Friday, May 30, 2014

The U.S. Virgin Islands with Kids: St. Thomas

This is part 1 in a two-part series sharing the best of the family-friendly U.S. Virgin Islands.These posts originally appeared on 

Known for their sandy beaches, crystal clear Caribbean waters and sunshine, the U.S. Virgin Islands are usually thought of as a popular destination for couples or honeymooners. Think twice and consider the stunning and friendly islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John, all part of the USVI, for your next family vacation.

The USVI makes for a fun, kid-friendly, relaxing, yet excitement-filled destination - and since they're officially a U.S. territory, you won't even need a passport! I recently visited the USVI with my two kids, Daniel,13, and Chiara, 4 and we checked several items off our bucket list: snorkeling together as a family, swimming with sea turtles and flying on a seaplane were just a few of our many island adventures.
St. Thomas, the most bustling of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and a popular day-stop for cruise ships, was the first stop on our spring break Caribbean getaway. Just 32 square miles in size, St. Thomas is small in size but big in fun. You’ll find not only beautiful beaches but also spectacular shopping and nightlife, as well as several cultural and historical sights, including Fort Christian, built in 1680 and a 17th century watch tower named "Bluebeard's Castle." You'll want to save up most of your energy, however, for lazy days spent on the sandy beaches, with the occasional dip in the turquoise waters for swimming, snorkeling or sailing.
After enduring yet another terrible Chicago winter and with no spring in sight, by far the best part of the USVI was the non-stop sunshine. We began each day greeting the sunshine and the ocean, followed by a lazy poolside breakfast, and spent most of our time swimming in the pool or the ocean. Here are five other ways to enjoy and explore St. Thomas as a family.
Snorkel the crystal clear Caribbean
Thanks to the awesome visibility, snorkeling was one of our favorite family activities in St. Thomas. My son, a strong swimmer, was old enough (and the waters calm enough) for him to set off on his own. One of his best vacation moments was when he spotted, and then followed, a swimming sea turtle while snorkeling in Bolongo Bay. My daughter was still a bit too young to feel comfortable with a snorkel, so she opted to explore with her swimming goggles. She could have spent hours underwater, looking for colorful fish and gathering seashells and interesting rocks. Bring your own snorkel/goggles or rent one from your hotel/resort.

