An Exploration of Parenting by the Vowel

Of Mice and Men and Mother Nature August 20, 2020

It was early June 2020, in the year of Covid. The kids and parents of our household were restless after two and half months in quarantine, so we could only imagine what might be the new norm by August. We entertained potential vacation options and nixed what Covid might make impossible or an experience to never write home about.

Houseboat Home


Tucked away on my husband’s bucket list and completely unawares to me was a vision of a houseboat meandering its way through a series of lakes along the Minnesota Canadian border in a land mysterious to me: Voyageurs National Park. The adventure surfaced to the top of our family list as a socially distanced and safe travel option.


I’m not too keen on camping, but I do love me a national park visit. After agreeing on a houseboat rental and minimum stay of three nights we booked it through Voyagaire Lodge & Houseboats. The teens seemed indifferent, displaying mixed messages of happiness to be getting out of the house and the city, to puzzlement over what exactly we’d do that could possibly be exciting with the same four people we’d never been closer to in our lives.


And without WiFi, Netflix or Snapchat? How is this a vacation? Let’s just say the expectations were low for some and bucket-list high for others, while some remained neutral and a bit apprehensive. The night before we left a massive portion of a tree in our front yard splintered right off during a late-night storm and crashed into the street. It narrowly missed our puppy caregiver’s vehicle. Ah, Mother Nature!


The next morning, we left the clean-up in Grandma’s charge. I prayed Mother Nature would go easy on us over the next three days, which she did indeed with sunshine, a few light sprinkles, low winds and 75-degree temps. In hindsight, I shudder to think of a stormy situation in that vast isolation (despite having 24/7 access to Voyagaire Base and a hospitality service).


Voyageurs was an easy 4.5 hours from Minneapolis and we miraculously made it out by 7:45A on a Saturday, every inch of the Subaru Crosstrek jam packed with supplies for four days/three nights. There would be drinking water and a stocked kitchen on the boat. We brought a large cooler, a large container of food and beverages, beach towels, sheets, a first aid kit and items that really implied roughing it like a hatchet and saw. I sure hoped Chad had done thorough research as I really left this vacation plan in his hands.

Houseboat Ladder


Day 1:

We arrived at Voyagaire Houseboats on Crane Lake near the entrance of Voyageurs about 12:30P. The overview of boat operations was quick – for buoys remember red, right, return (red buoys should be on your right on your return), a series of steps to start the generator, notes about hot tub water sloshing about and spilling over onto the deck, and general boat happenings that are no cause for panic (for an upcoming part of the story, noting here that there was no mention of gang planks and mice).


We were officially houseboating by 1:15P! …plus towing a mandatory fishing boat on an extended arm to prevent interference with the motor – a surprise to Chad and added level of anxiousness for me, recognizing that I’d be the docker of the boat after he landed the small boat and surveyed the landing site.


On the boat there were large maps with distinctive markings for houseboats and tent camping. We purchased a Voyageurs National Park Permit for Houseboats prior to the trip and had the printed copy with us. Reserving sites was not allowed and it was recommended to be to your spot for the night by 4:00P each day. And since the max cruising speed was six miles per hour, we definitely didn’t want it to get too late before securing a spot.


The Halina (Greek for calm and sun ray) was our ship. It seemed massive to me with full controls on the main level and the option to switch over to steering and speed from the top deck. I was laughed away when I asked about rearview mirrors. As it turns out, shipmates stationed at the back or top were relied upon for real-time info.


The top deck had a raised platform atop the loft that my son, Calvin, chose for his quarters. My daughter, Ava, and I spent a majority of the afternoon sunning there. By 3:00 we were actively on the lookout for an overnight spot. The amazing thing about these lakes are the deep inlets that c-shape around you and give a sense of protection from the elements and isolation from everything. Nearing 4:00 we found an open houseboat site, facing west on Namakan Lake. It made for a spectacular sunset and a chilly early morning in the shadow of rocky elevations and tall pines.


Following the plan, Chad took the small boat in and got out onto the shore to direct me in landing it on the wide soft sand beach. While pulling in straight was a breeze, we quickly realized the importance of securing the ropes from each side of the back of the boat at a 45-degree angle. With even a slight wind of 10mph, the boat got away from us and ended up near parallel to the shore. In the event of a storm, it would have been important to get this right. For day one, we were happy to be settled and hear the forecast of a non-windy, storm-free night.


Our cove had a tiny island a short way out. We slid the two kayaks we rented from Voyagaire into the water and the kids were off for a ride (with lifejackets on!) to the island. They hopped off their kayaks, pulled them onto the rocks and explored the island. I watched like a hawk, anxiety creeping in despite trying to keep it at bay.

Campfire Smores


Upon their return, we grilled the night’s meal on the back of the boat, right under the slick boat slide. We ate at the table inside the houseboat then moved it outdoors to start a campfire and make s’mores. It was great to have campfire pits of rock already teed up for us. We just needed to find wood. Chad and Calvin managed the fire while I assembled a mini s’more kit (thanks for the collapsable roasting sticks, Aunt Rose!).


Stuffed after perfecting the art of s’more making, we put on our suits and headed to the top deck to hot tub. It was a perfect 104 that didn’t vary more than two degrees through the full three days on the boat. Chemical-free, the water and heat (and view!) was a real treat, especially as temps dipped to 47 over night.


Then, perhaps the most profound sight of the trip – a sky full of stars packed so brightly and tightly together you truly felt wonderment and joy*. If that isn’t a gift to give your kids, I don’t know what is.
* To further describe this, read the section on Stargazing (pg 215) in the book Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee to lend words to the human experience of feeling like a small spec in a vast universe, an awareness of the fragility of life on our planet.


Day 2: 12:01A

After a full day of adventuring we were ready for rest, but the nocturnal among us were just ramping up for a night of antics. Eek yes, mice. They terrify me. More so than the rest of the family, apparently. On heightened alert, body tensed, I didn’t sleep a solid wink. At the gift of daybreak, stars still lingering, I must have slumbered in exhaustion.


Day 2: 8:00A

We radioed in to Voyagaire Base to report our plans for the day and hear a friendly voice. And also to…. I don’t know… demand the mice be instantly removed or else! I was ready to be very candid about the inexcusability of the mouse guests. The radioed helpers dismissed any responsibility they might have, just now giving us the casual heads up about the visitors walking up the plank and ropes and that we should pull in the plank at night to prevent this piracy. After all, we are in their backyard. I did spend many hours devising the ultimate mouse trap for houseboats. I was not unkind.


With a morning kayak and hot tub to reset my attitude, all was possible again. Next up was de-lodging from the shoreline from our parallel angle. Ah-ha! This is a handy use for the small boat. With some heaving from shipmates at the front, a second mate reversing the houseboat and the Captain holding the small boat at full throttle, Halina successfully disembarked for day two on the water.

Houseboat Landing


Heading west on Namakan Lake, then north by Strawberry Island and through Voyageurs Narrows, we arrived at Kettle Falls (about six hours from the start of the chain of lakes). We arrived at a houseboat mooring site with a dock signed “Gov. Boats Only,” a reminder we were on the U.S. Canadian border. In a call to Voyagaire Base, it seemed as though we were in a place we could anchor and take the small boat to a place I envisioned as heavenly – a lakeside resort and restaurant, civilization, with a Dirty Dancing vibe. It just wasn’t very clear how to do so. In hindsight, I should have taken over to press our concierge for details. We turned around to head back without the Dirty Dancing resort experience of a lifetime. It was just a bay away. Oh well. This is all part of vacations, kids.


We began our search for a houseboat site for night two. Past Mica Island, I hopped into the driver’s seat for a while to give Chad a break. The dots on our maps in the houseboat didn’t seem entirely up-to-date and we all know how men rely on maps. I placed a call to Voyagaire Base after several marked houseboat sites turned out be already filled. They suggested Randolph Bay. They would know. They are the owners of the 30-some houseboat rentals that were all on the lakes that day.


