edamomie

An Exploration of Parenting by the Vowel

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.

 

 
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