Posts Tagged ‘Traveling with Kids’

Yosemite National Park

December 3, 2009

For many of us, the photographs of Ansel Adams are the first experience we have with Yosemite National Park.  Ansel’s masterful use of light and shadow provide a window into a place of epic beauty.  As a result of these photographs, Ansel Adams became one of the world’s most renowned photographers.

In September, our family vacation took us to see Yosemite firsthand and the experience gave me a new perspective on Ansel’s work.  His pictures are wonderful, but I’m not sure he deserves all the reverence and accolades he has received?   Yosemite is one of the most jaw-slackingly beautiful places on Earth.  If you can’t fire off a couple of attractive pictures of the Half Dome or El Capitan, it’s because you suck and it’s irresponsible of you to own a camera.  It’s just my observation.  You can take it or leave it.

Beautiful Yosemite

I didn’t do a lot of actual research in preparation for our trip to Yosemite.  Instead, I did a lot of excited bragging.  Any time I’d tell someone we were going to Yosemite they’d start talking about the giant trees; one in particular.  “You can drive through one of them,” they’d say.  “You gonna drive through the giant tree?”

“Yes, absolutely I am!”  I got excited about driving through a tree.  I was willing to go out of my way for it.  I told my two-year old about the drive-through tree.  I described to him the concept of a tree big enough to drive a car through.  He was excited about it too.  Sadly, a couple of days before we were due to arrive in the park, we learned that the drive-through tree had given up and fallen over.

It fell over in 1969!  How is it, in the much-lauded information age, it has taken 40 years for the news of the Great Tree Collapse of 1969 to reach us in Ontario?  For forty years Ontarians have been suffering under the delusion that glamorous people are motoring through trees in Yosemite and its’ just not the case.  Never mind, I’m still a little bitter but I’ll get over it.

We arrived in Yosemite intending to take the Tioga Pass and drive through the park to Mammoth Lakes where a comfortable bed awaited us.  We hoped for a leisurely drive, filled with dazzling sites and plenty of stops along the way.  We reached the park gate and learned that our plan had hit a snag.

“The roads closed,” the man in the box told us.  “It’s been closed for the past two weeks because of a wildfire.  It’s supposed to open up at 5 o’clock today.”

A wildfire!  How inconvenient.  I did a little post mortem research on the fire with startling results.  The Big Meadow Fire, as it came to be known, was the result of a prescribed burn gone wrong.  It was purposely started on August 26, 2009 with the intent to burn 90 acres but it changed direction right off the bat and raged out of control.  In the end, it had consumed 7,425 acres and cost $16.3 million USD to fight.  Woops.

Our Little Naturalist

Well, at least Yosemite is an easy place to kill time.  There is plenty of hiking to be done, and there are plenty of educational exhibits to be visited.  We enjoyed ourselves and then, shortly before 5:00 p.m. we made our way to the road closure to join the other tourists waiting to make their way to the Tioga Pass.

Five o’clock came and went.  Impatient Europeans paced back and forth along the road, wondering what the holdup was.  I joined them.  Pace, pace, pace, what’s taking so long?  They’ve had two weeks!  What could they possibly be doing to take an extra 20 minutes…an extra 40 minutes?  You know the kind of ludicrous impatience that can develop when a group of strangers are waiting for something that’s behind schedule; an airplane to take off, a road to open.  You know.

The road did, eventually, open and as we drove, we realized the magnitude of the fire that had delayed us.  We saw acre upon acre of, still smoking, white ash covered ground.  Sooty, tired looking firefighters were cleaning up their tools.  The smell that hung in the air was the, normally pleasant, scent of campfires but magnified about 1,000,000 times, it became sickening and gave me a headache.

We drove out of the fire zone and through the Tioga Pass, which provided vista after vista of startling beauty.  It’s seems surreal that views like that exist on Earth.  Nature is often configured in some startling and awe-inspiring ways.

