We just spent a fantastic Spring Break in Naples, Florida. We’re fortunate to have relatives in Naples which allows us the opportunity to come to this beautiful area on Spring Break every other year or so. This year we spent a great week hitting the beach, playing golf, taking in some Spring Training baseball and eating at some fantastic restaurants.
The first thing I always notice when arriving in Southwest Florida are the smells. It used to start right at the airport in Ft. Myers. As soon as you left the jetway in the old Ft. Myers terminal there was always a distinct, but not unpleasant, mildewy smell that came from the carpeting throughout the airport and caused by the perpetually high humidity. I miss that smell. It told me I was in Florida. The new terminal building is almost all tile so that unique smell is gone. On leaving the airport grounds I smell the peaty scent of the earth resulting from daily rain showers and it continues to the beaches of Naples where the smell of Coppertone instantly transports me back to my childhood on the beaches on Long Island.
Although Naples has it’s own small airport, virtually everyone visiting the area arrives at the Southwest Florida Regional Airport in Fort Myers, a short drive away on I-75. There are several great, and distinct, vacation spots in the area. Some people choose the Ft. Myers and Ft. Myers Beach area. Others choose the seclusion and island lifestyle on Sanibel and Captiva islands. Further south on the Gulf of Mexico lies Bonita Springs followed by the very popular Naples. South of Naples lies Marco Island. Each is unique and offers its own combination of attractions, dining and, of course, the beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. While our family always stays in Naples we’ve typically visit the other areas as well during our visits.
Things to Do
There are so many things to do in Southwest Florida that it can often be hard to choose. Living in the cold of Minnesota for most of the year we tend to focus our Spring Break vacation on the beach. Deb and I grew up on the beaches of the east coast and we’re naturally drawn to the sand and surf. There are excellent beaches on the entire southwest coast of Florida stretching from Ft. Myers Beach all the way south to Marco Island. You can simply sit and enjoy the sun or if you prefer more activity at the beach you can find some of the best shelling in the world along the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva Islands.
If you visit Florida between late February and the end of March you’ll find Grapefruit League baseball in full swing. Ft. Myers is winter home to two Major League baseball teams, the Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins. Each team has its own stadium and training complex. The games are very popular and it can often be a challenge to get tickets. While you’ll typically find scalpers selling tickets near each stadium it’s a good idea to check for tickets online before you leave home.
There are an incredible number of golf courses in Southwest Florida. They range from very high-end private golf clubs to good quality public golf courses. Green Fees at the average public golf course in the area typically run about $100 per player for 18 holes including a golf cart. You can usually find cheaper twilight rates later in the day at many courses.
One of our family traditions when we visit Naples is a competitive game of miniature golf. There are a number of mini-golf courses in the area but our favorite is Coral Cay Adventure Golf in Naples. They have two miniature golf courses on site and it’s always a lot of fun.
Fishing is a very popular activity throughout Florida. If deep sea fishing is something you’re looking for there many, many charter fishing boats throughout the area. We often go down to the City Dock in Naples where there are a number of boats available for hire for either half-day or full-day charters.
If you’re looking for a more casual fishing experience, just take your rod and reel to one of the beaches on the Gulf of Mexico or try your luck in one of the many lakes or canals that dot the landscape.
On days when it’s raining or too cloudy for the beach there’s always shopping. Southwest Florida is home to several great shopping destinations ranging from the height of fashion to some of the best outlet mall shopping you’ll find anywhere.
Waterside Shops – 5415 Tamiami Trail North, Naples, FL 34108
Next to Fifth Avenue in New York or the Miracle Mile in Chicago we’ve rarely come across a selection of high end shopping as impressive as we’ve seen at The Waterside Shops in Naples. Here you’ll find large department stores like Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue along with smaller stores like Van Cleef and Arpels, Omega, Ferragamo and St. John. Along with the high-end stores you’ll also find J Crew, Vineyard Vines, Lily Pulitzer and The Gap.
Miromar Outlets –10801 Corkscrew Rd. Estero, FL 33928
Just south of the Ft. Myers airport on I-75 you’ll find the Miromar Outlet Center, a very impressive collection of outlet shops. If you like to shop plan on spending a few hours at Miromar. You’ll find stores like Coach, Cole Haan, Nike, Saks Off Fifth, The Gap, J Crew and many, many more.
Fifth Avenue in Naples
The main street in downtown Naples is Fifth Avenue. Here you’ll find a wide variety of shops and restaurants designed to appeal to every taste and budget. Our favorite stores are The Regatta with its wide assortment of affordable gift items many with a Florida theme and The Wind in the Willows, a store that focuses on large, and we do mean large, statuary for home and garden. We’ve never bought anything at The Wind in the Willows but its always fun to look at what they have for sale. After all, who wouldn’t want a life-sized alligator statue or a full-sized lion statue for their home!
Where to Eat
Southwest Florida has an incredible amount of restaurants. There’s something for every taste and budget. Along with most of the large national chains you’ll find some really high-quality local spots that produce memorable meals. We can’t begin to provide a comprehensive review of all the dining options available but here are a few of our favorite spots.
The Dock at Crayton Cove – 845 12th Ave S, Naples, FL 34102
It wouldn’t be Spring break in Naples, Florida without eating at The Dock. We’ve been eating here as a family since our kids were in diapers. It’s a very family friendly place although if you come with younger kids be aware that they do not take reservations and there is often a wait for a table. While waiting though you can take your kids exploring on the nearby City Dock of Naples and see many of the fishing boats coming back from the day’s fishing trip. The Dock will always be special for introducing our kids to Clams on the Half Shell. Growing up on the east coast we ate them a lot and now our kids like them as well. The food at The Dock is generally excellent and we highly recommend their special Key Lime Grouper.
