48 Hours in London and Not One Royal Guard Sighting

A couple of weeks ago, I shared on Facebook about how we met a fellow military family PCSing to London in the Centurion Lounge at the Philadelphia airport. We had just arrived from Charles De Gaulle and they were en route to Heathrow. In the handful of minutes that our time overlapped, we discussed topics such as the Army, various duty stations, and the joys of traveling with kids. Clay and I talked about our brief time in London and just as they were gathering their belongings to catch their flight, we remembered the Oyster cards still in our wallets. We handed them over – happy the little money left would be used sooner rather than later and hopeful that we made one step of the stressful PCS-process just a little bit easier for them. I’m not going to lie – I was a little sad to pass my card along because it meant that I wouldn’t have a need for it in the near future.

I fell hard for London. And I know there will be a time in my life where I’ll permanently have an Oyster card in my wallet because I’ll be in the city enough to justify doing so. But until then, I’ll think back on our quick trip to London and marvel at the city that managed to beautifully combine old and new.

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When planning our trip, we decided to return our rental car in the heart of London, rather than Heathrow Airport, because we wanted to save ourselves time and hassle. The drive into London wasn’t horrible and the traffic wasn’t anything we haven’t experienced in downtown DC during rush hour. Next time, we won’t hesitate to utilize Heathrow as a jumping off point because we know understand just how easy it is to navigate around London and its suburbs. But at least now we can say that we’ve driven in downtown London and even paid the congestion charge of £11.50 for the privilege of doing so.

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Where we dropped off our rental car was about 2 miles from our hotel in Hyde Park. The kids really wanted to ride in a Hackney carriage (the quinessential London taxi) so we hopped in one and marveled at the city through the iconic rear windows on the way to our hotel.

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So let’s talk about our hotel. First – we couldn’t have asked for a better location. We were a short walk from Paddington Station, Hyde Park was around the corner, and there were plenty of restaurants and shops right outside the door. However – of the three places places we stayed this trip (Bourton-on-the-Water, London, and Paris), this was by far the worst accommodations on the trip. The room was small (understandable…it’s London!) but it was also not terribly clean nor was the furniture in good condition. It wasn’t bad enough for us to go through the hassle of changing hotels but we will not stay there again when we go back to London.

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After checking into the world’s tiniest family suite, we walked down to The Victoria for drinks and a late lunch (pictured are fried pickles). We ate in the library and thumbed through the London guide books available for reading and planned the reminder of our day. After lunch, we hopped on the Tube and down to Westminster.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around and enjoying the energy of London.

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River Thames and London Eye

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Much to Weston’s dismay, Big Ben is under restoration until 2021. We were disappointed but we all agreed that this just means we will have to book another family trip to London in 2021.

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Victoria Tower, Palace of Westminster

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We walked from Parliament Square to Buckingham Palace through St. James Park and stopped to let the kids play on a playground.

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We grabbed drinks and cookies (biscuits?) from one of the many concession stands throughout the park and then wandered around Buckingham Palace.

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By 7pm, we were ready for dinner so we hopped on a double-decker bus (on the same card system as the Tube) back to our hotel. We spent the next few hours wandering around the streets near our hotel and grabbing a bite to eat. All of the pubs were packed full of patrons watching the France/Belgium World Cup Semi-Final so we settled on an unremarkable restaurant that was just okay. By the time we returned to our room at 10pm, we were ready for bed because we knew we had a full scheduled the following day.

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The next morning, we went straight to Buckingham Palace to watch the infamous changing of the guards. Armed with Americanos and Pellegrinos from a food stand in St. James Park, we waited. And waited. And waited.

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Sadly, the iconic Red Coat regiment was on block leave (ironic – right?) so the changing of the guards didn’t pack the typical pizazz (sorry Royal Air Force). That being said, it was still quite the spectacle and a nice way to spend the morning.

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Afterwards, we hoped on the Tube and went to Regent Street for what the kids now refer to as the highlight of London – Hamleys Toy Store. Back when we took the kids on their inaugural trip to New York City, the flagship FAO Schwarz Toy Store on Fifth Avenue had closed its doors the year prior, which crushed me – there is just something so special about going to a giant toy store in a big city as a child. One of my favorite memories of my first time in New York City as a kid was experiencing FAO Schwarz – completely in awe of the seemingly endless floors of toys.

