2017 Recap & What’s In Store For 2018

Welp, 2018 is officially underway, and it is certain to be one for the books.  I have a lot in store for this year, but I will get to that shortly.  First, a recap of 2017.  2017 was actually a bit of a slower year for European travel, as the hubs went on a TON of work trips and we traveled to the states over the summer.  Here is a peek at what our year looked like…

Florence, Pisa, and Cinque Terre, Italy

I just love Italy.  A trip to Florence, Pisa, and Cinque Terre with some family friends was just what the doctor ordered to cure the mid-February winter blues.

 

 

Solo Trip to Toulouse and Carcassonne, France  

I will be writing a blog about this trip shortly, but it was a peaceful and relaxing (albeit wet) weekend away on my own in France.  The quaint, cobbled streets of Toulouse and beautiful walled city in Carcassonne provided a perfect for a little getaway over spring break.

 

 

Three Weeks In the States: Chicago, Milwaukee, Port Clinton, Columbus

Again, I am in the process of writing this post.  We spent three weeks visiting family and friends in the states, including a night in Chicago, a visit to Brandon’s family in Milwaukee, some time on the lake in Port Clinton, Ohio, and about a week in Columbus, Ohio.  It was a fantastic and exhausting “vacation”; it was wonderful to see so many people!

 

 

Jurassic Coast 

While Brandon was back in the states for a work trip, the kids and I spent the weekend with friends at the Jurassic Coast in southern England.  Our day at Durdle’s Door was gorgeous, while our second day was very wet {but what is a trip in the UK without a little rain, right?}

 

 

Childless London

B and I had a quick, childless trip planned to Aalborg, Denmark in September, but then Ryanair had a massive pilot problem and had to cancel a ton of flights.  So our trip was cancelled.  Since we already had babysitters lined up, we decided to take advantage and spend a night in London on our own.  I heart London.

 

 

Failed Trip To The Lake District

Ugh.  The Lake District has been on my UK bucket list since we have been here.  And alas, it still is.  We had a trip to the Lake District planned for a long weekend in November.  First, Brandon didn’t make it back from TDY to join us, which wasn’t a big deal, but still a bummer.  Then, we set off on a Thursday night, planning to stop about halfway in the Peak District to stay the night.  Well, the kiddos and I were almost to the apartment we were staying in when I hear Benjamin say his belly hurt, then promptly throw up down the front of himself.  I guess the winding, hilly roads of the area didn’t agree with him.  Because I knew much of the rest of the drive was going to be the same, we stayed in the Peak District for the night, then headed back home.  We did get a few great views and some yummy breakfast!

 

 

Winter Wonderland/London

Winter Wonderland in London is always a favorite of mine…what could be better than two of my favorite things: London and CHRISTMAS!  Our family friend was in town again in December, so we spent a Saturday and Sunday exploring London and visiting the beautiful Winter Wonderland!

 

 

Algarve, Portugal

We rounded out 2017 with a trip to beautiful, sunny Algarve, Portugal.  I will also be posting about this before too long, but it involved lots of beautiful colors, gorgeous beaches, and fantastic coastlines!

 

Now for some BIG news!  At the end of the year, we also found out that we will be moving to Okinawa, Japan in the summer!  While we were originally really hoping for the base in Italy, we are beyond thrilled to have the opportunity to explore another part of the world.  I’ve heard absolutely brilliant things about Okinawa, and cannot wait for the big move over the summer!  With that in mind, we I have had some serious European travel panic attacks.  There are still so many places to see and things to do!  {I would say that even if I had been everywhere, but it’s so true!}  I have quite a few trips planned before the move, and a hopefully a few more in the works.  As of now, my travel plans for 2018 include:

  • Berlin and Prague (with hubby, sans children!!) in February
  • Moldova in March (girls trip)
  • Croatia over spring break
  • Colmar, France in late April (another girls trip)

We move in August, and we are hoping to have some family visit before we head out.  Hopefully we will get some travel in with them as well– possibilities include Iceland (dreamy!), Scotland, and Germany.  Thinking waaaay ahead, Taipei, Taiwan might be a possibility in the fall/early winter and of course, exploring our new island home of Okinawa!  [If you don’t know anything about Okinawa, just Google it…alllll the heart eyes!]

Non-London Fun

While I love London, it’s not the only fun thing to do near where we live in the UK.  In fact, there are tons of amazing sights and sounds all within an hour or two of our house!  Some of my favorites are listed in this post…

Cambridge

We don’t visit Cambridge nearly enough.  We are only about 30 minutes away, and the city is absolutely beautiful!  There is so much to see and do there it’s unbelievable.  One of our most favorite things that we have done though is “punting the Cam“.  The River Cam is a river that meanders through Cambridge and runs along some of the most prestigious, gorgeous colleges in England.  You can hire a chauffeur to guide you along, or try it on your own!  We went with some visitors for my birthday one year and were not disappointed- our guide was knowledgeable and humorous and we had lots of great photo ops!