The Lighthouse – 14301 Port Comfort Road . Fort Myers, Florida 33908
Located in Ft. Myers at the base of the bridge to Sanibel Island, the Lighthouse is a local landmark. It’s especially nice when the weather is warm and you can sit out on their expansive deck overlooking the harbor. We ate at The Lighthouse after attending a Minnesota Twins Spring training game. We would suggest dining on the earlier side to avoid the large crowds the restaurant usually sees.
Seasons 52 – 8930 Tamiami Trail North, Naples, FL 34108
It’s hard to believe that Seasons 52 is actually part of a 40 unit chain. There are ten locations within Florida alone. We’ve eaten at the locations in Naples and Tampa and both have the feel of a nice, local restaurant. They focus on fresh food served in sensible portion sizes. Each time we’ve eaten there the food has been uniformly excellent and the service is great. Seasons 52 is family friendly.
Truluck’s –698 4th Ave. South, Naples, FL 34102
If Mom and Dad can break away for a quiet dinner alone we would recommend Truluck’s in Naples. Although we say it’s a spot for Mom and Dad, the last time we ate at Truluck’s there were several families seated around us including one family with four children under 10! The restaurant specializes in steaks and seafood although we’ve ever only eaten their fish. The service is outstanding and the food is excellent.
Tommy Bahama –1220 3rd St South, Naples, FL 34102
Attached to the Tommy Bahama store in downtown Naples is what we thought was the only Tommy Bahama restaurant in the country. Upon further investigation, however, we found that there are 15 others scattered around the country. It’s a very family-friendly spot offering both lunch and dinner. Seating is either inside or outside and we would highly recommend a seat on their patio assuming the weather is nice. They have live music in the evenings which adds to the ambiance.
The Royal Scoop – 15 8th Street Suite D Bonita Springs, Florida 34134
What’s vacation without ice cream and you won’t find a better ice cream spot than The Royal Scoop in Bonita Springs. While there are now several locations of The Royal Scoop in the Bonita Springs/Naples area and many restaurants serve their ice cream, we’re always drawn back to the original location in Bonita Springs. We’ve been going there on every trip to Southwest Florida for the past 15 years! Don’t be surprised if you see lines out the door when you drive up. Believe us, it’s worth the wait.
While we love traveling to new places as a family, there’s something to be said for going back to familiar spots time and again. For our family, that’s one reason we love spending Spring Break in Naples, Florida. We absolutely love the wide variety of things to see and do. We have favorite places we go to time and time again and I’m sure, God willing, that we’ll keep going back to them long into the future when our kids have kids of their own. We’ve got some incredible family memories and we make great new memories each and every time we go. The weather is typically fantastic, the beaches are outstanding and the food and fun is second to none.
Planning for Spring Break can be challenging particularly if you have limited time available or limited money to spend. The cost of airfare, hotels, rental car and other expenses can add up quickly. An affordable and fun alternative, especially if you live within driving distance of the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, is to spend a few days of your Spring Break at the Mall of America just outside Minneapolis in Bloomington, Minnesota.
The Mall of America is the largest mall in the country with over 500 stores and more than 50 restaurants. But it is so much more than just a shopping mall. The Mall of America contains a full sized amusement park, a huge aquarium, loads of entertainment options and much, much more.
One thing to keep in mind when shopping at the Mall of America is that the state of Minnesota does not charge sales tax on clothing or shoes. Depending on where you live, that can save you up to 8% on your clothing and shoe purchases.
In addition, the surrounding Twin Cities area has a ton of other things to see and do when you and your family want to venture outside of the mall.
What to Do
Nickelodeon Universe, located right in the center of the Mall of America, offers more than 30 rides and attractions spread over seven acres. Included are a full-sized roller coaster and log flume ride along with theme rides featuring Sponge Bob SquarePants and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The thing we like about Nickelodeon Universe is that you’ll find rides to please kids of all ages. To ride the rides in Nickelodeon Universe you’ll need either a wristband or ride pass. A wristband to ride the rides all day is just $34.99. There are cheaper alternatives if your kids want to ride just a ride or two.
Sea Life Aquarium
Underneath the Mall of America sits the SeaLife Minnesota Aquarium featuring a 500,000 gallon tank filled with all sorts of interesting sea life. You can ride through a glass enclosed tunnel 14 feet below the water’s surface and see sharks and sea turtles like you’ve never seen them before. A new feature at the aquarium is the Stingray Adventure which allows your kids to actually touch and feed the Rays. Admission to the aquarium is free for kids under 3, $17.25 plus tax for kids 3-12 and $24.95 plus tax for those 13 and older. Discounted tickets can be purchased online.
Lego has a huge presence at the Mall of America. Part store and part play area your kids will love Lego, located on the first level on the south side of the mall. We especially like the Pick-A-Brick wall which has the best selection of Lego bricks we’ve ever seen.
Moose Mountain Adventure Golf
Located on the 3rd level on the mall’s north side is Moose Mountain Adventure Golf, a north woods themed miniature golf course.
Minnesota Children’s Museum
The Minnesota Children’s Museum recently opened a satellite location on the third floor of the mall’s north side. Modeled after the museum’s main location in St. Paul, the Mall of America location encourages children to learn through play. The museum offers a variety of exhibits that are engaging and fun for kids of all ages. The price for admission is $7.95 for all and free for museum members.
A.C.E.S. Flight Simulation
If flying a fighter plane has been one of your kid’s dreams that you’ll want to make a stop at A.C.E.S. Inside you’ll find a number of different flight simulators that put you right in the middle of the action. A.C.E.S. recommends that children be age 10 or older but they do leave it to parent’s discretion.
Like American Girl stores everywhere, the Mall of America location is two stories of American Girl dolls, clothes, accessories and more. Girls who bring their dolls can drop them off at the salon and let the on-duty stylists give them a new hairdo. After that they can go to the bistro for a bite to eat. American Girls is located right next to the east entrance to Nickelodeon Universe.
