Monday, August 21, 2017

Seattle, Washington

We've been to Seattle a few times, mostly as a jumping off point to other destinations (Vancouver, Alaska). At this point I'm able to piece together a pretty good itinerary for families based on the time we've spent  one day here, two days there. Here are the places we liked visiting each time we found ourselves in the Emerald City.

What to Do

Pike Place Market is always our No. 1 stop in Seattle. My kids love getting iced teas at our local Starbucks, so it was fun for them to see the very first location here. The Fish Market, where the fishmongers famously toss their daily catch around for fun, is always worth a stop. And it's mesmerizing to watch cheese being made in a huge vat at Beecher's, then taste a sample afterwards.

On our recent visit, we also checked out the gum wall, an alleyway below the market that's completely covered with chewed gum. I thought my kids would get a kick out of it and want to add their own gum to the collection, but they were actually completely repulsed by the concept. I could barely get them to take a picture there!

Seattle is, of course, well known for its Space Needle, but of the few times we've visited the city, we've never made it to the top. We've just never felt like paying the steep price, although if you do want to go all the way up, there's an early bird special  just get there before 9:30. For us, it's been fun to catch glimpses of the needle peeking out over buildings while we traveled around town.

For a much more off-the-beaten-path place to visit, check out the Living Computer Museum, a 10-minutes cab ride from the tourist center. We planned to spend just an hour there, but there was so much for the kids to do and see that we ended up staying longer. Friendly docents showed my kids how to build working robots out of cubes and pilot a rolling robot with their faces on the screens. They took several test drives in the self-driving car simulator. My favorite part was getting to test out a virtual reality game (the exhibit is limited to those 13 and older).

The upper levels feature video game sections that range from a retro space blaster game to Minecraft (you can touch and play with everything). Want to feel old? Show your kids the "latest technology" of years past, including two of my favorites, the electric typewriter and the rotary phone  both were complete novelties to my kids.

Where to Eat

A few doors down from the first Starbucks at Pike Place Market is Le Panier, a pastry shop that sells literally the best puff pastries I've ever had in my life (Paris included). Sweet or savory, you just can't go wrong with this place.

For donuts, pop into Daily Dozen. Here's a photo of my daughter from eight years ago, enjoying the first donut of her life. She's been a donut fiend ever since.

And just for fun, we tried the world's largest bowl of pho at Dong Thap Noodles in Chinatown. The "Super Bowl" size contained enough pho for four adults and four kids, and we managed to devour the whole thing. The noodles are handmade and a thicker consistency than most pho noodles, but tasty nonetheless.

We also enjoyed the pizza with blistered crusts and artisan cheeses at Serious Pie; here's another flashback photo.

Where to Stay

On our most recent visit we chose The Maxwell Hotel for its proximity to Pike Place Market and the Space Needle, and also for its free shuttle to those attractions, but it ended up being a super-cute place to stay as well. The theme is pineapple!, and it's found everywhere from the elevator walls to the pillows in the room. Free bikes are available to guests (but alas, no child-size ones). Service was great, and I wouldn't hesitate to stay there again.

What's Nearby

The one thing I always feel I need to do more of in Seattle is go hiking  but we never seem to have the time for it. The one hike we did do eight years ago was at Snoqualmie Falls, about half an hour outside of Seattle. Getting to the waterfall viewpoint wasn't difficult at all, even with a baby, and there are longer paths in the area if you're looking for more of a challenge with older kids.

After a long afternoon of hiking, head up to the Salish Lodge restaurant called The Attic for a cozy dining experience with an awesome view of the falls.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Alaska Inner Passage: Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, Victoria

Alaska’s been on my bucket list since forever, and I was fortunately finally able to check it off this August after taking a cruise through the Inner Passage with family and friends. We sailed on the Ruby Princess, which we chose for its route through Glacier Bay National Park. The boat is on the smaller side, which is how it can sail through the narrow waters of the park, but I did wish that it offered some of the kid-friendly amenities that larger boats have, such as rock walls and ice rinks. All in all, however, we were happy with the service.

