Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Santa via video.

Last year my kids received personalized Santagrams from the North Pole. The letters were over three pages long and very detailed. The envelope had a North Pole postmark and all sorts of unique stamps. It all looked quite authentic even to my eyes. Yes, I spent a small fortune, but it was worth every penny. The kids were simply elated as they read their respective letters over and over and over again.

And then over and over and over again when Daddy came home that evening. 

And as intended, the letters did indeed reinforce their beliefs in Santa {despite the fact that he did not produce a "real" fairy last year}. So much so, in fact, that in Boy Genius's letter to Santa this year he specifically requests that Santa send a letter like last year. 

I previously assumed the small fortune spent on fancy letters from Santa would be a one time thing. But he specifically asked. So what's a mom to do? 

Sadly, though, when I attempted to locate my darling Santagram website I could not. I checked my blog post from last year and noted the pictures are now blank and the link broken. Pish posh. Santagrams certainly could not have stopped accepting a small fortune for a personalized {fill in the blank} form letter?!? 

Regrettably, though, I can find no traces of the Santagram we loved so much. And clearly, another version of a Santagram would only raise {already somewhat raised} eyebrows.

No, that won't do. 

But a personalized Santa video . . . now that just may work. 

It is, after all, 2011. 

And Santa is very savvy. 

He's utilizing social media. 

And I believe this changes it up just enough to still thrill and delight. 

So tomorrow my darling duo will find a personalized video in their respective email inboxes. 

I'm fairly certain they will watch the videos again and again and again.

And then show them to Daddy when he arrives home from work.

Are you ready for the best part: The video from the Portable North Pole is FREE {to watch, though you may purchase an actual keepsake video}

I saved so much money on Cyber-Monday that I really need to start working on my own Christmas list!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

I see London, I see France . . .

What a lovely way to compliment your guests as they arrive.
Well, maybe at the back door.  

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Kids Talkin' Turkey

What makes a great Thanksgiving Day celebration?

According to my kids it's cookies {not just any cookies, of course, but the turkey cookies we make each year}, turkey, and pumpkin bread!

When other bloggers began posting and linking videos of their darling little kids talkin' turkey I was reluctant to participate.

My kids are super cute.


But, I assumed they would get all nerdy and go on and on about the actual details of the first thanksgiving.

And who wants to see that.

Besides me.

Smiling proudly.

Truly, when considering whether to even shoot this video, I was reticent because I anticipated my 8 year olds would come off as too smart and/or polished for a kids talkin' turkey video. 

While you're watching I'll just sit back and enjoy my slice of humble pie. 


Monday, November 21, 2011


 “Gratitude consists of being more aware of what you have, than what you don’t.” 
~ Unknown

It is with a grateful heart and a humble spirit that I thank each of you for the time 
to take away from your respective lives to visit me in this space. 

I am grateful for you.  

                            Source: craftily-ever-after.blogspot.com via AmyEatLiveLaugh on Pinterest

Friday, November 18, 2011

Swivl me anywhere!

I'm not really a gadget geek. Truly. I upgrade electronics only when warranted, not just because the latest and greatest is available. But this little gadget really caught my eye. Swivl holds your iPhone or Flip camera and moves, or swivels, with you to capture your video hands-free!  

If you are a vlogger this could be quite handy. Or if you are like me, you may just use it so you actually make it in a video from time to time!  

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Napa winery tour.

On a recent trip to Napa we coordinated a day of wine tasting for a few friends / business colleagues of the Hub's. To ensure the day was not only relaxing and safe {i.e., we didn't drive}, but also that we visited some phenomenal wineries, we went to Larry Luttrell, Your Driver in Napa.

Before we arrived in Napa we spoke with Larry and discussed our interests {smaller wineries - introducing us to something new} and requested that our itinerary reflect our budget. We wanted to be able to not only enjoy the wines we tasted but also ship a few {cases} home to enjoy throughout the year {or two}. Larry perfected matched our tastes and budget with the wineries we visited. Each was small, charming, and {relatively} affordable.  

Larry picked the group up at our hotel and began the day by giving us a little primer on wineries, wine history, and wine tasting. 

