Rome Tours with Kids

Rome Tours with Kids

We are a traveling family, but we do not travel extravagantly. We don’t do fancy resorts, will spend an hour studying local transport options from the airport to our budget hostel, rather than hopping a more expensive taxi or private shuttle, and definitely don’t do guided tours. This last habit is directed as much by our frugality as it is by our failure to ever find a guide that added much value to the historical sight we were seeing.

But after a decade of my wife and I dragging our 14-year old daughter and 12-year old son to various parts of the globe and trying to instill in them the same appreciation for differences in time and place that we have, we’ve come to know what they like – ice cream – and what they don’t – anything having to do with learning, especially learning directed by mom and dad about architecture, art, or history. So when we decided we were going to take them to Rome, we knew we had to do something different.

Rome Tours with Kids turned out to be a great solution. Our kid-oriented Colosseum tour satisfied my wife and me because it was a tour with a knowledgeable guide who spoke good English and introduced our kids to the wonder of ancient Rome in a fun and educational way. It satisfied our kids because the guide was engaging and conveyed the right amount of information to pique their interest without boring them with details and the tour lasted just long enough to keep them entertained without tiring them out. And because Rome Tours with Kids employs only guides who have passed a rigorous certification test administered by the Tourism Department of the Italian government, our guide was able to draw from a deep-based knowledge of many areas that added to what my wife and I had already learned from our own research.

Rome Tours with Kids also offers kid-friendly tours of the Vatican museum and St. Peter’s Basilica, and although we arranged to be reimbursed for the cost of our tour in exchange for publishing this review, we are not biased in whole-heartedly recommending any of the tours offered by this company based on our experience with the Colosseum tour. We would have taken advantage of their expertise for another tour if we were in Rome for a longer period of time. Fortunately, we threw coins in the Trevi Fountain, so it is guaranteed we will be returning.

Colosseum tour for kids

THE COLOSSEUM TOUR

We were scheduled to meet our guide, Francesco, at nine a.m. in front of the Colosseo metro entrance, but we showed up 30 minutes late. We were certain he would already have left since we had pre-paid the tour cost, but Francesco was there, waiting and ready to go. After friendly introductions, he led us past the lines of those “unguided souls” who were waiting to purchase tickets and through the “vomiturium:” the portals that allowed 50,000+ free Romans, foreigners, and slaves to enter the arena and find their seats in less than 15 minutes. ”They didn’t have to go through security,” Francesco quipped in explaining how quickly folks could be seated. It was just one of the ways he easily contrasted ancient Rome with real-life experiences that are familiar to our kids.

Our first stop was the upper level of the arena and a view from the balcony over the streets leading to and the piazza in front of the Colosseum. Francesco explained the significance of the nearby Constantine Arch and pointed out buildings from ancient Rome, the Renaissance and Reformation, and contemporary construction – in explaining Rome’s nickname of the Eternal City. The kids remembered that point as we strolled the streets several days later and found the ancient ruins where Julius Ceasar was stabbed to death in 44 B.C. parked next to a taxi stand.

After viewing history outside the Colosseum, we wound our way back down to the lower bowl of the ampitheater. We stood for a moment gazing with wonder at the magnitude, in both size and legend, of the structure, Francesco said, “I come here just about every day and still feel the same awe. This place does that to everyone on sight, I only add the words.” He then entertained us with stories that combined myth and fact and compared them to modern realities. For example, he pointed out the similarity of the design and capacity of the nearly 2,000 year old Colosseum to most current football stadiums and noted how the seats closest to the action tended to be occupied by the more wealthy.

The original floor of the arena was constructed of wood and is long gone but a reconstructed section gives us an idea of how it may have looked in gladiator times. Most of what is visible now is the underground labrynth of passages where animals and slaves were kept before it was their turn to take part in the games being played above their heads. The basement looks bright and somewhat inviting as a refuge now, with moss growing on the brick walls, but Francesco drew a vivid picture of the damp, dark, and desperate conditions that existed in 80 A.D. He explained how slaves worked the trap door system to bring animals and gladiators to the arena floor to surprise the audience and combatants, or as a complement to one of Rome’s foreign conquests that was being reenacted as entertainment.

In a more philosophical moment, Francesco asked us to imagine what it would be like to have your homeland conquered by the Roman army, then be marched in chains to the magnificent and opulent Rome – which you had likely never seen anything like before. You would be thrown into the dark cells under the Colosseum floor for days or weeks, and then have to listen to the roar of the bloodthirsty crowd as you waited your turn to be forced into a life or death battle. He asked us to think how many thousands of souls had left a piece of themselves behind.

The kids actually responded to this with due solemnity. But the highlight of the tour, especially for a family as competitive as ours, was a trivia contest proxied by Francesco that pitted parents against kids and required us to tally the points we scored for correct answers in Roman numerals. Hint – know your Greek and Roman gods!

We spent most of our time with Francesco in the Colosseum but also visited a few sites within the adjacent sprawl of ruins that is the Roman Forum. It was in the Forum, in front of the Curia, the seat of the Roman Senate, that the kids were awarded their prize for prevailing in the contest: a mini-replica Colosseum and gladiator helmet keychain. It was here that we parted ways with Francesco as my kids, glowing with the exhilaration of victory, placed their gladiator helmet keychains over their pinkies and drew smiling faces as if they had just prevailed in a battle to the death.

Kids Tour of Roman Forum

DETAILS

Our Colosseum tour lasted two and one-half hours and cost €200. This did not include the cost of the entry ticket that allows access to the Colosseum and to the nearby Roman Forum and Palatine Hill complex.

