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A Cuban Paradise: The Melia Las Dunas, Santa Maria, Cuba

The Melia international chain of hotels is a Spanish owned chain with over 350 hotels worldwide. While we’ve only been to two (and both were in the same country as the other was the Melia Marina Varadero), I can honestly say we were truly impressed with both stays and are big fans of the Melia Brand.

For us, our trip to the Melia Las Dunas was memorable not just because of the amazing time we had, but also because it was our first major vacation together and the start to our frequent travels as a couple. It was at this all-inclusive resort in Cuba that we realized we didn’t just love to travel, we loved to travel together and though we’ve been to other resorts in Santa Maria, Cuba, the Melia Las Dunas still holds a special place in our hearts.

Though we’ve recently returned to the resort with a day pass, the following is our experience throughout the week we stayed there. What we noticed since going back is that it is evident there have been upgrades and that the service and quality has not diminished one bit but you can always read more about our recent day trip to the Melia Las Dunas and other resorts on cayo Santa Maria!

First Impressions of Melia Las Dunas Resort

Melia Las Dunas Resort

Our first trip was to Santa Maria and the Melia Las Dunas Resort. The resort is about 1 hour 45 minutes from the airport in Santa Clara via resort shuttle and the route takes you over the Cayo Santa Maria causeway which makes for some pretty nice views.

When we arrived at the resort we were immediately greeted with warm smiles and offerings of tropical beverages. We were given our room keys right away and set off to explore the resort. As we stepped out of the lobby we were immediately hit with the tropical feel of the place. Palm trees, shrubbery and flowers created a truly isolated, island oasis. The entire resort has this welcoming, enveloping feel and made walking around a truly pleasant experience.

The Room – A Private Oasis

melia las dunas cuba standard room garden view

Rather than one main building, many individual 2-storey units house multiple rooms. The room we received was clean and spacious with a small entrance-way and sitting area as well as a vanity separating the closet and the bathroom. Every morning we received a different towel design on our bed. We were hoping for a swan and heard that other couples had returned to their rooms after breakfast to find one awaiting them… the above picture was the most complicated creation we found during our stay. This was the only real disappointment of the trip.

The Beach – Paradise & Perfection

santa maria beach

The view of the beach on Cayo Santa Maria is one of the most surreal experiences. Stepping onto soft white sand, looking out at crystal clear water that is the colour you think only exists in photoshopped photos, we felt like we were in paradise. The water was warm and for half of our stay it was calm.

The only thing we noticed was the lack of shade. Few palm trees or cabanas decorated the beach and the ones that were present, were taken early and rarely left for the duration of the day.

Be aware that on some beaches in Cuba, as in most sandy beaches, sand fleas are present at night time and are vicious biters. Socks, shoes and full length pants would be your best bet if you plan on catching the sunset on the beach, but this still won’t guarantee those pesky critters won’t find their way to your skin.

The Pool – There’s More Than One!

melia las dunas cuba pool area

There were two pools on this resort. One in the “family” section of units, where any one could go, and one on the “adults” section, where children were not allowed. Both areas had activities during the day, obviously geared for the age ranges present, and both featured swim-up bars.

We didn’t spend too much time at the pool until the end of our week when the weather became overcast and too windy to spend long hours at the beach but we were always able to find a lounger.

The Food – A Pizza Love Affair

pizza heart

Despite what many people have told us, food at Cuban resorts is not always bad. I was prepared for flavourless meals but instead found some pretty delicious food. The buffet changed from day-to-day. Not altogether, but significantly enough so as not to tire of the options.

The a la carte restaurants were also a nice change from the buffet. Our favourite was the pizzeria which was not only an a la carte option for dinner, but was also open for lunch without a reservation.

At the airport on the way home, passengers from other resorts commiserated over the bland and inedible food they experienced. Fortunately, we were unable to relate to their experience.

The Service – Smiles & A Helping Hand

cuba bartender and crab

From the concierge to the bartenders, the pool staff to the waiters, our Cuban hosts were always smiling, friendly and willing to help. At the end of our stay, Macrae fell pretty ill with the flu and we received a great deal of support from the concierge and the wait staff. The only issue we did have was with our room attendant (and no, not just because we didn’t get any fancy towel swans). She was often missing in action, failing to re-supply the toilet paper, or not altogether friendly when we did find her, but from those we spoke to on the resort, she was one of the exceptions and we were usually able to find another attendant at the neighbouring units to help us.

The Entertainment – Always Something New

Melia Las Dunas Fire Drinks

The resort seemed to have a significant number of families the week we were there. Many activities were available for children but there were also numerous adult oriented activities including sports, such as tennis; dance classes, such as salsa; and even Spanish lessons. There was nightly entertainment in an open theatre off the main bar which showcased dancers, comedy acts, magicians, and a night for Disney characters and songs. Random entertainment also seemed to pop up regularly. Musicians in the lounge, “Cuban Day” festivities with music, dancers and, my personal favourite, popcorn and cotton candy machines, were all unexpected enhancements to our stay.