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Hamleys is the oldest and largest toy shop in the world. It was founded in 1760 and moved to its current location on Regent Street in 1881. We spent almost two hours exploring the shop and even managed to pick up a few small things to take home with us. We grabbed a bite to eat at a fantastic pub and then took the Tube down to Tooley Street.

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We walked along the River Thames, saw City Hall, grabbed coffee at Hay’s Galleria, saw HMS Belfast, and gazed at The Shard and The Gherkin.

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We continued along the river Thames toward the Tower Bridge.

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We walked across the Tower Bridge and then wandered around the outskirts of the Tower of London. Because we had done Berkeley Castle during our time in the Cotswolds, we chose not to go to the Tower of London this trip because our time was limited – next time!

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By the time that we made it back to the Hyde Park neighborhood, the World Cup semi-final between England and Croatia had begun so every single pub and restaurant looked like this one next door to our hotel.

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Because the television set was broken in our room (sigh) and the odds weren’t in our favor to actually grab a seat in a pub with two children in tow, we opted to walk around Hyde Park during the bulk of the match.

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Hyde Park is the largest of the four Royal Parks, established by Henry VIII in 1536.

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We walked by Kensington Palace – I had no idea that so many members of the royal family lived there. A quick Google search also verified that with enough money, commoners like us can live there too!

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We walked all around the grounds that surround the Palace. We fed swans, we had birds chase us, we visited the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, and we even found a little playground for the kids to enjoy (the Diana Memorial Playground had already closed by the time we came across it).

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We walked back toward our hotel and came across this fantastic little Italian bistro. We were hungry and wanting to watch the last of the match so we popped in…we are so glad that we did. We all agree that it was our best meal in London. The proprietors were warm and friendly, the food and wine was absolutely delicious, and we were able to watch Croatia win over England. It was almost 11pm by the time we got back to our hotel.

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The following morning, we packed up our bags, made our way to St. Pancras station, and boarded the Eurostar. Next stop – Paris!

Sick in New York City. Again.

Guys. Guys. GUYS! It happened again. A stomach virus from hell invaded our family while visiting the city that never sleeps (read about the first time here). While in the grand scheme of things getting sick on vacation isn’t that big of a deal, the fact that our family was at the mercy of norovirus in New York City has me wanting to muster my best Nancy Kerrigan “wwwwwhhhhhyyyyyy????” and stomp my feet in frustration. We had originally planned to go to New York City over MLK Weekend but a snowstorm derailed our plans (perhaps that was a sign?) so we rescheduled our three-night stay for President’s Day weekend. We’d been looking forward to our trip for weeks.

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We decided to take a bus up to New York City for the first time – we ended up choosing Washington Deluxe and booked our tickets a week out. On Friday morning we took an Uber to Union Station in downtown Washington DC to pick up our bus. The boarding processes couldn’t have been easier. Weston and Violet sat next to each other and Clay and I were across from them – we settled into our sets and before long, we were on our way. We weren’t even 15 minutes on the road when we heard a woman say, “Ummm – your daughter threw up.

::record scratch::

We look across the aisle and our five-year-old daughter is covered in vomit. We had a change of clothes, wipes, and bags – unfortunately, they were all in the cargo hold of the bus and not accessible. Thinking fast, I took off my thin sweater (thankfully for the other bus riders, I was also wearing a tank top) and used it as a rag to mop up the mess. Clay grabbed toilet paper from the bathroom on board and I smothered Violet (and her clothes) in hand sanitizer. I spent the next four hours holding her as she drifted in and out of sleep. She didn’t get sick the rest of the ride and she was her normal vibrant self when the infamous skyline came into view so when our bus pulled into the Garment District, we chalked it up to car-sickness and hopped in an Uber to our hotel in Hell’s Kitchen – the Fairfield Inn & Suites New York Manhattan Central Park.

Fairfield Inn & Suites New York Manhattan Central Park

Our hotel room was nice – albeit a little small but that is to be expected in our price range for New York City. Would we love to stay at The Plaza Hotel? Of course. Can we afford to? Hell no. So Fairfield Inn it is! Our hotel was a short walk to Columbus Circle so we were close to a major subway station and I loved the old-school attitude of Hell’s Kitchen. After resting for a bit (and washing up!), we set off on foot to explore and eat dinner.

