Puerto Rico: A beautiful paradox

This whole Writing About Our Trip To Puerto Rico thing has me kind of stumped. On the one hand, I want to tell you about everything – all of it – in detail, both because it was wonderful enough to document it and also because maybe I’ll convince you to go – and oh, you should. It’s fabulous.

On the other hand, this isn’t really a travelogue kind of blog, and frankly, reading blow-by-blow accounts of peoples’ travels can get a bit tedious, even if you’re a read-about-travels kind of person.

I’ve been pondering this conundrum for the past few days, this contrast between two approaches – and, after going through my photos today, it finally struck me that it is precisely this contradiction that I want to write about. (Not my own personal narrative, but rather the island as a whole.)

The entire time we were in Puerto Rico, Nick and I marveled at how fascinating it was – the disparity between new and old, modern and antique, Puerto Rican and American, sleek and rundown.

We got off the plane and were immediately bowled over by the heat; I’ve been in some damn hot places, but Puerto Rico was a different kind of all-encompassing, steamy, can’t-escape-if-you-tried, walk-for-five-minutes-and-your-shirt’s-soaked-through hot. But it was also tropical and somehow fresh and reminded you that you weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto, but that you’d spun your house and landed in a (muggy) little slice of paradise.

As we exited the main terminal to pick up the rental car, we expected to see “traditional” Puerto Rican scenes and sights and buildings…
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I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m not sure what this is, but it’s in Old San Juan and it’s over 400 years old and it’s really, really cool.

… and were instead greeted by a Buffalo Wings restaurant.pr01
If we’d wanted wings, we could’ve traveled 60 miles to Buffalo instead of 1800 to Puerto Rico. IRONY, my friends.

Actually, that was a pretty good introduction to the juxtapositions we’d be seeing throughout the rest of our vacation. When we got to Old San Juan, we found ourselves driving down narrow, blue-bricked streets with rainbow buildings…
(Note: you can click on any of these to make them larger; the horizontal ones are especially small on the blog and are more interesting up-close)
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… but also past long-ago abandoned buildings…pr64

 

… often just steps away from one another.pr59
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That’s not a potted plant – it’s a tree that’s grown out of the building.

 

Never before have I been in a place in the Western Hemisphere where the past and present mingle so cohesively – where orange cars are parked outside of centuries-old forts.pr2

The Castillo de San Cristóbal was one of the most magnificent creations I’ve had the privilege to visit, perched high atop the hillside, nobly guarding Old San Juan…pr27

… and the cruise ships and hotels just beyond its imposing fortress walls.
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Looking back out at the fort from our balcony – when I wasn’t busy terrifying other hotel guests – was pretty freakin’ rad.

Out some of the castillo‘s windows, the view of the city was so warmly old-meets-new inviting, we might as well have been in Tuscany.
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(Or what I imagine Tuscany is like, having never been there. Work with me, y’all.)

Other vantages, at first glance, looked almost identically inviting…
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… but, upon closer inspection, showed how the city is courting growth and decay simultaneously.
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The fort itself, like so much of Old San Juan, was insanely windy, which provided its own interesting dichotomy: crazy hot meets constant breeze = hotter than hades but also sometimes not hot.

At times while walking around the property, I thought I might actually melt into a puddle, Wicked Witch of the West style – but inside this gun turret (last used in World War II, how awesome is that), it was so dark and breezy, I was positively refreshed. 

Old San Juan proved to be an absolutely delightful city; we could easily have stayed there for the duration of our visit and been perfectly content. It is entirely walkable (although the hills are no joke; San Francisco is mildly bumpy compared to OSJ), taking you along those aforementioned blue-brick-lined streets and past shops, restaurants, memorials, historic sites, crumbling city walls, gleaming new buildings, tourist traps, and residential apartments. The diversity was both startling and fascinating.

One street was lined with gorgeous, enormous, well-tended planters in which lovely tropical flowers and plants were flourishing…pr11

… while another was so poorly maintained, with peeling paint off the bars surrounding the doorways, that I didn’t even realize the building was occupied until I spied the soccer ball on the stairs inside…
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… while this one left no doubt that prosperity had long ago come and gone, despite the beautifully hopeful mural painted on the wall.
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Sometimes, we found ourselves so deeply within the confines of the city, winding down tiny side streets and in and out of shops, that we could only assume that the ocean was nearby. Others, we stood right alongside the shoreline, palm trees and tile-roofed buildings meeting with blue-green water.
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Similarly, these houses had completely unobstructed views of the ocean, a location that would make beach lovers green with envy…pr12

… until you noticed that they were falling apart, hole-y roofed, barely standing. It was sobering and curious and somehow lovely all at the same time.pr12a

 

This curious contrast was not only present economically in Old San Juan, but in virtually every other aspect of Puerto Rico (that we noticed, anyway. After 3.5 days there. We’re probably experts). Wide, inviting, breathtaking beaches were everywhere we turned, with water warm enough to fill a bathtub.pr41

