Tuesday, May 29, 2012

camping tradition

Oh Gualala. My friend summed it up well when she said, "You come once, and you can't stop." It's true. We went for the first time 5 years ago, and it was rainy and cold and I was pregnant...but my kids still made those phenomenal memories and we returned again. And again. Last year it rained most of the time, and I whined and complained but we still went back. It's unavoidable. Emma even sobbed huge tears this year as we pulled out. It is SO MUCH WORK on the front end and on the back end, and some other unforeseen events beforehand made it even more chaotic to get out of here. I do loads and loads of campfire-smelling laundry when we get home, and it takes days to get the house back together. But...

This year was arguably the best because we had the motorhome. For me that made SUCH a difference, but not so much for my kids. We were only in it to sleep. The kids (minus Tanner) disappear all day long, into the giant trees and off on their bikes, and into their pretend, make-believe worlds where everything is pure happiness. They return when they're hungry (or Tyler returns when he's tired...often)

and we feed them and they are off once again. The scenery simply can't be beat. We have been to lots of campgrounds, especially in the last year, and none can even come close to the splendor of the thick, lush redwoods, ripe with mosquitoes, raccoons, squirrels, and bluejays.

This year Emma surprised us all. Friends, please remind me someday that I should pay for Emma to go to business school. She is a wheeler-dealer entrepreneur, and with her friends set up a "shop" near the campground playground. Now, some people (including me) might argue that she was selling junk, but she sure found a way to market it right. I mean, who doesn't need an extra Barbie head? Really, it makes sense. Nails and coins found on the train tracks? Sure! Food erasers? Sold. They raked in the money and then she relished in her rewards, from the camp store of course. She even shared with Tanner.

We ate it all up (literally) for those three days, with Spencer mastering his dutch oven peach cobbler, and returned to piles of laundry, lots of cleaning, and hair that still smells like campfire. I guess that's part of the experience. We managed to leave all the rocks by the river at the river this year, and none ended up in my dryer. Next year I can see Tanner starting to stockpile them in his pockets.

And... can we stand waiting 2 more weeks for school to be out???

Sunday, May 20, 2012

cruise, part 3 - the end

First of all, if you think cruising is for the rich, think again. In fact, it's quite the opposite, especially if you are deal-saavy. I couldn't believe what a great deal we got. Couple that with our free flights (sky miles), and it really wasn't expensive at all. But I'm now certain it is the way to travel. The food wasn't my favorite, but it was still way better than me having to cook! So I'll take it.

Friday was our last full day, and it was a day at sea. We carefully chose our itinerary, and chose the 7 night cruise with only 2 days at sea - Monday and Friday. Spencer and Brian got more and more curious about the boat itself during the week, so they signed up for an on-board excursion. It was 4 hours and took them through all the parts of the boat no one else had access to. It was limited to 16 people.

Apparently it was a really neat tour. They got to go on the bridge (watched every second by a security guard), into the "servant's quarters," into the engine room, etc. It was probably like Christmas morning for engineer Brian. They found out all kinds of details; perhaps most interesting to me was how much their lowest-paid kitchen/laundry workers make. $700 a month, for 70 hours a week. It made me a little bit sick at first but I was reminded that all of these people are foreigners and in their countries that is a LOT of money. They can never get off the boat in port, though, and work straight through with no time off for months (4 months on, 2 months off). I guess labor laws don't apply in "international waters." However, they seem so happy! They sing and dance every night at dinner and are happy to have a job. So that's that.

Camille and I were just fine up on the deck, reading our books, while the guys were learning everything they wanted to know about ships. It was HOT this day, so we had to take lots of pool breaks. But I had finished my first book and was starting my second and I loved every second of it. I just can't find the time to read when I'm at home - there are always too many other things to be doing. On the cruise, it WAS my priority.

That afternoon there were games on the sport court. On Monday the boys had gone up to play and Spencer had won two medals in basketball games. This day it was dodge ball...and perhaps we should have stayed away. But we needed one more medal.

