Travel

Staying healthy on a cruise is easy.

I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to set new habits at home. There’s always the distraction of dirty laundry, the dog who wants to play ball or that friend who drops by (thankfully so) with a bottle of wine ‘just because’. I’ve been in a bit of funk lately, shuttling back and forth across the country to help care for my mother who suffered a debilitating stroke, while I juggle work and parenting requirements of my high-maintenance (but quite lovable) children. So I wondered about staying healthy on a cruise and using one to regain my physical and mental health.

I felt like it was time to get serious about a little self-nourishment, inside and out. My husband and I were invited by Carnival to experience their Carnival Splendor cruise along the Mexican Riviera, with destinations I had never visited including Cabo and Mazatlan – as well as Puerto Vallarta, my favorite Mexico vacation spot. I’ve done my share of cruises but I thought being held captive (albeit a willing one) at sea for seven days, seemed like the perfect opportunity to escape, unplug and reset my mind and body. Here’s what to know about staying healthy on a cruise:

1. Yoga

I’m a yoga junky but don’t get to the studio nearly as often as I’d like. Those pesky things like household chores and client meetings seem to always get in the way. I generally put on my yoga gear first thing in the morning and too often, I find myself still in it at 5pm, without so much as one down dog. But now that I was at sea for a week, I had no excuse. As hard as it was, I rolled out of the my comfy rocking cradle every morning to attend the scheduled yoga and pilates classes. It energized and motivated me for the rest of the day.

2. Eating healthy

I know what you’re thinking. It seems counterintuitive – eating healthy on a cruise, known for their oversized plates and all-you-can-eat buffets, but it was a great opportunity to challenge myself and reset my eating goals. I was thrilled to see that the ship offered a wok station where I could load up on stir-fried veggies, an Indian cafe where the food was some of the best I’ve had, and a burrito bar with grilled veggies. I chose a small desert plate or cereal bowl for my meals and steered away from the large platter-sized plates. I wake up craving sugar and at home, too often opt for an overly sweet breakfast bar or my comfort-food-go-to of French toast. But on the ship, I loaded up a bowl of oatmeal with fresh fruits and I’m confident I’ve reset that breakfast switch, especially since this hearty meal kept me fueled until well after lunch.

3. Moving

As a writer, I spend most of my day sitting. And despite my fitness tracker telling me to get up and move, I don’t always comply. But a 951-foot long ship means you’re going to be doing a lot of walking (sadly, I lost my Fitbit just prior to the cruise but I’m quite sure I got in all of my steps daily). My cabin was far forward, so to hit the gym, spa, pool area or dining, I had quite a walk. And with 3,000 others on board, I often chose to take the stairs rather than wait for an elevator. Note to self: next cruise, choose a cabin far forward or aft to hit your step goals!

4. Spa

I unapologetically spent too much time (and money) at the spa. And I deserved a little self-indulgence. The relaxation room on the Carnival Splendor was my happy place. I’d often arrive rather early for a treatment and just get my zen on as I lounged on one of the teak beds draped with fabric, staring out over the ocean with some fruit water in hand. Reflexology, a hydration facial and Swedish massage were just what the doctor ordered to remind me that health starts from the inside out.

5. Alone time

I’m an out-of-the-closet introvert. I relish my alone time so I let the other 2,999 people on the ship get off to wander the ports, while I stayed behind and enjoyed the ship to myself. I had my own personal pool boy, waiter and bartender where I could nap in the sun, and find a little creative space. 

6. Unplug

Being miles and miles out at sea doesn’t give you much choice other than to put those devices away. The wifi was a bit spotty but I came to realize it was a gift from the gods. I mean, why do I need to read my 100+ daily emails while I’m on a luxury cruise ship in the middle of the ocean? What can’t wait til I’m in port or at home? I’m a recovering social media junky so I really appreciated the inability to interject my opinions into the latest political debates on Facebook. There’s something very deeply cleansing about logging off for a week. 