Awe Inspiring Vistas

It was dark by the time we reached our hotel in Mammoth Lakes.  A man who, I’m assuming from his attire, was a Jimmy Buffet fan, handed us a key to a 1980’s time capsule of a room and warned us that bears hang out in the hotel parking garage.  I didn’t care anymore.  I wanted a Big Mac and my bed.  I was wiped out.

Just a Quick Update

September 5, 2009

Our Tom Tom died died, piece of crap crap that it was.  It prompted an emergency trip to WalMart for a new GPS receiver.

We spent the better part of the day driving up Pacific Coast Highway 1.  It was gob smackingly beautiful.  Many times so-called scenic drives end up being a disappointment, but this was honestly some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever seen.  We saw mountains, the ocean, vineyards and wild elephant seals.  It was so, so worth the drive.

We are staying in the Hilton in San Jose, the heart of Silicon Valley.  I love staying with Hilton.  It’s always a cut above the average.  Liam was a very good boy to sit patiently in the car all day so he was rewarded with a swim in the hotel pool.  I used the fitness room so we all had some exercise to work off the Carl’s Jr we had for supper.

We’re off to San Francisco today.  I’ll update again in a few days.

A Postcard From The Road

September 4, 2009
Venice Beach

Venice Beach

Hello from Santa Monica!

We’re having a great time.  The flight went well.  Liam did his very best to be patient but came to hate the seatbelt light above his head.  When we finally got off the plane he just kept giggling and exclaiming “We did it!  We did it!”

We’re zipping around the west coast in a brand new Ford Focus.  It’s a good little car.  It’s big enough for us and our luggage but still small enough to be really good on gas; which is good because they apparently don’t like to sell gas to foreigners.  Never mind, I’m just griping.

We spent our first night it Las Vegas.  What an amazing city!  It’s just a complete sensory overload.  I just about short-circuited.  We stayed at the New York New York Hotel and Casino.  It was an absolutely massive hotel, but every hotel on the Vegas strip is an absolutely massive hotel.

The next morning we got up and headed straight to LA.  Actually, we headed straight into an hour long traffic jam.  That was awful.  Once we were free of the traffic jam we just kept following the wild fire smoke into California and fought traffic the whole way to Santa Monica.  Duncan was very annoyed that California drivers don’t reserve the left lane for passing.  He kept muttering away about the lack of lane discipline.

Needless to say, I was more than ready for a beach day yesterday.  I had a headache I just couldn’t shake and I needed to relax.  We spent the day at Venice beach.  The beach is so peaceful and relaxing, it gives you no indication of the wackiness you encounter once you hit the street.  I’ll tell you all about it when we get back.

Today we went into Hollywood and did the Hollywood tourist stuff.  Liam was terrified by a guy in a Darth Vader costume on Hollywood Blvd.  He’s still talking about it.

Anyway, I’ll post pictures and more details later.  Tomorrow we’re going for a very long, scenic drive along the coast from LA to Santa Clara.  It should be good, as long as Liam takes a nap.

Wally Bronner, You’re My Hero

August 21, 2009

Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland is to me, what Tiffany’s was to Holly Golightly.  “Nothing bad could ever happen to you there.”

Bronner's CHRISTmas Wonderland

Bronner's CHRISTmas Wonderland

You can walk through the doors of the world’s biggest Christmas store, on a hot day in August, and drift away into a holiday haze.  A soundtrack of your favourite Christmas tunes follows you as you meander your way through two-football fields worth of sparkling, glittering ornaments, trees, and trimmings.

This was our second visit to Mr. Bronner’s masterpiece and this time I had a plan.  The first time we shopped at Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland we were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the place.  The number and variety of ornaments is dazzling.  Every interest or occupation or motif you can think of, Bronner’s will have an ornament to suit.  Prior to this trip, I visited the website and honed in on my areas of interest.  Like last year, we went into our shopping trip with the intent to each purchase one special ornament.  This year, Duncan got a log cabin with a red roof, because it looked a bit like our house.  Liam debated between a sparkly elephant and a John Deere Tractor.  In the end he chose the tractor.  I got a pop-up trailer and had it customized to say Cottage On Wheels on the top.

