Our Dixie Chicks Staycation at The Embassy Suites The Woodlands

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We love staycations.

Taking a one or two night stay somewhere not too far from home has become our solution when we start climbing the walls and need a change of scenery. We love to travel, but time and money prevents us from taking a full week trip somewhere far away more than we’d like. And with a soon-to-be high school freshman who is in band and plays sports, our time and …. gulp, money are going to become even harder to come by.

We’ve taken several staycations at The Woodlands. It’s only 30 minutes from our house in Northwest Houston, but if feels like we have truly gotten out of town. When I heard that The Dixie Chicks were coming to the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion on August 6th, I knew I had to get tickets and make it a last summer vacation outing for our family.

We were very excited to be invited as guests to stay at the Embassy Suites by Hilton The Woodlands at Hughes Landing for an evening so we could see the new property (they opened last December 2015). It was perfect to combine our stay with our concert plans so we could relax and not have to make a late night drive home after the show.

We’ve stayed at several different Embassy Suites hotels over the years…most recently at The Embassy Suites Irvine when we took an Orange County vacation earlier this summer. We love that all the Embassy Suites hotels offer large, comfortable 2-room suites, complimentary drinks at a reception in the evenings and free made-to-order breakfast in the morning.

The Embassy Suites in The Woodlands is just minutes from the The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion and within walking distance of Restaurant Row. After we checked-in at 4:00 p.m., we walked down the street and had appetizers at Del Frisco’s Grill and macarons at Macaron by Patisse. Other restaurants right by the hotel include California Pizza Kitchen, Escalante’s, Starbuck’s, Blue Fish, Local Pour and Fogo de Chao. While we were there we noticed they have free evening movies overlooking the lake. A fun family activity within walking distance of the hotel – but we already had plans!

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Back at the hotel, the kids wanted to take a quick swim – Because – hello infinity pool!

Located on the third floor, the pool is small but elegant and it wasn’t crowded. A glass wall over looks the lake and restaurant row and they had several lounge recliners that we hung over the side of the pool so we could relax in the water. The kids didn’t want to leave, but we had to head to the room to get ready.

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While many of the Embassy Suites hotels (and all the ones we’ve previously stayed at) have a large atrium in the middle of the hotel in which all the rooms overlook, The Woodlands location is designed like a traditional hotel. Our room on the 9th floor was on the corner and had a living room and bedroom with large, beautiful windows and a balcony.

Seriously.

Look at this view.

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While standing on our balcony, we saw some people kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding on Lake Woodlands  (wait – what? We LOVE to SUP!). You can rent them at the near-by Riva Row Boat House and we will definitely be back to do this when it cools off in the fall.

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Before going to the Pavilion, we stopped by the lobby for free drinks (a glass of wine for mom and soft drinks for the kids!) and snacks…we weren’t the only Chicks fans there. While the Pavilion isn’t far, it’s a bit long for a late night walk. Many people took a cab or called Uber, but you can also drive. We were “Dixie Chicks Serious” about getting to the show on time!

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photo courtesy of Ken O’Quinn, Storyteller Communications

The concert was so crazy, fun. This stop on the DCX MMXVI World Tour is the first time they’ve been back to Houston in nearly a decade.

They’ve been a long time gone.

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photo courtesy of Ken O’Quinn, Storyteller Communications

Annie plays the violin so she loved watching Martie fiddle. I’ve been a fan for a long time. I used to sing Godspeed to the kids when they were babies to help them drift off to sleep at night. The crowd went crazy when they played a tribute to Prince (Nothing Compares 2 U), Wide Open Spaces and Cowboy Take Me Away – but we lost our collective minds with Goodbye Earl and their first encore, Not Ready to Make Nice.

We had a great time, but were hot and tired and so thankful we only had to travel 2 minutes to get to our comfy beds at the Embassy Suites. The next morning we had our complimentary breakfast in the lobby. Scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, french toast, bacon, sausage and biscuits with gravy. They also offered made to order eggs and omelets and had fresh juice and coffee.

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In addition to the water fall in the lobby in the picture above, check out this fountain in the courtyard by the restaurant. I love water features like these. So calming.

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We talked to several people in concert t-shirts about the show before heading to the pool for another swim. While we hated to leave, work and Jackson’s all day band practices that started the next day were calling us back to reality. But we’ll be back to The Embassy Suites to SUP on the lake or when another band comes to town we want to see.

Or when we just want to live life on the edge…. relaxing in the pool.

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We were guests at The Embassy Suites and received a free night stay in order to review the property. No other compensation was received and all thoughts, opinions and sore throat from singing too loud at the concert are my own!

 

 

 

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Surf City USA Day Trip – 7 Family Friendly Things To Do in Huntington Beach

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While you can definitely fill a full week relaxing in Huntington Beach, California, if you only have a limited amount of time to play in Surf City USA, no worries. We have the perfect itinerary for a full day of family-friendly fun in this casual and cool Pacific Coast community.

My family and I stayed in the beautiful Irvine and Costa Mesa areas while visiting Southern California this summer, the perfect home base for a vacation in Orange County. The Costa Mesa Marriott is 10 minutes from Huntington Beach, so we had just a short, 20-minute drive back to the hotel after a full day of fun. For information about things to do in the Irvine and Costa Mesa areas, be sure to visit my post: Family Travel – Fun Things to Do in Irvine, California #OrangeCounty.

Our friends at Visit Huntington Beach hosted our visit for the day and helped us coordinate a schedule that included a combination of water sports, good food and relaxation that was perfect for me, my 10-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son. If you are planning a girl’s getaway, romantic weekend or vacation with younger kids, they have a lot of other ideas about things to do in the area – so be sure to check them out for ideas before you arrive.

A DAY IN HUNTINGTON BEACH

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1. Learn to Surf – When in Surf City USA, you gotta surf! After all, Huntington Beach has the most consistent waves on the West Coast. If you don’t know how to hang 10, surf lessons from Toes On The Noes is the perfect thing to do in Huntington Beach.