At Build-A-Bear, kids create their very own personalized stuffed animal. With more than 30 animal options to make and hundreds of outfits and accessories to choose from each Build-A-Bear experience is a new one. The Mall of America Build-A-Bear is located on the first level on the east side of the mall.
Creative Kidstuff is a Minnesota-based chain of toy stores that has a selection unlike any you’ll find in any other toy store. From unique educational toys to great toys from smaller toy companies you’re sure to find something that will appeal to the children in your life. Creative Kidstuff is located on the first level of the mall on the east side.
Peeps and Company
If your kids like candy be sure to make a special stop at Peeps and Company located on the first floor at the west end of Nickelodeon Universe. Inside you’ll find Peeps of all varieties and a shopping experience unlike any you’ve experienced in any candy store. Peeps and Company is located just inside the west entrance to Nickelodeon Universe.
Where to Eat
Restaurants Inside the Mall of America
The Rainforest Café now has locations around the country but the Mall of America location was the very first. You’ll be pleasantly distracted by the animated animals and simulated thunderstorms. The children’s menu has the old standbys macaroni and cheese, burgers and chicken fingers. The adult menu is very broad with everything from salads to sandwiches to pasta and much, much more.
Hard Rock Café
Similar to Hard Rock Cafes everywhere, the Mall of America location has a music theme with memorabilia displayed throughout the restaurant. The restaurant is two stories tall and sits inside the Nickelodeon Universe amusement park. The menus for both kids and adults are varied and sure to please just about any tastes.
Restaurants Near the Mall of America
International House of Pancakes
Like every IHOP everywhere, the restaurant across the street from the Mall of America specializes in breakfast but is open all day for lunch and dinner as well. Special kids’ menus are available. This IHOP is open 24 hours. 2231 Killebrew Drive, Bloomington, MN 55425
TGI Friday’s positions itself as the original casual dining bar and grill, TGI Fridays offers typical American food and drinks. The restaurant is open from 11:00am until 2:00am daily and offers a special kids’ menu. 2201 Killebrew Drive, Bloomington, MN 55425
Chevy’s creates traditional Mexican dishes from scratch, every day. They use fresh ingredients in all of their recipes. We eat at Chevy’s frequently and have always been impressed with the food and the service we receive. The restaurant is open from 11:00am until Midnight daily and until 1:00 am on Friday and Saturday night. There is a special kids menu available and kids eat free on Tuesday nights. 2251 Killebrew Drive, Bloomington, MN 55425
Where to Stay
There are a wide range of accommodations attached to, and near, the Mall of America. There are two hotels attached directly to the mall, the JW Marriott and the Radisson Blu. Several other hotels are within walking distance and other nearby hotels have frequent free shuttle service to the mall.
The range of accommodations varies widely. There are high-end luxury hotels, mid-priced chains and even a hotel that has its own attached water park. You’re sure to find something that suits your budget.
Hotels Attached to the Mall of America
The JW Marriott is the newest hotel at the Mall of America and is attached to the mall’s north side. The hotel offers 342 guestrooms and suites. The restaurant within the JW Marriott, Cedar + Stone, Urban Table has received rave reviews from the local food press. Their menu offers dishes inspired by Minnesota’s “natural root and local culture.” 2141 Lindau Lane, Bloomington, MN 55425
Located on the mall’s south side, the Radisson Blu offers 500 rooms and suites, each with amenities like free high-speed, wireless Internet and 24-hour room service. The hotel also offers a fully equipped fitness room and an indoor swimming pool. The hotel’s restaurant, FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar offers a wide variety of dishes focusing on the flavors of the American heartland. 2100 Killebrew Drive, Bloomington, MN 55425
Hotels Within Walking Distance
All hotels listed are located within a block or two of the mall. While you can walk, the hotels also offer complimentary shuttle service to the Mall of America.
Best Western Plus
1901 Killebrew Drive, Bloomington, MN 55425
Country Inns and Suites
2221 Killebrew Drive, Bloomington, MN 55425
2261 Killebrew Drive, Bloomington, MN 55425
Towne Place Suites by Marriott
2500 Lindau Lane, Bloomington, MN 55425
Fairfield Inns and Suites by Marriott
2401 American Blvd E, Bloomington, MN 55425
2300 East American Blvd, Bloomington, MN 55425
Marriott Hotel (Minneapolis Airport Marriott)
2020 American Blvd E, Bloomington, MN 55425
Other Nearby Hotels
These hotels, while not within easy walking distance are within a five minute drive from the Mall of America.
Minneapolis Airport Hilton
3800 American Blvd E, Bloomington, Minnesota, 55425
2870 Metro Drive, Bloomington, MN 55425
7901 34th Avenue S, Bloomington, MN 55425
Hyatt Regency – Bloomington
3200 E 81st St, Bloomington, MN 55425
Other Things to Do in the Twin Cities
Water Park of America
The Water Park of America is attached to the nearby Radisson Hotel. Be aware that there are two Radisson Hotels near the Mall of America. The Radisson Blu is attached to the mall and the Radisson-Bloomington is the one with the water park. The indoor waterpark is one of the largest indoor waterparks in America. Attractions include a large wave pool, the Flow Rider and a Surf Simulator. 1700 American Blvd. Bloomington, MN 55425
MSP Airport Aircraft Viewing Area
Less than five minutes’ drive from the Mall of America is one of the best places to view planes in the country in our opinion. The Aircraft Viewing Area at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport sits in the middle of the airport property and best of all, it’s absolutely free! To get there drive north on Minnesota Highway 77 (Cedar Avenue) to the 66th Street exit. Turn right at the intersection and take Longfellow Avenue to the south to Cargo Road. Turn left on Cargo Road and take it all the way to the end just past the FedEx shipping center. You won’t be disappointed! Click here for a map to the Aircraft Viewing Area.
