Islamorada sunset

Islamorada – Get Away to the Florida Keys – Part 1

If you don’t know by now, I just love the Florida Keys!  Oh, let me count the ways.  The Keys are not too far from Miami, about an hour, depending on which Key you stop on.  The vibe is so different from other places in Florida.  It’s a “grab a cold one, come as you are” sort of vibe.  And, in my opinion there’s no better invitation for relaxation than that.  Just ask Jimmy Buffet and the Beach Boys.  We recently traveled to Islamorada, the second major Key south of Miami for my mother-in-law’s big birthday celebration.  And we returned with a suitcase full of wet bathing suits, beautiful pictures and full bellies.  I think I can speak for my whole family when I say that we are ready to plan our next trip to paradise.

Cheeca Lodge

We stayed at the luxurious Cheeca Lodge (Gigi loves luxurious things) and they have the perfect set up for families or extended families, in our case.  My in-laws had a suite with a mini kitchen and living room and we had an adjoining room with two double beds.  The living room couch pulled out to a bed so we could have crammed a few more kids in too.  The resort is top-notch and frankly we were pleasantly surprised at all of the amenities that were included in our stay.

Cheeka Lodge
Ocean front rooms at the Cheeca Lodge in the morning light

 

Cheeka pier
Grab a rod and head to the fishing pier and watch for shark fins.

As you walk out to the private beach you can’t help but notice the huge fishing pier.  Rods are included so you can just grab one and see what you catch.  But be careful, the local pelican are nearby just waiting for you to drop your treasures.

Cheeka family pool
Some nice shady spots to park while your kids splash around in the pool.

If you want to head off shore, the Lodge will happily schedule a family fishing or snorkeling trip.  All sorts of water sports are included in your stay like paddle boards and kayaks.  For a small fee you can rent a paddle boat, sailboat or even go parasailing. If you are water lovers like my children, you’ll spend 90% of the time in the awesome, kid-friendly pool.  The Tiki Bar is conveniently only steps away.  They also have an adult-only pool with a fitness room if you need to escape to recharge.

Cheeka adult pool
Ahh, the serenity of the adult pool. Don’t you just want to do a giant cannonball?

We didn’t get to the 9 hole, par 3 golf course, but clubs are available to borrow and it looked like a great way to spend some time with the kids.  They also have tennis courts, bikes to borrow, and a spa.

The grounds are pristine and lush so walking to our room was a nice respite from the sun on a hot day. Watching the lizards scatter as we strolled was a treat.  Overnight, the resort fairies freshly rake the sand on the beach and wash the pool deck so each day is just as beautiful as the last.

We highly recommend the Sunset Cruise, a little extra cost but a beautiful way to end a day at the beach.  The friendly boat captains also provided fun commentary about the area while sipping on cold adult drinks.   If you like being a nosy neighbor, just ask about some of the prices of the houses and boats you ride by.

We also enjoyed several of the restaurants on the grounds of Cheeca, but I think it’s more fun to explore a bit and check out the local restaurants and boy are there a ton to choose from!

Part 2 of our adventures in Islamorada is coming!  Stay tuned for our pics for activities with the kids (if you can peel yourself away from Cheeca) and our favorite places to grab a bite.

Tips for Cheeca Lodge:

  1.  Check Cheeca Lodge’s web site for any discounts or coupon codes.
  2. They have a kids club so if you need an afternoon away to read a book or take a fishing trip, take advantage.  And, they have an evening option as well.  Date night!
  3. Pack your own snorkel gear or pick some up at a nearby store.  They don’t have any masks or fins at Cheeca for guests.
  4. You don’t need to bring tennis rackets or golf clubs.  They have them on site for your use for free.
  5. If you want to take professional photos of your family, choose a photographer that is approved by the resort and has insurance.  If you have a big crowd you’ll need to coordinate with the events staff on site.
  6. Service at the resort was hit or miss when we were there.  Sometimes they were on top of things but a few times we had to call twice for things like extra towels.  Hopefully it will improve by the time you go.
  7. When in Florida, don’t forget the sunscreen!

 

 

Disney Cruise

Top 10 Reasons to go on a Disney Cruise

Yes, I am a Disney fan and I’ll admit, being closer to Mickey Mouse was a perk to moving to south Florida.  But, sometimes planning a trip to Disney World can be intimidating and downright exhausting.  And, if you’ve never been, where do you start?  What if you hate lines and you want to go an a vacation that doesn’t require you to go on another vacation to recover from the break-neck pace you’ve been going?  The answer…a Disney Cruise.  I like to call it, the lazy-parent’s vacation.  You may say, “yeah but, aren’t cruises cheesy and packed with people and mediocre food?”  Yes, they can be, but not a Disney Cruise.  Because you know the genius of Disney?  Well, they put it on a boat and all you have to do is show up and unpack your bags.  I’m serious, don’t worry about planning excursions or packing sequin gowns, it’s time to unplug and enjoy the beauty of an unstructured vacation.

