Monday, September 18, 2017

What do Shopkins have to do with Stonehenge?

"Look, Mama! Shopkins Stonehenger!"

I glance over at my 6-year old who has taken all of his Shopkins and strategically placed them in a circle formation with Uno cards underneath to represent the cap stones.

I'm filled with pride, a giggle, and find myself a little misty-eyed at the sight.

We had arrived home from our spring break in the United Kingdom just 18 hours earlier.

Our Stonehenge adventure was something special. My husband and I had both been to London a number of times, but had never been out to see the ancient site. With mixed reviews from friends and family who had been, I wondered about putting it on our itinerary at all. "'s just a bunch of rocks, kind of anticlimactic."

Check out why it was anything but boring at We Said Go Travel.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Museums, Monuments, Memorials and More in Washington D.C.

Our nation's capital is definitely one of those cities where there's more to do than you could ever hope to get to in one, or even two, trips. You could spend a month between Washington D.C. and Baltimore and only scratch the surface of incredible historical, educational and fun sites and activities.

It definitely deserves a good deal of vacation planning and preparation.

But, you have to start somewhere.  And we only had four days.  Here was our plan of attack:

Day 1: Arlington National Cemetery, including Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the John F. Kennedy's Eternal Flame.
There are few places in the U.S. that deserve such reverence, respect and solitude.  My 7-year old proved to be a challenge from that regard, so consider the age (and how much sugar and caffeine your kids have had before going).  My 9-year old had no issues and understood the significance and gravity of this hallowed ground.  It helped that my history major husband had some great knowledge, not only about the wars themselves, but some of the heroes who rested there.  For future trips and older kids, hiring a guide could prove to be a very worthwhile investment.

White House:
If you want an actual tour of parts of the White House, you need to contact your US House Representative's office at least two months in advance.  This mama didn't do that, so we simply viewed it from the outside.

Washington Monument:
Easy walk from the White House.  It's currently closed as they are fixing the elevator to the top floor,
View from Lincoln Memorial down the Mall
but it is still an impressive site and an icon.

Smithsonian Museum of American History:
I remember it from 30+ years ago and visiting as an 8th grader.  Again, incredibly cool and iconic exhibits like the American flag that was first raised at Fort McHenry and even Indiana Jones' whip and trademark hat.  It deserves a refresh and update, though.  Luckily, it's free because it didn't hold my little ones' interest for very long.

Day 2:
The Mall: Lincoln, Jefferson, Korean War, Vietnam War and World War II Memorials
Awe-inspiring for sure, although my kids only appreciated the Lincoln Memorial as that's what they knew most about.  For me, the WWII Memorial was most moving as there were several Honor Flight veterans who were there, too.  And, how wonderful to see children (including my own) and adults, shake their frail hands and offer a "thank you" to these heroes of the greatest generation who had an almost "rock star" treatment - getting photos and videos with grateful strangers.  I'm glad I had glasses on because I teared up more than once.

Smithsonian Air & Space Museum:
I've been there four times, and I still love this place - the kids did, too!  Where else in the world can you touch a moon rock?  Not only incredible planes and space craft hanging from the ceiling, but some great interactive exhibits as well, including a space station.  This one has definitely held up over time.
Original Wright Brothers Plane, the only update is the fabric

Day 3:
Visited a friend in Baltimore and pool!  The kids were pretty tired by this point - walking all over DC and Williamsburg a few days before.  So, we cancelled our plans to go to the National Archives in favor of some time to visit with a dear friend, rest,  and enjoy a little pool time.  We took the train from DC's Union Station, which was a really fun experience, too.  We really love train travel (have also done so from Albany to NYC).  I will pen another post soon on the importance of banking at least a half-day of "downtime" particularly if your vacation is full of walking and sightseeing.