Set sail on Heavenly Days
My son and I hopped on the 53’ catamaran, Heavenly Days, and set sail to a quiet cove for some more snorkeling and sea turtle spotting. After a very short sail to a special protected anchorage near an island with the second oldest lighthouse in U.S. territory, we jumped off the boat and snorkeled to our heart's content, spotting three sea turtles but also lovely corals and a rainbow of fish. I recommend this cruise for any families traveling with kids that are strong, confident swimmers with snorkeling experience. My daughter stayed at our hotel and took a nap with a sitter, which was arranged by our hotel, while we set sail - the sun and not being able to jump in and swim would have ruined the excursion for her, but you could bring a smaller child as long as a parent stays on board and under the limited shade while the rest of your party snorkels. The Heavenly Days Snorkel with the Sea Turtles Cruise includes snorkel gear, light snacks, soft drinks, beer and rum punch.
Explore Charlotte Amalie
Take a self-guided walking tour of Charlotte Amalie, the USVI's largest city and capital. Start your tour at Fort Christian, which dates from 1672 and is named after the Danish king Christian V. Though currently under restoration, this structure once served as everything from a governor's home to a jail until it became a national historic landmark in 1977. Continue walking up Fort Pladsen to Emancipation Park, which was where a proclamation freeing African slaves and indentured European servants was read on July 3, 1848. From the park, head down Main Street, where you can (duty-free) shop 'til you drop. Last but not least, climb up the picturesque 99 Steps (actually 103), a seemingly endless stairway built in the early 1700's that will take you to the very top of Government Hill. At the summit, you'll find a picture-perfect view of the port as well as Blackbeard's Castle, a U.S. National Landmark that once served as the island's watchtower. Though Blackbeard never lived in the "castle", this watchtower likely kept Charlotte Amalie protected from the infamous pirate and his pals.
Enjoy some up close and personal time with the marine life at Coral World
Plan on spending an entire morning or afternoon at Coral World, a marine life park that gives visitors the chance to meet and greet a wide range of aquatic creatures. My kids interviewed a seal lion, fed lorikeets their morning nectar and pet some not-so-cuddly stingrays. Plan on making as many trainer and feeding presentations as you can: the excellent staff taught us so much about the sea turtles, sharks, turtles and iguanas that all live at Coral World and fielded lots of questions from curious kids. Adults and kids who aren't quite ready to scuba dive but would like to experience exploring underwater with an attached-to-land breathing apparatus should give Snuba or Sea Trek a try. The Undersea Observatory Tower will give you the chance to explore the deep blue sea without getting wet.
Take a day trip to St. John by ferry
We caught a ferry at the Red Hook Port in St. Thomas for a day trip to the nearby island of St. John, home of one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, Trunk Bay Beach. While you can rent a car upon arrival in St. John, we opted for a guided tour of the island. Snaking our way through the winding roads of the island in an open-air van, we were treated to splendid vistas and interesting commentary from our guide. Much to the kids' delight, we saw anteater nests and wild pigs, too. We stopped at at a quiet beach, where we took a break and dipped our toes, then moved up to Bordeaux, the highest point in the island, with the spectacular view of Coral Bay. The Annaberg Ruins, once a bustling sugar mill, were another highlight of our guided tour.
We stayed at the very kid-friendly Bolongo Bay Beach Resort. Tucked into a calm cove in stunning Bolongo Bay, this family-owned resort was casual, comfortable, and best of all, directly on the beach. Every morning we took just seven steps from our room door and greeted the sun, dipping our toes into the clear blue, warm waters of the Caribbean. Our beachfront room was spacious and comfy, with two queen sized beds and basic amenities (cable TV, air conditioning, etc.) but also featured with a Euro-style kitchen with a refrigerator, microwave and coffee maker. We opted for the hotel’s European Plan (room-only rate), but if you're looking to stay mainly on-resort, Bolongo's All Inclusive package is one of the best in the Caribbean. We loved eating breakfast poolside at the on-site restaurant, The Lobster Grille (and I loved those few extra moments sipping my coffee while the kids jumped right into the pool!). For lunch, dinner or late-night entertainment, Iggies Beach Bar & Grill, located just a few sandy steps off the ocean, can't be beat: Voted "Best Beach Bar 2012"  by Caribbean Travel & Life, you’ll want to give the West Indian Killer Conch Fritters a try and bring some sand toys so the kids can build sandcastles while you enjoy a rum cocktail. Fun in the sun is always included in your daily room rate, and there was a wealth of water and land activities with free equipment rentals available. Play on paddle boards, Hobie Cats, kayaks, windsurfers, aqua tricycles, swim mats, snorkel gear and more.
Don't Miss
- Be on the lookout for vendors selling fresh coconuts on the side streets off Main Street in Charlotte Amalie. My kids loved sipping the sweet and refreshing coconut water and watching as the vendor hacked the top off with a sharp machete
The Tourist Trap on St. John is the place for the best lobster rolls ever. Located roadside on Route 107, heading south from Coral Bay, ask your tour guide to make a pit stop at this eclectic, gourmet roadside shack.
- Be sure to head to Iggie's Beach Bar for Carnival Night, held every Wednesday. Dance in the sand or on the dance floor to Calypso Music, do the Limbo and celebrate with the Mocko Jumbie, traditional island stilt walker. Local Artisans display and sell their local handicrafts throughout the evening and a Caribbean Buffet offers a wide range of local specialties.
- With its warm, clear Caribbean waters, St. Thomas is an excellent place to learn to scuba dive.Patagon Dive Center, a 5-star PADI Scuba Dive Center with locations on both St. Thomas and St. John, offers snorkeling lessons for kids ages 5 and up as well as junior scuba diving certification courses for kids as young as 8. Young divers will be limited to dives less than 6 feet.
post signature

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Convenient, Healthy Snack Packs from Artizone #artizonefunwithfood #spon #artizonechi

Disclosure: Special thanks to Artizone Chicago for sponsoring this post. 

As the end of the school year winds down, packing school lunches and getting the kids of to school and myself off to work in the morning is becoming more and more tiresome. I'm ready to hit the swimming pool and the beach! 

Here's a way to make lunch-packing a little bit easier (and healthier!): Artizone, Chicagoland’s only online and year-round marketplace for fresh, small-batch, artisan foods has partnered with Packed Produce to offer top-quality produce conveniently pre-packaged into individual servings. These convenient snack options are perfect for lunchboxes, midday snacks, post-workout refueling, team snacks or anyone looking to eat healthy on-the-go. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

#makesmesmilemondays Welcome, Summer 2014!

