Entering the Conde Nast Traveler Dream Trip Contest
So I won this contest. I usually don’t enter contests – especially photography contests. I have a problem with the overall concept – you sign away most rights to your photos in exchange for the tiny chance of winning something. It’s not that I try to make money off of my photography, but I still don’t like having to give away rights. But Conde Nast Traveler is different. Not only was the contest language different, but I love the magazine. I’ve subscribed to it since college and feel like I know many of the writers. Plus, the award was a $25,000 dream trip. So I picked out a photo that I liked from my most recent trip at the time – to Cuba – and entered. Was hoping to make the final 25. Never thought I’d actually win.
Winning the Conde Nast Traveler Dream Trip Contest
My initial thoughts, written while in London about to fly to Florence:
- The best part of the winning the contest was getting to tour the Conde Nast Traveler offices in New York and have lunch with Wendy Perrin. Really, really enjoyable experience. Technically it wasn’t part of winning the contest, but Wendy was nice enough to host me for a few hours when I was in New York. I would have been completely content if that had been the grand prize.
- Second best part of winning: the planning. When I made the final 25 and needed to write the essay about my dream trip, I gave it a lot of thought and realized that it wouldn’t be anything that I could plan myself – that’s too easy. Instead it would be a trip that I needed the magazine’s experts to plan so that it was done right. The only place that I’ve actively stayed away from the past few years with the kids (when we were nearby) was Florence, Italy, simply because as well as I knew the city after going there 7+ times and spending almost a year of my life there, I had no idea how to entertain kids there. Bingo.
- Third best part of winning: the budget. I’ve learned that $25,000 actually doesn’t go that far, but it has delivered a great upcoming itinerary. Which brings me to number four…
- Business class is very nice when traveling with kids. I’ve never bought business class before this, although I’m upgraded often on United. If I’m by myself, I can sleep in any seat on a plane. Flat beds are nicer, but not worth paying for. However, with kids, if they’re not sleeping, I’m not sleeping. Being able to settle into 5 seats in row nine of UA934 LAX-LON was a pleasure. It completely took the annoying long-flight element out of the mix. All three kids immediately chose movies to watch, ate great dinners, and slept at least half of the flight.
- Travel agents aren’t dead yet. Conde Nast Traveler had Brett Snyder of Cranky Concierge plan our travel. I consider myself to be almost an expert when it comes to planning travel, usually certain that I’m getting the best itinerary at the best price. But Brett found ways of booking the tickets that I simply couldn’t using Kayak and the other booking engines. He got us extremely reasonable tickets in business class to London and then in coach from Florence back to California, but booked the return in such a way that we had the best chance of getting upgraded. And we did end up getting upgraded – all five of us – on the way back. So we’re in business class both ways for not much more than coach tickets would have cost.
- Likewise, the magazine’s travel expert for Tuscany, Maria Gabriella Landers of Concierge in Umbria, was a pleasure to work with. She booked us a boutique hotel on the Arno in Florence that sounds perfect for us, and arranged two weeks’ of amazing activities.
I’m now sitting in Room 101 at the Antica Torre di via Tournabuoni hotel with the windows open. It’s Sunday afternoon, and a violinist is playing below our room on via Tournabuoni. He’s been there for almost two hours, providing a soundtrack to the day. We’ve been slowly (very slowly) packing up a few things, listening to the music, and letting the kids relax a little. They deserve to relax. It’s been a very busy 12 days.
I wrote in my Conde Nast Traveler essay that I wanted the kids to have their own memories of Florence. It was a challenge to the magazine to create a kid-friendly itinerary in and around Florence. I had no idea how they were going to do it. I had been to Florence many times and it just never seemed kid-friendly to me. That wasn’t a worry when I was studying in the city back in college, but it is a worry as a parent of 3, 5, and 7-year-olds.
The magazine and their travel experts certainly rose to the challenge. I just sat down and listed everything we had done the past 12 days. I came up with 29 things. Two were just us: a day trip to Rome and a hike up the Cupola of the Duomo. The other 27 things were arranged by the magazine, their recommended travel expert for Tuscany Maria Gabriella Landers of Concierge in Umbria, and our guides, primarily Elvira Politi.
