Tag - Travel

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» Southwest Airlines Companion Pass (Our Taste of Travel Hacking)
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» My Travel Essentials (Ethiopia, pt. 2)
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» New Orleans: Family Fun
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» Ethiopia Trip (pt. 1) and The Day of Hope
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» Break forth like the dawn: Anxiety vs. Joy
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» I Want to Be Brave
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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
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» Charleston: 3-Day Family Vacation

» 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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» My Travel Essentials (Ethiopia, pt. 2)

I love the title “World Traveler.” Knowing the globe has been a lifelong dream of mine. And not just the terrain or the scenic views… knowing the people that make up the world. Walking a day with them, being part of their story for just a little while. I can remember laying in bed as a child and dreaming about foreign lands, even pretending to speak other languages. Fulfilling these dreams and desires is a gift that, at times, I can’t believe is mine. My little “World Traveler” title has required me to gather some pretty fun gear over the years. I was able to try a few new products on my last trip that made my travels uniquely comfortable this time around. Here is my round-up of my favorite gear for long distance travel:

JUST PORTER

The Sable Rucksack Backpack is great especially if you need a carryon that you can wear to free up your hands. When traveling long distances, my essentials always add up quickly with the fear of lost luggage. The Sable Rucksack has one large compartment complemented with a few zipper pockets that I used to stash chargers and documents.

I used the laptop sleeve for an iPad Pro and it was well protected. Two of my favorite features of these bags are the waterproof shell and the use of magnetic buckles for quick buckling/unbuckling. Outside of airport travel, the bag served it’s purpose as there were many days we were out for 12+ hours and needed to carry food, water, and other supplies for the day.

“For each bag purchased, Just Porter manufactures a give bag and fills it with school supplies then gives it to a child in need. But, Just Porter’s charitable giving goes beyond parachuting and dumping goods onto poor communities. They actually work with the communities to manufacture their Give Bags locally and purchase their supplies from the local markets.”

Just Porter website
buy Just Porter on Amazon

BUFF BANDS

I’ve always used Buff Bands for camping. They are great for a variety of reasons; sun protection, sweat control, and keeping my hair out of my face just to name a few. Buff Bands served their purpose on the dusty clay roads in Ethiopia.

There were many times we covered our noses and mouths to prevent ourselves from inhaling the dust. In addition, the UV Buff Insect Shield Infused has an invisible repellent that lasts through 70 washings, blocks 95% of harmful UV rays, and features Polygiene technology to kill odor-causing bacteria.

Buff USA website
buy Buff products on Amazon

Paracable

I can’t tell you how many white iPhone cables my family has gone through. Finally fed up, I was on the search for a sturdy cable worth the investment. Meet Paracable. Apple MFI certified, 32-strand paracord, and especially great for travel since they are five feet long. I don’t think I’ll ever buy another brand of lightning cables, however I may never need to replace the Paracable ones I have now.

Paracable website
Buy Paracable on Amazon

TOSI HEALTH

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Tosi makes an assortment of health food products but my two favorite items are the Tosi complete Greens and Tosi SuperBites. I am a huge fan of green juices, powders and smoothies. However, many brands I’ve tasted end up grainy or unpalatable. Tosi’s Green drink is very smooth and lightly sweet. I had no problem chugging a big glass when I felt sluggish or lacked nutrition. The Tosi SuperBites were a great meal substitute for me on days when we packed a lunch for travel or when the scary airplane food came out for dinner on the 13 hour flight. The Cappuccino Crunch Cashew was my absolute favorite. Clean energy and fuel for the day. The bars also stood the test of hard travel. They never crumbled or disintegrated in my bag, as other brands have.

