02 Mar

Trip Planning: 6 Research Tips for Your RV Vacations

We are in serious trip planning mode for the spring season here at RVFTA and if you are a longtime listener and reader, you know that our number one travel tip of all time is to talk to the locals and trust their recommendations.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t do our research ahead of time.

Our current operating method is to arrive at any new destination with an understanding of what it is known for and a list of possible activities that we might enjoy. We also have a loose schedule in our minds since we have discovered it is easy to miss out on great experiences just because you didn’t have a grasp on operating hours or tour times. Our actual itinerary on most trips ends up being a combination of planning and kismet. Finding the sweet spot between these two things is always a work in progress.

So what do we do in advance of any longer RV trip? I recommend using all the usual online tools, then venturing off the beaten path. Here is my general process.

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14 Jan

RVFTA #71: Color In Those Campers!

Color In Those Campers!

On this week’s episode of RV Family Travel Atlas, we introduce the adult coloring craze to our RV enthusiasts. It turns out that coloring is quite the therapautic pastime for all of us busy, overworked Americans. So we decided it might help get us all through the dreary winter months.

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We will review our three favorite travel trailer coloring books and give the details for our Camper Coloring Contest. Once you have all the tools, you can get on your way to becoming the Picasso of the RV world. If we don’t beat you to it first. For links to all the coloring books we discuss, click here.

Plus, to round out all the travel trailer talk, we have a great interview with Jayco’s Amy Duthie, the product manager of the Jayflight line, which has been America’s best-selling travel trailer for 10 years straight. Amy talks about all the options available in the Jayflight travel trailers, and why it is such a popular pick for RV enthusiasts. You can watch the video on Sway Command that we discuss here.

You might think you have to pony up hundreds of dollars for a decent therapy session to get you through the winter. But we know some colored pencils and a decent travel trailer sketch can get you into that camping state of mind. You are listening to Episode #71: Color In Those Campers!

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02 Jun

RVFTA 1st Annual Rally Roundup!

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We did it.

An actual RV Family Travel Atlas Rally took place this past weekend at Lake-in-Wood Camping Resort in Narvon, Pennsylvania. Here are the 10 most important facts to report:

1. We have the nicest listeners and readers ever. Seriously. In the privacy of our own RV, we continuously marveled at that fact that all of our attendees ended up being super, duper cool.

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2. Campfires and games create instant community. Everywhere and all the time.

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4. Potluck dinners stand the test of time.

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5. Everyone wants to win prizes.

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6. RVers talk about their rigs and their future rigs. A lot.

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7. The only thing kids really want in life is an off-the-hook pool.

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8. A giant field can effectively disseminate the noise of dozens of children.

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9. A schedule doesn’t mean a whole lot when you have little kids. And that’s okay.

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10. We will do this again. Soon.

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One of the highlights for us was the diversity of experience represented at our rally.

From babies to retirees…

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From tents to Class As…

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From modern to vintage…

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It means so much to us that all these great people find our podcast both enjoyable and useful.

We look forward to making many more episodes, hosting many more rallies, and meeting many listeners.

See you at the campground.

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26 Apr

Choose Your Own Outdoor Adventure Near the Myrtle Beach KOA

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Our family has the most fun when we are exploring the great outdoors. Period.

The boardwalk rides, arcade games, and miniature golf courses of Myrtle Beach are truly fun and fabulous. But the real reason we decided to come back for a second year in a row? Stunning natural beauty.

Surprised? We were, too. We never expected to find such gorgeous State Parks, botanical gardens, and wild swamps just a short drive away from the Myrtle Beach KOA and the bustling boardwalk area.

So when your family visits this great American tourist destination, make sure you don’t miss out on what one local called the real wild side of Myrtle Beach. Here are our 5 top picks for outdoor adventures that your whole family can enjoy together.

1. Huntington Beach State Park

DSC_0142If you want to surround yourself with the natural beauty of coastal South Carolina, spend a day at Huntington Beach State Park. Start off by exploring the Marsh Walk where you are almost guaranteed to spot sunning alligators and stunning water fowl. Visit the nature center for a ranger led program or take your own hiking tour on one of the park’s interpretative trails. Do not miss a visit to Atalaya, the former summer home of Archer Huntington who built this Moorish castle on the beach for his sculptor wife. Then you can end your day on the pristine 3-mile stretch of uncrowded beach. If there is a more perfect state park out there, we haven’t yet found it.

2. Myrtle Beach State Park

DSC_0102Myrtle Beach State Park is a great family-friendly state park for two reasons: the Nature Center and the playground. The program schedule at the Nature Center includes story time, crafts, beach walks, and bird house discovery. The center is small and engaging with friendly rangers on staff, ready to get your kids excited about ecology. The playground was a hit with our crew, and we enjoyed the beautiful scenery while our boys played pirates for over an hour. And yes, once again you must end your visit by heading down to the beach. White sand, warm sun, and sparkling water. Need we say more?

