An update on Travels with Brenda and a new trip planned

Greetings all–

It has been a while, but I wanted to catch you up on my travels!

My travels the past year covered a wide variety of destinations, both domestic and international, and included some unexpected events such as experiencing a major earthquake in Nepal! But, more about that later….Let’s start off with my report on a truly World Class destination….

SOUTH AFRICA

English: capetown, south africa from the table...
Capetown, South Africa from the Table Mountain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Prior to our scheduled SPT South Africa group trip this July, I flew down to Capetown in early November of 2014 for a combination vacation/inspection tour.  This is a once-in-a-lifetime destination that is worth every dollar spent. For those of you who could not join the group, the trip can still be done on a private basis, for a small additional cost. The exchange rate on the Rand vs the U.S. dollar is very favorable right now and if this is a destination you have dreamed about, give me a call (800 655 0222 x 802) or shoot me an email (Brenda@maximours.com) and we will come up with a package that is within your budget.

Capetown requires 3 or 4 nights to cover the highlights. This is an ethnically varied, sophisticated, fun loving city that charms you at every corner. And one of the most beautiful cities in the world to boot!

We spent our first day with a local guide doing what is called “The Walking Eats Tours.” More than food, it covers local history as well.  We started off in the old Dutch section of town with its colorful brightly painted houses, which was an early identification method, before there were numbered houses.  From there we strolled through the ethnic neighborhoods, munching on refreshing fruit drinks, Arab & Malaysian street treats, with funny names like boobootie and bunny chow, and eventually worked our way to an Indian spice store where we inhaled large vats of aromatic spices. As we gathered up little packets of spices to bring to friends and family back home, the store owner handed us sheets of recipes to go with the spices.   Our next stop was the local open air handicraft markets, where drummers and dancers, many of them little children, amazed us with their stamina and dancing skill.

Our most poignant stop was a visit to the small, but immensely powerful, District 6 Museum that tells the story of a racially and culturally mixed community, including white South Africans, that lived in harmony until the Apartheid government razed the neighborhood to the ground. Some 60,000 residents were forcibly removed from their homes. Original residents of this community still gather at the museum. If you visit there, take the time to speak with them. Eventually our feet gave out, and after 4 or 5 hours of walking, we circled back to the car, stopping in the unusual unique art galleries along the way. The tour can be done by moving the car from place to place, but we chose to walk it all the way. That evening we enjoyed a delicious seafood dinner on the Waterfront, accompanied by an excellent South African wine and some great people watching. The hotel scene in Capetown runs a broad spectrum, there is something to suit every budget and taste.

Our next day was spent touring the Capetown Peninsula, a marvelous day, visiting lighthouses, beaches and the Magellenic penguin colony, whose inhabitants were happy to pose for our cameras as we strolled the boardwalk alongside them. Other day trips include a full day to the nearby wine country, where parents can sample wines while the kids sample chocolates. You can combine that with a visit to a nearby Cheetah Sanctuary, making this a perfect family day. Don’t forget to explore Table Mountain, looming overhead with its blanket of clouds known locally as the “tablecloth.” A full day is also needed to visit nearby Robbens Island, where Nelson Mandela spent many years in prison.

Following our Capetown visit, we flew to Kruger for our eagerly awaited safari. There are safari camps and lodges of all variations and costs, ranging from simple comfortable tent accommodations with private bath to luxurious lodges. All of them will provide outstanding animal viewing and a unique experience in the Bush. The schedule is the same in each place, early morning game driver followed by an afternoon rest at the lodge, and then a late afternoon game drive. We were fortunate to see all the animals we yearned to see –giraffes, a pack of lions voraciously consuming a kill, a herd of elephants trumpeting to each other while they grazed, rhino mommies with their babies, hippos basking in the waters, even some baby lion cubs who were curious enough to approach our safari vehicle. But the piece de resistance was tracking a beautiful pregnant cheetah through the bush. To watch a big cat in the wild is truly a lifetime experience.

On the long long flight home, rather than the direct flight from Johannesburg to Washington DC, we chose to route ourselves through Frankfurt and spend a few hours with my son, who resides in Stuttgart, having an early morning breakfast with him, before hopping on the nonstop Frankfurt to Denver flight. It was delightful to see him, but to get there, we had to change planes in Lagos, Nigeria, which is not a connection I recommend.   This is a very confusing exceptionally busy airport with poor signage and it was one of the most stressful airport connections I ever encountered. Despite that negative, our luggage arrived promptly in Denver airport, after 5 flights getting home. And that is what I call Great Luggage Karma.

NEW MEXICO

English: The view from atop a dune at White Sa...
The view from atop a dune at White Sands National Monument, near Alamogordo, New Mexico, in the southwestern United States. The Sacramento Mountains span the horizon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This neighboring state continues to draw us in to visit unexplored areas that are family friendly. For Thanksgiving weekend of 2014 we headed further south and spent a couple of nights at the The Lodge at Cloudcroft, up in the mountains of southern NM. This quirky charming lodge had a great restaurant called Rebecca’s, so named after the beautiful red headed woman who was killed by a jealous lover. It is said she haunts the place, but we did not see her.   Only 45 minutes away, heading down the mountain is White Sands National Monument, an awesome family destination. Here you can hike the dunes, enjoy a family picnic under the shaded picnic tables, and slide down the dunes on one of those plastic saucers, available for purchase at the gift shop. Shrieks of joy from parents and kids alike could be heard near the picnic areas. This is a desert so come prepared with hats, sun screen and lots of water as there are no services within the park.   As we left the park, we came upon an expected pleasure…lots of pistachio farms with roadside stands. You can do pistachio tasting (and wine tasting too, if you want). Even a farm tour! Our favorite place was Pistachio Land. Check out their website, you can order online – great holiday gifts and the best pistachios I ever enjoyed! http://www.pistachioland.com/

On the way home we overnighted at the historic Hotel Albuquerque in Old Town Albuquerque. This is a fun overnight stop and a nice family friendly charming hotel.   There is plenty of Native American handicraft shopping and lovely little restaurants including the Church Street Café, behind the church, converted from a former spacious hacienda.

