On The Road Again…Day Seven of the College Tour 1

I feel like i’ve entered an alternate universe where all I do is travel around with Sophie to colleges in the south and attend info sessions, go on walking tours and eat way too many calories… Today we are on day 7 – and we are still talking! Thank god for small miracles. After last night’s outing to Bird’s Aphrodisiac Oyster shack it’s amazing I was able to convince Sophie to actually visit Florida State. I was sure she was going to say it was too (fill in the blank) for her but she didn’t and we went and thank god because it’s gorgeous and she ended up really liking it. So far, we’ve visited five schools and she is planning on applying to all five – I think that’s pretty awesome and I credit the amount of prep we did before we came – there was a LOT of thought put into the college tour list and I feel the work paid off. The FSU visit was very interesting as it was the ONLY school I’ve ever visited with 32,000 plus undergrads. The school map was the size of a city map and it is definitely intimidating and I can imagine wandering around aimlessly looking for your dorm for at least the first 3 months of school. Here’s an interesting fact… FSU has a student-run circus, one of only 2 collegiate circus’ in the country. Here’s the big top:


The dorm room model was interesting. I have NEVER seen a toilet like this:


The dining hall was pretty gorgeous and I loved the very southern lady welcoming us to the cafeteria “welcome to Florida State. I love you.” Yup there is a lot of love in the south!


This was an interesting statue on campus. It’s called the “Integration Statue”. It’s a pretty powerful piece in the very center of the HUGE campus.


And you can never forget, no matter where you are, that the real reason everyone goes to FSU is the football team – you can see this stadium from everywhere!


Sophie and I had our first EVER Chick-Fil-A which some people on fb find impossible but I promise it’s true:


and tonight we are loving the southern hospitality in Savannah GA after driving almost 5 hours to get here. We had dinner in this beautiful home on historic 37th street at Elizabeth’s on 37th. It was amazing.


Tomorrow, we’ll be reporting from SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) which is interwoven into the city of Savannah. Can’t wait y’all!

On The Road Again… Day Six on The College Tour Reply

The flight from Miami to Orlando was awesome! The plane was on it’s way to London and so we were on a 777 for all of 42 minutes but it was great while it lasted – we finally were able to just throw up our carry on luggage into the over head compartment without a huge fight with the stewardess about how she was going to have to check our bags (this happened but lets keep the past in the past…).

Rollins College was next on our list and the drive from the airport to Winter Park took about 20 minutes. I had booked at the Alfond Inn (through Expedia, natch) and it was one of our most enjoyable stays! If Sophie ends up at Rollins I will be thrilled to stay here every time I visit. http://www.thealfondinn.com great rooms, amazingly cool art, delicious food and 5 minutes to campus. Rollins College is the focus of Winter Park, Florida which sets the tone for the town. The main street reminded us a lot of Greenwich Ave. It’s beautiful with great places to eat and very nice shops. Literally across the street from the dowtown is the campus and it’s equally lovely. We were greated in Admissions with coffee, water, candy, and a screen rolling our names and welcoming us to campus – slightly different than the packed sardines in admissions at the U. Our tour guide Reagan was blonde and adorable and we kept passing posters of her everywhere we went (she was running for VP in student gov). The food served here is #23 in the nation – just last week dinner was fresh lobster over linguini and the pool by the lake looks nicer than the Rye Golf Club pool:


the freshman dorm rooms have hardwood floors (this is a first – on all my college tours with the boys I have never seen this before…)


This is a fraternity house:


and Sophie and I spotted 3 LV bags on the floor of a very small study room (only about 20 kids in total)…

Here’s a shot by the lake…


so you get the picture…


after our tour was over and another info session was attended we got in the car and began the driving portion of our trip – up until now it’s been all flights. The first leg was a little over 4 hours to Tallahassee Florida. The drive was incredibly boring and very long but we made it to the state capital in time for dinner. I thought a local joint was called for and we walked the few blocks from our hotel to Bird’s Aphrodisiac Oyster Shack http://www.birdsoystershack.com let’s just say Sophie was less than pleased “mom, why didn’t you tell me this place wasn’t nice? I wouldn’t have changed.”



I thought it was fun and the oysters were really fresh.

Tomorrow, we visit Florida State University, home of the Seminoles and the largest school on our tour (about 32,000 undergrads)…


On The Road Again – Day Four of The College Tour (and five!) 2

*The following blog is days four and five due to the inability to get internet access.