3. Black River Outdoor Center

P1110738Perhaps our favorite discovery on our second trip to Myrtle Beach was the Black River Outdoor Center which runs guided kayak eco tours of the Salt Marsh and Cypress Swamp. We were lucky enough to experience both tours, and they were downright magical experiences for us and our 5 year old boys. The tour guides were phenomenal, blending humor and education while bringing the ecology of coastal South Carolina to life. Make sure you talk to Richard, the owner, who will enthusiastically recommend which tour you should take depending on the time of year and season. And if you score Paul as your tour guide, well then it is your lucky day.

4. Barefoot Princess

DSC_0188If your arms are sore from kayaking and your feet are tired from hiking, book a tour on the Barefoot Princess, where you can relax on the top deck with a delicious drink while learning all about the Intracoastal Waterway. This was just good, lazy vacation fun for the whole family. The food was quite good and very affordable…same with the drinks. Live music played and the crowd was fun enough to get up and dance to all the party classics. Our boys performed their very first YMCA. Best part? The captain lets every child on board have a turn steering the ship.

5. Brookgreen Gardens

DSC_0139We have written a couple of posts about why we love Brookgreen Gardens. It is the perfect example of what we look for when traveling with our kids, combining engaging activities for the young ones with beauty and educational interest for us adults. You could spend the whole day here without seeing everything, but check out our top 6 activities that are not to be missed.

What makes Myrtle Beach the perfect destination for a family like ours? A vacation in Myrtle Beach means we really can have it all: a beautiful campground in a peaceful, wooded setting; adrenaline pumping activities like zip lining and boardwalk rides; and amazing natural experiences that bring us up close and personal with God’s great creation.

Perfect family vacation: Check.

See you soon, Myrtle Beach.

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This trip was sponsored by Kampgrounds of America and the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. Our opinions are always our own. For more information about this campground and Myrtle Beach check out last week’s RVFTA podcast for free in the iTunes store or on our blog. We interview the general manager of the Myrtle Beach KOA, Jeremiah Drew, along with some very happy campers.

20 Apr

Wild and Crazy Boardwalk Fun, Minutes from the Myrtle Beach KOA

The word camping usual brings to mind quiet, natural settings far away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. But sometimes our family wants to be right in the middle of the action when we travel in our RV.

As we mentioned in our campground review, the best thing about the Myrtle Beach KOA is that you don’t have to choose. This campground is a wooded retreat just steps away from all the excitement of the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk.

There are enough miniature golf courses, amusement parks, and fun houses in Myrtle Beach to keep your family entertained way past the little ones’ bedtime for days on end. But with all the flashing lights and neon signs, it can be difficult to pick and choose between all the options.

Well, we did the hard work for you.

As you read through our recommendations, though, remember our number one family travel tip: always dip into crazy kid fun in small doses. We never did more than one of these activities in a given day.  Instead, we balanced every trip to the boardwalk with a walk at a nearby State Park and a relaxing swim in the campground pool. This ensured that both the kids and adults stayed in mellow camping mode and never hit vacation overload.

So here are our top picks for wild and crazy boardwalk fun, family style in Myrtle Beach.

1. Myrtle Beach Skywheel

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The Myrtle Beach Skywheel is located right in the middle of the Myrtle Beach Oceanfront Boardwalk and Promenade. The ride is high enough to give anyone a few jitters, but the views really are just phenomenal. Even though the tickets were not cheap ($13 for an adult and $9 for a child), the ride was quite long and gave us plenty of time at the top to gaze up and down the South Carolina coast. If you want to avoid long lines, arrive when the Skywheel first opens at 11 am. Or you might want to brave the crowds to enjoy the wheel when it is all lit up at night. Let us know how it goes. That’s when you find us around the campfire…

2. Family Kingdom Amusement Park and Splashes Water Park

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Family Kingdom Amusement Park is only blocks away from the Myrtle Beach KOA. If you and your kids need to get in your rides fix while on vacation, this is a great family option. There are rides for every age and height, although our boys were disappointed that the height requirement for the big roller coaster was 56 inches. Nevertheless we had a blast on all the great ride go tos: The Buckaneer, Swings, Tilt-a-Whirl, and the Hurricane. We really appreciate the different pricing options available. You can buy unlimited, all-day wristbands if your family is going to be going on tons of rides. Or you can just buy individual tickets if your family is the type to enjoy 3 rides each and then head back to the campfire. Cough, cough.

