Friday, September 1, 2017

I Left My Heart in Houston

Full color photo on a cloudy day

Ever since I took my Girl Scout troop on a trip to Houston at the beginning of August, I've been meaning to tell you about it. But this isn't the happy post I was planning on writing. With all the catastrophic flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey this week, that fun trip seems like it happened an eternity ago.

Houston is my hometown. It's where I grew up. It's where I went to university. I met and married my husband there. He's a Houston boy, too. My parents and in-laws are there. My mom-in-law was born in Houston back in the 1940's and has witnessed so much change in that time. Thankfully, they've been spared from the flooding. My husband's aunt and all his cousins have not been as fortunate. Their homes may be flooded, but at least they are safe.


Houston keeps reinventing itself.
The very cool McGovern Centennial Park is only 3 years old.

Houston has been through hurricanes and floods before. Houston is strong. Houston will recover.
But my heart is breaking seeing all the photos on Facebook from my friends and family there. I wish I could be there to help. These past few days, my mind has been in Houston. If the roads are passable, we're driving there over this upcoming long holiday weekend. Then, I can be there both in body and spirit.

I strongly believe that travel is an important component of personal development. It expands your world view and lets you experience first-hand how other live. However, I don't think you necessarily need to grab a passport to get the benefits. Sometimes, all you need to do is hop in a car and drive to a place that's different than wherever you call home. That's why I wanted to take my troop of 11- and 12-year-old girls to Houston which is a mere 3-4 hour drive from Austin, Texas where we live. We hit different parts of the city — not just the pretty, visitors bureau-approved sites.


One of the many chemical and petroleum refineries in Houston

Unlike the rolling terrain of the Texas Hill Country that extends west of Austin, Houston is flat. Flat as a pancake flat. Back in university, I was driving around Houston with my friend from Pennsylvania. As we reached the top of one of its massive freeway interchanges, she looked at the landscape surrounding us and commented, "Wow. I didn't realize just how flat Houston is." All that flatness makes it hard for Houston to drain. I never saw a rushing river when I grew up in that town. Just miles of lazy bayous and creeks.

Houston is flat.
McGovern Centennial Garden in Herman Park


On our troop trip, we stopped on the west side of town to pick up delicious and cheap food from The Original Marini's Empanada house. That restaurant is now just beyond the edge of the Mandatory Evacuation Zone a full one week after the torrential hurricane rains started falling. Our little caravan continued east on the Westpark Tollway heading into town. At one point in the drive, the road dipped down under another freeway, and the other chaperone commented on the flood level marker by the side of the road. These handy rulers let you know how deep the water. Looking at how it reached up to 14 feet high, she asked in disbelief if it ever got that bad. In Austin, the only problem areas during floods are low water crossings — never a main thoroughfare freeway. Thinking back to the 2015 Memorial Day Houston Flood, I assured her that it really was a danger. From photos that I've seen this past week, some roads must have had water 12 feet deep. I'm hoping that flood level marker saved a few lives. As they keep saying on the news, "Turn around. Don't drown."


Happy days feeding the sea gulls

The Girl Scout troop spent one day in Galveston Island. As part of their trip prep, I asked them what was the significant event that took place there in 1900. The answer is the Galveston Hurricane which still holds the record for deadliest natural disaster in US History. A 15-foot storm surge wiped out numerous buildings and homes on September 8, 1900, killing an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 people (counts vary). To guard against a similar calamity in the future, civil engineers came up with a plan to raise the city by 17 feet and constructed a seawall to protect against high waves. The design has, for the most part, protected Galveston, but it still endures floods when Category 4 or 5 hurricanes score a hit. For lunch, we stopped at Star Drug Store which was the first desegregated lunch counter in Galveston. The girls noticed that the high water mark of a more recent hurricane was a few feet above our heads. At the time, it was hard to imagine that much water inundating the island.


Looking out from  the top of the San Jacinto Monument at the Battleship Texas,
refineries and the Houston Shipping Channel.

On our last day, we headed out to the San Jacinto Monument which marks the battlefield where Texas won its independence from Mexico. Many people remember the Alamo which the Texian army lost, but few who are not required to study Texas history remember San Jacinto. The monument overlooks the Battleship Texas which last saw duty in World War II and the 50-mile-long Houston Shipping Channel. Our lunch table at the Monument Inn gave us practically front row seats to watch the massive container ships and barges making their way to and from the Port of Houston. The port is 25 miles long and is the busiest port in the USA measured by tons of foreign cargo. Most Volkswagons and Audis sold in North America are unloaded here. After lunch, we drove along the Pasadena Freeway which is lined with one petrochemical refinery after another. (It's also the opening sequence of John Travolta's Urban Cowboy movie.) We passed one small neighborhood which The New York Times had that weekend featured in its Daily 360 as "A Toxic Part of Texas" and called "one of the most polluted neighborhoods in America."