There was one other LDS group there (10 people, from UT) and of course they knew how to play dodge ball. It was an elimination-type game with all the teams that were there. Spencer and Brian's team knocked several teams out quickly and this other Utah team was very good as well. Needless to say, it came down to these 2 teams for the championship. Camille and I kept joking that obviously the men had had lots of YM callings in their time, in order to be so good at dodge ball. As soon as the game started the accusations of cheating started flying (by the other team). It got heated and at the end Spencer and Brian came out the victors. But one little dude with a "U" on his hat wouldn't let it go and chose to get in Spencer's face (he must have forgotten for a small second that he was tiny compared to Spencer). I missed a lot of the confrontation but could see the blood boiling inside of Spencer. I think that ruined the rest of his day. Oh man, so competitive... But they won fair and square, and each of our kids got a stupid ship medal. :)

On Saturday our flights didn't leave until 3:00; Brian and Camille's didn't leave until 6:00. Our goal was to get off the ship FIRST, get to the airport, rent a car, and drive to the Keys. We realized that it would be tight for us, so we rented separate cars. Thankfully, we timed it perfectly and were off the boat by 8:00, with cars rented by 8:30. We drove down to the Keys (even though I was SO done, and ready to be home), partly through the Everglades, and it was really interesting and quite fun.

We first went to this place where we could feed the tarpon fish - these huge, ugly beast-like fish. It was sorta cool. We then wanted to see a beach, but there really aren't beaches along the Keys. We stopped at a "beach" anyway but the tide was too high. Spencer and I then had to turn back but Brian and Camille kept going, past 7-mile bridge (think "True Lies"). It was weird to be separated from our week-long travel buddies. But I am glad we can say we've been to the Florida keys.

We did a little souvenir shopping and got back to the airport with almost 90 minutes to spare, where we waited to go home. We even got to Skype with the kids.

I am so grateful for everyone who made this trip happen...it's amazing to me how much busier life gets as the kids get older, and it wasn't easy to organize everything.

One last shout out to all our towel animals...

Sunday, May 13, 2012

cruise, part 2

On Wednesday we were in port, this time in Puerto Rico. I again woke up early, went out to the balcony (ask Spencer how happy he was with how "loud" I was every morning as I waited for him to wake up) and watched us pull in. It was big-city looking. We had chosen to go to the rainforest on a tour that morning, and Brian and Camille were going to go zip-lining but changed to our excursion after rain was in the forecast.

It DID rain in the rainforest, but it was pretty and my smart husband had packed an umbrella. We could see so far from the top of the mountain, and it was nice to have a break from swimsuits and sunburns for the day.

Spencer started doing this every single time we took a picture...

We also visited the fort in San Juan, and old San Juan. I was really excited about old San Juan, but it was SO HOT and after we got our souvenirs I was pretty much done.

It was also waaay past lunchtime. We took a few pictures, ate at authentic American chains (Subway and Wendy's) and then it started POURING. We headed back to the boat and I got excited for our next destination...this destination was the entire reason I chose this specific cruise.

But back to our Wednesday... we had made reservations to eat in the steakhouse that night. None of us was super impressed with the dining room. It was fine, but nothing spectacular. I'm glad we went to the steakhouse, because the food was MUCH better than the dining room. Except for my meal. I chose lobster ravioli and it was super gross. But the cheesecake was amazing, the caesar salad was fantastic, and the service was perfect, which totally made up for the gross ravioli. Everyone else was very happy with what they got.
This is what 14 oz of cheesecake looks like, in case you were wondering.

On to our next stop...Turks and Caicos (Grand Turk)!

I have heard such phenomenal things about this place, but it is SO expensive to get there/stay there, so when I saw that the cruise went for a day I realized this might be the only way we could set foot there. Our port stay was only 6 hours (11 am-5pm) so we knew we had to make the most of it.

We pretty much ran off the cruise boat and headed outside the gates of the property where we knew we could rent vehicles. We had thought of renting mopeds, realizing the island was pretty small (about 6 miles total) but there were only 3 and they looked more like real motorcycles. So, we rented a Jeep instead, which was really fun. Brian drove, since he has more recently driven on the wrong side of the road.

The guys we rented it from pointed us to a beach where we could rent Hobie Cats, which was Brian's only real desire the entire week. We headed a few miles away to Pillory Point Beach, which turned out to be a great choice. On our drive you could not help but notice the poverty all over the island. I realize this is common on Caribbean islands, but it just seemed like the biggest dichotomy ever...on one side of the car were THE most beautiful beaches I had ever seen, and on the other were the most awful-looking shack homes ever. There were donkeys and wild animals everywhere, the roads were awful (thank goodness we didn't do the motorcycles), and it was just so dirty.

