What makes a family vacation great? It’s about what brings your family joy. That’s the first and most basic question for planning great family vacations.


Family Vacation.

If you are anything like me, this is one of the biggest motivators to showing up at work. The pay off of a luxurious family vacation. Yes, there is satisfaction in a job well done. In making a difference in the world around us. There’s also the eternal drive for financial security. But on some cold Monday mornings, it is only the thought an upcoming vacation that can get you out of bed. And when you finally arrive at that chosen destination, you really hope it was all worth it. That you chose well. That the pictures and reviews were telling the truth. I think this is the reason so many people sacrifice variety and adventure and just return to the same resort year after year. A proven winner. But there are ways to choose a new adventure with out great risk to your precious family vacation time. This post will try and help you plan your next family vacation lux reward. We just returned from 2 weeks in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Here’s how we made our decisions on this and other family vacations.


The food scene at our chosen vacation spots is important for our family. Asheville, NC is very family friendly and delicious!

5 Family Vacation Tips

  1. Choose a Destination through Family Discussion and Research
  2. Set Budget
  3. Set Priorities for Vacation
  4. Research Resort Choices within Budget at Destination
  5. Choose Resorts that Best Meet Needs

We choose a new international location by first researching online widely. I used Trip Advisor, Yelp,  various blogs, and professional guide sites like Travel and Leisure. Articles like Frommers “100 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up” can be an inspiring jump off point. A great book full of a childhood of special trips and then some is National Geographic’s 100 Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life. Or your hobbies may be the inspiration, like 10 Best Ski Resorts for Families.  If the beach is your favorite place to relax, an article like 10 Best Family Beach Resorts from the helpful Family Vacation Critic might be your best starting point. Perhaps far away relatives or family ancestry may be your inspiration. Ask every member of the family what they think would be exciting. The answers may surprise and inspire your planning.

family vacation planning

Family roots may be a great jumping off point for your next family vacation

planning family vacation

Telluride or Tahoe? Summer or winter? How I pick.

Combining types of sites you search gives you both a traveler viewpoint and a professional one. Once you narrow down your choices a more specific site may be helpful. Like if your concerned about current safe travel in Mexico read something just written like Ignore the Myths and Take Your Kids to Mexico from indie travel site Bootsnall. I usually search more traveler sites once we have decided on location and begin resort research. Trusted bloggers like the very well traveled Canadian Sarah Pittard have proven invaluable in both avoiding mistakes and inspiring family travel to new destinations.

family vacation planning

Take advantage of the wisdom of veteran travelers who travel with their kids all the time- like Sarah Pittard.

Her website is Solo Mom Takes Flight and she happily gives away free traveler advice to families on her social media outlets. You should check her out soon if you haven’t already.

While I really find the amateur travel based sites (Trip Advisor) invaluable, you do have to “consider the source”. Someone with an obnoxious hotel neighbor or a dietary restriction you don’t share, will at times give a resort 1 star but your time there may be 5 star. I always read the highest and lowest reviews. Then I carefully consider what they are most complaining about and complementing. How important are these things to my family? If it is a resort I like and the complaint is within the hotel’s control, like “low level floors are musty”, I will ask for the assistance of the hotel by email in advance. I quote the review as my source. This usually results in not experiencing the problem at all.

family vacation planning

How much should you trust online reviews?

I try to find winning reviews on the most important vacation aspects for our family. We also travel frequently enough to understand what different hotel brands specialize in. As well being able to enjoy the benefit of membership in frequent stay programs. This often means complimentary breakfast, concierge room privileges, or room upgrades. (These programs cost nothing to join.) Often our favorite hotel in New York or London, will also be our favorite in Madrid. We often include our family favorites Westin or Hyatt in our itinerary.

family vacation

The bed that keeps us booking Westins worldwide. Heavenly indeed.

dog friendly travel

Does your family include a furry member? Dog friendly brands like Aloft and Westin may rate higher for you.

Our top general priorities list usually looks something like this. It often changes slightly with each trip to include things like visiting family or cultural specifics.

Our Top 5 Vacation Priorities

  • Nice Beds and Bathrooms
  • Transporting Environment
  • Outdoor Activities for both adults and kids – Separately
  • Enriching Family Activities
  • Great Food
family vacation planning

Does family down time for you mean time at the beach or on the slopes?

