Make a Spring Break For It

By: Aimee Tafreshi

IMG_0128Punxsatawney Phil did not see his shadow last month, so Groundhog Day left us with a prediction of an early spring. For some, the end of winter means putting up the snow blower, downgrading from a down jacket to a fleece and not worrying about the next blizzard. For others, it simply means we can put our cardigans back in the bottom drawer, and stop wearing socks with our flip-flops.

Spring is a time of rebirth, reawakening and … vacation! March is here, and in a few weeks, students will start the time-honored tradition of Spring Break, their week of freedom from school. Spring Break can be a source of excitement for children, or utter dread for parents. Many parents do not have the luxury to take a week off from work and other commitments to plan a get-away for their brood. For those lucky enough to have the time and resources to get away, here are some ideas for places to maximize your family fun.

Stay Cozy with a Luxe Staycation

For many, the thought of air travel, with its bag restrictions, weather delays and scaled back services, is not an appealing option. Throw in a couple of impatient, pint-size travelers, and a one-stop flight can turn into a never-ending nightmare. Gas prices are super low, but some parents cringe at the idea of road-tripping it with babies or toddlers. Hazards of road travel include frequent chants of “Are we there yet?”, bathroom stops every twenty minutes, and occasional projectile vomiting from carsickness. (If you go down this road, I strongly recommend Dramimine for Kids, which conveniently induces sleep while preventing nausea).

A staycation is the ideal solution for parents who don’t want to mess with the headaches of traveling. Yes, you will still have to pack your bags, but if you forget something, you can just run back home. Do you live in a city with a kid-friendly hotel, or one that offers roomy suites and a nice pool, or proximity to local attractions? I reside in a touristy town, so we are fortunate to be down the road from two acclaimed beachfront resorts, but you don’t have to live near the coast for a cool hotel stay.

For those in Austin, three resorts jumped out at me as the ultimate family destination: the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa, the Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa, and Lakeway Resort and Spa. Each of these resorts offers amenities such as kids’ camps, kid-dedicated pool areas and recreation schedules for the whole family to enjoy. Not to mention, the “Spa” part—relax with a massage while your mini-me is hiking through the beautiful hill country with her new friends. Just remember the sunscreen and bug spray!

For those closer to San Antonio, the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa boasts a lazy river, five-acre water park and pools, poolside cabanas for protection from the sun, and a zero-entry wading pool for the littlest water babies. From this sprawling property, you can easily eat and drink your way around the San Antonio River Walk, remember the Alamo, shop at El Mercado, go spelunking at Natural Bridge Caverns, explore the historic Spanish colonial missions or seek cultural enrichment at the Witte Museum, in addition to the city’s various theme parks. I grew up in San Antonio and remember field trips to many of these attractions, which I took for granted at the time. One day I hope to take my kids to this city filled with Texas history and rich culture.

Even if you don’t live close to a resort with all the amenities, look for a hotel that offers options like family-friendly suites, free breakfast and an inviting pool. Kids are easily entertained and don’t need an 18-hole golf course. Poolside food and drink service is a plus!

The “I’m on a Budget” Staycation

Many of us don’t have the funds set aside to stay at a fancy resort. You don’t have to check in to a hotel to live up your (kids’) Spring Break to the fullest. Get together with your offspring, and make a list of activities in your area you would like to do together. Seek input from the smallest to the eldest children. You can designate each day, or morning, for a particular outing. Many museums offer a free day of admission each week to the public; you may want to use that day to check it out for free, or if fewer crowds are important, go during an off-peak time. Google searches now allow you to view the “popular times” of particular venues to determine crowd levels.

Some ideas for daily excursions include: a picnic at the neighborhood park, trips to the zoo or aquarium, an easy hike at a nature preserve with trails, a visit to a children’s museum, an art museum with a kid-friendly section, a museum of natural history, a low-profile sporting event (ex: high school baseball game, local soccer match), volunteering at a lake or beach cleanup or soup kitchen, going to a scenic location in your city with sketch pads, and colored pencils or water colors, and drawing or painting what you see. Many of these activities obviously depend on your children’s ages.

I have discovered that the older my children get, the more complex the activities can be. With a baby or toddler, you need to respect their feeding and sleeping schedules, and work around those times with easy, no fuss outings. A walk around the block with a months-old baby can be considered a successful outing when the new mother has been cooped up in the house for days.

The All-You-Can-Everything Option

Many days I dream of an all-inclusive vacation near a sandy beach and turquoise waters where my children are whisked away to an enriching kids’ club. The hubby and I will lounge by the pool, drink piña coladas and snorkel. I have spent countless hours researching this dream trip, and the destination that checks all the boxes is Beaches Turks & Caicos. The price tag is enormous, especially for a suite, as my husband and I require separation from our children in the evening hours. I put this resort on my bucket list, and until then, I will dream of basking in the glowing sun with bottomless drinks.

