animals, bikes, day trip, family, florida, hike, Miami, USA

Shark Valley, Everglades National Park, Florida

Riding Bikes and counting Alligators…

Riding bikes on the 15-mile/24 km scenic Loop Trail in Shark Valley inside the Everglades National Park was on our bucket list for a long time. I knew we had to visit during the winter month, because it is just too hot during summer. When I recently started to collaborate with #LiveWildlyFL, a movement that was created to help raise awareness of the benefits of wildlife corridors and inspire more people to get out into these great spaces and connect and protect the lands at risk. I knew Shark Valley would be the perfect location. I am so glad we can be part of this mission and love to encourage people to #LiveWildlyFL in the Florida Wildlife Corridor. January is the perfect month to get out exploring and truly the perfect time to visit Shark Valley which is part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

The Florida Wildlife Corridor stretches from the Panhandle to the Everglades, and is the core of what makes Florida, Florida. If you want to learn more about it and Live Wildly, check out their amazing website here.

Shark Valley can get pretty busy during the winter months, so we made sure to arrive early. Once the parking lot is filled, no more cars are allowed to enter. Visiting on weekdays, and arriving before 10 am or after 3pm, definitely helps to make sure the adventure can happen. There are plenty of things to do from biking, taking the tram tour, hiking to exploring, bird watching and alligator counting. 

Shark Valley Visitor Center

We started by exploring the Shark Valley Visitor center inside. I really liked the educational displays inside and outside of the visitor center. The perfect adventure is not only about having fun riding bikes, but also learning about our environment and the beautiful Florida Wildlife Corridor. It is important to protect the Corridor to continue to enjoy activities like this one in nature. The visitor center also has a park video and informational brochures, pictures and maps. Books, postcards, and other souvenirs can be bought in the adjacent gift shop.

Outside of the visitor center was more interesting information about the Florida Wildlife Corridor, alligators, wildlife, plants and more Florida facts. It was hands-on and we learned a little bit of everything from alligator poop, birds to pig frogs.

We found most interesting was the life size alligator replica that was thoroughly inspected from head to foot. In addition, there is a daily Ranger Walk and a separate Ranger Talk to learn even more about the beautiful Everglades.

Renting a Bike

We brought our own bicycles, but there is the option to rent bicycles at the rear side of the visitor center. Bicycles are $23 per day and there are adult and kid sizes available. It is first come, first serve, but bikes can also be reserved in advance.

Biking the Loop

The scenic Shark Valley Loop Trail is amazing. It quickly became my favorite bike trail in South Florida. We saw so many alligators just lying on the side of the road. It is very special to share the road with these majestic animals. Even though we live in Florida and have seen lots of alligators before, we have never experienced them like this. Riding a bike close to a wild alligator sunbathing on the side of the road was thrilling for the kids and made me feel all kinds of emotions. It was both exhilarating and nerve-wracking having such intimidating animals within feet of us.

The shark Valley Scenic Loop Trail is a 15-mile round trip. The trail is about 20 feet wide, and the only traffic is the ranger car and the park tram, which will pass every couple of hours. There are no short cuts, but a park ranger passed us twice and asked if we needed any assistance. It is divided into the east and west trail with the observation tower in between. The east trail meanders 8 miles through a sawgrass prairie dotted with islands of bay, cypress, willow and hardwood trees, along with alligators, other wildlife and birds. The Observation Tower is near the midway point of the trail. The west trail is 7 miles in length and follows a canal where more wildlife, especially alligators can be viewed. Both trails are gorgeous and show different sides of the Everglades.

The loop took us almost a half a day or more with the kids. The trail itself is not very hard, because it is paved and flat and beautiful to ride on. But the Florida weather conditions can make it a bit challenging. The sun can feel hot very fast and there is almost no shade on the entire trail other than the observation tower. It is important to bring enough water for the day (at least 1 gallon or 4 liters), as well as some snacks or lunch. We also noticed that the wind could make bicycling more difficult. It made pedaling against the wind harder on the way back from the observation tower then the smooth ride on the way in. Always check the weather beforehand!

You will be disappointed if you visited Shark Valley to see sharks. Despite its name, you’re unlikely to find any sharks in the freshwater sawgrass prairie here. This shallow sheet flow of water which is essentially a 30-mile-wide river, is known as the Shark River Slough. It flows south into the Shark River, named for the bull sharks found at the mouth of the river. But depending on the time you visit, you will see plenty of wildlife, including alligators.

Sooooo many Alligators

How many alligators did we see while biking through Shark Valley? We started to count while passing them and the kids got more and more excited with each alligator. We were lucky enough to end up seeing 91 alligators! That was so amazing. They were basking in the sun, lying in the water and just minding their own business.

Of course, we kept our distance and admired them only from afar. Most of them are on the side of the road, but there were some alligators whose body parts extended onto the trail. Even though we stopped several times to take pictures or to rest, we always kept a distance of at least 15 feet or 5m from all wildlife including the alligators. It is prohibited to feed, touch or harass wildlife. It is important to follow all the park rules when interacting with wild animals.

Alligator sightings can vary drastically. It is possible to visit in summer and not see a single alligator because they spread out over the vast watery river of grass. November through April is the best time to visit to see them. Dry conditions and cooler temperatures result in animals gathering around the remaining pools of water, so wildlife viewing is better. I truly recommend coming in the Winter months because we had the perfect day.

Making a Stop

In the beginning, we almost stopped every time we saw an alligator. Just a moment to admire the animal or to take a picture. Our first real stop and water break was at the only park bench on the trail. Other than the observation tower, it is the only other break stop with a little shade.

Beautiful Everglades

I really enjoyed all the different scenery. From the River of Grass to water holes, swaps and marshes, there are lots of different landscapes. Also depending on the season, the Everglades can look much different. The dry season from November to March marks for example the arrival of many migratory birds. There are egrets, herons, white ibis and wood storks.