Located just ten minutes south of the Mall of America in the suburb of Apple Valley, the Minnesota Zoo boasts great kids activities any time of the year. The zoo rests on 485 acres and has more than 4,700 animals including its latest addition Hawaiian Monk Seals. Be sure to catch the World of Birds show. Your kids will love it. 13000 Zoo Blvd., Apple Valley, MN 55124
Minnesota Children’s Museum
The larger, older sibling to the smaller version of the museum within the mall, the Minnesota Children’s Museum is consistently rated as one of the best children’s museums in the country. The Minnesota Children’s Museum is dedicated to providing children with a fun, hands-on and stimulating environment to explore and discover. 10 W. Seventh St. St. Paul, MN 55102
Science Museum of Minnesota
Kids of all ages will enjoy the Science Museum of Minnesota. The museum, located on the Mississippi River, offers guests a unique opportunity to explore all kinds of science learning. Exhibits rotate regularly. Be sure to check their website for details. 120 W. Kellogg Blvd., Saint Paul, MN 55102
Children’s Theatre Company
If you’re looking for a more cultural activity, the award-winning Children’s Theatre Company may be just the ticket. There’s a reason that Time Magazine named the Children’s Theatre Company the number 1 children’s theatre in the nation. For 50 years, CTC has created extraordinary theatre experiences that educate, challenge, and inspire young people and their communities. It was the first theatre for young people to win the Tony Award® for Outstanding Regional Theatre. 2400 3rd Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55404
The Big Ticket Adventure Pass
If you’ll be in the Twin Cities area for several days it may be worthwhile to purchase The Big Ticket Adventure Pass which is valid for three days and gives you an Unlimited Ride wristband for Nickelodeon Universe, All-day entry into Sea Life Aquarium, admission to the Minnesota Zoo (including the IMAX theatre), admission to the Science Museum of Minnesota and admittance into the Waterpark of America. You’ll save 30% over purchasing the tickets individually. The Big Ticket Adventure Pass costs $89 for adults and $79 for children through age 13. AAA members can save 20% on The Big Ticket Adventure Pass. To purchase The Big Ticket Adventure Pass, click here.
While this post provides a great deal of information it is by no means an exhaustive review of everything there is to see and do at the Mall of America. We’ve really just scratched the surface. If you’re looking for more to see and do on your trip to Minnesota we encourage you to visit the Explore Minnesota web site. Explore Minnesota, part of the state’s efforts to promote tourism, also has a number of brochures about things to see and do in the area available for free. You can find them near the east entrance of the Mall of America on the first level.
Spring Break at the Mall of America is sure to be a hit with your entire family. The Mall of America and the surrounding Twin Cities area offer a wealth of fun and experiences for kids of all ages. You and your family could spend as little a weekend or as long as a week and find more than enough to keep your whole family entertained for the entire time.
Spring Break for us comes at the end of a long Minnesota winter. Typically, we choose to go somewhere warm, a little reward after months of snow and bitter cold. A couple of years ago, however, we decided to take our daughters for their first European trip, ten days for Spring Break in London. Little did we know that London would be experiencing a cold wave with record low temperatures that reminded us of home. Despite the cold temperatures, we had a fantastic Spring Break in London and rate it as one of our best all-time trips.
We decided on London after an internal family debate. We wanted to go somewhere different than normal and decided upon Europe. But where in Europe to go? There were a number of cities we considered including Rome, Paris, Amsterdam and London. We looked very closely at going to Rome. Rome has incredible history and culture but it was a longer flight that required a connection. In addition, the airfare was very expensive. London had a lot of things in its favor. There is a nonstop flight from our home in Minneapolis. The airfare was more reasonable. There is no language barrier and Deb had studied in London during college and knew the city very well so that naturally went to the top of the list.
Where to Stay
Our Apartment building in London
When booking accommodations in London, we first looked at the major hotels. One thing we quickly discovered was that hotel rooms in London, like those in New York and other big cities are very expensive. On top of that, you don’t get a great deal of room in the hotel rooms. We had four people and the idea of spending ten days in a small hotel room all competing for one bathroom was not appealing.
I next looked at Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBO.com). Friends of ours had used the site for an apartment in Paris and were very pleased. I was surprised by the wide variety of places available. The site is very well organized by location and includes photos to give you a better idea of what you’re renting. There is also a calendar included so you can see if a particular property is available when you want it.
I found a great two bedroom apartment in Knightsbridge in a secluded area just a ten minute walk from Harrods, two subway (Tube)
stops and Hyde Park. It would have more than enough room for my wife, two daughters and I including a great kitchen so we didn’t have to go out for every meal. Best of all, it was less expensive than the hotels we had been looking at and had more than three times the space.
I emailed the owner of the apartment. She was very responsive and answered several questions I had about the property. We agreed on the rental and I wired a deposit to her through my credit union. It was a simple, easy process. She even arranged transportation for us to and from Heathrow Airport with a car service she has an arrangement with. It could not have been easier.
Things to Do
I am not going to do justice to everything there is to see and do during Spring Break in London. I’m just going to provide some highlights and why our kids liked certain activities. For a more detailed overview of all the activities in London, there are several websites mentioned below in the London Resources section. As always, we recommend Fodor’s Guides, our “go to” guidebooks when we travel.
The girls with the Yeoman Warder
Tower of London – The Tower of London is one of the most visited attractions in London. Getting there is easy by taking the District or Circle lines on the Tube to the Tower Hill station. The Tower of London is a short walk from the station. The Tower is actually a complex of buildings, the oldest of which dates to 1078. It has served many functions over the years ranging from a royal residence to a prison to now as the home of the Crown Jewels. Be advised that some parts of the tour may be scary for younger children as they feature replicas of medieval torture devices. I highly recommend taking one of the Yeoman Warder tours.
