Category - Travel

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» Chattanooga: 3-Day Family Vacation
2
» Southwest Airlines Companion Pass (Our Taste of Travel Hacking)
3
» We’ll Be Home for Christmas, Nashville…
4
» Cherry Pie Hospitality and the Mazda CX-5 #Houston
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» REVIEW: Holiday World (Santa Claus, IN) 70th Birthday Season
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» REVIEW: GRACESHIP – LAPTOP BAGS
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» Charleston: 3-Day Family Vacation
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» Atlanta: Three-Day Family Vacation
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» Daddy + Daughter Trip in the Mazda6 (Houston, TX)
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» REVIEW: 2015 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport (Houston, TX)

» Chattanooga: 3-Day Family Vacation

Spring Break is the most common topic in our home right now and I’m sure it’s making the rounds in your house as well! One of our favorite Spring Break destinations is Chattanooga, Tennessee.  In fact, Chattanooga made the list on Thrillist.com of America’s 8 Most Overlooked Small Cities.

Chattanooga is a short two-hour drive from the Nashville area. The perfect distance for a weekend getaway or a Spring Break adventure. There is plenty to do for adults and kids alike so it’s always an easy choice for us. Additionally, Chattanooga never seems to be overcrowded and that’s a huge plus for us as we navigate a city with kids in tow.

Day 1, Afternoon

The Chattanoogan Hotel

The Chattanoogan Hotel has some great Spring Break packages that you need to check out here. The location is ideal; within walking distance of many local restaurants and shops, as well as the free shuttle that will take you to the main downtown attractions. Upon arrival, Elliott and I hopped out to check in and gather our room keys. We were immediately greeted by friendly staff and a warm fire as we entered the spacious lobby. After check-in we explored the hotel a bit and then headed up to our guest rooms. We noticed the local art in the hallways along the way and appreciated the non-standard decor. The kids appreciated the presence of Pokemon as they were allowed a bit of time to catch them all.

Our room was spacious and clean. I always appreciate coffee in the room but especially love that the Chattanoogan provides a Keurig and a few k-cups. This ensures that I can have a quality cup of coffee the moment the kids wake up. The beds are also very comfortable at the Chattanoogan. The double rooms provide two queen beds rather than two full beds. This is something I no longer take for granted after a few recent stays at other hotels.

After settling in we immediately headed to the indoor pool for a quick swim. We love the pool at the Chattanoogan because it’s just the right depth for a slew of young kids. It makes it so much easier to keep them safe. The view of the mountains from the pool area is a nice addition as well! There is plenty of room to sit inside the pool area and there is an additional outdoor veranda with tables for warm evenings.

There is a hot tub and sauna for mom and dad as well!

Day 1, Night

One of our favorite things about Chattanooga is the Shuttle! The Shuttle is free, clean and easy to catch. It’s also a great way to give our suburban kids a taste of public transportation. On our first night we took the shuttle across the bridge to eat at Good DogAnd we are so glad we did!

Good Dog serves hot dogs (including meatless varieties) in countless, delicious ways.  Additionally they provide stacks of books, games and fun coloring utensils. The kids really enjoyed their meal and not a crumb was left over. Once our meal was complete we took the walking bridge back over to the downtown area. After the walk the kids had enough room to enjoy some Rita’s frozen custard and Italian Ice.  We enjoyed walking around a bit more as we finished off our treats and headed back to the hotel for a bit more swimming.

Day 2, Morning


We started our day with the breakfast buffet at Broad Street Grill, inside the The Chattanoogan. There was plenty of fresh fruit and hot breakfast items for the kids to choose from. They also had a nice assortment of Greek yogurts and cereals. Calvin and I each enjoyed egg-white omelets made-to-order from the chef as well. We noticed that several other families were dining in the large restaurant area and felt right at home. The service here is also amazing and reflective of the hotel in general. Lola smashed a strawberry into her shirt and our kind waiter brought soda water to fight the stain within a moment. Extra touches like this make dining with kids so much easier!

Day 2, Afternoon

Creative Discovery Museum

We have visited many many children’s museum’s over the years. And I’ve got to say even I was running around with wonder in the Creative Discovery Museum. They had everything from dinosaurs and fossils to painting and music rooms. And nothing was off-limits! The kids spent almost and hour building robots and sewing and hammering in the Make-it area. The staff was friendly and helpful, even teaching Charlotte how to knot the end of her thread.

There was also a neat outdoor area on the rooftop that displayed live bees (safely) and allowed the kids to use their muscles to push, pull, turn and move all kids of things. This was a great outlet for them and I think they just might have been a little tired after this adventure. We could have easily spent 5-6 hours here but we headed out after 4 hours.

After the long visit at the kids’ museum, we decided to walk a few blocks for Thai food at Thai Smile. The food was good but the service was a little too slow for us, especially with hungry kids. It turned out to be a beautiful day so we took the walking bridge to the Coolidge park area. Our kids enjoyed riding the $1 Carousel (yes you read that right!) and climbing all over the animals that make up the outdoor fountain.


We also brought a football and played catch while we soaked up the sun. It was a beautiful day. While this was going on I popped over to an antique store that backs up to Coolidge park. It’s so nice to have so many different things accessible in a small area. After eating lots of heavy food we also needed a little pick-me-up so I grabbed fresh juices for everyone at Pure Vida which was also easily accessible from the park and carousel area. After we had our fill of green juices and vitamin C we checked out the little stores in the area. This area is considered the art district so there was a lot of inspiration for our little artists.

Additional considerations: The park was busy with kids playing soccer and college students playing Spike Ball (no dogs allowed FYI). There are plenty of little shops around including the legendary Clumpies Ice Cream that overlooks the park area, make sure you pick up some treats there.

Day 2, Evening

We were all pretty worn out by the evening and pizza was sounding really good after being out all day so we decided to grab a bite at Mellow Mushroom, which is right next to the shuttle stop back to the hotel. You simply cannot go wrong with Mellow Mushroom! We love that we can choose two entirely different pizzas for each half of the pizza because I opt for vegetarian options and the rest of the family definitely does not. The service was great and the pizza was better! We also checked out High Point climbing gym, which was next door, and decided to return for a climb the next day.