Randolph Bay was an amazing east-facing site. We rinsed and repeated the dinner grilling, s’moring, tubbing and stargazing. We were already pros. I weaseled my way into the loft space, which seemed untouchable and out of earshot from pirate mice kitchen adventures. We took precautions earlier in the eve, pulling up the plank and placing all of our food in a large tub for lockdown. I slept very solid after some meditation and stargazing.


Day 3:

What a difference from the day before. Our east-facing site had us awakening to sunrise and warmth. A longer kayak jaunt with Calvin, a swim in Namakan’s clear, cool waters and a hot tub with a shot of coffee to start the day! I was finally in full mental vacation mode. It takes me about two days to get there. I whipped up scrambled eggs with cheese on toast with ham for the carnivores as we cruised along to the day’s adventures – cliff jumping and hiking.

Cliff Jumping, Namakan Narrows


Late morning, we arrived at the designated cliff jumping spot on the Namakan Narrows. The kids went first, followed by Chad. They plunged right in, most everyone but Chad followed Ava’s advice to point your toes for a smooth entry. He cannonballed and ker-splooshed with a sound that echoed for miles around. In mere moments, the current was dragging Halina along and I truly botched a smooth, safe pick up for him. Ah—stress! The kids’ pick up by Chad was no problem. All three seemed exhilarated by their venture.


At high noon, we navigated south through Sand Point Lake and switched back southwest to Grassy Bay. The bay held a few surprises – the Grassy Bay Cliffs and a short hike to Little Trout Lake without a soul – fish or man – to be detected. We found a spot around 2:00P to spend the night and easily took the small boat out and about to explore. Our delivery of firewood arrived – tonight, the last night – we’d have the most roaring fire ever. There were still stories to be told.

Grassy Bay Cliffs


It was a very relaxing day – reading, playing cards, grilling out, campfire, etc. We braved the boat slide and after cold plunges, the hot tub was there to counterbalance. The fire truly roared. The s’mores were perfection. The stars reflected onto the lake with water like glass so clear we could see the Big Dipper as we looked upon the lake from the boat deck. Not a soul around. A howling owl or coyote. The call of the loon. The loneliness. The vastness.


Oh, how Mother Nature delivers an experience like no other and creates amazing tales to tell. On day four we returned to our urban environment, vowing to carry a slice of that awe into every day and the reminder that we can look to nature to feel inspired, grounded and connected to ourselves, others and the universe. Namaste, Mother Nature.


Stateside Over Poolside April 20, 2019

The kids’ passports had just arrived for what might have been a sunshiny, bikini-clad week in Jamaica, but we opted out. There were still so many areas of our country yet untapped by us that were perfect for exploration. And with two teens (Ava 15 and Calvin 13) who sometimes need a little coaxing in conversation and daily adventure to rise them from slumber, staying active stateside was beginning to look more appealing than lounging poolside.


Our planning for spring break 2019 began in earnest about five weeks out from March 29, the first day of the break. We had toyed with the Southwest before, considering distances, sights to see, weather and accommodations. We gave it a strong look for a five-day MEA vacation over the past few years. It lost out to Riviera Maya, Mexico, for spring break 2017. Now, in 2019, the Southwest stars aligned.


After a refresh on the loop we intended to travel, we landed on a seven-night trip that broke down into a 4-2-1 schedule (four nights in Sedona, two nights in Zion National Park and one night in Las Vegas). We purchased MSP flights into Las Vegas, not Phoenix as many would suppose given our first destination was Sedona (two hours north of Phoenix). We reserved our lodging for Sedona at Casa Dacotah in West Sedona, then the Desert Pearl Inn in Springdale, UT. We left one night in Vegas up for grabs for a few more weeks before booking the family-friendly Delano.


Day 1:
It’s a five-hour drive from Las Vegas to Sedona, where we’re staying for the first four nights of our trip. After traveling all day and it’s only noon, we are happy to get out and stretch in the sunshine at Hoover Dam. We marvel at the man-made wonder for 25-minutes before we swirl down the layers of the parking ramp and get back on the road.


Hours later we roll into Sedona after bypassing Peach Springs on Route 66, climbing I-40 W to Flagstaff, and winding down Oak Creek Canyon Road with a midway stop at the Butterfly Garden Inn. Us wintered Minnesota souls mimic the red rock and absorb the sunshine as we wander through Uptown Sedona to Casa Dacotah, a one-story home in West Sedona were we’ll have the pleasure of staying for four nights.



Day 2:
The next morning, refreshed in our desert oasis, the grown-ups kick back with a couple pour-overs of Pete’s Coffee. Soon Cathedral Rock, one of the area’s most challenging hikes, is calling two of the family’s most ambitious hikers. The others are persuaded. It’s a climb indeed – one that innocently starts on two feet, then moves quickly into all-fours terrain when we hit the narrow crevice that requires articulate placement of hands and feet. When we finally arrive at the vista, I have to kibosh the kids’ pull to venture out onto the path with no railing and a sheer to death drop off for the photo opp that our fearless co-hikers are taking.


Day 3:
Pete’s pour-overs once again start our day before heading out around 8:15a.m. We retrace half of our day one route west of Flagstaff on historic Route 66, then venture a new direction – north to the Grand Canyon. Around 11:00a.m. we get our first breathtaking vista of the canyon on the South Rim by the first bus stop to Hermit’s Rest. We take the bus up along the canyon for a few stops, then continue on foot. The experience is awe-inspiring!


On the way home, we stop in historic downtown Flagstaff to catch the end of a Final Four game at a bar. It is decidedly a fun walkabout – to a bookstore, shops and the place where Fillmore, the blue hippy van from Cars, has a home. Five-ish we are back at the Casa with appetites for various cuisine. Sushi loses out over Italian and we dine at Picazzo’s Healthy Italian Kitchen, where I immensely enjoy a kale salad, an enormous ginger beer and a slice of sausage and mushroom pizza. Others seem way less pleased.


Day 4 (April 1):
Rise and shine family! …or maybe just the girls. Ava books a noon manicure and pedicure for us and we are off to the shops at Tlaquepaque! We buy chocolate and candy, listen at length to a shopkeeper’s story about Sedona’s acceptance or non-acceptance of people. It’s a very spiritual place. I silently wonder if She would accept me. Well, the bakeries and coffee shops sure do. A visit to Sedona Cake Couture yields a matcha green tea latte, a sea salt caramel latte and a $9 luxurious red velvet cupcake.



Next up is Predator Ziplines at 3:00 in Camp Verde. It’s Jurassic in approach, placing my safety radar on high alert. We gear up with four other families and Calvin is the first to zip off, followed by Ava, me, Dad and the rest of our crew. We pause at the tower stations and check out the active tigers, lions, grizzlies and more in the wildlife park that we’re zipping over. Silly humans. As if it wouldn’t be tragic enough to fall to our deaths, our loved ones would witness our mauling by wild animal. April Fool’s!


Day 5:
En route to the Desert Pearl Inn by 10:50a.m., we’re reminded of the time change from PST to MST. We lose an hour. Around 5:00p.m. MST, we roll through the east entrance of Zion, which is so scenic. We stop in our tracks, compelled to explore the red waves of rolling rock that felt unlike the planet earth – could’ve been Mars. In the Acadia and back on earth, we travel to Springdale, the closest town with lodging near the entrance of Zion. So cute and quaint – we’re going to love it here for a few days.


Day 6:
Rise and shine in Zion! I head for a hot tub then a solo trip up to Deep Creek Coffee for a chocolate muffin before a family breakfast at Meme’s Café. We’re fueled for our novice hike, Emerald Pools, and what’s to come: Angel’s Landing. Angel’s is a serious hike. With switchbacks, lack of railings, a mix of concrete and rocky trails that are generously wide in most places, the hike can instill a dangerous confidence as hikers get swept away in views and photo opps.


When we near the major landing where most families stop, we’ve conquered steep switchbacks and wandered through flat areas next to water – a welcome break. We take a moment at the vista, noting the brave and crazy souls taking on the single file, post and chain link trail to the summit, another 500 feet. I am intensely relieved I don’t need to persuade the group not to push forward. Everyone saw the sign that seven have died since 2004 on this hike. It’s no joke.