The rains of summer rejuvenate the parched Everglades and flood the Shark River Slough. Most fascinating for me is that virtually every creature in South Florida depends in some way on the shimmery expanse of the grassy water of the Everglades.

The Observation Tower

One of the highlights of the trail other than the Everglades itself, is the observation tower. The tower is 65 feet tall and it provides spectacular 360-degree panoramic views of the Everglades and all the diverse landscapes. On clear days, visibility is over 20 miles. Because of the deep water next to it, there is lots of wildlife. We saw alligators, turtles, birds and fish.

The observation tower has a facility with restrooms, garbage cans and a water filling station. I also liked that the long winding ramp is wheelchair accessible. Even though there are no picnic tables or benches, with a blanket on the grass, it is still a great place for a lunch break.

Biking Back

The park and trails are actually open 24 hours. Only the visitor center and more importantly the parking lot closes at 6 p.m. There are possibilities to park outside the park and access the Loop Trail after closing time. The ranger in the visitor center told us that there are even guided full moon/new moon bike tours available.

One More Interesting Stop

Since Olivia learned about the alligator poop at the visitor center, we noticed a lot of poop on the side of the trail too, and it turned into another hands-on learning experience. She wasn’t allowed to actually touch it but used a stick to feel the consistency. We saw the difference between fresh and dried poop and somehow it was really exciting. I love a learning experience like that.

After the Ride

After we were finished biking, we went back to the visitor center to record our findings. We saw 91 alligators, lots of different birds, a snake. fish and 2 turtles.

The Trails

Other than the main scenic Shark Valley Loop Trail, there are three small walking trails inside the park. The Bobcat Boardwalk, the Otter Cave Trail and the Borrow Pit Trail.

This is the Bobcat Boardwalk Trail. It is located very close to the visitor center and is only 0.2 miles long. This trail explores a bayhead full of Sweetbay Magnolia, Cocoplum, Dahoon Holly, and Wax Myrtle. Birds can be found hiding along the trail and bobcats have been known to prowl the boardwalk at night, giving the trail its name.

The Otter Cave Trail is 0.3 miles long and begins 0.6 miles from the visitor center. It leads through a hardwood hammock with trees like Gumbo Limbo and Strangler Fig, as well as exposed limestone bedrock and solution holes. The trail can flood during the summer months and was also closed on the day we visited.

The Borrow Pit Trail was submerged partly in water that day, so we decided to keep our feet dry and skip it. The trail skirts the edge of a borrow pit created during oil exploration before the park was established. The open water mimics an alligator hole with seasonally abundant wildlife. The higher ground mimics a bayhead – small, dense, and impenetrable, an island of higher ground that provides a kind of oasis for plant and animal life.

More Things to Do

Another great way to see Shark Valley is on the Shark Valley Tram Tours, which offers two-hour guided tours along the trail. The open-air trams are covered and stop frequently to point out wildlife. Guides offer insights into this unique ecology, identify animals and plants and more interesting facts. The tour starts at the visitor center several times a day and stops at the observation tower. Prices are as follows: Adults $29, Seniors, $23 and Children (3-12 years) $15

Departure Times and Prices are subject to change.

It is a great alternative to biking, particularly for those with mobility issues. We did see people walking on the trail. Scooters and roller-skates are not allowed to be used in the park.

Shark Valley is only a small part of the Florida Corridor. LiveWildly makes it easy for anyone in FL to experience the Corridor in their own way. They have an amazing “interactive map” on their explore page here.

Other important Information

Physical Address:

36000 SW 8th Street
Miami, Florida 33194

Shark Valley Visitor Center is located on Highway 41 (Tamiami Trail / SW 8th St.) 25 miles west of the Florida Turnpike, exit 25A (from the north) and exit 25 (from the south).

The entrance fee of Everglades National Park is either $30 per car, $25 per motorcycle or $15 per Person (walk-in/bicycle). There are Annual Passes, Lifetime Passes and Group Rates available.

Hours of Operation (Every Day)

  • Visitor Center: 9:00AM – 5:00PM
  • Shark Valley Tram Tours: 8:30AM – 6:00PM
  • Parking Gate & Lot: 8:30AM – 6:00PM

Contact by Phone

  • Shark Valley Visitor Center: (305) 221-8776
  • Tram & Bicycle Reservations / Questions: (305) 221-8455
  • General Park Information: (305) 242-7700

Even though this is a #sponsored post, all opinions are my own. I only work together with companies and organizations that I feel great about.

Art, city, day trip, Europe, family, food, free, italy

Bologna, Emilia-Romagna, Italy

Bologna is the beautiful and lively, historic capital of Emilia-Romagna, a region in northern Italy. It is full of rich history, culture, amazing architecture and it might be the most delicious city in all of Italy. And if this is not enough, there is another great reason to visit Bologna. While most cities are overrun with tourists in summer, Bologna is still very much undiscovered by foreign tourists. There were only a few other tourists, which made for a special, authentic, immersive local experience which was so delicious.

Bologna has three nicknames that sum up this wonderful city perfectly:

La Rossa, which means the red, referring to the beautiful terracotta-hued, yellow and red medieval buildings and the UNESCO-protected porticoes, as well as its communist past.

La Grassa which means the fat, referring to the rich and delicious cuisine making Bologna Italy’s gastronomic capital. Handmade Pasta, hearty meat sauces, cured meat, salty cheese and lots of other delicacies can be all found in Bologna.

La Dotta, which means the learned or the studied, referring to its university, founded in 1088. The University of Bologna is one of the most ancient and prestigious in the world.

We loved wandering the endless streets covered in Porticoes, we marveled at the painted walls and ceilings, soaked in the beauty around us and ate our way through Bologna.

