Toddler Island: all about our Dauphin Island beach vacation

All about our Dauphin Island, Alabama beach vacation

When I decided in the bleak midwinter that we needed a beach vacation, I had a clear idea of what I wanted: LAID BACK. Traveling with two three-year-olds, I knew what I did not want: high rise resorts, crowded beaches, or any tacky tourist stuff. I wanted a house on the beach for minimal schlepping. I wanted to do nothing more but play in the water, hang out on the sand, maybe take a few walks, enjoy drinks on a porch overlooking the water, and cook up a bunch of local seafood at home rather than going out to eat all the time. These criteria led me to choose to rent a house on Dauphin Island, Alabama, and I couldn’t be happier with our choice.

I had never been to Dauphin Island before, but it fit my criteria perfectly. There was one resort, and the rest of the island was dotted with houses on little streets that dead-end at the beach, essentially giving each grouping of 6 or so houses their own private beach, with no parking or public beach access near the houses. There is exactly one grocery store on the island (Ship & Shore), and it’s predictably pricey, but there’s a really good little grocery store (Greer’s) and farm stand a 15 minute drive inland. There are a few restaurants, but no chains. We had one excellent dinner out, slightly inland at Baudean’s– I had grouper topped with soft shell crab and a delicious butter pecan sauce. There is an excellent seafood market on the island, Skinners, where we picked up fresh shrimp and fish for dinner most nights. Bike and kayak rentals were readily available, including seats and trailers for kids, and the entire island was very bike-friendly.

All about our Dauphin Island, Alabama beach vacation

All about our Dauphin Island, Alabama beach vacation.

There is an excellent little aquarium called the Estuarium on the island where you can touch rays, crabs, and other sea life and get up close with all the things that usually freak me out when they bump up against my legs in the water. Our girls LOVED it. There is also an Audubon Bird Sanctuary and a historic fort, Fort Gaines, which is where the quote “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” was first said. We didn’t check out either of those because we spent as much time beach bumming as possible. I wasn’t kidding when I said my entire plans for the week were to sit on the beach and hang out at the house while drinking as many mojitos as possible.

All about our Dauphin Island, Alabama beach vacation.
Fun at the Estuarium.

All about our Dauphin Island, Alabama beach vacation.

There is a golf course on the island, and the boys in our group played 9 holes. They report that the course had been badly damaged by a recent hurricane, but is under new management and is being improved. They had a good time, and in return, the moms got some kid-free time at the beach.

All about our Dauphin Island, Alabama beach vacation.

Speaking of the beach! I used VRBO.com to find a 5 bedroom, 3 bathroom house for us to share with two other families– a total of 6 adults and 4 toddlers. Ours was the fourth house down from the beach, and my husband said next time he’d prefer to be the house on the end, though the rest of our friends said they didn’t find the little walk to the water to be that bad at all. Honestly, it wasn’t any longer than you’d schlep to get from an upper story at a resort down to the water at most places, I think. The beach itself was sandy and quiet, and the water was perfect– a little windy and choppy on our first couple of days, and lake-smooth and calm on our latter few days. The ONLY drawback to this fabulous little island is you can see about 16 offshore oil rigs from the beach. I would kind of squint and pretend they were boats out on the horizon. I have a feeling the slightly-less-scenic view is what makes prices at Dauphin so much cheaper than places like Destin.

All about our Dauphin Island, Alabama beach vacation.

All about our Dauphin Island, Alabama beach vacation.

All about our Dauphin Island, Alabama beach vacation.

One of the highlights of the week was the day we swam about 40 feet from a playful pod of dolphins. They were jumping and diving, and we could hear them calling to each other underwater. The definite low point was when Claire, Jon, and I all got stung by jellyfish on our last dip in the ocean at the end of the week. In between the high and the low, we watched the girls transition from clingy and anxious about the waves in the first days to floating free “by myself” in their puddle jumpers by the end of the trip. It definitely helps that the surf calmed down, but they also just grew to love the water.

All about our Dauphin Island, Alabama beach vacation.
Here you can see both the offshore rigs, and, if you squint, a dolphin fin!

All about our Dauphin Island, Alabama beach vacation.

All about our Dauphin Island, Alabama beach vacation.