After an afternoon siesta and with a short timeframe in Zion, we venture out on another shorter hike with promised vistas of 2,000ft elevation. We drive up through Mount Carmel Tunnel around 6:15p.m. This hike is the perfect balance of elevation, length and varying terrain. We move from steps to bridges to alcoves to the vista point with plenty of rocks to climb and views to take in. We take some family pictures and enjoy the most expansive view to the West as the sun is starting to work its way down.


Day 7:
After a good night’s sleep and a two-hour drive to Las Vegas, our first stop is to snap a family photo at the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign. The Delano Hotel is pretty sweet! We change into suits and pack our things for the day to head to the pool area, which is actually at Mandalay Bay. It’s a beach. Easily Ava’s favorite day, we sun, swim, read, Sudoku and enjoy some snacks and drinks.


Stateside_Springbreak_004Around 6:00p.m. we are ready to take on the strip. We take a short tram from The Luxor to the next stop and walk through endless entertainment, shops (the Hersey Shop), casinos, restaurants and lights. We’re headed for sushi at The Cosmopolitan. With no reservations, Zuma – a sushi-focused shi-shi restaurant, takes us to table tucked into an elevated space that’s swanky and set for sushi. We order mocktails that Ava and I love, spicy tuna rolls and negiri. It’s an amazing meal and a way to end the vacation on a high note.



Day 8:
To this morning we say, boo… we don’t want to go. Not just yet. We encounter another family from Minnesota on spring break in the elevator. Many families are maximizing their stay until Sunday. At the airport I tell myself we’ll be happy to arrive home and have a few days before re-entry. I spend the flight recapping the highlights of our vacation and the paths we chose, the decisions we made and the experiences that would be etched into our family history for a lifetime. I am happy we stayed stateside (and squeezed in one afternoon poolside).


Back in Minneapolis, we arrive with planeloads of Final Four fans, whose anticipation of arriving in Minnesota looked much different than ours. At a cold and drizzly 56, I am already longing for the sun and warmth of the Southwest. Our Uber drops us off at home and we’re greeted by the sunny disposition of my parents and our tail-wagging Goldendoodle, Copper, whose excitement implies we’ve been gone way too long.


Riding the Wave of Wellness February 14, 2016

Y: Yolo

Peak Performers MN

Peak Performers #MNRepresent

You only live once. I created the blog category, YOLO, to capture my family’s travel adventures. This post might not fit the bill as it’s about a cruise I embarked on SOLO (or without the family), but it’s story worthy nonetheless.


I admit to being a bit enamored with the idea of a cruise, but never quite enough to pull the trigger and book one. In November, due to the wellness business I’m building, I was invited to join my team on what’s called a Peak Performers Cruise (hashtag that). I thought about it for a half a sec and went for it. What could be better than working out daily on a cruise ship in the sun on the seas, visiting Cozumel and Grand Cayman and connecting with people impassioned by the same mindset and goals?



Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance

I could check “cruise” off of my bucket list if it was ever really on it, I reasoned. I could write some of it off as a business expense. I was most definite I could use a warm winter getaway from Minnesota. I pushed down the memories from other rocky journeys at sea, seeking whales off the San Diego coast and riding the water taxi to and from the island of Stromboli off the coast of Sicily. These ventures never made me queasy. It was more like the anxiety of what could happen at sea, inflicted by watching movies like Jaws and The Titanic.


The anticipation of relaxation and exploration overrode those feelings and I was focused on the positive in the months leading up to trip. Our team (Amanda, Karry, Jen) flew into Fort Meyers on Sunday, February 7, the day of the Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas’ #royalincident. On the two-hour drive up to Tampa to board our cruise ship our friend and driver asked if we had heard what had happened on the Anthem. I tuned it out as much as possible. In fact the Royal WiFi throughout the cruise was sometimes spotty and slow and shared among our team and our multiple devices, made weather and news feeds less accessible.


In hindsight, that was a very good thing. I chalked it up to a storm at sea near the Bahamas that got a little wavy, oblivious of the real magnitude of the event. The first night at sea, Monday, February 8, was unsettling for me. The ship was riding the waves and rocking us side to side like we were on the Avatar ride at Nickelodeon Universe, heightening our tilt degree with each wave crescendo. Everything creaked and groaned, the hangers clanged together. My senses were on high alert.



Day Five: Four Desserts

I don’t think any of us slept a wink and maybe drifted off to a light rest for an hour before dawn. I was overjoyed to see the sunrise. Today, Tuesday, would be a new day. The ship swayed and put everyone’s agility, balance and grace to the test. Don’t fill your coffee mug more than 3/4ths full to prevent scalding your hand. Don’t look down for too long – focus your gaze on the horizon or something steady in the distance to walk gracefully without looking completely intoxicated. …I feel a top 10 Cruise Tips List coming on here…


I inquired on several things as I gathered research to ease my anxiety: Is this your first cruise? If so, how did last night’s waviness compare? Were you queasy? If so, did you take anything (numerous responses here from Dramamine to patches on pressure points behind the ears and wrists)? Do you know the captain? Will he ever come on a give us passengers a comforting message about what is happening?


When the sun came out, I relaxed and was able to enjoy being on this massive, luxurious vessel. We hit the spa and fitness center every day. I had to earn my three royal meals after all. The food and beverages were never in shortage and dining at 6:00 was a main event. Most days, I ran on the treadmill. Running on it while swaying major degrees side to side was a challenge. The message, “Placing your hands on the sensors (i.e. bar handles) is not recommended,” kept popping up, but yet I held firm. My fellow treadmillers and I laughed at the slight insanity of it.



Cheers to Grand Cayman, Solid Ground

In more calorie-burning fun, we packed the dance floor at the top level of the ship in the StarQuest and danced to our heart’s content. I mean, why not have intoxicated people dancing, spilling drinks, standing on a moving platform surrounding the bar at the top-most level of the ship where it’s the least fulcrum-friendly? By the third night of this, the journey started to feel a little like the February 2 Groundhog’s Day we just came off of. Between the electric slide and the the wobble and all of the randomness, the cruise was starting to feel like a never-ending wedding.


Honestly, I don’t mean to sound negative. I was mostly just fascinated with cruise culture and how people (including me and our team) behave in this environment. A few things that struck me:

1. Everyone seemed to fully trust the captain (even after Anthem’s captain made a decision in complete disregard for 6,000 people’s lives, in my opinion). No one seemed concerned that when we departed Grand Cayman on Thursday, we knew we were heading into tumultuous waters (which turned out, really, to be only slight waviness compared to Monday night).

2. On day one, we were quite full after each meal and keeping things in check; by day five, our eating and ordering (up to four desserts at one meal) was insanely out of whack.

3. One of the main advantages touted with cruises — exploring new lands to get a taste of them, like the day trips we took to Cozumel (Weds) and Grand Cayman (Thurs) — really didn’t allow enough time to do them any justice. Although I will say being on land was a beautiful thing in and of itself.



Sandscript #EmpoweringAll

On the upswing, I gathered a lot of reassurance from my fellow cruisers. Tammara said to me in her sweet way, “Think of it as a little city gliding along the water.” Brilliant! I’m going with that. Unique to our cruise experience was the company commonness that brought all of us together. We were all there on a journey intended to relax, reward and inspire us to new personal heights in our wellness business. I so enjoyed striking up conversations with people anywhere I went, learning about their business and gaining new insight.


Today, on solid ground in Minnesota, I have new perspective that I’m grateful for courtesy of this experience. From a business viewpoint, I’m ready to expand on Empowering All — find us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter — and help others on their road to wellness. From a personal perspective, I don’t believe I’ll be eager to set sail on a cruise anytime soon unless it’s a 99% chance of sunny skies and smooth waters.






