Road Trip 2014 – Frugal Novice
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Road Trip 2014

Embassy Suites is a Win-Win for Families!

Note: We received a stay at the Embassy Suites in Atlanta to help facilitate this post. All opinions are honest and are our own. 

We took a road trip from Texas to Florida to Georgia this past summer, and it was a blast.

Did I mention we traveled with a nearly two-year-old? She and our 5- and 7-year-old sons were our companions, which made for quite a loud trip, but it mostly just a lot of fun, and we made all sorts of wonderful memories.

If you’ve ever traveled with small children, you know that navigating the time on the road is only part of having a successful family vacation. You’re staying away from home, out of routine, and you’ve got to find hotels that make this a smooth experience.

We spent the last part of our vacation in Atlanta – the kids and I had never been, and they had plenty of family-friendly activities, so it was a perfect city for us to visit. We stayed at the Embassy Suites near the Centennial Olympic Park, which ended up being a perfect home base while we explored the city. Check out our view, and you can see just how close we were to everything:

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A family-friendly hotel right in the heart of downtown? Win-win! 

As the name suggests, the hotel sat right on edge of the Olympic Centennial Park. One night we walked around the park and discovered the water fountain, which was one of my very favorite memories of this trip. The kids were dressed in regular clothes, but the boys were thrilled at the sight of the fountain so we just let them hop on in to have fun, and they loved it. One thing I learned is that you can plan all sorts of fun things (and we did!) but spontaneous moments like these are ones you’ll always cherish.

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We weren’t just close to the park, though – we were within walking distance of great shopping and restaurants, too. One of the Embassy Suites employees actually walked a block with us to make sure we could find Max’s Pizzeria, which was absolutely delicious.

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Needless to say, I’d highly recommend this hotel as your place to stay when in Atlanta. We learned, though, that Embassy Suites is a perfect chain for family travel – and it’s definitely one we’ll seek out again and again. Why, you ask?

1. Free snacks and drinks for two hours every single day at their evening reception:

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Here, in the atrium of the hotel you can see people gathering to get snacks and drinks; the kids thought this was SO cool! Free snacks that keep the kids happy & adults happy too? Win-win.

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We brought our snacks up to the room to let the kids munch while we got ready to go out.

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This brings me to another reason we loved staying at Embassy Suites:

2. A separate living and sleeping area – with a TV in each! We loved that we had a living room to hang out in – and at night the living room transitioned into the kids’ bedroom, with the couch converting to another bed. The kids liked having their own space and thought it was awesome that they had their own TV to watch cartoons on in the morning – and Brian and I liked having a quiet space to be able to watch what we wanted to on our own TV back in the bedroom. Happy kids and happy parents? Totally a win-win. 

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3. Absolutely amazing breakfast – free. I think we’ve all stayed at hotels that have touted free breakfast and then offer you boxed cereal. Embassy Suites goes above and beyond, offering a spread that is sure to suit any tastes in the family. There’s even a made-to-order omelet station. Check out some of the offerings:

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As you can see, everyone had different things, and everyone was happy. Total win-win. We loved it because we knew the kids would have plenty of energy to get out and sight see for the day after having a big breakfast. And thanks to the lovely location, we chose to eat outside one morning with the Centennial Park to look out on. So nice!

4. Refrigerator and microwave in each room. This is a lifesaver for families. It means you can keep milk on hand for the little ones, you can bring inevitable leftovers back from meals out, and you can pop popcorn to enjoy while you watch a movie in the living area.

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5. Incredibly friendly staff. Everyone from the bellhop to the front counter to the parking attendants were all so nice and helpful. I mentioned above that one of the employees helped us find a restaurant we were looking for. He went above and beyond, and was happy to do so. Things like this really add to the overall experience at a hotel, and were just another reason for us to love our stay at Embassy Suites. Yep, you guessed it – another win-win.

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We really loved our Embassy Suites experience in Atlanta and you can bet that we’ll be staying at an Embassy Suites on our next road trip because we know it’s a perfect place for our family.

