Rise and Shine

Meal planning is a big challenge for group trips.  Do you take everyone to a restaurant, wait for seating for a large party and then for everyone’s food to arrive, only to choke when the bill arrives?  Or instead, end up eating at fast food joints to speed up the process and save money, until you realize that French fries are the only vegetable your kids have eaten for a week?  Cooking at your vacation house can often solve these problems, but food prep and cleanup isn’t often on people’s list of must-dos on a holiday.

From the start, our group has cooked at the house for most, if not all of our meals.  In the beginning, cooking seemed like a decent trade off for not having to keep 4 or 5 babies and toddlers busy at every meal for 5 or 6 days.  Plus, with 4 families, kitchen duties have always been split between the adults, and now, between the older kids.  For years, our teens have been baking cookies and quick breads to bring along before the trip.  Last year, our tweens baked strawberry shortcake for dessert one night!  And the kids all help with clean-up since we long ago established the rule that you load your own dishes in the dishwasher after each meal.

 

Of course, breakfast is by far the easiest meal to adapt for a group trip.  Even if you are planning to eat out for lunch and dinner, you can save time and money by eating the first meal of the day at your vacation home.  It’s also easy to adjust for dietary preferences and restrictions.  Plus, people can eat while others are getting ready to head out for the day.

Breakfast planning for our group usually includes a mix of items people can grab and eat quickly, as well as hardier fare for mornings when we have more flexibility in the schedule.  Grocery list staples are cereals, milk, fruit, juice and toast.  These can be the whole offering on mornings when we have to make an early departure, or can be eaten by picky eaters who don’t want to eat whatever hot dish is being served that morning.

Egg casseroles and overnight french toast are favorites with our group.  These are generally easy to scale depending on group size and easy to adjust based on the ingredients you have on hand.  You bought an extra dozen eggs?  Just add them in.  Someone drank the last of the milk but we have extra half-and-half.  That works!  Leftover onions from tonight’s burgers?  Chop those babies up and mix them into one pan of egg casserole.  Additionally, while things like scrambled eggs don’t make great leftovers, breakfast casseroles generally reheat well, making breakfast prep lighter on future mornings.

We make breakfast casseroles in the evening and throw them in the fridge in disposable foil pans.  We buy these pans in bulk because it makes clean up so much easier.  No scraping baked-on egg off a glass pan!  Because who wants to do that much work on vacation??  Plus they usually come with lids, although stacking more than one pan in a crowded fridge can become a problem as the pans are sometimes pretty flimsy.  Stacking cookie sheets between them can help.  

Breakfast prep has become a personal favorite time for me since we often drag the kids into helping.  Many of them seem to enjoy this time as they all look forward to eating their handiwork in the morning.  Lots of fun conversations are started while everyone is chopping ham and cracking eggs.  The next morning, the first person out of bed turns on the oven and pops the casseroles in to bake.  One added benefit is the scents wafting through the house help rouse sleepy-heads.  

Pancakes are another item that often appears on our menu since Costco has big bags of pancake mix.  You will need a larger griddle to make this work though.  You can check with your vacation home owner to see if the house has one already.  If we are driving to our destination, one or two families will bring along our personal griddles as well.  They come in handy and it helps to have more than one griddle cooking when you have to feed lots of people.  We’ve even used one griddle in the kitchen for pancakes and a second one outside on the deck to make bacon or sausage and still keep the smell out of the house.

Breakfast sliders are a newer addition to our menu, but these are easy and fun to make.  The kids can help with this since most of the work is piling toppings onto rolls.  We usually make ours with ham, cheese and scrambled eggs, but you could mix it up with different meats or veggies.

With a little planning and some teamwork, you can start your day off right with a good breakfast!