We ended up eating at Mama Mia 44sw on (you guess it…) 44th Street. Clay and I enjoyed some well-deserved glasses of wine and we had a great Italian meal. The kids really wanted to see Times Square at night so Clay and I yielded to them and braved the commercial and cliched tourist Mecca. Our kids loved seeing the off-brand Disney characters and going to M&M World and the Disney Store. The bright lights captivated them and they commented how it reminded them of our visit to Las Vegas. I’ll admit that I am a huge snob when it comes to Times Square but even I caught myself smiling despite the abundance of chain restaurants.

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On Saturday morning, we were rested and ready to take on the day. We took the subway to the Upper West Side so we could visit the American Museum of Natural History. We opted to purchase our tickets that day rather than online ahead of time – something we’re glad we did because all four of us received free general admission due to Clay being in the Army.

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We were blown away by the generosity of the American Museum of Natural History and grateful to experience such an amazing museum free of charge. Because we live in the Washington DC area, we have access to the Smithsonian and go to the various museums multiple times a year – they are wonderful. But the American Museum of Natural History is in a class of it’s own – we could’ve spent multiple days there but because time was of the essence, we limited our visit to three hours.

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 Central Park Plaza Hotel

After the museum, we walked through Central Park down to 5th Avenue to ogle at the hotel we can’t afford (the Plaza) and to make our way Rockefeller Center. While there, we visited the LEGO store and the new FAO Schwarz, which opened in November 2018. While it isn’t nearly as magical as the original – the clocktower is back, as well is the iconic giant keyboard.

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We grabbed a late lunch/early dinner at Sean’s Bar and Kitchen and then went back to the hotel to rest before heading back out after the sunset.

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Empire State Building at night
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We then walked, walked, and walked. There is something magical about New York City at night and I will never tire of seeing the iconic buildings lit from within and under the moonlight. We then got hot chocolate and hopped on the subway to the Financial District.

September 11 Memorial

While this was not our first visit to the National September 11 Memorial, it was our first visit at night. If you only do one thing at night with your children in New York City – take them here. We quietly walked around and had the place almost to ourselves. Our kids asked questions and we answered them to the best to our ability. I also shared one of my favorite quotes..

What separates us from the animals, what separates us from the chaos, is our ability to mourn people we’ve never met.” – David Levithan

September 11 Memorial

Around 10pm we decided that we probably should make our way uptown again. If it were just Clay and I, we totally would have stayed downtown and enjoyed the nightlife but kids. So we got on the 1 train at the Cortlandt Street station, which was completely destroyed in the attack – it only re-opened this past September.

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On the platform is an Ann Hamilton installation, titled Chorus, which has text from the Declaration of Independence and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I was in awe and wouldn’t have minded waiting even longer for the train so I could look at the installation more.

We stopped and picked up some desserts on the way home and ate them in our pajamas. Little did we know that all hell was about to break loose that night…

Don’t worry – I’ll spare you the details but this was the only picture I took on Sunday – we didn’t even leave the hotel room. Weston was the first to fall. Then me. Then Clay. And there was Violet (likely patient zero), who kept herself occupied thanks to electronics. It was not a pleasant day – being trapped in 150 sq. ft. space with multiple sick people pretty much solidified that 100% tiny house living is not for us.

Heckscher Playground New York City

By Monday morning we were feeling okay. We were so disappointed to miss an entire day in one of our favorite cities. However, we weren’t getting on our bus until 12:30pm so spent a few hours walking around and getting some fresh air in Central Park.

Heckscher Playground New York City

This picture pretty much sums up how Clay and I felt on Monday. We were well enough to go about the day but utterly exhausted. We took an Uber back to the Garment District and met our bus. Thankfully – the bus ride back was uneventful and dare I say, even enjoyable. Clay and I were able to relax while the kids kept themselves occupied and I was able to keep my shirt on this time, which was nice.

Traveling with kids isn’t for the faint of heart. Clay and I have a saying about a lot of things in our life together – “If it were easy, everyone would do it.” But if I have to get violently sick with someone in a shoebox hotel room, I’d want it to be the man I’ve loved for 18 years. This trip to New York City wasn’t what we’d hoped it’d be but we’re thankful that we at least got one good day in one of our favorite places as a family. We’re planning another mulligan to New York City. In fact – we learned that once you get Norovirus, you’re immune for 14 weeks so we will likely be going back sooner rather than later. You know – just in case it’s three times the charm for us.

