Vacation Reads for the Whole Family

InterContinental Hotels Group invited my family to the Holiday Inn Resort at Pensacola Beach for a complimentary breakfast with Clifford the Big Red Dog and pool passes. I was not asked to write this article and opinions are my own.

One of the most important decisions I make when going to the beach is what book to toss in my beach bag. I love a good, juicy beach read.

In fact, we’re all avid readers at my house. My youngest daughter learned to read this year, and the rest of us frequently have our nose in a book. As a working mom, it can be challenging to find time to read, but I do enjoy it when I can (often that’s on vacation), and I love that my children like reading. My husband and I read aloud to them throughout their preschool years, which can be so beneficial for a child’s learning and development.

Clifford

When I heard about Holiday Inn and Scholastic teaming up to encourage kids to read while they’re on vacation, I was immediately interested because it’s the intersection of two things we enjoy: books and family travel. Through the Summer of Smiles program, Scholastic book characters like Clifford the Big Red Dog and Geronimo Stilton (He’s an adventurous mouse journalist, I learned) are greeting guests at select Holiday Inn hotels during breakfast events.

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In addition to photo opportunities, there are book character-themed coloring and craft activities for the kids. At the event we attended, children were offered a free book. Afterwards a small lending library was set up in the hotel lobby so that young guests can borrow books to read, or parents traveling on business can borrow a book to read a virtual bedtime story to their children back home. It’s a neat concept and my daughters enjoyed the experience.

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I’m all for anything that encourages reading and gets kids and parents to unplug from their electronic devices, especially on vacation. At the Holiday Inn Resort at Pensacola Beach, the breakfast with Clifford and friends was one of many perks offered for kids.

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We were able to explore the pool area, which includes a lazy river. I hadn’t floated along a lazy river in years and this was a first for my girls. We had so much fun doing this together, and I lost count of how many times we went around.

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I enjoyed lounging by the pool, too, while the girls met and swam with a mermaid, who makes daily appearances at the pool. Pirates also visited the pool on the day we were there, and a “dive-in” movie was scheduled for the evening. And what kid doesn’t like a snow cone bar?

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We left the hotel with snapshots from the meet and greet with Clifford, and I took several photos around the pool. I only regret not being in any of the photos myself. (We have to make a point to get out from behind the camera, moms!) Regardless, it was a memorable day spending time with my daughters. Happy travels and happy reading to all this summer!

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What are you and your family reading this summer? Leave us a comment.

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Swimming with Manatees in Crystal River

This winter I did something I never thought I would do. I put on a wetsuit!

Okay, that’s not really the thing I never thought I would do, but it was a first and I am proud to say there is little photo evidence of that floating around. It’s not a good look for anyone. The more exciting first was the reason for wearing the wetsuit. I went swimming with manatees in Crystal River, Florida.

Digital Camera

Manatees are large but gentle marine mammals. They are herbivores, and often are called sea cows. Crystal River, the winter home to the largest population of manatees in Florida, is located west of Ocala in an area that is known as Florida’s Nature Coast because of its unspoiled beauty.

December through March is the peak season for manatees, a protected species, in this area. Cooler winter water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico drive the manatees inland into the warm springs, which is where my daughters’ Girl Scouts troop and I had the chance to encounter these special creatures. We joined another troop from our area on a manatee snorkeling excursion arranged through River Ventures.

We arrived at River Ventures’ offices in Crystal River, where we were provided wetsuits and watched a safety video and presentation about the rules for snorkeling around manatees. Strict regulations require passive observation, which means floating quietly with as little disturbance to the water as possible when a manatee is nearby. This video provides a good overview.

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After learning the rules, we took a shuttle bus to the boat docks where we boarded two of the tour company’s pontoon boats. Three staff members accompanied each boat. After a short ride, we arrived in an area known as Jurassic Spring. We put on our masks and snorkels and proceeded very quietly and calmly into the water.

