Luckily, I had sisters who were just as fed up with the state of the world as I was and ready for a reason to celebrate. Together, we embarked on the most luxurious, indulgent, “I’ll have what Oprah’s having,” adventure of our lives. It wasn’t just a spa getaway or wellness retreat. It wasn’t an all inclusive five-star hotel. It was, in fact, all of it.
Miraval Austin is one part award-winning spa, one part holistic wellness retreat, and one part luxury hotel. A decadent trifecta designed to pull you off the hamster wheel and press reset. It’s a place to totally unplug (really, it’s device-free) and melt away stress, anxiety, and the screen-induced muscle aches and pains.
Pulling up to Miraval, you know you’re somewhere special. It’s what I imagine the Fresh Prince felt when he rode up to Bel-Air. Unlike other hotels or resorts, there is no bustling check-in lobby where folks fight over kiosks and room keys. Instead, there’s a small, serene building with staff who have already expected your arrival and have been waiting for you. Painlessly, they check you in, give you a canvas tote with sanitizer, a luggage tag, and water bottle. They tell you to relax. Everything is taken care of. You can breathe.
An interactive board lists the activities for the day, most are included with your stay. You can choose whatever your heart desires: yoga, meditation, hiking, culinary arts, mala making, tarot readings, high ropes, equine activities. With hundreds of options, it can be overwhelming. But don’t worry, even before your stay, staff will contact you to plan your visit to ensure it will be perfect upon arrival.
Once we were checked in, we were whisked away on a tour of the property in a golf cart. The grounds were meticulous and the cluster of townhome-style accommodations are spread across the property. With no elevators to deal with or noisy neighbors, it felt like we had the place all to ourselves.
We stayed in the spa-inspired Dreamcatcher room where the beds were like literal clouds. I kid you not when I say that you’ll sink at least four inches into the downy delight. The bathroom was a good size with all the toiletries one could need, including the super-fast Buttercup hair dryer.
Everything else on the property — the spa, pools, yoga barn, temple, high-ropes course — were all walking distance away and you could easily get to everything taking one of the various tree lined paths.
Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too
All meals are included with the stay and the restaurant did not disappoint. Offering up a variety of healthy options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a view that overlooked the lake, we could have spent our entire day eating. For cravings in between meals, there’s a snack bar with smoothies and revolving grab-and-go snack options. We tried one of everything. The best part? No calculating a bill, tipping, or carrying around cash or cards. And, no rush.
Soul Cleansing and Silent Pools
As for activities, we were aggressive. With so much to choose from, we didn’t want to miss anything and often booked ourselves back-to-back in order to experience it all. During our three day stay, we indulged in the following, all of which I’d highly recommend.
Included in the price of our stay
Each event and experience was like unwrapping a new birthday present; I couldn’t wait to see what came next. And that feeling extended hour by hour, day to day, until eventually I left excited to discover what surprises 40 had in store. When I returned home, the pandemic wasn’t over, but the funk I'd been in was.
It was a Miraval miracle.
Know Before You Go
I received a discounted rate during my stay.
There was once a time when the word conjured up a very specific set of images in my head. Sweaty beer bellies hanging over ripped jorts. A tick lodged behind a dusty earlobe. Filthy feet. Unintentional dreadlocks. B.O. mixed with burnt marshmallows. Flaccid hot dogs and heatstroke. The questions “What smells?” and “Did you hear that?” constantly interrupting every conversation like an impatient toddler.
“We can camp!” someone would suggest, and I’d skip as fast as I could toward a hot shower and hand sanitizer.
But, like so many things, camping has taken on a totally new meaning, and I will be the first to admit it: I like camping. Especially now. In this era of distance and disinfectant, quarantine and unanswered questions, camping can save the day. In fact, camping has saved the summer.
Camping has saved summer.
It’s fresh air and freedom. A dotted sky of endless stars to wish away the madness. It’s family and friends, closer around a flickering fire. Hiking up hills, biking down singletrack. Reading a book by a babbling river. Forgetting that the world is falling apart because with camping, you create your world. The spot you stake for the night is yours and you are the Queen of the Castle (or tent or camper or cabin).
And there’s no better place to call yours for a few nights than Kebler Corner.