We really enjoyed this tour and feel it is worth the cost. It was a high-quality tour with an engaging and knowledgeable guide. It was probably the highlight of our time in Rome. This is an introductory level tour, however. I consider myself an armchair historian and at several points during our tour we passed by informational signs or sights where I ordinarily would have stopped. I realize this was the trade-off I made for a fun and enjoyable experience for our family. The company does suggest the content of the tour is tailored to the level of the tour participants, which suggests that the tour can be as deep or shallow as your family wants. Our own guide, Francesco, was always willing to answer any questions I had about sites or things that were not part of our tour specifically, which is evidence that the engagement level of your family will dictate how the tour proceeds. As a bonus, the Colosseum/Forum/Palatine Hill entry ticket can be used on consecutive days (but not for the same attraction), which allowed me to go back the next day to Palatine Hill and linger over this amazing time in history.

Rome Tours with Kids

Hosted

The writer of this piece was hosted by the destination, which means that they did not pay for their experience. They also were not paid by the destination, which means that they are free to express their honest opinion of the experience, which they do here. We just thought you should know.

Hotel Review: Yotel Times Square

Hotel Review: Yotel Times Square

Overview: Everything you need and nothing you don’t. Tiny rooms but modern and efficient use of space. Best for solo travelers, ok for couples, groups might be cramped, even in a larger room. And the bathroom does not offer a lot of privacy.

YOTEL New York
570 Tenth Avenue
New York, NY 10036
By phone: +1 646 449 7700

The Yotel in Times Square claims on its website that it “creates time, giving you everything you need and nothing you don’t.” Confused by the vague description? So was I. Let me fill you in on what actually makes the Yotel unique.

The lobby (if you could call it that) was as confusing as the website. Instead of a front desk with human beings, there were machines to check guests in and out, though there were people there to help. The process was surprisingly efficient: I just entered in my name and the dates of my reservation, and since I was early, the machine told me the room wasn’t ready yet.

luggage robot Yotel New York

So, I headed up to the fourth floor (the closest thing the hotel has to a real lobby, including a desk where staff take questions) to sit at the cafe, which boasts an impressive North African-inspired menu. I worked at a small table while eating fried cauliflower and pita bread with hummus, yogurt, and eggplant — dishes I enjoyed so much, I ordered the exact same ones again later that night. In addition to the cafe, which also sold coffee and pastries, there’s a larger restaurant on the fourth floor.

YOTEL rooftop Terrace New York

The “everything you need and nothing you don’t” tagline began to make sense when I entered my 27th-floor room, overlooking a gorgeous view of midtown Manhattan. The bed was tilted to partially lean against the wall and create space, and it went down for sleeping at the press of a button. The shower had shampoo and soap combined in one bottle, as well as a large bottle of conditioner, something I often find hotels lacking. The menu was on the TV. (They don’t deliver, but you can order food from your room, get a call when it’s ready, and pick it up downstairs.) Every inch of space was put to use.

Yotel room size

There was only a glass wall and curtain separating the bed and bathroom and there wasn’t too much extra space, so the room would not be ideal for multiple people traveling together. It looks like most of the Yotel’s rooms work this way. As a solo traveler, though, I didn’t feel cramped. The bed was not luxurious but comfortable. The WiFi in the hotel was quick, and there was an outlet to charge my computer next to the bed. The Yotel is impressively high-tech, in fact, with a luggage-storing robot and a mobile concierge app.

The hotel’s in a great location on 10th avenue between 41st and 42nd streets, a quick walk to the ACE trains and Times Square but far enough west that it’s still quiet. There are tons of cafes and restaurants right around the corner.

The building was a bit annoying to navigate, though, since you have to transfer elevators every time you hit the fourth floor. The Yotel definitely has its quirks, but they’re all part of its charm.

Rooms:

Rooms are known as “cabins” at the Yotel, and they definitely echo the size of a ship cabin.

Queen rooms are the most plentiful, but there are rooms that add one or two bunk beds that can work for a family of up to four.

Some king rooms are available, and some with terraces and outdoor tubs (not hot tubs) that look pretty special. One VIP terrace room has a king bed and a sofabed so it can accommodate up to four adults.

Tech:

Good wifi and outlets next to the bed for charging.

Luggage storage robots!

Family-friendly amenities:

Bunk beds in some rooms.

Bikes available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Yotel branded coloring books and colored pencils are available for a fee. Or download the images from the website.

Food options:

The Green Fig offers Mediterranean food on the fourth floor lobby level.

The rooftop terrace is the largest of any hotel in NYC, and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Many restaurants in the neighborhood.

Deals and Activities Nearby:

Ummm… it’s New York City.

Parking:

Parking garage below the hotel. The standard rate is $45.00 for 24 hours, $62.00 for valet parking with SUVs costing an additional $6.00.

Suzannah Weiss

Suzannah Weiss is a freelance writer and editor currently serving as a contributing editor for Teen Vogue and a regular contributor to Glamour, Bustle, Vice, Refinery29, Elle, The Washington Post, and more. She authored a chapter of Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World and frequently discusses gender, sex, body image, and social justice on radio shows and podcasts. Whoopi Goldberg cited one of her articles on The View in a debate over whether expressing your desires in bed is a feminist act. (She thinks it is.)

Hosted

The writer of this review was a guest of the hotel. All writers on All Over the Map provide unbiased opinions, whether hosted or not, but we thought you should know that they didn't pay to stay there. 

What museums are open in Washington DC during the federal shutdown?

What museums are open in Washington DC during the federal shutdown?

The U.S. Capitol showing the words "Closed. Call your Congressman." A list of family activities in DC that are open

So you’re in DC with kids with plans to visit the Smithsonian, the National Zoo, and all the memorials around the National Mall, but those dag blasted legislators in the Capitol building have managed to shut them all down just in time for your visit. So what can you do? What’s open?

