Unexpected Getaway (Don’t Mind If I Do)

Two weeks ago, I experienced an unexpected mini vacation right in my own neighborhood. My daughter and I were delivering Girl Scout cookies. It was a beautiful sunny, but slightly chilly Sunday afternoon. We pulled up to one of our neighbor’s houses to find them out in the front yard, enjoying the sunshine, playing in the grass. Their oldest son is my daughter’s age, 2nd grade, and their youngest son is not quite a year.

As we walked across their lawn, we realized the kids weren’t just playing in the grass … they were playing with little dark creatures … with claws. “Ewww, what is that?” my daughter asked.

“Crawfish,” replied the father, quite happily. Crawfish in February? In Ohio? Yes, indeed.

“Want to hold one?” asked his son. My daughter wasn’t crazy about that idea, but kneeled down in the grass to inspect them. They were waving their claws around a little bit, but apparently they were cold, so they were moving slower than normal and wouldn’t be able to pinch very easily. She reached out, trying to decide if she could stand to actually touch one. “This one’s dead,” he pointed to one that was tossed a little to the side. She contemplated for a second, then looked again at the live ones, eventually reaching out to touch it.

As the kids checked out the crawfish, our friends, Louisiana natives, told me about his trip to the grocery that day. He had stumbled upon a completely unexpected crawfish display. Not new to crawfish, he asked if he could buy 40 lbs. at a discounted rate. The deal was made, and here we were, delivering Girl Scout cookies with impeccable timing.

“Ever been to a crawfish boil?” he asked. Nope, but I’ve eaten crawfish before. Definitely in New Orleans. Definitely in some etouffee … not sure other than that. “Well, come back in about an hour, bring beer, and try some,” he said. How could I pass up an invitation like that?

We got back into the car to finish our cookie deliveries. An hour and a half later, we returned with my son. My husband stayed home so our youngest could take a nap.

Crawfish cooling
Crawfish fresh out of the pot, cooling off.

As we walked up the driveway, we were greeted with, “Perfect timing!” We met their friends and neighbors and watched as he dumped the crawfish from the big boil pot into an empty cooler. He let them sit in there for a few minutes as the steam rolled out into the cool air.

Meanwhile, he prepped a long table in the driveway with a disposable tablecloth and explained the crawfish boil … basically they are in the water for 45 minutes or so, and really only boil for just a few minutes. The rest of the time is for seasoning (with a special seasoning they buy in Louisiana) and so the vegetables can cook (we had potatoes, corn, mushrooms and onion).

Crawfish Boil
Time to eat! Crawfish and vegetables before we dig in.

Once the table was prepped, he dumped a bunch of crawfish and vegetables directly onto the tablecloth. We were then instructed to gather round the table. Then they gave us a lesson on how to eat the things. First you tear the head off (the head is really the bulk of the crawfish). Then you suck the juices out of the head (optional). I did not try this. But this is where most of the flavor is because the seasoning gathers in there. I took their word for it.

Next, you crack open the tail just below the first set of little claws and peel the shell off to get to the meat. Finally, enjoy. Wow. A-ma-zing. Not only were the crawfish delicious, but so were the vegetables. I sampled the potatoes and mushrooms. Sooo good.

I went to this crawfish boil thinking I’d have a beer, chat with everyone, and try a couple of crawfish. A couple turned into what had to be a couple pounds. Or possibly a few pounds. I’m not really sure.  But I did learn, and am happy to share, that when you are hosting a crawfish boil, you should plan on three to four pounds per person. So it’s not like I totally lost all control and willpower. Okay, I guess I pretty much did, but it was still within normal crawfish boil parameters. It just wasn’t what I expected to consume that afternoon. Oh, and by the way, “make sure you try some of the gumbo in the kitchen.” Gumbo? Yep. Chicken and Andouille sausage (from Louisiana). Again … A-ma-zing.

The only disappointment that afternoon was that I couldn’t get my kids to try any of it. They were intrigued by the whole thing, for sure. But they weren’t about to put any of it in their mouths. Not even the potatoes, my daughter’s favorite. That’s okay. At least they got to see their first crawfish boil.