On another note, last July we attended the Santa Fe Opera for a performance of Carmen.  Although this is not an activity suitable for young children, it is an event unique unto itself and a lovely way to introduce older children to the opera. The setting is magnificent, overlooking the mountains, and the evening is magical as you are seated in a covered outdoor area, watching the sunset. Preceding the opera are tail gate parties, but these parties are wine and cheese rather than burgers and beer. Often a local professor will give a free lecture about the opera just prior to the performance. Dress code ranges from casual to dressy.

INDIA AND NEPAL

Taj Mahal, Agra
Taj Mahal, Agra (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Each year I do a Girlie Getaway with my best friend of over 30 years. This year we decided to go hog wild and kill two birds with one stone, covering two of our big bucket list destinations.   We found a Gate One two week package at a good rate, leaving in April, which included the highlights of both countries. Our first stop was Delhi where we arrived after a long 16 hour flight from Newark direct to Delhi. Our first full day was spent touring the city including a temple community complex run by the Sikhs. The Sikhs are a warrior class (these are the men who wear turbans and sometimes carry a scabbard). It is their job to protect people. The enormous temple complex we visited was a study in volunteer activity. In every direction were men and women preparing or cooking food. Cooking vats the size of small automobiles were being stirred, Indian breads were popping off a small conveyor belt and fresh vegetables and fruits were being chopped endlessly by men in white and women in brightly colored saris. All were happy to pose for pictures. Outside the temple, truckloads of fresh produce and bags of grain were being unloaded, all sent by anonymous donors. The temple feeds anyone who enters, no matter his or her religious beliefs or station in life. All are welcome.

We later visited the home and museum of Gandhi, one of history’s great men, who changed the course of history and culture for India. Gandhi insisted people be treated equally and that the country rid itself of the stigma of the Untouchables.   He encouraged better treatment of women and urged his fellow citizens to abstain from drugs and alcohol. And of course he was a key element in throwing off the yoke of British colonialism. The house showed his Spartan bedroom and the actual last few steps he took in the garden before being assassinated by a fellow countryman who did not like the way Gandhi handled the India/Pakistan conflict.

Our week in India included the famous Golden Triangle : Delhi, Jaipur and Agra (the city next to the Taj Mahal). Each city was only about 60 miles apart and roads were good but each journey took at least 4 hours of driving with stops along the way due to the fact that the roads go through all the small towns. There are no express city bypass roads. Traveling from city to city was like being on an amusement ride as you watched motorcycles and cars and buses miss colliding with each other, as they passed within inches of each other. Somehow it was worked out and we witnessed no vehicle accidents.

The transit times passed rather quickly as our guide often lectured on topics of interest, including arranged marriages, still very common in India. He himself recently wed with an arranged marriage which seemed to suit him fine. He explained that families marry families and divorce rates are low, despite the brief time that the potential bride and groom meet prior to the wedding.   Astrology is also a major part of the process including setting the wedding date.

The highlight of our visit to Jaipur, the Pink City, was the ride up to the Amber Fort on an elephant. I had ridden an elephant in Thailand, but that time we straddled the elephant. This time it was a sidesaddle ride and I held on for dear life as the elephant loped his way up the mountain, side to side. The only thing keep me from slipping off was a thin metal bar across my waist. I clung so hard my knuckles went white. And in the middle of all this, were the hawkers selling their goods and tossing items up to the tourists. The fort was phenomenal, a labyrinth of hidden dark corridors leading out into beautiful covered open areas where families used to gather to drink tea, socialize and watch the sunset.   The city had been painted pink in 1876 to celebrate the visit of the Prince of Wales.

Our final destination was Agra and our much anticipated visit to the Taj Mahal. It was everything we expected and more. Larger than I thought and even more beautiful than its photos, it is also surrounded by smaller, quite lovely temples. We got an early morning start, good for photos as well as avoiding the 100 degrees plus heat. Buses and vehicles are no longer allowed close to the Taj, you park off in the distance and are transferred by little electric vehicles so the Taj does not suffer so much from pollution.

Indians are encouraged to visit their country’s famous destinations and temples and have special low entry fees. This is most apparent at the Taj Mahal where Indians of all stations in life were happily playing tourist. Our guide encouraged us to linger at the back of the temple and there we found throngs of people, from all over the world taking pictures of each other. Indians especially are fascinated with blondes and often asked my friend and me to pose for pictures with them. We, in turn, were enchanted with their beautiful saris and dark beauty. It was a photo frenzy full of laughter and joy.

We returned to Delhi for one night before flying to Kathmandu on a Friday afternoon. Driving into the city revealed a jumble of buildings with cafes and shops beckoning us. That evening was our first Nepalese meal in a typical local restaurant. The next morning we visited the monkey stupa , then headed out of town and at noon the 7.9 earthquake struck, while we were on the road. The bus slammed on the brakes and bounced up and down and at first I thought we hit a motorcyclist. Then the bus shook side to side and we saw people on the street struggling to keep their balance. Only 50 feet in front of us, the road had heaved upward so we turned around and headed back to the hotel. Our hotel was actually a gated complex, with a conference building and high rise section with guest rooms. We were instructed to sit on the lawn where we soon experienced a second quake as the ground underneath us moved side to side.  Everyone was quiet and soon the staff came around with bottled water and saw to every one’s needs. No one was hurt, the hotel was new, built to earthquake specifications, so my friend and I decided we would treat this as an adventure, rather than an ordeal. We joined other members of our group poolside. Somebody had a bottle of rum and the hotel provided coke so we had an earthquake party!