For the excursions, we did a lot of research and booked most of our tours with independent companies that don’t have a contract with the cruise lines. I hate crowds, and didn’t want us to be herded off the ship and onto an enormous bus at every port. There are many well reviewed small companies that do the same thing as those larger ones, for less money and with a more personal touch. This way, it was also easier for us customize our itinerary each day, instead of being compelled to accept the set packages that the cruise offers. Here are the excursions we did, and who we went with.

What to Do in Juneau

After a day at sea, our first stop was Juneau, the capital of Alaska. One of its greatest claims to fame is the Mendenhall Glacier, which you can experience in various ways: hiking, rafting, by helicopter. We chose to kayak up to it with a company called Above and Beyond Alaska. The first thing we did after being picked up at the dock was get outfitted in some serious gear. Everything from rain jackets to waterproof pants to rain boots were provided, and even the paddles came with waterproof mitts. We were lucky to have fantastic weather, but I’d imagine that even if it were raining, we’d have been pretty snug in our kayaking armor.

My husband and I each took one of our children in a two-person kayak, and we paddled across Mendenhall Lake, by Nugget Falls, and up to the glacier. The views are breathtaking, but I’ll admit: Kayaking was hard. Maybe because I was paddling for two people (my son got to relax and eat snacks in the front seat), but mostly, I think, because the lake is huge. It took forever to cross it and reach the glacier — and then we had to paddle back. In retrospect, I may have chosen a different way to experience Mendenhall, although everyone else in the my group didn’t have as difficult time as I did and felt quite accomplished by the experience.

After the kayaking, we went straight to our next excursion: whale watching. The company we booked, Juneau Whale Watch, guarantees that you’ll see a humpback whale or you get your money back, and I’m happy to say that we didn’t need to be refunded. We saw three whales at a couple of different locations, and each viewing was absolutely thrilling. I also loved just motoring across the open water in search of the whales. Our captain, Ed, and the marine biologist we had on board, Jill, were a dynamic and knowledgeable team that kept us entertained and pumped to be on their boat for over an hour.

One caveat: It might be a good idea to give your kids an idea of what to expect when whale watching. My son was disappointed that none of the whales leaped out of the water and did a twist in the air for our viewing pleasure. Instead, what you see is the spray of water coming out of their blowhole as they submerge themselves, and their tail popping out when they dive down. Don’t get me wrong — it’s extremely exciting to be able to view this in person and know that an enormous creature is under water just a few feet away from you — but this isn’t Sea World. The whales aren’t going to perform for your family. Nor should they!

What to Do in Skagway

Skagway was my absolute favorite port on this trip. It was what I imagined Alaska to look like — pristine lakes, mountains and glaciers at every turn, miles of untouched forest. To see it all, we hired a company called Beyond Skagway Tours to take us to all the sights. Our easygoing guide, Sam, was absolutely fantastic, getting us to each location just ahead of the crowds; we’d depart each area just as the tour buses rolled in. The company also devised a few games to keep the kids busy and alert through the trip, including a themed I-Spy game and scavenger hunt that produced prizes and were lots of fun for everyone. Sam even set up a telescope by the side of a road for us to spot mountain goats, and once he stopped the van to view a brown bear on the side of the road.

Some of the scenic stops we made for pictures were Bridal Veil Falls, Tutshi Lake, Bove Island and Emerald Lake (most of these places are located in Yukon territory, over the Canadian border). I can’t describe how gorgeous each of these places were, so here are just some pictures of each location, in the order mentioned above.

We also visited Tagish Lake Kennel for some dog cuddling and sledding — hands down the highlight of everyone’s day. Adolescent dogs run free in several gated areas, happy to have the kids chasing after them. We all got to hold two-week old puppies in our laps.

Then one of the handlers gave a short presentation about the Iditarod and all that’s involved with dog sledding, before we climbed into vehicles used for off-season training that are hooked up to the dogs. It’s amazing how eager the dogs are to be picked for the run; they were absolutely desperate to be chosen. Once our team was assembled, off we went into the scenic woods for the most thrilling ride I’ve ever been on. The kids squealed the entire time, down every hill and through every mud puddle. It was really so much fun.