La Rossa

One of the first things in Bologna that visitors will notice are the medieval buildings in different warm hues like terracotta, orange and other earthy colors. They influence most of the city center and are embellished with matching porticoes, which are beautiful roofs that are supported by columns. The special thing about the porticoes in Bologna is that they are all interconnected. They are an important cultural and architectural heritage of Bologna and represent a symbol of the city together with the numerous towers.

No other city in the world has as many porticoes as Bologna. In the historic center alone, they are about 40 kilometers long, and more than 60 kilometers long including the porticoes outside the medieval city walls. It is an international record that Bologna has been holding for more than 900 years and that today, together with the towers, the terracotta facades and its delicious food like Tagliatelle al Ragù, Tortellini, Mortadella (to name a few) – are the identity of this city.

La Grassa

The cuisine of the Emilia-Romagna region is some of the best in Italy and Bologna is called the gastronomical capital of Italy. With so much delicious food in Bologna, it can be a challenge to order only one dish… We wanted to taste it all and are so happy we did….

Bologna is the birthplace of Pasta Bolognese, or Tagliatelle al Ragù. One of the most popular pasta sauces in the world, Pasta Bolognese is never served on Spaghetti. There is no such thing as spaghetti Bolognese in Bologna. The ragu sauce is topped over Tagliatelle, a thicker flat-ribboned pasta that holds the sauce better. And it is.. Oh so good…

And then there is handmade stuffed pasta like Tortellini and Tortelloni, the different sized versions of pasta dumplings. Either Tortellini in Brodo (served in a broth) or Tortellini in Panna (a cream sauce) are so delicious. We also tried the Lasagna Bolognese which is served with green pasta and the Cotoletta alla Bolognese. One of our favorites was the fried Mortadella. Other traditional dishes and food to try from the Emilia Romagna region are of course Parmigiano Reggiano, or parmesan, Prosciutto from Parma – ham, balsamic vinegar from Modena, Passatelli, Tigelle, Balanzoni, Aperol Spris and many other delicacies.  

Eating is quite simply one of the best things to do in Bologna.

La Dotta

The exact date of the University of Bologna’s founding is uncertain but believed to have been 1088. During the Middle Ages, scholars from all over flocked to Bologna to pursue their intellectual studies. Some of the University’s most famous students throughout history include Dante, Petrarch, Erasmus, and Guglielmo Marconi. Today the University has a diverse range of programs at all levels. It also houses a vast collection of Medieval art and illuminated manuscripts.

Art, city, day trip, family, florida, free, Miami, Uncategorized, USA

Wynwood, Miami, Florida

A fun Miami neighborhood with giant murals, beautiful Street Art and the center of Art and Culture

Wynwood is one of our favorite neighborhoods in Miami. It is the colorful, bright and vivid center of Art and Culture in South Florida and is an outdoor museum showcasing the work of the world’s best street artists.

North of Downtown and West of Miami Beach, this is a must-see neighborhood when visiting Miami. It is fun, colorful and always evolving. Wynnwood is one of the most “instagrammable” places in Miami.

The mural with Chris is on NW 20th Street and NW 1st Ct

Wynwood Walls

The entrance is located on NW 2nd Ave between NW 26th Street and NW 25th Street.

While there are murals throughout the neighborhood, the centerpiece/ heart of Wynwood is definitely the Wynwood Walls. It was established in 2009 as an outdoor museum of international street art. 

A collection of giant wall murals covering six buildings, Wynwood Walls has since become a blank canvas for famed artists from across the globe.

Wynwood Walls General Admission is $12 per adult, $10 per senior or military and $5 per student ticket. Kids under 12 years are free. Admission grants access to the Wynwood Walls Museum which includes over 35 hand-sprayed murals, two street-art galleries, and retail shops. 

Tickets need to be purchased in advance.

There are also several tours available. While we haven’t done any tours and had a great time discovering Wynwood Walls by ourselves, the tour offers a behind the scenes understanding of each mural in a group tour setting. 

The GGA Galley inside the Wynwood Walls exhibits an everchanging roster of the group and solo shows from past and present artists.

Encompassing more than 50 dazzling, cutting-edge murals created by respected street artists from Asia, Europe, Latin America and the United States, the Wynwood Walls attracts hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world each year.

And beyond…

NW 2nd Ave and NW 25th Street

There is a lot more to see and to discover than Wynwood Walls. And best of all, it is free. Wandering around and discovering murals, art galleries, eateries, art installations is what is all about for me. Did you know that Wynwood is home to the highest concentration of street art in the United States? Artists from around the world showcase their talent on walls with larger-than-life masterpieces.

NW 24th Street close to N Miami Ave
NW 27th Street and NW 3rd Ave

Outside Wynwood Walls, Wynwood is home to more than 70 art galleries, shops, restaurants and bars.

NE 24th Street and N Miami Ave
NW 26th Street and NW 3rd Ave

Covered in murals that constantly change, Wynwood has so many fun photo opportunities. The street art is the main attraction for sure, but it goes further than the murals only. There is art everywhere you turn. From the sidewalks to streetlights, everything is covered with beautiful and interesting installations.

The loveism mural is on NW 20th Street and NW 1st Place

 NW 2nd Ave is kind of the main street and a great place to start exploring the area, full of creativity and inspiring murals.

Wynwood is the perfect place to spend a full day or an afternoon/ evening with the family, exposing kids to art in the most fun way. 

all of the murals are in the heart of Wynwood close to the Wynwod Walls
NW 26th Street in between NW 2nd Ave and NW 3rd Ave
NW 27th Street and NW 3rd Ave

Walking along N Miami Ave a little further…

on NW 29th Street /between NW 1st Ave and N Miami Ave

There are more murals to discover, and it is worthwhile to walk a little further than the blocks around Wynwood Walls. There are lots of murals along N Miami Ave which is parallel to NW 2nd Ave. Wandering through little side streets is also recommended.