Here are some recipes we use:

 

Overnight Egg Casserole

8 slices bread (we often use more), toasted (or not) and cubed

4 cups diced ham

2 cups grated cheese

8 eggs (or more), beaten

2 cups milk

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon pepper

Put cubed bread in a 9×13 pan.  Top with meat and cheese.  Combine eggs, milk, salt and pepper and pour over top.  Put in fridge overnight.  Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.  Let rest for 10 minutes before serving.  Optional: Feel free to play with the recipe.  Chop up veggies or exchange sausage or bacon for the ham.  Try different cheeses or use sourdough or a hearty multigrain bread.  Serves 15.

 

Creme Brulee French Toast

I got this recipe off a morning news show probably 15 years ago.  It’s been a well loved staple for several groups ever since.

½ cup butter

1 cup brown sugar

2 Tablespoons corn syrup

1 large loaf sourdough bread

5 eggs

1 ½ cups half and half

1 teaspoon vanilla

Melt butter with brown sugar and corn syrup, stirring until smooth.  Pour this mixture into a 9×13 pan.   Cut the bread into 1 to 2 inch slices and place in a single layer over the sugar/butter mixture (okay, here is where we improvise:  we usually use thicker slices and squeeze them in to get as much bread in the pan as possible.  Sometimes if we have extra bread, we use two layers).  Whisk together the eggs, half and half and vanilla until combined well and pour over the bread, trying to soak the top of each piece.  You may want to mix up more eggs and half and half, or just add a little milk to keep it from drying out.  Cover and refrigerate overnight.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees and bake French toast, uncovered, until puffed and edges are golden, 35 to 40 minutes.  To serve, cut into squares and lift with a spatula onto a plate, flipping over so the caramel goodness is on the top.  Serves 6 to 8.

 

Breakfast Sliders

24 Hawaiian sweet rolls

1 lb sliced ham

2 cups shredded cheese

1 dozen eggs

½ cup milk

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

2 Tablespoons maple syrup

2 Tablespoons butter

 

Carefully cut the rolls in half, cutting the entire package at once.  Reserve the tops and place the bottoms in a 9×13 pan.  Top the bottom rolls with ham.  Beat the eggs and add the milk, salt and pepper.  Scramble the eggs until cooked through.  Layer the scrambled eggs over the ham and top with cheese, then the tops of the rolls.  Melt the syrup and butter together in the microwave, then brush over tops of rolls.  Bake in a 350 degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes until the cheese is melted and sliders are warmed through.  Serves 8 to 10.

 

OBX? Of Course!

Sometimes the hardest decision about a group trip is selecting the perfect location.  While planning a recent extended family trip, locations were suggested ranging from Disney World, Seattle, Maine, Maui and Branson, Missouri.  There are pros and cons to each location but what a challenge to compare such different destinations!

While group interests, budgets and distances always play into the suitableness of a location, some places offer better options for a group. The Outer Banks (OBX) of North Carolina is one such location.  

The OBX is a series of narrow barrier islands stretching along the eastern coast of North Carolina.  By narrow, I mean that you can often look one way to see the Atlantic Ocean, and turn your head for a view of the Sound.

Here are some of the pros and cons to the Outer Banks:

Pros:

