Thursday, March 24, 2016

Hiking with Tots: A Trip to Tortola's Sage Mountain

I'm of the belief that the natural world is a child's greatest playground, which is why you will find me outside with our kids as much as possible. Maria Montessori - founder of the renowned Montessori method of education - once said, "A child, more than anyone else, is a spontaneous observer of nature" and watching the wheels start turning when a little kid discovers a mud puddle or a giant leaf or a lizard on a branch is proof positive of this fact. There simply is no replacement for the natural world and the benefits of simply being in nature are vast. We are fortunate to live in an environment and community very conducive to outdoor play, and it just so happens that we also have a pretty beautiful National Park, Sage Mountain, just up the road. 

Scott, always more ambitious in his outings with our daughters, took all three for their first hiking experience at Sage Mountain a few weeks ago. On their own tiny legs, our trio hiked all the way to the top, and despite the fact that the hike is by no means 'difficult', we still found this impressive for an almost four year old and a pair of two year olds to accomplish with little protest. After that successful excursion, we have returned as a family two more times in the last two weeks, it's an easy way to kill a couple of hours where the kids are using their bodies and exploring in nature. Win/win all around.

Arriving at the gate of the park you are struck with two interesting sensations that are distinct deviations from those which we experience at sea level; the first is the smell. The magnificent perfume of damp earth, fallen leaves and wet moss fills the air. "Mmm....it smells so good mommy" exclaimed Isla when we stepped out of the car. It's distinct earthiness is both refreshing and energizing. The second sensation, is the temperature. The canopy of trees and foliage envelops you in it's mottled cocoon, taking you in completely. The almost impenetrable shade creates a damp coolness which is a welcome change from the wonderful, but unforgiving, tropical sun.

There are several trails you can take around the park, we opt to drive to the base and follow the well marked trails to the "highest point in the BVI". The hike can be a meandering stroll or a vigorous walk, it's up to you. There is a little restaurant at the base and the proprietor will give you a (rudimentary) map and help point you in the right direction. The paths are obvious, and while the girls and I - along with my sister - did manage to get a bit lost on our most recent excursion (were we supposed to go left or right at the fork?), it's a small enough hill that retracing your steps back to square one isn't too hard. It's all part of the adventure, and it's always an adventure with little tykes in tow.

The panoramas from the top are, of course, incredible. Vast azure water with islands dotting the horizon everywhere you look. It's peaceful and serene at the top, and with the cool forest air kissing your shoulders it's impossible not to have a feeling of calm as you take it all in. All is right in the world. Quintessential paradise. The place where the sea meets the sky. Where the forest greets the shore. Where the shade gives way to the sun. Nature at it's absolute finest. 
Mira and my mom learning about Sage at the base of the main trail.
Isla is our family "champion" hiker. Never complains, never falters. Just keeps putting one foot in front of the other.
Puddles are Mira's absolute FAVORITE. What kid doesn't love a good mud puddle? And who are we to deny them?
Checking out the unique "skeleton" of a giant leaf in the final stage of decomposition.
Grandpa and Mira
Beautiful. The light, the lush foliage, the circle of life.
Isla found this little fruit/flower. She's got the eyes of a Serengeti tracker.
Isla leading the way, and Haven found a friend to walk with for a moment.
"The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep" -Frost
The beauty is in the details.
This child will climb anything and everything. The world is her playground!
Grandpa and Haven. 

We bring along snacks, in this case dried mango, to munch along the way. Snacks are key when hiking with tots!
My flaxen haired wild child.
Anyone else a fan of "The Lorax?" This reminds Isla and I of a Truffala Tree!

This happy little sprite loves to hike, climb and explore. Our girls are monkey's!
One of the many incredible views from the top. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

So You Want to Visit the British Virgin Islands?

Ever since 'officially' relocating to the British Virgin Islands (known more casually as the BVI) I have gotten a flurry of emails from friends, family and followers wondering how to make their tropical vacation dreams come true. If you are one such person, this post is for you!