Our family at Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle-A short train ride outside of London puts you in Windsor, home of Windsor Castle the weekend residence of Queen Elizabeth II. Trains depart London from either the Waterloo or Paddington stations and drop you within walking distance of the castle. There’s a lot to see at Windsor Castle and The Royal Collection Trust which manages the castle recommends a stay of 2 ½ to 3 hours. Be advised that there is quite a bit of walking involved, something to consider if you have small children. The town of Windsor is quite nice with many shops and restaurants.
The view from the London Eye
London Eye – Originally intended to be a temporary structure, the London Eye opened in 2000. It proved so popular that it is now a permanent fixture on the London skyline. The London Eye is basically a very large Ferris wheel but unlike a Ferris wheel you may ride at a carnival or fair in the U.S. the London Eye has large, enclosed compartments that hold 20-30 people and allow you to stand and move about as the Ferris wheel turns. There are incredible views of the city from the top of the London Eye. A complete revolution of the London Eye takes about 30 minutes. I highly recommend a “Fast Track” ticket which helps you avoid most of the long lines that can form. This was one of our kids’ favorite attractions in London.
Churchill War Rooms – We planned our trip with our daughters in mind. We tried to look for things to do that would be of interest to them. The only thing I really wanted to see on the entire trip was the Churchill War Rooms, an underground complex from which Winston Churchill led Britain during World War II. My wife and daughters agreed to accompany me on this tour reluctantly. They just didn’t think it would be of interest to them. Given their frame of mind, I expected my Churchill War Rooms tour to be a quick one. Imagine my surprise when we spent over four hours touring the War Rooms and associated museum. My daughters were fascinated by the whole experience and the story of Britain’s struggles during World War II. My older daughter was so impacted by the experience that she decided to use some of Churchill’s speeches as part of her school Speech team presentation.
If your children are middle school aged or older, I highly recommend a trip to the Churchill War Rooms.
Harrods at night
Harrods – Harrods is quite unlike any other department store I’ve been in anywhere in the world. While much of the store will remind you of other department stores in New York or Chicago, parts of it are quite unique. I for one could spend most of the day strolling the Food Hall. Case after case of meat, fish, vegetables, baked goods and flowers all meticulously displayed. We happened to be there during Easter week which was an amazing sight. The colored eggs and other Easter decorations were simply amazing. Our kids really enjoyed the sights and sounds of the store. A special treat is seeing the store from outside, at night, outlined completely in bright white lights.
Our family at Stonehenge
Stonehenge – Although I had been to London several times before, I had never been to Stonehenge. It is something that I’ve always wanted to do. We located a tour that had a bus out to Stonehenge. After a little more than 90 minutes on the bus, we arrived. I have to admit that at first I was a bit underwhelmed. I just didn’t expect that a site like Stonehenge would be located so close to a major highway. Despite the cool weather, it was quite busy at Stonehenge. The size of the stones that make up Stonehenge is quite impressive when you get close to them. It was surprising to us that much of the history of Stonehenge is unknown. The tour guide would make a statement like “Why were the stones moved to Stonehenge?” and then follow it up with “We don’t know.”in a heavy British accent. This happened several times over the course of the tour and became a running joke with our family. Later in the trip I’d ask my daughters what they wanted for dinner and they’d respond with “I don’t know!” in their best British accent. I enjoyed our trip to Stonehenge but I’m not sure that I need to see it again.
Changing of the Guard
Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace – Buckingham Palace has served as the home of the British Royal family since 1837 and seeing the Changing of the Guard at the palace is one of the most iconic tourist attractions in the world. The day we went it was 25 degrees and windy but it was still an amazing sight. There are certain times of the year when regular people are allowed to tour the palace. Check the Buckingham Palace web site for details. During the summer months the ceremony takes place every day. In the winter months it occurs every other day. Check the schedule before you go.
Warner Bros. Studio
Warner Bros. Studio Tour-The Making of Harry Potter – If you have any Harry Potter fans in your family like we have this is a “must see” on your Spring Break in London. Located just outside of London in the town of Watford is the studio where they filmed all of the harry potter movies. It’s a short 20 minute train ride from London’s Euston station. From the station, you hop a studio bus and you’re there in no time. I have to admit that I have not read any of the harry Potter books while our daughters have read all of them multiple times. Even I had an incredible time on this tour. It’s incredible to see the amount of work that goes into making movies like these. While I thought we would be at the studio for a couple of hours, we ended up spending most of the day there. This was perhaps the highlight of the trip for our daughters.
Portobello Road Market – The Portobello Road Market bills itself as the World’s Largest Antiques Market and I’m sure that’s probably true. In addition to antiques you’ll also see new items, fruits and vegetable, food and fashion. The peak days for the market are Friday and Saturday. It’s a great place for the kids to explore and find some unique souvenirs.
London Theatre – The theatre in London is every bit as varied and impressive as Broadway in New York. We knew we wanted to see a show in London but weren’t sure which one. We went early one morning to the TKTS booth in Leicester Square. The booth sells the remaining tickets for that night’s show at a number of London theatres. We were fortunate to get tickets to see Jersey Boys at the Piccadilly Theatre. The show was just fantastic and we all had a great time.
Where to Eat
Pret A Manger – Pret A Manger means “ready to eat” in French. It’s a British chain with locations in several countries including the United States. You’ll find Pret locations in New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. There are Pret A Manger locations all over London. We liked it because it is good food, reasonably priced that can be eaten quickly. They have sandwiches and salads which our daughters love. In the morning they also have breakfast sandwiches and pastries.
The Grenadier – A friend who travels to London frequently on business told us about The Grenadier. He said it was his favorite pub in London. The pub was originally opened in 1720 and served as an Officer’s mess. We ate there on our first night in London and were not disappointed. It can be a bit of a challenge to find The Grenadier; it’s located in an alley in one of the nicer sections of London.