7. Sleep

I don’t even have to tell you how easy it is to catch up on your sleep as the motion of the ocean lulls you to sleep every night. The stress of my mother’s illness has stolen my ability to sleep through the night as I’m riddled with worry. But thanks to a few windy nights and the sounds of the ocean slapping the side of the ship, not to mention a surprisingly comfy bed, I actually slept quite well. 

I’m thinking this needs to be an annual sabbatical for me, boarding a cruise ship where I can challenge my mind and body to press that reset button and recommit to healthy habits.

Thanks to Carnival for hosting my husband and me on the Splendor!

taking a family trip to the Great Barrier Reef

It’s on many bucket lists. A family trip to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It is after all, the largest living thing on Earth, even visible from outer space. The reef is made up of over 2900 individual reefs, 600 continental islands and 300 coral cays.

It was the ultimate family vacation. Just the four of us traipsing through Australia. It was probably a once-in-a-lifetime trip, at least with all of us together, so diving the Great Barrier Reef seemed to be one of those must-do, bucket-list experiences.

For this family trip to the Great Barrier Reef, we took a short flight from Sydney to Cairns to begin our adventure. Stepping off the plane in Cairns, we were quickly reminded what a sub-tropical climate is. The humid heat was almost suffocating. We headed to our hotel and decided to rest up for our big day which included an early morning wake-up call. I think I was the only one a bit nervous about diving as my last experience was, shall we say, terrifying, and involved a surprise face-to-face encounter with a 300-pound grouper in a cold, dark cave.

I had done pretty extensive research on the best locations of the reef to visit and the best dive groups to take you there. We arrived at the dock and boarded our luxury catamaran. I must say,   the precision with which the divemasters boarded and assembled everyone into groups according to skill level was pretty impressive. After watching a few “how to” videos, it was time to sign the waivers and medical forms. I let my college-age kids complete their own forms. My daughter, truthfully, checked the box that she had asthma. My gut told me this could be a red flag and just as I was about to tell her to scratch it out and check “no,” I looked up to see a video playing about the importance of being honest in completing the forms. I secretly crossed my fingers and handed the forms to the divemaster. He took one look at her form and uttered those three crushing words, “She can’t dive.” What? She had endured the 24+ hour plane trip just for this experience. She was devastated. I was devastated. Apparently, the rules prohibit her from diving without a doctor’s note (couldn’t they have told me this when I booked the trip weeks earlier)?

My daughter acquiesced and joined the snorkeling group. With butterflies already doing somersaults in my stomach over the thought of taking my claustrophobic body deep under water, I was tempted to trade in my regulator for a snorkel. But no! I had to overcome my fear of diving and prove to myself that I could do it.

We arrived at our first designated spot on the reef. I was surprised to find that there are many sections of the reef that are visible above water. Those areas are clearly dead but the section just inches below the water line is very much alive. Prior to our trip, I had read numerous articles about the current state of the reef. There’s much debate in the oceanographic and environmental communities about the slow death of the reef. I wasn’t sure what we’d find when we got there, but I’m here to tell you the reef is alive and well and amazing. The reef is after all, the largest living thing on Earth, and even visible from outer space.

After testing out some basic skills underwater, linked arm in arm with my son, we started the downward descent to the reef. I immediately remembered from my first experience diving, how the fear leaves you the minute you see the amazing underwater world. I knew it was going to be beautiful, but I can only describe it as magical. The abundance of bright, colorful underwater creatures was truly astounding. I felt like I was in a real life Pixar move.

We mugged for the underwater photographer and even took a few of our own selfies with our GoPro. Can I just stop and say that has to be the coolest job ever?  I want to be an underwater photographer when I grow up!

The divemaster signaled that we were changing locations in search of sea turtles. We lucked out and as soon as we reached the appropriate depth, an enormous sea turtle swam right under our bellies. They’re even larger than I had expected but the most graceful creatures, and he seemed unfazed by the dozen or so sets of legs dangling above him.