All about our Dauphin Island, Alabama beach vacation.

All about our Dauphin Island, Alabama beach vacation.

All about our Dauphin Island, Alabama beach vacation.

All about our Dauphin Island, Alabama beach vacation.

We had a blast sharing the house with some of our best friends, and I’m pretty sure going with other families is the only way to do the beach with young kids. It was no big deal if one of our girls wanted to stay on shore, because some of the others were bound to be there to hang with them. It was no big deal to take turns hanging out in the house with napping kids while some of the other grown ups grabbed some solo time reading next to the water, which isn’t something you can do while trying to make sure small people don’t drown. It also didn’t make us feel trapped by toddlers’ early bedtimes, because we could make pitchers of drinks and play games and hang out on the porch after we got all the kids down. One night we all drank pina coladas and watched the sun set from our house’s rooftop deck while our friend Ken played guitar.

All about our Dauphin Island, Alabama beach vacation.

All about our Dauphin Island, Alabama beach vacation.

All about our Dauphin Island, Alabama beach vacation.

Overall, I’d highly recommend Dauphin Island if you’re looking for a quiet, chill beach vacation experience. We had a great time and I can absolutely see us going back as long as we live such a reasonable 7 hour drive away.

All about our Dauphin Island, Alabama beach vacation.

 

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vacation, all i’ve ever wanted

I think it was back in February, when winter still seemed interminable, that the girls had a particularly terrible day and Jon and I looked at each other and decided we needed a vacation to look forward to. Within days I had booked a week at a beach house on the Gulf coast. We invited two other families and began excitedly looking forward to taking our kids to the beach for the first time. I got through many a hard day by reminding myself “in May, you get to go TO THE BEACH.” And now that week is upon us. This is how I feel:

This is 7 years, two babies, and several pounds ago, but you get the idea of how I feel about the beach.
This is 7 years, two babies, and several pounds ago, but you get the idea of how I feel about the beach.

I am looking forward to a very low-key time of hanging out, splashing around, and drinking icy beverages within sight of the ocean.

I’m also doing something crazy: attempting to take an actual vacation from the internet. Not like, ZERO internetting, because I know myself and yes, the house has wifi, but I’m going to like, temporarily delete Twitter from my phone and try not to be so internet addicted for a week. I’ll still be Instagramming, though, because it really is my favorite slice of the interwebz.

Got any last minute beach-trip-with-little-kids tips I should know about? Are you looking forward to any travels this summer?

doing disney with toddlers (and only one small backpack)

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I mentioned that we recently went on vacation. I did not mention that it was to the Happiest Place on Earth: Walt Disney World.  When my husband had a paper accepted at the biggest national conference in pediatrics, and when I found out the conference was in Orlando, we decided to make a family vacation of it and try taking the girls to Disney since kids under 3 get in free.

I grew up in Disney World. This is not hyperbole. My parents have an Orlando timeshare, and we went at least once, usually twice a year, from when I was 8 years old. For me, going back to Disney is almost as nostalgic as going to grandmother’s house. It’s a place full of happy memories that I know very very well. Because we went so often (it and the Gulf Coast were the only places we ever vacationed), my family did Disney a little differently than families who only ever go once. For us, the pressure was off to see and do EVERYTHING since we knew we’d be back, and because we had a season pass, my parents didn’t hesitate to get us out of there when it was time to go back to the condo and nap.

These two lessons formed the basis of my approach to this trip, and should serve as a warning to anyone attempting to take very small people to Disney:

  1. Do not expect to see and do EVERYTHING.
  2. Do not plan to spend a whole day at Disney World with toddlers.

By keeping those things in mind, we were able to truly enjoy our time in the parks with our tiny people. We had a 5 day non-park-hopping pass, which worked out fine. We were generally able to spend about half a day in the parks, and then the girls were done with stimuli, crowds, and the stroller and we had to leave and take naps at the condo. We probably could have come back in the evenings for a couple of hours, but by that point, we were tired too, so we stuck to quiet dinners and early bedtimes (our girls basically stayed on Central Time), and putting our feet up. We did two days at Magic Kingdom, and one day each at Epcot, Hollywood Studios (which will always be MGM to me!), and Animal Kingdom.

