A New Spin on Snow Tubing

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We’ve very much been enjoying the winter climate here on Vancouver Island: cold enough for occasional snow but no bitter cold temperatures. We thought the few inches of snow in our river valley was impressive, but we soon realized it was nothing compared to the feet of snow we found during a day of tubing at Mount Washington.

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The highway drive from Qualicum Beach toward Courtenay was easy, and the 18 km  Strathcona Parkway is definitely manageable for anyone with four-wheel drive and/or good winter tires. Overall, less than an hour total to get from our doorstep to a winter wonderland. The sky was overcast when we arrived, but the clouds soon opened up offering breathtaking views of the surrounding peaks.

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The Tube Park is located at the Alpine Lodge, and we found the layout to be perfect for even the youngest of us. After choosing a lane and whooshing down the track, it’s a short walk pulling your tube up to the “Magic Carpet”, which does the work to get you and your tube back up to the top of the track. The operators were super friendly and made sure the kids got on and off without any issues, and after a few times down the kids felt comfortable enough to race ahead without us to begin their next trip down the slope.

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We originally didn’t know if we would get bored after a few times down, but this definitely was not the case. We underestimated the sheer variety of ways to tube down the track, each one providing a different experience. Fortunately, the wonderful staff at the top of the run gave us the nudge we needed. After the kids had their first time down, they were asked if they wanted a spin on their next trip. The first few spins were of the tame, “let’s see if they like this” variety. By the end of the day, though, the Younger Fives were begging the operators for the most head-spinning whirls they could muster, and the staff was more than happy to oblige. Spins are even more fun when shared, and we experimented with 1-, 2-, 3-, 4-, and even 5-person twirls down the slope. The only thing more dizzying than trying to figure out all the possible ride combination with five people was the actual experience of spinning like a mad teacup down the slope yourself!

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Fives’ Facts About Snow Tubing at Mount Washington

1. Location: Mount Washington (elevation 1,590 m or 5,220 feet) is located about 25 km from the eastern coast of Vancouver Island. It is home to the Vancouver Island marmot, one of the most endangered mammals on the planet.

2. Driving: The Mount Washington Alpine Resort is located at Exit #130 of Highway #19, about 13 km north of Courtenay. The Strathcona Parkway takes you the rest of the way, and chains are required if the weather turns ugly. Click here for more information about winter driving to the resort.

3. Passes: There are family two-hour and full-day passes (covers 2 adults and 2 children), with the option to add additional children at a discounted rate. We found the full-day pass to be ideal. We spent about 1.5 hours tubing, then took a leisurely hour for lunch inside the lodge, then went back out for another 1.5 hours. Not having the pressure of trying to get in as much tubing as possible before time ran out made the day much more enjoyable 🙂

4. Height Requirements: Children under 42″ ride free with an adult in the same tube. At first we were worried that our 7 and 5 year old might not make the cut. In the end, with boots on everyone was tall enough to ride on their own, and we were very glad we got each child their own pass so they could ride independently.

5. When to Visit: We planned our trip for a weekday, which meant the wait time was basically non-existent. The Tube Park is open 11am-7:00pm (and until 9pm on Friday and Saturday), and we had the place to ourselves until after lunch. We heard that on the weekends the wait can increase considerably, so go during the week if at all possible.

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Train Odyssey Superlatives

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Our 15 day journey is over. We traveled through 12 countries (over 4,900 miles ) on 25 trains, and we survived. Now for a quick breakdown of our trip, what we liked, and what we would encourage fellow travelers to avoid.

Best Train Station: Vienna, Austria. This station is attached to a huge shopping mall. The food court is located just off of the train platforms, so that you can wait inside at a table for your train.

Worst Train Station: Amsterdam Central, The Netherlands. This is the most confusing train station that we have come across. The signage is horrible and you have to walk outside to move between different areas of the station.

Prettiest Station: Budapest, Hungary. This is a classically gorgeous train station from outside to inside.

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Scariest Station: Sophia, Bulgaria. The station is under construction, poorly lit, not heated, and very large. It is like walking into a dark cave.

Most Scenic Train Ride: The Austrian Alps. The journey from Salzburg to Innsbruck via Zell Am See is simply breathtaking.

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Most Difficult Train Ride: Belgrade, Serbia to Thessaloniki, Greece. This night train had two border crossings (Macedonia and Greece), and our train car had no heat.

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Friendliest Country: Serbia. The only place where a stranger in a grocery store has ever bought our kids candy bars.