A wedding tent was set up for a wedding that day which, of course, was cancelled. The hotel staff tossed out mattresses and blankets and pillows from the first floor guest rooms and set everyone up to sleep in the tent.   Pool water was pumped out to the toilets adjoining the pool, a hot meal was provided for us and we all helped clear the debris from the walkaways and pool areas. All our basic needs were met, and so we settled into our “deluxe refugee camp. “ The main negative was that communications were down and we could not reach loved ones for 2 days.   The next night the monsoon rains hit and we downgraded our refugee camp to tourist class. We all huddled together in the center of the tent to avoid the rain and winds and soon it became a snoring symphony. The next day we ventured out of the hotel grounds and found 2 nearby tourist stores open. We gave them our headlamps and flashlights and bought whatever we could, which, we were told, would support their families for 2 weeks. On our 4th day we were able to fly to Delhi where we overnighted and enjoyed a hot shower and a celebratory meal before flying home. The Nepalese people were the most kind and caring people I ever met in my world travels. They saw to our needs, worked almost round the clock, despite their personal problems. Their families were safe and brought to the hotel for food and shelter, but many lost their homes. I urge everyone to contribute to rebuilding of the Nepalese tourism infrastructure. More news to follow about that.

WASHINGTON STATE

The skyline of Seattle, Washington at dusk. In...
The skyline of Seattle, Washington at dusk. Interstate 5 is the freeway that cuts through downtown and Puget Sound is visible to the left. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In late May we flew off to Seattle and rented a car for a one week fly /drive vacation to this beautiful state. Eager to taste those Washington State oysters, we stopped at the Timberhouse Restaurant in Quilcene for lunch, a bit pricey but very good! Our first overnight stop was Olympic National Park where we stayed 2 nights at the family friendly Sol Doc Hot Springs Hotel with bungalows surrounding the main building and hot springs area. You are in the heart of nature at this place. We spent a day driving to the HO area where you can “Hike the Ho” on 3 easy different trails, which take about an hour each depending on how fast you walk and how many photos you take. This is the only rain forest in the continental U.S. and the moss covered trees are a beautiful sight to behold.   While on the peninsula, plan or spending some time in, or staying overnight at Port Townsend, a lovely little town at the northern tip of the peninsula.

From there we drove to Mt Rainier National Park and headed up the mountain to the Paradise Inn, a charming historic inn and national landmark.  Little did we realize that Mt Rainer is the snowiest place in the continental U.S.A. After driving through the sunshine we eventually reached the clouds and the fog-shrouded Paradise Inn. We almost missed the turn off to the parking lot. The inn has an enormous cozy lobby, complete with piano player and a beautiful sunken dining room with views of the mountains on either side. Guest rooms are small but they are renovating many of the wings to accommodate larger rooms. Even in late May, most of the trails feeding off from the lodge were snow covered so we checked out after our one night stay and headed further down the mountain for some hiking.

We then headed east to the wine country of Walla Walla, staying with friends and enjoying the wines of Washington State. If you stop in the town, be sure to enjoy lunch at the Olive Marketplace and Café at 21 E. Main St, with a stunning array of delicious fresh foods at reasonable prices. There are many wineries to visit, one of which is called L’École Winery as it was converted from an old schoolhouse.

Our final 2 night stay was at the Ace Hotel in Seattle, a quirky interesting property. Located in a trendy neighborhood restaurant area, with relatively reasonable prices, it has one big drawback: Parking is a bear! The local paid parking areas must be vacated by 11:00pm so around 9:30pm, after the restaurant crowd left, we moved our car searching for street parking which is free after 9:00pm. The hotel has no A/C and no private baths, but it is spanky clean with a bank of bathrooms down the hall replenished frequently with fresh towels and high end shampoos, conditioners and body washes.   And the major tourist sites are all within walking distance of the hotel.

The city of Seattle has so much to offer it is impossible to list it all. We rode up the obligatory Space Needle, checked out Pioneer Square and thoroughly enjoyed exploring Pike’s Market where we had an excellent seafood lunch at Anthonys’ Restaurant. But our last excursion was one of the highlights of our trip: the Boeing plant in Everett, WA, north of the city. If you do not have a car, there are bus companies that offer half day tours at reasonable prices and the guides are very good as they point out the history of Google and Amazon along the drive.   The Boeing plant never closes and tours are offered every day of the year, advance reservations recommended. The tour takes a half day with transfers and is well worth it. You are shuttled on a van to the 2 sides of the largest building in the world and then inside you walk on multi- level platforms to see the workers assembling the parts of the various planes. The body of the plane is assembled from 3 parts, plus wings and the tail, which are flown in from all over the world on a special cargo plane called the Dreamlifter. Safety is the number #1 issue here. The highlight of the tour for me, was at the end, when we saw a fully assembled latest version of the Dreamliner. The wings are swept back like eagle wings and they move while in flight to dampen turbulence. The plane was a thing of beauty, and I cannot wait for the opportunity to fly it!

After the tour, as our vehicle pulled out of the parking lot, we were thrilled to see a Dreamlifter come in for a landing right in front of us. The landing was perfect but the cargo plane was so heavy it threw up dust from the runway as the tires slammed down on the tarmac. A fitting end to our tour.

COLORADO

English: Big Powderhorn Mountain ski resort - ...
Big Powderhorn Mountain ski resort – view from Dynamite Trail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Each year we continue to explore new areas of our home state. Over July 4th weekend we drove to the quirky town of Rifle, Colorado, near the Utah border, for an overnight stay. A portion of the movie “Vanishing Point” was filmed in Rifle. Scenes include a shot of Kowalski’s car crossing a white metal bridge and confronting Utah state patrol cars. Rifle was also mentioned in Stephen King’s “The Stand.”