Another promising destination is the Franklyn D. Resort in Jamaica. This property caught my eye on TripAdvisor one day when I read glowing reviews of its nanny service(!). Each family is paired with a nanny to care for the children during the day so the parents can enjoy their time together. These nannies come with the all-inclusive package and also act as your personal assistant and refrigerator stocker. I’m all for quality family time, but I’m sure the kiddos would have a blast with their nanny playing on the beach in the Caribbean. I wouldn’t feel an ounce of guilt.

Disney World & Theme Parks

We live in Florida, so naturally every week someone’s Facebook post includes pictures from their latest trip to Disney World. We have braved Disney World twice, once staying at the budget-friendly and fun themed Disney property, the Art of Animation Resort, and the other time staying “off-property” (some Disney fans shudder at this word.) Disney World is a lot like childbirth. I forget how painful it is, and then I decide to give it another shot. A glutton for punishment, I have considered visiting the land of Mickey Mouse this spring.

If I do take the plunge, I have my eye on Disney’s Old Key West Resort. The suites are large, the property is older and less hectic than the other resorts, and you can take a boat ride to Disney Springs (formerly known as Downtown Disney).

Besides Disney World, Orlando has a ton of appealing attractions such as Universal Studios, Discovery Cove, Legoland and Gatorland. I personally would not visit Disney World during Spring Break but would instead opt to pull the kids out of school in late April, as waiting in lines for hours with thousands of people is not my idea of a fun vacation.

Take a Cruise

If you live near a departure port, like Galveston or Miami, a cruise could be an excellent option for a family vacation. There are many different price points, types of cruises and destinations offered. I have heard from many experienced cruisers that Disney Cruise Line is top notch. Carnival has caught my eye in the past because they offer a kids’ club to ages three and up, which would suit my family’s needs, and appear budget-friendly, though the extras can quickly add up.

If you don’t mind sticking to a ship’s schedule, or worry about a sickness outbreak or rough seas (can you tell I am afraid to go on a cruise?), then hitting the high seas might be an ideal way to explore different vacation spots and literally be entertained from dusk until dawn. (Don’t forget the stretchy yoga pants because I hear the food options are out of this world!)

The Great Outdoors

This is the option that I know the least about, because we have yet to take our children camping. We live near a beautiful state park, where you can rent a spot and plop down your camper or tent. Personally the camping that calls to me includes cabins and running water, or its modern spin-off, “glamping.” There is something appealing about hearing the crickets at night, roasting s’mores over a blazing campfire and bonding in the simple pleasures of nature.

For those in need of nearby civilization and fake characters, I have heard rave reviews about Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort, a campground property within the Magic Kingdom (with posh cabins or basic campsite set-ups), as well as Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts. These options cater to families with outdoor amenities and cuddly characters like Chip ‘n’ Dale hanging around the campfire. We plan to go camping in the future with our three young children, and I will report back with my observations.

Send Your Kids Away

And the final option, which is appealing in its own right, is a Spring Break camp for kids. It’s a safe bet that your city contains multiple options for your children, whether through their after-school programs, the YMCA, the local kid-friendly museums or sports, to name a few. If you can’t take time off or swing a family vacation, or would rather enjoy your quiet time at home spring cleaning or watching HGTV, sign your kids up for a camp. They will come home worn out each day, and you can rest easy knowing that they are making happy memories during their time off without breaking the bank or your sanity.

Aimee Tafreshi is a mother of three young children and former litigator who has also contributed to Nameberry.com, Fé Fit and her own blog, aimeetafreshi.com. She has no affiliation with any of the hotel properties mentioned in this blog, other than being in desperate need of a vacation. For how not to do Disney, check out her recounting of a disastrous trip here.

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I Resolve To Be A Couch Potato (And Other Resolutions)

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In case you hadn’t seen all the ads on TV for cheap gym memberships and weight loss plans, January is here! Society commands us to start fresh and emerge from our holiday cocoon as new and improved human beings. All of a sudden, we need to morph into fit and healthy goddesses with shiny hair and a fat wallet. It’s time to become perfect, people.

This is the time of year that I least enjoy the gym because all of the machines are taken like coveted parking spots, and the group exercise classes only have room against the back wall. I know that by March, much of the New Year’s crowd will have dissipated.

Even though I fashion myself as a writer, I don’t usually jot down any New Year’s resolutions. Instead, I keep a mental list in my head of things I would like to accomplish or improve upon. (This is smart because there is no accountability.) This year’s aspirations are a little different than past years, but I think these goals might have tangible benefits.

For starters, I resolve to not work out. This is a difficult resolution for a Zumba instructor and Les Mills devotee. I have not hit the gym since I broke my foot last month, and it is nearly torture. On the advice of my doctor, I tried swimming laps with my bum foot and ended up needing a hospital visit as a result. So while images of celebrity “beach bodies” and “biggest losers” taunt me off the pages of my beloved gossip magazines, I must feel content to accept my slightly tighter jeans and softening abs.

My “no exercise” plan goes hand-in-hand with my next resolution: eat real food. I’m not going to start counting calories, go on a liquid diet or pop pill supplements, but I am going to eat less processed foods, like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. I am not a “veggie person,” but I figure if I start treating food like the fuel that is necessary to power my body, then perhaps these nutrients can expedite the healing of my foot. Revolutionary, right?!