NW 27th Street and N Miami Ave
NW 24th Street and N Miami Ave

I tried to include the locations of all the locations under each picture.

NW 29th Street and NW 1st Ave

Even further away…

On the corner of NW 36th Street and 5th Avenue is another noteworthy building full of interesting murals. From Tiger King Joe Exotic, healthcare workers during the pandemic to colorful shapes, drawing and messages both on the building and the sidewalk, there is lots to see and many pictures to take. It might be a stretch to walk, but just a quick ride in the car.

NW 36th Street and NW 5th Ave
NW 36th Street and NW 5th Ave

Keep in mind that Wynwood is always changing and evolving. The murals are constantly getting redone and updated, and it is possible to find an entirely different mural than expected. There is always new art to discover, and we love to come back all the time. Let me know, if you still need the location of a specific mural and I am happy to send you the location.

city, day trip, Europe, food, italy, Uncategorized

Strada delle Orecchiette, Bari Vecchia, Puglia, Italy

Making Orecchiette Pasta with an Italian Nonna

Pasta comes in all different shapes and sizes and each region of Italy is renowned for its own special pasta shapes and traditional recipes.  The Pugliese region is no exception and is known for lots of different pasta varieties like Cavatieddi, Trocoli, Cavatelli or Capunti, but Puglia’s most famous pasta shape is of course handmade Orecchiette pasta which translates to ‘little ears’ in Italian. It’s used to make the most iconic dish of Puglia – Orecchiette con Cima di Rape (which is orecchiette pasta with broccoli rabe).

Bari is famous for the Strada Arco Basso, better known as Strada delle Orecchiette where women prepare, dry and sell fresh orecchiette pasta right outside of their homes. This is the most charming street and it’s absolutely one of the best things to do in Bari. 

Bari, the capital of Puglia, is the third largest city is southern Italy after Naples and Palermo, and it is full of charm and history. This old and quaint city right on the shores of the Adriatic Sea is full of beautiful piazzas, churches, museums, little shrines, orecchiette and it is just full of character.

We met this older gentleman, and he walked a little around with us for a while telling us about Bari.

Bari Vecchia, which means Old Bari, is the ancient heart of the city, which in fact is medieval, with mazes of entangled little streets, beautiful shrines devoted to the adoration of the Virgin Mary, plants and flowers, colorful banners and laundry hanging from balconies wherever you turn. One of my favorite ways to explore a new place is walking aimlessly around and getting lost for a little while. The narrow streets and alleys of Bari Vecchia are the perfect location for wandering around and exploring this way. White cobblestone streets open to charming corners, small piazzas and reveal picturesque churches and colorful buildings, it is full of character everywhere.

If you have a little extra time, there is also the Murat Quarter. Built in the 19th century, this is the heart of modern Bari and the city’s main shopping district. It is located just south of the Old Town and extends from the promenade to Bari Centrale, the city’s main railway station.

There are lots of things to do in Bari, but we came here exclusively for the Orecchiette. No trip is complete without a visit to Strada Arco Basso, better known as Strada delle Orecchiette watching the women of Bari make fresh pasta in front of their homes. 

About 100 meters from Castello Normanno-Svevo is an archway known as Arco Alto at the edge of Bari Vecchia. It is not difficult to find at all. Rustic wooden worktables, dusted in semolina, spill out onto the street with local women handmaking orecchiette right there in front of their homes. It was such a great experience to see the local women making pasta with amazing speed whilst at the same time chatting back and forth in local dialect and watching the world pass by.

Orecchiette pasta resemble little ears, which is where they get their name. Traditionally it is made simply with a combination of fine semolina flour and water. Not even salt needs to be added… It is a culinary tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation and the ladies make it look effortless.  

Making fresh Orecchiette pasta together with an Italian Nonna on the side of the street, was on our bucket list the moment I knew we were traveling to Puglia. Travel experiences like this is what I cherish the most. I want our kids to learn, try and experience different things, food and cultures. Making our own pasta was exactly all of that and I am so glad we were able to make it happen.

We first received a lesson and demonstration on how to make Orecchiette. The semolina flour and water are mixed together to form a dough. The dough is then kneaded and kneaded into tidy mounds and cut into pieces. Then it was our turn:

Starting in the morning until the afternoon when all the pasta is sold, the women are sitting outside or just inside their doorways, making and selling fresh pasta. The doors of the houses were wide open, so we got a glimpse into their kitchen and lives as we passed by.

We learned that the perfect orecchiette is about 3/4 of an inch across and slightly domed shaped to hold pasta sauce well.

First the dough is rolled out like a snake. The skinnier the snake of dough, the smaller the final orecchiette pasta will be.

The next step looks easy, but it takes years of practice. A small kitchen knife is used to cut off a piece from the snake of dough and in one smooth movement, smush and drag the piece to flip out and make the shape of the orecchiette. We had a very patient teacher that showed and taught us over and over.

Finally, the formed Orecchiette are left to dry on wooden-framed screens for several hours.

We took our self-made pasta and bought some more, got a couple more ingredients at a market and headed to our rental home to cook our Orecchiette pasta.

I am not sure if it was because we made the pasta ourselves, the fresh ingredients, my Italian husband/chef or the amazing place we stayed at, but this was one of the best pasta dishes we had ever tasted.

Have you ever been to Puglia?

day trip, family, florida, holidays

Universal Studios, Orlando, Florida

Holiday Magic at Universal Studios

The holidays are here and there is something magical in the air at Universal Studios Orlando. There are lots of places to go during the holidays, but if you want to laugh, cheer, and shout your jingle bells off, this is the place to be. It’s the most magical, extraordinary, greatest, colorful, awesomest holiday celebration of the season.