    • Beautiful beaches and lots of them!  These barrier islands are basically one long beach.
    • Tons of rental houses ranging in size from small to ubber large (there was a 16 bedroom behemoth a few streets over from our house).  In fact, rental houses pack both the Atlantic and Sound sides of the island and none are far from the beach.  Many have private beach access and/or private pools.  No matter the size of your group, you will find options here for even large gatherings.
    • Lots of vacation homes here are owned by rental companies with large inventories.  If you have a really big group, or are looking for two houses close together, you can check with one of these companies to see if they have options available to fit your needs.  
    • You won’t have far to go for groceries if your group decides to utilize your house’s kitchen.  There are almost as many Food Lions as there are Starbucks in Seattle!  Okay, not really.  But you won’t have to drive far and there will almost certainly be one on your way home at the end of the day.
    • Since you will have already spent enough on your beachside house, you can find cheap entertainment at one of the four nearby National Park sites (Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, Wright Brothers National Memorial, Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Cape Lookout National Seashore).  If there are kids in your group, check out the Junior Ranger program at each site.  Ask at the visitor center for a Junior Ranger booklet.  These contain questions and information about each site.  Your child answers the questions and then returns to the ranger to receive a badge and be sworn in as a junior ranger.  Our whole family enjoys working through the books together since they serve as a sort of guide to the site.  Even my 13 year old nephew earned a couple badges!  I’d also recommend Jockey’s Ridge State Park to get and idea of what the large sand dunes on the islands looked like before they were stabilized to make room for all those vacation homes.  This is also an awesome place to fly kites!
    • Lots of cheap beach gear stores.  This is particularly handy if you fly to North Carolina.  Since you’ll be spending lots of time lounging in the sun, you might want to invest in a couple chairs and a big beach umbrella.  We bought a new 10’ x 10’ canopy for $40.  We used it every day and then sold it to the family at the neighboring house for $20.  
    • You can really get away from it all if you rent a house north of Corolla past where the paved road ends.  You’ll need a four wheel drive vehicle to make it to these houses (so be sure to double check the location of your house if it has a Corolla address).  You will also need to keep an eye out for wild horses that roam this area.  
    • There are a lot more vacation homes than hotels in the OBX.  There aren’t huge cities or large resort areas so the area has the feeling of a laid-back beach community.
    • Expect beautiful sunrises and dolphin sightings on the Atlantic side!

Cons:

    • Houses can be expensive and the price goes up the closer you get to the beach.  Want a pool too?  You can expect to pay more.  However, before you cross the OBX off your list, think about how much time you will be spending at the beach.  We found that the convenience of beach access was worth the cost.  The kids could run back to the house to use the bathroom or bring back a forgotten beach toy without needing an adult to go with them.  We never had to drag gear far and we just walked back to the house for lunch.  We also spent next to nothing on other activities, mostly because we didn’t need many other activities.  
    • Beach access for houses not on the beach can be a bit tricky.  Since so many of the houses are beach-front, those set back from the beach may require a bit of a walk to get to a public access.  It’s usually not far, but you may want to consider that when selecting a house, particularly if you have group members with mobility issues.
    • The OBX is not really close to large cities, which makes it harder to get to if you fly.  We flew into Norfolk, Virginia and then drove an hour and a half to get to our house.  There are shuttle services available, but since there aren’t a lot of urban communities on the islands, you will likely want a car while you are there.
    • If you don’t like the sun, sand and surf, then this is not the place for you.  There are some tourist attractions but most things are geared toward the ocean.
    • You need to book early for the best selection of houses and especially those with more moderate prices.  We booked our house about 3 months out, but we had trouble with houses getting booked before we had time to confirm with everyone in our group.  We also paid more since only more expensive house were left.
    • There aren’t a lot of roads (since there isn’t a lot of room for them) so traffic can sometimes be bad on the main roads.

Overall, I would recommend the Outer Banks if your group is looking for a laid back, beach trip.  However, I’d look elsewhere if most group members prefer the indoors.  If you are like our family and beach time is always time well spent, then add the OBX to your bucket list!

Got another suggestion for a great group destination?  Send us a comment!

Finding Your Vacation Rental

You’ve picked your group. You’ve found the perfect destination. Now you just need to find an amazing vacation house to complete your get-away with the gang!

These days finding a vacation rental is pretty much as simple as finding a hotel room. But how do you know that house you Googled is a good deal, or even the real deal?

This summer we will head out on our 18th trip and we’ve had a vacation house for all but the first two years. These days, there are tons of websites listing houses all over the world, but finding our first house wasn’t so easy. There weren’t a lot of options for finding a vacation house to rent.

It seems that every travel site is starting to offer a vacation rental search option. Trip Advisor, Travelocity, and Expedia all have tabs to click for vacation rentals. Recently I searched for the same destination and dates on all three sites and Trip Advisor seemed to work the best for me (goingdutchtravel is not sponsored by any of the sites listed in this post so I’m just giving my opinion—you may have better luck with a different site). Sometimes lots of hotel rooms pop up. Since I generally know if I want a hotel room or a vacation rental, it was annoying to scroll past lots of hotels when I know that’s not what I’m looking for.

