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.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Savannah, Georgia

Savannah in the spring is about as perfect a vacation as you can get with the kids. It's got a nice mix of interesting historical attractions, great food, and unique natural environments to explore. And with temps in the high 70s/low 80s in April (and the sand gnat situation relatively under control), the conditions are ideal for everything from strolling through the historic district to hanging out at Tybee Beach. We toured Savannah on a trip to the South that also included the lovely city of Charleston, two hours away.

What to Do

One of the main reasons we decided to visit Savannah was because my daughter became a Brownie this year, and Girl Scout headquarters is located here. You can take a tour of the home of the founder, Juliette Gordon Low, and purchase a special pin for your vest that indicates you attended the tour. I'm a sucker for things like that. The tour itself was very interesting for my daughter, who learned all sorts of things about Juliette, but my son couldn't get out of the house fast enough!

Juliette's birthplace is just one of many significant buildings in Savannah's historic district. We got a sense of that particular area with a hop on/hop off bus tour run by Old Savannah Tours. If we had more time, I would've picked up the Savannah Safari scavenger hunt booklets for the kids so they could look for animals in the architecture around the historic district.

A really interesting part of the city to explore is River Street, which is all restored buildings, historic bridges, and cobblestone streets and steps. There are plenty of gift shops and restaurants to choose from along the river, and the kid-magnet that is Savannah Candy Kitchen is located there as well.

We spent a morning at Skidaway Island State Park, a beautiful piece of land covered with live oak, Spanish moss and salt marshes. Everything about the ecosystem is so different from our hikes in the Northeast. The park offers bike rentals, and somehow we found bikes that fit everyone in our family, even the 5-year-old. We biked the Big Ferry Trail to the Observation Tower, then left our bikes in a clearing to hike a little farther down the trail before turning back. It was the perfect way to enjoy a spring morning in lowcountry.

I'm not a big fan of forts, as I find them to be overrated and fairly boring for the kids, but our experience at Savannah's Old Fort Jackson was the exact opposite  it was an under-the-radar attraction that turned out to be pretty entertaining. The staff does an excellent job of reenacting the history of the fort, particularly with the cannon firings that occur twice a day. It was oddly entertaining to watch a young soldier in full-on period garb demonstrate how to load up a cannon (with a blank) and then fire at a ferry full of tourists sailing down the Savannah River.

Where to Eat

We knew we wanted to eat as much barbecue as possible while down South, and I chose Sandfly Barbecue for its rave reviews, even though it was a bit out of the way. When we arrived at the tiny restaurant located in a strip mall, my heart sank  but fortunately the reviewers knew what they were talking about. The no-frills barbecue is finger-licking good, as are the sides. I had more than my share of the mac and cheese and fried okra!

One restaurant that seems to be on everyone's must-experience list is The Pirates' House, situated in a building that's been operational since 1753, originally as an inn for actual pirates. The restaurant totally looks like a pirate hangout, all exposed brick walls and low ceilings. The food, a hodgepodge of Southern cooking, is pretty good, too.

The old-fashioned Leopold's Ice Cream shop is another popular stop; when we got to it, there was a line down the street. We didn't really want to wait for half an hour, but then we figured when in Savannah! The wait was worth it. In addition to the usual flavors, there were so many interesting seasonal ones such as Japanese cherry blossom, lavender, and Thin Mint (as in the Girl Scout cookies). And the ice cream is rich, creamy and the perfect treat with which to stroll around the historic district.

What's Nearby

About half an hour from Savannah is Tybee Island, which is a great area in which to spend a day. Tybee Beach is beautiful, clean, and family-friendly, and the Colonial-era Tybee Lighthouse is nearby. Anyone can climb to the top (there are no age restrictions, but the 178 steps are no joke) and gaze for miles across all the different waterways surrounding Savannah.

If you're out on Tybee Island and love seafood, I highly recommend lunch or dinner at The Crab Shack, which is an experience worth driving out for all on its own. From the absolutely delicious seafood boils to the festively lit riverfront dining space to the gator lagoon (where the kids can feed the alligators special food using long wooden sticks), this restaurant is just plain fun!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Charleston, South Carolina

There's so much good eating in Charleston. And the best restaurants are casual and kid-friendly, which makes this a great place to bring your kids for a little getaway. We spent just a couple of days here before driving on to Savannah, and I would return for the food alone  but there are also plenty of other things to do with the kids in this lovely, historic city.

