Disney 2020 – The Memory Maker

Every time we go to Disney, we purchase Disney’s Memory Maker (previously Photo Pass).  This Photo Package not only includes all the pictures taken around the parks (including rides) and resorts by Disney’s photographers, but also any that are taken during a character/meal encounter.  You can link all members of your traveling party (even other reservations and groups) for everyone to use and it encourages people to keep their phones put away.

For us, it has always been worth every penny!  I also encourage my clients to make this purchase – some do it, others do not and regret it.  We have made an art out of doing funny things for our Memory Maker photos.  It is part of the fun in making the memories to last a lifetime.  And on par with Disney – they even throw in a little magic!

Here are our favorite Memory Maker photos from this trip!

Char and the photographer had a bit of fun!

The concentration levels are EPIC.  I always lost!  hahaha

Some of the best pictures come off Space Mountain!  From nose picking, T-Rexing, praising Tiki (that’s the “baby” Yoda doll you see sometimes), choking out, rockin’ out and shooting out – we have it all covered!

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Seriously – T-Rex arms are classic!

And then there are the classic Group Shots! These are fabulous and make some of the best memories ever – I mean, that is the whole point of the Memory Maker!!!

And then throw in a little Disney Magic!

As you can see, we love our Memory Maker!!! We take full advantage of it every trip!!! Next time you go to Disney, you should totally think about adding the Memory Maker to your trip planning!!!

Desert in Bloom

The desert has always had a special pull for me.  It is probably because it is such an unusual landscape – living the majority of my life in the Northeast.  The idea of few trees and mostly small ones at that, rugged geography of sand or hard-packed red earth and little visible life seems so foreign to me that it is intriguing!  The seeming solitude of this place misrepresents itself – as easily as we do.   It can appear bleak and desolate – with little good going on – but below the surface lies an abundance of treasure if only we know how to look it!

I was amazed by how many minerals and gems were discovered in them thar hills!  Below the stark and lonely desert, where it seems nothing of use or value can be found, some of the greatest strikes in mining history were made!  In fact, the southwest cut its teeth on gold mines, copper mines, gem strikes and silver.  Who thought, “Hey.  Let’s start digging here in the middle of the desert!”?

Another gold mine is spring in the desert.  We visited the Desert Museum in Tuscon and were greeted with a beautiful display of cactus blooms and desert flowers.  April is a fabulous time to see the desert come to life – and there was so much of it!

Life finds a way where it persists; where it finds ways to adapt and embrace its environment.  We would do well to learn from the desert!

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A flowering barrel cactus, Sierra Vista, AZ

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The largest rose bush (tree) in the world – planted in Tombstone, AZ in the late 1800s – started from a rose twig sent from Scotland to a homesick new bride.

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The blooming of the largest rose bush in the world, Tombstone, AZ

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Driving through the desert – we were enamored by the saguaro cacti all around! Tuscon, AZ

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Saguaro cactus, Tuscon, AZ

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These little yellow flowers were popped up everywhere we looked. They blanketed hillsides and sprung out of rocks. This is a bunch in Tuscon, AZ

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There are a lot of thorns in the desert. This thorny fellow ended with lovely red flowers! Desert Museum, Tuscon, AZ

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Desert Museum, Tuscon, AZ

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Prickly Pear blossom – so many foods are made from prickly pear – candies, licorice, jams and jellys, beer…you name it! But look at those thorns!!! Tuscon, AZ

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I don’t know which kind of cactus this was, but is was one of my favorites.

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Desert Museum, Tuscon, AZ

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Desert Museum, Tuscon, AZ

Top 10 Culinary Finds in Paris

Traveling with a rather picky 12 year old doesn’t really lead itself to a culinary adventure, but we did have a few of my Parisian favorites and a few standbys to get me through!

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10. At the airport upon our arrival, the child was starving! With a classic mixte brioche sandwich with ham and cheese and an eclair, we were ready to tackle the train to Paris!

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9. Beef hot dogs. OK – well…what can I say?! We were at Disneyland Paris and needed a pick me up!!!

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8. Speaking of Disneyland Paris…did you know they serve MEAT IN A CONE as a snack?

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7. Gelato. Need I say more?

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6. Coffee? Tea? Nope. Vin Chaud, or hot mulled wine. Only in Paris, people!!!