Spring Break: Vacate the State May 2, 2015

Y: YOLO (Travel Adventures)

We got out! Last winter, we did not. We staycationed it in Minneapolis and it was miserable. Minnesotans need a getaway and timing is critical. If you vacation in January, just know it might be miserable to endure three more months of winter. End of March, some Minnesotan’s might argue, is an ideal time. It’s also spring break.

In the process of writing an article on family travel planning for May 2015 MNParent, I talked with Linda and Jim of Pique Travel Design. Vacations with your kids throughout their formative years are opportunities not to be missed. We cited the anticipation and planning for a trip as well as having more long-range travel on the horizon to look forward to, as top benefits. I expanded a bit on the planning for trips in my April blog, The Pros of Family Travel Planning.

When March 27 rolled around this year, we were ready to vacate the state. Our 8-day road trip, with a final destination of the Great Smoky Mountains, started out rocky. On the Wednesday prior to our Friday departure, my husband volunteered to host my son’s baseball kick-off meeting at our house. After shrugging off disbelief to this type of commitment, all four of us stepped up our game Thursday prior to the trip (and baseball meeting) for 2. 5 hours to whip the house into fine shape (I mention this because it was awesome to come home the following Saturday to a super clean house). When everyone arrived, my 11-year-old daughter, Ava, and I left for our scheduled pre-trip Target run.

New stylish, but cheap, sunglasses and sweet and salty snacks packed, we headed out the door 6:45a.m. on Friday. After an hour of chit-chat and a fair distance away from metropolis, I pressed play on one of five audio books I checked out from the library. Harry Potter didn’t garner much attention. All four of us were too focused on our individual tasks: driving, Clash of Clans, Minecraft and Martha Stewart. I would attempt again later.

St. Louis, MO

Gateway 630 Feet Mark

Originally considered a type of fly-over destination on the trip, St. Louis proved to be rich in history and monumental. But then again, every city is. It’s about seeking out a unique experience. Thanks to Ava and her trip research, she discovered the Delmar Loop historic district in SLP, ranked among top 10 Great Streets in America by the APA. We arrived at 3:00 and checked into Ava’s booking suggestion, the Moonrise Hotel. Within walking distance of retail, restaurants and shops along St. Louis’ Walk of Fame, we spent hours combing the memorabilia of Blueberry Hill and throw back candy stores. We topped it off with bowling at Pin-Up Bowl, just next to our hotel.

The next day, after a visit to Winslow’s Home on Delmar, we headed to The Gateway Arch. It was a bright, sunshiny day so we started with a walk through downtown and visit to the St. Louis Old Courthouse, where Dred Scott was tried. The kids were fascinated with the story and Ava could lend some insight as she had just studied slavery and the Civil War. We purchased our arch tickets and walked through the historic courthouse, currently undergoing restoration. Up my alley!

After an expected wait in line to get into the underworking of the Arch, we learned the South Tram was shut down (there are two tiny trams, one in each arch). We agreed the delay would be worth it and 1.5hrs later, we ascended to 630 feet via the North Tram. With our family and a stranger in the five-person tram, it felt quite claustrophobic (people in 1963-1965, when the arch was built, were smaller than modern-day Americans perhaps?).  The views from the top through tiny windows that you leaned over mimicked both in-flight and free-fall feelings. An architectural and engineering feat undoubtedly that left us feeling a bit uneasy and happy to make a safe descent.

Louisville, KY

Jockeying for PositionWe arrived 3 hours later in Louisville (pronounced LOO-ee-vil) with our accommodations booked en route, as we had left this night to chance. The Galt House was hopping and Saturday night was in full swing. Around 8:00 we headed out to explore via foot, the Yum Center, Whiskey Row (yes, with the kids) and dine at DocCrows in the midst of the Kentucky vs. Notre Dame game. The southern smokehouse and raw bar proved one of the best meals of the trip. Most rowdy experience? A group of people in the lobby using adult language to the extent that the wife told her husband, Mouth Up. Calvin, my 9-year-old, thought that to be hilarious.

On the way out of the city on Sunday, we visited Churchill Downs for the tour and museum package. Excitement was definitely building for the 141st season of The Kentucky Derby (coincidentally, starting now). The museum had surrounding video screens to capture the spirit of the race during a 20 minute video showcasing the history and the greats from horses to jockeys including Calvin Borel.

Nashville, TN

Most Beautiful Small TownFour hours later and a side detour based on my husband’s request to wind along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, we navigated into Nashville. I will say the wandering included lunch at Bardstown, a quaint little town whose claim to fame is Most Beautiful Small Town in America. The Vanderbilt University area of Nashville, just SW of downtown, found us in another Ava-booked accommodation: Homewood Suites Vanderbilt by Hilton. With two nights ahead of us, we were happy to enjoy the awesome comp happy hours, dinners, breakfast buffets and sizable salt-water pool (the largest pool in their new model of Homewood Suites, according to the manager).

On Sunday we went to Perfect Pizza in Hillsboro for dinner and retired early. Monday, Mar 30, we ventured into downtown Nashville. It was an easy drive. We parked in the huge, new Nashville Music City Center (convention center) and happened upon the Country Music Hall of Fame. It was such a beautiful day, that we opted not to visit there, but head over to The Ryman, the birthplace of the Grand Old Opry. We so enjoyed The Ryman (currently under restoration) and the backstage tour where we heard stories about Minnie Pearl and Johnny Cash and the greats that graced the stage. Chad recorded a song he wrote in their sound booth for $25.

Honky Row NashvilleWe had plenty of time to walk Honky Tonk Row, have lunch in an open-air cafe (as Minnesotans, we were totally giddy about this), check out the shops and hop on a trolley for a city and environs tour. The capitol and grounds was worthwhile, then mid-tour, we hopped off at the Parthenon, just next to our hotel. We basked in the sun at the park for a good hour and hit the pool (again!) for a quick swim.

After we took in dinner at the hotel, the kids were on their own. A grown-ups must-see? The downtown scene of Music City. With live music on every level and every stage in every bar, we visited three touristy joints before inquiring with a local to find the off-the-beaten track venues (Printer’s Alley). Date night. Check!

Smoky Mountains

The next morning, we cruised through the new Grand Old Opry area, but did not stop. I was looking forward to our morning visit to Andrew Jackson’s Historic Mansion. When we arrived, three people opted out. I guess after three days of other tours, no one could muster up the energy for another tour. I was disappointed, but we moved on. The Great Smokys awaited…

Black Bear CabinAfter our cross-TN journey, we wound around narrow, climbing roads and arrived at our cabin for a three-day stay. Our Black Bear Hollow Cabin with its three floors and decks, pool table, hot tub, fire pit area, isolation and views of the Smokys, at $150 a night was a steal! This lodging pick courtesy of my husband, found us in Townsend, TN, by the Cades Cove area of the Smokys. Already day five of our trip, we were in vacation relaxation mode and ready for a night in.

We had a fire in the fire pit, enjoyed the hot tub and planned activities for the next few days. Upon waking up Wednesday morning, April 1, we were ready to see the mountains we had travelled all this way to see. We were refreshed and ready to hike, so we ventured out from Cades Cove (on the western side of the park) to see Abrams Falls. It was a decent elevation over a round-trip 2.5 hour hike. We were starved though. Somebody forgot the picnic we packed….

After R&R at our cabin, our curiosity about Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg got the best of us. Just 15 minutes up the road, the kids and Chad did an Alpine Slide in Pigeon Forge for $15 a pop. We marveled at the rise-in-place tourism mecca of every tour for kids imaginable – buildings built like pirate ships, a Jurassic Jungle and more. We did not stop. Gatlinburg was retail, restaurants and entertainment. The kids loved it – one big amusement park and American fun factory. Chad and I were ready to tap out.

Horseback VistaThursday morning, we loaded up on allergy pills and headed just down the road two minutes to Next to Heaven Horseback Riding, where they tout unguided tours with the most scenic routes. We had passed a few other options in the flatlands, but this just appealed to us. We got a two-minute overview, then got on Liberty, Dakota, Huck and Dusty for a one-hour tour. It was indeed scenic. These sure-footed horses made me most uneasy in trot and downhill mode. Chad and Cal relished in the adventure, Ava and I were a bit more cautious. It was elating, but I was happy to be back on my own two feet!

