Category - Travel

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» Family Getaway at Tradewinds Island Grand St. Pete Florida
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» Dollywood Season Pass – Bring a Friend Free
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» Home for Christmas, Nashville 2018
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» Chattanooga Fun in the 2018 Mazda CX-9
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» REVIEW: Hyatt Zilara Rose Hill – Montego Bay Jamaica
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» Chattanooga: 3-Day Family Vacation
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» Southwest Airlines Companion Pass (Our Taste of Travel Hacking)
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» 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

» Family Getaway at Tradewinds Island Grand St. Pete Florida

This November we spent three days exploring Universal Studies and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I’m going to save my thoughts and tips on that experience for another post. Today I want to share about our beach time that we tacked on the end of our time in Orlando. There are several gorgeous beaches within 1-2 hours of the Orlando area. After braving Disney for seven straight days a few years back we came to realize that we enjoy our vacations a lot more if a little sand and sun accompanies the endless lines and $12 ice creams.

Enter St. Pete beach, approximately an hour and a half drive from Orlando. St. Pete is a quirky, eclectic area outside of Tampa that offers everything from hand-rolled cigars to boardwalk ice cream, cuban food and high end beach resorts. For this stay we opted to check in with Tradewinds Island Grand resort. Tradewinds is comprised of two resorts, The Island Grand and Guy Harvey Outpost. Together they make up over 31 acres of prime beachfront fun. As we experienced firsthand there is plenty to do for families. Tradewinds offers a kids club, water sports, beach front pools, entertainment, fine and casual dining and family friendly suites. Our suite met the needs of our entire family AND the grandparents.

Tradewinds offers an experience that, while not all-inclusive, does include quite a bit. For example, cabanas and chairs on the beach are offered at no additional charge. Guy Harvey outpost also hosts a nightly beachside fire and smores experience at no additional charge. Other “free” activities include the massive High Tide water slide, surf wipe-out and paddle boats. There is also a daily schedule of poolside activities like bingo, which we all enjoyed.

Tradewinds offers various packages to help families add in a few extras. We did opt to try out adventure bands for our kids. This is essentially a little wristband that allows them to purchase snow cones, painting activities or other small attractions around the resort. If your child can keep up with money they may not need the band, but it worked well for our older kids who are only in the 9-11 year old range.

We spent time at Tradewinds Island Grand just as the off season was kicking in, late November. This meant lower crowds and plenty of beach space. It was just the dose of sunshine we needed as Nashville was headed into the 30’s that week. We’ve heard that a major renovation is on the horizon for this property and we are excited to see the suites and rooms get a refresh!

Bottom line, we highly recommend Tradewinds Island Grand and Guy Harvey Outpost for a beach vacation that has something for everyone. It’s family friendly with adult-only pools and areas as well. Best of both worlds!

» Dollywood Season Pass – Bring a Friend Free

Use promo code DWINSIDERS16 at dollywood.com to save yourself $10 on each one-day ticket you purchase

It’s no secret that Dollywood has more to offer than could ever be experienced in just one visit. The many festivals and holiday events have us coming back for more all year long. Just one reason why we love having a season pass! Our favorite feature of season passes, however, is the Bring-A-Friend-Free (BAFF) tickets we receive with our season passes. 

We reserved our Season Passes in advance this year and received an EXTRA set of BAFF passes for the magical 2018 Smoky Mountain Christmas. This extra set of passes gave us a golden opportunity to kick off Christmas break with great friends. Wearing out our kids at the BEGINNING of break was a priority this year. We also needed to distract our youngest as the Christmas countdown was far too much for him to handle any longer, haha.

Our children loved experiencing the park through the eyes of their buddies. It made familiar rides extra magical as they worked to position themselves at the front of Wild Eagle or participated in soda drinking contests at Aunt Grannys, all you care to eat! Shows, treats and train rides all became new again with the addition of besties! 