Naturally, we stopped to enjoy the surf… but, paradoxically, also checked out the only skating rink in all of the Caribbean.
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Driving around Puerto Rico was an adventure in diversity in and of itself. The streets in Old San Juan are relatively clearly denoted, once you know where to look for the street names…
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… but all of the other roadways throughout the island were essentially unmarked, making for some rather difficult traversing (which might have tested our togetherness just a wee bit more than we’d intended, but whatever. We made it). We went ziplining in the rainforest at a place that was completely contemporary, safe, and wildly fun…pr36 DCIM100GOPRO

… but was accessible only by a potholed “road” that was technically two-lane but – like many Puerto Rican roads – was really barely wide enough for one car, ending at a collection of dilapidated, candy-colored buildings that apparently once belonged to the YMCA. It was otherworldly (and completely awesome).pr34
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One evening, we were fortunate enough to happen upon a performance by a local music/dance group that showcased some native Taino songs and dances. They whirled and sang songs that were hundreds of years old…pr50

… while wearing store-bought clothing and – if you were three years old – sparkle shoes.pr54

Throughout our trip, we saw animals everywhere, from dogs looking at us out second-story windows in updated, crisp-clean city apartments…
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… to wild chickens wandering aimlessly in and out of the driveways of barely-still-standing rural homes.
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We explored buildings that had been constructed (or whose construction had begun) before the oldest structures in the United States even existed…pr25

… but we also ate dinner at the most state-of-the art, ultra-modern (ABSURDLY DELICIOUS) restaurants imaginable.
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I’ve considered doing an entire entry just on this one meal, but I’ll never do it justice. Also, you’d be bored. And hungry. Suffice it to say it was magnificent.
This is dessert, which means espresso for us both, caramel corn creme brûlée with peanut brittle ice cream and Sparkling Frangelico for Nick and gluten-free organic carrot cake with some kind of ginger-flavored sorbet, plus a white wine from Hungary.
SOSOSOSOGOOD.

The juxtapositions weren’t unsettling, but they definitely made us realize we were in for more than just a simple vacation on a tropical island. There was a wonderful thread of cultural heritage that was woven into every city and location, but there was evidence of attempted growth all around us. Traditional Latin music blasted through car speakers as motorists navigated congested highways and itty bitty side streets with equal parts daring and insanity. English and Spanish were spoken almost interchangeably, a nod to their roots in Spain and their current status as a United States territory. Everyone we encountered was exceedingly friendly, but, strikingly, there were still bars on every window and door, from the cities to the suburbs.
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Note the dog peeking out from the second story of this home, too.

Even the weather was inconsistent – sunny one moment, downpours the next, and then instantly sunny again. As we stopped for lunch in a beachfront restaurant along the western coast, we happened to notice a storm rolling in from the north. It’s not every day that you get to see a storm glide in across the ocean and swallow you up.
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Our favorite, most incredible part of the visit – a kayak tour to a bioluminescent bay – couldn’t be documented, because it was pitch black and also glowing microorganisms don’t show up so well in iPhone videos (lame). It capped off a perfect day that we knew would be unbeatable; and indeed it was, with the following day being overwhelmingly disappointing as we got stuck in horrible, unpredictable traffic for seven hours (yes, really) and wound up missing out on the things we’d hoped to do and see. But that night, we ate the best meal of our lives (see above), and all was forgotten – contrasting experiences that bumped right into one another, ultimately creating something amazing.

And, in the end, that’s how we felt about Puerto Rico: that it was spectacular. Inconsistent, yes. Confusing, yes. Simultaneously beautiful and worn down, yes. Interesting, yes. Worth a return trip? Oh hell, yes.

Even before we’d left the island to make our way home, we were talking about going back and bringing the girls. It’s so accessible for us as Americans, both because it doesn’t require a passport and because the people and culture are so welcoming and affable. It felt familiar but foreign, expansive but contained, exciting but comfortable, relaxing but invigorating, crazy but chill. After 3.5 days, we felt like we’d really seen the island, but that there was still so much left to explore.

Which means that we’ll have to visit again.
Can’t wait!

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The island of enchantment… and laughter

A few days ago, Nick and I got back from a trip to Puerto Rico; it was amazing and fabulous and I would go there again in a heartbeat if only to eat at this one restaurant that served us a dinner I’m still salivating over.

There’s so much I could write about it, that I want to write about it, that it’s getting all squished together in my head (which doesn’t have much thinking space in it these days, anyway) and I can’t decide what should come next, so although I definitely plan to document it more in coming weeks, I will start with this one absurd story.