Tosi website
Buy Tosi Superbites on Amazon

KEEN FOOTWEAR

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Elliott and I both lived in Keens during our trip. I typically fly in a slip-on style shoe to make security check points easier. In the past I’ve found my slip on shoes lack the support I need for the, sometimes long, layovers and walking in the airports. My Keen Rivington CNXs gave great support and looked stylish at the same time. While in-country Elliott and I both wore the waterproof sandal style Newport H2 Keens. The Red Clay streets of Uganda leave a pretty decent mess on your shoes by the end of the day so we loved that the Keens could be washed off at night and dry by morning. The also came in handy when our boat began taking on water in the Nile (yikes!). Elliott’s favorite shoe to wear to this day is the Chandler CNX.

KEEN website
Buy KEEN shoes on Amazon

SHOLDIT

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Seriously… where was this item all my life? I often wear a scarf when traveling because I can wrap it around my face when I’m trying to sleep or to avoid weird smells on the airplane… or when someone is coughing. But this scarf takes it to the next level. The scarf contains two concealed pockets for passports, money and boarding passes. It enabled me to skip digging through my bag at each juncture and it also kept my travel documents safely close to me and away from sticky fingers. I felt secure and less stressed between check points. The Sholdit also comes in great patterns and colors, something for everyone’s unique style.

Sholdit website
Buy Sholdit on Amazon

COMFY COMMUTER

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I LOVE this pillow. So much, that I took a selfie with it on the plane. And I don’t take selfies. It does all the things every other travel pillow has failed to do. For one, it doesn’t slide or slip. The material on the back of the pillow provides enough friction to keep the pillow in place. It also surrounds your head in a way that give you neck, head and shoulder support. You won’t end up with a sore neck after using the Comfy Commuter. And when you reach your destination it packs neatly away in it’s little bag. There was literally nothing to complain about, it made my flight so much more comfortable.

Comfy Commuter website
Buy Comfy Commuter on Amazon

POLAROID

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Before this trip I was unaware that Polaroid made such a diverse line of products. I utilized their earbuds on the flight, which were very comfortable, and their bluetooth “selfie stick” to capture all of our team photos. Everything functioned seamlessly and it’s always nice to take care of photos ourselves rather than soliciting strangers.

Polaroid website
Buy Polaroid on Amazon

BAGO TRAVEL BAGS

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We packed our Large duffle bag full of donations and checked it through. I was a bit nervous about checking the duffle but I trusted the durable material in the end and gave it a try. I am so glad I did! The Bago duffle came through without a scratch or tear, while our standard luggage looked terrible by the time it reached Uganda. The duffle also folds into a little tiny bag and we didn’t have extra luggage to bring home as a result. For more info on the duffle check out my previous packing post here. Elliott carried the Bago packable backpack (great for kids!) throughout the trip and we were impressed with the lightweight yet durable material. It held up very well as we traveled around Uganda and went in and out of airports during our 32 hour travel home.

Bago website
Buy Bago on Amazon

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer: We received units from some of these brands for review. As always, the opinions are my own.

» New Orleans: Family Fun

In December we headed to New Orleans for a long weekend full of good food, good times and a little graduation pit stop for me. If you have followed the blog this year you know that we left New Orleans in 2008 just as I was wrapping up my Masters degree at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Fast forward to 2016 and I finally applied for graduation and finished what I started (you can read the full story here). We absolutely loved living in New Orleans and couldn’t wait to get back and spend some time in the city. As always, it did not disappoint. Being a visitor in a city we used to live in was super fun. We flew down (Southwest points for the win!) and felt adventurous so we used a combination of Uber/Lyft and Trolley transportation to get around the Big Easy.

For those of you who are curious about a family trip to NOLA, we highly recommend it! Here’s a recap of the places we visited (as a family) along with a few notes.

Where to stay
Where to eat

Where to go:

Audubon Zoo – The Audubon zoo is the very first zoo we ever visited as a little family of 3 when Elliott was a baby. We liked the fact that the trolley (St. Charles car to the Audubon Park/Tulane stop) takes you right near where the zoo shuttle picks you up. The animals were out and very visible unlike some other zoo experiences we’ve had. Plan at least three hours here.

Kamba Kourse – Inside the zoo is Kamba Kourse, a 3-story-high ropes course that our kids were looking most forward to. Unfortunately, due to weather, we weren’t able to make it on! For those of you wondering, you’re locked into a harness system the entire time, so there’s no way you can fall. They have different difficulty levels based off of age and how adventurous one might be.