Pastries, cakes and bread from El Bolillo

Our last stop in Houston was El Bolillo bakery. What a place! Our eyes practically popped out of our heads at the self-serve display cabinets on every wall filled with Mexican pastries.  It felt like we had been transported to Mexico. We were the only non-Hispanics in the building, and the sound of Spanish filled the air. One girl from my troop asked how much the churros were, but the 6 weeks of Spanish instruction they had received last year in middle school was not enough for the troop to figure out what the employee replied. This very same bakery made the news during Huricane Harvey. Trapped inside the building for 2 days by flood waters, four employees kept their mind off their worries by baking 4,400 pounds (1996 kg) of flour into pan dulce (sweet breads). When the owner was finally able to rescue them, they brought the abundance of baked goodies to various emergency shelters in Houston. (The girls have wondered what happened to the tiny stray kittens we found in the parking lot. I have optimistically claimed that they've all been rescued.)


Underground passageway at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston

I feel like I left part of my heart in Houston. I spent last weekend worried about my family there, especially when Facebook posts by childhood friends mentioned a tornado that touched down a couple miles from my parents' home. One of my husband's cousins posted pictures of wading through chest high water to rescue their dog, and another one shared a video of rescuing their cats in a small boat. I'm hoping that we can be of help when we visit.

If you are looking for a way to aid the people who have been impacted all over Texas by Hurricane Harvey, please consider making a donation to my fundraiser page at Austin Disaster Relief Network. They are partnering with the Red Cross to provide immediate assistance to evacuees, and they also have a program to help with the long-term recovery of these hard hit areas.

Click here for Fundraiser page for Austin Disaster Relief Network


At the very least, I hope that you keep all the people who have been affected by this hurricane in your thoughts. 




It’s Your Turn, Link Up Your Newest Travel Inspiration




I've joined up as one of the co-hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration.
  1. Link one of your inspirational travel photos or stories to this post by adding your info.
  2. Copy and paste our badge and a link to this page.
  3. Visit some of the other wonderful travel bloggers, read their posts, and leave a comment.  It would be great if you could comment on 2-3 posts.
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  5. Follow all the hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration who are working hard to spread the word on what wonderful work travel bloggers are doing.
  6. Don’t forget to check out my amazing co-hosts and their pages: Reflections Enroute,  ContentedTravellerAlbom AdventuresSafari 254, and FamiliesGo.



I've also joined with the following linkups. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Finding Paradise in Hanalei

The little town of Hanalei

I know it sounds so trite, but I think I've found paradise. I shouldn't tell you where it is so that I can keep it a secret, but I can't help but share its name. It's a little town on Kauai's North Shore called Hanalei.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Grand Canyon of the Pacific

Stunning view from the Waimea Canyon Lookout

Every single person I know who visits Kauai, the oldest of the Hawaiian islands, can't help exclaiming over what a gorgeously scenic place it is. Of all the sites, Waimea Canyon is a standout. Nicknamed "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific," it is about 10 miles (16 km) long and 3000 feet (900 m) deep. The photo above doesn't do justice to this panoramic view. When in the midst of something so massive, a person can feel like just a speck. 

Gazing out from the lookout, I was in awe at the bevy of contrasts. Lush green vegetation is interspersed with bare areas revealing Kauai's trademark red dirt. Instead of the one long channel that I was expecting, it was a mix of numerous peaks and valleys.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Missiles, Mammoths and Mount Rushmore

Jefferson and Roosevelt are hiding from me

Have you ever been to Rapid City, South Dakota? Have you even heard of Rapid City? I only found out that this place existed when I began researching where we should stay while visiting the iconic Mount Rushmore. It turns out that it's a great base for a three-day exploration of some rather incredible sights from Ice Age mammoths to Cold War missiles.

Day 1

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

In sharp contrast to this year's headlines questioning why Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are so chummy with each other, step back in time to the Cold War era when the USA and USSR had nuclear missiles pointed at each other in a strategy called "Mutual Assured Destruction" (MAD). Translation: Whoever launches their missiles first dies second. 