I had originally envisioned a week in Florence with the kids, but once Maria started suggesting activities, the trip stretched out to almost two weeks. And really, the only way to really experience a place is to spend at least a couple of weeks there. This is peak tourist season, and the city is crowded with visitors. There are many, many large groups wandering through the city with earphones on, following guides and seeing the major sites. Some of these tours involve a couple of days in Florence; some just a few hours. When the cruise ships dock at La Spezia, a popular excursion is to Florence. Once you factor in the 2.5 hours of driving each way, people are left with literally 3-4 hours to see the city. You can’t see Florence in 3-4 hours – you can simply take a few photos and tell people that you went to Florence. I hope all of those people come back some day for at least a week or two. The city is deserving of that.
One of my favorite activities? Doing laundry. There is a lavanderia roughly 1km from the hotel that Elvira found for us. Three times I took our clothes over there in the morning. The walk along the Arno was great – not many people out yet at 9am. Then coming back from the lavanderia, either after dropping off clothes or picking them up in the afternoon, I would zigzag to the hotel a number of different ways that involved the Arno, Ponte Vecchio, Uffizi courtyard, Palazzo Vecchio, Dante’s house, and/or the straw market. There’s something about dodging large tour groups while carrying laundry that makes one feel like a local. I was walking by the wild boar fountain not to take photos but because it was between the cleaners and the hotel.
Another advantage to being here for two weeks is that we have become regulars at several places, including gelaterias, restaurants and paper stores. We are recognized, given extra attention, given special (free) deserts, and treated differently than the quick visitors. It’s a much better experience. Plus there are the bells. I love being able to hear bells from many, many towers simultaneously. It doesn’t happen all the time, but today (Sunday) we’ve been hearing it often. Right this second I can hear bells from at least two towers, mixed with the continuing violin music. It’s wonderful, and something that you could easily miss if you’re not here long enough. And with less traffic now in the city center than I’ve seen on past trips, the car/moped noise is minimal – just a lot of bicycle bells, which interact nicely with the church bells and live music on the streets.
Our Favorite Kid-Friendly Activities in Florence
As I mentioned, we’ve done at least 29 distinct things while here. Each of us rated every activity, in order to come up with an overall Top-10 list that we would recommend to any visitors with families. I don’t know what some of these items cost, since the magazine covered the costs, but most weren’t expensive. And some just involved minor entry fees. In order, our top 10:
1) Bargello Museum
We all really enjoyed the museum visit with Elvira, the Amazing-Race-like hunt through the museum that Elvira set up for the kids to find various art works, the art talks that Elvira did with the kids at various places there, and then relaxing in the courtyard with the kids sketched art. None of us would have guessed in advance that this would be the overall favorite activity.
2) Climbing up the Cupola of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore
This was only my oldest daughter (7) and me, but it was a great way to start the day, and we were there long before any tour groups arrived. If you’re going to go, go at 8:30am, right when they open. I tried to pay for Evelyn, since visitors 6 and above needed tickets to climb, and the ticket guy gave me her entry fee back.
3) The Torrigiani Gardens and the Bandierai degli Uffizi
This is Europe’s largest private garden. We had a great tour of the gardens by Giovanni Torrigiani, but the highlight was a private performance by members of the Bandierai degli Uffizi, one of the most prestigious flag carrying/throwing groups. The kids all tried out the flag waiving and drumming. Definitely a unique experience, and one of the advantages of using a connected travel planner. We never could have done this on our own.
4) Pizza Making
This was fun. We went into the kitchen at Mamma Napoli (Piazza del Mercato Centrale 17 rosso, 50123), and all of us got to make pizza dough, form the dough, toss it, stretch it, put on sauce and make our own pizzas. It was the best pizza we’ve ever had, mostly because of the ingredients, partially because of the experience.
5) Chocolate Tasting
Amedei makes the best chocolate in the world. We spent roughly two hours with them learning about the chocolate making process, tasting chocolate in all forms and percentages and then pouring chocolate to bring home. Really fun afternoon. You can’t go wrong with chocolate anyway, but this was as perfect a chocolate experience as you can get.
