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.

UNC Well

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.

Duke Chapel

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.

Richmond sign

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.

metro

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!

indoor pool Residence Inn Arlington

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.

 

 

 

A Visit to Oak Hollow Farm

Oak Hollow Farm horsesHorseback riding, a campfire, and an all around beautiful setting are what I’ll remember of my visit to Oak Hollow Farm in Fairhope, Alabama, last month. That, and what had to have been the coldest night of the year at that point in 2016! Despite freezing temperatures, I had a great time chaperoning my daughters’ Brownie troop and two other Girl Scout troops on a fun overnight adventure.

We arrived in the early afternoon hours on a Saturday, dropped our bags in the bunk rooms we’d reserved, and readied ourselves for horseback riding. While we waited for the hay ride that takes visitors to the horse barn, the girls discovered the largest oak I’ve ever seen. One low hanging branch was particularly accessible to the girls and they wasted no time climbing up on the giant tree. Wooden swings hung from other branches and these were popular with the girls throughout our stay.

IMG_6229

The short hayride across the property to the horse barn was enjoyable and fun for the kids. The staff then helped our group by supplying helmets for the kids and matching each person up with a horse. Oak Hollow is a family owned and operated business and the staff at the horse barn definitely reflected that in the pride they took in the horses and the grounds. Our large group of about 40 people was divided into two, one going on the first outing and the other going out on the horses after the first group returned. Most of us had no experience with horses. The staff were very helpful in ensuring we knew what to do, and they led us on the ride and remained with us the entire time. I didn’t pay attention to the time, but it seemed like each ride was about 30 minutes.

Horseback Riding Oak Hollow Farm

The horses were extremely gentle. I was never fearful of my horse running off from the group or going too fast.  Occasionally some of the horses stopped to eat grass or leaves on the trees, but it was easy to redirect them to get back on task with a simple tug on the reins. These horses are so are well trained. One staffer even mentioned that their horses are ridden in the area’s Mardi Gras parades.

horseback riding

When we returned to the barn, some of the girls who’d brought carrots for the horses were able to feed them. Then the hayride returned us back to our cabin area.

IMG_6265

After a quick snack, the younger girls began gathering up twigs and small pieces of wood for the campfire. A fire pit is available just a short distance from the cabins and bath house. As the sun set, the older girls and a couple of the leaders helped to start the fire, where we roasted hot dogs and s’mores for dinner.

IMG_6277

After dinner and clean up, we all returned to our cabins to retreat from the cold. The cabins were comfortable, with one queen size bed, and one bunk bed with a full size bed on the bottom and a twin bed on top. There is a bathroom (toilet only) and a small kitchen area equipped with a sink, mini refrigerator and microwave. There is one space heater in each cabin, which I was thankful to sleep near, but we all relied on our many layers of clothes and blankets to stay warm that night. The kids played cards and some board games before lights out. We actually slept pretty well. The next morning we made a simple breakfast in our cabins and walked around the grounds before packing up to return home.

IMG_6291

Although we didn’t participate, Oak Hollow Farm also offers fishing and skeet shooting. They also have facilities for private events like weddings or corporate gatherings. According to their website, a CMT show, Sweet Home Alabama, filmed there, and notable guests have included members of the Duck Dynasty family and country music star Blake Shelton.

cabin wall art

For guests who stay on the property like we did, it is definitely more glamping than camping, but that was perfect for our group. I’d go back, especially for the horseback riding, which you can do even if you don’t choose to stay overnight. The horseback riding costs $35 per person.

IMG_6259

It was a treat to spend a night on this gorgeous property with my daughters and friends. It’s amazing what even a short time away from electronics and the busyness of our daily lives can do for your spirits! Plus, did I mention s’mores?!

The Easiest Christmas Cookies Ever

Snowflake sugar cookieAre you feeling the crunch of a long, holiday to-do list like I am? This is the most wonderful time of the year, but it’s also one of the busiest. Last weekend, our family crammed in shopping and other errands, a Christmas parade, church, buying/picking out/decorating a Christmas tree, baking cookies for and attending a Mother-Daughter Cookie Swap, not to mention watching the SEC Championship Football Game. All of these things were enjoyable and important to us, but they made for a very full schedule.