Excursions also run from this resort which vary in price and depend on what tour company/airline you use. We had to cancel our snorkelling/swim with the dolphins excursion as Macrae was too sick to get out of bed, but friends we made there said it was incredible. There is also a marketplace that sits between Las Dunas and another resort which is set up with vendors during the day and has a bowling alley, discoteque, and restaurant for later in the evening. These are not included in the cost of your trip but are relatively inexpensive.

The Location – A Secluded Island

cuban market

While it may have been the time of the year in which we visited (late March), we found our resort to be a quieter, family-oriented location. This suited us fine as we weren’t looking for a spring break atmosphere.  The location was also remote, requiring air transport to Havana or any other distant tourist locale. The snorkeling here is supposedly some of the best on Cuba and while we were unable to experience it during this trip, we hope to make it back one day and see if it’s true.

Even though we ended up being limited to our activities towards the end of our trip (and even though there were no swan towels) the trip was still tons of fun and incredibly memorable. The overall experience at the resort was fantastic and we’d highly recommend it for anyone looking for a more relaxed vacation, with unbelievable beaches, amazing service and good food.

 

Looking to see another location in Cuba? Check out our review of our second Cuban all-inclusive vacation to another Melia resort, the Melia Marina Varadero.

 

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Modern & Intimate – 5 Summertime Date Ideas

 

With only a little more than half of the summer season left, the panic has started to set in.  The dread of the imminent winter season starts to fall upon us well before it realistically should. Especially for those of us farther North from the equator, we know we have precious time to enjoy the warm weather and when we feel as though time is slipping away, we scramble to soak in as much sun and outdoor activity as possible. As a couple, the fear of missing out on spending quality time engaged in different activities than the norm is also present.  The warm weather brings a host of opportunities for couples that are not available at other times of the year and these can freshen up the normal date night plans.

Summer Sky

If you are feeling as though you have not explored every opportunity the warm months offer or if you are looking for different summer activities as a couple, don’t worry there is still time. The following are five summertime date ideas that we personally enjoy:

1. The Drive-In

Drive_In Photo

This is one of our favourite date night activities. The drive-in is a social activity meets quality alone time. Whether you bring lawn chairs, sit in your car, or open your hatch (if you have one) and recline back with blankets, the options are plenty.  Whatever you choose, the price is usually great, more than one movie is shown, and you get a change of scenery from your typical movie viewing location – the movie theatre or your couch.  Although drive-ins are not as popular as they once were, there are still many remaining in North America and Australia and there are a few in Europe and Asia.  If you are looking for one in your area or the area you are travelling, check out www.drive-ins.com for a list of drive-ins around the world and whether they are still open. Many places around the world also have outdoor movie screenings. For example, Venice has a popular outdoor cinema in Campo San Polo showing current films for the public. These are great changes to the typical date routine and loads of fun.

2. Farmer’s Markets

Farmer’s markets seem to be springing up everywhere. Ranging in size, these markets provide a central location to purchase fresh, locally grown produce to support your local farms.  Going to one as a couple can be a fun date activity and a unique way to cross off items on your weekly grocery list. Jams, baked goods and produce are just some of the main items to be found. Recently, we stopped at a market and purchased some of the freshest and sweetest strawberries we had tasted in years. We have a great time perusing the tables together and deciding on which items we’d like to buy and we often think of dinner ideas we can make together and purchase the fruits and veggies needed. Farmer’s markets typically have set times and days of the week so be sure to check before you go and if you aren’t too concerned about missing out on a particular item, going just before closing gives you the possibility of reduced prices as vendors attempt to sell-off what is left.

3. Festivals

Asian Festival

These events can be a great opportunity to experience new foods, music and cultures as a couple and while you’ll typically hear about main festivals, larger cities often have so many festivals that some are easily missed.  Trying different foods or those you already know you enjoy, listening to the music and sounds of the activity around you and sharing the day together creates a great shared experience and an escape from the everyday. We enjoy attending different cultural festivals to learn more about different countries and cultures until we get the chance to visit those countries ourselves. Don’t forget to look into smaller towns and communities as they will often have unique festivals or smaller versions of those you’d find in the city-centres.

4. Picnics

Picnics, while cliché, are a really romantic and simple way to spend time together. Whether it’s in your own backyard or in a private area with a pretty view, you can take a picnic pretty much anywhere you want and it’s perfect for enjoying the summer weather. If your significant other has an issue with bugs (notice we didn’t specify a gender) you can always bring lawn chairs instead of a blanket and keep yourselves a little further from the critters on the ground. Typical foods that come to mind when thinking of a picnic include fried chicken, potato salads, sandwiches, and coleslaw and while these are wonderful for keeping things simple, you can make an extra special picnic date by stepping up the food selection. Instead of simple fare, you may want to prepare a fancier meal such as spinach and artichoke dip with flat bread and precooked meat skewers with a spinach, strawberry and toasted almond salad. Whatever the food and wherever the location, picnics are wonderful ways to enjoy the sun with your significant other.