Located at the Hyatt Regency Resort and Spa in the Retail Courtyard, Toes On The Nose offers lessons for those of ages 6 and up with any level of experience. As first timers – we were so excited about the opportunity to hit the waves with a little help from the pros. 

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After putting on wetsuits (provided by Toes On The Nose), we walked across the street from the hotel to the beach with our two instructors, Brock and Paul. Our 2-hour morning lesson started with a brief explanation about technique and we practiced going from the paddling position to standing on our surf boards while we were still on the sand.

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Then we hit the water. Jackson went up immediately and Annie was soon to follow. It took a few more tries for me – but it turns out you CAN teach an old dog new tricks. I wasn’t going to win an award for style, but I had a blast riding a wave all the way in to the beach.

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Brock and Paul were so patient and nice. They’ve both been surfing for a long time, especially Brock who started surfing when he was just a little one in preschool. It’s clear they are in their happy place when in the ocean. Even though they are clearly very experienced, they seemed to really enjoy surfing with us rookies and were excited for us when we got up on our boards. We all enjoyed getting to know them…it’s always awesome to meet people who are living their dream.

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After a while, it was clear that Jackson was really progressing quickly. Brock took him out to work one-on-one with him so he could experience as much as possible before the end of our lesson. It was so fun to watch Jackson feel the thrill of catching waves on his own. While Paul and I watched him from the beach, Paul told me that he could tell he had the bug. Paul got it when he was 13 years old and has been hooked on surfing ever since. He could tell Jackson was heading there.

Jackson stood a little taller when Brock and Paul asked him to come see them next time we visited Huntington Beach so they could go surfing together again.

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While surf lessons are a bit of a splurge – it’s totally worth it if you’ve never done it before. I also felt so much more comfortable knowing the kids had experienced surfers with them who knew about rip currents and how to be safe while having fun. Our instructors really maximized our time in the water, giving us the chance to catch waves immediately by telling us when to pop up…timing is everything.

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Many thanks to Brock and Paul and Toes On The Noes for an epic morning.

Jackson said it was lit.

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2. Ride Bikes Down the Boardwalk – After your surf lessons, rent bikes at Toes On The Noes (they also offer hourly and daily bike rentals) and cruise down the Boardwalk. There’s an 8.5 mile paved beach path perfect for pedaling around. It’s a great way to soak in the sun, the views and the relaxing vibe of Huntington Beach and the Pacific Ocean. We worked up an appetite after hitting the waves, so we rode our bikes from the Hyatt to Sandy’s Beach Grill for lunch. Bike rentals come with locks and you’ll find bike racks all along the paved path, so you can stop to shop or eat or just relax on the sand.

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3. Have Lunch at Sandy’s Beach Grill – While on your bike ride down the boardwalk – stop in Sandy’s for a bite to eat. This casual restaurant serves authentic California cuisine and is right by the iconic Huntington Pier. We had delicious scallops and mushroom flatbread at a table with a great view of the ocean. It was so yummy and relaxing and we were able to lock our bikes up on a bike rack right outside the restaurant. Check out my full review of Sandy’s Beach Grill in the post, 8 Great Restaurants in Orange County.

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4. Stand Up Paddleboarding at Huntington Harbor with OEX Sunset Beach. We fell in love with Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) last year in Florida. So much so, that we bought our own paddleboard before we left Sandestine! We don’t get the chance to go out as often as we’d like in Houston, so whenever we are by the water – we always try to squeeze in some time to SUP. OEX Sunset Beach, a kayak and SUP rental shop only a short drive down the Pacific Coast Highway from Sandy’s Grill, is a great place to grab a board and get on the water.

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Since we’ve been stand up paddleboarding before, we each got our own paddleboard – but two people can easily fit on one board if you are new to the sport and have younger kids. OEX Sunset Beach also offers lessons if you want to learn before you head out on your own, but SUP is really easy…you just have to find your balance. While it’s a lot of fun, relaxing and a great way to explore – it’s also a great workout. We went out around 3:30 p.m. so we had two hours to play. OEX Sunset Beach closes at 5:30, so all kayakers and paddleboarders have to be in by then.

The harbor is beautiful and there were a lot of kayakers and paddleboarders out on the water. We had fun exploring the area and looking at the boats and homes along the way. Paddleboarding is very calming to me. I love falling into the rhythm of paddling as I glide across the water. The kids love it, too. It’s a great way to see the water from a different perspective and while we didn’t talk a lot – it’s fun to experience SUP together with your family.

We went pretty far out, around several bends in the Harbor and before we knew it, it was time to head back. It was a little windier then we anticipated and because we were going against the wind on the way back, we made it back with only about 10 minutes to spare! With tired arms, tighter abs and full hearts – we turned in our equipment.

Tip: Parking is limited in their parking lot but you can park for free along the highway. You can also store your valuables in the shop (car keys, etc.) so you don’t have to worry about taking things on the paddleboard.

5. Shop at Pacific City If you have time and want to do some shopping, Pacific City is a fun place to visit. Right on the Pacific Coast Highway – they have big stores like Free People and LUSH (our favorite bath products!) as well as smaller specialty shops. We went after we finished SUP and before dinner and really enjoyed CherryHills Market. They also have restaurants and live entertainment. While we just visited for an hour, we could have been here much longer.

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6. Eat Dinner at Cucina Alessa – Just a short drive from the Boardwalk to Main Street is a delicious Italian restaurant, perfect for dinner. While you don’t want to wear a bathing suit or cut offs, it’s not too fancy. We were very comfortable. Jackson got lasagna, I ordered lobster ravioli and Annie had pasta with grilled shrimp and everything was delicious. We heard that all their handmade pastas are yummy – especially the Butternut Squash Ravioli. For a full review about Cucina Alessa, see my post: 8 Great Restaurants in Orange County.

