Our Paris Top Ten

I’m from the era of Late Night with David Letterman.  He had his “Top Ten” staple on every show, and as cliche as it may be, I really like the Top Ten concept.  So here it is. I took some of these verbatim from my Trip Advisor reviews.  My contributor name is JulieG if you are a Trip Advisor junkie.

The Funtrips Top Ten Favorite Experiences in Paris…

10. Shopping at Louis Vuitton:  Now this seems a little silly, but I had been saving for a LV handbag for a long time.  Shopping at the flagship store on the Champs Elysee turned my purchase into a luxury event, including complementary French Champagne.  I don’t splurge like that often, but I say, if you are going to splurge, do it right!  So by making this purchase in paris, I got the purse and the experience.  And, for Americans, the exchange rate benefit ($ to Euro) and the VAT refund make the net price of French luxury goods a little more palatable now…so use THAT for your justification!

9. Lunch at La Duree:  We went for lunch at the location on the Champs Elysee. Honestly, I expected this visit to be disappointing. I thought it would be overpriced and a bit snobby. But, we really enjoyed the food and the service was lovely. The only funny price issue was that my husband’s Diet Coke cost 2 Euros more than my wine! Gotta love France! My kids and husband had a chicken sandwich, and I had a chicken Caesar salad and both were good. The macarons are truly unlike any other. I think the vanilla is heaven.  I have friends who went for tea here and also enjoyed that experience, so there are plenty of options.

8. Dinner at Vins et Terroirs:  In a city with an overwhelming number of dinner options, we went here twice.  That either says something about them or something about us.  We loved the restaurant and the entire area around it (St. Michele).  Our meals were delicious and a wonderful value.  I had the canard avec sauce a l’orange…it was tres bon!   My kids had steak and the staff ensured the sauce was on the side…because my girls are picky. Overall, the staff was so friendly and welcoming to our kids that it made the meal enjoyable for all of us.  Our server recommended two great wines that just added to the deliciousness too. To top it off, the menu had English translations, but that didn’t take away from the ambience or French authenticity (as with other touristy restaurants).

7. Dessert at Amorino:  We went twice during our visit to Paris…both times after dinner at Vins et Terriors (Amorino is down the street). We loved the classic chocolate, chocolate chip and vanilla. Not necessarily exotic flavors, but they were delicious. And the presentation was so fun! They make the gelato in the cones in the shape of flowers (see the featured image above). In making those flowers, they allowed multiple flavors in a single order. The petite is better with no more than four flavors…so if you want more than four, go bigger!

6. The Louvre in the evening:  I had read about this somewhere else in my research and it was one of the best tips I received.  On Wednesday and Friday evenings, the Louvre is open late (check the website to confirm, but I think closing time is about 9:45 pm).  The lines are MUCH shorter (especially when trying to view the Mona Lisa) and the building is more peaceful (more conducive to enjoying art).  We entered at about 6pm and left at about 9pm.  This gave us plenty of time afterward to enjoy dinner nearby (and there are plenty of options).

5. Walking:  I know this sounds odd, but we loved walking in Paris.  We didn’t use the metro (subway) once.  We walked EVERYWHERE!  Paris is a city of big things and little things.  Stay with me here.  The big things are the obvious things – museums, monuments, etc.  The little things are the architecture, the outdoor cafes, the little alleys and squares, the shops, the “Space Invader” street art, etc. It’s definitely easier to enjoy the little things if you are wandering on foot.  And, while wandering is great, when you have limited time, you have to make your wandering productive.  We planned out our days so that we had time to walk and enjoy neighborhoods between destinations.  My favorite walk was from our hotel in the 1st Arrondissement to dinner in the Latin Quarter.  It took us over two bridges and through the Ile de la Cite.  Some of our favorite photos were taken on that walk.  And it doesn’t hurt if you have an international data plan through your domestic phone service…using our maps on our smart phones saved us a lot of frustration and wasted time.

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It’s fun to spy the “Space Invader” street art throughout Paris.

