Friday, March 14th, 2014
Having a one-year-old, the last year has been an unforgettable string of “firsts” for my family. From Joey’s first smiles to first steps, we’ve celebrated all his big moments, and several special family milestones, too. The most recent came this winter when we flew to Miami and set sail on a seven-night Caribbean cruise. This was uncharted territory for us and I had my doubts we were ready to travel with the baby, but the invitation from MSC Cruises to check out their new ship, Divina, was too good to pass up—so we packed up and hoped for smooth sailing.
We were at sea the first two days of our voyage, which gave us plenty of time to explore the massive vessel with four pools, 18 decks, and 1,751 staterooms. Divina offers all the glitz and glam you’d expect from a ship inspired by Sophia Loren. Picture Swarovski crystal staircases, mirrors and marble surfaces galore, and rich velvet furnishings. Though Divina is flashy and formal in appearance, MSC Cruises is family-friendly (children sail free) and focused on giving even the smallest sailors the star treatment: A crew member dressed as Superman greeted Joey when we embarked, and attentive waiters at mealtime provided the much-appreciated distraction of cloth napkins expertly folded into adorable birds. In addition, Divina offers complimentary programming for little ones three and up and a cool teen space complete with a disco and waterslide. But for us, Baby Time—when we could let Joey loose in the Smurf-themed “Mini Club” as we supervised—was a highlight. His greatest thrill? The mushroom playhouse (just like Papa Smurf’s!) and slide.
My husband had a favorite spot too, the sports bar and bowling alley, where he could order a burger and catch a game. And my top pick, Aurea Spa, was—sigh—heavenly. The Balinese massage and facial was just the pampering this tired mama needed! Most of our time was spent together, though, lounging by the pool, enjoying a meal (we still talk about our steak dinner at Eataly and the pizza served up at La Cantina di Bacco is the real deal), or walking the outdoor track as Joey napped in his stroller and we sipped pina coladas, drinking in the view of endless sea and sky.
Divina made three stops along the way. At the first, Philipsburg, St. Maarten, we stayed close to port and explored alone, marveling at the crystal-clear aquamarine water. The next day in San Juan, Puerto Rico, we hopped on a bus tour, which was the perfect mix of sightseeing and leisure. We loved Old San Juan’s Spanish architecture and darling cobblestone streets, and the panoramic views from the historic San Cristobal Fortress. Our final stop, Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas, was a slice of paradise. We spent the day alternating between the shade of our clamshell and the water’s edge, where Joey had a blast splashing in the surf. This was our last day and it was the icing on the cake.
Our MSC cruise was the perfect rookie trip for my family. It was a fun, relaxing escape—another sweet “first” we will remember fondly, just like those smiles and steps.
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Wednesday, June 6th, 2012
As much as I love a lazy beach vacation, and I do, my most memorable trips have all delivered some kind of unique experience or exciting adventure. New to my list of destinations that rank high in both departments: the Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson, AZ, which I had the pleasure of visiting a few weeks ago. This dude ranch—the largest in the country—sits in the Sonoran Desert, in the foothills of the Rincon Mountains. After a 20-minute drive from the airport, I immediately set down my bags and soaked up the beautiful cactus-spotted landscape from a chaise on my hacienda suite’s private patio. Inside, my large room featured tall windows that framed the same fab view, a jetted tub (sweet!), and a charming adobe fireplace. Sigh. I could get used to ranch life!
First up for the group I traveled with was a sunset trail ride and drinks at the Dog House Saloon. Looking around the rustic bar and taking in the lively conversation, it was clear that this is where friends meet to grab a cold one or house favorite, like the prickly pear margarita, and exchange tales of the day’s adventures. With over 160 horses in the corral, the riding activities—lessons, trail rides, team penning competitions—are the highlight for most guests, and the source of lots of great stories. Curious to know how the smallest cowboys and cowgirls fit in here, I set out the next day to learn about the kids program I’d been hearing about.
Morning brought a longstanding tradition on the ranch: a breakfast cookout at the Old Homestead featuring the best blueberry pancakes I’ve ever had and scrambled eggs loaded with Southwest flavor. Tummy full and sunscreen lathered on thick—man, that desert sun gets blazing hot early!—I popped by the arena to watch a group of children mount horses for a lesson. I learned that the kids program offers hours of activities—riding, arts & crafts, nature walks, fishing—each day for children 4 to 12. A family vacation that caters to kids, giving parents time for… whatever they want? Yee haw!
From the comfort of shaded stands, I later watched ranch guests compete in Funkana, timed events that test riders’ ability to navigate obstacles on horseback. The whole thing was wildly entertaining, especially at the end, when one of the ranch’s own cowboys gave cheering spectators a taste of what they call “redneck surfing.” Balancing on a “surfboard” of old railroad planks, he was pulled by two horses around the same Funkana course guests had just completed (check out the picture). No wipeouts!
Day three started with an early tennis lesson, and after improving my rusty backhand, a mountain bike ride. This was one of those adrenaline-rushing experiences I’m happy to have had, but it became obvious quite quickly that weaving around cacti is not something I’m particularly good at! It was cool to bike in the desert, though, and see some wildlife and vegetation up close. Okay, very up close at times. I had a couple of near run-ins with some prickly succulents, but all potentially ugly collisions were averted. Phew! After a dip in the pool, my group met again for a nature walk, led by a seriously knowledgeable guide. We learned all about the plants that call the Sonoran Desert home, and got to observe several kinds of birds up close when our guide lured them over with birdseed.
In the evening, our last at the ranch, we headed to the Cottonwood Grove for a cookout, which was a fantastic end to our stay. We dined on grilled chicken, creamed corn, baked potatoes and corn bread with honey butter—everything you’d expect from a ranch barbecue. Dessert didn’t fall short either: fruit cobbler baked in an outdoor woodstove. As the sky turned an inky black and the stars (so many stars!) appeared, the surfing cowboy came back, this time to give dance lessons. A group line dance was a fitting finale to my stay at the Tanque Verde Ranch, and a fun farewell to all the new friends I’d made.
Tanque Verde Ranch, high season rates start at $225 per person, per night, and include accommodations, three meals daily, all pre-scheduled daily activities and the kids program.
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