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7. Bonfire on the Beach – While there are several public fire pits available for use on a first come, first serve basis on the beach each evening, there’s a special area across the street from and between the Hilton and Hyatt hotels where you can reserve a private bonfire. Waterfront Adventures, part of the The Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort, allows you to enjoy watching the sunset on the beach and making s’mores by the fire without any of the fuss. They provide the beach chairs, fire pit, wood, soft drinks and water, and all the fixin’s for s’mores.

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This was an amazing way to end the day. We just showed up on the beach and checked in with the attendant at about 8:30 p.m. Our private fire pit was already set up. During the evening he continually checked on us and kept the fire going so all we had to do was get comfortable and curl up by the fire. We loved visiting together about our Huntington Beach adventures in such beautiful surroundings.

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Tip: Be aware that the beach closes for everyone at 10:00 p.m. Starting at about 9:45 p.m. police vehicles begin to patrol the beach – so be prepared to pack up or pay a fine!

The kids happily dozed off during our ride back to Costa Mesa after the Bonfire. Before they were out like a light, both of them smiled and said…”Today was the best day. Ever.”

So, yeah. This mom’s kinda loving Huntington Beach.

What is your favorite thing to do in Orange County?

As guests of  Visit Huntington Beach our meals and activities were provided in order for us to experience Surf City USA area attractions. No other compensation was received and, as always, all opinions expressed are my own or taken from input received from my kids.

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Family Travel – Fun Things to Do in Irvine, California #OrangeCounty

Family Fun Things To Do In Irvine, California

Are you planning a family vacation? If your travel plans include California, you don’t want to miss visiting Irvine in Orange County. During my recent 6-day trip to Southern California with my two kids, we found Irvine to be the perfect destination for family-fun as well as a great home-base for several day trips we took to the Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach and Newport Beach areas.

Many thanks to the folks at Destination Irvine who set-up travel and coordinated some of the activities during our trip. I highly recommend visiting this site to prepare for your perfect Southern California family vacation.

At the center of Orange County and just minutes from John Wayne Airport, Irvine is a beautiful community filled with shopping, bike trails, good food and fun things to do. I’ll be covering details of places to eat and our day trips in future posts, but first I want to share some tips about what to do in Irvine proper….a fabulous destination in itself!

Where to Stay:

Embassy Suites Irvine

Our home away from home for two days was the Embassy Suites Irvine – Orange County Airport. A comfortable place to rest and relax with plenty of room to spread out, the Embassy Suites, with separate living and bedroom areas great for families, also provides all guests a complimentary made-to-order breakfast each morning (hello omelets!) and snacks and beverages in the evening. We loved playing cards in the atrium before dinner while enjoying refreshments.

Embassy Suites Irvine

Plus – if you are smart enough to schedule some down-time during your vacation (I need to do a better job with this) you can swim in their indoor pool or take advantage of summer programming like a painting class we noticed they were offering on Wednesday evenings. Very cool.

Embassy Suites Irvine

We’ve stayed at Embassy Suites hotels in other states before. In fact, Annie still remembers staying at the one in Dallas when I took her to the American Girl Doll Store for her birthday when she was just five years old. Embassy Suites does a great job of providing consistently great service across their chain of hotels and the Irvine location just went through a $12 million renovation – apparent by the modern furnishings located throughout both the guest rooms and public areas.

Fun Things to Do:

Orange County Great Park and The Great Park Balloon Ride

The Great Park Balloon - Irvine, California

We made a stop here Sunday evening – the first night of our trip. Open Thursday – Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., The Great Park (once a Marine Corps Air Station) is now home to sports fields, a carousel, a farm and food lab with interactive fruits, flowers and vegetable displays (open from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.), a historical hanger with cool exhibitions including two World War II airplanes, a play area and visitor’s center, and probably the most recognizable attraction – the Great Park Balloon.

The helium balloon goes up 400 feet offering views of Irvine; however, wind prevented us from riding it while we were there. Because of this fact (we learned that it hadn’t been able to go up for several evenings the week we were there) and more activities offered earlier in the day then in the evening, I recommend going to The Great Park in the morning/early afternoon.

The Great Park Farm and Food Lab

If I was lucky enough to live in Irvine, I would be out here. A lot. They have a farmer’s market on Sunday mornings and host classes including sports and dance, yoga, photography, art, sustainable gardening, cooking and wellness throughout the year. They also offer activities like movies on the lawn and family craft and play programs. While we were there, a fencing organization was outside practicing. We heard they are building a new ice skating rink including a practice facility for the Anaheim Ducks there as well as well as fields for many different sports. My kids, who both play lacrosse, were happy to hear that lacrosse facilities were included in the plan.

The Great Park, Irvine CA

We were bummed we weren’t able to experience the 15-minute helium balloon ride, but we checked out a frisbee and soccer ball from the visitor’s center at no-charge and had a great time enjoying the sunset and beautiful evening playing together on the lawn.

We are slowly learning that when we travel, we have to be flexible and deal with the unexpected…making the most of the journey as it unfolds naturally. You can plan (and boy do I plan!) but certain things, like the weather, just can’t be helped. Getting stressed out doesn’t make things any better. We ended up having a great time doing something that wasn’t on the itinerary.

Tip: Bring a picnic and make a day at the park if time allows. Visit them online to see about free classes and activities that may be going on during your stay and take advantage of the Farmer’s and Artisan market with food trucks and live entertainment on Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Irvine Spectrum Center

Great Wheel - Irvine Spectrum Center

We learned pretty quickly that there’s no lack of shopping in Orange County. The Irvine Spectrum Center is an outdoor shopping center with two department stores (Nordstrom and Target), many full service and casual restaurants, tons of popular stores, and entertainment including a movie theatre, ferris wheel, carousel, kiddie train, Dave & Busters, and a comedy club.

Great Wheel Irvine Spectrum Center

Since we didn’t get to ride the Great Park Balloon – we were very excited to get a bird’s eye view of Irvine from the Giant Wheel, a ferris wheel in the middle of the shopping area with 52,000 energy-efficient LED lights. On a clear day when at the top, look towards the Santa Monica Mountains (53 miles away) and Downtown LA (40 miles away).

