Travel Diary: Europe, Here We Come!

Guten Tag! (That’s almost all the German I’ve got so far)… working on it.

The time has (almost!) come… final preparations for the big European Family Vaca have begun. Three countries,  27 Days, 2 grown-ups (most of the time), 1 kid (all of the time), and one 12 year-old going-on-twenty-eight will embark on a mission to have fun, seek out adventures, gobble up all the yummiest food we can find, meet some lovely (I hope!) new people, and try to remain a joy-filled bunch the whole while. (try… we are not yet sure if travelling brings out the best in all four of us… we’ll see ;))

Before we actually set out on said adventure, I wanted to pop on here and give you a few hints… I’ve had lots of questions about what we have done to prepare for our Epic Adventure (particularly for the two smallest members of the family), so that seemed like a great place to start as a guide for any of you planning similar adventures. So, here we go… what I have learned so far as we have planned this little expedition:

  1. Flights, Flights, Flights. Yes, it is cheaper to take the milk run. Yes, you can save money by altering your departure airport (driving a bit further from home). Yes, every penny counts when travelling on a budget with the family…. BUUUUT… NO, it’s not always worth it to save money on this step. We are flying directly from the city we live closest to into Frankfurt, Germany (about a 9 hour flight). There were other options requiring transfers in various places or flights from airports further from our city, with some cost saving advantage, but… this is our kiddos first Transatlantic flight, and we have no idea how it will go. They are older, so I am not concerned, but the mama in me still wants to make it as painless as possible (OK, more for me than them… I’m not totally selfless that way)… So, do your homework. Look around for alternate departure/arrival cities and you may be pleasantly surprised at the differences in cost available to you. BUUUT… you know yourself and your kids. Sometimes paying extra is worth a clear head and smiley faces… We booked our flights 7 months in advance of our trip.
  2. Accommodation, Accommodation, Accommodation. Thank you Airbnb, VRBO, and the many lovely German, French, and Belgian Hotel Clerks that have already made this trip possible ;). We have a few longer stays during our trip, and for those we chose Airbnb and VRBO accommodations (based on traveller reviews, location, and amenities), but for some of our shorter stays we chose local hotel chains. I would highly recommend calling the hotel directly as we found that they were able to offer us better prices, or accommodation more suitable to our exact needs than was clear on hotel booking sites (hubby and I woke up very early one Tuesday morning to account for the time change and pounded through MANY reservations on the phone… thank you Skype!!). In all cases, the hotel staff were extremely helpful, happy to have a caller from Canada, and mostly spoke English (or could find someone that did)! We had all of our accommodations booked 6 months prior to travel, and could have booked sooner at some locations… who knew that July and August were such popular travel months?!? (yeah… I did… but all of the sudden it was December… I have no excuse). Book early to avoid missing out on some great places… like we did. Oops.
  3. Transportation, Transportation, Transportation. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. We are using them all! International travel has become a much simpler endeavour thanks to The Google, TripAdvisor, and online shopping for almost anything. One of my favorite finds (tip from an acquaintance who is an experienced European traveller) is Rome2rio, which has been extremely helpful in organizing the legs of our journey. You’ll hear more about our particular transportation picks as our adventure unfolds, but if you are planning your own trip… starting there is a great choice! We have found that booking car-rentals for Europe online has been a very smooth process. In most cases, we have not booked our train tickets in advance, as we want to be somewhat flexible with travel times.
  4. WHAT TO BRING?? OK, this mama is a last minute packer… like VERY last minute. But in this case, I am breaking out of my personal mold and planning ahead (a bit)! I don’t have a list for you yet, but I do know two things – we will need to carry our bags A LOT, and we will need to be prepared for a WHOLE BUNCH of different adventures requiring everything from casual dinner-wear to beach clothes. AND, everyone is going to carry their own stuff. All. The. Time. Like Always. I’m done with carrying everyone’s everything. I mean it this time. Yeesh… So, that means I am currently on the hunt for a perfect wheeling/back-pack/light-weight/but big-enough-for-a-month bag for each of the littles. I’ll let you know what I come up with. Hubs and I already have good wheeling/backpack options by High Sierra that we like, but they are too big for the boys. Especially since they are carrying them On. Their. Own. Always. I mean it this time… I digress again… So, more to come on this one as the date approaches. I’ll leave you with this though – as we booked accommodation, I did check to be sure that there were laundry services available/near-by in most cases so that we could easily do laundry. We are packing light, family – we ARE!!! (they don’t believe me yet, but they will)

So there you have it, that’s where we’re at so far. Right now (this very day, in fact), I will be going through our itinerary place-by-place and determining which sites and activities have made the final cut (TripAdvisor has been extremely helpful on this front) for this adventure and if I need to purchase tickets in advance. Once that’s done, we just wait! And keep thinking about packing… oh packing, how I loathe thee…

Until next time… I hope you get to plan some great family adventures this summer too… whether in your own backyard or far away. Family times like these are NEVER wasted!