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5. Dinner our first night. While Charlotte enjoyed a hamburger (ugh!) I marveled at burgundy braised beef with shallots, button mushrooms, whipped potatoes and FOIS GRAS that absolutely MELTED in my mouth!!! I’m hungry now!!!

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4. Lunch for day 2 – a Hawaiian Poke Bowl! Confession – I do not even LIKE some of the things in this bowl – the avocado and mangoes in particular BUT…sitting outside in a Parisian cafe inspired me to try new things! It was delightful! I did NOT, however, eat the cilantro. I think it tastes like soap and you cannot tell me otherwise!! hahahaha

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3. Well, I am not generally a wine drinker but I was in PARIS!!! A glass of wine was a requirement. And they don’t have wine types that Americans are generally familiar with – no Chablis, Chardonnay and pino grigios on every menu. I cannot tell you what this one was named…but it was lovely!

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2. The Macaron. NOT a macaroon!!! The macaroon is made from coconut and generally does not have a filling. The French MACARON is wonderfulness in your mouth. A delicate dance of almond flour cookie shell and buttercream or ganache filling. Traditional French flavors include lavender, rose, pistachio, lemon and chocolate. If you haven’t ever tried this bit of magic in your mouth, check out La Maison Navarre in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. You will be delighted with authentic French cooking, macarons, crepes and the most amazing French Onion Soup on the entire planet!!!

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1. Last but certainly NOT least – my absolute favorite, most amazing French culinary staple….the crepe! And my crepe of choice is nutella and banana!! Every day/night of our visit involved at least one crepe! Our go-to crepe stand was just around the corner and was a part of an Gyro shop! The guys there were fantastic and I endeared them immediately with my elementary Arabic skills – we were fast friends and they were happy to see us daily!

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Our last crepe of the trip!!!! It was kind or our lunch that day!

 

I hope you enjoyed this picture journey of our culinary experience in Paris.  We weren’t fancy, but really enjoyed each meal we took together and really, isn’t that the point?

Top 10 Favorite Pictures from Paris

Many of you followed my fantastic mother/daughter adventure to Paris this January.  You can catch up on the highlights in my Travel Diaries, but I wanted to take a minute and post my favorite pictures from the trip.

I love so many things about travel, and one of them is making memories that turn into the stories of our lives.  Being able to share this special time with my daughter was precious in so many ways and I hope she will look back on it with as much fondness as I know I will!

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Our first selfie in Paris!

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I love Char’s look – so adorable!

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I didn’t know she stuck her tongue out until I looked at the pictures that night!!!

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I love this one with the Eiffel Tower in the background!

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What do you do with fresh snow in Paris? Build a French snowman at Notre Dame!

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The Eiffel Tower was closed due to the weather, but we scooted all the way there to take in the rare sight!

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Our last crepe! Nutella and banana, of course!

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What a beauty!

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Finding Eva and Wally – pure joy!!!!

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The first gelato of the trip! Kinda like the first gift of Christmas!

 

Italy…Bits and Pieces (of my heart) Part II -Aperol for the win and travel gurus!

Aperol Spritz is my husband’s Italian (and summer) beverage of choice.  We first experienced this beauty on our first road trip in Italy when we arrived in Sorrento at our lovely Agriturismo, Antico Casal.  Our host made us this famous and refreshing drink to enjoy at sunset – and you, too, can make it here at home.  Aperol is a bitter Italian spirit (available at most liquor stores) but when combined with prosseco, orange juice and soda water, the flavors open up and it becomes a lively Italian sunset in a glass!  While recipes vary regionally, the original is the best and can be found on the Aperol bottle!  I was amazed to find PRE-MADE Aperol Spritz in Italy when I was there in June and may or may not have enjoyed a few bottles (alone)!

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A VERY expensive Aperol Spritz in Venice – 15 Euros – about $18USD, but it WAS a beautiful setting!

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Ok this is an exaggeration – but check out that gorgeous veranda at our Air BnB!

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Pre-Mixed Aperol Spritz!!!