This kid-friendly attraction also offers a scaled-down version for children aged 2 through 7 (or less than 48 inches tall). The Sky Tykes™ ropes course has nine elements that stand only less that three feet from the ground, which allows for easy parent participation for any level of assistance. Adults can walk alongside their child or step back and watch.

Audubon Butterfly Garden & Insectarium – The entrance has lots of bugs, everything from millipedes and tarantulas. You can also head to the diner where you get to taste the bugs, cinnamon meal worms or cricket hummus anyone? Other things to note are the termites, the swamp with alligators, and the butterfly room which also has koi fish.

Audubon Aquarium – The aquarium is in a great location on the river and near the French Quarter so it’s easy to get to, especially if you’re on foot. This place was larger than we expected. Everyone in our family enjoyed it. If you have little ones, take them to the top floor where they can play on the boats. Also be sure to walk through the tunnel that is surrounded by water. There were lots sea creatures and other animals to see here with at least three floors.

Louisiana Children’s Museum – We were greeted by friendly staff here after walking a few blocks in the rain. We could hardly get the kids past the first area, a bubble activities center where kids encapsulate themselves inside life-size bubbles. The kids had a blast playing while learning a little bit about New Orleans history. Some of the biggest hits were the Winn Dixie pretend grocery store, the New Orleans port area, and the fun mock eye examination room. We spent 3 hours there and could have stayed longer if we had more time.

City Park – City Park has consistently been one of my favorite places in New Orleans. It big and fun and a bit magical. The trees are draped with interesting things and it’s as if you step into some sort of Alice in Wonderland experience. Additionally City Park houses Storybook land. For just a few dollars your family can step into the pages of many familiar Mother Goose type stories. This is a super fun area to take pictures and let the kids loose.

There is also a small roller coaster and a few other small rides in this area. On this trip the kids enjoyed a game of putt-putt. The course is designed to look like the streets and hot spots of New Orleans so it adds a fun, local element to the game. After putt-putt we ran the fields and enjoyed the large swings before heading to eat at Toups Meatery. Toups is within walking distance of City Park. After our meal we simply hopped on the trolley, the stop was right outside the restaurant, and headed back to our French Quarter area hotel.

Where to Stay:

Loews New Orleans – Loews never disappoints. They consistently have great service, beautiful rooms and convenient locations. The New Orleans location was in the downtown area close to the Riverwalk, dozens of restaurants the Audubon Aquarium and Insectarium. We arrived a bit early but the Loews staff didn’t seem bothered or rushed by this. They simply entered our phone number into their texting system and alerted us the moment our room was ready. While we waited, for just a short time, the kids enjoyed the Scrabble and chess boards in the lovely and inviting lobby parlor area of the hotel.

The big windows allowed us to enjoy a little people-watching as well. When our room was ready we escorted the kids up to check out the room and settle in. The view was amazing from the room and we all enjoyed watching the steam boats travel down the river.

The rooms at Loews New Orleans are larger than average. This gave our family plenty of room to relax and there may have been a few cartwheels turned as the kids burned off some energy. Loews also has a great indoor pool for kids. It’s just the right size for young kids looking to splash around after their parents have toted them all around town in search of charbroiled oysters and muffulettas. As a bonus, Loews has a great restaurant located in the lobby area for those who prefer to enjoy a meal without leaving the hotel.

When it comes to no-fuss elegance, amenities and service Loews has hands-down won our loyalty. It’s a surprising choice for families with kids, but we find that they go above and beyond to accommodate us and make us feel at home.

Where to Eat: 

Toups Meatery – Toups in Mid-City isn’t exactly kid-friendly, but the crew did just fine. Strangely they love a good cheese plate just as much as we do. Additionally Toups will whip up some tasty, kid-friendly fried chicken upon request. My parents accompanied us on this trip and the restaurant handled our party of 8 with ease. The meal was amazing and the portions quite large. It’s definitely a must-try if you are looking for creative fare outside the typical New Orleans offerings.

