What I did on my summer vacation (and how you can get the most out of yours)

vacation 5My family and I have just returned from what was probably the best family vacation we’ve ever taken. We spent two weeks on a road trip, driving from our home in Winnipeg first to Lake Superior Provincial Park, then to Ottawa and Gatineau Park, then to Montreal and Quebec City, and finally to Toronto.

In total, we put on more than 6500 kilometres, driving halfway across this big beautiful country of ours. That’s a lot of time to spend inside a vehicle full of five people and all of our luggage and camping supplies! Luckily, we like each other and our kids are old enough to manage their own boredom.

vacation 2We packed a lot into this vacation. We spent four days camping far from city lights (where raccoons tried to steal the food from our picnic table), a week in a lovely home in a great neighbourhood in Montreal (rented through airbnb), a few days in a hotel in Toronto, and finally a night in a cheap motel (that hasn’t been renovated since the seventies) in rural Ontario on the way home. We went hiking, played on the shore of Lake Superior, toured Canada’s parliament building, visited a couple of museums, wandered around Old Montreal and Old Quebec, attended Osheaga (a huge music festival on an island in Montreal), watched a synchronized swimming world championship, went to a major league baseball game, went shopping, ate in some delightful cafes, and did lots of family bonding over shared jokes and cheap meals.

Here’s a video compilation of our travel photos.

In case you’re planning a family vacation in the near future, here are a few things that helped make this a great one for us.

  1. Let every member of the family plan at least one part of the vacation. We always let each member of the family pick at least one restaurant, one family activity, and/or one place they want to stay. When they know they’re getting their way on at least one thing, they’re more willing to take part in other things. The impetus for this vacation was our oldest two daughters’ dream of going to Osheaga. They had no idea when they started talking about it that we might be willing to drive half way across the country for it, but it fit in well with a long-held dream of seeing more of the eastern part of the country.
  2. vacation 6Consider options other than hotels for your accommodations. One of the highlights of our vacation was the house we rented through airbnb in Montreal. It was really lovely to have a place where each of the girls had their own bedroom, we had a full kitchen where we could prepare some of our meals, and we had free parking, laundry facilities, etc. It was also in a much more interesting neighbourhood than most hotels are.
  3. Include everyone in the vacation budget considerations. We budgeted a daily average that needed to cover food, entertainment, subway fares, etc. I used an app on my phone to keep track of all expenses. The girls were told ahead of time that if we could keep expenses down on some days, we’d be able to splurge on other days, so they were quite cooperative in eating cheaply as often as possible so we could afford a few nicer restaurant meals and entertainment. Our oldest two daughters will soon be taking vacations on their own, so it was a great experience for them to learn about the decisions that go into staying on budget and still having a great time.
  4. Check your passports far in advance. The one mistake we made on this vacation was to assume our passports were all up-to-date. We had planned to drive through the U.S. (which is shorter and allows for a little more variety), but discovered just before we left that some passports had expired. Luckily, we didn’t have to change many plans since most of our time was going to be spent in Canada anyway.
  5. Adapt to what shows up. This piece of advice flows out of the last one. We had to change our route, but in the end we didn’t mind because it allowed us to show our kids more of the beauty of our own country, and we spent a beautiful couple of days in Lake Superior Provincial Park, which we hadn’t planned on originally.
  6. Don’t over-fill your agenda and be open to surprises. We had a few things planned in advance (ie. Osheaga and the Blue Jays baseball game), but otherwise, we made decisions as we went along. One of our favourite surprises was Mosaika, an amazing light show that’s projected on the front of the parliament building in Ottawa. Another favourite surprise for Maddy was the opportunity to watch a synchronized swimming world championship competition in Montreal.
  7. vacation 3Find a comfortable balance between activity and rest. There was a lot we wanted to see on this trip, so we filled many of our days with activity, but in between we spent long leisurely hours relaxing in our lovely home-away-from-home. On our last full day in Montreal, we intentionally put nothing on the agenda, and each member of the family was able to find the kind of quiet time they needed – one wandered, one read, one watched movies, one went running, two went for a drive up Mont Royal, and three walked to the grocery store and baked cookies.
  8. Carefully guard time for yourself. As every parent knows, vacations can be exhausting when you’re constantly having to make sure your kids are fed and entertained, make decisions about what to do every day, and often cope with anxiety and grumpiness over new places, new faces, tiredness, and unexpected challenges. Before you leave on vacation, make a pact with your partner that you will each get at least a portion of a day all to yourself to do with what you please. Marcel spent an afternoon at a major league soccer game, and I spent mine in a coffee shop and on the streets with my camera. I also found some times in between for some solo wandering, which my family is quite accustomed to me doing.
  9. Find ways to blend in with the locals. Travel, for me, has never been just about site-seeing and tourist attractions. I love to learn more about the local way of life and practice seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, and so we learned to take the metro (subway), we ate at places in our neighbourhood whose target audience was local patrons rather than tourists, and shopped at the local grocery stores. Staying at an airbnb house helped in that regard, since we were surrounded by people living ordinary, day-to-day lives rather than tourists in a hotel.
  10. vacation 4Encourage everyone to express their needs. Good communication is especially important when you’re spending more hours together than normal doing things that are outside of the routine. You need to practice being clear with each other. The day after spending a day with our youngest daughter at Osheaga, where about 40,000 people crowded every space, I found myself desperately in need of quiet, open space, where I could indulge the introverted side of me. I had to be clear with my family that I needed personal space and quiet time and that when I seemed to be pushing them away, it was not about them but rather about me and my needs. Others in the family were also encouraged to be honest about their needs, and so there were times when one of us stayed behind, went for a solitary walk, or looked to others for support when we were feeling a little nervous.
  11. Be gentle and intentional when it comes time for re-entry. We all know about the crash that can come after a good vacation, when you have to return to work and routine and bills to pay and broken relationships to deal with and school to prepare for and… and… Be kind to yourself when you’re coming back home and be intentional about making this time as positive as possible. We built in a day of downtime (when we had very few expectations of each other) between arriving at home and having to be back at work. One of the other things I did this time around that helped make re-entry more gentle was a thorough housecleaning before we left. It was nice to return to a newly steam-cleaned carpet, some new-to-us furniture, and clutter-free space. For more on re-entry, read this helpful blog post from Jen Louden.

