great because the pilgrimage is long, and you want to pack light.

The total distance is about 75 miles. That’s a lot of walking!


In this group, there were about 50 people. Ages ranged from 9 to 75 with a fairly even distribution along that age range. Pretty much everyone had heard about it from word of mouth. Some people were hiking with a group or a friend, but many came as individuals and didn’t know anyone else at all. Here are some basic profiles of people in the group:

- A woman who earns her living by singing folk songs to kids.

- A group of Scouts from Lyon (scout is pronounced “scoot” in French, which is surely the most charming thing ever). A mix of girls and boys, age 14 to 17. There are lots of different types of scouts in France. Different form the American version, this organization of scouts doesn’t do merit badges, just adventures. None of these scouts had ever seen Mont St Michel before.

- An older group of couples who had self organized and already done a pilgrimage circle in the middle of France. Now were trying this one.

- A French woman who had lived and worked all over the world, including 4 years in Hells Kitchen (Manhattan), plus South America and Antartica.

- A man who had lived in the same town for 30 years, but had lost his job and found his family in these pilgrimages.

- A Belgian man who feels like he’s done with Belgium and wants to join the Swiss army next. His wife lives in Istanbul with his daughter.

- A man who had a Tarot progression on his staff. (I know almost nothing about Tarot and had to look this up.) Speaking of which, most people brought a staff or walking poles. Some staffs had been found on previous pilgrimages.

- My kids learned that sometimes pilgrims won’t eat during the whole pilgrimage, but only drink water. And sometimes pilgrims do the whole trail in silence. In this group, no one was doing either completely. But there was one woman who didn’t talk during the hikes, only during the breaks.

- Most people in the group were spiritual but not religious. (I note that because this particular pilgrimage is tied to Catholicism.)

- Ben Blair and the kids were the first Americans that Bertrand had ever led.


Day 1 – Wednesday

The group met at Bertrand’s cafe/bar near Domfront early in the morning. Everyone was pretty much strangers. The leaders went over the schedule and introduced the experienced pilgrims so people would know who to ask for help.


Over the course of the day, they hiked 19 kilometers. They went through Domfront and stopped at the Roman church there — one of the oldest churches in Normandy.

When they needed water, they would stop at a home along the way and the owner would refill everyone’s canteens. They walked on dirt roads and paved roads, passing crosses and churches, and lots of stone country houses.

The path that day featured beautiful vistas of hedged fields, Norman cows, and the dreamy countryside.


While in Domfront, hikers bought lunch supplies at a small grocery store, then hiked about 20 minutes up a hill. In a clearing in a forested area, people stopped for an hour and a half for lunch and naps. Ben and the kids laughed to see that every single group had Camembert cheese and baguette as part of their meal.

After the lunch break, there was more hiking with breaks as needed. People were chatting and getting to know each other. Chatting was almost entirely in French, though sometimes people would speak to our kids in English if they wanted to practice. Something funny: At every break, a good portion of the hikers would smoke — which was an incongruous scene to American eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an American backpacker smoking. Hah!


At the end of the day, the pilgrims ended at Lonlay Abbey. Once at the Abbey, people sought out dinner — there was a cafe nearby. Ben says the group was feeling really connected and accomplished. They had finished their first day! People were sharing food, playing frisbee behind the abbey, playing songs on the guitar, and chatting. That evening, a woman who was among the group of older couples, tried weed for the first time at the urging of her travel companions. Something for the group to laugh about. : ) Late that night, the hikers played Scout games.

The Abbey was totally open, no locked doors anywhere, making it easy to explore. Some people slept in tents outside, others slept in the Abbey on sleeping pads, with sleeping bags. Ralph and Maude slept in the Abbey attic underneath a Joan of Arc statue. There were closets full of old books.


Day 2 – Thursday

They left the Abbey in the morning and ended up walking 30 kilometers that day. They said it was by far the most scenic day and had the steepest climbs.

They hiked through Fosse d’Arthur — where it’s believed the legend of King Arthur came to be, and that Merlin the Enchanter (enchanter = friendly wizard in French) is trapped in the rocks nearby. Arthur and Guinevere are rumored to be buried along the trail.

There was a stream/pool at Fosse d’Arthur where people swam.


From the top of a hill near Fosse d’Arthur there was an amazing view, and a cross that looks like it was cut out of a granite mountain.

Again, there was an hour and a half stop for lunch. The hour and a half would start when the last person in the group arrived. So the first hikers would end up getting a longer break. Our kids figured this out, and stayed near the front of the group as they hiked so they could take advantage of the longest breaks.

The group finished the day in Mortain (a town that was captured and recaptured 5 times during WWII). The hike that day ended at the top of a high lookout hill with stunning views of the whole countryside. A loooong way off you could just see the tiny Mont St. Michel.

People slept in tents or under the stars that night. It ended up raining a bit, so in the middle of the night those under the stars had to pitch tents. Some people slept near a waterfall.


Day 3 – Friday

The 3rd day was the hardest in Ralph’s opinion. He said it was unforgiving because it was like one straight line on a dirt road. No ups and downs. The lack of variation made it seem like no progress was being made. Plus they were tired from the day before.


They did another 30 kilometers that day. Sometimes, they would see bikers going by, but no motorized vehicles on the road were allowed.

Sometimes the group would be mostly hiking together, other times people would be spread out far along the trail.


Again, there was an hour and a half break for lunch.

By now members of the group, who had been strangers before, were becoming good friends — though there were so many people that Ben says he was still having first conversations with some of them on the 3rd day. He said, the conversations were long — you would talk for 2 hours or so as you hiked, and you’d really get to know people. What other environments do you just talk with a stranger for several hours?

He also said there was no sense of being in a hurry, no sense of pick up the pace or let’s get going. It was just a simple, steady hike.


They stopped in towns along the way to buy food. A sample meal: always baguette, always camembert, then porc rillette with cornichons. Breakfast was pain au lait or a croissant or pain au chocolat. Good bread is very important to the French, and it was not unusual to see hikers with baguettes attached to their backpacks.

That night, the group slept in a field next to country house — someone in the group had a connection to the homeowner. Someone in the group had brought house made beer which was passed around, and one woman was celebrating a birthday, so everyone sang Happy Birthday.

There was a big campfire that night. People told jokes around the fire, and as some went off to bed, the remaining people talked philosophy as the embers died down. People were pretty tired by now, but there was still one big challenging day ahead.


Day 4 – Saturday

This was the day they would reach Mont. St. Michel. They left earlier than usual at 6:00 in the morning (the usual start time was 9:00 AM). They had to go early to beat the tide — remember, Mont. St. Michel is an island, and they were going to approach it by water.

This day was more hilly, but not as dynamic as the 2nd day.


They hiked through fields with sheep and cows. There was one moment when they were walking along and this horse ran out and stared hard at them. They said it was like a guard horse, there to ensure hikers were worthy to reach Mont St Michel. : )

You couldn’t see the island the whole time (it’s that tiny little bump on the horizon in the photo above), but you’d turn around a bend and it would appear and give you courage to keep going.

Eventually you could see Mont St Michel the whole time, but they said it was so small, it felt like you weren’t getting any closer.


Just as they were getting discouraged, they reached the water around Mont St Michel. It was about 2:00 PM.

At that point, everyone took off their shoes. They were told shoes are forbidden in those waters. They swam and cooled off, and then the group met a guide who would take them all the way in. The waters around the island are known for quicksand, so the guide would test a path first, then the hikers would follow.

It took about 2 hours once they met the guide, with a couple of breaks built in so that everyone in the group would arrive at the same time.

They arrived at the backside of the island, then made their way around to the front, where they put on their shoes and the celebrating started! Everyone was hugging and cheering. 75 miles done! They said it felt like these former strangers were now bonded for life.

Tradition is that pilgrims sleep over at the Abbey on Mont St. Michel the night they arrive, but since the attack in Nice, that wasn’t an option. So instead of heading home Sunday morning, Ben and the kids explored the island a bit (they’ve been there many times and didn’t need to explore much) and then Eric’s wife picked everyone up. They stopped for dinner at a small country brasserie in Domfront, then, they were dropped off at their car and drove home — about an hour from where we are staying.


A few other notes:

Ben and the kids said it was the most French thing they’ve ever done, that they LOVED the food, and that now they want to do other pilgrimages. In fact, Ben and Eric are talking about doing the St Jaques du Compostable. A 3 month pilgrimage from France to Spain. The kids also mentioned it didn’t feel competitive at all. The whole group was in this together.

Ben Blair said he thinks it’s the best way to experience Normandy. If you’d like to try it, Bertrand’s tours go twice per month.

Okay. That was a long report. Now I’m curious: Does a trek like this sound appealing to you at all? Walking a path that others have walked for thousands of years? And if you went, would you want to bring a buddy, or would you be fine joining the group on your own? Any thoughts on doing a pilgrimage in silence?

 P.S. — Now that they’ve done the complete pilgrimage there are a few shots of our Olive Us video — Pilgrimage to Mont St. Michel, that they wish they could add, but mostly they feel like they got it right.

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A Perfect Day in Paris with Kids Mon, 25 Jul 2016 17:18:38 +0000 Design Mom


Photos and text by Gabrielle.

Happy Monday! I have adventures to tell you about! Our pilgrims arrived home late on Saturday night, and Betty, June and I arrived home from Paris just 30 minutes before they did. I thought I’d tell you a little bit about our Paris trip today, and then give you a report on the Mont St. Michel pilgrimage later this week. But first, oh my goodness, I was feeling so down last week that I didn’t think I could manage a trip — even a little trip — for me and the youngest two. Deciding on a train, deciding on a hotel room, deciding what to pack. All those sorts of things feel impossible when I’m depressed.

But by Wednesday evening I felt a spark of motivation and used that spark to get us packed up and ready to go. And I’m so glad I did! Because I think this trip was really good for Betty and June. I mean, it was good for me too, but I think it turned out to be a life-long-memory trip for the girls. For sure it was for Betty. In fact, I think if I had understood what she was going to get out of it before we left, I would have been even more motivated to make it happen.

We woke up on Thursday morning, made a few last preparations (like taking out the trash and emptying the dishwasher), then headed to the train station at 9:00. We were in Paris by noon and took a taxi to the hotel which was in the Latin Quarter. I had never stayed there before and it was fun to get to know a new neighborhood. We were right next to the Sorbonne, which I had never seen before! But the reason I picked the hotel was because the description said it was a 5 minute walk to the Luxembourg Gardens, and I figured that even if I wasn’t feeling up for going out much, we could enjoy the Gardens all day long if needed. (Luckily, me going out didn’t end up being an issue.)

Our room wasn’t ready yet, so we dropped off our bags, picked up a picnic lunch and headed straight to the park. It was a gorgeous day and not the weekend yet, so not too busy. We ate lunch, sailed a boat on the pond, and spent a good while on the playground. Then we picked up an ice cream cone, and went back to the hotel because I had two phone appointments I needed to keep. The hotel break was good. June ended up napping and was refreshed for our night out.


After the calls, we took an uber straight to the Eiffel Tower. After oohing and aahing, we decided to start with the carousel across the street. Then we ate dinner at a nearby café. Then we strolled along the Champ de Mars — the park that sits next to the Tower. Some kind of construction or replanting is happening on the Champ de Mars and huge sections were blocked off, so it was tricky (but not impossible) to find a good spot.

Then we walked over to the Trocadero to watch the Tower light up and sparkle. We ate a nutella-banana crepe while we waited. At 10:00 PM, the sparkling started and it was worth the wait. It really is magical! We lingered until the sparkling stopped, then picked up a taxi and headed to the hotel.

It was a good first day and everyone went to bed happy. But the next day was even better. It turned out to be a pretty much perfect Paris day with kids. I didn’t understand this until we were actually there, but Betty had a solid wishlist of everything she wanted to do in Paris. It was all pretty touristy stuff, but that was fine with me. Betty told me everything she wanted to do, and that’s how we planned the second day. She gets full credit. I did a good job of documenting the day so you get a photo tour along with my words.


First we ate breakfast at Angelina — famed hot cocoa, croissants to dip in the cocoa, gorgeous fruit salad, fresh squeezed orange juice. Turns out there was an Angelina at the Luxembourg Gardens, walkable from our hotel. So that was awesome.