4. Notre Dame:  I did a whole blog post on it we loved it some much.

3. The Eiffel Tower:  Obvious!  Did a blog post on that too!

2. Staying at the Relais du Louvre: We loved the location in the 1st Arrondissement.  This location allowed us to walk to all the main city sites (see #10), and there was plenty of shopping and eating nearby, including the high end places on Rue St. Honore. The room was darling and very traditional French, and we felt like we were in family home. We were in room 51 (check it out on their site) which had plenty of space for our family of 4. Having breakfast (which was plentiful) served in the room was a treat and really a perfect way to start the day of touring. Also, the staff speaks amazing English but politely allowed us to practice our much weaker French. They called us cabs when necessary that arrived quickly and were clean/safe/helpful.  We cannot wait to return!

1.Bike About Tours:   We took a fantastic bike tour with Bike About Tours and the lovely Laura, future best-selling author. We learned so many fantastic tidbits about Paris that you don’t learn in the guidebooks or the history books. What sold me was their “off the beaten path” approach. We saw areas of Paris that we wouldn’t have gone on our own such as the Marais. Yet we also saw some important “typical” sites like the Tuileries or Centre Pompidou. Overall, the bike tour was a highlight of our Paris trip! And I appreciated their focus on safety. I never thought I would let my kids ride bikes in the streets of Paris!  But, we all survived without a scratch!

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A Harry Potter visit that was truly magical

Last night was Halloween, and no surprise, my daughter and her friends were watching Harry Potter movies on TV.  It reminded me of our trip to the Warner Bros Studio Tour London to see The Making of Harry Potter.  We talked about this tour, and how we almost missed out, in a previous blogpost.  All I can say is, plan early!  If you like Harry Potter movies even a little, you will not want to miss this tour!

TRANSPORTATION AND TIMING

As I previously explained, we waited too long to buy our tickets directly through the Warner Bros site.  This is your best bet, by far.  This gives you the most flexibility during your day and allows you to spend the necessary 4 hours (minimum) at the WB Studio (no joke). The website gives you instructions on which train to take to the WB Studio in Leavesden, about an hour away from London, and how to grab the shuttle from the train station.

Our only option was to buy our tickets through a bus tour we found on Trip Advisor called Golden Tours.  We met the tour bus in downtown London (near Victoria Station) and they drove us out (and back) to the WB Studio.  The ride itself was fine, but Golden Tours only schedules a three-hour visit to the WB Studio.  We were fortunate to get on the first bus which left a little ahead of schedule and got us to the WB Studio 30 minutes early.  We lined up immediately and the WB Studio staff let us in before our scheduled time (which may or may not be normal…it doesn’t hurt to try).

We had over three hours for the visit…and we felt rushed.  By the time you look at everything, wait in line to ride brooms, practice with wands, and do other interactive things, the time flies.  We did stop and shop at the WB Studio store, which was an absolute zoo (but remember we were there in August). My husband lined up to pay while we shopped in order to speed up the process.  My girls felt like there were items at the WB Studio store that they did not see at Universal Studios Hollywood.  I personally could have skipped shopping, which is a rare statement for me.

FOOD

We didn’t stop for a snack halfway through the tour, except to eat the granola bars and drink the water they let us bring in.  Many people stop for Butterbeer, but we had already tasted it at Universal Studios Hollywood.  We would have enjoyed having a more leisurely lunch/dinner before jumping back on the bus, but the time was limited.  The cafe in the main lobby has MUCH better eating options than the cafe inside (but only Butterbeer is sold inside…be forewarned).  We ordered pizza and pasta for our kids to quickly eat and took most of it with us for the ride back.

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OUR FAVORITE THINGS

The tour starts out in a group with guides/employees of the WB Studio.  However, once you get past the Great Hall, you are set free to go through the rest at your own pace.  The first room (which is enormous…no claustrophobia here) has on overwhelming number of things to see.  The costumes, the make up, the sets, the props…all of it is so detailed and fascinating.  Of course they have sets that you recognize, but they also have the drawings/plans and models that they created before building the sets.  They also have demonstrations and videos to show how they did their special effects.  I suppose that younger children may tire out quickly, but since I had a 12 and 13 year old, they took the time to look at the details.  Also, we enjoyed the interactive exhibits which seemed to be open to all ages.  If you need some fresh air, there are outside exhibits as well.