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Travel Diary: Adios Costa Rica

Well… All good things must come to an end, I guess. 😦

After 17 days away from home, we were ready to leave Costa Rica and breathe in a little, shall we say, fresh COLD Canadian air. Our travels home were uneventful, except for an unexpectedly long wait at customs in Houston (this is the 4th out of 4 times we have had difficulty getting in or out of Houston in anything less than 4 hours… Note to the wise, if you can connect ANYWHERE other than Houston, just do it. Do it. Really. Do it.)…

But, before I sign off on Costa Rica for go0d, I wanted to leave you with some photos of our adventures in Monteverde each afternoon when we WEREN’T picking, roasting, grinding, or packaging coffee… There is A LOT to do in Monteverde, and thanks to Andreas, the worlds BEST tour guide ever (you can find his contact information at the end of this post), I think we almost did all of them in 4 days!

We weren't able to get a good photo, but the hummingbirds, butterflies, and even a rare Resplendent Quetzal made appearances on our hike!! It was amazing!
We weren’t able to get a good photo, but the hummingbirds, butterflies, and even a rare Resplendent Quetzal made appearances on our hike in the Monteverde Cloud forest!! It was amazing!
An amazing view from the continental divide... straight on till morning to the Caribbean Coast!
An amazing view from the continental divide… straight on till morning to the Caribbean Coast!
Poor Jake... Some lessons are learned the VERY hard way... And he wouldn't let go of Paul's hand for the entire walk.
Poor Jake… Some lessons are learned the VERY hard way… And he wouldn’t let go of Paul’s hand for the entire walk.
Except for when Maureen was willing to walk with him... ;)
Except for when Maureen was willing to walk with him… 😉
A ride in an "Ox Cart" pulled by two Holstein steers! Don Juan's Coffee Farm was THE best coffee, chocolate, and sugar cane tour we have ever been on! Go there!!
A ride in an “Ox Cart” pulled by two Holstein steers! Don Juan’s Coffee Farm was THE best coffee, chocolate, and sugar cane tour we have ever been on! Go there!!
Mmmmm.... Chocolate.
Mmmmm…. Chocolate.
We chewed on enough sugar cane to make us all a little ill!!! And we also saw a Rainbow Billed Toucan and a sloth on this tour!!
We chewed on enough sugar cane to make us all a little ill!!! And we also saw a Rainbow Billed Toucan and a sloth on this tour!!
The beginning of a beautiful thing! (There are cocoa beans in that thing!)
The beginning of a beautiful thing! (There are cocoa beans in that thing!)
ANOTHER tasty cup of goodness (this time with chocolate on the side).
ANOTHER tasty cup of goodness (this time with chocolate on the side).
A Strangling Ficus tree... Lee and Maureen climbed up almost 100 ft to the top of the tree!!l
A Strangling Ficus tree… Lee and Maureen climbed up almost 100 ft to the top of the tree!! Cole stayed just about where you see him… And me too.
This Ficus set its roots down as a very convenient bridge across a deep gorge.
This Ficus set its roots down as a very convenient bridge across a deep gorge.
Ready for some zip lining. Selvatura Adventure Park was amazing! Go there too!
Ready for some zip lining. Selvatura Adventure Park was amazing! Go there too!
I might look calm... But I wasn't.
I might look calm… But I wasn’t.
Tarzan (A.K.A Jake) seemed to think this was all in a day's work... Both boys had a blast!
Tarzan (A.K.A Jake) seemed to think this was all in a day’s work… Both boys had a blast!
Can you spot the giant iguana? He lives behind the police station in a town somewhere between Monteverde and Liberia!
Can you spot the giant iguana? He lives behind the police station in a town somewhere between Monteverde and Liberia! Andreas hooked us up.

So, there you have it… A picture-by-picture account of our adventures! If you are travelling to Costa Rica and require transportation services or tourism assistance, particularly in the Monteverde area, you should absolutely look up Andreas at http://www.farotravelcostarica.com or on Facebook at Transportes Freylid. He was fantastic to deal with, speaks English well (for those of us that are still desperately trying to learn Spanish!), and has reasonable and competitive prices.

Also, if you are interested in La Bella Tica Organic Coffee Farm, they can be found online at http://www.bellaticacafe.com or on Facebook at Bellatica Monteverde.

So, until we travel again… I’m signing off on the travel diary for now…

… And thinking about how (and where) we might learn how to grow grapes?!