For the record….I was never scared. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Honey and Butter, Irvine

Tip: Visit Honey & Butter for the best darn macarons. Our friend Rob at the fabulous Andrei’s Conscious Cuisine and Cocktails restaurant recommended this to us. (I promise I’ll fill you in about Andrei’s later!) The character macarons are even more delicious than they are adorable. Annie was thrilled to get a Pig macaron – she is nuts about pigs. Other flavors to die for: milk and honey, sea salted caramel, thai tea and matcha. We bought a bag of assorted flavors to take back to the hotel to enjoy later but they were gone before we got back to the car.

Don’t judge….we were on vacation!

Pedego Irvine Electric Bikes

Pedego Electric Bike Irvine

One of the absolute, hands down, top highlights for all of us during our week in California was our tour of Irvine with Bob at Pedego Electric Bicycles. I used to want a Vespa, now I want an electric bike. Bob, the store owner, is awesome. You couldn’t meet a nicer guy who truly loves SOCAL and Irvine.

Amazing bike trails begin literally outside Bob’s store’s door. One of the reasons we all fell in love with Irvine is because it’s truly a bike friendly city. We only experienced a taste of what the area has to offer in terms of trails….it left us wanting to experience more.

Pedego Electric Bike Irvine

These bikes have heavy frames compared to the road/race/triathlon bikes the kids and I are used to – but they are extremely easy to operate. Unlike Houston, Irvine is very hilly so riding up some of the inclines, especially on long rides, can be challenging. On a Pedego, you can either pedal like on a regular bike, stop pedaling and let the electric bike do all the work or do a combination of both. Pedegos can go up to 20 miles per hour and operate with a throttle. These are particularly wonderful if you are recovering from a sports injury (like my recent tendon tear in my leg).

Pedego Electric Bike Irvine

Bob sells bikes as well as rents them and offers guided bike tours. We went out for about 1 1/2 hours and experienced spectacular views along Shady Canyon Trail, University Trail by Quail Hill, Woodbridge Trail, and Turtle Rock Trail. We rode by beautiful homes, water, a golf course and even saw a road runner while we were out. Bob gave us a lot of background information about Irvine during the ride. If you really want to know a city, get out of the car and get on a bike. Irvine trails and Pedego bikes make it easy.

Pedego Electric Bike Irvine

Tip: If you’re shorter than me (I’m 4’10” – about the average size of a 5th grader) then you’ll probably have trouble riding these bikes on your own. But no worries. They have tandem bikes and my 10-year-old daughter, Annie, rode one with Bob (and loved it).

ChocXO Chocolate Factory

ChocXO

I may or may not be in love with chocolate.

Wait. Yes – definitely, yes. And Irvine is home to one of the best Chocolatiers, ChocXO…the only Bean to Bar Chocolate Factory in Orange County.

ChocXO

In addition to a shop full of goodies, ChocXO on Irvine Center Dr. offers 45 minute to 1 hour tours of the factory. For just $10.00 a person you can learn about how they make their specialty chocolate and the tour includes three, free chocolates from their chocolate case as well as samples of raw cacao pulp, cocoa nibs and cocoa liquor. Sasha, our guide, walked us along the educational wall of the factory with windows where we saw the machines they use to make chocolate. She told us what happens before they get their fine flavor cacao beans from Central and South America and what they do with them to make their products.

This tour was especially interesting for us since we just returned home from the Dominican Republic with Fathom Impact Travel were we worked at Chocal, the women’s chocolate co-op in Altamira. Many of the activities we did by hand to assist production at the co-op, like discard the bad beans and separate the shells from the chocolate nibs after they were ground up, are done by sophisticated equipment at ChocXO. It was eye-opening to see how chocolate is made here versus in an undeveloped country. While there are many similarities, ChocXO certainly has the advantage of technology and the chocolate we sampled was unbelievably delicious.

I highly recommend just about any of the chocolate squares and truffles in their chocolate bar. My favorite flavors: birthday cake, lemon meringue, spicy PB&J, salted caramel and creme brulee. You can purchase them while you are there as well as order them online, but sadly – cannot find them in stores in Texas. Sigh.

ChocXO

Tip: Request tour guide, Sasha. She’s fabulous! She’ll give you a ChocXO quiz at the end of the tour and you can score two more free chocolates if you turn it in…especially fun for the kids.

What’s your favorite thing to do in Irvine and Orange County?

Be sure to visit StillLivingTheDream.com again soon for posts about fabulous places to eat and details about our day trips to Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach.

As a guest of Destination Irvine, some of our travel related expenses were covered in order for us to experience Orange County area attractions. We also happily paid for some of our own travel, food and activities during our journey. No other compensation was received and, as always, all opinions expressed are my own or taken from input received from my kids.

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Planting Trees In The Dominican Republic – #traveldeep (Part 2)

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My family and I went to the Dominican Republic this summer. Typical tourist-type activities like relaxing by the pool on the cruise ship, racing down water slides in Amber Cove, riding the Teleferico Puerto Plata cable cars to the top of Mount Isabel de Torres, jumping off the side of waterfalls at 27 Charcos (Waterfalls of Rio Damajagua) were all on our to do list. But we were really going to Puerto Plata to accomplish something much more meaningful. 

We flew to Miami and boarded the Fathom Adonia, a small, 700-passenger cruise ship, to begin our journey. You can read more about Fathom Impact Travel and how to #traveldeep in my previous post.

Travelers with Fathom can pick up to three of the following impact activities. Because my daughter is 10 years old (you must be at least eight years old to go on this cruise) and there are age requirements for some of the more intense and physical activities like putting concrete floors in community homes, we selected Reforestation, Cacao & Women’s Chocolate Cooperative, and Community English.

Fathom reforestation

Newly planted Mangroves along a man-made canal by a natural lake in Cabarete – Puerto Plata.

Here’s what we experienced as part of the Reforestation Impact Activity.