Most Kid Friendly City: Bruges, Belgium. Parks, playgrounds, canals, windmills, and chocolate. Who could ask for more?

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Easiest Country to be a Vegan: Germany. Many options at just about every supermarket. Many of the vegan / all natural products we bought in other countries were made in Germany.

Hardest Country to be a Vegan: Greece. Most supermarkets had very little to offer for vegans. This is also the only place we couldn’t find non-dairy milk.

Best Attraction: Dutch Resistance Museum in Amsterdam. Engaging, informative, heartbreaking and inspiring all wrapped up into one. No where else has 4 hours passed so quickly.

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Tips for train travel with kids:
* Fill up on drinking water before you get on the train.
* Using the bathroom before leaving the train is free and usually easier than finding one in the unfamiliar city you are exploring.
* Playing I-Spy out the window can be a great filler for those minutes waiting for the end of the journey.
* When all else fails, pull out a camera and let the kids document the scenery or interview one another.

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The Biggest for Last

When you mention Rome most people usually picture the Colosseum. This ancient Roman amphitheater is a dominating presence in the city, as well as one of the top tourist attractions. However, we broke with tradition and saved this humongous architectural wonder until our very last day in Rome. It turned out to be a very fitting end to our week of exploring Rome as we started at the Roman Forum and wound our way through Palatine Hill to finish up with a tour inside of the Colosseum. There is no better way to imagine life in ancient Rome then to follow this circuit marveling at temples, palaces, and of course the largest amphitheater in the Roman empire. However, as previously mentioned this section of the city is a major tourist attraction so, below we have listed our tips for enjoying your look back at ancient Rome with out letting the modern day crowds drive you crazy.

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The Roman Forum

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The Roman Forum was a big open area of the ancient city surrounded by temples, government buildings, and shops. Today much of the forum is in ruins making its glory a little hard to imagine. In addition there is very little shade in the area making it a very crowded and hot destination during the warmer months. Since the boys were a little bored of ruins by this point in our trip we let them hang out on the fringes and play while Five of Hearts and Five String viewed the ruins more thoroughly. While the Roman Forum is impressive we all found the ruins of Ostia Antica a lot more accessible and a lot less crowded. It was much easier to get a picture of Ancient Rome in Ostia Antica then it was in the Roman Forum with large tour guides bustling through the site.

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Palatine Hill

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From the Roman Forum you are in great position to walk up one of the seven hills of Rome. Palentine Hill is the most central hill and as such it was home to to many temples and palaces. It is also the suppossed birth place of the two famous twins, Romulous and Remus. The Younger Fives immediately fell in love with Palatine hill and had a blast running up and down the shaded paths as we explored the ruins of ancient palaces as well as the gardens and fountains. At the very top of the hill we found a shaded area with wonderful views of the city. We settled on the benches for a picnic lunch and would have been content to stay all day if we didn’t have more on the agenda. The only negative aspect of Palatine Hill is that the ruins are not well signed at all. If you are truly interested in exploring this area in depth you might want to pick up a good guide book and map before you visit.

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The Colosseum

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After tearing ourselves away from our picnic spot we didn’t have a long walk at all to reach the Colosseum, in fact it was all downhill. Since we had already purchased our tickets at the Roman Forum we didn’t have to wait in line and we breezed right into the massive structure. The museum style exhibits on the second floor were well done and they kept the kids interested. However, it was hard not to rush through them in order to get our first view of the inside of the amphitheater. Even though the structure was built 72 A.D. and the seats and floor are gone it is still a staggeringly impressive site. However, after taking the view from several different angles there isn’t a lot more that the site offers, especially for kids. We found that the attraction of visiting the Colosseum is more about being able to appreciate the scale of the building and how well it has held up overtime. Upon returning home from our visit we had the kids watch a few documentaries on the Colosseum including the BBC product A Gladiator’s StoryThis combined with the visit helped everyone get a better picture of the importance of the amphitheater in Ancient Rome.

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Five’s Tips for visiting the Colosseum area:

– Buy your tickets at the Roman Forum and skip the lines at the Colosseum. We purchased ours at the entrance off of Via dei Fori Imperiali and had less than a 5 minute wait. Kids enter for free but you do have to request the “free tickets” for them in order to get through the gates.

– Pack a picnic to enjoy on Palatine Hill. The garden and shades are lovely as well as the view and the crowds thin out the farther from the Forum that you get.