It was starting to get a bit overcast after our post-horsebacking riding rest, but we continued on with our plan to venture further into the Smoky Mountains. Townsend, north of the park, was an hour-long drive into the park and our destination along Clingman’s Dome Road, a seven-mile stretch of road to the top. This particular road, only open seasonally, had just opened April 1. As we climbed, the fog (or blue smoke/ purple haze) enveloped us and about 4 miles in, we turned back. No doubt upon reaching the top, the fog would prevent a view of anything. Instead, we hung out at Newfound Gap at the Tennessee and North Carolina border.

After a full day, Friday morning, April 3, had us packing up to say goodbye to our lovely little cabin. We logged 12 hours of travel-time that day before reaching our friends’ home in Chicago. There would be no sight-seeing in Chicago. I had set that expectation at the onset. Chicago would be a return trip and weekend visit during the summer. We slept well. The six hour drive back home to Minneapolis on Saturday seemed a breeze compared to the day before. We were happy to be home.

All in all, it was a taste of southeastern America that was new for all of us and a good combo of cities, historic sites, museums and the great outdoors. Most importantly, I feel grateful to have had the time to travel, bond as a family and create memories. Next up? We’re discussing it over coffee this morning…


The Pros of Family Travel Planning April 19, 2015

Y: YOLO (Travel Adventures)

We knew we were on the hook for a kids-inclusive spring break vacation this year. Last year my husband and I got away for a trip to Las Vegas over spring break while the kids went to their grandparent’s home in sunny southwestern MN. In March 2014, we were just seven months off our 10-day family vacation to Glacier, so we reasoned that a mom-and-dad only trip was justified.


Ideas for our March 2015 spring break started popping up in family discussions around October 2014. At the end of October, my husband returned from a business trip to Ashville, North Carolina, where he got a little taste of a state that lies east of the Mississippi. We started quizzing ourselves about what we knew about the Eastern U.S. and realized neither of us had visited much, nor did we know what we’d do in that area of the country.

Charting a Course

Charting a Course


We got out a big atlas map and started charting a possible route for a road trip experience with the final destination as the Smoky Mountains (near Ashville, NC, our inspiration point). It would be a marathon. Luckily, the kids, Ava age 11 and Calvin age nine, were road warriors. In other words, we’ve groomed them through frequent summer weekend trips to Okoboji, IA (6.5 hrs round trip), a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota (26 hrs round trip and in-trip driving) and a trip where we flew into Calgary, but logged about 30 hrs between Glacier National State Park, Waterton and Banff, Canada (see our August 2013 Trip Adventure). Important prep and groundwork for setting expectations and practicing patience en route for our upcoming trip.


The kids’ schools tacked on a freebie Friday prior to the week-long spring break so with dates of Friday, March 27 – Sunday, April 5 wide open, we set a rough outline of our nine-day itinerary. We started by booking our Smoky Mountains lodging. The cabin we wanted was available for three nights toward the end of the vacation (Mar 31- Apr 3), so we booked that in November 2014, and continued to ruminate on the other cities and points of interest along the way over the next few months. Having a trip on the horizon was a great focus for the after-Christmas-blues!


After coming up with the inspiration, destination and first lodging, my husband turned it over to the rest of the family. And everyone stepped up, just like professional travelers. Ava took it upon herself to research accommodations in the cities we outlined along our route – St. Louis, MO, Nashville, TN and Chicago, IL, for starters. We gave her a budget and criteria for each city including location (based on ease of access and top one or two things we highlighted in each city). I anticipated reviewing her suggestions and having to do more research to find something more suited. I was wrong. She did an excellent job via her ipad over two months of research off and on to find good deals, great locations and a balance of experiences from modern to kid-friendly to historic.

Gateway Arch Greatness

Gateway Arch Greatness


To correlate with the accommodation search, we all chose top priorities of things we’d like to see and do in each city and along our way. They included The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, The Country Music Hall of Fame and The Grand Old Opry in Nashville, The Hermitage (Andrew Jackson’s estate) outside of Nashville, The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, somewhere in Kentucky, and obviously, The Smoky Mountains. These top priorities helped us feel confident in our accommodation choices and helped us explore the cities we’d be visiting.


About a month prior to the trip, we talked about the length of the vacation. The Sunday prior to going back to school and work would be Easter Sunday. We wanted to re-enter that Monday on a high note so decided that we’d plan to stay in Chicago the last Friday of the trip with friends (no sight-seeing this time around, because Chicago would be an easy summer weekend trip). This meant we could have an easy 6.5 hour drive back to Minneapolis on Saturday.


We had a solid, working plan. We’d leave Friday, March 27 at 6:00a.m., arrive in St. Louis by 3:00p.m., spend one night there, leave Saturday open (Nashville was too limited and spendy to book on Saturday night), book Sunday and Monday nights in Nashville, visit The Hermitage on Tuesday morning, arrive in Townsend, TN (in the foothills of The Smoky Mountains near Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, TN) for our three-nights, spend 12hrs in the car on Friday, April 3 to make it to Chicago and then head home the following Saturday.


Well, it didn’t quite happen that way. Which was intended, actually. By planning enough and leaving a bit of room for spontaneity, we were able to roll with all of the unknown surprises and unanticipated challenges that travel always presents. For instance, we didn’t anticipate that one of the two small roller trams in the Gateway Arch would malfunction and cause extra-long lines on a Saturday. We discussed and agreed that spending an extra two hours there would still be worth arriving later than planned in our next city, Louisville, KY.

Postcard Art

Postcard Art


In Nashville, although we intended to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame, it was a beautiful day for a walking tour of the city. So we opted out of the more expensive, lengthy venue and tour for a historic, quaint, 1.5 hour visit to The Ryman, the birthplace of the Grand Old Opry. On the way out of Nashville, we cruised by the new location of the Grand Old Opry and with its vast, theme-park feel and our Ryman experience surrounding the Opry, we didn’t feel compelled to stop. And although we arrived to The Hermitage mid-morning with plenty of time for a tour (in fact, one I was anticipating a great deal), the family was just not into another two-hour tour. Looking back, I realized we had just come of The Gateway, Churchill Downs and The Ryman tours. The Hermitage would have to wait.


One of the most difficult things for me to do as a traveler is relax. I get this charge and excitement from being in a new city or destination that can’t be quelled. I tend to go, go, go. Traveling with a family required that I temper this a bit. However, I did find my early-riser son and I could do some things (like get in a run or workout) before the rest of the family rose. And the three night stay in a rustic cabin in the mountains (Black Bear Hollows) certainly helped with the relaxation factor. For $150 a night, this gorgeous three-story log cabin (sleeps 10) with a pool table, hot tub, fire pit and isolation was a destination in itself. A find, indeed.


The weather was cool to warmish (29 in Louisville to 70 in Townsend, TN) throughout our vacation. Even as a Minnesotan craving some sunny solace, I went into it with zero weather expectations. After all, we weren’t going to Mexico. In Nashville and two of our days in the Smoky Mountains, we had perfectly warm, beautiful days. True to form and all of our perceptions of what The Smoky Mountains might be, a purple haze (or “blue smoke” as observed by the Cherokee) settled in over the tops of the mountains during our visit to the top.


One day prior to our arrival, the park opened their summer season only road, Clingman’s Dome Road. We found ourselves on this seven-mile road that reaches the very top of the mountains at Clingman’s Dome, enveloped in fog. We turned around half-way up, reasoning that we couldn’t see 10 feet in front of us, it would only get worse and we’d not be able to see a vista when we reached the summit anyway. After hiking, exploring waterfalls and Cades Cove in the park, we were fine with this decision. We knew we were somewhere in the Smoky Mountain Rain and that’s all that mattered.