Great Yarmouth

We haven’t done a lot of exploring in Great Yarmouth yet, but it is definitely a place I want to return to!  The day we visited, it was one of those rare almost-80-degree-sunny-with-no-clouds days in the UK, so it was perfect for walking around and relaxing at the beach.  It has a super boardwalk-carnival type feel, complete with rides, games, kitschy tourist shops, beach restaurants, and of course, beaches.  If you’re looking for a laid-back day during summer, this is your spot!

Duxford Air Show

Last year we went to the Duxford Air Show at the Imperial War Museum just outside of Cambridge.  They have air shows there a few times a year, and have permanent military-related exhibitions in their museum.  It was pretty chilly the day of the show, but the planes were awesome and there were lots of great food vendors and collectible kiosk shops!

Colchester Zoo

Colchester Zoo is probably one of the best zoos I have ever been to!  We went with a few other couples and their kiddos (I think there were 7 adults and 4 kids, all under 4-years-old).  All of the kids {and all of us adults} had a great time!  There were tons of animals to see; Benjamin especially loved the penguins!  We went in the spring and the weather was pretty good so lots of animals were out and about.

For the past year we have had an English Heritage pass, giving us free or discounted access to many historic English buildings, monuments, and other sites.  Some are fairly close to where we live and provide a nice afternoon out:

Audley End House

The Audley End estate is huge and beautiful!  There is a lot to see and do there- you can wander through parts of the decadent mansion, check out the nursery {with toys! Benjamin enjoyed it!}, see how the kitchen used to look and function, stroll through the amazing gardens, and see horses in the stables area.  The grounds are breathtaking on their own, worthy of an afternoon picnic (or an afternoon of sketching or painting for the artists out there!).  We got extra lucky, as there was an old car show going on the day we were there, so B was in heaven checking out all the beauties!

Framlingham Castle

Framlingham is also a great spot for a relaxing afternoon out.  There are castle walls you can climb and walk around, giving fantastic views of the surrounding area.  The interior has a huge grassy area with some outdoor games and there were sword-fighting shows the day we were there.  There is a small museum area as well.  It looks as if the castle hosts various events throughout the year too.  The town surrounding the castle was cute as well, we stopped for lunch and ice cream nearby!

Castle Rising

We actually visited Castle Rising before we got the English Heritage pass, but it is one of their properties.  While the castle is actually fairly small, it is really cool, and the surrounded landscape is gorgeous.  The castle, which is now mostly ruins, was built in the 1100s and many of the walls are still standing!

 

London: Some of our favourites

One of the best things about being stationed in the UK is being so close to one of the most amazing cities in the world, London.  We are approximately 90 miles away (if we were to drive directly into the city).  To give you an idea of how exciting this is compared to where we used to live, it was approximately 90 miles from Clovis, New Mexico (where we were last stationed) to the closest “big cities” (Lubbock and Amarillo, Texas)–neither of which were exactly tourist traps!  So to have one of the biggest, most captivating cities in the WORLD at our fingertips has been amazing!  Though we could drive into the city of London, we don’t do this for a variety of reasons: parking, congestion charges, traffic, and just general ease of travel.  We typically park at Epping Tube Station, which is about an hour away, which puts us on the Central Line right into London.  We purchase all-day travel cards for myself and B (Benjamin rides for free :)) so that we can hop on and off any of the trains all day.  London is huge, so this is super helpful.  When Benjamin was smaller, wearing him in the Ergo was the easiest way to travel, but now we use our lightweight stroller, and he loves being able to watch everything!  Some of the tube stations have lifts (elevators), but others don’t- in which case B and I haul the stroller up and down the stairs.  We are pretty much pros at it by now, and it doesn’t bother us a bit.  There was one time {and only once with reason} that we took our large jogging stroller and we immediately regretted it, as it is so large and bulky.  Taking the stroller on the actual train is a piece of cake.

Anyway, there is definitely no shortage of things to do in London .  I think anyone and everyone could find something to do there!  Living so close allows us to visit often enough that we don’t feel like we have to rush and see tons of stuff each time we go.  For the most part, we have seen most of the touristy things, even if we haven’t gone inside or done the tours and such (Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Tower Bridge, The Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, etc.)  Eventually, we want to do at least some of these tours, but so far we’ve been pretty content wandering and seeing what we can find.  Below is a non-exhaustive list of some of B and I’s favorite things to do in London…

**I apologize in advance if you are a Harry Potter fan, I am not {gasp!}, and therefore have no information on anything HP-related in London, though I know there is a lot!  