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The Great Hall
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Harry’s costumes over the years

 

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Harry and Ron’s room
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The Sorting Hat
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Professor Snape and Potions Class
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And there are plenty of outdoor sets too!

 

The broom riding (on a mechanical broom with a green screen backdrop) was a must-do for us.  The line is a bit long to wait, but it is super fun!  The activity is free, but it is quite pricey to buy the videos and photos.  We did purchase all of it (and have done nothing with it), but it is an expense we weren’t expecting, so be prepared.

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All in all, visiting the WB Studio was a highlight of our London trip!  It was educational and entertaining for all of us.  I’m so grateful that we did not miss this!

 

Muggles visit Hogsmeade and Hogwarts

Living in Southern California has its perks, especially when it comes to entertainment. Our family has never visited Orlando and had debated whether it should be added to our infamous “list” of #futurefuntrips (sorry, Insta has made us a bit hashtag crazy).  One of the biggest of the draws to Orlando was a potential visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWHP) at Universal Studios Orlando.  Well, imagine my glee to find that Universal Studios Hollywood would be opening a WWHP of their own.  Check that one off the list!

Now, mind you, I just stated that we have never been to Orlando so I cannot compare the two.  If you have experience visiting both, I welcome your comments.  Based on our visit to the WWHP in Hollywood, we would give it SIX thumbs up!  (hubby didn’t go…his vote will come in May)  This is a very fun visit!

We visited on March 31st during one of the soft openings/technical rehearsals.  The “real” opening is April 7th.  We learned about these openings by following #PotterWatch on Twitter.  People would tweet when WWHP was open…it was inconsistent.  A big shout out to @NERDSLIKEUS who quoted insider scoop and told us that it would be open on March 31.  We took our chances and went.  As we entered the parking lot, we checked Twitter and saw that it had just opened. There was much rejoicing!

Our first stop was the Butterbeer line.  I got Butterbeer from the tap in a souvenir cup.  I had the option to get the Butterbeer frozen, but I don’t think it would have had the foam (which was super sweet). It was a tough call.  I will say the Butterbeer from the tap was not very cold…think English beer.  So you will have to weigh the pros and cons.  Overall, Butterbeer is not my favorite, but I don’t like sweet drinks.  I drink water, black coffee and dry red wine. So, perhaps I’m not a good judge.  The taste is that of a very sweet cream soda with butterscotch.  And the aftertaste was a bit too artificial-sweetener-ish for me. Sorry to be a downer.  Others love it, so you must try it for yourself.  The girls got Gilly Water (which was overpriced bottled water…but it must be done).  Next time I plan to try the Pumpkin Juice just because.

 

Next we went wand shopping.  We saw the line for the wand show.  Apparently there is a way for a “wand to choose you.”  We did not go that route, so you may want to explore that option.  We went the capitalistic/consumeristic route:  let’s just pay a lot of money for someone else’s wand.  All sarcasm aside, a wand is a must-purchase in Hogsmeade. Inside Ollivanders, wands are stacked floor to ceiling.  The box will tell you to whom it belonged (Harry, Hermoine, etc.).  The gold stickers indicate interactive wands.  Those are about $50 and the non-interactive are about $40.  An interactive wand can be used throughout Hogsmeade to perform “spells” and make store window decorations move (among other things).  See my girls in front of the Honeydukes window below. Honestly, I do not understand the point of a non-interactive wand.  You will be so sad if you can’t do spells. You’re already spending money…so what’s $10 more?

After touring around and visiting the “spell stops” indicated on the wand map (inside the box), we shopped at Honeydukes for signature sweets from the Harry Potter series.  The must-purchase item is the chocolate frog.  Inside are wizard cards, just like in the book/movie.