Nearby is Rifle State Park, popular with rock climbers and the Colorado National Monument, a beautiful drive and worth the short detour west. We ate at the Shooter’s Grill where all the wait staff carry a gun on their hip. Shades of the Wild West! The restaurant offers good food at a reasonable price and is popular with both tourists and locals.

After that we spent the morning driving across the Grand Mesa to Montrose for a 2 night stay. This is a glorious drive, not difficult, with lots of interesting stops. First stop was the Powderhorn Ski Area for a cold lemonade. We learned that the lodge offers a 2 week summer program called Wireless for Warriors that teaches our vets electrical and technical skills that help them get back into the mainstream after defending their country. Many are offered jobs before they finish the course. The expenses are covered by the federal programs for Veterans.

Another outstanding stop was in Cedaredge at the Pioneer Town. www.pioneertown.org Allow at least an hour for this excellent attraction. I have visited many historic and pioneer towns but this was tops on my list. Manned by volunteers, the museum and town was built by volunteers as well and the antique items inside the various structures were all donated and consequently the real deal. There is a jail, a small sheriff’s office and yes you can sit at his desk! The bank and the safe looked like something out of the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” You can go behind the teller’s window and pretend you are a banker.   The saloon has a poker table and old time mirrors plus there is a working creamery, a doll house and a wonderful old doctor’s office with the original medical equipment from over 100 years ago. Be sure to stop in the small towns advertising peaches and cherries as you are now on the Western Slope, where the sweet Palisade peaches are grown.

The next day we headed to the nearby Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, a scenic and geological wonder.   We started off with a 10:00am one hour ranger guided hike along the rim which explained the history and the geology of the area. These free ranger guided hikes are always a great way to get to know the national parks.   Next we viewed the film at the Visitor’s Center and learned about how the railroad and the roads and the land was surveyed. Most astonishing was the 2 surveyors who, on their second try down the river in 1901, crashed their remaining boat and decided to jump into the water, and finish the job. They survived and became famous and did complete their survey.

After that we spent about 2 hours driving the rim and stopping at all the viewpoints for a short hike and some photos. By early afternoon the sun and heat had wiped us out so we headed back to town for a cold beer and sandwiches at the Horsefly Restaurant on Main St. Another great place to eat on Main Street is the Two Sisters Bistro – outstanding breakfast. On the drive home, we stopped in the cute little town of Palisade which offers a Sunday morning artisan and produce market. We filled up our trunk with fresh fruit and little artisan gifts for family.

There are several other quirky and interesting things to do in Colorado, which I am listing below:

The Bed Race in the town of Central City

This is held in June in this historic town and yes it is a gambling town, but the focus is on its historic architecture.   The bed race is a carry-over from its history and 2 men push a lady on a bed down Main Street. Everyone is dressed in period clothes and the ladies are dressed like dance hall girls. The entertainment goes on all day and is a fun day trip from Denver, only 45 minutes away.

Riverside Cemetery

This historic cemetery in the heart of Denver encompasses Colorado’s very early history as well as recent burials. There are ethnic sections plus surveyor sections, nurse sections and if you head over to the oldest section for our military you will find the small gravestone of Silas Soule, the officer who refused to have his unit participate in the Sand Creek Massacre. His gravestone is revered by the Native Americans who often leave flowers and tokens at his grave on the anniversary of this terrible day in our history.

LoDo Haunted Walking Tour

LoDo or Lower Downtown is the site of many saloons, brothels and railroad hotels that thrived during the rollicking days of the 1860’s and beyond.   This 2 hour walking tour visits those sites that are still standing, albeit transformed into another business, and are still considered haunted. The beautiful Oxford Hotel is one of them and despite its numerous renovations, it has a long history of hauntings.

http://www.5280.com/dwell/digital/2014/08/historic-denver-launches-walking-tours-lodo

Elk Bugling excursions to Rocky Mt National Park *****

This has become our favorite annual activity in the state of Colorado. Every year from mid-September to mid or late October, the bucks, filled with testosterone, begin bugling in the wee hours of the morning and then descend down the mountains to the meadows where they spend their day defending their harem from the young bucks, or trying to increase it. It is a glorious thrilling event and the panorama that unfolds is different each year.   In years past we saw 2 adolescent brothers mustering up the courage to challenge a big bull and then running away when the big bull surged forward. Last year we saw a big bull with a harem of 20 females spending the morning chasing after 2 of his females as they trotted off the get friendly with a young male challenger. When the bull brought the ladies back into the fold, he chastised them, nipping their butts and literally barking at them. Finally, exasperated, he ran across the road, and up the hill to chase after his challenger. We were only about 40 feet from him, next to our car, when he turned and chased.   About 20 people were watching roadside, like us, and quickly dispersed or jumped into their cars when the buck ran by.

The best way to do this excursion is to arrive at the park about an hour before dawn. (Yes it is grueling to get up that early but it is worth it!) Drive past the visitor center, (you can use the bathrooms even though the visitors center is not yet open). Then follow the turn off to Moraine Meadow and park your car next to the meadow and on the side of the road, but off the road. Dress in winter clothes, parka, hat, gloves and bring blankets and folding chairs. Use a flashlight to get your gear out of the trunk but then turn it off. Sit next to your car. You will not see anything but the elk are surrounding you and they see you and will avoid you.   Then sit and listen to the serenade of bugling all around you and all across the mountains. It is the wild call of nature and very thrilling. As dawn approaches, the elk will come down to the meadow and you can follow the herds on foot, along the road, or re-park your car as needed. About 2-3 hours after dawn, the show is over as the elk head back up the mountains to rest. By then you will have shed your parka, hat and gloves and can drive into the town of Estes Park and have a delicious well- earned breakfast in town. On the way home, about 20 minutes away (10 miles outside the park on Route 36) stop and buy some delicious cherry pies, just like Grandma made, at the Colorado Cherry Pie Company (on your left). http://coloradocherrycompany.com/

SPT IS GOING BACK TO PERU!!!