One major note: we went in October. The weather was lovely, but warm. We still got sweaty. I would NO WAY, NO HOW take toddlers to a Florida theme park in the summer. It would just be miserable, like pushing a stroller through the most crowded circle of hell. I do not think my sanity could take it. October is better. Nice weather, less crowded, and everything was decorated for Halloween. Also, we took advantage of off-season rates, and used Groupon to secure a two-bedroom condo with kitchen for $400 for the week. Also, the Magic Kingdom on Halloween itself is amazing– everyone we saw was wearing costumes, and some were quite elaborate! I think my favorite was a large family in which grandma was Snow White and every other family member was a dwarf.

Speaking of pushing strollers through hell: this is what it would be like if you rented a Disney stroller, no matter what time of year. Those things are terrible, made of hard plastic which can’t be comfy for little bodies, don’t recline, and I saw more than a few tip over backwards in our time at the parks. On top of that, renting a double stroller at Disney is $31 per day. Insanity. Because we were driving there, and because our resort had cribs and high chairs, we had room in our car for our beloved Baby Jogger City Select double stroller. If you are flying, I highly recommend looking into stroller rental in Orlando. I scoped out the names of several of the companies I saw on the Baby Jogger City Mini Doubles being pushed through the park, and it seems $95/week, delivered straight to your hotel, is a standard rate for a high quality double stroller that won’t make you hate yourself as you push it through one of the most crowded places on earth.

Our beloved Baby Jogger City Select in nap-mode at EPCOT.
Our beloved Baby Jogger City Select in nap-mode at EPCOT.

Another thing about strollers: unless you pack an umbrella (which I don’t recommend, because you’re going to want a sun canopy, basket, and reclining seats), plan on doing a smidge of extra walking. Disney parking lots are vast expanses of blacktop ruled over by attendants in yellow stripey uniforms, often on segways. You will park where they say to park. You will walk to the front of the cars. You will stand behind the yellow line. You will wait for the tram. You will disassemble your stroller and all the stuff you planned to stash in the basket to flatten it all and fit it into the tram while somehow holding on to your two small children. You will say “screw the tram” and leave your kids in their stroller with all their stuff stowed below as you elect to walk yourself to the Transportation and Ticket Center, which really isn’t as far as it seems.

Related: when going to the Magic Kingdom, Thou Shalt Ride the Monorail rather than be packed like an Ellis Island Immigrant onto the slow-moving cruise across Bay Lake on the Ferry Boat. Thou shalt arrive in half the time.

Admittedly, it had been a long time since I went to Disney with/as a small child, and I really wasn’t sure how much my kids would get out of it. A lot, it turns out. There’s plenty of stuff for little kids to ride (my kids are 18 months), and if you know what they can handle, the day will go quite smoothly. I know my kids well enough to know they can’t sit through any stage shows, stunt shows, fireworks shows, or parades. They also have no idea who most of the characters are, and will not get enough out of meeting any of them to justify standing in line for a photo op and autograph, so we skipped all the character meet and greets. They do however, love rides. In the Magic Kingdom alone, they rode and loved: Aladdin’s Magic Carpets, The Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Carousel, It’s a Small World (their fave), Winnie the Pooh, Voyage of the Little Mermaid, Dumbo, the Teacups, and absolutely could have ridden Peter Pan’s Flight, the Haunted Mansion (little kids don’t know it’s supposed to be scary), and the People Mover and the spaceships in Tomorrowland had we not run out of time. We were selective about which of the no-toddlers-allowed rides we chose to ride ourselves, utilizing Fastpasses or rider swap to get our turns on attractions the girls couldn’t enjoy, though for the most part, we focused on things that we could all do together.

The whole family on The Jungle Cruise.
The whole family on The Jungle Cruise.

Animal Kingdom was probably the second most fun park for the girls, Epcot third, and we really could have skipped Hollywood Studios entirely. Epcot was super fun for the adults, though, because it was the food and wine festival, and we enjoyed eating our way around the world via reasonably-priced small bites and little glasses of wine. Another good reason to visit in the fall.

