Destination Nova Scotia: Cabot Trail + Cape Breton

Around this time last year our family completed a trek around the Cabot Trail – a 300 km highway that winds through the Cape Breton Highlands offering stunning views of the ocean, woodlands, and other-worldly rock formations.

There are countless itineraries put forward by travel bloggers and Tourism Nova Scotia. This is not going to be of that sort of caliber. I didn’t actually research very much. We were traveling close to the Thanksgiving/fall foliage peak season (even during COVID conditions) and accommodation choices were limited. We didn’t book a whale-watching excursion or eat fresh seafood or overnight in a yurt. But it was a great family trip, nonetheless.

Before we even got out the door, our trip hit a major snag. Somehow, despite it being a last-minute vacation, we managed to book all our accommodations for the WRONG weekend. A few days after booking, John woke one morning with the vague sense something was wrong and quickly realized we had selected the wrong dates! Aside from one of our accommodations, we were able to maintain accommodations at the same locations…although that one change ended up being quite memorable (and not for the best of reasons). 

day ONE

We picked the kids up from school at lunchtime on a Thursday and started the trek toward Cape Breton. The kids were phenomenal in the car. We ate lunch in the car en route (I packed a bento-style, self-contained lunch for each of the kids) and then we stopped for a picnic supper at a lighthouse along the way, before heading off to our final stop of the day: Sydney.

I did not get them to pose like this; not sure what inspired them to adopt this stance, but I think it’s adorable, even if it does look staged!

We ended up arriving in Sydney around 6:00 pm. After checking in at our hotel, we decided to explore the waterfront boardwalk and visit the World’s Largest Fiddle, which we could see from our hotel window.

On our way to collect warm coats from the car, Levi tripped in the parking lot, getting some nasty abrasions on his hand with various rock shards embedded for good measure. Poor fella. We got First Aid supplies from the front desk and John and Abby headed off alone while I tended to the walking wounded. Levi made a speedy recovery, though his hand was a bit sore the rest of the weekend.

One of the main reasons we selected our hotel was because of its advertised waterslide. Our kids, like most others, love hotel waterslides. Because of COVID restrictions, we had to book a pool time, and they were elated when our allotted time finally arrived. Enthusiasm waned quickly; the pool was cold, the waterslide was cordoned off, and the hot tub was drained. Hmmm. Win some, lose some. We stayed for 15 minutes – long enough that everyone was freezing and soaked – and then piled back into our hotel room for hot showers and an early evening of popcorn and a movie, which is often the highlight of these trips for our kids anyway.

DAY two

Friday morning we woke early, tried again to visit the giant fiddle as a family (this time with success), and spent the rest of the morning at Louisbourg.

After Peggy’s Cove, Louisbourg’s is likely the second most iconic lighthouse in Nova Scotia.

The lighthouse was stunning and gave great views of the fortress across the harbour. There were rocks for climbing (basically all that is required for our kids to have a good time), and a pile of rubble from the original lighthouse – the first in North America to be constructed with fireproof building materials.

While COVID had forced the staff of Louisbourg to stop many of their regular demonstrations, we were impressed with the scale of the fortress and had a fun time exploring the grounds.

Next up was Ingonish. In my quick-and-dirty research leading up to our trip – and given our family’s penchant for lighthouses – I thought I had found a winning ticket. A lighthouse converted into ice cream parlour. Yes, please! It required a detour (40 minutes round trip) and I had been unable to get confirmation the site was still open for the 2020 season. We decided to go for it.

It was closed. Whomp, whomp.

We made up for that disappointment with a great hike that started on the perimeter of the famous Keltic Lodge (Middle Head Trail). We randomly found a geocache, which the kids were delighted about, and it felt good to stretch our legs after lots of car time.

It was interesting how few locations there were for eating/sleeping on the Cabot Trail itself. Finding a place open/available (we found a spot that had incredible reviews online, but it was over an hour wait just to get a table!) for supper was more challenging than we imagined, but we finally managed to get some takeout pizza (I ate food we’d brought from home, see below) and retreated to our hotel room for a movie and supper. 

This was the motel we had switched to when we were forced to rebook after realizing our date error (originally, we were slated to stay at well-reviewed cabins).

There was a reason there was an opening at this motel. From water stains in the bathroom to bugs on the floor to doors that didn’t close properly, this location didn’t instill much confidence. But there was nowhere else to go and really, how bad could it be?

We woke in the night to people socializing – loudly – outside our window. When I finally got back to sleep, I woke up to the sound of torrential rain. It wasn’t a great night of sleep. I was relieved when morning arrived, and we had positive attitudes – looking forward to moving on. And then we started the shower. Within a few minutes, the entire hotel room floor was flooded in water. We could see where they had patched the plumbing and it was easy to identify the source of the leak. When John went to check out and informed the front desk of the issue, he said they didn’t even act surprised. Needless to say, we did not stay for the free breakfast and will not be returning to that location again!

day Three

Saturday was the “big” day as we had eyes on hiking the Skyline Trail, which has arguably the most famous view along the Cabot Trail. I’ve already written an entire post about this adventure. We hiked the whole loop, which was about 8 km, and the views were stunning.

We’d had some drizzle and fog earlier in the day, but with the tremendous views, we couldn’t have been happier. We also timed it right. When we arrived about 10:30, the parking lot was mostly empty. When we returned it was absolutely jammed with cars!

We stopped in Cheticamp and found some lighthouses, including one with a built-in slide. The kids absolutely LOVED this and spent a happy half-hour sliding and climbing. John and I each went down the slide and once was enough. Phew, it was much steeper and faster than it looked (I actually had bruises from it), but the kids knew no fear!

We walked along the Inverness Boardwalk, drove through Margaree Harbour and ended up in Port Hawkesbury for the night. We were all tired, so McDonalds across the street was our fancy supper (we took food along for at least 1 picnic meal/day). After a good night’s sleep, we hummed and hawed about going to the pool. After the disappointment of the previous hotel pool (and all the effort that goes into getting dressed, going down, and then promptly getting out), none of us was convinced. Well…we went and it was wonderful. It was warm and we had it entirely to ourselves. Levi practiced swimming from side to side, Abby did flips and tricks and we all left happy.