A llama (Lama Glama) in front of the Machu Pic...
A llama (Lama Glama) in front of the Machu Picchu archeological site, Peru. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Finally, we’re headed back to Peru. Dates are July 15-23, 2016. Due to popular demand, we are returning to this outstanding destination and will visit Lima, the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, Cusco, and the awesome Lake Titicaca. Special family activities will be arranged. Come join us for a spectacular vacation!

My Medifast Update #2 – Down 32

OK, I promised to not be one of those nudges and update on my progress all the time–it’s been almost 2 months since the last update and I am beyond thrilled with the results. So far, I have lost 32 pounds and I can see all sorts of changes.

  • My family crest ring may need to be re-sized
  • I am wearing some clothing that was previously too tight
  • I am feeling a lot better in general
  • My endurance is up

I am still riding the bike when I can–it’s getting cold; but I find that going faster or longer is becoming easier and easier. The days when I don’t ride the bike, I have taken to walking. Usually it is just 2 miles at a brisk pace at night after things have calmed down.  I crank up the tunes on my phone and just kick it out.  A few times I even walked with 5 pound dumb bells in my hands to exercise.  Longest bike ride was 12 miles in just under an hour, and the longest walk was 6 miles in just under 2 hours.  For that long walk, I was hanging out while my daughter was at driver’s ed and decided to take a walk partially around the airport–they have a path.

And while I abhor running, I am going to consider a 5K in the New Year.

I downloaded a free app for my phone a while ago called Map My Fitness and it keeps track of your activity–makes it really easy.

Screenshot 2013-11-26 20.08.48

I am finding that my mindset has changed. I am looking at calories on labels and thinking smart (boring) when I eat out. I still would give my left arm for a pizza, cheese steak from Philly and the eggs benedict from the local breakfast place; but I am holding out till I really hit a big milestone and will celebrate.

I do not think I am gong to hit my 6o pounds by New Years goal as I have been averaging between 3 and 4 pounds a week. So, I might get 50.  But it’s always good to have a goal to reach!  On Friday, I go in for the procedure on the little magic machine.  It is a scale and a magician that tells you all sorts of stuff just by holding onto these two metal poles–body fat, muscle, etc. And that will be 3 full months on the program.

The food and supplements are running between $85 and $120 a week, so it is not cheap. But, I have also not been shopping at the grocery nearly as often.

Maybe when May rolls around and we head up to the ranch (announcement tomorrow), I can ride the horse instead of the horse riding me!

Hopefully my next update will be around New Years and I will be down 50.  We shall see, there are a few tough weeks of food temptation in between!

If anyone is interested in the minutiae of this whole thing, I did start a blog that tracks the ups and downs a bit more frequently — My Medifast Weight Loss

Family Travel In The Electronic Age

ipadplaneShould kids be allowed to be connected electronically when the family travels? How much is too much and what limits are appropriate?

As a mom of 3 teenagers aged 17, 15, and 14 I have watched my kids get sucked into the vortex that is social media.  I can hardly blame them as media technology has swept over society like an electronic tsunami.  Any news item at all is followed in real time as it happens and even the most trivial post can go viral seen by millions worldwide in an instant if the masses deem it worthy.  Kids and adults are tethered to their smartphones using it for anything and everything the least of which is making actual calls.  My how things have changed.  When I was my kid’s age, any communication that wasn’t done face to face was done over the phone in my room.  If I wasn’t in my room, I was out of luck, cut off from my friends, completely oblivious to what was happening having to rely solely on my memory to share information until I had the opportunity to do so when I got home (and got my photos back from developing).

Today, the world is a completely different place.  Every impression can be posted instantly, liked, commented on, shared with friends, tweeted, re-tweeted, and instagramed, and that’s just for starters. What’s truly mind boggling as a parent, is how knowledgeable and proficient my kids are at all of this.  So the question is, do we let the kids stay connected electronically when on a family trip, or force them to shut down and reconnect the old fashioned way.  What place if any do electronics have on a family road trip?

A Little Down Time is OK, Kids need to learn to entertain themselves

When the kids were small, I did not allow those DVD players in the car that are hooked up to the back of the front row of seats so the kiddies can watch cartoons to pass the time while driving.  I don’t believe every free moment needs to be filled with television or anything for that fact that takes us outside of reality, which in my opinion does not allow kids to figure out how to entertain themselves.  I like to use travel time in the car to talk about what we’ve seen or where we’re going, listen and sing along to music, and most importantly look out the window at the passing landscape. Being on the road is not just about the stops and fun activities, it’s also understanding similarities and differences as we drive from place to place.

Understand it’s impossible to disconnect completely but it’s important to set limits

As a seasoned traveler with children I have watched this issue snowball over time. As the kids have gotten older they spend infinitely more time connecting and engaging over their smartphones.  As a parent, I have always preached moderation to my kids in whatever they do, eating sweets, watching television, and a host of other things.  The important thing I want my kids to learn is how to set their own limits.  In today’s day and age, its pretty difficult to disconnect kids from the phenomenon of social media in the electronic age, but it is important to let kids know that it’s not all access all the time.  I don’t allow cell phone use during meals either at home or when we travel.  I also don’t allow cell phone use during activities when we travel unless they are sharing something they have learned or find really interesting.  I explained to my kids that burying themselves in their cell phones during activities on our road trips is disrespectful to me, the person who planned and paid for the activity-something that I felt they would benefit from and enjoy. My kids get that, but that’s because I’ve made a point of having a conversation about it. I’ve taken the time to explain to them why it’s wrong-not telling them, chastising them, or even embarrassing them, but explaining it to them. The biggest mistake we make as parents is underestimating our kid’s capacity to understand.