It’s Day Four, dear reader and hopefully you aren’t bored yet! Knowing that I will be blogging about our experience daily actually keeps me more alert and curious on this long college tour and so I thank you for reading along and giving me an additional purpose for paying attention and staying awake.

Today we were on the Tulane Campus for the info session and campus tour and we were lucky enough to have arranged a tour of the Art School as well. Sophie really would prefer a true liberal arts school with a nice art program than a pure art school and Tulane definitely fits that bill. We loved the school.


In keeping with our Hollywood theme this week, we arrived on campus to find a huge crew filming the Fox television series Scream Queens with Lea Michele, Abigail Breslin, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ariana Grande and Emma Roberts. Seriously, you just can’t make this stuff up.IMG_2496

On the art school tour we saw printmaking, photography (both digital and film), painting and drawing studios, sculpture studios and one of the coolest workshops – glass blowing. Tulane has the largest glass blowing facility on any college campus. Some of the work scattered about was just gorgeous. Imagine, getting to blow glass as a class! The thing we liked the best is that at Tulane you can double and triple major and the dual majors can be as diverse as Studio Art & Public Health (like our tour guide).


The glass blowing facility at Tulane


Some of the student’s glass work that reminded us of sushi!


The sculpting studio

No visit to New Orleans would be complete without a real poboy so a stop at Domelise’s was in order. I had heard so much about this hole in the wall from my cousin Wendy who went to Tulane and it was around when she was in school. It didn’t disappoint but figuring out how to order and what to get wasn’t exactly the easiest of tasks. My tourist was showing but who cares – we got what we came for and it was really good.


In any college tour there is going to be down time that you really can’t do anything with including time in airport gates and driving in the car. Sophie has been good about filling the time with studying lots and lots of SAT vocabulary words (and I have to admit, I’m learning several myself – who ever used the word deleterious – it means injurious to health) as well as sketching – this picture was taken while waiting for our flight to Miami. IMG_2510 IMG_2513

Tonight, courtesy of facebook and the ability to see what all of my friends are doing at any given moment, we are having dinner with the Wendel Family, amazing friends from Tokyo who now live in Napa and are spring breaking in Miami. It’s an unexpected gift that will only add to our already adventurous time on the road. See you tomorrow, reporting from THE U!


Day Five – it’s 80 and sunny as Sophie and I start the day with breakfast outside by the fountain at the Biltmore. This is the first hotel that is actually gorgeous (and the carpet isn’t sticky) and I just want to grab sunscreen and my book and lay out by the pool but info session 3 is calling…


The “U” campus (University of Miami) is seriously a country club. The campus wraps around a man-made lake with a streaming fountain and the outdoor pool has lounge chairs set up with students lying around (Sophie said it reminded her of the movie Accepted). The only annoying part was the crying infant throughout the info session – yes I said infant. There was a mother there with both her high school junior and her infant. Get a babysitter for god’s sake!

Our tour guide talked about how during mid-terms and finals the school offers free massages, play time with puppies and the installation of tons of hammocks across campus. Yes, all those things are true. Puppies and free massages? I’m sold.

IMG_2568 IMG_2562 IMG_2558

We were able to meet up with two ASIJ (American School in Japan) grads that were good friends with Hayden, Kenjo and Tacuma. We had lunch outside at the Rathskellar by the water and over lunch they gave us the inside scoop. They couldn’t have been nicer and it was so great to see them – all grown up and living in Miami!


After lunch, it was a quick Uber to the airport in time for our next flight to Orlando where we will be driving to Winter Park, Fl to visit Rollins tomorrow. As I type this, the day isn’t over but we have yet to see anyone famous – our streak might be ending…and we haven’t had anything delicious to eat either but there is always hope! See you tomorrow – reporting from Rollins College in Winter Park, Fl.

Relationship status with teenage daughter: going to bed on a good note – mini fights had today: at least 7 but all good now.

