This is the first in a series of stories about traveling to the island of Ischia in Italy.
Mine are the peasant people of Ischia in Italy. This island is considered a province of Naples in Italy. Ischia neighbors the more famous Capri. Another neighboring island, Procida, had its 15 minutes of fame when the charming film Il Postino was released. When my people left in the 1950s and 1960s, the island was suffering. World War II had decimated the economy of the entire country. And the spirit of the people was shaken. Italians are not ones for war. Truly, they are lovers and not fighters. Fighting Americans (many of whom were related) and changing sides took its toll.
Challenges Change the Islanders
Food and family are the top priorities in Italy. Back then, getting food on the table was difficult. My father disagrees. He doesn’t remember scrambling for a meal. But his older siblings have different memories. They were working the land to make ends meet. It was a tough life. In 1960, when my 13-year-old father left, everything changed. Tourism began to replace agriculture as the island’s prime business.
So, where is Ischia?
Well, it is the largest island in the Gulf of Naples. It is 17 miles southwest of Naples on the western edge of the gulf, according to the World Atlas. Foreigners travel by plane. Often, they have to take a flight to a European capital. Then, they take a shorter flight to Naples. During some times of the year, you can get direct flights from New York’s JFK.
You can easily access the island from Naples or Pozzuoli (birthplace of Sofia Loren). You simply have to take a boat or hydrofoil from either of those places. You go with the boat if you need to put a car or motor scooter on board with you. You go with the hydrofoil if you’re traveling without additional transportation. The hydrofoil, of course, is faster and takes about an hour. The boat will take about 1.5 to two hours. It all depends on whether you make a stop in Procida first.
What Makes the Geography Special
The island is actually a volcano. It last erupted 700 or so years ago. But in 2010 some experts warned it might blow again. No joke. Before you run away from Ischia, consider their final thoughts on the matter. The experts also said an eruption was not at all imminent. Still, they are monitoring it along with nearby Vesuvius.
These volcanic origins are not all bad. They provide rich soil for vegetation. You might credit it with the sweetest fruits and most delicious veggies you’ve ever eaten. Your body might also appreciate thermal waters and mud. Many athletes and ailing people come to Ischia for their healing powers.
For those who trace their roots to Ischia, it lives within the heart. It is where we find family and friends. It is where we find a slice of piece and Nonna’s parmigiana. Can’t beat that.
Alitalia filed for bankruptcy for the third time. The news is causing shockwaves in Italy. The Abu Dhabi-based Etihad had come to the rescue in 2014, and before that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and a number of Italian companies had bailed out the national carrier in 2008, according to The New York Times. These efforts all failed. Now, Etihad has announced it has no plans to continue its investment, according to CNN.
How Italy Is Taking the News
Scouring Twitter amid news of the filing, you saw that Italians are sick and tired of bailouts. In fact, La Repubblica reported the results of a survey in which 77 percent of Italians were against helping.
One headline in La Repubblica read “Alitalia, un pasticciaccio tutto italiano,” which means, “Alitalia, a big, all-Italian mess.” In that story, Massimo Giannini compares happenings in the European Union to kick off the subject. “In Paris, you are voting to save Europe,” he writes. “In Italy, you are voting to kill Alitalia.”
What This Means for Alitalia Travelers
While Alitalia has suffered from an inability to compete with discount airlines, Ryanair and easyJet, for domestic passengers, it was still the go-to for many Italian Americans. Or at least many of the ones I know use it. Recently, many of my Italian friends and family visited the United States and traveled with Alitalia. Indeed, a few people I know have flights coming up in the next few weeks. So, what are Alitalia travelers to do? Discover the steps to take starting now:
Call Your Travel Agent
Many Italians I know still use a travel agent. Or you prefer an online agency, such as Expedia or Orbitz. Get in touch with your contacts or customer service to find out if they have any information. This is helpful even if they don’t have any news for you because you will be on their radar.
Call Alitalia Directly
If you don’t have an agent or simply prefer your independence, you can call the airline yourself. To reach support from the United States, call 800 223 5730. To reach it from Italy, call 892010. You can also call Italian support for the airline from abroad by dialing +39 06 65649. (Remember the + sign is the prefix you must dial from your point of origin, so you will need to look that up if you don’t have it.)
Keep Tabs on the Headlines
Should Alitalia flights be grounded, you will hear about it in the news. With so much going on in the United States and other places these days, you might have to look for the headlines yourself. Set up Google alerts, so any story about Alitalia is emailed to you. Scan the stories to learn what’s happening with flights and passengers. At the Alitalia website, you should also sign up for the newsletter. There’s a chance the staff will share information about canceled or grounded flights. That’s not a guarantee, of course, because some companies use newsletters just for promotion.
Have a Plan B
Recognize that travel with Alitalia is not the most secure at this point. So, be prepared for the worst. Alert family, friends, or chauffeurs who are going to pick you up at the airport that things might change in light of the bankruptcy. Brace yourself for some inconveniences. If you have kids, prepare them as well. Bring along extra snacks and distractions in case there are major delays.