Upon entering it seemed that we were some of the only non-Londoners in the pub. We had to wait a few minutes to be seated but were served promptly upon sitting down. It had a very comfortable feel. The menu is a typical pub menu including fish and chips, bangers and mash etc.
We ate at a number of different pubs while in London including The Prince of Wales, Adam and Eve, the Westminster Arms and The White Horse. All have very similar menus with basic sandwiches, burgers and of course, fish and chips.
The Orange – While in London we weren’t looking for much in terms of fine dining but we didn’t always want to end up in a pub. We wanted someplace that would have food my wife and I would enjoy while also having something for the kids. We found just such a place in The Orange. It has a wide variety of excellent main dishes and salads while having really tasty wood-fired pizzas for the kids. We highly recommend it.
The Royal Standard of England
The Royal Standard of England – A bit outside London in the town of Beaconsfield is The Royal Standard of London which bills itself as the oldest pub in England at over 900 yearsold. The food was better than traditional pub food and the service was outstanding. We enjoyed just walking through the building and reading about its history. It was quite impressive.
Eating In – We typically would eat breakfast in the apartment we were renting. We stopped at the grocery store, Sainsbury’s, several times during the week. There are locations all over London and you’ll be sure to find most everything you could want there.
London is a large city but very easy to get around. The London taxis are everywhere and very easy to hail. The cabs are larger than taxis in the U.S. and extremely clean. We used them frequently.
The subway in London is called the Tube. There are numerous stations throughout the city making it very easy to get just about anywhere you want to go. We bought a seven day Travelcard which gave us unlimited transportation on the Tube, buses and trains within the London travel zones. I kept track of the time we used the cards and they more than paid for themselves. Other friends who have gone have purchased the Visitor Oyster card which they’ve like as well.
London also has an extensive bus transportation system, the symbolic double decker buses. They can take you virtually everywhere in London.
For our first European trip with our kids we could not have picked a better spot than London. It was different enough that our girls got a taste of a new culture but similar enough that they didn’t feel uncomfortable. Unlike a typical Spring Break that involves a lot of beach time, on this trip we did not relax much. We were constantly moving wanting them to see as much as possible during our stay. We took a family poll at the end of our trip and everyone agreed that this was absolutely one of our best Spring Break trips ever.
One of the best trips we’ve ever taken with our kids was a family Spring Break in St. Maarten. It took a bit of discussion at our house before we settled on St. Maarten. We wanted somewhere warm which ruled out ski destinations. We considered Hawaii which we’ve been to before with our kids and we all just love. But we only had a week off and the prospect of a ten hour flight, including connections, and having to deal with jet lag on both ends of the trip made that option less appealing.
We turned our focus to the Caribbean and were looking at a couple of different options. We looked seriously at the Dominican Republic which we’ve never visited. Friends who’ve been there said it was beautiful but a bit resort-focused. We like to get out and explore the destinations we visit so we chose not to go to the Dominican Republic.
We decided to go to St. Maarten which we had also never visited. We chose St. Maarten for a couple of reasons. First, it was a simple five hour nonstop flight from our home in Minneapolis. Second, it was only a one hour time change at the time of year we were going. St. Maarten observes Atlantic Standard Time (AST) year-round so jet lag was not going to be an issue. And finally, St. Maarten has qualities that make it unique among Caribbean destinations.
St. Maarten is an island split in two. You have the Dutch side of St. Maarten and the French side of St. Martin. While there are definite differences between the two sides of the island, one thing you never have to deal with are border crossings. It’s clearly marked when you are going from one side to the other but people move about freely with no need to stop at any kind of checkpoint.
There are a number of differences between the two sides of the island. The official currency on the Dutch side is the Netherlands Antillean Guilder while on the French side it’s the Euro. American dollars are happily accepted most places, however. One thing to keep in mind is that things may be marked in the local currency in stores. When we first arrived in St. Maarten we went to the local grocery store. I was a little shocked at the prices and I remember thinking how expensive everything seemed. It took me a few minutes to realize that the prices were marked in Guilders and the exchange rate with the dollar was 1.79 to 1 at the time. Much better!
Another difference is the electricity. On the French side they use the European standard 220V service with the pronged plug used throughout Europe. For Americans it will be necessary to bring an adapter with you or buy one when you arrive. On the Dutch side they use the American 110V service with the standard plug you’d find anywhere in the U.S. No adapter is necessary.
The weather in St. Maarten is remarkably consistent with highs in the low to mid 80s and lows in the low to mid 70s year-round. I loaded St. Maarten into the weather app on my phone so I still look at the weather every day and I’m amazed at how consistent it is. The week we were there it was absolutely perfect every day. We had a brief 10 minute rain shower one evening but that was it.
We were able to get around the island quite easily with our rental car. Once you’ve been there a couple of days it’s hard to get lost. I will admit that it took a bit of getting used to driving on some of the narrow roads. The people on motorbikes have no hesitation in passing very close to your car. Unlike some Caribbean islands, we never felt unsafe wherever we went. We traveled all over the island day and night and had nothing but good experiences.
Where to Stay
There are a number of beautiful resorts on St. Maarten and they appear to offer top notch service and accommodations. With two daughters we, however, needed more room than a single hotel room could offer. We wanted some space to spread out, a kitchen in which we could prepare breakfast and have snacks and separate bedrooms for my wife and myself and our daughters.
Having had success renting an apartment in London before through VRBO.com I decided to check out the site to see what was available. I was pleased to see that there was a wide variety of accommodations available on both the Dutch and French sides in all price ranges. For those who have never used the VRBO site, I encourage you to go and explore the site before your next vacation. You’ll be amazed at the wide variety of places to stay.
We settled on a two bedroom condo on the Dutch side of the island in an area called Cupecoy. I liked that it was reasonably close to the airport but not subject to airplane noise. It was also very convenient to restaurants and shopping. Best of all there was a private beach right in front of the condo that was absolutely beautiful along with a pool area if the Caribbean became too rough. I emailed the condo owner who was very accommodating and very gracious. Fortunately, the dates we wanted were available so we booked the condo.