World of Coca-Cola

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Note: We received complimentary tickets to World of Coca-Cola to facilitate our review. We were not compensated monetarily and all opinions are honest and our own.

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Brian and I both love Coke products – I like Coca-Cola Classic and he’s a big Cherry Coke fan – so we thought it would be fun to visit the World of Coca-Cola while we were in Atlanta. And our kids very rarely get to drink soda, so the idea of getting to taste a lot of sodas in the “Taste It!” room was pretty thrilling to them!

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We enjoyed getting to see all sorts of behind-the-scenes things about the history of Coke and how it was made (and even got to see the vault where the top-secret recipe is stored), along with all sorts of Coca-Cola merchandise that’s been marketed over the years. We got to meet the Coca-Cola polar bear, too!

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We even went to the gallery where we saw all sorts of Coca-Cola inspired art:

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But of course the boys’ favorite part was getting to try Coca-Cola products from all around the world! We had planned to try every single flavor but ended up not quite making that goal. It was still a lot of fun, and we survived the ensuing sugar rush after the fact, too. :)

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We spent about two hours here and that was plenty of time to see everything and spend some time in the gift shop, too. We all had a lot of fun! This is a great place to tack on to your Atlanta itinerary, and you can find all sorts of fun gift items for the Coke-lovers in your life. Visit their website for more information and to plan your visit!

Georgia Aquarium is Fun for the Whole Family

Note: We received tickets to the aquarium to facilitate our review. All opinions are honest and are those of myself and my family.

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We’ve been to aquariums before, but I had no idea what to expect before we walked into the Georgia Aquarium. This place, in a word, is awesome. 

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You walk into a central lobby of sorts, and everything branches off, making it easy to navigate. The lighting sets the mood and gives the whole place an aquatic, other-world feel.

We arrived just in time to attend the dolphin show, which we weren’t allowed to film at – but trust me, it was a blast! There is a theatrical element to it that I wasn’t expecting, but the kids really enjoyed it. We couldn’t get over how talented the dolphins and their trainers were.

After the dolphin show we went to one of the several areas allowing visitors to touch some of the sea life. We spent a lot of time here – the kids LOVED touching the manta rays and wanted to keep trying to touch one of the sharks in the tank, too (they weren’t ever quick enough, but Brian and I both managed)!

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The interactivity of the aquarium is really what sets it apart and makes it a stellar experience. If you’re not able to touch things, you’re able to get right up close and personal, or in some cases you’re even able to feel like you’re a part of the exhibit:

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The kids loved the 4D movie, complete with water spraying! And who doesn’t love the chance to wear some 3D glasses?

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There are so many larger-than-life tanks, and we couldn’t get over all the many fish we were able to see up close. The tunnel was one of the boys’ favorite parts, and I can see why – we were practically surrounded by fish!

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I’d highly recommend you plan a visit to the Georgia Aquarium next time you’re in Atlanta.  And now, I’ll leave you with my very favorite photo from our time there:

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Style & Fine Dining – For Kids, Too – at the Westin Peachtree Plaza & Sundial Restaurant

Note: We received a media rate and a restaurant credit to help facilitate our review. All opinions are honest and are entirely our own.

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When I walked into the lobby of the Westin Peachtree Plaza, I felt as if I’d walked onto the set of a movie.

It’s sleek and has HIGH ceilings with tons of natural light pouring in through windows and skylights. The elevators are housed in a cylinder of sorts, painted with a modern black & white floral pattern. It feels like a place execs would stay and make high-powered mergers, or that celebrities would stay while shooting on location. I have to admit, my first impression of the hotel left me in awe… but wondering if this was going to be a great place for our family with three kids to stay. Would we fit in?

For those of you that haven’t seen the Westin Peachtree Plaza before, it’s a gleaming, towering cylinder that’s the fifth-highest building in the city, and is the tallest hotel in the United States. You can see it as you approach Atlanta, and it definitely stands out in the skyline.