5. Nature Walks/Hikes

Nature Hike

Exploring new places is one of our favourite things to do as a couple and taking walks is a great way to check out new areas and enjoy the summer flora and fauna. Taking a nature walk or hike also gives you an added bump to those endorphins, leaving you both in a better mood and this type of activity really helps you to focus on the moment as you take in your surroundings. As a couple, nature hikes allow you to spend some dedicated, uninterrupted time together. Protected parks and nature reserves will typically have great walking and hiking trails that will offer a wide range of plants and animals to see, but be sure to remember that many have entrance fees.

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A Weekend in New Brunswick – Part Two

Our breakfast at Homestead Restaurant left us in good spirits as we headed to Hopewell Rocks, what we ultimately had travelled over 1500km to see. We made it in time for low tide (check online for times if you go) and it was one of the most amazing experiences. Here is the rest of our list of stops (Check out the first part of our Weekend in New Brunswick) that we think are worth your while in New Brunswick:

Hopewell Rocks Ocean Tidal Exploration Site

Hopewell Rocks Ocean Tidal Exploration Site is only about a 30 minute drive from Moncton and while there is an entrance fee, it is reasonable and allows you access for two days in order to see both high and low tides, walk the trails or visit their beaches.

 

hopewell rocks high tide large pichopewell rocks low tide large pic

The Flowering Pot Rocks (seen above) were about a 1km walk from the start of the site. Throughout this walk, there were various well-marked lookout points to stop at and take in the view. The water had receded completely from when we had gone the evening before and at every lookout there was dry land where there was once many feet of water. The guide at the stairs down to the ocean floor said the water level can reach up to 14 m at high tide!

yingyang hopewell rocks

We walked down to the bottom of the Flowering Pot Rocks and around the excavation site and marvelled at the complete transformation of the area from just a short time ago. Such large quantities of water evacuating from such a large area was almost beyond comprehension. Visiting Hopewell rocks is not only recommended, but we feel it is a must-see site. If you get a chance, see the area at both high and low tides to get a true sense of appreciation for this phenomenon.

Sticky Buns from Kelly’s Bake Shop

sticky bun from NBKelly's Bake Shop NB

On our stop at the tourist centre at the beginning of our trip, we were told that we could find some truly amazing sticky buns in Alma.  Even though it required a half hour drive in the opposite direction of where we were travelling, we opted to make the trek to Kelly’s Bake Shop and see if it really was worth the star we drew on our map. It was worth 5. The sticky buns were fresh and moist with just the right amount of cinnamon. In addition to sticky buns, they had fresh pies, breads, cookies and other baked goods. We decided to buy some savory buns and they were a delicious treat for the drive back. We didn’t regret backtracking and we don’t think you’ll regret making this a stop on your trip.

 

The Acadian Coastal Drive

house on the beach in newbrunswick

We opted to drive up the coast and follow the Acadian Coastal Drive marked on our map. This took us along the coast of the Northumberland Strait and the Gulf of St. Lawrence and provided some incredible views.

barn house new brunswick

It was a breathtaking drive witnessing the coast and passing through small towns that are the very definition of East Coast charm. We only took this route as far as Miramichi before cutting across the province, but the drive runs all around the Eastern and Northern coast and is definitely on our list of things we’d do again. If you do happen to take a drive along this route, we would highly recommend having a meal at Seaside Grill in Rexton. We stopped here because it was the first restaurant we passed and we were hungry, but it was perfect timing. We had the best East Coast seafood of the entire trip.

ocean view new brunswick

We ended up heading out of New Brunswick on Sunday night making our stay in the province only a weekend in length. Whether you have a significant amount of time to spend in New Brunswick, or you are just heading there for a long weekend like us, there is plenty to do and we think that our list provides a great place to start planning.

Maybe New Brunswick is too far from where you live for a road trip. Comment below and let us know where your favourite road trip destination is from where you live!

 

For tips on long weekend road trips, see our post “10 Tips for a Long Weekend Road Trip”. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, like our Facebook page and subscribe to our mailing list!

 

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A Weekend in New Brunswick – Part One

new brunswick welcome sign

It was the Tuesday before a long weekend and we still hadn’t settled on plans and so when a travel advertisement came on and an image of Hopewell Rocks flashed across the screen, it seemed like a sign. We were going to New Brunswick for the three-day long weekend. And we were going to drive.

We left after work on Friday night with a cooler full of snacks, our bags packed and our hatch full of pillows and blankets and set off through Quebec to make the 20 hour drive to the East coast of New Brunswick and see the Hopewell Rocks.

We had to be back to work on the following Tuesday and while we didn’t want to set too much of a plan, we had to identify some key places that we wanted to stop so that we could ensure we hit everything. Taking turns driving the first night, we made it to New Brunswick by Saturday morning and figured we could make it back by Monday night if we circled around the coast. We ended up cutting across instead, just to make sure we got home in time, but managed to see a lot of what we wanted. If you are planning a visit to New Brunswick, whether it be for a weekend or longer, there are a few places we think are worth a stop:

 

Hartland Covered Bridge

wooden bridge altered

We were driving down the Western border and happened to see a sign for “The World’s Longest Covered Bridge” and decided, why not? We veered off course and went in search of this record holding bridge. Stopping to read a bit about the bridge, built in 1921,  we embraced the picturesque surroundings and the history of this structure.  It was a neat find and worth a detour. If you do decide to make this one of your stops, you may want to pay tribute to the past and give your significant other a kiss while passing through. Folklore has it that these “kissing bridges” were used by courting couples to sneak a hug or kiss.