Adventures in Rock City, St. Thomas, USVI

As I mentioned yesterday, I drove down to Florida with the kids and Lucy for Spring Break while Clay is globetrotting in the name of the Army. As much as I love spending time at the beach with the kids, there isn’t much I love more than being on an island with Clay. While wiping sand off their little feet this afternoon, I was reminded of the trip that Clay and I took to USVI a few years ago. I already wrote about St. John so today seems as good as any to write about St. Thomas because I’m missing my guy – it’s tough cleaning sand off little toes by yourself!

St. Thomas is named Rock City for good reason – the island is largely mountainous with roads hugging rugged drop-offs that provide spectacular views. Our rental car had more dents that current consumer confidence (hi-oh!) and had a max speed of 20mph while chugging up the many hills. And we were convinced at least twice that we lost a hubcap or two thanks to the enormous potholes. But it got the job done and provided us with the freedom to explore on our terms. Driving on the left side of the road took a little getting used to but it did make driving up and down the winding roads a lot easier.

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After our first night, we woke up itching to explore the island. Based on the recommendation of family and friends, we ventured out to the famed Coki Beach but the crowded beach didn’t mesh with us. So we decided to go to Sapphire Beach instead, which ended up being our favorite beach on St. Thomas. The Sapphire Beach Resort appeared to be closed and undergoing major renovations so we practically had the beach to ourselves. What made Sapphire Beach special was the view when in the water – small islands dot the horizon. If it weren’t for our rumbling stomachs, we could have stayed all day.

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We stayed at the Frenchman’s Reef and Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort and couldn’t have been more pleased with the amenities and price-point. Having experienced all-inclusive resorts in the past, we knew we wanted by-pass that scene this time around. We pretty much only had two non-negotiables when planning this trip – a private balcony overlooking the ocean and a working toilet (I’m happy to report that the Marriott went above and beyond in these regards, and others).

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The hotel was gorgeous – complete with multiple pools, including an infinity pool, tennis courts, private beach, and multiple restaurants and bars. Iguanas also roam the property so if you have an intense fear of herbivorous lizards, perhaps this isn’t the hotel for you.

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The capital of the USVI is Charlotte Amalie, a port city with Danish architecture and home to almost half of St. Thomas residents. The majority of shops and restaurants located in the harbor area of Charlotte Amalie cater to cruise ship visitors (cruise ships in the harbor will triple the island population during peak season), so it’s hard to walk 100 yards without seeing jewelry stores, knock-off designer purse emporiums, or cheap t-shirt shops complete with painted seashells. We found ourselves steering clear from this part of town with the exception of buying a few trinkets for the kids. The ‘tourist’ portion of Charlotte Amalie is no different than any other major cruise ship port and was easily our least favorite area of the island.

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One evening, we drove down to Frenchtown and found ourselves at Oceana, an open- air restaurant on Cay Bay overlooking Hassel Island and Water Island that is a bit difficult to find. We were seated right on the water and enjoyed fresh fish and amazing rum cocktails. Our waiter informed as that Hassel Island once served as a leper colony and had us convinced that we could swim there while holding a waterproof backpack over our heads. Which we’re totally going to do next visit.

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Since Clay and I try to kayak whenever we can, we went night kayaking in the bay near our hotel. We were in a double kayak with a clear bottom fitted with LED lights. We saw sea turtles, fish, and even a stingray.  Our only complaint is that we wish we were able to kayak beyond the bay (not really safe) and the excursion was longer (only about 1.5 hours).

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We spent a lot of time on the beach at our hotel. A casual restaurant, The Sand Bar, right on the beach had great food and drinks so we often took often of their happy hour special. We didn’t think to bring our own snorkeling gear (probably because we don’t own any) but have already purchased some for the next time we find ourselves in crystal clear water.

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The weather couldn’t have been more perfect during our visit to St. Thomas, especially since we technically planned our visit during hurricane season (we’re at the mercy of the Army when it comes to scheduling blocks of leave). On the morning we flew out, it poured buckets and from our understanding, hasn’t stopped yet thanks to Tropical Storm Cristobol. Luck certainly was on our side this trip.