Tucked away in the Rocky Mountains in Gunnison County, Colorado, Kebler Corner offers camping and outdoor recreation quite unlike any other. With cabins (many with private bathrooms and kitchenettes), RV sites with full hookups, and tent camping, Kebler Corner has something for everyone. And although I am a camping convert, I am not a cavewoman, so I appreciated the meticulously clean showers and restrooms, abundant General Store stocked with local wines and everything I forgot to pack, fast WiFi, and the most lovely camp hosts you could meet.
The grounds of Kebler Corner are stunningly situated on the edge of the North Fork of the Gunnison River and Anthracite Creek with easy river access for all the river rats out there. A steep, but short hike from the campground that is perfect for kids takes you to an alpine meadow where we spotted a black bear cub, wildflowers, and lots of scat--a favorite topic among the school-aged crew.
While You're There
Nearby Paonia boasts miles of mountain biking trails and Jumbo Mountain is sure to challenge every type of rider--from novice to expert. Sleek singletrack makes for hours of fun, although finding your way around from trail to trail can be a bit of a challenge. Tip: be sure to download the MTB Project app to keep track of your location.
The less adventurous can make a beeline for Big B’s orchard for farm-fresh hard cider, u-pick fruits, and disk swings that glide over a drop off that will make your stomach sink to your toes. To take off the edge, you then can hit up several area wineries for free tastings and tours.
The eclectic mountain town of Crested Butte is just an hour away along Kebler Pass, one of the most breathtaking, windy, mountain passes in Colorado. Summiting at over 10,000 feet above sea level, Kebler Pass is home to the second largest aspen tree grove in the world. Unpaved for most of the way, the road is smooth enough for most cars but not the faint of heart. I did my fair share of backseat driving while white-knuckling the “Oh Shit” handle on the passenger side, but the view was pretty. Note: Kebler Pass is only open May-October when the roads are clear, so be sure to visit then to lessen your chances of plummeting to your death.
Where to stay: Kebler Corner, even awesome for the most reluctant camper (aka, me).
What to do: This really depends on your style. Mountain Biking at Jumbo Mountain. Wineries. Orchards. Rolling on the river. Star gazing. Horseback riding. It’s all there!
Where to Eat: We mostly cooked at our campsite, but lunch out at The Secret Stash Pizza in Crested Butte was a tasty treat and Ollie’s Ice Cream in Paonia cooled us off after hours in the hot sun. Big B's offered another great option for lunch in between apple picking.
We were still buried in feet of snow in Colorado although ski season was dwindling. Without an end to the cold in sight, Spring Break was upon us. Now, I am a Midwest girl of the mindset that all Spring Breaks should be spent somewhere warm, basking in the sun and brushing off the sand. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I first became an educator in my adult life--so that I could continue to have that glorious week long stretch of days applying sunscreen, fending off heat stroke, and adjusting my wide-brimmed hat.
Not many career paths detour and frolic to allow you to keep this sacred ritual. No, after almost 17 years of celebrating Spring Break, the workforce is the first official party-pooper to rip Spring Break away from our tanned hands, laugh at our sun and dolphin tattoos--beachside badges of honor hailing from Daytona and Myrtle beaches--and spike a beach-ball sized dose of adulting in our faces.
But I am not a quitter. So, I have held onto the miracle of Spring Break as long as humanly possible.
And while the days of Spring Break past had taken me to popular daiquiri-drenched places like Miami, Fort Myers Beach, and Cancun, the mom in me was now looking for more family-friendly options without the beer bong or American Flag bikini.
Mexico seemed to be the perfect solution for sun and serenity, and we decided on Playa del Carmen because of its easy access from Cancun Airport and its location along the Carribean Sea. The ability to take day trips to nearby Cozumel and Tulum was also a huge plus.
Playa del Carmen is one of the Quintana Roo’s largest coastal cities. It’s about 35 miles from the Cancun International Airport and an hour-long ferry ride to the island of Cozumel. Known for its reefs for world-class snorkeling and diving, Playa del Carmen attracts active tourists and adventurers. The Playacar beach runs along the southside of the ferry dock along the Playacar residential area, where we stayed. It’s sands are pretty and water is blue. Aside from the occasional seagrass, it’s what you would expect from a Carribean beach. Quinta Avenida, or Fifth Avenue, is located just off the beach and is jammed-packed with restaurants and shops.