Then we took an uber to the Arc de Triomphe. We didn’t have pre-tickets for anything so we had to stay in line, but it went really fast. We climbed to the top and took in the views. We spotted landmarks and took lots of photos. I love the Arc de Triomphe and could stare at it for hours, but I hadn’t climbed it since I was pregnant with Ralph. As you can imagine, I was experiencing all sorts of nostalgia on this visit.


We climbed down — stopping to look at the military uniform exhibit — and walked through the underground tunnel that delivers you right on to the Champs Élysées. We took our time strolling down the famous street, looking at window displays, and stopping at Ladurée (which June had zero interest in). It was a hot day, and we picked up popsicles as we walked.


Eventually we made our way to the Egyptian Obelisk at the Place de la Concorde. Which is also where the giant Ferris Wheel is. We took a ride — there were no lines. Totally unexpected and such a nice surprise!


After the ferris wheel ride we continued our walk in the same direction, straight into the Tuileries Gardens. We picked up ice cream cones to cool ourselves down and spent some time on the green grass enjoying the gardens.

The Tuileries take you directly to the Louvre which was our next destination. Again, I was worried about the line, because I hadn’t bought tickets ahead of time, but I didn’t need to worry. It went really fast. We were inside the pyramid in about 10 minutes and I bought my ticket (kids are free) at a machine which only took another minute or two.


Betty wanted to see the Venus de Milo first, and then the Mona Lisa. So we visited both of those and then explored more of the Denon Gallery which is where the Mona Lisa lives. By then we were well overdue for lunch, so we stopped at the Louvre cafeteria. It’s nothing fancy, but was just what we needed. Jambon beurre sandwiches and pasta. The meal reenergized us and we decided to do some more exploring. We sought out the French painters in at the top of the Sully wing.


After the Louvre, we were feeling pretty beat. We had done a lot of walking already, so we took an hour-long boat tour on the Seine. The river breeze was cool and we could rest our feet.


The boat tour ended at the Eiffel Tower. Betty wanted to be sure to see it sparkle again, and we basically repeated our previous evening. We started with another ride on the carousel, then picked up crepes for dinner and ate them on the Champ de Mars.


With cheers when the Tower sparkled at 10:00!

Then it was a taxi ride back to the hotel and a quick rinse off before tucking the girls into bed. It really was such a lovely day. If you have one day in Paris with your kids, I can wholeheartedly recommend copying the exact same itinerary. If you’re unfamiliar with Paris, you may not know this, but it’s essentially a straight line from the Arc de Triomphe to the Louvre, and that’s basically what we did. : )

As I said, the day couldn’t have gone more smoothly. And by the end of it, the only thing we hadn’t done on Betty’s list is go to the top of the Eiffel Tower. So when we woke the next day (our last day) that was the number one thing on our list. We checked out of the hotel and left our bags, then picked up breakfast from a nearby bakery and ate it in a courtyard at the Sorbonne.


Then we took an uber to the Eiffel Tower. There was lots of standing in lines, but it was doable. First there was a security line to enter the Eiffel Tower main area (this is new — I’ve never see this security gate before), it went quickly. Then there was a line to buy tickets. We were buying the climb the stairs tickets (versus the elevator tickets). Assuming you’re in the good health, I recommend the stairs option. It’s much more interactive.

We climbed the stairs, stopped for lots of photos, explored level one, then continued on the stairs to level two. We explored level two, then stood in line for tickets that take you to the top. After the ticket line, we stood in line for the actual elevators to the top (taking the stairs beyond level two is not allowed). Those were the longest lines of the entire trip. Everything else went really quickly. We made it to the top, enjoyed the views, took a peek at Mr. Eiffel’s apartment, felt accomplished that we’d done everything Betty had hoped, then headed down. We took an elevator to level two, and then stairs the rest of the way. The whole thing — even with all the lines — took about 3 hours total.


We were planning to take an evening train back to Argentan, and after we finished at the Eiffel Tower, we had a few hours left. Betty wanted to go back to Angelina, this time for lunch, and they both wanted to see more of Luxembourg Gardens. I thought that sounded perfect, because our bags were nearby at the hotel. So we went to Angelina for a late lunch and explored more of the park. Then I made one request. Could we walk around the Latin Quarter with our last hour? The girls were up for it, so we picked up ice cream cones and took a walk. We ended up walking through the tiny streets, peeking in at all the bookstores, then crossing the Seine and saying hello to the Notre Dame Cathedral. A lovely end to our visit.


After that, it was a walk back to the hotel for our bags and an uber to Montparnasse Station. As I mentioned at the beginning, we got back to our house just 30 minutes before the rest of the family arrived from their pilgrimmage, so it ended up being a very festive night, with everyone sharing stories and feeling happy to be reunited.

Betty is number five, and that means she rarely gets to function as the oldest kid. But on this trip, she was practically in charge and she loved it. She was good at it, too. She used her French. She was brave. She had great ideas. She made her opinions known. All things that are sometimes hard to do when you have so many older siblings. Also, she is absolutely in LOVE with the Eiffel Tower. She couldn’t get enough of it. Part of her would have been fine to just hang out nearby it the whole time. Hah! It was only a short trip, but it couldn’t have been better. I’m so glad we made it happen.

P.S. — I meant to post as usual during our trip, but just couldn’t seem to manage it. In order to make the trip happen, something had to give. Except for posting to Instagram late a night, when we had wifi at the hotel, I completely stayed off line. It was a good little break.

P.P.S. — This was the first time I’d been to Paris since uber came to be and it was a game changer. Taxis in Paris have consistently been a hassle to me — always hard to find, sometimes rude or unwilling to stop, and sometimes they won’t take payment by card. But uber was amazing. There was always an uber driver close to us, so we never had long waits. And even though my French is weak, we didn’t have to communicate much at all, because the whole thing is done via the app. It ended up taking away a big stress for me, and I felt far more adventurous knowing transportation wouldn’t be a problem. Just a little tip for anyone traveling to Paris soon.

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7 Reasons Why It’s SO Worth It to Travel Abroad with the Kids Wed, 13 Jul 2016 13:00:39 +0000 Design Mom

olive us tulip fields09

By Gabrielle. This post is sponsored by Alamo Rent a Car. Have you signed up for the Alamo Insiders program? Details below!

I’m working with Alamo on a family travel series (the first post is about different types of family vacations, the second post has 18 tips for traveling with big families). And today, I want to talk about how traveling abroad, especially with kids, intimidates the heck out of me, but why I think it’s definitely worth it (related Pin board here).

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: International travel can feel overwhelming before you even get out the door. Are your passports up to date (don’t forget the baby needs one too!)? If not, it means a trip to the photo store, and then long lines (at least in California) at the post office. And if kids are involved, both parents need to be present, so you’ll probably have to take some hours off work to make it happen. Do you need a travel visa to enter the country? Different than a credit card, a travel visa is a sticker in your passport that gives you permission to enter another country. Depending on where you are going and how long you are staying you might need one. We needed one when we moved to France because we were staying longer than three months. I also needed one to visit Ethiopia.

eiffel tower picnic

There’s also the language barrier. The closest thing I’ve got to a superpower is my ability to talk with other people. But when I go to a non-English speaking country, that power completely disappears. I am reduced to a pantomiming imbecile; I feel totally powerless in an instant. And then, there’s actually getting there. What will your toddler be like on an overseas flight? What should you pack and how will you manage getting through security with all that kid stuff? And what about the food when you arrive — will your picky-eating 6-year-old starve?

See what I mean? Why would anyone ever choose to travel to another country with kids? : )

I ask that kiddingly because in my opinion, and based on my experience, it’s SO worth it. I promise. Here’s a list of 7 reasons why:

kayaking in the fjords08

1) One thing that always strikes me when traveling abroad is the visual evidence that there are lots of good ways to live life and raise happy, healthy kids. Of course, you can see that in your own neighborhood — one family bans screens, another doesn’t eat gluten. But being in a new country brings it to a whole other level. How trash pickup is handled, what taxis and public transportation look like and how often it runs, realizing the school schedule is vastly different, finding out that restaurants are only open at certain times during the day, seeing lots of small children out for dinner very late at night and discovering bedtimes for kiddos aren’t the same as where you live. The list goes on and on. Just to comprehend it requires an open mind. If your kids can get a handle on this early on? What a huge advantage!

2) Related to number one, experiencing firsthand that there are vastly different ways for communities and cities to function really helps you appreciate what’s best about your own country and community, and to see clearly how it might be better. If kids grow up with a clear vision of the strengths and weaknesses of their community, they are in a much better position to actually improve the weaknesses.

mont st michel

3) Traveling as a family to a foreign country means tons of together time, because the usual obligations and distractions are simply gone. The TV shows are unfamiliar and uninteresting, or perhaps the time change means no phone calls interrupting dinner. You are stuck together, and maybe in small living quarters, so everyone has to up their patience and best-behavior game. If there’s a foreign language involved, you can expect even more family time — because there’s no one else to talk to! You’ll suddenly feel how dependent you are on one another, and that can be a very good thing. It’s much easier to put family first when you are traveling abroad.

4) We all learn this before we ever travel, but seeing firsthand that all humans everywhere have the same basic needs is a life-changer. And it’s comforting to know. When you arrive at any airport — even the small ones — you’ll see signs for restrooms, food, accommodations, and transportation. Because every single person, no matter where they are coming from, or where they are going, needs those things.

The same thing is true throughout your trip. Have a stuffy nose? Turns out the people in the country you’re visiting get stuffy noses too. They probably use tissues and can show you where to get some, but maybe they use handkerchiefs. Who knows? Something to discover. Need sunscreen? You’re not the only one. All humans are susceptible to sunburn or sunstroke which means every population has figured out how to prevent it one way or another — whether it’s napping through the hottest part of the day, wearing a wide brim hat, or slathering on the SPF. Go find out!

We’re all more alike than we are different. It’s something I want my kids to understand at their core.

5) When you’re traveling, especially abroad, it’s like everyday things become new. It’s as if you are walking around with a heightened awareness of each small thing that’s happening. You notice more details. You hear more sounds. There’s an excitement and freshness to each day. Such a wonderful thing to experience!

Château Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

6) Traveling requires bravery  — you have to try new things, figure out directions, learn to communicate, taste new flavors, solve problems, be patient when the itinerary goes amuck. It’s a real chance for both you and your kids to be brave. And you’ll be proud of each other for being brave. Also, those experiences that require bravery are incredibly bonding. Your kids will share these memories with you and with their siblings forever.

7) The whole family will get to see another view. Not a point-of-view, I’m talking an actual view. The houses look different. The stores look different. The product packaging looks different. The plants look different. The street signs look different. The cars look different. The food looks different. It’s all commonplace and everyday to the people who live there, but to your eyes it’s a whole new world. Kids find this as inspiring as adults do. It informs the way they think, and will help their brains make new connections about life and stuff and art and all those good things.

Venice | Design Mom_04

Yes, a trip for just the grownups to a faraway place is dreamy and romantic — and sometimes ideal. But for lots of reasons, it’s often not doable. Finding a 24-hour babysitter for a long period is hard, sometimes impossible. Or maybe you’re breastfeeding and aren’t ready to stop. But even if your kids are too little to remember, I’d still say yes to an international trip. It’s true you’ll go at a slower pace with little ones in tow, but the views will still be inspiring, and your soul will be refreshed. For sure there will be hard spots, and when you’re at airport security and the TSA guy with the beeping metal-detector wand just woke up the baby, you’ll wonder if you should cancel the trip and head home. But if you have that travel itch, even with the hard stuff, it will be so much better than doing the same old, same old at home.

Now I’d love your take. Are you ever intimidated by traveling abroad? Anyone else feel like me about foreign languages? Do you agree that it’s worth the hassle of taking kids abroad, or do you feel like big trips to foreign countries should be saved until the kids are grown? Maybe when you’re retired? Anything else you would add to my list? I’d love to hear!

Also, are you planning your next vacation? Check out the Alamo Insiders program. It’s a loyalty club with free membership that offers 5% off retail rental rates! You can sign up here.

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Flying to France Mon, 20 Jun 2016 23:40:19 +0000 Design Mom

By Gabrielle.