This past weekend we kicked off summer at a lovely lake house on Birch Lake, in Michigan, with good friends and lots of fun.

It's such a blessing to me to have friends that are by now old friends - I have watched their kids grow up as they are watching mine grow up. We have 8 kids among us, ranging from babies to teens. And they are all bonded together, despite the age range: The little ones look up to the big ones; the big ones learn patience while the little ones tend to crack them up, too. There was lots of swimming and fishing and jumping off the pier into the water. Then at night when all the kids settled into bed, the adults were able to bond, too, over this view:

There is nothing quite like spending time with good friends on a crystal clear Michigan lake.

Here's to a wonderful summer of 2014!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

My Tips for Potty Training without Tears

As I work out a book project the next couple of months, I'm pulling some old posts out of the depths of the internet. Here are my tried and true tips for potty training children in less than a week, originally published in Chicago Parent. 

I successfully potty trained both of my kids - boy and girl - before age two and in less than a week. Here are fifteen tips for successful potty training:

1. Don't believe the hype. Diaper manufacturers would like us to believe that potty training should start at age 3, but the American Academy of Pediatrics affirms that children's elimination muscles reach full maturity somewhere between 12-24 months, with an average age of maturity at 18 months.

2. Cancel your plans. Plan to stay at home for three days while you potty train. Play outside, but in the backyard.

3. Set the stage. One week before you plan to potty train, start talking about using the potty often. Let your child know that it's almost time for him to use the potty. Check out some potty-themed children's books from the library; download some potty-training videos. My daughter loved reading Miss Piggy's No More Diapers.
4. Talk it up! You may feel ridiculous doing it, but talk often about how much you love going to the potty.

5. Buy a child's seat that fits onto the toilet. Potty chairs are a pain in the butt (no pun intended!) to clean up. Purchase a child's potty insert and a stepping stool so children are using the toilet from the get go. Also, you can take the potty insert with you when you leave the home during potty-training and your child will be used to using it eliminating any public restroom drama.

6. Once you begin potty training, there is no turning back! Say goodbye to diapers on day one. But it might be wise to  have pull-ups on hand for nighttime if you don't think your child can hold his bladder for the entire night. Do not reveal the new potty until day one of potty training and when you do make it a grand reveal - involve the whole family and talk that potty up!

7. Hello to comfy underpants! Surprise your child with a nice new set of underpants featuring their favorite characters. As soon as they wake up, reveal the new potty and guide them to use it for the first time.

8. Head to the potty every hour until your child gets the hang of it.

9. When it's time to go potty, create a ritual. I would run the water a little bit and we'd wait and listen for that first tinkle or poop. Flush the toilet with fanfare and wash hands.

10. Your child is used to the attention that you gave during a diaper change. Give that same amount of attention - even more - and sit with your child while he is on the potty.

11. Keep a couple of special books in your bathroom, so you have some potty-time reading material on hand.

12. If there is an accident, don't make a big deal. Don't give it any attention - neither negative nor positive. Just clean up the mess, without commentary. Try not to give a bath. Some kids view baths as rewards. Just wipe up with a warm washcloth.

13. After three initial days of potty training, plan three days of limited excursions. Bring a change of clothes with you just in case. When traveling in the car, you may want to place an absorbent towel on your child's car seat.

14. Celebrate!I never gave my children stickers or rewards after each successful trip to the potty, but after three consecutive days of successful potty training I did gift them with a special commemorative "You're a big kid now!" treat.

15. Give yourself a pat on the back! Potty training can be stressful, but once it's done, it's done. You've helped your child reach another milestone!

Have you successfully potty trained your child? What tips or tricks worked for you?
post signature

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Father's Day Gift Idea: Cooper and Kid #spon

Disclosure: We received a Cooper Kit for review purposes. All opinions are my own. 

Here's a fun idea for Father's Day: order your favorite Dad a subscription to Cooper and Kid, a subscription service that brings awesome Dad/Kid play kits - a.k.a. boxes filled with fun ideas and activities - to your front door. 

Quick and Easy Summer Camp Physicals at MinuteClinic #MinuteClinic #spon

Disclosure: Special thanks to MinuteClinic for sponsoring this post. 