[EDIT: As of Sunday, January 21, there has been no budget agreement and most of the federal government is shut down. HOWEVER, the Smithsonian and National Zoo will remain OPEN on Monday, January 22, 2018]

  • The Newseum, Washington’s museum of journalism, is a great place to go to reflect on the news of the day. In front of the museum is a display, updated daily, of the front pages of newspapers from around the world, showing just how ridiculous the U.S. government shutdown looks to people around the world. The Newseum is open from 9 to 5 daily (10 to 5 on Sundays).
  • The International Spy Museum currently has an exhibit of James Bond villains, which is rather cool, and its permanent collection is a favorite of kids and their trailing adults. Open 10 to 6 most days.
  • The National Building Museum has an amazing show of paper building models, some as small as matchboxes. And there are interactive indoor play areas for building with foam blocks while it’s freezing outside. Open 7 days a week.
  • National Geographic‘s current show is an immersive 3D experience about the Tomb of Christ. Open daily from 10 am to 6 pm.
  • … and speaking of Christ… the brand new Museum of the Bible sure wasn’t funded with taxpayer money, so it will be open through the shutdown. There’s a reconstruction of an ancient city that kids might enjoy.
  • Hillwood Museum and Gardens is a spectacular place to visit any time of year, though in winter the museum is much more so than the gardens. The permanent collection of the museum includes more Russian imperial art than anywhere outside of Russia. If it’s warm enough, kids will enjoy running through the grounds and spotting the “dacha” cottage, a pet cemetery, a putting green, and the lunar lawn. Open Tuesday to Saturday 10 to 5.
  • The Phillips Collection in Dupont Circle is known as the first modern art museum in America, with an impressive collection of impressionist and modern art from the 1920s onward. Admission to the permanent collection is by donation on weekdays, $12 on weekends. So perhaps you furloughed feds should hit it up mid-week.
  • Artechouse, a massive underground art space with the feel of a dance club, has a brand new exhibit just in time for the shutdown. Parallel Universe features swirling light projections from the Turkish art studio Ouchhh. Open for ages 6 and up during the day; 21 and over after 5:30.

Of course, none of these (except the sweet mid-week deal at the Phillips) is free, which does change the family travel budget quite a bit. To save money, check on some of the local promotional sites, like Goldstar, Groupon, and Living Social to find last-minute deals on entertainment and dining. We’ll be adding more ideas as we find them, so keep checking back, and send your suggestions to editor [at] alloverthemap.net. And don’t forget to email your representatives to tell them what you think of the shutdown.

Hotel Review: Hotel Casa Blanca Mexico City

Hotel Review: Hotel Casa Blanca Mexico City

Overview: While it may be fitting for those traveling on a budget, this is most definitely not a five-star hotel. Don’t let the advertising fool you: You get what you pay for.

Hotel Casa Blanca
Lafragua 7
Colonia Tabacalera
Delegación Cuauhtémoc
Mexico City, Mexico
+52 (55) 5096 4500
reservaciones@hotel-casablanca.com.mx

While Googling places to stay in Mexico City, I was surprised to find a five-star hotel (according to its website and Google, at least) for just $54/night. After reading decent reviews, I booked four nights at Hotel Casa Blanca.

The first thing that struck me about the lobby was how dark and, frankly, ugly it was. The marble floors, brown paisley benches, and giant abstract sculptures looked like they’d been put up in the 50s — and not renovated since. One consolation was that they gave out water flavored with pineapple and watermelon. The jugs were the nicest-looking things in the lobby.

I hoped my room would be more attractive, but it kept up the theme of old-looking wooden furniture and pasty, porous white walls. One window-covered wall let lots of light in, but I had to keep the sheer curtain up over it because it faced the courtyard, so people from the other rooms could look in. The mattress was firm, leading me to wake up with back pain, though the pillows were squishy. Instead of a comforter, there were two thin blankets, one woven and one softer. The atmosphere felt kind of depressing, so I turned on some TV in Spanish to lighten the mood.

hotel casa blanca mexico city

The bathroom was adequate, with bar soap, shower gel, shampoo, and conditioner, but the shower was small and a bit dark, since there was no light in there. There weren’t any electrical outlets by the bed, so I had to work from the desk if I needed to plug anything in. The WiFi was decent but a bit slow when I uploaded images and watched videos.

The lobby wasn’t well-suited for work either: The benches got crowded as guests trickled in, and the tables were low and far away from the seats. I snuck over a couple times to work from the Meridian next door, which had nice furniture, a conveniently located outlet, quicker WiFi, and a Starbucks downstairs.

My first night, I ate from the buffet at Hotel Casa Blanca’s restaurant thinking I’d get to try authentic Mexican food, but most of it was actually not Mexican: The main dishes were a confused mix of penne alla vodka, fish fillet, fried rice, mashed potatoes, and refried beans. There were a few good Mexican desserts, though, including flan, plantains with cream, and rainbow jello. Still, I’d recommend that anyone seeking good Mexican food go across the street to the restaurant in Sanborns.

Many of the hotel’s online reviews talked about its location, but other than its proximity to the Plaza de la Republica and a bunch of restaurants and food stands, I didn’t find the area to be anything special. Most of the surrounding buildings were other hotels or touristy restaurants. (At one, I got enchiladas with barely melted cheese slices on top and liquidy guacamole.) With heavy traffic and many streets missing crosswalks, just crossing the street was stressful.

While it may be fitting for those traveling on a budget, this is most definitely not a five-star hotel. Don’t let the advertising fool you: You get what you pay for. If I could go back in time, I would’ve paid twice as much for a bed I could sleep well in and an interior I liked to look at.