St. Andrews

st andrews new brunswick

Our first main stop was in St. Andrews. This quaint town has a variety of things to do in a very small area including whale watching tours, hiking trails, a golf course, a marine science centre, a museum and plenty of scenic areas. We stopped at a tourist centre and grabbed a map and a tour guide and these helped tremendously with our trip.  We also grabbed lunch and had our first taste of East coast seafood that met our every expectation.

The Magnetic Hill

magnetic hill sign

We ended up making it to the Hopewell rocks area too late on Saturday to make the low tides and decided we’d snap a few pictures of the rocks at high tide and head to Moncton for the night. On our way into Moncton, we saw yet another sign that peaked our interest – “Magnetic Hill”. We got there after hours and were the only ones which allowed us to try this attraction many times for free. If you’ve never heard of a magnetic hill the gist is that you park your vehicle facing up a hill at a marked location. You then put the car in neutral and sit back as the car is “pulled up the hill”.  We tried this several times, facing up, facing down, and any number of variations in positioning and had a blast trying to figure it out. If you want to know the trick, you can search it, but I recommend trying it at least once before you do.

Breakfast at Homestead Restaurant

homestead restaruant newbrunswick

Checking out of our hotel on Sunday morning in Moncton, we asked the concierge if she could give us a recommendation for breakfast. She suggested Homestead Restaurant just outside the city and we are so glad we chose to take her advice. The interior is cozy and inviting with wooden décor and a display of baked goods. The menus are handwritten and, since they bake all their own bread daily, the aroma of freshly baked bread permeated the restaurant. Between the two of us we had an egg breakfast and pancakes which were both delicious and filling and exactly what we were looking for. The homemade bread brought it up another level and the only regret is not buying some baked goods to take with us. We would definitely recommend a stop here for breakfast if you are in Moncton.

What did we miss? Comment below and tell us what you think are other must-see places in New Brunswick.

 

Read more about our trip in A Weekend in New Brunswick – Part Two  or check out our post with some tips for long weekend trips. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, like our Facebook page and subscribe to our mailing list

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Building Our Savings as a Couple – The Budget Jar Method

While it’s been our goal for a long time now to travel the world, we knew it would take some time to build a stable foundation for us to do so. Part of that was building our savings.

For months we struggled with finding a good way to manage our finances. We used spreadsheets and formulas, charts and white boards and finally we decided we just wouldn’t budget our spending anymore. One month later we went through our saved receipts and realized we had spent a ridiculous amount of money (mostly on dining out) and that we failed to save any significant amount.

With both of us determined to travel more, we knew this wasn’t going to work and opted for a budgeting method we had both heard of many years ago: budget jars.

How We’ve Set Up Our Jars

We were initially introduced to the jar system while watching “Til Debt Do us Part”. Gail Vaz-Oxlade showed couples how to use jars to divide up monies budgeted to each expense. (if you are interested in learning more about her method and some tips on dividing up your budget click here for her website).

With this idea in mind, we set about creating our own jars system. Since we had been tracking our expenses, prior to our month of free-spending, we had an idea of how much we were putting towards various expenditures. We also, obviously, knew the cost of our fixed expenses like car payments, rent and utilities, cable and internet.

As a couple we set a monthly budget for:

1. Transportation – e.g. gas, taxis, subway rides, train rides

2. Entertainment – e.g. dining out, shows, sporting games, etc

3. Clothes and gifts – e.g. family gifts

4. Groceries – e.g. food and household needs

5. Other – emergency fund, household projects, etc

Since we both have separate bank accounts, we decided not to pool all the remaining money from our pay together, but instead determined a monthly budget for each expense and deemed whatever was left in each of our bank accounts to be savings for that individual.

We use our own savings to purchase personal toiletries. Each of us now pays into the jar after each payday and we use the jars to hold our cash and our receipts. It hasn’t been easy to adjust to but we have definitely seen results.

So You Want To Budget?

The following are some of our helpful hints if you are planning to try the budget jar method:

1. Be consistent with your jar deposits.

We are both paid biweekly so while we have budgeted monthly, we deposit half of that each payday. Whether you choose to put money in each week, or each month, be consistent and don’t let too much time pass or it will be tough to catch up and reconcile your spending.

2. Get used to paying with cash.

We are often in the habit of using debit or credit to make payments but it is easiest to use the cash in the jars to maintain your budget and it takes time to get used to pulling out money prior to leaving the house. If you really can’t bring yourself to do this, or you have a great rewards program you want to take advantage of on a card, make sure you sub your receipt for the cash in the jars ASAP.

3. Modify as you go.

You may think you’ve worked out the best budget for each expense, but spending through the jar method often leads to some unexpected lessons about your spending habits. Don’t be afraid to modify your budget once you identify areas you can decrease or need to increase. We learned we needed to add more to our groceries budget and decrease our entertainment budget.  This also forced us to focus on smarter purchasing and eating patterns which was another lifestyle change in itself.