From there it was back to Wolfville. A fun long weekend. Lots of driving, but the kids were phenomenal (we let them watch downloaded videos on some of the longer stints, but they were mostly contented to watch the views most of the way).

A quick note about food

I was in the middle of an elimination diet (no gluten, no peanut butter, no coffee, no soy, no dairy), so I was already planning to bring along lots of food items. But, as a great way to save, we also packed food appropriate for daily picnics.

This was the main launch point for our PB&J summer – I took a package of brioche buns, a bottle of peanut butter, and a bottle of jam. We took ice, so the first day had tuna filling, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, and gluten-free crackers. I also brought along things like apples and carrot sticks; we had mini-fridges at night, but these items were okay to be in the cool, but not cold, environment of the trunk. We also took nuts/seeds, dried fruit, granola bars, crackers, and tinned sardines/smoked oysters (both of which our kids love). We ate breakfast and supper out each day (I would often just piece together fruit/proteins we brought from home for myself), but ate lunches/snacks on the go which made our travel more efficient and cheaper!

I’m A Memory Keeper: Photobooks + How I Organize My Pictures.

Earlier this summer I took some time to identify things I value. It took a while to get the proverbial ball rolling but, once I did, the list kept growing. I accepted the fact that I value time alone, calm, and order. I value date nights and having 1-on-1 time with my kids. I value home aesthetics, cultural experiences, and connecting with seniors.

I also value my role as our family memory keeper and a huge component of that involves photos and photobooks.

My Dad was the resident photographer in my house growing up; he was constantly gathering us for awkwardly posed shots, especially if we had extended family visiting. The resulting photos are objectively dreadful – awkward photographs of everyone standing on the front porch, inside a museum lobby, or by our fireplace bedecked with Christmas stockings. Several people always have their eyes closed. Candid photos were not in his repertoire. But one of my favourite things to do as a kid was flip through our family photo albums. Page after page filled with memories; most fun but a few sad (rest in peace, Thumper).

As a teenager I went through a stint of scrapbooking with my older sister, but that didn’t last long (too much clutter for my liking). For years my photos mostly hung out in a digital purgatory; accessible, but not without effort and excessive screen time.

And then, when our oldest was born, I discovered photobooks.

Why Photobooks?

I love the ritual of sitting down and flipping through an album. Accessing photos digitally is fine, but I prefer when the viewing experience involves tactile senses. Because of the sheer number of photos we take each year (and would want in hard-copy), it’s prohibitive to develop them all as prints.

Enter photobooks. I often end up getting well over 1,000 pictures crammed into each book. I keep my layouts simple and use very little text. It’s a place for the photos to shine and tell the story of our life that year.

What publisher do You use?

Judging by the width of the binding, you can tell each year I just keep adding more and more pictures. I have books going all the way back to 2011, so I’ve officially hit the decade mark.

For the last 5 years I’ve been using Blurb. When MyPublisher (my original go-to) was absorbed by Shutterfly, I tried out a lot of different programs. I ended up settling on Blurb because it had desktop software that would allow me to build the book offline, dragging and dropping pictures from my desktop.

Once the book is complete, I simply upload the whole thing at once. There are great previewing features offline to help me identify layout issues, spelling mistakes, etcetera.

Blurb’s paper quality isn’t as good as some other companies (there is obvious shadowing/bleedthrough on thinner paper weights), but the reasonable prices (low per-page pricing + lots of great sales) and ability to print large books (I make books of 200+ pages) make it a great option for my needs.

How do You organize YOUR pictures?

The first step to creating a photobook…is managing your photos. There are a lot of different ways to approach this, but the following system works well for me.

  1. During each calendar month I regularly go through the photos on my phone. I’ll do this when I’m waiting in line or need to unwind for a few minutes. I’ll edit them – remove duplicates, boost the colour, straighten crooked images – before I move the best ones over to their permanent folder which leads me to #2…
  2. At the end of every month I move all my photos from that month off my iPhone and into folders in OneDrive (once they’re backed up to the cloud, I delete them off my phone).
  3. I have four master folders within each calendar year (Jan – Mar; Apr – Jun; Jul – Sept; Oct – Dec). Within each of those quarterly folders, I have a series of subfolders. For example, Oct – Dec would include folders like: Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas (which would likely have further subfolders like Christmas Tree, Christmas Eve, Decorations), Levi’s Birthday, Outside Play, Friends, School, Sledding. I have a lot of nested folders. Because of the sheer number of photos we take, I find it much easier to organize photos this way. Also, if I put all of the pictures in one cateogorized place (say pictures of the kids with their friends), it’s easier to identify the best shots to highlight in the photobook. Within a photobook I often do themed pages – say a spread of an outdoor activity like sledding or skating – and will regularly have photos from various dates on a single page.
  4. I try to sift through the categorized pictures several times before the end of the year, slowly whittling it down to my absolute favourites. It makes the next step – creating a photobook – so much more efficient.

what’s your process for creating a photobook?

Tip #1. It helps to have well-organized pictures! See above, or find a system of your own that works for you.

  • I go through the year chronologically and tackle one folder/subfolder at a time. I came up with some of my own templates within Bookwright – the software from Blurb – and just drag and drop photos.

Tip #2. Have a highlights page. Some people hand-write their captions and others include long descriptors to accompany each spread. You do you. But I find having a “Highlights” page is a great way to summarize the major events from the year, leaving the pictures free to speak for themselves. I like to put a few fun pictures on this page to signify special memories.

I have a Highlights page at the beginning of each photobook. I’ll write about how we celebrated birthdays, trips we took as a family, career milestones, and other little tidbits I don’t want to forget.
  • I really like interspersing portrait shots of the kids with detail shots of our surroundings. So a picture of the kids fishing AND a picture of their tackle box. This obviously requires capturing certain types of photos, but I do think it makes a more striking photobook. This is very much personal preference, though!
One page (of many) from Grand Lake 2020. This is all I do for captions, so the pages that follow from Grand Lake won’t have any text at all…

Tip #3. Consider using auto-fill features. If you’re not particularly fussed about having things “just so,” there are some great auto-fill modes for most photobook companies where you can dump in photos and they’ll arrange them chronologically or by theme. I’ve never used these features, but know others do with great success.

this sounds like a lot of work!