Where to Eat
There are a quite a few incredible restaurants in St. Maarten. In fact if you walk down the main street in Grand Case, you’ll be passing several of the best restaurants in the entire Caribbean. During our family Spring Break in in St. Maarten we ate at a wide variety of restaurants from the local “lolos” to a fantastic takeout pizza place to some of the higher end French restaurants with incredible ocean views that line the Boulevard de Grand Case in Grand Case. Here are a few of our favorites.
Sky’s the Limit -Boulevard de Grand Case Grand Case
The restaurant is classified as a “Lolo” which is a local restaurant. It was a recommendation we saw in the Fodor’s guide. The restaurant sits close to the street among a number of other lolos in the center of Grand Case. They serve great chicken and ribs in an extremely casual setting. The food was good, inexpensive and plentiful. If you want some local color and great people watching, this is the place to go.
Sint Maarten Yacht Club –90 Welfare Road, Cole Bay, Simpson Bay
There are quite a few restaurants along Welfare Road in Simpson Bay. We happened upon this restaurant because it looked as if it had fantastic views from the road. We were not disappointed. The restaurant has a large outdoor seating area overlooking the harbor. If you’re interested in seeing large yachts in action, this is the place. In fact, many of the table seemed to be occupied by crews from the yachts at anchor. A casual but tasty menu and really good service. We went back later in the week on our last day in St. Maarten. The bartender, Keith, a great guy originally from Ireland remembered us and even remembered what my daughter had ordered on our previous visit.
Sarafina’s – Boulevard de France, Marigot
Sarafina’s is a cafeteria style restaurant with perhaps the best baked French goods I’ve had outside of France. The baked goods reminded us of Le Panier, our favorite French bakery in Seattle. Our older daughter had a ham and cheese sandwich on a great baguette and the rest of us had ham and cheese quiche. I also bought two pear tarts which we shared and they were incredible. The girls bought some macaroons which we ate later in the evening.
Papa Dan’s Pizza – Near the American University of the Caribbean Campus, Cupecoy
We ordered pizza, via Skype, from Papa Dan’s Pizza in Cupecoy. Papa Dan’s is located about two blocks from the condo we were staying in and is behind the Starz Casino and adjacent to the American University of the Caribbean’s medical school in Cupecoy. Dan is from France and he makes a great pizza. We had a Traditional (Tomato and Basil), a Pepperoni and a St. Maarten special which was chicken and spinach. It was all great.
Zee Best Café – Simpson Bay and other locations.
We started this morning with a little breakfast adventure to Zee Best Cafe in Simpson Bay. Zee Best promotes themselves as the best breakfast in St. Maarten. While it was good, we all agreed we’ve had better breakfasts elsewhere.
The Delight – 106 Rhine Road, Cupecoy.
Located directly across the street from our condo and connected to the Starz Casino. The restaurant is owned by the chef and his wife who is also the primary server. Both are French citizens who grew tired of the cold winters in France. We ordered a variety of their tapas which all had a French flair. The food was absolutely fantastic which caught us by surprise given that the restaurant was largely vacant. This place is an undiscovered gem.
La Villa – 93 Boulevard de Grand Case, Grand Case
This restaurant came highly recommended from some people we had met earlier in the week. The restaurant was crowded but we were able to get a table. The restaurant had a prix fixe menu for 49 euros which included appetizer, main course and dessert. My wife and I had a great tuna dish, our daughter Colleen had Mahi Mahi and our other daughter Caroline had a pasta dish. All were excellent.
Le Tastevin – 86 Boulevard de Grand Case, Grand Case
Perhaps the prettiest restaurant we ate in all week, Le Tastevin is located directly on the water and has incredible views. Forgetting that Europeans tend to eat later we got there when the restaurant opened in the evening and found it largely deserted. The good news is that we were able to get a great seat right by the water. The service was attentive but we found the food a bit inconsistent especially considering the price point.
Things to Do
St. Maarten Jet Ski Tours – 19 Little Bay Road, Philipsburg
We arrived at 9:30am and our guide Nickolas was ready for us. Nickolas has an interesting background. He was born in Argentina to French parents. His grandparents had emigrated to Argentina at the start of WW II. He had lived on several French islands around the world including in French Polynesia.
We booked a jet ski tour around the island. We left on the jet skis in mostly sheltered water for the first part of the tour. We went first to Marigot and then up to Grand Case. There were many beautiful homes and a lot of large yachts that we were able to see up close.
The second part of the tour was through the ocean. It was VERY rough and made riding the jet ski a challenge but we all did well. If going with smaller children, ask about the ocean conditions before departing. Smaller children may not do well in the rough water.
No. 1 SXM Watersports – Front Street 165 | Phillipsburg
Our day started early with a 7:00am wakeup for our 9:00am appointment for parasailing in Philipsburg with No. 1 SXM Parasailing. We found the location on Front Street without difficulty and got a parking spot directly across the street as a bonus. We met the owner Christel and her father who helps run the place. Her brother is the boat captain.
We were lucky in that it was just the four of us and one additional person parasailing. It was a bit windy but after heading out into the ocean a bit we were able to launch the parachute and go parasailing. My wife and I had done it before but it was the first time for the girls. Deb went with Caroline and I went with Colleen. The water was a bit rough due to the wind. Despite that, we had a lot of fun but I have to admit I was happy to get back on the boat!
If you go, try to go early in the day. Depending on the day of the week Phillipsburg can get very crowded with cruise passengers.
A unique spot that’s a large, open air, market right in the center of Marigot near the docks. It’s open every day but there are significantly more vendors on Wednesday and Sunday. It’s a great spot if you’re looking for a t-shirt or other inexpensive souvenir to bring home. There are also a number of high end shops on the side streets of Marigot. Many of the most recognizable brands in the world can be found in the shops of Marigot.