3. Myrtle Beach Zipline Adventures

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We love zip lining. A lot. But it really can be an expensive and time consuming activity. Our favorite thing about the Myrtle Beach Zipline Adventures is that your family can enjoy an introduction to the adrenaline inducing ride without having to go off into the mountains for half the day. Kids only have to be 40 pounds which means our 5 year olds were able to do their biggest zip yet. We are pretty sure they will never forget the experience.

This boardwalk activity also provides some attractive pricing options for a family. You can purchase a ticket for one zip and one free fall (or two zips) for about $32, or you can buy an all day pass for about $43.00. If our boys were teenagers, we would probably splurge on the all day pass for them and then go read books on the beach for a few hours.

4. Jungle Lagoon Miniature Golf

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There are so many miniature golf options in Myrtle Beach, you could play a different course every day of vacation if you were so inclined. The Jungle Lagoon happens to be about 100 feet away from the entrance of the Myrtle Beach KOA, which made it our favorite pick hands down. The course is clean and well-maintained, with plenty of obstacles to keep your family entertained through all 18 holes. There are two different courses, the Jungle course and the Lagoon course, and both were equally fun for our boys. Walking over to the Jungle Lagoon after a day playing at the beach and bouncing on the jump pillow was the cherry on our vacation sundae.

5. WonderWorks

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We always make sure to have at least one rainy day option on the list when we go on vacation. Wonderworks, located at Broadway on the Beach, is the perfect choice for an indoor family activity. You could definitely spend the entire day. A zany mix between an indoor amusement park and children’s museum, there are tons of hands on exhibits about space, sports, and natural disasters. Virtual air hockey, a bubble lab, a bed of nails…the list goes on. Just be warned: the top floor has an indoor ropes challenge course AND an arcade. If you don’t want to pay extra for your kids to play arcade games, avoid this floor at all costs. Consider yourself warned.

6. Myrtle Beach Pelicans, Minor League Baseball

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Right across the street from Broadway on the Beach is the home of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, where we enjoyed one of our favorite evenings of our whole trip. Minor league baseball is a perfect family activity when traveling because the tickets are very affordable and every one, young and old, can enjoy the game. We love that our boys can get up close to the action and really see what is going on. They ask questions the whole time and learn so much about baseball whenever we visit a minor league stadium. The Pelicans had a lively crowd, and we all walked away with some great team apparel.

This trip was sponsored by Kampgrounds of America and the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.  Our opinions are always our own. For more information about this campground and Myrtle Beach check out last week’s RVFTA podcast for free in the iTunes store or on our blog.  We interview the general manager of the Myrtle Beach KOA, Jeremiah Drew, along with some very happy campers.

 

07 Apr

6 Amazing Family Activities at Brookgreen Gardens, South Carolina

Enchanted Storybook Forest Brookgreen Gardens

Brookgreen Gardens, located in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, is just 30 minutes south of Myrtle Beach. It is a fascinating and unusual combination of a botanical garden, history museum, zoo, and nature center. There are so many different activities to enjoy while visiting, but it would be virtually impossible to see and do it all.

Last year we wrote a philosophical post after visiting Brookgreen, focusing on how the garden hits the sweet spot of family travel and pleases both the young and old. This year we are getting a bit more practical.

A couple of notes that might be helpful if you are visiting with kids. There are many beautiful spots for a picnic so pack those PB&Js if you are so inclined. They have strollers for loan at no cost if you aren’t in the mood to cart around your own. And the place is HUGE…so don’t feel bad about taking the tram to your desired destination. It may save you from a huge helping of whine.

So here is our list of must do activities if you are visiting Brookgreen Gardens with kids. Pick and choose two or three if you are fixed for time. But whatever you do, the Enchanted Storybook Forest should NOT be missed.

1. Brookgreen Detectives Booklet

Brookgreen Gardens Detectives

Before you go anywhere else, stop in at the Welcome Center and get all of your children a Brookgreen Detectives Booklet. It is a simple little scavenger hunt/checklist for various sculptures throughout the park, and the kids are promised a ‘prize’ for completing it. My boys remembered getting that pencil and ruler last year and couldn’t wait to lay claim to a brand new bag of Brookgreen SWAG. The scavenger hunt keeps the young ones entertained while you actually, ahem, enjoy the art.

2. Children’s Discovery Room

Brookgreen Gardens Childrens Discovery Room

This is a small, charming room packed with hands on activities celebrating the history and ecology of Brookgreen Gardens. From mask making to block building there is something for everyone. The Children’s Discovery Room is definitely worth a visit, but it is only open from 12 pm-4:30 pm, so plan accordingly. An outdoor cafe is situated right nearby, so you could easily plan your visit around lunch.

3. Native Wildlife Zoo

Brookgreen Gardens Zoo

This peaceful loop walk takes you past many of the native species from this area, including herons, otters, alligators, foxes, owls, and hawks. The Night Herons get uncomfortably close and basically make you feel as if they are staring into your soul. The alligator is so enormous it will give you chills. The otters are just darn cute.