It is. The way I do things, it generally takes about 30-40 hours (!!) to complete a book. This doesn’t include the many hours spent taking, editing, and organizing photos. 40 hours is a lot of time to dedicate to a single project. But it’s a labour of love and I genuinely enjoy the process (most of the time; even for me it can start feeling tedious after a while).

It can also be significantly faster! Some of the auto-fill features could help you create a book in under an hour. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the done. Most companies now allow you to hire a designer to help you create the books; some even provide subscription monthly books. (I’d hate having that many separate books, but a friend of mine did exactly that. She was living in New Zealand with her newborn and made monthly photobooks and had them shipped to both sets of grandparents who were living back in Canada).

Grand Lake 2019 – the year of drone shots and visiting cousins…

How much does this all cost?

Photobooks can be pricy, but to me they are worth every penny.

I usually pay for a hardcover photo-wrap cover. It’s a few steps above the basic softcover option, but there are other premium features available. You can buy matching protective sleeves, get the book bound in linen or other fabrics and more. There are different gauges of paper, each with their own price point (which can impact the final cost significantly). You can get lay-flat pages (beautiful but expensive and almost always severely limits page count), gloss vs. matte, and various other upgrades and tweaks.

I like to highlight favourite pictures, so don’t necessarily maximize the space on pages. I like uncluttered aesthetics and am happy to pay more for extra pages to get the desired effect.

With Blurb I typically opt for one of their more expensive paper options (still some bleedthrough, but better than the basic paper), but always wait for a sale. Sometimes I’ll sit on a completed book for over a month. I have never had to order a book with less than 30% off; I’ve even managed to combine promotions and get a percentage off + free shipping.

Last year my book, with a discount and including shipping, was $115 CAD. Not bad for a custom photobook with 1,000+ pictures. I’d pay double that without hesitation.

I’m deeply nostalgic. I love photos and I love my crew. Put it all together and what have you got – a permanent position for me as head memory-keeper, with photobooks being one of my greatest allies.

Destination Nova Scotia: Cape Breton’s Skyline Trail

Despite growing up in Nova Scotia I’ll shamefully admit, at one point, I didn’t realize Cape Breton was actually a part of my home province. Separated from the mainland by a causeway, that short stretch of rock and asphalt marks a dramatic shift in topography.

With my geographic ignorance remedied, I traveled to numerous other provinces – and outside Canadian borders – long before I found my way to Cape Breton.

It was worth the wait.

My first experience on Cape Breton soil was a whirlwind trip as a newlywed. In the throes of busy work and graduate schedules, my husband and I spent a single night on the island, driving the entire Cabot Trail in less than a day, with only a few pit stops en route. It was Thanksgiving, a popular time to wind along the coast of Cape Breton, known for its stunning fall foliage.

Fast forward a decade and it felt like we were past due for a return trip. We made the decision quickly – pulling kids from school on a Thursday afternoon, taking a day of vacation, and booking three nights on the Trail (with mixed success; stay tuned).

Once again we made our trek in fall, this time pre-Thanksgiving so the colours weren’t yet in full display but it was lovely nevertheless.

Of the various iconic stops along the Cabot Trail, the Skyline Trail rises to the top. A well-maintained loop measuring about 7 km, the views are dramatic and panoramic.

It was an easy walk for the kids and the main trail is accessible by stroller. The viewing platforms are not – there are many, many stairs that could be quite treacherous if conditions were wet or windy. We arrived on a cool, damp day and were all very glad to have warm coats and ear protection and I kept a close eye on the kids at all times.

It really was a view of a lifetime, and I’d love to return for a sunset someday. From what I’ve seen, they are spectacular. But even on a drizzly, chilly day, the view we were rewarded with wasn’t half bad at all, especially when two cute kiddos filled up part of the frame.

*As you can deduce from the photos, this is rugged terrain. There is very little development, aside from roadways, and it is a place known for wildlife. It is not uncommon to encounter moose and bear. Very sadly, in 2009, there was a fatal coyote attack on the Skyline Trail (at the time, the only fatal coyote attack recorded in Canada). Numerous measures have been taken to mitigate the issue, but this is home to many animals – a fact that must always be respected not only for their survival but also for our safety. It’s always wise to hike with others, avoid consuming food on the trail, and always carry a walking stick and a whistle or other noise-making device.

Travel on a Budget: Food, Entertainment, & Souvenirs

This is where saving money gets fun! Airfare and accommodations are pretty…boring (to me at least), though they certainly pack the biggest fiscal punch.

While saving money on getting there frees up funds for activities on the ground, adventures can feel even more memorable when I know we’ve done it economically.

Of course, the internet is full of people that devote themselves to this sort of thing with far more experience than I can offer so, again, take my advice for what it’s worth. Use what’s valuable and leave the rest.

ways to save money on food

I love food but am not particularly fussy. I’m not motivated by fine dining but do like to eat like “locals” when exploring a new location. When you see a steady stream of morning commuters popping in to the same coffee shop, chances are it’s good!

