Friday, September 4, 2015

The Children's Museum of Atlanta is downtown, across from Olympic Park and World of Coke. If you're visiting Atlanta with kids, it is a must visit!

Our first stop needed to be this Quiet Space. Walking into the museum was a little bit overwhelming for Bria, so we had to find a quiet corner to acclimate in. We were thankful for this great space to do that!

Once she was settled in, we went to check out the sand box - always a favorite. She played with some other children, and built some fun creations.

Dress-up is fun, but it's even more fun when you get to dress up as a tap dancer and dance away on a wooden floor!

There was plenty of hands-on fun to be had. The museum does a great job of integrating a variety of activities to help children look at a topic from multiple angles. Many of the exhibits when we visited revolved around food, so she shopped in a store, planted a garden, and made her own burger with paper, scissors, and glue.

There are also live shows! While we were there, we saw a fun show where they did science experiments, and another one that got kids dancing the wiggles out.

We would normally share ticket pricing and similar information, but the Atlanta Children's Museum is currently closed for renovations, and will be opening again in late 2015. This is a very exciting time! We can't wait to see what new exhibits will come out of the renovation.

Check out their website or visit them on Instagram to find out what they are up to, purchase a membership, and get the details of their grand reopening!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Traveling is filled with wonder and beauty, new amazing experiences and so much variety. Unfortunately, things don't always go exactly as planned. This week, we thought we'd share one of those stories, the times where things didn't go quite the way we hoped.

You know the feeling - it's been a long trip, and you're on the very last leg. At this point, you can practically see your destination. I don't know about you, but for me, this is the time when I'm most likely to be, shall we say, not quite on my game.

Bria (my five-year-old daughter) and I had been on the road for a couple of weeks, and we stopped at our last hotel before spending a month on the beach with our friends in sunny Melbourne, Florida. Florida was a much-needed break we had been looking forward to for some time, and we had already been delayed more than once. We were in Valdosta, Georgia, when we hit up Priceline for a place to lay our heads for the night.

From the beginning, the hotel experience was a little strange - I've never seen so many dogs in one place outside of a shelter or a dog park, and the front desk staff didn't seem to speak as much English as I would have expected in Georgia - but we were able to rinse off the stress of the day in a pretty outdoor pool, we got some rest, and in the morning we got a decent early start.

That last day of our trip was a bit hectic. Even though Bria loves to get in the car and head out to see the world, at this point she was definitely not in the mood to be in a car, especially since we had originally planned to be done days earlier. We had to stop several es for recharge breaks, stretching the four hour drive into six or seven. By the time we arrived, relief didn't cover my feelings.

Smiling and talking with our friends in the driveway of their beautiful Melbourne home, I opened the back of the van to grab our suitcase - and it wasn't there.

My heart sank.

My mind raced.

And the picture that formed in my head was crystal clear. I knew exactly where I had left it.

As we left the hotel in Valdosta, Bria and I held hands and talked about our big plans when we arrived in Florida. With my spare hand, I wheeled the purple suitcase containing my laptop, the work I had brought inside the night before, our toiletries, and a week of clothes. Hanging from the handle was a plastic bag containing two new outfits and a swim suit I had bought for Bria the day before.

We maneuvered that way down the stairs and across the parking lot to the van, I "parked" the suitcase and crawled into the backseat to help Bria into her car seat. Then I got into the driver's seat and set my GPS for Melbourne, leaving the suitcase right where I had set it, in the hotel parking lot.


Just as I was beating myself up over my terrible bout of forgetfulness, my phone rang. My hubby has a knack for being the calm in a rough situation, and he had me send him the name and number for the hotel so he could call and see if they would overnight the case to us. There's nothing quite like having a good support system in place when you are traveling, no matter what may come up!

The details are uninteresting, but delivery didn't seem to be an option, and four phone calls later, I finally got someone who spoke enough English that I confirmed my bag was indeed still there. I asked them to please hang onto it, letting them know I would drive up to get it.