Day 3, Morning

High Point Climbing

We visited the downtown location of High Point Climbing. It’s a beautiful facility that even allows you to climb on the outside of the building. There is 30,000 sq. feet of climbing surface to enjoy including a really fun kids zone. The staff was very friendly and encouraging to our kids who didn’t have a lot of climbing experience. They definitely instilled a love for climbing in them in just a short amount of time! As you all know, our daughter Lola is blind. But this didn’t stop her! We could barely get her off the wall to leave when it was time to go. We always enjoy allowing our kids to push forward and challenge themselves.

The kids zone was a great place to start for Elliott (9), Lola (9) and Charlotte (7) but they quickly advanced to the bouldering area and some of the intermediate level climbing areas in the main gym. Liam, who is 5, had plenty to challenge him in the kids zone and stayed there until the very end. He did do one beginner level wall in the main gym right before leaving and was quite proud of himself.

High point provided everything we needed to climb for the day and the day-pass price was very reasonable. They do discount the day pass for the last 2 hours in the day if you prefer to climb for a shorter amount of time and save a bit of money. Overall this was an incredibly fun and empowering addition to our Chattanooga vacation. The kids can’t wait to climb again!

Summary

We loved staying at The Chattanoogan Hotel and hope it won’t be our last time. It was a luxury hotel experience with friendly staff. We didn’t feel crazy trying to keep up with all of our kids in the pool due to the layout and shallow water. The focus on local foods and art made the experience uniquely personal and inviting. Lastly, the location enabled us to hit all the city hot-spots without ever getting in our car. We will continue to keep Chattanooga on our short list for long weekend. We can’t wait to visit again and experience even more Chattanooga attractions such as Rock City and Lake Winnie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer: The folks at The Chattanoogan Hotel, and Creative Discovery Museum kindly accommodated us for this review. As always, the opinions are my own.

» Southwest Airlines Companion Pass (Our Taste of Travel Hacking)

*Updated 2/25/2017

Our Timeline

NOV 2016: Apply for First Card (Southwest Visa Premier)
DEC 2016: Apply for Second Card (Southwest Visa Plus)
JAN 2017: Meet the Minimum Spending Requirement for First Card
FEB 2017: Meet the Minimum Spending Requirement for Second Card and get to 110,000 points
end of Feb 2017: Enjoy the Companion Pass until December 31, 2018!

Share the Luv

After reading this, if you decide to “go for it”, sign up HERE (last updated 1/26/2017) and you will get the 50,000 point incentive (this referral link was provided to us by Southwest).

According to Nate Buchanan (self-described travel hacker) of karaandnate.com, the Southwest Companion Pass is “the holy grail of travel hacking”. For us, we thought it would be valuable because we would like to travel to our families in Texas and South Carolina more frequently and Southwest is the best option for the cities we needed. Plus we thought it would be a fun experiment to see if Travel Hacking was a real thing.

Please remember that this is our own personal experience and our unique credit history. I understand you may have a different philosophy on credit cards, spending habits, and have a different credit background.

What Is the Southwest Companion Pass?

The Southwest Companion Pass allows a companion to fly free with you on any Southwest flight regardless of whether you’re paying with cash or redeeming miles! In order to reach Companion Pass status, you must earn 110,000 Rapid Reward points in a calendar year, or you must fly 100 flights in a calendar year.

How Long Does the Southwest Companion Pass Last?

If you plan well, the Companion pass can last for almost two years! Below is the explanation from Southwest’s website.

“Rapid Rewards Companion Pass qualification will be based on the calendar year. Once it is reached, you will begin enjoying the benefits immediately. You will maintain your Companion Pass for the remainder of the calendar year in which you qualified and the entire calendar year immediately following the year in which you qualified.”

How We Were Able to Earn the Southwest Companion Pass

In November 2016, we signed up for the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Card. This way, we could make sure to get the 50,000 bonus points by January of the 2017 calendar year (this is important to get the Companion Pass status as early as possible). The next month, we signed up for the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus Card to get another 50,000 bonus points they were offering. After meeting both card requirements we had at least 104,000 points. To get the other 6,000 points, we did a variety of things; One big thing that helped was delaying large purchases in order to make these charges in the early months of 2017 to go toward the 110,000 point goal.

 

 

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» We’ll Be Home for Christmas, Nashville…

Looks like our family will be spending the holidays at home in Nashville this year. We love staying home with no rigid schedules (and no school lunches to pack!) during the winter break but I’m already planning some ways for us to get out and have some fun. Here are a list of events we are looking forward to and making plans to attend in December and others in January that will be gifted to our kiddos.

1. A VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS WITH DAVE BARNES

This is quickly becoming a Christmas tradition date for Calvin and I. Dave Barnes will perform holiday favorites old and new, including “Christmas Tonight,” “All I Want for Christmas is You,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and more. Dave always invites very special guests each time (Hillary Scott last year!) which makes the show unique and fun from year to year. Last year’s concert sold quickly so be sure to get your tickets early!

Tuesday, December 6 at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets available at NashvilleSymphony.org

2. NASHVILLE’S NUTCRACKER
Our family spent the day in Nashville last year, anchored by this great performance! Nashville’s version of the timeless holiday classic returns for the ninth consecutive year, with more than 200 dancers per performance taking audiences on a fantastic journey through a dreamland filled with beloved characters.

Photo: Karyn Photography
Photo: Karyn Photography

Visit magical lands with the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Mouse King, the Nutcracker, the Dancing Bear and many historic characters from Nashville’s past.