 

Disney Cruise

 

Top 10 Reasons to go on a Disney Cruise 

(in no particular order)

1.  You can watch Disney movies while you swim.  
What’s not to love?  Hang by Goofy’s pool and you can splash around or relax in a lounge chair while you watch Disney movies on the 24′ x 14′ LED TV.  It’s especially fun to enjoy a little night swimming and movie on the deck while you star gaze.

Disney Cruise 1
Poolside movies


2.  No crowds at dinner  
This is just pure Disney genius.  Instead of crowds of people waiting in lines at buffets for dinner, Disney assigns you a themed restaurant each night and to a dining time.  So, no restaurant is crowded at dinner and you get to eat at each one during your cruise.  To keep some consistency, your wait staff moves from restaurant to restaurant with you each night.  More on the staff later.  These aren’t just boring restaurants either!  There’s plenty to look at and menus for the kids to keep them entertained, including a few surprises.  I have a  hard time cooking for 4 some nights, I can’t imagine cooking for 2500.  Miraculously, they do it and do it well!  I’m still dreaming about the tuna tartare tower that I had one night and the dolce de leche ice cream with the salted caramel sauce.

Disney Cruise 2
Our favorite dinner spot – Animator’s Palate

3.  Free room service  
We like to travel but, ordering room service is never really something that we’ve done because I’m not a fan of an overpriced burger and luke-warm french fries.  But, on the cruise everything on the room service menu is free and available 24 hours/day.  I’m not sure why you need food at 2:00 in the morning but, at 2:00 in the afternoon it’s sort of fun to have chocolate chip cookies show up at your door.  An even more welcome sight is coffee delivered in the morning.

4.  Castaway Cay
If you go on a Disney cruise to the Caribbean or Bahamas, you have the pleasure of spending a day at Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island.  Picture an immaculate beach, clear-blue water and Caribbean music playing in the background.  Oh, and Disney cast members are available to help you with whatever you need.  Yes, I am ready to move to Castaway Cay but, apparently I’d have to homeschool our children if we live there.  Spending a luxurious day there will just have to do.  If you (or your kids) don’t like to sit still there is plenty to do on the island.  You can rent inner tubes, snorkel gear, or rafts to float around.  There are swim up watersides and playground equipment in the water (think monkey bars and rope climbing.)  You can even parasail and get a bird’s eye view of the island.  They also have a splash playground for little ones and a kid’s club if you need to sneak away for an hour or two to the adult-only beach.  Everything you need for the day is on the island, including Mickey, Minnie and the gang.

Disney Cruise 3
Paradise Found! Castaway Cay

5.  Kids Club
Usually my kids don’t go running to hang out with a room full of kids they don’t know.  They can be clingy like that, but on the Disney Cruise, the Kids Club is no joke!  Think Mary Poppins, meets an indoor playground, dance party, digital design studio and dress up party.  There is always something fun going on like a science experiment or craft and the kids love having their own space sans adults.  There are counselors there but, I don’t really count them as adults because they are just way to peppy!  And, you don’t need me to tell you what to do with alone time, but there is a whole section of the ship dedicated to adults including a separate pool, bar, and spa.  In the Kid’s Club, they are vigilant about germs and they make kids put their hands through a carwash-like cleaner up to their elbows before entering.  When you board the ship they give your kids a bracelet that has a tracker in it so they always know where your kids are, which comes in handy when (or if)  you decide you want to pick them up.

6.  Waterslides
Each ship has a different set-up, but no matter which one you sail on, you are sure to have a few watersides to choose from.  On the ship we went on, the Disney Magic, the kid-friendly water slide has several twists and turns, but is tame enough for smaller children.  Then there’s the big kahuna.  The Aqua Dunk, in our case, literally drops you down 3 floors and then propels you out over the side of the boat before depositing you with a giant splash at the end.  I’ve heard grown men shriek like little girls at the first drop.  Our Dad gave it two thumbs up.  You are guaranteed to get soaked and a giant wedgie, but it is an adrenaline rush you don’t want to miss.  I recommend trying it at night when the lines are shorter and the views are beautiful.

7.  Pirate Night
For all of you land lubbers who haven’t experienced pirates at sea, here’s your chance to show off you best pirate speak!  Most ships have a pirate night one evening on the cruise and Disney goes all out.  All of the characters are dressed in pirate gear and the cast members as well.  You’ll want to don your best ruffle shirt and grab your sword to join the fun in the search for Jack Sparrow.  We enjoyed watching Pirates of the Carribean on the top deck before the pirate party.  If your little ones can stay up late enough, it’s worth it to join the dance party and witness fireworks at sea.  Arr!