Even though I’ve spent a lot of time at the beach, I’ve never snorkeled all that much. The wetsuit, mask and snorkel, plus the pool noodle we were all given to float on, took some getting used to, especially because you are not supposed to kick or let your feet touch the ground. This is to avoid disturbing the manatees’ environment. My youngest daughter was by my side most of the time, and I frequently needed to help her with her snorkel, as well. It wasn’t difficult, just awkward. Fortunately the River Ventures staff was great with the young kids and helped them back to the boat when they needed a break. That allowed me to relax and explore the spring a little more than I had up to that point.

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A couple of other tour boats were visiting the same area, so it was crowded at times. Each group took turns observing some manatees that were sleeping in the area. Otherwise we generally floated around in a small area near private homes and docks. It wasn’t exactly the secluded, National Geographic atmosphere I’d envisioned, but we definitely saw manatees. Two or three of them swam up to me or under me during our time in the water.

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One of our guides said the best way to see more manatees is to schedule your tour right after a cold snap when more manatees seek warmth in the spring waters. If you have the luxury of a flexible schedule, that may be a good strategy. Otherwise, early morning tours are said to be better than later in the day.

Seeing the manatees up close in their natural habitat was an experience I will never forget. They were very gentle, just as we were told they’d be, and they didn’t seem phased by our floating in the area. I was glad I had brought a waterproof camera along to snap a few photos.

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The snorkeling tour was good, but while we were in the water, I saw a few kayakers paddle by who were also looking for manatees. If we go back to Crystal River, I might try this experience simply because you can see the manatee from your vantage point in the kayak when they swim to the surface, and it appears that you could move more easily to another location in the spring, too. There are also parks with manatee-viewing overlooks for those who want a more casual way to observe these beautiful animals.

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It was fun to try something new and learn about the manatees that are such a treasure in this part of our state.

 

Our Sunday in Scottsdale

Old Town Scottsdale signIf you followed our kid-free weekend adventures in Arizona earlier on the blog, you may have seen photos from our visit to Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. Seeing the desert plants was part of a relaxing Sunday that was much needed after our trek to the Grand Canyon.

We’d planned to hike the mountain trails behind our Scottsdale resort on this day and then relax by the pool, but I was still recovering from altitude sickness and feeling pretty wiped out. We decided to drive around Scottsdale to take in some of the sights.

Old Town Scottsdale is a must-see if you are in the area. It has a number of restaurant options and art galleries mixed in with old western shops and modern boutiques. We passed a couple of outdoor brunch spots that looked to be popular with locals and tourists alike. There is an Old Adobe Mission, which is open for tours throughout the week.

Old Adobe Mission, Scottsdale, AZA ballpark, Scottsdale Stadium, is nearby. It is the spring training home of the San Francisco Giants, and I just read that Tim Tebow, who recently became part of the New York Mets organization, could end up playing in a fall league here.

You can pretty much park your car and walk to any type of dining, shopping or entertainment experience in Old Town Scottsdale.

Scottsdale, AZA little further down the road in Tempe, we found the main campus of Arizona State University. We always think it’s fun to explore college towns when we’re traveling and this was no exception. The buildings are very different from the stately southern palaces we’re accustomed to seeing on SEC campuses. There were not many folks around when we strolled through campus, but I’m sure that is the exception and not the rule.

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Sun Devil Stadium was under construction, presumably to add more seating. According to Google, famous ASU alumni have included Pat Tillman, Phil Mickelson, David Spade, and my personal favorite late night talk show host, Jimmy Kimmel.

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After our sightseeing, we went back to our hotel, the JW Marriott Camelback Inn in Scottsdale. We tend to stay at Marriott properties whenever possible because of the points program that allows us to earn points toward future travel with every stay. They have not compensated me to tell you this (or to write about them at all, for that matter). It’s just what we do unless we have a compelling reason to stay somewhere else.

Interestingly, I learned that throughout its history the Camelback Inn has hosted the likes of Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Bette Davis, and it became Marriott’s first resort in the late 60s. It has undergone renovations and expansion through the years and modern era guests have included Oprah Winfrey and President George H.W. Bush.