Nashville’s Nutcracker will be held at TPAC’s Jackson Hall for fourteen performances:

  • Saturday, December 3, 2016 at 2 p.m.
  • Sunday, December 4, 2016 at 2 p.m.
  • Saturday, December 10, 2016 at 2 p.m.
  • Saturday, December 10, 2016 at 7 p.m.
  • Sunday, December 11, 2016 at 2 p.m.
  • Friday, December 16, 2016 at 7 p.m.
  • Saturday, December 17, 2016 at 2 p.m.
  • Saturday, December 17, 2016 at 7 p.m.
  • Sunday, December 18, 2016 at 2 p.m.
  • Sunday, December 18, 2016 at 7 p.m.
  • Wednesday, December 21, 2016 at 2 p.m.
  • Thursday, December 22, 2016 at 2 p.m.
  • Thursday, December 22, 2016 at 7 p.m.
  • Friday, December 23, 2016 at 2 p.m.

Tickets available at NashvilleBallet.com

3. NASHVILLE PREDATORS

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Our boys had a great time at their first Predators game last year especially since the Preds took the win! They enjoyed the food, the chants, and the crazy fans. Liam loved singing (and shaking it to) Tim McGraw’s “I like it I love it” every time the home team scored.

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Hopefully we can catch another game before 2017:

Dec. 3 – New Jersey
Dec. 4 – Philadelphia
Dec. 6 – Colorado
Dec. 13 – St. Louis
Dec. 15 – Minnesota
Dec. 17 – NY Rangers
Dec. 22 – Los Angeles
Dec. 27 – Minnesota
Dec. 29 – Chicago

Tickets available at Ticketmaster.com

4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone w/ the Nashville Symphony

We have a third grader who loves Harry Potter. He even has a group of friends assigned to different characters of the book series. This show isn’t until January but would be a great gift for any Harry Potter fan, young and old.

Relive all the thrills and excitement of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with the Nashville Symphony performing John Williams’ exuberant score live. Get ready to experience the film in glorious HD at Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

January 5-7th, tickets available at Nashville Symphony

5. PAW Patrol Live!

For you preschool parents, here’s a gift that will make fun memories for your child and won’t appear in the Goodwill box a month later. PAW Patrol is on a roll with the first ever live tour! The tour will stop at TPAC’s Jackson Hall on January 21-22, ticket’s available at TPAC’s website.

 

Disclaimer: We have been in contact with these events and have received tickets to review some of these events. As always, the opinions are my own.

» Cherry Pie Hospitality and the Mazda CX-5 #Houston

Special thanks to Mazda USA for allowing us to test drive the 2016 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD. As always, these opinions are my own.

(this post is from Calvin who visited Houston in July)

Let’s face it, summers in Houston are morbidly hot! When we found out that Cherry Pie Hospitality had ventured into the ice cream business, we were super excited to say the least. So the kids and I decided to buckle up and visit Cherry Pie’s restaurants for ourselves. The company owns and manages some of our old but mostly new favorite Houston restaurants. It was appropriate that Mazda USA sent us out in a Soul Red Metallic CX-5 Grand Touring, like a cherry.

Here are some of our favorite things about the car followed by some great eats with Cherry Pie Hospitality:

2016 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD

I had a blast driving the Mazda6 but the CX-5 is definitely more my kind of car. The sport mode (again) was useful, and many times necessary, in the crazy Houston streets. We were even able to pack 5 people, fishing poles, and all the gear we needed for a fun fishing day trip to Galveston.

all photos © Goodbye Normal

Things we loved:

Style – The whole 2016 Mazda line looks great and the CX-5 is no exception. I can definitely see myself owning a car like this. The black leather interior and black rims are worth considering if purchasing this vehicle.

Interior – All of the driver controls were thought out really well. Nothing seemed out of place or odd and easy to figure out. It became natural within a day to navigate all of the features of the digital display in the center.

Mileage – After driving around Houston for a full week, we put a lot of miles on this vehicle. I found the 26 city / 35 highway mpg to be accurate and friendly on the wallet.

Conclusion

I loved the CX-5 Grand Touring AWD more than the Mazda6, simply because I prefer a crossover SUV over a sedan any day. The car was perfect for our trip and would make a fun commuter or family car. Driving through the stop-and-go traffic in Houston in this car made for a comfortable ride, even when it was 100+ degrees outside. The back seat can get a little tight with three people riding but you also have to consider that we are in the booster seat phase.

Cherry Pie Hospitality

1. Lee’s Fried Chicken and Donuts
601 Heights Blvd, Houston, TX 77007

Ever since last year I’ve made Lee’s a mandatory stop whenever I travel to Houston. Hot chicken is a big thing in Nashville and Lee’s has recently added a Hot chicken of their own. The flavor and taste was great, and to my friend’s surprise, still crunchy on the reheat later that night.

all photos © Goodbye Normal

We won’t be surprised if we see Lee’s hot chicken make an appearance at next year’s Nashville Hot Chicken Festival. Other new notables are the Hot Chicken Taco and the Donut Double Scooped Ice Cream Sandwich! Yup, Lee’s Fried Chicken is one of way to get Lee’s Creamery Ice Cream, more on that below.

2. State Fare Kitchen & Bar
947 Gessner, Ste. B190, Houston, TX 77024

This was my first visit to State Fare and it was quite amazing. My favorites included the Dill Pickle Dip, Texas “Caviar”, the Hicksburger-Beef Pattie, and last but not least the Mac Daddy, a Mac n’ Cheese dish with short ribs and Roasted shallots. The portions are very generous at State Fare so come hungry. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves and I know what you’re thinking… yes these were taken by us (on an iPhone)!

all photos © Goodbye Normal

The Frito Pie is under the bowls category but I would argue that it should be an appetizer, either way it’s a must. The space is inviting and is a great place for a business meeting, date night, or even a family night (yup, they have a kids menu!).

3. Petite Sweets
601 Heights Blvd, Houston, TX 77007

Earlier this year, we visited Petite Sweets as they added Suzie’s pies and cookies by the slice. They have a large variety of treats but the macarons will always be our first love. This time, the kids and I were able to join in on treating ourselves to Lee’s Creamery.

all photos © Goodbye Normal

This premium ice cream is made from milk from grass-fed Jersey cows in nearby Tomball, in addition to cage-free Texas hen eggs and all-natural ingredients. The creamery will produce more than 50 rotating flavors. Two flavors that were surprisingly good for me were the Sweet Cream Corn and Avacado Lime. Vietnamese Coffee which sounds great (wasn’t available at the time so we’ll just have to come back) is also on the rotation.