For Fall Colors, Do North October 7, 2013

Vista from our TwoHarbors vaca home

Vista from our TwoHarbors vaca home

Fall colors in Northern Minnesota get so much hype every year. So when we had the opportunity to travel early October to TwoHarbors to stay in a private home, courtesy of a very generous client of my brother’s, we hopped on it. Our trips to the Lake Superior shore Minnesota side have typically been in the summer (Backdoor Exploring blogpost) and winter, both recent trips were to Lutsen.


Car one – my parents, brother and sister-in-law and their 8 month old – went up Thursday eve of the first weekend in October. Car two – our family of four – drove up Friday afternoon. The weather didn’t look to particularly promising, so we left the golf clubs behind in favor of board games. Our home away from home for the weekend was in TwoHarbors right on 440ft of lakeshore with a long winding private drive. Luckily it is a year-round home with heat and a fireplace – much needed for a chilly fall weekend.


Nana and kids on the shore

Nana and kids on the shore

The first crew visited Gooseberry Falls on Friday, while we were still in the Twin Cities. It was the best day weather-wise. When we arrived around 7:00 on Friday night, it was pitch black. You could hear the waves crashing, but see nothing of Lake Superior. Needless to say, the kids, Ava (10) and Calvin (8) were pretty blown away the next morning by the views and rocky shoreline.  Winds reached 45MPH out of the NNE that day which made for huge, crashing, ocean-like waves. A few times, they caught us of guard and had us retreating pretty quickly!


On Saturday, my husband made omelets with everything – and I mean everything from steak to sausage and all the fresh veggies from gardener friends we toted with us. After brunch, it was misty and overcast so our plan to visit the Glensheen Mansion in Duluth, haunted in murderous mystery, was an eerily perfect choice.  We arrived by 12:15 and watched a few of the historical videos in the gift shop before our 1:10 tour. We opted not to do the expanded 1.5hour tour that included the boys’ floor and attic, where Elisabeth, the heir to the estate, was murdered in 1977.


Waves Crashing, Coming Closer, Run!

Waves Crashing, Coming Closer, Run!

The kids thought we were en route to a Haunted House, like the one at the MN State Fair, so we had a lot of explaining to do.  The tour mentioned nothing of the murders. Most of us had read Glensheen’s Daughter, the story of Margorie Congdon, the adopted daughter of Elisabeth Congdon. It had been years though, so we refreshed our memories by paging through the book in the gift shop, by Minnesota author, Sharon Darby Hendry, a family friend on my husband’s side. We thoroughly enjoyed the tour — it really transported us to a different era. Built between 1905-1908, the home had not only the best technology available in its day, but the most humane and equal treatment of servants.


After the tour, we headed into Grandma’s Sports Garden for the 2:30 Gopher game.  It was only fair after the guys endured the home tour, maybe not their first choice. The weather was fierce as we left to head back up to Two Harbors. We decided to stay in make a fire and order pizza from Do North Pizza. Good stuff especially because they delivered. Later on, indulging in Betty’s Pies and a heated game of Cranium, we had an experience worth a Yelp review (Perfume Pie).


Exploring Minnesota

Exploring Minnesota

After a pancake breakfast Sunday morning, our crew split up. Our family of four visited Gooseberry Falls and the rest of us drove up the shoreline to Splitrock Lighthouse. We met back at the house late afternoon and packed up to head back to the cities. The skies brightened a bit on the way home to take in some peak fall colors. I would much rather have been out walking among them, which we did a bit of at Gooseberry Falls.


With all of our indoor time, we did check out the homeowner’s vast collection of historical books while Calvin studied the map of Lake Superior and shipwrecks of the past, including the Edmund Fitzgerald. The kids were intrigued enough to want to plan another vacation to the lake next summer – potentially the Apostle Islands. (I did post some #fallcolor finds on Instagram as part of Explore Minnesota’s Instagram campaign #ExploreMN and a quick Vine video). I am want to find another fall weekend to visit where the viewing pairs nicely with warmer weather – maybe fall of 2014!


Going to the Sun Road and Beyond September 2, 2013

Y: YOLO (Travel Adventures)

Posing Outside of the Prince

Posing Outside of the Prince

Well, the kids are officially world travelers now. They have several stamps in their passport books to show for it: Calgary, CAN, Carway, Alberta, CAN/ Babb, MT, Chief Mountain Port of Entry, Alberta, CAN and Roosville, MT/ British Columbia, CAN. All from our recent 9 day vacation to Glacier and Waterton National Parks and Banff, Canada.


What originally started as a drive out West from our home base, Minneapolis, grew to a more full-blown trip when we tallied drive time to Glacier (20 hours, not to mention drive time while in Glacier), considered venturing to the Canadian side of Glacier – Waterton (geographically, it functions as one big park system) and a realized how close Banff, Canada, a destination we’d wanted to check out for quite some time, was in proximity to Glacier.


We settled on flights into Calgary, Canada and booked in February for our mid-August vacation. The kids, Ava (10) and Calvin (8), began the countdown. My husband planned the itinerary based the top activities on our list and created a round-trip route. Calgary, East Glacier (4 nights), West Glacier (2 nights) and Banff (2 nights). We booked two of them in April and the final stay in July. We started the passport process in June. I needed a renewal (after 3 letters from the gov, it finally arrived five days before our departure) and the kids needed their first. It was still quite expensive to get theirs, which are only good for five years.

Hiking at Hidden Lake

Hiking at Hidden Lake


Four hundred and forty-four pictures and nine days worth of vacation is too much to cover in-depth via blog. I do have a 60-page album with select pictures (200) and deets coming from Shutterfly this week and a 72 picture album on Facebook. The photo book was a 20-hour project to complete including gathering pics from the family and details from my daughter’s daily journal on the trip.


Here are the highlights, because who isn’t a fan of top ten lists?:


1. Growing Accustomed to Customs: we put our passports to use six times from US to CAN (flight, Day 1), CAN to MT (Day 1), MT to CAN and back (Day 2), MT to CAN (Day 7) and CAN to US (flight, Day 9). Lines were not long, but questions from Border Patrol could tend to be.


2. Scenery: Treacherous roads with breathtaking views and the construction crews who risk their lives: Looking Glass Road (East side of St. Mary Lake to East Glacier), Going to the Sun Road (through Glacier park, crossing the Continental Divide at Logan Pass). Common site: ambulances.

Zip Lining: Ready, Set, Starfish

Zip Lining: Ready, Set, Starfish


3. Hiking: Hidden Lake, a 6-mile roundtrip hike from Logan Pass, with a dip in a chilly 45 degree Glacial Lake. More moderate hikes/walks included Swiftcurrent and Trail of the Cedars. Difficult hike (my solo venture) in Canada – up Sulphur Mountain.


4. Lakes: Pristine, aquamarine lakes with rocky beaches: Swiftcurrent Lake, Hidden Lake, Lake MacDonald, Linnet/Waterton Lakes in Glacier/Waterton Park system and Bow, Louise and Moraine lakes in Canada.


5. Zip lining in Whitefish at Big Mountain – 2.5 hours and 7 zip lines. With Calvin at 62 lbs, pushing the minimum 60 lbs requirement, he has two adventures of coming up a bit short on his zips. Learned positions: pencil, starfish and landing.


6. Whitewater Rafting on the Flathead River – 3 hours and an 8 mile journey. From Bonecrusher to Freddy Flipstone on Class I&II Rapids, it was a lesson in trust on our 11-person raft.


7. Accommodations: Travelers Rest in East Glacier, a lofty tower with a B&B feel; Apgar Village in West Glacier, rustic cabins in a very young-family friendly locale (park rangers, constellation viewing, canoeing, kayaking, etc); and the Rimrock Resort in Banff, 5-star hotel built into Sulphur Mountain next to Hot Sulphur Springs. Room service!