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The Camelback Inn did not disappoint. We’d requested a mountain view room, and the sight of Camelback Mountain from our balcony each day was stunning. The entire resort was landscaped beautifully, and there was something new to admire at every turn. I was constantly admiring the desert vistas. We watched jackrabbits hopping from cactus to cactus.

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For a girl from the Southeastern United States, it was like being on another planet. The diversity of the geography really had us thinking about the history and settlement of this area of our country, and I wish we’d had time to visit the Museum of the West while we were in Scottsdale (It’s in Old Town, too.).

Our one-bedroom casita at the Camelback Inn was comfortable with a spacious bathroom. The resort staff were friendly and helpful. As we roamed around the resort, they met us several times on golf carts offering bottled waters and fresh pineapple.

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While we didn’t play golf, the resort has beautiful greens for those so inclined. I kind of expected Scottsdale to be full of retired tourists who are there for the golf. It may be that way at other times of the year, but during our visit the crowd looked a lot more like us – Gen X couples and young families. The musician that played during one of the outdoor dinners we enjoyed on the resort’s restaurant patios had a distinctively 90s set list (as in 1990s). It made for a nice evening.

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We did make it to the pool to relax and enjoy our last afternoon in the desert. A poolside wait staff is one of my favorite luxuries on a vacation. We took advantage of the hospitality as well as the lounge chairs and umbrellas, and we enjoyed a tasty frozen beverage and snack – again with an incredible view of Camelback Mountain.

Cheers to Phoenix and Scottsdale! You are beautiful and I hope I get to visit again some day.

Have you traveled to Phoenix or Scottsdale? What other places / attractions would you recommend visiting in the area? Leave a comment to share your thoughts. 

 

Desert Botanical Garden: A Must-See in Phoenix

chihuyThere is life in the desert.

Plants – and not just the glass variety that are the genius of artist Dale Chihuly – grow in abundance at Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona.

We visited on a Sunday morning and explored the five trails that make up this popular scenic attraction. Many varieties of cactus and other succulents are displayed throughout, as you might expect. A few flowering plants and wildflowers can be found here and, if you are lucky, you might see some of the small creatures that are native to the Sonoran Desert, too. We saw Gambel’s Quail, doves and prairie dogs during our visit in May.

Comfortable shoes, sunscreen or a hat, a camera and a bottle of water are really all you need to explore and enjoy the gardens. Wide paths are well maintained and easily accommodate wheelchairs and strollers. We noticed water bottle refilling stations available in at least a couple of spots along the trails. It is so important to stay hydrated here, as I learned if you read my previous post about visiting Arizona and the Grand Canyon. Although we explored the Desert Botanical Garden on our own, tours and special events are offered, as well.

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Cactus

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Agave

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Desert Rose

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Prickly Pear Cactus

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Prairie Dog

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Queen Victoria Agave*

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Agave Americana*

The photos speak for themselves, but Desert Botanical Garden is worth seeing in person, especially if you do not live in the Southwest and don’t see these types of plants very often. Admission is $22 for adults (with reduced rates available for seniors and students), and $10 for children (ages 3-12). Learn more at dbg.org.

The Desert Botanical Garden has not compensated me or this site in any way; the information conveyed is from my personal experience and opinion.

Planning a trip to Phoenix? Pin this image as a reminder to visit Desert Botanical Garden.

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*The names listed for these plants are from memory and my best attempt to identify them via an Internet search.

 

 

Visiting Arizona and the Grand Canyon: A Cautionary Tale

ArizonaA desert sunset, hiking around the rim of the Grand Canyon, the flavors of Southwestern cuisine, Sedona’s red rocks and cactus after cactus after cactus – there is so much about Arizona that I’ve wanted to experience for years. And I’m not just saying that because it’s the latest place I’ve been. I don’t really remember what first sparked my intrigue, but I’d romanticized the idea of Arizona in my mind since I was a teenager and I knew I had to get there some day.

