Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Time I Drove a Horse-Drawn Wagon and Other Pioneer Tales

Mama horse and her newborn foal

I was a bookish kid who was completely enthralled by The Little House on the Prairie series written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. While there was also the TV show based on the novels that depicted pioneer life, it was the books that kept drawing me in. Laura's storytelling is so vivid that my young mind was convinced it was an autobiography, not made up tales based on her childhood in the American frontier. I wanted to be just like Laura.

I remember pulling out my student atlas, flipping to the page for South Dakota and finding De Smet on the map. There it was. A tiny dot that represented the little town where the last few books of the series are set. And I'd sit there and wonder what that town looked like. When we started planning our Great Big Western USA roadtrip, I explained to my husband that De Smet was "only a four hour detour" from the Badlands/Mount Rushmore stop on our itinerary. I begged. I pleaded. I explained how we were never going to be that close to Laura's little town on the prairie. I channeled all the stubbornness that my inner-Laura could muster. So, that's how I finally found my feet firmly planted in the real life, 21st century De Smet, South Dakota. It's still a small town of only 1100 people, and a visit there is like being transported back in time.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Outdoor Fun in Jackson Hole

I'll admit that visiting Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Grand Teton National Park was a post-Yellowstone Park afterthought. We were in the area... so, why not? Located just south of Yellowstone, this area holds its own against its more famous neighbor. As soon as Jackson Lake came into view with the Teton Mountain range rising up behind it, I knew that we were in for a scenic treat. Our few days based in Jackson Hole were filled with all sorts of outdoor adventures followed by evenings relaxing in town. It's an admittedly touristy place, but all the wide open space keeps it from ever feeling overly crowded.

Fur trappers and mountain men first entered this valley between the Teton and Gros Ventre mountain ranges by descending its steep slopes, feeling as if they were climbing into a massive hole. The area is named after David Edward "Davey" Jackson,  a beaver trapper who was one of the first white men to spend an entire winter in this valley in the 1820's. It would be another 50 more years before Jackson Hole was regularly inhabited year-round.

FUN FACT: The area is expecting record high crowds on August 21, 2017. Why? It's a prime viewing area for a total eclipse of the sun beginning at 10:17AM and peaking at 11:35AM.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Under the Thames

50 feet below the surface of the River Thames

I like to visit oddball attractions when we travel. London is no exception. That's how my family came to find ourselves taking a walk under the Thames. Sure, some people head straight for Westminster Abbey or the Tower of London. Not us. On our first full day in this historic town, our first stop was the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Close Encounters on Devils Tower

Two men loom large in my mind when I think of Devils Tower — Richard Dreyfus and Frank Sanders. Steven Spielburg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind was one of the hit movies that came out in 1977. (A little cult classic called Star Wars was another.) I watched it in the theater during some friend's birthday sleepover party and spent the rest of the night decade worrying that I'd be abducted by aliens. I clearly remember spreading out my sleeping bag under my friend's baby grand piano in hopes that it would offer a small measure of protection in the event of an extra-terrestrial visitation. Richard Dreyfus' character briefly encounters a UFO and is then strangely compelled to keep building models of an unusual, mountain-like image he sees in his mind. An iconic scene occurs at the dinner table when he heaps mashed potatoes onto his plate as his puzzled family looks on, then sculpts the mound with his fork.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Everglades National Park: Focus on the Details

Alligator lurking in the Everglades

Most U.S. National Parks wow visitors with the massive, awe-inspiring scale of its landmarks. Stand on the brink of the Grand Canyon and gaze down at its depth  Cast your eyes upwards to take in the height of towering Sequoia trees.  Admire how Yellowstone Valley is framed by Bridalveil Falls plunging downwards on one side and the imposing El Capitan on the other. Breathe deep and greet the day as the sun's rays touches the United States for the first time every morning atop Acadia's Cadillac Mountain. These are the grand vistas visitors expect from national parks.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Keeping it Real

Slumped on a bench instead of looking around

My friends tell me that my kids are lucky to be so well traveled. If you read my previous post about Villa Vizcaya - Old World Opulence in the Heart of Miami, then you know more about Vizcaya than my kids do. My daughter will most likely get around to reading the Vizcaya post, but my boys never read this blog because, as they claim, they experienced it in real life.

We had just disembarked from our cruise that morning after staying up late the night before for a special 10:45PM, Thursday night release of the live action Beauty and the Beast. If you've ever been on a cruise, you know that they kick you out of the cabins super early so that they can prep for the next round of guests. The whole family was sleep deprived.