Research suggested there were many resorts in Puerto Vallarta that could provide these things for our family. So we decide to book several that were within our budget. For us, the inconvenience of packing and moving is worth the trouble for a richer vacation experience. Plus knowing we might be back, we wanted to find our favorites on our first journey here. We moved all around Banderas Bay and stayed at both all-inclusives and regular resorts. This too is a strategy for us. At the all inclusive we maximize things like water-sports, kids clubs, nightly shows, and beach butlered drinks. On the reverse side, at a regular resort we maximize time in town, family special activities, spas, and finer local dining. This gives us the best of both types of relaxation. The change in venue also gives us incentive to maximize each day at the different resorts.

family hawaii vacation planning

Oahu offers diverse vacation experiences depending on location. Honolulu is the cultural hub.

Based on the local you have chosen consider choosing some complimentary lodging in differing locals to maximize your family vacation lux. In a local like Tuscany this may mean 3 days in town in a branded hotel in the historic district followed by a villa rental in the country side with pool the second half of your stay. Or in Hawaii it may mean soaking up culture at a luxury high-rise in Oahu followed by some down time at Chuns Reef on the North Shore. This unique property allows whole house rental and includes direct beach access and toys galore.


Surf boards, paddleboards, beach chairs, and kayaks are part of the deal at Chuns Reef on the North Shore of Oahu.

I’ll review each of our 4 choices in Puerto Vallarta in part two of this post and show you what was great ( and not so great) about each of them. But the main point here is that staying in more than one place can really enrich your trip. Don’t be afraid to pack your bags and call a taxi mid week !


Hyatt Ziva Puerto Vallarta was our first stop in Mexico. Stay tuned!

So I encourage you to branch out and explore some place new when you plan your next family vacation. We love the richness diverse travel has given our family life. And I would love to hear about your favorite family trips.

Stay tuned for more information on Mexico and all-inclusives. Are they right for your family? Part two coming up!


Food is another important factor in family vacation planning for our family. How did the all-inclusives stand up?


Potato Pancakes are a part of my collective family food memory. It seems that food traditions are such a rich part of most families histories. Memories of being gathered together in the kitchen or around a table always seem to glow the brightest in our minds. I’m not sure how many generations of women in my family have been making these potato pancakes, but I do know it reaches back pretty far. I’ve personally watched my Mom, my Great Grandmother, as well as my paternal Grandmother all fill their largest cast iron skillets with huge batches of them.  I can clearly remember the enticing smell of sizzling butter and onions drifting through our house. And how I would “set the table” extra slowly. Hoping for a “sample cake” as Mom stacked layers of them between waxed paper for the family meal. Now I smile when my own daughter tries the same thing.


A simple and satisfying plate of potato pancakes and cabbage makes a great winter lunch.

But before we go any further permit me to clarify one thing. These are not Latkes. While I adore a good Latke, I do not have a Jewish heritage. If that’s the recipe you are looking for try this blog for Latke Making Tips. My ancestry is mainly German and Irish.  Some members of my mother’s family immigrated very early (1700’s) to southwestern Virginia where they were farmers.  My father’s family started farming in Henrico County Virginia in 1838 at Bolton Hoehns Estate. A small part of that land is still used today by our 7th generation farmers. I can remember both branches of my combined family making these. And they are different than the more familiar latkes. We always made potato pancakes from left over mashed potatoes, not freshly shredded potatoes. And we pan seared them in a small amount of butter and oil instead of frying them. Kind of griddled, more like you would a regular pancake. They came to the plate brown and crispy on the outside but still smooth and creamy in the middle. And they are still positively addictive today. I love a good leftover recipe. And this one totally transforms leftover mashed potatoes. My only problem seems to be ever making enough mashed potatoes to have left overs in the first place (tip- set aside some before serving!). Oh the potatoes my Grandmothers must have peeled!

potato pancake recipe

It’s undeniable that our grandmothers were just tougher than us.