Before I knew it, our thirty minutes were up and I was slightly disappointed that it was time to ascend. We climbed back on board, shed what felt like 50 pounds of cold, salty gear, and with the adrenalin still pumping through my body, I thanked everyone on board for helping me not only get through, but love, the experience. I reunited with my daughter to find that she had actually enjoyed her snorkeling excursion. I decided to forgo my afternoon dive and snorkel with her. As the boat headed to a different section of the reef, one of the divemasters was giving a talk on the best areas for snorkeling and I’m so glad we attended it. While many others went off in organized groups, my daughter and I decided to venture off on our own with no agenda. This proved to be my best decision of the day.

We found a steep wall of the reef and since we separated from the group, we had the entire wall all to ourselves. The fish, coral and living organisms we saw along the wall were (dare I say) better than anything I saw when diving. And without being tied to a dive buddy and regulator, we could get much more up close and personal with the sea life. We spotted eels, angelfish, clown fish, sea turtles, grouper and innumerable types of soft coral.

As the day came to a close and we headed back towards shore, I treated myself to a tropical drink at the bar and sat on deck feeling the greatest sense of accomplishment. Not only because I had conquered my fear, but because I had exposed my kids to one of the world’s greatest wonders, and that we were all able to experience it together. If a family trip to the Great Barrier Reef is on your bucket list, do it!

If you go:

Cairns: http://www.cairnstoday.com.au/

Our dive company, Silverswift: http://www.silverseries.com.au/swift.htm

About the reef: http://www.greatbarrierreef.org/

Being an East Coast girl, I have spent my fair share of time in the resorts of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. There’s nothing quite like the crystal clear blue water of Cancun and Cozumel and the festive party lifestyle. But I was ready to explore a different part of Mexico, its western coastal area of Jalisco, namely a romantic resort in Puerto Vallarta. Here are some of my recommendations for the perfect Puerto Vallarta Mexico getaway!

We arrived to what might be the most welcoming experience ever as we were greeted with a glass of champagne, a pillow menu to select our choice of comfort, followed by a quick, but decadent 10-minute neck and shoulder massage. Read more about Puerto Vallarta’s Luxury All-Inclusive Resort: Villa Premiere Boutique Hotel & Romantic Getaway.

Western Mexico is a bit more authentic, and especially Puerto Vallarta as it was not built as a resort destination. The people, the food, the places. They’re all real world Mexico. Read Why Puerto Vallarta is Mexico’s Most Authentic Destination and what to do at the most romantic resort in Puerto Vallarta.

Puerto Vallarta certainly has a touch of romance, but balanced with plenty of adventure activities. Read about our Empty Nest Adventures: Puerto Vallarta.

How to choose from New Orleans hotels

New Orleans is one of those iconic U.S. cities that I forget to put on my to do list. I’ve only been a handful of times but there’s always something new to discover in this city of classic cocktails and cajun cuisine. On my last trip there, I discovered two incredibly fabulous historic New Orleans hotels that you really should check out. And if you’re looking for a diversion from traditional Orleans-style food, you’ll want to hear about three chefs and their restaurants who are really redefining the dining scene. I’ve never been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, but it’s certainly on my bucket list especially after I toured the Mardi Gras Museum and learned all about those magnificent floats. 

If you’re headed to New Orleans anytime soon, here are some of my recommended favorites, including two pretty awesome New Orleans hotels!

Check out the newly renovated Pontchartrain hotel, recently named to ’s list of the best hotels in their 30th annual Readers’ Choice Awards: NOLA’s Pontchartrain Hotel is a Perfect Spot to Stay During Mardis Gras

You’ll love the elegant furnishings and historic charm of the Henry Howard Hotel: Southern Hospitality Abound at NOLA’s Henry Howard Hotel

When it comes time for some unique cuisine, check out these Three Chefs Who are Disrupting New Orleans’ Food Scene.

One attraction that should not be missed is the Mardi Gras Museum where you can learn How Mardi Gras Floats Come to Life.