 

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We left the ship at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning and boarded buses in Amber Cove. After about a 45 minute bus ride with Carlos from the NGO IDDI, and Becca, our Fathom Impact Guide, we arrived at our work site in Cabarete (Fathom takes travelers to different sites including those in the mountains and near the beach.)  After a short debriefing from IDDI staff, we planted Mangrove trees along the water that bordered a village.

Fathom impact travel - reforestation

As we planted the trees and marked them with sticks, those who live in the community walked over to watch us and some kids started to help.

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Annie and Jackson were very focused on doing as much work at they could. Annie seemed to sense the impact immediately. After planting one small tree, she paused and told me…

“This will be here forever and will give air and shade to the people who live here.”

Nailed it.

We later learned from Fathom that our efforts help create more nutrient-rich soil, a reduction in soil loss, improved localized air and local water, an increase in localized biodiversity and higher agricultural yields.

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As the morning carried on, we continued to make our way along the water bank that backed up to the village with what seemed like an endless supply of trees to be planted. It was hot and we were sweaty and for some reason, we got a lot dirtier then the rest of our group of about 40 travelers, but we felt great.

StillLivingTheDream.com reforestation with IDDI

We visited with IDDI team members as we worked and got to know one beautiful lady who at one point, sweetly stopped to tie Annie’s sneaker. She’s a mom with a two-year old daughter. I love that not only does IDDI help the community through partnering with Fathom with projects like this, they provide jobs for those who live there.

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So how did we do? Our group planted 320 trees, but together along with those from the first five Fathom sailings – we planted a combined total of 8,656 seedlings and trees.

Not too shabby.

What did it mean to us as a family?

Fathom Impact Travel

There’s something to be said for working hard outside under the sun. Getting our hands dirty – touching the soil while enjoying breathtaking views. Well – I’m sorry to sound all touchy-feely, but it makes you feel alive. As I got caught up in my own experience and the work at hand, I’d occasionally steal a glance of one of my kids and watch them work. Jackson and Annie both took their job seriously. They wanted to do well and make a difference.

I had been looking forward to taking this trip with both my kids – but especially with Jackson. He is starting high school in the fall and it’s bittersweet. He is growing up at a rate I’m not comfortable with and I know that sooner than I will like – he will move away from our home to start his own life. I remember at one point saying to myself…

“Soak this moment in, Jennifer. It doesn’t really get any better than this.”

Fathom Impact Travel

Working together as a family to help someone else is so important. You don’t have to travel far to do this. We have participated in many worthwhile volunteer activities close to home. But going to another country and working together made us really feel like we were a part of the community there. For many hours I worked side-by-side with my family, new friends from the ship and those that lived in the Dominican Republic. We didn’t all speak the same language, but we communicated in a way that was meaningful and real.

On the bus ride home, we all sat quietly looking out the window….each lost within our own thoughts. Jackson caught me staring at him.

“Mom, you’re staring at me. What’s up?”

“Oh – nothing,” I said…(trying to be cool).

I’m a big, fat liar.

Because the most opposite of “nothing” had happened. For a few hours that morning, I spent quality time with my teenager…away from schedules, drivers ed, friends, sports, homework. I had found a way to pause time…if only for a little while.

I know he’ll never understand, but for a mom – it was so not “nothing”. It was something huge.

Still Living The Dream - Dominican Republic

Tips:

  1. Currently Fathom takes travelers to the nursery to plant seedlings on Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings. If you want to plant trees in the mountains or along the beaches – be sure to select this activity on a Wednesday or Thursday. We were so happy to be able to plant the trees and spend time in Cabarete, an area of the country we might not have gotten to see. I highly recommend this option.
  2. Wear long pants, long sleeve shirts and use Deet to protect yourself from mosquitoes, the sun and plants or obstacles along the route. I recommend a hat and/or sunglasses as well. They provide work gloves. This was a great impact activity to do in the morning. While it was hot, the afternoon sun is a lot hotter.
  3. Drink a lot of water! IDDI and Fathom provide bottled water for you on the bus ride and during the activity. Stop and rehydrate during the day.

Fathom Impact Travel

Do you have any questions about the Fathom impact travel/travel deep experience? Be sure to let me know by commenting below and check back in at StillLivingTheDream.com to hear about what it was like to teach Community English in the Dominican Republic soon.

Fathom Impact Travel

I was invited by Fathom to sail on the Adonia to the Dominican Republic and experience impact activities with my family. While the main cruise (food, travel, room and impact activities) were provided to me at no cost, as always – all opinions expressed are my own. I gladly paid for air travel to the port, gratuities, on our own activities, taxis, souvenirs that supported some of the groups we helped while in the Dominican Republic, some food and beverages as well as other expenses on my own. 

 

 

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What is Fathom Impact Travel and #TravelDeep? (Part 1)

family sunset aboard Fathom Adonia

Beautiful sunset at sea aboard the Fathom Adonia.

I just got home from a vacation unlike any other I’ve taken. My family and I travel as much as we can and we’ve been on a lot of adventures over the last several years. But last week we flew to Miami and boarded a ship that took us on a journey we won’t soon forget.

Fathom Impact Travel invited several travel writers to join the other passengers and crew aboard the Adonia, a 700-passenger ship that sails every other week to the Dominican Republic. My husband, daughter and son joined me to experience a family vacation with a twist. While we would definitely see a beautiful country and do some typical tourist-type activities on our own, the main reason we were going to the Dominican Republic was to make a positive difference for those who live there.

child in Puerto Plata

There’s a lot I want to share with you and I’m going to break it down into a series of posts, but just to let you know (spoiler alert) we had an extraordinary time. I’m still trying to process everything. It was fun, rewarding, hard work, exhausting, uplifting, sobering, emotional and beautiful. We grew together as family, we changed a bit individually and we experienced the country in a way we never would have on any other vacation. We were able to relax and be tourists, too…so really – it was a combination of a regular vacation (hello – we were on a cruise ship!) and cultural immersion/mission work.