I know this because we often enjoyed  these for breakfast, sometimes with small pork chops.  I’m just so certain those women were all ever so much tougher than me. Any one else feel that way about their own Grandma? Ever since I was I little girl, I have loved these. Although no one living seems to know their origin, I’m guessing it was a combination of what was on hand, cheap, and filling.  My great grandfather could keep his family of 7 fed through the winter with an acre of land planted with potatoes. The Irish traditionally have Boxty Cakes which bear a resemblance but  combine mashed potatoes with grated ones. And Germans have several variations of potato pancakes as well. This recipe for potato pancakes was commonly found on Virginia farm tables when I was growing up.  Maybe this humble delicacy is due for a comeback?

So here’s my easy step by step recipe for Southern Potato Pancakes.  They are such a fond part of our family’s traditional winter food. We make them in the morning to eat with eggs.


One of my favorite breakfasts growing up.

Or sometimes they were the center of the plate for a simple lunch alongside some a jar of pickles. I suggest the classic pairing of cabbage and potatoes for this. But I do confess to switching over to bok choy or napa cabbage because I prefer its mild flavor. I always loved childhood dinners where a large platter stacked with them appeared as our vegetable.
As an adult, I have seen many tempting versions of these mashed potato pancakes. Pinterest  offers numerous versions using shredded cheese, Serrano ham, goat cheese, herbs, or bacon.  They all look delicious. But what I crave is the simple perfection that I grew up eating. I’ve only changed a couple of things from how my great grandmother would have made them. I’ve added panko crumbs to the outside of the cakes for extra crispness. I’ve used clarified butter because it doesn’t spatter and browns better. And I added a little chives and parsley for a punch of color and flavor. But you can serve them any way you please. Just be sure to steal a sample one from the pan early to eat plain with salt. Or to split with your kids. It’s tradition after all.

EVO Grill

Be sure and make a large stack. These will be popular!

And of course, now I cook them on my EVO. I think my great grandmother would have approved of my version. I know with her love of cast iron skillet cooking, she would have appreciated an EVO to keep all those hungry mouths fed! When I think of how that generation labored to put food on the table, I am humbled.  And grateful. I hope that your 2016 tables and year are filled with the richness of family traditions, both old and new. Happy New Year all.  And thanks Nana.


  • 3 cups mashed potatoes, chilled
  • One small onion, grated on box grater
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour (you may need more or less, depending on how dry or wet your mashed potatoes are)
  • 1/4 c buttermilk (again will depend somewhat on your potato consistency)
  • 1 cup panko bread crumbs for rolling finished cakes
  • butter clarified if possible, for pan-frying ( add a little canola oil if using regular
  • small handful (about 4 T) of chopped flat leaf parsley and chives minced fine
  • salt to taste
EVO Grill

Chilling the formed cakes makes a big difference in how easily they hold together while cooking.


Combine all ingredients except panko in a large bowl and mix thoroughly.  Scoop out using ice cream scoop or small bowl onto parchment or waxed paper. Chill at least 30 minutes or up to overnight. Press cool cakes into panko. Brush Evo Grill or cast iron pan with butter over medium heat. Add cakes and griddle about 4 minutes a side or until golden brown and hot. Sprinkle with sea salt and serve straight away or hold in warm oven.

evo grill recipe

You can cook up enough pancakes for every one at once with an evo grill.

potato pancakes with smoked salmon recipe evo grill

Humble potato pancakes get dressed up for brunch when served with creme fresh, smoked salmon, and soft eggs.

How To Not Screw Up Thanksgiving

how to not screw up thanksgivng

Thanksgiving wisdom to keep everyone happy (about the food anyway).

Thanksgiving is almost here and we are all trying to put together a great crowd pleasing menu. If you’re reading this I’m going to assume you probably enjoy cooking (because really, isn’t that who reads food blogs?). But this time of year there are those who rarely enter the kitchen nervously googling up Thanksgiving menus.  And maybe you have landed here. Because somehow it has happened that you are hosting Thanksgiving this year. Or perhaps you’re just looking for that one perfect dish to bring to your mother-in-laws. To be clear, this “How to Not Screw Up Thanksgiving” advice pertains to all these types of people. Because in my experience they all make the same most common mistake when it comes to a Thanksgiving menu.  So which ever you are, pay careful attention. You do not want to screw up Thanksgiving.

