This week I’m going to do a quick recap of our recent 3 week family trip to France, and discuss several valuable optimization and financial lessons that were highlighted along the way.
But first, let’s start with the recap.
We had an amazing experience traveling with a large part of Mike’s extended family to the Dordogne region of France. Located in the Southwest corner near Bordeaux, it was a (mostly) sun-filled, picturesque country escape.
Courtesy of Mike’s parents, who are major role models to us when it comes to prioritizing family, the whole crew piled into a rather large, 500+ year old chateau, and there was a lot to appreciate about the property. Large grounds for the little ones to explore, and a pool for the older kids to lounge around and enjoy. For the adults, there was gorgeous scenery, nearby towns to frequent, and night after night of amazing meals heavily accented with many of the fabulous wines the region has to offer.
It’s hard to go wrong when it comes to wine in France.
San Sebastian, Spain
To make an amazing trip even better, Mike’s parents offered to watch our boys for 2 nights to allow us to get away for a much needed adult only break. We took the opportunity to drive down into Northern Spain, to the relatively small city of San Sebastian in Basque Country.
Neither of us have been to Spain before, and to be honest, heading to San Sebastian was somewhat of a shot in the dark. It was within a reasonable drive time of where we were staying in France, and online travel reviews suggested it had a great beach and even better food, so off we went.
We weren’t disappointed.
San Sebastian has a population of nearly 200,000 and is located just shy of an hour South of the Spain/France border. The city is situated on a beautiful horseshoe shaped bay along the Atlantic Ocean, offering an expansive and stunning beach, with a several kilometre long promenade to stroll along and take in the sites. Follow the promenade long enough, and it takes you right into Old Town. A large pedestrian only area of town dotted with historic buildings, cathedrals and narrow restaurant filled alleyways.
A hidden gem for European tourists, and the former summer vacation spot of British Royals, this little city has a lot to offer any tourist. Notably, even though we were there in high season, AND during the cities international fireworks festival, the number of people was completely tolerable (coming from someone who hates to be in super busy/touristy areas.)
In our short 2 night stay, we walked a solid 45+ kilometres, and with all that exploring we only sampled a small portion of what the city has to offer. From morning to night the food offerings are plentiful. Decadent pastries from the local bakeries, afternoon Pinxos (consisting of massive arrays of appetizers, a trend specific to the Basque area), and dinner’s to please even the most hard core foodies.
Our favourite daily ritual was to stop and grab a morning coffee, followed by a pastry from a small bakery at the corner of Old Town, then walk the promenade and watch the many goings on.
We also took the Funicular train (think a small tiered train that travels up an incredibly steep track), to the top of Mount Igueldo. The price for a return ticket up the train was just 3.50 Euro’s each, and well worth it. The views were beyond breath taking. There also happens to be a hotel, restaurant, and kid’s fun park at the top, all at incredibly reasonable price points.
During our stay, we also made sure to book treatments at the iconic La Perla Spa, incredibly located directly on the main La Concha beach. To cap off our indulgent spa visit, we sipped wine on their upper terrace looking over the beautiful sprawling bay.
But, for all the wonderful things this city has to offer, the highlight of our trip there had to be our dinner on the second night.
Located in what was once an old brothel (hence the name) this small restaurant has been redesigned with a funky modern twist, while still incorporating accents of the location’s questionable roots.
The real magic of this place however is in the outstanding quality of the food, and the passion of the employees.
We had the absolute pleasure to be hosted by Cesar. He made our dining experience both entertaining, and downright impeccable. His passion for the dishes offered, along with his explanations on how the restaurant sources and prepares many of its fresh local ingredients, made us excited for every bite.
And oh – was it good.
The wine’s were no disappointment either. Sticking with largely local wine’s, we followed Cesar’s recommendations and pairings, and eagerly asked to see the labels on each one so we could make sure to purchase more before we departed Spain.
2 appetizers, 2 mains, dessert and several glasses of wine later, we were perfectly full, (perhaps a little over). And to top off an amazing experience – the bill was extremely reasonable. It we were to eat a meal of equivalent quality, at a location like that, with the phenomenal service we received, here in Vancouver, it would easily be twice the cost of what we paid, even after factoring in the conversion.
If you ever find yourself in San Sebastian, consider this dining experience a must. And definitely, definitely, definitely, ask for Cesar. You won’t regret it.
We left San Sebastian the next morning (not without stopping at our favourite bakery first though), fully recharged and ready to once again take on the role of parenting.
We spent a few more days in the South of France, and then took our boys and headed back upto Paris. In one brief evening we managed to do a quick tour of the major highlights so our boys could get a small sampling of what Paris has to offer, and then headed off the very next morning for the next segment of our adventure.
Well, if two and half weeks in France wasn’t a great enough summer holiday, we thought we would top off the whole trip with a few days at the Euro-Disney. After all, odds were we wouldn’t be coming back to Paris with our boys anytime in the near future.
We booked our stay at Disney’s Nature Village hotel, which was a park in and of itself. Boasting a massive water park, on-site farm, tree sky-walk, promenade along the nature lagoon, and endless activities, we probably didn’t need to go into Disney at all.
But we did.
While similar to California Disneyland, Euro Disney is a slightly smaller park, and it’s sister park, Walt Disney Studio’s is substantially smaller than its US counterpart, California Adventure.
I definitely wouldn’t travel to Paris specifically for the Euro-Disney experience, but it is a great add-on if you are already going to be there. Because we stayed at the Disney hotel, we got access to the early morning “magic hour”, before all the big crowds swarmed into the parks.