From dazzling decorations, light displays, holiday parades, Christmas trees and seasonal treats to holiday shows, thrilling rides and so much more, here are our favorite reasons why Universal Orlando is one of the best places to spend during the holiday season….

Macy’s Holiday Parade

My absolutely favorite thing was the spectacular holiday parade featuring the huge Macy’s floating balloons. Most of the characters from the traditional Holiday Parade – which included the casts of the MinionsShrek, and Madagascar film franchises – arrive on floats to sing and dance. There is Christmas music, amazing floats, characters on stilts, confetti rain, snow bubbles, dancers, lights, Christmas trees and a whole lot of magic. And of course Santa Clause is there too. You can catch the parade every night (times change daily)

Christmas Tree Scavenger Hunt

This scavenger hunt was the favorite of Olivia. We had to travel around Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and CityWalk and find 15 different themed decorated holiday trees. After finding the tree, we received a stamp inside our guide at each location. Once we got all the 15 stamps, we redeemed the guide for a special ornament.

The Holiday Tree Hunt brochure costs $10 and can be purchased in most stores at Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure and Universal CityWalk. There are two different ornaments to choose at the end.

The trees are very easy to locate. If you are running out of time, the ornaments can be redeemed at any time. It was so much fun and was perfect for the holidays.

The Grinchmas show and the Grinch

During the holiday season, Seuss Landing is decorated with the holiday charm and cheer of Dr. Seuss’s Who-ville. You can meet plenty Who residents walking around on stilts and singing spreading holiday cheer. There are other Dr Seuss Characters available for pictures, but the funniest and best one is of course the Grinch.

Even though the line can be quite long, a visit with the Grinch is worth the wait. The maven of mischief himself is available for a photo opportunity at “All The Books You Can Read Bookstore”. But this isn’t only a photo opp; it is a funny and extraordinary experience.

The Grinch asked Olivia if she had taken her onion bath that day. When she told him that she had not, he told her that he had a present for her. He asked if Olli wanted a yellow, purple or white present. After she chose white, he opened a box and got out an onion. The Grinch told her to lift the hands in the air and rubbed the onion under her arms and on her head. Afterwards he “cleaned” himself with the onion too. It was such a funny show that was geared only to our family and was one of our highlights.

Your heart might grow three sizes as you delight in the hilarious hijinks of this live retelling of the classic tale starring the Grinch, featuring music recorded by Mannheim Steamroller.

Holiday Decoration and Christmas Magic Galore

Twinkling lights in all colors, sparkling ornaments, huge Christmas trees, cute Nutcrackers, icy snow and glittery Snowmen, lots of beautiful garlands, festive bows, there is so much Christmas magic going on in every corner in both parks.

There is even an entire Christmas themed store. The Tribute Store is one of the best places to buy holiday-themed merchandise while exploring four festively themed rooms. There is Santa’s Workshop during the busy season, the Grinch Lair, a winter celebration, the Yule Ball and Earl the Squirrel.

Christmas treats

Tis the season to be hungry. There are special themed Christmas treats throughout the park. From specialty donuts and cupcakes to holiday cocktails, there is something for everybody.

Hogwarts castle light show

Most nights, Hogwarts castle lights up for the holidays. Unfortunately, there was no show on the nights we were there, but we saw the Halloween light show and it was amazing. There are also several other holiday performances in the Harry Potter world.

Holidays at Universal are from November 13th, 2021 to January 2nd, 2022 and are included in the theme park ticket.

Prices, times, dates, entertainment, event and/or experience details are subject to changes and/or cancellation without notice.

autumn, city, day trip, family, USA

Dallas Arboretum, Dallas, Texas

The best pumpkin patch in the United States

There is something special about fall for me. I love the sights, smells, and tastes of the season. One of my absolute favorite fall traditions is going to a pumpkin patch to choose the perfect pumpkin to carve, take lots of fun pictures, participate in all the fun fall activities that go along with it, spent quality time with the family and celebrate this beautiful season.

Pumpkin patches are fun for families with kids, but they also make for a fun outing for couples and anybody looking to get outside and celebrate the season.

I am always on the lookout for extra special pumpkin patches. And I am so happy to say that I found the ultimate pumpkin patch that I consider to be the best one in the United States. Prepare to be amazed at the sheer amount of pumpkins, the variety of shapes and colors, all the gorgeous pumpkin displays and the fun activities at the annual Pumpkin Festival at the Arboretum in Dallas, Texas.

The pumpkin patch at the Dallas Arboretum has been named one of America’s Best Pumpkin Festivals by Fodor’s Travel and I couldn’t agree more. Every year the arboretum builds an unbelievable pumpkin village with more than 90,000 pumpkins, gourds and squash throughout the garden.

Autumn at the Arboretum, runs from September 18 to October 31, 2021. Though the festival ends on Halloween, the Pumpkin Village remains open through Thanksgiving weekend. We went two years ago when the theme was  “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” There were the signature pumpkin cottages and pumpkin sculptures, a 15-foot-tall Great Pumpkin topiary, a pumpkin doghouse for Snoopy, a Lucy topiary outside of her “Garden Advice Hut,” a Peanuts gang school house, and so much more. 

This year marks the 16th annual Autumn at the Arboretum and the space is transformed into Bugtopia! There will be larger-than-life insect topiaries, fascinatingly bugged-out pumpkin houses, a maze for younger visitors. I wish we could visit again and marvel at all the beautiful displays. 90,000 pumpkins, 3,000 ears of corn and 1,500 corn stalks; 900 bales of hay; and hundreds of thousands of fall-blooming flowers and plants make this the most amazing pumpkin patch in the United States. 