Before I delve into the details (bearing in mind I am no travel agent and a newbie here myself!), a little bit about this place: The British Virgin Islands are located in the Northeastern Caribbean and feature an archipelago of over fifty islands, cays and islets. We are a quick ferry from St. Thomas or St. John, a short (40 minute) plane ride from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and St. Maarten is an overnight sail to the east. If a tropical paradise is what you are seeking, look no further. The weather here is equatorial - hovering around 82 degrees on average -and the sun shines every day with the heat perfectly moderated by the balmy trade winds that blow daily. The beaches are amazing, the water is spectacular, and the outlying islands beautiful. From kiteboarding to sailing, spa-hopping to lounging, there is truly something for everyone here.

Four predominant islands provide the main attraction to the BVI: Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada and Jost Van Dyke. The capital, Road Town, is nestled in the middle of Tortola - the largest island - which is 12 miles long by 3 miles wide. Each island is unique, with distinguishing vibes and attractions. It's no wonder that every week I meet someone who tells me they've been coming to these parts for twenty years and have no inclination to stop or go elsewhere.

If you are curious about visiting this incredible place dubbed "Nature's Little Secret," then read on and I can help point you in the right direction (hint: it's south). There are many links throughout this article to help you navigate further because, as I said, I am no expert and still am new here myself. That said, here's what I know...

When To Come?
November to May is a great window to visit, with various "high peaks" within that time frame (like Christmas, spring break, etc). This is our "winter" and while temperatures are still hot and tropical (just how we like it!) they are comfortable thanks to the moderating trade winds. While hurricane season technically begins in June and continues through November, vacationers still flock here to take advantage of "off season" pricing. June and July see a boost of the "summer travelers" and the BVI Tourist Board are currently working on ways to make this place more enticing to families during this time by offering "kid free" perks and such. The months of August and September are the slowest (and hottest), and also happen to be the most "active" hurricane months. If you travel within the hurricane window there will always be a risk of a storm putting a real damper on your holiday, so trip insurance might be wise. For more information on when to come, read this article on the Best Times to Visit the BVI's.


How To Get Here?
We island hopped here all the way from Chicago the first time we came through, the second time we sailed directly from the Bahamas and the third time we came across from St. Maarten. But I am guessing you are looking for a quicker mode of transport. There are a few ways to get here that I know of, with most people coming first to the main island of Tortola, and getting local ferries to shuttle them to the neighboring islands:
  1. Fly direct to Beef Island, Tortola: Because our island is small, our airport follows suit and therefore we cannot host large jumbo jets and planes from the US and Europe. Most flights coming in are on small planes or puddle jumpers from neighboring islands with larger facilities (such as Puerto Rico, St. Thomas or St. Maarten). As such, this option is usually the more expensive because it involves an international flight and a small local flight. Because we travel with small kids we have always gone this route, and typically fly Chicago > Puerto Rico > Beef Island. 
  2. Fly to St. Thomas and Ferry to Tortola: The cheaper way to travel here is usually to fly direct to St. Thomas and take a quick, 45 minute ferry over to the British Virgin Islands. While this route is a bit more time consuming and cumbersome, it can save quite a bit of money. You must plan your flight accordingly, however, as ferry times can be limiting so make sure you arrive at the airport with plenty of time to get you down to the ferry dock so you can make your ferry and don't end up having to pay for a hotel in St. Thomas. Also note: YOU WILL NEED YOUR PASSPORTS to get on the ferry. Make sure to have them ready.