Gazing down at a deactivated nuclear missile

Driving across the prairie, I would have never guessed at how much lethal power — the type that would bring catastrophe upon the human race — was hidden away from sight from 1963 to the 1990s. We took exit 116 off of I-90 and drove about a half mile to small, unassuming area surrounded by a chain link fence. A glass dome topped a 12 foot wide, 80 foot deep silo made of reinforced concrete and a steel plate liner. Inside it sat one of the 1000 Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles that were once spread across the plains.  Don't worry. It no longer contains its 1.2 ton nuclear warhead. If you want to do more than run out and snap a photo, there's a sign listing a phone number to call to listen to a recorded audioguide.

A visitors center is located on I-90 by the eastern edge of Badlands National Park. If you want to visit the underground Launch Control facility, you must make reservations ahead of time online or by phone.  Same day tours are not available.


Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is an otherworldly landscape that will make you feel like you're exploring some planet other than Earth. It was strange how the terrain was seemingly unremarkable and covered in grassland, then suddenly plunged down to reveal layered rock formations.


The Door Trail is an easy hike with a spectacular view.

Our first stop was the Ben Reifel Visitors Center to learn more about the area and see some of the fossils visitors have discovered while visiting the park. The Door Trail and Window Trail are both very easy hikes with the big payoff of a spectacular view. For lunch, we stopped at the Cedar Pass Lodge where I dined on hearty Sioux Tacos made of fluffy Indian fry bread, refried beans and bison meat. Afterwards, we slowly drove the 23-mile Badlands Loop Trail to the Pinnacles Entrance, taking time to stop at the many scenic viewpoints. If you see cars pulled over by the side of the road when there's no official viewpoint, they have probably spotted some of the park's wildlife including bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope and adorable prairie dogs.

To read more about our time at Badlands National Park, see Great Day in the Badlands and Badlands Door Trail: Short Hike with a Big View.


Wall Drug

It's hard to miss the numerous roadside signs pointing passerbys to quirky Wall Drug, an 80-year-old highway rest stop that now encompasses a whopping 76,000 square feet. This was our kids' reward for being good sports during our Badlands visit. My daughter's friends thought this place was a tourist trap, but my family liked it so much that we visited twice. 


Sit astride the jackelope

Cool off with ice cream or grab a goodie from the bakery.  If you want something more substantial there's burgers or pizza as well as a cafe restaurant. An animatronic T-rex roars to life every 15 minutes, and during the summer months, youngsters can splash in the Train Station Water Show. Pan for gold, try your hand at the shooting gallery or play the games in the video arcade. Most of all, there are more souvenirs than you can possibly imagine.  

For more information about Wall Drug, read Wonderfully Wacky Wall Drug.


Day 2

Mammoth Site of Hot Springs

How exciting would it be to watch paleontologist unearth a woolly mammoth from the ground? How about if it was 61 mammoths? That's why I call this place "The Old Mammoth Burial Ground." Go back in time at the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, located about an hour drive south of Rapid City. (Note: Do not confuse this with Yellowstone's Mammoth Hot Springs).


How many tusks can you spot? I see at least 3 pairs. 

Searching for fresh water and vegetation during the last Ice Age, animals were drawn to this 60-foot deep pond which was fed from below by a hot spring. Its steep sides trapped the animals within the pond where they died and were buried over the years by the sedimentation that eventually filled in the entire pond. While excavating for a housing development in 1974, people stumbled across these ancient bones. Now, the entire pit is sheltered by a climate controlled building. Active excavations take place every June and July, although the dig site is open year round for guided tours. The Exhibit Hall contains lifesize replicas of the different animals discovered at the Mammoth Site, and the laboratory has windows in the hallway so you can watch the scientists at work. There are also a limited number of spots in the Junior Paleontologist Excavation Program for kids 4-12 years old as well as an Advanced Paleontogist Excavation Program for people 10 years and older. If you're not doing the excavation program, allot 1-2 hours for this visit.

For more information,  see their website at http://mammothsite.com/.


Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave got its name from the wind that either blows out of or sucks into the cave opening due to changes in barometric pressure. This large cave is unusual because of its rare boxwork cave formations. While you can do the above ground hiking trails and nature walks on your own, entry into the cave is by guided tour only. 


Rare boxwork cave formations (Photo credit: National Parks Service Photo)

For more information, see the National Parks website. 