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Our hotel room was on the sixty-fifth floor. Yep, you read that right. This hotel has 73 floors and includes a rotating restaurant and bar, called the Sundial Restaurant, Bar & View. We were pretty near to the top, which meant we got amazing views of the city.

Full disclosure: I have a total phobia of elevators. So, as you can imagine, riding one up 65 flights was a little nerve-wracking for me. However, these elevators are QUICK, and we rarely had to stop on more than one other floor on our way up or down, because they’re so well-organized.

Once we got up to our room and opened the door, I could immediately see why people love staying here. The views are simply breathtaking.

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The kids thought it was the coolest thing ever to stay up so high, and couldn’t get enough of looking out the windows and pointing out various things they saw (built-in entertainment, folks – can’t beat that!).

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As you can see, a lot of time was spent at the windows. The lights of the city at night are spectacular, and make for a perfect nightlight as the kids go to sleep.

The rooms are slightly compact, but we still had plenty of room for the five of us. There are twenty rooms on each floor, but we felt almost like we had the floor to ourselves; we barely heard other guests. Everything is modern and sleek, down to the finishes in the bathroom – I’m kind of in love with the tile work around the mirror!

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The next day before we left we decided to have lunch at the Sundial Restaurant, Bar & View. I was a little uncertain, again, if our family of casually-dressed tourists would be appropriate, but was assured it’d be just fine for a weekday lunch.

There are two glass elevators housed in a smaller cylinder on the side of the building, and these are what you take to get up to the restaurant. It takes less than 1 1/2 minutes, and I even enjoyed the ride – the views are so great! You can see part of our ride in the video above.

The Sundial is just what you’d expect to be on the top of the Westin Peachtree Plaza. It, too, is sleek and modern and beautiful. It’s Atlanta’s only tri-level dining complex featuring an upscale restaurant, a rotating cocktail lounge and an observatory View Level.

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The kids quickly noticed what makes this restaurant extra-special: the dining area rotates! This meant our view changed as we ate, and we made the full rotation throughout our meal.

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It’s not every day you look out your window at lunch and see the top of a skyscraper.

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Or this. Gorgeous.

Elsie wasn’t too sure what she thought of it all, but the rest of us thought we had the best seat in the restaurant!

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The food was absolutely wonderful. Seriously. We loved every bite and I honestly don’t have a single negative comment. The flavors are masterfully balanced and it was probably our best meal of the trip. It is pricier than your average restaurant, but still affordable, and there’s even a kids’ menu.  Our waitress, Shauna, was great – attentive and friendly, which was especially great for the kids. Shauna, if you read this, thanks for exceptional service!

Here’s what we ate:

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Warm corn madeleines with house-made strawberry jam and local honey butter for our appetizer

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Chicken tenders with parmesan fries for the kids (surprise, surprise)

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Hand cut pasta with tomato, basil, ricotta and spring squash for me

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NY strip au poivre for Brian – a 10 oz. steak with horseradish whipped potatoes, carrots, and bordelaise sauce

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Fried apple pies with vanilla bean ice cream, cinnamon ice cream, and candy apple sauce for dessert

This was a great special treat for our family during the day but at night I can easily see how this is a perfect date (and proposal) spot. The menu is impressive, the servers and hostesses are friendly, and did I mention there are some pretty great views?

Before we left we checked out the observatory level and pointed out the aquarium, where we’d be heading next. You can really see all of downtown Atlanta from up there!

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I have to mention our bellman, Jose, before I close out this post. He was SO great with the kids. He let them ride on the cart with the luggage and asked them questions about themselves, and they thought he was awesome! We really appreciated that he made the extra effort to help the kids feel special and it ended our stay on a perfect note.

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If you’re looking for a special experience, I’d highly recommend staying at the Westin Peachtree Plaza. Whether you’re on a business trip, a romantic getaway, or – yes – a family vacation, you’ll fit right in, and will love it. You can make a reservation by clicking here. Keep up with them on Facebook & Twitter, too!

Hilton Sandestin is a Dream Destination for Families

Note: We received our stay and a meal at the Hilton Sandestin to facilitate our review. We were not compensated monetarily. All opinions are honest and are entirely those of myself and my family.