Rooms:

Family rooms with two double beds and two pull-out sofas available.

Uncomfortable beds.

Tech:

No outlets by the beds.
Wifi adequate but slow for video.

Family-friendly amenities:

Swimming pool on the terrace.
Bike rental available.

Food options:

Two restaurants and two bars on site.
Many restaurants and food carts nearby.

Deals and Activities Nearby:
Parking:

Free covered parking available.

Suzannah Weiss

Suzannah Weiss is a freelance writer and editor currently serving as a contributing editor for Teen Vogue and a regular contributor to Glamour, Bustle, Vice, Refinery29, Elle, The Washington Post, and more. She authored a chapter of Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World and frequently discusses gender, sex, body image, and social justice on radio shows and podcasts. Whoopi Goldberg cited one of her articles on The View in a debate over whether expressing your desires in bed is a feminist act. (She thinks it is.)

Hotel Review: Hotel Alessandra in Houston, Texas

Hotel Review: Hotel Alessandra in Houston, Texas

Overview: Chic five-star hotel in downtown Houston with luxurious rooms and attentive staff.

Hotel Alessandra

1070 Dallas Street
Houston, Texas
+1 713 242 8555

I spent the majority of my last visit to Houston in my hotel room, and I’m not even sorry. The moment I arrived in Hotel Alessandra, located downtown in the city’s “GreenStreet” shopping and dining center, I knew I was in for a treat.

Hotel Review: Hotel Alessandra Houston

Guest Room at Hotel Alessandra in Houston (Photo courtesy Hotel Alessandra)

My room had mistakenly been booked for two days later, but the front desk clerk found me a room right away, and the butler made conversation with me as he showed me up. The room had a giant king-sized bed, a couch, a table and chair, two bedside tables, two lamps, a TV, and walls completely covered in windows for views of the city.

As I got ready to go out, someone brought up a bottle of wine and a cheese plate. The rainfall shower helped me recharge after a long day of travel, and with a table and bench inside, I could even bring my food and wine in. The travel-sized shampoo, conditioner, and body wash lasted me two showers, which is rare for someone with hair as long as mine.

The vicinity of the hotel was home to dozens of bars, restaurants, and shops, with attractions including the Discovery Green, Toyota Center, Downtown Aquarium, Market Square, and the Downtown Historic District within a mile. As I mentioned, though, I didn’t take advantage of that as much as I could’ve. I stayed in and ordered room service twice during my stay, with food ranging from a peanut butter and jelly smoothie to lobster mac and cheese. The food was great but expensive — I paid over $50 for the mac and cheese and a caesar salad.

Hotel Alessandra Fitness Center

Hotel Alessandra Fitness Center (Photo Courtesy Hotel Alessandra)

Even though I was traveling alone, I didn’t get lonely. Every time I left and returned to the hotel, the staff by the door greeted me. One even accompanied me to the gym and chatted while I worked out. My favorite part of Houston is the people’s friendliness, and staying at Hotel Alessandra reminded me of that.

Rooms:

Large king size bed with white washable comforters and sheets and four pillows. Small fridge. Minibar with a large variety of drinks and snacks. Coffee machine.

Rooms can be reserved for up to five people.

Separate sections of bathroom for shower and toilet, table and bench in shower, good-sized shampoo, soap, and conditioner bottles.

Tech:

Wifi – Free fast easy

Plugs – Charging plugs built into bedside tables on each side of the bed

Family-friendly amenities:

Pool – Outdoor pool open until 10pm

Minibar/snack options for kids – Kids menu in room service

 

Food options:

Restaurant on site, room service you can order on a tablet next to the bed

Breakfast included? Available? In-room possible? – Available both in restaurant and in-room

Nearby food options – lots of bars and restaurants

Parking:

Garage with valet service

Suzannah Weiss

Suzannah Weiss is a freelance writer and editor currently serving as a contributing editor for Teen Vogue and a regular contributor to Glamour, Bustle, Vice, Refinery29, Elle, The Washington Post, and more. She authored a chapter of Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World and frequently discusses gender, sex, body image, and social justice on radio shows and podcasts. Whoopi Goldberg cited one of her articles on The View in a debate over whether expressing your desires in bed is a feminist act. (She thinks it is.)

Hotel Review: Los Naranjos Jungle Retreat

Hotel Review: Los Naranjos Jungle Retreat

Overview: If you’re a fan of the outdoors, you’ll likely find Los Naranjos Jungle Retreat a paradise. But if you’re used to hotels with mini bars and memory foam mattresses, you might find it challenging.

Los Naranjos Jungle Retreat
Yelapa
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
+52-322 209-5246
losnaranjos5@gmail.com

When I learned that a retreat I was interested in took place at the edge of the jungle in Yelapa, Mexico, I was hesitant to go. Cabins without walls? Mosquitos? Possibly snakes? No thank you. But looking at photos of Los Naranjos Jungle Retreat gave me some peace of mind. The rooms were wall-less, but they were surrounded by beautiful flora. After gaining reassurance that the chances of seeing snakes were low, I decided to go.

