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.
1. Bucky 40 Blinks Contoured No Pressure Sleep Mask- looks like a mini bra but fits your face like a dream on a long haul flight or in a hotel room.
2. All in one travel adapter- a must when traveling internationally. Mine has been to Finland, Iceland, Rome, Paris, Florence and London.
3. Passport Holder- nerdy yet functional. A great way to keep important docs at your fingertips and you from looking crazed as you frantically dig through a bottomless handbag filled with snacks and gum.
4. Trunki Ride-on-Suitcase- best way to keep little kids entertained and active through big airports.
5. BubbleBum Inflatable Car Seat- Goes everywhere and packs up small. Perfect for rental cars, airplanes, and taxis.
6. The Shrunks Inflatable Toddler Bed- Keeps your kid off gross hotel room floors and safely snug in a bed with inflatable rails.
7. No Roll Crayons- Awesome for airplanes and trains when you don’t want to be digging around the floor for a runaway crayon.
8. Take And Play Hangman- great game for the school-aged kids. Easy to store and pieces don’t get lost. Pro-tip: Give them their grade level sight word list and have them choose a word from there. They’ll be sure to spell it correctly (very important in hangman!) and get in some extra practice with sight words.
9. Maclaren Stroller Hands down the best travel stroller. I researched them all and found this to be the very best lightweight, easy to use stroller. Stands up against cobblestone and airports and crabby kids.
10. Kidz Gear Headphones- Comfy and lightweight, these headphones have held up for years, and they come in fun colors.
11. Burton Suitcase- This bag is the bomb. It fits everything a family of 4 could need on an extended trip and even separates into two suitcases to avoid overweight charges. It wheels like a champ through airports, around tight corners, and on even the busiest streets. It has handles on the front that make it easy to huck wherever your travels take you.
12. Travel Slippers- These are great for the plane, hotel rooms, and kicking around friends’ houses where shoes are not allowed. Just roll ‘em up and stuff them in your purse.
13. Over the Door Organizer- This packs up small but has BIG benefits. We’ve used ours in tiny European hotels and small cruise ship staterooms to organize sunscreen, shoes, wallets, phones, cords, and everything else.
14. KAVU Rope Bag- This shoulder sling is the perfect day pack for sightseeing. It easily fits everything you need for a day out and about--sanitizer, tissues, band aids, smart phone, Epi pens, lip balm, and sunscreen.
15. All Good Organic Sunscreen Butter- This is the smallest, easiest to pack sunscreen ever. A little goes a long way and it feels velvety soft on sensitive skin. One tin has lasted the three of us days at the beach.
16. Skip Hop Kids Backpack- There’s something to be said when your child can finally carry some of their own crap. This backpack is perfect for toddlers to kindergartners to carry their own snacks and small toys without it getting too heavy. The cute designs make them fun (and easy to spot) and the simple features makes it unfussy.
17. Lululemon Align Pant- You will forget you’re wearing pants. Really. Even after a twelve hour flight and multiple trips to the airplane bathroom with the kids, these pants feel amazing and the matte black are chic enough to wear in public.
18. E Marie Travel Blanket- It’s a scarf! A cape! A blanket! This travel blanket is the best for when you don’t want to use the junky one they provide on the plane. It’s also one of Oprah’s favorite things, so it must be good.
19. Skyn Eye Firming Gel- Eyes puffy from jetlag? Pop these genius gels in the refrigerator and then chill for 10 minutes while they work their magic.
20. It luggage- This 27.5 inch hardside spinner suitcase is the lightest, easiest to manuever suitcase that even your kids can manage.
21. Goodr Sunglasses- these inexpensive ($25!) sunglasses are amazing. "No slip. No bounce. All polarized. All fun." And it's all true, plus they come in every color combo imaginable.
One of my first memories of traveling with my family as a kid is piling into the back bench seat of our pea-green Plymouth (affectionately known as “Old Green”) with my two big sisters on either side of me. As I crossed my ankles, white ruffled socks and patent leather shoes, my mom turned from the passenger seat and instructed my sisters to hold hands across my lap.
This was my seatbelt.
I have another memory of my dad driving and us (three little girls) sprawled across the back, fighting. Someone kicked someone or was threatening to spit or farted. My dad’s big hands gripped the steering wheel, knuckles white like marbles, until he could no longer take it and swatted into the air in the backseat in an attempt to separate us. With his eyes on the road, my sisters and I scrambled to one side of the car to avoid him. As he flailed his hand from left to right we banged our bodies into one another like we were beads sliding across a lopsided rack. We squealed and laughed, always just out of his reach, and forgot all about who started it.
It’s a wonder no one died, really. It wasn’t until 1985 when the first child passenger safety laws were put into place requiring children under five-years-old be in carseats. Since I was actually five in 1985, the laws never applied to me. (Come to think of it, maybe this set the tone for the rest of my life. That would make a lot of sense.)