What to Do

You can spend an entire day at Magnolia Plantation, a gorgeous, sprawling plantation on the outskirts of Charleston that looks like a scene out of a movie  all charming Spanish moss and ancient live oaks. Included with admission are access to the gardens, the petting zoo and the horticulture maze, all of which my kids loved. We ate lunch on the premises at the Peacock Cafe; the food was tasty, and the view from the picnic tables really can't be beat.

After lunch, we paid extra for the nature train, which was a 45-minute guided tour of the grounds in a tram (the sightings of alligators and blue herons are practically guaranteed), as well as the self-guided swamp hike, which is just so different from our hikes up north.

My kids' second favorite part of Charleston was a park we stumbled on by accident, Waterfront Park, overlooking Charleston Harbor. There are two enormous fountains there, and kids are actually encouraged to splash in them. I've never seen anything like it  dozens of local children in swimsuits, practically doing laps in the fountain bowls. Of course, my kids rolled up their shorts, kicked off their shoes, and joined in immediately. Afterwards, we dried off on one of the benches looking over the water while enjoying some Italian ice.

My favorite activity in Charleston was the horse-drawn carriage tour, although it didn't hold much interest for the kids. Still, it was a good opportunity for them to rest  and for the younger one to take a nap, lulled to sleep by the clip-clopping of the draft horse. There are several companies that run these popular tours, and we went with the Old South Carriage Company based on the excellent reviews. Our guide was charming and informative, and we really learned a lot about Charleston's rich history, architecture and flora during the hour-long ride.

Last but not least, I have to mention Fort Sumter, which is on everyone's must-do list for Charleston  although I also have to add that it's not very interesting for small children unless they're particularly well-versed in the Revolutionary or Civil Wars. That said, the half-hour ferry ride to and from the fort was a nice way to enjoy the ocean breeze, and the old cannons on the fort are definitely a sight to behold. We asked a park ranger for the Junior Ranger packet I'd read about online (a sort of scavenger hunt for kids, where they can earn a badge in the end), but only my son was interested in completing the different sections of the booklet; his older sister couldn't care less.

Where to Eat

We didn't have a single bad meal during our stay in Charleston. For breakfast, there was Callie's Hot Little Biscuit. There was a line out the door when we got there on a Tuesday morning, but fortunately I'd placed my order in advance through their app, so all we had to do was pick up the food. There are barely any seats in the tiny eatery, so take your biscuits across the street to a bench at Wragg Square.

For a dining spot with a breathtaking view, head over to Fleet Landing by the harbor. Definitely ask for a table outside, but if you do end up stuck inside, it's not the end of the world  the nautical decor of the spacious interior is also quite atmospheric.

And then, of course, there's the barbecue. We got tons of recommendations from both friends and locals, so we figured we were probably going to end up with some pretty tasty brisket no matter where we went. Lewis Barbecue did not disappoint, despite my ridiculously high expectations, in food or ambiance. Never have I seen a pile of meat disappear so fast. The brisket, the pulled pork, the sausage  I honestly can't decide which was my favorite. Get some of everything.

What's Nearby

We went to Charleston during spring break, and I knew that my kids would care more about being by a beach than in the historic downtown area, so we stayed in Folly Beach, about 20 minutes outside of the city. We would spend the first half of our days in Charleston, then end with a visit to the beach right outside our hotel. It's a wide, clean and family-friendly beach, with plenty of local dining and souvenir shopping.

For dinner after a day of sun and sand, head over to Loggerhead's Beach Grill, about five blocks from the beach, where the snow crab legs are perfectly steamed, the burgers are cooked just right, and the service is friendly, casual and oh so Southern. There's even great live music (country, of course) on most nights.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Disney World, Florida

Instead of telling you how you should plan your Disney World trip, I'll let the experts tell you themselves. There are so many awesome blogs out there, written by people who've been to Disney more than a hundred times and examined the experience from hundreds of angles. The most useful thing I can contribute is a master list of the best resources for planning, so you don't have to waste your time sifting through the myriad of sites out there. So if you're planning a trip to Disney World, here's where you should start. 

