Like most everyone else, we hadn’t traveled as a family for over a year. We were steeped with wanderlust and longing for our next adventure. So, as soon as we were vaccinated, I started to make plan.
But, a yearlong hiatus from traveling, a global pandemic, and enough stress and anxiety to last a lifetime had changed me. I was no longer footloose and fancy free, snagging the first flight to anywhere so long as it was a good deal.
I used to be up for anything.
Paris with a five-year-old with food allergies? Oui!
Rome in a heatwave so hot the gelato melted before it was passed over the counter? Ciao!
Iceland during an arctic windstorm so strong it'll blow your car door off? Halló!
London public transport with a pack-n-play, jogging stroller, and car seat in tow? Bloody fantastic!
Vacation Planning Paralysis
After a year out of the planes, trains, and automobile loop, I'd lost my carefree, my que sera sera, my cool.
Instead, I found myself in vacation planning paralysis.
Would a city be too busy?
Would the beach be bustling with bikinis and board shorts?
Would there actually be people?
On a plane?
No really, would there actually be people?
Living, breathing, people in 3D that I’d need to sit near? Stand beside? Talk to?!
I obsessed over the pros and cons of each option.
Hawaii? Too humid. Too tropical. Too far.
California? Too crowded. Too Covid-y.
Caribbean? Too risky. Too touristy.
Just before I closed my tabs, called it quits, and began to mourn the death of my cool, accepting the fact that I’d never travel again and start to say things like, “those were the good ol’ days,” I paused. I heard a call to a place that felt like home. I’d gone there every year growing up until I felt like I’d outgrown it, seen all there was to see. But something told me to look back, examine it from a different angle. Maybe those were the good ol’ days.
So there I was, finding my flatlining free-spirit in... Florida.
Indian Rocks Beach
First, though, I had to decide where in that gorgeous gator-filled state we would land.
Ft. Myers Beach? Been there a hundred times.
Miami? I’m not sure I’m allowed back.
Clearwater? I heard it was nice when the beer bonging spring breakers are gone.
Indian Rocks Beach? Now, wait just a second.
With a few clicks and a credit-card, we were on a flight to Tampa where we rented a car and drove the 30 miles over to Indian Rocks Beach, a quiet stretch of sand just south of Clearwater. To say it was the perfect location for a low-key beach retreat would be an understatement. The sand is sugary white and soft. The waves are gentle and the waters warm and shallow. And, with hardly any crowds (and not a high-rise hotel in sight!), we often felt like we had all that glorious shoreline to ourselves, and the stingrays and dolphins.
While the beach alone is enough to get you there, our accommodations would be enough to make you want to stay. Forever. Our Gulfside Pavilion at Indian Rocks Inn was a two bedroom one bath poolside beach house just steps from the sand. We literally couldn’t get any closer to the ocean if we tried and the heated saltwater pool shared with only a handful of other people on the property was the perfect break from the beach. We spent most our days in a breezy current consisting of beach house, pool, beach, repeat. With just six units on site and a strict no-partying rule, the Inn was never noisy or full of knuckleheads—a pleasantly surprising side of Florida I’d never explored when I was one of the said knuckleheads.
Indian Rocks Inn
For families, the Indian Rocks Inn has everything you need. Full-sized kitchens with all the necessities, beach towels, sand toys, a sea kayak, fat-tire bikes, beach loungers and cabanas, and pool floaties. There’s even a beer fridge in the office they keep stocked with local brews, a shuffleboard court, and FREE laundry! Parents: you know how huge this is. Parking is easy and onsite and the folks who work there could not be nicer. Corey and Janet make sure your trip is special starting with an initial call before you even get there to learn about your family and your needs. They even left us a bottle of wine in the refrigerator, t-shirts, beer koozies, and eco-friendly cups upon our arrival!
I’m not sure we would have left the beach house at all, but on the two days the weather took somewhat of a drizzly turn, we did venture out beyond the paradise bubble. One of the days, we hit up Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home of Winter the tale-less dolphin. We were with a legit Dolphin Tale fan, so this was a must for us. While there are better aquariums out there when it comes to captive sea life, this one focuses on dolphin rescue which made it unique and educational. Just don’t go expecting to see a big, black-lit tanks. For that, you’re better off at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa.
On the other rainy day, we did the two-hour drive to Orlando to explore the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Yup. We did Universal during Covid-19. Clearly, the Gulf had washed away my paranoia and I was game for rolling the dice with the weather and the crowds. I’ll save that adventure for another post!
If you’re on the fence about traveling now or lost about where you’ll go on your first trip post-pandemic, I cannot recommend Indian Rocks Beach and the Indian Rocks Inn enough. It was exactly what we needed to ease back into our old travelling routines without having to worry about a thing once we got there. Honestly, it was the most my family had relaxed since the start of the pandemic and I’m already dreaming of going back. This time, I won’t hesitate for one second.
Where to stay
Gulfside Resorts: You can’t go wrong with Gulfside Resorts. If you want to hear the waves from your window or have your feet in the sand within seconds of shutting your front door, stay at Sarah’s Seaside, Indian Rocks Inn, or the Narrows. We stayed at the Gulfside Pavilion in Indian Rocks Inn where we went from beach house to pool to sand and surf all within a stone’s throw of one another.
Where to eat
Kooky Coconut: This tiki hut looking, laid back, grab-and-go, was walking distance from our beach house. They serve up a mean Cuban (they say it’s the best in Clearwater and we would agree!) and the tuna stuffed avocado hits the spot after a day in the sun.
Guppy’s: A bit more upscale than Crabby Bills or PJ’s Oyster Bar, this seafood restaurant did not disappoint. We tried the coffee-dusted sea scallops and bacon-wrapped swordfish with cheddar grits. With our family food allergies, going out can be difficult, especially at a seafood restaurant, but our waiter made sure we were safe without ever seeming annoyed.
Tropical Ice Cream: Across from the beach with 70 flavors, this place was a much needed treat after a hot day! The best part: an allergy menu is posted in a couple of locations inside the parlor so we knew exactly what was safe to eat before ordering. Superman ice cream for the win!
What to do
Clearwater Marine Aquarium: Home of Winter, the tail-less dolphin! This aquarium is less full-fledged aquarium (i.e, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago) and more of an educational center for dolphin rescue. Don’t go expecting to see tons of fish and sea life. But, for what they lack in large, beautiful displays of tropical fish and ocean wonders, they make up for in large, beautiful dolphins, each with its own inspirational story and incredible journey. For Dolphin Tale fans, it’s a must. For the rest of us, it’s still pretty cool. Bonus: They offer free admission to teachers and one guest Monday-Thursday!
The Florida Aquarium: This aquarium is what you’d expect: coral reefs and jellyfish; stingrays and sharks; seahorses and octopus. Albeit on the smaller side, we did this aquarium before our flight out of Tampa and easily killed a couple hours. Perfect for littler kids, this aquarium also comes with a huge outdoor area with playground, splash park, bayside picnicking, and restaurant onsite.
Indian Rocks Beach: A short drive south from busy Clearwater Beach, this beach is so chill that there were even a few days where we felt we had it all to ourselves. Gently waves and shallow waters make it awesome for ocean first timers.
Our stingray friends just outside our beach house!
We received a complimentary upgrade at Indian Rocks Inn in exchange for this post. This did not influence my opinions.
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.
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