We opted to stay at an Airbnb single family home in Playacar, Casa la Loma. With seven of us, this offered the most space and ability to cook and come and go as we pleased. The home was located in Playacar fase 1, a gated community a few steps from the private beach that offered 24 hour security. The villa was directly next to the Mayan ruins and short walk into town.
With four bedrooms, 4.5 bathrooms, a pool and large kitchen, the villa gave everyone their own space and had ample room to cook and eat together. While the pool was rather small, the kids didn’t seem to mind. The property manager, Nazario, was more than willing to help us figure out where to go and what to do and even did the first grocery run for us! (Although, now that I think of it, it may have been to make-up for the enormous scorpion we found in one of the showers when we arrived!)
Outside of playing at the beach and exploring town, we spent one day in Cozumel sailing on a private catamaran and another at Xcaret, an enormous water, theme, and amusement park in Playa del Carmen. There, we toured the underground rivers by floating with life vests through the fresh crystalline waters and around the massive maze of caves and fossilized coral. After the underground rivers, we ventured off to discover dolphins, sharks, crocodiles and flamingos. We snorkeled in a safe, enclosed area that was easy for the kids to exit in and out. We ate lunch at a buffet that turned out to be pretty good (included in our Xcaret plus package) and wrapped up our day at the Children’s World where the kids could climb up suspension bridges and slide down water slides to calm cenotes. You could spend days at Xcaret and never get bored. In fact, I think we only scratched the surface during our 8-hour excursion. While I can see how it could get very crowded, Xcaret is still well worth the trip if you're traveling with kids.
Our Mexican vacation ended in Cancun with our flight back to the states. Just as we were about to board the plane, we realized we’d forgotten to keep hold of the TOURIST CARD--a small slip the flight attendants give you upon arriving to Mexico. There is both an entrance and exit portion of the tourist card, and you are to keep the exit portion for your departure. We didn’t do that. What happened next resulted in a lot of tears, all-out sprinting, and cold, hard cash. But, after what felt like an eternity when a flight is being held for you, we were able to take our seats--sweaty and flustered--and head back home.
Where to Stay
Playacar is safe and central to everything you’ll want to explore--the beach, town, and the ferry to Cozumel.
What to Do
Take the ferry to Cozumel for a day and rent a private catamaran
Drive to Tulum for ruins and turtles
Visit Xcaret for family fun
Explore Fifth Avenue and all the shops
Where to Eat
El Fogon- hands-down the best taco joint in all of Playa del Carmen. Recommended by just about every local we met. We went twice.
Don Chendo- good for pizza and other Italian dishes.
Grab your groceries at WalMart. One of my favorite parts of traveling is visiting the grocery stores. While this mega-mart is a lot like the ones in the states, you’ll still get a sense of Mexican fare through what’s on offer.
I first strapped on a snowboard at 22 years old during a vacation in Breckenridge, Colorado. My arms were more sore than my legs due to the fact that I had spent more time rolling around on the snow, painfully pushing myself up off the ground, than standing. Even lifting my hand to brush my hair the next day hurt. In fact, even my hair hurt. I hated it and vowed to never do it again. But life has a sense of humor, and just a few years later I found myself living on a mountaintop just steps away from one of America’s top ski resorts: Vail. There was no escaping it. I was going to learn to ride that mountain and, while it took me five years and a change from a board to two sticks, I did.
Like No Place on Earth
Just off I-70 under 100 miles from Denver and at an elevation of over 8,000 feet, Vail Mountain has over 5,000 acres of skiable terrain. From easy-riding greens, blue rolling hills, steep blacks, and the legendary back bowls, Vail’s vast mountain has something for everyone. Averaging over 300 days of sunshine and 370 inches of snow, it’s no wonder the resort has defined itself as “like nothing on Earth.” And when you’re done lapping runs and chasing powder, Vail offers three villages--Vail Village, Lionshead, and Golden Peak--where you can kick back and relax. Vail Village has that classic European alpine village vibe and is home to many fancy boutiques and top-rated restaurants, all near Gondola One. Lionshead is close to the Eagle Bahn Gondola and offers some of the bigger shops--Burton, Patagonia, Northface. From Golden Peak, you can catch events like the Burton U.S. Open and easily access Vail’s Golden Peak terrain park. With heated cobblestone walkways and plenty to stop and see, Vail’s villages make for a perfect place for families to stroll around and explore.