Warning: Get ready to give up a few hours (or days) of your life diving into the rabbit hole that is Disney vacation planning! 

What to Do 

Start your planning by figuring out when to go. This detailed crowd calendar predicts the crowd levels for every day of the coming year. It also includes park hours and average weather conditions for the day. 

Before you book anything, check Disney’s site for their current deals – sometimes they’re pretty good. The best discounts involve free dining for your entire trip or 30 percent off lodging.

Once you've secured your hotel and plane tickets, the next step is to plan out your days at the parks. You could just show up and wander around aimlessly, but remember that you'll likely be mingling with more than 50,000 other guests, many of whom have researched the heck out of the rides, shows and restaurants, beating you to the head of every line. Start by reading about the rides your kids might be interested in going on and making a list.

Next, map out your plan of attack. With the crowds, it can be quite daunting to move around the park, so it's best to group the rides you want to go on by the different sections within each park.

If you'd rather just have someone tell you how to plan your days, the experts have written some excellent one-day itineraries for each park.

A huge component of Disney planning is the Fast Pass, which are free reservations that you can make for each ride – so instead of waiting on line, you just reserve a certain time slot and show up for the ride at that time. Here's a detailed primer on Fast Pass and how it works. 

Just before you go, make sure you check the Disney calendar for their hours of operation on the days of your visit – they may have shifted since you first started planning, which can be a game changer. 

If you have small children, you may also want to consult this guide on the best areas to rest or take a nap in the Magic Kingdom, especially if you intend on staying for the fireworks show at night (here are the best areas to watch the fireworks).

And finally, here's a pretty great list of what to pack – it's where I learned about chilly towels and rain suits. The weather will play a huge part in your vacation, and it really helps to be prepared for extreme humidity or sudden downpours.

Where to Stay

On or off premises? That is the question. If your kids are very young and one day at the Magic Kingdom is enough, maybe you want to consider staying off the premises to explore other parts of Orlando (some suggestions below). We've had great experiences staying at the ridiculously affordable Caribe Cove Resort and the more upscale Marriott's Lakeshore Reserve

But if Disney World is the be all, end all of your vacation, then on premises is probably the way to go. Included are a free shuttle to the parks and airport, extra hours at the parks, magic bands that keep track of everything, and first pick at Fast Pass times. Here are reviews for all the Disney hotels, and here they are sorted by price.

Where to Eat

Disney offers two kinds of places to dine, table service restaurants and quick service (self-serve) restaurants. My preference is to make reservations for table service for both lunch and dinner so you don't have to deal with crowds and lines, but the drawback is that you're bound to your reservation – if you don't show up, you'll still be charged. Here's a list of the restaurants in each park and their menus, plus the pros and cons of each. Or, you can just have someone tell you where to eat. And here's a fun roundup of the best snacks that Disney World has to offer.

What's Nearby

Disney World may be Orlando's biggest attraction by far, but it offers plenty of other things to do, like orange picking, airboat rides and gator parks. The dining scene is surprisingly excellent as well. Here's my kid-friendly itinerary for Orlando.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Santa Barbara, California

Santa Barbara was our third stop on a Pacific Coast tour that started in San Francisco, detoured to Monterey, and wound up in Los Angeles. What makes the view different there from those of the other coastal towns we visited is the dominating Santa Ynez mountain range, which serves as a gorgeous backdrop against the palm tree-lined streets and views of the Pacific Ocean.

What to Do

We wanted to do some kayaking while we were in Santa Barbara, and we hired a great tour company called Santa Barbara Adventure Co. to take us around the harbor. (We'd originally wanted to go out to the open water, but a heavy storm the day before prevented us from doing so.) Our guides were very friendly, professional and flexible, accommodating our requests and tailoring the trip to fit our needs.

Cabrillo Boulevard is the main drag in Santa Barbara, and the best way to experience it is by renting bikes from Wheel Fun Rentals and riding along the shoreline bike path. The rental shop has all sorts of kid-friendly biking options, from tag-alongs to surreys.

We made stops with our bikes at Chase Palm Park for the shipwreck-themed playground, duck and turtle pond, and antique carousel; Stearns Wharf for pelican spotting and ice cream; and East Beach for some wave jumping.