  • Find a grocery store. This is one of the best ways to save money on food. Fruit, breakfast items (see below), drinks and even some basic meals (salads, subs) can often be found for a fraction of the price.
  • Bring a light daypack along. If you’re interested in carrying some meals/lunches, it makes life so much easier to have something compact to transport the grub.
  • Look for accommodations with a breakfast option included – or create your own (regardless of whether you have a kitchenette). In Australia we bought two tubs of blueberry yogurt and a few boxes of granola. We stashed the yogurt in our little fridge and ate heaping bowls sprinkled with granola and fresh fruit for breakfast…every day (I happen to enjoy eating the same thing over and over again).
  • If your hotel doesn’t include breakfast, and you’re not keen to prepare your own, look to eat a large, late breakfast and late afternoon supper (when you might still be able to get lunch deals). Two larger meals also cuts down on the amount spent on surcharges and gratuities.
  • Pack a lunch. Usually sourcing things from a local grocery store, we buy sandwich materials (wraps or soft buns are more palatable and easier to transport than sliced bread) like cheese and sliced meat and make picnic lunches that will fit in our daypack. Bring along a few Ziploc baggies to hold apples, crackers, carrot sticks and other fingerfoods that travel well with minimal refrigeration.
  • Go for water; drinks (even non-alcoholic) can really add up on a grocery or restaurant bill. We always bring our own water bottles and many hotels lobbies (pre-Covid at least) have water jugs that you can use to refill bottles.
Consider going for the water, unless it’s hot chocolate that looks like this. Hot chocolate that looks like this is worth almost any price.
Our bill after a 3-course meal at a lovely little family-owned restaurant in the Latin Quarter. 46€
  • Look for things off the main thoroughfare. In NYC we discovered a hole-in-a-wall sushi joint (apparently a favourite of Michael Buble’s) by looking at reviews online. Because it wasn’t on the main strip, prices were considerably lower but it was absolutely delicious. As a bonus, before the meal they distributed hot faceclothes which felt amazing after exploring the city on foot for 10 hours.
  • Make food part of the entertainment. Wait in line outside Magnolia’s to get one of their world-famous cupcakes. Eat poutine and maple candy in Canada. Eat authentic sushi in Japan. Buy an eclair while strolling the Champs-Élysées. Go to the beer garden during Oktoberfest. Also, sitting and people watching can be as much fun as taking a roller coaster ride or strolling through a museum (perhaps especially at Oktoberfest).
  • Make one meal special. We usually choose supper. We tend to go, go, go all day. We economize on daytime meals, and supper feels like a nice time to relax both our bodies and the grip on our wallet.

Look for free museums/experiences or combo deals

A lot of museums have special rates, free entrance, or other incentives that allow you to save money. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, for instance, operates under a pay-what-you-wish mandate.

  • Consider packages (but take the time to do your math). You can get sightseeing bus tickets that offer free entrance at an assortment local landmarks. These typically have a limitied shelf-life of 24-48 hours. Depending on your itinerary these can be a great deal. We’ve never opted for this option because they tend to involve 1 or 2 high-quality attractions and then a dozen or so “throw-aways”. I don’t want to get lost in the weeds of going places that aren’t a priority just so I feel like I’ve gotten my money’s worth.
  • A related option is combo entrance tickets; these tend to be two locations that are relatively well-aligned. For instance, in Paris we wanted to visit Musee d’Orsay and for a marginal increase we could get a combo ticket to the Musée de l’Orangerie. This was a great decision – it ended up being one of the highlights of our trip.

  • Explore discounts for special demographics. Students, seniors, military personnel and a range of other groups often qualify for reduced rates at many cultural locations.
  • In terms of entertainment, consider day-of tickets. Broadway is a great spot to test this out. We ended up with front row seats to Newsies (though any seat would have been amazing), and booked the tickets at a huge discount hours before the show. Even here, you can save. By going downtown to the South Street Seaport TKTS booth we spent less than going through the main TKTS stand in Times Square. (Now if you’re organizing an entire trip around seeing Wicked, for example, as one of my friends once did, it would be a priority to prebook the tickets). We’re back to priorities again
  • Sometimes even layovers can be long enough to fit in some special entertainment. On our way home from Denmark we flew through Iceland. We purchased tickets that gave us a long layover (we could have stayed for up to 7 days); enough time to get a deal on transport and entrance to the Blue Lagoon.
  • Research different ways to accomplish the same thing. In New York City it’s a rite of passage to get a birds-eye view of the skyline. The Empire State is iconic, but the views tend to be better (and the lines shorter and price lower) to go to the top of Rockefeller Centre. Plus, then you get a view of the Empire State Building! I also wanted to go high in Paris (not easy to do). It felt a bit counterprodutive to go up the Eiffel Tower – because what one really wants to see from a high perspective is the Eiffel Tower itself. So we did the Arc de Triomphe instead, along with the roof-top terrance on Galeries Lafayette (which happens to be free).
Our Top of the Rock tour was so much fun.
View from the Arc…
Free (!) view from the top of Galeries Lafayette.


Souvenirs can be a great reminder of happy travel memories. They can also be a major source of clutter and typically aren’t going to translate well in terms of the financial investment. Tourist trap souvenirs tend to be of poor quality, with inflated prices, that are likely destined for the garbage bin.

My advice. Invest a bit more to buy something meaningful. Some of our favourite souvenirs:

  • Pictures, pictures, pictures. They are almost always free and a provide a treasure trove of memories for years to come. Invest in printing off your favourite shots and frame them. What about setting up a rotating gallery wall of photos from your most recent vacations? The two photos below are part of a Paris trio we printed off and hung in our basement hallway.
We didn’t go into Notre Dame (we were visiting shortly after the catastrophic fire) but the pictures were free…and gorgeous.
We never set foot in this Parisian shop, but sure loved the photo opportunity.

  • I buy engineering prints from Staples (about $4 per print), plus inexpensive frames from IKEA.
Some of our favourite photos from Nova Scotia destinations hanging in our guest room (engineering prints in Ikea frames; less than $75 all-in). Peggy’s Cove, Cape Sable, Cape Forchu.
  • Local art. This can be tricky, especially if you’re only bringing a carry-on. Small prints, posters that come in cardboard tubes, and textiles can all be transported in pristine condition while requiring minimal space. Souvenirs don’t have to be things to hang on walls or in closets. We bought van Gogh coasters from Musee d’Orsay and I still get a thrill everytime I use them (we happened to need coasters, too, so it wasn’t just excess clutter). Hand-crafted jewlery or a knitted scarf made from locally sourced wool could make a fun piece of wearble memorabilia.
van Gogh coasters (there are 6 total) + my new White Point mug.
  • Reusable canvas bags. This is one of my favourite things to give and receive. They’re easy to pack up to bring home, make great gifts, and even high-quality ones tend to be relatively inexpensive. A friend brings me back new Trader Joe’s bags every time she visits California. In a sea of local grocery chain bags, I love how my unique bags stand out.
  • Don’t assume people want random stuff from your trip. If you’re bringing something home, ask in advance if people have preferences.
  • Consumables. Buy strombowaffles in the Netherlands, macarons in France, maple syrup in Canada. Buy a face mask from the Red Sea or chocolate from Belgium. Buy things you can appreciate and then use up!
  • Send postcards. This is a great way to tell someone you were thinking of them. They’re inexpensive, it’s always fun to get mail, and they can be easily disposed of once the sentiment has been adequately conveyed (aren’t we trying to tell people: “We were here, we thought of you;” a postcard is a much cheaper alternative to the “Someone Who Loves Me Very Much Bought This in Mexico” T-shirt).
  • Start a collection. One of my aunt collects demitasse cups whereever she goes. She has a specific item she’s looking for in any destination which takes the guess work out of what to buy.
  • Consider keeping location-specific paraphenlia. A friend of mine sent me speciality tea from New Zealand that came in a very unique metal tin; this is now what I use to store bobby pins. When we visited Tivoli Gardens, the third oldest amusement park in the world, my brother bought us all hot chocolate. It came in these adorable Tivoli-branded plastic cups. You could return them and get back a few cents deposit…or keep them and drink out of them for years to come at home. We opted for the latter.
Tivoli hot chocolate.
  • If buying clothes (which can be a great memento), get things you’ll actually wear. We bought our son a shirt from Paris and another from the Dominican Republic. They were his style and he’s gotten a lot of use from them.
One of my favourite pictures of the kids from 2020, with Levi rocking his Paris, France t-shirt (which is decidedly too small now but one of his favourites).
  • Bring home something familiar but from a new location. We like to visit LEGO stores abroad and bring some home – LEGO is always a hit in our house, regardless of where it was sourced.