4. The Children’s Nature and Sensory Trail

Brookgreen Gardens Sensory Trail

I loved the Children’s Nature and Sensory Trail (maybe even more than my children). The short trail is right next to the Enchanted Storybook Forest and leads the kids through 12 interactive stations where they are encouraged to use their senses to explore nature. I can’t wait to see this idea replicated on longer hikes in state and national parks.

5. Whispering Wings Butterfly Experience

Butterfly Exhibit at Brookgreen Gardens

For an additional fee ($3 dollars for adults and $2 for children) you can enter the butterfly house and watch as hundreds of butterfly fly from flower to flower and feast on the plates of fruit set out around the tent. They only allow guests in on the half hour, and the time slots fill up in advance, so you may want to purchase the tickets before you check out the zoo or Sensory Trail.

6. Enchanted Storybook Forest

Enchanted Storybook Forest  Brookgreen Gardens

My boys loved this playground so much that they declared they were staying there for the whole day. And they would have if we had let them. The eclectic area mixes a pirate ship with fairy tale houses and a Dr. Seuss theme. This formula somehow equals out to awesome. What’s even better are the Adirondack chairs where a parent might somehow manage to kick back and relax for a few minutes while the kids explore the Gingerbread House.

General admission tickets are good for 7 days, so you can return a few times during your visit and work your way through the gardens. Tickets are $15 dollars for adults, $7 for kids, and ages 3 and under are free (Score!).

There are so many things to do when visiting Myrtle Beach. We happen to think this is one of your very best options.

Our activities for this trip were sponsored by the Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. Our accommodations were sponsored by Kampgrounds of America. All opinions expressed are ALWAYS our own.

21 Dec

RV Family Travel Atlas: 4 Secret Ingredients for Family Fun!

On this episode of RV Family Travel Atlas, we are sharing our 4 secret ingredients for family fun. Vacationing with kids can be a bit challenging, and we want to give you some tips for keeping everyone, young old and in between, entertained, and inspired.

We have written about this topic a lot over the years. From botanical gardens to sculpture grounds to fish hatcheries to the benefits of outdoor activities in general, we have found entire genres of destinations that help us enjoy our time traveling with young children.

We are also discussing the type of restaurant to seek out, and when to say yes to those kid-crazy, touristy theme parks.

The mailbag is open on this episode, and we are excited to share our listeners’ thoughts on some previous episodes of RV Family Travel Atlas!

Enjoy and a very, very Happy Holidays to your family from ours.

 

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18 Dec

What’s the Secret to Making Family Travel Fun? (Like actual, real fun…)

Whether you are vacationing in a hotel, renting a house, or staying at a campground, let’s face it–traveling with young children is a challenge. Even it is something you absolutely love to do, you can’t possibly claim it is easy (and keep a straight face). It takes work, and a whole lot of planning, to haul your little ones away from all the comforts of home and ask them to adapt to new environments, different schedules, and unfamiliar foods.

But we keep doing it. Year after year.

Starting in the spring and continuing through the summer and fall, we shop and pack and drive and unpack. Then we repeat the whole process again and again.

Why do we do this when it really would be so much easier to just stay home? I have a theory on this one…we are having fun. And by ‘we’ I mean my husband and me, the parents.

Sometimes when we become parents, we forget that we matter. We slowly but surely change all of our habits and activities to mirror the tastes of our toddlers, cooking bland food for dinner, playing the Wiggles in the car, and spending weekend afternoons at the local palace of inflatables. This tendency can creep into our travel as well, and all the sudden we find ourselves spending our vacation time standing in line at amusement parks, riding with characters on trains, or having expensive tea in a doll store.

Don’t get me wrong–we do that kid stuff a lot. If you read our blog, you know that Santa’s Village was a huge hit for this family. The Sky Wheel in Myrtle Beach? Diver Ed’s Dive in Theater? Sign us up.

But those kid-friendly diversions must be balanced out by things that we, as adults, truly enjoy and love. We have found so many activities that can do double duty–giving our boys the space to be kids, roam and explore, while feeding our curiosity, desire for adventure, and appreciate of natural beauty.

We believe that family fun should not be all about the kids or all about the adults. As parents we shouldn’t have to choose between Sesame Place or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both are fine in small doses, but there is a whole world of activities in between that satisfies everyone’s desire for entertainment and exploration.

So what’s our secret formula? That is what we will be talking about on next week’s episode of our podcast, RV Family Travel Atlas. We will discuss our go to activities that seem to make most of our family happy most of the time.

And when you are talking about a family of five, you know that’s no small feat.

