Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Family travel: U.S. getaway

Having just returned from Puerta Vallarta, where my brother-in-law treated friends and family to a vacation to celebrate his 60th birthday, I was thinking that my ideal family vacation is one that I don’t have to pay for.

But I’ve taken a number of free vacations and some are far from ideal.

For my kids, now 13, 17 and 19, any adventure related trip is up their alley. They love to ski, and though we haven’t ventured out west, we’ve had great ski vacations at Mount Snow and Smugglers’ Notch. My husband doesn’t ski, and now that the kids are older and accomplished skiers, we don’t even have to put them in ski programs. They ski together and my husband and I cross country ski. We gather by a fire for lunch, have a hot chocolate break at some point, and eat for more than normal, since we are burning fuel.

We have also taken our kids on Backroads bicycle trips. These are great because all the planning is done by the Backroads team. You choose a trip and show up on the appointed day - your bicycle is ready to go, you get a detailed map and snacks, and meals and hotels are arranged. You even have built in friends - on family trips, the Backroads planners put together groups with kids of similar ages.

We are not the only ones who love Backroads. Last year, my siblings and their kids took a family biking trip out West.

But for my money, the best place for an active family to go to in the United State is the all-inclusive Club Med Sandpiper. We have been to several Club Meds, and the mixture of family time and adult-only time is ideal. Kids have their own clubs, where they hang with kids their own age.

My girls are addicted to the circus school, where they perform on the flying trapeze. And when it is too cold to swim - my friends went to Sandpiper over Christmas, during a cold spell - there are tennis lessons, sailing trips, fitness classes.

The food, for vegetarians, fussy eaters, hearty appetites - even dieters - is amazing. Maybe dieters wouldn’t be too happy about the preponderance of food, but if they stick to salads and fresh fruit, they can find low calorie food.

My husband and I have a major birthday coming up (OK, a year away) and we’d love to go with our extended family.

If only we could find a way for my brother-in-law to pay.

I wrote this blog post while participating in the SocialMoms and Alamo blogging program, for a gift card worth $50. For more information on how you can participate, click here.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Vegetarian in Mexico

At our first meal Puerto Vallarta, my husband asked a waitress if a dish he saw go by had meat or tofu in it. She laughed, “there is no tofu in Puerto Vallarta!” Yet we found tofu, and much more for vegetarians, at Coco’s Kitchen.

In fact, one of the dinner entrees, Coco’s Tofu Steak, had grilled tofu over Chinese noodles, with lots of vegetables. It was delicious. If you eat fish, you could have the Chiles Rellenos, with shrimp, mushrooms and cheese, or the excellent Mahi Mahi, served with jicama and a mango sauce.

There are a number of appetizers for vegetarians, including an avocado egg roll, with sun dried tomato and tamarind, and a simple grilled polenta with red bell pepper. Most interesting and flavorful were the tortilla tacos, with the taco skin made form sheets of thinly sliced jicama. These added crunch to the seared tuna or shrimp with ginger inside. Potato skins with tomatillo salsa or grilled eggplant are other vegetarian options.

Inventive salads included mixed greens with mango, goat cheese and alamonds, and a spinach & strawberry salad. I thought the latter would be too sweet, but the gorgonzola cut the sweetness, and the caramelized pecans had only a touch of sugar.

The simple beet carpaccio, with mandoline thin slice of beet and parmesan cheese, and basil, was perfectly prepared. Meals starts with pita crisps, and a yogurt/garlic dip, gratis.

The corn and bell pepper soup, creamy and not too rich, was perfect on a night where the ocean breezes cooled us. Coco’s only has outdoor seating, open to the street or in a rear patio, under fig trees. With candles and fresh flowers, the restaurant offers casual romance, at reasonable prices.

122 Olas Altas, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Friday, January 7, 2011

Saving Money

One of my new year’s resolutions is to find new ways to save money, and many websites offer money-saving ideas, even when traveling.

Blackboard Eats
provides free coupons for restaurants in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco. If you live in one of these cities, or happen to be planning a trip, you can sign up for free and get one of the 30% off pass codes, sent to your phone, to use on your travels. We have gotten a couple of these to restaurants we already frequent, so there has been no downside. One caveat: you get just one code, good for one visit, and they are limited.

jDeal has discounts on Kosher restaurants, hotels and more, just in New York right now, but expanding to Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Israel, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The site is geared towards Jewish consumers, but anyone can eat a Kosher restaurant, and the discounts range up to 50% off. Like Groupon, you buy a discount coupon; unlike Groupon, you won’t find deals on cheeseburgers or pork cheeks.

Use those gift cards. My kids get a ton of gift cards, and when they lose them, the money is gone. A free way for them to keep track of their cards is to download them to an iPhone or other Smartphone, using the free SWAGG app. You just show at checkout. If you don’t have a Smartphone, you can still download the gift cards to your web browser and shop online. Did I mention that this is all free?

Another cool thing - you can exchange your gift card, free, if it is one of SWAGG’s participating retailers. Let’s say your tween suddenly hates Wet Seal. She can swtich to American Apparel. Or use it to buy her mom flowers at 1-800 Flowers. Well, a mother can dream, right?

Finally, New Jersey based Daffy's Daffy’s offers discount designer clothes, but this store saved me when I took my niece to Philadelphia. She had forgotten her pajamas, and right across the street from our hotel, a large Daffy’s had a good selection of socks, underwear and PJs. Daffy’s also has a number of stores in New York City, and if you are lucky enough to be traveling someplace warm, they have swimsuits on sale..