I flew to the Puerto Vallarta airport, caught a cab to Los Muertos beach, then rode a water taxi to Yelapa. I was reassured to see tourists on the boat with shirts reading “Yelapa.” So this wasn’t the middle of nowhere. On the shore, there were restaurants and people sitting on the beach, where Los Naranjos’s owner and his dog met me to bring me to the “eco hotel.” As we left the beach, a dog bared its teeth, people passed by on horses, and we waded through a pond. We also passed a little store where I bought conditioner for my hair. We were still within civilization.

los naranjos jungle retreat treehouse

When we got there, I entered an (also wall-less) common room with a kitchen, a hammock, and cushioned benches. The dining tables were just outside. Then, the owner showed me to my room, which was up a ladder and had a thatched roof. Inside was a table and three beds covered by mosquito nets. Not exactly luxurious, but I wouldn’t be roughing it either. I got the only full-sized bed in the room (the others were twin-sized), and while the mattress was firm, I could sink into it a bit. The blanket was thin but warm, and the pillows were comfy. There were two lights hanging from the ceiling, a fan, and an electrical outlet by my bed.

The closest bathroom was up another ladder, with two toilet stalls, two showers, and two sinks. There weren’t any problems with the bathroom, though one quirk was that you had to throw the toilet paper in the trash. The staff explained that anything that gets flushed down the toilet has to be dug up from underground, since Los Naranjos tries to minimize its impact on the environment.

los naranjos jungle retreat treetops

There was a WiFi connection, but it wasn’t quick enough to get anything done. It took several minutes just to load my emails. There were a few cafes nearby with slightly faster WiFi, but none were adequate for fast-paced work. If I had to send an email, my best bet was to use my phone. The data connection was decent decent enough to do this but not to use my personal hotspot. Lesson learned: Don’t try to get work done in Yelapa.

My first night in Los Naranjos was rough. Even with my earplugs in, I heard roosters (which, it turns out, make noise all night), howling dogs, and music from a nearby house. Every time one of my roommates walked, the ground slightly shook. I woke up many times throughout the night and got up in the morning with a sore back. But my second night was better: My ears were getting used to the jungle already. The only remaining annoyance was having to navigate through the dark (and I do mean dark — I needed a flashlight) to the bathroom in the middle of the night. The mosquito net protected my bed, but I got my share of bites during the day. Thankfully, I didn’t see any snakes.

The surrounding village was adorable, with little Mexican shops and restaurants owned by local families, the beach a 15 minute walk away, and a hiking trail leading to a waterfall. I had all my meals at Los Naranjos, though. They were a delicious mix of fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs from chickens on the resort grounds, and fish caught from a nearby river.

If you’re a fan of the outdoors, you’ll likely find Los Naranjos a paradise. But if you’re used to hotels with mini bars and memory foam mattresses, you might find it challenging. Personally, I enjoyed jogging past wild dogs in the morning and seeing the stars at night, but I was counting down the days until I got a quiet room and private bathroom again.

 

Rooms:
Tech:
Family-friendly amenities:
Food options:
Deals and Activities Nearby:
Parking:

Suzannah Weiss

Suzannah Weiss is a freelance writer and editor currently serving as a contributing editor for Teen Vogue and a regular contributor to Glamour, Bustle, Vice, Refinery29, Elle, The Washington Post, and more. She authored a chapter of Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World and frequently discusses gender, sex, body image, and social justice on radio shows and podcasts. Whoopi Goldberg cited one of her articles on The View in a debate over whether expressing your desires in bed is a feminist act. (She thinks it is.)

Real Life Travel Gear Reviews

Real Life Travel Gear Reviews

Travel Gear Reviews

Because I’m a blogger, people send me things. I don’t get it, either. But I guess they want me to write about their stuff. So I figured I would write some travel gear reviews to rationalize the growing pile of stuff that people have sent me.

Sometimes they send me cool things, like like these fantastically cute and comfy shoes from OTBT, and sometimes they are… puzzling.

I do try out just about everything that people send me, because someone went to the trouble to create it – sometimes it’s clearly a labor of love – and they paid someone to seek out bloggers, writers and influencers (which one am I again? Depends on the day.) who might write about it, and one of those people thought I might be the one to do so. So I try to give everything a fair chance.

On my recent trip to Barcelona and Ireland, I took a bunch of these products with me to try them out, and here’s what I thought:

So, here are the travel gear reviews.

The Good Stuff

OTBT Scamper - travel gear reviews
First, the shoes. From the minute the OTBT Scamper shoes arrived in the mail, they have been in regular rotation for me. They are lightweight, which is great for this perennial overpacker. I almost always fill my suitcase to its maximum, no matter what size bag I bring. And when i am tempted to bring the big bag, as I did on my recent trip, it usually bumps up against that weight restriction. I will never forget the trip home from Belgium a few years ago when I had to unpack and repack my bags – dirty laundry everywhere – at check-in because I was about 5 pounds over the limit. In any case, lightweight shoes are much appreciated. And these are comfy! I’ve been wearing them sockless for a month without a single blister. And did I mention they were cute? I get compliments every time I wear them. OTBT stands for Off the Beaten Track, which is my favorite kind of travel, so yeah, I recommend these.

ECBC Sparrow luggage travel gear reviewsAbout that luggage…. I’ve been trying out a really nice carryon bag by ECBC. I’ve got a full video review of it on YouTube, but I’ll give you the basics here. The ECBC Sparrow Wheeled Garment Bag has two separate compartments for clothing, and another for a laptop and/or tablet. The latter can be opened all the way for easy access and for a quick trip through TSA. There’s an included power pack that can be accessed from a zipper at the top of the bag – perfect for recharging when everyone else has hogged the outlets by your gate. Of the two clothing sections, one can be used for hanging garments, with a nice folding section to protect longer pieces. There are two detachable zippered sections that can squeeze in above the hanging garments for small bits and pieces like socks or charging cords. The bottom clothing section is just a big open space for whatever. I’ve used the bag for weekend trips, but for longer trips I prefer one big compartment for everything. I think this bag would be perfect for a quick business trip, with suit and shirt in the hanging section, and toiletries, shoes and gym/loungewear in the other section. The hardware is solid, and the two wheels roll smoothly.