This summer, my son, age 13, will be heading off to overnight summer camp for the first time. He'll be spending two weeks in remote northern Minnesota. While I'm nervous for him, I also know that he's going to have the time of his life.

Outnumber Hunger: Help Feed Local Families #spon

Disclosure: Special thanks to Platefull Coop for sponsoring this post. 

In many ways, America is the land of plenty. But for 1 in 6 Americans, hunger is a reality. Right now, nearly 13 million families in America are struggling with hunger. These are often hardworking families who simply cannot make ends meet and are forced to go without food for several meals, or even several days. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

#MakesMeSmileMondays A New Bike!

Yesterday, I headed to Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square will one goal in mind: to buy myself my new bicycle.  I came, I saw my bike, I conquered: after a few adjustments and the installation of my new bell, I happily rode home on my new bicycle, a cream colored Bianchi Cortina Dama. 
My new bike

While I did bike a few miles today, my new bike will be put to the test tomorrow when I ride to and fro work. From the little bit I rode today though...I was delighted! It is so. much. easier to maneuver than my old bicycle, so lightweight thanks to a light aluminum frame, so fast thanks to 700c wheels and a 24-speed drivetrain. And best of all, it just comfy - the riding position is excellent. 

If you haven't been to Boulevard Bikes, check them out next time you're in Logan Square. I prefer to buy local and Boulevard Bikes offers one free year of service with every bike purchase. They are friendly and helpful, and are good at finding just the right bike you need for your lifestyle. (I also popped into City Lit next door. So thrilled to have an independent book store in my 'hood!).

Here's to a spring and summer (and winter and fall!) of happy biking to all!

Bicycle Financial: Your Online Financial Advisor

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Bicycle Financial.  

Do you want to get your personal finances on track but are not really sure how to begin? 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Roman History for Kids

For the next few weeks as I work on a book project, I'll be pulling out some posts from the past. Here's a post from summer 2011, soon after I returned from a trip to Italy with the kids. 

Before we left for Italy, I ordered a bunch of books for Daniel (age 10) on Roman history. He's really enjoyed books from two series.

The Interactive History Series lets kids choose their own pathway through history. So far he's readLife as a Gladiator andAncient Rome. Each book has 3 story paths with over 33 choices and 18 endings. For example, in Life as a Gladiator, you can choose to take part in the rebellion led by Spartacus, to train as a gladiator as a free citizen, or to fight as a veteran gladiator. Throughout each story, you make even more choices, i.e. Do you want to stay with the rebels? orDo you want to escape?. Daniel has read each pathway, and likes to see the different outcomes. We had fun readingAncient Rome together, choosing to live the life of a Roman woman who used a love potion and accidentally killed her husband - ooops!

We've also been reading together the Wicked History series, which details early war criminals like Hannibal and Julius Caesar. Geared towards kids, I like them too - they clearly explain the history of the era, and show the childhood events that led to the man who changed history. Poor Hannibal made promise to his Dad, for example, when he was just about Daniel's age, promising to fight the Romans to his death.

Daniel desparately trying to make a gladius.
Daniel has been so inspired by all this Roman history: he's even turned to digging around the tool shed, and sawing and sanding away, convinced he can create his own gladius.

Chiara meanwhile has been spending lots of time drawing on her magic erase board and picking miniature Chinese mandarins from the tree in the garden, taking a bite out of them, and then sticking them into holes in the walls.

Yes, I'd probably homeschool the kids if I were a millionaire and had the luxury of living year round in Italy, where long, quiet days are just right for reading, learning and exploring at your own pace, for following whatever interests you on a whim. 
Chiara singing to herself and drawing on her magic erase board.

mandarini cinesi

Monday, May 12, 2014

#makesmesmilemondays A Day at the Spa

On Saturday, I spent the day at a spa where I was beaten with birch branches by a Russian woman wearing a bikini while lying half-naked and sweating in a sauna. Afterwards, while I was lounging in my bathrobe, I bumped into Jesse Jackson. 

No, it wasn't a bad dream: it was my Saturday, and I'm thankful to have spend a luxurious day lounging with my lovely friends, taking care of our bodies and our spirits, over spa treatments and brunch, all in our bathrobes. Heavenly!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Want North Lake Shore Drive to be more bike, walk, and transit friendly? Here's your chance.