There are lots of ways to save when traveling – at macro and micro levels. Remember your priorities. Maybe it’s going to drain a lot of fun out of your trip if you’re rationalizing how much to spend on food for a day, but you’re more than happy to swap out for a cheaper hotel room. You do you and look for ways to save along the way. It can actually make the whole experience more enriching and satisfying.

…and your credit card statement called to say thanks in advance.

Travel on a Budget: Transport & Accommodations

Half of the adventure is getting to the destination, right? Unless, of course, you’re driving across the country in a car with small children when it can feel more like a nightmare (or not).

Regardless of your feelings on the matter, the journey is a major part of the final bill. Typically the biggest expenditures for a trip, transport and accommodations are great ways to save and tend to offer the biggest bang for your buck when attempting to travel frugally. I, for one, like to save as much money as I can for memory-making experiences once I’m on terra firma.

An important first step is to identify your priorities – yes even for the more mundane logistics of transport and accommodations. Maybe you want to spend extra points to get that upgrade to first class or maybe you can’t swing a 3 am departure; maybe access to a heated pool and sauna at your hotel is part of what will make a trip most enjoyable. Maybe you want (or need) to be right next to the amusement park or beach, regardless of price.

In no particular order, here are some of the things we’ve done through the years to reduce the overall cost of transport and accommodations.

Maximize loyalty/points programs

For over a decade now we’ve been collecting Aeroplan points (we each have Aeroplan loyalty cards + credit cards linked to Aeroplan). These have helped fund the majority of our trips. My father-in-law is set to visit soon: 9,400 points + $95. Our couples trip to the Dominican Republic a few years ago: 200,000 points + $1,000 for a whole week (this was for flights and accommodation). Our (COVID-cancelled) trip to South Carolina for our family of 4: 60,000 points + $320 – we may never manage to recreate that deal.

$1000 for a week of this – everything in.

We don’t muddy the waters with a lot of different credit cards, but there is lots of material out there to help people navigate the options if this sort of thing is up your alley. We have a friend who is constantly joining new programs/signing up for new credit cards and has figured out a way to maximize the system to fund first-class airfare and more luxurious hotels.

  • For us, going with a single points program and doubling up when possible (some stores are Aeroplan partners + we pay with our Aeropoint-linked Visa so we get double points) really works. Beyond that feels like too much effort. You do you.
  • Airlines also offer rewards to regular customers; if you travel frequently for work, try booking through a single airline to accrue status miles (sometimes different airlines will belong to a central alliance, so booking through a “sister” airline will also go toward points/status). Thanks to pre-COVID travel for work John qualifies for Air Canada Super-Elite status which gives him – and the rest of the family – a host of upgrades, extra checked baggage, and cheaper options for many flights (i.e. he needs to redeem fewer points to purchase tickets).

find ways to combine work + leisure

This is likely our biggest hack and not something everyone can leverage. But, when it works, it’s a great cost-savings.

  • When possible, combine work travel with leisure. Stay an extra day or two on your own dime after a conference is over. Or, tag along with your spouse and explore the town while he/she attends to relevant work responsibilities, reconvening when convenient.

Our very first trip of this sort happened back in 2011. We were poor. Both pursuing Master’s degrees and newly married, I was invited to speak at an entomology conference in Orlando. My flights, meals, and hotel were only covered for the duration of the conference and we had a tight budget beyond that. John flew down on points (of course).

One of my labmates happened to mention her grandfather owned a condo in Sarasota and he was willing to let us use it for free. Yes please! We flew down a week early, rented a very inexpensive car, and spent several days in Sarasota. We bought $70 of groceries at Publix and ate one supper at an Olive Garden and another at a very, very sketchy buffet. The rest we fit into my per diem budget.

We walked on beaches (a priority and free) and went to the Ringling Museum on Monday – the day my research supervisor informed me it was free.

I had a per diem for food and accommodations in Orlando, so we found a hotel for $40/night slightly off the beaten track. It was only 5 minutes from the resort where the conference was taking place. Since we already had a rental car, we could easily look for a cheaper hotel (the conference was directly across the street from Disney, so room prices were much higher onsite, but that’s where most attendees stayed).

When the dust settled, a week in Florida for 2 people – including flights, meals, excursions, and accommodations – cost us less than $500.

On our trip to Kennedy Space Centre (the entrance ticket was good for 2 days, so we went twice on a single ticket). We saw a shuttle on the launch pad and met an astronaut.

Look at different flight options

This may sound intuitive, but sometimes small changes (later/earlier arrival times, flying on a different day) can make a huge difference to the bottom line.

If you’re at all flexible on the dates/times, it’s worth hunting around for a few minutes to see if Tuesday at 5 am is $300 cheaper than Monday at 11 am.

Take less stuff

Okay, some habits die hard.

My husband went to Australia for a month with only a single carry-on and laptop bag. This was for work, admittedly, and he was staying in a rental with laundry facilities, but this minimalist packing is doable for more leisurely vacations too.

Perks: no checked baggage fees and no concerns about lost luggage (and the potential cost of replacing items if luggage doesn’t get found quickly enough). Also, having less stuff just feels great on vacation.