Growing up among the red clay and lush oaks of Alabama, and now living a few sandy steps from the Gulf of Mexico on Florida’s northwestern coast, I knew Arizona would be otherworldly.

The diversity of geography and plant life throughout the Western United States fascinates me because it is so very different from every place I’ve ever known. I’d checked visiting various places in California and Nevada off my bucket list before – all good experiences – but I hadn’t ventured to Arizona until this year.

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South Rim, Grand Canyon National Park

My husband and I planned to visit Phoenix and the Grand Canyon over a long weekend to celebrate our 40th birthdays and our 13th wedding anniversary, all of which occur this year. Our plans came together beautifully. We flew into Phoenix Friday afternoon. We’d decided to stay in Scottsdale, a resort community and suburb of Phoenix, and devote a day to driving to the Grand Canyon and seeing Sedona along the way.

A very early wake up call on Saturday put us on our way north toward Flagstaff and ultimately Grand Canyon National Park. It would be a lot of driving, but when else are we going to see this great American wonder? And what could be more poetic than setting out on an adventure through the wild, wild West culminating 7,000 feet above sea level to say goodbye to our 30s?!

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Well, it turns out…

Forty years to the day – and almost to the exact hour and minute – of your birth, having reached the coveted destination and exploring for about 20 minutes, you can lose your lunch all over yourself (on your hair, shirt, shorts and shoes)… and the rented vehicle you’re traveling in, mind you. That’s pretty poetic, too, I guess.

Happy 40th to me!

This was definitely not the climactic 40th birthday I’d envisioned, but it’s certainly one I won’t forget. I even got a souvenir t-shirt, baby wipes and a giant roll of paper towels (out of necessity) that my husband was so kind to purchase from one of the two or three gas stations that represented all of civilization on a long a stretch of desert highway heading back toward Flagstaff. I cleaned myself and the car as best I could there in the gas station parking lot, but we were still hours from our hotel.

You see, that minor detail of reaching 7,000 feet at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon less than 24 hours after you left your home at sea level, flew across the country, and ascended by car nearly 6,000 feet was something I should have considered more carefully as one who’s reached the wise old age of 40. What was I thinking? Dora the Explorer and Map would have had a smarter game plan than this!

Temperatures were comfortable at the Canyon, hovering around 70 degrees during our visit. I drank a lot of water the entire time we were in Arizona. It’s possible I was dehydrated before we landed in the desert, but I really think the rapid changes in altitude were the problem. When you only have a few days to cover a lot of territory, you try to schedule all of the things you want to do but Mother Nature doesn’t necessarily accommodate. My idea of seeing the Grand Canyon on Saturday and relaxing back in Scottsdale on Sunday was shortsighted, for this reason: altitude sickness is real (or, I’m just allergic to 40).

If I had it to do over again I would have given myself time to get acclimated in Phoenix and gradually traveled north to the Canyon, but we didn’t have that luxury in our schedule. If I had it to do over again, we’d see the Grand Canyon by helicopter from Las Vegas. The three-and-a-half hours or so each way in the car from Scottsdale are too much, despite the breathtaking scenery, when you don’t feel well.

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Sedona, Arizona

And Sedona, beautiful Sedona. I’d come clear across the country to see this stunning red earth. In the condition I was in, I only got to look out the car window while praying I wouldn’t get sick again as we drove down Sedona’s winding roads through campgrounds and scenic overlooks. I made a few feeble attempts at taking photos at one stop, then we continued on back to Scottsdale.

That evening I slept, and later attempted to eat the In-N-Out Burger my husband picked up for us for dinner. It is normally such a treat for those of us living east of the Mississippi when we visit the West Coast, and I was so looking forward to it, but I could only manage about three bites.

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So while this wasn’t exactly a happy birthday as it unfolded, it is laughable now, and I can add the experience to a long list of adventures with my husband. I’m so glad he took care of me that day, and that he didn’t get sick. If it’s the un-luckiest thing that happens to us as we approach our 13th Anniversary, I’m okay with that.

I’ll share more from the rest of our Arizona trip (it gets better) in a future vomit-free post.

