Last-Minute Spring Break Planning: Costa Rica

Early March 2015. We’d been talking about going somewhere for Spring Break, a mere 5 weeks away, but had made no plans. On a whim, I checked out various routes from DC to San Jose, Costa Rica. Direct flight on United? Ooh, that’s promising. Despite becoming airline-agnostic when we moved from Houston (where we were Continental-then-United captives for obvious reasons) and collecting miles across multiple airlines, I’ve always had the easiest time redeeming for decent flights on United. A quick check of the balances showed enough between my and Papa Bear’s accounts to purchase four award tickets. Business class was even available for the return flight, which was routed through Panama City on Copa Airlines, at the same points level as coach. OK, let’s do this!!

My plan was to purchase three tickets from my account and book PB’s from his. To try to get around capacity limits in Biz class, I opened two browsers and logged into each of our accounts so I could book both sets of tickets simultaneously. I hit enter on mine and the girls’ and quickly switched browsers and did the same on PB’s. Back to my account, SUCCESS. Back to PB’s: no more award space in Biz. Sad trombone. I switched it back to coach and got him on the flight. Then I had to sheepishly explain why his two daughters and I would be flying back in style while he was back in coach. Fortunately he’s pretty chill about all this. I think it has something to do with me hacking so we could go to Costa Rica for practically free (as well as Ireland, Italy, Argentina and who knows where in the future?)

So, with no plan other than knowing the dates and times of our flights, it was time to decide exactly where in Costa Rica to spend our week. Volcanoes, beach, zip lining, surfing? So many choices, so little time in country. The little ones’ ages ruled out some of the more adventurous options like white-water rafting and bungee jumping but there were still plenty of cool options left. 

Ultimately, we decided to spend the whole week in the area of Manuel Antonio, the site of a national park and beautiful beach. Situated on the Pacific Coast, the Manuel Antonio area provided access to several tours in addition to its own attractions. 

PB found a great hotel right on the beach and a 10-minute walk from the park. More about this and our adventures is yet to come. It meanwhile, here’s a teaser… 

Parco della Cascine: A cool respite from the Florentine sun

Florence in July is hot. Today hit 88 F but even before it reached the daily high standing or waking in the sun was draining and I could see the girls wilting before my eyes. Not drawn to the cool recesses of renaissance churches, despite their natural air-conditioning, the girls begged us to find a park or, even better, a pool. Both are on offer at Parco della Cascina, a fingerling of greenery in a city of stone and marble. The park itself, located on the north shore of the Arno River a bit west of the city center, is well-shaded with outdoor fitness stations that the little bears enjoyed exploring.

Shady Haven from the Heat

Walk almost all the way to the west end and you’ll find a public pool and rental shop offering rollerblades and bicycles. There was a long line to get into the pool when we arrived around 11 am and twenty minutes and 30-some euros later we were in. The cash we laid out at Viareggio didn’t seem so steep suddenly when we discovered the entry to the pool didn’t cover chair rental and there were no umbrellas. The bathroom facilities, on the other hand, were first-rate, with individual changing stations, toilets and showers. There was also a bag storage (for a fee, natch) which we didn’t use. Why didn’t we choose to safeguard our belongings while we all enjoyed a family swim? Oh, right, because Papa Bear could watch them. Why could he watch our stuff? Because even after we turned back to our hotel upon reading in our guidebook about the pool so the ladies could get into their suits, AND after having my sisters buy him a suit in Viareggio because he didn’t pack one, we get to the his-and-hers changing areas and he tells me he didn’t bring his suit. That means only one thing to me: I would be solely responsible for supervising the children in the pool. Two children, one of whom is hyperactive and the other who is not an independent swimmer. Thanks, hon!

Clingy little bears

It all turned out OK in the end. The little bears are enthusiastic but not high-stamina swimmers. We enjoyed the pool, got a snack at the surprisingly reasonably priced snack bar and slowly meandered our way along the Arno back to our hotel room for afternoon siesta. Then as compensation I got an early evening bike ride in (for only 2.5 euros rental fee) to keep my streak going and get an hour of solo time. I headed for the river, passing by the famed Ponte Vecchio, and essentially retraced our afternoon walk through the Parco della Cascine.



And then Sister Bear lost her dinner

Wonderful seafood dinner in Florence followed by SpongeBob in Italian followed by Sister Bear tossing her cookies.

There will be vomit.