Plus, with healthier meals, I am less likely to gain extra weight with my new sedentary lifestyle. (I am usually a follower of the “work out hard, eat a ton of food” school of thought. Your body can function on this approach if you are burning a lot of calories. Take out the key ingredient of exercise, however, and you are simply stuffing your face.)

I also resolve to eat more mindfully. I will listen to my body. I will eat when my stomach cues me that I am hungry, and I will attempt to stop munching when I feel satisfied, before the point of beyond full (even when inhaling chips and queso). I will also enjoy dessert, but I won’t eat it every night, because it is a treat, not a habit. I will make sure to savor each bite and pick out only sweets that I am craving. (If you want chocolate, eat chocolate, better yet, make it dark!)

I will also savor a glass of my favorite red wine in the evening, but I will try to stop with glass number one. I will allow the calming effects of a glass of vino to set in before reaching for glass number two and incurring a headache. Antioxidants are healthy; overindulging is not.

And speaking of chilling out, I will resolve to relax. Before my foot injury, other than my writing time, I could barely sit down. When the kids were home from school, I would stay standing because sitting down was an invitation for them to ask for something else. I stood at the ready, anticipating each need before they even verbalized it. Four days a week, we raced around to extracurricular activities. I was always hustling them like a football coach, “Come on, hurry! The play clock is running out!”

My bum foot has taught me, rather forced me, to slow down. I currently move at the pace of a geriatric turtle. Needless to say we have trimmed our list of obligations, and now we are driving to activities merely twice a week, a marked improvement. We have culled down the list of “must do’s” to the endeavors our children truly enjoy. This reduction in obligations is part of my resolution to simplify, streamline and purge unnecessary items, distractions and “enrichment” activities.

We also have a garage full of overflowing bins of baby clothes and various things collected over the last few decades. I plan to slowly chip away at getting rid of every extraneous item that we don’t need or use, with the plan to consign or donate these obsolete possessions.

Related to slowing down, I resolve to sit on the couch and watch TV. You would think a stay-at-home mother watches a ton of television, but I rarely do. Sometimes you just gotta kick your feet up for thirty minutes, put on your favorite home improvement show or true crime story and veg out. I vow to take more advantage of my kid-free, down time because goodness knows there is no relaxing once the three little ones are at home.

Speaking of kid-freedom, I vow to kick “mommy guilt” to the curb. I think most of us moms feel guilty about something from time to time, if not everyday, with respect to our children and our choices. My sons recently transitioned to a full-time schedule at their preschool to permit me more time to sit and heal, since my husband is seldom home due to work.

Do I ever feel guilty that they are at day care, and I am not heading to an office to help pay for this added expense? Yes. Do I feel guilty that they are now at school from morning until evening without seeing their Mommy? Yes, I do. But I also realize that the quicker my foot heals, the sooner I will be able to go on walks and bike rides with them and kick the soccer ball on the field. I resolve to trade short-term guilt for long-term rewards.

And when the children are at home in my care, I resolve to set the phone down, turn the laptop off and focus on those little human beings. I resolve to take in their faces, their voices, their silly comments and even their bickering. Social media and online distractions will always be there, but my children won’t. One day they will stare at their phones tuning me out. I better pay attention to them now while they are still talking to me.

I resolve to have more patience with others and myself. The house will not look super organized while I am using crutches, and if papers stack up, the world will not end. I will feel more in tune with others in need and ask myself if the elderly person in the grocery store needs help reaching an item but is too proud to ask. Because once you’ve had some of your physical independence removed, it makes you think about others who are even less mobile and able.

On the professional front, I resolve to finish writing a legal thriller that has been outlined and sitting in a drawer since 2004. Whatever your goal is, you have to carve out the time and make yourself do it. I have a silly saying that I tell myself: Stop, drop and write. It means stop doing anything else, stop making excuses, and drop into your desk chair and write. It’s simple but the mantra works. Whatever your goal is in 2016, in the words of Nike, JUST DO IT.

Okay, I said I wouldn’t exercise but I lied. I’m going to try to find a new way to exercise that doesn’t put weight on my foot. I’m going to follow in the footsteps of warriors who take a hit but get up and keep on fighting. If I can’t use my foot, then I will use an exercise band and small weights to keep in shape. But if I get tired or if the movement hurts, I will stop and rest. We all need to listen to our bodies and common sense.

I will seek out an adventure that I can do, like kayaking on a weekend. We humans have things that limit us in our lives, whether physical, temporal, monetary or something else. But we can seek to work with what we do have and open up an undiscovered world of possibilities. Here’s to challenging yourself in 2016.

Aimee Tafreshi is a mother of three young children and former litigator who has also contributed to Nameberry.com, Fé Fit and her own blog, aimeetafreshi.com. If you would like to help Aimee get her legal thriller published, please vote for it here.