West Indies Mall – Marigot
Located steps from the open air market in Marigot is the large West Indies Mall. It’s very similar to a mall you would see in the U.S. with many brand name stores that are easily recognized.
Blue Mall – Cupecoy
A large, modern and visually attractive building from the outside. Go inside and you’ll find very few stores and those that are inside are not particularly attractive. I’d go into Maho village or to the West Indies Mall in Marigot instead next time.
Phillipsburg – Phillipsburg is where the cruise ships that come to St. Maarten dock. There were five in port the day we were there and it was crowded. There are a ton of stores all of which cater to the cruise passengers. You’ll see many of the stores you see at cruise ports throughout the Caribbean like Little Switzerland. If you’re looking for any kind of jewelry or a watch you’re sure to find something to your liking here.
Grand Case – If you were to go to Grand Case in mid-afternoon you would think the area is deserted. There are very few people on the street and most of the shops are closed. It’s a different world when you comeback in the evening. All of the restaurants and stores are open and there are a ton of people on the street. Most of the stores are small and locally owned. There are a number of shops selling the normal tourist ware like t-shirts but there are a few shops that sell antiques or higher end artwork. Parking can be a challenge although there is a nice, large public parking lot at the north end of the village.
Maho Beach – Having worked in the airline industry for a number of years I had always heard about Maho beach in St. Maarten. The beach sits directly at the end of the main runway at the St. Maarten airport and you can probably get a better, and closer, view of the planes landing than you can at any airport in the world. It was our first stop in St. Maarten on our first day of vacation. Go in late morning and get a seat at the Sunset Bar and Grill. You’ll notice an old surfboard with writing on it just near the entrance. It contains the day’s flight schedule. The highlight is the KLM 747 that comes in nonstop from Amsterdam several times a week. We were fortunate to be there in time to see it land (see the accompanying video that I took). It was very exciting and a little bit scary. There are a wide variety of planes that land at the airport from the 747 to mid-sized jets like the 737 to small prop planes that come in from surrounding islands. Be sure to watch the people on the beach get blown off their feet when planes are taking off. Unbelieveable.
Marigot – In addition to the market and the great baked good at Sarafina’s, Marigot is also home to Fort Louis, a 1600’s era French fort which has a magnificent view of Marigot harbor. The hike up to the fort, while challenging, wasn’t too bad. The fort’s remains haven’t been touched and only some of the fort’s walls and interior structure remain. Still it was obvious why the fort was built where it was. It had a commanding view of the city, the harbor and beyond. When you get to the fort you can enjoy and absolutely beautiful view.
Going to the Beach
Orient Beach – Fodor’s guide describes Orient Beach as the best beach on the island. The Fodor’s writer must have been there when there were no cruise ships in town. Orient Beach was about as far away from our condo as you can get on St. Maarten so it took about 40 minutes to get there. We missed the turn for Orient Beach and ended up instead at Le Galion, a small, shallow bay with a small beach club and restaurant. Wanting to visit Orient Beach, we backtracked about 5 minutes and turned on the road we had missed. Orient Beach was absolutely packed with people and there were numerous vendors selling a variety of clothes and crafts. There were tons of people there and it didn’t look like a place we would enjoy. We made a quick retreat back to Le Galion. It wasn’t until later that we found out that the cruise lines drop busloads of passengers at Orient Beach for the day.
Le Galion – Very close to Orient Beach was Le Galion a beautiful and quiet beach that is home to two small beach clubs that will gladly rent you chairs and umbrellas. It was a far cry from the large crowds at orient Beach. There is also a small café that sells cold drinks and sandwiches. It was a welcome change from Orient Beach.
Happy Bay – We had heard that Happy Bay was perhaps the prettiest and also one of the most remote beaches on St. Maarten. We were determined to see for ourselves. To get there we drove first to Friar’s Bay which was a very picturesque beach with two large beach clubs in operation. The road into Friar’s Bay is mostly dirt and very rutted. We got quite a jarring driving into the parking lot. We drove to the end of the parking lot and parked the car. There was a small, handwritten sign with an arrow pointing the way to Happy Bay. About a 10-12 minute hike from the end of Friar’s Bay is Happy Bay which is absolutely beautiful and very uncrowded due to the hike it takes to get there. There were, however, a number of Europeans who were embracing the clothing optional feature of the beach. This surprised our daughters a bit.
Happy Bay is every bit as beautiful as we had heard. There is also a gentleman near the entrance to the beach selling cold beverages from a cooler. A true entrepreneur!
We all swam and snorkeled a bit. We stayed at Happy Bay about three hours before hiking back to the parking lot at Friar’s Bay. The drive out of Friar’s Bay was interesting due to the herd of cows we ran into on the drive out. They did not seem bothered by cars in the least so we were very careful not to hit them.
Cupecoy Bay – Right outside the condo we were renting was Cupecoy Beach which fronts Cupecoy Bay. It’s a narrow beach but very beautiful due to the absolutely incredible blue color of the water. We went there several times during our stay due to its close proximity to our condo. It never seemed very crowded. In fact, it seemed at time to be our own private beach.
Learning More About St. Maarten
There are a large number of very good guidebooks and websites that give you great ideas for your St. Maarten vacation. We have always been partial to Fodor’s Travel guides and this trip was no exception. Fodor’s Guide to St. Maarten gave us a great overview of the island and things to see and do as well as great places to eat.
I can’t say enough about our Spring Break in St. Maarten. The island is beautiful, the people are friendly, the food is incredible and the scenery is breathtaking. We all decided as we were packing up to come home that this is definitely once place we want to come back to several times in the future. We can’t wait!
Stay tuned to TotalFamilyTravel.com in the next few weeks for other great Spring Break travel ideas.