What followed should probably be its own travel oopsy, or maybe an episode of a goofy sitcom!

My friend and I decided the four of us (her and her six-year-old, Bria and me) would head out on an adventure and get the bag together. After getting a really late start, we thought we would drive through the night to Valdosta and then do some exploring the next day, but some serious meltdowns in the backseat led us to get a hotel room in Jacksonville.

In the morning, we set out on what should have been about a 90 minute drive to Valdosta.

About an hour later, the blood rushed from my face as I realized something I could only laugh at - we had left Jacksonville on the wrong highway, and were now moving at 65 miles per hour in the complete wrong direction.

Seriously, at this point I was wondering if I had some bad karma coming or something!

I pulled over to get my head straight and study the map, and my friend played with the girls in a roadside park while I came up with a new plan. There - between us and Valdosta - was Okefenokee Swamp. Wasn't that a made up place in episodes of Scooby Doo? Whatever it was, it was huge, and I hoped it would be 

A couple of Google searches later, we were on our way for an adventure of crocodile-ic proportions. And we had such a blast! Check out our post on the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge to see some of the cool animals and birds we were able to spy on this (completely intentional) detour.

With Okefenokee in our rearview, soon we were at the hotel. I took a deep breath, not sure what I was about to find, and went in. 

"Haha, you decided to pick it up, huh?" the tall, thin 20-something behind the hotel's front desk (who spoke perfect English, by the way) laughed, and disappeared into the office.

I held my breath, and he reappeared with my suitcase, shopping bag still around the handle, exactly the way I had left it. I resisted the urge to break into a happy dance there in middle of the lobby.

The trip back was a lot more straight-forward, and included an amazing impromptu visit to the oldest city in Florida, Saint Augustine. Here are our posts about that stop, and a great time dancing in the sand (and some rain) as we ate yummy seafood by the ocean at the Golden Lion.

By way of disclaimer - I swear, I am not nearly as ditzy as this post makes me sound! This is probably the only time I've ever gone on a three day road trip to retrieve something I left at a hotel, but there was the time I screwed up the departure date at the beach house we rented (the cleaning crew showed up, and we thought we had another day), the time our hotel reservations at the all-inclusive hotel somehow didn't show that we had four children with us and not only had they "upgraded" us from a family suite to an adults-only building, they wanted more additional cash than we had even paid for the reservation in the first place, the time I had to call AAA two days in a row while in the middle of Wyoming...

But those are stories for another day.

My Travel Monkey

Monday, August 24, 2015

Bellingham is a beautiful coastal city on Washington state's I-5 corridor, 90 miles from Seattle and 25 miles from the Canadian border.

With this amazing location, it is no surprise they are best known for the Ski to Sea race, an event held each May. Teams of eight compete in a seven-leg, 101 mile course that brings them from Mt. Baker to Bellingham Bay. It's seriously exciting stuff, and indicative of the culture here, outdoor-loving, quirky, and very artsy. (In fact, Bellingham ranks second in the nation for arts businesses per capita.)

Full disclaimer - this is my stomping grounds! I grew up in Blaine (25 minutes north), and went to high school and college in Bellingham. This is home! We were in town for a good friend's wedding, and squeezed in some family fun around the nuptial festivities.

Not having been home for a while, everywhere I went people were suggesting things that were NEW in town! This means our itinerary is a bit heavy in that end, but I've thrown in suggestions for some good old favorites, too. Have something to add? We'd love to read your ideas! Please leave a comment below.

So what's to love about Bellingham? Lots! We started with a visit downtown, driving right on past the blocks around the bus depot where we hung out as mischievous teens, and stopping a few blocks down in an area that is known for interesting shops and fun museums.


We love a good hands-on museum, and the SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention is an excellent one. The collection takes visitors from the dawn of the electrical age through the radio era, and features plenty of experiments to facilitate independent learning. Bria learned quickly to look for the signs with a blue hand that indicated an exhibit you should touch, and she was fascinated to move from one to the next, learning how it all works.