Chess Pie in My Face, a Big Disgrace

By: Aimee Tafreshi

Have you ever tried to make the perfect dessert, followed the recipe to the letter and failed miserably? My name is Aimee, and I am a baking failure survivor. Here is my story…

Let’s start with the legend of chess pie in my family. Growing up, my mother whipped up three types of pies on special occasions: chess, pecan and pumpkin pie. Now, some of you may not have heard of chess pie. Let me fill you in: it is a Southern pie, and depending on where you are from, you may have never experienced this wholesome, sugary goodness. When I was a child, my mother’s best friend, a New Yorker, was convinced that I had made up the name “chess pie” until she confirmed with my mother that this heavenly treat did exist.

A few months ago, my daughter’s second grade teacher suddenly texted us, informing the parents that the class would have a “pie day” at school and requesting that we send in our favorite pie for the students to sample. I decided this was the perfect opportunity to master the art of making chess pie. I eagerly wrote back, telling the teacher I would bring in this family gem. She immediately responded, “Uh, did you mean cherry?” Poor soul, she had no idea that chess pie even existed! I proceeded to give a little background and provide the recipe so she could see it wouldn’t taste like garbage. I could tell she was skeptical, and I was ready to deliver the baked goods.

I decided I would make two pies, one for Adair’s classroom and one for our family. Preparations included studying the recipe at length, followed by an hour-long phone call with my mother for piecrust instructions (this is our shortcut – we buy already prepared piecrust) and some insider tips. She warned me that chess pie is finicky – even factors such as humidity could affect the outcome. I took in all of the information like I was preparing to wage battle in the kitchen. She also advised me to mix the ingredients for each pie separately and to cook them one at a time. Ready with my written and mental notes, I began the sacred baking process.

Forty-five minutes later, I pulled out a golden confection smelling of notes of sugar and vanilla. The delicious scent wafted through the kitchen, and without even a bite sampled, I knew I had created the perfect chess pie. About an hour later, I pulled out another flaxen beauty. I had done it! I had concocted a flawless chess pie, twice! I couldn’t believe the simplicity of the ingredients and preparation. What was the big deal? Chess pie would now be my go to baked good for all special occasions.

A few hours later, I carefully drove the scrumptious pastry to school and personally delivered it to the classroom. While in the car pickup line, I suddenly received a flurry of texts from the teacher with multiple explanation points. “The pie was amazing!!!!” She went on, “It reminds me of flan!!!! (She is from Miami.) I smiled like the Cheshire Cat, confident in my pie-making abilities and plan to carry on this family tradition. Move over, Mom, there is a new pie maker in town.

Fast forward to Christmas Eve… We decided to pick up a holiday feast “to go,” so I planned to make my world-class chess pie as my contribution to our family’s low-key affair. I was a little distracted by my daughter’s frequent banter in the kitchen, and I somewhat eyeballed the buttermilk amount, plus I really enjoyed mixing the batter (did it look too thin?). No worries, I am an expert. The first pie came out looking golden, but I didn’t know then that a soupy mixture of half-cooked mush lay in wait under the promising top layer.

I had timed the baking to coincide right up to the minute with our departure for a Christmas Eve service, so I was flabbergasted when I pulled out the second pie from the oven, displaying a putrid yellow color. “Oh my gosh,” I realized, “I turned the oven off after I baked the first pie!” We were now the proud owners of two undercooked chess pies. Out of options, we headed out and decided we would try to bake them again upon our return home. Our later efforts failed, as the pies never congealed enough, so with great reluctance I threw both wasted attempts into the trash can. Hmm, maybe there’s more to these chess pies than I thought… Perhaps the humidity is high? Yes, it must be the humid Florida weather.

The next day we enjoyed our delicious “someone else cooked it for us” Christmas feast. The meal came with a delectable pecan pie, topped off artfully with whipped cream. I muttered a little too loudly, “The kids aren’t going to like this…” My husband quickly shushed me, knowing that the kids would adopt any stance that I verbalized. I studied their faces closely as they took their first bites of the imposter. Disgust quickly took over their expressions. “This isn’t chess pie!” “I don’t like nuts!” and “What is this?” the dissatisfied chorus rang out. Don’t worry, I reassured them, I will make more chess pie tomorrow, and all will be right with the world!

On December 26, I headed out to the reopened grocery store and collected my ingredients. This time I would precisely measure out the buttermilk like a chemistry student and triple-check the ingredients, not wanting to take any chances. I would also not attempt to cook a chess pie in a cold oven this time. I began the preparations, and with time on my hands, I really got into using the electric mixer. “Woo hoo,” I thought, “I’m a real chef now!” A tiny voice in my head also wondered, Is it possible to mix something for too long? Never mind that, I have pies to make!

An hour later, I was the proud owner of another runny pie. But I would not give up. Bad things happen in threes, after all. As I leaned over to carefully place the second pie in the oven, a delicate task as the crust was covered in loose strips of foil, the pie slipped out of my hands. Batter landed all over the insides of the oven as I screamed. The kids looked over in shock, and one got into the fetal position. I felt like I was in an episode of I Love Lucy or Modern Family, cast as the hapless disaster in the kitchen. My husband rushed in from outdoors, and I immediately regretted not letting him put the pie in the oven for me. As silly as it sounds, I have an irrational fear of getting burned, so he is often the one interfacing with the oven. If only I had ceded some control to him, there wouldn’t be pie innards oozing from my appliance.