On The Road Again – Day Three of The College Tour Reply

If you go on a long college tour you’ll inevitably hit a Sunday – a day where colleges (at least the one’s I’ve researched) don’t have tours. If that’s the case, try and plan it so the day off happens to be in a place you want to spend time. For the first free Sunday (our tour is long and so we get two!) I chose New Orleans. New Orleans might be my second favorite city in America (NY is #1 natch). That being said, Sunday morning might not have been the best time to walk through the French Quarter on the way to breakfast. The smell and the street remnants were overwhelming and not in a good way. We started the day with eggs benedict poboys and a horse drawn carriage ride around the quarter. Afterwards, we walked the long aisles of the French Market and by the end Sophie needed Motrin and wanted to go back to the hotel (maybe don’t try to pack too much into one morning?)  I sometimes forget that not everyone is insanely crazy about seeing every corner of every city like I am.  While she napped, I spent some time perusing the Tulane Admissions site, preparing for our tour tomorrow. One thing that struck me right away was this: The Admissions Staff had blogged about their top 15 places to eat in New Orleans and they were SPOT ON. Now this is the kind of school for me and my offspring! http://tuadmissionjeff.blogspot.com/2015/03/the-fifteen-best-restaurants-in-new.html After Sophie’s much needed respite, we went to Domenica for a late Italian lunch. While sitting at our table I happened to notice an extremely cute Dad walk by holding his baby but didn’t think anything of it. Midway through our pasta course, Sophie turned her head and almost choked on her Rigatoni. When she was finally able to put two words together she told me that the one famous person on the entire planet that she wanted to meet was sitting at the table behind us: Christian Bale. Yup, the handsome Dad. Seriously, I had no idea. We spent the rest of the meal debating whether or not she should approach him. He was with his wife and kids (and nanny) and she didn’t want to bother him BUT COME ON – it was Batman!. In the end, she was brave enough to go up to him, apologizing for disturbing him and asked for a picture. He said no – he was with his family. Fair enough. After lunch, I wanted to show Sophie that New Orleans was more than just a LOT of drunk people stumbling around the French Quarter so we hopped on the St. Charles Street Car, paid our $1.25 fare in exact change and took it to the end, winding our way through the Garden district with the incredible southern architecture and the myriad trees filled with hanging mardi gras beads. We passed Tulane and Loyola and got a feel for the college neighborhood. We rode it to the end and then got off and took it all the way back to the quarter. By this time it was late afternoon and the streets had been cleaned and for the most part, the smell of alcohol had wafted away. There were still many people stumbling around who had had too many Hurricanes but it was definitely a better time to be out and about. One thing Sophie was amazed by was the city’s total love and support of the arts. Everywhere we walked there were galleries and street artists, bands and dancers. A city where an artist could definitely find inspiration.

IMG_2447An interesting sidenote: The front desk rang up and said there was a package downstairs for me. I asked him twice if he was sure it was for me. Yes, definitely Lisa Jardine. Sophie and I went down to find a fedexed freezer box of chocolate covered strawberries from… Expedia. With a hand-written note thanking me on their 4 year anniversary for being one of their best customers. I have to say I wasn’t sure if that was a good or a bad thing. Travel much? When I told Tom he said those were some very expensive strawberries.IMG_9136

Dinner was at our favorite this trip: Le Petit Grocery. The turtle bolognese (snapping turtle to be exact) with a whole fried egg on top was ridiculous and the famous butterscotch pudding was definitely famous for a good reason.

IMG_9129 FullSizeRender 2Still on speaking terms with Sophie and still looking forward to tomorrow (although both those are subject to change)…

On The Road Again – Day Two of the College Tour 1

IMG_2441Day Two started with the info session at GW. One of the assistant directors of admissions ran the session and I have to admit I was so in awe of what he was wearing it was hard to focus on what he was saying. He was so totally cool and dapper from his bow tie to his extremely short pants with no socks and loafers. This is my third child to go on college tours and this was by far the most dapper of admissions officers. Extra style points for sure. After the info session we went on a very cold walking tour of GW along with a gozillion other prospects. We had already fallen in love with the school the day before so it was preaching to the choir but I have to admit to being fascinated by the new science and engineering hall that has such smart classrooms that motion sensors not only turn on the lights but adjust the heat and a/c depending on how many people are in the room. That is just super cool. But since we were there for art, Sophie would never be turning the heat on in that building. I liked this wall at GW – covered in flyers advertising fun of all sorts…


A little strange situation on our flight from Washington to New Orleans. The stewardess spent about 20 minutes moving people around the cabin to “evenly distribute the weight”. This wasn’t an 8 seater…For someone who has to medicate to fly it wasn’t the best thing to witness prior to takeoff. Thankfully she must have done her job right and we landed about 2.5 hours later in New Orleans, in a different time zone and about 30 degrees warmer. I opted for the economy rental car. This is quite possibly the smallest car I’ve ever driven in:


The hotel I booked on Expedia in the French Quarter looked good enough. Yeah, that didn’t really work out that well. Between the heavy smell of weed and the carpet that is too sticky to walk on without shoes, it’s not my best choice. Note to anyone visiting NOLA do not book The Hotel St; Marie. Dinner was at a VERY highly recommended restaurant in the Garden District called Shaya – just recently opened, Israeli food. It lived up to its reputation but probably better visited with more than 2 people as it’s all about sharing. We over ordered and I left slightly in pain.

IMG_2442But not too much in pain that we didn’t stop here…

FullSizeRenderOur walk home to our hotel through the French Quarter, crossing Bourbon Street was just as you’d expect on a Saturday night in NOLA. Sophie took it all in stride saying “it sort of reminds me of Tokyo.” Well said. Tomorrow finds us with a day off to roam free! Laissez les bon temps roulez!

On The Road Again – Day One – The Corcoran School of Art (now merged with GW) Reply

Welcome to Washington!

Welcome to Washington!

Day One off to a good start – left NYC in the pouring rain and arrived a bumpy hour later in Washington DC. Within ten minutes in the rental car, the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial came into view and the GW campus appeared minutes later. Close to airport. Check. We left our bags at our hotel (George Washington Inn, chosen for it’s proximity to campus which is very close) and walked to the main campus for lunch. The GW campus has the best of both worlds: a real campus in the middle of a cool happening city. The gates, the quad, the old buildings are all exactly as you would expect them on a traditional campus but turn a corner and the lunch options and shopping opps are unlimited. We waited in one sushi restaurant that was packed to the gills and I’m sure I heard at least 3 different languages being spoken. After lunch it was time for our first tour of the day; the Corcoran School of Art. The Corcoran was founded in 1890 but with only 200 students (in the entire school) it was having a problem with money. In August, GW acquired them and is in the process of transitioning/merging these two schools. From what Sophie and I saw, it’s going to be a challenge. We will take the GW Foggy Bottom tour tomorrow. Mid-way through the tour, Sophie noticed that several of the parent/student pairs had dashed out the exit doors… “I feel like I’m in Willy Wonka mom and we’re about to win the chocolate factory,” Sophie very accurately commented. Dinner tonight was at The Tabard Inn, one of the oldest Inns in DC. It was a recommendation from my great friend Esther Cohen – historically awesome. It must have been a hot spot during prohibition.

First Bonus of the Day: I found some blooming Cherry Blossoms!


Second Bonus of the day: a quick after dinner photo opp at the Lincoln Memorial.


Unexpected yet very appreciated bonus of the day: We bumped into a very bearded Jon Hamm who said hi.


Jew-ish Reply

The following is a poem I wrote when my friend and mentor Esther Cohen (aka The Book Doctor) asked me to write a poem about my children who are both Jewish and Catholic. It’s been included in the Jewish Currents 2015 Calendar which is more like a magazine than a calendar 🙂 Thanks Esther!  You can buy one here if you are interested: http://jewishcurrents.bigcartel.com/product/jewish-currents-2015-arts-calendar





You are what your mother is. That’s what I was told as a child. My mother is Jewish, therefore I’m Jewish. That seems logical. But, when the father is Irish Catholic and he’s never heard of the rule, you can end up with something very different, like a hybrid. Wikipedia defines the word hybrid as the offspring of two plants or animals of different species or varieties, such as a mule. My kids are definitely the offspring of different species. I grew up in a family of over-sharers. We knew exactly how everyone felt to the minute. My husband, not so much. His New England upbringing found him in a family of tight lips. To this day, he’s not sure if his parents were Democrats or Republicans. Two halves make a whole. Well, not always. Sometimes they make something entirely different. When my kids are sick they crave matzoh ball soup and yet they were all baptized and have spent more time in churches than in temples. But they know the Hebrew prayers and couldn’t begin to recite the Our Father. They make Christmas lists and love eating latkes but ask them about the story of Purim and you’ll likely get blank stares. They believe in god, sometimes, when times are tough but when asked they would probably say ‘they’d have to give it some more thought’. My eldest son was baptized, confirmed and spent Pre-K – High School in Catholic school then went on his birth right trip to Israel after his sophomore year in college. Bagels, candy canes, Old Testament, New Testament, holy water, communion wafers, nuns, mezuzah, brisket and gefilte fish. These kids are a holy mess.