We got to the beach and I was greeted with this. Oh man! It really was this gorgeous, if not more. Definitely the most beautiful beach/water I had ever been to.

It was a resort, but it was a small one, so the crowds were minimal. Right as we got here they announced a snorkeling excursion and we decided to go for it. They would take us out to "the shelf," a section where the ocean floor dropped from 20 feet to 7000, just like that. It supposedly had amazing snorkeling. Before I realized what we were doing we were dropping anchor (Spencer was) and I was in the water. I got panicky for a minute because the fish were literally bumping into me and touching me, thanks to my husband, and to Brian...who were feeding them right next to me. My mask and snorkel were both leaky so once Spencer traded with me (love him!) it became so much better. We wanted to see more cool stuff so we swam a bit away from the boat and the masses of people that had come from the cruise boat on catamarans.

Once we got away a little bit I really enjoyed it. We saw huge schools of fish, made up of over 200 fish, swimming perfectly together. We also saw a sting ray! Beautiful. I know the lady in St. John told us Leinster Bay was the best snorkeling ever, but here in Grand Turk it was pretty darn amazing. We never did see a sea turtle because I think there were too many people. We were glad we didn't come with the cruise excursion...because they ALL had to wear life vests the whole time. :) (Brian and Camille used their new underwater camera and told us they would email us a few good ones they got of us here, so I'll put those up when I get them.)

After snorkeling was done we went back to the beach to hang out. It was just so pretty, and while we had intentions of beach-hopping in our Jeep, we couldn't yet peel ourselves away. Brian got to rent his Hobie Cat. We were all apprehensive to sail with him because he said he thought he knew what he was doing and it had only been 10 years since he took sailing lessons... Camille, being the supportive wife she is, went out with him and once I saw him zipping that boat all over I realized he had had us fooled. We all got a turn, and it was a lot of fun.

Camille and I got pina coladas - the best one I have EVER had, and just relaxed for a while.

We gathered some coral and shells that had washed up in abundance, and decided to head off.

We drove to the lighthouse on the other side of the island, where the water is even more gorgeous (too rocky though), and read about how it is in debate if Christopher Columbus actually landed here instead of Hispaniola. We rushed back to the port with about 20 minutes to spare, in order to shop a bit. We met some people from Utah while getting back on the ship, who we (meaning Spencer) had a run-in with the next day...

We definitely had a hard time leaving Grand Turk. It ended up being the most perfect day. I was so tired that night I barely made it to dinner, but we were just so happy with how it had gone. What a beautiful place.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

cruise, part 1

Several months ago Spencer and I were talking about going on a vacation. A real vacation (NOT a trip). We figured now was probably a good time because it's just getting harder and harder to leave, and more busy with callings and the kids, etc. I looked into going to Mexico or Puerto Rico but Spencer reminded me that his idea of a vacation is definitely not sitting on a beach or by a pool for a week. Oh yeah. Of course! So I started looking into cruises. And I'm glad I did. You stay in the same place every night, food is taken care of for you, with your only decision being what to eat, and you see lots of destinations. With our only problems being slight seasickness, missing the kids so bad, and Spencer almost getting into a fight with a Ute...it went off without a hitch!

We convinced our really good friends to come with us and that perhaps was the best part of the whole trip. Having a group of 4 was perfect for shows, dinner, as well as the excursions. Brian and Camille had to cancel their trip to Cancun in January at the last minute, so this was their replacement trip. And they were the perfect travel buddies. If Camille didn't have Brian and 4 boys at home, she would make the perfect cruise director!

We flew my sister and her baby out for 6 days to watch the kids, and flew her husband out for the weekend with the hopes that it would be more of a fun vacation instead of a working trip. (I reminded her a few times that kids come one at a time for a reason, and going from 1 to 4 wouldn't be that easy.) We were off early in the morning for a full day of flying to Miami.