Rick Steves – As a travel enthusiast and vacation planner, I recognize quality and an outstanding product and I think Rick Steves puts out amazing tools for any type of traveler.  I have used and planned many of my own vacations with the help of Rick’s travel guides and keep a small library of his tour books to lend out to clients and friends.  His expertise really lends itself to the adventurous traveler – experienced or novice – and provides resources that enhance a pre-organized vacation, educate the traveler and help the do-it-yourselfer plan effectively to get the most out of their experience.

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For my most recent Italian adventure, my mom, sisters and I used Rick’s mobile App for some pre-trip planning (he has GREAT radio interviews and cultural “lectures” available on the App for your pleasure) as well as using Rick’s guided audio walking tours.  While I will say there were a few hiccups with this method (people pressing “play” at different times and having to catch up or go back from time to time), we thoroughly enjoyed using these audio walking tours we had downloaded onto our phones before we left – we loved the history, the authentic tidbits and the feeling like Rick was our tour guide – well, I guess he WAS!!!  We used his walking tour of Florence, Rome, and Pompeii and really gained a lot of insider information.  Check it out!!!

I love all these tidbits –  They truly ARE bits and pieces of my heart.  I treasure them as sweet memories of adventures, interactions and integrations I will never have again.  I hope you find them helpful, useful and enjoyable and I hope you hold your own bits and pieces of treasured memories.

Italy…bits and pieces (of my heart) Part I – Dinner, Breakfast, Dessert!

Bits and pieces…..here are some observations made while traveling in Italy!  I wanted to break it up into two parts to stretch out your enjoyment:)  Let me tell you about my regional food favorites, my gelato adventure in pictures in this first part, and some touring tips to help make your DIY Italy experience the best.  Oh, and let’s not forget Aperol Spritz!!

Tuscany is known for its cured meats, particularly boar meat.  It is also well known for its pecorino cheese.  Their tomato sauce is simple and savory – made with crushed tomatoes, loads of garlic, even more olive oil and whole, dried pep(p)eroncini peppers placed in a tea strainer and marinated in the sauce while it boils on low (you know these peppers – we call them crushed red pepper and you find them at every house of pizza in the north east!) Tuscans do not shy away from slabs of steak, red wine and the joy that comes with experiencing a meal with friends and family.  This is probably one of the BEST reasons to visit Italy and a part of the culture that is so endearing!  Here is my sister-in-law’s aunt’s authentic Tuscan “gravy” recipe – this is EXACTLY like the one we made in our cooking class at our agriturismo.  Also, what to do with leftover sauce!!!

 

Gelato – I take this business seriously and there is nothing more serious than Italian Gelato!!!!  I haven’t met a gelato flavor I didn’t like but I do like some more than others – my favorites are chocolate, strawberry, pistachio, salted caramel and nutella!  I always have my gelato in a cup to minimize loss due to melting, and a new flavor every time – how can you go wrong?  Here is a picture diary of Italy through the eyes of a gelato aficionado!  There’s no better way to sight-see!

 

 

What fun themes do you use when you travel?  My gelato tour gave me a free pass to eat as much gelato as I wanted!  Like one would NEED a reason!!  When my son was little,  he was FAR more interested in all the fountains at Disney than he was anything else – so I feel like it was a fountain tour of Disney!

In Part II of Bits and Pieces, learn to make the quintessential Italian refresher and learn who my favorite traveling companion is….hint: it’s not my husband – SSSHHHHH!

 

Quebec – Day 3

This was our final day in Quebec and on our big adventure north.  We decided to stay in the city this day (Friday) and really enjoyed the festive feel of freshly fallen snow and had a wonderful time out and about all day!

We all slept in and got our start after a nice breakfast at our hotel.  We stayed at the Hotel Royal William – this is outside the old city and maybe a 15 minute walk (uphill) to the walled city, but for the fabulous cost for  two rooms for three nights, we couldn’t pass it up!  The rooms were spacious, well kept and the included breakfast was adequate (cereal, pastries, yogurt parfaits, fresh fruit and cheese, coffee, tea and juice).  I would absolutely stay there again with pleasure and we enjoyed the walking each day.  Anyway – at the end of the day, it’s all downhill!

So, the snow – I mean, could it have been more gorgeous?  Maybe if it would have been a tad warmer, but if you’re embracing winter, you WANT a winter wonderland and we got one!!

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On our way to the old city – our hotel, the Hotel Royal William, was two blocks behind us and to the left!