When it came time to bake cookies for the Cookie Swap we were attending, I opted for two low-stress recipes. If you’re planning on baking cookies for the holidays, you might want to try them, too.

IMG_5656.JPG

First, we made traditional Christmas sugar cookies. It’s become an annual tradition for our family and the girls love to decorate them. Confession: Against every ounce of foodie that I have in my being, I bought pre-made dough this year. The Pillsbury sugar cookie dough that comes in a tube. Sigh.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I must say it actually worked out pretty well. The longer the dough was out of the refrigerator, the easier it was to roll out onto parchment paper, so keep that in mind if you are trying this at home. We used a snow flake cookie cutter I bought a while back for my Frozen-obsessed four-year-old and a heart-shaped cookie cutter, because all of my traditional Christmas cookie cutters were packed away with all the decorations we hadn’t yet brought out of storage. We made a few round cookies, too. Once we baked the cookies according to the package directions, we let them cool. When it was safe to ice them, we used homemade icing (recipe here), plus a few tubes of store-bough accent icing and assorted sprinkles to give them a finished festive look. I love the flavor that almond extract gives to the icing, and the cookies were quite tasty.

IMG_5669

The other cookie recipe we tried, 2-Ingredient Pumpkin Cookies, was Straight Outta Pinterest (can I get that on a T-shirt? There should be one if there isn’t). I try so many Pinterest recipes, and most of them have worked out for me. This one was almost too simple to mess up. It involved a spice cake mix (again, store bought. I don’t even know who I am anymore.) and a single can of pumpkin. I mixed these in the bowl of my stand mixer. Once these ingredients combined, I scooped out spoonfuls onto the cookie pan we were using. I did this with about half of the cookie batter. To the remaining batter, I stirred in semi-sweet chocolate chips before placing spoonfuls on the cookie pan. So we made two variations of this recipe and both baked quickly.

IMG_5672

Meanwhile, I mixed room-temperature butter with a packet that came in the cake mix box to make pumpkin spice icing.  We added dollops of the icing to the top of the cookies without chocolate chips. If you’re looking for a dense, crunchy cookie, these are not the cookies for you, but otherwise they are a good, foolproof option. I liked the ones with chocolate chips the best. And who doesn’t love pumpkin spice?

IMG_5679

So there you have it – two recipes that worked for us during a very busy weekend. The cookies were well received at the Cookie Swap and the few we had left over at home passed the ultimate test – they disappeared quickly.

IMG_5684

At the end of the cookie baking extravaganza, our Elf on the Shelf, Snowball, guarded the oven closely. I think she’d had enough!

What are you baking this Christmas? Do you have any holiday baking traditions? Leave a comment by clicking the link just below the headline of this post.

Also, while typing this blog post, I learned about Food Network’s Bake It Forward campaign. Share a photo of whatever you are baking this season in social media using #BakeItForward and nominate a friend. For each share, Food Network will donate $1 to No Kid Hungry.

 

 

It’s Taste of the (Pensacola) Beach Time Again

taste-of-the-beach

Pensacola Beach’s annual Taste of the Beach event is Friday-Saturday, September 18-19, 2015.

Friday is a ticketed, VIP event with celebrity Chef John Besh. You may know him from his highly acclaimed New Orleans restaurants: August, Besh’s Steak House and others; or you may have seen him on one of several cooking shows on TV.

Saturday is the day to go and take the whole family. Check out the schedule of events here. Chef Besh is sure to bring an impressive showcase of culinary skills to the live stage presentation. There are surfing lessons and all sorts of activities for the kids. You can sample the best food and drinks Pensacola Beach has to offer at affordable prices, hear from Chef John Besh and even get a chance to meet him during the meet and greet. A fun 80s band, the Molly Ringwalds, closes out the evening with live music.