Chasing Waterfalls - GTTSR

Chasing Waterfalls – GTTSR


8. Eats: Notable: Serranos in East Glacier – authentic Mexican; Belton Chalet, West Glacier – historic and gourmet on the balcony; Prince of Wales Hotel, Windsor Lounge – starving, ordered all three app on the menu, English fare; Magpie&Stump in Banff, a cantina with Build Your Own Nachos – enough to feed a family of four for dinner; and Eden, a 5-star in the Rimrock Hotel, adults only while kids watched Epic back in the hotel room. Not so notable: Eddies in West Glacier/Apgar and Luna’s in East Glacier.


9. Nature: hikes, swimming, campfires – especially our evening campfire on the beach on the shores of Lake MacDonald. S’Mores of course. Not a soul around.


10. Wildlife: bear cub on our hike around Swiftcurrent Lake; moose at the entrance to Kootenay Park, mountain goats (rock-kickers) on our hike to Hidden Lake, cows on Looking Glass Road, and a gray fox in East Glacier, roaming the streets of town.

Lake MacDonald Cruise

Lake MacDonald Cruise


The overall highlight: family-bonding time. Nine days put us to the test. Calvin had a fever days 1-4 and Chad, my husband, the same deal days 4-8, nothing that couldn’t be alleviated with Tylenol, but more naps and downtime was needed. We didn’t always feel like doing the same things and physically the kids couldn’t happily do all of the hiking I would have liked. We compromised and gave everyone a chance to be head decision-maker at some point.


Before, during and after, people would tell us how memorable this trip will be for our kids. They definitely got into the vacation/ tourist groove and have a hunger for more. Ava is on a quest for Paris before her passport expires in five years. Calvin has sights set on Rio for the 2016 games. It’d have to be Prague for me with a side trip to Greece, maybe back to Italy. Take away: There is no shortage of destinations to stamp in our passports!


Our route went from Minneapolis, MN to Calgary, CAN, south to East Glacier, MT, back north for a short afternoon trip into Waterton, CAN, west to West Glacier and Whitefish, MT, 1.5 trips on Going to the Sun Road through Glacier, north through British Columbia and the Kootenay National Forest, NW to Banff and north again on the Icefields Parkway before heading back to Calgary, CAN for our flight out. Amazing scenery and sights! Check out our specific destinations on our map.


Sun, Surf and SanDiego April 14, 2012

Y: YOLO (Travel Adventures)



On a recent trip to San Diego over the kids’ spring break, my eight year-old daughter and six year-old son got their first taste of the ocean. It was sweet. Ava was mesmerized by the crashing of the waves and quite exuberant with her discovery of the movement. Never mind the chilling temperatures. Calvin, on the other hand, treaded in lightly. Up to mid-calf actually before he was quickly knocked over by an incoming wave – enough to keep him a safe distance away for a few days.


It was a four-day vacation. We had opted out of LegoLand due to a visit to Legofest in May and kept Disneyland at bay. With a shorter-trip, I wanted to have enough time for relaxation. The vacation rental condo we rented in Del Mar fit the bill with its relaxed vibe, flip-flops always allowed, proximity to the beach (1 block) and restaurants and shops all within walking distance. Nearly everyone we passed by on our walks had a dog, which only fueled Ava’s quest to proposition me with more reasons why we should get a dog.


She had four days to be persistent. But it was day one, let’s relax. I was reminded that with a party of four of all ages and interests, a good vacation takes a lot of forethought, planning and buy-in. In general we agreed what not to do and each person made their cases for the things that they wanted to do. Kids: San Diego Zoo, movies (their room had bunk beds, video games and large plasma tv (they were a bit awestruck)), beach and hot tub; My husband: surfing, Torrey Pines Golf, watching the Masters; Me: whale watching, Balboa Park (Space Museum), Coronado Island andLa Jolla.


Emulating the Surf Stance at the CA Surf Museum

Emulating the Surf Stance at the CA Surf Museum

Despite planning efforts in advance, at vacation go-time you’re out of your routine, in a new place on the map with numerous variables – sleep deprivation, food shortage and spirit for adventures. I told the kids traveling is work and we don’t always know what to expect. We agreed that we certainly didn’t expect half of the passengers on the whale watching cruise to have motion sickness, Calvin being one of them. We also didn’t anticipate that it would take 50 minutes to get our order right at Smashburger – Is this California’s idea of fast food? And lastly, upon our late arrival, we did not plan for all the goodies on the Easter Egg Hunt at St. James by the Sea to be found by 10:32.


I countered these disappointments with the good fortune of other happenings. Like the interesting people we met in the shared condo hot tub – the kids instantly made new friends although there was a bit of one-upmanship from Calvin – “Well, you might have one big ocean, but we have 10,000 lakes and that equals one ocean.” We also had the chance to reconnect with my husband’s cousin and family including the kids’ second cousin, Mila, who is a mere two days younger than Ava. And at the somewhat crowded zoo, the kids had two times where they had front row seats to the action with the alligators and tigers. Oh and let’s not forget GPS. Love.


When we arrived home we did a recap of our trip: Day 1: stood mommie up at the restaurant, too obsessed with the ocean to be bothered with lunch; late lunch at Stratford Cafe Day 2: whale-watching, lunch at Prado in Balboa Park (lovely), more ocean, hot tub, Del Mar Pizza Day 3: Tour of Torrey Pines, brunch at the HashHouse (Sage Fried Chicken) in the Hillcrest neighborhood, the zoo, dinner with cousins, guitar and singing. Day 4VG Bakery (signature crumb donut), trip to Oceanside (just up Hwy 101) for walk on the pier, surfer observation and visit to the CA Surf Museum where Soul Surfer’s swimsuit and board are on display, beach time/ surfing for Chad with coaching from an avid surfer in the family and dinner at Jakes Day 5: packing  up, Easter service in La Jolla and $28 worth of pastries, milk and coffee from Amore Restaurant.


She Sells Seashells by the Seashore

She Sells Seashells by the Seashore

We compared the itinerary with our pre-vacation picture and activity match-up. We made a three by five grid of 15 spaces and me and kids each choose 5 things we wanted to do. I’d say they fared well with theirs. Me not so much, missing Coronado, Space Museum and the Salk Institute. Ultimately it made for a more restful, balanced trip – opting for more beach time than museum/day trip stuff.


Project Boulder Extraction

Project Boulder Extraction

And as it turns out, Ava remained drawn to the water and collected everything from seashells to flowers and Calvin remained dedicated to his task to remove sand around a huge boulder (shown here with the new Lifeguard Lookout in the background, scheduled to open June 2012).


I asked the kids if they’d like to live there – – emphatic yeses from both. Surprise. We also talked about preferences on going to new places or coming back to places we’ve previously visited. The new factor won out with one caveat: it needs to be near an ocean.


What good family vacations have you taken? What made them good or not so good?


Backdoor Exploring August 26, 2011

I: Independence

Lutsen in the Summer

Lutsen in the Summer

I always file vacations under Independence. A time of outdoor exploration and inward reflection, planning and spontaneity. Upon returning from our North Shore Minnesota vacation, our family of four recapped it as a good choice all-around. We had considered Montana and Chicago as other destinations. Montana would amount to a lot of driving and with the state’s huge tourism budget, the lodges we looked at in late June for Glacier National Park were booked (You saw the bus ads and billboards, right?). We put that on the back-burner for next year. I was still holding out for Chicago, but in the end the lure of hiking and exploration won out.


We opted for a local vacation to the North Shore of Lake Superior – a four hour drive from the Twin Cities to Lutsen, where we stayed. The kids had never been so far as Duluth. I had only been up north that route once in the fall, once in June for Grandma’s Marathon and a few times for winter downhill skiing. My husband estimated maybe 30 visits that direction for him.


We set out on a Sunday morning for a Sunday  – Wednesday vacation. It was nice to have Friday and Saturday to prep as well as a short Thursday – Friday work week upon return. At many of the lodges up north, they offer mid-week deals like three nights for the price of two, kids eat free and good twilight rates for golf. We chose Eagle Ridge in Lutsen and I’ll admit, it took me a good while to accept that it wasn’t in its all-snow covered glory. The rooms were average, but the views were all green with a glimpse of the great lake.  The weather was beautiful, but chilly at times. Both kids had forgotten their sweatshirts somehow. We made due.