Also, figure out if there are other travel options for you. Do not purchase a new ticket unless you are certain your flight is canceled and the airline won’t be doing anything to rectify the situation for you. One would like to believe they would protect consumers during this challenging time, but you never know in these circumstances. As they say in Italia, “In bocc’ al lupo,” or “In the mouth of the wolf.” It just means good luck. Really. But it seems perfectly suited to this scenario.
Family vacation New Jersey is not a phrase you often hear. After all, my home state has a bad reputation. I never realized this fact until I attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Many of us came from New Jersey, but the others – many of whom were from Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New York – constantly put down our place and our people.
Back then, HBO’s Sopranos was one of the most popular shows on television. In one way, New Jersey experienced a renaissance during that time because people who never paid attention to it were suddenly interested. In another way, it worsened the rep by making everyone think that corruption was rampant.
Misconceptions about New Jersey
We New Jerseyans heard it all. You live in the “armpit of America.” Isn’t New Jersey just a turnpike? As an Italian American who came from northern New Jersey just like the characters and many of the actual actors on the Sopranos, I was often asked, “Are you in the mafia?” Oy!
Truly, I could not believe what people thought of my lovely home state. In defending N.J., I grew to appreciate all it had to offer. I ended up writing a book, Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press, 2012), and I continue to discover its many wonders. I encourage others to do the same. The first step in planning a trip to New Jersey is deciding on which part to zone in. Discover the regions of the state and what they have to offer:
Family Vacation New Jersey: Northern New Jersey
Home sweet home is what comes to mind whenever I think about northern New Jersey. This is where I grew up. It has way more to offer than the strip clubs made famous in the Sopranos or the various restaurants where New Jersey Housewives have exploded on each other in front of Bravo TV cameras. Lots of famous people have lived here, including Frank Sinatra (in Hoboken), John Travolta (in Englewood), Eddie Murphy (in Englewood), and of course James Gandolfini (Park Ridge).
Here you’ll find pieces of New Jersey’s history, particularly as it relates to the Revolutionary War and the leadership of our first President George Washington. At the Fort Lee Historic Park, you can take check out Revolutionary cannons and a museum. You can also take epic photos of the George Washington Bridge made famous by Gov. Chris Christie, who allegedly loaded up traffic as an act of revenge to the town’s mayor who would not back him.
In Paramus, you’ll find lots of grand malls for shopping. The best part is you pay no sales tax on clothes in New Jersey. The Jets and the Giants play at the Meadowlands, where you’ll also find many concerts and other entertainment throughout the year. You can seek out your inner Einstein at Liberty Science Center, or check out the digs of inventor Thomas Edison. Not many people realize this, but you can also get to the Statue of Liberty from Jersey, which is a nicer ride than the one in Battery Park, in my humble opinion. New York City and the other boroughs, not to mention Connecticut, are a hop skip and a jump from northern N.J., so there are plenty of day trips to plan.
Family Vacation New Jersey: Central New Jersey
When trashing New Jersey, people often forget it is the Garden State for a reason. This is where we grow fresh Jersey tomatoes, sweet summer corn, and fall’s favorite cranberries. And central New Jersey is where you’ll be reminded that the state has its countryside, too. Forget the farmer’s market. You can go directly to the source and pick your own peaches, strawberries, and other goodies all summer long. But the fall is the best time to head to one of the farms, including Alstede Farms in Chester, N.J. Hay rides, pumpkin picking, and interactions with the farm animals can’t be beat.
In central New Jersey, you’ll also find the historic towns of Princeton and Trenton. Perhaps, Princeton is best known for the university. But it also home to Drumthwacket, the residence of the governor and his family, and the Princeton Battlefield, site of a Revolutionary War battle that is now a great place for hiking and bird watching in the midst of history. Trenton is the state capital, so you can visit the New Jersey State House. But you can also travel back in time by visiting the British soldier’s barracks at the Old Barrack’s Museum or the oldest house in the city, the Willian Trent House.
The Garden State Discovery Museum with its hands-on exhibits for kids in Cherry Hill and Camden, which is home to the Adventure Aquarium and Camden Children’s Garden are perfect destinations for families. Of course, you can easily visit nearby Philadelphia, too.
Family Vacation New Jersey: Southern New Jersey
South Jersey is where everyone goes down the shore. This is the best known region for family travel and with good reason. Nobody does summer quite like the Jersey Shore. Truly, you have a bevy options. Wildwood, Seaside Heights, and Point Pleasant offer the beach and the boardwalk for kids and kids at heart alike. In Asbury Park, you can check out the Stone Pony, where rockers such as N.J. native Bruce Springsteen launched his career. (This is also the part of the state from whence Bon Jovi came, so it’s kind of sacred ground as home to Tommy and Gina, who are still “living on a prayer” as far as I know.)
Atlantic City is full of must-see attractions, even if you’re not a gambler or have kids with you . The Steel Pier offers lots of fun rides and games for the whole family. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not offers unbelievable stuff to spark the imagination. A quick stop at White House for sub sandwiches that still attract the rich and famous whets the appetite. But don’t forget to grab some salt water taffy for dessert.