I went home completely happy, feeling like I’d just returned from a whirlwind vacation. I was re-living the last time we were in New Orleans … the food, the sights, the music. In my excitement I even attempted to explain Zydeco to my 5-year-old son, but when he looked at me with a blank stare, I mumbled, “I’ll have to pull it up on the internet so you can hear it.”

I now want to get back to Louisiana and New Orleans pronto. So, the debate begins. Do we do the trip we planned, closer to home, but places we’ve never been … or do we turn that into a long weekend and take a week to head south? Still debating … time will tell.

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Life Is Like a Box of … Vacation Memories

Although I haven’t posted anything in a long time, I’ve had so many things nudging me to write lately, Valentine’s Day being one of them. Yes, Valentine’s Day was a few weeks ago now, but I am still living in the moment of it.

I’m going to start with just before Valentine’s Day, when Grey’s Anatomy aired and the characters were popping chocolate like it was almost healthy. I couldn’t stop thinking about chocolate after that episode, and for the first time that I can remember, actually hoped to receive chocolate for Valentine’s Day. But chocolate on Valentine’s Day is so cliché, right? I didn’t care. I was willing to embrace it, my chocoholic self ready to indulge just like those TV characters. I’m pretty sure I mentioned my eagerness to receive chocolate to a couple of co-workers … but for us, chocolate is a daily topic of conversation, so no big deal. I did not think to mention it to the one person who might actually buy me chocolate, my “I’m not a sweets person” husband. Besides, eating a box of chocolate all by myself isn’t actually good for me – it would just be a guilty pleasure, providing comfort and enjoyment in the moment, and then despair and frustration as the jeans got a little tighter.

As it turns out, I didn’t have to mention chocolate to my husband, who knows me better than I know myself on a lot of days. Did I receive a box of chocolate? No. I received a box of chocolate AND a bag of chocolate. And not just any box and bag of chocolates. Lake Champlain Chocolates … “all-natural chocolates from Vermont.” Specifically, I received a cute box (cute, as in I’m going to find some trinkets to keep in this little box, because I just can’t bring myself to throw it away) of Chocolate Truffles, and a bag of Dark Chocolate Hearts.

For me, this was the perfect gift for Valentine’s Day. 1) It’s chocolate (plus bonus: dark chocolate).  2) It took me right back to our family vacation last summer in Vermont, which was absolutely amazing. 3) It was incredibly thoughtful and took some actual planning to pull off (and no, my co-workers did not tip him off to the chocolate). In all honesty, it put my gift giving to shame. Note to self: be a more thoughtful gift giver – and tie in our vacation memories to the gifts whenever possible.

Lake Champlain
Exploring Lake Champlain in Burlington, VT

So, with every piece of the Valentine’s chocolate I have eaten, I have been reminded of our amazing vacation last summer, including exploring Lake Champlain, and our afternoon stop at the Lake Champlain Chocolate Factory in Burlington, where we enjoyed ice cream, peered into the chocolate kitchen, admired the beautiful truffles, and filled little bags full of chocolate to take with us to enjoy during the rest of our road trip (along with our cooler full of cheese, crackers and maple syrup). Ahhh, sweet memories.  And delicious chocolate.

Now, I just have one truffle left. The good news? It’s the Champagne Truffle. I didn’t save it intentionally; it’s just how I worked my way through the box. What a fitting end to re-living such lovely vacation memories. The better news? My birthday and Mother’s Day are approaching quickly (hint, hint, sweet family!).

Anticipation and Planning.

We are always planning our next trip. And the one after that. And the one after that. Part of the fun is dreaming about when we get to visit each destination … and what we will do along the way.

Orange Beach, AL
Walking on the beach in Orange Beach, AL in winter.

We typically don’t stay in one place for an entire trip, unless it’s for a long weekend. We keep things moving, yet we like to be thorough in our visit and explore as much as possible. This takes a lot of planning, organizing, and prioritizing. Especially with young kids. This is a delicate task, because we don’t want to have everything planned out and feel like we are on a rigid schedule. We need to relax and allow for changes in plans, depending on weather, moods, diaper changes, etc. So, planning is key so we know what our options are at any point during our trip – or at least have a general idea.