Cottage On Wheels

Cottage On Wheels

Not Sure if it's Daddy or Not

Not Sure if it's Daddy or Not

They have, pretty well, everything you might want for Christmas; including Santa suits.  Duncan went behind a shelving unit and came out wearing a Santa hat and beard.  Liam wasn’t sure what to think.  It was as if he was almost sure it was Daddy, but didn’t want to trust his intuition.  As soon as Duncan took the costume off, Liam thought it was tremendously funny.

When we got back to the trailer Liam grabbed his favourite blanky (also John Deere) and stuck it in his mouth so it spilled down like a beard.  He announced, “look Mommy, I’m blanky Santa”.  Very imaginative, I thought.

Blanky Santa

Blanky Santa

Year Round Christmas Displays @ Bronner's

Year Round Christmas Displays @ Bronner's

We were staying at Jellystone Park, right across the road from Bronner’s, so once it was dark; we went back over to see the Christmas light display that’s set up year round.  The lights and displays were lovely and fun to see in shorts and a tee shirt.  We had the dog with us that time and she was thrilled.  She was absolutely positive that the sheep in the nativity were real.  She had to investigate and give them a good sniff.  Eventually she joined the nativity herself.  I’m fairly sure there was a small black and white dog by the manger when Jesus was born…can’t rule it out anyway.  When she realized that she couldn’t herd the sheep she got bored and we left.  No harm done.

An Addition to the Display

An Addition to the Display

I’m already planning our next shopping trip.  I’m going to need a shot of Christmas next summer too.

Don’t Forget Your Pic-A-Nic Basket Boo Boo

August 20, 2009
Posing with Yogi

Posing with Yogi

Have you ever wanted to take a vacation in one of your favourite cartoons?  Try this on for size.

We spent two nights at Frankenmuth Jellystone Park, which is part of the Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp Resorts chain.  This was the first experience I’ve had with this chain of parks.  Actually, it was the first I’ve heard of this chain of parks.  There are more than 70 Jellystone Park locations but only 5 of them are in Canada, the rest are in the U.S.  I guess that’s why I was so clueless.

At $55 a night, it was a little pricey for a campground but, in exchange for the extra ten bucks, you’re getting a great location.  Jellystone is right across the road from the world’s largest Christmas store and is, literally, walking distance to downtown Frankenmuth.  You don’t get that kind of convenience at most campgrounds.

I’m not going to lie to you; taken at face value, the campsites are very small.  Had the park been full, I think the sites would have been untenably small.  As it was, however, even on a weekend at the height of camping season, the staff was able to space the campers out with two or three sites between them and never backed one pop-up directly behind another.  This gave everyone plenty of space.  I’m actually getting used to the fact that most vacation parks have smaller campsites than government parks.  As long as everyone respects each other, it works out fine.

The park has a variety of amenities including a fantastic mini-golf course, a playground, free wi-fi, and a fantastic store with all sorts of cool souvenirs.  There’s a snack bar serving hot food and ice cream.  The park shows Yogi Bear cartoons in the morning and family friendly movies in the evening.  There’s a recreation hall where there are crafts and activities planned everyday.  Yogi himself can be spotted in the park at different times through the day and there are Yogi statues scattered around, just begging to be posed with.

Liam loved the indoor pool and declared that he “can swim now”.  His father and I disagree.  I’d call it floating around in a PFD holding onto Daddy for dear life.  He’s obviously becoming more comfortable with the water, though.  He’s doing just fine for a two year old.

Look!  You're Floating!

Look! You're Floating!

Here’s a heads up about an unusual rule.  There’s a Frankenmuth city ordinance that requires a campsite fire be contained in a fireplace that is one foot off the ground.  The flames cannot exceed two feet high.  If you don’t have a fireplace and you’d still like a fire, there are community fire pits, in the park, that can be shared among the campers.  Fires must be extinguished by 11:00 p.m.

There really isn’t much I can criticize about Frankenmuth Jellystone Park.  The staff made sure we had a good time.  I can’t say enough about how friendly and welcoming they were at Jellystone.  There’s no shortage of things to do without ever leaving the park and when it’s time to go site seeing you’re a hop, skip and a jump away from everything Frankenmuth has to offer.