This time of year the magazine stands and food websites are filled with new and creative ways to jazz up your Thanksgiving menu. Because really, how are they going to entice you to buy another issue or click on a recipe if they didn’t? I get it. And perhaps like many of you, I absolutely love the thick food magazine issues and recipe laden web pages of Holiday feasts. I do get bored cooking the same thing and see these new recipes as a creative outlet.

Tempting creative ideas like these-

Southwestern Spiced Turkey

10 Desserts that aren’t Pie

thanksgiving desserts

A delicious dessert that is not and will never be pie.

Parmesan Wasabi Mashed Potatoes

“31 Totally Unexpected Sides

how to not screw up thanksgiving

While honey yogurt sauce and pepitas are surely delicious on your sweet potatoes you have to ask, “What would Grandma think?”. Yeah, mine too.

“Chorizo Almond Stuffing

how not to screw up thanksgiving

This is NOT a whole bird. Read warning below.

and “Cranberry Pomegranate Gelatin“.how to not screw up thanksgiving

These are all real recipes (with links) I’ve found just today as I googled Classic Thanksgiving Recipes. And they both intrigue and tempt me as I look forward to Thanksgiving. But here’s my very best advice. Honed from both eating and cooking many a Thanksgiving meal.


This is not the time to try out a boneless turkey breast stuffed with kale and cherries. The heritage grains you’ve been itching to try can wait for another day. I know those creative takes look fun and are probably delicious. And maybe you’ve made simple buttery whipped potatoes a hundred times. But this is the one time of year to stick with the classics.

how to not screw up thanksgiving

No one is tired of these. Make a double recipe.

Because no one is tried of eating buttery whipped potatoes at Thanksgiving. No one. Trust me on this. People come to your table with strong taste memories. And this, more than any other Holiday is built around those food traditions which you grew up with. With out them, it just doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving.

I remember back to my first year hosting Thanksgiving. I did fall prey to the idea of a boneless stuffed turkey breast. I thought, “I don’t want to have to carve that thing!”. I told myself, ” No one eats the dark meat any way. Everyone wants the breast.” And I’ll make an Asian glazed pork tenderloin to go with it!  Everything turned out delicious.  But the look on my father in laws face when my neatly rolled breast and pork tenderloin came to the table said it all.  You do not want to see that face looking back at you this Thanksgiving. No Big Golden Bird guarantees disappointment.  I never made that mistake again.

And here’s the trick.  Do collect those fun fall entertaining recipes and please do give them a try.  They make perfect “friendsgiving” meals, birthday celebratons, or company dinners.  Even a romantic date night in cooking together.  I love the fall flavors and produce this time of year.  But do it before Thanksgiving .  Do it after Thanksgiving.

The very best advice on “How Not to Screw Up Thanksgiving” is make the tradition foods that mean the most to your family.  And do them to the very best of your ability and budget.  The freshest produce and the best turkey you can afford.  Make your own pie crust and multiple pies the day before.  Buy that special Oregon Pinot Noir.  Make a killer cocktail. Get some rich European butter.  Think back to your very strongest Thanksgiving food memories and make sure those items are on your table.  Make sure if your hosting people from outside your family (think in-laws), that you know what dishes they are looking forward to most.  And find the best recipes you can get your hands on for some of them.  Here is a great basic wisdom resource for Thanksgiving from Martha Stewart.

hno can green bean casserole

From the food blog Handle the Heat, a no canned casserole that keeps those classic onions. Feel free to fry your own shallots.

Don’t use canned soup and beans in your green bean casserole (yes that is truly possible and much more delicious). Or anywhere on your table. It is amazing what really good ingredients can do for Grandma’s classic recipes. Here is a link to Alton Brown’s perfect Roast Turkey with video to get you started. And some “do ahead” help from the trusted Silver Palate.  Make ahead Creamy Mashed Potatoes

How To Not Screw Up Thanksgiving

Making Mashed Potatoes ahead can be tricky, but here’s how. Thanks Silver Palate.


how to not screw up thanksgiving

Yes, you can and must make a perfect whole Turkey.