Another great experience was panning for gold by the side of a lake in Carcross. The kids were each given a pan of dirt and our guide taught them the technique to search for the tiny gold flecks. This kept us busy for half an hour, and the kids got to keep the gold they found in little containers. The visitors’ center at Carcross is also where we got our passports stamped with Yukon Territory marks.

A few minutes from the visitor's center is Carcross Desert, a complete oddity of the area. It's a square mile of dunes and trees springing out of the sand, naturally formed by ancient lakes and the nearby mountain. The kids had a grand time running up and down the dunes, but I was ready to leave after just 20 minutes of baking under the hot sun. Good thing we were in the middle of Alaska and not a larger desert!

One of our last stops was Caribou Crossing to visit the Wildlife Museum, which is basically three large rooms of really impressive taxidermy examples of native animals. It was fun to see some of these animals up close. There are also some live animals to pet, like donkeys, dogs and alpaca, at this location.

At the end of the day, we were dropped off at the Fraser train station to catch the White Rail Pass Railroad back down to Skagway. Riding this train is absolutely thrilling, the old-fashioned cars bumping along down the side of the mountain, over rushing rivers and steep, breathtaking drops. Twice we went though pitch-black tunnels carved into the mountain. At times I worried that the beautiful old bridges and trestles we were crossing wouldn’t hold our weight and we’d go plunging into the ravine, but fortunately those fears proved unfounded. What an experience.

And finally, back in town we pulled up right alongside Dewey Creek, where we observed thousands of salmon doing their best to migrate in the shallow water. It was the perfect end to an amazing day.

What to Do in Ketchikan

We were in Ketchikan for just a few hours, so we spent our time walking around the cute, historic town, grabbing a bite to eat, and then taking a seaplane ride. We wanted to visit Totem Bight State Park, but unfortunately ran out of time. Right off the boat, we followed the scenic trail from this map across Stedman's Bridge, up Creek Street, and along Married Men's Trail, then took a left on Park Avenue to view the salmon trying to make it upstream. It was a fun little walk that took less than an hour to complete with small children.

After our small hike, we were picked up by Island Wings Air Service and transported to the dock where our eight-seater seaplane was waiting. Our pilot, Michelle, informed us that it was too foggy to attempt the Misty Fjords tour that we'd booked, but offered us a trip farther north, where the air was clear, to view some fjords there instead. I'll never know just how spectacular the Misty Fjords are, but the scenery we took in from our tiny plane as we traveled north was pretty awesome. It's amazing how many tiny islands (thousands) populate this area of the world.

Midway through the trip, we touched down on a pristine lake, hung out on a floating pier for a short break, and then flew back to Ketchikan.

What to Do in Victoria

Our final stop on the cruise was in Victoria, British Columbia, and it was at night, from 7pm to 11:30pm, which was kind of an odd time to be sightseeing. Since our time was so short, I booked an excursion through Princess that would take us to the Victoria Butterfly Gardens and Butchart Gardens for the whole time we were docked. 

The butterflies at the Butterfly Gardens were lovely, but it was the newly opened insectarium that really caught our kids' attention. From the panoramic ant farm to the impressive display of camouflaged stick bugs, the exhibit was really fun for everyone. In the butterfly area, we were treated to not just the most enormous butterflies I've ever seen, but also a couple of flamingos, some parrots, a pair of ducks and a pond full of koi. It's a really interesting and well maintained place.

Butchart Gardens totally blew us away, but by the time we arrived it was dusk and we had to enjoy the night-time, lit-up version of it. Still, the beautiful flower displays, towering trees and colorful fountains were a sight to behold (what I could make of it, anyway), and the kids loved the old-fashioned carousel on the premises. If I lived in Victoria, I'd definitely get a season pass to this place. It's just so vast and tranquil — a fabulous place to let your kids loose and just take in the sights and scents of the flora.

Where to Eat 

Right by the port in Juneau is a crab shack called Tracy’s King Crab, and it was exactly what we were looking for — fresh king crab legs. The prices are quite steep and the restaurant was way too divey for my thin packet of travel wet wipes to handle, but those enormous crab legs didn’t disappoint.