A few of Larry's helpful hints:
  • Don't be afraid to pour out or dump what you don't like or don't want to drink.
  • Don't be afraid to have and voice an opinion about what you like and don't like. 
  • And, of course, look at the wine in the glass - color and clarity, swirl to aerate, smell, taste  by swirling around in your mouth to use all your taste buds.
  • And last, but not least, stay hydrated.  
Our day started early -- our first tasting was at 10am  -- and this was not a quick tasting tour -- we didn't roll back into Napa proper until around 6pm. But we were having so much fun along the way that we hardly noticed as the hours passed us by.

Here's a little peek into what was quite possibly the best Napa wine tour ever:

This family and winery is an absolute Cinderella story. The couple, Jeff and Karen, are in their 30s, have two small children, and have built their winery from scratch over the past six years. Jeff was a premed major and Karen a lawyer. Fate brought them together and to this picturesque property located in the western hills of Napa. 

We tasted upcoming vintages but also enjoyed barrel tastings of various components of their Cabernet -- Cabernet grapes grown in volcanic ash and Cabernet grapes grown in shale. It was very interesting to taste two of the individual components as well as the ultimate blend.  

I think our entire group agreed that this was our favorite winery of the day. Was it because it was first and our palates were fresh, because Jeff and Karen are so adorable and we loved their story, or because this was our only stone cold sober tasting? I cannot say, but I will say I will be drinking Fontanella wines for years to come. 

Production - 1,200 cases annually
Tasting fee - $20 / person 

This is a small privately owned winery located between Napa and Yountville. Bart and Barbara O’Brien live on the property, grow all of their own fruit, and make the wine in one of the oldest wineries in Napa. 

The old adage, wine is made in the vineyard, certainly holds true at O'Brien Estate. They keep their yield low to ensure their fruit is among the best in the valley. 

We tasted a few lovely wines and were able to witness a bevy of activity as they unpacked all new French barrels and crushed the last of the harvest.   

Production -  less than 5,000 cases annually
Tasting fee - $15 / person 
Amy & the hubs at the O'Brien Estate Winery

Jamey Whetstone is the mastermind and producer behind the Whetstone label. Whetsone is a very small producer of a nice Viognier, a Chardonnay, a couple of scrumptious Pinot Noirs and a Syrah. We enjoyed a private tasting with Jamey's wife and co-proprietor, Michelle, along with a catered lunch of various panini sandwiches, a lemony salad and a charcuterie tray from from Michael Chiarello’s Napa Style in Yountville.  

The setting was as amazing as the wines. An old stone building, built in 1885, set the stage perfectly for a very memorable lunch and wine pairing. Michelle was down to earth, incredible knowledgeable and charming. Their wines, all of which I absolutely loved, are reasonably priced and not readily available other than directly from the winery. 

We joined their wine club to ensure we continue to receive their offerings. I fear, however, once word gets out we may no longer be able to afford their wines.  

Tasting fee - $40 / person (including lunch)

Salvestrin is a 3rd generation, family owned and operated winery which has been producing wine since 1932. They farm organically and have produced 79 harvests. They are very much a farming family though this is now their 16th year of producing {prior to producing the wine they sold the fruit to some of the better known wineries in the valley}. The original plantings were done in 1860 by a Dr. George Crane.

They produce a Sauvignon Blanc, a Cabernet Sauvignon, a red blend they call Retaggio, a Sangiovese and a Petite Sirah. 

We adored the Salvestrin wines as well, and if I remember correctly, we ordered quite a bit of of their Cabernet and Retaggio. Or did we join the wine club? I suppose we'll see in a month or so!

Tasting fee - $15 / person. 

Amy and the hubs in the Salvestrin vineyard
We tasted the Hill Family Estate wines in a small tasting room located inside a French Antique store  in Yountville. We were all very relaxed {euphemism} by this point in the afternoon and quickly devoured the lovely prosciutto, cheese and bread provided with our tasting. 

The entire gang - including, Larry, Your Driver in Napa.
We had a fabulous time at the Hill Family Estate tasting room. There is actually video footage where I reenact a certain scene from When Harry Met Sally. I fear Larry may post the evidence on his own website one day but you will never find it here! 