Waving hello from the Oakland Airport! Our bags are checked. We’ve gone through security. Water bottles are filled. Snacks are at hand. We have about 30 minutes till our flight boards. Then it’s on to Paris, France!

But before we get to France, we have a longish layover in Stockholm, Sweden. Ben Blair and I spent a lovely week in Sweden two summers ago, but our kids have never been, so we’re hoping to take a little adventure while we’re there. Then, we have a short flight to Paris. Our flight arrives around 8:30 in the evening; we’ll rent a car and head straight to a hotel for the night (with a possible fieldtrip to see the Eiffel Tower sparkle). Then, the next morning, we’ll drive to Normandy — it’s about a 3 hour drive to our destination.

That’s a lot of different stops and transitions in a short time — I’ve tried to forewarn the kids that they are very likely going to feel crabby and impatient before we actually get to our destination. But it’s worth it: Two whole months of our family being together. Heaven!

We’re all super excited. Lots of reminiscing and anticipation going on — we’ve been going through our old travel photos and watching some of the Olive Us videos we filmed in France (like Betty in Paris).

Crossing our fingers for smooth travel! Feel free to follow along on Instagram.

P.S. — I did my first Facebook Live video cast just before we left the house today. I gave a little tour of our master bedroom and bath — it’s going to be transformed while we are away! So if you want a peek at the “before” you can check it out.

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18 Tips for Traveling With a Big Family Thu, 14 Apr 2016 18:45:08 +0000 Design Mom

18 Tips for Traveling with Kids — From a Mother of Six!

Photos and text by Gabrielle. This post is sponsored by Alamo. Have you signed up for the Alamo Insiders program? Details below!

I’m working with Alamo on a family travel series (first post here). And today, I want to tackle traveling with a big family (related Pin board here). But that’s a really broad topic! So I’m going to focus in a bit. This post isn’t about time on the plane or how to pack or where to go or where to stay. Instead, I’m going to share everything I’ve learned about what the days are like (and how to make them awesome!) once you are at your destination. Sound good?

I have lots of tips, so I put them in list form. And I hope as you read them, they’ll remind you of your own tips — which you should totally share in the comments, because I would LOVE to learn from you! Also, as the title declares, yes this is about travel with a big family, because that’s what I know best. But the reality is, most (if not all) of these tips would work for small families, too. So really, this is about travel with kids.

Traveling with Kids — 18 Solid Tips from a Mother of Six

Here it is! All my travel knowledge, in no particular order:

1) When thinking about your day, plan based on the lowest common denominator, meaning the youngest in the group. If you’ve got a little one, they can’t walk all day and they don’t suddenly have new or different schedule needs because they are in a new place. So keep the schedule really simple and be ready for lots of stops. In Rome, we’d take gelato breaks like 5+ times a day.

2) Only put ONE big destination/activity on the schedule each day. That’s it. Only one. “Visit the Van Gogh Museum.” “Go horseback riding.” “Take a city bus tour”.

Yes, if it was just grownups, you could pack the day and see a million things. But with kids, it pays to be less ambitious. Keep it simple. If things go wrong, and they often do — maybe you get on the wrong bus, or have a hard time finding a lunch spot, or the weather turns crummy — it won’t wreck your schedule. You’ll feel great that you accomplished your one big thing, and when you’re done, if the family still has lots of energy, you can always add on a bonus activity.

3) On the way to your big event or tourist spot of the day, stop at every park you encounter along the way. Why? Partly because it’s fun and part of seeing what this new place is like. There are so many different kinds of parks, big green spaces, urban asphalt parks, tiny neighborhood play spaces. Your littlest kids probably won’t remember the trip, but spending time at parks will make sure they have a wonderful day, and that helps the whole group.

It’s also a way of losing time, or of filling the day in a positive way, without stressing anyone with a packed schedule.

Traveling for Big Families. 18 Tried-and-True Tips!

4) Bring water. It should be the only heavy thing in your pack. If you don’t want to carry it, know where your water sources are quickly and easily. Having clean water on hand is essential. First, for thirst, but also for rinsing scrapes and cleaning off sticky hands.

5) Instead of packing them ahead of time, buy snacks in local grocery stores. It’s a small adventure in the larger day. Use it as an opportunity to explore a non-touristy piece of the place you’re visiting. There’s nothing like going to a grocery store — especially in another country — to give you a glimpse of what it would be like to live there. What do their milk bottles look like? Do they refrigerate the eggs? How are the fruit and vegetables packaged and sold? Any new veggies you’ve never seen? What does the toothpaste look like? Is it a huge supermarket or a tiny corner grocery? Any familiar brands? Maybe with different flavors/products than you have at home? How about the candy aisle?

6) Even if you’re past the diaper stage, always carry a package of wet wipes. They come in so handy! They can wipe down a table at a restaurant, and they can wipe down a bottom when the public restroom is out of TP. You already know how awesome they are.

Traveling for Big Families. 18 Tried-and-True Tips! From a Mother of Six.

7) As you wander and explore for the day, only carry one day bag for the whole family. Make it a backpack, so that you can keep hands free. And pack light — only the essentials for that day or that outing. I mentioned water and wipes, and we also carry sunscreen, sunglasses, and a tiny pouch with Advil and a few bandaids. Sometimes we’ll add a small guidebook or map. During diaper days we would add a few diapers and a spare romper.

Try to leave it mostly empty so you can throw in stuff throughout the day — like your toddler’s jacket when he gets too hot, or maybe a souvenir.

If there’s only one bag, and it’s light, everyone (or at least the big kids and grown ups) can take a turn carrying it and no one will get worn out.

8) For breakfast, know what you’re going to eat the night before. Have cereal and milk, or pastries, or yogurt ready to go. Or if your hotel includes breakfast, eat that. Knowing what breakfast is ahead of time relieves pressure in the morning when everyone is getting ready and might be cranky from hunger. And if there’s a change of plans — sick kids, rainy day — you’ll know that at least everyone can eat something while you figure out plan B.

9) For lunch, an impromptu picnic is our go-to. If you see a farmers market, use it. Buy carrots or snap peas, a loaf of crusty break, whatever fruit looks good. If you have a pocket knife on you, maybe you can add a small block of cheese. Eat your picnic at the nearest table or green space.

You can also do this same meal with items from any grocery store. Think easy open — a jar of pickles, a can of olives with a pop top — and don’t forget to buy a small package of napkins.

Family Travel Tips: 18 Ideas to Make Traveling With Kids Awesome!

10) For restaurants, go during off hours, so the place will be mostly empty and it will be easy to sit your big group. When everyone is finished eating, have one adult take the kids outside, while the other adult pays. I don’t know what it is, but those last 10 minutes while waiting for the check is when things often fall apart. So skip that scene, and get the kids out of there.

11) As you plan your day remember this is what you’re up against: The kids are going to get hungry, tired, bored, too hot or too cold. So you need to plan for those moments, or plan around them.

12) At art museums, start in the gift shop, have each child pick out a favorite postcard from the collection, then make it an adventure finding the original in the museum.

Big Family Travel Tips: 18 Ideas to Make Traveling With Lots of Kids Awesome!

13) Depending on location, size of family, and age of older kids, it’s often best to skip the stroller. We found this to be especially true throughout much of Europe, and at National Parks too. Too many stairs. Too many cobblestones. Not enough space on the public transit. No where to stash it during a tour.

Use an on-body baby carrier or sling instead. Or, if you have older kids, you can even skip that and everyone can just take turns holding the baby. In France, there were five of us who could carry baby June. No stroller necessary.

14) Every time you see a restroom sign, point it out to the whole group and take a moment to asses if anyone needs the potty. You’ll see signs in parks, at restaurants, at museums and tourist spots. Even if you’re tired and want to get out of there, take a moment and do a potty check. Emergency restroom searches are a nightmare. Oh. And make sure everyone has used the bathroom before you set out on your daily adventure in the first place.

15) Remember, going through the day in a new city or place IS the adventure. I mentioned putting only one big event per day on the schedule, and that’s because all the stuff leading up to and around that event are also activities. Navigating with a city map is an activity. Eating is an activity. Walking somewhere and taking photos is an activity. Getting lost is an activity.

Big Family Travel: 18 Tips to Make It Awesome!

16) Put on your adaptability hat. Things happen. Traveling can be frustrating. So make a good plan, but be willing to adapt in a snap.

17) Remember: SEEING and BEING in the new place is the goal. Traveling means a break from your normal schedule and routine. It means a fresh view for tired eyes. If you do nothing but just be there — in a park, or on a bench, or on an aimless walk — that’s still traveling and it’s still wonderful. So even if you thought you would do twice as much as you actually end up doing, no stress. It was still worth it, I promise!

18) One of our favorite traditions: Recap on the way home. Someone be the scribe and write notes, while everyone calls out highlights from the trip.

Kid-friendly Travel Tips! For Families Big & Small.

Do it right away as you travel home. In the car or while waiting for the plane. Yes, it makes a nice little record, but that’s not really why we do it. We do it because recalling the highlights of the trip together, cements all the best, happiest parts in our minds. Even if it was a sort-of mediocre vacation in the big scheme of things, we walk away saying, “Wow! That was an awesome trip!”

Okay. Now it’s your turn! What would you add to this list? And since every family is different, is there anything you disagree with? What works best for your family travel-wise? Chime in!

Also, are you planning your next vacation? Check out the Alamo Insiders program. It’s a loyalty club with free membership, that offers 5% off retail rental rates! You can sign up here.

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3 Types of Vacations to Keep Family Relationships Strong Tue, 19 Jan 2016 16:00:14 +0000 Design Mom


Photos and text by Gabrielle. This post is sponsored by Alamo. Have you signed up for the Alamo Insiders program? Details below!

You may remember that I’m working with Alamo this year on some quarterly travel posts, and each quarter, I’m also creating a collaborative Pinterest board with a related topic. I hope you’ll come follow along! As I was working on my first post and pinboard, I started to get all meta about what vacations are for. What’s the goal? Why do we take them? Well it turns out there are as many reasons for traveling as there are people who travel. : ) But you already know that. So then I narrowed it down to our family, the Ben and Gabrielle Blairs. Why do we travel? Why do we put such an emphasis on it? Why do we make so much time for it?

I discussed it with Ben Blair and we both agreed that our primary motivation is family togetherness. Traveling together, vacationing together, it really, truly, helps us keep our family relationships strong.

And I know it’s not just in my head. We all feel more connected to each other when we spend undistracted time together. I can practically see the bonding happen before my eyes! And the only real way we can get a good chunk of undistracted time, is by leaving our house and normal daily schedule, or in other words, when we take a vacation.

So for my first post, I want to talk about 3 types of vacations that we love, and that are especially good at keeping our family relationships strong.


Vacation Type #1: Family Retreats.
This is a vacation where the main thing on the schedule is to talk about the goals and aims of your family. It’s where you discuss your family culture and what you’d like it to be. Essentially, it’s like a productive business retreat, but for your family.

This idea may not be a common one for family vacations, but they are well worth your time, I promise. They don’t have to take long, and if a “productive retreat” doesn’t sound appealing they can be combined with ideas from category 2 (below),

One of our best family retreats, happened during the 2014 holiday break. We drove 2 hours north to the Russian River area of California, and rented a house. We already knew the area and didn’t feel the need to be tourists; it was off-season there anyway. Instead, we slept in. Hung out and relaxed. Maybe took a walk. Made food together. Then in the afternoons and evenings we had family meetings, and we had a basic itinerary planned out beforehand.

We did role plays of conversations depicting healthy relationships. We talked about goals for the next year, and what we’d like to do together as a family. Stuff like that.

It was fantastic. After just a couple of days we could have gone home, because we all felt rested and connected. But. We happened to have the house for a few more days, so we turned the last half of our stay into a movie marathon. We watched all the Star Wars movies and all the Lord of the Rings movies. Woot!

Ben Blair and I did something similar as a couple for our 20th anniversary. On our trip to Lake Louise, we set aside time each day as our Couples Retreat time, where we pulled out notebooks and made plans together. What would the next 20 years bring? How can we be better parents? What can we do to make our marriage even better? Again, it was only a small part of each day, but it was so good!