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Have you ever taken a vacation that didn’t go according to plan? Or did you learn a major lesson about traveling to a new destination? Please leave a comment! I’d love to hear your stories.

The U.S. National Park Service is celebrating its 100th anniversary on August 25, 2016. Despite my illness, I enjoyed seeing Grand Canyon National Park and look forward to visiting others.

 

Summer Snaps the Old Fashioned Way

This summer my 9-year-old daughters went to an overnight church camp for a week. It was the first time they’d been away from home (or another family member’s care) for more than one night. I know many of the counselors and parents who were chaperones, so I wasn’t worried about their safety, but I did miss them and wondered what they were doing at various times throughout the week.

It’s rare these days that we don’t have instant access and insight into what’s happening anywhere in the world at any given moment, especially when it involves our friends and family who use social media. But, while I was glad to get a few texts with photos from parents/friends who were attending the camp, I knew I would not be getting updates directly from my daughters. (We don’t do iPhones for 9-year-olds in our house, and the devices they do have don’t have a good camera function.) So I decided to arm them with disposable cameras – also called single-use cameras – that I picked up at Walmart. They were excited to document their time at camp, but you should have seen the confused look on their faces when I explained that they would not be able to see the images they’d shot until much later. Clearly this camera was a dinosaur to them, and maybe we’ll look into the new, modern Polaroid-style cameras or the tiny Go-Pros for them at some point in the future (Dear Santa), but I thought they’d have fun with this and I wouldn’t be out a ton of money if they lost them, which was very possible. I even picked up a waterproof version for the beach because I knew they’d have fun with that, too, and photos taken in the sand and water just look cool.

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Of course, when I first came up with idea to get the girls disposable cameras, I wasn’t even sure they were still available or where I’d be able to get the film developed. The last time I saw one of these cameras was at a wedding reception several years ago where the bride and groom placed them on the reception tables for their guests to use to document the festivities. Believe it or not, kids, there was a time wedding guests didn’t have cameras at the ready (Photo booths with props were not a thing, either). I may even have one of these disposable cameras from my college days stuffed in the back of a drawer somewhere, but that film has long since expired! Probably for the best.

Surprisingly, I found a few places that still process disposable cameras, too. It turns out I could drive about 20 miles to the nearest Walgreens store that processes film, or I could pay $50-60 for processing three cameras through Target.com, neither of which appealed to me. Then I remembered a site called MPix.com that a professional photographer recommended to me once. It turns out MPix will process 35mm film and single-use cameras. They even send you envelopes with pre-printed mailing labels for you to send your cameras or film to them. They develop the images and put them online for you to view within 24 hours. You pay for the processing in order to “unlock” your albums on their site (In my case, this totaled about $12 for all 3 cameras), and they mail negatives to you (as if I’ll ever use those, but that’s okay). The best part of their service is you can view the photos online and select individual images for printing, rather than paying for prints of the entire camera roll.

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With kids behind the camera, I expected we’d have quite a few misfires and I really don’t need seven different images of the camp cabin and bunk beds. I paid around $13 for the 39 prints I chose to order. I’ll have to scan them manually if I want to use them online, but to me that’s better than paying $30 for a disk of images from all 3 cameras. The photos will arrive in 10 days (I’m cheap so I opted for the $4 shipping option). Barring any problem with the prints, this was a pretty easy process and my kids got to take their own summer snapshots the old-fashioned way.

Of course, as I type they are checking out the daily Snapchat filters on my phone. But single-use cameras are still an option for certain circumstances – something to think about for your budding shutterbugs.

(MPix did not compensate me in any way for this blog post. I just wanted to pass along the info. on the off chance you decide to use a disposable camera in 2016 and wonder how in the heck you’ll get access to your photos.) Happy World Photography Day!

A Visit to Washington, D.C., with Kids – Day 4

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(Earlier I blogged about Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3 of our visit to Washington, D.C.)