We stayed at this nice little Sheraton in Old San Juan right on the harbor in a lovely room with three itty bitty balconies – one of which, in the mornings and evenings, afforded us a rather industrial view…

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… and throughout the rest of the day overlooked the cruise ship docks.
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Although we did not spend a great deal of time in our room, on the last night of our vacation we found ourselves with a few minutes to spare before heading out to dinner. It had rained heavily, bringing in slightly cooler air (anything less than melt-your-face hot felt positively arctic), and so we opted to open up all three sets of French doors. I walked out onto the balcony overlooking the docks and took in the evening unfolding around me: the rainclouds rolling away, hints of sunlight dappling through and onto the buildings, the rolling hills in the distance, the tourists strolling the street below.

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This was taken minutes before I stepped out onto our balcony – from the floor above ours, but it’s essentially the same view. Minus the frog. More on him later.

While taking in the scene, I looked to the right and happened to notice that there were no balconies on the floor below us, but that all of the lower floors contained them. I also happened to notice that there was a gentleman standing on one of said balconies – one room to the right, two floors down – and that he was also looking to the right, which meant that I was standing behind him. To my knowledge, he didn’t even know I was there.

Without warning, a gust of wind blew through (then again, “without warning” is a bit inaccurate, because Old San Juan is ridiculously windy) and I heard a BANG!! behind me that startled me so much, I jumped violently, all but throwing out my back. I also screamed like nobody’s business – that brief burst of fear that escapes you when you have the absolute shit scared out of you.

See, the wind had sent a draft through the open doors of our hotel room, causing the ones behind me to slam shut, thus scaring the pants off me. In addition to being terrified by the BAM! from behind, I whirled around to face the now-closed doors and then became concerned that they had locked and I was stuck on this teeny strip of a balcony with only a railing stopping me from plunging to my imminent death below. Also I was hungry, so things were dire.

Meanwhile, Nick had been in the room getting ready for dinner when he, too, felt the gust of wind, and then – so says he – registered three sounds: a loud bang, me shrieking, and then an unidentifiable “HUH!” immediately thereafter. Bump! Aaaahhh! Whoa! Rather than ponder the third sound’s origin, he (wisely) chose to come to my aid and open the door to let me back in, thereby saving me from plunging to my death.

Just as I was wondering if perhaps this was some very twisted plot by my husband to strand me out on a balcony during our 20th anniversary getaway (a perfectly reasonable explanation, naturally), the doors opened and Nick gestured for me to come inside, which I did posthaste. I then recounted the story, explaining how the slam of the doors had scared me poop-less, and how glad I was that he wasn’t trying to play some weird trick on me and had come to rescue me instead.

After catching my breath and being reassured that everything was okay, I remembered the man who’d also been standing out on his balcony and realized my yelp and subsequent disappearance into our room might have been a bit disconcerting. Shaking my head, I lamented, “I bet I scared the heck out of that other man out there.”

And that’s when Nick put two and two together and realized that the third sound he’d heard – the “HOAH!” – came from the man on the balcony below, who had, indeed, been completely startled by my escapade. So startled, in fact, that he, too, had yelled out – so loudly, Nick had heard him from inside our room.

We then began to imagine this poor guy, stepping out onto his balcony… on vacation, likely, wanting to check out the view after the rain. He was there, relaxing – maybe for the first time all day, having traveled God knows how far to get to this little corner of paradise; maybe this was his first-ever vacation; maybe he’d always dreamed of spending the sunset on a balcony in Old San Juan – taking in the first hints of twilight, looking out over the utterly peaceful, calm scene unfolding before him…

… when CRACK!!! something slams to his left and “AAAAAHHHHHH!!” a woman screams, scaring the ever-loving crap out of him, which causes him to scream, too, like an unsuspecting guest being pranked on Ellen. He undoubtedly turned toward the source of the sound – to me whirling around in terror on my balcony, practically clawing at the doors to be let back inside – and then witnessed me magically being pulled through said doors (which were then shut behind me), never to be seen again.

Little ruins a tranquil twilight balcony moment like a fellow hotel guest shrieking and then being kidnaped. Worst. Vacation. Ever.

Bump! Aaaahhh! Whoa!

The more we pondered how my antics had obviously stunned the poor man, the more absolutely hilarious the entire farce became. We basically didn’t stop laughing for thirty minutes straight, until our sides hurt and we were gasping for air, and we essentially forbid one another from mentioning it again, lest we lose it during dinner.

That didn’t work, of course, because one of us would begin giggling – just the tiniest of bits – and then the other would see, and then it was all downhill from there. We laughed thinking about it the following morning .We laughed on the plane. We laughed during our layover. We laughed when we told the girls about it the day of our return. We’re still laughing about it now.

So, to the man I surprised and stunned on the balcony of the Sheraton Old San Juan: I apologize. Given the gale-force winds that whooshed along the streets all day and night, you’d think I might have anticipated the doors slamming, but I did not. I assure you that I was just fine – my husband was not up to anything nefarious, no matter how it seemed – and the rest of our night went on as scheduled. Except for the laughing fits. Those were not originally planned.

Puerto Rico: La isla de muchas risas.

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This photo has absolutely nothing to do with my story, but Old San Juan sure is perty.