Disney Cruise 4
Our pirate crew with Stitch

8.  Cruise staff
In Disney speak, they are called Cast Members but, whatever you call them, they are heaven sent!  No matter what their job, everyone that you encounter on the ship is there to make your vacation magical.  Our server at dinner literally said, “tell me what I can do to make your dining experience phenomenal.” And, he meant it!  The room stewards remember what you like to have in your room or how many towels you need and they make it happen every day.  If you are stuck in a lounge chair with a sleeping baby, someone will come over to offer you a cold beverage or extra towel if it is chilly.  This trip, our toilet overflowed after my 5 yr old used the bathroom.  He claims he wasn’t doing anything fishy, I’m not sure I am buying it.  As soon as we told someone, the ship mechanic was there and the room steward had cleaned the bathroom before we got back from breakfast.  Now if we could just figure out how to have everyone come home with us after the cruise…

Disney Cruise 5
Roston, our favorite server doing magic tricks for the kids

9.  Disney Characters
You know when you go to Disney World and you have a child who is really into a character and you spend at least 30 min in line waiting for a picture, an autograph or a hug?  Or maybe, you’re like us and when you finally got to the front of the line and your child realized that up close, Mickey Mouse is HUGE and maybe you don’t want to take a picture with him.  Well, no more!  The great news about the Disney Cruise is that the characters are also on the boat.  You can get a schedule of where they are daily and plan to meet them.  We’ve only waited in line for about 10 min, tops and we even got to high-five them walking down the halls of the ship.

Disney Cruise 6
Mickey took a break from lounging at the beach for a pic.

10.  Staterooms
The design of the staterooms is pure genius.  The designers definitely had families with children on their mind when they planned the rooms.  And you know where there are families, there is also tons of gear that go with them!  Miraculously, everything that you travel with has a home in your room.  Each room has a king-size bed and a sitting area with a couch that turns into bunk beds at night.  Magic!  There’s plenty of room under the bed to slide your suitcases under and there are lots of drawers and closet space.  The kids’ side can be “closed off” with heavy curtains  if you want to block the light or just have some privacy.  And, the TV is on a swivel so the kids can watch Disney movies or you can tilt it towards the king bed for late-night viewing.  But, by far my favorite feature is the bathrooms.  Yes, I said bathrooms with an “s”.  Oh the joy to have two bathrooms!  One has a sink and a toilet and the other has a sink and a tub/shower.  Do the great Disney minds realize how many arguments they prevented by separating the shower from the toilet?  I think they must have had teenagers or just enjoy their private moments.  Either way, it’s delightful and being able to hose your kid down in the tub is so rewarding.

11.  The Shows
When you think of cruise entertainment, do you think of cheesy lounge singers in sequins draped over a piano?  I do!  Not so on this cruise.  The shows are pretty darn close to Broadway quality and the singers are legit!  Like, goose bump good!  They have shows every night and they are different themes but, all are professionally developed and the set design is amazing (imagine things appearing from under the stage and people flying through the air).  They are actually a bit better than Broadway in my mind because they hold the attention of the smallest theater-goers.  The shows are so interactive you can expect things to fall from the ceiling, characters to surprise you from behind and wonderful sing-along worthy music.  While we were on the ship, they debuted a new musical that they had been perfecting for almost 2 years, Tangled.  It was fantastic!  Our crowd from 4-41 was completely in awe. Grab some popcorn and an adult beverage and be thankful that you didn’t just pay $100 a ticket on  Broadway.

Okay, so that was more than 10 because I just couldn’t stop thinking of reasons why I love Disney Cruises.  If you haven’t been, do yourself and your family a favor and consider booking one.  No they aren’t cheap, if you really add up the amenities and the activities that you can do that are included in the price, it is totally worth it.  And best of all, you will make memories to last a lifetime!

Disney Cruise 7
Hoping we can comeback again someday!


Quick tips for busy moms:

1.  Check the sailings to book a cruise.  They offer 3 night sailings on up to 2 weeks, but don’t feel like you have to break the bank.  Three nights away is just as magical.

2.  Make sure everyone’s passports are up to date (and you know where they are).  Many of the sailings go out of the country and you’ll need a passport to board.

3.  Pack your pirate gear.  Even if it’s some black eyeliner, a scarf and a torn white T-shirt.  There is a pirate night on board and people go all out!  As long as you don’t have an aversion to costumes, you’ll want to join in on the fun.  Of course, Disney never misses a shopping opportunity so if you want to pick up an eyepatch on board, you can!

4.  Bring something magnetic to “decorate” your cabin door.  It’s a great way for your kids to identify which door is yours on a long corridor of look-alike rooms and it’s fun.

5.  No need to bring swim vests, they have them everywhere to use.

6.  You have to be a certain height to go down several of the watersides.  Check their web site so you don’t have explaining to do later.

7.  If you can, go with family or friends.  Disney cruising is a perfect multi-generation vacation because you can stay as busy or lazy as you want.  And, you can join together at dinnertime to share the magic of your day.

8.  Be prepared to unplug.  Communication on the ship is difficult and expensive so get a back-up at work and enjoy the luxury of truly going “off the grid”.

9.  When in Florida or cruising, don’t forget the sunscreen!

A special thanks to the Oates family for letting us join you on this magical journey.