Near Atlantic City in Margate, you’ll find Lucy the Elephant, which makes for a great photo backdrop. Another must do in south Jersey is Cape May. Here, you’ll find the beach, a zoo, and the famous Victorian houses, some of which are open for tours. If you read this far, you now realize that New Jersey is in no way America’s garbage dump. In fact, it is the flowering garden of the United States.
Essex County Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, N.J. is a quaint day trip for New Jerseyans or visitors to the area. The kids had a blast running through fountains that were turned on to help people cool off, gawking at the sea lions (see above), and feeding the birds. Discover what you’ll experience should you make the journey to TBZ:
In the above sign, you’ll notice Family Fun Nights in the summer and ads for the Zoological Society of New Jersey. Encouraging guests to “have a wild day” was perfect for me and mine.The Turtle Back Zoo offers locals many opportunities to connect with nature. We were braving the zoo with three kids 5 and under. Indeed, it was wild. Frankly, the kids might have been wilder than the animals they were seeing.
The Charm of Turtle Back Zoo
Appropriately, the first animals we saw upon our visit to the Turtle Back Zoo were turtles. Actually, they were tortoises, but close enough. What fascinated the kids? The baby pooping right before their eyes. They found it downright hilarious. And we adults had the chance to sing, “Everybodyyyyy poopssss,” ala Dinosaur Train. My son was really looking forward to seeing the stars of Happy Feet, but there was a long penguin in the habitat, which had my sister the professional zookeeper concerned. Still, despite that disappointment, we charged on.
One of the unique aspects of the zoo is the interactive aviary. Guests are not allowed to touch the birds, which include parakeets (see photo below), but they can feed them. You can purchase sticks with birdseed on them and hold them out for the birds to come to you. The kids went wild. The birds were chirping directly in their ears and munching the food off the sticks that they held in their hands. My son and niece had grins as wide as the Hudson. My mom was another story. She had birds sitting on her feet and trying to fly up her leg because much of the bird seed lands on the ground. My sister-in-law and I had to maneuver the strollers with bird seeds on the wheels without rolling over an unsuspecting parakeet.
Sea lions and monkeys are always entertaining. A small petting zoo with all the usual suspects, including goats, rounded out the highlights. As we walked out of the gift shop on our way out of the zoo, a lovely peacock walked up to us and displayed his plumage despite the rain storm. The promise of giraffes existed when we went to the zoo, but they had not arrived yet. As of 2016, you can find them in the African Adventure.
What’s lovely about these little zoos is that they are not so overwhelming. The three kids actually amused themselves by observing the animals and taking in the details of the zoo. There was an elephant statue that they all climbed on to take a picture. Running through the fountains (see below) was not just for cooling off. It was also a memory in the making. They were dancing around without a care in the world, and it brought us all back to our own childhood. Isn’t that, in part, what a day at the zoo is all about?
Lavazza, one of the big coffee companies in Italy, is promising to bring imagination to the country’s restaurant scene while invigorating its hometown. Its new headquarters in Torino, which is slated to open at the end of 2017, is more than mere office; it’s also a destination for visitors. One of the biggest draws is CONDIVIDERE by Lavazza, a restaurant that is aiming to change the way people think about food and eating. Lavazza announced the restaurant concept early in March, so there are still few specific details. Learn about what we know so far:
Coffee to Jolt the Experience
Appropriately, coffee will take the main stage in the Lavazza restaurant. “Lavazza is strongly committed to creating a new restaurant where the coffee experience is at the forefront of every dish, making it a unique concept found nowhere else,” according to the press release. There is little explanation of what this means. But am I wrong to imagine coffee rubs on meat or espresso in desserts or even a hint of coffee in a pasta dish? I’ve had a gourmet meal in Ischia, where chocolate was used in a pasta sauce, and it was surprisingly delicious. Maybe Lavazza could make coffee and pasta – among Italy’s main food groups – marry and live happily ever after. Who am I to judge? Lavazza is, after all, the company that gave us coffee caviar. True story.
Lavazza Hires an Experienced Team
Chef Ferran Adrià
Interestingly, Chef Ferran Adrià, who co-created the concept for the restaurant, isn’t Italian. He’s Spanish. More than celebrity chef, Adrià was called a “gastronomic genius” by The New York Times. During his time as head chef of elBulli, which Restaurant Magazine named as world’s best restaurant five times from 2002 to 2009, according to the Times, he helped people reimagine food. Americans would know him as the guy who turned food into foam and made that a thing in foodie circles. When he shut the doors of his restaurant in 2011, people wondered why. It might have been money troubles and family in-fighting or it could have been the desire to avoid repeating himself; you can decide for yourself after reading the Times article. Either way, Lavazza now has him helping it, presumably to reimagine how people consume coffee and the traditional dishes of Torino and its region.