Finally, here’s my biggest lesson from this Disney trip with toddlers: you reallllly do not need to be schlepping a week’s worth of luggage through the parks like I saw so many families (often with only one kid) doing. I was determined that we would only need a small backpack to carry all our gear, and I made it happen. Key: I did not pack much in the way of food, and I didn’t pack first aid items that could be obtained at the in-park First Aid or Baby Care centers. What I did pack:

  • A change of clothes for each kid
  • Two straw cups for sharing drinks at restaurants (my toddlers can’t quite handle the average lidded kids cup yet, and need something leak proof with a screw-on lid)
  • Two snack traps full of cereal (these they held in the stroller and did not put in the bag)
  • Two bibs
  • Two toddler forks
  • 4 baby food pouches
  • Diapers
  • Wipes
  • Changing pad
  • 2 catheter kits for my child with spina bifida
  • Sunscreen
  • Hand sanitizer
  • A sippy full of milk per child (which I refilled with milk purchased at restaurants, going insulated with these cups is a good idea to avoid having to bring a cooler)
  • The Nosefrida, because at least one kid always seemed to have a stuffy/runny nose, and this is the only thing that works

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If I were going in the warm weather, I might have included a swim diaper for each kid (there are some splash fountains at the parks I know they would like). Other than that, we shared food off our plates at lunch, were never in the parks at dinner, and never once needed anything or wished we had brought something else.

Beyond the contents of the backpack, our other crucial items were an Ergo carrier for each child. What we would do was, navigate the stroller to an area of the park, park the stroller in a designated area, put each kid into an Ergo, and go through lines that way, doing everything in that area before putting them back in the stroller and moving on to the next area of the park. By wearing our kiddos, who are very used to being worn and love it, we weren’t fighting with kids struggling to get down to the ground as we moved through lines, and we weren’t wearing ourselves out holding them. For some rides like It’s A Small World, I even left the kid in the Ergo for the duration of the ride. I cannot stress enough the importance of bringing a carrier that is comfortable for you both if you bring toddlers to Disney. These carriers were stashed under the stroller and easy to get on and off. They were also wearable WITH the backpack full of stuff, so we never had to leave the backpack behind, and because the backpack was small, we could always take it with us, even on the rides.

So, there you have it, my guide to Disney with toddlers. Have you ever taken a very small child on such a vacation? Have any tips or questions?

MouskeMama
MouskeMama

 

vacation, all we ever wanted

Last week, Jon and I took a little vacation that I’ve been jokingly calling our Baby Moon, because it’s likely the last vacation we’ll ever take, just the two of us. We went to Charleston, SC, where we lived for the 3 years of Jon’s residency, to visit friends and favorite places and just relax. It was perfect. Those who know me well know I’m crazy about food, and we basically planned our whole trip around what we’d eat, when, matching up people we wanted to see with places we wanted to eat. We ate SO GOOD. And our spirits were fed as well when reconnecting with people we love.

It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why we love Charleston. In some ways, it’s obvious– great food, great beauty, the beach. But in other ways, I think it’s because it’s where we went and struggled and survived on our own as a married couple for the first time. Jon worked crazy hours. I worked jobs I sometimes hated. We didn’t know anyone. I hated it at first. And then we thrived, and for that, it will always be a special place. Here are some highlights from a fabulous trip*:

Actually visited this old favorite TWICE.
There was one day of perfectly warm weather, so we spent it at Folly Beach.
12 week twin bump shadowed on the beach.
Followed by dinner at Taco Boy. Fish tacos! Too bad I couldn't have a margarita!

 

Jon really enjoyed his Mexican Street Corn.
We checked in on Rainbow Row and strolled around downtown.
We checked out Middleton Place plantation. The house is gone, but the gorgeous view it had remains.
One day, we'll be able to make the twins take pictures of us. Until then, this will have to do.
One of the plantation's goats wanted to be Jon's bff. It was trying to climb out of the pen to get to him.
And on our last night in SC, I got to try a restaurant I've been dying to try for over a year. The wait was worth it!


*You can thank Jon that I’m not sharing the tens of photos I took of trees. I’m a little obsessed with gnarled live oaks and giant moss-draped magnolias.

 

ernie bufflo and the wizarding world of harry potter

In case you doubt my Harry Potter love, this was my Halloween costume a few years ago.