Deauville, France | Design Mom

Vacation Type #2: Relax & Re-energize.

Think of this as the classic vacation. It’s meant to be an energizing break from your typical daily schedule, and ideally, the only things on the itinerary are things you really love to do. And maybe, there’s no itinerary at all!

A vacation with the goal to relax and re-energize will look different for every family. For some people it might mean sitting on a warm beach with nothing to do. For another family, it might be the same beach, but with a schedule of surf lessons, hula dancing, and hiking.

Or maybe a relaxing and re-energizing trip for your family would be in the city — taking in museums, or watching a live show, or taking cooking classes. For yet another family, it might be camping. Or remember the movie marathon I mentioned above? That was definitely a relaxing and re-energizing thing for our family.

The nice thing is, vacations with the goal of relaxing and re-energizing don’t have to be expensive, and they don’t have to be long. We’re big on squeezing in Saturday-Sunday mini vacations that are close to home.

For example, our reading weekend took virtually no planning, had very little cost, and we didn’t have to miss work or school to make it happen. Another example is the photo above, featuring the Deauville Beach umbrellas in France. Deauville was about an hour and a half north of our home, and anytime the temperature hit 75 or above, we’d hit the beach for the day. No plans. Just sunning ourselves and playing in the water, with a picnic lunch. No hotel, no dinner reservation. And no cell phone coverage! It was just a day, but the break from our schedule, and from the internet, would do the trick.

ben and ralph filming in haiti

Vacation Type #3: Make the World a Better Place Vacation.

This type of vacations is a family trip focused on service and working together. It might be building a house with Habitat for Humanity, or planting trees at a orphanage, or volunteering at a big event, like a marathon. Depending on the ages of your kids, this might be something you do with one parent and one teen. Or maybe you can take the whole crew!

We’ve had a few different experiences with this type of vacation and we’ve never regretted it. One of the best, was when Ralph and Ben Blair went to Haiti as volunteers to make a movie about a new language exchange program for Haiti Partners. It’s the sort of experience that can really change your perspective and get your family engaged around important work. Not only did they make the video, which was a big help, they also became life-long advocates. Ben Blair and Ralph, and really the whole family are now big supporters of Haiti Partner’s programs. Getting to see and interact with an organization up close makes it so much easier to support a cause with your available resources — both time and money.

There’s another aspect of this type of vacation that I love. It’s the working! In fact, I’m one of 8 brothers and sisters, and we find we relate best to each other when we’re working together on something big. If we all get together and just hang out, there’s a high probability we’ll start teasing and being obnoxious and we’ll hurt someone’s feelings. But if we’re working together — we used to put on Triathlons in Southern Utah, and now we work together on Alt Summit — it’s like it brings out our super-powers. We solve problems right and left, laugh a whole bunch, and feel like we’ve accomplished something worthwhile when we’re done. Working together can bring out the best in people.

Okay. Now it’s your turn. I have lots of questions. What are your thoughts on these 3 types of vacations. Have you tried all three? When it’s time to relax, what sort of vacation do you crave most? Forest, beach, library — or maybe a fancy spa? What about a volunteering vacation? What sort of volunteer opportunity do you think your family would do best?

Oh. Are you feeling ready to calendar your next vacation? Check out the Alamo Insiders program. It’s a loyalty club with free membership, that offers 5% off retail rental rates! You can sign up here.

P.S. — I know I mentioned the collaborative pinboard above, but I wanted to tell you a little more about my thinking behind it. Once our kids hit school age — say ages 5-18 — we only get 13 summer vacations, 13 winter breaks, 13 spring breaks, and maybe thirty 3-day weekends before they’re all grown up. Think of it as max 70 chances to share adventures with our kids. 70 is not that much! So I thought it would be fun to pin every awesome place I want to take my kids. And if we only hit some of them? Well, that’s better than none!

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Christmas Vacation Tue, 29 Dec 2015 19:09:59 +0000 Design Mom


Photo and text by Gabrielle.

Hi there! I’m waving hello from a ski day in Utah!

This has been a really lovely holiday break. Christmas Eve was spent with family. It was all about carols and favorite foods, with a Nativity reenactment by the kids in the evening. Then on Christmas morning, the kids woke us up at 6:00 and we opened presents. I have to say, Christmas morning with little kids in the house is one of the most magical things that you can experience on this Earth. I know we only have a few years left and I’m already broken-hearted just thinking about it!

Ben Blair and I followed up the unwrapping with a very long nap, and when we woke up, we decided to pack everyone up and drive to Utah! It was sort of last-minute, but not totally. We’d been toying with the idea of going — because of a Blair family event — but weren’t sure what the roads would be like or if we would really be up for it. But the kids loved the idea, so we packed the suitcases, and started out that evening. We arrived in Midway, Utah on Saturday and we’ll be here until we drive back this Friday, New Year’s Day.

The snowfall in Utah has already been generous this year, and Midway, which is a tiny charming town, is looking particularly lovely with a thick layer of white. We feel lucky to be here and lucky that we get to enjoy a really picturesque Christmas vacation. The snow is especially enjoyable since we know we’re headed back to sunny California in a few days. : )

Today, Ben Blair and the kids are skiing, and since skiing is not my favorite, I’m sitting in the lodge and cracking open my laptop for the first time in a week. Ski days are fairly complicated for our family of 8 — rentals, tickets, shuttles, hauling gear, etc. — and even though I don’t hit the slopes, I’m still an integral part of making it work. Perhaps that will change when we no longer have little kids. I feel like I should write up a post on how we make it work, for fellow families who describe themselves as not-frequent skiers. Hah!

I hope all of you are having a wonderful holiday break as well. Are you doing anything fun? Are you traveling, or staying in, or some of both? Is the weather too warm or too cold where you live, or is it business as usual? Whatever is on your schedule this week, I hope you’re getting to enjoy your kids before they go back to school. Monday is coming too darn fast!

P.S. — I’ve been sharing photos of our trip on Instagram, if you’d like to see. Also, I have a couple of other fun posts to share with you this week and will publish them in just a bit.

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Family Travel in 2016! Wed, 16 Dec 2015 19:14:41 +0000 Design Mom

Evert's Boathouse in West Sweden. Offers hotels rooms, fishing adventures on the sea, and fresh seafood feasts.

Photo and text by Gabrielle. I snapped this photo on one of our favorite trips.

I’m looking ahead to 2016. It doesn’t seem possible, but it’s really just 2 weeks away. And I can tell it’s going to be a good year. One of the topics I love writing about is family travel, and I hope to do a whole bunch of it in the next twelve months. So I’m delighted that today I get to announce: I’ve partnered with Alamo!

In 2016, I’m working on a series of Family Travel posts with Alamo. These won’t be travelogues or simple reports on our vacations and weekend getaways. Instead, they’ll be focused on helping you make the most of your travel. Trip ideas, how to keep the kids occupied, packing tips — that sort of thing. And I’ll be creating family travel Pinterest boards to go along with the content I’m creating!

Today, I’d love to hear: What kind of travel questions do you have for me? And what sorts of family travel topics would you like to see covered? My first post will go live in January, but in the meantime, I hope you’ll follow Alamo on Pinterest‚ and Design Mom, too — so you don’t miss a thing!

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Volcano Adventure! Day Two Fri, 09 Oct 2015 16:00:32 +0000 Design Mom


Photos and text by Gabrielle. This content was created in partnership with Ford to help make creativity a part of every drive.

It’s time for the Day Two report on our trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park. (You can find the Day One report here .) Oscar (he’s number four of six) is here as a Guest Blogger to help me out:


Hi! I’m Oscar Blair. I’m ten years old. I’m excited to be a Guest Blogger! I get to tell you about Day Two of our road trip. Day Two was mostly about hiking. And about throwing snowballs! (Oh. And I fell in a lake too! More about that later.)


The hike we went on was to a place called Bumpass Hell. It’s called that because there was a guy with the last name Bumpass, and he was showing people around and telling them to be very careful, because the ground was unstable. Then, the ground gave way and his leg fell into one of the boiling mud pits. He got a serious burn! Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!


It was weird because there was lots of snow, but it was right next to boiling mud pits — in the summer! And it felt warm outside. I don’t know if it was old snow from last winter, or if there was an early storm.


But June kept saying, “Hey Dad, are you hot?” And then Dad would say, “Yes!” And then June would throw a snowball at him! That happened like a hundred times.


Betty was probably the biggest adventurer on this trip. She climbed everything! And she would run ahead on the trail and then run back.


We saw lots of ground squirrels while we hiked. They were really cute! At first we thought they were chipmunks, but we read the sign and found out they were ground squirrels. I think they look kind of the same.


Once we got to Bumpass Hell — it was about a mile and a half to get there — there were boardwalks all over the boiling, steaming mud pits. So you could get a really close look, without falling in like Mr. Bumpass.

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It’s so dangerous that it’s against the law to leave the boardwalk to explore!

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We threw a snowball into one of the mud pits that was boiling like crazy. Right when the snowball touched the pit, it disappeared.


It looks so different there that it felt like we were visiting the planet Mars! Also, the whole place smelled like boiled eggs. But it didn’t make me hungry.


There was also this blue-ish, white-ish river that was coming from the mud pits. I touched it! But it wasn’t that hot. It was just warm.

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When we hiked back, we ran out of water, so we sucked on the snow instead. I didn’t like it very much. I thought it tasted bad, but Olive and my mom liked it.


After we were done with the hike at Bumpass Hell, we were driving by Emerald Lake and decided to stop. We wanted to dunk our heads! First because it’s a tradition for our family to dunk our heads into a bunch of lakes and rivers, but also because we were hot from the hike.

Everyone took turns dunking their heads.


But I fell in!

Shoes, socks, long pants, long-sleeve shirt! All soaked.

Very refreshing though.


On the way home we stopped to look at the fields of volcanic rocks. There were so many and they went for miles and miles! I think they came from last time Mt. Lassen erupted. It was 100 years ago!

For the farmers that want to grow things in this place, they have to clear out all the volcanic rocks first.

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It was a good trip! And it was fun to go in a different car. The Explorer had a sunroof!! And the seats had warmers, and coolers too. They make your bum cold!


A big thanks to Oscar for reporting on this trip. I love all the details he remembers! It makes me want to get reports from my kids on ALL of our trips.

And a big thanks also goes to Ford for loaning us an Explorer for the drive. We had a great time!

Now I’m curious. What’s the nearest National Park to your home? How close is it, and have you ever been? Also, what’s the longest stretch you’re willing to go for a weekend trip? I feel like 4 hours is our max for quick trips. You?

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Volcano Adventure! Day One Thu, 08 Oct 2015 16:00:04 +0000 Design Mom


Photos and text by Gabrielle. This content was created in partnership with Ford to help make creativity a part of every drive.

As promised, I wanted to report on our trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park. Holy moly it was a great little trip! Two things before I jump into the report: First, I asked my kids to be my Guest Bloggers and help me report about the trip. So Olive is helping me with this report about Day 1, and Oscar is helping me with a report about Day 2.

The second fun thing is Ford lent us a new 2016 Explorer for our adventure. It’s a six seater, and we’re a family of 8, so at first I was like aw shucks, I don’t think we can make it work. But then we found out Maude had a cross-country commitment that weekend, and Ralph had a video job that weekend, and they both needed to stay home. At which point we said, “Well then heck yes! Let’s try the Explorer!”

So off we went on a little weekend adventure. And now I’ll hand the report to Olive Blair:

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Olive Blair here. I’m 14 years old and I’ve never been a guest blogger before. But I am happy to tell you all about the first day of our trip!

We got to Lassen National Park after about a 4-hour drive from Oakland. We put all our suitcases in our hotel room and headed straight for the park.


Once we got there, we stopped at the visitor center but it was closed, so we decided to do some exploring on our own. First we found this hot spot called Sulphur Works. It was really cool. It had bubbling mud and it smelled like eggs. We just sat and stared at it for like 10 minutes because it was so cool. My mom shared a video of the bubbling here.

We later found out the mud bubbles because of magma six miles below the surface.

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We also did a little hiking in that area. You’ll note from Oscar’s stance that hiking on volcanos makes you feel pretty unstoppable!!

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After the Sulpher Works, we jumped back in the car, and just a few minutes later we reached this amazing place called Emerald Lake.