Our carry-on still had room for Chicky – a little foam chick our daughter decorated and sent with us on our travels. Here’s Chicky posing in front of the iconic Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge. This little friend traveled to many places before she retired in 2019.


We often research accommodations (and if they’re being covered as part of a work trip, even better) more than anything else. With some extra digging, we usually find very affordable options.

  • I don’t need a fancy bathroom or spacious room. Clean and safe are my only two requirements. This is a HUGE place to save. To me, a hotel room exists for sleep and as a safe place to store belongings.

Not surprisingly, proximity to the downtown core can be a huge determinant of nightly rates. Both times we visited New York City we actually stayed in New Jersey. It was $88/night at the Super8 in North Bergen, a price hard to beat. We took a shuttle that dropped us off near Times Square. There was nothing special about the hotel, but it was clean and felt (relatively) safe. It was walking distance to a grocery store (a great way to save money on food) and had an edible Continental Breakfast (another great way to save money on food). Would I have preferred to roll out of bed and be in the heart of Manhatten? Absolutely. Was it worth $100’s extra over the course of our stay? To us, the answer was a definite no.

Our biggest coup came with our hotel in Paris. It was in the 9th arrondissement – a solid location – for $110 CAD/night (including all the hospitality fees and levies)!! It cost us almost double to get a night in a sketchy motel room along the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia that including a morning flood (story coming soon).

Hotel Touraine Opéra was one of my favourite hotel stays ever – and housed what seemed to be the world’s most comfortable bed. Large by Parisian standards, our room was simple but checked every box. There was a grocery store across the street, a shuttle to and from the airport, and it was very, very clean! Check, check, check.

A stone’s throw from the Opera House it was, admittedly, a fair trek to some of the most notable landmarks. But for $110 CAD/night, it was hard to beat the economy of it all.
  • A bad hotel can be truly terrible and could ruin a vacation. In terms of accommodation reviews – look for themes. Noise issues, cleanliness and safety violations – when things of that ilk come up repeatedly it’s a giant a red flag. But if someone says the heated pool was too cold for their liking, I’m not much bothered by that sort of information (unless, of course, my priority is having a nice, warm hotel pool).
  • The best arrangement, though, is free. I have a brother that has lived in Europe for over a decade now; he’s had a steady stream of North American company in that time. Having free accommodations is a great way to shrink expenditures on vacation.
My brother’s old apartment was located above this set of shops in Copenhagen. There was a bakery directly across the street. The smell of fresh pumpernickel bread and Danish pastries coming out of there was the real deal. The whole scene felt like something out of a picture book.

Take public transit + WAlk

Okay, okay, can you tell we love walking? We might be a bit biased on this one, but it’s hard to argue that public transit and walking are the cheapest way to navigate an urban destination. When the kids were younger and in tow we’d find ways to borrow strollers, and the Ergo helped with many nap on-the-go moments.

Abby, asleep in the Ergo, at The National Gallery of Denmark (Statens Museum for Kunst). We went on a day with free admission – and we walked. No doubt we packed a picnic to enjoy later in the day.

You can get creative – we took a public bus to Bondi Beach and water taxis to Watson’s Bay; John has done hop-on/hop-off busses in France and NYC; we did trains, buses and bikes almost daily in Copenhagen. Lots of places now rent electric scooters which look very fun (and very economical).

why we’re a big fan of walking tours

Yet another plug for walking, but we’ve had great success with walking tours. Look for ones that have local hosts; these are often a pay-what-you-can donation style. It’s a great way to explore the city at minimal cost and the tour guides are usually happy to share lots of nuggets of wisdom, including ones that can translate into real cost-savings (you should try this diner, it has the best $3 burger in town; this museum is free on Friday’s after 8 pm).

Logistics aren’t always much fun when planning a trip, but they’re undeniably necessary and can consume a huge portion of a vacation budget. Once you’ve identified your priorities, see where that puts you in terms of budgeting. Maybe some priorities need to get shifted (can you make do without a hotel pool, or can you get a 1-week subway pass instead of relying on cabs) to free up monies for something fun when you’re on the ground?

Getting there can be half the fun; even if it isn’t, it doesn’t have to break the bank.

Travel on a Budget: Identifying Priorities

I’ve already admitted to being a pseudo-minimalist and I’m ready to put forward a similar disclaimer now. For the next few days I’ll don my travel-on-a-budget hat, after first admitting I don’t have an overly impressive globetrotting resume. I didn’t set foot on an airplane until I was nineteen and have only touched down in 6 countries – but I happen to have married an expert.

Born in Portugal, John has worked in and explored far-flung corners of the globe: from snowy landscapes in Canada’s High Arctic and Norway to warmer shores in Fiji and the Canary Islands; he’s been to Tanzania and Rwanda, Brazil and Chile; he’s spent months working in Australia; he’s crisscrossed the US and visited Thailand, Japan, and too many countries in Europe to count.

Not only does he have a lot of experience, but he also happens to be a really, really great traveler. He’s efficient and smart and unflappable when on the road and, since our priorities are so well-aligned, he’s the best travel partner I could ever hope for (he’s also just really fun to be with and an all-round awesome spouse).

As time and money allow I can’t wait to fill up my passport with all kinds of stamps, but until then I lean heavily on his travel expertise. That said, we’ve definitely developed our own special method of budget travel since getting married.

A quick Google search reveals entire movements devoted to traveling on a budget – from working farm hostels to extreme credit-card reward gymnastics, some of the proposed methods feel a tad intense for my taste.

I’ve never stayed in a hostel or plowed a field to pay room and board. I just thought it would be fun to discuss some of the ways our family has traveled, economically, through the years. This includes periods where we were, on paper at least, living below the poverty line. Those years of financial constraints helped us be creative in our travel plans and many of these tendencies stuck, even as we’ve moved into a new chapter of life that has afforded more financial flexibility.

I grew up exposed to fiscal conservatism (as did my husband), and it comes naturally. Believe me, this can present some drawbacks, including exacerbating my preexisting (and unrealistic) maximizer tendencies. But it also drove us to look for creative ways to solve a problem which was, at first, how to fund international travel on a small bankroll. Today it means we continue to pursue the least expensive way to maximize an experience or opportunity.