I wrote about my experience at last year’s Taste of the Beach. It was a lot of fun and I hope I get to make it out to the beach this weekend for round 2! Yum!

taste-of-the-beach-tshirt

Destin Dolphin Cruise

boogies-glass-bottom-boat

Whether we like it or not, our summer is quickly coming to an end. We’re trying to make the most of the last days of freedom before school starts by spending some time at the beach with our extended family. We’d like to get out on the water in some way, but we’re still deciding exactly what we’ll do.

dolphin

Last year, our family went on a dolphin cruise out of Destin Harbor. A company called Boogies operated the glass-bottom boat, which docks directly behind the Harborwalk Village and the Emerald Grande. I didn’t think I’d enjoy this as much as I did, because it is a quintessential Destin tourist excursion. I got over my reluctance quickly though, because dolphins, sunshine and gorgeous Destin water make it impossible to have a bad attitude.

cruise in DestinWe set sail out of Destin Harbor and cruised through the turquoise waters of East Pass into the Gulf of Mexico. Dolphins followed our boat and swam alongside us for much of the trip. It was great fun. The kids loved it and we snapped a million pictures.

dolphins-swim-with-boatThe boat also cruised into the shallow waters known as Crab Island, a popular spot where boats anchor down for easy swimming and play. We had fun watching other boats, wave runners and even a few paddle boarders as we passed through the area.

DSC_0312Our boat stopped briefly to toss out a net. The crew members pulled the net up a few minutes later to see what, if anything, had been caught. I’m not sure what they were hoping for – fish? crabs? – but it seemed like mostly seaweed, shells and a few hermit crabs made it into the net. The kids loved seeing this and my children we thrilled to hold one of the hermit crabs.

DSC_0301

The Destin dolphin cruise cost our family of five just under $100. Similar cruises are offered in Panama City and Pensacola Beach. Occasionally, I’ve seen Groupon offers for discounted dolphin cruise tickets, so it may be worthwhile to look for deals before you go. It’s definitely something I’d do again.

A Not-So-Scary Boo at the Gulf Breeze Zoo

As a freelance writer, it is always exciting when I see my work in print. These days it’s often online only, but this weekend my byline appeared in real, hard copy newsprint. Serious, investigative reporting, you may ask? Well, not exactly, but it was fun to show the kids.

I originally wrote the article about Boo at the Zoo that appeared in the Pensacola News Journal for a Santa Rosa County, Florida tourism program, The Beaches to Woodlands Tour. Beaches to Woodlands includes dozens of events showcasing the diverse natural beauty and culture of the county throughout the month of October. Most (if not all) of the activities are family friendly, including Boo at the Zoo. So yesterday, we decided to check it out. We made our way to the Gulf Breeze Zoo, where we spent about two hours or so seeing the animals and taking part in Halloween-themed activities.

Trick-or-Treat-Trail

Part of the fun of Boo at the Zoo is the Trick-or-Treat Trail, which invites kids to wear costumes and visit stations set up throughout the zoo to collect candy. Our three – dressed as Doc McStuffins, a peacock and a mermaid – enjoyed the chance to don their costumes early and mingle with the likes of Elsa, Jake and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It was definitely a unique way to experience the Zoo, which spans 50 acres and includes a petting zoo, train rides and a chance to feed many of the animals.

Giraffe-at-Gulf-Breeze-Zoo

Tiger-at-Gulf-Breeze-Zoo

A budgie aviary was new since I last visited the Gulf Breeze Zoo. It was like stepping into a giant bird cage, surrounded by a few hundred of your closest feathered friends. The kids loved it. So did the birds that we fed, and the makers of hand sanitizer.

feeding-budgies

Some of the extra activities available during Boo at the Zoo include face painting, bounce houses and balloon-making clowns. At $12 per ticket (not including train rides), Boo at the Zoo is a little pricey for a family of five, but comparatively speaking fairly reasonable versus other zoos we’ve visited in the Southeast.

zoo-sign

Look closely: The last line of this sign made me laugh.