Emerald Lake was incredible. It was really green and the water was really cold. We brought swimsuits but felt like it was too late to get in. So we hiked around the edges instead.


Oh and there was snow on the ground! So we started having snowball fights. (The temperature wasn’t really cold while we were there, but the snow was still there from an earlier storm.)


Then, we drove a little further and pulled in to a place where we could climb around rocks and take in the views.

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There was this really massive rock there, and it was just balancing on this other smaller piece of rock. It looked fake, like someone had set it up. We could climb all over it — well, we tried to climb all over it. : ) We learned it was a called a Glacial Erratic.

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There was still enough sun to do more exploring, so we drove a little bit further and found another lake. It’s called Lake Helen. It’s a glacial lake and there were lots of snowy hills nearby.


June kept showing us pink rocks she found by the shore.


The views inside the park were incredible! You could see for miles and miles!

The picture at the top of this post is Lassen Peak. It’s a volcano. It doesn’t look very big, but when it blew up 100 years ago in 1915, it shot ash and rock 7 miles into the air!!! I also learned there are 4 types of volcanos, and Lassen Volcanic National Park has all 4 kinds.


Eventually, it was getting dark, so we drove back in time to get something to eat. I still can’t believe we did all of that before dinner!



Thanks for the report, Olive! I love remembering the trip through your eyes. Gosh I love road trips with my kids! A report of Day Two of our trip — featuring Oscar — will come tomorrow.

Have you ever been to Lassen Volcanic National Park? It’s so cool, and I hadn’t even heard of it till this summer! Makes me wonder what other not-so-well-known national parks there are. Have you ever been to an uncommon one?

P.S. — If you’re curious about the Explorer, there were two driving features that we especially loved — one is that the car automatically senses traffic and when you are in cruise control, it will slow or speed up on its own as needed. This is awesome! And it made us even more excited for a future of self-driving cars. Hah! The second thing is that the side mirrors have a bright little light that turns on if anything is in your blind spot. So handy! Best new safety feature I can conceive of.

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Travel to Lake Louise & Do These 5 Things Tue, 06 Oct 2015 00:16:46 +0000 Design Mom


Photos and text by Gabrielle.

It’s been about 5 weeks since our anniversary trip to Lake Louise, but I wanted to tell you all about it before I forget my best tips — and also because it’s fun to write it up and remember our little getaway. Gosh it was a good trip! When we planned it, we were hoping for a romantic destination — gorgeous hotel room, room service (it was our 20th anniversary after all). But we were also interested in using this getaway to do a lot of planning and goal-making for our next 20 years — so we wanted a place where we didn’t have a mile long wishlist of things we wanted to see.

Turns out Lake Louise was perfect! We didn’t really know anything about the area at all before we booked our room. I’ve mentioned it before, but the only reason I even knew about it, is because I had seen photos in an issue of Victoria magazine when I was 19 years old. Hah!

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We flew into Calgary, then rented a car and drove to Lake Louise — about two hours away. Lake Louise is both the name of the little village near the lake, and also the name of the actual lake.

The photos in my memory were so magical that I was more than content with the idea of getting to see the lake, and then sitting in the hotel room working on goals for the rest of the trip. That’s not what happened, but since I didn’t know anything about the area, there was nothing but “see the lake” as far as my destination expectations were concerned.


And that lake! I was sure it couldn’t be as beautiful as it was in pictures, so I actually tried to have low expectations as we approached. But there was no need. Lake Louise is so beautiful it almost looks pretend. It’s stunning!

It’s an adventurous sort of place. If there are theaters or museums or fancy shopping around, I didn’t notice them — they were definitely not the focus. Here it’s all about taking in the magnificent scenery and hiking and getting out on the water. And we did all of that — plus, also worked on our goals. It was pretty much heaven!

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If you’re headed to Lake Louise (which you totally should be!), here are my 5 don’t miss recommendations:

1) Canoeing on Lake Louise.
Red canoes, blue water, white glacier, green trees. It doesn’t get more picturesque than that. Go first thing in the morning, or take one of the last boats out and catch the sunset while you’re on the water. Either way, you’ll totally miss the crowds.


2) Hike to the Lake Agnes Teahouse.
There are several hiking trails that start at Lake Louise, and probably the most popular is the hike to the Lake Agnes Teahouse. The Teahouse is a little cabin-y restaurant right on the edge of Lake Agnes. In the photo above, you can see Ben Blair staring out across Lake Agnes at the Teahouse — it’s the tiny building straight across from him.

The Teahouse is unique because there’s no electricity there, and no vehicle access. None! Which means that everything at the restaurant is cooked on a propane stove. And it also means that supplies are helicoptered in, or brought up on horseback. So cool! The food was excellent. They have a hundred different types of loose leaf tea, and fresh-baked goods daily.

Unless you get there really early, expect a line. Happily, the wait went pretty fast, and the food was worth it. Things to remember: It’s cash only (no electricity means they can’t take credit cards). Also, there aren’t even trash cans there — if you bring a picnic, you’ll need to pack out all your own trash.


It’s not a super hard hike, but I confess, it was harder than I was picturing. I had a lazy lake-side walk in my head, but it was a true hike. The nice thing is, you’re rewarded with epic mountain views as you walk.


On the way, you’ll also get to stop at Mirror Lake. See that big mountain above the lake? It’s called Big Beehive. We hiked to the top of it! And it’s #3 on my list.

3) Hike to the top of Big Beehive.
We didn’t originally plan on hiking Big Beehive, but when we got to the Lake Agnes Teahouse, the line was long, so we decided to hike further and eat afterwards. First, we thought we’d just hike around Lake Agnes for a bit, but ended up doing the full hike. Totally worth it!

The hike is mostly a series of switchbacks that take you up, up, up! I had to stop many times to catch my breath, but other than that it’s not a particularly technical hike at all. In fact, most people were wearing hiking books, and many had hiking sticks, but Ben Blair wore slip-on Vans, and I wore basic Converse, and we were both fine.


As you get to the first couple of switchbacks you can suddenly see how teal Lake Agnes is. What a color!


When you get to the top, you’ll find this little structure. Until I got here, I was having the hardest time getting my bearings. But of course, as soon as I reached the top, the views became clear:


When you’re on Big Beehive and look straight down, you’ll see tiny Mirror Lake,


when you look to the left, you’ll see the gorgeous teal Lake Agnes,


when you look to the right, you’ll see the other-worldly minty green Lake Louise!


On the way down, I snapped this photo of Big Beehive. It was funny to think we’d been WAY up there!


4) Drive the Icefields Parkway.
This is maybe more for grownups, unless your kids love being in the car. The Icefields Parkway is one of the prettiest roads in the world. It goes from Lake Louise to Jasper, and the entire drive is magnificent!

Some people drive point-to-point — for example, they might start at Lake Louise, and then drive the whole parkway, ending at Jasper. They might stay overnight in Jasper, explore the area, and drive back the next day.

But we simply drove until we reached the Columbia Icefields, and then turned around and drove back. We put on a book on tape — The Wind in the Willows — and we would stop the rental car whenever we wanted to snap a photo. Which was many, many times.

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The whole drive is turquoise rivers, glacial lakes that practically glow, and insane mountains. I couldn’t stop taking photos.

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We were there in August — which I assume is probably the best weather of the year. And it was definitely gorgeous! You would think it would be absolutely mobbed with people, and sometimes, Lake Louise itself did feel quite touristy. But there were stretches on the parkway, where we could pull off by a lake and feel like we were the only people in the world.

The whole area encompasses several Canadian National Parks, and obviously, it’s a well-known destination, yet somehow you feel like you’re the first person to discover it.

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I’ve spent a decent amount of time in the American Rockies and I’m a huge fan, but I have to admit, the Canadian Rockies blew me away! They feel like a much younger mountain range — as though they haven’t been worn down yet. The whole area is simply stunning. It was hard for me to comprehend.


5) Go see Moraine Lake and scramble on the giant rock pile.
Lake Moraine is a short drive from Lake Louise. By the time we got to this lake — on the same day we drove the Icefields Parkway — we had seen a whole lot of glacial lakes, so I confess, I probably wasn’t as impressed as I should be. That said, we really loved visiting!

There is this giant rock pile at the entrance, and it’s wonderful to scramble to the top and take in the views of the lake from above.


Pretty spectacular, right?!


To reach the rock pile, you walk across this log-jam at the base of the lake. Very adventurous! And we only saw one person fall in while we were there. : )

This was the last stop on our trip, and we didn’t have as much time as we wanted there, but if you do have time, you can rent kayaks there as well.


And that’s my little report. I hope you enjoyed it! It makes me want to go back as soon as possible. We weren’t there long — we arrived at Lake Louise on a Monday afternoon, and drove back to Calgary on Thursday around noon, but I can easily say it’s one of the best trips we’ve ever taken.

How about you? Have you ever heard of Lake Louise? Or have you been? I’d love to hear!

P.S. — We stayed at the hotel that’s right on Lake Louise (it’s called the Fairmont), and it is lovely. Very luxe. But there are places nearby that aren’t as expensive, and you can still access the lake in all the same ways that hotel guests can. I’d say worth a splurge if it’s a romantic trip, but with the kids, we might have preferred staying in nearby cabins.

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Lake Tahoe Mon, 16 Mar 2015 17:15:51 +0000 Design Mom


By Gabrielle. The photos are of the home we stayed at, but they’re not mine. I took lots of photos, but it was overcast, and I like these shots from the rental description better. : )

Waving hello from New York! Gosh, I’ve got a lot of travel on my calendar at the moment. (Which reminds me, I’ll be announcing my book tour dates either shortly!) But this post isn’t about New York. It’s about last week’s last-minute trip to Lake Tahoe!

This was a ski trip, and it was the first ski trip we’ve had in over 4 years. We had visited Tahoe last year in the Spring, but this was our first time seeing it with snow. Really, we’re at the tail end of the ski season, and it feels like spring/summer in the rest of California, but in our minds, this was a winter trip. We built fires, hung out in the hot tub after skiing, and did a whole bunch of baking.


There were two big things that I’ve been thinking about from this trip. One, is that all of my kids now know how to ski. I feel like I’ve passed some sort parenting stage. Hah! Before this trip, June had never skied before, but we enrolled her in ski school and she really took to it. On the second day, they moved her up a class because she was doing so well. (Those are definitely not my genes!) Obviously, she’s still just a beginner, but she had a fantastic time. It won’t be long until she’s spending the day skiing with her older siblings.

I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned it, I grew up skiing, but I don’t enjoy it. I’m not sure what it is. I’ve spent many winters of my life skiing, and just have no interest. I think the last time I willingly skied was in college. So last week, while the rest of the family hit the slopes, I spent the days in the lodge catching up on work, and being a drop-off location when my kids wanted to shed their layers. I’d meet up with everyone for lunch and then get back to work.

livingroom fireplace

But there was something about seeing June ski that made me think I might enjoy skiing in the future. I can picture the whole family on the slopes together, and I like that picture very much.

Anyway, the second thing I noted about the trip is that we felt like we really scored on the location. The house is a rental that we originally found on Kid & Coe. As it turns out, I ended up getting introduced to the owner, Domonique of The Simple Proof, who lives in the Bay Area. When she had a unscheduled week come up for her Tahoe place, she generously offered it to us, and we dropped everything and made the last-minute trip happen. And we’re so glad we did!

table kitchen

The house really was perfect (you can see more photos of it here). It was easily roomy enough for our big family. Every one had their own bed, with extra sleeping spaces to spare. There was a big gathering room where we could watch movies and play board games, and an oversize table that could seat everyone. The kitchen had every tool we could possibly need and except for one night of ordering out for pizza, we did all our cooking at the house.

But the best part, is that the stunning lake was just down the path. After skiing, it was still light enough that we would walk down to the lake to skip rocks, or explore, or just hang out on the dock. And it was so easy to picture how amazing this same house would be in the summer.

bedroom masterbath

One of the biggest traveling challenges my family has is finding accommodations that really fit us — not just enough beds, but a place where we can all hang out together. So when we find a location that seems to solve the where-to-stay puzzle for us, it feels like we’ve found a treasure! After a couple of days at Domonique’s house, we were already talking about scheduling rental dates for the summer, and then again for next winter, and making it a regular thing. The idea of planning a vacation and not having to think about where to stay — to just already know! — seems like the most amazing thing ever.