 

» REVIEW: Holiday World (Santa Claus, IN) 70th Birthday Season

Disclaimer: The folks at Holiday World kindly provided our family admission for this review. As always, the opinions are my own.

We were excited to visit Holiday World for a second year in a row! The kids were a little taller so they were ready to experience some new rides that they weren’t able to ride last year. In addition, Holiday World is celebrating its 70th season this summer (2016).

  • Dole Whip!
  • Leaving the park tired and exhausted

The pictures of our fun trip speak for themselves. Here is a list of “what’s new” for this special season:

  • Continuing the park’s birthday theme, new menu items: Birthday Cake Fudge, Birthday Sundae, Birthday Confetti Cake Flurry, and Birthday Cake Ice Cream Dip
  • The Legend “reborn,” with more than $2 million in track improvements to the wooden roller coaster, plus the addition of a new “double-down” feature to further enhance the ride experience
  • In Splashin’ Safari, the water park’s filters now utilize sand featuring an anti-microbial coating; this is the nation’s first large-scale rollout of Mystic Blue Sand
  • Dole Whip soft serve and floats add a new gluten-free, non-dairy, fat-free treat
  • The park’s free 30 SPF sunscreen now also contains aloe
  • The park’s free soft drinks selection will include Big Red, in addition to Pepsi products, Gatorade, pink lemonade, iced tea, and coffee
  • New Peanut Butter Burgers plus Kettle Corn and more gluten-free desserts

Holiday World is an amusement park located perfectly in a town called Santa Claus, Indiana which is a short 2.5 hour drive from our home north of Nashville. Its “worlds” are comprised of Holidays such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween and Independence Day. In addition to the Holiday lands there is a huge water park called Splashin’ Safari, which is located inside Holiday World and included in the admission price. We loved that we didn’t have to exit the park to get to Splashin’ Safari. In fact, we spent more than half of our day enjoying the expansive collection of water coasters and slides.  Holiday World is definitely a two-day park if you plan to enjoy the water park.

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Considerations for Young Children: Our children are ages 4-8. We were pleasantly surprised to find that they could ride quite a few big water rides and park rides. Fortunately rides like the Mammoth Water Coaster (pictured above), Frightful Falls and Mayflower satisfied his thrill seeking tendencies. We were pleased that at least three big water slides in Splashin’ Safari allowed our entire family to ride together on one big tube, including our 3 year old. It’s always a bummer when you have to constantly split up to accommodate everyone. Our favorite ride that we experienced all together was the Raging Rapids, pictured below. Here is a full list of height accommodations for all rides.

TIP: Once you enter the park, go to a measuring station and get the appropriate wristband for each child. This cuts down on the Holiday World staff having to measure each child to make sure they are tall enough.

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Considerations for Individuals with Disabilities or Special Needs: Holiday World has a pass, much like the one used in Disney, (see review here) called the Ride Boarding Pass. Basically you show the card to the ride conductor, they write down a return time and you wait while doing another activity. This solves the difficulty of waiting in line for those with sensory processing disorder, autism or other challenges. The only disappointment with this system was the number of guests allowed to ride with the individual designated on the card. The individual can have 3 guests accompanying them. This would exclude families of 5 or more from riding together. Their policy designates that the rest of the party wait in the physical line, this makes timing the ride together pretty difficult. Individuals with physical disabilities can be accommodated on any ride safety permitting. Full policy here.

Budget tips for families: You cannot bring meals into Holiday World, however they do provide a picnic shelter in the parking lot so pack a lunch cooler and take a midday break. We ate dinner in the park and found that 3 adult meals at Plymouth Rock Cafe fed our entire crew until they were quite stuffed. ALSO! Free sodas. This is totally legit, there were soda stations with soda, Gatorade and water located all over the park. We don’t normally partake in soda but we really had fun visiting and getting little drinks, and LOTS of water whenever we felt the urge. Next time, we may even bring an empty drink container to keep the drinks longer and chilled. You can also bring a limited amount of snacks and sealed water bottles in your purse or backpack. For us, there was no way to avoid the locker rental because of the swim clothes and towels we had to bring in, expect to pay $10-$15 for this. And as one last tip, if a hotel isn’t in your budget, set up a tent in the nearby campgrounds and make a weekend out of your Holiday World experience.

Overall: Our trip to Holiday World exceeded our expectations! It’s a BIG, legitimate and affordable water and amusement park. I love that the water park was right in the middle of the amusement park so we didn’t have to completely leave one to get to the other. There is everything from huge, soaring roller coasters to little lands full of little kid-friendly rides. The staff was very friendly. There were a couple times throughout the day they had to bear the bad news of rides shutting down because of weather (thank goodness there were none over 10 mins. long that day) and one staff member patiently calmed Liam down when he was upset about not getting a certain seat he wanted on a ride. We had a jam-packed day and still didn’t see and do everything. We can’t wait to return when the kiddos are a bit taller and take on the big coasters!

TIP: We saw many parents with walkie talkies. This might be an investment we’ll make for our next visit to any theme park.

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 Other helpful links:

There are a variety of shows each day; here’s the list: www.holidayworld.com/shows

All the rides and slides are listed here. You can filter by ride type, experience level, and section of the park: www.holidayworld.com/rides-slides

» REVIEW: GRACESHIP – LAPTOP BAGS

 

Earlier this year, I started working full-time with One Orphan and more recently, decided to go back to school to complete my masters degree. Because I work remotely from my home office, aka Starbucks, Dunkin’ and the public library… I have been looking for the perfect stylish bag to carry my laptop, iPad, Nalgene and everything else I need for a full work day. My research led me to GRACESHIP.