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We had our last evening meal at Havanah Blue, an exquisite restaurant that thankfully was located just off of the private hotel beach. The caipirinha was quite possibly the best drink I’ve ever had and food was mind-blowing delicious and prepared incredibly well. While we definitely favored St. John (recap tomorrow), we throughly enjoyed our stay on St. Thomas and wouldn’t hesitate to stay there again – we’re already planning on taking the kids back to USVI within the next couple of years.

Our trip was the perfect mix of relaxation and adventure. We have no regrets about not going the all-inclusive route at another Caribbean island and much prefer this type of vacation. And the best part? I had five whole uninterrupted days with my husband. That alone was well-worth the price of the trip.

130 Miles West – A Overnight Trip to the Shenandoah Valley

Last week wasn’t the best. The kids were sick, Clay was TDY, and I’m pretty sure we were experiencing some post-vacation blues. Earlier in the week we talked about going way for Saturday night but then a stomach virus knocked me off my feet, Clay came home sick, and we waved the white flag on Friday night.

However, the four of us woke up Saturday morning refreshed and feeling *almost* normal. We were drinking coffee, watching TV, and brainstorming ideas of how to spend the day. We talked about going downtown or hiking Great Falls or visiting Roosevelt Island but nothing was really exciting us. But the coffee was kicking in and we were feeling the best we’d felt all week so when the idea of going out of town for the night was tossed around, all four of us we’re on board. We quickly decided to head to Charlottesville, Virginia for the night, which was our original plan earlier in the week. Despite being stationed here for almost five years between two tours, we had never been to Monticello or Shenandoah National Park, which was as good of a reason as any to drive a couple of hours toward the mountains.

We were on the road by 10am. We stopped for brunch along the way and made to Monticello by early afternoon. We purchased tickets and then wandered the grounds until our scheduled tour time. We participated in outdoor ‘Slavery at Monticello’ tour, which focused on the experiences of the enslaved people who lived and labored on the Monticello plantation.

Even though Thomas Jefferson publicly condemned slavery, he owned over 600 slaves himself. He split up enslaved families, impregnated a teenage Sally Hemings when he was in his 40s, and only freed five enslaved men during his lifetime. I appreciated that our tour guide didn’t try and gloss over these facts and was very outspoken about how Thomas Jefferson was not a good man when it came to his treatment of the enslaved people at Monticello – ensuring his reputation as a complex and controversial historical figure.

The house tour was informative but it was a bit squished due to the size of our tour group. No pictures are allowed inside the house (pictured above is small building in the gardens) and it was difficult to hear the guide at times. While we’re glad that we finally visited Monticello, we all agree that it is a ‘one and done‘ place for us.

After Monticello, we drove into Charlottesville and checked into our hotel. We were a very short walk from Charlottesville Historic Downtown Mall, so we spent the evening strolling along the brick-paved roads. It was a gorgeous evening and it was easy to see why Charlottesville is consistently voted as one of the best places to live in the United States.

We opted to eat dinner at The Bebedero, which is located at one end of the mall. We loved the vibe and the drinks were amazing – my spicy margarita was one of the best I’ve ever had. But we may have been a bit to cavalier going to a Mexican restaurant after a week of not feeling great. For that reason, I don’t feel like I was a good judge of the food. We chalked up our meal as a learning experience for the weekend.

Yesterday morning, we checked out of our hotel and drove into Shenandoah National Park from the Swift Run Gap entrance. We briefly considered hiking Old Rag with the kids but due to them just getting over being sick, we decided that the strenuous hike might’ve been a bit much for them. Instead, we hiked a 5-mile loop and saw Dark Hallow Falls and Rose River Falls.

We did a bit of rock scrambling and the trails had enough obstacles that it didn’t feel like we were taking a leisurely hike in the woods. And most exciting – we had our first black bear in the wild! It was through the woods on the other side of the creek so we felt no danger but it was still a bit unnerving – especially since the kids were with us.

We checked off another national park and look forward to spending more time at Shenandoah National Park until the Army decides to send us somewhere else. We’re so glad we decided to get away for the night. -summer is quickly coming to an end (I start my new job next week – eek!) and the kids’ sports schedules will soon dictate our weekends. Time seems to be moving at lightening speed during this phase of our lives so it was nice to spend uninterrupted time together as a family. But we’re hopeful that this fall will allow us at least a few spontaneous last-minute overnight trips…where should we go next?