TIP: We love to pack small snacks and eat them throughout the day. We then enjoy a 4pm early dinner at Aunt Granny’s. The cost is not much higher than a typical quick service and it’s a great bargain for kids 9 year old and under. Eating at 4pm helps avoid the dinner rush, and it saves us money because we opt for 1 meal at the park rather than 2.

 Aunt Granny’s is also all you can eat comfort food and our kids tear it up.

The BAFF passes certainly allowed our kids to have an extra dose of fun, but Calvin and I weren’t left out. We had just as much fun riding Fire Chaser in the dark and kicking back with another couple to watch the kids ride when we had our fill of thrill rides.

Firechaser Express

Our plans for 2019 are already developing around introducing close friends to Dollywood and enjoying even more unforgettable multi-family memories. There is still plenty of time to purchase season passes for 2019. It’s a year you don’t want to miss as the highly anticipated opening of Wildwood Grove looms in the distance. Just imagine bringing your closest friends to experience a whole new expansion at Dollywood! I, for one, cannot wait.

» Home for Christmas, Nashville 2018

Nashville has a lot to offer when it comes to the year of less. If you haven’t been following along, 2017 for our family has the been the start of attempting to buy less stuff, but instead have more experiences together together. The year of less is slowly turning into a lifestyle of less. Our family is spending another December at home (for the third year in a row) and we’ve found lots to look forward to in doing so. Here are a list of events we are especially making plans to attend in December.

1. SCHERMERHORN SYMPHONY CENTER

The Schermerhorn is a breathtaking venue that feels special no matter what you’re there for. For the last couple of years, we’ve attended Dave Barnes’ Christmas show, which we highly recommend. This year we’ll be going to Home Alone in Concert (performing on 12/5 and 12/6)! Experience John Williams’ delightful score performed live (by the Nashville Symphony and Nashville Symphony Chorus) while the movie is shown on the big screen.

We’re also excited about a Very Merry Christmas with Dave Barnes (12/2), Drew and Ellie Holcomb’s Neighborly Christmas (12/17 and 12/22), and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: Big Band Holidays with Wynton Marsalis (12/7). Also Handel’s Messiah (four performances to choose from), which has really become an annual holiday tradition for many families.

Full schedule and tickets available at NashvilleSymphony.org

2. NASHVILLE’S NUTCRACKER
Nashville Ballet has performed Nashville’s Nutcracker for over 10 years. This has become a huge tradition for families, with fifteen performances to choose from. Our (young) family especially loves the early afternoon show so that we can grab dinner at Milk & Honey after the show!

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 at TPAC’s Jackson Hall for fifteen (15) performances:

  • Saturday, December 1, 2018 at 2 p.m.
  • Sunday, December 2, 2018 at 2 p.m.
  • Saturday, December 8, 2018 at 2 p.m.
  • Saturday, December 8, 2018 at 7 p.m.
  • Sunday, December 9, 2018 at 2 p.m.
  • Saturday, December 15, 2018 at 2 p.m.
  • Saturday, December 15, 2018 at 7 p.m.
  • Sunday, December 16, 2018 at 1 p.m.
  • Sunday, December 16, 2018 at 6:30 p.m.
  • Friday, December 21, 2018 at 2 p.m.
  • Friday, December 21, 2018 at 7 p.m.
  • Saturday, December 22, 2018 at 2 p.m.
  • Saturday, December 22, 2018 at 7 p.m.
  • Sunday, December 23, 2018 at 1 p.m.
  • Sunday, December 23, 2018 at 6:30 p.m.

Tickets available at NashvilleBallet.com

3. NASHVILLE PREDATORS

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The only cold temperature we enjoy is from the Nashville Predators ice. Our kids love hockey when it comes to the food, the chants, and the crazy fans. Liam still loves singing (and shaking it to) Tim McGraw’s “I like it I love it” every time the home team scores.