Anyway, I’m curious about several things: Do you ski? Do your kids ski? Is there anyone else out there like me who has skied a bunch but isn’t a big fan? Have you ever been to Lake Tahoe? Do you have a favorite season there? And how do you handle vacation accommodations? Do you return to the same spot over and over? I really like that idea!

P.S. — I mentioned Kid & Coe on Instagram and received a few emails about them. I’m not sure if I’ve ever told you about their services, but we’ve become big fans. They offer airbnb-type rentals, but they focus only on family-friendly spaces, and they only list really good ones. No duds! 

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Last Minute Trip to Lake Tahoe! Tue, 10 Mar 2015 02:22:23 +0000 Design Mom

Lake Tahoe

Image and text by Gabrielle.

I’m so late posting today because we have been on the road all day. We had a last-minute opportunity come up and we’re spending a few days at Lake Tahoe!!! We’re so excited. We are going to ski our hearts out before the (minimal) snow the resorts received this year disappears. : )

With the exception of Olive, who spent a ski week with her school class in the French Alps when we lived in Normandy, we haven’t been skiing since we lived in Colorado! That seems like a really long time ago. It was a really long time ago.

So, I’m late with my posts today, but I won’t be skipping out on work — I’ve got great stuff scheduled for the rest of the week. Plus, I’ll be Instagramming our trip if you’d like to follow along. Lake Tahoe is gorgeous! I snapped the photo at top last spring when we visited for the first time. We all feel super lucky that we get to be here this week.

P.S. — We’re staying at a really cool place that belongs to a Bay Area local friend, Domonique of The Simple Proof. You can see photos of it on Kid & Coe. It’s fantastic! I can’t wait to tell you more about it.

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Haiti Partners Mon, 12 Jan 2015 20:08:14 +0000 Design Mom

Haiti Partner School 4

By Gabrielle. Images by Haiti Partners.

Did you know today marks five years since the devastating earthquake in Haiti? You can go here and scroll down to refresh your memory of what happened that day. So many people lost their lives, that we’ll never know the true number.

Ben Blair and Ralph are arriving in Haiti as I type, and I am looking forward to hearing from them and getting a report. What are they doing there, you ask? Great question. I’m excited to tell you.

Haiti Partner School 1

We have a good friend named Jesse Engle, who I met years ago at the very first BlogHer I attended. Jesse and his family live here in the Bay Area and he works in the tech and startup sector. Jesse’s brother John lives in Haiti and started Haiti Partners, an organization that is dedicated to helping Haitians help Haiti through education. You can read about their approach here, and their work here. Jesse is also very involved with Haiti Partners, and we’ve been getting involved with the organization through him.

Haiti Partners School 3

Broadband internet has recently come to Haiti, and Haiti Partners is figuring out how to make the most of it. One of the things better internet makes available is video chat. So one of the big ideas Haiti Partners is considering is to create a community of English speakers who can have conversations, via online video chats, with Haitians who are trying to learn English.

The new program is going launching this week, and that’s why Ben & Ralph are there. First, to help with the launch in general. Second, because Ben Blair’s education and professional experience is heavy on language learning techniques and he’s very excited about the possibilities of this program. And third, because Haiti Partners would love to have a video made so they can show people what the program is about, and Ralph is going to capture the footage and create the video. French is one of Haiti’s national languages, so Ralph’s French is going to help as well.

Haiti Partners School 2

We’re so impressed with Haiti Partners — it’s a really top notch team doing important work. And as a family, we’re over the moon that we can be involved and use our skills to help in even a small way. I’m sure many of you would love to get involved as well — if you have an internet connection and a computer, you could be a video chat volunteer! The program is so brand new and experimental, that they’re not ready to sign up volunteers yet, but as soon as they are, I will let you know. I think it would be a really cool thing to get your kids involved in, and could open their eyes to how big (and small!) the world is.

Tell me, Friends, have you ever been to Haiti? Or maybe followed updates about the country since the earthquake? As you’re picturing it, imagine warm, warm warm — the weather is supposed to be 90 degrees there this week! If you’re curious to know more about the status of Haiti right now, the links and videos here and here are informative and helpful. Is there a cause or organization or program you or your kids is working with this year? I’d love to hear!

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Russian River Mon, 29 Dec 2014 18:52:15 +0000 Design Mom

Russian River

Image and text by Gabrielle.

Hello, Friends! How are you? I’m writing today from a little rental house on the banks of Russian River — about 2 hours north of Oakland. We’re here to enjoy some concentrated family time without the distractions of home. I think this is the most laid back trip we’ve ever taken — consisting entirely of board games, puzzles, movie marathons, baking, napping and reading. We originally planned to do some hiking and exploring, but 6 out of 8 of us are under the weather (thankfully nothing worrisome), so hanging out in pjs feels just right. We haven’t really left the house!

It’s been a nice little internet break for me as well. I took several days away from my phone and laptop, and am just checking in lightly this week. Feels good!

The last week of the year always seems like such a limbo week to me — like I couldn’t keep to a standard schedule if I tried. Are you the same? What’s this week like at your house? Are you back at work? Hanging out with your kids on their school break? Have you put holiday decorations away? Are you traveling this week? I’d love to hear!

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Books I’m Considering for Today’s Flight Wed, 22 Oct 2014 15:00:08 +0000 Design Mom



By Gabrielle.

Alright, Book Lovers. Tell me your thoughts on Oyster. Have you heard of it? I first read about it on Jenny Komenda’s blog and was intrigued. If it’s new to you, here are the basics: it’s being called “Netflix for books.” You subscribe for $9.95 per month and you get access to unlimited ebooks in their collection, which features over half a million books across every genre and continues to grow daily. There’s a real focus on design and user experience — you can customize the display settings on the app, and there’s a feature that makes it easier to read in the dark as well. Yes, it’s available on any operating system (Apple, Android, Kindle, etc.). And yes, you can try it FREE for 30 days.


I know I’m not unique in saying that reading is one of my great pleasures, though I have been awful at making time for it lately. But I’m not the only voracious reader at the Blair house. I described Oyster to Maude and her eyes lit up like Christmas morning. As many books as she can read at her fingertips? No finishing a book at 8 PM and then having to wait until the next day to pick out something new at the library? Instant access? She was all over it! And we signed up right away.

Books I Want To Read

Of course, Maude’s excitement has me itching to do more reading myself. In fact, I have a flight to D.C. today (I’ll tell you about the trip tomorrow) and I’ve been making a list of possible options that I can read on the plane. This is what I’ve narrowed it down to:

1) The Steve Jobs biography. Ben Blair read it and loved it when it first came out and it’s been on my list ever since.

2) Angela’s Ashes. I still can’t believe I’ve never read this. I’ve heard I need to be in certain emotional state to handle it.

3) The Girl Who Fell From The Sky. I don’t know much about this one, just that it was recommended to me by someone I trust.

4) The Handmaid’s Tale. This is another one where I sort of shake my head at myself that I haven’t read it yet.

5) David Sedaris’ Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. I’ve read a ton of his work, but not this one, and I wanted something on the list that I knew would make me laugh.

Speaking of which, I LOVE book recommendations. In fact, I would say that beyond instant book access, the features of Oyster that are most interesting to me are the recommendation options. I can exchange book picks with friends on the app, and also get Oyster’s recommended books based on what I’ve liked before. They also have a really good editor-curated selection that I’ve found especially helpful — I feel like I add a handful of titles to my reading wish list whenever I check it out.

If you’re curious about Oyster, you may want to start by checking out the list of popular titles — it will give you a sense of what you’ll find there. You can also read more about Oyster’s features here. Want to try it? You’re in luck: Sign up and you’ll get the first 30 days free!

Now I’m off to the airport, and very much looking forward to it. There’s nothing better than reading a great book on a cross-country flight! Before I head out, I’d love your opinions on my narrowed down flight reading list. What do you think of the picks? Have you already read them? Any that you would start with? Or avoid completely? And what are you reading lately?


This post is brought to you in part by Oyster.

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Visit Sweden: West Coast Itinerary Fri, 29 Aug 2014 11:00:50 +0000 Design Mom

Marstrand Island in West Sweden

Images and text by Gabrielle.

Okay. Here’s my final report on our big Sweden trip. I wanted to share the West Coast Itinerary that the West Sweden Tourist Board created for us. World class cities are fairly straightforward to visit — they offer lots of hotels, excellent restaurants, good shopping, and terrific museums. But once you get out of the city, exploring can feel intimidating. So I was truly grateful to have an itinerary set that helped us take advantage of the best of the best that West Sweden has to offer, without having to spend a ton of time researching options.

I’m sharing our full itinerary here, so you can see when we stayed at each of the hotels I wrote about. I’ve also included notes on the museums we visited — and the amazing meals!

Day 1 Bohuslän 

We left Gothenburg in the morning and drove to the sailing destination, Marstrand Island (the drive takes about 45 minutes). We parked the car at the big parking lot near hotel Marstrands Havshotell, then we caught the ferry to Marstrand. You buy your tickets in the tobacco shop in the port. Tickets costs 25 sek per person. The boat leaves every 10 minutes.

Marstand Island - Four Days in West Sweden Marstand Island - Four Days in West Sweden Marstand Island - Four Days in West Sweden

We explored Marstrand. Suggested exploring included visting the Carlstens fortress, hiking around the island, doing some shopping or buying some fresh shrimp for lunch and eating on the rocks overlooking the sea. They also suggested the beautiful spa at Marstrand Havshotell in case we wanted to relax.

Public Swimming Pool, Swedish Style. On Marstand Island.

We explored to our heart’s content, and caught our breath when we saw the island’s public “swimming pool”. There’s a diving board nearby as well!

Gallery on Marstand Island - Four Days in West Sweden

2.00pm — We took a guided tour at Gallery Strandverket on Marstrand Island.

Gallery on Marstand Island - Four Days in West Sweden

It’s such a cool museum — just the right size and housed in a fantastic historic building surrounded by the water. They have two floors, each one dedicated to a different exhibit, and the exhibits change 3 times a year. During our visit, the first floor featured sculpture by a French artist, and the upstairs had painting by a Swedish woman — she didn’t get her big break until her mid 50′s!

Gallery on Marstand Island - Four Days in West Sweden

There’s also a café and an outdoor sculpture garden that is free to the public, and you can rent out the rooftop garden for weddings or events! If you visit Marstrand Island, I would say Gallery Strandverket is definitely a don’t miss.

Next, we drove to Klädesholmen at Tjörn island — known as Herring Island (the drive takes about 1 hour). We checked in at Salt & Sill hotel (see my hotel report here).

Itinerary: Four Days in West Sweden

8.00 pm — We dressed up for dinner at Salt & Sill‘s famed restaurant. Since this is “herring island” the restaurant’s speciality is herring, of course. We had their herring plate, with herring prepared six different ways. The herring is eaten with hard cheese, boiled egg, chopped red onion, and salt.

Salt & Sill Restaurant - Four Days in West Sweden

Salt & Sill hosts a huge herring contest each year, and the winners’ recipes are served in the restaurant. Our herring plate featured award winners from the past three years, plus some traditional options.

Day 2 Bohuslän 

We ate complimentary breakfast at the Salt & Sill Hotel, then checked out.

We drove to Skärhamn (the drive takes about 20 minutes).

Nordic Watercolor Museum - Four Days in West Sweden

11.00 am — In Skärhamn, we visited the Nordic Watercolor Museum.

Nordic Watercolor Museum - Four Days in West Sweden

Oh man, we LOVED this place. It features one big gallery room, one small gallery room and one theater. The exhibit was about the work of a Swedish artist named Lars Lerin. His paintings are unlike any other watercolor art I’ve ever seen. We came home with a book about him. I’m still thinking about his work.

Grounds at the Nordic Watercolor Museum - Four Days in West Sweden

But it wasn’t just the museum that we loved. The whole area was remarkable. Across the water from the museum sits the 5 Guest Studios that I mentioned in the hotel post, and there are wooden walkways around the museum that go way out into the water.