4. Budget your budget.

Just because it’s in the jar, doesn’t mean you have to use it.  If you have extra entertainment money left over, don’t feel obligated to use it.  The money is there if you need it but it shouldn’t be a requirement.

receipts

5. Plan an exciting goal for your savings.

To help with number 4, decide how you will allocate the remaining money at the end of the month. Make it something you can look forward to and/or something that’s tangible and you can actually see come to fruition.We decided to split ours 50/50 between a travel fund and our online business.

Whether it is watching a savings account grow, saving for a trip or using that money to invest, make it something you can be excited about so you strive to keep some money in those jars.

6. Have change available.

This is a big one that we didn’t learn until well into the second month. If you do not plan to take the money in the jars with you, it is advisable to have change available so that you can produce the exact amount required when cashing in the receipt for the money spent.  This eliminates frustrations with what should be a fairly simple process.

7. Personal allowances are important.

With the expenses we defined, it didn’t leave us too much room for indulging in both of our personal vices – McDonald’s iced coffee. Instead of depriving ourselves of our fix, we used our own savings and gave a weekly budget for things like iced coffees.

8.  Take the jars on the go.

You can use this method even while travelling by converting the jars into envelopes. Even if you change the expense categories, combining efforts and keeping tabs on your spending will help save money and make you aware of how you spend it.

No matter how you choose to create your budget, having a good line of sight to your expenditures is key to staying out of debt, building your savings and investing in the future. We are putting the money we saved in the jars towards our travel plans for the year and are planning to use many of the tips and tricks we mentioned above in order to stay on budget while we travel.

Update: With our savings, a lot coming from our budget jar method, we’ve packed up and shipped out! This was a great method for us to save money and we’re constantly thinking of ways for us to implement it during our full-time travels.

Do you budget your expenses? What methods do you use/have found to work? Comment below and let us know!

 

Want to save this for later? Or share with others? In addition to the above images, you can hover on the top left corner of the below pin for the “Pin it” button and share on your Pinterest account!

budget jar method of saving money

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Table For Two – 11th Street Diner

On our drive back from our trip to the Keys we decided to stop for dinner in Miami. It was already past dinner time, we were hungry and tired, and we figured anything would taste good but we really wanted to have an enjoyable meal.  We had read quite a few reviews about 11th Street Diner and thought it would be a good option. After finding parking in a lot not too far away, we walked to 11th Street and Washington Ave where we spotted the Airstream looking dining car that housed the restaurant.

The interior of the restaurant was modern, clean and inviting and on this particular day, very busy.  Since the main dining area was full we were seated at the only available table in the bar area. This area was even cozier and decorated with a beautiful large mural beside the bar. A waiter was at our table almost immediately.

There is a lot to choose from off of their “All Day” menu which is inspired by traditional American fare.  With everything from all day breakfast to turkey dinner and corn fritters to fresh Mahi, the menu is packed with delicious sounding meals and we had a tough time choosing. What narrowed it down for us were the asterisks beside certain items indicating that they were featured on the Food Network (we looked it up and they were visited by Guy Fieri in an episode of Diner’s, Drive-Ins, and Dives). We chose two dishes from the show: pork chops and the Argentinian skirt steak.

11th street diner maimi, pork chops

Pork Chops with apples and raisins and a side of rice and beans with veggies – $14.95 USD

The pork was tender and bursting with flavour from seasonings and the combination of apples and raisins. The rice and beans were a perfect compliment and tasty on their own. Altogether the dish flowed perfectly from one element to the next. The only thing wrong with it was that there was no way to stop eating until the plate was empty.

11th Street Diner argintinian steak

Argentinian skirt steak with tomato garlic relish and homemade mashed potatoes – $14.95 USD

The steak was melt in your mouth and the relish was so good we could have eaten it on it’s own, but with the meat it added incredibly sophisticated flavours to each delicious bite. The homemade mashed potatoes actually tasted homemade and put with the rest, it helped make this meal one of the most memorable ever.

This restaurant in one word? Unforgettable. If you are in the area, dining here is a must. And don’t worry if you can’t make it until late – this restaurant is open 24 hours!!

Have you dined in Miami before? Comment below and let us know your favourite restaurant!

 

11th Street Diner

1065 Washington Ave

Miami Beach, Fl

305-534-6373

 

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10 Tips for a Long Weekend Road Trip

 

Most young couples each have roughly 2 weeks’ vacation time per year and while this never seems like enough, there are some ways to maximize your vacation time. One of our favourite ways is taking short road trips which we either take on a long weekend or add a vacation day to one to make it a full four days. Wherever you are in the world, these mini vacations are a great way to maximize the limited vacation days you have available, while still exploring and spending quality time with your significant other. We’ve learned a few things over our travels that help us get the most out of our shorter trips and prevent us from experiencing cabin fever by the end of the drive:

1. Always check your vehicle. Even if you make plans last minute, checking windshield washer fluid, oil and gas levels are essential for a safe and incident free drive. Even with a thorough check, make sure you have a roadside assistance plan, whether it be a CAA/AAA card or the numbers of towing companies in the areas you are travelling through, preparing for car trouble is important. Taking a look at the air in your tires is also a good idea and can sometimes be overlooked in the excitement of impending vacation time. Ensuring the right tire pressure will also help you save gas, which leads us to our second tip.