The ski school at Vail is second to none for both adults and kids. It’s not cheap, but it’s worth the investment if you’d like to stay on the slopes and out of the ER during your vacation. Putting the kids in group lessons might be the best decision you make. Some of the biggest family battles I’ve seen have been on the slopes where parents are anxiously screaming at their children while the kids are sobbing behind their goggles, leaving a trail of poles and skis and helmets and gloves. Leave it to the professionals and your kids are sure to have a great time.
The best runs and local picks are all up for debate (seriously, people get in bar fights over this stuff), but if you’re looking to have fun with the family (i.e., no crying) and everyone can make it down blues, here’s what I’d suggest.
From Vail Village, take Gondola One up to Mid Vail. Take Lionsway to Chaos Canyon. Chaos Canyon has three paths and Ricochet has two low to the ground “fun box” park features. The other two paths have banked turns and rolls. Take Gitalong Trail to Bear Tree and then the Lionshead Catwalk to Lionshead. Ride the Eagle Bahn Gondola up to Born Free. Born Free starts as a blue and mellows to a green. Take the Eagle Bahn Gondola back up and head down Simba. Hit up Coyote’s Escape and Den where you’ll find a twisting path through the trees and a ski-through tunnel. Ride up the Born Free express lift and take Born Free again to Cubs Way where you’ll reach Porcupine Alley for a ski-through A-frame and tree skiing. Take the Avanti Express lift and ski down to Mid-Vail for lunch and gorgeous views of the Gore Range.
After lunch, head up Chair 4 and lap the blues: Ramshorn, Christmas, Cappuccino, Whistle Pig. Swingsville is a green if your lunch hasn’t settled and you want to take it easy. You have a ton of options to get back down to Vail Village, Gitalong Trail being the easiest and Riva Ridge the fastest.
Easy Does It
If your crew is all about crushing the greens or if your kids are little, I’d suggest taking Gondola One to Chair 4, the Timberline Catwalk to the Sourdough Express Chair. From there, you can lap the wide-open greens like Boomer, Tin Pants, Sourdough, and Flapjack. Sourdough Express is a two person chair that takes a little while, but it’s really great for beginners learning how to use the chair. You can take a break at Two Elk Lodge (11,240 feet in elevation!) for lunch or a snack or a nap. When you’re done making your turns, you can ski Flapjack to the catwalks that will gently (and slowly) take you down to Vail Village.
The options are literally endless when it comes to skiing in Vail and half the fun will be finding your family’s cup of tea. Get a map and go in with a flexible game plan so you’re not overwhelmed or find yourself somewhere you’re not comfortable. Take your time. Take in the views. Afterall, there’s nothing like it on Earth.
Where to Stay
The Sonnenalp is a luxury hotel in Vail Village with 112 suites and 15 hotel rooms. The breakfast at Ludwigs is incredible and the Kids Club has great activities (like hiking or dinner and a movie) for ages 3-12. The spa and indoor/outdoor pools are also top notch!
Manor Vail Lodge, located at the base of Golden Peak, was voted the "Best Ski Hotel" in the 2019 USA Today Reader's Choice Awards. It's two and three bedroom suites are large enough for the whole family (and cousins!) to stay.
Off the beaten path a few miles form Lionshead in Cascade Village, The Grand Hyatt Vail offers 285 rooms, pool, spa, restaurant and free shuttle into Vail Village and Lionshead.
Where to Eat
Sweet Basil- Modern American well worth the splurge. Voted Colorado's most popular restaurant by Zagats survey.
Almresi for a unique, authentic Alp experience. Be sure to try the Zirbenschnapps (Liquor of the Alps)!
Bol- super spot for bowling and really good food!
Moe's Original BBQ- family-friendly downhome cooking.