We would love to hear from you, also. How does your family make sure that everyone finds their bliss while traveling? What’s your balance between kid entertainment and adult fun? You can comment below or email us to be featured on the podcast.

 

 

06 Dec

RV Family Travel Atlas: Acadia National Park Adventure Guide

On this week’s episode of RV Family Travel Atlas, we are heading to Acadia National Park, one of our favorite summer destinations. We will give you recommendations for where to stay and what to eat. We will also tell you about the best family-friendly hikes and activities on Mount Desert Island.

Join us as we explore popular tourist attractions and also take you to the quieter side of Acadia, where we have escaped the summer crowds and found lots of local treasures.

Click on the links above to read our articles on the Jayco Journal about all of these Acadia National Park recommendations.

We have another great giveaway this week: Discover Acadia National Park, by the Appalachian Mountain Club. We used this book a ton when planning our trips, and all of the hikes that we talk about are detailed in this book. Enter to win here.

And make sure you listen to this week’s episode to find out about our ‘podcast only’ giveaway this week…

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29 Sep

Fantastic Family Activities Near Acadia National Park

We were perfectly happy to do nothing besides hike, bike, and eat lobster when we traveled to Acadia National Park before having children. But when we returned with kids, we branched out and explored a variety of other activities offered in the Bar Harbor area. Good choice on our part. There are so many great affordable family friendly activities that really celebrate the local culture of Maine. All of the following recommendations were tons of fun for the kids and very educational for the adults. Win / Win!

Timber Tina’s Great Maine Lumberjack Show

Timber Tina's Great Maine Lumberjack Show

Let’s be honest…the boys had no idea what a lumberjack was before we went to this show. As we sat in the bleachers, they eyed the chainsaws and axes with more than a little suspicion. Then the show started and they were in awe from beginning to end. Timber Tina, a former contestant on Survivor, mixes interesting lumberjack history with good ole team competition.

The boys cheered loudly for the green team, and were pretty darn excited when they won. Timber Tina brings up all the kids and gives them a lesson in cross-cut sawing, then sends them home with a certificate signed by a real life lumberjack. Ask Max and Theo about this show and you will get quite an earful. You might also get a chopping demonstration performed with their souvenir axes.

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The Mount Desert Oceanarium


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This wonderful local gem, operated for four decades by Audrey and David Mills, is a fascinating hybrid of a museum, aquarium, and preserve. Your basic tour package includes three different interactive presentations: the touch tank, the lobster museum, and the lobster hatchery. You can also upgrade your ticket and take a guided tour through the salt marches on the premises. The touch tank presentation allowed the kids to handle sea stars, sea cucumbers, and horse shoe crabs.

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During the lobster museum demonstration, Max actually got to band the claws of a lobster and place it in a trap on the boat. Pretty exciting stuff for a five year old! The oceanarium immerses visitors in the lobster culture of coastal Maine with hands on activities presented by a friendly, knowledgable staff. The playground outside the gift shop? That’s just a bonus.

Dive-In Theater with Diver Ed

Dive-In Theater with Diver Ed
There are many boat tour options near Acadia National Park, but if you’re traveling with kids, there is only one show in town. Join Diver Ed on the Starfish Enterprise for a two hour tour of Frenchman Bay that will surprise and delight the whole family. As the passengers sit comfortably on deck, Diver Ed will suit up in his scuba gear, then ask the kids to push him into the ocean so that he can search for lobsters, sea cucumbers, sea stars, and sea urchins. While Diver Ed collects these sea creatures you get to watch him and hear him on the ships’ big screen. But the best part is this—when he returns to the boat he brings all of his discoveries with him and places them in touch tanks for the kids to enjoy. While the sea creatures are colorful and amazing, the true star of the show is Diver Ed. His larger than life personality and kid-friendly humor will make this one of your all-time favorite family travel memories.

Ranger Park Programs, Acadia National Park

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When you purchase your pass to Acadia National Park you will also receive a schedule of Ranger Programs. We strongly recommend that you take a good look at this schedule and pick at least one to attend. Most of them are free, and many of them are appropriate for families with children. We chose to attend a program called Animal Tales that introduced the boys to some of Acadia’s “fuzzy, furry, and funny creatures through stories and activities.” The ranger who led this activity used puppets and silly songs to teach the kids about moose, loons, peregrine falcons, and other native species. She was also energetic and engaging. Her moose imitation was so realistic that it made Stephanie feel a bit better about not actually seeing one on our trip.
Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, and the rest of Mount Desert Island form a premiere location for a family vacation. There are excellent campgrounds, delicious options for seafood, exciting and affordable family activities, and one of our country’s most beautiful National Parks. if your family is looking for its next great adventure, then Acadia may just be the perfect place. It was for us.

