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We loaded our Kia Carens, left our Paris apartment, and said “farewell” to the barista we’d seen every morning for a week by 9am on Tuesday, June 13.  It was time to head west.

Just over an hour later, we pulled up at Giverny to see Monet’s gardens.  If this looks like a scene belonging in an impressionist painting, you’d be correct:

Once the crowds got unbearable, we reboarded our vehicle and headed nearly 3 additional hours west, to Omaha Beach, site of the Allies’ liberation of France in WWII.  We visited the Omaha beach museum / visitor center there, walked along the beach, saw the flags and monuments in the sand, visited the Overlord museum, and then tried to visit the Normandy American Cemetery (but they were closing its gates just as we pulled up, sadly).  We explained to the children the significance of the beach landing–how many Allied troops died and just how incredible the scope of operations was to bring hundreds of thousands of troops to the shore under heavy enemy fire, especially after the failure of the initial sweep of air power to clear the way.  We saw munitions, personal effects, and numerous other artifacts that have been, and continue to be, dug up along the beach in the area in the museums’ displays.

We headed another 3 hours southwest along the coastline and slept in a little cottage in the middle of seemingly nowhere, France.

We arose the next morning to roosters crowing, bunnies hopping, and sheep grazing in the grass behind our house.  By 8:30am, we were parking and boarding a shuttle to Mont Saint Michel Abbey, stopping for crepes in one of the restaurants on the island where the abbey lay.

Mont Saint Michel was, quite possibly, the most impressive and enjoyable site we saw in nearly 2 weeks in France.  We all got audio tours and walked through all the rooms, through the cemetery, and climbed the steep and winding paths that led along the castle-like abbey built in the 700s.  I mean, just look at it:

We heard the church bells that sounded like the wedding soundtrack in The Sound of Music.  It was perfect.

Rather than walk to the shuttle stop, we opted for a horse-drawn carriage ride from the abbey to the parking lot, just to further extend the visit and our views of the island as we slowly pulled away.

We got back in our car and headed about 3 hours east, stopping in Chartres.  We parked next to a green-space, and the youngest and I sprinted up a series of steep stairways and sidewalks to the top of a hill in search of a restroom, found some folks exiting a government building at 5pm, and begged them to let us inside so she could use the facilities.  Afterward, we waited a few minutes for the rest of the family to join us, followed the sidewalk for a bit, turned a corner, and saw this:

An audible “Wow!” escaped me.  I stepped aside and waited for the rest of the family to catch up to us, so that I could see their reactions as they too came out of the alley pictured above.  “Wooooow!” said my agape bride as she saw the Chartres Cathedral for the first time, too.

We explored the inside of the cathedral, including the “delivery veil” Mary is said to have worn while delivering baby Jesus, and we learned this basilica was built in only 30 years (compared to Paris’ Notre Dame’s 200 years)!

We had dinner at Cafe Serpente, sitting outside next to the cathedral and watched the sun set.

Then, we drove an hour northeast, to our AirBnB in Versailles.  In one of the greatest instances of luck of my entire life, I found a parallel parking spot right across from the courtyard entrance to our little apartment, and it was free!

We arose on Thursday, June 15 a few blocks from the Palace of Versailles and arrived just after 9am.  Luckily, my bride had arranged a private tour, which kept us from standing in a several-hundred-yards-long line that would have taken no telling how long to get inside and through security on a very hot day; we walked right up to our tour with no issues or wait.  We explored the many many rooms in the Sun King’s palace, walked through the hall of mirrors, saw the in-house opera and a clock that still works (that was one of 2 items not sold or destroyed in the Revolution); then we explored the grounds along the canal on bikes we rented.  We walked to the little hamlet where Marie Antoinette would play “peasant,” which was the most amusing aspect of the visit.  We had a picnic lunch next to a statue under a line of shade-providing trees.  It was too grand to capture in photographs, really, but I tried anyway:

We left the grounds to get dinner, stopping by a tobacco shop, where I bought a French-made pipe to add to my collection.  Then, we boarded our Kia Carens again to head back toward Paris…specifically, Sacre-Coeur Basilica, about an hour away.

I was not as lucky when it came to finding parking this night as I’d been the night before, but we managed to find a garage (that cost for one night about 1/2 what I’d paid for an entire week in Paris earlier in our trip!) that was safe and monitored about 9pm.  We decided we still had enough daylight to walk up the many steps toward the Basilica and watch the sun set.  It was beautiful.  Amazing.  Awe-inspiring.

On Friday morning, we’d meet the McAllisters again at the Basilica, where my parking luck returned, and I found a free spot right in front of Sacre-Coeur!

We toured the inside, rode a carousel at the base of the hill on which it sat, had more crepes for lunch, and then headed to the airport for the long flight back to the States.

We’d driven 1,000 miles over 3 days of exploring northwestern France in our Kia Carens; it was perfect for our family of 5, including luggage and souvenirs accumulated over nearly 2 weeks of vacation.  I’m so grateful to have been given the chance to use this vehicle for our family’s first trip to France, as it felt large enough to be safe but small enough to be quick and fun to drive on the windy streets and roundabouts in both the French countryside and dense urban landscape of Paris!

Flying back was bittersweet, of course, as we left what had been the best vacation we’ve ever taken.  That said, more trips lay ahead for the summer of 2017:  Philadelphia and West Palm Beach!

