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.

ASU_stadium

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. 

 

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.

 

 

 

9 Ways to Give Experiences (Not Things) This Christmas

For a young child, there’s nothing like waking up on Christmas morning to discover your most coveted toy under the Christmas tree. I have fond memories of the Christmases when I received a bike, a Cabbage Patch Kid and so many other treasured items from Santa through the years.

So with that as a seemingly contradictory preface, I have to say I’m coming around to the idea of gifting experiences rather than things. Make no mistake, I’ll still put gifts under the tree for my children. Always. But as a mom who has observed enough Christmases and the fate of so many “I’ve-gotta-have-it-Mom” toys, I have to question the lasting value of some of these gifts.

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An abandoned My Little Pony toy. You do not want to step on this!

Media and our consumeristic society often make it seem that our kids need every branded product that is offered in their particular area/character/movie/cartoon/whatever of interest. These toys du jour hold their attention for a short time, sure, but within a few weeks the kids move on and may never pick up these items again. It seems like a shame and a waste, not to mention the additional clutter it adds to our home. If it were just my husband and I buying for our children at the holidays, this may not be an issue, but there are grandparents and aunts and uncles and extended family members, too. All are appreciated and well-meaning in their gifting, of course, and there are many quality toys out there, but the sum total can be overwhelming.

Last Christmas, my husband and I decided our big gift to our daughters would be a trip to Disney World. We weren’t putting them in the car that day to go see the mouse (like I’ve known some families to do), so I knew this gift wouldn’t provide immediate gratification like a big toy might, but I still wanted to create some excitement as this represented such a big part of their Christmas. I wrapped up a handmade Countdown to Disney chalkboard sign that I purchased on Etsy and a character autograph book that the girls could take with them to the parks. Written in chalk on the sign was the number of days until our trip – about 21 or so as we visited on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend. The girls had fun updating the sign each day and looked forward to the trip. It was a great vacation! For my youngest daughter, it was her first time at Disney World. We have many good memories and photos from the trip that we’ll cherish for years to come.

(If you’re planning a visit to Disney World during the holidays, check out these festive WDW events and attractions to celebrate the season, as shared by the blog Kids on a Plane.)

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The nightly Electric Light Parade is one of our family’s favorite things to see at Walt Disney World.

1. Family travel – whether it’s for a vacation, theme park visit, or even a mission trip – is a wonderful way to share an experience with your children, but there are other less expensive options, too. You can make an educational day trip out of visiting a museum or aquarium. Many, like the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla., offer free admission.

2. During a visit to Orlando this summer, my mom and I treated my daughters to lunch at the American Girl store at The Florida Mall. Like American Girl stores in other cities, the Orlando store includes a restaurant.

AG cafe

My oldest two girls have American Girl dolls that they brought along with us, and my youngest daughter was offered one to play with when we arrived for our lunch reservation. Each doll had her own seat at the table, along with a doll sized cup and saucer.

Dining with AG doll

I expected to be underwhelmed by the menu and food because it is American Girl and a t-shirt for a doll costs $10, for heaven’s sake. The selection and food were not bad though, and we received excellent service. The American Girl dining experience was fun. You could certainly host your own tea party at home for less, but we all enjoyed this special treat. American Girl has stores in Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville and other major U.S. cities, too.

AG ice cream

3. The Orlando mall we visited is also home to the newest Crayola Experience. Opened in July, this family attraction boasts over 70,000 square feet of colorful and creative activity space. There are 25 attractions inside including making your own coloring page, personalizing your own crayon wrapper and much more. The Crayola Experience was still a few weeks away from opening when we visited The Florida Mall, so we were not able to check it out. I hope we can do this on a future visit. According to the website, admission is $17.99 per person if purchased online, or an Annual Pass for unlimited visits within a year is $34.99. Purchased at the door, admission rates are slightly higher.

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We were able to pay a visit to the adjacent Crayola Store, which was open. You can find every possible Crayola crayon and Crayola products you never knew existed here. Many of the prices were pretty steep, we thought. Some of the same items are sold at WalMart or Target for less, but it’s certainly the most complete offering of Crayola items I’ve ever seen.

crayons in every color

4. Camping is another good option for making memories. Who doesn’t love campfires and s’mores? You may need to purchase a few camping supplies of course if you don’t already own them, but these can be a good investment. Plus, this gives you something to wrap up and put under the Christmas tree. I’m definitely more comfortable with the glamping style of camping than any rugged wilderness excursion. A bathroom and electrical outlets nearby are non-negotiable for me. After one sleepless night on the cold, hard ground at my daughters’ Girl Scout camp out last fall, I learned that an air mattress inside the tent will be essential the next time I camp, too. (Go ahead and roll your eyes, hardcore campers. I can’t see you.)

camping tents

Other experiential gifts you might consider giving this holiday season:

5. Movie tickets – The Peanuts Movie is adorable, by the way. My kids loved it and it has a nice message.

6. Restaurant gift cards – Take your pick of local favorites or chains, most eateries offer gift cards these days. I don’t know a busy family who wouldn’t love to receive a night off from cooking dinner!

7. Classes – My kids would like to take art, cooking and sewing lessons. We have experience with one local art instructor and my daughter loved her classes for kids. Research providers in your area to find the right class for you or your child!

8. Personal stylist – So this is not for kids, but moms and other special ladies need a treat, too. You may already know I am a fan of StitchFix, the personal styling service that hand picks clothing and accessories and ships them to your door. Did you know that Stitch Fix offers gift cards? These are a great gift idea and can provide a fun treat for the lady who is looking for something different this Christmas. Of course, a spa day is a nice pampering gift, too!

9. Personal shopping – I don’t think this is offered in Northwest Florida yet, but in many larger cities grocery delivery services are becoming more common. What new mom wouldn’t love having someone do the shopping for you and bring the bread, milk and whatever else you need to your door?! Where was this when I had twin babies at home?! This could definitely be a special treat for some folks on Santa’s list.

However you decide to give to the special people in your life this year, remember that it is the thought that counts. Shared experiences and time together can be the most meaningful expressions of love you can give, and these don’t have to cost a fortune. In 20 years, your kids will remember and appreciate your outings to see Christmas lights together as a family more than the 14th toy they circled in the Black Friday circular.

Happy gifting!

 

The fine print: Some of my ideas are admittedly retail in nature, but I do not receive any compensation or consideration from American Girl or Crayola, or Walt Disney World or Peanuts for that matter. I just think they offer unique experiences that many families may not have considered as holiday gift options. I do include a link to Stitch Fix that could allow me to earn a small referral credit toward future purchases if someone uses it to order a Fix, but the company does not pay me for my reviews.