Grounds at the Nordic Watercolor Museum - Four Days in West Sweden

At the end of one walkway, there is a high dive! A school class of children was visiting the museum, and afterwards we watched them run out to the high dive and jump in the water. But we were amazed because the wind was crazy that day and we were bundled in our coats. The kids jumped in the water like the weather was nothing!

Pilane Sculpture Garden - Four Days in West Sweden

2.30 pm — We visited the Pilane Sculpture Park. It was founded by a local citizen that could see the natural landscape of his childhood disappearing. So he set up a nature preserve, and then introduced a sculpture park on the preserve so that people could interact with the landscape. He also introduced sheep to the sculpture park — they keep the paths trimmed with their grazing.

Pilane Sculpture Garden - Four Days in West Sweden

We really appreciated how intentional this place was. As you follow the path of the sculpture, you get to experience the variations in the landscape. And the whole place is designed for generations to visit — grandparents take their grandchildren, and the sculptures spark thoughts for both of them.

Sheep grazing on an ancient burial ground. Pilane Sculpture Garden - Four Days in West Sweden

At the end of the sculpture path, you’ll walk by an ancient burial ground with stone circles. When we walked by, the sheep were napping there — they blended right in with the grave stones!

The sculptures change each year, and there are 60,000 visitors to the park every summer.

Next, we drove to Orust, and checked in at the chic Lådfabriken Bed & Breakfast (see my notes and photos about this awesome place here).

The view from Nösund - a restaurant in West Sweden.

8.00 pm — Dinner at Nösund. The setting is totally picturesque, overlooking a coastal village and the ocean. The food was a set seafood menu and it was excellent.

Day 3 Bohuslän 

We had breakfast and checked out of the Lådfabriken Bed & Breakfast.

Then we drove to Fjällbacka (the drive takes about 1 hour 20 minutes).

Rock Carvings from the Bronze Age. At Vitlycke Museum in West Sweden.

11.00 am — We took a guided tour at Vitlycke Museum. It featurese Rock Carvings from the bronze age.

Rock Carvings from the Bronze Age. At Vitlycke Museum in West Sweden. Rock Carvings from the Bronze Age. At Vitlycke Museum in West Sweden.

The carvings were made over centuries, but they all maintain the same simple style. There are hundreds of carving sites over a several square mile area.

Based on other artifacts found from the time period, we know the people had developed fine metal work and carving skills, yet they continued making these very simplistic carvings. No one knows what they mean.

I love stuff like this!

Long houses from the Bronze Age. At Vitlycke Museum in West Sweden.

After we visited the carvings, we checked out the Bronze Age Farm on the premises, featuring two long-house replicas from two different times.

The hike up to Kungsklyftan to see the stunning view over the Fjällbacka archipelago. West Sweden.

Next, we visited the charming fishing village, Fjällbacka, and explored.

This is the home town of the Swedish crime writer Camilla Läckberg and used to be the summer destination for Ingrid Bergman.

The view from Kungsklyftan over the Fjällbacka archipelago. West Sweden. The view from Kungsklyftan over the Fjällbacka archipelago. West Sweden.

We took the hike up to Kungsklyftan to see the stunning view over the Fjällbacka archipelago. Then we took a “fika” at Ingrid Bergman’s favorite café “Setterlinds Bageri”.

The seafood feasting room at Everts Sjöbod hotel in Grebbestad. West Sweden.

Next, we drove to the oyster village, Grebbestad (the drive takes about 30 minutes). Fun fact: 90% of the Swedish oysters comes from Grebbestad! We checked in to Everts Sjöbod hotel (see my notes here).

Seafood feast at Everts Sjöbod hotel in Grebbestad. West Sweden. Seafood feast at Everts Sjöbod hotel in Grebbestad. West Sweden.

Everts Sjöbod offered a fresh-as-possible seafood dinner.

Day 4 Göta Canal Area

We drove to Lidköping (the drive takes about 2 hours).

Rörstrand Museum. It's one of Europe’s oldest porcelain factories. West Sweden.

11.00 am — We visited the Rörstrand Museum. It’s one of Europe’s oldest porcelain factories. We were there on such a busy day!

Rörstrand Museum. It's one of Europe’s oldest porcelain factories. West Sweden.

The Museum is connected to a shopping center. After a quick run through the museum, we took advantage of the shopping, and we actually found several of our best souvenirs here.

Next, we drove to Läckö castle at Kållandsö (the drive takes about 30 minutes). We checked in at Victoriahuset (see my description and photos here). We parked the car at the big parking lot near the castle.

Läckö Castle in West Sweden.

3.00 pm — We took a guided tour at Läckö Castle. It’s a stunner. It has medieval foundations and has been well-preserved since the Baroque period. It’s considered one of the country’s most beautiful castles.

Entrance of Läckö Castle in West Sweden. Inside Läckö Castle in West Sweden. Fireplace detail inside Läckö Castle in West Sweden.

The castle tour was excellent. We were guided through the 3rd floor and then welcomed to explore the first and second floors on our own. I think it’s nice to get to go on your own and pace yourself however you like.

Hvita Hjorten, restaurant at Victoriahuset hotel in West Sweden. Meal at Hvita Hjorten. The restaurant at Victoriahuset hotel in West Sweden.

8.00 pm — We had dinner at the hotel restaurant, Hvita Hjorten. This is an award-winning establishment that uses only the freshest local produce — grown in the small castle garden and purchased from local vegetable growers. Fish and meat come from the fishermen of Lake Vänern (the lake that sits alongside the hotel), local farmers and hunters. The menu is determined each day depending on what’s available. This was maybe my favorite meal of our whole trip!

Day 5 Departure

Drive to Gothenburg, drop off car, and head to the airport.


I should note one schedule change. Because of our early flight time, we shifted things around a bit and drove back to Gothenburg the night before we flew out. We stayed at the Hotel Pigalle back in the city. It’s a super stylish hotel, with a popular bar and restaurant. I got a kick out of the fact that they had old school room keys, and smiled when the desk clerk greeted us in a top hat!

And there’s the whole itinerary. I hope you found it helpful/interesting. : ) For our trip, the goal was to have us see as much as possible, so we stayed somewhere new each night. But really, any of the locations we stayed in would be ideal for a week. You could unpack and use your hotel/B&B as a base for exploring. Whirlwind itineraries have their own excitement, but staying for awhile at any one of the beautiful stops would have been equally wonderful.

Now, I’m curious to know if you’ve ever traveled with an itinerary that was prepared for you. There’s something lovely about not having to make decisions, but customizing the exact trip you want is so satisfying. What’s your itinerary preference?

P.S. — Find all the posts from our Sweden trip here.

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Visit Sweden: The Five Coolest Places to Stay on the West Coast Thu, 28 Aug 2014 14:03:46 +0000 Design Mom

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 of 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. : )

Salt & Sill Hotel and Restaurant in West Sweden. Floating hotel rooms!

The second place I want to share with you is called Salt & Sill. It’s a floating hotel!

The story with Salt & Sill is that the owners had already established one of the finest seafood restaurants in West Sweden (I talk about our dinner there here). They wanted to add a hotel to the restaurant location, but the available land didn’t make sense, so in 2008, they built a floating hotel instead! It’s an eco-friendly hotel and when they built it, they also created an underwater reef to support marine life.

Salt & Sill Hotel and Restaurant in West Sweden. Floating hotel rooms!

The yellow building is hotel check in, and the brown buildings at the back of the photo are the floating hotel rooms. Throughout the night, we could feel the building gently rocking on the water. Lovely.

Swimming at Salt & Sill Hotel and Restaurant in West Sweden. Floating hotel rooms!

The hotel rooms are designed facing the water, and you can jump in for a swim at anytime. Ben Blair took a dip before dinner!

Salt & Sill Hotel and Restaurant in West Sweden. Floating hotel rooms!

The other fun thing about this hotel, is that there is a floating sauna as well. While we were there, it was docked near the hotel and guests were going back and forth between the hot sauna and the cold sea water. Apparently, the sauna/boat can be taken out into the archipelago — you can schedule a sauna anywhere!

Evert's Boathouse in West Sweden. Offers hotels rooms, fishing adventures on the sea, and fresh seafood feasts.

The next hotel I want to share with you is called Everts Sjöbod which translates to Evert’s Boathouse. Staying at Evert’s feels like an adventure. The yellow part of the building is 130 years old — it has big open rooms for gatherings or parties, and seafood feasts are hosted there regularly.

The brown portion of the building is newly built and houses 6 hotel rooms plus modern kitchens.

Evert's Boathouse in West Sweden. Offers hotels rooms, fishing adventures on the sea, and fresh seafood feasts.

Guests at Everts Sjöbod often like to stay for several days or a week, so they use these gorgeous new kitchens to cook their own food — perhaps even the seafood they caught on a fishing adventures with the owners.

Evert's Boathouse in West Sweden. Offers hotels rooms, fishing adventures on the sea, and fresh seafood feasts.

When the current owners — two brothers — bought the place, it was full of antique fishing accessories, all sea-worn and aged to perfection. They kept everything and used all the artifacts as decoration. So the whole place is packed with a million wonderful details. I took too many photos!

Evert's Boathouse in West Sweden. Offers hotels rooms, fishing adventures on the sea, and fresh seafood feasts.

The brothers keep two gorgeous wooden boats, made in the 1950′s, docked at the hotel. They take guests and tourists out to the sea for fishing adventures and sightseeing daily.

Evert's Boathouse in West Sweden. Offers hotels rooms, fishing adventures on the sea, and fresh seafood feasts.

On the dock, they have two wood hot tubs. During the winter, they are filled with sea water and heated. Guests go from the hottub to the ocean and back in the hot tub again. We want to visit in the winter just to do this! : )

Victoriahuset Hotel at Läckö Castle in West Sweden

Fourth, the one-with-nature Victoriahuset Hotel at Läckö Castle.

Victoriahuset Hotel at Läckö Castle in West Sweden

This is a new hotel, opened in May 2013. It’s located alongside Lake Vänerns (Sweden’s biggest lake, Europe’s third biggest) and functions as the visitor center for the Djurö National Park. It faces Läckö Castle which dates from the 16th century.

Victoriahuset Hotel at Läckö Castle in West Sweden Victoriahuset Hotel at Läckö Castle in West Sweden

The architecture of this hotel is stunning, and the whole building is built around a nature theme. The materials are all natural. As you walk down the hallway, nature sounds play from hidden speakers. The ceiling is a layer of woven sticks.

Victoriahuset Hotel at Läckö Castle in West Sweden

The lobby has interactive displays about the National Park.

Läckö Castle in West Sweden

The hotel has bikes for guests to borrow, and we spent a morning exploring the grounds of the National Park.

Canoeing at Läckö Castle in West Sweden Canoeing in the lake at Läckö Castle in West Sweden

Then we rented a canoe and went for a row in the lake with the castle for a backdrop. We loved every minute of our time there!

Visitor's Studios at Nordic Watercolor Museum in West Sweden

Here’s a bonus one! The fifth place I want to make sure to tell you about is the Guest Studios at the Nordic Watercolor Museum (I’ll talk more about the Museum itself in tomorrow’s post). We didn’t actually stay here but the studios really caught our imaginations. They’re big! Two stories each, and they aren’t quite a hotel. You bring your own sheets, or rent them from the museum, and you clean up after yourself as well.

Our museum guide mentioned that artists get half off on Guest Studio rentals. So awesome! Wouldn’t it be amazing to come here and paint? The location is jaw-dropping. The studios are just across the water from the museum.

So, that’s the report of the amazing places to stay we encountered. I’d love to hear — do any of these places seem particularly appealing to you? And when you travel, are you more likely to pick one hotel and use it as a base, or do you like to move around and try different accommodations?

P.S. — You can find all the posts from our Sweden trip here. If you need more help in planning your own visit, I highly recommend The Visit Sweden website, and also the West Sweden website.

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Visit Sweden: Volvo Factory Thu, 21 Aug 2014 11:25:54 +0000 Design Mom

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!

Of course, I asked a million questions. The first of which was: So, why doesn’t every Volvo customer participate in this program? And the answer was three-fold. One, not everyone enjoys traveling. Two, sometimes a customer wants to buy something off the lot because they need a car in a hurry (ordering a car through the Overseas Delivery program is a 2 to 3 month process). And three, not every dealer participates, so not every customer knows about the program — but you can find the nearest participating dealer here.