On Monday, June 12, we arrived at the Palais Garnier, the original Paris opera house, at 10am and signed up for audio tours.  The children had their own version, and the voice leading theirs was, most appropriately, the famous Phantom of the Opera.  I’ve never seen live opera nor spent any time inside an opera house, but I loved touring this one and learning its history.

After a couple hours, we had lunch at Cafe Jussieu and took the metro to the beautiful Paris Botanical Garden.  This place was not only amazing because of its mazes and tunnels through flowers, bushes, and trees to enjoy and learn about, but it also had an enormous Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy, built in the late 1800s, that was full of stampeding animal skeletons!

It was filled with beasts great and small–from dinosaurs, whales, and giraffes to snakes, rodents, tree frogs, and fish.  And a narwhal!  But for its lack of air conditioning, we would have explored it for hours.

The gardens also had a carousel, and being a family who loves carousels (especially one with dodo birds, Tasmanian devils, pandas, and dinosaurs), we had to give it a go.

Unfortunately, while the children and I were riding the carousel, and my bride was taking this video of us, my eldest’s American Girl doll, Saige, was left on the bench unattended for a few minutes, and left us.  We asked anyone (and everyone) we saw about it for the rest of the day, after asking the carousel operator if he’d seen someone take it and visited every lost and found within the gardens and museums (and continued to call them daily during the rest of our trip).  She was sad, but kept some optimism about eventually finding her.

After a couple days, however, we decided to suggest replacement options.  I’ll let her mom describe how this went and concluded via the below Instagram picture and narrative:

At least the story ended well.

After the gardens, we saw the Place de la Bastille, which is where the newer opera house is, and of course, is where many heads were lost during the Revolution.  All those thoughts of bloodshed got me thirsty, so while the Mrs shopped fabrics with our youngest, I decided to take the older two somewhere I’d been longing to go for months and months, after reading this article called the 21 Best Secret Bars in the World that published in February.  As such, I decided we must go to this one:

And here’s my son, trying to crack that famed safe:

He was able to get the numbers right, for the most part, but a key is also required.  The owner of the bar was so impressed with his skills that he pulled out his key and opened the safe for us, but only if we promised not to discuss its contents, so I’ll refrain from doing so here, but I will say that it was filled with very valuable treasures that I would have loved to take home with me.

I took a video of how one enters the pizza joint (where we had dinner), goes through the freezer, and out into the hidden bar, Moonshiner.  Having drinks at a hidden speakeasy behind a Parisian pizza restaurant with my children gave me a level of immense joy that’s probably unnatural and unhealthy, but there it is. I had to be pulled away after 2 hours of discussing Scotch whisky and European travels with the bartenders, as the next morning, we loaded the Kia Carens and headed west!

On Sunday, June 11, we arrived 45 minutes early for our 10am time slot to visit 6 million dead people in the Parisian catacombs.  We descended a spiral staircase into the underground–130 steps–leading to the darkness below.  We walked 1.5km, stopping at visual markers that synced with our audio tours explaining the reasons behind the rows and rows of femurs and skulls that surrounded us.

After we surfaced, we stopped by a patisserie, grabbed some croissants and quiche, and then picnicked at Luxembourg Garden to eat before the children enjoyed a paid (nominal fee) playground whilst the adults sat on benches surrounding it.

Then, we explored the gardens, including one of Paris’ several statutes of liberty, before stopping at the large pond where children can rent sailboats (just 4 Euro per 1/2 hr) with different countries featured on each one’s flag (to tell them apart) that could be shoved across the pond and propelled by the wind.  My children loved this.  They raced their boats against each other or toward one another, talking and laughing with Parisian children who were spending their Sunday afternoon in the same fashion.  It was good, clean, analog fun.

After about 3 hours at the garden, we visited the Pantheon, touring the inside, and then walked into the Latin Quarter, where we stopped for ice cream, and hit the Cluny museum.

The Cluny had several interesting medieval artifacts and art to check out, but its most famous is the “lady and the unicorn” tapestries.

Then we explored the Saint‑Germain‑des‑Prés area, where some of our favorite writers used to hang out, before returning to our apartment for a quick change of clothes before doing something I’ve wanted to do my entire adult life but have never done–have a dinner at a Michelin-Star restaurant.  Atlanta has none; most of the U.S. has none; Paris has over 70 (in fairness, the rating system originated there).

Using my Amex card’s concierge service, I had a list of a few restaurants with a star that were open on Sunday and could be kid-friendly.  I struck out on the first couple, but when I called Epicure (which has 3 Stars) and learned it was booked, the person I spoke to asked if we’d like to go to the same chef’s (Eric Frechon) brasserie, which earned its Star in 2013 and is located at the same hotel. Of course, I said “yes.”  So, a few hours later, we sat down at Le 114 Faubourg in the Bristol Hotel for what was likely the best meal I’ve ever had (and is certainly the best meal my 3 children have ever had).

Even the kids’ coloring books were amazing!

After dessert, we had a drink in the hotel bar (including mocktails for the children), toured the lobby, and met the hotel cat (and mascot).  It was probably the most “grown up” they’ve ever been treated, and it perfectly punctuated a wonderful day–my favorite day so far of our trip.