Before I dive in with some of the nuts and bolts of what this trip is all about and what it includes, I’d like to thank Fathom for the experience. While we paid for our air travel to Miami and many activities on the ground and extras on the ship, Fathom covered our stateroom, food and impact activities so that we could see first-hand what the new Fathom #traveldeep experience was like.

Fathom, the newest brand under the Carnival Corporation and plc umbrellais a new kind of cruise that combines the love of travel with the desire to make a difference. We were on the sixth sailing to the Dominican Republic (the also sail to Cuba every other week) so the concept and experience are still quite new for staff and travelers alike.

reforestation with IDDI

Planting trees as part of the Reforestation Impact Activity with Fathom. Made a new friend with IDDI.

Fathom calls the concept travel with a purpose – the opportunity to immerse yourself in the Dominican culture while working alongside its people to create enduring social impact. To achieve that, they have set up several impact activities, led by impact guides that you meet on the ship as well as community partners from NGO’s including IDDI and Entrena on the ground. You select three you want to experience while the ship is docked at Puerto Plata’s port for two full days and 2 half days including:

  • Reforestation
  • Community English
  • Repapel – Recycled paper and crafts entrepeneurship
  • Cacao & Women’s Chocolate Cooperative
  • Water filters
  • Concrete Floors in Community Homes
  • CAMS – Creative Art, Music and Sports (offered during the summer), Student English (offered during the school year)
Fathom Spanish phrases class

Taking a Spanish Phrases class on board to prepare for teaching Community English in the Dominican Republic.

Impact guides offer training through classes offered on the ship while you sail to the Dominican Republic. We took hour-long sessions on topics such as Spanish Phrases, Empowering English Tutoring, Visual Storytelling, Getting to Know the Dominican Republic, and Raising the Next Generation of Changemakers so we could prepare for our on-ground experiences.

Fathom Adonia pool

While sailing to Amber Cove, the port in Puerto Plata, we also enjoyed the Adonia’s many amenities including a swimming pool, fitness center, spa (that offered massages, hair, nails, facials and even acupuncture), multiple lounges and a wine bar, gift shops and dining areas. She also has a full library that was always a buzz with activity. Lots of games, puzzles, computers, comfortable chairs and couches were available as well as great books for all ages including many copies of The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind – the ship’s book club pick that many travelers read and discussed in groups during the cruise! We checked out a set of dominoes (a popular Dominican past time) to play many times on the ship until we purchased a set of our while sight seeing in Puerto Plata.

Fathom Adonia scavenger hunt

Late night scavenger hunt aboard the Adonia. Our team won!

They also offered fun, fitness activities like yoga, meditation and dance classes (we learned the Merengue and Bachata). You could take a wine and paint class, cocktail class, watch late night movies on the top deck and listen to the Adonia’s band – The Craze, as well as several Dominican Republic bands who came aboard while we were at port. Scheduled activities like scavenger hunts (not to brag or anything – but our team won the first one!), fitness seminars and bandioke (karioke with a live band) were also popular.

fuseball on Fathom Adonia

Annie playing Fuseball with new friends aboard The Adonia.

Because of the requirements of the work experienced on-ground, you have to be eight years old or older to go on this cruise. Some of the impact activities require you to be even older because of the type of work being performed. On our sailing we had a lot of kids, pre-teens and teenagers on board, which I think is great. There isn’t a kids game room or any children’s programming per say, but my kids participated in many of the age-appropriate activities offered and had a great time. I do feel like there could be more offered for the younger cruisers, though. This may be something they look at adding on future sailings.

What do you think about Fathom Impact Travel so far? Do you have any questions? Be sure to leave them in the comments section…I’d love to feature answers to them in an upcoming post. Visit Still Living The Dream to learn more about our Fathom experience coming soon!

I was invited by Fathom to sail on the Adonia to the Dominican Republic and experience impact activities with my family. While the main cruise (food, travel, room and impact activities) were provided to me at no cost, as always – all opinions expressed are my own. I gladly paid for air travel to the port, gratuities, on our own activities, taxis, souvenirs that supported some of the groups we helped while in the Dominican Republic, some food and beverages as well as other expenses on my own. 

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Summer DIY Craft Project: Painted Canvas Shoes

My kids, especially Annie, love to do arts and crafts projects. While hanging out with some friends last week we had a wild streak and decided to break out the paint. Led by the very crafty and talented Kelly with Life In The Middle  (love her!) we took some plain canvas shoes (we got ours from Five Below for just $5.00) and turned them into wearable works of art.

This is a pretty easy project that you can do with kids of all ages; however, you can’t be a perfectionist. Embrace the imperfections that make them your own creations. As my son said – “You don’t want them to be perfect or they won’t look like you made them.”

Preach.

DIY Canvas Painted Shoes 1

1. We started with solid color canvas shoes and used a pencil to sketch out our designs. Kelly is all kinds of awesome and helped several of us get started! We were also inspired by designs we found online. Google “fish” or “dolphins” and you’ll get all kinds of inspiration for a summer/beach pair of shoes!

DIY painted shoes 2

2. Next we filled in the designs with fabric paint markers and acrylic paint mixed with a bit of Textile Medium. This allows the paint to become washable fabric paint. Although we won’t wash these, they may get wet from normal wear and we wanted them to be protected.

DIY shoes 3

3. After the paint dried, we painted over the entire shoes with Mod Podge.

There you go. Easy peasy and inexpensive !

Summer boredom = 0, Family and Friend Fun=1

 

 

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Staying Cool In Houston During The Summer #reliantsummer (Schlitterbahn giveaway)

There’s no doubt about it. It’s about to get hot in Houston. Summer solstice was last weekend and even though it’s been warm here for quite awhile, it really is true – summer has just gotten started. July and August bring the worst of the summer heat and we often break up the days with some indoor activities. We like to visit the library, our neighborhood bowling alley where kids bowl free all summer, the movie theatre and museums.

Keeping it cool inside can be costly this time of year. I cringe when I see our electricity bill in July and August. Do you?