Check the museum out on Saturday and Sunday afternoons for the MegaZapper Electrical Show. They are closed on Monday and Tuesday. Visit SPARK at 1312 Bay Street. Admission is $8 for adults and $5 for children under 11. Memberships are also available, which include unlimited admission.

Michael's Books

From there we walked a couple of blocks to one of my favorite haunts, Michael's Books at 109 Grand Ave. Michael's is a used book shop that specializes in out-of-print and rare books. It is filled floor to ceiling with books, books, and more books, just the way we like it.

The children's corner is a great one, featuring a large collection of books of all kinds. Bria is working her way through the Mensa for Kids Excellence in Reading list. and we found half a dozen books from her list to pick up. 

Across the street is Henderson's Books, another used book shop well worth a look - it's a little bit of a Stones vs. Beatles debate here, everyone seems to love one or the other! If you are a bibliophile like me, check out this blog post for details on other bookstores in the area.

Mount Bakery

Open 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., the Mount Bakery at 308 W. Champion serves breakfast all day. The kids love the bottle of water served to the table (a recycled wine bottle), and feel very sophisticated pouring themselves a glass while they wait for the selection of goodies we ordered to be delivered to the table.

This family-owned local business is a treat, with a variety of pastries and cookies baked daily. Mmmm, and the crepes! Sweet or savory, you can't go wrong with a crepe from Mount Bakery. I indulged in the apple, pear, and brie crepe, while Bria had a half sandwich, piled high with fresh vegetables and meat, with a cup of the soup of the day.

We finished with a delicate brown sugar shortbread cookie that was so good, I wanted to go back and order a dozen. Or two.

If you are around more than one day and would like other suggestions for food, downtown Bellingham is a great spot for breakfast or brunch. The Little Cheerful Cafe at 133 E Holly does some serious goodies like an amazing Eggs Benedict and a Crab Cake Omelette that will leave you happy and full. Don't forget to "pimp your hash or cakes." Another great crepe place is AB Crepes at 1311 Railroad. If you're feeling crazy, bring a friend and do the AlphaBet Challenge - 26 crepes between two people in one hour. I'm sure the kids would enjoy the spectacle!

When breakfast isn't quite the right fit, check out Tadeos Mexican Restaurant at 207 E. Holly. It's authentic and yummy and priced right. I'm obsessed with the tamales.

Railway Museum

We wrapped up our downtown outing at the Bellingham Railway Museum, sneaking in for the last hour before closing. I wish we had taken more time!

This little museum is a great treat, featuring a large collection of model trains and tons of kid-friendly trains for kids to get their hands on and play with. Families will also love the large collection of train books which line one wall - you could spend a day just exploring those. Another favorite exhibit was the collection of railroad lanterns, definitely something little train lovers don't see every day.

Located at 1320 Commercial Street in downtown Bellingham, the museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $2 for children and $4 for adults.

More Downtown

There is so much more to see downtown, we definitely didn't do it justice. Check out the Whatcom Museum and Mindport Exhibits for more museum fun. There is a great collection of art spaces, theaters, shops, restaurants, and lots more. Visit the Downtown Bellingham website to learn more, and then get out there and explore!

Indoor Activities

On our second day in Bellingham, we had tuxedo fittings, rehearsal dinners, and pouring rain to navigate, but we did manage to fit in one fun activity - a trip to Trampoline Zone. Located in the old Allsop building at 4201 Meridian St., this recently opened feature is a great place to run (or bounce) off some energy on a rainy day. There are not a lot of places that are equally fun for a 5-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy, but this place fits the bill.


Our final day in Bellingham was beautiful and sunny, so we set out to explore the parks, starting with the brand spanking new Squalicum Creek Park.

So new the grass is still being cultivated, the park sits on the location of a former concrete plant, and efforts are underway to reclaim the area for fish and wildlife, as well as providing a fun place for families. You can follow the trail and explore the salmon enhancement project at Willow Spring, or do like we did, and hit the playground.