Chef Federico Zanasi
Federico Zanasi is the chef at the helm, however. Italy’s La Stampa described Zanasi as “giovane e brillante,” which means “young and brilliant.” He comes from Hotel Principe delle Nevi, a five-star restaurant in Cervinia, which is alpine resort territory known for skiing. Indeed, Zanasi is the chosen one. Adrià, who had worked with him, according to La Stampa, selected him for the job. The restaurant is already promoting its commitment to “food democracy,” an idea that has galvanized many Americans recently but has long been a part of the Italian culture. Basically, it’s a belief that food should be food without chemicals or byproducts. Everything should be fresh. But it’s not just about being healthy; it’s also about making everything delicious in its simplicity.
Set Designer Dante Ferretti
The trifecta of greatness would be incomplete without the set designer, three-time Academy Award winner Dante Ferretti. He’s developing the interior of the restaurant. It will be urban, modern, and colorful, and will perfectly reflect Zanasi’s concepts for the menu, according to La Stampa. His Oscar-winning touch brought us The Aviator, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Hugo Cabret. Now, he’ll bring his vision to a place where people will gather to eat. The interior will undoubtedly be a showstopper, but it’s not just about looking at what’s around your own table. The place is going to be like a character, one can imagine. There will be movement. In fact, the press release explains that guests will actually move from one setting to another to enjoy different parts of the meal.
More Than Good Eats
The restaurant is more than a restaurant, of course. Yes, it’s also the Lavazza company headquarters. In addition, visitors will find the Lavazza Museum, which is being designed by Ralph Appelbaum, who designed the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History. A convention center and a farm-to-table dining hall for employees and students of the nearby Istituto d’Arte Applicata e Design (IADD) round out the offerings. Of course, a place like this wouldn’t be Italian if it didn’t include a “lush, green” piazza for people watching and gathering. There visitors will find artifacts from a 4th and 5th century A.D. paleo-Christian basilica that the company found during construction, according to the press release.
A Higher Purpose for Lavazza
Finally, the name of the restaurant, CONDIVIDERE, is significant. It means to share. This place is intended to be as much about new concepts in food as an affirmation of the human need to break bread together. Perhaps, Adrià put it best in his discussion with La Stampa, where he waxed philosophical about the place. “You will find a place in which you feel at ease and have the desire to be together,” he said, according to my translation. “The intention is to provide exceptional cuisine that brings to the forefront man’s need to socialize, share, and analyze what’s on the table in a show of love for food.” Now, that kind of thinking couldn’t be more Italian.
This is the second in a series of lessons I learned traveling with my now 5-year-old son since he was a baby. The lessons are designed to help parents learn from my experiences and mistakes to have a smoother travel experience every time they muster the courage to take baby (or little men and little ladies) on a magnificent journey. You can read the first lesson, How to Pick a Family Friendly Airline.
Lesson No. 2: Pack Up the Goodies
Pack distractions. Distractions can save a mamma’s life. I have firsthand knowledge. Packing the carry-on bags for any journey, but especially a lengthy one, is of the utmost importance. What you need to do is pack a slew of goodies to keep your child distracted in between naps on one of those lengthy flights. I’ve been bringing my son, who is now 5, back and forth between Italy and the United States since he was 6 months old. Pack correctly and ye shall survive such traumas. Discover what’s always in my bag:
Cash – in both the currencies from which and to which you are traveling – is important. You never know when you’ll need it. Of course, you must bring passports and identification for everyone traveling, including the little ones. One item many moms don’t realize they need is their child’s birth certificate. This is especially important if you and your child have different last names. In Germany, while in the airport on a layover, I was almost forced to part with my then 9-month-old son because I had only our passports and no birth certificate; the customs agents feared I was kidnapping my baby. A heated conversation and a phone call to my husband resolved the matter, but they warned that I should never travel without his birth certificate again. Indeed, I now take it with me even to the supermarket in Italy.
Food and Drink
No mamma ever wants a hangry child. A child – like any person – becomes unbearable when hungry. Imagine that kind of crankypants on a six- or ten- or 15-hour flight. Yikes! Always pack snacks. My son prefers pretzels, cheese crackers, or Cheerios. I carry them in resealable bags or little containers, and we’re good to go. Pick up a bottle of water (or a small container of milk for the start of the journey) once you’re in the terminal. Of course, bring whatever you need for younger babies, who require formula or baby food. Security will test any liquid items, and you’ll be on your way. Just don’t pack a lot of junk food, especially if your kid is not used to eating it. On one flight, I gave my son his favorite indulgence – Oreos – and it ended with projectile vomit.
A few weeks before we leave for Italy, I usually go around the house collecting some of his favorite tiny toys. He has a couple of cars, small action figures, and the like that can keep him busy for quite a while. I take them out of the rotation and put them near the luggage, where he can’t easily find them. Then, I pull them out one by one during the course of our flights. (It often requires to flights and a boat ride to get to our second home, Ischia, Italy.) I try to add one to three new toys (usually from the dollar store) to the mix. I pull out those when times get really tough in flight. Nothing like a little surprise – something shiny and new – to distract you from your troubles.