To help us manage our electricity bill, Reliant has provided the following top ten energy usage tips:

  1. Install a programmable thermostat to save an estimated 10% a year on heating and cooling costs.
  2. Set your TV to the “home” or “standard” screen setting. The “vivid” or “retail” settings are unnecessarily bright and burn 20% more power.
  3. Lower the temperature settings on your water heater from 140 degrees to 120 degrees. It saves money and still feels nice and hot.
  4. Switch your ceiling fan to turn in a counter-clockwise direction in the summer.
  5. Change your AC filters at least once a month.
  6. Use microwave and toaster ovens to cook or warm leftovers. You’ll use less energy than cooking with conventional oven.
  7. Wash full loads of clothes when possible. When smaller loads are necessary, use less water.
  8. Grill out more often during the summer. Using the oven in the heat of summer forces your AC to work harder, which raises your energy bill.
  9. Set your thermostat 4 degrees higher when you’re away for more than 4 hours to help reduce electricity usage.
  10. Turn off your computer before bed each night and before leaving for the day. Set the computer’s sleep mode.

I’m pretty good about setting the thermostat higher when we aren’t home, using the grill instead of the oven and washing a full load of laundry each time (folding it right away is another story!) but I’m embarrassed about how long it’s been since I changed our AC filters and didn’t even think about lower the settings on my water heater.

What about you? Have you had any luck with any of these tips? Do you have any different ones to share?

Jackson Galveston

When we do play outside, we spend a lot of time in the water. We just got back from a trip to SeaWorld and Aquatica in San Antonio. We go every year and the kids had a blast. We are so excited about planning a day-trip to Schlitterbahn in Galveston soon. Reliant asked if we wanted to be their guests to cool off at the water park. Um, yes – please!!!

reliant-logo2

Reliant just launched a new plan, Predictable 12, where they predict your electricity bill for 12 months. With this plan electricity costs stay the same every month, for 12 months, with no surprises no extra fees and no spiked bills due to the summer season!  

In addition to the energy savings tips and the chance to save money on your electric bill, Reliant is also providing one, lucky Still Living The Dream reader the chance to cool off at Schlitterbahn with their family for free, too! Sound good?

schlitterbahn logo

Giveaway!

Do you want four free tickets worth $300.00 to Schlitterbahn in Galveston?

From now until Sunday, June 30, 2014, leave a comment with how many 100+ degree days you predict there will be in Houston during the month of July. On August 1, the number of days it was 100+ degrees in Houston during July will be determined according to Hobby airport. The person who guesses it right (or comes the closest) will get a four-pack of tickets! In the event that more than one person has the correct or closest answer, a winner will be selected at random.

I was given tickets to Schlitterbahn to keep cool during the summer with my family. No other compensation was received and all opinions are my own. 

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How to Make the Best of a Rainy Vacation (Review of The Woodlands Resort)

The Woodlands community is just a short drive from where we live in Houston, but with the beautiful scenery…. it feels like a million miles away. When my family and I were recently invited by The Woodlands Resort for a visit over Spring Break, we were thrilled. We all really needed a break and we were curious to check out what new things will be unveiled at the resort this summer.  We were especially excited about the chance to play on the water slides and relax pool side with good food, live music and other entertainment they had planned for Spring Breakers of all ages.

 umbrella

Unfortunately, the weather had other plans. Mother nature – you can be cruel sometimes. It was cold and rainy during our entire two-day, one-night stay. Not ideal for outdoor fun…but we still got to enjoy the resort, find out about their renovations and we learned a couple of tricks about how to make the best of dreary weekend weather.

The Woodlands Resort is in the middle of a $60 million dollar expansion including the addition of a new building with 184 guest rooms …plus they are renovating their existing rooms. Check out the new look coming soon!

 woodlands resort rooms

They are adding a 900-foot lazy river that will wind around the property’s existing Waterscape pools and play area. We can’t wait for this new addition which will be ready in time for summer fun!

In addition to many other renovations and additions, a new steak house is being built to overlook the 18th green of Panther Trail Golf Course as well.

Even with all the new and exciting changes on the horizon, The Woodlands Resort is already a great place to relax with your family and friends. One of the things we enjoyed the most was the excellent customer service and even with the less then ideal weather conditions, we still had fun.

Tips for Making The Best of a Rainy Vacation

1. If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em 

Swimming in rain

It’s hard for kids to be so close to beautiful pools and water slides and not dive in. While it was a chilly 60 degrees (that’s cold for Houston!) the  Woodlands Resort heated their smaller pool in the back. When the heavy rain slowed down (and there was no sign of thunder or lightening) we let the kids enjoy some time in the water. The nice staff members even let our kids go down the water slide in the front pool (which wasn’t heated – brrr!) once or twice so they could experience it!

2. Enjoy the Rhythm of the Rain

Our room had a balcony overlooking the Forest Oaks Waterscape. While we couldn’t enjoy lounging by the pool, we loved sitting on the balcony with a good book. Protected from the raindrops, we were able to enjoy the outdoors without getting wet.

3. Fun Indoors

photo 1-9

The Woodlands Resort moved some of the Spring Break activities they had planned by the pool inside one of their ballrooms including clowns, balloons, live music, games and a movie in the evening. We also played a family game of pool and shuffle board and enjoyed some live jazz music in the lobby. For moms and dads, there’s also a fitness facility and spa. (I definitely intend to take advantage of a massage the next time we visit the resort!) When we had enough of the indoors, the Woodlands Resort shuttle took us to nearby Market Street to enjoy some shopping and dinner at Tommy Bahamas restaurant.

4. Good Food and Conversation

 lunch

We had a late and lazy lunch in the resort’s dining room. With great views of the property…we enjoyed yummy chicken lettuce wraps. We laughed, acted silly and took our time enjoying our meal. This is a rare treat in our world of rushing from band practice to cheer leading and lacrosse in the evenings. It was really relaxing. Next time we might not even leave our room…we might just put on a good movie and order room service!

What are your tips for making the best of bad weather on vacation?

Many thanks to the Woodlands Resort for treating us to a nice stay at their resort. While some of our expenses were covered in order for us to review the property, all of the thoughts and opinions (and lazy Saturday afternoon) are all my own!