Day 4:
My husband and I split up - he took my 9-year old to the Spy Museum (which they both loved), and I took my younger son to the National Zoo.  And, sprinkle in some awesome people-watching, conversations and solidarity with the Pride Parade that was going on that day.  Alex was given a button and a purple-sequined hat by some beautiful people.  Another post coming on not having to do everything, all the time together during a vacation.  It was a great compromise for us!

Alex and his favorite animal

We took the Metro 90% of the trip, as we are huge fans of subways - and it was very inexpensive. Didn't eat anywhere too special, but we're not foodies and usually focus on some fairly healthy options for the kids at an Asian restaurant or Panera-type place. I could've researched some fun family-places more for this trip.

Still, there's soooo much more we could have done in D.C.  But we didn't cram in too much and it worked in our favor. Luckily, my husband has a conference there in two years, so we'll be back to explore it more. Hot on the list for next visit: National Archives, boat ride on the Potomac, Mt. Vernon and the American Indian Museum.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A European vacation without the trip across the Atlantic-Quebec

Want to do a "trial" European family vacation without crossing the Atlantic?  Head north to Quebec, Canada. Right now the U.S. dollar is very strong in Canada and it's a quicker flight than even the closest European cities.  Montreal, Mt. Tremblant (darling ski village - are you in Switzerland or Canada?) and Quebec City are full of fun for families of all ages.

My husband and I were fortunate enough to live in Montreal for a year and a half many years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed the culture, the people and the European-esque feel, particularly in the Old Town/Port (Vieux Port ), Notre Dame de Grace neighborhoods.  We are still good friends with many of the people we met while living there.

Brush up on your French.  It's still the main language, but in Montreal, everyone speaks perfect English.  I always enjoyed speaking my high school French while grocery shopping or in a restaurant, only to have someone reply in English - smack down!

In Old Town, meander through the cobblestone streets (St. Paul St. is great for restaurants and shopping) and imagine being in a town in France or Belgium.

The Montreal Subway is a great way to get around town.  It's easy to navigate and very reasonably priced.  Plus, you'll find the underground city, now known as RESO, that connects the stations with  restaurants, bars, shops, businesses, even a library and movie theater.  You can access almost any point downtown via this maze of tunnels.The bitter cold winters necessitated this great respite from the elements.

Right at the port, the young and old will delight at the Montreal Sciences Center - excellent exhibits and hands on activities.  For a more outdoor experience, Voiles en Voiles is a ropes course in a pirate ship - there are zip lines, obstacle courses and climbing walls.

Get a View:
Hike or drive to the top of the city's namesake Mont Royal, and stop at St. Joseph Oratory, a beautiful Church dedicated to St. Joseph. the grounds are lovely, and there is a creche museum, featuring beautiful "birth of Christ" renditions from all over the world.  It's a great view as well.  And, for a higher look at the city, check out the old Parc Olympique, home of the 1976 Summer Olympics, where you can ride a funicular up to the top of the Montreal Tower, the iconic angled tower.  Nick and I once did a 10k race through Montreal and the finish line was in the Olympic Stadium which was really cool.

Come hungry:
Atwater Market is a culinary cornicopia of vendor stalls filled with fresh produce, flowers, pasteries, meats and cheeses.  There are restaurants around the periphery of the market, so you can eat on-the-spot as well take home some amazing local food.  I wouldn't call myself a foodie, but this is a must-do destination and a feast for the eyes, ears and nose.

You can also pop in a bakery for a baugette, crave a crepe (Chez Cora is our favorite - several locations and enormous crepes), find a fondue restaurant, or polish off some poutine, Quebec's unofficial official dish.  And, St. Viateur is famous for their amazing bagels, after all, you'll walk it off through this very strollable town.

Head North:
There are the most charming ski towns just northwest of Montreal - you'll feel like you're in Europe. During the winter and parts of spring, winter activities abound at Mt. Tremblant (the biggest town), but St. Sauveur and Mont Olympia are darling and great for beginners.  In the summer, many of them have zip line courses, alpine slides, water sports and other outdoor activities.