Anything to add? Feel free to give your vacation tips in the comments.

p.s. Now that I’m back from vacation, I’ve got lots on the go. I’m working on a new e-book on making deeper connections, I’m preparing for the September offering of Mandala Discovery, I’m opening some spots for new coaching clients, and I’m preparing to host another Pathfinder Circle for people who want group coaching. I’m also hoping to launch a follow-up to Summer Lovin’ for the Fall.

Remembering to pause for the sacred

Swimming at dusk

We are back from vacation, settling back into day-to-day life as we prepare for return-to-school season. I have another month of work and then I’ll be setting off on my new adventure in self-employment. (I’m already getting some contract offers even before I’ve had a chance to “hang my shingle”, so I’m rather hopeful that the transition will be a smooth one.)

Our vacation was just what the doctor ordered. We started with a relaxing week at a rented cabin at Albert Beach where we were surrounded by visiting friends and family. Nearly each day brought someone new to our little temporary home and we enjoyed everyone who showed up. (By the end, every available soft surface had a body sleeping on it.)  And then we ended with a short camping trip to another beach where we hung out with family (but fewer of them) once again.

Oh how good a vacation can be for body and soul! Last night, after it all ended and most of the unpacking was done, I sat down for a quiet moment and just soaked in all of the goodness and happiness and contentment that came from a week in a beautiful place surrounded by people I love. Yup, cheesy but true.

Vacation affords a person with the opportunity to actually stop and notice the myriad of sacred moments that often pass us by. Here are just a few of the ones I experienced this past week.

  • Watching the moon cast a trail of gentle light on the water
  • Discovering a tiny country graveyard tucked under the trees in the middle of one of my morning runs
  • A bright green tree frog sitting completely still on a white cross
  • Wandering on a rugged, wave-whipped portion of the beach with my cousin/friend
  • Eating delicious crepes with some new-ish friends
  • Shadow patterns cast on the beach by wispy willow leaves
  • Standing with my beloved on the coldest, windiest day, watching the waves crash on the shore
  • “Rocks!” “Beach!” and other exuberance expressed by my 2 year old nephew
  • Family. Enough said.
  • Placing the last piece of the hardest puzzle ever.
  • My 72 year old mom, true to form, clamouring to the top of a giant rock with my brother.
  • A three generational volleyball game.
  • A courageous 8 year old diving into waves on the coldest, windiest day

Here, for your viewing pleasure, are a few more of our vacation photos.