New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood – One seafood platter was enough for all four of our kids. We love their seafood platter because the breading is light rather than heavy and greasy. The potato wedges in the garlic sauce are the icing on the cake. After a morning of walking in the Quarter, this was a welcomed stop.

Drago’s – We stopped here for an afternoon snack of chargrilled oysters which did not disappoint. You might want to do yourself a favor and ask for extra bread to soak up the juices from the oysters. While you’re at it, do yourself another favor and get the shrimp and corn bisque.

Mother’s – Get breakfast here and make sure to try the famous ham or chopped beef like everyone else. Portions are big so you can definitely get away with choosing a few dishes to share with kiddos.


Cafe Maspero
– Great spot right across from Cafe du Monde. Kids had the seafood platter (again!) and adults had the muffalettas. Maspero’s food and atmosphere are great but Johnny’s Po-Boys still has the best muffalettas in my book.

Sucre – Walk past a few art galleries on your way to Sucre on Conti St. This place has been known for their boutiques filled with your favorite confections. Macarons have a special place in my heart and Sucre’s are delightful.

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Cafe Du Monde – No surprise here. We had to introduce our kids to a morning here for beignets and cafe au lait (hot chocolate for kiddos).


Gordon Biersch
– Great dinner spot with a great and cheap kids’ menu. The Brewer’s Combo (bratwurst, a soft pretzel, and garlic fries) is an appetizer but I ordered it as a meal. Either way, I highly recommend it.

Cafe Gentilly – Unless you’re visiting the seminary, you probably won’t be in the area to visit here. During our three years in New Orleans, we ate here plenty of times since the portions are big and the prices are very reasonable. In fact, we had to come here one more time after the graduation ceremony. While you wait for your food, there are plenty of books to enjoy.

» Ethiopia Trip (pt. 1) and The Day of Hope

As you may know, this has been a busy season for me… leading with an unplanned surgery, my last semester of graduate school, and a trip to Ethiopia with One Orphan. Many people have asked about the trip but it takes a while to process (as it always does) and I’ve already had to leave again for a quick work trip to D.C. Please read the information below about The Day of Hope (today!) followed along with some pictures from my recent trip to Ethiopia taken by photographer Daniel Hobbs. In the coming weeks, I’ll be sure to share more!

Today is the day the Day of Hope: America World and One Orphan invites you to join as we continue our mission to care for orphans worldwide, build forever families and advocate for waiting children.

Due to a generous grant opportunity gifts given during this time will be matched dollar for dollar up to $100,000!

Together, we are able to have significant impact on the lives of vulnerable children in each of the countries we partner with. AWAA is committed to family preservation and orphan care and thanks to our wonderful in-country partners, hundreds of children are being loved and cared for.

Here are a few ways your gift will be utilized:

Support for five orphanage partnerships in Ethiopia
Provide Ethiopia families with sponsorships through family preservation efforts
Support for families in the post adoption stage
Resources and support for orphanage partnerships in Haiti
Resources and support for orphanage partnerships in China
Support for adoption programs in India

If you would like to give a year-end, tax-deductible gift please click HERE and choose Day of Hope in the drop down menu. If you have further questions about how your gift will be utilized feel free to contact the Executive Director of One Orphan, our orphan care ministry branch:  joe.wilson@awaa.org

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» Break forth like the dawn: Anxiety vs. Joy

I’ve always considered Africa to be female, with her mountainous terrain and lush, green rolling hills juxtaposed with desert expanses. Like a woman she has mastered the art of multi-tasking by sustaining various forms of life and  ground. She is wise and ancient, she holds secrets and gives life. Specifically she gives me life. From a young age she beckoned me and I listened. Year after year I’ve traveled there. I want to say journeyed but in-flight movies and decent food take the journey out of the trip. Mother Africa fills me up, gives me purpose and confirms the ache in my heart when I’ve been away too long. It’s embarrassing, honestly, the way my Western ways are shattered when I visit. I’ve learned so much… but still have room to grow. My most recent trip was healing on so many levels. It came just as I was recovering from surgery… both mentally and physically.