 

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GRACESHIP bags are Vegan Certified by PETA and Fair Trade Certified by the Fair Trade Federation. They are also certified by the Women’s Business & Enterprise National Council where at least 51% of the company is owned, operated and controlled by women. (whoop!)
New_York_Inside

GRACESHIP offers various models but I was drawn to the New York Laptop Bag. I love the simplicity and clean lines. My days are no-fuss, so my bag needed to reflect that as well.

The video above says it all but just in case, its features include:

  • Adjustable and removable crossbody shoulder strap
  • Cushioned computer compartment protects laptop or tablet up to 15.6”
  • Sleek magnetic snap closure to secure your computer
  • Interior charger pocket that zips
  • Cell phone pocket
  • Multiple business card pockets
  • Two pen holders
  • Convenient key ring
  • Pouch for papers
  • Soft chocolate colored lining
  • Gold hardware made from the highest of quality

HANDLE SIZE: Double handles with 11.5” drop
DIMENSIONS: 14.25″ W x 12″ H x 6″ D
LAPTOP SLEEVE: 14.25″ W
WEIGHT: 3.0 lbs

Conclusion

At first, I wasn’t sure about a high-end vegan leather bag… After using this bag for about four weeks now it has softened just as real leather would. It is durable, and believe me I’ve moved enough to put it to the test. I’ve also received several compliments on it as others have observed me pulling everything but the kitchen sink out of this versatile bag.

GRACESHIP Website
Buy GRACESHIP on Amazon

Disclaimer: The folks at GRACESHIP kindly provided a bag for this review. As always, the opinions are my own.

» Charleston: 3-Day Family Vacation

We were so eager to get our Summer started that we skipped the last week of school and headed straight down to Charleston. Our kids are in 1st and 2nd grade so we felt great about skipping the movie marathons and parties that make up the last four days of school. Things will change as they get older so we’ll take the chance to play hooky now!

Charleston is an 8.5 hour drive from the Nashville area. It seems that all ocean-front destinations are no less than an 8-hour drive so we’ve accepted the distance and loaded up on movies and snacks for the kids on many occasions. Additionally, Charleston is so much more than a beach destination. The Holy City is full of history, amazing food and even a little adventure.

Day 1, Afternoon

Francis Marion Hotel

We chose to stay at the elegant Francis Marion Hotel. The location, on King and directly across from the Spoleto Festival, absolutely cannot be beat. The Waterfront and Battery, Rainbow Row, the South Carolina Aquarium and street after street of delicious eateries are walkable from the doors of the Francis Marion.

We love the Francis Marion because they have chosen to preserve the era in which the hotel was built. The grand lobby boasts chandeliers and soaring ceilings. When you walk into the Francis Marion you walk back in time. The Ballrooms are just as grand and perfect for the many weddings that take place there each year.

The guest rooms also reflect the era in which the Francis Marion was built. Blue and Gold furnishings and paint colors make the rooms feel rich and inviting. It just feels like Charleston. And that is exactly what you want to feel when visiting a city full of history and southern charm. A stay at the Francis Marion completes the Charleston experience.

Despite the fancy environment, the hotel is super family friendly. In addition, the staff was helpful and patient when asking about local attractions.

Tip for Families: Be sure to ask for the kids pack when you check in! All junior guests receive a draw string backpack with a few treasures (ours included some Charleston Chew Candy!) inside.

You can see special offers here. Currently, The Francis Marion has a great Family Adventure Package worth checking out that includes many of the places covered in this post.

Day 1, Evening

Wild Blue Ropes

We are always looking for adventure while on vacation. Especially adventures that will empower our kids to overcome their fears and get some exercise while they’re at it. Wild Blue Ropes definitely met and exceeded our expectations. Wild features 70+ challenges that put you a soaring 35 feet in the air.

And they don’t exclude anyone. While we were there climbing with our kids and nieces (ages 4-9) we noticed that kids of all abilities were celebrated and encouraged on the course. Our daughter, who is blind, rocked the course and was met with high-fives when she landed on the ground. We watched a boy diagnosed with CP gather his courage and exceed everyone’s expectations. We’ve also heard many testimonies of how beneficial the course is for children diagnosed with sensory processing disorder or autism. What makes this possible is not just the tenacity of our children, but the encouragement of an amazing set of owners and staff.

They truly celebrate all abilities and encourage kids and adults to push and exceed their limits. And don’t start thinking this course is for kids… it’s a challenge for even the most fit adults. There is something for everyone at Wild Blue Ropes.

If you’re in the Charleston or Folly Beach area Wild Blue Ropes is a must for a warm Summer evening adventure.

Boxcar Betty’s

This place is a must if you love fried chicken! Boxcar Betty’s received recognition for Best of Charleston’s best fried chicken for the second year in a row.

Day 2, Morning

Swamp Fox Restaurant and Bar

We started our day with the breakfast buffet at Swamp Fox Restaurant, located inside The Francis Marion Hotel. The buffet was plentiful and included some fun extras like fruit smoothies.  We did not eat dinner at Swamp Fox but we definitely stole a glance as we departed the Francis Marion that evening. Delicious Southern fare was gracing every table.

The Swamp Fox Restaurant and Bar, named for Revolutionary War hero, General Francis Marion, features classic Southern cuisine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Executive Chef Simon Andrews and Restaurant Chef Phil Gaulin create regional specialties that emphasize farm to table practices using locally grown fruits and vegetables with respect to the traditional beloved flavors and techniques of the Old South.

After breakfast we took advantage of the King Street location, one of The Francis Marion’s biggest perks, and hit the unique shops that line every inch of King Street. From the Savannah Bee Company to King Street Cookies you’ll find an expertly curated shopping experience brimming with Southern charm.

  • Glazed on King St.

Day 2, Afternoon

South Carolina Aquarium

This is our second visit to the South Carolina Aquarium. We love that there is something new to see each time we visit. The highlight of this visit was the new Shark Shallows exhibit. The kids loved reaching into the tank to “pet” the sharks. Yes, you read that right… you get to pet the sharks.