Did you miss me? The blog has been rather neglected for a while because I went on vacation with my family to Walt Disney World.  While we were there, Jon and I took a day to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Islands of Adventure, something we’ve looked forward to since the day we heard there would BE a Harry Potter theme park.  I figured y’all might like a review of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

To preface, I should say that I’m something of a Disney World loyalist.  This trip marked my 14th visit to Walt Disney World, and if you figure that each vacation was 5 days in the parks, I have spent 70 days in Walt Disney World.  I know Disney like the back of my hand. Map? I don’t need no stinkin’ map!  I’ve also visited Universal Islands of Adventure once before this trip.  And I have to say: I wish Disney had done the Harry Potter park.

Why? Well, while Universal undoubtedly has bigger, better rollercoasters and thrill rides, and more of them, Disney does better at creating a cohesive world.  From the minute you pay your parking fee and the attendant says “Have a Magical day!” Disney is themeing every tiny detail of your experience.  Everywhere you look is a piece of a greater theme.  And you never see chipping paint or dusty animatronics because Disney has an entire fleet of maintenance people painting and touching up each and every single day.  Contrast that to the sad, faded, chipping paint in the Dr. Seuss portion of Islands of Adventure: there was scum in the water of the fish on the Cat in the Hat ride, which also featured a very dusty cast of robots!  Disney is also exceedingly efficient.  There are people making sure the right number of people get on the correct seats of the rides so the lines move smoothly.  Meanwhile, on the Dragon Challenge ride at TWWOHP, it was a free-for-all of seat choosing, which led to clogged lines and confusion.

Also: at Disney, you can take your bag or stuffed animal or magic wand on every single ride with you.  Even the ones that go upside down like the Rock’n’rollercoaster.  At Universal, before you ride anything, you have to stash your stuff in a nearby locker, which, though they are free, ads a whole new layer of pushing, shoving, and waiting in line to the experience.  In addition, Disney’s FastPass system is more democratic.  At Disney, you simply show up at an attraction, swipe your ticket, and get a FastPass which tells you to return at a certain time to enter a special line that is invariably much shorter than the main line.  At Universal, you just pay twice as much for your ticket and you can stand in the faster lines all the time, all day, unlimited.  I have to say, though, those who go through the Single Rider or FastPass (whatever Universal calls it) lines at TWWOHP are missing out, as some of the best parts of the park are actually along the main line.  Perhaps my biggest tip: stand in the main line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is the ride inside of Hogwarts, even if it’s an hour long, because otherwise you’ll be missing out on some majorly cool stuff.

Hogwarts was captured perfectly.

This guy looked just like a Weasley, and he was actually British. Instead of sticking him in Three Broomsticks, TWWOHP should have him working in Zonko's, doing magic tricks and actually "being" a Weasley.

Finally, Disney doesn’t call their employees “cast members” for nothing.  Every single person who works there knows he or she is literally playing the role of a citizen of a magical world, and they act the part.  From the deeply creepy folks who are found to work the Haunted Mansion to the 1920s “movie stars” roaming the streets of Hollywood Studios (aka MGM Studios), every single person you encounter is in character.  At TWWOHP, there are a few folks playing actual characters, be they Ollivander, or the conductor of the Hogwarts Express, but I wished the employee had had an answer when I asked him if the Sorting Hat had determined which house colors each TWWOHP employee was wearing, instead of looking at me like he had no idea what “sorting” was.  I also wished there had been some actual witches and wizards roaming around the Three Broomsticks or bumping into us on the streets of Diagon Alley/Hogsmeade.  (On that note: TWWOHP takes things from Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade and smooshes them together into one place they call Hogsmeade, which is not entirely accurate to the books.)

That said: TWWOHP is extremely well done, despite my view that Disney could have done it better.  As we approached the gate of Hogsmeade, Jon and I were jumpy with excitement like two kids on Christmas morning.  And everything just looks right.  I knew it would, I really did.  I mean, they got the movies right, without disappointing the passionate fans of the book series, so they had already proven they could do it.  They did not let us down.