If you’d really like to experience a unique side of New Orleans, get in touch with Bespoke Experiences, a locally-based tour company that offers a more personal view of the city with unique and one-on-one experiences. 

weekend trip to Whidbey Island

Now that the kids are out of the house, my husband and I are always looking for easy weekend escapes and romantic getaways where we can totally unplug and relax. I haven’t spent much time in the Pacific Northwest, save for a quick trip to Seattle, so we decided to take a weekend trip to Whidbey Island in Puget Sound.

Getting there is a bit of an adventure unto itself, taking a shuttle from the Seattle airport to the ferry. But as soon as I stepped onto the ferry, I knew this place was going to be something special. It’s true what they say that it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey, especially given the views on the ferry to Whidbey Island. Having grown up on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, I had not seen such amazing water and island views in decades.

So here’s the perfect itinerary for a weekend trip to Whidbey Island.

Day 1:

If your weekend trip to Whidbey Island is a romantic getaway, stay at the Inn at Langley. From the moment you open the door to your room, the only way I can describe it is “breathtaking”. This quaint island inn offers rooms and suites with 180-degree views of the Saratoga Passage and the Cascade Mountains. Rooms are exceptionally spacious and all offer a large outdoor balcony, a jetted tub with a water view and a cozy wood-burning fireplace. Enjoy your jetted tub and wood-burning fireplace. For me, it’s often the little extra thought and extra perks that properties offer guests that win me over. The Inn at Langley certainly knows those perks from a bathscape that includes a candle (with matches) and bath salts to the large array of free snacks and drinks. 

Day 2:

Breakfast

Before you head out for the day of your romantic getaway, enjoy one of the best breakfasts that you’ll find quite memorable. An upscale buffet breakfast is served in the open kitchen and includes local delicacies like fruit tarts and veggie-filled quiches. Trust me, you don’t want to miss the breakfast. Chef Matt Costello has been at the Inn for 14 years and is now a business partner and owner. The terrace outside the restaurant is a beautiful English garden, with a plethora of fresh herbs, tended by his wife.

Chef Matt also serves dinner at the Inn three nights a week. The menu? Whatever was fresh in the garden that day. The restaurant seats just 24 people as Chef wants to create an intimate dinner party atmosphere, so you’ll want to make reservations for the three hour feast. The cost is $160 per person but well worth it.

Be sure to check out the Inn’s special packages for some great experiences and rates.

Spa

Treat yourself to a treatment at the Inn’s spa before you head off for a day of wine and spirits tastings. The spa (currently under renovation) hails itself as a “healing sanctuary where the forest meets the sea.” Many of the treatments are inspired by the water using ingredients like mud, seaweed, and Himalayan Salt Crystals. Two of the spa’s signature packages include:

  • The Saratoga Passage – Let us transport you away from the stress and cares of your day to the “healing waters” of our signature treatment. This ultimate Sea Flora experience launches from the shore with a Renewing Seaweed Body scrub (dry room only), continues to flow on with a 60-minute Relaxation massage with Sea Flora’s Sea Silk Body Massage Oil Blend, and brings you to your final destination cocooned and resting in a Nourishing Alaria wrap. Great for those with sensitive skin or who prefer aroma-free. You’ll be glad you made the journey! 150 minutes – $385
  • Ila Chakra Wellbeing – As exquisite as it is holistic, this bespoke treatment – tailored to the needs of each individual – works on the muscles, lymph and nervous system as a whole. Based around seven blends of chakra-balancing essential oils, each unique ritual involves deep relaxation of the nervous system, sensuous lymphatic drainage, subtle healing of the chakras and the pouring of warm oil over the third eye to restore and relax every sense. Ends with a scalp massage. 120 minutes – $325

Wine and Spirits Tastings

Spoiled Dog Winery is a small family-owned winery named for the owners’ Australian Shepherds, Sami and Brix (I’m guessing most winery dogs are spoiled). They make handcrafted wines using their estate grown Pinot Noir grapes and produce a number of award-winning wines using grapes sourced from around the state. Be sure to check the website for tasting times and special winemaker dinners.