The playground at Squalicum Creek Park features a zipline (my Kiwi hubby would call it a flying fox), and a line of children dutifully waiting in line to take their turn at the excitement. There are also climbing structures for a wide range of age groups, and some very Washington-appropriate mushrooms to hop along.

The fun doesn't stop there, either. The park is home to a dog park, basketball court, baseball field, hiking trails, and shelters for hosting gatherings.

If you're looking for established trees and grass to run around on, head down the hill to Cornwall Park, which has always been a favorite. The paved trails weave in and out of a gorgeous oasis in the center of town. Or move toward the lake and explore the 241-acre Whatcom Falls Park, with its four sets of waterfalls and miles of trails.

We chose to visit Boulevard Park, which is a beautiful waterfront space with a boardwalk and beach. Bria and I brought along a book, and read from Winnie-the-Pooh and watched the kayakers and dog walkers. This is a great place to just hang out and take in some fresh air.


Need more help planning your visit to Bellingham? Visit the Bellingham Tourism site, or their office downtown. The City of Bellingham also has some details on their site, and Experience Washington is a great state-wide resource!

My Travel Monkey

Monday, August 10, 2015

"It's Elvis!" our five-year-old daughter, Bria, squeals, reminiscent of his hordes of screaming fans.

It doesn't matter that he passed away before her mother was born. Our little girl is a great big Elvis fan. So when our road trip was taking us through Tennessee, one point on our itinerary was abundantly clear. We were headed to Graceland.

In celebration of Elvis Week, here are some tips and tricks we learned from our visit to the home of the King.

When to Go

I strongly recommend going early in the day. The first tour is at 9 a.m. We were on the 10 a.m. mansion tour, and when we returned to visit the other museums, lines were starting to get really crazy. Save yourself some headache, and arrive as early in the day as possible.


Parking at Graceland is $10, but Graceland Crossing is a block away, and was free when we were there. RVs are $15. Another option is to do the Sun Studios tour and utilize their free shuttle. Pickup is at the Memphis Rock and Soul Museum on Beale Street.


You're going to want to wear that baby. Imagine trying to push your stroller (no matter how compact) up and down the halls of your grandmother's 1950s Colonial. Now throw about 30 people into the mix and consider your sanity.

(Edited to add: I have learned that strollers aren't allowed in the actual mansion, but can be used for the rest of the tour. I still wouldn't recommend it, except maybe on the parking side of the street.)

Camera Happy

Cameras are welcome throughout the tour, though they do ask that flashes be kept off to preserve the integrity of the collection. I handed my phone over to Bria and it really did the trick to keep her engaged - she had to explore each and every item in order to get just the right shot of it.


There are several different options for tickets, depending how long you want to spend exploring, and kids six and under are free with any of the packages. We purchased the Platinum plus Airplanes tour, which is the sort of "middle" package, and turned out to be a good fit for us. We skipped only one thing - the "Elvis' Tupelo" tour, which explores his years growing up in Tupelo, about 90 miles from Memphis - because the little one was tired and hungry, but if we had more available time, we easily could have fed her and come back for that.

I debated whether to add the airplanes, but I was glad we did. Both girls loved that part of the tour, especially exploring the Lisa Marie. It was by far the quietest part of our visit.

It's not cheap, so be expecting that. Be sure to check prices online ahead of time so you know what you are getting yourself into. Also check for coupons! When we went, there was a coupon on the website for 50% off child/student fares, which saved me $18.


Tickets in hand, we lined up for the shuttle across the street to the mansion itself. We didn't wait long, but there was space for the line to get huge.

The Mansion

Once through the infamous sheet music gates and up the driveway, the entrance to Graceland comes into view - four stone steps, flanked by lions. The shuttle drops us out front, where we are encouraged to step inside, and come back at the end of the tour for any outdoor photos.

We explored the foyer, living room, and dining room, then went through the kitchen to the basement, where we saw the billiard room and the TV room. On the way back up, you can check out the aptly named Jungle Room. It's gaudy, even garish, but isn't that the point? I mean, it's Elvis!