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One of the old city gates. Did you know that Quebec City is the only walled city north of Mexico City? Pretty cool place for this history buff to visit! It was seriously like visiting France in my back yard!!!

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That’s the Chateau Frontenac far in the background!

We strolled to the city and stopped at all the shops – my daughter loved poking around shops and her money always burns a hole in her pocket!  We got some trinkets and moseyed up to Chateau Frontenac to toboggan again, then found our way to Chez Ashton – a chain of fast food restaurants that specializes in poutine.  Thanks Marie-Andree, for the recommendation!  We enjoyed the Quebec must-eat then scooted on our way again!

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Traditional poutine at Chez Ashton.

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Lined up for the toboggan ride!

The afternoon saw more walking around and touring, including Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Quebec.  We hit the lower city again, rode the Funicular UP (we got smarter as our visit went on) and HAD to toboggan one more time – and by this time, it was freezing rain so the operators had to spread salt and sand at the bottom of the run because people were sledding OVER the barrier!

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The Lower City was bustling! We had a great time exploring this unique, European feeling Petit-Champlain section of Quebec

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I took this on the way UP the funicular – it reminds me of a Thomas Kincade painting.

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A good icing on top of the cake!

Before we left the Lower City, we HAD to try this classic Quebec maple masterpiece.  It was SO good!  Check this out!

My friend, Marie-Andree – who happens to be from Quebec, asked her dad about some fondue recommendations and we got a great one!  We had some amazing Fondue at La Tyrolienne and were so full we could hardly drive back to our hotel!  Fondue = FUNdue!!!!

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Our appetizer..bread dipped in cheese!

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Everyone got a platter of thinly sliced beef, then there was shrimp and chicken to fondue as well!

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Dessert – chocolate and maple fondue with fruit!

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My favorite – banana dipped in chocolate.

Our three night escape was the best ever!!!  It went by so fast and we all had a great time!  The drive home was long but we reminisced about the great experiences we had – our favorites were the Siberia Station Spa, tubing, the ice hotel, the toboggan ride and fondue!  Thanks for taking this journey with us and we HIGHLY recommend Quebec City for families, couples and friends!  In a few weeks I’ll share our next “experience” trip – hold on to your hats because we are going to Paris!!!

Check out a short video of our second toboggan run!

 

 

Quebec City – Day 2 – Part II

The second half of our day today was spent at Valcartier Resort.  This place is super cool – COLD, in fact…still about 12 degrees – but hey, we said we were embracing winter with this trip and did we ever!!!

This resort is HUGE!  They have a very cool themed hotel lobby/bustling hub with tickets for activities, restaurants, shops and more!  The resort boasts an indoor water park (we did not do this, much to the two 12 year old’s dismay…since we ARE embracing winter, an indoor water park just didn’t seem right!), two dozen tubing runs, an ice skating path THROUGH their ghost town of summer delights (outdoor water park) that you begin right from the central hub building, and Valcartier is the home of Quebec’s own ICE HOTEL, or Hotel de Glace!

OK – so here is the focus of this short story…the ICE HOTEL.  It was open for tours, and drinks, but not yet for guests – that starts on January 4th.  And as fabulous as it might have been to stay there, the hotel is kept at a balmy 13 degrees, so aside from being pretty pricey, I just don’t think it’s my thing!  But, I have never seen anything quite as amazing!  There is a chapel, the main hotel building boasting a gorgeous lobby, grand hall, ice bar WITH ice seating, a discotech and four rooms were on display – more under construction down the hall!

Check this out…..

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Here is the link to Valcartier if you want to check it out!  https://www.valcartier.com/en/  On tap for tomorrow….well, it will be snowing in Quebec City, so get ready for some amazing pictures of the old town and lower city!

Quebec – Day 2 – Part 1…The Siberia Station Spa

OK.  Raise your hand if you remember that Warrant song, “Heaven Isn’t Too Far Away”?  Well, today I think I found it.  This morning, we visited the Siberia Station Spa for their morning “family hours” (special hours from 9am-noon during holiday break to include families) and I am pretty sure I found winter heaven on earth!

I am not going to waste a lot of words here because in this case, a picture speaks a thousand words and I have a lot of pictures!  Let me just briefly explain the Siberia Spa concept and then include a few of my observations, then let the pictures tell the story!