There are plenty of home games in December to check out. Tickets available at Ticketmaster.com

4. Marvel Universe Live!

If your kids can’t get enough of the Marvel movies or too young to watch them, this live performance might be a fit for your family. Witness cutting-edge special effects, aerial maneuvers, pyrotechnics, martial arts, motorcycles stunts, and vast video projection in this completely new thrilling adventure.

Seven shows available from December 6-9. Click here for tickets

5. Dollywood – Smoky Mountain Christmas

If you’re home but willing to drive a few hours, Dollywood should always be in consideration! Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas featuring Glacier Ridge is the most beautiful holiday addition yet. There’s no better way to spend your holiday season, and there’s no place quite as uniquely beautiful as Dollywood.

» Chattanooga Fun in the 2018 Mazda CX-9

Winter has really felt never-ending. Although it didn’t get super cold this year the Spring has still taken its time to come around, we’ve even had strange little snow days pop up here and there. The rainy and cold weather was really getting to us and we felt that a family weekend getaway was in order. Thankfully we live in the Nashville area and places like Chattanooga are just a quick two-hour drive away. The Mazda CX-9 was our road trip companion for this trip and it was an exciting departure from our usual eight-passenger minivan.


Here are a few things we especially liked about the car followed by a rundown of our Chattanooga visit:

Seats Seven – Outside of minivans and overly large SUVs, there aren’t many vehicles that can fit our family of six. With the deceivingly compact CX-9, we can even fit an extra family member or friend. Some mommas can’t succumb to the idea of minivan life and this vehicle would be a great alternative.

Interior – The interior of the CX-9 is just as sleek and sophisticated as the outside. Every detail is well thought out, down to the very placement of the cup holders. Everything you need is within arms reach allowing you to control the temperature, radio, etc. without distracting you from the most important thing, keeping your eyes on the road. 

GPS and Advanced Heads-Up Display – For many years we’ve utilized the phone GPS over the built-in car GPS systems. In the past they’ve tended to be hard, clunky to use and often give inaccurate directions. This built-in GPS is in another category! I love the addition of features like including the distance to the nearest gas stations and restaurants. 

The Advanced Heads-Up Display magically displays the speed limit, your current speed, blind spot warnings and more right onto your windshield. This eliminates the need to look away or down as you are driving. 


The CX-9 made the drive to Chattanooga smooth and fun, and of course the kids requested Kidz Bop radio on Sirius XM. As parents, we really appreciated the comfortable, adjustable seats. A comfy seat always makes the trip seem shorter!

Chattanooga Highlights and Destinations:

Westin – Downtown Chattanooga

  • Hotel Room window

The Westin is a new addition to the downtown Chattanooga scene (less than a year old at the time of writing this). It is located only a couple of blocks away from the free shuttle that runs along Broad Street. If you’re familiar with downtown, it’s near the Tivoli Theatre. In addition to the hotel, the area referred to as West Village is in the process of being renovated with new restaurants, shops, and office space. On Saturday nights, the block is closed off to car traffic and an amazing laser light party takes place outside with street vendors, live music and other fun surprises. The kid-focused light show starts at 6:45 and there’s another one geared more for adults at 7:45. This is REALLY fun, in fact we were pleasantly surprised with how much free fun we had during show. The kids absolutely lost it when MASSIVE balloons came raining down from the sky. We could tell how much thought and effort was put into making this a unique experience.

The renovated hotel (which used to be the BlueCross headquarters) has luxurious, clean and spacious rooms. The floor-to-ceiling windows create the illusion of an even bigger room. The outdoor pool is open year long with the water set at 80 degrees. Additionally the hotel is fully equipped with a coffee shop, quick service food area, restaurant and comfortable lounge areas. The staff and service were excellent as well. The bellhop who assisted us showed so much enthusiasm for his work and even shared interesting facts such as the preservation of the original elevators and circular stairwell in the building.