Airbnb is another option that I haven’t personally used, but I’ve spent some time searching. It includes some pretty interesting vacation rentals and experiences you can try (like a bike and tasting tour through Paris). You can even rent a bedroom in someone’s home instead of renting the whole house—usually less expensive but also less private.

Over the years, our group has consistently used vacation rental by owner (vrbo.com) and more recently, homeaway.com. Both sites are remarkably similar. In fact, I’m not sure why there are still two sites since vrbo is apparently part of homeway. If you find a house on one site, you can find the same listing on the other by entering the rental number. I personally like homeaway’s mobile app for searching and saving rentals.

Whatever site you use, the best advice we can give you is to use the filters. If you have definite dates, be sure and enter them. Why fall in love with a mountain cabin that is booked for the next 6 months if your vacation is in 3?

Most importantly, filter by number of bedrooms or by the number of people. Depending on your location, your search can return a long list of houses from one-bedroom studios to ten-bedroom mansions. Limiting your choices to those that you might actually be interested in renting will make the process shorter and much less frustrating.

Finally, read those reviews! While you can always expect to have some great ones and some terrible ones, look for rentals that have lots of feedback. It doesn’t guarantee a good rental, but the more people who have posted, the less likely that you are only seeing reviews from the owner’s best buddies who got to stay for free if they gave a good report on-line.

There are also other options for locating rental properties without using the sites listed above. Sometimes visitor’s bureaus will list vacation rentals on their sites. Destinations with large numbers of vacation rentals will often have realty companies that own lots of houses. You can contact them directly to ask about properties they have available. This is a great option if you know you want to rent two or three houses close together for large, multi-family groups. You can also ask family and friends for recommendations.

If you have a site you like for finding that best spot, send us a comment!

Best of luck sorting through all those condos, bungalows and cabins! With a little practice and a lot of savvy searching, you too can soon be relaxing with your favorite friends and family.

Think Pink!

One of the big challenges of a group vacation is managing everyone’s expectations for a vacation home.  To add to the fun, you really don’t know what you are going to get until you plop your suitcase down on the front step.  Vacation rental listings generally have lots of photos but a tiny digital image doesn’t always tell the whole story.

Individual people have different ideas of what they want their vacation to look like.  Included in that package is usually a nice place to stay.  But my Taj Mahal may look like a trailer park to my fellow traveler.  

This became apparent to me about a month ago.  It has become a tradition for my husband’s parents to organize a family vacation to celebrate their milestone anniversaries.  This includes the families of Greg and his two brothers.  This year we are marking my in-law’s 50th Anniversary.  

At Christmas, the adults gathered and tossed around proposed locations for a couple hours.  Dates were discussed but no decisions were really made at that time. Several weeks and quite a few emails later, the choice was narrowed to a beach house on the coast between Washington, D.C. and Florida.  

Two things I then learned:  there are a TON of vacation rentals along the Atlantic coast and if you want one, do not dally.  More than once we settled on a house only to find that it had already been booked by the time everyone had a chance to weigh in on the decision.

My father-in-law eventually found the perfect house and immediately put a two-day hold on it so we could confer.  It has the exact number of bedrooms we need.  They are configured so that the two families with kids have a kid room with the exact number of beds set up as a suite with the adult rooms.  There are four bathrooms, one for each family.  It has a pool.  And a hot tub.  And a boardwalk out to our own stretch of ocean-lapped sand.  The only way this house could get more perfect for us is if they renamed it with our family name.

Ah, but there was a problem: it’s pink.

When my father-in-law called to tell me he had found this house, he said he thought it could work, but it was kind of ugly.  When I asked for details, he told me the color.  I thought it must be some garish fushia.  As I scrolled through the photos, I saw the bedrooms, the bathrooms, the amenities and a pastel shade of coastal pink.  

I called Greg and had him look at the pictures to see if he thought the color was too much.  He is a man who is not a fan of pink, but he didn’t mind the house looking like an Easter egg.  He said, “We’re not buying the house.  Tell Dad to book it.”