*poetic license was used in the above poem

Remembered Well in Bangladesh 6

Caroline Bauer(Hilary’s mom) in the school she built in Bhatiary, Bangladesh

Growing up, my family wasn’t religious and there wasn’t much talk about heaven or hell but I do remember being told to worry about living a good life so that I would be remembered well.  I’m not sure who exactly gave me those words of advice but they stuck with me and from time to time I think about them. That concept was never more illuminated then during a trip I took in May to Bangladesh with my friend Hilary. Hilary’s parents lived in Chittagong for fifteen years at the end of her father’s career. In their 60’s they were brave enough to leave a very comfortable life in America for a new adventure on the other side of the world. Hilary’s father was sent to Chittagong to work for one of the largest manufacturing companies in Bangladesh. What happened to them while they lived there is something quite magical. Hilary’s mom, with time on her hands, took up golf where she met a young Bangladeshi caddy named Aboul. She and her husband Peter started most of their days playing golf with Aboul and they grew to love him as the son they never had. He took them to his small rural village and introduced them to his family and over time they developed a very special bond.  After spending time in the village, Hilary’s mom decided the village children needed a place to play and she engaged members of the community and built a park. But that wasn’t enough; she wanted a school. With help from Hilary and her friends she built the school where its stood for the past seven years and continues to serve over 100 children a day. Aboul is now the director of the school and his wife, the librarian. It’s been several years since Hilary’s parents have passed away and yet their legacy is as strong as it was the day they left Bangladesh.  While in Chittagong, we were invited to many of their old friend’s homes and offices where I found plenty of framed photos of Hilary’s parents. There wasn’t a person we met in our travels who didn’t have a Caroline and Peter story.  All these years later, on the other side of the world, people were still talking about the contributions and camaraderie of this amazing couple who came to Bangladesh for one last adventure and left behind a legacy.

Remembered well? Check.

I took hundreds of beautiful photos in Bangladesh and I think in some ways they speak louder than the words I would use to describe them.


The Play Park in Bhatiary that the Bauer's built

The Play Park in Batiary that the Bauer’s built


Two of the teachers at the school

Two of the teachers at the school

The Kids!

The Kids!

Hilary and Aboul playing golf

Hilary and Aboul playing golf

With friends of Hilary's parents at their home

With friends of Hilary’s parents at their home

At the Ship Breaking Yard owned by friends of Hilary's parents

At the Ship Breaking Yard owned by friends of Hilary’s parents

Salt Market in Chittagong

Salt Market in Chittagong

A girls night out Pot Luck

Pot Luck Girls Night Out

Paan - the leaf chewed by many men in Chittagong

Paan – the leaf chewed by many men in Chittagong

On the streets of Batiary

On the streets of Bhatiary


Fruit seller in Chittagong

Fruit seller in Chittagong

Our group on our way to dinner in the traditional dress: shalwar kameeses

Our group on our way to dinner in the traditional dress – shalwar kameeses

Brick breaking industry in Chittagong is huge

Brick breaking industry in Chittagong is huge

we always drew a crowd wherever we went

We always drew a crowd wherever we went

At the courthouse in Chittagong where the illiterate go to have important documents written for them

At the courthouse in Chittagong where the illiterate go to have important documents written for them

The children in Bangladesh are beautiful!

The children in Bangladesh are beautiful!

Shopping and bargaining were always an adventure

Shopping and bargaining were always an adventure

At a mosque wedding

At a mosque wedding

It was pretty hot most days.

It was pretty hot most days

Bangladesh or Bust 7

Tea in Dhaka




That was the response I got every time I told someone I was going to Bangladesh. And it usually came after an awkward pause where the person would squint their eyes and try to figure out if I was telling the truth. I had a feeling this might be the case when I booked my flight in May the previous year and so I waited for months before I actually told anyone besides my husband. My response to the question would always depend on the day I had and what remained of my patience level at that particular moment. On a good day I would say that it was a long story but that it had to do with a friend whose parents were expats in Chittagong many years ago who had built a play park and rec center, recently passed away and I was going back with her to check on the school and find an NGO in country to help manage the day to day finances. And sometimes, when I was feeling unsure of the decision myself, I defensively said I was going on an adventure. The first answer received some ah’s and oh’s and some head nodding although you could tell what they were thinking was “I never quite pegged Lisa as a 3rd world volunteer” but the second answer was almost like a throw down, challenging them to respond in a negative way to a 48 year old mother of four in Rye, New York who wanted more adventure in her life. I could only imagine their internal dialogue. “Was she having a mid-life crisis? Who goes to Bangladesh for an adventure? Why not run the marathon or start to row crew?”