High Point Climbing

Anytime we spy a Mellow Mushroom, we just have to eat there. It’s a good thing High Point Climbing is right next door. The climbing and physical exertion made us feel a little better after the heavy meal. We visited the downtown location of High Point Climbing. The beautiful facility allows climbing both inside and outside of the building. There is 30,000 sq. feet of climbing surface to enjoy including the best kids zone we’ve ever experienced in a climbing gym. The kids area empowered them to hook up and climb on their own without having to wait on us for assistance. As you all know, our daughter Lola is blind. This is probably her fourth climbing experience and she has grown to love it. High Point is an excellent place for expert climbers and those who are putting on climbing shoes for the very first time. Their friendly staff is great at giving guidance and encouraging families to get moving together.

Creative Discovery Museum – This is by far one of our favorite children’s museums. The museum boasts everything from an excavation area to a riverplay area. We found that our kids were able to engage in several sensory enriched activities while learning new things about Tennessee and surrounding areas. The museum is currently hosting America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far. The cultural exhibit explores the diversity of Muslim cultures in our community, country and around the world! The exhibit represents 52 different countries around the world. It will be at the Museum through May 13th. Our kids loved learning more about the Muslim and Middle Eastern culture. Kudos to the museum for facilitating activities that help overcome fear-based perceptions regarding Muslim cultures.  Some of our highlights were getting henna tattoos (from Indian culture), baking Middle Eastern treats, and watching a science presentation in the auditorium.

Chattanooga Football ClubIf your household is anything like ours, soccer is becoming a big deal. If you visit Chattanooga in the Spring or Summer, Chattanooga FC might be playing a home game at Finley Stadium. The free shuttle will land you about four blocks away from the stadium. You can show up early and tailgate with the Chattahooligans (family friendly) and enjoy general admission seating. So come early and enjoy front row seating. After the game, we took advantage of walking down to the field and meeting the home team for autographs.

Chattanooga ZooThe zoo is a bit smaller than our home Nashville Zoo. We visited on Sunday morning before our drive back home. The crowds were low so it ended up being nice for us. We were able to take our time and read about each exhibit and engage the kids. Several of the animals were playful and the kids enjoyed interacting with them. During our visit the trainers showed the crowd how the chimpanzees get their wellness checks and train to keep them safe and healthy. The kids enjoyed seeing how the zoo cared for the animals in this way. The zoo is also very reasonably priced, under $10 for admission. 

Bonus: There’s a nice outdoor playground complex next door to the zoo you can make sure to visit if your kids need to get a little extra energy out at the end of your zoo visit. This playground is an inclusive playground and offers something for children of all abilities.

Conclusion about the Mazda CX-9

The daily commute with the CX-9 in Nashville was enjoyable and I already miss driving the car every day. The comfort and the handling of the car was very enjoyable. The back storage area was enough for groceries but offered a challenge when it came to our weekend trip. When driving to Chattanooga, our family of six had to fold one seat down to fit all of the suitcases. Fortunately, we were still able to fit three kids in the middle row with the fourth child in the back. We did notice we turned a lot of heads when driving and parking the vehicle which is a testament to the sleek new look and vibrant candy-apple red color! This vehicle could work for a family of six but would be ideal for a family of four or five. The extra room on a daily basis would be nice and comfortable with margin to add visitors or extra luggage for the longer trips.

 

 

 

Special thanks to Mazda USA for allowing us to test drive the 2018 CX-9 Grand Touring. As always, these opinions are my own.

» REVIEW: Hyatt Zilara Rose Hill – Montego Bay Jamaica

Calvin and I celebrated ELEVEN years of marriage this year. We have always desired to grab some special time away on a fabulous beach but the logistics just have not panned out until this year. After months of planning and researching we chose to spend our 11th anniversary at the Hyatt Zilaria Rose Hill, an all-inclusive resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica. I was very nervous once we made the full commitment. What if it didn’t live up to my long-awaited expectations for a tropical getaway!? Fortunately it absolutely did and we enjoyed a perfect weeklong stay on our own slice of paradise. Here are the highlights in case you are looking for your own little getaway!