Embrace the technology, it could be your kids that come to your rescue

On our most recent summer road trip to New England, I found myself relying more and more on my kids to help navigate where we were going even finding our way back in a sticky situation when we were lost. On our first evening in Boston, we walked a good 2 miles from our hotel to the harbor to watch the fireworks.  There were throngs of people and most of the roads were blocked off surrounding the area for security purposes.  After the show there was a mass exodus as people headed out of the area.  In our excitement to secure a good spot we hadn’t made mental notes to retrace our steps back to the hotel and found ourselves lost and confused in the huge moving crowd.  The kids and I made it to a corner and the three of them whipped out their cell phones and using various apps figured out where we were and where we needed to go to get back.  I am sure I could have figured it out on my own in time, but they were infinitely faster at it and more efficient than I would ever be.  I was quite proud of them and it eased my mind to know that if they ever found themselves alone in a similar situation that they could rely on their electronic tools to find their way.

Technology is the future, there is no denying that, but what’s important is making sure your kids know when it’s appropriate to use and when it’s not.  They don’t need to be tethered to their phone at all times and usually a conversation that results in an understanding about limits is all that’s required. They need to understand the beauty of real life in the here and now and real dialogue as a family are as important as that viral video that everyone is sharing. But as parents we also need to understand that is the norm of how kids communicate.  We need to embrace the positives like sharing what they’ve seen and learned on family trips, and engaging them to use their powerful electronic tools when their help is required.  With that kind of understanding a great deal of stress can be eliminated between kids and parents when it comes to electronics on the road.

About Alisa Abecassis

Alisa Abecassis is the proud mother of three children – Lilia, 17; Isaac, 15; and Joel, 14. After her marriage ended, she decided it was time to strengthen her family’s bonds and personal history by traveling and gaining a better appreciation all 50 United States. Her website, www.Exploreall50.com is filled with resources for family travel in America, as well as other groups and individuals. Abecassis has a bachelor’s degree in political science from UCLA. Connect with her on Twitter @ExploreAll50.

My Medifast Update #1–Down 15

maleweightlossI’ll keep this short and sweet. After a month, of eating flavored cardboard described as “nutritional food” I am seeing a lot of progress. Actually the food is not all that bad. There is some that is horrible (to me) and much of it is very tolerable to the point where I do not think of it as a chore to eat. The cardboard meals are supplements with their “digestive health pills” Vitamin B-12 and some “Super Omega 3″ fish oil pills–I hate fish…good thing they are in a pill.

I bought a bike and try to ride it 5 days a week and I do not have a regimen or any specific goals other than to ride what I perceive as further, harder, or longer than the day before. If the little app on my phone is correct, I am succeeding in that.  It is amazing when you have not really ridden a bike in many years how shaky you can be. Of course you never forget how to ride one, but if I try to do a turn signal or wave a car past me, I find that I have a tough time maintaining control.  So–to hell with the cars, they can just figure it out on their own.

I have been eating my Medifast meals during the day and psychologically rewarding myself at night with the dinner of real food. I have conscientiously cut back on portions and now I try to look at the calories for my real meal–probably a smart move on my part.  Some may call it cheating, but I have gone out about weekly with friends and had some drinks and maybe a plate of wings during a football game. I can tell my stomach is smaller as I fill up faster. And after these celebratory meals (and yes, I consider them celebratory), I do try to work extra hard on the bike the following day.

So, where do I stand?  In one month I am down just over 15 pounds and my BMI has dropped 5%.  All of my numbers are going down which is good. In all, I think (can’t remember) I have lost a total of 12”.  But that is a BS number in that they measure your calves, thighs, waist, chest, biceps, and add them all up. But a loss is a loss–much like the Pittsburgh Steelers!

I still have a ways to go and if I can maintain the 15 pounds per month, I will have lost 60 pounds by New Years! Of course, at that point, I will need to put the pressure on SPT because I will need to buy new clothes! HA!

And no. I am not going to reveal the starting weight until I am done. I am seeing progress–onward!

What’s the big deal about gambling at sea?

gamblingIf you’re looking for fun-filled vacations in the deep blue seas, then a cruise is one of the best entertainment solutions available. In addition to all of the activities and pots of call, there is so much to do on a ship; you may never want to leave.

One thing that might surprise you if you have never cruised, are that there are casinos at sea. You no longer need to go to Las Vegas to gamble.  And once you hit international waters, the casinos will open. To give you an idea of how important gambling is to the cruise lines, just look at how much space they occupy. Some of casinos are more than 10,000 sf and may have more than 200 slot machines and 50 gaming tables including craps, blackjack, baccarat, roulette and more.

If you are a gambler (or someone that wants to give it a try) you can enjoy deluxe hospitality while playing or learning your their favorite games.

If you are a novice, it pays to practice and bone up on the rules of the game before you pull out your wallet. Remember, the house ALWAYS has the advantage. And it is very easy to be caught up in the excitement, so a single parent needs to be cautious. There are many resources available on the web to explain the rules of the games and the strategies to increase your odds against the house (or so they say). There are also plenty of casino practice sites that allow you to practice prior to betting a piece of last week’s pay.

But by all means, be a responsible gambler. The cruise lines have casinos to make money—and they do. Never gamble more than you can afford to lose and you are guaranteed to have a good time. Play smart, get lucky, and you may have some spare cash to boot!

As for me? I am not a big gambler and my strategy is to play blackjack (craps is confusing to me) and when I win a hand, I put the winnings in my pocket and not on the table. The concept is sound—take their money and stash it away. My execution leaves a lot to be desired—you also need to know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.

Follow Along On My Journey

Weight_Loss_ScaleUsually I am a chicken and will take the easy way out. I think everyone does to a certain degree. But I am going to step out of my comfort zone here and document a significant change in my life.