Now that I know about the Jellystone chain I’ll be on the lookout for them.

Frankenmuth: Michigan’s Little Bavaria

August 18, 2009

Frankenmuth is home to the all-you-can eat fried chicken dinner.  It’s impossible to leave that town with a healthy digestive system.  I love it there, but it’s probably a good thing we only go once a year.

The Cottage Crew @ Zehnder's Restaurant

The Cottage Crew @ Zehnder's Restaurant

That's Some Good Lookin' Chicken

That's Some Good Lookin' Chicken

There are a couple of popular spots, in Frankenmuth, for family style all-you-can-eat dinners.  The gang from the cottage reconvened at Zehnder’s Restaurant.  It’s a good idea to wear you’re Thanksgiving pants if you’re going there.  Zehnder’s is the largest, family owned, restaurant in America with seating for 1,500 people.  They had no problem accommodating our group of eleven.  The service was friendly and fast and the food was delicious, as always.  We sat there and ate for two solid hours.  I got the chicken sweats a couple of times, but it was so good.

The next day, Duncan, Liam and I tried the competition across the street.  The Bavarian Inn Restaurant was comparable to Zehnder’s in price, menu, quality and service.  I got the impression Zehnder’s is more likely to accommodate a large group.  I believe both restaurants are actually owned by the Zehnder family…but don’t quote me on that.  The meal was good but as it was our second all-you-can-eat dinner in as many days; I ruptured something important and had to stop eating, or die.  I did get to hear Eleanor Rigby on an accordion, though.

Covered Bridge in Frankenmuth

Covered Bridge in Frankenmuth

Now, there’s more to Frankenmuth than the food.  It’s not called Michigan’s Little Bavaria for nothin’.  The architecture and style of the whole city is reminiscent of a German fairy tail.  It’s very tempting to lose yourself in the whimsy of it all.  Some of the town’s highlights include (but are not limited to) a covered bridge, a glockenspiel and innumerable shops, hotels and businesses all built with the Bavarian aesthetic in mind.

The Frankenmuth Clock Company is a great place to stop and examine the craftsmanship that goes into making a good cuckoo clock.  It’s also a funny and noisy place on the hour.

Cuckoo Clocks

Cuckoo Clocks

The Kids Watching the Riverboat on the Cass River

The Kids Watching the Riverboat on the Cass River

If quaint modes of transportation are your thing, you may be interested in taking a cruise on the Bavarian Belle Riverboat or in taking a horse-drawn carriage ride down Main Street.  I haven’t done the carriage ride, but we did do the Bavarian Bell last year.  It was cool because I was able to cross ‘ride a riverboat’ off the list of things I wanted to do in life.

Whether you’re shopping for fancy cheese, fresh fudge or a pair of lederhosen, Frankenmuth has it all.  But, if you’re not tired of shopping, it’s only a short trip to the Prime Outlets at Birch Run.  The outlet centre is home to over 140 stores all prepared to set you up with some bargains.  You can spend a whole day there…if your husband will let you.

I know you’ve noticed that I haven’t said a word about Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland.  That’s because it’s too awesome to talk about now.  I’ll tell you all about it later.  I’ll also let you in on the pros and cons of Frankenmuth Jellystone Park.  All in good time my friends.

Cottage in Cheboygan

August 17, 2009

Putting three small children together in a cottage was harder than anyone expected.  They weren’t good at sharing but they were good at screaming.  We heard a lot of screaming.  There was so much screaming.  All hope of a relaxing cottage getaway was dashed with the first shriek of “No!  It’s mine!”  We adults spent the trip chasing kids and dogs but I guess that’s what parents are for.

Huntin' for Critters

Huntin' for Critters

The best strategy was to keep the kids busy.  Uncle Fred went hunting for critters and came up a winner.  He caught a frog, which the kids were thrilled with, and came very close to catching a snake.  Snakes are mighty quick!