Arrival

Upon arrival we were ushered to a Hyatt waiting area in the airport. We received cold water and pineapple juice while they checked us into the resort. After approximately 15 minutes the staff gathered our luggage and we took a short bus ride to the Hyatt. The front desk was waiting for us and knew exactly who we were when we stepped off the bus. June is a slower season and we were immediately upgraded to a higher level suite upon arrival. Our room was not quite ready but the staff pointed out a great lunch spot and we enjoyed a meal while we waited the 30 minutes for our room to be ready.  From the second we stepped off the bus we were extremely impressed with the beauty of the resort and the friendliness of the staff. We knew we had made the right decision.

Room

We stayed in a Junior suite on the adult-only side of the Hyatt resort. The room was very spacious and decorated well with a modern, island feel. Lots of white, stone and metal tones. The bathroom was open and included a very large walk-in shower and a huge soaking tub. The king sized bed was cozy… not to firm or too soft. Perfect for several uninterrupted nights of sleep. The balcony, however, was the icing on the cake. It was large with a lovely lounging area and it faced the pool and the ocean. We spent many hours reading, writing and napping on that beautiful balcony with the sound of the ocean in the background. The resort was all-inclusive so our fridge was stocked with snacks and drinks daily. I drink a larger than normal amount of water and they quickly brought more when I ran out one day.

Dining

There were so many dining options that we were not able to eat through the entire list! It was so much fun trying different things everyday and not worrying about anything due to the all-inclusive nature of the resort. The food was always fresh and delicious at each place. Our favorite meals included the French fine dining experience at Petit PareZ, Di Roza Italian, and the Jamaican Jerk chicken shack by the pool. We also enjoyed long, lazy breakfasts with ocean views each morning at the buffet. We chose the buffet most morning because I enjoyed the unlimited papaya and other fun island fruits. Additionally I was able to have a fresh, green smoothie made each morning as well. Here’s the bottom line about the food, it wasn’t cruise ship food. That was our biggest fear when it came to all-inclusive. The food was fresh, creative and plentiful. We looked forward to our meals and enjoyed each one of them.

Activities

The all-inclusive nature of this resort carries over to activities as well! Ocean kayaking, sailboats, boogie boards and snorkeling are all available at no extra cost. We typically enjoyed an activity in the early afternoon before lounging around in the beautiful pools and clear, greenish/blue ocean. There is full drink service, also included, at the pools and oceanside. There was also plenty of entertainment available during the day and in the evenings. We stayed on the adults only side, but also ventured over to the family side at times to enjoy their restaurants and coffee shops. During these ventures we dreamed big about enjoying this resort with our family one day. The beach area and pools were perfectly set up for long, relaxing family days in the sun. The staff also seems to go over the top to care for and serve these families well. Truly cannot say enough about the kindness of the staff at this resort.

The Resort

The resort in general was beautiful and very, very clean. There were always plenty of lounge areas and chairs around the pool and beach. The towels were plentiful, the views were gorgeous, the staff was amazing and the resort was large. There was never a need to leave the resort to do other activities as we felt that there was plenty to occupy us right where we were.


Our Tips

Pack a float in your luggage! The pools and ocean area are wonderful and you will want to take advantage of that. A float from home will make your experience that much more relaxing. We also recommend bringing an umbrella and being prepared for a rainy afternoon or two. The rain comes and goes quickly, but expect to see it on occasion. Be sure to pack a mixture of nice clothing and things to relax in, a few of the restaurants are formal and require at least a collared shirt and don’t allow flip flops. Lastly, bring small bills. Although tip is included at the all inclusive, the staff is truly wonderful and you may want to tip them extra for their hard work and cheerful attitude.

» 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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» 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.

All Content © Erica Ho, Goodbye Normal