My husband, Alex, took some pleasure in the debacle, though he mostly was dismayed, because with my broken foot, he knew the task of cleaning up this mess fell squarely on his shoulders. After razzing me a little, he began assessing the damage and waiting for the oven to cool to begin cleanup operations.

Later, as we prepared the kids for bedtime, Alex decided to try to cook my first botched attempt for a little longer with the dubious plan that the pie might solidify. He came upstairs a few minutes later, looking sheepish. “What is it?” I asked. “I dropped the other pie,” he told me, his head hung down in shame. What?!?! I began laughing so hard that tears ran down my cheeks. We now had two dropped pies in our oven, and no pies to eat for dessert. The universe must really not want us to eat pie, I though, grappling for a reason.

I headed downstairs to view the carnage. The oven looked like a pastry crime scene, pie batter and parts of crust covering every surface of the oven. Even the drawer underneath and its contents were not spared from pie goo. We immediately began Googling methods for cleaning an oven. One approach called for the use of ammonia and boiling water. “But ammonia heated up can be toxic,” my husband objected. Okay, nix the ammonia option. He also rejected the baking soda and vinegar remedy as too time-consuming and labor intensive. That left us with the self-cleaning oven function, something we had never tried before (nor had my mother).

We opened up the windows in preparation for the inevitable smoke and began the self-cleaning cycle. Ten minutes into it, my husband utilized his work training and yelled out, “Fire, Fire!” I screamed and immediately forgot where all the fire extinguishers were located. Luckily he already had one in his hand with the pin pulled and ready to go. In the meantime, I hobbled upstairs to begin evacuating the kids from the second floor, in case the fire moved beyond the oven. I accidentally banged my five-year-old son in the face with his bedroom door in the process.

Downstairs, Alex turned off the oven’s power, and the fire died out on its own. We had now wasted a total of one dozen eggs, experienced a kitchen fire and may require a new oven. I then texted my mom and pleaded for her Troy Aikman Chocolate Cake recipe. I need a break from chess pie.

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Aimee Tafreshi is a mother of three young children and former litigator who has contributed to Nameberry.com, Fé Fit and her own blog, aimeetafreshi.com. She also enjoys teaching Zumba in her spare time, seeking out Mexican food dives (in Florida!) and watching Texas football.

All Roads Lead to the Holidays

By: Aimee Tafreshi

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It’s that magical time of year again … time for sweetly decorated sugar cookies, brightly twinkling lights and Nat King Cole singing on the radio … and time to decide how, when and where you will spend your holidays. If you have children and there are grandparents in the picture, chances are your holiday schedule may look more complex than a shared custody arrangement. Distribute family members throughout the country, and you may have no choice but to alternate years or holidays at different homes. Or better yet, make them all travel to you à la Christmas Vacation. We all know how well that turned out…

Last year, my husband’s work schedule offered the opportunity to take vacation, so we stuffed our SUV to the gills and hit the road for Texas, just over 1,000 miles halfway across the country. Our road trip required a hotel stop to break up the drive, and even then we were putting the pedal to the medal to make good time and arrive as quickly as possible. We were lucky because my family lives in Austin, while hubby’s family was down the road in Houston, so we could share nearly a week with each of them. We spent time at my parents’ house, his uncle’s house and a rented beach house in a game of musical homes.

We have generous family members who bestowed many gifts on our children, so my husband and father-in-law spent the final two days of our trip locating the last rooftop cargo carrier in the greater Houston area and securing the behemoth case to our car. As we pulled away from the quaint beach house, we expressed gratitude at getting to see all of our family members in one fell swoop and felt relief that we did our duty. We then immediately agreed that next time they could come to us!

This year is different. My spouse’s work schedule is grueling, and we are getting older and more tired. We didn’t entertain the thought of driving to the Lone Star State for Thanksgiving, as the road trip alone would have consumed four days. We looked up airfare for a family of five to see a price tag in the couple of thousands, and when we checked airfare to see his parents in Alaska, the price tag was double.

Where do you go when you live in a beach town and have no relatives living east of the Mississippi? You head to the mountains! The eighty-degree Florida weather in November was beginning to wear on my nerves, and my husband was a polar bear in a past life, with his ability to wear shorts in forty-degree temps. I recalled visiting a cool, happening town called Asheville in 2001 when clerking at a South Carolina law firm. I remembered that there were smaller mountains (compared to the Rockies), a thriving food and beer scene and the Biltmore Estate. I was sold just imagining how the cool weather would feel on my face and arms, as opposed to dried sweat and humidity.