Needles Highway

Want to see cool rock formations without going underground? Take SD-87 North through Custer State Park (vehicle entrance fee required) to where the road turns west and starts twisting and turning. The 14 mile long Needles Highway has pig-tail shaped bridges, narrow rock tunnels and towering granite pinnacles with names like Cathedral Spires and Needle's Eye. At the end of the scenic highway, we did an easy hike around Sylvan Lake.


Top: Narrow crevasses and the Needle's Eye
Bottom: Cathedral Spires

While in Custer State Park, we spotted numerous bison both off in the distance as well as walking along the road. Blue Bell Lodge, located just after the park entrance, is a rustic log building where we had a nice lunch. This is your chance to try Rabbit & Rattlesnake sausage. (Confession: No one in my family ordered it.) 


Bison herd in Custer State Park


Fort Hays Chuckwagon Supper

We ended the day at Fort Hays Old West Town and Dinner Show. Have you seen the movie Dances with Wolves? Many buildings from the original  film set are located here. We arrived around 5PM to give us time to stroll through the film set as well as visit the workshops in the Old West Town. We watched guys press tin rounds into pie plates, pound metal into knife blades and twist twine to make rope. My girl always likes getting pressed pennies as a souvenir. This is the first time we've seen it done with a belt-driven line shaft from a steam engine, though.

Holding a tin round in the 100-year-old lathe to transform it into a pie plate. 

Doors open to the Dining Hall  at 6:15PM. We were seated at long tables and served a traditional chuckwagon dinner on tin plates. Afterwards, the musicians took the stage for an hour long show. 


They play both kinds of music... country AND western. 

It seemed like there were a hundred tour buses here, but the place did a good job of serving everyone quickly. For more information, see their website.


Day 3

Outdoor Art in Rapid City.

I was really surprised to stumble upon Art Alley which was filled with the type of street art I'd expect in a big, urban city. Every accessible surface seemed to be covered with art. Hopefully, people don't ruin it with random graffiti tagging. 




The city also has an official public art project called City of Presidents. Life size bronze statues of all the US Presidents are placed around downtown Rapid City.


Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Finally, the main reason why people are drawn to this part of the country... the iconic Mount Rushmore with its 60-foot tall heads of remarkable US Presidents. You can see it from miles away.  


George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln immortalized in stone. 

At the very least, park your car, pay the entrance fee and grab a photo of you on the Avenue of Flags with Mount Rushmore behind you. 

If you have one or two more hours, make a stop at the Visitors Center to get an idea of why Mount Rushmore was built and the methods that were used to precisely blast the stone before chiseling in the details. The Needles which we had seen the previous day were the original proposed site, but the sculptor rejected it because the stone was too eroded. Construction ran from 1927 to 1941 and involved more than 400 workers. Mount Rushmore was originally supposed to include the presidential torsos, but there was not enough funding to complete the project as planned.

Afterwards, walk along the 0.6 mile Presidents Trail to see the monument from different angles. At one point on the path, it seems like Jefferson and Roosevelt are hiding (see first photo in post).  I really enjoyed the Sculptor's Studio and seeing the small scale models used by Gotzum Borglum to determine what the the massive sculpture would look like. In fact, I think my husband may have the same bone structure as ole Abe Lincoln.  


Rushmore Tramway Adventures

When traveling with kids, it's a good idea to add a little fun to the activities.  Rushmore Tramway Adventures, located just a couple of miles from Mount Rushmore, perfectly fit the bill. We took the chairlift to the top of the mountain and walked around for a bit before taking the 2000-foot-long Alpine Slide back down. Afterwards,  two of the kids raced each other on the 800 foot inclined zipline. 

Chairlift, alpine slide and zipline at Rushmore Tramway Adventures

A two hour zipline tour, a jump tower and an aerial ropes course are also part of the adventure park. Too bad we didn't have more time to spend here.

For more information, see the Rushmore Tramway Adventures website.


Crazy Horse Memorial

One of the controversies surrounding Mount Rushmore is that it is built on what was traditional Lakota Native American tribal land. A Lakota chief campaigned to have the likeness of Crazy Horse, a Lakota warrior, included among the presidents. Obviously, he did not get his way. 

The chief eventually invited sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski who had be working on Mount Rushmore to carve a separate memorial to Crazy Horse on the sacred Thunderhead Mountain located 17 miles (27 km) from Mount Rushmore. This privately funded project began in 1948 and still continues. In fact, it looked very, very far from completion. When finished, it will be the world's largest sculpture. The eyes themselves are 17 feet wide. In contrast to the hundreds of workers for Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial only has a few people at work on the mountain. 