Viareggio: A perfect day at the beach except for the long arm of the Italian Nanny State

Viareggio is a beach town just a short 20-minute train ride from Lucca. We were fortunate to be able to go on a weekday, even if that weekday was a Friday, as the guidebooks say this place is mobbed on the weekend. I can see why. It’s the closest beach for Florentines to visit, the beach is sandy and shallow (to a point), and one can rent chairs, umbrellas, or awnings for the day. The only downer was that it was a “red flag” kind of day. Understanding the precise nature of the danger was difficult due to language issues. At one point I heard the word “fins” but after cycling the city streets of Milan, I am afraid of nothing, including sharks. “Currentes” were mentioned several times by multiple guards. As this seemed more probable than sharks I schooled Sister Bear on what to do if she got swept out to sea by a riptide. This essential life knowledge proved unnecessary as I was forced to keep the children extremely close by the ever watchful guards who were on my ass all day. I am certain these young men never rode a bike on an Italian city street. More likely they lived in fear of being executed on the spot if an American bambina so much as stubbed her toe on a seashell.

Budget travelers will be disappointed that much of the beach within walking distance of the train station is privately owned. However, about a mile south of the private beach is a public beach which we might have done had we had our own gear. My sisters and our family of four rented an awning with four chairs and a little table for the day for 60 euros or 10 euros per person. If that sounds pricey it was completely worth it to enjoy shelter from the strong hot sun. The day was gloriously hot, the breeze and water refreshingly cool and the girls had a blast, despite being watched over by the long arm of the Italian Nanny State.

making fast friends in the sand

How do we know we're not in Florida? Check out the mountains in the distance

typical rental canopy

Climbing Torre Guinigi in Lucca

Little bears love to climb. Mine will climb trees, clamber over rocks, or try to scale anything vertical enough that they can proclaim “I’m the tallest person in the world!” So imagine our delight to discover a climbable tower right around the corner from our apartment in Lucca. This beautiful walled Tuscan city has several towers that are easily spotted from various points around the city. Especially good views of towers can be had from the ramparts, which form a broad flat park along the top of the city wall. But there’s nothing like the view from the top of a tower.

Torre Guinigi is special not only for the spectacular views it provides but also for the fully grown oak trees at the top. Entry fee is 4 euros, but you can buy a combo ticket that also gets you into the botanical garden for a couple euros more. The 230-step climb itself was not strenuous for the little ones, though my mom declined to try, since they are mercifully broad and safe unlike some medieval towers.

A short few steps up a ladder and you step out into the shade of the trees.

There’s a coin operated binocular for better viewing but it’s really too tall for the little ones. pay binoculars
But no worries as the panoramic view can be enjoyed without it.
view from Torre Guinigi Lucca

Cinque Terre: Beverages and Bathrooms with a 7 year old in tow

The following is a guest post courtesy of my sister, Aunt Kat.

There will be pee.

Our day trip to Cinque Terre started with 3 short train hops. In the movies there would be a flashback of me being on the train clutching my 7 year old niece’s hand while we watch her father run to catch train 2. Sadly he didn’t make it.

So the adventure begins with my parents and sister (aunt Karebear) camped out at the cafe in the train station at the last of the 5 towns, Monterosso, while we wait to see if Papa Bear is close behind. The train station has a small touristy cafe with a single stall bathroom. We are in heaven since we can smell the public bathroom around the corner a mile away.

It is very difficult for Sister Bear to remain still and patiently wait for Papa Bear since the ocean is However, PB has the backpack with her bathing suit. When it becomes evident that PB was probably not able to get another train, Aunt KareBear and I hatch a plan to let SB dip her feet, ostensibly up to her knees, in the ocean. Dummy aunties! Neither of us have our own kids so we were oblivious to the fact that SB would NOT be able to resist the urge to swim even though she was wearing street clothes. So, there stands SB…dripping wet and cold. Suddenly she announces that she’s gotta pee.

Now let’s take a sidebar here to congratulate me for not immediately sending her back into the ocean to pee. I’m not squishy about bodily functions but I have to admit that it never even occurred to me that was an option. It was, however, Grandpa No-no’s first suggestion. In spite of the great big ocean behind us AKB and I truck the darling off the sand, up the stairs and back to our original cafe. Potty break number one.

And with that, we are on to plan B. AKB and I purchase a bikini and beach towel so SB can swim again. The cute little bikini becomes her new outfit du jour since her clothes would remain wet/damp all day. This, for the record, is where the grandparentals bail on us and decide to move on by themselves leaving the aunties on their own with SB. Once SB announces she’s too cold to swim any longer we set off to explore the little town of Monterosso. We spy a little playground right across the street from a sidewalk cafe. Score the first adult beverage for the aunties. If I recall correctly it was noonish. That’s a respectable time for a beverage; and it’s not like we actually were in a bar contributing to the delinquency of our niece; and the child was happily making friends on the monkey bars. The best bonus of purchasing beverages is that you get to use the facilities in the establishment which are always nicer than public ones. So, we all potty in relative comfort and only minor smelliness before moving on to the next town.