Where to Eat

When one is visiting Santa Barbara, one must eat at Brophy Bros. at Santa Barbara Harbor. Not so much for the seafood as for the view. You simply can't beat sitting on that narrow outdoor deck overlooking the sailboats bobbing in the harbor as you enjoy your clam chowder. It's the quintessential SB experience.

For Cal-Mex, many of the locals recommend family-friendly Carlitos in the downtown area (pictured below), which features year-round alfresco dining (warmed by heat lamps in the winter). But our hotel concierge also told us about Romanti-Ezer, which offers Mexican food with an El Salvadorian twist, and it turned out to be a solid recommendation. The milo burrito (with chicken, beans and plantains) is out of this world, and the staff couldn't be nicer.

Our last meal in SB was lunch at Shoreline Beach Cafe, and it turned out to be our favorite. Snag a table right on the beach and let the kids play in the sand while you wait for your fish tacos and burgers to arrive. So relaxing.

What's Nearby

Before rolling into Santa Barbara, we stopped in Solvang, about 40 minutes north. The city was originally settled by Danes and still boasts a Danish flavor in its architecture and landmarks. Case in point: One of the city's major playgrounds, Sunny Fields, resembles a child-sized Danish village and is a wonderland for kids who like to play pretend.

Also in Solvang is a farm called Ostrich Land, which is dedicated to raising dozens of ostriches and emus on open fields. You can feed the big birds using special handled bowls, but tell the kids to hold on tight  the ostriches and emus have a forceful peck and look more than a little intimidating as they approach you (thankfully, you're separated by a wooden fence). The funky gift shop even sells ostrich and emu eggs for cooking up and enjoying at home ($25 each). Yum?

Monday, March 6, 2017

Monterey, California

We stayed in Monterey for a couple of days as part of a longer California coastal trip over winter break that also included San Francisco and Santa Barbara. It's a beautiful coastal town that makes a great home base if you're also checking out nearby Big Sur and Carmel.

What to Do

Monterey's No. 1 draw is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and it lives up to the hype (and is accordingly priced!). Built right on the bay, the facility is gorgeously maintained, with a clean, modern design and well-presented exhibits.

There are mesmerizing schools of fish everywhere, numerous touch tanks, and the jellyfish section is particularly impressive  who knew there were so many types?

We'd wanted to go hiking at Point Lobos State Reserve in Carmel to get a glimpse of the sea lions, but a severe, weeklong rainstorm flooded the trails and forced us to change course. Instead, we wound up at Garrapata State Park, and the views couldn't be any more dramatically beautiful. We followed the Soberanes Point loop to the left of Route 1 on this map, which took only 20 minutes to complete. The trail is easy to hike, but the drop-offs are steep and sometimes there's only a thin rope separating you from the edge of a cliff, so hold onto the little ones!

If you hop on the famously scenic Pacific Coast Highway (Route 1) from Monterey and head south toward Big Sur, you'll soon encounter some of the most dramatic coastal views in the world. Record-breaking storms, wind, and even mudslides couldn't stop us from making it to the widely photographed Bixby Bridge, and we managed to take some photos from the lookout point before ducking back into the car, completely soaked! 

Where to Eat

If you're looking for a place to grab lunch after a morning at the aquarium, skip touristy Cannery Row and walk about four blocks to Il Vecchio, a restaurant that offers a "worker's lunch" from noon to 1:30. This adorably rustic Italian eatery dishes out a limited prix-fixe menu (basically you choose between two housemade pastas, which rotate by the day) and the food is brought out straight from the stove and plated at your table. It's all very quaint, simple and delicious. 

One night we grabbed dinner at La Bahia, a casual Mexican restaurant (no website, so here's the Yelp page). It was an easy-breezy meal that involved burritos so large, just one could've fed my whole family. The tamales were also fantastic.

What's Nearby

We had many plans for hiking and lunching in nearby Big Sur, but as mentioned, Mother Nature put a kibosh on all that by shutting down that stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway. Big Sur was literally inaccessible to us since the PCH is the only way in and out. Still, here's what we had planned: Pfeiffer Beach, famous for its purple sand and photogenic archway; the restaurant Nepenthe, legendary for its outdoor seating, perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean; and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which features an easy hike with a big payoff, McWay Falls. Hopefully we'll make it to these places one day!