They produce a Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Pinot, Merlot, and a Cabernet all of which we loved and are reasonably priced. 

This was another favorite winery. Maybe it was the end of the day, maybe it's that we'd each drank our weight in wine, or maybe we just wanted to get April to open a bottle of The Beast, a library wine not on the tasting menu {which she did and which precipitated the R rated video}, whatever the reason we all adored Hill Family Estate wines. 

Tasting fee - no charge {because of arrangements made by Larry}

It was a fabulous day spent enjoying unforgettable wines! I've spent many days touring the wine country and have always had a wonderful time -- what's not to love?!  But I have never had such a memorable day filled with intimate experiences at such unique wineries.

Seeing the owners driving forklifts and unpacking barrels.

Hearing about generations of farmers living together on the family vineyard.

Talking with a viticulturist who was clearly born to make wines.

These are the wine makers of Napa Valley -- as authentic as it gets.  

Monday, November 14, 2011

I want candy.

It took almost two years and over 288,000 jelly beans to make this video. A labor of love . . . or was it just a love of jelly beans!?

Either way the video and song are darling!

Enjoy “In Your Arms” by Kina Grannis . . .

Friday, November 11, 2011

How to score a free trip to Cancun. Part dos.

If you missed yesterday's admission about our timeshare ownership you may want to scroll down or click here to read that post first.

We'll wait.

And now the story continues . . .

OK, I didn't mention in that post {again with the being coy} but the first vacation ownership week we purchased is in Cancun at the Westin Lagunamar Ocean Resort Villas. It is an absolutely beautiful property. 

photo source
But we had never visited. 

We'd owned for two years but had spent our ownership weeks elsewhere. Honestly, I don't think it was that we were scared to travel to Mexico as much as it was we were excited to travel to Hawaii and take the cousins skiing at Beaver Creek. So many places from which to choose, so we hadn't made the quick jaunt to Cancun.  

Until one day I receive a call from the Starwood Vacation Ownership's Customer Communication Team.  The team informed me that they would be shooting promotional videos in Cancun in October and were looking for a few families who own in Cancun and would be willing to enjoy up to a week at the property. 

So let me get this straight: they take our family picture in paradise, we say we love Starwood Vacation Ownership on camera, and we get a free week at a phenomenal resort. Oh, and airfare and a resort credit which will generously cover all meals and incidentals. 

Yes please! 

Of course there is the hub's work schedule to consider. And it meant pulling the kids out of school. So while initially excited, we were equally hesitant. I'm also a big believer in "if it sounds to good to  be true, it generally is." And this sounded much too good to be true. 

In this case, however, the old adage did not apply. It was all quite wonderful and all very true.

Everything was coordinated and executed beautifully! We were given the opportunity to stay up to a week {though we were only to make it work for 5 days}. Starwood seamlessly arranged our airfare and all transportation throughout our stay. 

They entertained our children with putt-putt, feeding iguanas, and visiting ruins while we gave our owner testimonial. 

They hosted a cocktail party to meet and greet all the families and couples who were taking part in the video shoots. They talked to us. Got to know us. Asked us questions about what we loved and what we didn't love about vacation ownership with Starwood. Even more impressively, they listened to and responded to our responses. 

When shooting our little bits and pieces they were respectful of our time. They ensured we were truly enjoying our time away and didn't want to monopolize it {very thoughtful considering they'd paid to get us there for this distinct purpose}. 

But I think what impressed me most was how above and beyond the resort staff and the Starwood Vacation Ownership team went to make it all a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

On the evening of our arrival we were escorted to the beach and allowed to individually release sea turtles into the ocean. No pictures were allowed, of course, because it would startle the hatchlings who have only a two day supply of food in their bellies to make it out to sea. We each held two little bitty sea turtles, named each one, and released them into the surf by the light of a full moon. 

Truly a once-in-a-lifetime moment! 

So yes, when the cameras started rolling I had absolutely no problem gushing about the resort, how safe I felt in Mexico, or our over all vacation ownership experience.  

Of course, the amazing view from the wall of windows in our room helped.

The gorgeous grounds, pools, water slide for the kids {including my third child - the hubs}, and poolside margaritas didn't hurt. 