Now Head Northeast:
Quebec City is perhaps the most European-like town in North America.  It's teeming with history and gorgeous architecture, and is the only walled city north of Mexico. Simply wandering its streets is an experience in itself.  Take in the views of and from the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac - a castle-looking fortress that sits on top of a hill overlooking the St. Lawrence River.  Staying there will cost you, but at least walk up the hill to enjoy the picturesque vista and enjoy a cafe au lait.

And the exquisite Musee National des Beaux-Arts is a great history lesson in the of art and culture of Quebec.

I've seen really good airfares to Canada recently.  U.S. adults do need a passport, but those 16 and under can use birth certificates.  Best to check for sure before you travel.

I love Canada no matter the province  -- I have been lucky to live in Quebec and travel to British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia.  Quebec is unlike any other place in North America.  If you want to save money, or not travel quite as far and still experience a European adventure, it's a an excellent surrogate and unique destination.

Bon voyage!

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Indiana - Where the Bison Roam

With respect to Brewster Higley who wrote the lyrics to "Home on the Range", buffalo don't and haven't ever roamed in North America.  But, bison have for thousands of years (buffalo are the mammals in Asia and Africa), and were named the national mammal of the United States in 2016. So, we decided to celebrate Fourth of July weekend by seeing some bison in their natural habitat in northwest Indiana at Kankakee Sands Preserve, about 1 hour, 45 minutes northwest of Indianapolis.

The Nature Conservancy purchased the 7,200 acres at Kankakee Sands about twenty years ago. It was once one of the largest marshes in North America, but the natural habitat was stripped and turned into farmland at the turn of the 20th century.  The Conservancy has preserved as much of the original land as possible and restored the rest by planting native grasses and flowers to resemble the prairie land that once was home to thousands of flora and fauna not seen in decades.

In fact, there is a bison jumping over a log on the Indiana State Seal.  However, the Governor's website still calls it a buffalo.

What makes their conservation of this area so unique is that they introduced a herd of bison to the field in November 2016.  The bison are a keystone species which means that other specials in an ecosystem largely depend on them.  A great infographic by The Nature Conservancy explains it. They are also the largest land mammal in North America.

There are now 32 bison, with several calves born this spring.  They are thriving in the land as it was hundreds of years ago.

Unfortunately, the bison were too busy munching on grass far away from the trails and lookout points, so all we saw were some puffs of dark brown in the distance.  However, a volunteer with the Nature Conservancy gave us some background on them, answered our questions and let us touch some of the hair that they had rubbed off on tree stumps, which felt more like cotton than wool.

Still, the area is beautiful and there are grasses and flowers that I haven't seen before.  You could almost see the oxen-pulled covered wagons across the prairie.

We saw a couple of copper colored lizards racing around, too.  Other than a short trail that runs alongside the parking lot, there's no other vantage point to see them, which was a bit of a disappointment.  They are enclosed by a 8 or 9 foot fence with electric on it.  And, signage makes it clear not to jump in with the bison.
Although we were bummed not to see the bison up close, we had another stop on the way back to Indy to see some other mammals native to the United States. We headed to Wolf Park in BattleGround, about 10 minutes from Lafayette.

Established as a research and education center, Wolf Park has wolves, coyotes and foxes.  As wolves have a 1/2 mile long flight distance (the distance they want to flee from seeing a human), it was difficult to do research on them (before the days of wifi, wireless cameras and GPS).  So, they hand raise the pups from 10-weeks old so that they are acclimated to humans.

A guide took around their grounds for a 45-minute tour, describing their habits, how they are raised and their care.

And lo and behold, they also have a herd of bison!  These guys were a lot closer and you could see the big male and a couple of copper-colored babies.  So, all was not lost on our quest to see bison on our adventure!

Wolf Park was just the right about of talking and walking to keep my boys interested. They also have a small education center and gift shop.  They do a lot of seminars and lectures about wolves and other canines.  And, I'd like to go back for their Howl Nights, when you get to go and listen to their trademark sound and learn more about this behavior.  It was great to see these gorgeous creatures in a natural habitat.