We decide we would spend three full days in Asheville, with two days dedicated to driving. As the trip approached, I began researching restaurants online and reviewing my North Carolina travel guide. I became so excited that I decided we should head out a day earlier, giving us one extra day to enjoy all that Asheville has to offer. Unfortunately, I came to this realization on the very morning that I wanted to head to the mountains with nary a suitcase packed.

We hurriedly gathered enough cold weather gear for a move to Switzerland and headed out just shy of 3 p.m. This was not the wisest decision, as darkness would fall around 5:30, and we would arrive well past the kids’ bedtimes. Two-thirds of the way there, our weary bodies and bleary eyes begged us to stop at a hotel for the night, but we stubbornly pressed onward.

Armed with only sea bands, my older son began feeling a little woozy driving through the mountains, which suddenly towered over the dark horizon when we crossed into North Carolina. We didn’t think too much of his whimpers until he puked all over himself. It’s not a real road trip experience until a child has thrown up all over his person and his car seat. (On a previous excursion my husband cleaned up the sick child while lightning struck the ground around us and I cowered in my seat.) We lost about 30 minutes at a sketchy gas station cleaning him up as best we could and arrived at our hotel looking (and smelling) a little worse for the wear.

After settling the kids into their beds, their father of the year had to make a midnight run to the local drugstore for cleaning supplies. You’d think we’d know to bring disinfectant wipes by now. On the plus side, the room set-up was perfect. We had a suite, which is a must-have with children. We woke up the next day and headed down to the free breakfast buffet. After feeding our picky eaters, we headed back up to the room to plan our day. Our son proceeded to regurgitate the contents of his breakfast, all over himself, so we then prepared to do our second load of hotel laundry. (Conveniently the laundry facilities were located on our floor.)

Once every one was dressed in non-soiled clothes, I checked the weather to see sub-freezing temperatures for the morning. We bundled up in our arctic gear and headed out to the Western North Carolina Nature Center. In a stroke of luck, our local zoo membership got us a fifty percent discount off admission. Now most of us parents have seen our fair share of zoos and critters, but this one ranks toward the top for me. Other than freezing and suddenly longing for the Florida shorts and flip flop weather, the scenery was tree-filled and postcard perfect. My favorite exhibits included the gray wolves, some of which eerily resembled my longer-haired German Shepherd, and the highly endangered red wolves. There was supposed to be a black bear, but he was smarter than us humans and staying warm in his den.

After unwisely choosing a breakfast of simple carbs and walking around in the frigid air, I was as ravenous as one of those rangy wolves. We wrapped up our visit at the wildlife park and headed downtown to a famous restaurant called Tupelo Honey. I remembered what it was like to live in a bigger city when we had to park in a cramped garage and walk to the restaurant. My older son complained the whole walk about the bitter cold, and secretly I wanted to cry, too.

We showed up to the restaurant way beyond the typical lunch hour, and the joint was packed wall-to-wall with hungry locals and tourists. After enduring a 20-minute wait (that felt like an eternity with crazed hellions), we were seated. In our famished state, we ordered two appetizers (pimento cheese dip and a goat cheese plate), which were then followed by the best homemade biscuits and blueberry jam I have ever tasted in my life. I could have just eaten biscuits and jam for lunch, and I am not even a bread person.

When my entrée arrived – their signature shrimp and grits, jazzed up with some goat cheese (what else?), red peppers and mouth-watering chorizo – I could barely put a dent in my meal. I shoved spoonfuls of southern deliciousness in my mouth until my stomach begged me to stop. Transformed from weak and cold to as stuffed as a turkey on Thanksgiving, we waddled back to the car. I complimented my husband’s great sense of direction in finding the parking garage and commented, “If it was just me, I’d be lost already walking around downtown Charlotte.” Oh wait, we’re in Asheville… I can’t even keep my cities straight, let alone my city blocks.

After our initial vacation hiccups, the trip smoothed out and we began to enter into that relaxation mode that is so elusive when you have small children accompanying you. Our youngest son’s favorite activity was the indoor pool, which brought back memories of my younger sister and I swimming at the Embassy Suites on various family vacations. We were prepared and brought the kiddie inner tubes so we could be somewhat “hands free” in the pool. We splashed and played in the water every evening, teaching the kids “Marco Polo” and stealing some time in the hot tub to warm up our chilled bodies.

The most memorable time for me was the day we visited the sprawling Biltmore Estate. I had toured the grand home in my twenties but could only remember the indoor pool and bowling alley. I had reserved audio guides for us adults, but our two oldest children commandeered them. They would listen and repeat various facts about the home to me. Next time I will splurge for two of the children’s narrated headphones, as the audio guides proved invaluable in keeping them engaged (i.e., not bored, pummeling each other, or destroying priceless Vanderbilt heirlooms) as we toured the 250-room mansion.

We marveled at one of the country’s first bowling alleys and large but barren natatorium and laughed at the wooden old-fashioned dog gate to keep the help’s large dogs out of the kitchen in the early 1900s. After our tour of the chateau, we chose to eat lunch on the estate in a horse stable turned causal restaurant, a fitting venue for our wild bunch. We were impressed to learn that our meat was sourced from the Biltmore property, where they raise cattle and other livestock.