Of course, you don’t want to carry too many books because that can weigh you down, especially if you have to run a marathon to reach a connecting flight in time. But a couple of small books to read and a few activity books and crayons or a pencil have pulled me out of a few ditches. My son particularly likes sticker books that have you finding stickers at the back of the book to place in short stories at the front. He also enjoys activity books that offer opportunities for him to learn to draw something, such as animals, or punch out card stock figures to build or make something. I track this kind of book down on Amazon or at the dollar store. I always look for deals, so I buy them when I find them and not necessarily just before we’re about to travel.Another favorite are the Highlights seek and find books for which he has a subscription. Keep stock and save stuff, so it’s completely new when he sees it on the plane.
My work forces me to carry my laptop with me wherever I go. So, we always have at least one computer. My son also owns a Kindle that is well stocked with his favorite movies, TV shows, and some games. Also, he recently received a LeapPad as a gift. I charge these babies to the max before our flight and bring them everywhere we go. They are not only for the plane. They are perfect for when we force him to spend many hours at dinner with only adults, a common occurrence for the poor little guy in Italy.
No mamma should go home without extra clothes for the kiddies and her (and anyone else who is traveling with her). Don’t forget extra underwear and socks, maybe a clean pair of pajamas in addition to clothes. When that projectile vomit hit, my son and I were covered in toxicity. Those extra clothes came in handy. For my son, even though he’s 5 years old and potty trained, I still bring diapers and wipes. Diapers or pull ups are safer when young kids are planning to sleep in the plane, or at least that’s been my experience. Tissues and children’s Tylenol are among the other must haves to pack.
Mamma’s goal should be to make the flight as comfortable as possible for her child (or children, God bless you). I bring pajamas for my son to change into when he’s ready to sleep. A favorite blankie and stuffed animal always comes along for the ride, too. He has earphones, so he can watch whatever movie the plane offers, and a neck pillow to help him get cozy.
In recent years, people have been tough on zoos and aquariums. The argument is that animals should not be locked up; instead, we should let them live in peace in nature and shut down these zoos. They have been talked about as outdated and decidedly unfriendly to all that is natural. I take a decidedly different position. It’s not just because I’m the sister of a zookeeper. Okay, that has something to do with it. She has educated me and continues to do so. But it’s also a result of my years as a self-proclaimed environmentalist.
Yep, I’ve been a tree hugger since the late 1980s when I read 50 Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth, which revolutionized my life. While I’m still not made of granola, I did help launch recycling in my town; in middle school, I actually spent my lunch periods analyzing garbage to determine how much could be recycled and how cost effective it would be. It worked, and I even won an American Legion award for my efforts. The reason I’m digressing is I want to show you that I have some street cred when it comes to this topic and that it’s not coming out of nowhere. Here are why families should consider getting zoo memberships:
1. SEEING IS BELIEVING
You can talk to kids about the world around them all you want. But until you show them what you’re talking about, they don’t always understand. Seeing animals, some of which are endangered or near extinction, helps connects kids with them. My sister has shared her love of animals with my son, niece, and nephew from when they were wee little ones. None of them are afraid. My son was the only one in his class on a recent trip to the farm, who was willing to pet a chicken and milk a cow. He now knows that the milk (which supports his milkaholism) comes from a cow, and he understands exactly the process of getting it. Besides making him more appreciative, he was able to talk to me about how the cows have to stay healthy for him to get his milk. This was extra amazing for him because he had delayed speech and is only really starting to communicate regularly with us now.
2. A CHANCE FOR EDUCATION
At the zoo, you’ll find plaques offering facts about the animals and sometimes even the plant life in an exhibit. My 6-year-old niece read every single one on our most recent visit. She learned about antelope and baboons, like the family in the photos here. A few zookeepers and volunteer educators stopped to see if we had questions and shared info, such as how the rhino’s horn is made of the same stuff as our nails. My niece also read a few quotes about why learning about animals is important. Basically, she decided she needs to understand animals, so she can recognize their place in our world and protect it. It’s a good lesson indeed. And that little lady will do it, I guarantee.
3. SUPPORT CONSERVATION
The money you spend on a membership helps maintain the zoo, the animals’ home, but it also helps pay for research and conservation efforts. My sister is a zookeeper in Florida, and she has traveled to help birds in the wild migrate or breed as part of her job. She also has friends who have helped save wildlife trapped in oil spills. There are all sorts of conservation projects in which zoos participate. They also make the habitats for each animal as close to nature as they can, which is in and of itself a conservation effort. It is not just a superficial means of re-branding zoos that have been criticized for locking up animals, even if that’s part of the motivation; it’s also a way to keep the animals and nature in balance and to improve the animals’ lives. This all costs money. Doing good ain’t cheap, folks.
4. MAKE MEMORIES
Disney commercials often warn parents that they have a limited number of years while their children are young to enjoy family trips all together. While the company’s motives are obviously to make a buck, it still holds true. The delight on the face of my child when he witnessed the ostrich’s racing one another or when he saw the baboons hugging one another was priceless. The fact that we were at the Boo at the Zoo event, so he and his cousins were in their costumes and I sometimes sported a witch’s hat made the day all the more fun. He was learning, we were bonding, and all the while we were just having fun.
