Tag - Travel

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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
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» Atlanta: Three-Day Family Vacation
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» Daddy + Daughter Trip in the Mazda6 (Houston, TX)
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» Don’t be a Joy Robber

» 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).

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  • 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.

» Atlanta: Three-Day Family Vacation

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

Day One Afternoon:

World of Coke

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

Ikea

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

Day One Evening:

Loews Atlanta – Midtown

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

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

Day Two Afternoon:

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

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

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Zoo Atlanta

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

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Day Two Evening:

Stone Mountain Marriott Evergreen

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

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

Day Three:

Stone Mountain Theme Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Children’s Museum of Houston

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

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2. Sam Houston Boat Tour

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

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

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


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

2016 Mazda6 i Grand Touring

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

Things we loved:

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

» Don’t be a Joy Robber

I led a team to Uganda earlier this year and had the opportunity to bring my son Elliott. I’ve written a few posts about our trip (see Uganda pt. 1, pt. 2 and pt. 3) and his reaction but I couldn’t resist writing about it at least one more time. Elliott had a hard time leaving Uganda. And he has a hard time being away from Uganda. That country, and his friends wove themselves deeply into his little heart. His experience there changed him forever. And while he is still a little stinker 75% of the time he speaks of his friends there daily. There is no pity, there is only compassion. Compassion for kids who are growing up without families… and a desire to support them.

Once we were home, Elliott asked if we could sponsor Derrick.

Derrick was the first one to grab Elliott’s hand as he got off the bus. Derrick showed Elliott how to eat a grasshopper. Derrick gave Elliott a nickname and called his name in secret code through the ventilation holes in the top of the dormitory. Derrick and Elliott had so much in common, despite situations that were worlds apart. Derrick just turned 10, Elliott is almost 9. Just boys. Just pals.

When Elliott asked to sponsor Derrick I said yes, of course. Thinking I would link my debit card and pay the monthly sponsorship gift. But Elliott said no. He brought money from his bank. He asked to do yard work. He started organizing for a garage sale. Then, Charlotte brought money from her bank after Elliott shared his dream with her.

And here’s where I almost made the wrong choice. As Charlotte handed me $10 from her Chinese New Year money I almost handed it back to her. I caught myself, just in time, as the words “don’t worry about this, I’ll take care of it” were coming out of my mouth. Why wouldn’t I want them to worry about it? They saw and felt the need and wanted to help their friends.

In seconds I could have squelched their natural JOY in giving. Something I pray they carry into their adult lives.

A few weeks ago I faced the same scenario. As the offering basket was being passed through church I began to pass the basket up and over Charlotte’s head until I felt resistance. I looked down to see Charlotte’s hands firmly grasping the bottom of the basket. She pulled it down, dug through her little bag and pulled out the money she had saved to buy a lip gloss. She had talked and talked about this lip gloss for some time. And she put it, clunk, into the basket with authority and purpose. As the basket went on it’s way I whispered “I thought you were saving that” and she answered “Mom, you always say we are blessed. And we have so much, the church can use it to help people who don’t have what they need.” I grabbed her close to my side as the worship music began and resisted the tears that accumulated at the corners of my eyes. She gets it. She gets it more than I do on most days. True sacrifice is choosing what others need over what we want for ourselves and taking the responsibility to stand in that gap.

So the kids are dreaming big now. Dreaming about seeing every child at Canaan Children’s home sponsored. Of taking trips and being with their friends and celebrating that God ordains us all to care for each other. A responsibility that is JOY rather than just obligation.

I came so close to robbing them of these things. So close to taking on the responsibility myself and removing their contribution from the picture. Our kids have the unscathed ability to love big and wide. Let’s let them loose.

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