This aquarium is one of our favorites because it’s not overwhelming. The sections are nicely divided and there are areas designated for imaginative play. Overall, it’s one of the more interactive aquariums we’ve visited. And the view of the Charleston harbor cannot be beat. In true Charleston fashion there are great balcony areas to relax and take in the coastal scenes.

Tip for Families: Let your kids bring recyclable items to trade for cool shells at the Trading Post.

Day 2, Evening

Downtown – Progressive Dinner

This is the one night Calvin and I got a date night in. We made reservations at Coast Bar and Grill and planned to eat a big seafood dinner. However, when we arrived we realized they had happy hour pricing for oysters, peel and eat shrimp and a few other items. At that point we decided we would rather eat a little at many places than a lot at just one. We enjoyed perfect oysters and shrimp in a beautiful setting at Coast and promptly took a short walk to CO (Banh Mi & Noodles Bar) to enjoy something completely different. Noodles.

  • CO
  • Coast Bar and Grill
  • King St. Cookies

We took advantage of happy hour pricing once again and ordered three things to share. We had big plans to hit at least one more restaurant but were too full and had to settle for milk and cookies at King Street Cookie Company.

Day 3, Morning

Folly Beach

You can’t visit Charleston without hitting the beach. So we did just that! Our preferred Charleston beach is Folly Beach due to the laid-back local flavor. Make sure to visit Taco Boy for lunch and rent a couple of bikes to cruise around the Island.

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And When you’ve done all of that, hit the pier with an ice cream cone and watch the locals fish. You might even spy the big catch of the day!

Day 3, Afternoon

The Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry

We visited this spot for the first time last year and the kids are still at an age where they all enjoy it. The museum was also very aware and accommodating of children with special needs. You can read the full review here.

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Summary

Charleston is like coming home. You can wear flip flops to a fancy restaurant and sip cold drinks on rooftops that don’t extend higher than the church steeples. Vacation is really vacation in this humid, slow-paced, Southern city by the ocean.

Disclaimer: The folks at Francis Marion Hotel, South Carolina Aquarium, and Wild Blue Ropes kindly accommodated us for this review. As always, the opinions are my own.

» Atlanta: Three-Day Family Vacation

With the spring school semester coming to a close, many of you are already thinking about Summer vacation. During Spring Break, we wanted to get away but didn’t want to drive too far. Atlanta is within the four-hour window; the furthest we were willing to go. The kids were pretty cranky in the car but the fun activities and attractions snapped them out of their bad moods pretty quickly! Atlanta has a lot to offer so consider this a quick snap-shot of our trip in a city filled with family adventures.

Day One Afternoon:

World of Coke

I remember visiting the World of Coke during my high school years. I had fun then, but they have definitely upped their game in the last several years! As we entered the building we were ushered into a large holding area with a large bar full of staff opening and handing out aluminum bottled Cokes, Diet Cokes and Coke Zero. Once everyone was situated with a cold drink we went into the next part of the museum where a lively host gave us a run-down of Coke history. From that point we entered a large theater. As we filed in the host mentioned that there were monitors for the visually impaired! This was awesome for Lola, who is severely visually impaired (blind) but enjoys following along with light and color when she can get close to a screen. This monitor was adjustable and she was able to pull it all the way up to her nose. This may seem small, but for a kiddo who can’t access the big movie theater screen it was huge. I’m so thrilled that they made an effort to be inclusive (they even have braille guide maps at the entrance). Once the movie presentation was over we were released into the big, wide world of Coke. We took pictures with the Polar Bear, watched a 4-D movie, explored Coke Art and of course… drank every Coke product from every country. Once we had our fill of Coke culture we exited and received a commemorative glass Coke as a souvenir. Entry to World of Coke is fairly inexpensive so I highly recommend a visit with your family the next time you head to Atlanta. Make sure you download the Explorer Mobile App (we have iPhones and downloaded via the App Store) to enhance your visit, too!

Ikea

The kids love to pretend to live in the different rooms in Ikea. Hours of entertainment while mom and dad get to look for fun items for the home. The cheap dinner is an added bonus, we went on Tuesday night when kids eat free!

Day One Evening:

Loews Atlanta – Midtown

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We opted to have a taste of the bustling Atlanta city life and treat ourselves by staying Midtown at the Loews Atlanta hotel. Location is a huge advantage with this hotel, walking distance to restaurants and 1.8 miles from the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coke. I was a bit nervous about mixing a luxury hotel with four small children but the friendly staff and mango lemonade in the lobby eased my fears right away. While I checked in the kids sipped their drinks and got more information from the concierge about the scavenger hunt the hotel provides for curious kids (a must!). They were also spellbound by the modern/chic decor and soaring ceilings in the lobby. When we finally made it up to our room we were pleasantly surprised by how spacious the bathroom and guest rooms were. The floor to ceiling windows and Atlanta city views were the icing on the cake. After the kids had settled in and enjoyed a movie on the large flat screen (and on the bathroom tv) I escaped downstairs to grab a charcuterie plate from Saltwood for Calvin and I to share before turning in for the night.

We often find that hotels, even luxury hotels, are lacking when it comes to food service. Not LOEWS! Saltwood is one of the highlights of staying at the hotel, cleanly decorated and located conveniently on the lobby level it does not disappoint. Named for its emphasis on salted, cured meats and classically rustic presentation on wood blocks, this casual eatery features a charcuterie station that serves as the restaurant’s centerpiece. Diners can pull up bar stools to sample house-made and locally sourced items and sip on handcrafted cocktails and local brews while watching the restaurant’s charcuterie chef hand-carve meats and assemble charcuterie plates. We can definitely see ourselves spending a weekend at LOEWS Atlanta again in the very near future, with or without the kids! (FYI for families, unfortunately there is no pool at this location).

Day Two Afternoon:

After a lazy morning in our room, the kids went on their hotel scavenger hunt adventure with Calvin that sent them up and down the 26 floors of the hotel and a couple blocks around the hotel property. Once completed, they returned their sheet to the concierge and were rewarded with prizes from the treasure box.