Here, in the comfort of the first world, anxiety rules. It damages our spirits that weren’t meant to be bound by darkness. It creeps in when we forget and leave the door ajar. Here, I tremble while I wait for words from the doctor. There… I run free. Last year, as I spoke with my friend Amanda, Isaiah 58:6-9 came to our minds:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

This promise, written long ago has set me free. I’m free to respond to the call that comes across the waters. I’m free to speak up for the oppressed, and I’m free to trust that God will answer my calls for help. He formed this World with purpose and beauty and spent the same efforts on me as well. My Joy comes when I pursue the purposes I was created for. My Joy like the Noonday, busting forth over the mountain ranges. My soul rests in the words of my creator and my soul leaps when I serve a country that I love. But as always I return filled, taking more than I leave.

If you are struggling today, if anxiety has stolen your light… remember the things that make your soul light up. Remember that you have a creator who adores you. Be brave and pursue things that lift others as well as yourself. Your joy is waiting to rise as the noonday, to break forth like the dawn.

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» I Want to Be Brave

On August 22nd I had surgery to remove one of my parathyroid glands and the benign tumor that it contained. Surgery went well but recovery did not. Weeks passed and left me extremely fatigued, dizzy and weak. I could barely make it through work and get dinner on the table. In fact, on most nights I didn’t. It became clear that my body wasn’t liking the new calcium levels and just wan’t going to cooperate for awhile. During this time it was also discovered that I have a very narrow chest that actually traps my heart, in a way. It’s not a serious condition but it explains why I pass out easily.

I could barely make it through work and get dinner on the table. In fact, on most nights I didn’t.

To be honest, consistently feeling terrible really started to get to me. I began to worry that this was my new normal. I missed going for runs and doing errands and just living my life. I began to make plans to turn over the Ethiopia trip I was leading. I even wondered if my current career would work for me anymore. What if I couldn’t travel anymore? There were a lot of questions and a lot of anxiety over the situation. I prayed desperately through sleepless nights and long days. I begged God to help me heal. And then immediately felt guilty for asking. I believed that relief would come in time, but I also had a glimpse into how it might feel to live with a chronic illness. I gained a huge respect for those that get up every morning and face their health difficulties with bravery. I began to pray less for healing and more for bravery.

I remember praying… God, life is hard, I want to be brave.

Bravery was a turning point for me. I still felt bad, but I didn’t accept it. The mental part of healing is often just as important as the physical aspect of healing. I set my sights ahead and on my family and on the God who created me. Slowly I accomplished more, made dinner and walked up the stairs to read bedtime stories.

Part of being brave is also being vulnerable. During my hardest weeks my friends showed up at my house with food. They fed my kids and cleaned my house. They sat with me and chatted with me. My sister in law flew in for a weekend. And the icing on the cake? My grandparents moved in for two weeks. You know it’s bad when you’re an adult and your grandparents come to cook and clean.

Side note: having my grandparents here was such an unexpected blessing. We cherish every bit of time we get to spend with them.

This has really gotten quite long, so let me start working toward the finish line. A couple of weeks ago I woke up… and I felt good. In fact, I felt great. I tentatively went about my day, cautiously trying out this new feeling good thing. To my delight, feeling good started to be a daily thing. I was also sleeping well again at night.

It took me more than two months to complete a recovery that I was told would take a week. But I learned about being brave. And I think, and I say this cautiously, that I’m thankful for my longer-than-expected recovery. I’m thankful for the way Jesus drew me close and I’m thankful for friends and family who carried me on my most difficult days.

Tomorrow I leave for Ethiopia to do what I love… Speak up for vulnerable children. I’m abundantly thankful tonight as I reflect over the last few months.

Stick with me this week and next as I share about our trip and revisiting the orphanage where my son lived before we brought him home.

» 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!)
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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.

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