Top: The incomplete Crazy Horse Memorial today
Bottom: A scale model of the sculpture, and an image of the final sculpture superimposed upon the mountain

Even though it is unfinished, this memorial still has a million visitors each year. The Visitors Center includes the Indian Museum of North America, Ziolkowski's home and studio, a restaurant and a marketplace where I bought some handmade jewelry and an ocarina. 

For more information, see the Crazy Horse Memorial website.


Lodging

We stayed at the Hotel Alex Johnson near the town square of Rapid City. Just as construction began on Mount Rushmore, Mr. Johnson had the foresight to build a fine hotel for the hordes of tourists he knew would visit the monument. Furthermore, this place is haunted. Channel your inner ghostbuster by booking Room 812 where ghostly activity is said to occur.

Top: Lobby of the Hotel Alex Johnson
Bottom: Stone decor on the outside of the building

Book a room at http://www.alexjohnson.com


Have you visited Rapid City or any of these places?





It’s Your Turn, Link Up Your Newest Travel Inspiration




I've joined up as one of the co-hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration.
  1. Link one of your inspirational travel photos or stories to this post by adding your info.
  2. Copy and paste our badge and a link to this page.
  3. Visit some of the other wonderful travel bloggers, read their posts, and leave a comment.  It would be great if you could comment on 2-3 posts.
  4. Tweet it and include this hashtag. #wkendtravelinspiration .
  5. Follow all the hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration who are working hard to spread the word on what wonderful work travel bloggers are doing.
  6. Don’t forget to check out my amazing co-hosts and their pages: Reflections Enroute,  ContentedTravellerAlbom AdventuresSafari 254, and FamiliesGo.



I've also joined with the following linkups. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Time I Drove a Horse-Drawn Wagon and Other Pioneer Tales

Mama horse and her newborn foal


I was a bookish kid who was completely enthralled by The Little House on the Prairie series written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. While there was also the TV show based on the novels that depicted pioneer life, it was the books that kept drawing me in. Laura's storytelling is so vivid that my young mind was convinced it was an autobiography, not made up tales based on her childhood in the American frontier. I wanted to be just like Laura.

I remember pulling out my student atlas, flipping to the page for South Dakota and finding De Smet on the map. There it was. A tiny dot that represented the little town where the last few books of the series are set. And I'd sit there and wonder what that town looked like. When we started planning our Great Big Western USA roadtrip, I explained to my husband that De Smet was "only a four hour detour" from the Badlands/Mount Rushmore stop on our itinerary. I begged. I pleaded. I explained how we were never going to be that close to Laura's little town on the prairie. I channeled all the stubbornness that my inner-Laura could muster. So, that's how I finally found my feet firmly planted in the real life, 21st century De Smet, South Dakota. It's still a small town of only 1100 people, and a visit there is like being transported back in time.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Outdoor Fun in Jackson Hole



I'll admit that visiting Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Grand Teton National Park was a post-Yellowstone Park afterthought. We were in the area... so, why not? Located just south of Yellowstone, this area holds its own against its more famous neighbor. As soon as Jackson Lake came into view with the Teton Mountain range rising up behind it, I knew that we were in for a scenic treat. Our few days based in Jackson Hole were filled with all sorts of outdoor adventures followed by evenings relaxing in town. It's an admittedly touristy place, but all the wide open space keeps it from ever feeling overly crowded.


Fur trappers and mountain men first entered this valley between the Teton and Gros Ventre mountain ranges by descending its steep slopes, feeling as if they were climbing into a massive hole. The area is named after David Edward "Davey" Jackson,  a beaver trapper who was one of the first white men to spend an entire winter in this valley in the 1820's. It would be another 50 more years before Jackson Hole was regularly inhabited year-round.