For us, the whole process of traveling on a budget can be satisfying. A mindset of frugality is what led to us having more financial independence in the first place, so why not continue the momentum?

I’ll talk about specifics in later posts, but today wanted to hone in on priorities. Just like identifying what truly motivates you can help you figure out where you want to get to in life, I think it’s helpful to identify priorities before traveling and then allocate money accordingly.

how to identify Travel priorities

  • One of our top priorities (individually and as a couple/family) is finding ways to get immersed in the local culture. We want to eat and explore like locals – do things we can’t do anywhere else. I remember talking to someone who mentioned he would always seek out a cheeseburger and fries wherever he traveled – he had absolutely no interest in sampling local cuisine. He prioritized consistency; we opt for experimentation.
One of the best breakfasts I’ve ever enjoyed. This tiny cafe was tucked away on a side street, hidden from the main tourist thoroughfares. Inexpensive and absolutely delicious.
  • Exploring a new location on foot is a huge draw for us. It’s how we like to familiarize ourselves with a new space, and it happens to be a great way to save money.

When we went to our first (and only) all-inclusive resort, we had narrowed it down to two destinations. The selling feature of our eventual choice? Kilometers of accessible white sandy beaches. Every single day we headed out the door and walked and walked and walked. Because we identified walking as a priority before we even started the booking process, it helped us make an informed decision. We aren’t that fussy about a big hotel room or fancy entertainment options. We were never going to be the type to race to the beach at 7 am to reserve a cabana for the day. We weren’t going to use the pool or the hot tub or participate in morning yoga on the beach.

No, more than anything we wanted a long sandy beach – and that’s exactly what we got.

  • We also love art. Top highlights from almost every trip involve art/architecture and we always seek out art galleries – both the famous and lesser-known. If necessary, we know it’s better to forgo the nice lunch with a hefty tip to fund opportunties to explore local art culture.

Years ago when my parents were visiting Paris (without me, I might add), my brother-turned-tour-guide took my mom to the Louvre. My father opted out without second thought and visited a nearby war museum. He is always, always, always going to seek out history. Why pay an entrance fee to an art museum he’d rather not visit?

  • There is no right and wrong in terms of priorities. That’s the beauty of it all. You’re under no obligation to visit the Louvre if you go to Paris (though it’s amazing). You do you.

If I went to Las Vegas tomorrow I’d probably wander through a casino or two (more for the architecture and design aesthetics), but what I’d really want to do is take in a live show and wander through an art gallery. I wouldn’t want to hang by the pool and order an umbrellaed drink. I wouldn’t want to spend my time at a slot machine or playing blackjack. One would assume both drinking and gambling would be front-running priorities for many choosing to visit such a city.

But not for me!

I’ve seen Michelin restaurants, but don’t have any burning urge to visit one. But, if you do, make this a priority and find other places to save…

why travel?

I think most of us have a natural instinct to explore; an innate desire to get to know our world more intimately, to meet new people, and experience new cultures. Leisure tourism can get a bad rap, sometimes justifiably so, but I think it can also make us more informed citizens when we return home. Couldn’t it make us better doctors and lawyers and teachers and parents? In addition to tans and keychains and duty-free alcohol, we might just manage to bring back new perspectives that colour our world for the better.

One night in Paris my husband and I relaxed on the Trocadéro lawn at dusk. This was pre-COVID and people were everywhere. The fading sunlight, and the wine, cast a perfect glow over the setting. I think about that moment often and those few hours spent watching the Eiffel Tower reflect the colours of the changing skyline were some of the happiest of my life.

We travel to experience these moments; to trigger emotions and raise questions and escape routine. We also travel to get an idea of just how big the world really is and our place in it.

Maybe you travel for the scenery or the family hugs at the end of a long plane ride. Maybe you travel for work and pride yourself on relentless productivity, considering tourist traps something to be avoided at all costs. But, I suspect, if we stay open enough, travel could change us all, perhaps in surprising ways.

Destination Nova Scotia: White Point

Living in Nova Scotia for over a decade, I feel like we’ve covered most of the highlights. We’ve visited Peggy’s Cove (a dozen times), seen the Bluenose II in port, and even tested our sea legs for an authentic Maritime island experience. We’ve driven the world-famous Cabot Trail, spotted whales in the wild, and climbed atop rock formations that look like something straight out of Tatooine.

Then we spent two magical days at White Point Beach Resort and grabbed our bright yellow highlighter.

While this post isn’t sponsored, we did win the trip. My husband (photographer extraordinaire) won the grand prize in the 2021 Saltscapes Amateur Photography contest. His prize? A 2-night Seascape Getaway Package at White Point.

It did not disappoint.

First, let’s state the obvious: going anywhere without the kids for two days was going to feel glorious. It had been over 18 months since we’d been away together overnight, so a leaky shanty would have felt akin to paradise.

White Point delivered. With no leaks.

The resort

Built in 1928, White Point has been a staple on Nova Scotia’s South Shore for almost a century. Our next-door neighbours have been visiting for 50+ years, hosting an annual 5-day reunion onsite with people crisscrossing the country to reach this sandy oasis.

When you arrive a sign reads: Welcome…now relax and enjoy. And it really does feel like, somehow, the salt air and crashing surf just pushes the stress right out of you.

The redesigned main lodge (destroyed by fire in 2011 and rebuilt in 2012) has loads of character. I think it’s best described as upscale rustic. Mis-matched, brightly painted wooden chairs surround the tables; a moose antler light fixture hangs above a giant stone fireplace, and cutlery comes wrapped in gingham napkins. Things are colourful and inviting, but not so busy you feel claustrophobic. There are modern elements – stone fireplaces, exposed metal girders; then you look up and see the requisite pairs of crossed snowshoes (open year-round, they can get away with it). It feels like life at the beach – nothing pretentious and no fine china – but elevated in the best of ways.

And then there are the bunnies.

When we checked in we each received a little brown bag of bunny food. It was so fun to walk around the property and glance up to see bunnies hopping contentedly on the lawn beside you. It’s not overrun, just enough bunnies that you can almost always spot one. They’re friendly and content and likely help cut down on lawnmowing costs each summer.