For the last full day in Washington, D.C., we planned to take in all the sights. We Ubered into town on this morning and began at the Lincoln Memorial. The statue of Lincoln was powerful, but there is also an exhibit inside that pays tribute to the history of the monument including Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the monument in 1963. It was moving to hear and see the video I’d seen many times before and to actually stand in the very place where such an important moment of 20th Century history occurred.

Lincoln Memorial

We walked along the mall to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial (below). It was much smaller than I’d imagined, but meaningful to see nonetheless. All of the monuments and memorials along the National Mall may look very close together on a map, but wear comfortable shoes and be prepared to do a lot of walking! The scale of many of the buildings and popular sights is difficult to appreciate until you’re there in person.

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We continued on to the World War II Memorial, which is a beautiful reminder of those who served from every state and in every theatre of the war.

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The fountains make this space very peaceful.

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My husband and I both had grandfathers who served in World War II, so this memorial held a more personal meaning for us.

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We took pictures of the Washington Monument (above) from this vantage point, but decided to forego touring it in order to walk along the tidal basin where the Cherry Blossom trees were in full bloom. And it was certainly no secret! Thousands of people were walking along the river and enjoying the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, which takes place in March and April. It took some patience to navigate through the sea of tourists with three children, but we made it through the most densely crowded areas and arrived at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

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If you are looking for that moment to snap a postcard-worthy photo of the Jefferson Memorial and the surrounding Cherry Blossom trees, the very early morning hours are probably your best bet. We took pictures, but the steps and the inside of the memorial were covered with visitors. We’d packed sandwiches and bottled water in a backpack so we could enjoy a picnic on the lawn outside the monument. (If you plan a picnic lunch, remember to pack a light blanket, too.) This was a great way to take in the scenery and the early spring weather could not have been better. What appeared to be Marine One, the President’s helicopter, flew over while we were there.

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After lunch, we took an Uber to the White House, or at least to the closest point you can take an Uber near the White House. This was actually a wide sidewalk with views of the South Lawn of the White House. We took photos but they were terrible because we were so far away from the White House itself and the sun was almost blinding at this point in the day. I wish we’d taken the time to walk to the other side of the White House to take photos, as I believe you can get a better view on the north side, but negotiating the extra walking with the children would not have been pleasant. We still had seven blocks to walk to get to the Newseum, which was our planned stop for the afternoon.

We passed by the White House Visitor’s Center and stopped in for a restroom break and a little souvenir shopping. Unless you plan ahead and schedule a tour at the White House in advance, I would recommend stopping in the Visitor’s Center. There is a wall with a backdrop of the White House on it and we were able to take a much better family photo there! We also were able to sign the official book of condolences for former First Lady Nancy Reagan who had passed away in the weeks prior to our visit.

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We continued on our walk, passing many government office buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue as well as the National Archives. We reached the Newseum, with the First Amendment displayed boldly on the outside of the building. The day’s newspapers from every state in the country were displayed, too. This place is a news junkie’s dream!

Newseum

It really was interesting, especially the exhibits on the varying degrees of freedom of the press around the world, and major crime stories from recent decades. There’s even a large piece of the Berlin Wall and the remains of an antenna from atop the former World Trade Center salvaged from the wreckage of the 9/11 attacks in New York City.

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Some of the subject matter was over the heads of our young daughters, but they liked the interactive exhibits at the end. Kids can create their own news broadcast and play a video game that teaches them the steps to investigating and reporting a news story. This was the only paid museum we visited, but there are so many others in D.C. that I hope to visit one day, too.

We ended our last day in D.C. with a casual dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Arlington. We sat on the patio and it was a good way to wind down our vacation before we drove home the next day. On our return trip, we drove through a more mountainous highway through Blacksburg, Va. (where we saw Virginia Tech), and a few other small towns before stopping to spend one night with our family in Charlotte again. We made it back to Florida the next day – what an adventure! I am so glad we took this trip and look forward to more road trips in our future.

What is your favorite monument or memorial? Have you been to the Newseum? What road trips do you recommend with kids?

A Visit to Washington, D.C., with Kids – Day 3

morning_DC

Get out early in D.C. to beat the crowds.