Sunday kicked off with 1:30 lunch at Two Harbors and a 4:00 check-in at Eagle Ridge Resort. We headed to Papa Charlie’s, the restaurant on site, around 6:30, but no one was hungry quite yet. By the time we worked up an appetite, it was nearly 9:00 and the Coho Cafe in Tofte, just seven miles south of Lutsen, was closing. We headed one more stop south on the route to the Bluefin Grille. Husband Chad was hesitant —  the place looked pretty fancy. I reminded him it was a Sunday night and that we were on vacation. They might have had a kids’ menu, but the late night happy hour menu looked interesting and shareable. Two bacon and cheddar and two bbq’d pork with coleslaw sliders, fried onion green beans, green salad and cheese empanadas later, everyone, except 6-yr-old Calvin who was sleeping, was satisfied. I think the tab came to $26. Super reasonable.


Grand Marais Lighthouse

Grand Marais Lighthouse

Monday morning, after coffee doused with creme to kill the unmistakable hotel water flavor (note, remember to bring in water always), we headed to Cascade River State Park for a hike on the Superior National Trail. We didn’t have a map, so relied on signage. I felt we could have been more prepared – had we not learned from previous hiking experiences that you need to plan? The views along the trail, high above the river whose water and foam is likened to a rootbeer float, lasted 15 minutes before we diverged away from the river to Lookout Mountain. We made it halfway to a significant vista to make it feel like the summit, popped a few gummi bears, and headed back. All total, 1.5 hours worth.


Rock Sculptural Elements

Rock Sculptural Elements

Another 20 minutes north and we arrived in Grand Marais, starving. We grabbed a few sandwiches to split and drove up the coast a bit more. This town was reminiscent of small town Alaska for me. We parked on the pier by the U.S. Coast Guard Station, skipped some rocks, built some rock structures and climbed the lighthouse steps. We spent a few hours there, then ventured into town to pay a visit to the Angry Trout. It was here my normally extatic son, ready to eat at a moment’s notice, was experiencing the first of high fever and exhaustion spikes. He pouted a bit and whined and we coined the term Trout Lip.


After a mandatory late aft nap, we headed back to the arcade within close walking distance at Papa Charlie’s for Ms PacMan, Arctic Cat, golf, darts and the like. Calvin assured me he was up for it. We stayed close to camp that eve, heading to the shared campfire area that hosted Eagle Ridge’s nightly gathering with complimentary stuff for s’mores. We met some nice folk there, perfected golden brown marshmallow roasting and toasted some hot dogs. A bubbly woman from Prior Lake, of grandmotherly age, gushed, “are you all here on Crowd Cut?” … “no we’re not here on the Crowd Cut,” admittedly they had never even heard of it.


By Tuesday, Calvin’s temp was really climbing and his patience with the outdoors was waning. While my husband and 8-yr-old daughter hiked,  I hung back so Calvin could take the mid-morning nap he so needed. We bypassed canoeing, golf and hiking and opted for the Gondola ride across the ski trails of Lutsen to the top of Moose Mountain and the Summit Chalet. We packed a lunch and left around 10:30. Tickets were a bit pricey, but we decided worth it. The views were spectacular and the thrill of the gondola was entertainment enough for the kids.


Ready Set Split

Ready Set Split

More napping for Calvin. He was not going to cut our vacation short! He was rested and well enough, once again, for Buck Hunter and Arctic Cat around 4:30. Kids could eat free with an adult entree purchase at Papa Charlies for our entire stay. We didn’t take advantage of this once due to kids menu burn-out at the end of summer. We ordered a lone app from Papa’s, otherwise ate our stash from Trader Joe’s we brought and three nice meals of all grown-up stuff and shared everything. Tonight, we hit the Coho Cafe in Tofte around 6:00 for pizza, ravioli and dessert, right from the dessert bar. Completely satisfying meal.


We checked out around 10:00am Wednesday and headed back with a few stops to see Split Rock Lighthouse, just newly listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks as of August 15, 2011, and a visit to Vitta Pizza, just opened mid-June this year, in downtown Duluth. Calvin was barely holding out – feverish and shivering for the last part of the drive. Without passing go (our home), we went straight to the pediatrician and got in a visit before closing time. No ear infection, pneumonia or strep, just a six-day virus. Fantastic!


Lesson learned: pre-vacation planning and resting are a necessity to make things go smoothly. Calvin’s fever might have set us back a bit from original plans, but we probably got more rest than we normally would on vacation, if you look on the bright side. As far as location, up north for Twin Citians is a good deal (see Minnesota Monthly August 2011 for statewide ideas). We agreed that trips to far-off destinations are one thing, but exploring what’s right outside your backdoor is a whole other enlightening idea.


I Saguaro, We’ll Be Back March 11, 2011

Starting a Fire at Greasewood Flats: A Good Idea?

Starting a Fire at Greasewood Flats: A Good Idea?

I: Independence

A good vacation should transport you. This past week in Scottsdale, Arizona and surroundings, we wanted to feel transported to the Southwest and tap into our inner cowboys. While I’m not willing to camp out under the desert stars with the rattlers, we did our fair share of hiking and visits to Greasewood Flats, Rawhide and the Rusty Spur.


The differences between the Midwest and Southwest as rediscovered through a 5 and 7-yr-old were heightened and interesting again. I recalled many times my memories of 6 maybe 7 extended trips to the area from ages 7 – 15. From temperature to landscape and language to lifestyle, everyday things continued to keep the inquisition flowing. Not to mention the nagging question for me, why didn’t I go to ASU? The kids wondered about the faraway illusion that cactus needles are soft and the close-up reality of their prickliness. Could you actually eat the oranges and lemons on the trees in our VRBO home’s backyard? Where did they come from? (we get ours at the store) Why can’t we start a fire at a bar in Minnesota?


I'd Saguaro I've Been Here Before

I'd Saguaro I've Been Here Before

Our answers unfolded throughout the short 4-day stay. It started with a trip to Greasewood Flats. This southwestern hang-out came straight out of Radiator Springs of Cars movie fame. The winding unpaved dusty roads leading to the joint had separate dunes breaking out horse, biker and truck parking. You could actually gather your own firewood and start a fire near your outdoor picnic table. There was live music, spurs, spit and dust – authentic alright, and a tough crowd you wouldn’t think sympathetic to my chasing a madder than all-get-out sleep deprived son around the premises. We left early.


Next day. An hour-long hike around Piestewa Peak (formerly known as Squaw Peak). And at 3:00p.m. in the afternoon, the trails had a hot and dusty, lazy feel to them. We took the circumference trail and shied away from the summit (the next day, grown-ups realized this was a wise choice).


There were at least four different major cacti that this city girl could discern. The terrain was rocky in parts, but very manageable for kids, not much traveled and satisfied their desire to explore. I’m happy to report that the only critters seen were in our ZipLoc bag of animal crackers Calvin couldn’t live without for the duration.


Head 'em Out: Rawhide

Head 'em Out: Rawhide

We spent the next few days living it up by the pool, golfing and visits to Taliesin and MIM and on the last day we went to Rawhide. Similar to the devastation that only a Griswold has felt, we arrived at the boarded up, shut down Rawhide at 1:00 in the afternoon. Apparently, Ghosttown was being featured that aft. (They are open 5-9 nightly). Sadly, we trek it back to Scottsdale.


Un-urban Cowboy

Un-urban Cowboy

Scottsdale’s Old Town was a easy visit. Ava and Calvin chatted it up with the locals. We bought some special “rocks” – jaspar and the like. After the women and children shopped, we met up with the boys who wandered into the Rusty Spur Saloon. Surprisingly good Mexican food and a live guitarist taking requests. We heard our second request of the vacation for Seminole Winds live (a favorite of Papa’s) and called it a vacation at that.


We said goodbye to the petroglyphs that adorn the roadsides, the great saguaros and the mountain shaped like a camel’s back. I swear, we’ll be back.


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