Three Kids Staring @ a Frog in a Bucket

Three Kids Staring @ a Frog in a Bucket

They played with trains and Play-Doh and bubbles; all of which kept them busy and fighting with each other.  They did behave pretty well on our shopping trips to Wal-Mart.  The best place in all of Cheboygan is the Wal-Mart Supercenter; groceries and bargains under one roof.

We cooked together and shared the cost of food, feasting on such childhood delicacies as hotdogs, Kraft Dinner and Hamburger Helper.  We don’t regularly eat that way, but it was a yummy retrospective on the food I loved as a kid.

The grown-ups got some down-time in the evening, when the kids fell asleep.  We played a bunch of games of both the board and video persuasion.  We managed enough time to work in, among other things, a six hour game of Risk and a complete round-robin Bomberman tournament.

Just Look @ the Concentration as They Battle Through the Bomerman Final

Just Look @ the Concentration as They Battle Through the Bomberman Final

Frolicking in the Water

Frolicking in the Water

I think the best day for adults and kids alike, was the day we went to the beach at Cheboygan State Park.  The kids had fun running around, playing in the sand and splashing in the water.  The big boys had fun digging a big hole.  They called it an engineering project, to make it seem like they were doing something more important than they really were.  The beach, on Duncan Bay in Lake Huron, was lovely and sandy with nice, clear warm water that stayed shallow quite a distance out.  It costs $8.00 for an out of state car to enter the day use area but we found a public road that ended 200 metres away from the beach, so we parked for free and walked in.

That's Some Big Hole!  Well Done.

That's Some Big Hole! Well Done.

After the beach, we were all out of ideas and the kids were still at each other’s throats.  We decided to call it quits at the cottage and head down to Frankenmuth for some shopping and chicken.

The Cottage Crew

The Cottage Crew

The cottage is beautiful and in a lovely and private location.  Maybe next year the kids will get along better and everyone will be able to relax.  It was a good idea to spend an extra day in Frankenmuth, anyway.  I’ll tell you about our stay there next time.

KO-eh!

August 13, 2009

I knew the minute we arrived, that I was going to like the KOA in Sault Sainte Marie.  I can never put my finger on what makes a first impression, but something about the place made me feel instantly safe, welcome and comfortable.

KOA in Sault Sainte Marie

KOA in Sault Sainte Marie

The KOA chain is like the McDonald’s of campgrounds in that you can expect uniformity in the standards and amenities at each location.  If you enjoy your stay at one KOA, it’s a good bet that you’ll enjoy others.  We saw that a number of campers arriving in Sault Sainte Marie, from great distances away, had chosen the KOA.  I assume because they knew what to expect.  I’ve been to McDonald’s on four continents and I can tell you that a Big Mac is a Big Mac the world over.  It’s the same deal with KOA, and there’s comfort in that certainty.

The grounds at the Sault Sainte Marie KOA are kept immaculately.  The hedges are trimmed and the gardens are blooming.  There’s a playground for little kids, and a playground for bigger kids and a playground for dogs.  For a small fee you can have a round of mini-golf.  They have a big screen TV in a shelter on the patio where campers can gather together and watch whatever event-TV may be happening that day; the big game, the big news story, the Michael Jackson funeral, whatever.  The store on the grounds is well stocked with camping essentials and souvenirs.  They have free wi-fi, hallelujah and some sites have cable TV hook-ups.

A Little Nervous to Begin With

A Little Nervous to Begin With

The amenity Liam liked most of all, was the heated swimming pool.  He went in with Daddy, to keep him safe, and gradually became more confident in the water.  It’s fantastic to have access to a campground pool.  I hope Liam will become comfortable with the water while he’s young.  Maybe he won’t be the water sissy I turned out to be.

The sites at the KOA aren’t big like you’d expect at a provincial park, but I would consider them big enough to be comfortable and, since the campground wasn’t at capacity, the campers were spread out enough to give us plenty of space and privacy.

We had a lot of fun in THE SOO and our trip was made better by having a comfortable jumping off point like the KOA.  I wouldn’t hesitate to use them again.