In any case, the kids could not muster up any interest in all the elegance surrounding them. When we were upstairs in the villa, they parked themselves on a bench in the passageway and didn't move. (I suppose this is better than having them touch every single breakable antique which is what I had to watch for when they were younger.)

They perked up in the fresh air of the Formal Gardens, drawn towards a Maze Garden where the hedges only reached as high as their thighs. So, it wasn't a total wash. 

Entering the Secret Garden

I just wanted to keep it real in case if you envisioned my kids being completely enthralled by everything we visit. I suppose they did repeatedly thank us for taking them on the cruise, so that's something.

If only I had figured out the Iron Man 3 connection beforehand.

What do you do to keep kids engaged?

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Villa Vizcaya - Old World Opulence in the Heart of Miami

Vizcaya as seen from the Boat Landing

The great Jay Gatsby would approve of Vizcaya. I can picture it as his temporary home when escaping the unseemly cold that wraps itself around Long Island and his mansion in West Egg during the winter months. Vizcaya was built to impress. It screams Old World opulence and money that has been passed down for generations. Its antique-filled rooms and stately formal gardens mentally transport visitors to Europe despite the fact that they are just across the bay from Miami's famed South Beach.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

36 Hours in Miami

On the shores of Biscayne Bay

Miami is a special place for me. It's where my husband and I spent our wedding night nearly 25 years ago. Our honeymoon was a Caribbean cruise departing from Miami followed by a week at Walt Disney World. We were the type of couple who literally left for their honeymoon directly from the wedding reception. We arrived in Miami late at night, checked into our hotel by the airport and then shipped out the next morning. For last week's Spring Break Caribbean cruise — this time with our 3 kids along — we decided to arrive early to spend a bit more time sampling what the Miami area has to offer.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

One night at Community Inn can change a life

Community Inn B&B and Alamo Drafthouse Outdoor Cinema

I could already tell that this was a different sort of bed & breakfast establishment as I drove down Hog Eye Road in rural East Austin and saw the cluster of teepees, Airstream trailers, RVs and tiny houses off in the distance. In their midst stood a large screen and amphitheater for the free outdoor cinema that shows movies every Friday night when the weather is warm. Pulling into the parking lot, a "Welcome to Community First! Village" sign greeted me. And even though the sky was drizzling rain and the temperature had dropped by 20°F since the previous day, I did, in fact, feel warmly welcomed.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Sunset from Lendal Bridge in York

York, England, River Ouse
Sunset over the River Ouse in York, England

Vacations are supposed to be a break from the ordinary. A time to escape everyday life. A chance to do something different. Sometimes, that different thing isn't big or grand. It's not always diving with sharks or sailing through the sky in a hot air balloon. Sometimes, it's the small details. It's the altered way of approaching everyday events. 

Lately, life has been a whirlwind. The after school hours are a blur for me as I chauffeur my three kids between school, activities and home. On Tuesdays, I spend two hours in my car continuously driving around but never going further than 10 miles from my house as if I'm running my own private bus route. My legs ache as I exit the car, glad to finally be able to stretch them out straight. On Wednesdays, I shuttle my kids around, dashing into the house for a few minutes before setting off again in my car. Whichever kid happens to be home at 5:30 PM is assigned the task of doing the final steps of cooking our family dinner that night. Other days, I reach home, and no one has taken on the dinner prep task. That night's meal becomes a smorgasbord of various microwaved leftovers. Whomever shows up in the kitchen last gets the least desirable morsels.

That's why I find joy in how we dine when we travel. It's so much more relaxed (unless I'm yelling that I am HANGRY and need to eat immediately). Someone else does the cooking. Even better, someone else does the cleaning up. Yay! No one at the table is rushing off to do homework or take a conference call. Whereas we rarely order dessert while dining out in our hometown, being in a foreign country is the perfect excuse to explore the local cuisine via something sweet and decadent. 

Afterwards, we stroll back to the hotel. If luck is smiling at us, it's timed perfectly so that the sinking sun sends out its brilliant last hurrah for the day as we cross a Gothic style, Victorian era bridge. In other words, the experience of our nightly meal is transformed into something utterly different and out of the ordinary.

Long after the trip is over and done with, I hold onto these memories. That's what gets me through the regular, the mundane, and the whirlwind.

It’s Your Turn, Link Up Your Newest Travel Inspiration

I've joined up as one of the co-hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration.
  1. Link one of your inspirational travel photos or stories to this post by adding your info.
  2. Copy and paste our badge and a link to this page.
  3. Visit some of the other wonderful travel bloggers, read their posts, and leave a comment.  It would be great if you could comment on 2-3 posts.
  4. Tweet it and include this hashtag. #wkendtravelinspiration .
  5. Follow all the hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration who are working hard to spread the word on what wonderful work travel bloggers are doing.
  6. Don’t forget to check out my amazing co-hosts and their pages: Reflections EnrouteThe Crowded PlanetContentedTravellerAlbom AdventuresSafari 254, and FamiliesGo.