Enjoying a bonus break with my family didn't hurt either.

But in the end, it's not the Heavenly Bed or the amazing locations that makes vacation ownership work for us {though they certainly influenced our decision to buy} - it's the people. 

The people at the resorts who bend over backwards to make sure you have everything you need. The other owners with whom we inevitably enjoy talking with by the pool. The customer service people at Starwood who answer my myriad of questions politely and patiently. And the awesome creative team who coordinated this excursion and made our family feel like absolute rock stars. 

In the end, it is the people who make the difference. The people who keep you happy, relaxed and wishing you could afford just one more week!  


Again, just to clarify, I am not being compensated for this post in any way and certainly cannot guarantee that vacation ownership with Starwood will ever result in a free trip to Mexico for you. This was simply my experience and reflects my honest opinions.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

How to score a free trip to Cancun.

I am dying to share some bits and pieces from our recent trip to Napa. We had an amazing time and I am renewed beyond my wildest dreams. 

But first things first. 

Last month I promised details about our family's recent excursion to Cancun and I'm convinced Leigh may not sleep until she knows exactly why our family was treated to such a fabulous trip. 

I've been a bit coy, I realize. 

So today I'm coming clean.

We own a timeshare. 

Actually . . . two. 

But who's counting. 

And honestly, I have my eye on a third. 

But don't tell the hubs. 

It all started innocently enough. 

In 2009 the hubs and I escaped to Scottsdale to enjoy a little couple time. 

The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa
The Westin at which we were staying offered us a $100 AMEX gift card for attending a presentation on vacation ownership. Sign me up! The gift card will pay for my previously scheduled spa appointment and we'll be on our way. Because clearly, we are not going to buy a timeshare. I prepared the hubs and told him under no circumstances would we do anything other than collect our $100 and head to the spa. Do not pass go. Do not ask any questions. Shake your head, say thank you very much, and leave. 

Brilliant plan. 

And the hubs did his part. 

But somewhere between "locations all around the world" and "forces you to vacation every year" I fell prey.

I admit.

It was all me.

But I was a finance major in undergrad and vaguely remember something about net present value. The numbers just made sense. And the thought of tearing the hubs away from work more often, well, that made sense to me too. 

So we purchased into the Starwood Vacation Network. Of course, as a bonus for making this lifetime investment, we were rewarded with an extra week for our first year. Which is how we were able to spend two weeks in Kauai in 2010

Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas
Of course we fell in love and decided we should also own a week in Kauai so we could spend two weeks in Kauai every couple years. 

Oh yes we did!  

Intervention may be required.

But truly, the system works. We do vacation more now. Because the lodging is covered. It's not free. I understand I've paid / am paying for it. But I do not have to separately budget for each and every vacation. I just booked Maui / Kauai {one week on each} for summer 2012 and five nights at the Westin Riverfront in Beaver Creek for spring break. We would not likely make all that work in a six month span if it weren't for that little bank of points accumulated in my account. 

So for our family, the system works flawlessly. 

And did I mention we can also use our accumulated points at not only the Starwood Vacation Network properties, but also Starwood Hotels?! The Starwood loyalty program includes Westin, St. Regis, The Luxury Collection, W, Le Meridian, Sheraton, A Loft, and Four Points. 

That, my friends, opens up the world! The WORLD!

So we often joke, I've become a bit of a point whore. Actually, it's no joke - I'm quite literally obsessed with accumulating and spending my points.

Of course, so far I've explained absolutely nothing about how we scored an absolutely all-expenses-paid- trip to Cancun. 

With this admission setting the stage, I'll share that story tomorrow. 


And no, I am not being compensated for sharing this information. This is simply my experience. Though if they'd throw a few extra points at me well, I'd gush even more. Truly - an absolute point whore! 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Marital Training Complete.

I think we all can admit that husbands often require a little "training" at the beginning of a marriage. They need to learn to answer questions appropriately {no your butt does not look big in those jeans} and provide encouragement {of course you need a new dress for that party} when needed.

Sadly, this is not necessarily common sense for our male counterparts.

Nor does it come naturally. For most.  