Following a post-lunch walk around the expansive gardens, we headed to a different part of the sprawling grounds, which now houses a village and winery, as well as two hotels. Alex and I relished our first winery experience together while the kids savored some grape juice. My youngest son shotgunned his drink and raced up to the bar with berry-stained vampire lips begging for another glass. We bought a couple of bottles of the local vino, great for Christmas gifts, and capped off the day at the ice cream shop. It’s safe to say that we ate our way through Asheville!

A favorite memory of our trip was the unique Asheville Pinball Museum in downtown. We knew this was a hot ticket when we arrived to a waitlist with a thirty-minute wait. In the interim, we headed down the street to view the Basilica of St. Lawrence, a Catholic church designed by the same design team behind the Biltmore House, and considered an “architectural treasure” of the town. We walked inside to see the luminous stained glass walls, and luckily the kids were quiet and respectful toward the few worshipers inside.

The Pinball Museum was an experience that could be enjoyed across generations. The gallery housed working pinball machines dating back to the 1960s through the decades. We rotated around the large arcade, trying out different machines, and even my youngest son was able to pull the knob with enough force to put each ball into play. The hidden gems of the museum were tucked away in a back room, where old Atari and classic video games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong beckoned. We ended our outing with the original Mario Brothers, a classic for our generation, and I passed through some of the levels before getting killed off, even recalling some tricks. Now the kids want Nintendos for Christmas…

Altogether, our trip to Asheville was one of our most successful family vacations. I think its laidback nature, with a mix of planning and spontaneity, contributed to the satisfaction level. The hotel played a big part too, with its free hot breakfasts (a bonus for large families) and complimentary dinner (with free booze!) served during most nights.

And I hadn’t even mentioned the best part – the majestic scenery. A feeling of peace descended upon us as we took in the mountainous views. After stuffing our faces at the historic Grove Park Inn on Thanksgiving, we leisurely drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway and simply took in its natural beauty and peaks of the cityscape between the vibrant fall foliage and the lush rolling hills.

We will definitely return to Asheville. As the kids get older, we will seek out adventure activities like zip lining or white-water rafting. And there’s about 600 restaurants left to sample…

What I took away from this family vacation is that sometimes a non-traditional celebration or destination can exceed your expectations and create new customs and treasured memories. As we enter the holidays, we will be spending our first Christmas at our own home, having traveled out-of-state for the last two seasons. We are excited to stroll through our own downtown among the glimmering lights, decorate our first non-artificial tree, eat at our favorite Mexican food restaurant on the big day and not worry about overstuffed luggage or airport layovers. Wherever your holidays take you this year, here’s to celebrating old traditions, embracing new ones and creating your own.

Aimee Tafreshi is a mother of three young children and former litigator who has contributed to Nameberry.com, Fé Fit and her own blog, aimeetafreshi.com. She also enjoys teaching Zumba in her spare time, seeking out Mexican food dives (in Florida!) and watching Texas football.

Children’s Birthday Parties—The Gift That Keeps on Giving

By: Aimee Tafreshi

IMG_9374Birthdays have the potential to strike fear in the heart of every levelheaded parent. And I’m not talking about our own inevitable decline toward middle age and the nursing home—I mean our darling children’s birthdays.

Some moms lament on Facebook the advancing age of their precious little ones. “Oh my goodness—Junior is already 18 months old—make time slow down please!” The lazy and unsentimental part of me wonders if we really want our children to be babies forever, and isn’t increasing maturity and autonomy a good thing?

I love seeing my kids grow up. I don’t miss the sleepless nights (for months on end) and their complete dependence on me during their newborn days. I am thrilled that my middle child will finally be entering kindergarten next year and beyond excited that my three-year-old is potty trained. No more budgeting for diapers or one dollar a piece pull-ups.

What I have discovered is that children’s birthdays are extremely stressful. These days the expectations are sky high, and I have no one to blame but myself for that mindset. My husband and I both enjoy entertaining and planning elaborate parties, and by the time the last guest has left, we need about a week to recover. Over the years, we have managed to put together some memorable shindigs.

The most over the top was probably my daughter’s fifth birthday party in Connecticut. We lived there only six months for my husband’s work, and we planned to combine her soiree into a social gathering to say goodbye to all of our friends. I began soliciting catering quotes, and some of the bids sounded more appropriate for a small wedding. We lucked out with a local military wife who prepared our food at zero or negative profit because she loved cooking for others.

The entertainment was a different story. I found a website that matched local talent—like clowns, balloon artists, face painters—with families looking for birthday party entertainment. I could enter in the event details and the price I was willing to pay, and the site would provide potential matches. On our shoestring budget, even Giggles the Clown had better things to do. I finally found an enterprising high school student who fit the bill as a talented magician and performer. My husband tried to negotiate down his price, but “Austin” stuck to his guns. We bit the bullet and hired the young magician, and he was every bit the consummate performer and professional. The kids loved him, and my MasterCard bill would tell me their satisfaction was “priceless.”