We capped off our day with a visit to the Triple XXX Family Restaurant in West Lafayette - great burgers and shakes, and best of all, their homemade root beer.  

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Traveling Back in Time - Colonial Williamsburg

Despite his travels all over the world, my husband's most requested destination over the last twenty years has been Colonial Williamsburg, and some how we haven't made our way there yet. However,in planning our recent trip to Washington D.C., we decided to take a short diversion to check it out (about a 2.5 hour drive from the City).

Perhaps it's my renewed interest in colonial times thanks to my obsession with BBC favorite Poldark, or seeing Nick's enthusiasm about going, but I was excited to don my bonnet and petticoat and travel back 300 years.

Prices were a little steep - although similar to a day at an amusement park - with $25.99 ($12.49) for kids) for access to just four sites and the grounds and $40.99 ($20.49 for kids) for access to everything.  My only regret is not renting costumes for the boys to wear around.  You can rent costumes for kids and adults at the vistor's center to get a more authentic experience.

After checking out the visitor's center and getting our tickets, we ventured out to see the early settlers in their tradtional 1700s town.

With just a day to explore, we opted just to walk the grounds and historic areas, watching tradesmiths artfully execute their crafts and touring the homes and buildings.

The guides in the houses were wonderful teachers and captured the attention of both the adults and children, providing great history and details without it feeling like a lesson.  Of course, the kids were most fascinated by chamber pots and grossing out at the prospect of using them!

In one house, they had set up traditional Colonial children's toys, wooden spools and wollen balls (like mini bowling), the ball and cup game and some other items.  Our boys quickly made two friends and they spent about 20 minutes on the floor creating their own versions of the games, giving me pause to consider tossing out all electronics and noisemaking toys in lieu of spurring imagination with rudimentary toys (although I'm guessing 20 minutes may have been their limit of not having legos or ipads to play with).

Most of the people who perform the traders are masters in their art.  You can purchase jewelry made by the silversmiths; buy ginger cakes and baked goods from the bakery that still uses a wood fire oven.  Most of them do a beautiful job explaining how they create their wares and engaging the kids. Some of them stay in complete character the entire time.

My 9-year old really enjoyed seeing a demonstration of a musket being fired and the blacksmith explaining how they would fashion tools and other items with the traditional forge.

A highlight was a kids area where they could play games that Colonial children would've played, making marbles out of clay, blowing bubbles,a hay maze and even milking a fake cow.,

There are several interactive programs and sessions as well. They have an area where kids can be "archeologists in training" at a site that housed a store of some kind.  They are digging up the basement to determine what the store sold. You can also watch a trial, Or, put your kids in the public stocks.  Nate the Adventurer had something to say about that...

To be honest, our trip planning wasn't the best for this leg of our journey.  I would've been better off determining a plan of attack to make the most of our day in lovely Williamsburg.  Instead, we loosely followed their map as we walked along, going into the various shops and buildings as we came to them.

I would also make reservations for their restaurants.  We had quite a wait for lunch.

Still, it made for a very nice day and a living museum offers a unique experience and great memory for the boys.  And, we walked in the same footsteps as many of our nation builders like Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and James Madison, can't get much closer to history than that.

And perhaps my 9-year old said it best.  He felt like he had "traveled back in time", which is probably as good a complement as a historical site could ever get.

Monday, May 22, 2017

In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

My first overseas experience  - studying for a summer in Japan - was a life changing experience.  Although my family had traveled extensively in the U.S. and Canada before that trip, I'd never traveled alone and never been in a country outside of North America.

I got lost a lot that summer in Japan, but it helped me become more self-reliant and self-confident.  That trip incited my love of travel and discovering new cultures and lands.

One of my favorite travel sites, We Said Go Travel, published a piece I wrote about me being directionallly-challeneged and how in getting lost, I was found.