– Be prepared for for the Forum and the Colosseum to be crowded. We visited in the off season it is was still packed with tour groups. Street salesmen, tour promoters, and men dressed up as gladiators will all be vying for your money as you walk through this very touristy area.

– If you want to see the the lower or upper levels of the Colosseum you need to spend the money on a tour. These areas aren’t covered by the general admission ticket.

– Your ticket covers one entrance to the Colosseum and to Palatine Hill/Roman Forum. The ticket is good for 2 days so you can split up the sites. However, if you leave the Forum to grab lunch you won’t be able to enter again without buying another ticket. You should plan to visit the Forum and Palatine Hill together.

– There are bathrooms and water fountains at the Roman Forum entrance on Via dei Fori Imperiali as well as at the Palatine Hill Entrance on Via di S. Gregorio. The map also showed restrooms at the Palatine Hill museum and at the Colosseum making this whole area a very friendly place for kids with small bladders 🙂

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An Adventure Underwater

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With it being over 2 years since we last put on a snorkel (in the Florida Keys), the timing seemed right to turn our attention underwater yet again. Just offshore from the eastern Mexican coast is one of the largest coral reefs in the world, so there is no shortage of places to explore. However, we knew that fighting waves or strong ocean currents would not give the kids a good experience out in the water. Five Spice did some research and found an ideal place to snorkel as a family: Akumal Bay, a sheltered cove about 40 km south of our rental in Playa del Carmen.

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In addition to calm waters, the bay is also known for its sea turtles. Akumal, which means “Place of the Turtle” in Mayan, provides the sandy beaches sea turtles use for their nests and also plenty of sea grass just offshore to provide the turtles with food. Tens of thousands of loggerhead and green turtles hatch from the sandy nests each year here. The conservation and monitoring program is run by Centro Ecológico Akumal, a nonprofit whose headquarters is just steps from the water.

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Knowing that the turtles are closer to shore in the early morning, we set the alarm for 5:30 A.M. to start our adventure at Akumal. We were all a bit bleary-eyed as we made our way to the colectivo stand to catch a passenger van from Playa del Carmen to Akumal, but the anticipation carried us forward one step at a time. We soon settled into the van, and after about a 30 minute ride we arrived at the stop for Akumal Beach right along the main highway.

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DSC05366-picsayFrom the side of the highway, we made use of the elevated walkway over the traffic and headed toward the beach. We had heard it was kind of a long walk, but we didn’t find it bad at all. There was a pedestrian sidewalk (much of it paved) heading from the highway and into the little community that has sprung up close to the beach. From there we went under the arch and followed the sidewalk to the beach.

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We arrived around 7:30, about a half hour before the dive shops open for gear rentals, but this was a wonderful time to explore the surroundings. The beach was practically deserted, and we enjoyed learning about the reef ecosystem and sea turtles through the informative displays in the Centro Ecológico Akumal building.

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When 8:00 arrived, we were the first ones in line to rent snorkel gear. The anticipation was running high, and soon Five Spice, Five of Hearts, and Five Ball ventured out into the roped-off area to take a peek underwater. They didn’t have far to go before they spotted their first group of turtles eating sea grass below. The turtles are fascinating to watch. They usually have an entourage of fish accompanying them and cleaning bacteria off their shells, and it is intriguing to watch them come to the surface, take several deep breaths, and then plunge underwater. In addition to the turtles, there were a large variety of colorful fish in some of the small stands of coral reef close to shore. The reef is larger and more intact a little further out, but the diving area off of the beach, with its proximity to shore and relatively easy swimming, made it the ideal place for us to experience the turtles and the reef.

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As the morning progressed, so did the number of visitors. The small beach and water were feeling quite crowded by about 10:30, and after a final snorkel and swim along the beach, we rinsed off and walked back to catch the colectivo back to Playa del Carmen. The only drama on the return trip was a thunderstorm that crossed our path, combined with the fact that the driver was going a bit too fast for comfort. Walking back to our rental from the center of town, we found a watery obstacle course as many of the streets were flooded knee-deep with rain. We took our time to slowly pick our path home, making use of a few impromptu bridges along the way. It’s times like these that we wouldn’t mind having a shell of our own and being able to just go with the flow 🙂

 