A message from the Active Transportation Alliance

Take action and send comments TODAY to North Lake Shore Drive re-construction project team. With planning getting underway for the reconstruction of North Lake Shore Drive, we have a once in a lifetime chance to re-imagine this iconic road as a people- and transit-friendly urban parkway. But we need your help TODAY to make sure that happens.Originally envisioned as a boulevard and gateway to Chicago’s lakefront, Lake Shore Drive has evolved into a car-clogged highway that fails to move people efficiently and cuts residents off from our city’s most prized natural asset, Lake Michigan. The North Lake Shore Drive project team has demonstrated an interest in shifting away from the same old auto-centric thinking. However, draft documents that outline the official purpose of the North Lake Shore Drive re-construction project don't leave much room for a future lakefront that's less automobile-dependent. You have a chance to weigh-in TODAY and encourage the North Lake Shore Drive project team to fully embrace the opportunity to "Redefine the Drive," because Chicagoans don't want an expressway in their front yard.Use our online form to send a message to the project team telling them the purpose of the North Lake Shore Drive re-construction should reflect our shared community priorities.

Active Transportation Alliance


Fall Registration Now Open for Italian Language Kids Program in Chicago! Insieme a Chicago

Insieme a Chicago is an Italian cultural program for children from birth to 5 years old. “Insieme” is Italian for “together” and as the name implies “Insieme a Chicago”gathers Italians, Italian speakers and Italianophiles “together”, in a space specifically designed for their little ones. Children will enjoy playing age appropriate games, singing songs and lullabies, listening to storytelling and participating in fun activities with their peers in a 100% Italian environment enriched with authentic Italian materials.  

Director Barbara De Bernardi teaches kids Italian with a fun and creative
method that makes every child - even those that don't speak Italian
at home - feel welcome 
The “Insieme” children are divided into two age-based groups hosting a maximum of 8 students each: “Il Nido” for children 0 to 3 years old and “Il Volo” for children 3 to 5 years old. The program for the little ones is structured around the same fundamental learning topics and goals taught at Italian daycares; while “Il Volo” is based on the Italian Preschool Curriculum and Objectives.
The goal of Insieme a Chicago is to provide kids with a place to share their Italian heritage and/or our love for Italy. 

Fall 2014 Class Schedule
12-week season:
September 11th – December 13th

Il Nido
(1-3 years old)
Thursday (Old Irving)
Friday (Old Town)
Saturday (Old Town)

Il Volo
(3-6 years old)
Thursday (Old Irving)
Friday (Old Town)
Saturday (Old Town)

Il Viaggio: 
This program is meant to be an imaginary trip through Italy and an effort to introduce core subjects as they are taught at an Italian Elementary School.
Every week, students learn about a new region and its specialties, such as Art, Music, Food, History, Geography and interesting facts about the people and children living in it. Within the Cultural exposure, beginner students learn to use the language simply by being immersed in it, while  native-like students learn more about their country and get an opportunity to speak Italian with other children of their age.
Children ages 6 and up are welcome to join the program.
(6 and up)
Thursday (Old Irving)
Friday (Old Town)

St. Michael Church
1633 N Cleveland Ave
Chicago, IL 60614
St. John’s Episcopal Church
3857 N Kostner Ave
Chicago, IL 60641

Registration begins May 15th
To register contact Barbara at:

A New Take on an Old Favorite from the Freezer: Old El Paso Frozen Entrees

Disclosure: The information and prize pack have been provided by Old El Paso® through Platefull Co-Op.

Here's a new take on the frozen dinner: Old El Paso Frozen Entrees promise delicious Mexican food that you can take from freezer to table in mere minutes. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

#MakesMeSmileMondays The Cupcakemobile

Because seriously, how could you not smile when driving a cupcakemobile?

post signature

A Beautiful Castle

Last night I treated my daughter to a spa night: Earlier in the day she picked out a special bath bomb from Lush - a "Dragon Egg" that fizzled in the bathtub and burst with confetti, revealing an inner "yolk" that turned her bathwater sparkly and golden. After her bath, we painted our nails; she picked the color, sea green and glittery. As she pampered herself then brushed her teeth, I reminded her that she always needs to take extra special care of her body, that God gave us each a perfectly perfect body and that we always need to take care of ourselves and treat our bodies with respect. She cheerfully told me that indeed "if I don't treat myself well, that's like God making a beautiful sandcastle and then someone knocking it down."

Are we sure that adults are smarter than children?

File:Sandcastle sculpture (4856466479).jpg
post signature