The Siberia Station Spa is modeled after Scandinavian spas – the magic takes place in three acts; hot, cold, relax.  It’s THAT simple – go somewhere hot, partake in something cold, then find a place to relax….then REPEAT!

The hot option……there were plentiful options for everyone – hot tubs, infrared saunas, traditional saunas and a eucalyptus infused steam room (OH MY GOODNESS!!!)

Cold….well, since today was about 11 degrees, the COLD portion of this adventure could simply be walking from a hot spot to a relaxation spot, but I am proud to say all my people took full advantage of the ice cold plunge pools more than once and benefited greatly from them.  They were AWESOME!!!  There were a number of ice cold pools in the vicinity of each hot offering and from time to time, you can even dip in the gorgeous babbling brook that abuts the spa (this was closed today).

Relaxation – the options were fabulous.  There were a number of yurts – all with swinging chairs and warmth – one had windows facing towards the river and my favorite was toasty warm with a huge wood burning fireplace in the middle!  Other relaxation offerings were a beautiful windowed-in pergola and a dream zone – a huge barrel dug into the hillside (Hobbit-like) with cushioned bench seats and relaxing music.

Some important details…..the Spa is about 15 minutes from the old town of Quebec City.  We paid $27 Canadian dollars each for this special family time.  Typically, children are not allowed and with good reason – the whole point of this place is to relax!  I have kids – and they are not relaxing!  Bathing suits are MANDATORY as are footwear – think flip flops.  You may bring your own robes and in this weather, I highly recommend it!  You may also rent them for $7 Canadian.

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I cannot rave enough about how amazing this place was!!!  I cannot wait to come back here with just my hubby, a book and more time!   We are scheming ways we can make one of these places at our house!!  hahahahaha

Here is the website if you want to check it out on your own – http://siberiastationspa.com/home/

Quebec City – The arrival!

This year for Christmas, we tried to make a point to tone down the “things” and focus more on experiences and memory making opportunities.  Our first family experience is a road trip to Quebec City, Canada.  We left today, the day after Christmas, and I would love to share a bit of our day to day with you as we go!  Here is a snapshot of our our travel day and first experience walking around when we arrived!

We left our house in southern Maine around 8:15am.  My husband, daughter, son, my son’s girl friend and my daughter’s BFF were in for a 7 hour ride!  It was a great ride – we stopped once outside of Skowhegan for lunch, gas and a potty break, then stopped once more for a coffee break once we got into Canada.  The border crossing was easy (5 passports and 1 birth certificate and government issued ID) and we thought we made great time!

We arrived at our hotel – the Hotel Royal William – and checked into our two rooms (girls and boys)!  Note: when traveling to Quebec Province, make sure you know a little French!  We all know a bit and do our best to ingratiate our hosts by trying to speak French, but everyone here also speaks English, so a happy Bonjour goes a long way!!

We got settled then hit the road to explore!  We are staying about a mile outside of the Old City and it was 13 degrees when we left the hotel this afternoon around 4pm, so we bundled up and started our hike up hill!  And I mean UP HILL!  Walking around Quebec City isn’t for the faint of heart – but we enjoyed the brisk air and exercise after being hold up in the car for 7 hours!  The walk was lovely since we were hitting it at sunset and we reached the Old City in no time!

The city is so beautiful all decked out with lights for the holidays.  This is our first time in Quebec and so far, we love it!  We found an adorable little restaurant for dinner and had bison burgers, meat pie, lobster bisque and a plethora of maple desserts!  After dinner, we headed towards the Chateau Frontenac, where we spied the boardwalk, funicular and toboggan run!  Check out these fun pictures!

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After the toboggan run (with a lot of screaming, praying and our lives flashing before our eyes), we headed down the funicular to the Lower City to wind through some gorgeous old world streets!  We checked out a few shops, tasted some macarons and took some more gorgeous pictures – then we started our walk back UP to the Chateau area, then back to our hotel.  Check out these gorgeous night time pictures of this magnificent riverside city!

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Tomorrow, we are headed first to the Siberian Spa (woot woot), then perhaps tubing?  Skating? Cross country skiing? More city walking??  Who knows!  Until then – good night; bon nuit!

PS – Can I just say that I love the word, “funicular”!  I mean, the word starts with FUN!!!!!