 

 

 

 

Way down south in Dixie

We really did have a delightful time while we were away in Kiawah. Last year, our April break had been quite early, so the ocean wasn’t swimmable yet and, despite being rather far south, the coastal air was even a bit too chilly to do much pool swimming. Hence, high on the girls’ list this year was being able to get thoroughly wet.

Mission: accomplished.

Our first afternoon was gorgeous; not too hot, not a cloud in the sky, and an ocean at our fingertips. Er, toes.
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Thank you, iPhone panorama.

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Ahhhh, late-afternoon sun…

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This fellow was still alive. Nick returned him to his home, accordingly.
And Ella, with her video camera, taking it all in? Fantastic.

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I still can’t stop with the ocean-from-behind shots. They’re my kryptonite.

The following morning proved equally delicious. We spent pretty much the entire day at the beach and the pool.
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The tide was suuuuuuper far out, leaving us with an enormous stretch of beach upon which to play.

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If you click on the photos, you can see them bigger… That’s a bit more fun, just sayin’.

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My girl was so ready to take on that ocean.

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Yes, this means I waded out while still holding my good camera, just to catch her glee as she skipped over the incoming wave.

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It was worth it.

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Getting ready to bodysurf, something they learned how to do during this trip…

Not pictured: me, bodysurfing for the first time. To hear Annie tell it, “Mommy bodysurfed for the very first time ever – and she had the LONGEST RIDE OF THE DAY! It was a least FIFTY feet!!” I’m not one to brag, but I’m also not one to lie… It’s true. I rocked it.

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Jambi wasn’t so impressed with the Atlantic – she’s the weirdo Lab who doesn’t like water – but she gamely tagged along for the ride anyway. Not that she had a choice.

Alas, we couldn’t spend all of our time at the shore – partly because we needed to do things like eat, partly because there are other things we love to do when we’re in Kiawah, and partly because the weather took a turn for the cold. Still, we found plenty with which to occupy ourselves.

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Miss Annabelle awaits her entrée.
I love how her fork is turned the wrong way.

 If there’s a flat surface, we’ll bike on it.
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Go, Papa, go!
Because of the basket, I totally hear the Wicked Witch of the West music right now.

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Don’t worry – she wore a helmet. We just took a 20 foot spin because I asked Nick to take a pic of us on the tandem bike.
Check out her camera-ready grin.

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I was taking pictures of the rest of the family arriving on their bikes, so 
I told Jambi to sit.
She did.

We’ve been talking about visiting a local plantation for years, but wanted to wait until the girls were old enough to appreciate it at least a little. A couple of weeks prior to our trip, Ella serendipitously brought home a book titled Show Way, a marvelously-voiced story that segued nicely into talking about plantations (“The characters in the book are even from South Carolina, mom!”). Coincidentally, the cooler weather provided the perfect opportunity to make a day trip, and it was just as we’d hoped. To quote the girls, “Who knew a plantation could be so interesting?”

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I guess I really do have a thing about shots from behind…
Grand Meg and Nick did enjoy the gardens at Magnolia Plantation, though. We all did, actually.

Plantations aside, we also just hung out… a lot. It was good.

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Annie attempted to pass off Uncle Taylor’s hat as her own.

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He got it back before he left.
For what it’s worth, this is our first sibling shot in quite some time. Holla!

Sure, we go to Kiawah for the weather. And the beaches. And the pools. And the spanish moss-lined trees hovering, canopy-like, over the one-lane road out to the island, just waiting to grow stealthily and wrap us all up in Southern hospitality. We go for the humidity in the air, enveloping us in velvety warmth. And the fresh fish and sweet tea, brimming with enough sugar to make the tooth fairy weep. And the ever-present sound of the ocean, rushing in and filling the world with a pleasantly rumbling echo.

This was taken off of our balcony on the night of the blood moon.

So, this may seem like the world’s least-exciting video… but that’s kind of what I love about it. The white-noise-rumble of the ocean in the background, the wind through the trees. It’s unexciting, sure… but it’s also peaceful and calming and relaxing and basically heaven.

Yes, we go to Kiawah for all of those things. But most of all? We go to be with family. To be with my dad and stepmom. To spend time with my brother and his boyfriend, Gary. And, best of all, to give Ella and Annie the opportunity to enjoy their Papa and Grand Meg, their Uncle Taylor and Gary.

It’s one thing to think your own kids are awesome (when they’re not driving you to drink fuzzy navels while you prepare dinner. Not that I would know). It’s another to see your friends and relatives enjoy them. But it’s a special kind of deliciousness to behold your dad and stepmom and brother and his partner (and also my fantastic cousin, Laurie, and her husband, Keith – who live in Charleston – although I don’t have any pictures of them this time around) just absolutely adore not only spending time with your children, but genuinely liking them as human beings.