And, to commemorate our stay, I may have succumbed to the siren call of the gift shop and come home with a bunny mug. It had to be done. And may I say my tea tastes especially delicious this morning.

The beach

The beach was lovely; smaller than I imagined and might feel more crowded in the summer when all the facilities are maxed out.

On our only full day on-site it rained much of the day. We managed to squeeze in an early morning stroll on the beach which was wonderful, but for much of the day – between rain and fog – we couldn’t even see the waves (sure could hear them though)!

The lawn is covered in bright Adirondack chairs, and the rocky shoreline is dotted with wooden benches that provide a great place to contemplate the ocean.

The accommodations

Our package included an ocean-front cottage. I woke up both nights thinking there were hurricane-force winds blowing outside. It was just the constant roar of the ocean. Nature’s white noise. It was lovely and so relaxing, but definitely takes some getting used to!

The cottage was great. Wood floors with one tiny braided rug, perfectly designed for sandy feet. There was a propane fireplace which was lovely after coming in from the rain (Day #2). The bed was comfortable.

I have relatively low demands in terms of accommodations other than cleanliness and safety/quiet and this spot checked all the boxes. It felt like a cottage by the ocean, which is exactly what it was.

They have a range of newer cottages and even houses to rent with more modern amenities, but I liked how I didn’t feel like I needed to worry about sandy feet and wet towels, which is the perfect environment for relaxing at the beach.

The people

We couldn’t believe how many young families were on-site. Everywhere you looked parents were trailing behind curious toddlers. Pets are also welcome, and from our elevated perch in the lounge at lunchtime we enjoyed a birds-eye view of a couple interacting with their very young, very adorable German shepherd puppy.

We know lots of families from the local area that go to White Point; there were also lots of retirees and the resort caters to corporate groups with meeting facilities and large rental spaces (entire homes on-site). It really has something for just about everyone.

You can curl up with a book in the lounge, play games on the beach, rent a paddleboard for the lake, hike local trails, paint rocks with an instructor, or roast s’mores over a firepit.

The food

Lemon tart-in-a-jar; delicious, but not as good as the lobster poutine!

Again – upscale rustic. The food was good; hearty portions, well cooked. No Michelin stars, but I’m not fussy like that. The waitresses were friendly and the ambiance was relaxed.

As mentioned above, the bar was set shockingly low: there is something inherently lovely about eating a meal without children bickering, throwing food at each other, or getting up and down a dozen times to use the washroom, perform cartwheels, and then go to the bathroom again. During our final breakfast, I watched a very competent, patient mother tackle breakfast with two small children (both of whom were incredibly well behaved). I kept watching the happy little scene until one of them, no more than three years old, dissolved into tears complaining there was too much milk in her cereal and then she started gagging and crying while her younger brother happily batted away at his apple slice in the highchair. I looked at the mother with both sympathy and admiration. Then I returned to my very hot, very tasty breakfast which I enjoyed without a single complaint from my own offspring.

Highlights: the lobster poutine. I am a French-fry naturalist. I like French fries. With ketchup (obviously). Full stop. The thought of adding cheese curd and gravy just feels like blasphemy. But take French fries (delicious) add cheese (also delicious) a cream sauce (tasty) and huge chunks of lobster (very, very delicious) and I have to admit you’ve found yourself a really great meal. It was the first thing I had eaten since 10 am and we had just hiked + run for about 13 km in the sun. Delicious is an understatement. It was so good we re-ordered it a second time during the trip.

Honourable mentions: the Country Breakfast, Sticky Toffee Pudding, the Chorizo sausage in their gnocchi dish, and the Chocolate Mocha cake.

Sticky toffee pudding.
Chocolate cake with creamy coffee ganache; you can catch a glimpse of the casual, but cozy, beachfront dining room.

local attractions

The South Shore of Nova Scotia is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It’s my completely biased opinion, but it’s an unavoidable truth. Gorgeous, long sandy beaches, historic buildings, and lighthouses around every corner.

Carter’s Beach, ranked one of the most beautiful beaches in Canada, is less than 20 minutes from White Point. We happened to visit in the middle of a downpour this time, but have great memories from drier visits in the past.

Summerville Beach – 10 minutes away from White Point – played host to our giant leap of faith from last summer.

The Keji Seaside Adjunct provides a nice hiking trail and the opportunity to spot moose and bear (we didn’t, much to my relief).

We took a quick spin through Liverpool and on a whim visited Astor Theatre; we picked up a lovely watercolour postcard from a local artist in the giftshop for the kiddos, wandered through various art exhibits (somehow we always find art along the way), and ended up touring the theatre.

Built in the early 1900’s and originially known as the Liverpool Opera House, it’s a lovely theatre that played war newsreels in the 40’s and now brings classics like Arsenic and Old Lace and The Mousetrap to life. I definitely want to go back and take in a live show.

While we love traveling with our family, it was nice to escape the rat race of juggling work and extracurriculars for a few days.

But as always happens when we’re away from the kids, we talk about them constantly. We must have said a dozen times “Wouldn’t the kids love it here.”

They would, we did and sometime in the not-so-distant future I’m sure we’ll find ourselves winding along those back-country roads on the South Shore again. And when we pull up and see the order to “…relax and enjoy…” we’ll plan on doing just that.

Destination Nova Scotia: Castle Rock

It was a lazy Sunday afternoon; church was finished for the day and the sunshine beckoned.

My ever-spontaneous husband suggested we hop in the car and meander toward the gorgeous South Shore. A beach seemed like the safe option. En route, we dithered about where to go before finally settling on one of our favourites, but I could tell no one was committed to the idea. A quick Google search string later (“Trails near Bayswater Beach”) and it didn’t take much convincing to turn the car around and check out the nearby Castle Rock hiking trail.

We went in blind. With nothing but a trailhead location, we grabbed our water bottle, a few granola bars, and headed out.

And guess what – Castle Rock delivered.

This was a fair trek, about 10 km out-and-back, but most of the trail was flat and well-groomed. We saw lots of families biking to the base of Castle Rock before the ~2 km hike up the “mountain,” which would dramatically expedite the adventure timeline.

The reward for our physical efforts: a panoramic view of the Chester Basin.

A great family hike and another hidden gem in Nova Scotia’s glistening crown. Not bad for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon in July.