When my girlfriend Andrea Nair invited my daughter and I to fly to Italy with her this summer to experience Me and Mom in Tuscany, I initially said no. I had too much work. And isn't Italy expensive? And what about my husband who would be left at home? Yet when I described the opportunity to him, all he said was, "You're crazy not to go."
And he was right.
The work could wait. I imagine many once-in-a-lifetime experiences are expensive but wind up being worth it, so along with Andrea and her two boys, my awesome daughter and I jumped on an Air Transat flight and flew directly to Rome. Then we rode the train to Grosseto, followed by a long taxi ride to the beautiful rolling hills of Tuscany.
It was a bit of a journey getting there, but I will tell you that the final destination was worth it in ways I couldn't have possibly imagined at the time.
Me and Mom in Tuscany is a conceptual experience created by Maria Rocco. Originally from Toronto (her brother is Chef David Rocco), Maria left to start a new life teaching kids in Italy. Twenty years ago she opened Canadian Island, a summer camp for Italian kids to learn English while having a blast at a sleep-away camp. Last year Maria decided to add on to the Canadian Island experience with Me and Mom in Tuscany, a mom retreat in a gorgeous villa just down a dirt road from Canadian Island. The plan? While the kids are having a blast at camp, a group of moms enjoy a week-long upscale, relaxing vacation with activities and meals designed just for us. This was an absolute win/win.
First, let's talk location, because it's magnificent. The villa itself is hundreds of years old and overlooks the stunning Tuscan countryside. Just stepping outside takes your breath away. The property itself is meticulously groomed with iconic cypress trees lining the driveway, a gorgeous olive tree in the centre of the back yard, and scads of rosemary and thyme shrubs line the yard and encircle the elegant pool. I felt like I was living in the pages of Architectural Digest.
The villa was equally spectacular. Nine bedrooms spread out over the two story villa, each with it's own uniquely designed bathroom. There are two kitchens - one we used for our private cooking classes - and the other where our meals were prepared by Chef Mauritzio Morretti. Yes, we had a private chef who made the most consistently delicious meals every day. I said once-in-a-lifetime, right? It's something I wish everyone could experience.
Because it was so hot (over 100 degrees some days!), we usually ate on the patio outside or in one of the beautiful open dining areas. There was also a large living room where each of us spent some time accessing the wifi and cooling off from the heat.
Here's where the experience was quite loose: moms were given the option of having our kids sleep at camp or stay in our rooms with us. Initially my daughter wanted to just stick close to me, but upon seeing the camp first-hand and meeting all the kids her age, she opted for life at Canadian Island with a few drop-ins to spend some time back at our villa. Andrea's boys are much younger, so they slept in her room but headed to the camp on most days. Maria's attitude was such that whatever worked for each of us was fine with her. She was accommodating and understanding, bending backwards to help out when required.
While the kids were immersed in learning through baking and play up the hill, the moms had other luxurious activities planned for us. We had daily cooking lessons with Chef Mauritzio, who shared some of his classic recipes and techniques for preparing Italian dishes. What was abundantly clear was that simple is the way to go when cooking Italian. Find fresh ingredients and season with salt, pepper, garlic, white wine, and olive oil. Lots and lots of olive oil. It actually became a running joke after a while each time he demonstrated a new recipe, the seasonings were usually the same and still tasted so decadently good.
We did take a few day trips off site to get a taste of Tuscany. An afternoon in Sienna was most memorable for its outdoor market. We split into smaller groups and spent a couple of hours finding inexpensive stylish treasures amidst all the local merchants' stalls. I bought a light cotton hippy dress, a chunky beaded necklace and a shirt all for well under $100, my wearable mementos of Italy. Plus, walking through the ancient town, window shopping and stopping for gelato is my idea of heaven.
We spent a gorgeous afternoon at Giannella Beach in Argentario on the Tirrenean Sea. The water was calm and bluest of blues and the handsome lifeguards showed us to private cabanas where we lounged while sipping cocktails from the hipster bar behind us. I apologize if I'm making you jealous but that's exactly what the scenerio was. Multo elegante. This trip needs to be added to a mom's MUST DO list at some point in her life.
No trip to Italy would be complete without a visit to a local winery. We lunched at Fattoria Le Mortelle, a picturesque winery sampling a variety of vintages while munching on a delicious potpourri of local cured meats and cheeses...with lots of olive oil. The tour of the actual winemaking facilities was equally enjoyable. The architecture and thought put into the winery was remarkable.
Aside from the planned activities and gorgeous surroundings, what really resonated with me were all the new friendships made. Think about it: you arrive jet-lagged and stressed and enter Italian paradise. You meet other like-minded women also looking to rejuvenate and decompress; to focus on their needs for one short week, yet while still spending some stress-free time in the evenings with their children. Fascinating get-to-know-you stories were shared around the elegantly appointed dinner table as the overflowing wine glasses helped loosen our tongues. More delicious Italian wine gives one partial amnesia, so secrets are safe, ladies.
Car rides to destinations were also opportunities to spark discussion and slowly strangers evolve into friends. Together we helped each other buy the right outfits, shared parenting advice, and learned about each other's lives. It's these unexpected personal connections that have really stayed with me - (waving hi to my new friends Susanna, Paola, Elena, Audrey, Staci, Mauritzio, and Maria.)
The last day was hard for us. Andrea's young boys cried and clung to their Canadian Island counsellors when it was time to leave. We jumped into our taxi, waving goodbye to all of our new friends, a lump in my throat driving through the gorgeous Tuscan scenery on the way to the bus headed for Florence. My daughter and I held hands on the bus, ready for the next part of our adventure - five days on our own in one of Italy's most beautiful cities.
Was it memorable? Let's say we've been back a few weeks and we're still talking about it. And my daughter sang the Canadian Island theme song incessantly as we wandered through Firenze, while my new friends texted me about which Florentine restaurants we should check out. Me and Mom in Tuscany isn't just a vacation. It's an experience that will connect with you with your child in so many ways, while still allowing for relaxing "me" time.
It's a trip for moms whose wish lists include travel and great food and relaxation and the best part of all, making some once-in-a-lifetime memories with their kids.
Want to travel with your family but stay in Canada? Here are some super fun things we did as a family when we travelled to Nova Scotia. Then you can check out these 6 family activities in PEI that made my kids smarter.