Having purchased the local train pass, the three of us head to the next town with SB wrapped in her newly purchased beach towel for warmth. Verrnaza doesn’t have beaches per se but it does have a harbor with lots of rocks suitable for scrambling on. This makes SB happy. We decide to have lunch in Verrnaza with another adult beverage. This makes the aunties happy. Lunch was on a lovely roof top terrace overlooking the harbor. The potty break induced a small bit of panic whenSB locked herself in and then could figure out how to get out. AKB talked her thru it and we all made our way to the train to the next little town.

Corniglia would hold several little adventures. Fortunately we averted what could have been a misadventure when we ran into the grandparentals. They were boarding the train on to the next stop as we were getting off. Grandma suggested we forgo walking the 350 steps up to the town in lieu of taking the little shuttle bus. We bussed up to the top where SB announced she had to pee. Lord, that child has a small bladder. I try the old “lets get gelato and use their bathroom routine,” but the gelato store didn’t have a public WC. They did have beer so the aunties enjoyed another adult beverage until we couldn’t put off the potty excursion any longer and headed around the corner. This potty was a “squatty.” This means no actually toilet so we coached SB on now to squat and pee. A little pee may have made itself onto her bikini bottoms. Or a lot. It’s a good thing Auntie Kat is not squeamish. We washed off the bottoms as best as possible in the sink, put on the soaking wet drawers and headed back down the hill on the little autobus.

By the fourth town, Manarola, Auntie Kat was losing steam. SB was still going strong. As a matter of fact, through the entire 14 hour day SB never stopped talking and she never stopped moving. Even though SB would have liked to scramble on more rocks, the aunties didn’t have enough energy to appropriately supervise her so we settled for visiting another squatty potty, forwent the adult beverages and moved on to the last and final town.

Rio Maggiorre is by far the most touristy of the towns. We had been promising SB that we would try to find her a little dress as she had tired of the bikini 3 towns ago. After suitably dressing SB for the ride home we still had an hour to kill so we settled in at another sidewalk cafe (with acceptable facilities) for some adult and child suitable beverages….sangria for the aunties and fizzy water for SB. Potty breaks all around, we headed for the train and started the journey home.

Once safely ensconced in our rented apartment the aunties enjoyed a well deserved glass of wine while we savored a successful “aunt day” with our 7 year old charge. We all survived remarkably unscathed and will have fabulous stories of our grand adventure.

Cinque Terre Misadventures

Yesterday, my sisters and I walked to the train station in Lucca and purchased everyone tickets to the Cinque Terre for today. Our plan was to train to Monterosso, the farthest town, make our way southeast on foot or by boat and train back from Riomaggiore, the closest town. Our ticket for 2 adults and 2 children involved transfers in Pisa and La Spezzia. It would be almost a 14-hour day trip departing at 8:45 am and returning around 10 pm. For a chance to see the Cinque Terre it would be worth it! Or so I thought.

Yesterday evening Baby Bear came down with a fever and was complaining about a headache and general aches. After I convinced myself it wasn’t meningitis, we gave her half of an adult Tylenol and a lukewarm bath to cool her down. At that point I resigned myself to staying in Lucca with her while the rest of the gang made the trip. (Papa Bear had paid his dues in Milan while i was advancing socioeconomics.) There was a brief moment this morning when I believed that our 2nd class train tickets could be used on another day but the middle leg had assigned seats. I said goodbye to the travelers and settled in for a day of rest and local adventures.

BB and I were planning a little walk when Papa Bear calls and says he missed his train in Pisa. He had gotten off to try to get a refund for my and BB’s tickets and when he went back to the platform the train door wouldn’t open. He described an iconic, if somewhat Hollywood-conceived scene of waving to my mother through the window as the train pulled away. I tried to convince him to take the next train and catch up to them in Monterosso but I couldn’t reach my sisters. One wasn’t picking up (only using wifi plus Viber) and the other’s phone was audibly ringing in the next room when I tried to call her number. Convinced that he wouldn’t be able to catch up with them, he turned back to Lucca. He’s pretty sure that Sister Bear was on the train with the rest of the family but as I write its entirely possible she’s spent the day in a Pisan police office. Or worse.

We passed a relaxing day with a nice bike ride (there is no other kind here) atop the ramparts and, to mix it up a little, outside the city wall, followed by some screen time and a nap. I’ll know in two hours how the family fared and how much cash (and wine) they’re owed for minding our child all day. Or there will be some frantic calls to Pisa to claim our lost child. Stay tuned.