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Our next leg of our family road trip was in Destin, Florida at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa. We were all pretty excited about this stop – our family loves spending time at the beach, and the boys couldn’t wait to start playing. I was thrilled because the Hilton Sandestin is right on the beach, which meant we could walk out of our hotel and straight onto the sand without having to pack up the car or walk with the kids for a long distance.

The Hilton Sandestin is breathtaking from the moment you walk inside. The lobby was updated this year; it’s modern, light, bright, and gives you an immediate view of the coast. Our room was on the 13th floor facing the beach, and the instant we walked in we were awestruck by our even better view of the beach. It was raining around us (which only lasted about 30 minutes, thankfully!) but even with the sun hidden away it’s a gorgeous vista.

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From our balcony (which the kids loved), we also had a great view of the property:

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There are two large pools, a hot tub, and a shallow toddler-friendly pool, too. See that dark green roof? That’s the Barefoot’s Beachside Bar & Grill, an open-air restaurant that you can eat at – you guessed it – barefoot. We really enjoyed eating here and I’ll tell you more about it later in this post. The green awning to the right of Barefoot’s houses an ice cream shop that we also enjoyed, and to the right of that is the indoor pool. There’s even more not captured in this photo, from ballrooms to other dining options, but this was the area which we frequented the most – it’s such a great setup for families!

Our room was equally impressive. It consisted of a kids’ area with BUNK BEDS (oh my word did the boys think that was cool!) and their own TV, a bathroom and separate vanity area, and then a large space with our bed, a living area and desk. And, of course, floor-to-ceiling windows with a sliding door out on to the balcony.

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The rooms in our part of the hotel were renovated in 2013, and it’s very apparent in how they’re decorated – clean and crisp, beachy and airy, they’ve achieved the perfect balance for a vacation destination. We loved the colorful pillows on the kids’ beds, and the beadboard-inspired bedframes (complete with an awesome porthole on the bottom bunk that I managed to just crop out of the photo above (whoops!). And did I mention they had their own TV? They loved watching cartoons in the morning while Brian and I got ready, and they each claimed one of the shelves below to house their books and toys.

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As you can see below, they really nailed the design for the rooms. The peaceful blue on the walls with some light green accents was serene and so relaxing. We loved the little beverage center – and as parents of a toddler, we used this as a place to charge our electronics out of her reach, so that ended up being pretty great too.

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The living area was really nice, too – we enjoyed sitting on the couch and looking out the windows, and it really made the space feel like a home away from home, and the chest under the TV was great for storing our things.

If you’re looking to travel with your family like we did, you’ll appreciate this – there was a standard bathroom, but there’s also a separate vanity area with a sink, which allows for multiple people to get ready at the same time and was a really smart setup.

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Oh, and did I mention the amazing views? :)

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We spent most of our time in Destin outside, though. We checked in around 4:30 in the afternoon, and by 5:30 we were out on the beach.

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The next day we reserved an umbrella and chairs ($40 for the day, and totally worth it – I’d highly recommend it!) by calling the beach shack, and we set up camp with all our beach gear so we could get started playing early in the day.

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The beach for the Hilton Sandestin is great, too, because it’s not overrun like public beaches can be. It’s also serviced by staff that can bring food and drinks straight out to your umbrella – and boy did we enjoy some cold lemonade mid-afternoon! We did venture off the beach just a few yards to eat lunch at Barefoot’s. It was so easy because we could leave most of our things down at our umbrella and go as we were to eat. You can see in the photo below the green roof; that’s how close it was. Love that!

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It’s a bright, airy space with views straight out to the water, and the food is delicious, too. I couldn’t get over the variety of things they offered.

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The top left photo above is a salad with sesame-coated tuna; the bottom photo is the best patty melt I’ve ever had, and the photo on the right is delicious chicken quesadillas. The kids really enjoyed their food, too, which is crucial when they need plenty of energy to play on the beach some more!