I wasn’t always an adventure traveller; in fact my first trip to Europe wasn’t until I was in college. We took vacations when I was growing up but never venturing further afield than a Caribbean island or the ski slopes of Vermont. And when I had my own children, I wasn’t the type of mother who with four small children would plan trips to Thailand or The Great Wall or even California. We spent our school vacations in Florida or Windham, sometimes skiing out west. The thought of running after children in the Louvre didn’t hold much appeal. Our first family vacation to Europe didn’t happen until the summer of 2007 when my oldest child was 16 and my youngest was 9. But then in 2008 my husband was transferred to Tokyo and as we passed through immigration and the officer opened my fairly empty passport to stamp my entry to Japan, the portal of change opened wide and the possibilities for adventure unfolded.


Living as an expat can be highly lucrative as most of your major expenses are covered by your company like rent, utilities, education, club membership, flights home, … so in theory, if you were a savvy and responsible adult, you could return to your home country years later with a very comfortable bank balance. Instead, my family returned with double thick passports due to the extra pages we had to add to hold all the stamps and visas we collected in our four years in Asia. Something happened to my husband and I living so far away from our normal existence, it was like a wake up call to our lives. We were in our mid-forties, we were healthy and we’d made it through the tough, physically demanding baby raising years. And we were living in Japan! The proverbial rainy day had come and it was time to see the world.


We returned to Westchester in the summer of 2012, four years and a lifetime later. The transition for my husband seemed to me, effortless. He returned to the same company he worked for in Japan only it was better because he was back in the home office where all the action was. My two oldest children were in college and the two youngest started in the local public school. There were the usual new kids on the block issues but within a few months that was mostly resolved and they seemed happy and excited to be back in New York. I was the one who kept looking longingly at my passport in the drawer of my bedside table. So when the call came from my good friend who I’d met in Tokyo, who also moved back to the US the same time I did, to accompany her to Bangladesh I knew I had to go. One of those once in a lifetime opportunities that you just can’t pass up. Luckily I have the sort of husband who also knew I had to go. The trip was planned and put in my online travel folder and I filed it away mentally as well. Having that on my calendar a year away was both an opportunity for personal growth and a source of uncertainty. Bangladesh?




And then, quite suddenly the day arrived. I had spent the weeks before departure getting shots, debating the pros and cons of different malarial pills and buying every drug for every possible ailment I might experience. The expected temperature for Chittagong was over 100 degrees and it being a Muslim country, where showing skin was not looked upon favorably, long linen pants and tops were purchased. My suitcase was half filled with games like Twister and Memory Board, gifts for the children in the school, which require no English to be able to play, and one very large toiletries kit jam packed to meet any emergency. It would take four flights for me to arrive in Chittagong from New York, one of which was 15 hours long. Did I have doubts and second thoughts? Big time.


My supportive husband kissed me goodbye, my girls gave me the “see ya” not hiding their lack of enthusiasm for my leaving for parts unknown. Sitting in the back of the taxi, as the car left Rye and drove over the bridge, the feelings of doubt and uncertainty about my decision melted away and the realization of why I was going in the first place came back and flooded me with excitement and anticipation. It was finally here, it was real, and I was going to a country on the other side of the world I had only read about in disastrous headlines in the New York Times.




Why the hell not.