Do you have a favorite pumpkin patch? Let me know in the comments…

city, day trip, Europe, free, Germany, hike, Uncategorized

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Bavaria, Germany

The most picturesque medieval fairytale town

Rothenburg ob der Tauber is the most enchanting and picturesque medieval fairytale town located in Bavaria along the Romantic Road (which goes from Wurzburg to the Neuschwanstein Castle.) Colorful, historic buildings with wrought iron hanging signs, half-timbered houses with flowering window boxes, medieval towers and gates, castles, little cobbled streets and a historic wall around the old town make it truly feel magical like entering a fairy tale storybook in real life or stepping back in time. It is a small town and can be discovered in one day, but it is so magical that you want to spend the night and stay longer.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber is located in the Franconia region of Bavaria on the Tauber River, close to Nuernberg or Wuerzburg. There are several “Rothenburgs” in Germany. Make sure to visit Rothenburg ob der Tauber (meaning on the Tauber River). Even though this is one of the most popular tourist towns in Germany, people do get it mixed up sometimes.

One of the most iconic shots of Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Germany is the Ploenlein. Most people think that the name Ploenlein refers to the yellow half timbered house at the entrance of the Spital quarter. But the charming, tilted and crooked house is only part of it. The term Ploenlein is actually translated as a “small square at a fountain”. The Ploenlein includes the yellow timber house, the fountain in front of it and the two towers of the old city wall that rise to its left and right. Fun Fact: The Siebersturm on the left was build around 1385.

One of the best things to do in Rothenburg is to wander around town and get lost in the charming winding cobblestone streets. The entire old town, enclosed by the city walls, is just picture perfect. There are several options on how to get lost. We got a free map ( I attached it at the bottom of the post) at the Rothenburg Tourist Office, which is located in the center of the town on the Marktplatz, in the old City Councillors’ Tavern. The map comes with two different walking tours – “kleiner Rundgang”/ short walk – which takes about 1.5 hours as well as “grosser Rundgang”/long walk – which takes about 2.5 hours. There are also several guided tours available through the city, but we decided to make our own free tour mixing part of the long walk with the short walk and it was just perfect.

The Marktplatz/market square in the center of the old town is the heart of lovely Rothenburg. There is the giant Rathaus (town hall) which is a wonderful example of a renaissance architecture. The back of the building is the oldest section and dates from 1250 and the impressive façade was added in 1572. It is surrounded by romantic timber framed buildings as well as the Ratstrinkstube (Councillor’s Tavern). At each full hour between 10 am and 10 pm General Tilly and the former mayor Nusch appear from the clock on the building façade.

An artful pillar bearing St. George and the dragon has decorated the Marktplatz fountain/fountain of St. Georg for over 400 years. A replica of the statue can be found in the German Pavilion at the Epcot Center part of World Disney World in Orlando.

Part of the long self guided walk is walking on the old town walls. Even if you do not walk the entire walk, walking inside or on the old town walls is an absolute must. It was the favorite thing to do for my kids. The medieval defensive walls from the 12th century  have been surrounding Rothenburg completely and many sections can be still walked around the clock. The wall is open all day every day and is free.

The whole path is 4 kilometers long, offering the most beautiful and picturesque views over Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Six gates and several doors for pedestrians lead through this city wall into the old quarter. There are 42 towers in the town and steps to climb up next to almost all of the towers. There are also several informative boards along the way.

One of the most charming buldings in Rothenburg is an old forge, the Gerlachschmiede close to the Roedergate. It could be right out of a fairytale story. The original house was destroyed at the end of World War II and rebuilt in the 1950s.

The name “Rothenburg ob der Tauber” is German for “Red castle above the Tauber”. 

Other than strolling through the winding cobblestone streets and marveling at the beautiful buildings everywhere, there are plenty of other fun things to do in this historic town. There are lots of unique stores in Rothenburg ob der Tauber filled with examples of beautiful German craftsmanship. From cuckoo clocks, wooden music boxes and beer steins to German cookbooks, traditional Dirndl dresses and Christmas decoration, Rothenburg offers just about every German trinket and souvenir you can think of.

There are several fun and interesting museums to visit. The Medieval Crime and Justice Museum can be a little scary, but really interesting. Cages, medieval torturing instruments and executioner swords are some of the gruesome displays at the museum. A totally different experience is the Kaethe Wohlfahrt Christmas museum. It explains how Christmas was once celebrated in Germany and how certain customs developed in various regions of the country. There are also insights into the craftsmen’s traditions like wood carvings and mouth blown glass. Last but not least, there is the Rothenburg museum about the history of Rothenburg ,from the early Middle Ages and the era of an imperial city up to the time of the Nazi dictatorship in Germany and the rebuilding of the destroyed parts of the town after World War II. 

The Schneeball/ Snowball is Rothenburg’s most famous culinary contribution. This famous dessert was created more than 300 years ago, it is pastry dough layered and shaped into a ball usually covered in confectioners’ sugar and other toppings like caramel, chocolate, nuts or other toppings. Snowballs are one of the must things to try when in Rothenburg. These delightful looking treats can be found all around town on every corner in all kind of sizes.

We tried the mini versions covered in sugar, caramel, dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate.

I was a little disappointed by the “Schneeballs”, because they tasted a little like a dry crumbly pie crust … The kids on the other hand loved them and tried Schneeballs with different toppings. I would still buy them again, just because I love to try any regional specialty that makes a place special. But maybe with whipped cream or a strawberry sauce on the side…

With its fascinating history and fairytale look, Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a beautiful place to explore. Have you visited Rothenburg? What was your favorite thing about this magical place?

day trip, Europe, family, hike, italy, lake, Uncategorized

Lago di Carezza, South Tyrol, Italy

The most beautiful rainbow lake in the Dolomites – Lago di Carezza/Karersee

Lago di Carezza or Karersee is one of the most beautiful lakes in the Dolomites and it was one of our favorite destinations in South Tyrol. This magical lake is also called the “Lec de Ergobando”, which means Rainbow Lake in the Ladin language. The crystal clear water sparkles magnificently in Emerald green and Sapphire blue with flecks of colors of the rainbow. The Latemar mountains and an enchanting forests in the back of the lake, make an impressive and unforgettable sight. It truly feels like being inside a fairytale.