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After a lot more playing and dinner back at Barefoot’s, we went out to the beach at sunset to read and relax a little before playing in the pool. This is one of my favorite memories of our time here.

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We spent time at the outdoor & indoor pools, too – the kids loved them!

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I can’t even convey how much we adored our time at the Hilton Sandestin. It was everything you’d want a beach vacation to be. Everything was gorgeous, the staff was friendly, it was convenient and completely relaxing. We didn’t want to leave, and the kids already asked if we can go back next summer. If you’re looking for a place to travel with your family, this is it.

Be sure and keep up with the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa on Facebook & Twitter

Beauty & History Combine at the Battle House in Mobile, Alabama

Note: We received a reduced media rate to facilitate our review. All opinions are honest and are our own. 

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When we embarked on our first big road trip as a family of five, I knew I wanted to stay at hotels that would be kid-friendly, but still places that Brian and I would enjoy staying, too. I’ve been teased that I’m a “hotel snob” because I am pretty picky about where we stay. My thought is this: vacation is an escape, and I want the places we stay to serve as restful retreats, not punctuations of meh along the way.

We really set the bar high with the first place we stayed – the Battle House Renaissance Hotel & Spa in Mobile, Alabama.

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When we pulled up to the hotel it was 10:00 at night and raining, but we could still see through the rain that this historic building is stunningThe uprights really highlight the architecture of the building, and it feels special from the start.

There’s parking around in the way of garages and some metered spots, but since it was late and wet we decided to splurge on valet parking. I walked up to check in and was greeted with two friendly faces, letting me know they were available to help us if we had any questions or needed anything. Atmosphere is important at hotels, but staff can make or break the experience – and the Battle House has staff that obviously care about guests and enjoy what they do.

We stayed on the 7th floor in a suite at the end of a hallway, a perfect location for our potentially loud brood. I loved our suite. Loved. The living area was roomy with a loveseat (which folds out into a bed), armchair, coffee table, and armoire topped with a TV; it also had a desk and closet – there was plenty of room to spread out!

The kids watched some cartoons the next morning while Brian and I finished packing up our things:

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Love how elegant and seamless the office space is to the living area:

 

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Our room was gorgeous: floor-to-ceiling curtains and a big, plush bed with a mirrored headboard. Luxurious and serene – perfect for the start of our vacation.

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And don’t even get me started about the bathroom. HUGE. A shower and a deep soaker tub, and a pretty vanity. Our whole family could fit in there all at once (and let’s be honest – with kids, you’re never going to be in the bathroom alone anyway so having some extra space is appreciated).

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Obviously the hotel was a hit for Brian and I, but the kids loved it too. They each got an activity book with stickers:

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Another thing they loved? Going in and getting breakfast (free, with the level we stayed on). They drank juice out of coffee mugs  “like Dad” and had fun picking out which cereal and pastries they wanted. I loved that there was fresh fruit and yogurt available, too. It was a nice variety, and it meant that there was something for everyone in our family to enjoy.

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As we left the hotel, I showed the boys some of the architecture in the lobby. The ceiling is breathtakingly beautiful and the history of the building shines through all the details.

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See the woman in the last photo walking toward us? She is Emilie, an awesome Battle House employee that came over and told us about a really cool part of the hotel – the whispering arch. And not only did she tell us about it, she walked up with us to show the boys. She had J stand at one side of the arch, and then C stood at the other side, many feet away. When they whispered into a channel of the arch, they could hear each other as if they were standing a foot apart. They thought this was so cool, and I was incredibly impressed that Emilie went out of her way to show us the feature. She also took us to see the Tiffany ceiling in the dining area – yet another gorgeous feature:

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We would definitely stay here again. It is high-end, but you can often find deals on the rooms that make it an affordable place to stay. They even offer free wifi, which is still a rarity in many 3- and 4-star hotels. The historical element makes it unique and special, and I honestly don’t have anything negative to say about the property or our stay there.

Keep up with the Battle House on Facebook, or click here to go ahead and book your room now – you know you want to!