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After looking at owls and shopping for robes, we lined up at the castle for the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.  This is a ride and a 3D adventure all rolled into one that takes you through scenes/stories from the movie.  The Quidditch ride at the end was our favorite!  But, the warnings they give about motion sickness are no joke.  If you struggle to watch a regular 3D movie, you will feel the effects with this one.  In my old age, I get sea sick and can’t ride roller coasters anymore.  However I did this ride anyway because I wanted to go inside the castle, which is a must see.  The castle is so well done…so much detail…with many of the rooms from the books/movies.  I’m not sure if you can go through the castle (which is essentially your hour-long line to wait for the ride) without getting on the ride (?)  That would be interesting to know.  I did in fact survive the ride, but I regretted the Butterbeer for sure.  And, I needed to rest and get my land legs back afterward.  No joke.  I won’t do the ride again, but I’m so glad I didn’t miss it.  The girls LOVED it!  They will go again with my husband for sure.

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We passed on the Flight of the Hippogriff ride.  It is a traditional outdoor roller coaster. My kids aren’t too fond of roller coasters and after the Forbidden Journey, I was toast.  So, the Hippogriff will have to be a #futurefuntrips experience (sorry, couldn’t resist).

After Harry Potter, we went into the rest of the park.  We loved the Despicable Me Super Silly Funland, by the way.  We bought CA annual passes to Universal Studios Hollywood so that we could visit multiple times this year. We still have yet to the see any of the shows in WWHP and we didn’t take photos with the Hogwarts Express.  Also, I think there were some shops that weren’t open during technical rehearsals.  In addition, we will eat at Three Broomsticks next time when I’m not so motion sick.  But, I am glad that Universal Studios Hollywood has so many other fun attractions to add value to our annual pass, because I think after a couple more visits to Hogsmeade and Hogwarts, we will have seen all there is to see in the WWHP.  That said, overall, it is a must-add to your family list!

Montana Reflection #4 – Food!

So this be a fairly short blog because we literally ate at three places on our ski trip:  Mama Macs in Four Corners (Bozeman), Scissorbills Saloon at the Big Sky Resort and M.R. Hummers at the Mountain Mall (also at the Resort). Basically, if we like a place, we keep going back!

Mama Macs is an adorable stop at Four Corners on Hwy 191 on the way to Big Sky from Bozeman.  We stopped because it had good Yelp reviews (to which we added) and it seemed local and cozy. We loved it so much, we went there on the way back to Bozeman as well.  They had such delicious sandwiches!  My husband had the Pastrami on Rye which he enjoyed.  I had the TAB (Turkey, Avocado and Bacon…see picture) which was filled with veggies.  One daughter had the grilled cheese on sourdough with cheese so thick she could barely finish.  The other daughter had a hamburger which she declared to be one of the best ever (and she is a hamburger connoisseur).  All of the bread is homemade!  So, that fact alone makes this worth a visit!  Check it out!

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The TAB with the veggies of my choice! Yum!

Our first night in Big Sky we went to Scissorbills Saloon.  Basically, this is a bar, not a restaurant.  And it while it acts like it wants to be a restaurant, it really doesn’t.  The food was fine, but there was only one server for the whole place, so the service was rough.  If you are looking to grab a beer and eat some nachos after skiing, this is your place.  Otherwise, try M.R. Hummers.

So our favorite resort eats were from M.R. Hummers (M.R. stands for Moose River).  We discovered this place on the first day when we were literally frozen from a morning of skiing.  They sat us efficiently and served us cocoa in moments.  They give all the tables a pitcher of water to start off because they know that skiers get thirsty!  They have a full bar with lots of good selections too.  My kids ate hamburgers and chicken fingers which weren’t glamorous but super satisfying. They were sold out of the mac-n-chesse loaf both days, much to my younger daughter’s dismay.  For lunch both days I had soup that was delish (and not from a can).  For dinner, my husband had the filet and I had the roast chicken, both of which were great!  The service was so friendly and they started seating us at “our table” by the second day.  Go visit them and get the hot cocoa!

Thinking about Mint on a Monday…

Recently our family flew in Mint Class on Jet Blue from Los Angeles to New York.  Mint Class is their version of Business Class with some unique features that you would expect from airline like Jet Blue.

We were attending a reunion at the United States Military Academy at West Point (check out our Instagram shots…so much fun) and had a tight itinerary.  Our only way to make the trip work was to fly a red eye.  Some people think overnight flights are great with kids…me, not so much!  My girls need their sleep!  We rationalized that if the girls could stretch out and be comfortable, they might have a fighting chance of surviving the following day of activity.  So, we ponied up the extra cash.