ATN travel compression socks - travel gear reviews

And then came the socks. I’ve known for years that compression socks could ward off deep vein thrombosis on a flight, but I just never bothered. But when the folks at ATN Compression Socks offered to send me a colorful pair, I thought I’d give it a try. Did I mention they were colorful? The ones they sent me were bright red with white stripes and green toes. Elf-y. I was determined to try them, but I didn’t want to show my stripes while waiting to board. So once I was in my seat, I gracefully and tactfully pulled them on. Who am I kidding? Squashed in a coach seat, I could barely lift my leg to put them on. And you know how they are compression socks? They are very tight. And hard to get on. I was cracking myself up trying to get them on. Thankfully, the only person who could really witness this was my husband in the next seat, who was trying hard to pretend he didn’t know me. Though they were tough to get on, and loud as all get out, the socks did what they were supposed to do and I didn’t die of DVT. Hooray! In all seriousness, though, if you need to wear compression socks for health reasons, or for comfort reasons, these will give you some fun reasons, too. You can choose from animal prints, polka dots, doughnuts (doughnuts?), argyles, and more. They have basic black or white, but why would you want those?

itbandz knee band - travel gear review

(this is not, in fact, my knee. sorry.)


Over the years, and I won’t say how many, I have developed a little pain in my knee. It’s not a constant pain, and I can even walk for miles without feeling it. But sometimes, when I’m walking down a hill, I get a little *ping* of pain in my knee. It’s not bad enough to do anything about, but once it appears it likes to come back again and again until I give in and rest it. So when I got an itBandz Knee Band Strap in the mail, I was happy to give it a try. We did a lot of walking in Barcelona, my husband and I, and I didn’t wear this every day. But on the day I knew we’d be climbing a big hill and coming back down again, I wrapped it around my knee and wore it (under skinny jeans, even!) all day. Did I have the knee ping? No. Am I sure the knee band helped? No. But I would definitely try it again on my next big hike, just in case.

Two Travel Toothbrushes - Travel Gear Reviews

And now we’ll move to the really sexy stuff: oral care. I received some cool bamboo bristle toothbrushes from a company with the unfortunate name MouthWatchers. I actually really like these toothbrushes, whose bristles are antimicrobial and very thin at the top which offers better cleaning – they say floss-like, but I’m not sure I’d go that far. They also hold up really well. I’ve been using mine for over a month now and the bristles look just the way they did when it came out of the package. A little sterilization in the dishwasher every now and again and it’s good to go. Of course, if you like to replace your toothbrush regularly, you can buy a 12-pack. I was quite happy with the travel version, and it comes in a power versionas well, if you like to really get into it.

 

The OK stuff

Mini White Noise Machine -Travel Gear Reviews
And how about sleeping aids? I’ve already written about my favorite jet lag cure on the blog. This time I tried the world’s tiniest noise machine by Sound Oasis. This one is so tiny it requires ear buds (included) and fits in a case a little smaller than a glasses case. It offers 10 different tones of continuous white noise – i.e. not a recording of a sound, but continuously generated sound – and 25 hours of run time per charge of its rechargeable battery. I’m not a person who needs white noise to sleep, and I found the ear buds uncomfortable to sleep in, anyway. I hoped that this might be a good option for my husband to keep him from waking up when I snore, but he had the same reaction. Sound Oasis offers lots and lots of white noise machines and sound therapy options, so there is probably one that would work for you; this one just wasn’t doing it for me. They do offer a travel version that does not require ear buds (pictured below), which I think might be a better option.

The Meh

And now, for my least favorite of the bunch. Because this is a real life review.

I received an email way back during Sleep Awareness Week, which, as I’m sure you know, is in April, when no one can sleep because: taxes. I was interested in the Sleep Easily System because: snoring (see above).

What arrived in the mail was an 8″ x 10″ x 2″ glossy box describing the wondrous contents. A mini audio player with a built-in high-quality speaker! Eyeshades! Specialized earplugs! A charger for the speaker! A book! A summary card for using the system! FOUR sleep recordings! And three bonus recordings!

What I liked: the audio player is a nice small size and can be used with or without ear buds.

What I didn’t like: the recordings themselves. You can choose a nice soothing female voice – clearly a professional voice artist – or you can choose a sort of halting male voice that is very clearly not a professional voice artist. In fact, it is the voice of the creator of the Sleep Easily system. Which is I think part of why this whole package rubs me the wrong way. Here’s the problem: It’s expensive. It’s self-important. It makes you think it is more than what it is. For what is essentially 7 tracks of sound, half of which you are unlikely to use more than once, plus some accessories you can find at the drugstore, if not your bathroom drawer, the price starts at $60.

I guess, in reality, this is not so different from the Sound Oasis product above, but it is pretending to be something different. It is marketed as a special scientific approach to sleeplessness, developed by a behavioral sleep therapist. And sure, maybe he did come up with this particular method and script for the recordings. And maybe it even works to help people sleep better. But to me it sounds like the same advice that anyone would give: try to relax your mind before you go to sleep. I think you could probably pick up an eye mask and some wax earplugs from the drugstore, and search online for some guided meditation and ocean sounds tracks, and have the same experience. And plus, how are you going to hear the recording if you are wearing earplugs?

I received free samples of all of these products for review. My real life reviews are honest and thorough, because I know readers want to know the truth about products before spending their money. And speaking of money….

Some of the links in this post lead to affiliate sites where I might get a few pennies if you buy something there. If you do, thank you very much for helping to keep this crazy dream alive.

That’s it for now. If you have travel gear you’d like me to review, send an email to reviews@alloverthemap.net.