The British Museum

The British Museum definitely ranks in both of our top five places to visit in London.  First of all, IT’S FREE!  {We always make a donation, but it is not required.}  Second of all, IT’S HUGE!  Seriously, I don’t even think it’s possible to see everything in one day.  B is a huge history nerd, and I just love museums, so we could spend hours here.  I think our favorite exhibits have been the Egyptian displays, including the Rosetta Stone!  A helpful hint: don’t go on Boxing Day {it’s closed, as we found out after walking 2 miles…whoops!}.  Anyway, it’s a must-see if you are any sort of history lover!

Borough Market

B and I try to make it to Borough Market almost every time we travel to London, usually for lunch.  It is located near London Bridge, not to be confused with Tower Bridge.  It is chock-full of produce stalls, vendors, and delicious eateries.  We often stop for a yummy pie from the Pieminister stall and eat it while wandering around or find a seat near Southwark Cathedral to people watch.  The market is a bustling, colorful, exciting place to be, especially on beautiful weekends!

Camden Market

Another market I love (B was not as impressed) is Camden Market.  This area is a relatively large “hipster-y” part of London with tons of shops, restaurants, bars, vendors, etc.  I think I mostly loved the vintage feel of everything in the area, as well as the great photo ops.  You could definitely get lost in this part of town, and spend the whole day there!  After wandering and shopping, we had an amazing lunch at Porky’s, a BBQ joint nearby.  You can pick up some great vintage goods at Camden market and just enjoy the atmosphere and people-watching.

 

Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square is the centre of it all.  It is a tourist hot-spot with statues, fountains, and many restaurants and museums nearby.  B and I just love the authentic big-city London feel here, and the people-watching is fantastic.  There are often street performers in this area, and sometimes demonstrations or protests.  The National Gallery is located here, which is a huge, free art museum.

Shakespeare’s Globe

We just recently actually went inside Shakespeare’s Globe and did the tour, which we loved!  One of our friends from the states was in London, so we met up with her and took the tour of the theatre.  There is a museum outlining the history of Shakespeare, and there were actors practicing sword-fighting inside!  Our tour guide was fantastic and hilarious, and gave us some awesome information about the theatre and history.  The open-air theatre was pretty amazing, B and I agreed that it would be cool to see a performance there sometime!  There is so much history in London it just blows my mind.

Winter Wonderland

If you are in London around Christmastime, I highly recommend visiting Hyde Park for Winter Wonderland.  From November through January, Hyde Park is magically transformed into a wonderland full of carnival rides, restaurants, bars, and food vendors, craft stalls, even an ice rink and circus!  We have been twice in the three years we have been here and will probably go back again.  Entrance to the actual park is free, but the various rides and events cost money.  The first year we went, it was just B and I and we ice skated.  It was fun, but I don’t know that it was worth the money we paid for it.  It is cool though, that we can say we have ice skated in Hyde Park in London!  This past year we took Benjamin and went with our friends Lindsay, JD, and their three-year-old.  They ice skated (well, until their little one decided it wasn’t for him) and rode some carnival rides, and we ate lots of yummy food and bought some cool stuff from the craft markets.  We also went to the Zippos Circus.  It ended up being way cooler than I expected, and Benjamin loved it!  Winter Wonderland is definitely not an all-day event, unless you plan on riding lots of rides and doing all of the different activities, but it is a fun-filled few hours!

Street Feast

Ahh, Street Feast.  I almost don’t want to give out this delicious secret.  It is one of B and I’s most favorite {and yummy} things to do in London.  Set in various locations, Street Feast is basically a gathering of street food/drink vendors in warehouse-like areas.  The atmosphere is amazing, the people-watching is fabulous, and the food and drinks are to die for.  We have been a few times and hope to go back many more times!  We love trying different types of foods, as there are always vendors from all kinds of cuisines, from BBQ to South American grub to Asian dishes and everything in between {including delicious desserts!!}.  It is free to get in between 5pm and 7pm, and costs something like £3 after that.  Though it is kid-friendly, if we have Benjamin with us, we usually try to get there relatively early and get out before it gets too rowdy.  I think the first few times we went, we were child-free and though I was pregnant, B thoroughly enjoyed the whiskey roulette bar, where him and some buddies spun a wheel to determine what kinds of shots they had to take.  At one point they came back with empty whiskey bottles, which scared me a little, but it was all in good fun 🙂  I am pretty sure that most of the times we have been I have been pregnant, so I have yet to fully enjoy everything Street Feast has to offer, but you can bet we will be back so I can enjoy some wine and yummy beer!  Check it out if you are in London on a weekend!

Again, this is by no means an exhaustive list of things to do in London, just a few of our favorites.  I’m sure I will continue to add to this list as we experience more and more there!