End of vacation

We are happy, healthy, and… home.

We spent the last week and a half wandering around Minnesota and Wisconsin, starting with a big soccer tournament the girls’ teams were in, hanging out in a lovely hotel with a big waterpark, then camping in a few different places, visiting the zoo and the Mall of America, taking a ferry to Madeline Island in Lake Superior (one of my new favourite places – I want to go back!), and ending with a night in a hotel in Duluth.

I have lots of pictures to download and oodles of stories to reminisce about – not to mention mountains of laundry to do. But for now, I’ll leave you with just a few of the many pictures we came home with.

First off, this picture stopped me in my tracks when I saw it. It surprised me just how happy and relaxed I look. It’s been a little too long since I’ve looked in the mirror and saw that much contentment on my face. Apparently the vacation was the right kind of healing for the lines that have been deepening on my face.
This picture may not seem like much, but if you look closely, you can see by the body language and facial expressions that Marcel and the girls were having a good laugh (at the Minnesota zoo – one of the best zoos I’ve ever been to). I love to watch my family laugh. We did a lot of that on this trip.
And speaking of laughing, the girls were having a hoot on the air mattress at the beach on Madeline Island. I think, for the coming year, when I need to go to my “happy place” it will be that beach on Madeline Island. Pretty close to perfection.
And one last shot of the girls and I on the ferry leaving the island. Ferries have a unique ability to make me happy. There’s just something about them.
If you’re looking for a fun place to spend a few days with your family, and you enjoy a place with relaxed island charm (where you can play pool at the local beach club as you watch baby ducks float past the window), a lovely woodsy secluded campground (where deer wander past your site at dusk), a beautiful sandy beach with crystal clear water (and very few people cluttering it up) and you’re not too far from Lake Superior, you might want to consider Madeline Island. (I have not been paid for this endorsement. Just trust me – it was a little bit of magic.) I think Marcel and I may go back some time for a little “second honeymoon”, but this time we might check out the quaint little inn or one of the bed and breakfasts we saw. (And wouldn’t you just love to attend an art camp here? I think I may add that to my “list of things I want to do before I die”.)

Happily, I still have a couple more weeks off work, so we’ll be doing more fun things a little closer to home.


Oh… and one more thing… it was oh so DELIGHTFUL to come home to REAL MAIL – not just bills and grocery store flyers! I got the first pieces of inspiring art for my studio! I’m so excited! I’ll take pictures soon and show you what showed up. For those of you who already sent yours… thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! For those who still want to… it’s never too late!


We’re home again! Didn’t know we were away? Oops. I forgot to mention it. On our anniversary last week, after a lovely breakfast out, we set off on a week-long vacation. And now we’re back.

Before I expound on the vacation, I’d like to share a quote with you from the book I’ve been reading, “The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less” that says alot about the quality of our vacation. It’s hard to find the perfect quote that puts it into context, but this is a good start…

“As our material and social circumstances improve, our standards of comparison go up. As we have contact with items of high quality, we begin to suffer from ‘the curse of discernment.’ The lower quality items that used to be perfectly acceptable are no longer good enough. The hedonic zero point keeps rising, and expectations and aspirations rise with it.”

In case you’re afraid I’m going to say how bad our vacation was because our expectations were too high, no, it would be quite the opposite. I’m just using that as an intro. to explain how a week-long vacation that involved 6 nights in a tent and only one in a hotel, most meals over a cookstove or barbecue in a campsite and only a few in restaurants, and many degrees of “on-the-cheap” could be one of the most incredible weeks I’ve had in a long time.

You see, five years ago, we gave up a lot of things so that Marcel could go to University. Vacations was one of them. When you haven’t had much chance to go away with your family, almost ANY kind of vacation feels downright luxurious. I can’t imagine we could have had much more fun if we’d been in an expensive resort somewhere.