I know that they like hanging out with Nick and me (to a certain degree, anyway), sure. But they cannot wait to be with Annie and Ella, to play games with them, to be silly with them, to get down on the floor and pretend with them, to ride bikes with them, to feed them treats that would otherwise be forbidden, to joke with them, to read with them, to listen to them, to laugh with them. They allow the girls to crawl into bed with them at ungodly early hours in the morning, to steal their sunglasses and shoes and pose with them, to ruffle their hair and call them goofy names. They cheerfully tolerate them putting on countless dance shows and singing exhibitions, asking the same questions for the thousandth time, and never giving them a moment’s peace.

Watching my family love my children for exactly who they are is… well… incredible.
And that is why we come to Kiawah.

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Gary’s GoPro captured Ella with him underwater… along with Ella’s underwater camera, filming them both. A two-fer!

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I just love these two photos – one taken by me, poolside…
… and the other taken by Gary from within the pool.

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You totally know that I’ve asked for a GoPro for Mother’s Day.

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Okay, so – truth be told – the weather at the end of the trip made things a little tough. You hate to complain about the weather on your vacation (I mean, it’s a vacation, after all, and it’s damn lucky you’re even on one), but when you go someplace so that you can swim – or at least enjoy being warm – and it winds up being much too cold or rainy to be outside, it’s a wee bit crummy. Next year, our spring break is monstrously early again (thanks ever so much, Easter), and we may try to head a way down south in Dixie a little later in April (even if it means pulling the girls from school for a few days; shhhh…) so that we’re more likely to encounter warm weather.

No matter what, though, these folks’ll be there.
And that’s the bestest part of all.

Especially if we throw some in sweet tea, too.
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Breaking news

It really was a lovely trip to the Lowcountry – adventures and photos and stories that I want to share, memories I want to revel in.

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But right now, all I can manage is a teaser.

With just these few days left of break, I need – I want – to focus on other things. Bill-paying, yard-raking, grocery-getting, Easter shopping (kind of forgot that Sunday is Easter; oops), suitcase-unpacking, email-answering, house-cleaning, phone call-making… Okay, those are more needs than wants.

What I want to focus on is this:
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Not necessarily the swimming part (although it was remarkably refreshing), but the kid part. I’m already feeling the same stress start to creep in that was present before we left (which is particularly annoying, given that we just got back and you’d think my brain would suffer relaxation-lag, like jet-lag), that overwhelming sense of too-much-not-enough-time… but I am deliberately trying to ignore it, to push it away, because I want to spend the rest of this time enjoying my girls, really enjoying them.

The food will be purchased. The errands will be run. The yard will… well, I’m not sure there. Easter will happen. Everything will get done.

Or it won’t.

Either way, there are pancakes to be made and an all-girls grocery run to be had, and then I don’t know, but I am looking forward to it.
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It’s still spring break, and I want to enjoy every day of it.
I’ll be back next week…

Come On, Pretty Mama! (Aka: All Aboard!)

* This began as a much longer post (if you can believe it), but I realized it’s so damn long, it’s probably best to split it into two parts. I know. The suspense is killing you. Check back tomorrow for the rest.*

I’ve been wanting to write about the cruise portion of our trip since – well, basically since we first set foot on the ship – but I simply haven’t had the time. To be honest, I don’t really have time now, but I’m going to write about it anyway because a) I promised I would, and I do hate to break a promise, b) I don’t want to forget any of the details, and c) if I write about it, I can finally stop being annoyed with myself for not doing so.

In any case, without further ado, let me tell you about our cruise:
It was incredible!!

The end.

Okay, okay. I’ll say a bit more. Nick and I had been toying with the idea of a cruise – specifically, a Disney cruise – for a couple of years now. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go because I didn’t know if our time and money should be spent getting the “Disney experience” outside of Disney World; I adore the parks so much, I thought perhaps I’d regret not going there instead. Nick was worried that we, as a family, might not enjoy going on a cruise – that it would be too confining, that there wouldn’t be enough to do, that (despite everyone’s assurance to the contrary) our girls wouldn’t like the kids’ club. When we found a truly unbeatable deal on a three-day cruise that aligned with the girls’ break, we felt the time was right to bite the bullet and go for it. Turns out, it’s one of the best decisions we’ve ever made (vacation-wise, anyway. I mean, it’s not quite the same as choosing a college or giving french vanilla lattes a try, but still – a great decision).
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The Disney Magic, as seen from Castaway Cay.

When we arrived at the Port Canaveral docks, we were absolutely astonished – and wildly impressed – by how streamlined and simple Disney had made the boarding process. Within minutes, we’d dropped off our luggage (which would appear outside of our stateroom a couple of hours later), checked in, had our photo taken, received our keys, and signed the girls up for the kids club. Within another half hour (during which there were loads of things to keep our attention), we were strolling onto the ship.
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Just prior to boarding, I asked the girls if they were excited to get on. This is how they responded.