Other things I learned about the program from Volvo reps and from the couples who were participating:

When you pick up the car, it has a temporary license plate and temporary insurance. The insurance is good for two weeks, or you can increase it up to 3 months for an additional fee. The license plate is good for 3 months at no extra cost. What that means is that you don’t have to keep the trip to 24 hours, you can travel around while you’re there — for a few days, two weeks, or even up to 3 months! Related, many European countries have visitor visas that expire after 3 months, so this timing matches that.

The couples we spoke to were all making an extended trip out of it — the trip of a lifetime for one of the couples: three weeks all over Scandinavia. Gothenburg, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Finland, Oslo, Bergen and the fjords! This is all totally drivable.

Another couple was driving the car south to France and Spain. They are going to drop it off in France after their travels are done. Then, the Volvo dealership will send it back to Gothenburg (for a fee) and it will be shipped at no cost to their U.S. dealer.

So basically, you can use the free airfare and turn this into a European dream vacation if you’re so inclined.

On the other hand, if you simply want the better price, you can make the trip as short as possible and drive around Gothenburg for a bit, then hand the car back over to the factory for delivery.

Volvo Tour4

Another thing I learned is that by ordering a car through this program, you can specify exactly what you want. Make, model, color, upholstery, add-ons, accessories — you get to build your ideal Volvo. This appeals to me for obvious reasons.

Okay. So I’m obviously fascinated by the Overseas Delivery program. But as I mentioned, I also attended a Volvo safety demonstration. I wasn’t expecting to get much out of it, but Ben Blair and I have since discussed it at least twice a day since we attended.

Volvo Tour6

First we talked about the importance of safety, and what happens to the weight and impact of humans, pets and objects in a car during a wreck. Then, three volunteers got to test their speed reflexes — Ben Blair’s were the fastest (of course). I already associated Volvo with safety, but just assumed it was their marketing tactic. I didn’t understand it was the company’s core guiding value, and the number one thing they’ve focused on from the beginning. They take safety super seriously.

They invented the 3-point harness, then, when they saw how effective it was, quickly made it available to all car manufacturers. And to this day, it’s the safety innovation that saves the most lives. But they didn’t stop at an improved safety belt.

Every time there’s a serious accident here in Sweden that involves a Volvo, their engineers go to the scene. They study and document the wreck, then they recreate the same crash in their massive safety labs so they can figure out how they might lessen the impact to the people inside the cars. They don’t just sort-of recreate the crash. Their machinery allows them to stage a wreck inside the lab from any angle or point of impact. It’s truly amazing.

My brain doesn’t work like that. Like everyone, I know serious car wrecks happen every day, and I just assume it’s part of the gamble of life. I hear about safety improvements in car advertisements, and shrug and think they don’t really change the overall safety statistics. I accept that cars are dangerous, and try to block out the worst case scenarios from my mind.

Volvo Tour5

But Volvo engineers’ brains are different than mine. Like me, they know car crashes are going to happen, so they figure out every possible way to either prevent them, or lessen their impact. They take what they’ve learned from studying real-life wrecks and make improvements. Real improvements. A decade or so ago, 10% of car crashes involving a Volvo resulted in major injury or death to the people in the car. Then, they made more safety improvements, and brought the number down to 4%. Then, they made more safety improvements, and at this point, they’ve brought that number down to 2%. Those numbers represent real people and real lives that are being saved.

Their current goal is to bring the number to 0% by 2020. And based on their track record, I have no doubt they’ll reach it. Just think: By 2020, if you are driving a Volvo and get in a serious accident, there will be 0% chance that you will receive a serious injury. Zero percent chance that you will die. I’m stunned by that thought.

And that’s what Ben and I have been discussing. We don’t own a Volvo. We’ve never owned a Volvo. There isn’t actually a Volvo that seats 8 people, so we’ve never even considered it. But suddenly, we were feeling irresponsible for driving around our kids in anything but a Volvo. Or what about teen drivers who are particularly at risk for car wrecks? We have two teenagers, both working toward their drivers licenses — if we could reduce their chance of being seriously hurt in a car crash to 2 percent, why wouldn’t we do that?

Of course, that brought up bigger questions like: should safety features this good be required by law for all new vehicles? And even though these safer cars are more expensive to make, do they ultimately save money for a country because of fewer catastrophic injuries and related medical care? Would safer cars mean less car insurance and far fewer associated legal battles? Should governments subsidize the purchase of safer cars to make them available to all income levels?

Obviously, these are big questions, and I don’t pretend to have the answers, but as you can imagine, we have been discussing this topic repeatedly since the safety demonstration, and I’m sure we’ll be discussing it for weeks and months to come.

Volvo Tour7

As we finished up at Volvo, the last step was to pick up a car that we could drive up the coast. The car they loaned us for the week is a V-60 R-Design. It has sporty details and smart features — like it shows you on the dashboard what the speed limit is on whatever road you’re driving, and the number changes instantly whenever the speed limit changes. It’s both good-looking and highly functional — exactly what I expect from Swedish design.

We love it and we feel safe as we drive on these new-to-us roads. If you’re following along on Instagram, you may have seen  a peek of it. It certainly feels like the ideal car to be driving around Sweden, where something like one in every 7 vehicles is a Volvo. : )

Volvo Tour8 Volvo Tour9

I know I covered quite a bit in this post, but I’d love your thoughts on any of it. What do you think of the Overseas Delivery program? Does it get your European vacation imagination going? And what are your thoughts on the 0% serious injury goal? I’d love to discuss either with you!

P.S. — Related to that 0% goal, in the next 3 years, there will be 100 self-driving cars in the streets of Gothenburg. These will be customer cars, not test cars. Wow!

Volvo Tour1

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Visit Sweden: Stockholm, Day Two Tue, 19 Aug 2014 13:30:01 +0000 Design Mom

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.

Stockholm Day Two06

We used the Stockholm Card to get around on the city buses — it includes access to all public transportation and most museums and attractions. A super good deal for tourists.

Since we had seen some of the town center the day before, Elisabeth took us to the South Island — it’s a residential area that we probably wouldn’t have visited on our own, and it’s super cool! It has that in-the-process-of-being-regenetrified hipster feel, with lots of second hand stores and vintage furniture shops and restaurants that celebrate local producers — old school Swedish food made new and fresh again. It’s called the SOFO neighborhood. Our favorite stops:

Stockholm Day Two09 Stockholm Day Two10 Stockholm Day Two07

Grandpa. A terrific collection of artifacts, vintage goods and new Swedish-made products — old leather chairs, a giant antique Danish flag, a vintage Swedish school map of the North America.

Stockholm Day Two11 Stockholm Day Two08

There was a wall of classic canvas backpacks by Sandqvist. They are stunning. Leather details, super sturdy and well made. Plus, they are designed and built in Stockholm! We bought one for a souvenir — and are using it to hold the other souvenirs we pick up. : )

Stockholm Day Two15 Stockholm Day Two16

Meatballs for the People. There’s nothing more iconic than meatballs as far as Swedish food goes. They have a cart for deliveries, family style eating in the restaurant, and take home options as well. The meatballs are made simply, using local ingredients, and there’s a map that shows where in Sweden the different meats come from. (And yes, they have veggie meatball options as well!)

Stockholm Day Two12

Swedish Hasbeens. These gorgeous wooden+leather clogs and sandals have been on my wishlist for ages. But the high quality and high design means they’re quite pricey. So when we happened on a store in SOFO having a 50% off sale, you can imagine I couldn’t resist. I bought a red pair and can’t wait to show you!

Stockholm Day Two14 Stockholm Day Two13

Acne Studios. A modern, sometimes experimental/edgy Swedish style brand. This Swedish line has grown and there are now stores across Europe and even two in the U.S.. Definitely peek in if you ever get a chance.

Pärlans Caramels. Handmade the old fashioned way in a little shop using the recipe of the founder’s grandmother. The shop is charming as can be — decorated with furniture and wallpaper inspired by her grandmother’s home. We tried 9 different kinds — peppermint & polka, vanilla & sea salt, and pistachio & sea salt were my favorites.

Of course, for every shop we stopped into, there were another 5 we didn’t have time for. So this is just a tiny sampling of the SOFO area. It’s a place to shop, to walk, to fill your inspiration well, to see what’s new and cool in Swedish wares.

Stockholm Day Two17

After exploring SOFO, we made a visit to Svenskt Tenn. We met their creative director for lunch (taking tea in the Svenskt Tenn tearoom is high on my recommend list!), and spent a couple of hours learning about this amazing Swedish store/cultural institution.

This was a life changer for me. I can’t stop thinking about the founder and her vision. I’m quite obsessed! And I came away with two books — one about the founder, and one about the lead designer. I’m going to mention our visit here, but not tell you much about it because I have too much to share. But I will definitely be writing up a separate post about this place!

Stockholm Day Two18

During the afternoon, we made our way to the Vasa Museum. (Our Stockholm Card gave us free entry.) We’ve heard it’s the number one tourist attraction in Sweden. It’s a massive wooden ship with an infamous history. It was commissioned by a Swedish king centuries ago as a way to intimidate on the sea. But against the ship builder’s advice, the king demanded the ship be built higher and higher — 4 stories high. The day it set sail, it sunk almost immediately, never even making it out of the Stockholm harbor. The king was so embarrassed, he wouldn’t let anyone talk about it and tried to erase the incident from history.

Stockholm Day Two19

But the secret was passed along, and 300 years later, the ship was discovered and brought up from the ocean floor. It was in remarkable condition, and you can see the whole restored ship (98% original!) at the Vasa Museum.

By the way, next door to the Vasa is the Pippi Longstocking museum. If we’d had our kids with us, we would have gone for sure! Which reminds me, I was struck at how family friendly Stockholm is. Lots of parks. Tons of strollers. Babies in restaurants. Every museum has a kid program or kid section. Even the airport has awesome spaces for kids to play.

Stockholm Day Two25 Stockholm Day Two21 Stockholm Day Two22

That evening, we took a boat ride out into the archipelago and ate at Fjäderholmarnas Krog. Truly amazing! It’s just a 25 minute boat ride away from the city. The views were stunning. The meal was excellent — I practically licked my plate clean.

The restaurant is found on a small island that takes maybe 10 or 15 minutes to walk around. So beautiful! After dinner we explored the island a bit and happened upon a small outdoor theater where an Abba singalong happening! And then we watched the sun set while we waited for the boat back to Stockholm.

Stockholm Day Two20 Stockholm Day Two24

A magical end to a magical day.

That covers our day two itinerary, but I still want to mention two of the things we discussed with our tour guide. First, Elisabeth mentioned that at some point in the last century — maybe 50 years ago — the country of Sweden decided they would stop using the formal version of their language. Like many world languages, they had a formal and informal mode of speech, and they knew that by getting rid of the formal version, they would be taking a big step forward to equalizing citizens and breaking down class separations.

I thought that was amazing! We’re talking about a major cultural change. Language develops over centuries and affects the way we think and act. To officially ask (require?) citizens to stop using certain words or ways of speaking all of a sudden is a BIG deal. And the idea that the whole country simply accepted it for the sake of the greater good is remarkable to me. Elisabeth said that as a result of the change, she would address any other Swede she met — including the Prime Minister — by first name.

A second topic that came up and that I keep thinking about, is that Elisabeth mentioned having a housekeeper or house cleaner is generally frowned upon, even if you are wealthy enough to hire someone. She said the idea is that Swedes are expected to clean up their own messes. She also mentioned this cultural guideline has become more lax in the last few years. There has been a wave of immigrants who don’t speak the language, but are in need of work, and housekeeping jobs make sense while they integrate into the culture.

So now I’m dying to know: What’s your response to their no-hired housekeeping approach? And what do you think it would be like if your country made significant changes to your language? (I was trying to imagine what it would be like if American kids called all adults by their first names — even their school teachers.) Also, have you ever visited Stockholm? What were your favorite parts? Did you get a chance to have any cultural discussions while you were there? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

P.S. — For a full list of shopping recommendations, I loved this guide — with categories for fashion, design, vintage and food.

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