Nowadays, parents wouldn’t dream of putting their precious cargo in a vehicle without the proper restraints, even if it’s just to roll to the end of the driveway. We’ve seen the crash dummy videos. We’ve heard the stories. They loop in our heads as we buckle and unbuckle, tighten and check.
Parents spend hours researching and agonizing over which infant carrier to put on their baby registries (Does it have a head cradle? What about fleece lining?), when to switch from backwards-facing to forwards-facing (Are his knees supposed to be bent like that?), and how old is really too old to be in a booster (When he grows his first mustache! When she’s six feet tall!).
And when you throw travel into the mix, forget it. What do we do about taxis? What about the $50 a day they charge to rent a carseat with the car? Do you take the carseat onto the airplane or check it with the luggage? (For the record, I’ll always suggest checking it when your child's feet can reach the seat in front. Unless, of course, you love the death stare you’ll get from the seething stranger who your kiddo is already kicking the crap out of before you even take off.)
Honestly, it’s enough to make me just want to stay home.
That is, until I discovered the BubbleBum. The BubbleBum is a portable, inflatable booster seat made for kids 4-11 years old and a total game changer, no matter where your travels take you. When not in use, it deflates and folds flat and can be tucked into a purse or backpack. Best of all, it comes in a variety of colors! Just kidding. The best part is that it’s safe.
Here’s how it works: You inflate the BubbleBum by blowing into the air valve. Now, we’ve all been stuck at one time or another blowing up a massive pool raft in the shape of a flamingo until the point of passing out. This is not like that. This takes a few puffs (and I know you know how to do that), and you’re done.
The clips on the side of the seat position the lap belt so that it’s exactly where it needs to be and the shoulder positioning clip ensures that the shoulder belt is in place and across the center of your child’s chest. This means your kid won’t complain about the seatbelt strangling her or try to tuck the shoulder strap in her armpit where it's basically useless, even dangerous.
At just 9 x 13 inches (think the size of a piece of paper, but a little bigger), the BubbleBum is made out of similar materials as airbags and life vests. It has memory foam technology and a cover that can be spot-cleaned. Ours has been on a shuttle bus in Iceland, taxis in London, trains and cabs in Paris, out to eat in the Bahamas, some random person’s car in Cozumel (OK, so maybe that wasn’t safe, but the car seat was), and all over the states, so you know that thing has had a few spots.
And I'll save you from doing the research: The BubbleBum has been crash test approved and meets and exceeds the US safety regulations (FMVSS 213). It’s also been awarded the Best BET Booster Award by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for seven consecutive years, and Consumer Reports likes it, too.
But, before you run out and buy one, you need to know that the booster is only appropriate for kids aged 4-11 (or 40-100 pounds), so if you have younger children, this isn’t for them.
The BubbleBum is perfect for trips, car rental, cabs, field trips, and is even awesome just to have in the glove compartment when you're Soccer Mommin' hard and other kids find their way into your minivan. You can even fit three of these suckers across the backseat. The kids will still be able to kick each other, but at least you’ll know they’re safe.
I was about 14 when my obsession with Henry VIII began. As an American girl growing up in the suburbs of Michigan, where the only exposure I had to anything British was Hugh Grant’s notorious mugshot and the Spice Girls, I was fascinated with the mammoth monarch. But, not in a sexy Jonathan Rhys Meyers of the Tudors kind of way. No, my interest in Henry took a more twisted turn and my attention fixated on all things odd about him. Like, how he weighed nearly 400 pounds and needed a hoist to mount his horse. Or, how he wrote cringe-worthy love letters to Anne Boleyn where he called her boobs “pretty dukkys.” Or, the sheer size of his codpiece.
So, when the opportunity to take a trip to England arose and I had the choice between staying in London or on Eel Pie Island, named for Henry’s favored snack and rumored to be his old courting grounds, I, of course chose the latter. It wasn’t exactly what Skinny Jeans and Peter envisioned, but what preschooler wouldn’t want to parade through a quirky pedestrian-only island in the middle of the Thames?
I held firm on my decision.
Did she say Eel Pies?
Yup. I guess they used to be delicious, and I wish I could tell you from first-hand experience, but these suckers are hard to find due to a declining eel population in the Thames and an acquired taste that most people in the 21st Century never truly acquired. During my week-long stay on Eel Pie Island, sadly, I never found an eel pie to try. But, this quirky island had much more to offer than squigly fish.