I've also joined with the following linkups. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Spy vs. Spy at the International Spy Museum

Afraid that someone had heard me, I froze in place. I felt a little claustrophobic hunched down on my hands and knees inside the air duct I was crawling through. Catching a glimpse of the people in the room below me, I hoped that no one would look up and notice my face staring out through the hole in the vent. I strained my ears to try and pick up threads of conversation from the cacophony rising up from the crowd, praying that I would not be discovered and my cover blown. World traveler, expat trailing spouse, mom to three kids, prone to occasional bouts of daftness. It's the perfect cover for a spy.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Disney's Art of Animation Resort

It wasn't until we stayed at Disney's Art of Animation resort last year that I realized how low key most other Disney resorts are about incorporating Disney characters into their architecture and design. Many of the other hotels are more about transporting their guests to a real place rather than into the magical setting of a Disney movie. The Grand Floridian where I honeymooned almost 25 years ago harkens back to Victorian-era Palm Beach. The Wilderness Lodge recreates the atmosphere of a Northwest National Park lodge. And the newly opened overwater bungalows at the Polynesian Villas & Bungalows will make guests think that they've escaped to the South Pacific. The Art of  Animation resort, on the other hand, is all about making guests feel like they've stepped into a Disney animated movie.

Enlarged sketches decorate the Check-In area

Upon arrival, were were ushered into the Check-In area of Animation Hall which is fittingly decorated with enlarged pencil sketches of modern era Disney animated characters. A majestic chandelier is composed of storyboards which visually convey the development of the plot. The rest of the lobby has a bright wall of backlighted colorscripts. These images help guide computer animators regarding the lighting, colors, and mood of each scene. If you're a fan of the movies they reference, it's quite fascinating to see parts of the production process before it ended up on screen.

Colorscript wall

Animation Hall also houses a game arcade and the Landscape of Flavors, a casual dining restaurant featuring five cafeteria-style, mini-restaurants that serve breakfast, lunch and dinner from 6AM to midnight. Diners can choose items from World Flavors, the Soup-Salad-Sandwich Shop, Burgers, Pizza and The Market. Resort guests can also call here to have pizza delivered to their room if they're tired after a day running around the parks. Souvenirs can be found in the Ink & Paint Shop.

The resort is divided into four areas that each feature a different, modern-day, Disney animated movie as its theme.

This not-so-Little Mermaid is three stories tall

The Little Mermaid buildings make guests feel like they are part of Ariel's underwater world. The medium-sized Flippin' Fins pool looked inviting with Sebastian the crab conducting the Under the Sea orchestra. The building with Ursula the Sea Witch looked rather intimidating though. I wonder if kids who have to walk past her to reach their rooms feel like poor, unfortunate souls.

Ursula the Sea Witch is scary indeed.

The Lion King buildings are supposed to make you feel like you are in Africa, of course. If the kids need to burn off energy -- if that ever happens after a day at the parks -- they can always run among the huge, curved bones of the the elephant graveyard playground. Mufasa proudly watches over the area while young Simba, Pumbaa and Timon prance across a log.

Hakuna Matata (No Worries) when you stay at the Art of Animation Resort

The centerpiece of the Finding Nemo section is the 12,000 square foot pool which is the largest in all the Walt Disney World resorts. It's very kid-friendly with plenty of shallow areas perfect for splashing around. For the adults, there's a poolside bar called The Drop Off. Another play area is located behind the pool with stairs and slides so that kids can pretend their exploring the reef.

The largest pool in  all of Walt Disney World

Because my younger boy was a huge fan of Lightning McQueen when he was little, we stayed in the Cars section of the resort.  A large billboard welcomed us to Radiator Springs, and the building facades evoked the American Southwest setting of the movie.

Each building's main entrance was disguised as one of the businesses from the Cars movie. Of course, all the favorite characters were on hand for plenty of photo opportunities.

Sally Carrera and Lightning McQueen

Tow Mater

Flo and, in the background,  Luigi

All these buildings faced the Cozy Cones pool with large traffic cones serving as pool cabanas.

What drew us to the Art of Animation Resort in the first place is the value-priced family suites. With three kids and more than one person in the family who is 6 feet or taller, we needed more space. Each suite sleeps up to 6 adults. The suite includes a separate bedroom with attached bathroom, a living area with a bathroom, dining area, and a kitchenette with a sink, mini-fridge, microwave and coffee maker. One bathroom has a walk-in shower, and the other one has a tub/shower combo. The best part of the room is converting the dining table into a double bed. (No, you don't just plunk a mattress on top of the table.)