We spent a week south of the border in Minnesota, the state that borders our province. If you’ve never camped there, I’d highly recommend it. It was perfectly lovely! In fact, we’d originally planned to cross over into Wisconsin and Michigan, but we were having so much fun where we were that we didn’t bother.

Here are some of the highlights of the trip: (Sorry – it might be a bit long, but it’s serving as my trip journal)
– The absolutely picture-perfect campsite we stumbled upon when we took the wrong road near Bemidji (and spent most of the evening dealing with a flat tire on the utility trailer we’d brought for bikes and camping gear, but that’s another story). This campsite felt like a little piece of heaven, with a lovely little private beach (dotted with tiny intricate white snail shells that we couldn’t resist collecting and bringing home) about 20 feet from where we pitched the tent. It was rustic (outhouses and a manual water pump) but it was so beautiful we stayed for 2 nights.
– The amazing bike trails near all three of the campgrounds we stayed at (even though we didn’t end up using the third one because we had so many other fun things to do). I was SO glad we’d bothered to take the bikes. I had no idea Minnesota had spent a fortune on miles and miles of beautiful PAVED bike trails through pristine forests, beside peaceful lakes, over hills, through prairies – you name it. A cyclist’s dream. We stuck to the easy trails, but there were lots of more challenging ones too.
– Campfires. Almost every night. And s’mores. Yum.
– The whole family shampooing their hair together in the lake in our little private beach. The giggles that accompanied the moment.
– Bike rides. Oh, the lovely bike rides. A long one with Julie (she was so thrilled to put on 21 kilometres in one day), another one with Nikki and Julie, one with the whole family, and one all by myself up a very gentle incline until I was high in the hills with the most spectacular view of Duluth and its picturesque bridges. Talk about a perfect moment! Stopping to eat chokecherries and watching a deer bound off into the bush made it so far beyond good I almost felt like stopping to write a poem.
– A ride on a miniature train with Maddie in Bemidji.
– Good people everywhere. It was the kind of trip that helps remind a person that people are predominately good at heart, generous, and helpful. There was Jeanette at Cass Lake who drove me 30 miles into Bemidji and back when we were stranded with a flat tire on the trailer (plus a flat spare), and then phoned ahead to the campsite to make sure they had a spot for us; there were Emma, Chloe, and Summer – the new friends the girls made in the campground near Duluth; and there was Curtis and his children Heidi and Timothy, who spent an evening with us in the Lebanon Hills near Minneapolis – first at the beach and then around the fire at his campsite after the kids were in bed. And then there were all the other people whose names we didn’t catch – the woman who lent us cooking oil for our pancakes, the woman who gave me change to finish my laundry and her husband who helped Marcel the second time we had a flat tire, the woman in the washroom who gave us recommendations for campgrounds, and the friendly proprietors at all three campsites – especially the one who found a spot for us even though the campsite was technically full.
– Wandering along the boardwalk on the shore of Lake Superior at dusk in downtown Duluth. Beautiful. That’s all I can think of to say.
– Chatting with the family on lazy mornings in the tent.
– Riding the trolley car through downtown Duluth.
– Coming up with fun pictures to take of Joe Banana in various locations (more on that later).
– Watching the massive ships go in and out of the harbour at Duluth, while the sounds of the waterfront blues festival (ccap – another festival for us to visit some day!) wafted across the water.
– Visiting the aquarium in Duluth.
– Seeing the looks of excitement on the girls’ faces when I let them pick the absolutely least nutritious breakfast cereal. Did you know they made chocolate chip cookie cereal? Funny thing was that after the initial excitement wore off, they didn’t actually like it and when we left the last campsite, half of it got tossed in the dumpster.
– Getting lucky with three really great campsites. The first one (Cass Lake) held tonnes of rustic charm. The second one (Indian Point, near Duluth) was a little more crowded with not as much charm, but it was close to Duluth, our site was near the play structure and the laundry room, and it was close to the Munger Trail that led me up into the hills on my bike. The third one (Lebanon Hills in Apple Valley near Minneapolis), had beautiful secluded sites (we seemed to luck out and get the best one), we were right close to the most beautiful washroom and shower I have ever seen in a campground, and it was close to a beach, Valleyfair, and Mall of America.
– A day spent at Valleyfair. Again, because our kids have not grown up with expensive vacations every year, they are absolutely THRILLED with a one day visit to an amusement park. And I had no idea Valleyfair was so impressive. I happen to love rollercoasters, and there were so many of them we didn’t even manage to ride them all. And did you know that you go SIXTY-EIGHT miles per hour on the steel venom?! I’m glad my two oldest daughters love rollercoasters as much as I do!
– Seeing the African acrobats at Valleyfair. Just like the ones I saw in Kenya.
– Good moods. The girls were all such good sports on this trip, even when there were less than ideal moments. I thought for sure they’d panic or get cranky when they had to stay with daddy on a secluded dirt road with the flat tire as the sun was setting (and after Jeanette had mentioned the possibility of bears), but they handled it remarkably well. And the one and only time rain briefly hampered our activities (just as we were getting ready to eat supper) we all hunkered down in the tent for an hour or so and actually had alot of fun laughing and talking.
– The final night in a hotel, especially when we lucked out and got a poolside room for an unexpected discount (that the clerk gave us just because she felt like it) right across the street from Mall of Americ
a. We even got into the room several hours before check-in.
– Watching the lightning and rainstorm through the windows while floating in the hotel pool, and knowing that we didn’t have to sleep in a tent that night.
– Wandering around Mall of America with the girls, buying Lego with Maddie, candy with Julie, and clothes with Nikki (and that pretty much sums up each of their shopping priorities). Plus shopping at Ikea with Nikki.
– The absolutely incredible weather we had all week. Only two short rainfalls, and neither of them drastically impacted our plans, nor did we ever have to pack up wet camping gear. We had perfectly sunny days on all the days we wanted to do outdoor things, and comfortable nights for sleeping in a tent. Sometimes – like when the temperature dropped from the mid nineties when we first arrived near Minneapolis to a pleasant 83 degrees when we spent the day at Valleyfair and then back to the mid nineties when we were at MOA and the hotel the next day – it felt like the weather was custom made for us.
– A remarkably bug free week. The only exception was the afternoon on our private beach at Cass Lake when there were some pesky biting flies. But we fended them off by staying submerged in the water or biking faster than they flew.