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We wanted to eat lunch close to the zoo (our next destination) and stumbled upon BBQ joint Tom, Dick & Hank. This place had a great, clean atmosphere and the barbecue was great! Give them a visit, especially if you’re going to the zoo.

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Zoo Atlanta

The Zoo in Atlanta boasts a few animal exhibits that our zoo in Nashville does not have. The kids were most excited about the Panda exhibit. Seriously, who doesn’t love watching Pandas roll around with a ball? The zoo is easy to walk through and a great way to spend about 4 hours on a warm afternoon. There are plenty of interactive areas as well including a petting zoo and a playground. The kids also enjoyed feeding the birds in the bird exhibit and getting up close with the lizards and snakes in the expansive reptile house.

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Day Two Evening:

Stone Mountain Marriott Evergreen

The Stone Mountain Marriott is the place to go if you have kids. It’s located conveniently within the park, so you do not incur extra parking fees etc. It’s so nice to relax at the hotel after a long day at Stone Mountain and skip the drive to a hotel outside the park. What makes this hotel great for kids? The pools. There are two pools, one large outdoor pool and one smaller indoor pool. The weather was a bit cool but the outdoor pool was heated so we were able to swim and enjoy the beautiful views. The outdoor area is filled with seating and fire pits so we grabbed some food to go from the lower level restaurant and fed the kids while they ran in and out of the pool. There are even giant chess and checkers sets on the patio.

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The guest rooms are a reasonable size but the beds are full and not queen, an important detail to consider when booking rooms. We requested floor two, which had a balcony with lake views and quick access to the pool. Bonus tip: Papa Johns delivers to the hotel with no additional fees. A great way to fit in a cheap and poolside friendly meal.

Day Three:

Stone Mountain Theme Park

Stone Mountain definitely exceeded our expectations. We love to be active with our kids and this fit the bill perfectly! The adventure pass option is the best value (you can even add an optional meal if you want). This allowed our kids unlimited access to ropes courses, rock climbing, 4-D shows, train rides, mini-golf. We were excited about the newest experience, The Jump, but unfortunately it wasn’t open yet. It also allowed us to take the sky-lift to the top of the mountain. (Tip: booking online saves $5 on Adventure passes.) You can hike, of course, but we were unsure how the youngest would do. Once on top of Stone Mountain we experienced breath-taking views and took lots of fun photos. I was really in the mood to hike so I challenged the kids to hike down the mountain with the promise of the delicious ice cream found at Stone Mountain. They excitedly agreed and we found the hike down to be enjoyable for the whole family. It did rain while we were there but we found plenty of indoor activities to entertain the family during a short rain storm. Once night falls Stone Mountain puts on a laser show projected onto the mountain that is unparalleled.

Disclaimer: The folks at Zoo Atlanta, World of Coke, Stone Mountain, and Loews Atlanta kindly accommodated us for this review. As always, the opinions are my own.

» Daddy + Daughter Trip in the Mazda6 (Houston, TX)

Special thanks to Mazda USA for allowing us to test drive the 2016 Mazda6 i Grand Touring. As always, these opinions are my own.

(this post is from Calvin who visited Houston last week)

This was my first trip back to Houston in 2016, and it was Charlotte’s turn to come with me. One-on-one moments with my children are always memorable but cruising around in the Mazda6 made our trip even more special. With a short four days in Houston, we were determined to eat (of course!) and check out some of the city’s free offerings. Here are three places we visited followed by some of our favorite things about the car.

1. Children’s Museum of Houston

If you’re visiting Houston and happen to be there on a Thursday night, the Children’s Museum is a great place to be. The best part, it’s free! It’s a big-city museum, so you’ll easily last two-three hours in this place.

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2. Sam Houston Boat Tour

I’m not sure how long the Port of Houston Authority’s free tour has been going on, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. Experience an unforgettable waterborne voyage through one of the busiest ports in the world. For locals, it’s not something you’d want to do often but I think everyone should at least go once. You end up sailing for about an hour and half with lots of room to roam around and see some really fun parts of the city.

3. Lee’s Fried Chicken and Donuts/Petite Sweets
601 Heights Blvd, Houston, TX 77007

A must for any visit to Houston. You can read my updated post from my last trip to Houston but in summary, these two places have only gotten better. Some notable additions since my last visit include the Double Donut Fried Chicken Sandwich (two fried chicken tenders between two glazed donuts) and the Pulled Chicken Chopped Kale Salad. Yum!


After Lee’s, everyone should take a quick trip to Petite Sweets to grab some dessert to enjoy in the shop, or take it to go. The newest addition is Suzie’s pies and cookies by the slice, without losing any of the other tasty treats (macaroons!) from the restaurant’s offerings.

2016 Mazda6 i Grand Touring

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This was my first time getting behind the wheel of a Mazda and I had a blast driving the Mazda6. The sport mode was useful in the crazy Houston streets and Charlotte was loving the ability to request the Kidzbop station on XM radio.

Things we loved:

Style – The photos say it all. The exterior and design is great and will definitely turn heads. The white leather seats in the interior and bright LED lights give a nice, clean look. Charlotte was especially enamored with the Soul Red paint.

GT Technology Package – This optional package is worth it in the long run. The features include: adaptive cruise control, forward-collision and lane-departure warning, automatic high-beam control, active grille shutters, and i-Eloop, which stores energy during braking to improve fuel economy.

Safety – I saw a sticker on the car we drove that said “2016 Top Safety Pick+” so I decided to look it up and found this article. In addition, I love the blind spot monitoring with simple light-up icons on the mirrors and a beeping sound that’s noticeable but not annoying.

Conclusion

I’ve never owned a Mazda and have always felt their cars were mediocre. After driving the Mazda6 for a week, my perceptions have changed greatly. The interior was comfortable and the entertainment dash controls were at an easy, reachable distance. I’m still hoping to try a car with Apple’s CarPlay so I’m hopeful that more cars, including this one will add this function. The next time I’m market for a vehicle, I’d definitely consider a Mazda.