Over the years, I put on the freshman 15, the sympathetic pregnancy weight, and all of the other excuses one can come up with to justify being overweight. Last week, I decided that I was going to take control and get back into shape–other than one that is round! And I am going to use the blog portion to keep myself motivated and hold myself accountable.  I suspect that many single parents are in a similar boat. And if my journey can help motivate you–then all the better!

My timing is right. I have two kids in college who are no longer here all of the time (save money on groceries) and one who is a junior in high school with a busy life of her own. I have some time on my hands, and as I get older, I realize I need to take better care of myself.  I need to be able to live long enough to be a pain in the butt to my kids!

I am not going to be obsessive and document each pound lost. I am not even going to tell you my goals…we can wait till the end and I can reveal the whole before-after thing.

What am I doing?

medifast20kdoctors_logoI have two friends here in Annapolis who recently have lost a lot of weight. One of them I see infrequently and last saw him in June. When I saw him again in early August, I literally did not recognize him. Literally! Now guys don’t talk about how much they lost and all that chit chat, but I did ask some general questions and in a nutshell, he was on the Medifast program and started to walk a lot for exercise.  Hmm.

So, I went to the Medifast center near me to talk and ended up signing up. My local center just launched an “ambassador” program where they will waive the program fee in return for me sharing my story at events they host during my time with them. I do need to buy their food for the diet, so there is a cost of about $85 a week. I figure it equals about what I would spend in the grocery in any event. I am not sure of the program fee, but I seem to recall my friend saying it was close to $1000–spread out. But you can do the program without the program fee and you can buy the food online–so there is the ability to save!

I am also serious about this. I went and bought a used bike to get me on some sort of exercise regimen. Running bores the heck out of me. Gyms intimidate me. I figured that as long as I can avoid spandex (a requirement I told the bike dealer) I would enjoy biking.  So there you have it.

Results!

The program is designed to have you eat 6 meals a day, but smaller meals. Oh who are we kidding, they are nibbles. Their meals are all about 100 calories a piece and for the most part are not winning any culinary awards. They are bland, dry, and sometimes tasteless. Never get the honey mustard pretzel bites–by dog turned up his nose at them. But there is enough variety that it is tolerable once yo get used to them. For me, I find the granola-ish bars to be great. Easy to eat and easy to take with me–chocolate, cinnamon, and lemon meringue are my favorites. The chicken noodle soup is not bad. The eggs (egg whites) look funny, but toss in some peppers and you are good to go. The shakes are ok as is the macaroni and cheese.

You do need to avoid a lot of fattening oils and carbohydrates. They are good at explaining it to you as well.

And on top of the five meals per day that they provide, you eat one of your own that is considered “lean and green”–they also tell you some good suggestions. I have cheated a little here and there–glass of soda, a few Pringles, a plate of wings–hey it was football night! And they understand that and are not real jerks about it. But after a week, I was definitely more conscious of portion size and what I order when I am out.

So, without the benefit of any exercise the first week and solely following the 5:1 plan from Medifast (with a few cheats), I went in for a weekly appointment to shop for cardboard food and check the weight.

Down 9 pounds!

They say that the first month will see the most drastic drop and then it slows down as you go along. We estimate that I will be losing weight for six months to get to my goal. And then from there there is another six months of weaning off the diet and increasing the “on your own” meals. And finally after a year, they want to check you out for another year (monthly or quarterly) to make sure you are not re-gaining, etc. In the end, their product will have helped me shed the weight and their counseling and my willpower will have re-trained my brain to eat smaller and better. And my metabolism will have adjusted to survive and operate on many fewer calories.  That’s the plan anyhow.

So there you have it.  I will keep you posted periodically and if you have any questions, please ask away!

Family Holidays in Benidorm: Ways to Spend your Days

Short haul holidays are ideal for parents travelling with tots and toddlers. Just over an hour’s flight away from all UK airports, holidays in Benidorm are spot on for broods who want to take to the skies but get to feel the sand between their toes as quickly as possible.

When you want to get away from the humdrum of daily life, your workload and that dreaded school timetable, Benidorm is the perfect place for an active sunny sojourn with your nearest and dearest.

As well its two blue flag beaches – the Levante and the Poniente – Benidorm has a huge selection of attractions and events on offer to ensure that little ones are kept occupied during your time away. While digging for treasure and building sandcastles will definitely be on the youngsters’ list of priorities, there’s nothing better than adding a special spark of adventure into the mix.

The main issue is choosing which of the attractions to add into your agenda. Mundomar is a marinelife centre with a difference, providing parents the opportunity to introduce their little ones to sealife centres, including the infamous dolphin swim.

No family getaway is complete without a trip to a waterpark and Aqualandia is sure to add that adrenaline fix into your break away. With over 15 chutes, flumes and pools – from the thrilling Black Hole to the tots’ Adventureland – Aqualandia never fails to please every member of the clan.

With enough splashtime shenanigans to shake a stick at, it’s good to know that Benidorm holidays also have plenty of land based fun for little ones on offer. Both the Terra Mitica theme park and Benidorm Circus are open throughout peak season, offering an alternative form of daytime entertainment.

Whether you’re a tot, a tween, a teen, or simply a big kid, holidays in Benidorm have all the ingredients you need for an unforgettable summer holiday 2013.

NOTE: This guest post is primarily directed towards our UK and European readers.

Tenerife: Top Three Family Attractions

Any parent will know that travelling with kids is very different to vacationing when you were young, free and responsibility-free. When little ones come along, itineraries change and days get based around them, but that shouldn’t mean a summer holiday can’t be thoroughly enjoyed. The trick is to book holidays to suit you but plan activities to suit them. Tenerife is a superb destination choice for this way of thinking, because there’s something for everyone. From exploring the Teide National Park to lounging on the beach, you can guarantee that every member of your family, whatever their age, will have a blast.

tenerife-beach

If you want to spend a day or two treating your little ones to a day out for them, there are plenty of attractions on the island that would be perfect for that, including:

Siam Park

Opened in 2008, Siam Park can be found in the south of the island and a great day for the entire family. Whether you’re heading there with children or you’re just young at heart, this Thailand-themed waterpark includes white knuckle thrills and laidback spills that will satisfy every water baby.