Our first stop was a buffet, which was piled high with goodies (and the chef even made me a side of veggies to ensure they were gluten-free; holla!). Next up was a trip to the pool deck, where the girls frolicked to their hearts’ content and Nick and I discovered the wonder of the daily drink specials.
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At times, this pool, especially, was so crowded, you couldn’t really call it “swimming,” but the water was clean and warm and fun and NOT WINTERY.

Before the required safety demonstration (which was a lot like the ones on airlines but much more silent, in part because we weren’t all desensitized to them yet, and also because we’ve all seen Titanic. If I have to cling to a piece of wood for survival, I will, but I’d much rather use the life vest provided, thanks), we checked out the fabled kids clubs – in our case, the Oceaneer’s Club and Oceaneer’s Lab, which were set up for 3-12 year-olds.

Friends who’d gone on Disney cruises waxed rhapsodic about these mystical places; about how incredible they were; about how much there was to do; about how their children never wanted to leave. It’s not that we wanted to pawn the girls off – I mean, we hadn’t come all this way to dump them, and we’d chosen the very family-friendly Disney experience because we wanted to do things together as a family – but if there was really an awesomely exciting, safe place where the girls wanted to be and Nick and I could have some kid-free time… um, yeah. I WILL HAVE TWO FILLINGS. The moment we entered, the girls were in heaven. Ella gravitated immediately to the computer kiosk area which was set up with several programs for typing, writing, and creating little scenes with character speech bubbles.

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No joke – she turned left and found these bays and was DONE.

I am not exaggerating when I say that she must have typed up – and printed off – at least a dozen of these over the course of our short trip. Sure, they wasted trees, but they gave her a creative outlet that she was very obviously craving (she doesn’t often type stories at home, but I’m thinking we’ll have to find a cool program that allows her to do so). Even more than that, though, they allowed us a fascinating peek inside her. It’s often like pulling teeth to garner a response that goes beyond “fine” or “good” or “not much” or (my favorite) “nothing” when asked how her day was or what she learned in school – so to be able to have this little window into her thoughts was a pretty fantastic thing.

Click larger to read her delightful verbal explosion.
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Think she was enjoying herself??

Annie, on the other hand, was interested in just about everything else that the clubs had to offer. Jumping from beanbag chair to beanbag chair? She’s on it. Joining in on a group game? Count her in. Participating in a dance-a-thon? She’s your girl. Watching old-school Disney movies and cartoons in front of the many ginormous screens? Absolutely.
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Hula-hooping while watching ‘The Princess and the Frog’.

Annie also – unsurprisingly – was captivated by the craft and drawing spaces. We came home with numerous pipe cleaner creations and more than one (read: enough to fill a coloring book) illustration that she absolutely couldn’t bear to leave behind.
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Is that… Elsa? From ‘Frozen’? Gee, such a shocker!

As predicted by our experienced friends (that sounds wrong, but I’m going with it), it was, indeed, hard to pull the girls away from the clubs. They certainly weren’t the only ones, either; on more than one occasion, I heard a parent explain to a child (who was being physically dragged away from the club entrance), “Because this is a big ship, and it’s silly to spend all of your time in one place!” And, really, who could blame them? Every single thing was geared toward their age group; it was brightly lit and colorful and engaging; there were loads of ever-changing activities, and the counselors were warm, charming, and seemed genuinely interested in being locked inside a small space in the middle of the Atlantic with dozens of overeager children.

Nick and I hadn’t given too much thought about what we’d do while the girls were in the club… But there was no shortage of options. Some times, we just lounged by the pool. Others, we participated in some of the ship’s many entertainment offerings (including attending a magic show that taught us how to do some magic tricks; we’re basically like Mrs. and Mrs. Copperfield now). The best part of the girls being in the kids club, though, was having the opportunity to just be together, the two of us. More to the point, we were together, the two of us, knowing that our children were not only safe and well-cared for but having a blast… while we got to imbibe the drinks of the day poolside or show-side (or, hell, in our stateroom) and have conversations about anything we wanted but nothing having to do with who fed the dogs or who was going to pick up someone from some class, or what was for dinner, or whether the repairs on the tiles in the shower really required a second opinion. See also: sunny and warm in the middle of the Atlantic.

In other words, it was the biggest win/win imaginable, and we were all having the time of our lives. DOESN’T GET MUCH BETTER THAN THAT, people.

* To be continued… soon… Which is good, because I haven’t even talked about the best part yet. No, really.

It’ll do magic, believe it or not

One week ago, we’d just attended the mandatory lifeboat information session and were watching Mickey and crew shimmy across the deck stage as we were about to depart Port Canaveral for the Bahamas.

Right now, we’ve just come from visiting Jambi at the vet (she’s in heat, and is required to be boarded so she doesn’t get knocked up; CCI frowns on that), it’s 16 degrees out, and we’re about to have sloppy joes for dinner.

Am I asking for sympathy? Oh, hell no. FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS, people.

Okay, so they’re not even problems. And saying that I miss being on vacation makes me sound like a special kind of asshole.