» REVIEW: 2015 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport (Houston, TX)

Special thanks to Mitsubishi Cars for allowing us to test drive the 2015 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport. As always, these opinions are my own.

(this post is from Calvin who visited Houston last week)

These days, I try to plan a trip to Houston two to three times a year. It’s hard to believe but it’s now been 10 years since I’ve lived in Houston, the place where I was born and raised. Right before the trip, Erica informed me that we were asked to put the 2015 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport (GT 2.4) through the paces for a week in Houston. I was excited but I’ll admit that I didn’t have high hopes for the vehicle. You see one of my first high school cars was a gold Mitsubishi Galant sedan, which wasn’t exactly cool at the time.

So I jumped on a plane with Liam, landed in Houston, got our luggage, and there was the Outlander Sport waiting for us. Forget all the reservations I had earlier—the look of the vehicle, Rockford Fosgate audio system, full-length moon roof, and AWC (All-wheel control) won me over quickly.

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So I’ll give you more details about the car but first order of business, food. If you ask a Houston native what there is to do in Houston,their first response will be… grab something to eat! Well with any trip, I absolutely have to get Chinese and Vietnamese comfort food in Chinatown. But I always try to visit a few places I’ve never been, remember, it’s been ten years since I’ve lived here. The good folks at F.E.E.D. TX allowed me to check out their newest restaurant, Lee’s Fried Chicken and Donuts, along with their established confectionery spot Petite Sweets.

1. Lee’s Fried Chicken and Donuts
601 Heights Blvd, Houston, TX 77007

All photos: Justin Wong, Goodbye Normal

Why did I want to go to this place? The name says it all! The modern look and atmosphere of this chicken joint is great. Unless you live in the Heights, you would never known it was a former Church’s Chicken. The chicken portions are huge at this place! In addition, I found out that Lee’s uses all-natural, antibiotic/hormone-free, vegetarian-fed chicken. The taste is amazing and I wasn’t surprised when the F.E.E.D. staff informed me that the chicken goes through a three-day prep and cooking process. You can get traditional fried chicken at lunch or pick up some tenders as early as 10 A.M. Last week was also the first week their drive-thru was operating.

We were left with a ton of leftovers and at first I was hesitant to share it with my friends. Not because I didn’t want to share but because I didn’t want their first experience to lack the “fresh out of the kitchen” quality. Well I ultimately decided to share and everyone absolutely loved it! My one request of the restaurant is to have a sweet and savory combo that includes chicken and donuts, like the name.

My Favorites:

Traditional Fried Chicken: Lee’s has tenders and sandwiches but if given the choice, I’m a traditional chicken kinda guy. The tenders were just as amazing (and big!). Make sure to get a side of creamed corn and sour cream mashed potatoes with gravy!

Sauces: Don’t mistake this for Chick-fil-a sauce. All of these are made in-house and really bring the chicken to the next level. My favorites were the spicy mayo and bacon jam.

Donuts: Ummm yes. OK if I had to choose just one, I’d have to say blueberry cake with blueberry icing.

 

All photos: Justin Wong, Goodbye Normal

2. Petite Sweets
2700 W. Alabama, Houston, TX 77098

I felt guilty stepping into this place without Erica because she is a macaroon fanatic. The staff and environment was just as welcoming as Lee’s. The pictures speak for themselves. The taste of these macaroons and other lovely sweets are just as good as my friend Justin’s pictures. And if you’re wondering, no, he’s not a professional photographer. For my friends and family in Houston, I learned that Petite Sweets is really known for their custom orders. I know some of you out there are already planning the next party as you’re reading this, give Petite Sweets a call!

2015 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport (GT 2.4)

I’ve realized that over time, I’ve lost the aggression and shameless, sporadic lane changing it takes to drive in the big city. So after driving in town for a week, I thought I’d share a few thoughts that crossed my mind when driving:

  • There are so many lanes! But wait, there are so many more cars, too.
  • Remember that defensive driving class? Don’t let your guard down in the parking lot.
  • The speed limit is 70. Why is this guy going 40 and everyone around us is going 85? (this happened multiple times)

So after a full week bobbing and weaving through Houston traffic, here are my conclusions about this machine.

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Photo: Justin Wong, Goodbye Normal

Performance

Besides the constant braking and accelerating needed to overcome the Houston streets, The Outlander Sport’s handling and response was very good. In fact, I try not to drive like a maniac with kids in the back seat because, you know, car sickness. For the record, Liam never once said his stomach hurt. So kids, this whole time it’s been the car, not me. Lastly, the fuel efficiency (reported 25 city, 32 highway) I would say is accurate even with all the starting and stopping I had to do.

The Look

The pictures speak for themselves. This is a great looking car! I was not embarrassed at all driving this thing around town. I even got compliments from all the friends and family I was able to see. Also remember that we’re talking about the Sport here but I still do like the other models. Mitsubishi has come a long way in the looks department.

The Feel

There is a lot of leg room in the front. The compromise is that the back seats don’t have a lot of leg room. The leather seats were very comfortable and the A/C is great. According to my dad, Mitsubishi makes one of the best A/C systems for cars (I believe that most, if not all, Mercedes Benz vehicles use Mitsubishi’s system). The touch-screen dash is close so you’re not extending too far to operate the GPS system or change the audio settings.

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Conclusion

We will always have at least one van in our family but when we’re due to replace the Saturn Vue we currently have, I definitely won’t rule out the Outlander Sport. Here are some of my favorite features:

  • 168-hp, 2.4-liter MIVEC engine
  • Super-wide High Intensity Discharge (HID) headlights with fog lights and LED running lights
  • 7-inch touchscreen audio display with Digital HD Radio® and rearview camera
  • FAST-key passive entry system with panic feature and One-touch Start/Stop engine switch
  • Leather seats with heated driver & front passenger seats
  • Automatic air conditioning climate control
  • Rain-sensing windshield wipers

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Also, thanks to F.E.E.D. TX Restaurant Group for allowing us to review your restaurants. As always, these opinions are my own.

 

All Content © Erica Ho, Goodbye Normal