For the drinks, we actually considered bringing in a bartender but decided we could save money by providing our own liquor and a signature mixed drink recipe. As my daughter’s birthday falls on Cinco de Mayo, we had to go with the classic margarita. The recipe we inadvertently chose was so strong that only a few men could handle the stiff concoction. Luckily we had some beer and wine as an alternative to our tequila on ice.

Most people would assume hosting a birthday party in your home would be the most economical choice, but I have found it to be the most stressful and expensive option. The food and drink bill usually runs several hundred dollars, and then you have to worry about entertaining the little guys and gals, so they won’t decide to destroy your house instead. And forget buying your own child birthday presents—that budget gets blown out of the water by food and entertainment expenses.

Another in-home birthday party for my middle child was more low-key but probably about the same price as the high-end catered affair in the end. My son’s birthday falls near Halloween, so he is stuck with a ghoulish theme for the rest of his natural life. We rented a bounce house, the best investment ever, as some kids jumped the entire time, including ours.

We also had fun placing dry ice in a cauldron for a spooky effect, and we turned our garage into a modest haunted house with a few scary characters and creepy music and sounds. Finally, we picked up some smaller pumpkins from a local church-run pumpkin patch and set up tables with washable paints and brushes. Each child could decorate his or her own pumpkin and take it home as a party favor. Normally I forgo party favors unless the party lends itself to them—like the pumpkins or cascarones (a/k/a confetti eggs) on Cinco de Mayo. Those filled-to-the-brim-with-confetti eggs are a fun favor to send home with unsuspecting parents. Now everyone will have something to vacuum post-party.

Two of my favorite birthday parties occurred outside of the home. For my daughter’s most recent birthday, we weren’t feeling up to the usual big bash and elaborate preparations. She loves to swim, so we rented out the local pool for the morning timeframe before it opened to the public.  When I schedule a birthday party for the a.m. hours, the event doesn’t consume my entire day, and the kids (and adults) are still pleasant and alert.

We bought some kid-friendly beverages, heavier hors d’oeuvres and Minion-themed cupcakes for dessert. We invited her girlfriends, and they had a blast swimming and hanging out. A few of the moms told me they enjoyed the low-stress nature of the party, and I agreed. I marked this idea down as one I would replicate in the future. And most importantly, the birthday girl had a blast doing her favorite activity with her school and dance friends.

Another memorable birthday fete occurred at a local ranch that rents out its space and services for events on the weekend. The price was reasonable, and the featured entertainment was worth the cost. For my son’s third birthday party, the kids interacted with barnyard animals, including giving a bottle of milk to a baby cow. A rustic hayride was also part of the package. We simply showed up with some sandwiches, drinks and cake, and sat back and let the party hostess run the show.

For our two sons’ most recent birthdays, we decided to scrap hosting a shindig and go with a “family” birthday party instead. We don’t have any relatives whom live close by, but we are lucky in that various family members have traveled from Texas or Alaska to join us in celebrating our children’s birthdays each year.

For my youngest son’s third birthday, we made a dinner reservation at our favorite downtown joint, and they seated us in an area that was private yet open to the restaurant. My in-laws were visiting, so we had a festive number of people around the table. We devoured a custom Minion cake (what else), and the adults enjoyed margaritas during the delicious dinner. Following our meal, we headed down to the waterfront to load onto a boat for a sunset family cruise. We saw dolphins, some lightning (eek!) and enjoyed the tranquility of cruising around a river at dusk.

We took a similar approach for my oldest son’s fifth birthday last month. I asked him what he wanted to do, and in his direct nature, he told me exactly what he wanted—to visit the zoo, eat at a particular restaurant and go to the beach. Our family dedicated the entire weekend to his birthday. On Saturday, we spent the good part of the day at the zoo, riding the train, attempting to pet stingrays as they glided by and walking through the butterfly garden.

The following day, his actual birthday, he opened presents and ate cake mid-day, and then we headed to a casual beachside eatery that evening. The weather was blustery, but we were able to dine outdoors sitting under an overhang, while the kids climbed on a playscape in the sand, and waves broke in the background. Following a low stress dinner, we walked a few hundred feet to the beach. The weather was so uncharacteristically windy and chilly that we lasted about five minutes on the shore—enough time to shriek in the frigid air—while the kids dipped their toes into the tidal pools, and the sun melted down into the horizon.

We bundled ourselves up in towels, sprinted to the car and found satisfaction in checking another birthday off the list, the last one in our family for the calendar year. As that crazy weekend wound down, I realized the most important part of a child’s birthday is to simply live in the moment and focus on your child’s happiness. I don’t need a costumed character or twenty sugared-up children to properly celebrate my little one’s big day. Please send my regrets to Giggles the Clown because I see more carefree birthday celebrations in our future…

Aimee Tafreshi is a mother of three young children and former litigator who has contributed to Nameberry.com, Fé Fit and her own blog, aimeetafreshi.com. She also enjoys teaching Zumba in her spare time, seeking out Mexican food dives (in Florida!) and watching Texas football.