FUN FACT: The area is expecting record high crowds on August 21, 2017. Why? It's a prime viewing area for a total eclipse of the sun beginning at 10:17AM and peaking at 11:35AM.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Under the Thames

50 feet below the surface of the River Thames


I like to visit oddball attractions when we travel. London is no exception. That's how my family came to find ourselves taking a walk under the Thames. Sure, some people head straight for Westminster Abbey or the Tower of London. Not us. On our first full day in this historic town, our first stop was the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Close Encounters on Devils Tower




Two men loom large in my mind when I think of Devils Tower — Richard Dreyfus and Frank Sanders. Steven Spielburg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind was one of the hit movies that came out in 1977. (A little cult classic called Star Wars was another.) I watched it in the theater during some friend's birthday sleepover party and spent the rest of the night decade worrying that I'd be abducted by aliens. I clearly remember spreading out my sleeping bag under my friend's baby grand piano in hopes that it would offer a small measure of protection in the event of an extra-terrestrial visitation. Richard Dreyfus' character briefly encounters a UFO and is then strangely compelled to keep building models of an unusual, mountain-like image he sees in his mind. An iconic scene occurs at the dinner table when he heaps mashed potatoes onto his plate as his puzzled family looks on, then sculpts the mound with his fork.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Everglades National Park: Focus on the Details

Alligator lurking in the Everglades

Most U.S. National Parks wow visitors with the massive, awe-inspiring scale of its landmarks. Stand on the brink of the Grand Canyon and gaze down at its depth  Cast your eyes upwards to take in the height of towering Sequoia trees.  Admire how Yellowstone Valley is framed by Bridalveil Falls plunging downwards on one side and the imposing El Capitan on the other. Breathe deep and greet the day as the sun's rays touches the United States for the first time every morning atop Acadia's Cadillac Mountain. These are the grand vistas visitors expect from national parks.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Keeping it Real

Slumped on a bench instead of looking around

My friends tell me that my kids are lucky to be so well traveled. If you read my previous post about Villa Vizcaya - Old World Opulence in the Heart of Miami, then you know more about Vizcaya than my kids do. My daughter will most likely get around to reading the Vizcaya post, but my boys never read this blog because, as they claim, they experienced it in real life.

We had just disembarked from our cruise that morning after staying up late the night before for a special 10:45PM, Thursday night release of the live action Beauty and the Beast. If you've ever been on a cruise, you know that they kick you out of the cabins super early so that they can prep for the next round of guests. The whole family was sleep deprived.

In any case, the kids could not muster up any interest in all the elegance surrounding them. When we were upstairs in the villa, they parked themselves on a bench in the passageway and didn't move. (I suppose this is better than having them touch every single breakable antique which is what I had to watch for when they were younger.)




They perked up in the fresh air of the Formal Gardens, drawn towards a Maze Garden where the hedges only reached as high as their thighs. So, it wasn't a total wash. 


Entering the Secret Garden

I just wanted to keep it real in case if you envisioned my kids being completely enthralled by everything we visit. I suppose they did repeatedly thank us for taking them on the cruise, so that's something.

If only I had figured out the Iron Man 3 connection beforehand.

What do you do to keep kids engaged?

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Villa Vizcaya - Old World Opulence in the Heart of Miami

Vizcaya as seen from the Boat Landing


The great Jay Gatsby would approve of Vizcaya. I can picture it as his temporary home when escaping the unseemly cold that wraps itself around Long Island and his mansion in West Egg during the winter months. Vizcaya was built to impress. It screams Old World opulence and money that has been passed down for generations. Its antique-filled rooms and stately formal gardens mentally transport visitors to Europe despite the fact that they are just across the bay from Miami's famed South Beach.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

36 Hours in Miami

On the shores of Biscayne Bay

Miami is a special place for me. It's where my husband and I spent our wedding night nearly 25 years ago. Our honeymoon was a Caribbean cruise departing from Miami followed by a week at Walt Disney World. We were the type of couple who literally left for their honeymoon directly from the wedding reception. We arrived in Miami late at night, checked into our hotel by the airport and then shipped out the next morning. For last week's Spring Break Caribbean cruise — this time with our 3 kids along — we decided to arrive early to spend a bit more time sampling what the Miami area has to offer.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

One night at Community Inn can change a life

Community Inn B&B and Alamo Drafthouse Outdoor Cinema


I could already tell that this was a different sort of bed & breakfast establishment as I drove down Hog Eye Road in rural East Austin and saw the cluster of teepees, Airstream trailers, RVs and tiny houses off in the distance. In their midst stood a large screen and amphitheater for the free outdoor cinema that shows movies every Friday night when the weather is warm. Pulling into the parking lot, a "Welcome to Community First! Village" sign greeted me. And even though the sky was drizzling rain and the temperature had dropped by 20°F since the previous day, I did, in fact, feel warmly welcomed.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Sunset from Lendal Bridge in York

York, England, River Ouse
Sunset over the River Ouse in York, England

Vacations are supposed to be a break from the ordinary. A time to escape everyday life. A chance to do something different. Sometimes, that different thing isn't big or grand. It's not always diving with sharks or sailing through the sky in a hot air balloon. Sometimes, it's the small details. It's the altered way of approaching everyday events. 