(Want to be proud of your child's ability to make abstract connections to cultural references? Try hearing your five-year-old sing, "Down in the Jungle Room" to the tune of Mark Cohn's Walking in Memphis as she walks into the actual Jungle Room. Yep, that's cool stuff.)

The house itself is quite large (originally more than 10,000 square feet, before the additions), but visitors are welcomed into a small piece of it. The upstairs is left sealed off, out of respect for the family. Polite staff members stand at each potential wrong turn to point us in the right direction.

The iPad Tour

Each adult and child over 6 is issued an iPad and headphones (headphones and a splitter for those under 6). As visitors move from room to room, the iPad provides a guided tour, narrated by John Stamos and featuring bits from Elvis himself, along with his daughter Lisa Marie.

You know the way your kids shout when they have headphones on their ears? Yeah, that. Oh, and there is lots of stuff to touch, but they can't hear you telling them not to.

I get that it saves worrying about languages, and allows the tour to be narrated without employing tour guides, but this iPad system is simply not designed for families. We found them cumbersome at best, and took the headphones off after the first room. I'm sure we missed some nuance, but it made for a much more child-friendly tour. (And so much better than constantly screaming at our children like the unfortunate family just ahead of us.)

I suggest bringing an empty bag of some sort - think reuseable shopping bag - to stash the electronics in once your family gets bored with them.

With all that said, if it had been just my husband and I visiting, I probably would have enjoyed the iPad tour. It gives a sort of "Pop-Up Video" aspect, offering interesting tidbits throughout. By the way, in case it applies, the iPads offer the tour in English, German, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, and French.

The Grounds

I'm not sure I went in realizing how much more there would be to see beyond the actual mansion itself. Graceland's 14-acre grounds are an impressive expanse, including a handful of buildings housing his many collections. The outdoor time also offered a few places for fidgety children to run a bit and get out some of the energy from being well behaved inside.

After the first floor and basement of the mansion, the tour flows through the office of Elvis' dad, Vernon Presley. Bria loved seeing Lisa Marie's swing set outside the office, and the horses nearby.

Next were the trophy building and the racquetball building. It is quite the collection, chronicling an amazing career. There were more gold and platinum records than you could imagine, costumes, awards, cancelled checks from Elvis' many, many donations to charities, and lots more. As former Jaycees, it was fun to see what a special place his Outstanding Young Men award held - the display even included the outfits Elvis and Priscilla wore to the banquet.

I read quite a few reviews from people feeling rushed, but we really took our time and felt comfortable with that. Everyone was walking through at their own pace, and moving on when they were ready. I imagine part of this was the time of day - see the recommendation on going as early as possible to avoid the largest crowds. But also, be aware of how vast the collection is. Each ticket notes how approximately how long the recommended tour is (ours was 2 1/2 to 3 hours), so don't plan anything too soon after and rush yourself.

Meditation Garden

A beautiful feature Elvis had added to his home for meditation and reflection, the Meditation Garden is a serene little piece of paradise at the end of the tour. It is also his final resting place, along with that of his parents and grandmother. There is a memorial to his stillborn twin brother, as well. If your children aren't prepared for the experience of visiting graves, just walk around the opposite side of the fountain (between the Meditation Garden and pool), it will lead you back to the gates just the same.


Once we had finished exploring the grounds, it was back to the shuttle. There were two lines here, one for those who had purchased Graceland only packages to return across the street, and one that took visitors to the Archives.

A new feature added in August 2014, we loved the visit to the Archives. There were rows and rows of library-style drawers filled with items from Elvis' personal collection, like concert posters, buttons, shopping lists, receipts, and lots more. This post from the Graceland blog tells more about what is included in the collection.

The girls enjoyed exploring the contents of the drawers, checking out the artifacts collected there, then we moved into a large theater for the Graceland Archives Studio Experience, a collection of videos of some of Elvis' most iconic performances. Bria danced her heart out, then got some down time while she watched "her star" sing.