06 Aug

Casual Eats and Yummy Treats: Road Food in the White Mountains, NH

If you have been following our adventures for awhile now, you know that we love a good road food joint. When you have young children, there is one rule of dining: In and out, and nobody gets hurt.

Since we don’t eat out a ton when we are RVing, it is important to us that the places we do try are truly worth the hassle of braving a restaurant with three young kids. For this reason we always consult Jane and Michael Stern’s Roadfood and look for some great, casual eats in the area we will be visiting. We also grill the locals and other fellow travelers. There were definitely fewer food options in the region of New Hampshire that we traveled this summer, so we were very excited to find a couple of treasures worth sharing.

Sunny Day Diner, Lincoln

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We visited the Sunny Day Diner for breakfast and it delivered on all of the diner basics: good coffee, great pancakes, crispy hash browns, and a very solid, no frills eggs benedict.

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The service was fast and friendly. This restaurant is located right down the street from Clark’s Trading Post, making it the perfect alternative to theme park fare.

Woodstock Inn Station & Brewery, North Woodstock

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We ate at The Woodstock Inn Station & Brewery after a long, rainy drive down the Kancamagus Highway. The warm, inviting restaurant was perfect place to dry off and fill up.

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The brewery offers a great and tasty variety of beers, if that is up your alley. In the food department we recommend sticking to the basic cheeseburger and french onion soup pub fare. If you pick some of the more creative menu offerings, you might be disappointed.

Littleton Diner, Littleton

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Turns out the Littleton Diner is one of those places in New Hampshire where the politicians eat pancakes during the presidential primaries. We can see why. Everything about this restaurant is small town eating, from the friendly and efficient service to the potato chips and pickle slices.

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We all cleared our plates quickly and then had a lovely conversation with the family sitting at a nearby table. That is just the kind of place it is.

Chutters, Littleton

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In case you ever wondered where the longest candy counter in the world was…we have the answer for you. Chutters has 112 feet of glass candy jars that offer a greater variety of gummy animals than we ever thought could exist.

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The boys had a marvelous time filling up their brown candy bags and the price was not prohibitive given the fun experience for the kids. This is the type of thing you can use to get your children through a tough hike…promise them Chutters.

By the end of our trip, it seemed to us that this is what you should expect when you visit New Hampshire: hearty, traditional fare from small town eateries. If you focus on what a place does best, you will never be disappointed…

22 Jul

Two Hikes and a Swim: Artist’s Bluff, Bald Mountain, and Echo Lake (Franconia State Park, New Hampshire)

On our second day in Franconia Notch, we were excited to see more of the mountains. However, we also knew we had to take it a little easy with the kids since the day before had been relatively long and physically demanding for our three young children. This is a regular pattern for us during our travels. We like to alternate busy days with more relaxed days to make sure the boys never hit the ’tilt and meltdown’ point.

We went looking for two types of activities…

  1. A short, rewarding hike
  2. A great swim

…and we found them both at Echo Lake.

Echo Lake, located at the foot of Cannon Mountain, has a beautiful swimming area, fishing area, boat launch and rentals. There is a small fee for use of the lake, but we entered the parking lot before 10 am so we didn’t have to pay (hint, hint).

Hike #1: Artist’s Bluff

Once we parked in the Echo Lake parking lot, we crossed the street to the Artist’s Bluff trailhead. Here we were presented with a couple of options.

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We could have stayed to the right and completed a very short but very STEEP rock scramble up to Artist’s Bluff, or we could go to the left and complete a longer loop leading up to the same place. We chose the latter option and then descended from the bluff along the steeper, rockier path.

This was a 1.5 mile loop that was just perfect for a family hike. It had all of the changing landscape, kid-friendly challenges, and stunning views that we look for in a trail.

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The boys had a great time practicing ‘careful footing’ on the way down. I had Wes in the backpack, and I was just fine navigating the rocks.

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Hike #2: Bald Mountain

This hike is in the same location, but we completed it on a different day. You could easily combine the two hikes into one if you have older children (or just adults!) who have greater trail stamina.

For our climb up to Bald Mountain, we parked in a lot that was just up from Echo Lake on your right coming off of Interstate 93. The ascent was short and dramatic, requiring a lot of rock scrambling and some butt-shuffling on the part of the boys.

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This was the perfect difficulty level for our boys since they had to concentrate and exert quite a bit of effort, but only over a short period of time. The summit is only .4 miles from the trailhead, but the whole trail is engaging and interesting.

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And the views.

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We read over and over that these two hikes offered some of the most rewarding views of Franconia Notch. This is absolutely true. Make sure you bring some snacks or a lunch and relax a bit on the summits.

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These were probably our two favorite mountaintop locations during our entire New Hampshire trip.