6) Uffizi Museum
We’ve generally stayed away from doing museums with kids, including last year in Paris, since kids under 8 or so usually aren’t overly interested in art or art history. But Elvira made this really fun for the kids. She showed them the highlights, as well as obscure (but interesting) things, taught them about self-portraits, and had them draw their own self-portraits. Since the visit, every time the kids have seen anything from that tour in Florence (e.g. sidewalk artists painting Botticelli’s Venus, or postcards of the Medici children), they’ve spoken up and remembered the significance. A great introduction to fine art for all three.
7) Cooking School
We drove outside of Florence to the Boscarecce Hotel and Cooking School, near Castelfiorentino. The kids swam for a while, and then we all went into the kitchen to make pasta (pici), chocolate cookies, garlic/sage/sheep’s cheese chicken and stuffed zucchini flowers, with the owner of the property. The kids loved making the food, and we later sat down to eat what we had cooked. A really good dinner, and a very fun experience for the kids. We walked away with two aprons, a cookbook, a lot of leftover cookies, and a plan for Evelyn and me to cook at least once a month when we get home.
8) Vasari Corridor
I loved this because it is so rare to be able to walk above the Ponte Vecchio where the Medici walked. The history is fascinating, and the art (self-portraits of artists from the Renaissance to the present) is great and virtually unseen. It wasn’t quite as interesting for the kids, but given the number of times we’ve crossed the Ponte Vecchio down below, I think it was fun for them to see it from above as well, and the related history lesson from Elvira brought elements of the Renaissance home for them.
9) Museum of Natural History
This was with Karen Giacobassi, a great guide who coincidentally studied at the same Pepperdine Florence program that I did, just three years before me. She had also taken us through the very worthwhile Galileo Museum, but the kids liked this one the best. The Medici put together an amazing collection of animals and insects from around the world, which the kids would have loved anyway, but Karen made it even more fun by giving them challenges throughout the museum.
10) Florentine Paper Making
This was just a small demonstration of paper making in the back of Il Papiro, but it impressed all of us. We had no idea how the Florentine marbleized paper was made prior to this, and it was fun to see it happen in front of our eyes. And given how often we saw similar paper in the markets and other paper stores, the kids really appreciated having the knowledge of how it was made.
And the next ten on our list, including a barchetto ride on the Arno, a fresco workshop, the Ferragamo, Galileo and Accademia museums, and visits to the workshops of contemporary Florentine artists Silvia Logi and Clet Abraham, would also add up to a great kid-friendly trip. And we all had our own personal favorites. My favorite was Amedei Chocolate. Missy’s favorite was Orsanmichele. Evelyn liked the visit to Silvia Logi’s home and workshop the best. Henry says Amedei Chocolate was his favorite, but the search through the streets of Florence for Clet Abraham’s work was a close second. Sadie liked the boat ride on the Arno the best.
We all loved the hotel. The Antica Torre di Via Tournabuoni is perfectly located right on the Arno, and we had two amazing connecting rooms with views of the Arno and the Duomo. The morning breakfasts were a highlight – the food, the views, and the staff (especially the wonderful Latifa). We also loved Elvira Politi, our guide most days. She made Florence and its history come alive for the kids, stopped often for gelato, and always had art supplies in her backpack for the kids, along with ways to stimulate their creativity. Overall a great trip. It was privilege to be able to be here as the guests of Conde Nast Traveler, and the trip was everything I envisioned when I wrote my Dream Trip essay.
Kid Friendly: Extremely
Level of Difficulty: Easy
Trip: Customized trip by Conde Nast Traveler and Concierge in Umbria.
Guides: Elvira Politi and Karen Giacobassi
Airline/Routing: United, Air France and Lufthansa. SBA-LAX-LHR / LCY-FLR-FRA-SFO-SBA
Hotel in Florence: Antica Torre di Via Tournabuoni
Total Trip Length: 20 Days (London for 5 nights, Florence for 13 nights, 1 night on a plane)
Days of School Missed: Zero (summer vacation)
Ways We Brought the Cost Down: Cost wasn’t a major factor because Conde Nast Traveler was paying for most of the trip, but we definitely saved money where we could. We bought business class to Europe and economy back, but got upgraded to business for the return flights. Cranky Concierge booked our travel, making sure that we got the best possible fares and routing, and setting us up for the upgrades. And as much as we loved the hotel, we weren’t about to pay them €6 to wash a shirt, so we had all laundry done at a lavanderia not too far from the hotel for €20 a load.