How do we plan? We read … a lot. Travel guide books, visitors guides, magazine articles, and anything we can find on the Internet. We go to the library or bookstore to check out guidebooks appropriate for our destination(s) (but before we go, we have a short list of books after reading book reviews on Amazon). We typically buy books that we think are great because our planning lasts for months. We also order visitors guides from the destinations we want to visit. One of my favorite places to check out is http://familyfun.go.com/vacations/ … for ideas of destinations to visit, and also to see if there are any stories about places we are headed.

TV shows on the Travel Channel and Food Network also help us sometimes, and our kids love watching them too, especially Samantha Brown- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JgSXPxUZHCs.

All of our research leads us to making wish lists (the kids help us with these in a general sense). Wish lists usually lead to planning spreadsheets (more often than not, especially on driving trips) to track mileage goals, ideal hotel stops/resting points, and attractions or parks we don’t want to miss (with our ideal amount of time spent at each place noted). It also may include some highly anticipated meals. This may sound rigid, but it helps us relax once we’re there, because we have a plan and we know what we want to accomplish. We also allow ourselves flexibility to fill in time when we get there.

When on the road, a key tool for us in the car is a book called The Next Exit (http://amzn.to/ievbib). This book lists restaurants, coffee shops and gas stations at each Interstate exit in the U.S.  You can see how far you have to go to get to your favorite road trip fast food joint and can then sweet talk the kids in the backseat to hold on just a few more miles to avoid major meltdowns. Another great tool, especially when looking for local restaurants, is www.yelp.com, because you can search by your location and type of desired food – and see reviews.

There are so many tools out there, and so many ways to plan, but these are definitely some of our favorites.

Is It Time For Vacation Yet?

When my 4-year old son recently asked the question, “Is it time for vacation yet?” it was like music to my ears. This was the first time he showed a visible interest in going somewhere, well in advance of a trip. It’s difficult to talk him into leaving the house on the weekends … “stay home days,” as he likes to call them. “Sundays are pajama days,” he always says. And he means it. Something fantastic must be happening for him to willingly get dressed on a weekend day during the winter.

When I answered, “Not yet. Just 12 more weeks!” he groaned. I couldn’t believe it. I was practically jumping up and down with excitement – he was really ready to take a vacation! But we had to deal with his disappointment because it wasn’t happening now. So, we talked about the upcoming trip … the beach, who we were going to visit, what we were going to see … and then setting the expectation for the car ride. This is going to be a long car ride, I explained. “That’s okay,” he responded, sounding like a little adult. “I can watch movies and color.”  I was beaming. He is one of “us,” I thought. A traveler!

My oldest daughter, 6, reached this point a long time ago. Actually, it wasn’t a defining moment for her as it was for my son. She has always just gone along with our trips, no big deal. It’s something we do, and she’s in and ready. He has been like that too, when it comes to leaving … but talking about it before-hand was more of a bother. He lives much more in the moment. So the anticipation of a trip, unprompted, was new. And so exciting for me.

My husband and I have always loved to travel together. We took road trips in college, and for the six years we were married before our oldest was born, we drove or flew wherever we could, as often as we could. Six weeks after she was born, we loaded up the car, baby gear and all, and took our first family road trip to New York. It was fantastic – so much better than we anticipated – the baby slept almost the whole time we drove. So when our son was 6 weeks old, we drove to Florida. We figured we might as well get him used to traveling too. And when our youngest arrived, we did the same thing. She was 5 weeks old and making her first trip to Florida (and Disney World … which I’ll save for a future topic).

Traveling is what we love to do. We know how to stretch our weekends out as long as possible, and our weeklong trips too. Every vacation moment counts. Because it’s vacation. Our escape from our routine. Our time to focus on each other and the great places we visit. Our down time. So hearing our son ask those magical words, “Is it time for vacation yet?” confirmed we have been doing it right … for us. Vacation means something great to the kids too, even at a young age.  And the memories they have of our recent trips make them look forward to the next one. Me too.