Banana Boats – The Fruity S’more

August 12, 2009

This is a Campfire Cookin’ idea that came from readers.  I had never heard of banana boats until I had two readers independently describe them to me.

When I first heard about them I thought the whole idea sounded kind of gross.  I wasn’t convinced that the banana would come out of the fire in an appetizing way.  I’m not a big banana fan under normal circumstances, so I had my doubts about a fire roasted one.  Well let me tell you, I tried them and I’ve changed my tune.  They’re fantastic.

Banana Boat on the Campfire

Banana Boat on the Campfire

Here’s a little rundown on how to make them.  Cut the ends off a banana and slice it, skin on, along the inside curve.  Fill the slit with alternating bits of marshmallow and chocolate.  Wrap the whole thing in foil and stick it in the fire for about 6 minutes, turning once.  Eat it straight out of the foil.  The banana skin forms a boat to contain the goo.

It Tasted Better than it Looked

It Tasted Better than it Looked

We made them twice on our most recent trip.  The first time we used squares of Dairy Milk.  Excellent choice.  It was nice and sweet and melted beautifully.  The second time we made them we were on the American side and we couldn’t find Dairy Milk.  We had to substitute squares of Hershey.  It didn’t work quite as well.  I found Hershey didn’t melt as nicely; in fact mine ended up burning slightly.  The banana boats also ended up with Hershey’s signature bitterness, which I am not fond of.  My advice to all of you out there (if you are indeed out there) is to experiment to find your favourite combination.  I will share a tip though.  We smothered the finished product in caramel sauce.  That made it magic!

THE SOO

August 11, 2009

It turns out that there’s plenty to do in THE SOO and we had no trouble filling our day there.

Whitefish Bay

Whitefish Bay

We started our day off by taking a drive because I had never seen Lake Superior.  We knew that the Edmund Fitzgerald would have “made Whitefish Bay if they’d put 15 more miles behind her” so we decided that was as good a place as any to stop and have a look.  As it happens the legend does indeed live “on from the Chippewa on down of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee”.  There, I’m done impressing you with my vast knowledge of Gordon Lightfoot ballads.

After a quick lunch at THE SOO mall we headed off to the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre.  It’s a nice little museum with lots of different planes and interactive displays.  We got to see one of the planes Uncle Ian flies.  Liam loves all modes of transportation, so he loved this museum.  It was a bit too exciting in fact and he ended up taking over many of the interactive displays by force.  He behaved rather badly all-in-all and put a bit of a damper on things for us.

DSC01187crop

We went to THE SOO locks because so many people had told us that it’s the thing to do when you go to THE SOO.  We watched the big tour boat go through.  Duncan found it interesting, but Liam and I lost interest.  Is it possible that I have the attention span of a two year old?

Trading Post in THE SOO

Trading Post in THE SOO

A must see for me was the Trading Post.  I just love trading posts; they’re so quirky and weird.  I didn’t find anything to buy…oh wait, that’s a lie.  I got ice cream.  I was allowed.  I was on vacation and you’re not going to make me feel guilty about it!  It was worth the stop if for no other reason than a photo op with the angry moose.

That's One Angry Moose

That's One Angry Moose

We had Italian food for dinner.  Duncan doesn’t like Italian food because he doesn’t like tomatoes, or pasta and that all but rules out the cuisine completely.  The reason we decided to have Italian food was that there isn’t really any other kind of food in THE SOO.  Unless you want a chain restaurant you will find that you’re pretty well limited to Italian eateries.  I didn’t mind.  I love Italian food and very rarely get to have it because of the above mentioned preferences of my darling husband.  I don’t remember the name of the place we ended up going, but apparently you can land a helicopter in the parking lot.  They know because it’s happened.

The conclusion I have drawn, from my one full day in Sault Sainte Marie, is that it’s a neat little city with plenty of things to see and do.  There’s more to do there if we pass that way again. I’d love to take the Agawa Canyon Tour Train in the autumn.  I’m sure we’ll be back again sometime.