I may have mentioned my fear of open water a couple of times. I’m sure it came up in my review of our Disney Cruise and again in my post on Elba Island. However, as a mom trying to do my damndest to be a brave, adventure-loving role model, I continue to try to conquer this fear. And what better way to do it than a catamaran cruise around Cozumel?
Isla de Cozumel is a 185 square mile island off the Yucatán Peninsula, opposite Playa del Carmen. It’s a popular destination for cruise ships and divers wanting to discover the wonders of the sea. The MesoAmerican Barrier Reef (the world’s second largest) surrounds the island and is ideal for snorkeling and exploring underwater life.
Our journey started with a ferry ride from Playa del Carmen to the island of Cozumel. We chose WinJet, a fast ferry that ran just about every hour and promised to be an easy, 45-minute jaunt to Cozumel. The first tipsy step I took onto the boat signaled to me that this ferry would be different from the other slow-moving ferries I’ve been on before. A little voice inside told me to take the Dramamine before it would be too late. I’m so happy I did.
As we took our seats and watched the ship start to push back from the dock, we tried to get comfortable. The boat was clean and mostly empty. The crew was friendly. The skies were blue. However, about five minutes into our journey, the rocking of the ship became almost unbearable. The kids started to turn green. The grown-ups estimated the time it would take to make it from their seats to the restroom. The crew calmly began to pass out barf bags like it was no big thing.
Through the boat’s bobbing and the passengers puking, we somehow made it to Cozumel only a little traumatized. But the last thing anyone wanted to do was get on another boat. Unfortunately, that was the only plan we had for the day and everyone had toughen up.
A quick taxi ride from the Cozumel port allowed us to air out and took us to our next destination: Marina Fonatur to board our private catamaran.
There are several options for a boat tour around Cozumel, most include rowdy twenty-somethings and yard-stick sized daiquiris. Since we were a group of three children and four (old and grumpy) adults, we wanted to avoid the booze cruises and crowds. Instead, we opted for our own private 35’ catamaran through Exclusive Cozumel Sailing that took us on a five-hour round trip ride to a sweet snorkeling spot in the reef and then to El Cielo, a heavenly crystal-clear sandbar accessible only by boat.
At the dock, our captain met us and took us to our ship. She was a new 35’ catamaran with two cabins, two bathrooms, and a dining room--plenty of room for our party of seven. In addition to a captain, we also had two first mates who tended to our every need. Life vests, paddle boards and all snorkeling equipment (for both kids and adults) were also provided.
The first hour was spent cruising along Cozumel to our snorkeling spot. The captain was informative and friendly while the first mates did everything from making drinks and delicious snacks to helping the kids get out into their snorkeling gear. As it was the first real snorkeling experience for most of us, there were some tears, but the crew made it so much fun that everyone eventually dove in...except me. The Jaws theme music played in my head every time I thought about dipping more than a toe.
After thirty minutes or so of snorkeling (I heard it was amazing!), we continued our journey. On our way to El Cielo, David, one of the first mates, jumped into the ocean after a beach hat that blew overboard. He snatched it in seconds flat. I’m telling you, these guys were amazing!
El Cielo is a sandbar accessible only by boat where the water is no more than waist deep and the sandy bottom is velvety soft. This was more my speed. I hopped on the paddle board with a couple of kids, cruised around our anchored ship and watched the stingrays slide by underneath. It was as close as I was willing to get to the sealife, and it was magical.
With the boat anchored and everyone enjoying the sandbar, the crew made lunch. We had fresh fruit, chips, guacamole, and quesadillas. The open bar included soft drinks, water, beer, liquor and wine.
We all complained on the way back that we didn’t want the day to end, but after five hours on the catamaran, we had to say goodbye. It was the perfect place to conquer my fear, a gorgeous boat surrounded by friends, family and knowledgeable experts. But, the fear lives to see another day and I don’t regret it. While I didn’t make it into the open waters this time, I still had an amazing adventure that no one in our party will soon forget.
What to do:
Take a private catamaran around Cozumel with Exclusive Cozumel Sailing
What to pack:
You won’t need anything else; Exclusive Cozumel Sailing has you covered.
I received an extra hour of sailing from Exclusive Cozumel Sailing in exchange for this post.
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