In Yukon (Skagway port), we stopped for lunch at a cute little restaurant in Carcross called Caribou Coffee Cafe. My fish and chips were yummy enough, but what I really loved was the poutine. I could eat a bucket of those tasty little cheese curds. There’s also a great playground right by the outdoor seating area. 

While in Ketchikan, we had to taste the salmon, and were directed to Annabelle's by the locals. The grilled salmon plate was good, but what ended up being the draw were the chowders. We tried the sampler of three chowders, and I loved the smoked salmon one best.

What's Nearby

Our trip started and ended in Seattle, a city I've been to a couple of times with kids. Here is my full itinerary of what to there, including some fun stops at Pike Place Market and some off-the-beaten-track attractions as well.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Ocean City, Maryland

We spent a long weekend in Ocean City, Maryland, with some friends to kick off the summer, and it was good, beachy fun. While the town lacks the charm of some of the New England locations we've been to (like Cape Cod, Newport and Kennebunkport), what it has going for it are great seafood and a multitude of activities for the kids. In addition to the boardwalk attractions that most seaside locales offer along the East Coast, Ocean City is home to three amusement parks and a water park, plus a go-kart park!

Where to Stay

It was difficult for us to choose between two beachfront hotels, the newish, all-suite Hilton Ocean City and the more quaint and charming Dunes Manor next door. The Hilton has an enormous, tricked-out pool with slides and waterfalls, while the Dunes features rocking chairs on the porch overlooking the ocean and complimentary tea and crumpets every afternoon. In the end, the Dunes won out for its more affordable price. And it ended up being a perfectly lovely choice, with clean, updated rooms and a quiet, relaxing vibe that was nice to return to after an active day.

What to Do

The 10-mile public beach in Ocean City is fantastic  well-maintained and family-friendly, with plenty of facilities, activities and eateries along the stretch. We spent a couple of afternoons there, just enjoying the waves and sun.

We also rented a surrey one morning to check out the boardwalk, and it was a fun way to get around (you can only ride bikes on the boardwalk until 11am). My son enjoyed counting the Candy Kitchens while we pedaled up and down (there were at least three).

Ocean City boasts not one, but three amusement parks all within a few blocks of one another. There are two Jolly Roger Amusement Parks, one at the pier that's geared toward older kids, and one at 30th Street for the younger set. Jolly Roger also runs a waterpark called Splash Mountain near the 30th Street location. In addition, there's a historic amusement park on the boardwalk called Trimper's, which mainly offers rides for younger kids. The two-tiered carousel here is the oldest continuously operating carousel in the entire country, dating back to 1912.

There's also no shortage of elaborate, interesting mini-golf courses in Ocean City. We played through the Temple of the Dragon on 23rd Street, but I don't think you can go wrong with any of the putt-putt places in town.

If go-karts are your family's thing, there's a full-blown go-kart park called Speedworld in Ocean City that features 10 (yes, 10!) different tracks, including one just for kids (at least 38 inches tall), as well as the world's first go-kart/roller coaster hybrid track called the Cyclone. We tried it and had a blast driving up and down the five-story structure!

Where to Eat

Our first and last dinners in Ocean City were our most memorable meals. The evening we got to town, we ate at On the Bay Seafood, and it was exactly the type of meal I was looking forward to here  different kinds of fresh crab with Old Bay and drawn butter, on picnic tables covered with brown paper. The sides and soups were delicious as well. Other seafood places on my list include the dockside Sunset Grille and Blu Crabhouse and Raw Bar.

Sick of seafood by the final evening, we had a hearty Italian dinner at Ristorante Antipasti. The prices are steep, but the big plates of perfectly al dente pasta are totally worth it.

We loved having breakfast at The Sahara Cafe and Malia's Cafe, across the street from one another. The diner-style Sahara serves every breakfast item imaginable, including almost as many options for kids as for adults. Malia's has a cuter ambience, and the breakfast is tasty and well done. The service at both places is fast and friendly.

For ice cream, Dumser's is the town institution, serving up creamy and soft-serve ice cream and shakes from seven locations around Ocean City (including one on the boardwalk). At least three of my friends from home recommended Dumser's when I mentioned I was going to Ocean City — and it didn't disappoint. My Oreo Crush cone was creamy, delicious, and worth a return trip.