Two Weeks In Italy + Four Cities Visited = 6 Happy Family Members 3

Walking the streets of Florence

Walking the streets of Florence

It had been ages since our entire family had been together for more than a night or two – with two kids in college and one on the west coast and the other playing sports at college, our schedules just never seem to blend.  But with a lot of planning and promises from my kids, we carved out two weeks at the beginning of July to take our first family vacation to Italy.  I hired Insider’s Italy, a bespoke travel agent based in Rome to help me plan our trip.  After filling out an in-depth questionnaire about our families’ likes and dislikes I was happy with our 16 day, four city visit.  The day before we were scheduled to leave, i received a voicemail message from Delta apologizing for canceling our flights but that there was nothing they could do.  You can imagine my reaction.  I quickly called them back and after an hour of negotiation (trying to find 6 seats from NY to anywhere in Europe on June 28th is almost impossible) I suggested we look at flights out of Newark.  This came as quite a surprise – I guess the Delta manager had no idea that Newark and JFK were sort of interchangeable.  Regardless, we had 6 seats leaving at almost the exact time as our old flights.

We arrived in Florence on a Saturday around 11am and went directly to the first “hotel” we would stay in on our trip.  I quote hotel because it was called a Residence and that’s exactly what it felt like.  Since there are six of us and we are all large people, we always need three rooms (the boys, the girls, the parents).  We stayed at Residence Hilda  and the rooms were actually like one bedroom apartments.  They were nicely furnished with big bathrooms and even a small kitchenette.  But what we gained in space, we lost in service.  They have one person on duty from late morning to mid-afternoon and so for the most part, you are on your own.  As this was the first stop on our trip, I would have appreciated a front desk and concierge to help with some of my questions.  Thankfully Florence is small and easy to navigate and we quickly settled in.  The best part about the Residence was it’s location.  Once outside the front door, you looked to your left and the Duomo loomed large overhead.

I’ll skip the obvious stops in Florence but we had a few off the grid experiences that are well worth writing about.

Food Related Recommendations:  Carapina for Gelato – yes there are thousands of places to go for Gelato, but not like this one.

Dinner: Il Quattro Leoni – very cool neighborhood on the other side of the river, waitstaff had tattoos, dreads and lots of piercings but don’t let that get in the way of a very good meal.  Clientele also super cool.

Cafe Italiano – sounds like a pretty obvious name but its known for it’s Florentine steak and it lives up to its reputation.  There was a literal butcher standing in the middle of the room with a cleaver and a meat counter and you could hear the butchering all through dinner.

Experience: Santa Croce Church.  There are literally thousands of churches to see in Italy but for the next few months if you are in Florence you should put this one on your list.  It’s very famous for the people who are buried there – Michaelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli to name a few superstars but that’s not why you should go visit before October.  Santa Croce has the most amazing frescoes that are in the process of being restored.  The paintings were done by Agnolo Gaddi at the time of the renaissance.  You actually get to walk up the five stories of scaffolding and look at the brush strokes and stare directly into the eyes of the paintings.  Our experience was even more special because our fabulous tour guide Paolo Vojnovic (you can find her on linked in) works at the church and the day we were there it was closed to the public so we had our own private tour of the church.

Experience: The Palio Race in Siena.  Siena is a gorgeous place to visit at any time of year, but go for the Palio and you are in for a very unique experience.  I had some inside information about going the day before, to the dress rehearsal and so we planned our visit for July 1.  I had read a lot about the race beforehand and part of the dress rehearsal events included dinners that each neighborhood threw to celebrate the

Setting up for one of the contrada dinners the night before the Palio

Setting up for one of the contrada dinners the night before the Palio

next day’s race.  I wanted to go to one of those dinners.  When I asked my travel agent she said that she’d never had that request before and she thought it wasn’t possible for foreigners to attend.  But I didn’t give up.  I kept reading and found a few posts by tourists saying they were able to score some tickets.  Finally, after enough emails on my part, she was able to find someone who worked at the Inn we would be staying at in Tuscany who had a cousin who lived in Siena and could score some tickets for the dinner.  The entire night was an experience I will truly never forget.  So if you happen to be in Siena the night before the Palio race make sure you beg borrow or steal tickets to the dinner.

Tuscany:  We stayed at Il Borghetto, an agriturismo in Tuscany only about 40 minutes outside of Florence near Greve.  Our rooms were separate from the main farm house with a patio that overlooked the olive groves.  The inn was situated perfectly up a hill and the famous landscapes of the tuscan hills were everywhere.  There was a small pool to cool off in and there was even an etruscan tomb on the property.  In addition to making their own olive oil and wine there was a large organic farm where much of the food that was served to us originated from.  It was in this inn that we had our best meals in Italy.