5. SAVE MONEY
While a Disney trip could break the bank, a zoo membership could actually be affordable and it can save you money. I opted for the membership when we wanted to go to the Boo at the Zoo event at the Bronx Zoo because it was only a few dollars more than the cost of the total experience ticket for one day for each of us. In the end, I spent $175 (there was a $20 discount when I bought into the family premium offer). Of course, your local zoos membership fees may be different. You’ll have to check with each for prices. With the Bronx Zoo, for one year, my mom, husband, three kids, and me are covered for the total experience anytime we want to go. That means, we don’t have to pay for parking, entrance, or most of the extras, such as the monorail, butterfly garden, etc. In addition, admission to four other places – the New York Aquarium, Central Park Zoo, Queens Zoo, and Prospect Park Zoo – are covered. We did have to pay $7 per person for the camel rides. But the trip was still a bargain, and we received discounts in the souvenir shop and for food and drink purchases. For me, frankly, those broad smiles and precious pictures of the kids and animals already made it worth it, and our year of membership has only just begun.
That first crisp fall day brings with it hope. There’s something about breaking through the heat and the jewel-toned rainbow of leaves freeing themselves from the prison of branches. It’s a new school year with its fresh faces eager to learn. It’s the empty cornucopia, little by little, getting filled with bounty. It’s shorter days and cozy nights. And October is fall’s sweet spot, a time when it’s still possible to reinvent yourself and spend an entire day outdoors without either melting or freezing. That is the precise moment when the farms beckon you. For us that means heading to Alstede Farms in Chester, N.J.
New Jersey, the Garden State, is the perfect place to be at this most wonderful time of year. (You can learn more about different Jersey farms in my book, Fun with the Kids New Jersey). Visitors and natives alike have a plethora of places to go to take in the wonders of Mother Nature. While we have enjoyed a number of New Jersey farms over the years, we keep going back to Alstede because there is so much to do that every visit seems like the first one.
Here, kids can get up close and personal with farm animals. My son had a full-fledged conversation with a turkey, and peeked at a hen either laying on eggs or simply digging a hole for her weary body to find rest on our most recent visit. We saw kissing donkeys, playful goats, and working horses. My son and his cousins went on pony rides and seemed to float in air in the bounce house. They got giddy and waved at Nonna from the mini hay ride for the little ones.
Of course, the whole family hopped in the back hay-ridden bed of the big boy tractor pull, which offered the chance to glimpse at geese frolicking in a fountain and rows and rows of corn stalks. You can see tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and weepy sunflowers, all of which you can pick and bring home. (You pay by the weight of your haul.) In the fall, you’ll also see sleeping peach trees and whatever is left of the raspberries. It wouldn’t be a fall fest without music, photo props all over the grounds, and the ability for every kid to pick his own pumpkin to bring home. It’s the great pumpkin, Charlie Brown!
For my son, the pumpkin is like the Christmas tree. He oohs and aahs every time the Jack-o-Lantern lights up in the dark of night. While he has ignited his devotion to the season and his love of milkshakes and apple cider doughnuts at the Alstede Farms store, I don’t see that as the magical part of our annual visits. What is most remarkable about our trips to the farms is his discovery of nature and devotion to life. This exchange tipped me off.
Me: “What was your favorite part of today?”
Baby Boy: “Seeing the pumpkin beans [he means seeds], and the caterpillar.”
All that fun stuff and this was his response? What? Then, I thought about it. Amid the pumpkins, including that broken one revealing its seeds, we found a caterpillar covered in dust and camouflaging with the ground. As it burrowed into the ground, my nephew was about to step on it. My son cried real tears and furiously yelled at his cousin. Luckily, my niece had stepped in and kept her brother from killing the caterpillar. My son said, “Don’t kill him, don’t kill him. He lives here.” I keep telling him not to kill insects outside because we need them and the outdoors is their home. This was a small victory for mom, but a victory nonetheless.
A few days earlier, his class went on a field trip to Green Meadows Farm in Hazlet, N.J. There, his teachers tell me he was unafraid to pet chickens and try his hand at milking a cow. Certainly, the farms alone are not responsible for his reverence for animals and nature. My sister, the zookeeper, had something to do with it. His nonno, the landscaper, had something to do with it. His zio, the professional foodie, had something to do with it. All the Italians in our family, who cook from scratch and maintain their perfect little gardens, had something to do with it. We, his mom and papa, who have made preserving his life and helping him understand the responsibility of his place in the world, have something to do with it.
It is with that spirit that we will continue to head to farms and gardens and pick vegetables that we bring home and cook with our own two hand. We will always love animals and appreciate what they deliver – milk, food, love, and the life cycle. And we will try to do our part to save this planet that gives us so much. We shall try, at least, to reap what we sow.