Lately, life has been a whirlwind. The after school hours are a blur for me as I chauffeur my three kids between school, activities and home. On Tuesdays, I spend two hours in my car continuously driving around but never going further than 10 miles from my house as if I'm running my own private bus route. My legs ache as I exit the car, glad to finally be able to stretch them out straight. On Wednesdays, I shuttle my kids around, dashing into the house for a few minutes before setting off again in my car. Whichever kid happens to be home at 5:30 PM is assigned the task of doing the final steps of cooking our family dinner that night. Other days, I reach home, and no one has taken on the dinner prep task. That night's meal becomes a smorgasbord of various microwaved leftovers. Whomever shows up in the kitchen last gets the least desirable morsels.

That's why I find joy in how we dine when we travel. It's so much more relaxed (unless I'm yelling that I am HANGRY and need to eat immediately). Someone else does the cooking. Even better, someone else does the cleaning up. Yay! No one at the table is rushing off to do homework or take a conference call. Whereas we rarely order dessert while dining out in our hometown, being in a foreign country is the perfect excuse to explore the local cuisine via something sweet and decadent. 

Afterwards, we stroll back to the hotel. If luck is smiling at us, it's timed perfectly so that the sinking sun sends out its brilliant last hurrah for the day as we cross a Gothic style, Victorian era bridge. In other words, the experience of our nightly meal is transformed into something utterly different and out of the ordinary.

Long after the trip is over and done with, I hold onto these memories. That's what gets me through the regular, the mundane, and the whirlwind.


It’s Your Turn, Link Up Your Newest Travel Inspiration




I've joined up as one of the co-hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration.
  1. Link one of your inspirational travel photos or stories to this post by adding your info.
  2. Copy and paste our badge and a link to this page.
  3. Visit some of the other wonderful travel bloggers, read their posts, and leave a comment.  It would be great if you could comment on 2-3 posts.
  4. Tweet it and include this hashtag. #wkendtravelinspiration .
  5. Follow all the hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration who are working hard to spread the word on what wonderful work travel bloggers are doing.
  6. Don’t forget to check out my amazing co-hosts and their pages: Reflections EnrouteThe Crowded PlanetContentedTravellerAlbom AdventuresSafari 254, and FamiliesGo.



I've also joined with the following linkups. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Spy vs. Spy at the International Spy Museum

Afraid that someone had heard me, I froze in place. I felt a little claustrophobic hunched down on my hands and knees inside the air duct I was crawling through. Catching a glimpse of the people in the room below me, I hoped that no one would look up and notice my face staring out through the hole in the vent. I strained my ears to try and pick up threads of conversation from the cacophony rising up from the crowd, praying that I would not be discovered and my cover blown. World traveler, expat trailing spouse, mom to three kids, prone to occasional bouts of daftness. It's the perfect cover for a spy.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Disney's Art of Animation Resort



It wasn't until we stayed at Disney's Art of Animation resort last year that I realized how low key most other Disney resorts are about incorporating Disney characters into their architecture and design. Many of the other hotels are more about transporting their guests to a real place rather than into the magical setting of a Disney movie. The Grand Floridian where I honeymooned almost 25 years ago harkens back to Victorian-era Palm Beach. The Wilderness Lodge recreates the atmosphere of a Northwest National Park lodge. And the newly opened overwater bungalows at the Polynesian Villas & Bungalows will make guests think that they've escaped to the South Pacific. The Art of  Animation resort, on the other hand, is all about making guests feel like they've stepped into a Disney animated movie.


Enlarged sketches decorate the Check-In area

Upon arrival, were were ushered into the Check-In area of Animation Hall which is fittingly decorated with enlarged pencil sketches of modern era Disney animated characters. A majestic chandelier is composed of storyboards which visually convey the development of the plot. The rest of the lobby has a bright wall of backlighted colorscripts. These images help guide computer animators regarding the lighting, colors, and mood of each scene. If you're a fan of the movies they reference, it's quite fascinating to see parts of the production process before it ended up on screen.