And if you just have to make that Grape and Goat Cheese Stuffing recipe from Food52, make sure its not the only stuffing on your table. Ditto for Giada’s Spiced Pear and Gorgonzola Tart. Because while they make be “smack the table good”, no one has been dreaming of these recipes on their 5 hour car trip in holiday traffic whilst small children complain in the backseat. No one. They want your mother’s stuffing, or if your mom wasn’t gifted in the kitchen, what they wished their mom had made. Juicy herb and butter basted turkey with a golden crispy skin. Served whole. Mashed potatoes like clouds with rich turkey gravy. Buttery rolls. And yes, at least 2 kinds of pie. I’m partial to making 3 or 4 ( James Beards Pumpkin, Mile High Apple, and Pecan). This is a feast and we will require leftovers (Pie makes a great breakfast). Chocolate Cream and Lemon Ice Box vie for my fourth place. Fresh whipped cream not from a can is mandatory (or maybe vanilla ice cream). I have the recipe below for how to make homemade whipped the day before Thanksgiving without it deflating. (Now you have no excuse. Put down that can.) Because really, how often do you make pie? Or if your buying it, serve pie? No one is tried of these dessert classics because we rarely get them any more. Maybe by New Years we will be ready for a change.

cedar planked pork chops on evo grill

Here is my Cranberry Apple Stuffing inside Pork Chops. I cedar plank cooked them on my EVO grill. Delicious but DO NOT serve this on Thanksgivin

But not at Thanksgiving.

How to make a perfect thanksgiving dinner

Criag Clairborne’s Perfect Pecan Pie is within everyone’s reach. Top with my make ahead whipped cream.

pumpkin pie

For some people it will not be Thanksgiving unless they have a slice of Pumpkin Pie. So here is a great one from James Beard.

Go ahead and make those creative recipes and try fruit or oysters or goat cheese in your stuffing. But put it in your pork chop this Sunday night.

Everyone will love it. Because its not Thanksgiving. On that revered day just don’t put anything into your stuffing your grandmother would push aside and say, “Interesting” about.

That is “How to Not Screw up Thanksgiving”. Warning- following this advice and perfecting classic recipes that your family looks forward to will usually result in your hosting Thanksgiving quite often. So if that’s not your ideal- reverse all this. Click here for that creative Spiced Pear and Gorgonzola Tart recipe and forget apple or pumpkin. Your welcome. And Happy Thanksgiving!


1 t unflavored gelatin dissolved in 2 T cold water

1 1/2 C Heavy Cream

1/2 C Sugar

1/2 t vanilla extract

Beat cream, sugar , and vanilla until very soft peaks form. Slowly fold in gelatin mixture until soft peaks form. Refrigerate over night to serve on side or use to top cream pies immediately.


5 Things I learned at Dinner

5 things I learned at dinner

5 Things I Learned at Dinner    1.We should all be eating Turnip Pods. Maybe you’re like me and don’t regularly have turnip pods on your dinner table. Actually, I didn’t even know turnip pods existed before dinner last night. I never planted turnips because they simply aren’t one of my favorite vegetables. However, after having these delicious little

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perfect tapas on evo grill

Our Tapas sizzle on the EVO grill. The smell of bacon sizzling gathers people like magic!

One of our favorite ways to entertain is with a tapas party. This easy recipe gives you perfect tapas off the EVO grill.  Spicy chorizo is stuffed inside a sweet, chewy date then wrapped inside smoky, crispy, bacon. Grilled on the EVO it is a mouthful of WOW. Spicy, salty, sweet, smoky, and crunchy all in one perfectly balanced bite. Although the combination may sound unusual, it has a classic Spanish pedigree and is a true crowd pleaser. Most people are drawn to the grill by the smell of bacon (even vegetarians seem subject to it’s allure) and after they pop one into their mouth are delighted and happily curious.

“WHAT is that? It’s sooo delicious. Can I have another please? Dates? Huh…”  all while chewing happily and encouraging others to sample one. That’s the kind of party food I love to serve. A little different, yet still approachable. Memorable.  Exciting.  Conversational.  Oh yeah, and it’s pretty simple to prepare ahead. Only 3 ingredients.  And reasonably priced for a large crowd.  Sounds perfect right?  Exactly.