2. Think of saving money on gas. The lighter you pack your car, the less gas it will need to lug you around, so pack as light as possible.  Other gas saving tips include driving relaxed (accelerating quickly and driving faster both eat at your fuel levels) and using open windows rather than the AC when driving at speeds under 80km/hr (50miles/hr) and rolling up those windows and turning on the AC when going over 80km, if possible (studies have shown that while A/C reduces fuel efficiency, driving over 80km/hr with the windows down increases resistance and fuel efficiency is reduced to a greater extent than having the AC on).  Not only is it good to think of saving on gas but using gas stations that accept points cards are key and it may mean fueling up sooner than you plan if you happen to see the right station.

3. Your vehicle is your living space, start with clean quarters. Make sure your car is clean of unnecessary items and garbage and organize your belongings for efficiency and safety.  Make sure emergency and first aid items, including water and blankets, are present and accessible and keep garbage bags nearby for any waste that accumulates. It may seem silly but keeping organized allows for a more relaxed few days on the road.  You don’t have much time to travel and you don’t want to be wasting it looking for items or cleaning up from stop to stop.

4. Be flexible! As you can tell by our spontaneous road trip to Key West (see 5 Things You Must Do When Travelling to the Keys), we tend not to overthink our travel plans. General plans are good to have. They allow you to stick to your shortened timeline and have a general route of getting to the main places you want to see. But planning too much can cause stress if there are any deviations or obstacles.  Being tied to a rigid schedule does not allow for the amazing unplanned adventures that a road trip often leads us on. In this day and age, cell phones allow us to access a wide range of information, including GPS, but if you are going somewhere where you will not have access to data, or you just want to do some good ol’ fashioned mapping, a CAA/AAA membership gets you free trip ticks showing you maps, restaurants, accommodations and key attractions from your home to your destination, and all the places in between.

5. Relax, road trips are about adventure. On road trips, we always like to just take things as they come. For spontaneous road trips, we have no choice. Either way, expect the unexpected and try to maintain excitement for new experiences. We’ve decided to camp for the night after a long day of driving and all the camp grounds were booked. We’ve even experienced an entire city’s worth of hotels being booked on the same night. Whether it’s your accommodations for the night, an attraction you were looking to see, or a detour you must take, try and maintain a positive outlook and enjoy it for what it is  – and adventure.

Short Road Trips

6. Music! You will be spending a significant amount of time driving and even if you think you’ll be able to chat endlessly with your partner, there will be times when silence will prevail. Whether it’s because you’ve run out of things to talk about, you’re enjoying the scenery, or you are switching off driving duty and it’s someone’s turn to nap, there will be times when some background music would be appreciated. Load up whatever media source you are able to play through your car stereo with music as radio reception is not guaranteed. We decided to get satellite radio to ensure we would have something to listen to no matter where we drive. What we did find was that, just like radio stations, satellite stations can begin to get repetitive when you drive for hours on end and having the option of turning to a talk radio station like a comedy channel was a great break.  This also helps to keep the driver awake and aware if you are taking turns napping.

7. Practice those relationship skills. This is a great time to practice working as a couple. It’s a time where you must work together to plan a general route and decide on stops, random or planned.  Staying cooperative, communicative and patient can be challenging during long periods together in closed quarters but it can definitely be a time that brings you closer together as a couple. And a word to the wise, this would probably not be a great time to bring up each others’ flaws as drivers.

8. Understand your budget and make the most of it. With short road trips it can be easier to budget your trip. If you want to save money, you can bring food and drinks in a cooler and top up the ice whenever needed. If you are looking to spend more on restaurants and the dining experience, you may want to reduce accommodation costs by finding camp sites or sleeping in the car rather than a hotel. Another aspect of your budget to take into account is whether you are looking to spend money on paid-for attractions or enjoy nature and the scenery for free. Whatever your budget is, there are ways to ensure you are getting exactly what you want out of the trip without breaking it.

9. Be realistic. Since you are only going for a short period of time, plan for your final destination to be at the midway point of the trip with plenty of time to return.  If you are the type of people who like to detour and/or make random stops when you see something interesting, set a mid-way date and time when you know you need to turn around, regardless of whether you have made your final destination or not.  It’s okay if you don’t get to see everything you had planned. You can use those missed places as inspiration for your next trip.

10. Be creative. Even though it is a short trip, there are always ways to get more out of it. Go somewhere close but with many different possible stops along the way. Or,  you can plan different routes to and from your destination so you can stop and see different things. You can also make rules for the trip to create more fun, such as always stopping whenever either of you see something in which you are interested. Just because you are taking a short road trip, doesn’t mean you can’t fill it with just as much excitement and adventure as a long one.