A family vacation to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. is a dream for many people. That’s why parents spend much time and money on the trip. Magic ain’t cheap, people. But there are some add-ons that many get suckered into buying. It’s enough to bring on your worst case of buyer’s remorse, especially if you’re trying to stick to a travel budget. Since I’ve been to the “World” countless times and have some expertise in this area, here are the 7 tourist traps you should avoid like Mickey near a mouse trap:
This one parents should see coming from miles and miles away. Disney is an empire, and they lead the world in marketing. They know that if your kid sees his favorite characters and toys at every turn (and when you get off any ride), he’s going to beg you for something. You’re on vacation, and you don’t want to experience one of those fall-down tantrums. So, you are going to say, “Yes,” at least some of the time. Cha-ching. Of course, similar toys are half the price outside Disney.
Parents and Disney forums often suggest purchasing Disney character toys and souvenirs at the local dollar store or Walmart ahead of your trip. Some of the moms offer up a little surprise each morning of the vacation. They might even wrap them and include notes from Tinker Bell. Much like Santa, they tell kids that if they behave they’ll get something from Tink, who will sneak in and leave it for them while they sleep. Then, they bring the trinket from Tink to the parks and meals and whip it out whenever the temptation for another souvenir pops up. (I can tell you from firsthand experience that this worked well with toddler and pre-K kids.) Another option is to pick up souvenirs at an off-site Disney Store, outlet or discount shop, or mall in the Orlando area. Look for coupons if you go that route.
Back in the day, my parents would take us to Disney and we’d stay off property. We would have a rental car, and we almost always left the parks at meal times. It was cheaper and back then whatever we would get outside of the parks was usually better food. Times have changed. Now, there are many more resorts, and Disney makes it worth your time to stay “on property.” In addition, the food has gotten exponentially better. In fact, my husband and I often plan our travels there around our dining reservations.
Still, the food on property is expensive. They have you in jail, essentially, and they know that you’re not going to want to waste time (and miss out on rides and events, which cost a lot of money, too) by leaving the park. The good news is that there are some really delicious, vacation-worthy options. First step is to educate yourself on what’s worth the money. Disney’s Websites feature lengthy menus, and unaffiliated blogs, such as Disney Food Blog, can provide you with unbiased reviews. More importantly, you should set priorities about where you’d like to put your money, and decide exactly how much you’d like to spend. If you don’t want to go off property to eat, then you should consider staying at a Disney resort and buying into Disney dining, which allows you to pay ahead of time for your meals and snacks. Sometimes, there are even free dining deals, but Disney experts suggest those offers might have come to an end. It will come in handy when your kid sees and smells that Disney popcorn and starts begging.
5. Paying Full Price for the Resorts
Disney resorts are beautifully themed and come at different price points. There are value, moderate, and deluxe resorts. Parents, who want to give their kids the full flavor of the Disney magic, prefer staying on property. As mentioned, there are some perks, such as the ability to participate in the Disney dining plan and extra magic hours at the parks. You have no reason to pay full price for the hotels. At many times during the year, you can find discounts on the resorts. Going in the low season, if you’re willing, is a particularly effective way to stay in budget even if there is no discount. The thing is that there usually are discounts. What most people don’t realize is that even if you booked before the discount was available, if you call Disney reservations when the offer goes public, it will retroactively add the discount. You will get the money back if you had paid already. I’ve done it, and it’s seamless. Another option is to rent DVC points, which I’ve also done. This allows you to stay on property by renting points from a Disney Vacation Club member. The resorts in question are deluxe, and you can often get the price down to value or moderate prices. But you must be smart about it because there are some DVC renting scams out there. You can learn more about renting DVC points (and scoop on the DVC rentals at Polynesian Village Resort and Animal Kingdom Lodge) right on this site.
4. Unnecessarily Buying Park Hopper Tickets
I used to fall for this trick every time. I thought I had to buy park hopper tickets and jump from one park to another in a single day to have fun. The idea is to pack in as much as you can all trip long. Wrong! Parents, especially those with younger children, are usually better off buying a park ticket package that has them traveling to one park per day. For starters, this helps you better plan because you’re forced into one zone of Disney World each day, which can help you decide on fast passes and dining reservations ahead of time. Also, it prevents you from running around, which can make for overtired, cranky children and adults. It’s better for sneaking a nap into your day, too. Of course, the single park tickets are cheaper than park hoppers.
3. Stylists for Your Kids
All over Disney you will see little girls dressed as princesses and, to a lesser extent, little boys dressed as pirates. They will look like those kids whose moms force them into pageant life, replete with make-up and perfectly coiffed hair with a shiny tiara on top. Nine times out of 10 they have been to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in Cinderella’s Castle. The swashbuckling pirates, replete with painted on beard and sword, have been to the Pirates League, also at Magic Kingdom. Professionals dress them up and make them all fancy at a price. The princess packages start at $60, and the pirates start at $40. No one I know has ever done this, but they have always brought their kids dressed to impress. You can purchase affordable costumes on Amazon, Target or Walmart, or in the Disney Store (when there’s a sale). Then, you can do hair and make-up. I dressed my son as a pirate for a princess breakfast when he was a year old, and we got beautiful pictures that I still cherish. My niece always wears her princess dresses to the parks, and she’s never done the boutique. A little glitter for the eyes is way cheaper than one of those packages. It also takes less time away from the rides and dining reservations.