But I do. I miss being on vacation. (Special, that’s me.)
I miss the entire trip, which was just… absolute magic. (And, no, not just because that was the name of the ship.) For the first time in maybe ever, every single minute of our vacation was just as we’d hoped it would be. It took us away from the cold and the snow and the exhausting grind of daily life and into something otherworldly, where only joy and simple happiness existed.

Bibbidi Bobbidi BOOYAH.

Nick’s travel schedule can take its toll on everyone, but one of the bonuses is that he racks up crazy amounts of hotel points. To make the trip more affordable, we’d chosen to use some points to stay at a hotel in Orlando that was near both Downtown Disney and Universal. The hotel itself was great, with several fun pools and condo-style units that you could buy into as part of a timeshare (not for us, but thanks) that featured kitchenettes and washer/dryers that Ella found endlessly fascinating. “We could do our laundry if we wanted. We can even wash dishes. This is the best hotel room EVER.” (Which is really something, considering the palatial estate she and Nick stayed in last month…)

But even greater than the building was the sense of relaxation we all experienced the moment we got off the plane. Okay, that and the weather. We rolled down our windows just because we could (and, would you look at that, the windows didn’t freeze open!) and continually marveled at how fantastically warm we all were.

IMG_6268 Just 24 hours earlier, we’d been standing on water

Although we had reservations for dinner the following night, we’d decided to wing it that first night – assuming that, with the ridiculous plethora of restaurants at our fingertips, we would have no trouble finding a place to eat. And, in fact, that might have been true had I not blithely looked at the map on my cell phone and told Nick to take a left, thus bringing us to the front gate of SeaWorld at 6 p.m.

Y’all, Shamu himself couldn’t have found a table.

After passing a Red Lobster and several sushi joints (I wish I were kidding), we began to get hungry enough to consider consuming the seats of the rental car, and drove blindly into the only not-completely-packed strip mall we could find, swearing that we’d eat at the very first place that presented itself to us. Which was… Hooters.

And also some Margarita-ville-esque restaurant across the lot, where we managed to score ourselves a table before the onslaught of SeaWorld refugees arrived a few minutes later. The next morning (after drying our bathing suits in the dryer right in our hotel room, holla!), we were up bright and early to make it to Universal for the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

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The girls marveling at the (warm!) sunrise outside our balcony.

We’ve been fortunate enough to visit Orlando several times in the past few years, and each time we have ardently avoided Harry and the gang. In part this was because we’re so devoted to All Things Disney, we didn’t want to take time away from The Happiest Place on Earth – but it was also because we didn’t want to take the girls there before we thought they could really appreciate it. I mean, it’s an amusement park devoted to magical things, so we knew they’d enjoy it, but until they were really familiar with Harry and his world, we didn’t think they’d truly get the park.

Since Ella bleeds Gryffindor crimson, we knew that the time was right for her to visit. Having not yet read the books, Annie is unfamiliar with all things Harry – but given that we wanted to arrive a day ahead of our cruise’s departure anyway (to ensure we didn’t miss getting onboard, not that that ever happens *cough*), we thought we’d give it a go, anyway. And so this trip was for them – to show them Harry’s world, brought to life. To share in their enjoyment of the park. To witness their jaw-dropping amazement. I mean, yeah, I knew it would be cool, but I really felt that this was about the girls.

Until we walked through the gates of Hogsmeade and I began to cry.

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It was… incredible. Perfect. Just as I’d imagined it would be. You guys, we were STANDING IN THE MIDDLE OF HOGSMEADE. Muggles. IN HOGSMEADE!

And it only got better. We went inside Hogwarts – HOGWARTS!! – and flew around and watched a Quidditch match.

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We tried pumpkin juice and butter beer.

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A wee bit sweet for Nick’s and my liking, the Ella and Annie drank that shit up.

We saw Buckbeak and rode a silly roller coaster, followed by the best roller coaster I’ve ever been on in my life (except Nick and I had to ride it one at a time because the girls are not tall enough yet and it took me, like, two hours to be able to walk a straight line again after I got off). We browsed shops – quills! Potions! Exploding snaps! Cauldrons! Chocolate frogs!  – and gaped at the absolutely exquisite detail that was put into every aspect of the park.

universal6 There’s even bird poop in the owlery!

I think all of us could have spent the afternoon browsing the shops and pretending we had British accents, but by eleven o’clock the park was so crowded it was hard to move, and instead of feeling nostalgic and awe-struck, we became angry and who’s-touching-me?, so we decided to get some lunch and head back to the hotel for the afternoon.

Whenever we go to the Disney parks, we (very purposely) follow a fairly tight schedule. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but to be able to just relax and go with the flow was novel and pretty freakin’ fantastic. The girls spent hours in the pool while Nick – to his surprise and delight – discovered that the poolside bar was showing the Women’s USA/Canada gold medal game.