Additional Exhibits

Following the show, we loaded back onto the shuttle and crossed the street to the rest of the exhibits and Graceland Plaza and Graceland Crossing.  

The airplanes - a 1958 Convair 880 named Lisa Marie and a smaller Lockheed Jet Star - were interesting to check out. 

Elvis spent more than $800,000 remodeling the Lisa Marie, customizing it with a living room, conference room, sitting room, and private bedroom. There are suede and leather-covered tables and chairs, and even 24-karat gold lined sinks in the bathroom and gold-plated seat belts.

The Elvis Presley Automobile Museum was also a hit. The man loved his cars! Set up like a tree-lined street, the collection includes everything from a go-cart and dune buggy to a 1975 Dino Ferrari and a 1973 Stutz Blackhawk. The girls were a little disappointed to see the pink Cadillac was on tour in Europe!

In the center of the Automobile Museum is a sort of drive-in movie theater where you can pull up a bench and see clips of some of Elvis' driving scenes from his movies. It was fun to pick out movies we knew.

Our final stop (after a treat of Dippin' Dots and sodas - it was HOT) was at the Elvis' Hawaii exhibit. We enjoyed the clips of his home videos and concerts (apparently never-before-seen) of Elvis in one of his favorite places. A highlight for us was learning the story behind his involvement in raising the money needed for the Pearl Harbor Memorial.


If you are wondering if you should bring your little Elvis fan to Graceland, we say yes! Graceland is definitely a hit for curious kids - they even offer an annual Home School Day event.
My Travel Monkey

Friday, July 31, 2015

Our GPS is set for home, but as we say good-bye to our sweet friends in Melbourne, Florida (and thank them for opening their home to us these past few weeks), there is still a lot of country to see before we land in our beds in North Dakota.

Three girls on a road trip, so many possibilities for things to see! We started out with some searches - National Parks, historical sites, roadside marvels - and then set off on the road home.

Our first stop was Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, near Daytona Beach. This 175-foot-tall tower has the distinction of being the tallest lighthouse in Florida. The beacon's light can be seen up to 18 miles out to sea!

As soon as we saw it, we knew we definitely had to climb it. The lady who sold us our tickets promised five-year-old Bria a sticker if she made it to the top, and then we started up. There are 213 very steep steps to the top, and I'm not sure if I thought that sounded like a lot or not, but whoah! That's a lot of steps up!

We were around halfway when it started to feel like a serious project. Ella and I were both thankful for a sign we had read aloud at the bottom saying kids had to be able to make the steps (up and down) themselves and couldn't be carried - that would have been a lot of steps to lug 30 pounds up!

There were a few places along the way to stop and check out the view, catch your breath, and let people pass you going up or down (the steps are narrow and only passable by one person at a time). Once you reach the top, there is a door that leads outside, and gives a fantastic panoramic view of the beautiful little point where the lighthouse is located. We walked around it a few times, but didn't spend a lot of time, because a storm was coming, and we didn't want to be rushed down in a crowd when they closed the tower.

The trip down was, of course, much easier than the trip up, and soon we were resting on the benches outside. The lighthouse is surrounded by a small museum, which is made up of a series of buildings that once housed lighthouse employees and offices, each filled with assorted artifacts representing the 128 year history of the site. Ponce Inlet is one of 12 lighthouses in the country that have been designated as National Historic Landmarks, sitting at third tallest.

We looked into a few of them, then caught part of a movie about the lighthouse before going inside to check out the gift shop. Just as we stepped inside, an alert came over the radio that it was time to close the lighthouse down due to the impending thunder and lightning.

Pleased with our timing, we continued on our adventure. There is also a scavenger hunt available for the site (pick one up in the gift shop), but we didn't notice it until after the closure. It looked like fun, and would be a good way to engage while exploring the tower and museum.

Ponce Inlet Lighthouse is open at 10 a.m., 7 days a week. Closing time is 9 p.m. in the summer months and 6 p.m. the rest of the year. It is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Ticket sales stop one hour before closing, to allow for ample time to visit the landmark. Admission is $6.95 for adults and $1.95 for children. Visit their website for additional details.