Lake Carezza is about 30km Southeast of Bozen/Bolzano and is the perfect first stop of the Great Dolomites Road (SS241) from Bolzano to Cortina d’Ampezzo through the heart of the UNESCO-listed Dolomites. Located in the Val d’Ega valley, only 6 km from Nova Levante, Lake Carezza is the perfect stop for a short trip or to spend the entire day. There is a parking lot with reasonable rates across the street of the lake that also has a restaurant, bathrooms and a gift shop.

Walking down the steps to the lake feels like stepping into a fairytale. It is such a magical place.

The lake is fed by subterraneous springs from the Latemar mountains and the water level is constantly changing. The level is highest in spring with a depth of 22 m due to the melting snow, whereas the lowest level in October reaches only 6 m.

We visited the lake in the end of July in the late afternoon and it was the perfect time. I would recommend to go either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Our family tends to visit places in the afternoon and it works for us. Most of the tourists are already gone for the day, the weather and temperature is still perfect and everything has the golden glow from the sun going down.

The different colors of the lake not only make Lago di Carezza look magical, it has also inspired this century old legend of a water fairy and a wizard:

Once upon a time a beautiful water fairy lived inside the lake. She loved to sit on the shores of the lake and sing the most beautiful songs. She was very shy and disappeared whenever anybody came close to the lake. One day the sorcerer of Masaré heard the water fairy sing and fell immediately in love. He tried to enchant her with his magic but wasn’t able to catch her. The sorcerer grew more and more impatient and asked the witch Langwerda for advice. The witch suggested to create a magic rainbow from Latemar to Lake Carezza to intrigue the water fairy. She also told the sorcerer to dress up as an old merchant and explain to the curious fairy on how to make these rainbow air jewels. This way he was able to catch her when she got close to him . The wizard made the most beautiful rainbow but forgot to dress up and the water fairy recognized him. She got scared and disappeared in the water forever. The sorcerer got really angry, tore the rainbow from the sky and threw it in the lake. The rainbow melted in the water and spread on the surface of the lake. That’s how the lake got the name Rainbow Lake.

There are lots of different hiking possibilities and trails in the area. We decided to walk the most popular trail around the lake. It is a very easy and picturesque loop hike that only takes about 30min. The lake is completely fenced and the circular loop winds through the fairytale landscape with several scenic lookout points to view the lake from different angles.

There are plenty of images online and on social media of people sitting or standing on a rock by the lake. This shot is unfortunately illegal and should not be copied or attempted. Lago di Carezza is completely fenced and it is not allowed to swim or approach the water (and the banks of the water). It would have not been difficult to climb the fence, but I want to teach our kids to be responsible travelers, to respect the laws and most importantly to respect nature and not to destroy or damage it for a picture. Nevertheless, Lake Carezza is a very special place, has plenty of picture possibilities and worth a visit.

Have you also visited Lago di Carezza or the Dolomites? Share your experience in the comment section. If you have more questions, let me know and I am happy to answer it. 

family, free, PDF, printable, Uncategorized

6 Free printable Vacation Countdown Calendars

One of the most exciting parts of an upcoming vacation for me is counting down the days until it has finally arrived. I love to share this excitement with my kids and my favorite way is with a countdown vacation calendar. I started to make the first countdown calendar for my oldest son when he was a toddler. We went on a family cruise and I drew a giant ship on a wooden panel. Each window represented a day until the vacation. Every day he drew a smiling face in one of the windows. It was such a success that I started to make a calendar for every vacation. Even though my kids are bigger now, everybody still likes to have a calendar.

It is a great way to get children interested in traveling and builds up excitement. I created six different calendars with different counting down methods like stickers, markers, stamps or crayons and I am happy to share them with you.

For the best results, I recommend to print the calendars on white cardstock paper (it is sturdier and holds up better). Regular printer paper works as well! Or even laminated to use more than once.

They are available laminated in my etsy store:

Travel Vacation Countdown Calendar laminated count the days | Etsy

Colorful Numbers

This calendar is colorful and vibrant and we used a bingo marker to make perfect black circles. A black marker also works great.

Smiling Suns and Happy Faces

This calendar is the favorite calendar of Olivia and I designed it especially for her. Instead of crossing days off, one sun gets a happy face each day. I laminated the calendar for her and used special markers, so she can use it again and again.

Blue on Blue Traditional Calendar

I wanted to create a more traditional looking calendar that can be crossed off each day.

Th

Pastel Colors

The pastel calendar is perfect to use with stickers which are even more fun than markers. If you scroll down, Olivia even decorated her calendar with diamond stickers all around.

or just crossed off….

Days Until Calendar

This calendar works best laminated.

In the Clouds Calendar

The cloud calendar is my favorite calendar and the clouds can be colored, crossed off or marked with stickers.

Pin it for later!

If you like my free printable vacation countdown calendars then I would absolutely love it if you could pin this post for later and share it with your friends!

Subscribe for more free printable PDFs and fun travel content.

florida, forest, Uncategorized, USA

Miami, Florida

Mangrove Trees, Mangrove Tree Crabs and our Favorite Places to Kayak in South Florida

Last weekend was such an adventure. We ventured into the mangrove forest to make a video about Mangrove tree crabs for kidculture.org, a creative platform for kids to make meaningful and save videos. It was such a fun opportunity and the kids loved the entire process. They started with the research, planed and directed the video all by themselves and had a great time making the video. You can watch it here: https://vimeo.com/558536871

We learned many fascinating and interesting facts about Mangrove trees and Mangrove Tree Crabs.