Boo at the Zoo continues next Saturday and Sunday, October 25-26, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. CDT if you want to go. For information on other Beaches to Woodlands Tour events, visit the official Tour website.

Panhandle Butterfly House in Navarre

panhandle-butterfly-house entrance

The Panhandle Butterfly House isn’t a big place. Drivers can easily cruise down Hwy. 98 through the heart of Navarre and not see the small, white house just west of the Navarre Beach bridge. What the butterfly house may lack in size shouldn’t discount its value as an environmental center and educational attraction.

orange-butterfly

My kids and I have visited on more than one occasion. Each time we’ve admired the beautiful flowers and plants and, of course, the butterflies. Each time my girls have learned about the butterfly lifecycle and observed specimens at each stage of the lifecycle. Volunteers serving as docents have talked with us about the gardens and butterflies.

DSC_1023There is a small gift shop area where you can purchase butterfly-themed souvenirs or make a donation to the Panhandle Butterfly House. When you are finished with your visit to the Butterfly House, you can walk out back and take look at the Santa Rosa Sound and the birds and turtles that have made their homes nearby. The Navarre Kids Park is also adjacent to the Panhandle Butterfly House property, which is a great place for younger kids to burn some energy.

This weekend happens to be one of the biggest of the year at the Panhandle Butterfly House. It’s the annual Monarch Madness festival, which celebrates the Monarch butterfly and its migration through Northwest Florida. It’s one of a few dozen activities going on this month in Santa Rosa County, Florida, as part of the Beaches to Woodlands Tour.DSC_1036

If you can’t make it out this weekend, put them on your list to visit next spring or summer, when they’ll reopen for 2015. Operating strictly on donations, admission is free but contributions are encouraged.

Beach Baking

Confession: I have a slight obsession with pinning recipes on Pinterest. I usually try most of them, believe it or not. When you are feeding a family of five you have to keep things interesting. Most of the recipes I try are dinner recipes, but yesterday after working on several work projects and battling the car pool line at my daughters’  school, which incidentally seems to lose all manner of civility and sense when it’s raining, it was time to bake.

This is not a mood that strikes me often (maybe there is a full moon?), but the kids sure seemed to appreciate it. We went right to Pinterest and found a recipe I’d pinned for Flourless Chewy Cinnamon Sugar Peanut Butter Cookies (originally shared on the blog Foodie Crush). We had all of the ingredients on hand and it sounded delicious, so it was an easy choice. The girls helped me add the ingredients to the bowl of the stand mixer.

mixing-bowl

After a quick blend, the dough went into the refrigerator for an hour. Keeping the kids busy and focused on doing homework during this hour was the hardest thing about this recipe. After an hour, we rolled the dough into balls, coated them with a cinnamon and sugar mix and popped them into the oven for the 8-9 minutes indicated in the recipe. We let them cool for a few minutes afterward, then wah-la, delicious snack!

peanut-butter-cookies

These cookies were good and a hit with all the girls, but they are definitely sweet. It is a sugar-intensive recipe, so that was to be expected. The original pinner noted that the recipe is vegetarian and gluten free, so it may appeal to those with special diets.

This was my second attempt at flourless cookies. The first, some sort of oatmeal and mashed banana concoction, was a disaster. I’m sure there are better variations I’d know if I baked this way often, but I don’t. In fact, baking yesterday’s yummy flour-less peanut butter cookies reminded me of a vegan birthday cake our family ordered for my brother-in-law’s birthday last summer.

We purchased the cake from La Loba’s Bakery in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, where we were spending the week for an extended family vacation. I don’t think I would have ordered a vegan cake had we not had a vegan in the family, but it was better than I expected. For vegans or anyone seeking out organic food in the South Walton County area, I’m sure this place is a boon. 

Do you like to bake? Would you bake on vacation?