Where To Stay?
There are SO many options on every island and I cannot possible outline every one. But people who vacation here usually do one of three things:
  1. Charter a boat: There is no doubt that these islands are best explored by water. The BVI's are one of (if not the) top charter destination in the world and there is good reason for it. Tropical climate, consistent trade winds and an archipelago of beautiful islands that create a relatively protected body of water all combine to make this place a sailor's paradise. If you already know how to sail, you can easily rent a boat for your vacation. As far as budget is concerned, there are options for every level. The most economical is to bareboat (captain the boat yourself), but pricing will be determined by the size and type of vessel you rent (larger boat = more money, catamaran > monohull, etc.). Don't know how to sail but want to travel by sea anyway? Charter a crewed boat. On these charters you will have a captain and, if you choose, a chef on board. The more crew, the more money you will be spending, and these crewed charters can range from the simple to the luxurious. Do your research and make sure to book in advance. Nanny Cay is home to Horizon Yacht Charters and many of our friends work there, so we can vouch for them. Not into sailing and prefer motor yachts? That's okay too! Our good friends run Virgin Traders (also located here in Nanny Cay), offering luxury powerboats ranging from 44-68 feet for both bareboat and crewed charter.
  2. Rent a private Villa or Condo: This is a great option for folks more of the land-lubbing variety. The options are endless, and first and foremost you will want to decide what island you want to stay on, bearing in mind day trips to most islands of the BVI's are easily arranged. On Tortola, we work closely with Agape Cottages and can vouch that they have great facilities and are located a short walk from one of the islands's most captivating and bustling beach areas (and my personal favorite), Cane Garden Bay. If you go this route, it might be wise to rent a car as well. Our island doesn't have a bus system and taxis can get expensive. Just remember we drive on the left side of the road!
  3. Stay at one of the many fine Resorts and Hotels: Once again, there is no shortage of resorts and hotels here to chose from, all offering an array of services from basic to all-inclusive to serve a variety of budgets. From one star efficiency to five star exclusive, the BVI's have it all. We live at the Nanny Cay Resort and Marina which boasts a hotel, pool, beach and child-friendly atmosphere - as well as a bustling marina community- and it's a great option for the more budget conscious. Looking for something a little more special? Surfsong Resort, Long Bay Beach Club and Sugarmill Hotel are amazing places that offer five star services and accommodations for the most discerning of traveler. But don't stop there, there are so many options - do some research and find what would be the best fit for your budget, time frame and travel companions.

What To Do?
While some might simply want to unplug and get a healthy dose of R&R during their stay here (and there is no shame in that!), if you are the more active type who isn't prone to lounging - there are plenty of activities to keep you busy! Filling a week with activity to counter the 'chill-out' vibe that is so prevalent here will be no problem. Here are just a few suggestions that will be sure to fill your days and leave you wanting more:
  1. Dive into Pardise  - The water here is amazing and the diving and snorkeling excellent. There are a ton of dive companies, and every main island has at least one to chose from. Blue Water Divers is located here at Nanny Cay, and have a great range of trips from night dives to wreck dives.
  2. Beach Comb - the beaches here are amazing. Whether you like the bustling vibe of a beach lined with chairs and bars, or prefer your own private paradise - it's all here. Grab a towel, kick off your flip flops and enjoy.
  3. Island Hop -  Aside from the five main islands of the BVI, there are about fifty others to explore. Rent a day boat or hop aboard the Rebel Yell Power Catamaran and explore! You can hit the beaches and bars of Jost van Dyke during the day, head for sundowners and the nightly Tarpon show at Saba Rock, explore the magic and mystery of The Baths on Virgin Gorda, or zip over to Cooper Island Beach Club for a killer dinner...the options are endless!
  4. Party Hardy - One thing we know how to do here is party. And where do we party? Beach bars. Some of the most famous shoreside haunts in the world are located right here in the BVI. Jump off the legendary Willy T at Norman Island (technically not a beach bar, but a floating bar!), listen to live bands or Foxy himself at Foxy's or swim up to the Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost van Dyke, and dance your heart out at Myett's on Tortola. If a rum-fueled party is what you seek, you have struck gold here! If you are really looking to throw down, time your trip with the full moon and party at the infamous Bomba Shack or any number of full moon parties these islands offer. Oh, and don't forget to sample our famous local drink - the Painkiller, it's delicious. But be careful, mixers are more expensive than rum here so they pack a real punch!
  5. Water Sports - It's all about the water, and here - fun on the water is never far. You can learn to Kiteboard in Virgin Gorda, rent a paddle board in Cane Garden Bay, sail a Hobie Cat at the Bitter End and, if conditions are right, you can even catch a world class surfing wave here! Of course the snorkeling is awesome just about everywhere, so don't forget the mask and snorkel and jump in to have your mind blown!
  6. Learn to Sail - Dreaming of sailing off into the sunset but don't quite know how to sail yet? Minor detail! Why not learn to sail while you are here? There are a number of great sailing schools that offer anywhere from one day to week long courses. Tortola Sailing School offers a whole host of American Sailing Association accredited courses, as does the Rob Swain Sailing School (which is located right here at Nanny Cay) - request my bad-ass friend, Keanna, as an instructor! If you are a woman and would prefer to learn in the company of other females, then the Sistership Sailing School (also at Nanny Cay!) is for you! Warning: Learning to sail in paradise has long-lasting side effects and you might just sell it all and end up on a boat like we did!
  7. Partake in a Local Event or Festival - Islanders like to have a good time, and the BVI's are no exception. Enjoying a local event is a great and unique way to experience a place. There are a ton of local festivals, events and regattas to enjoy - check out the schedule and see if there are any that coincide with your visit, or that you'd like to plan your trip around!
  8. Hike the Hills - If you want to stretch your legs and get some exercise here, hiking is a great way to do it. Tortola, the largest of all the islands, has some great hikes - most of which are on or around the beautiful Sage Mountain National Park. But you can find a trail to explore on most any island.
  9. Day Sail - If you are vacationing on land, you *MUST* book a day, or several days, to get out on the water and see some of the other islands. A great way to do this is by booking a day sail and (*cough cough*)... and we just so happen to run the #1 Day Sail Company in the BVI, Aristocat Charters. Our trips are full day, include three stops and are all inclusive... soda, beer, rum punch and a freshly prepared (and very delicious) buffet lunch are all included, as are the snorkel equipment and paddleboards. Did I mention we have the best crew in the BVI as well? Because we do! Bring a towel and some sunscreen, and be prepared to have the best day of your BVI vacation with us!
  10. Rest and Relaxation - Sometimes, people come to our neck of the woods to unwind and do nothing. Pamper yourself at one of the many full-service spas here and enjoy the many amenities of the fabulous resorts. If lounging by the pool with that book you've been meaning to read is all you want to do while you are here, then do it. Park yourself somewhere with a beautiful view, feel gentle breeze on your skin, bask with the sun on your skin and simply relax. You deserve it.
I hope this is helpful for those of you considering the BVI's for your next vacation. We absolutely love living here and sharing this place with others is a pleasure, so we hope to see you down here sooner than later! Remember, the lower the latitude, the better the attitude...