Whidbey Island Winery is the oldest winery on the island. The owners have planted grape varietals from the cooler parts of Europe that mirror the climate of Whidbey Island. They also produce plenty of reds using grapes sourced from around the state.

You’ll want to visit Whidbey Island Distillery just so you can say you watched whiskey being made in a bunker. This is a true family-run business. Owner Steve Heising grew up in Saudi Arabia and watched his dad distill his own spirits. He wanted to run a business with his own two sons so he designed and built his own stills and today, runs the distillery with his wife and sons.  They produce rye whiskey and liqueurs using local berries – blackberry, boysenberry, loganberry and raspberry. Their blackberry liqueur is among the highest rated in the world and was awarded the prestigious Platinum Medal (98 points) by the Beverage Testing Institute.

Dinner

For an authentic rustic meal, plan an evening at Orchard Kitchen, where dinner is served by a husband and wife team, in a true family style manner. Arrive early so you can stroll through the onsite garden where virtually all of the restaurant’s meals originate. Dinner is only served on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and reservations are a must. 

Our menu included:

  • Salad of Ebb Tide beets with blue cheese, grilled sweet onion and baby arugula paired with 2016 Patsch Zweigelt Rose from Austria
  • Crispy skin Wild Columbia River King Salmon with Scarlet runner & sweet corn succotash paired with 2014 Domaine Dupeuble Beaujolais
  • Braised beef tortellini and roasted eggplant caviar with fresh pomodoro sauce and basil pesto paired with 2014 Le Sang des Cailloux “Doucinello” from France
  • Ebb Tide strawberries and crispy meringues with creme Fraiche ice cream and Florentine cookies paired with 2015 Santa Julia Late Harvest Torrentes from Argentina.

Orchard Kitchen also offers cooking classes.

Day 3:

Explore the farms

There are miles and miles of rich farmland perfect for exploring on a weekend trip to Whidbey Island.

Glendale Shepherd Farm is home to 60 milking sheep that are a mixture of European East Friesian and Lacaune dairy breeds, crossed with a variety of North American breeds. Glendale, under the helm of Stan and Lynn Swanson, uses only the finest quality non-GMO hays and natural grains to supplement the goats’ diets, resulting in a rich, sweet, Grade A milk free from antibiotics, additives and preservatives. The Island Brebis, Glendale’s flagship cheese and 2014 Good Food Award winner, is a whole sheep’s milk tomme that is aged from 6 months to 1 year.

Glendale also offers a farm stay camping site that is available to book through Hipcamp. There’s also a newly refurbished studio apartment that is available through Airbnb.

Eckholm Farm is a small, family-owned bee farm near Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. Bruce Eckholm was a software executive who gave it all up for a more relaxed lifestyle and embarked on a deep education in beekeeping. He has multiple hives spread throughout the Reserve giving the bees diverse nectar sources. Bruce takes samples from each of the hives and sends them off for pollen analysis which identifies the different floral composition of each honey. Each jar of honey lists the varietals of the nectars, much like a wine label.

3Sisters Farm is a fifth generation working beef farm, now run by the three great great granddaughters (sisters) of the original farmer in 1910. Jennifer, Jessica and Roshel (the 3 sisters) all graduated from college with differing degrees and came home to run, and expand, the farms. Today, 600-acre farm, produces grassfed beef, pork, lamb, chicken and eggs. They raise all of their own non-GMO feed. The 3Sisters Market, a short drive from the farm, is a great place to pick up local artisan goods.

Relax

After a busy day spent visiting the farms, enjoy a bottle of wine on your deck at the Inn at Langley. In the evening, be sure to enjoy the whirlpool tub in your room with a full view of the Puget Sound.

Getting there:

Fly into Sea-Tac and then take the Whidbey SeaTac Shuttle to the ferry. Visit this link for more details on getting there.

An Elkhart Lake vacation is so peaceful

Whether you’re empty nesters celebrating your newfound freedom or someone just looking for a great destination where you can plug and while away the afternoons together, I may have found the Holy Grail in an Elkhart Lake vacation. As we drove past vast, wide open spaces on the one hour drive from Milwaukee airport, I could literally feel my shoulders drop and my breaths lengthen. Within minutes of arriving on the lakefront, I knew this place was going to be special.