An Old Destin Favorite: Harry T’s

One of Destin’s oldest restaurants, Harry T’s relocated to HarborWalk Village a few years ago. I was happy to see this colorful restaurant back on the scene after it closed its doors at the Destin Yacht Club. The old Harry T’s was a favorite of mine as a child. The food was pretty good and the T-shirts sold there were a coveted souvenir.

My Harry T’s T-shirt was yellow with a giraffe on water skis (or something similarly imaginative; it’s been a few years!). When I wasn’t wearing it, it shared drawer space with my A.J.’s and Back Porch T-shirts. (Did I mention I spent a lot of time in Destin?) As I got older, I remembered Harry T’s for its festive atmosphere and live music.

harry-ts-destin

It seems that not a much has changed since those glory days. I’ve been back to Harry T’s a couple of times since its reopening. Now occupying prime real estate overlooking Destin Harbor and East Pass, it has one of the best views in Destin. You can choose outdoor seating directly adjacent to the marina to take in the emerald waters and passing boats. If you dine inside, you’ll eat amongst the circus-themed memorabilia the restaurant has long been known for displaying. You’ll find TVs, too, if there is a big game you want to see during your visit.

harry-ts-outdoor-menu

Harry T’s menu offers a variety of seafood dishes, sandwiches, burgers and other American fare. Our most recent visit was for a weekday lunch. We walked into Harry T’s after an unwelcoming experience at another popular restaurant we’d planned to try just down the boardwalk. The greeting and service we received at Harry T’s was outstanding. Our waitress was attentive and even brought stickers to our daughters at the end of the meal.

fish-poboys-harry-ts

The food was good. It’s not fine dining, but the kind of food you expect at a large restaurant in a resort town, and Harry T’s does it well. Our party enjoyed a variety of dishes, including a fish po’boy, fish tacos, a quesadilla and the Lighthouse Seafood Salad. The portions were substantial. Children’s menu items are served in a Harry T’s frisbee the kids can take home with them.

lighthouse-seafood-salad

 

We did not pick up any additional souvenirs during our visit, but the restaurant’s gift shop still offers the famous T-shirts in abundance alongside caps, keychains and koozies bearing the Harry T’s name. Maybe next time!

harry-ts-tshirts

What are your favorite Gulf Coast restaurants? Have you taken your family to any of the restaurants you enjoyed as a child? Leave a reply with your comments.

Pensacola Beach: Blue Angels Weekend

The U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, the Blue Angels, are a national treasure. The sleek blue jets with yellow trim are impressive on the ground. When they take to the skies, it is nothing short of magical. Performing aerial feats that demonstrate the precision and skill of these uber talented pilots, the Blue Angels delight crowds at air shows across the nation. In 2014 they are expected to perform before 15 million spectators.

This past week, the Blue Angels returned to their home base in Pensacola and performed before the hometown crowd at the Pensacola Beach Air Show. The main performance took place on Saturday and early estimates indicate it drew record numbers to the beach. Fans lined the shore, filled hotels and condos, and anchored boats in the Santa Rosa Sound and other nearby waters to watch the show. From any vantage point, the Blues are a must-see attraction.

For families with young children, watching the Blue Angels earlier in the week is a good option as the traffic and crowds are lighter. They perform a “Breakfast with the Blues” warm up session on Wednesday prior to the show, and a dress rehearsal on Friday. A friend who attended Breakfast with the Blues this year with her two children told me she didn’t know why she had waited for the Saturday show in the past. The mid-week morning experience was ideal for her family.

If you missed them this time around, the Blue Angels are performing almost every weekend between now and November at air shows in Chicago, Cleveland, Memphis, Houston, San Francisco and many other locations. They culminate the season back at Naval Air Station Pensacola with the Blue Angels Homecoming Air Show, Nov. 7-9.

blue-angels-pensacola-beach

This photo was taken a few miles away from the beach in Gulf Breeze, Florida, and doesn’t do justice to the true spectacle you’ll experience at a Blue Angels show. The Pensacola News Journal has a fantastic gallery of photos from this weekend’s beach show at PNJ.com.