If you shop Mint, you may notice that, with enough advance time, the price is pretty reasonable for the amount of space and service you receive.  You can fly cross-country in Mint Class for well under $1000 roundtrip.  If you compare to other airlines, it’s not too shabby.

So, now you want to know…was it worth it?  Regarding out sleep, the answer is a “maybe.”  The reality is that an overnight flight to New York is only 5 hours.  But, with all the distractions, it is 3-4 hours of sleep at best.  It was sufficient for my husband to survive, but the girls had to crash at the hotel that morning.  And, that’s not Jet Blue’s fault; they can’t circle JFK for 3 hours while we get a little more REM time.  Regarding our service and comfort in Mint, I would say that our reviews are mostly positive.  Here are our Thumbs:

Comfort – Thumbs Up:  The seats in Mint fully recline (180 degrees baby!) and they give you really cozy duvets and mini pillows to snuggle in.  Along with an eye mask and ear plugs, it is possible to sleep.  The seats have a variety of settings for stretching out as little or as much as you want; they include lumbar support and massaging adjustments which are a nice novelty, but not super effective for smaller people (like kids or height-challenged moms).   My only critique, having flown Business Class before, I would have loved to have received a pair of slippers during my Mint experience.  It’s a bummer to have to shove your slightly-swollen feet back into your shoes on to go to the restroom! (spoiled brat comment, I know)

Cute sleeping masks!
Cute sleeping masks!

Entertainment – Thumbs Up:  We had DirectTV for the entire flight along with a slew of movies.  However, I believe that people in Economy have the same.  So while we thoroughly enjoyed the entertainment, I’m not sure we needed to be in Mint Class to get the benefit.  You’ll have to investigate for yourself.

Storage – Thumbs Middle:  Because the seats fully recline, it really limited the storage at your seat.  There is a pocket in front of you to put a book or smaller item.  But the flight attendant had to put my backpack (with my purse/wallet) in the storage above me for take off and landing because, even when the seat is upright, your bag cannot be on the floor under the seat in front of you during those times.  I found this odd.  I’ve flown in fully reclining seats before and there is usually a secure place for small carry ons.  Call me paranoid, but I like to have my backpack/purse/computer bag with me.  I don’t want to wait for the seatbelt sign to go off to retrieve it.  But, that may just be me. On the positive side, the seat areas were large and my husband and I looked longingly at the single seats (check out the seating chart) where the traveler basically has a mini condo during the flight.  Now that would be cool!  Also, as you would expect in a premium class, we had no issue finding space above us for our (19 inch) carry-on rolling suitcases.

Food – Thumbs Middle:  In all fairness, part of the issue with our food was our personal preference.  On the positive side, the flight attendant approached us immediately and offered us drinks.  The wine I drank was very good.  And if you give me good wine, I’m going to be your friend!  Also on the positive side, there was not shortage of food…we were told to have TWO desserts (well if you insist!) and were given limitless packaged snacks (not super upscale, but satisfied those flying munchies).  However, and you knew this was coming, we were not a huge fan of the meals they served.  Jet Blue has a New York restaurant partnership so the food they serve in Mint is fancy…not in a stuffy way, but in an avant-garde way.  I wish I had saved a menu to give specific examples.  My apologies.  But if you google Jet Blue Mint, you can see images of the meals taken by people who didn’t have their cameras stored in the overhead (slam…sorry).  So was the food good?  Probably many people will say yes.  However, the kids needed something a little more familiar.  And I have to say, so did my husband and I.  We’re not talking chicken fingers, but something a little less innovative.  The flight attendant was sweet and recommended that next time we should call ahead and ask for food that is more plain, and they will happily accommodate our request.  I suppose I could have considered that a bit condescending, but as she said it, she gave me another glass of wine.  So, she was my friend.

Overall, we would recommend Mint Class from Jet Blue.  We plan to fly it again. I’ll bring a smaller purse and request the plain food.  We’ll let you know how it goes!