It’s a tiny island located in the middle of the River Thames between Richmond and Twickenham, just a stroll down the street from Twickenham Stadium (think: men in short shorts passing an exaggerated football backwards, otherwise known as rugby). In the 1920s, the island housed the Eel Pie Island Hotel, a rollicking venue for big band dancing, jazz, and later some of the most well-known British rock bands. You know, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, David Bowie, The Who, and the like. Of course, with the bands, came the kids all looking for a place to get up to no good. But, it was the 60s afterall. What did they expect? Unfortunately, teenage antics tainted the hotel and soon it was literally burned to the ground and all the island’s rock-star glory was left in the ash.
Now, the island is a car-free village with about 35 houses, 3 working boatyards, a rowing club, yacht club, and crop boathouses and artist studios. The artists open their doors twice a year to the public: once in June and once in December. But wanders along the twisty paths can catch a glimpse of the beautiful and bizarre anytime of the year as some artists have turned their dwellings into works of art.
The only way to access the island is by the pedestrian bridge, 200 yards from Twickenham High Street with all its shops and restaurants.
And you stayed there?
Skinny Jeans, Peter, my parents, and I all stayed on Eel Pie Island in the most lovely home on the river. Ripple, as the owners call it, is a newly built home brought from the forests of Transylvania. (I’m still not sure how that works, but that’s what they said.) Inside, the three-bedroom, two bathroom home is light, bright, and clean. The master bedroom has an en suite bathroom with a shower. The twin bedroom come with zip and link beds so the two singles can be converted into a king. The other bedroom has bunk beds which Skinny Jeans turned into her own castle guarded by all the toys the host, Sarah, provided. Inside the family bathroom, there was a washer/dryer and stand-up shower. The kitchen comes fully stocked and Sarah had all sorts of goodies in the refrigerator to get us started. Knowing it was my birthday, she even had a plate of cookies and fresh flowers waiting for us upon our arrival. The dining area sits eight and was the perfect place to enjoy my birthday dinner.
Outside, the home had a child-proof garden with railings right at the water’s edge, a BBQ and gazebo. But the best part? The host, Sarah. She was thoughtful and kind and there to help us with anything we needed. For example, after a run-in with a food allergy, Skinny Jeans landed in the hospital. As if administering an epi-pen into the tiny leg of a four-year-old and an emergency taxi ride through London traffic, a six-hour visit to the ER, and one swollen and scared (but gonna be OK) kid wasn't enough stress for one trip, my mom and I had tickets to Billy Elliot and were going to miss the show. Worried we'd lose out, Sarah called the theater and got us tickets for another day. Thankfully, Skinny Jeans was fine by then and the show went on.
Longing for London? The Twickenham British Rail Station is just an 8 minute walk away and you can be at London Waterloo in just 20 minutes. A short 30 minute bus ride takes you to Hampton Court Palace where the grown-ups and kids alike will love touring the castle and its gardens. Skinny Jeans especially liked discovering the kitchens.
After a busy day at Hampton Court Palace, watching a game at Twickenham Stadium, or roaming the city, Eel Pie Island is a much needed retreat. A stay on Eel Pie Island can feel like you’ve dipped a toe into Alice’s Wonderland. Afterward, you’ll marvel at what a long, strange trip it was, and starting counting down the days until you can go back.
This Place Fits: Those who want a unique twist on London.
Where to Stay: Ripple on Eel Pie Island; about $300 per night.
Where to Eat:
Barmy Arms- a traditional British Pub right across the footbridge from Eel Pie Island;
White Swan- a 17th Century pub with an incredible Sunday Lunch. Cozy in the winter and breezy in the summer. Be warned: sometimes, at high tide, the garden is actually in the river but never for long. The staff is used to wading through water and continue business as usual.
The Cabbage Patch- a world famous rugby pub and a great place to down a pint in Twickenham. Note: This might not be the best place to bring the kids on a rugby game day.
What to Do:
Check out a rugby game at Twickenham Stadium.
York House Gardens- a 17th Century green wonderland.
Ham House- a historical building with lots of stuff to do with kids.
Hampton Court Palace- Tons for kids to explore. There’s even a recorded tour especially for children.
There are three things you need to know about Iceland.
1.) No, Really, It's FREAKING Cold
Whoever named the North-Atlantic country close to the Arctic Circle was not making this shit up. The barren landscape with active volcanoes, glacier-etched fjords, black beaches, and lava fields, is, indeed, an icy blast of Elsa proportions, especially in November, when we went. To my credit, I was swayed by the travel guides that claimed Iceland would be no colder than New York in the winter and only 10% of the island is actually ice. Ignoring what the name might actually imply and confident that this family lives for cold--Colorado Rocky Mountain cold, I might add--we packed our Gore-Tex and “Your cold don’t scare me” attitudes and headed North. To Iceland. In November. In the middle of a wind storm. Our driver from the airport actually warned us to not let go of the car door while getting out for fear it would be ripped from the hinges. So, in that very moment, that whole, “We’ve dangled from a chairlift in the midst of a mid-winter blizzard and I laugh at your mild-as-New York winter” blew away with the frigid blast that chapped our cheeks and snatched our hats.