Frankly, this is the only way I would do Disney again. The ability to stroll casually throughout the park, without dodging people, getting elbowed off sidewalks, or generally overwhelmed by the sheer size of the crowds, magic hour made Disney a whole new experience.
Not to mention, being able to effectively walk onto to all the major rides.
From a time invested perspective, that one hour at Disney was more productive than the entire rest of our mornings there.
We wrapped the whole thing up with a direct flight back home, and even sprung for an upgrade to premium economy (still not all that great when you are traveling with a 2 year old).
So now – on to the lessons.
Lesson #1 – Stop Living Like We Are Trying To Achieve Financial Freedom
This was the first trip where Mike and I stopped counting our pennies and trying to keep costs to a minimum. We had decided that since it wasn’t every day our family would get to enjoy a trip like this, it was worth it to do it right. That meant shelling out a fair number of extra bucks for things like our two night get-away to Spain, the back-end Disney trip, staying at a Disney Resort, and the upgrade for our premium economy flight.
Up until this point, Mike and I have struggled to shift our frame of mind (and spending habits) from one where we are getting to Financial Freedom, to one where we are actively enjoying the type of Financially Free life we planned for.
Because we’ve had this deeply engrained aversion to spending the money we planned to spend in retirement, our savings rate over the past two years has remained substantially higher than targeted. Often looking a lot more like we are still trying to achieve Financial Freedom, then enjoying being Financially Free.
I don’t think this problem is unique to us. For anyone who’s target lifestyle in retirement is greater than their current lifestyle in pursuing Financial Freedom or FI, changing those deeply rooted habits of frugality can be surprisingly challenging.
Now, we didn’t go all out crazy by any means, but we definitely indulged on this trip more than we are used to. And it was awesome. We came home with a ton of phenomenal memories, we kept things within our means, and neither Mike or I felt guilt or dissonance over what we were spending. It was an incredibly freeing feeling.
Lesson #2 – The Capsule Luggage
With a rebellious 2 year old on our hands, both Mike and I knew we didn’t want to be struggling our way through France loaded down with luggage. So we opted to go with one carry-on for each of us.
Mike purchased us each two packing cubes for our carry-ons, and they worked wonders in helping keep everything well contained, as compact as possible, and easily accessible.
Using a capsule wardrobe method for packing, I packed only clothing that coordinated with the other pieces I brought, and only pieces that I absolutely love to wear. Ironically, I still ended up taking some items that I didn’t wear once.
We did laundry on one occasion to get us through the whole 3 week trip, and that was sufficient for all of us.
Overall, it was great. I don’t see us traveling any other way moving forward.
Lesson #3 – Everyone Needs To Recharge (Especially Parents)
While we try to spend a lot of our time visiting family, the reality of our day to day is that we have no family where we live. This is both good and bad.
The good part is that, as parents, we are almost never reliant on anyone else. This has forced us to be very independent when it comes to our kids, with zero expectation that anyone will help us out when it comes to taking a break from our parenting responsibilities.
The bad part about this is (aside from having less frequency of time with our families), doing it all becomes our norm, and we rarely plan for breaks for ourselves. Not because they aren’t offered by our families, but instead because we never really feel we need them. (Not to mention that when we are visiting our families, it feels more than a tad rude to then dump our kids and take off.)
But much like the cumulative effect of small sleep deficits, never taking a break from the parenting role ends up slowly eroding our parenting abilities. And the worst part is, we often don’t even notice.
If our 2 night getaway to Spain showed me anything, it was that we absolutely do need the breaks. I came back from the trip fully recharged, with my patience restored, and eager to put my parenting hat back on. A feeling that I am sad to admit had been ebbing and flowing ever since our youngest hit the full fledged terrible 2’s.
It was a strong reminder that failing to take care of ourselves as parents not only robs our children of experiencing the best parent they can have, it also robs us of the ability to enjoy our time with our children to the fullest extent.
Moving forward, I will most definitely be actively planning at least 2 getaways for Mike and I each year, to make sure we get some adult time to reconnect ourselves, and enable us to give the best of our parenting selves to our kiddos. Even if “getaway” means dropping the kids with grandparents, and coming back to our own home to relax!
Lesson #4 – Its Hard To Travel With A 2 Year Old
No kidding. Not exactly a revelation.
But, I’ve traveled a lot with our youngest over the past 2 years, and he’s been a great little traveller.
Right now, he’s in a phase of life where long plane rides are just plain unpleasant. For everyone. On our flight home, I was dreading the rest of the flight before we had even taken off.
So while I had great plans for several additional trips to take with him over the coming school year, I have now come to the realization that long flights are out the window, at least until these terrible 2’s pass. But rather than feeling bad about not taking advantage of the time to travel with him, I am going to focus my energy on doing things that we enjoy together, and are more age appropriate, rather than trying to force memories/experiences that end up leaving us both exhausted.
The Bottom Line
All in, we had a phenomenal trip. We got to spend a lot of time with extended family, create an endless list of amazing memories with our boys, have some much needed adult time to ourselves, and shift our mindsets a whole lot closer to settling into the Financially Free life that we planned for.
With lots of life optimization lessons underscored along the way, this was quite the summer vacation.
But – it’s always nice to come home 🙂
Next week, I’m going to dive into some additional thoughts that Mike and I delved into during the trip about optimism vs. pessimism, and the real equation behind happiness and freedom. See you then!