Stay in a Castle Hotel in Ireland

Stay in a Castle Hotel in Ireland

Castle Hotel Stays – Ireland

Did you ever dream of being a princess? Or a king? I would have been happy to be Lady So-and-so of Thus-and-such, but I’m generally pretty happy with the life I have. But if you want to pretend you’re royalty and have a staff at your beck and call, there are plenty of places you can stay in a castle hotel, and few places do it better than Ireland. Many many castles in Ireland have been converted to hotels and resorts, and each offers something special.

On my recent trip to Ireland, there were lots of travel bloggers in Killarney for the TBEX blogging conference, and before and after the conference a few of them managed to stay in some sweet castle hotels. I asked them for their thoughts about the castles they stayed in, and they share their experiences (and photos) below.

 

KILKEA CASTLE

–Bret Love & Mary Gabbett, Green Global Travel

We visited numerous castles during our 10 days in the Emerald Isle, but Kilkea Castle (located in County Kildare between Athy and Tullow) was easily our favorite. The oldest continuously inhabited castle in Ireland, Kilkea was built by Sir Walter de Riddlesford in 1180. After his granddaughter married Maurice Fitzgerald, the 3rd baron of Offaly, Kilkea Castle remained in the Fitzgerald family for over 700 years.
Kilkea Castle - Castle Hotels in Ireland

Kilkea Castle (Photo Credit: Green Global Travel)

The castle has been operated as a hotel since the 1960s, but was put on the market in 2010. It was purchased by American builder Jay Cashman, who spent four years renovating it into a 5-star resort that includes multiple immaculate gardens, a golf course, three restaurants, and facilities for fishing and archery.
Owl experience at Kilkea Castle Hotel

Mary holds an owl! (Photo Credit: Green Global Travel)

We were honored to stay in their Ernest Shackleton Suite (named after Kildare’s famous explorer) several weeks before the resort opened to the public, and it was as posh and luxurious as any medieval castle could possibly hope to be. We’ve traveled all over the world, and Kilkea Castle ranks among our favorite places we’ve ever stayed!

 

KNAPPOGUE CASTLE

-Jody Halsted, Ireland Family Vacations
Knappogue Castle Hotel in Ireland

Knappogue Castle (Photo Credit: Jody Halsted, Ireland Family Vacations)

While any castle stay will make you feel like royalty, staying in your own private castle instantly turns you into the queen (or king) of your domain. At Knappogue Castle in County Clare your family members (or group) are the only overnight guests in the castle apartments. Rooms are furnished with a mix of antique and contemporary comforts, and the modern kitchen has everything you will need to create meals to feed your crew. Don’t wish to cook? Each morning your fairy godmothers arrive to fix an Irish breakfast to power you through a day of exploring. And each evening (from April thru October) the dining room downstairs hosts a medieval banquet featuring delicious dinner and entertainment. As the only guests, the castle is yours to explore – no tours are offered here – to treat as your home… if only for a few days.
The Drawing Room at Knappogue Castle Hotel in Ireland

The Drawing Room at Knappogue Castle (Photo Credit: Jody Halsted, Ireland Family Vacations)

CASTLE LESLIE

-Julie and Charles McCool, McCool Travel

Castle Leslie in Glaslough Ireland

Castle Leslie in Glaslough Ireland (Photo Credit: Julie McCool, McCoolTravel.com)

Castle Leslie welcomes guests to a perfect balance of relaxed and historic luxury, on a family estate that dates from the 1660s. Rooms in the castle are spacious and comfortable, with quirky Victorian bathrooms and a strict no TV policy. The Lodge offers more modern rooms (with TVs) overlooking stables that draw equestrians from all over the world. Novice riders (like us) can take a “gentle hack” through the estate’s beautiful grounds, followed by dinner in the award-winning restaurant, and time to kick back and savor castle life.

The Blue Room at Castle Leslie

The Blue Room at Castle Leslie (Photo Credit: Julie McCool, McCoolTravel.com)

ASHFORD CASTLE

-Jody Halsted, Ireland Family Vacations
Ashford Castle - Castle Hotels in Ireland

Ashford Castle (Photo Credit: Jody Halsted: Ireland Family Vacations)

Consistently voted one of the top hotels in the world, Ashford Castle in County Mayo is a fairytale. From the moment you are allowed through the gated entrance by a dapper man in top hat and livery, to the moment you depart the marbled lobby, every bit of your stay is magical. Rooms are lavishly furnished and special treats await younger guests. The grounds at Ashford Castle are extensive and on-site activities include falconry, boating, shooting, golf, and a zip line. Rooms in the castle are expensive, and both the clientele and the spectacular service reflect this. If you wish to visit when the castle is truly kid-focused, plan a Halloween stay when the castle becomes a Wizarding School! Send your little witches and wizards with their capable instructors and enjoy 6 hours of couple time. It’s magical for everyone!
Ashford Castle Junior Suite by Jody Halsted - Castle Hotels in Ireland

A Junior Suite at Ashford Castle (Photo Credit: Jody Halsted, Ireland Family Vacations)

GREGANS  CASTLE

 -Sher, travel photographer blogging at Sher She Goes
Gregans Castle - Castle Hotels in Ireland

Gregans Castle (Photo Credit: Sher from SherSheGoes.com)

Gregans Castle Hotel is the ultimate Irish country house for food and luxury. Although no longer a castle in the traditional sense (only the 15th century round tower remains from the original structure), the Georgian-style manor house has stunning views of Galway Bay and the unique Burren landscape. The hotel has won numerous awards for its innovative cooking and the bedrooms are stunningly decorated with antiques, cozy fireplaces and eclectic art. Make sure to stay here if you’re interested in visiting the Cliffs of Moher or love food – Gregans is located on the Wild Atlantic Way and the Burren Food Trail.