So I did.

The next afternoon, Greg called to tell me that his mom had called and she was concerned about the vacation rental.  She didn’t know if he would mind spending a week in a pink house.

So I called my mother-in-law to find out what she was thinking.  She had spent all morning searching through dozens more homes without finding one that seemed to fit our group as well as the rose-colored beauty.  

In, probably not the most diplomatic tone, I reminded her that we were not purchasing this home.  It is a rental and after we have rented it, we can come home to our regular color houses.  Why was it such a big deal that the house was pink?

Her response to me that day was that we had such a nice house on our last trip five years ago.  She just wanted this house to be as nice.

Long story short, we booked the house.  I think it helped that my daughters Anna and Kay were super excited about the hue and the fact that the house is named after one of their favorite mythical sea creatures.  

Recently I called my mother-in-law back and chatted with her about why they had been so concerned about the color.  She mentioned something that we have often discussed over the many years I have been in the family.  She is concerned with form over function while I am the total opposite.  Where I saw perfection in the number of beds, she saw imperfection in the aesthetics.  

She mentioned how our last rental had an amazing backyard with a 15-foot waterfall.  It was a pretty cool 1920s California bungalow.  But it also had that weird cork wall and had been added on to a time or two, resulting in a broken layout.  There was a fabulous bedroom reached by a spiral staircase, but the nearest bathroom was a floor below and down the hall.

No vacation rental is going to be perfect for all people.  There will always be something broken or perplexing.  The furnishings or appliances will not be to everyone’s taste.  But try to remember (and remind your fellow travelers) that you are renting this house.  No thirty- year mortgages will be signed.  This isn’t a love affair for the ages.  It’s a casual fling.    

Now that the house is booked, we are planning to spend our vacation looking for rentals uglier than ours (with the exception of Kay and Anna who will be looking for prettier houses).  And if we don’t find one, at least we will always remember the vacation where we stayed in that pink house.

Laura

Joie de Vivre

Our intent for this blog is to share some useful tips and practical ideas for planning and executing group trips.  But events of the past week have brought home some things that I wanted to share.

I am a substitute aide at my children’s school.  Last week, a sixth grader passed away after a sudden and very short illness.  Prior to this, he had been the picture of health and vitality.  Full of sunshine and joie de vivre, his passing touched all those who knew him, no matter how slight. 

As can be expected when a community loses a child, the next few days were full of difficult moments.  But one thing that was brought home to me was how fleeting life can be.  We can plan for an event five years in the future but there is no guarantee that tomorrow an oncoming car won’t cross the centerline into our lane or a routine doctor’s visit won’t end with x-rays and a terminal diagnosis.

Thinking about this young man’s untimely passing, made me not only hold my own children tight, but also think about the other kids in my life, especially the ones who are a part of our yearly group trip.  I have watched these babies grow into young men and women getting ready to spread their wings.  I’ve bandaged their boo boos.  I’ve cheered their successes.  I’ve even threatened them within an inch of their life when their behavior warranted it. 

My memories of them are wrapped up in weeks spent searching for geocaches in Colorado, splashing through waterparks in Wisconsin, hiking around Mt. Rushmore and schlepping carseats through a cave in Missouri.  I hope and pray that I get a lot of years being one of their “Vacay Moms.”

It seems so easy these days to stay in touch by text message and Face Book posts.  But life is so short.  We never know when our time is going to be up.  Wouldn’t it be better to have memories of things done with people you love?  Let’s all put down our smart phones and make the effort to spend time with friends and family.

I’m not saying that you should break the bank to go on that dream vacation.  Maybe the Alaskan cruise or the African safari will have to wait until the mortgage is paid off.  But isn’t a long weekend spent exploring a location you’ve never visited with friends who will (hopefully) become even closer in the glow of shared experiences and discoveries worth the effort?

Life really is short, even if you are lucky enough to make 90 trips around the sun.  Make the most of the time you get to spend with those you love.