Travel Diary: Costa Rica (6)

Down a long, winding, picturesque country road… past a few tiny towns and brilliant green hills spotted with cows, banana trees, coffee plants, and jungle we found our little home for the week…

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Home of Oldemar and Elsie (and their lovely daughters), and far, far away from all the hustle and bustle of city life, it is striking to me almost immediately that this humble little place contributes coffee to our vastly metropolitan life. That the origin of the lovely bean that many of us rely upon for our morning mojo is a most tranquil, relaxed, and peaceful place. A paradox to be sure.

To answer a few most obvious questions about our week away right out of the gate…

1. The food was FANTASTIC. Elsie is a tremendously good cook and prepared for us a great variety of delicious dishes – stews, fried chicken, pasta, home-made corn flour tortillas, picadillo, and of course beans and rice 18 different ways (all yummy!)… all that accompanied with fresh fruit and coffee… oh the coffee!! We were surprised that we were not offered coffee breakfast, lunch, and dinner though ;). We sort of thought that since the place was swimming in the stuff, we should basically be given the option to bathe in it if we could ;)!! We weren’t. And we didn’t… maybe next time. ;)-

2. Our bunk house was modest (wood frame with corrugated tin roof), but comfortable. We had plenty of electricity and there is wifi… On that note, can someone please explain to me why I can get an excellent wifi signal and good cell phone reception in the middle of the Costa Rican jungle but lose calls regularly driving down Hwy #2 between Calgary and Red Deer?! Seriously?!

The view from our bunk house door... tarzan vines and all.
The view from our bunk house door… Tarzan vines and all.

The showers are typical to Costa Rica with a small heating system in the shower head. So, once you figure out exactly how much water pressure equals a steady stream of warm water, you have about an 85% chance of a warm shower as far as I can tell ;).

3. The owners of La Bella Tica Organic Coffee Farm (Oldemar and Elsie) are just absolutely lovely human beings. We felt terribly blessed and humbled to be allowed to share in a tiny bit of their business, which they are very proud of and work hard to maintain. They earn a living income from their farm and are able to sell all of their coffee locally, mainly to tourists who participate in tours of the farm, or those who visit for extended periods of time such as ourselves. They have a small cafe-style shop area in the kitchen of their home where they display their coffee (in environmentally friendly locally produced bamboo packaging and biodegradable plastic). Many other farmers in the area sell their coffee to the local fair-trade coffee co-op, which is then sold in larger quantities to buyers around the world. Many local farmers do not have the equipment to process and roast their own beans, so Oldemar also processes and roasts coffee for neighbors and friends (for use in their own homes) for a small fee.

So… now to the nitty-gritty… what were the Irvine’s and Cameron’s up to during their time on the farm?! Well… let me tell you…

Did you ever wonder about that little bean you spin around in your grinder before brewing that delicious nectar each day? Well… here’s the low down from bean to cup.

These are coffee cherries.

Coffee cherries high up on the mountin
Coffee cherries high up on the mountain

Our motley little crew picked 5 sacks (about 100 lbs per sack) full of them in two days (4 sacks day one… relatively flat picking ground and bushes that were quite full; 1 sack day two… EXTREMELY steep picking ground (some war-wounds in our group to show for it) and more sparse cherries on each bush).

Heading to work.
Heading to work.
My basket full of cherries!
My basket full of cherries!
Paul and Maureen hard at work!
Paul and Maureen hard at work!
Cole working hard on the steep mountain slope - billy goat style!
Cole working hard on the steep mountain slope – billy-goat style!

A good day's work!

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Cole and Jake watching the beans being carried down the mountain
Cole and Jake watching the beans being carried down the mountain (very steep) on Oldemar’s strong shoulders.

Of course, picking the beans (although the most difficult among the jobs involved in coffee production), is only one step in the process of producing finished coffee beans.

We were very lucky during our stay at the farm, to also participate in drying, roasting, and packaging the finished beans.

Coffee cherries drying in the sun (Oldemar says this "natural" coffee has the best flavor and is far superior to machine-dried coffee). He has a dryer, but prefers not to use it unless absoloutely necessary due to a large order.
Coffee cherries drying in the sun (Oldemar says this “natural” coffee has the best flavor and is far superior to machine-dried coffee). He has a dryer, but prefers not to use it unless absolutely necessary due to a large order.
Shelling the beans (these ones have been dried and washed by machine, not the "natural" method, but natural beans are also shelled in the same way).
Shelling the beans (these ones have been dried and washed by machine, not the “natural” method, but natural beans are also shelled in the same way).
Sorting out the chaff... old school (Oldemar knows when the wind is just right)!
Sorting out the chaff… old school (Oldemar knows when the wind is just right)!
Raw coffee beans ready for roasting.
Raw coffee beans ready for roasting.
Oldemar roasting the beans (he is careful not to drop a single bean on the floor, so we weren't allowed to do this job ;)).
Oldemar roasting the beans (he is careful not to drop a single bean on the floor, so we weren’t allowed to do this job ;)).
Beans cool before they can be packaged or ground.
Beans cool before they can be packaged or ground.
Grinding the coffee.
Grinding the coffee (Oldemar sells coffee in 300 g bags as ground or whole bean, but the majority of his customers prefer whole bean).
Preparing the packaging for the finished product!
Preparing the packaging for the finished product!
Bagging "our" coffee... this is the batch we will be packing in our suitcase tomorrow!
Bagging “our” coffee… this is the batch we will be packing in our suitcase tomorrow!
Almost done!
Almost done! Bags are sealed and placed in labelled packaging according to roast and grind, and are ready for the sale shelf!