Monday, July 27, 2015

I love road trips. One of my favorite things about road trips is adventuring off the usual path and finding what makes a community interest. Greenville, South Carolina is a pretty little downtown with a fun, quirky feature - the Mice on Main, a scavenger hunt for nine tiny bronze mice hidden along Main Street.

Possibly the coolest senior project ever, the Mice on Main are the work of a young man named Jim Ryan in 2000. He partnered with sculptor Zan Wells to create the hunt based on the mice in the story Goodnight Moon, which his mother read to him when he was little.

The mice trail from the Hyatt to the Westin Poinsett Hotel, a stretch of about six blocks. You can pick up a map and list of clues at the Mast General Store, but it was easier for us to follow the hints on the website here.

We had such a great time, exploring the streets and looking for the mice as a family. It was a fantastic family activity, and so cute and fun!

There were other families on the adventure, too, and we worked together to find the difficult ones. There were two that we had to walk up and down for a while looking took some effort to keep the little one engaged, but there was no way Daddy was leaving without finding all nine!

(If you get really stuck, there are a few places to look for additional hints online. Check out Flickr and Facebook for photos other searchers have taken.)

Want to continue the adventure? There are Mice on Main t-shirts, games, and even a book available! Have fun!

Packing my Suitcase

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Guest Post by Justin Parkinson

On Friday, our last full day on our Jamaican adventure, after a morning at the Blue Hole, we set out onto the Caribbean Sea on a deep sea fishing trip. We booked a four hour adventure with Ocho Rios Deep Sea Fishing.

Personally, I could gladly have cut it from the itinerary, not being even vaguely interested in fishing. But I'm glad I didn't. The trip was my father-in-law’s birthday present, on his request, and I was on the boat with him, my brother and my stepson. There’s plenty of joy to be had in participating in someone else’s fun, and no better people to spend an afternoon with than family no matter what you are doing. Then, on a personal level, two very special things happened out there.

The second was that standing on the deck of our small fishing boat, the Justeina, rolling with the ocean swells, the wind whipping my hair, the salt spray drying tight across my face as the Caribbean paradise faded into the haze on the horizon, I found a deep happiness in my reconnection with the ocean. I grinned like a fool until my face ached. Then I grinned some more because when I tried to relax my smile, it just crept back again.

The first, and most wonderful experience of the entire vacation, was when my kid - my moody uncommunicative seventeen-year-old stepson - turned to me with dancing eyes and true gratitude in his voice and said, "This has been the best vacation ever, thank you." And then he hugged me! I'd like to tell you I have stepkids who adore me and show their affection often, but I don't. This was a rare, in fact unique, moment that I may just treasure forever. I felt like a king.

It wasn't just the excitement of deep sea fishing, though visions of 500-pound tuna were definitely racing in his head. It was also the exhilaration of the Blue Hole, and the prospect of a farewell bonfire that evening. But more than that, this vacation with both sets of grandparents, an uncle, and the four kids all together, was special. Jamaica was special.

From a travel perspective we had a rough day with the hook. Granddad managed to pull in a three-foot barracuda, but that was our only strike. Lucky Randy, our guide, kept busy with the lures and bait trying his hardest to entice a fish, to no avail. We got to the end of our four hour excursion, and were almost inside the harbour when Captain Speedy spotted some birds and took us back out on hopes there would be some hunters under the water where the birds were fishing. We got to see many flying fish skipping and skittering across the waves, but no strike. You can't hold the lack of fish a against the crew, but I probably wouldn't be jumping up and down suggesting you seek them out, either.

The crew came with a cooler well stocked with beer and water, though if you're seasoned drinker, you may want to bring extra. There was not enough there for us to get drunk on, even if we'd thought that was a wise idea on the rolling sea.

Oh, and here's a tip learned the hard way - make sure to get sunblock everywhere. You know, including the part of my knee that is hidden under your shorts when standing, but exposed when sitting! Ouch!

My Brown Paper Packages