For the young ones, a mini waterpark including smaller slides and water jets will keep them happy for hours while the adrenaline junkies will feel right at home riding the Dragon, Kinnaree and the Tower of Power.

Loro Parque

Home to a veritable menagerie, Loro Parque continues to be incredibly popular with locals and tourists alike. Home to hundreds of parrots as well as chimpanzees, alligators and a gorilla enclosure, it’s a must-visit if you’re a wildlife lover.

Dolphin, Orca and sea lion shows can be seen every day throughout the summer season, while the largest penguinarium in the world can also be found within the park.

Dolphin Spotting

There’s nothing better than seeing dolphins and whales in their natural habitat and in the warm waters surrounding Tenerife, you can do just that!

Whether you decide to enjoy an excursion or two or your kids are happy digging for treasure on the beach, a summer vacation in Tenerife is a must, this summer.

Is The Middle East Safe For Family Travel On A budget?

Traveling can be stressful under the best of circumstances, but when you are planning a trip overseas the stress increases. When you toss in a destination that might be featured on the nightly news–well, what’s a parent to do? I am a firm believer in traveling and have taken my own kids to some destinations that other might consider “dicey.”

However, I am not stupid. I do not put us in harm’s way and I travel responsibly and very aware of my surroundings. Some simple rules will go a long way to insuring a hassle-free, and most importantly a safe trip.

Don’t load yourself down with cash. Petty thieves and pickpockets are all over. Credit is your friend when traveling. Keep you wallet in your front pocket (men) or your purse slung across your chest (women) to make sure it is close to you. If you are ever bumped into or put in a situation where you are distracted, be sure to check for your belongings immediately. My kids joke with me about my nervous tick where I am always patting my pocket to make sure my wallet is there. As I said, credit cards are universally accepted and it does pay to compare credit cards to save on currency fees. You would be surprised.

Speaking of money, you also should make sure that you have enough money in your bank account. If you are the victim of a pickpocket and need cash, your bank is going to be better positioned to help you immediately than a credit card company.  One time in New Orleans I was the victim of a pickpocket in the casino. While the credit card companies needed to get police reports and forms to initiate the process; my bank just needed to be assured it was me, and I was on my way with my own cash. Don’t forget about leaving some behind!

And remember, the Middle East encompasses a lot more than the hotspots you hear on the news.  The cultures and sights are beautiful, majestic, and literally once in a lifetime experiences. While Israel and Egypt (although we might argue that is Africa) and some of the nations on the Saudi Peninsula get all the attention, you might want to consider visiting  Turkey for example. You have ancient cities filled with bustling markets, and one of the friendliest group of people in the world. Bonus points for Turkey is that they adore children and will fawn over you and be willing to show you their world. If you are there, take them up on the offer and catch a glimpse into an ancient world.

Keeping safe abroad is very easy. Remember, we have crime in our own backyards and just because we are traveling on vacation is no reason to let our guard down. You would not regularly carry thousands of dollars in your purse or wallet at home–don’t do it on the road. The dark alley in Istanbul is just as dangerous as the dark alley back home in suburban Philadelphia.  Use common sense, keep your wits about you, and enjoy  the world!

Top 3 London Museums For Kids

Every parent knows that at some point getting their child to take an interest in educational and important things can be a challenge.  Dragging them around endless galleries and historical monuments that are aimed solely at adults is more likely to turn them cold to the idea of learning than encourage them.  One answer is to plan trips to specific child friendly and child orientated museums; these are likely to have activities to keep kids entertained and stop them from getting bored five minutes in.  Why not book one of the cheap Travelodge hotel rooms near Liverpool street station and take a trip to one of these child friendly museums in central London.

British Museum

Kids that come here seem to gravitate towards the Egyptian section.  There’s just something about mummies that appeals to the gory nature that’s inbuilt in children.  On Saturdays there are exciting free activity sessions aimed specifically at children and families, so that’s definitely the best day to visit here if you can.  The museum itself has such a huge catalogue that the curators can only display some of the collection at a time.   Different trails around the exhibitions are available for different age groups to help hold their attention and give them the best learning experience.  This might be a place to take slightly older children to, as although there are things specifically for little ones, there are still a lot of traditional museum exhibits that may not hold the younger ones attention.

Natural History Museum

One word: DINOSAURS.  Whether you’re 5 or 55, dinosaurs are exciting, and they’re even more exciting when there’s a life size diplodocus skeleton, albeit made from plaster, towering above you.  The Natural History Museum is not about telling you the history, it’s about showing you, which for kids, who have notoriously short attention spans, is ideal.  See the sheer scale of the blue whale up close and personal and step on the earthquake simulator and find out what one feels like for yourself.  There is also current a butterfly exhibition at this museum that is ideal for children.

Science Museum

At the science museum kids can really get stuck in and experience science in action.  The museum is free and perfect for kids with active imaginations.  The place to head is Launchpad – an interactive area stocked with 50 hands on exhibits for little inquisitive minds and mitts to explore.  No one is precious about the exhibit here, because, as all good scientists know, nothing new is discovered without experimenting. There is every branch of science to be discovered here, from the epic space collection complete with a ginormous telescope, to the basic principles, like how to create a rainbow by splitting light with a prism.  The science museum has everything.

All three of the above museums are completely free to enter and explore.  You can have an entertaining, educational and all round great day out with the kids without having to pay any entry fees.  This half term, consider a trip to London for a few days and check them out for yourself.