And voila… 6 Canadians, 3 of whom drink A LOT of coffee (you can decide for yourself which 3), are a whole lot more educated about where our food comes from. Of course, during our week we were able to ask lots of questions about coffee production on a larger scale – Who works for the big companies? Are they paid fairly for their labor? Are local farmers in Oldemar’s region paid well for their products etc. These are big questions and the answers are not simple. But, hearing answers from the horses mouth, so to speak, was encouraging, eye-opening, and educational to say the least.

Here’s what I now know for sure… we drink A LOT of coffee… most of the people I know drink A LOT of coffee. Most of this coffee comes from places most of us have not visited, produced by people most of us don’t know, in cultures most of us don’t fully understand or appreciate, sold on markets most of us don’t follow. Therefore, the very least we can do is to try to support those places and people in whatever way we can to allow them to continue to produce the coffee we love in a way that is beneficial to them also. Knowing that there are farms such as Oldemar’s where good coffee is being produced and purchased at a fair price and allowing families to live a lifestyle they find satisfying and rich, encourages our family to seek out that product and support that industry as much as we can.

In the end, this little group of farmers (well, at least two farmers, and a family of almost-farmers) quite easily slipped in to the routine around this farm. Rise early, work hard, tell some stories as the day goes by… do it all again tomorrow (although Oldemar and his family work full days, we were lucky as guests to only work until lunch time each day ;)). We shared meals with Oldemar and Elsie and found that farming, well, farming is farming. Oldemar also has a few beef cows which he keeps nearby on land that is owned by a family member. He does his best to produce the best quality coffee beans possible so that they can be sold at a premium price. He is careful with his livestock to be sure that they are in good health and can be sold at the best time for the best profit. He does all of this because he loves farming, he loves his family, and he loves providing food for people. It’s not such a foreign story at all, is it? In fact, it’s a story we know well in Alberta too. And for the zillionth time during my relatively few trips around the sun, I realize that we are all so much more the same than we are different. I am reminded of one of the “Habits” our kids learn at school… “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood…” and it seems all the more important when we consider differences between people far and wide.

I’m going to muse a little more about that while I drink my next cup of Joe.

Family Fun Close to Home!

This is very exciting for me! One of the munchkins in our crew has decided that he might like to try his hand at blogging, and decided that this week he wanted to post together with me about a recent family adventure at a near-by provincial park.

I love to share places we go adventuring… we are so grateful to live in a place with such easy access to the amazing beauty and pristine wilderness that is all around us! It is soul-food for our family to spend some time in nature!

So, before I go on, click on the photo below for a link to one of my partners in crime’s version of Crimson Lake Provincial Park, Alberta (he preferred to post his views at his own blog site, rather than adding his words to mine… a 10 year old’s prerogative after all ;)).

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Crimson Lake Provincial Park is only minutes away from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta and is a great get away for a day of easy hiking, biking, or exploring along the beach. Because we visited late in the fall, we didn’t get a good impression of the general “busyness” of the lake. It was extremely quiet and accessible when we were there and we were virtually alone on the trail we chose. As a place to hike with children or an easy off-road bike ride, it is ideal with a great 10 km loop around the lake with plenty of little spots for exploring along the way! There are good outhouse toilets (bring your own hand sanitizer), and a little park for the kids to play on. The beach has several picnic sites that I’m sure are quite full in the summer, but virtually unused in the fall season. We enjoyed wandering around in the shallow water in our gum boots and walking on the small dock to look at the mussels growing underneath. One small fishing boat came in while we were exploring the boat launch with a bucket full of Pile Perch… so we might just have to go back for some fishing too!

The highlight of the day for us was the beautiful fall colors all around and the quiet. SO quiet. It was soul food at its best. We had a great day and are really looking forward to trying the area again with snow shoes or cross-country skis in a few months! I would most definitely recommend this area as a great afternoon or daytime excursion to just “get out-of-town.”

Happy Adventuring… and thank you to my co-pilot Cole for his added charm on this topic!