Recently, however, I've noted that my husband has come along quite nicely in his training. In fact, after ten years of training I think I can safely say that not only has he graduated from training, but I have further concluded that he is an absolute keeper {though this last bit is not entirely surprising to anyone who knows him}.  

Here's a few of the recent signs that mark his substantial progress: 

Case in point #1: 

We were recently in the closet together packing for a 5 day vacation. I was stressing about the weather and what to wear and what others' would be wearing. Should I wear dresses and heels at night or stick with jeans and a cute top?  Will I need a coat every day or just for the evenings?

He did not so much as blink and eye, but immediately said: "Save yourself a lot of time and grief and pack the huge bag {we refer to it as "the beast"} with lots of options."

Never before have I heard such loving words. I threw in a few handbag options as well. Because I could. 

Case in point #2:

During no point in our travels did he suggest or ever allow me to trolley or otherwise touch "the beast." Nor did he complain or note that it weighed in as "oversized".

Case in point #3:

We recently enjoyed dinner at a very nice restaurant. A Michelin rated restaurant. After eating lunch at another Michelin rated restaurant {I heart Napa}! 

I suggested we not go to dinner at all. I was stuffed. So full I was starting to get the "is she pregnant or just really bloated" glances. 

Nonetheless, he insisted we get dressed and go to dinner at this place "I'd been talking about for months." This despite the fact that I swore only two hours earlier I would never eat again and we'd undoubtedly drop another couple hundred dollars making ourselves miserable. 

But he insisted. And I'm pretty sure he would have been fine with a burger. He's not a fancy-smancy dinner guy. He insisted for me

And I'm so glad he did! 

Case in point #4:

While enjoying said fancy-smancy meal {oh yes, I rallied} our server explained they offered a soufflé which would require twenty minutes to cook, and thus, required ordering before the entree was complete. 

"A chocolate soufflé?" I inquire. 


I pause, remembering back to the huge scene I made about being too full to even eat dinner. 

Hubs fills the silence with: "Tell them to get started on the soufflé."

Without question or pause he orders my soufflé. That, my friends, is a man who understands his wife. No questions asked. He knows I will find room for dessert {it's mostly air after all}. And he does not once remind me that I wanted to skip dinner all together. 

Case in point #5:

Hubs called me recently and caught me in the dressing room of a local boutique. "I am trying on jeans," I admitted over the phone. He did not snicker or suggest that I have at least 20 pairs of jeans hanging in my closet {only a slight exaggeration}. Nor was he silly enough to suggest that some of those jeans {which I've had for close to 8 years} may be too small {see #3 and #4}. He's no rookie. Instead he responds with, "You haven't purchased many pairs in the last few years so it makes sense that you need a few new pairs." 

A few new pairs!


Case in point #6:

A few weeks or so ago I cooked dinner for a dear friend who suffered a loss. I really didn't have the time scheduled in that week, but wanted to do something for her. It added to the crazy that the hubs was out of town that night and I'd be juggling after school activities and homework and dinner without any assistance. I made the adjustments required and made my homemade chicken noodle soup

When hubs calls that night to check in he asked what I made and if I got it delivered without incident. I explained that I made the soup, took it over and that they were, of course, very grateful. 

He was not, however, satisfied with that simple response. 

"Did they understand it takes you all day to make that soup? Did they appreciate how good it is and realize you make the stock from scratch? How did you do it all with all you had going on and all the kids' activities? And most importantly, did you save any leftovers?"

Ladies, this from a man who, when we were first married, added Tabasco to my homemade marinara. It goes without saying that my homemade marinara requires no additional seasoning, right?! 

But now he not only brags profusely about my cooking and wonders if it is lost on others but he also truly appreciates how hectic my afternoons can be! 

Training complete. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


The next few days I'll be enjoying a little rest and relaxation
away from the blogosphere. 

Well that yes, but also a few spectacular meals, 
oodles and oodles of delicious wine and, of course, 
incredible vistas as only Northern California can provide.

And truly, nothing makes mama happy like a travel itinerary
which starts with a wine tasting at 10:00 am of day 1.

I think we are getting our mini-break started on the right foot.

I'll let you know how the rest of the trip unfolds from there!

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