One of the best meals we ate in Italy

One of the best meals we ate in Italy

Platters of fresh fruit and salumi, followed by homemade papparadelle pasta with fresh zucchini flowers and a creamy pesto sauce.  Then a salad of garden vegetables finished with homemade peach ice cream.  And a few icy bottles of white wine grown in the region.

Experience: We spent most of the three days in Tuscany visiting the small hill towns that dot the area, each one a little bit different.  Our favorites were San Gimignano, Greve, Castellina and Radda.

Experience: Do not miss the outlet shopping.  It’s simply called the Mall and its not far from Florence or most places in Tuscany.  It’s unlike any mall I’ve ever been to.  Bring your passport so you can get the tax back forms filled out.  We had a ton of success in the Prada store as well as Loro Piana.  Make sure you have a few hours to see it all.

After three long days and nights in Tuscany we took a train to Amalfi where the vacation part of the trip began.  We had rooms at La Luna Convento which was a former monastery but had been transformed over two hundred years ago into a hotel. Its perfectly situated a few minutes walk from town but it also has its own fabulous pool from which you can jump off the rocks right in to the ocean.

The hotel pool at La Luna Convento

The hotel pool at La Luna Convento

Dinners: Eat at La Luna’s restaurant in the saracen tower across the street from the hotel.  Eat at da gemma in Amalfi. Request a table outside on the terrace.

Experience: La Fontelina Beach Club in Capri.  Call ahead and make a reservation for beach chairs (or mattresses which are very comfortable) and umbrellas.  Also book a table for lunch.  Take the ferry from Amalfi, or wherever you are on the Amalfi coast to Capri.  Ten minutes before you arrive in Capri, phone La Fontelina and they will send a small wooden skiff to pick you up at the Capri dock.  The boat will take you ten minutes into the ocean, around a curve and there, tucked into the rocky cliffs of Capri is a magnificent private beach club where you get to spend your day.  Even though its quite small, they have set it up so that you have your own private spot where waiters will bring you drinks (try the white fruit sangria) and you can jump in and out of the ocean all day long.  The restaurant is under a thatched roof with a magnificent view.  Just make sure to take the boat back in time to get the ferry back home.

La Fontelina Beach Club

La Fontelina Beach Club

Experience:  The Ruins of Pompeii: we hired a car, driver and guide to take us to visit Pompeii.  Just be forewarned.  Take motion sickness meds before you get in the car.  Several of us had a big problem with the twisting winding roads that you must traverse in order to get to Pompeii.

Experience: Rent a private boat with a guide and tour the area from the water.  Ask to have a meal in a restaurant not frequented by tourists.  Our guide for this excursion was Giocondo, a jolly 60 something man who was born and raised in Amalfi.  He can be contacted via the staff at La Luna Convento.

Experience: Ravello is a great town to walk around and have lunch.  We ate at the Hotel Parsifal with a spectacular view and an unforgettable meal.

After five nights of sun and fun in the water, we said goodbye to Tom and Tom – work and school were waiting for them.  The three kids and I boarded a train for the last few days of our vacation in Rome.  Our hotel was Albergo Santa Chiara which was situated perfectly behind the Pantheon.  There is so much to see and do in Rome that it seems silly that I would have anything to add.  But i’ll try 🙂

Experience: All of our custom tours were booked with Context Tours which is a company founded by Americans that hires experts in their fields of art, architecture and food to serve as your bespoke travel guides.  We had several and they were all amazing in different ways.

Experience: We did the Vatican museum on Friday night.  It was not as hot as it would have been during the day and it was a lot less crowded.  I would highly recommend going at that time.

Lunch: Cul de Sac.  Al Piccolo Arancio.

Rooftop Cocktails: Hotel Minerva.  Hotel Raphael

Hotel Raphael for rooftop cocktails

Hotel Raphael for rooftop cocktails

Dinner: Pompierre in the Jewish Ghetto.  Order the artichokes and arancini rice balls.

da baffetto for pizza

Gelato: We were in Italy for 16 nights.  We ate gelato at least twice a day.  But there was nothing that could even come close to Gellateria Del Teatro in Rome.  We built our days around it.  Just go and go often.

The best gelato we had in Italy

The best gelato we had in Italy

On the night before we were to leave Italy and return home, I asked the kids when they thought they would return to Italy.

Hayden said when he was 20.

Sophie said 22.

Annie said 35.

I said 53.

Let’s hope its not that long… Arrivederci Italy!