(Earlier I blogged about Day 1 and Day 2 of our road trip.)

On our second full day in Washington, D.C., we strategized to beat the crowds of teenagers by waking up early and driving to the Smithsonian National Zoo to be there when it opened.

The Zoo actually never closes, which would be great if you live in the area as it appeared you can take a walk or jog through the winding trails and exhibits at any time. We saw quite a few joggers running alongside the employees who were reporting for work.

By arriving early, we were able to get a great view of the most popular exhibits – starting with the Giant Pandas. We’d heard the pandas are most active in the morning, too.

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The Zoo has 4 giant pandas, including one baby panda, and six elephants.  (If you can’t go to D.C., but want to see the pandas, check out the Zoo’s Giant Panda Cam for a look at what they’re doing any time of day or night. My bet is on eating bamboo or sleeping!)

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Compared to most zoos that struggle for funding, the National Zoo clearly has put its federal subsidies to good use. Admission was free, and it was clean, modern and generally a very pleasant atmosphere. This was our kids’ favorite place in Washington, D.C.

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Where the elephants go for Bingo and family reunions?

We’d driven our car to the Zoo from Arlington. When we left, we drove by the National Cathedral and through the streets of Georgetown on our way back into Virginia.

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We took a few hours to rest in the hotel before heading back out in the early evening. This time we took the metro to the campus of George Washington University, where my husband’s beloved Florida Gators basketball team was playing GWU in the NIT tournament. It was just luck that they were playing in D.C. during our visit and we were able to purchase tickets. The Gators had a respectable contingent of fans in our nation’s capital! Sadly though, G. Dub (as their fans call it) won the game.

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We metroed back to Arlington and called it a night.

Our last day in D.C. (including visits to the monuments and memorials) is up next on the blog.

A Visit to Washington, D.C., with Kids – Day 2

Day 2 of our road trip to Washington, D.C., took us to the U.S. Capitol, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and Arlington National Cemetery.

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We took an Uber from our hotel in Arlington to the Russell Senate Building. The driver navigated the D.C. traffic much better than we could have, even taking us on a shortcut through the parking lot of the Pentagon. I’m not sure he was supposed to do that, but it was interesting to see!

We’d arranged a private tour of the Capitol Building – You can do this by contacting your senator or representative’s office. We first toured the Senate building where we met up with our tour guide. This included a few interesting photo ops in the Senate Rotunda, where you’ll often see senators interviewed on CNN or Fox News. We also had the pleasure of riding the Senator Subway, an underground trolley that carries members of Congress to the Senate floor when the Senate is session. When we visited, the Senate was in recess so it was a light traffic day on the subway. We arrived moments later inside the Capitol.

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In the lobby, we saw the large statue of Freedom, a replica of the actual statue that sits atop the capital rotunda, as well as statues of notable Americans from every state in the union. I wish I had taken notes on all of the rooms we toured, but there were quite a few and it was interesting to stand in the location of so many historic events. Although the capitol rotunda was under construction during our visit and much of the beauty of the building was covered in scaffolding, we were still impressed with the artwork and history of the space. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable and answered all of our questions. Children can come up with some really interesting questions, too!

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Our tour ended with passes to the House Gallery. This is the viewing area that looks down on the House floor. The day’s session had not yet begun when we arrived in the gallery but it was still pretty exciting to sit within the confines of these walls and imagine all of the State of the Union addresses that have been delivered here. Cameras were not allowed here though!

From the Capitol Building we walked to the nearest Metro station. We hadn’t purchased passes in advance so we bought them from a kiosk inside the station. It didn’t take long for our train to arrive and a few minutes later we emerged on the National Mall just a short walk from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

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Admission is free, which is great. But the Museum more than makes up for it in its restaurant. We ate lunch in this cafeteria style cafe. Our bill for the five us to have some very basic food – hamburger, hot dog, chicken fingers – totaled $86! If you go, learn from our experience and grab lunch somewhere else. By this point in the day, the crowds had really picked up, too. The museum was crowded, which is understandable given that we visited during spring break when a large number of school groups apparently visit.