2. Extra Events (after Park Hours)
Disney has done all it can to monetize its offerings. Why not? There’s certainly demand. Loyal readers of the unaffiliated Disney dining blogs know that in recent years there have been a number of ticketed dessert events and parties. Often, guests end up paying more than $50 per person for these events, on top of their park admission. Again, this is a budget issue. You should decide where you want to put your vacation money. But I would suggest, based on what I’ve seen of these events, that they are not necessary. Avoiding them is a good way to save a buck.
The two exceptions are Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party (which actually costs between $72 and $105 per person) and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party (which costs between $86 and $100 per person). Both are super expensive, and I’ve never invested in them. But some experts say these are worth it if you can afford them. Additional entertainment and treats create value. Kids really get to feel some of that Disney magic. The costumed characters at the Halloween party and fake falling snow at the Christmas party are among the examples. The smaller, lesser known events, however, are probably less valuable and not worth your time or money.
1. Specially Themed Rooms
Oh, this one in particular gets my goat. A few years back, Disney began theming rooms at the moderate resorts. Mind you, all the Disney resorts are already themed. But there was additional in-room theming designed to lure parents, who want to wow their kids. At Disney’s Port Orleans – Riverside resort, you can opt for a Royal Guest Room with gilded furniture, elaborate headboards, and bedazzled princess images. A late March package for these rooms with a standard view for a 7-day stay cost $326 more than the standard room with a standard view at the same resort. The pirate rooms package with a standard view for the same period at the Caribbean Beach Resort cost $404 more than the standard rooms, and they are located at the most remote part of the resort. They used to be cheaper rooms, according to the Disney Tourist Blog, until Disney added pirate ship beds and related decor.
Now, the Disney Tourist Blog recommends the Royal Guest rooms at Port Orleans over the pirate ones at Caribbean Beach Resort because many of those were cheaper rooms further away from the hotel’s lobby that are now at higher price point. The reason this is the top of the list is that people spend little time in the rooms at Disney World as it is. These were a little trick to charge people more for staying at a moderate resort. I prefer treats and no tricks when vacation planning at the happiest place on Earth.
I’ve become one of those people. You know, the kind who is always waxing nostalgic. I’m my grandparents now. Every sentence seems to begin, “Back in the old days…” And so it begins. In 10 days, I’m going to turn 38 years old. It’s not 40. But it’s closer to 40 than 30 was. Suddenly, I’m clinging to whatever time I have left with older relatives, recognizing my parent’s age, and feeling, well, old – or at least much older. It has me thinking about the past – a lot.
Rather than bore you with details of how I had it better back then in that time and galaxy far, far away, I thought I’d share some pictures. These are my keepsakes from Ischia in 2005, when I visited my then boyfriend (now husband) in his home and met his family for the first time. It was an age of innocence. It was also a time when Ischia was not a second home but still a dream vacation for me. It’s funny what a difference living in a place – seeing all its warts up close – makes in your perception of it. Anyway, here’s what I’ve been looking at, staring at, and wondering whatever happened to:
I couldn’t help but snap this shot while waiting in a car for someone’s arrival. Who? I can’t remember. But I do remember seeing these seniors sitting out there and fondly thinking about my grandfathers, both of whom were born and raised in Ischia. They always had close friends from the island, and whenever they got together, there would be intense conversation and rounds of Italian cards. They also all owned one of those hats.
This photo always spoke to me. I believe I took it from Villa Arbusto, a museum in Ischia, where my husband and I would return to take wedding pictures. For one, the photo provides a beautiful look at the residences of the island. For two, it seems like a metaphor for life with its peaks and valleys.
Ischia has quite a few naturally formed rocks that jut out of the ocean and are in the shape of something. This one, called il Fungo or the Mushroom, is the most famous and it is the symbol of the town of Lacco Ameno. From above, you can’t miss it.
This is near my father’s hometown of Buonopane in Ischia. My husband was showing me around, and we spotted this goat on someone’s property, on top of a roof of sorts. I had to take his picture, but there was nowhere to park. So, I just took it from the car. It came out pretty well. And I always wonder what that goat was doing up there. Somebody was missing their milk or dinner with him hiding out up there.
There was a refreshing quiet about the sea on this day in spring 2005. The docked boats – waiting for summer’s return – spoke for all the Ischitani natives anxious to get back to work. Most of them are in tourism, which is a seasonal industry lasting only about six months out of the year.
In early spring, there are few tourists hanging around the beach in Ischia. But a few more weeks after this picture was taken and the place would see wall-to-wall people from sand to shore and in the sea. Taking a stroll on the sand with my then new love – hand in hand – with no one else around was a kind of peace I haven’t experienced in a long time, and for which we all long.