Fives’ Facts about Akumal Beach
*Transportation:
There are several options for getting to Akumal Beach. From Playa del Carmen or Tulum, you can catch buses or colectivos heading between the two endpoints of the route, and either will drop you off on the side of the highway at the road to Akumal Beach. Be sure to ask for Akumal Beach and not the town of Akumal. The cost of the bus and colectivo are about the same. The colectivos run about every 10-15 minutes from 5:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M. and have no set schedule, which was more appealing for us. The cost from Playa del Carmen was 35 pesos per seat used in the van, one-way. The colectivo stand is located at Calle 2 Norte between Av. 15 and 20, which is 2 blocks north of 5th Ave. Taxis are also available, but run a minimum of 600 pesos one way.
*When to Visit:
The dive shops open every day of the year at 8:00 A.M. and close at 5:00 P.M. We found arriving before 8:00 was ideal, as the beach was practically deserted. Getting out into the water right at 8:00 gave us about 2 hours to explore before big tours and crowds arrived.
* Renting Gear: There are several options on the beach for renting both snorkel and scuba equipment, and they all seemed about the same to us. We went with the Akumal Dive Shop, the original shop on the beach. The combination of snorkel set (mask and breathing tube) and life jacket (mandatory) was $12 USD per person, and kids and adults are the same price. Flippers and other gear are extra. We decided to snorkel in shifts, so we only rented three sets of gear instead of five. There are definitely places in Playa del Carmen that rent gear for cheaper, but we didn’t want the hassle of lugging everything around with us all day.
* Turtles:
You are most likely to see loggerhead and green turtles out in the waters of Akumal. They are about the same in size (1.2 meters) and weight (100-200 kg), but the loggerhead turtles feed on shellfish (crabs and snails) while the green turtles feed on sea grass. We saw at least a dozen green turtles during our morning in the water, and they were a blast to watch!
* The Reef:
The Mesoamerican Reef (extending  700 miles from the tip of the Yucatan down through the Honduran Bay Islands) is the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. The reef is home to 60 types of coral, 500 species of fish, and 5 species of marine turtles. One of the biggest threats comes from tourism and the staggering number of people who visit the reef (ourselves included). There did not seem be to any efforts to limit the daily number of visitors, as we have seen in other places. At very least, be sure not to touch or step on the reef and wear reef-safe sunscreen (if it’s on your skin, it’s on the reef).

¡Viva México!: Independence Day in Pictures

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We’re suckers for parades. Despite the hassle of getting up at the crack of dawn to claim a prime piece of sidewalk along the parade route, the hours of waiting and baking in the sun are always worth it when we first hear the distant notes of the marching band getting louder by the moment. During our travels we’ve experienced the Fourth of July in New York City and Canada Day in the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, but there’s nothing quite like an epic Mexican Independence Day parade. 

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During the course of the more than hour-long parade, we got to see every student, every police officer and firefighter, and every military service person on the island of Cozumel. And we mean everyone. Wave after wave of school children brought up the front of the parade, and it was fascinating to see the amazing variety of uniforms among the students of all ages, from pre-K up through university. They were followed by all the police officers, firefighters, and ambulance drivers, who then were followed by the army, navy, and air force personnel on the island. The time went surprisingly fast, and as the final flag and snare drum passed we still were wanting more. However, the rides and attractions set up in the town square gave us a push to keep going with the day’s festivities.

 

Fives’ Facts about Independence Day in Cozumel
* Fireworks:
 Some impressive fireworks are set alight the night before on September 15th around 11:00 PM. While the most popular place to view is from the main square, we found our 2nd floor bathroom window gave us a perfect view with all the comforts of home.
* Where to Watch the ParadeThe parade route is along the Malecon (coastal boulevard) from the Municipal Palace north several blocks toward the airport. We found a good shaded spot in front of the Mega supermarket which made it super convenient to take bathroom breaks and get refreshments.
When to Arrive: After asking around, we gathered that the parade started at 8:00 AM. Therefore, we made sure to arrive at our spot on the parade route around 7:55 AM. The street, though, was completely deserted. The reason, we discovered, is that the parade actually starts around 9:15 AM. Even as the parade began, there was still plenty of space on the sidewalk. Lesson learned: no need to rush 🙂
* Patriotic Accessories: We debated whether to invest a few pesos in Mexican flags and decorations to wave during the parade. In the end, we never got around to buying any. This ended up being a wise move as none of the spectators went overboard with the red, white, and green. The only flags were in the parade itself, so it’s probably best to leave the face paint at home.
* Fair in the Square: The main square has a carnival-like atmosphere for the week leading up to Independence Day. There are plenty of amusements for the kids, including carousels, trampolines, and pint-sized roller coasters.