What's Nearby

Just 20 minutes from Ocean City is Assateague Island National Seashore, a quietly beautiful park that offers easy hikes, kayaking, biking, camping and  surprise!  wild horses that roam the beaches and marshes. Visitors drive through the park looking for these horses, and you'll often see cars pulled over on the side of the road when there's a sighting. It reminded me of bison spotting in Yellowstone. The horses are pretty used to people gawking at them, but you're warned by patrolling park rangers to keep your distance, just in case.

We did two kid-friendly hikes called the Forest Trail and the Marsh Trail, each less than half a mile round trip (they were more like leisurely strolls along raised walkways). In addition to the picturesque surroundings, we stopped to examine the marshy waters for crabs and tadpoles along the way. Then we spent a morning on the wide-open beach at Assateague, which is a great way to cool off after a hike.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

New Paltz, New York

When most people think of spending a weekend in New Paltz, Mohonk Mountain House is what usually comes to mind. We’ve stayed there a couple of times, and it is incredibly beautiful and fun – but it can also get pretty expensive, since what you’re paying for is an all-inclusive experience. Recently we decided to spend a weekend in the town itself for a less pricey, more do-it-yourself New Paltz adventure.

Where to Stay

New Paltz is an easy day trip from where we live, but to enjoy everything the area has to offer requires spending the night. We stayed at the Hampton Inn on the edge of Main Street; it was brand new and spacious, with a great pool.

What to Do

The vibe of the town is decidedly laid-back, an interesting mix of outdoorsy and funky. You can stroll down Main Street and browse the quaint bookstores and shops. An open-air market on Sundays offers live music, local crafts and the bounty of nearby farms. Huguenot Creamery serves up generous-sized scoops and homemade ice cream sandwiches. Or drive about five minutes to Dressel Farms for some pick-your-own fruit.

But the real reason to come to New Paltz is to go hiking or biking. Minnewaska State Park Preserve is just minutes away, and it’s got everything from waterfalls to gorgeous vistas. For a super-easy hike with small kids, park by the main entrance and walk about 15 minutes to Awosting Falls, which flows into a stream that my kids loved to splash in.

You can continue toward the top of the waterfall for some amazing views (but hang on to your kids!).

The Wallkill Valley Rail Trail is a quiet, scenic, 22-mile path that runs from New Paltz up to Kingston. The path is completely flat and suitable for biking, but it’s not paved and can get a bit bumpy in parts. If you don’t bring your own bikes, The Bicycle Depot, right near the entrance of the trail, rents them, along with trailers or tagalongs for your kids.

About 2 miles of steady biking will bring you to this gorgeous old bridge, overlooking the Wallkill River.

For another approach to the trail, drive 15 minutes up to Rosendale and park in the lot on Binnewater Road. Access the trail from there and head south about one-third mile to get to the impressive Rosendale Trestle. If you want to continue biking from there, you can reach the super cute Rail Trail Café, nestled in the woods about 2 miles down.

Where to Eat

After a long hike or bike ride, grab a meal at the casual Main Street Bistro (the wait staff won’t bat an eye if you show up sweaty and dusty), or clean up back at the hotel and dine on some much-deserved handmade pasta at A Tavola Trattoria.

If you're planning a picnic lunch, Russo’s Deli makes some tasty sandwiches. Or pick up some fresh Mex from Mexicali Blue.

What's Nearby

I want to mention one more fantastic hike in the area, Sam’s Point Preserve, even though it’s further away, about 25 miles from New Paltz. The ice caves hike at Sam’s Point is like no other hike I’ve ever experienced, and totally worth the drive. My husband and I visited one weekend last month without the kids, but we’ll definitely be returning with them because it was so much fun.

The trail is an easy scramble over, under and through rocky crevices, with parts of the path meandering into caves that are indeed icy, even in late May. A 5-year-old would be able to handle this hike (and think it’s the coolest thing ever), but I wouldn’t bring kids younger than that. Also, definitely check the website before you go to make sure the trail is accessible, and get to the parking lot right when it opens at 9am – it fills up fast, and you’ll be turned away once the lot is full.