Hogsmeade/Diagon Alley looks like it should and features all the shops you’d expect, including Honeydukes, Zonko’s, Three Broomsticks, The Leaky Cauldron, and Ollivander’s.  There will be a line outside of Ollivander’s.  It’s worth standing in.  What’s it for? It’s to get inside the shop and see a little show where one lucky kid is chosen to have his/her wand selected by Ollivander himself.  Sorry folks, you probably won’t be that lucky kid.  BUT, it’s extremely well done, and the kid who was chosen when we were in the shop was so excited that it was adorable to watch.  Everyone else has to select his or her own wand in a very tiny and crowded store.  Still: I GOT A  WAND! Hermione’s wand, to be exact, because she and I are practically the same person.

Also inside Ollivander’s/The Owl Post, you can purchase postcards and Owl Post stamps, and have them postmarked and “delivered by Owl Post” (which apparently operates in cooperation with the US Postal Service) to your friends, which is pretty fun.

The first attraction when you walk in TWWOHP is the Dragon Challenge.  This ride was actually at Universal before TWWOHP and was called Dueling Dragons, as it’s a two-track coaster which has both tracks running at the same time, so it sometimes looks like you might actually touch the other car on the other track.  They worked it into TWWOHP themeing by making it the Dragon Challenge from the Triwizard Tournament.  Aside from having to stow my stuff in a locker and some confusion that could have been remedied by having employees ask how many were in each party and sorting them into rows, it’s an awesome, intense coaster and a lot of fun.  It does go upside down and through corkscrews. I loved it.

Goblet of Fire

The main attraction, located inside of Hogwarts, is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.  It’s part virtual reality, part animatronics simulation, and if you are prone to getting dizzy, take your Dramamine– you’ll need it.  It’s a really well-done ride, and, as I mentioned before, make sure to go through the whole line or you’ll miss out on some real favorites from the world of Hogwarts.  (We first rode the ride by going through as single riders, and later rode together, going through the main line.  We were astonished at all we’d have missed out on if we hadn’t gone through the main line.)

There’s also a sort of kiddie coaster called The Flight of the Hippogriff, and you get to see Hagrid’s House in line for that attraction.

Another major aspect of Hogsmeade is obviously the Butterbeer.  I was worried it would be disgusting, actually buttery or sickeningly sweet in the hot hot heat of Orlando.  It was better than I imagined. It was delicious– I had the frozen version on a cast member’s recommendation.  They have carts selling it in the streets, but you’d be better off to go have lunch at Three Broomsticks and sip your Butterbeer with your meal inside the air conditioning.  Three Broomsticks also had great food, including a Great Feast which feeds 4 for $50 and is a great deal in theme park food, along with other British classics like shepherd’s pie, cornish pasties, and roast chicken served with rosemary roasted potatoes.  They also have actual Hogs Head beer, in case the teeming masses in the park make you yearn for something with more of a kick than a sugar high from a Butterbeer.

Inside the Three Broomsticks

Ultimately, I had an awesome day at TWWOHP. I got to enter a world I know and love through books and films, and it lived up to my high expectations as a fan and a reader.  Still, as a Disney fan, I have even higher expectations of my theme park experience, and I know it could have been better.  Despite that, I know any of my Harry Potter fan friends will absolutely love the park, and I can’t wait for some of them to go so we can geek out about it together.

vacation, all i ever wanted

Well, Internet, I’m back.  Vacation was lovely.  Being married to a medical resident can be stressful and grueling, even on the non-resident, and just having some time to hang out and reconnect with my husband was just what I needed.  Did you miss me?

We started our vacation in coastal Maryland. It was too cold to enjoy the beach, and the place was a ghost town.  The high point was the best Italian meal I’ve ever had.  We randomly stumbled upon this place that seemed to reside in a renovated Pizza Hut, a place where they happen to make all their own pasta.  Jon ordered a dish with thin layers of pasta, ground veal, mozzarella cheese, and a very delicate tomato sauce. It. was. divine. Seriously. The single best Italian dish I’ve ever had.  I had a pasta dish with Italian sausage, and it was almost as good as Jon’s dish.  Also enjoyable was the flamboyant owner/manager who was singing solos, exuberantly greeting guests, and giving presentations of the specials with such flair that I wanted to try all of them.  Otherwise, being without cable in our normal life, we were actually more than entertained just to be able to watch cable television.  ESPN for Jon, marathons of “What Not to Wear” and “NCIS” for me.  Here are some highlights from the Maryland portion of the trip: Continue reading “vacation, all i ever wanted”