 

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Summer Road Trips with Savings From Shell Fuel Rewards Network

Are  you taking a family vacation this summer?

StillLivingTheDream DisneyWorldTangled

Since we just took a big one in May to Disney World and I’m going on a once in a lifetime trip abroad to Paris with my mom and sisters this summer, we plan on taking several short getaways within driving distance while the kids are out of school.

Call us old school, but we like to pack up the ol’ family truckster (mini van) and hit the road Griswold style. In addition to saving money on plane tickets, you can create a lot of memories when traveling in the car. Spending time together on the road can be a great family bonding experience as you navigate road maps, plan on road side stops for food and quickie sight seeing (gotta see the world’s largest ball of string if you’re passing by, right?!) and play travel games like “I Spy” and the oldie but goodie license plate game.

We now even laugh about those constant and annoying backseat cries of  “are we there yet?” or “Annie’s touching me!” from the kids on our trip to Colorado and South Dakota last summer.

It’s a rite of passage for kids to complain about long stretches of time spent confined to a small space with just one’s siblings and parents….the very thing you’ll remember with fondness later in life.

StillLivingTheDream Aquatica

Luckily our home base of Houston is also close to many places that are great for a weekend getaway…especially the Hill Country. We take a trip to San Antonio several times a year and especially love the River Walk and SeaWorld and Aquatica. In fact, we just got back from attending a mini blogging conference called AdventureCon hosted by SeaWorld. While I learned more about mobile apps and photography, Ed and the kids enjoyed time in the parks. When I was finished I joined them for time in the sun and water and to enjoy the new SeaWorld show, Pet’s Ahoy. We just love Aquatica and SeaWorld and going to these parks is always on our Summer Family Bucket List.

StillLivingTheDream fuel rewards network logo

While traveling by car is less expensive then plane, gas is certainly an expense. I’m always looking for ways to save money and I recently heard about The Shell Fuel Rewards Network program that helps people pay less for gas. I received a loaded Fuel Rewards Network Card so I could experience the savings and how the program works.

Here’s the skinny about the Fuel Rewards Network Program:

  1. To earn up to 75 cents a gallon (for up to 20 gallons of gas per vehicle/per visit) at Shell stations, you start by signing up at fuelrewards.com.
  2. You can get your card online (they mail it you) or you can get it at a participating Shell station.
  3. You must activate the card online before using

You save money per gallon by presenting the card when you:

  1. make purchases for convenience store products, car washes and auto services at Shell stations
  2. dine at more than 10,000 participating restaurants (you earn 10 cents a gallon for every $50 you spend!) We were excited to find out that one of our favorite restaurants close to home participates. You can view the entire list and search by zipcode online at fuelrewards.com.
  3. shop online at 700+ stores including Best Buy and Gap (earn 5 cents a gallon for every $50 you spend plus some merchants offer two to time times rewards to save you even more!)

We signed up and are earning rewards with purchases and almost to a rewards savings of $2.50 off a gallon. Last time I filled the minivan up when almost on empty, I put in 18.2 gallons and gas was $3.28 a gallon.

With the fuel rewards network savings, I will only pay 78 cents a gallon; a total of $14.20 for a FULL tank of gas. This would normally cost $59.70 – a savings of $45.50!

Since your card resets back to zero after you fill up (whether it’s 1 or 20 gallons) it’s best that you go with a low tank.  Some people even bring a gas can to fill up as well if they can’t  hit 20 gallons by filling up their tank. Smart!

The Fuel Rewards Network is also offered at Shell in ADDITION to the Kroger rewards program which is awesome and will save you even more cash! You can use the mobile app to check your reward balance so you can see how far you are to reaching maximum savings!

With the Fuel Rewards Network program, I can afford more weekend road trips to SeaWorld and other fun places! Since it started in 2012, customers have saved about $68 million in savings at Shell. Are you one of them? How else do you save money for road trips with your family?

I was given a pre-loaded Fuel Rewards Network card in order to review for this post but received no other compensation. All thoughts and opinions are my own. 

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Enjoy a Bug-Free Summer With A Prize Pack From Cutter (Giveaway)

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Thank you Cutter for sponsoring this compensated post and giveaway!

I went to the park to drop off Annie for swim practice last night without spraying Cutter Insect Repellent on first.

Big. Mistake.

Seven mosquito bites in five minutes. At least someone loves me, right?!

Did you read my post from earlier this week about how we spent our (bug-free) Memorial Day Weekend thanks to Cutter?

photo-655

A Giveaway!

Yup. Mosquitoes are definitely here in Houston. Are they bad where you live? Want to give them the heave-ho with products from Cutter…for free? I’ve got a great giveaway for you. A Cutter Prize Pack worth $55.00.

Here is what one, lucky Still Living The Dream reader will receive:

  1. Cutter Natural Personal Insect Repellent
  2. Cutter Dry Personal Insect Repellent
  3. Cutter Skinsations Personal Insect Repellent
  4. Cutter Unscented Backwoods Repellent
  5. 2 Cutter Backyard Bug Control Sprays
  6. 4 Cutter CitroGuardTM candles

All you need to do to enter is leave a comment stating why you hate mosquitoes. Easy-peasy! One person will be selected at random on Wednesday, June 5, 2013, at 11:59 p.m. CST.

Want more chances? I get it. Mosquito bites stink and you want it to stop. Leave a separate comment for each additional thing you do below!

  1. Follow Still Living The Dream on Pinterest
  2. Follow Still Living The Dream on Twitter
  3. Like Still Living The Dream on Facebook
  4. Like Cutter on Facebook
  5. Follow Cutter on Pinterest
  6. Tweet this: “Mosquitoes bite. I want to win a Cutter Prize Pack so I can enjoy the summer outdoors, bug-free! http://bit.ly/19th2Lz @jpatrickcomm”

This post was sponsored by Cutter. While I received compensation and products to review, all thoughts and opinions are my own. 

 

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