Worldwide, there are more than 50 species of mangroves. There are three species found in Florida; red mangrove, black mangrove and white mangrove.

Red mangroves are probably the most well known species of mangrove trees in Florida. They are characterized by a tangled network of aerial prop roots extending into the soil. It appears as they are standing on the surface of the water. Red mangroves typically grow along the water’s edge and the bark is gray on the outside with a red interior. 

Mangroves are tropical trees that are the only trees that can thrive in salt water. Some species excrete the toxic levels of salt water through their waxy leaves, while others can block the salt absorption all together.

Florida has an estimated of 469,000 acres of mangrove forests and are an incredibly important ecosystem in the Southeast. They provide a protected nursery area for fish, crustaceans and shellfish while providing food for different marine species like snook, snapper and shrimp. Many birds find shelter in the roots and branches of mangroves. The branches are nesting areas, for coastal birds such as brown pelicans, osprey and roseate spoonbills.

Mangrove forests are very important. They stabilize the shoreline with their root system and protect the land from strong winds and floods. During intense storms, mangrove forests act as a buffer, reducing wave action, preventing erosion, and absorbing floodwaters.

The Mangrove Tree Crab

The video was also about the little mangrove tree crabs. It was half the fun to catch some of the little critters.

Mangrove tree crabs are tiny brownish gray crabs with yellow spots, wide-set eyes, hairy legs, and sharp tips on their pincers.

These crabs can be found on mangrove tree branches or tree tops at high tide and venture onto the ground at low tide.  They also like to burrow themselves into the sand and mud.

The crabs are very fast and it was difficult to catch them at first. They hide upside down in the leaves and branches of the mangroves. Luca caught one first , but learned that the crabs are quick to jump in the water when they are scared. The tiny creatures have lots of predators and are vulnerable in the water, so they try to get back to the safe mangrove trees as fast as possible.

 The crabs like to feed on the leaves of the trees they reside in. They will consume part of the leaf by scraping the surface of it and leaving behind brown spots. It was very interesting to study the leaves for any traces of the crabs. They also eat algae and small invertebrates if they can catch one.

We came prepared with tweezers, buckets, nets and magnifying classed that the kids had packed.

Olivia as fascinated on how much they looked like black spiders, but mangrove tree crabs are dark brown, gray and olive green depending on the light.

Even though it was difficult to part with them, we released all the mangrove tree crabs before leaving.

Anybody that visits Florida, should visit the mangrove forests and creeks at least once. The best way to explore is with a kayak or paddle board. There are lots of great places and here is a list of our favorite ones:

Our Top 5 favorite Kayaking Spots in South Florida

We have our own kayak which can easily still carry all three kids plus one adult or the kids plus a couple of friends. We have had many adventures with this kayak and once upon a time fit the entire family on the kayak. (Olivia was still a baby). We love to explore the narrow Mangrove creeks where the water gets really murky as well as the wide wavy bay exploring little islands.

Here is a list of our favorite spots in South Florida. All of the places have kayak, canoe or paddle board rentals available. They are very different from each other and I cannot decide which is my favorite, but I recommend to take enough water, sun protection and mosquito spray for all of them.

Whiskey Creek in Dania Beach

This one is my most visited place on the list and all the pictures on this blogpost where taken at this park. The Park is called Dr. Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park and is adjacent to Port Everglades. The parks 2.5 miles beach is the perfect spot for finding corals and building sand castles. It has lots of picnic tables and BBQs, a small restaurant as well as the famous Whiskey Creek. We love to paddle inside the shaded Mangrove tunnels and catch the little Mangrove Tree Crabs. The water levels fluctuate with the tides. At low tide, the water level is too low to paddle the entire creek, but a great time to exit the kayak and explore by foot.

Oleta River State Park in Miami

Only 30 min located from downtown Miami, Oleta River State Park is Florida’s largest urban park. It is a haven for mountain bikers, paddlers, anglers and swimmers. The park has several kayaking trails that lead through beautiful narrow Mangrove creeks as well as big Biscayne Bay. We love to paddle to the little islands, stop at the beach with shallow water or explore the shaded mangrove tunnels.

Kayak or Paddle Board?

Loxahatchee River in Jupiter

The Loxahatchee is a National Wild and Scenic River, one of only two in the state. It is one of Florida’s most unique treasures and flows through freshwater creeks, down into a brackish estuary, and finally empties through the Jupiter Inlet into the Atlantic Ocean. You can kayak under a canopy of overhanging trees and Spanish moss. There is lots of wildlife and it is very easy to paddle

 Turner River Kayak Trail at Big Cypress National Wildlife Refuge in Everglades City

This kayak trail is full of wildlife and looks magical. We saw small alligators and all sorts of birds on our last trip. There are water lilies and swamp lilies, open swamps as well as my favorite part, the very narrow mangrove tunnels. They can get so tight and narrow that ii is easier to pull through by hand. This feels truly magical because the mangroves are everywhere.

Indian Key Historic State Park close to Islamorada

We have only visited once, but it was spectacular.  Indian Key Historic State Park is only accessible via kayak launch and is one of those small green islands that can be seen off the Overseas Highway. Indian Key is located only a half-mile offshore but feels a world away. It’s an uninhabited and undeveloped island where you still walk the roads of the original village. This 11-acre island is accessible only by boat and sits just off Lower Matacumbe at MM 78.5. (Kayaks can be rented at Robbies) One of the best ways to reach the island is by paddling over the shallow seagrass flats.