2.) The Blue Lagoon Looks Better in Pictures
I’m sure, in the summer, the Blue Lagoon is a majestic aquamarine indulgence. I’m sure the sun sparkles off the opaque ripples and the warm waters lap at what ails you. But, in the middle of a wind storm (see #1), the Blue Lagoon feels like a dip in giant bowl of lukewarm milk. A trip to the geothermal spa starts with pre-booking your tickets to ensure your entrance at a specific time. Make sure you do this, or you may not get in. Then, there’s a brisk walk through a field of black lava rock that leads you to the entrance of the spa. There, you’ll check in, get your entrance bands, and decide what you need to rent: towels, flip flops, swimsuits (eek!).
From there, the men and women separate and head to the changing rooms. While they are clean and sleek, the changing rooms feel a bit sterile and institutional, especially as you take the stark naked trek to the showers where they ask all guests to wash without wearing a bathing suit. Skinny Jeans had never seen so much skin. After the shower, guests can tug on their sticky swimsuits and move over to the much anticipated lagoon.
Skinny Jeans was required to wear inflatable armbands, which were provided. We met up with Peter and entered through the small enclosed section where most of the guests were submerged and seeking refuge from the wind. The water, not nearly as warm as we had hoped, is a milky white. If the thought of Band-Aides lurking on the bottom of swimming pools or the inability to see your limbs just inches below the surface of the water freaks you out, you might want to skip this excursion. I was thankful for the bright orange armbands Skinny Jeans was wearing as all I could think about was losing her to the opaque abyss.
As we ventured out of the enclosure, we were blasted by the Arctic gusts. Soon, our wet hair from the showers froze and any exposed skin was whipped by the winds. Skinny Jeans had been most excited about the idea of putting the white mud (silica) on her face as she’d seen in photos. Chanting, “Mud on your face, big disgrace!” she begged Peter to swim across the lagoon to the mud depository. As he searched the lagoon, Skinny Jeans and I tried to find the “warm spots” where the temperature was said to reach 104°F. Maybe it was chill in the air. Maybe it was the time of year. But if the water reached triple digit temps, we never felt it. By the time Peter made it back from the silica station, his hand had frozen and cramped around a lump of ice cold mud. Determined to look as joyful and relaxed as those white-faced models we’d seen on the website, we slathered our skin with what felt like a frosty milkshake and attempted a stiff smile before rinsing it off and swimming as fast as we could back to the enclosure where the rest of the spa guests had piled up, comparing psoriasis patches and talking in every language imaginable. We didn’t even grab the drink from the swim-up bar we’d been promised with our ticket.
And, if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s turning away a free drink.
3.) Make it Rain
I live in an expensive area. The Vail Valley would not be what one would consider budget-friendly. I’m used to a $20 burger and $6 coffee. But, even so, Iceland doubles-down on spendy. According to Numbeo's Cost of Living Index, Iceland currently ranks as the third most expensive country in the world. In other words, a beer will set you back about $10; a meal, closer to $40. That being said, our hotel near the Blue Lagoon, although sparse, was cheap (around $150 per night) and the flights direct from Denver on Icelandair were less expensive than flying to NYC ($500 per person) and Iceland wasn’t our final destination. From there, we flew to London and then out of Paris. So, all things considered, maybe it evened out.
As far as stopovers go, this one was like landing on Mars for a moment before bouncing over to the more well-know regions of the world. Will we be back? Probably not. But, then again, I never say never and, damn, if those marketing materials don't make it look inciting.
This Place Fits: Families who are easily swayed by shiny, colorful images of fake families looking like they are having fun. Just kidding. It's a solid place for families to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Where to Stay: Geo Hotel Grindavik, Grindavik There’s a free shuttle to/from the airport, a free shuttle to the Blue Lagoon, a small grocery store next door, and a breakfast buffet. Other than that, don’t expect much else.
Where to Eat:
We had lunch at The Blue Lagoon cafe, which was OK for a quick bite. The restaurant on site offered a more sophisticated menu, but since Skinny Jeans is allergic to fish, we passed. (Note: Iceland might not be the best place to go with a fish allergy. You know, the whole surrounded by an ocean thing. Skinny Jeans ate her weight in Sykr- a yogurty delight.)
We also ordered take-away from Papa’s Pizza near our hotel and asked that they delivered it to our room since just walking across the parking lot of the hotel was a challenge in the gale-force winds. Total Americans.
What to Do:
The Blue Lagoon It really is a must-see. I just recommend going in the summer months.
Reykjavik While we didn’t have time to venture out to the city, I’ve heard great things. From actual people, not just a travel guide.
All suggestions/recommendations come from my own experiences. I’ve received no compensation of any kind from any of the places on this list.
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