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Yes, of course he brought his jersey along. Duh.

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And yes, the final score was a major bummer (if you were rooting for the USA), but it was still pretty righteous to watch the game while the girls frolicked about in the pool and I drank a mai tai.

Our last hurrah before heading to Port Canaveral in the morning was a session for each of the girls at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in Downtown Disney. I’d wondered if Ella was a bit too old for such girly frivolity… But I shouldn’t have worried.

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She was so pleased with herself, I was willing to ignore the use of my arch nemesis, superfine glitter.

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So her hair is a little bit 80s diva meets Belle meets beauty pageant star meets trailer park. ‘What? I am happy for you, sweetie. Of course I love it! Why wouldn’t I love it?”

Annie was absolutely tickled.
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Put ’em together, and what have you got?
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Homecoming queens gone sparklingly awry…

They wore their ‘dos onto the cruise the next day, which meant that our official family photo was taken with them looking like this, which subsequently meant that every time we picked the girls up from the kids’ club, their pageant-greatness was flashed on the screen for all to see. Awesome.

For dinner, we ate at a Downtown Disney spot (sorry, Hooters) that had paper tablecloths, and Annie promptly took to filling up her entire space. She drew coasters for her glasses, napkins for her silverware, and a little bit of everything in between.

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If you click on the drawing to make it larger, you can see also: “home” (with the person dressed in winter gear amongst fields of snow) and “here” (with the person dressed in short sleeves under a bright sun). Have I mentioned that it was warm??

I like all of the crazy things she drew, but my favorite part is the “I love my family” that she added, not because she was coerced or writing an assignment for school or asking for a pony, but because we were all having such a genuinely rockin’, kickass, wonderful time, she kinda couldn’t keep it to herself anymore.

I get it, kid. I really do.

Re-entry has been hard (see: it’s cold here), but just looking back on these pictures makes me smile. Do I realize how damn lucky we were to have gone, period, much less to have had such a magnificent trip? You bet I do, and I am ridiculously grateful that we could make it happen.

And to think… I haven’t even gotten to the cruise yet.
But that’s another story.

Let’s get away from it all

If we took a holiday…
Took some time to celebrate…
Just one day out of life
It would be (it would be), it would be so nice.
– “Holiday”

Thanks, Madonna, for so eloquently summing up our recent vacation experience.

In my last post, I’d told you that we were heading out of town and I’d fill you in soon – today seems to be a good place to start.

We needed this holiday. No; I mean, we neeeeeeded this holiday. The months (years?) leading up to Bill’s death were not exactly easy. As anyone who’s lost someone important to them – especially to a disease like cancer – knows, it’s emotional whiplash. You can’t figure out which end is up, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, you’re constantly on edge, every phone call is tinged with anticipation, you literally make yourself sick with worry, and then there’s the damn sadness that’s hovering around. It. Is. Exhausting.

Couple that with our completely insane autumn and winter, with work changes and school changes and after-school activities and work travel and birthdays and holidays and and and OMG MOST OF THIS IS GOOD STUFF BUT IT DOESN’T MAKE IT LESS TIRING. We needed a break. We needed to well and truly get away, just the four of us, to do something fantastical and new and inspiring and really freakin’ fun.

Nick and I had been toying with the idea of a Disney cruise for a couple of years. When we found an unbeatable deal on a three-day cruise to the Bahamas that perfectly aligned with the girls’ February break, we jumped on it – and then added a day at Universal to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, plus a trip to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in Downtown Disney just to really gild the lily.

We don’t take family vacations very often – we travel a helluva lot, but the vast majority of that is to visit family (which, while great, isn’t always a “vacation” in the truest sense of the word) – and on the rare occasions when we’ve done so, “escaping the cold” hasn’t really been among our priorities. As a foursome, we live for winter, and the snow in Rochester is right up our alley, so I’ve never had a longing to go somewhere warm before spring finally blooms. Even this year with our endlessly, unusually cold days, I was excited to get away, but I didn’t think I was excited to be someplace warm… until we were surrounded by the Orlando heat and humidity, deliciously blanketing us with tropical bliss, and suddenly there was nowhere else I wanted to be. WARM WARM WARM. Amen.

Our trip is now complete, and… well… I can’t quite find the words (nor the time) to adequately describe how utterly incredible it was, nor how much it meant to all of us, at least not today. And so I’ll show you a few photos instead, to give you a glimpse into pure, unadulterated joy.

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There’s lots more to say – and I will, in the coming days – but for now, these will suffice.

While we were on the trip, it was as though time stood still; every minute was both magically extended and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quick, as though we’d been transported to another dimension. We are now firmly back to reality. When we landed last night, it was 18 degrees, and we had to shovel fresh snow off the driveway this morning. Today, it feels almost as though our six-day sojourn never happened, a very bizarre space/time continuum.

But it did happen. And it was so totes amazeballs.

Just six days out of life… and they were so so SO SO SO SO ridiculously nice.