We got in that night and went to our hotel, which had pretty good ratings online. It was almost midnight when we pulled up, and the place was such a dive. But it was too late to do anything, and we weren't subjecting our kids to the nastiness, so we endured. The next morning we went down for breakfast, which was in the adjoining night club. We got the giggles a few times as we enjoyed looking at the velvet staircases, the dancing poles, and everything else that made it out of our comfort zone.  Fun times in Miami. Spencer wanted to get up and dance but I made him hold back. (I took a picture but it was too dark and didn't turn out. Use your imagination.)

We met up with our friends at the port and hung out, waiting for embarkation. Getting on the ship was quite an ordeal, but we were lucky and were on the Panorama Deck - deck 10. We had a balcony, which turned out to be totally worth the extra $200. We webcammed with the kids one last time for a week, and as we pulled out of Miami we explored "Serenity" - a child-free zone at the front of the boat. We just relaxed on the huge hammock. It was nice at first to go be in a quiet place, but by the end of the trip all I wanted was to be around kids.

Do you like my toes? I got so many compliments on them! Someone even told me she recognized me by my toes. :) My friend sells these (tons of different styles) and they are awesome.

Our first stop was Half Moon Cay, Bahamas. It's an island owned by Carnival, and I imagine it is just gorgeous. At least it seemed that way from all the postcards we saw. To us, it was a rainy and stormy mess! We had to be tendered from the ship to the small port, and got off because we had planned a snorkeling excursion. Luckily we went in the water briefly when we got there because the rain just got harder and harder and we finally dragged our soaked bodies back to the tender boat. That was pretty depressing, and Camille and I worried so much that the rest of our trip would be equally as disappointing. Oh, and the excursions were all cancelled.

Oh the irony of this picture...because we couldn't wait to leave.

Monday was our first of two days at sea. I was so nervous when I woke up (at 6:30, every single day) and nervously peeked outside. I was so thrilled to see sunlight! I ran out to reserve deck chairs (which turned out to be a smart move) and we spent almost the whole day outside. There was a big screen, and music playing all day. Camille and I even went down the waterslide. The boys just watched us - can you believe that? I read almost the entire book of The Hunger Games while I soaked up the sun and occasionally hopped in the pool. We also played mini golf and the boys played dodge ball and knock out. Spencer won two medals and I gave him the task of getting one more before the cruise was over...since we have 3 kids and 2 medals just wouldn't cut it.
(the waterslide was salt water so i really wanted to avoid my hair getting wet and sticky)

Tuesday was our 2nd port day, but really our first since the Bahamas was such a disaster. Again I woke up to sunshine (hooray). We had a great plan to catch the ferry from St. Thomas to St. John and spend the day there.

On the ferry we ran into some ladies who gave us the name of a bay on St. John I had never heard of, but they swore it had the best snorkeling in the world. Leinster Bay. First we headed to Trunk Bay, and snorkeled there.

The beach was gorgeous and the water was beautiful but the snorkeling was just ok. We grabbed lunch, convinced a taxi driver to take us to Leinster Bay (hard to get to) and worked it out with him that he would wait for us exactly 1 hour so he could get us back to the ferry to St. Thomas in time.

We had to walk a mile in to where we could get in the water. In fact, my shins hurt the next day from speed-walking in flip flops. We saw deer and goats. We got as close as we could to the little island (Watermelon Cay), dropped our stuff, and took off for the snorkeling. It was gorgeous. We saw way more fish than we had in Trunk Bay, but we had no fins and we were tired from all the swimming, especially in the strong current. Camille ran into another snorkeler who told us the time and we had to book it back to shore and get back to the taxi in about 10 minutes. It was crazy, but oh so worth it. I even got to (had to?) see a jellyfish. When I was in St. John 16 years ago I saw lots and lots of jellyfish so that will always be what I remember about that island...

Our taxi driver was there when we needed him to be, and didn't charge us extra for waiting. He got a nice tip.

We hopped on to the ferry to St. Thomas, did a little shopping there, and ran back onto the ship. I remember being exhausted that night, and that's about it...

One thing about our ship was that the entertainment was phenomenal. Not only was our 26 year old cruise director so much fun, and so great at her job, but the singers and dancers were really great. We loved the shows almost every single night. The comedians weren't as good but that wasn't a huge deal as we didn't feel comfortable going to most of their shows anyway. Camille brought some card games so we would do that at night when the entertainment wasn't ideal (rare; only 2 of the 7 nights).