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Date Night Ideas – Cooking Together Builds A Stronger Relationship

 

Many times we find ourselves craving some quality time together. (Yes, even though we spend 24/7 together while travelling and working). Sure, we love to explore, try new restaurants or check out different festivals but we also enjoy having nights to ourselves (see our post on summertime date ideas).

When we aren’t out together it’s common for us to fall into the comfort of our house, having quality alone time while sitting on the couch watching TV and doing work on our respective computers. And while we are still spending time together and still engaging in conversation, our focus is not completely on one another.

It’s because of this that we like to occasionally switch things up and  sometimes and find an intimate date-night activity we can do without having to get social. The following is just one of the date nights we enjoy together.

The Couple Who Cooks Together…

While couples’ cooking classes are a fun and unique way of spending time together, they don’t exactly offer much intimacy, with fellow classmates nearby and conversation often being led by the instructor. They also often have a higher price tag.  If you are looking to spend some quality, romantic time with your significant other and are also hoping to stick to budget, cooking together at home can be one of the most fun and intimate of activities.

Not only are you taking what is often times considered a chore and making it something fun and engaging, but cooking together builds teamwork and a sense of accomplishment as a couple.   It is often found that couples that share common goals and work together to achieve them, are more successful long-term and building the teamwork skills as a couple necessary for larger goal accomplishment, often takes time and practice.

It doesn’t matter what you are cooking or how long it takes. Whether it is making your favourite recipe or trying something new, it’s about putting in the effort to spend time together.

One quick meal that we often make together when we only have a short amount of time is pita pizzas:

OMC’s Pita Pizza Recipe

Simply:

1. Buy whole wheat or white pita bread from the store (these come in various sizes and we usually buy the smaller ones for personal size pizzas). We know, we know, making your own dough is much better but this is a great way to spend more time focused on each other, work together and pop out a quick and simple meal that’ll get you to the table, enjoying a romantic dinner and conversation.

2, Add pizza sauce (store bought or homemade – either way we often sprinkle some basil for added flavour), and

3. Whatever kind of grated cheese and toppings you each desire (go crazy with the veggies and meats! We often cook up some chicken with our favourite seasoning and throw on a bunch of different vegetables).

The preparation of cheese and veggies will have the two of you working together and it’s fun to create your own pizza.

4. Cook the pizzas in a preheated oven at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes (or until the crust is golden) and enjoy!

Pita Pizza recipe for couples

Enhance the Romance

A few details we like to include during our date nights are:

1. No cell phones – make this time about just the two of you

2. Add some music to the mix – create the atmosphere you are looking for by playing some music that both of you enjoy

3. Make it romantic – even if it sounds cheesy, creating the right ambiance is key. In addition to music, set the table with nice dishes and cutlery and even a candle, or depending on the weather, take the dinner to the patio and enjoy some fresh air.

Whatever meal you make, and however you decide to spend the evening enjoying it, there is one crucial team-building exercise you mustn’t forget to do together – clean the dishes!

great date night ideas

 

Do you and your significant other enjoy cooking together? Comment below and let us know your favourite recipes to make while dining in.

Update: Since starting full-time travel, it isn’t always easy to find time to cook together. We try to make time for these kind of date-nights when we are staying through Airbnb or housesitting. Otherwise, we find ways to make time for each other while on the road – such as our private island picnic.

 

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Table for Two – Stoney’s Bread Company

 

Since one of our hobbies as a couple is trying different restaurants, we like to keep our ears open for any reviews on local establishments. We had heard from quite a few people that Stoney’s Bread Company in Oakville, Ontario offered some pretty good food.  When we finally saw it on an episode of “You Gotta Eat Here”, we knew it was time to try it.

The restaurant itself is cozy and while it definitely gives that effect of an intimate night out, it is contrasted with a casual, relaxed feel as you order and pay at the counter and take a number to the seat of your choice. The restaurant boasts a menu of home-made pastas, sandwiches, pizzas and breads and even offers a daily breakfast menu. Their Sunday Brunch menu from 9am to 3pm adds additional mouth watering items to an already impressive looking list.

On our visit, we opted for a sandwich and a pizza and as we waited we started to doubt whether we made the right choice since all the dishes passing by looked so good. We most certainly were not disappointed though.

 

stoneys flat iron steak sammy

The Flat Iron Steak Sandwich with goat cheese, caramelized onions, fried mushrooms, spinach, and sundried tomato aioli on ciabatta – $16.00 CDN

This place knows its bread. The bun was fresh and soft on the inside but lightly crunchy on the outside. The steak was cooked to perfection and the mix of flavours of the garnishes were a delightful addition without being overpowering. It’s a good thing they give you a knife and fork for this sandwich but while it may not be the easiest sandwich to devour, it may just be one of the best.

stoneys pizza

Giuseppe’s Pizza – pepperoni, calabrese, capicola, bacon and mozzarella with fire roasted tomato sauce – $15.00 CDN

As we stated, this place knows their bread. The crust was thin and crunchy, but soft on the inside – just how we like our pizza crust.  There was plenty of toppings to have each bite packed with delicious meaty-flavour and the fire roasted tomato sauce blended well. The pizza was large enough that we had to take a to-go box for what was left.