Other resources:
BVI Tourism
Ultimate BVI
BVI Newbie
Escape BVI

BVI Tour Center



Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Haven and Mira Turn Two: Beach Party!

For someone who loves a good party, I'm not very good at planning them. So when it dawned on me that the twins were turning two in less than 48 hours and we had nothing planned (will I ever learn?), I scrambled to get something together. While, on the one hand, they were only turning two and really didn't know what all the fuss was about, on the other hand, they were turning two and a little party was in order. So, as one does when you live on the water, we hit the beach. One advantage of island life is the fact people aren't so over-scheduled and busy that finding attendants for a last minute, thrown together party isn't really a problem. Another factor in our favor was that their birthday fell on a Sunday, so most people had the day off and our neighborhood friends weren't in school. And finally, having the beach bar available to make drinks for the adults and pizzas for the kiddos didn't hurt. My parents had brought down the presents we ordered, and my dad had stocked up on birthday horns, hats and decor, so all we really needed was a venue and some guests. I sent out a few messages, grabbed some cake mixes and frosting and we called it a party. A party it was!

But before I delve into the festivities...a word on my twinkles. I cannot believe they are two. It seems only yesterday we had their first birthday party in St. John, and not that much longer before that we got the news that I was cooking two in my womb while in Grenada. Haven and Mira have been my greatest challenge to date, and as with all great challenges, have bestowed upon me the greatest lessons and rewards. Being a mom to twins has changed me in a million ways, but more than anything I am blown away by the love I have for these little fish and the immense amount of joy they bring me. I never thought it would be possible to love two little people - born minutes apart, yet polar opposites - equally (I mean, surely there must be a favorite, right?) But, no. My absolute adoration of each of them knows no bounds. They are also an interesting lesson in genetics as they share not a single feature down to their fingernail beds... But it's their spirits and personalities - also very different yet equally enticing - that have captivated me as of late...It's why I love toddlers so very much; this hyper awareness that these tiny people actually have their own minds, thoughts and desires and - despite what science might tell you - a lot of it is hard wired! Their curiosity, the way they look at the world, how joyful they are at the simplest things, watching their brains soak up the world around them like sponges...it's incredible. Being a mom to our three girls is my life's greatest joy. Sorry to get all mushy, but it really is.