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Hope Diamond displayed at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Because of the crowds, we weren’t able to enjoy the exhibits as much as I think we would have at a non-peak time for visitors. This became a theme throughout our trip and actually led us to change plans on this afternoon. Instead of continuing on to the Air and Space Museum, where the lines to the entrance spilled onto the steps outside, we decided to go back to Arlington and see the cemetery. We took the Metro, which has a stop directly adjacent to the Cemetery.

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Arlington National Cemetery is not a small place, as you might imagine. After entering the cemetery welcome center, you can get a map and walk through at your own pace or you can pay $6 per person for a trolley or tram tour. With our three children in tow, we opted for the trolley. It stops at various points in the cemetery and you can hop off one trolley and get back on a later trolley to continue your tour or return to the exit. We toured in late afternoon and were short on time before closing so we decided to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and we were able to witness the changing of the guard, which takes place at the top of every hour. This was very special to witness in person, but again we were in a large crowd of onlookers so it was not the experience you might have at other times of the year.

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We were not able to stop to see the Eternal Flame at John F. Kennedy’s grave or any of the number of other points of interest within the Cemetery, but if we visit again we’d be sure to allow more time here. It is a truly beautiful place to remember men and women who served our country.

Since visiting Washington, D.C., I definitely believe it is a place that all Americans should visit at least once.

(Read on for Day 3 and Day 4 of our Washington, D.C. road trip, or take a look back at Day 1.)

Have you visited Washington, D.C.? What are your favorite sites?

A Visit to Washington, D.C. with Kids – Day 1

Washington, D.C., had been on the short list of places I want to visit in the United States for a long time. Neither my husband nor I had been before and we knew we wanted to take our kids because, well, let’s see…history, government, museums. There is so much to see and learn for all ages. We also wanted to take a good long road trip and, with family and friends we wanted to visit along the way in North Carolina, our plans quickly took shape for a spring break adventure from Florida to our nation’s capital.

After the first leg of the trip and a couple of days spent staying with family in Charlotte, NC, we headed north on Monday morning. We made brief stops in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina to see the campuses of UNC and Duke University.

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Well at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Our kids are still a decade away from going to college so this wasn’t a college scouting trip, but they are both good schools. And for us as sports fans, seeing the campuses of two basketball powerhouses was appealing, especially in the middle of March Madness. We snapped the requisite pictures of campus landmarks and got back in the car.

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Duke University Chapel

After that, passing through Richmond, Virginia, where we crossed the James River is the only thing I remember before we eventually ran into afternoon traffic in the D.C. area.

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We made it to our hotel in Arlington, Va., the Residence Inn – Ballston. We’d considered choosing a hotel in D.C., but we had accumulated enough Marriott points to cover the entire stay in Arlington, which is a short Metro or cab ride away from D.C.

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Washington, DC Metro

We also are big fans of the Residence Inn concept because of their two-bedroom, two-bath suites. It is perfect for family travel. Even though we didn’t plan to spend much time in the hotel room, we didn’t want our family of five to be on top of each other in one room for four nights.

The suite gave us a lot of extra space with a living area and a kitchenette where we were able to make some sandwiches and store groceries to save on our food costs for the week. Residence Inn offered free hot breakfast every morning, and free food and happy hour drinks on some of the nights, as well. What’s not to love? The kids enjoyed the indoor pool, too. Somehow they still had energy to burn after our day-long escapades through the city!

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Indoor pool at Residence Inn, Arlington, Va. – Ballston

Arlington, like D.C. itself, is a very walkable city. On the night we arrived, we found a Chipotle a couple of blocks from the hotel (there are many different restaurant options in this area). We had a quick dinner and made our way back to the hotel to get ready for our first day navigating Capitol Hill, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and Arlington National Cemetery, which I cover in my next post.

Have you taken a long road trip with kids? Are there hotel chains or restaurants you love for family travel? Please share your favorites by leaving a comment.