This was one of the few restaurants we have tried after hearing much acclaim and actually agreed it was deserving of such high reviews.  This restaurant definitely provides a satisfying experience and is worth a second visit. Since this visit, we’ve tried a few other restaurants we’ve seen on television programs and, while not all were at the calibre we expected, there were two incredible restaurants that were. Click to read our reviews of 11th Street Diner & L’Avenue.

 

Have you ever tried a restaurant you’ve seen on TV? Comment below and tell us about your experience!

 

Looking to visit Stoney’s Bread Company?

Stoney’s Bread Company

325 Kerr Street

Oakville, Ontario, Canada

905-849-3627

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5 Things You Must Do When Travelling to the Keys

 

On a recent trip to Florida we managed to get a car rental with unlimited mileage.  We were staying on the West Coast but couldn’t help but find a way to use those unlimited miles to our advantage.  We decided to venture to the Keys, even though it was off-season, to see what we could find. We ended up finding a lot.

Our initial plan was to make it to Key Largo, the first of the keys, and decide if we wanted to go any farther. We found ourselves travelling the entire length of the keys and staying three days and two nights in Key West.

It took us some time to narrow it down but here is what we chose as our top 5 “must-dos” of the Keys, counting down to our number 1, must-do!

5. Make the Drive Down the Keys

Islamorada

While flights can be taken directly to Key West or to Marathon (located in the middle of the keys), it is well worth it to drive the entire length of the chain of keys.  Flying into Miami International or West Palm Beach gets you on the right coast and offers a not-too-distant route.

Driving down the Keys is truly an amazing experience and each key has its own charms. Whether it’s to scuba dive in Key Largo or to try your luck at spotting the endangered Key deer of Marathon, you’ll find something different to see each stop you make.

Our most memorable stop was in Islamorada where we ate outside by the water at Islamorada Fish Company. We felt adventurous and ordered gator as our appetizer. They came out like chicken nuggets and were absolutely delicious! It was definitely worth it.

If you’re driving down from Miami, you may want to stop into 11th Street Diner before heading down to the keys. The food was some of the best we’ve had and it was one of the highlights of our trip to Florida!

4. Experience Key West Nightlife

Key West at Night

It may seem obvious that experiencing Key West at night is essential, but with so much to do during the day it’s easy to wind up worn out by nighttime. To us, Key West was like a tropical New Orleans with busy streets and numerous bars in a very small area.  As a couple, the off season was pretty perfect. No lines to get into any of the bars, no spring break crowds, and an entire strip of activity to explore.  We had a great time walking Duval street, stopping into differently themed bars, small market-like areas and shops as we went. We stayed in a hotel right on Duval, so we were smack dab in the middle of the action and able to immerse ourselves in the island’s nightlife. I can’t begin to imagine what the island must be like at night during high season… we’ll have to find out another time!

A tip: After eating some pretty amazing seafood for two days straight, I decided a little change was in order when I saw a small pizzeria. If you are looking for some absolutely phenomenal pizza, try Angelina’s Pizzeria on Duval.  Their tagline is “The Best Piece in Town”, and they aren’t lying!

3. Have Breakfast with the Roosters

Breakfast with the Roosters

One thing we discovered is that he dining experience in the Keys is impeccable. It seemed as though no matter where or what we ate, the food was delicious.

One of our most memorable meals was at Blue Heaven. Even though it was off-season we still had to wait 30 minutes to be seated, but this popular Key West restaurant was well worth the wait. It was a bit unnerving when we first sat down and found out that, until 2pm, they let their roosters loose to wander the dining area, but they don’t bother you and it was quite a different experience! The food was amazing as well. Between the two of us we had a fried egg breakfast and the special, lobster eggs Benedict. The only words of caution is to ask for the prices of their specials. We didn’t and got quite the shock when the bill came.

2. Go Snorkeling at the Reef

rum and reggae cruise Key West

The Great Florida Reef lies off the coast of Key West and while it doesn’t allow for great sandy beaches, it provides an amazing snorkeling experience. There are many companies that organize snorkeling excursions at pretty reasonable prices.

We ended up taking a “Rum and Reggae” boat ride to the reef. This cruise included snorkeling equipment (if needed) and on the hour ride back, all the rum punch or pina coladas you could enjoy while listening to reggae music. Even though it was a choppy day, the ride was beautiful and we were still able to see plenty of fish. If you have more time to plan your stay, coordinate your snorkeling excursion with the weather to avoid rainy days and I’m sure the underwater view is even more spectacular.

1. Watch the Sunset

Key West Sunset

It always seemed ridiculous hearing about someone crying over a beautiful sunset. Or it was until this trip. The sun began to set over half the way to Key West and we thought we’d pull over and maybe take a few picturesque photos. There are no words to accurately describe the beauty of that sunset or the feeling of complete serenity that falls over you.

We watched the sun set the second night and while not quite the moving experience of the first, it was still a breathtaking sight.

If you can only do one thing while you are in Key West, watching the sunset over the water should be it.

 

Been to the Keys? Comment below and let us know what’s on your “must-do” list!