The Payoff: Swim at Echo Lake

It is never disappointing to come down off the mountain when there is a beautiful lake for a refreshing swim. We thought that Echo Lake would be cold. Freezing, New Hampshire water cold. Actually, that turned out not to be the case. It felt like a crisp, invigorating high 60’s, and the kids dived right in and splashed around comfortably.

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One of the best things about this lake was the very large swimming area. We often feel like big, beautiful lakes that we visit have ridiculously small, roped-off swimming sections. There was also an additional shallow area sectioned off for the kids. We loved that feature since our boys still need that visual cue for how far they can swim out.

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There was the coveted sandy bottom and clear, fresh water that we love in a lake. The views of the Notch and Cannon Mountain that surrounded us as we floated in the water were truly idyllic.

There is a bike path (and bike rentals) right there as well. We didn’t get to explore the path, but if you do, let us know how you enjoy it. Our boys also looked longingly at the paddle boats, but we promised that for another time.

Just one more thing to put on the list for our next visit to New Hampshire.

18 Jul

A Perfect First Day in the White Mountains: Franconia Notch State Park

It always takes us a day or two to get the lay of the land when we arrive in a new location. I find that I can do all the research in the world, but we don’t really get a good feel for a place until we drive around a bit and chat with the locals and other guests at the campground.

The White Mountains of New Hampshire can be daunting simply on account of how many amazing places there are to see and how much there is to do. We were staying in the southern part of Franconia Notch, near Lincoln, so we decided to start our explorations nearby at the Flume Gorge. I am so glad we made this decision because I think our itinerary for that first day would give any visitor a perfect introduction to the landscape and history of the White Mountains. By the end of our day we also had a much better idea of what we wanted to do with the rest of our time in Franconia Notch.

The Perfect First Day Itinerary

1. Begin your planning by looking at this wonderful website maintained by the New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation. I found it easy to navigate, with all of the pricing, attractions, and trail information I was looking for. Print out this Flume Gorge Scavenger Hunt before you go (there are no printed copies available at the visitor’s center).

2. Purchase the Discovery Pass which includes entrance to the Flume Gorge and a ride on the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway. At first I had a little sticker shock at the $29 ticket price. But we definitely wanted to do a tramway ride, and this was by far the most affordable option. All three of our children were free, so $58 for a full day of amazing experiences ended up seeming like a great value.

3. Start your day early by hiking the Flume Gorge first (it opens at 9 am). We got there before the tour buses arrived and had the place mostly to ourselves. By the time we were coming back down at 11 am, it was much more crowded. The Flume Gorge Loop Trail is a great 2-mile hike taking you up one side of the Flume and down the other. There are options for longer hikes if you want to spend more time in that part of the park.

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4. Eat lunch at the Gilman Visitor Center. After the Flume Gorge Hike, we wanted to feed the kids before heading to the Aerial Tramway. We thought we were making a decision of convenience by ordering lunch at the visitor center restaurant. Turns out the food there is absolutely amazing. Seriously. The burgers were delicious and cooked perfectly. The grilled cheese was made with Texas toast. Everything was fresh and made to order. We were shocked and delighted.

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5. Take the Aerial Tramway up to the top of Cannon Mountain and then walk the Cannon Mountain Rim Trail to the summit observation tower. It is an easy, short walk with lots of opportunities for panoramic views.

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6. Once you are back down the mountain, take some time to learn about the history of the Old Man in the Mountain at the new memorial site.

7. Return to the campground for a relaxing refreshing swim in the pool.

This first day itinerary was exciting, stunningly beautiful, and kid friendly. It helped us understand the geography of Franconia Notch and gave us more than enough ideas for the rest of our days in this area of the White Mountains.

We can’t wait to tell you all about it!

14 Jun

Hey Dad, Thanks for Making Our Lives Super-Duper Special!

Dear Dad,

Five years into this gig and your evaluations are looking pretty stellar.

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We thought about giving you a raise, but decided instead to take you camping next week.

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We are sure you will approve of the unanimous decision.

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We really wanted to insert some inappropriate potty humor, but Mom kept deleting it. We will tell you the jokes when she isn’t around.

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Thanks for deciding that our lives should be really, really fun.

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And thanks for all the ice cream.

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Oh, and lobbying for that family dog. She really will cave one day, so keep up the good efforts.

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Here is to another great year of the whole father/son thing.

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Remember…no slacking. Your next evaluation is just 365 days away.

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Love and tackles,

Theo, Max, and the Wes-Man

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03 Jun

The Classic RV Story: Laura Has One, Do You?

It is probably no surprise to our readers that people tell us their camping stories. What might surprise you is how many people have that one epic RV trip stored away in their childhood memories. I’m not talking about people who grew up traveling from campground to campground in a pop up or travel trailer. I’m talking about our friends who remember that one time their family rented an RV and went to _____.