As I stood at the water’s edge taking in the scattered lakefront homes and stillness of the environment, I felt like I had just stepped onto the set of Dirty Dancing, the old school family summer vacation destination. I knew my Elkhart Lake vacation was going to be memorable. There was nothing but silence, save for the lone fisherman in his canoe and a paddleboarder exploring a nearby cove. I mean, where can you go these days where and find such solitude? The lake has only 970 full-time residents so it’s not unusual to find yourself alone on the waterfront, especially during off-peak seasons.

First, let me tell you a little bit about the history of Elkhart Lake. The Native Americans who first settled in the region, and named the lake for its shape resembling an elk, believed that the water had curative powers. German entrepreneur Otto Osthoff and his wife, Paulina, moved to the lake for its healing powers and in 1886, opened the Osthoff Resort where for decades, it survived as a gambling haven and a Prohibition-era hideaway for gangsters. Don’t you just love places that have such history?! In the 1950s, the resort changed hands and became a theatre arts camp for children of wealthy Midwest families, where its arts influence is still prevalent today. In fact, a few of the business owners I met along the way attended the theater arts camp as children and have such an affinity to Elkhart Lake, that they returned and built businesses. Many of the resort’s summer vacationers are also adults who spent time at the camp as children.

The Osthoff Resort, despite its luxury amenities and AAA Four Diamond status, really felt more like a cozy retreat and proved to be the perfect place to leave my cell phone behind as I headed out to explore the lake. It’s the best place to stay on your Elkhart Lake vacation.

Spa – The Aspira Spa at the Osthoff Resort offers treatments that are reflective of the history of the area, many incorporating Native American practices and ingredients. They’re all designed to encourage living in the present moment and heighten your spirituality. There’s a Yin Yang massage, chakra balancing massage, and the one I opted for, the “Mind, Body & Spirit Alignment”. It’s described as a “mix of intuitive massage, Reiki, reflexology and craniosacral techniques that balance the body’s energy centers.” It was simply amazing! And there’s a beautiful meditation space in the center of the spa where you and your spouse and contemplate your empty nest time together.

Golf – I started playing golf about 20 years before my husband took up the sport, but I quit playing when the bambinos came along because what Mom can take off five hours to play golf? So one of our goals as empty nesters is to start playing golf together, something we’ve only done a handful of times in our 28 years of marriage. Fortunately, Elkhart Lake has a great golf course for duffers and pros alike.  Quit Qui Oc is a 27 hole course run by Todd and Rachel Montaba. The course had been in Rachel’s family for decades and the couple has turned it into a beautiful place to spend the day. And they’re both golf pros who offer instruction for those of use feeling a bit rusty.

Wine tasting If you’ve been reading my blog for some time, you know that wine is a central part of my life and travels. And even this tiny hamlet in rural Wisconsin can not escape my need for a wine adventure. Vintage is owned and run by Jaclyn Stuart, a sommelier who caters to the locals and vacationers with a selection of 250+ handpicked wines from around the world. If you’re in need of a gourmet gift, this is the place with a selection of Wisconsin cheeses, gourmet chocolates, olive oils and vinegars bottled in-house, and other artisanal trinkets.

Cooking is such a great couple’s activity so spend a day at the Osthoff Resort culinary school L’ecole de la Maison Cooking School. Under the direction of the resort’s Chef Benjamin Sommerfeldt, you can prepare an elegant multi-course meal together and learn a few new culinary skills along the way. Many of the ingredients come straight from the resort’s garden so be sure to take a little side tour.

A special note: If you’re in Elkhart Lake during the holidays, there’s a European-style Christmas market at the Osthoff. When we lived in Milan, one of my favorite winter excursions was driving up to the Christkindlesmarkts in Germany. If you can’t get to Germany, this is as close as you’ll get!