There were only two downers on the trip – the trouble with the trailer tire, and the severe case of poison ivy (or something else that causes a really bad rash) Marcel picked up along the way. He’s at emergency right now trying to get some relief from the itching. He was a good sport about it though, and didn’t let his discomfort dampen the fun we were having.

Unfortunately, with the end of a vacation comes unpacking and laundry and clean-up. That’s what I’ll be doing tomorrow – at least up until the time that I get to go see my SISTER’S NEW HOUSE! Yay!

Hopefully soon I’ll get a chance to catch up on your blogs. And maybe tomorrow I’ll get some pictures posted.

As promised…

I didn’t think I’d ever use the words “mall” and “fun” in the same sentence, but we did in fact have a lot of fun at the Mall of America. Truthfully, though, we probably could have had fun without the mall. What made it fun was the fact that we got to spend a few days away with our family. Some of these other things helped too:
– hanging out in the hotel pool
– watching Marcel and Julie skip through the mall parking lot, trying to convince the easily humiliated Nikki to join them
– seeing Maddie’s reaction when she discovered Legoland and realized how many things can be made out of Lego
– watching the expressions of Marcel, Nikki, and Julie as they splashed through the log ride
– giggling after Marcel managed to shake loose a bag of taco chips from the snack vending machine
– eating at the Rainforest Café while fake monkeys and snakes swung from the branches above
– staying up late in the hotel room
– cuddling with Maddie on her own special hotel room cot
– enjoying mother-daughter bonding time with Nikki in Ikea while everyone else swam
– ice cream – mmmmm…
– taking pictures of Marcel trying on hats
– and (this one’s for the horny redneck Vicki) “reconnecting” with my husband in the bathroom while the children slept. 🙂 (B&S will appreciate that one too, given our hotel room history together.)

And here are the pictures to prove it… (except for that last one – there will be NO pictures of that!)
At the Mall of America
At the Rainforest Cafe
The Timbaland Twister
The log ride
Maddie on the airplane 2
The girls at Legoland

You can see the whole set over here.

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