Hiking in Snowdonia

Snowdonia National Park is, by far, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.  We had a three day weekend for Labor Day the first weekend in September last year, so we decided to visit the Snowdonia area and hike Mount Snowdon.  Mount Snowdon is the highest mountain in Wales and England, and though we didn’t hike to the very peak, we were pretty darn close!  B, Benjamin, and I went with a single guy B works with as well as another couple and their three-year-old.

So five adults, a three-year-old, and a ten-month-old made the drive in two cars Friday, September 4, 2015 in the afternoon.  It was quite the adventurous drive across England and into Wales.  We were staying in the adorable town of Betws-y-coed, about 20 minutes from Mount Snowdon.  By the time we got into Wales, the windy, narrow roads were made even more difficult to navigate by the dark and rain.  The seven of us stayed in an awesome house called Bryn Awel {only downfall was its driveway, which was quite treacherous!}.  The house was situated in a perfect location; we could walk into town for meals and exploring, and it allowed easy access to Mount Snowdon, Swallow Falls, and Conwy Castle.

So, the Welsh language is pretty insane.  Luckily, most things were in English as well, but seriously, can I buy a vowel?

dsc_1623-min

Anyway, we arrived late Friday night and pretty much just passed out immediately, as we were planning on hiking Mount Snowdon the following day.  We started our Saturday morning with a walk into Betws-y-coed town centre and had breakfast at Alpine Coffee Shop (we enjoyed it so much that we returned Sunday and Monday morning too!).  After filling our bellies we gathered some info about the mountain from a local information centre, then headed to the trailhead.

We got there around 11:30, and ended up having to park a little ways away from the actual start of the trail.  There are 6 main routes up/down Mount Snowdon with varying degrees of difficulty.  Because we had two kiddos in hiking backpacks, we decided to do a kind of middle-of-the-road difficulty trek: the Pyg Track up and the Miner’s Track down.  Including our journey from the car to the trailhead, we ended up hiking about 11 miles total.

**Sidenote:  B and I purchased a hiking backpack [similar to this one] secondhand from another military member, and it was perfect for this trip–it provided much more stability and support than our normal everyday carriers, was mostly comfortable on the hips and shoulders, and had some storage room for a few diapers, wipes, and snacks.  I carried Benjamin on the hike up, and B took over for the descent.  I didn’t like the idea of falling forward with something like 30 extra pounds on my back on the way down, so I opted for the ascent!  As you can see, Benjamin seemed to like the carrier too!    

The weather was absolutely perfect for us.  No rain and barely a cloud in the sky {practically unheard of in the UK!}, with the sun shining and temps in the 50s.  We truly couldn’t have asked for a better day!!  The scenery was seriously breathtaking.  I have never seen such green grass and turquoise, sparkling water.  I will just let some photos do the talking….

Gorgeous, right?

All of us were dog-tired after our adventure, so we got some dinner in town, then headed back to the house for some wine and beer nightcaps before bed.

Sunday, after breakfast, we headed to the town of Conwy, about 3o minutes away.  The town is pretty cool because the original town walls are still in tact in many areas, so you can climb up and walk around them.  They gave great views of the surrounding areas and the castle.

We made our way to the castle itself after a stop in a yummy bakery we stumbled upon.

The castle was pretty cool {our friends’ three-year-old especially thought so!!}.  Much of it consisted of ruins, but there were intact interior spaces and towers that we could climb, giving amazing views!

That afternoon, once we got back into Betws-y-coed, B and I (and Benjamin) headed into town to check out the stream/waterfall and bridge running through town, which was pretty.  As you can tell in the pictures, since we drove to Wales and had room in the car, we brought our Ergo and stroller in addition to the hiking backpack carrier.  We had a yummy dinner in town and spent the evening relaxing with everyone in the house.

We wanted to get on the road relatively early Monday morning, and were hoping to check out Swallow Falls, a well-known dramatic waterfall in Betws-y-coed.  We almost drove right past it, as it is fairly well hidden despite its fame.  There is a £2 fee to enter the park area, but it is well worth it!  Once you walk in, you are led to the first part of the waterfall, which is impressive in itself.  However, after many more stairs and some serious legwork, you can see the entire falls in its glory.  It was beautiful!  Definitely worth the stop and the entrance fee!  I think my favorite part was when our friend decided we should take a selfie with all of us, so we used a wallet to prop up his cell phone on the {wet from the mist of the falls} handrail and used a timer.  After a bit of finagling, we got it to work without anything falling into the water, miraculously!  I am so glad we found it and spent the little bit of time to see it!

I think we all agreed that this was a great little road trip from where we live – not too far and absolutely beautiful!  I would love to revisit Wales sometime!