Bedroom with a Queen size bed and an attached bathroom

One of two full bathrooms

The sofa converts into a double bed.

The dining table converts into a double bed, too. Clever!

Other Disney hotels that I've been in have decorative motifs that tastefully reference Disney characters in subdued ways. Art of Animation emphasizes the movie setting and amps up the theming. I really did feel like I may have been staying the in the Cozy Cone Motel from the Cars movie. The couch looked like a classic car bench seat, and the kitchenette evoked an automotive repair shop. The bathrooms had carwash signs, and the pictures on the walls were of the movie characters on an old Route 66 roadtrip.

Highway map on the coffee tabletop

Considering that we would have needed two rooms at one of the more expensive resorts, this was a very economic option. The only drawback was the distance from the parks themselves. Disney provides complimentary bus transportation to all its parks and the Disney Springs shopping district, but I found the late night traffic jam we were stuck in as the parks started to close to NOT be what I needed at the end of a long day. Despite that, I think that the Art of Animation Resort will be a strong contender for lodging the next time we visit Walt Disney World.

It’s Your Turn, Link Up Your Newest Travel Inspiration

I've joined up as one of the co-hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration.
  1. Link one of your inspirational travel photos or stories to this post by adding your info.
  2. Copy and paste our badge and a link to this page.
  3. Visit some of the other wonderful travel bloggers, read their posts, and leave a comment.  It would be great if you could comment on 2-3 posts.
  4. Tweet it and include this hashtag. #wkendtravelinspiration .
  5. Follow all the hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration who are working hard to spread the word on what wonderful work travel bloggers are doing.
  6. Don’t forget to check out my amazing co-hosts and their pages: Reflections EnrouteThe Crowded PlanetContentedTravellerAlbom AdventuresSafari 254, and FamiliesGo.

I've also joined with the following linkups. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Different Views on Washington, D.C.

National Mall, Tidal Basin
The Lincoln Memorial as seen from the top of the Washington Monument

I should have gone on a cruise this past week. Or perhaps trekked deep into the jungle. Or maybe one of those off-the-grid places where people go on retreats to look into their souls without being distracted by all the hustle and bustle of the outside world. In any case, it would have been best if I had put myself on a media blackout these last few days. Because my head is about to explode the more and more I read the news.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Wondercrump Roald Dahl Museum & Story Centre

Outside the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre with a Big Friendly Giant (BFG) on the front

After hauling my family around England to places associated with the Brontë Sisters and Jane Austen, I thought it only fair to honor my daughter's request to visit the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Center. Like many children,  she's a fan of his books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Watching the musical, Matilda, based on Dahl's book of the same name was one of the highlights of our family trip to New York City. Plus, the Steven Spielberg movie adaptation of his book, The BFG, was released immediately before our trip to England. During our time in London, we crossed paths a few times with The BFG Dream Jar Trail which was set up to both promote the movie and celebrate Dahl's 100th birthday.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Bath, England through Jane Austen's Eyes

Dressing up in Regency era clothing such as Jane Austen may have worn

I have realized that I am slowly turning into a woman who could easily slip into a Jane Austen novel. Alas, I am not becoming one of those spirited, self-assured main characters in the tradition of Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. Instead, I am displaying all the old-fashion qualities of a mother worried about social graces and fine manners. At eleven years old, my daughter is on the brink of becoming a "young lady," and against her will, I signed her up for etiquette classes (a.k.a. "charm school").

Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Walk on the Yorkshire Moors with the Brontë Sisters

Today is the perfect, lazy day for curling up with a good book. The weather is unusually cold... well, for Central Texas... just a tad below freezing. The sky is dark with clouds, and the trees have lost their leaves. It's the type of gloomy, Gothic setting I pictured  when reading Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë or Jane Eyre by her sister, Charlotte Brontë. A place inhabited by dark and brooding types.

Ever since I read those novels in high school and at university, I've always wondered what it was like to stroll along the Yorkshire moors. Growing up amid the metropolitan sprawl and suburban strip malls of flat-as-a-pancake Houston, it was difficult to picture myself inserted into such a foreign scene. So, when we decided to visit York, England last summer, I was seized with the notion of making a pilgrimage to  the Brontë Parsonage in the tiny village of Haworth and finally walking among the heather in the rolling moorlands. "It's just a 90-minute drive from York," I explained to my husband with pleading, puppy dog eyes." How could he resist?
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