Colorscript wall

Animation Hall also houses a game arcade and the Landscape of Flavors, a casual dining restaurant featuring five cafeteria-style, mini-restaurants that serve breakfast, lunch and dinner from 6AM to midnight. Diners can choose items from World Flavors, the Soup-Salad-Sandwich Shop, Burgers, Pizza and The Market. Resort guests can also call here to have pizza delivered to their room if they're tired after a day running around the parks. Souvenirs can be found in the Ink & Paint Shop.


The resort is divided into four areas that each feature a different, modern-day, Disney animated movie as its theme.


This not-so-Little Mermaid is three stories tall

The Little Mermaid buildings make guests feel like they are part of Ariel's underwater world. The medium-sized Flippin' Fins pool looked inviting with Sebastian the crab conducting the Under the Sea orchestra. The building with Ursula the Sea Witch looked rather intimidating though. I wonder if kids who have to walk past her to reach their rooms feel like poor, unfortunate souls.


Ursula the Sea Witch is scary indeed.

The Lion King buildings are supposed to make you feel like you are in Africa, of course. If the kids need to burn off energy -- if that ever happens after a day at the parks -- they can always run among the huge, curved bones of the the elephant graveyard playground. Mufasa proudly watches over the area while young Simba, Pumbaa and Timon prance across a log.


Hakuna Matata (No Worries) when you stay at the Art of Animation Resort

The centerpiece of the Finding Nemo section is the 12,000 square foot pool which is the largest in all the Walt Disney World resorts. It's very kid-friendly with plenty of shallow areas perfect for splashing around. For the adults, there's a poolside bar called The Drop Off. Another play area is located behind the pool with stairs and slides so that kids can pretend their exploring the reef.



The largest pool in  all of Walt Disney World

Because my younger boy was a huge fan of Lightning McQueen when he was little, we stayed in the Cars section of the resort.  A large billboard welcomed us to Radiator Springs, and the building facades evoked the American Southwest setting of the movie.




Each building's main entrance was disguised as one of the businesses from the Cars movie. Of course, all the favorite characters were on hand for plenty of photo opportunities.


Sally Carrera and Lightning McQueen

Tow Mater

Flo and, in the background,  Luigi

All these buildings faced the Cozy Cones pool with large traffic cones serving as pool cabanas.



What drew us to the Art of Animation Resort in the first place is the value-priced family suites. With three kids and more than one person in the family who is 6 feet or taller, we needed more space. Each suite sleeps up to 6 adults. The suite includes a separate bedroom with attached bathroom, a living area with a bathroom, dining area, and a kitchenette with a sink, mini-fridge, microwave and coffee maker. One bathroom has a walk-in shower, and the other one has a tub/shower combo. The best part of the room is converting the dining table into a double bed. (No, you don't just plunk a mattress on top of the table.)

Bedroom with a Queen size bed and an attached bathroom

One of two full bathrooms

The sofa converts into a double bed.

The dining table converts into a double bed, too. Clever!

Other Disney hotels that I've been in have decorative motifs that tastefully reference Disney characters in subdued ways. Art of Animation emphasizes the movie setting and amps up the theming. I really did feel like I may have been staying the in the Cozy Cone Motel from the Cars movie. The couch looked like a classic car bench seat, and the kitchenette evoked an automotive repair shop. The bathrooms had carwash signs, and the pictures on the walls were of the movie characters on an old Route 66 roadtrip.

Highway map on the coffee tabletop

Considering that we would have needed two rooms at one of the more expensive resorts, this was a very economic option. The only drawback was the distance from the parks themselves. Disney provides complimentary bus transportation to all its parks and the Disney Springs shopping district, but I found the late night traffic jam we were stuck in as the parks started to close to NOT be what I needed at the end of a long day. Despite that, I think that the Art of Animation Resort will be a strong contender for lodging the next time we visit Walt Disney World.






It’s Your Turn, Link Up Your Newest Travel Inspiration




I've joined up as one of the co-hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration.
  1. Link one of your inspirational travel photos or stories to this post by adding your info.
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  3. Visit some of the other wonderful travel bloggers, read their posts, and leave a comment.  It would be great if you could comment on 2-3 posts.
  4. Tweet it and include this hashtag. #wkendtravelinspiration .
  5. Follow all the hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration who are working hard to spread the word on what wonderful work travel bloggers are doing.
  6. Don’t forget to check out my amazing co-hosts and their pages: Reflections EnrouteThe Crowded PlanetContentedTravellerAlbom AdventuresSafari 254, and FamiliesGo.



I've also joined with the following linkups. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.
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