LOUGH ESKE CASTLE

-Jody Halsted, Ireland Family Vacations
Lough Eske by Day - Castle Hotels in Ireland

Lough Eske by Day (Photo Credit: Jody Halsted, Ireland Family Vacations)

Few know that Lough Eske Castle in County Donegal was a mere shell before it was lovingly restored just 10 years ago. Now ranking as one of the top hotels in the world, guest can expect a warm cead mile failte from the staff, the majority of whom are local to the area. Rooms at Lough Eske Castle are luxurious and spacious, with connecting rooms for families well thought-out. As castle stays go, this is one of the most affordable in Ireland and you’ll meet a wide variety of people. Located on the shores of Lough Eske, the grounds are a wonderful maze of walking paths; a perfect spot to relax and enjoy the luxury of an Irish castle vacation.

Lough Eske by Day - Castle Hotels in Ireland

Lough Eske by Night (Photo Credit: Jody Halsted of Ireland Family Vacations)

BARBERSTOWN CASTLE HOTEL

–Sonja Holverson, Outbounding
Barberstown Castle Hotel lounge lobby by Sonja Holverson - Castle Hotels in Ireland

Barberstown Castle Hotel lounge lobby (Photo Credit: Sonja Holverson, Outbounding)

When one imagines staying in a 12th century Irish Castle thoughts of cold rugged stones, towers crowned by turrets, ghosts and dungeons most often come to mind. However, when one arrives at the entrance to the Barberstown Castle Hotel Kildare, a warm welcome is waiting inside a pristine white Victorian and Elizabethan blended luxury town house including conservatory windows along with two lion statues on each side of the entry step. A spacious uniquely decorated lobby lounge area opens out onto a lovely terrace which leads to 20 acres of gardens. The reception is discreetly placed on the left as you enter.

Barberstown Castle Hotel and Country House - Castle Hotels in Ireland

Barberstown Castle Hotel and Country House (Photo Credit: Sonja Holverson, Outbounding)

If you find yourself lost in the corridors and nooks and crannies looking for the dining room you will encounter elegant antiques and décor of days long past. You may even run face to face into a full body suit of armor around the next corner.

Despite the formality of the long French-influenced multi-course evening dinner in the opulent Barton Rooms Restaurant with pedagogical descriptions for each delicious course, the waiters are also appropriately down-to-earth Irish: friendly and loads of fun. Other dining choices are the Elizabethan Room and the Medieval Banqueting Hall.
This privately-owned Castle Hotel and Country House is the only one in Ireland that has earned 4 stars. Furthermore, it is unique in its harmonious historical blending with the Elizabethan era and Victorian era country house and the Medieval castle with its own historical epoch décor. All in all, a delightful and eclectic elegant and comfortable accommodation.
The Barberstown Castle Hotel easily handles conferences and large parties, weddings and the perfect weekend Irish castle stay for those with little time as it’s only 30 minutes from the centre of Dublin in the heart of Ireland’s Ancient East.
Barberstown Castle Hotel and Country House entrance by night - Castle Hotels in Ireland

Barberstown Castle Hotel and Country House (Photo Credit: Sonja Holverson, Outbounding)

DROMOLAND CASTLE HOTEL

by Paige Conner Totaro
I was very fortunate to spend a few nights hosted by Dromoland Castle.The staff at Dromoland Castle Hotel is deferential and service-focused. Rooms are spacious, meals are scrumptious, formal rooms are warm and welcoming despite their grand proportions. The sprawling property offers not only the obvious golf and spa, but also archery, clay pigeon shooting, pony and trap (horse and carriage) rides, fishing, hiking the grounds, and my favorite: falconry.
Dromoland Castle by WHAT BOUNDARIES TRAVEL- Castle Hotels in Ireland

Dromoland Castle (Photo Credit: Cheryl and Lisa of What Boundaries Travel (whatboundariestravel.com))

There has been a castle on the site since the 11th Century, but the present building, in all its ivy-covered limestone and turreted glory, was completed in 1835. In 1962, the property was renovated and opened as the luxury Dromoland Castle Hotel.

Dromoland Castle facade covered by red ivy with a cloudy blue sky above - Castle Hotels in Ireland

Dromoland Castle (Photo Credit: Cheryl and Lisa of What Boundaries Travel (whatboundariestravel.com))

Cheryl and Lisa of What Boundaries Travel were entranced by Dromoland Castle. “We held our breath as the wooded driveway turned and the castle came into view. It was a fairytale setting of falcons, livery and ivy shrouded towers. Inside was even more spectacular. The drawing room beckoned us to step inside and let time retrace her steps. A magical experience!”

Freelance travel writer Victoria Hart witnessed a VIP arrival during her visit. “Dromoland Castle is an example of living history,” she said. “So often we experience history through a museum or by visiting ruins. It is refreshing to see a place with over 1000 years of history still being used and enjoyed by people who admire the majestic landscape that first attracted its creators and respect the historical events that transformed it into the place it is today. The level of service is still fit for royalty, and an experience I will always cherish.”

Dromoland Castle Arrival - Castle Hotels in Ireland

A VIP arrival at Dromoland Castle features a staff lineup and bagpipes. (Photo Credit: Victoria Hart)

The castle’s location, about 15 minutes drive from Shannon Airport, makes it a great first or last (or entire!) stay for your Ireland trip.

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Please note: most of the bloggers featured in this article were hosted by the castle hotels they have written about. They all offer their honest opinions of their stays. But how could you not love staying in a castle?