And if you don’t own an EVO, don’t let that stop you from enjoying these. They can also be made on a cookie sheet in an oven in just 15 minutes.  This recipe makes about 30 pieces. How many that serves depends on what else you make. As a part of a tapas menu,  I usually allow for 3 a person.  I like to serve a vegetable tapa, a chicken tapa, and Spanish olives with good bread alongside these stuffed dates. Add a pitcher of Sangria turn on some Flamenco Guitar music and you are set. Tapas parties are perfect for potluck style entertaining as well.  Everyone can bring a tapa or wine to share and you simple grill it up or set it out.

Perfect Tapa off the EVO grill

The party starts when you start cooking these tasty morsels!

Here’s the Recipe.

Chorizo Stuffed Dates with Bacon

  • 15 Medjool pitted dates, cut in half
  • 1 pound ground chorizo, taken from casing and sautéed until brown
  • 10 slices applewood bacon, cut into thirds

Prepare dates by cutting in half and removing pit.  Brown chorizo in pan ( can be done on top of EVO ) and drain excess fat. Cut bacon into thirds and bake for about 8 minutes to partially cook. ( This step is not strictly necessary, but I like how it speeds up the party time cooking and gives off less grease when cooking). You can also just wrap stuffed dates in raw bacon and cook directly on EVO for slightly longer time. I like to skewer the tapas with a toothpick to hold them together. You can make ahead and hold in frig overnight or until party time. With skewers in place, guests can help themselves to a tapa right off the grill. Again , this is optional.

At serving time simply heat the EVO to medium and place in circles around the grill.  Turn occasionally to brown all sides. In about 10 minutes, you will have perfect tapas off the EVO grill. (Warning, we have had people so desperate for another one that they swipe a raw bacon piece right off the grill. The hazard of grill side service!  Keep the most done ones nearest the guests to cut down on this.)

perfect tapas off the evo grill

Here is the plated version.

perfect tapas off the evo grill

The Perfect Tapa

If preparing indoors set oven to 400 and cook 10-15 minutes turning twice.

Sometimes a serve them on top a little Red Pepper puree splashed with a sherry vinegar and arugula.  This is nice  if you are plating them for a fancier event.  But it is definitely gilding a lily.



We recently did a little grilling demo for the Charleston Home and Design Show on Daniel Island.  The Daniel Island Luxury Home tour had a beautiful home by Jackson Built Custom Builders.

entertaining on the porch

The Back Porch of the Jackson Built Home offered a great place to unwind or entertain.

We showed off what an EVO can do on their beautiful back porch. It was a very luxurious and fun place to entertain. With golf course views,  a curious alligator attracted to bacon,  and about 500 guests gathered around the EVO over 4 hours we had a blast. We sure appreciate how you can serve directly off the EVO when entertaining a crowd like this! The porch itself had some real luxury features anyone would love to have at their home. A beautiful brick outdoor fireplace that lit up with a flip of a switch. Views of water , golfers, and trees dripping with Spanish moss. But my favorite feature was that although the porch seemed to be open air,  it had a ceiling mounted screen that came down with the touch of a remote control.  Instant screen porch, a real party saver in a city where our state bird could be the mosquito! The crowds definitely agreed that these are the perfect tapa off the EVO grill! They were the first thing to run out.

For more information on our EVO grills and how to get one for your next party here’s a link to our grill page.


This dish was introduced to me by Chef Blaine Staniford of Grace Restaurant in Fort Worth Texas. He made them for us at the 2014 Telluride Wine Festival on a EVO Procart. If you want to follow his recipe and make your own chorizo here’s a link. He does give oven directions as well.  If you happen to be any where near  Fort Worth, do yourself a favor and dine with Chef Staniford. You will  be very glad you did.

Chef Staniford Chorizo stuffed dates.

Chef Blaine Staniford at the Telluride Wine Festival cooking up Chorizo stuffed dates.

Szechuan Eggplant on the EVO Grill


Change Your Mind About Eggplant Confession. Until recently, I really didn’t care for eggplant. I’d tried it grilled,fried, parmesaned, ratatouilled, and baba ganoushed. I liked some of those things alright, but not enough to make it at home on a regular basis. That all changed when I traveled to China. I discovered that  I  really liked eggplant

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