Haven has developed into the feistiest little cutie you have ever seen, not that it's much of a surprise since she's been hell on wheels since day one. She is incredibly strong - in both will and body - and parenting her spirit has taken some adjusting. But as demanding as she can be, she is the easiest to make smile, her laugh is infectious and she will almost never say no to a big hug and kiss. Her little light shines so bright and, when she is happy, she is joy personified. She is so excited about everything and knows no fear. She is mischievous and precocious and so much fun. Her exuberance and energy are unmatched, and she is pure beauty and magic. Mira, more mellow and pensive, is equally as spirited, but in a more understated way. Incredibly pensive and bright, she flies under the radar. Everyone who meets her comments on how thoughtful she is, and how they can just see the wheels turning behind her gorgeous eyes. Her beautiful little face has a thousand expressions and every single day she shows me more sweetness and truth behind her complexity. She is a lover, and when she trusts you, you will be privy to the greatest cuddles you have ever gotten. Oftentimes when we are on the boat, Isla and Haven will be playing with their toys, while Mira and I lay on the settee, just snuggling away. She melts my heart a million times a day.

These two little creatures could not be more different, and yet - I love them equally. Each day I think I love them more, which seems impossible. People ask me all the time how I stay at home with them day in and day out, encourage me to get a nanny, to send them to daycare so I can get a break...and while I do have my bad days, and while I do long for more time to do the things I want (I am researching ways to get "me" breaks), I truly cherish this time with my girls. I love that we are a tight little family tribe and I adore watching the bond between them - three different dynamics in all - flourish. "It's only a short window of time that they are this young" I remind people. "This will go by in the blink of an eye." So, for now, I dedicate most of my hours and most of myself to them. And it's my pleasure.

Anyway...

I took a ton of pictures on their birthday (I treated myself to a new lens - 24mm pancake lens - and tried it out on this special day) and so I will let those tell the story....
Grandpa came over with Grandma bright and early with round one of birthday hats! Having them here was so special.
Haven was very excited by the dump trucks we got her to play with at the beach!
We all had breakfast at our favorite place, Gennekers, at Nanny Cay.

Claire - one of our fave waitresses - even treated the girls to cupcakes! But not until each one gave her a kiss!
After breakfast we took a hike up to Sage Mountain with my parents. More on this in another post! It was beautiful.
During naptime, I made cupcakes and cake, and Scott and our neighborhood friends decorated!
Look at all these sweet monkeys! They *really* enjoyed the leftover icing!!
These two sweeties made this awesome sign/card for the girls, which now stays in their room.
Each twin got her own Melissa & Doug sand baking set (believe me, getting two is much better than one when it comes to twins!)
Isla, of course, helped both of them open their present!
Our sweet boat kid neighbor made this awesome, healthy snack to bring to the party.
The party in full swing. It was laid back, casual, and pretty perfect if you ask me!
Mira was particularly adorable on this day. We LOVE our sport wagon , btw!
Despite getting her own sand toys for her birthday, Haven opted to play with those another kid brought. Typical.

Pizza party on the beach. What could be better?
Our sweet friend, Albertine (I met her and her lovely husband doing laundry one night), loving up little Mira.
My dad did all the decorating, how sweet was that? The theme (if you can call it that) was My Little Pony.
Adults and kiddos having fun.
The staff of the beach bar have all become like family to us, this is our buddy, Garth, slinging drinks for the party.
Isla and the newest neighborhood kid playing away. These two are pretty darn cute together!
Haven and her million dollar smile. This kid can turn on the charm like none other!
Daddy and Isla having a chat on the swings.
Every now and then someone notices that I am taking all the pics and snaps one of me. My beautiful friend and I!
The girls had SO much fun with their new Hello Kitty beach ball!
Having doing her best "monkey hug" on Grandpa.
These two together...sigh...it's amazing. The twin bond is really something. (when they are not fighting, of course!)
Face full of sand, dirt and cake. Life is good!
Wait..there's more cake? Time to sing!
The girls were excited for this part, but weren't really sure what it was all about. 
This, however, she is VERY sure about. Haven speaks fluent "cupcake". I think she had five on this day!
A little twin moment. Would love to know what they are saying to each other!
More cupcakes...well, why not!!
This cake turned more into a smash cake than anything.
Are you counting the cupcakes?!?
Haven trying to explain that, no, she will not share her cupcake with our good friend, Kevin.
The end of the night came fast and we had to get the cuties home, bathed and in bed. One final picture with her adoring grandma. A great day had by all!

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