I really shouldn’t be shocked at all. I know that one of my most vivid vacation memories from childhood is the time my parents borrowed their friends’ pop up camper so that we could go on a camping trip to Cape May. My sisters and I had to stay in a tent while my parents luxuriated in the pop up. It rained a lot. Things got ugly, but I guess that makes for a better story, right?

One of Jeremy’s earliest memories is traveling down to Florida in a motorhome rental. His grandfather loaded seven family members in the camper and drove through the night, surprising everyone with a fantastic vacation at Disney World.

I’ve heard stories from my brother-in-law about the time his family rented an RV and pulled out onto the road without latching the refrigerator, sending a week’s worth of food flying in all directions.

One night my friend Laura started telling me the story about a trip her family took in a rented RV when she was eleven years old. She talked about how she and her sister were allowed to look through the KOA catalog and pick the next stop, how that catalog kept them busy for hours in the car, pouring over campground activities and amenities. She had been on a lot of family vacations, she told me, but that one stood out from the rest.

I love her story. I love the idea of a family trekking across this country on an adventure, not sure of the next destination, but figuring it out together. Many of Laura’s memories were laugh out loud funny:

I was eleven that year and my sister was thirteen.  We were masters at annoying my dad on long car trips, my sister even more so than myself. 

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One time he stopped the car on the side of the road and went to open her door (perhaps to beat her but we still aren’t sure) and she looked right at him and plunked the lock down.  He just walked down the highway until he was a speck on the horizon. 

There were also many versions of Bad Company’s “Feel Like Making Love” since he banned it before the refrain.  Our favorite was “Feel Like Making Bread”.  We knew how to push that man’s buttons.

I also love how everyone in the family remembers different aspects of the trip:

I think that the KOA camp guide was a stroke of genius on my Dad’s part.  He gave us the book, told us where he was heading, and put us to work.  We were allowed to pick the campground! I leafed through those flimsy yellow pages with two criteria in mind… 1) horseback riding 2) a body of water.  Horses weren’t always easy to find but a body of water was a must. It could be a river, lake, stream, pool.

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My sister best remembers Chaz our white water rafting guide who was just simply gorgeous. I guess that is the difference between an 11 year old girl and a 13 year old girl. 

My mom remembers horseback riding in Bryce Canyon and staying near Zion National Park. I thought that she would mention the winding mountain roads with no guardrail since she would retreat and hide in the back of the RV.

My dad can remember all of the details especially food related ones.

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I remember the KOA that had horseback riding and the make-your-own sundae bar, the one that showed an outdoor movie on a big screen, and the one with the pathetic above ground pool in the middle of the desert.  I remember the parks and the photo ops, but what I really remember was that book and how important it was to me.  I spent hours poring over that book mapping our route and planning our lodging based on my 11 yr old criteria and it was amazing. 

Perhaps my dad knew what he was doing when he gave us that book or maybe he just got lucky.

Laura’s story resonated with me for many reasons.

First of all, her memories of the small details like ice cream sundaes and outdoor movies ring true with what gets my boys so excited about camping. Reward your kids with the simple pleasures of travel and they will remember it for the rest of their lives. Second, give your kids some say in your travel plans and they will be on board for a whole lot more adventure. Lastly, traveling with family can be fun and ridiculous at the same time. Embrace the stressful moments and laugh together at the end of the day.

I really do hope my boys tell stories from these days on the road a few decades from now. I hope they carry with them as many amazing memories of these years as I know I do. But most of all, I hope they remember that we loved exploring with them.

We would love to hear more of your stories! Do you have a great camping story from your childhood? Please share it with us by posting in the comments or emailing us directly.

Happy travels!

21 Apr

Rainy Day? These Campers Still Play: The SkyWheel, Myrtle Beach

When I was a little kid growing up at the Jersey Shore, I loved rainy days at the beach.  I still do.  The crowds magically disappear, and the ocean and sky look moody, mellow, and dramatic.  So when Myrtle Beach presented us with a rainy day on our RV trip last week Stephanie and I did what we always do.  We packed up our raincoats– and our children– and headed up to the boardwalk for coffee and a stroll.  Lucky for us it only rained intermittently, and the boardwalk was quiet and beautiful.

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As we walked north, the Myrtle Beach SkyWheel seemed to pull us in magnetically.  Stephanie was particularly intrigued, and before I knew it she was investigating times and prices.

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Initially, I put a damper on Stephanie’s high flying enthusiasm and suggested we do it later in the week.  I was enjoying our completely free stroll on the boardwalk and the boys were visibly nervous to take the187 foot tall ride to the top. But Stephanie insisted that we would all love it and that it was the perfect time to buy tickets because there was no line.  So buy tickets we did.  When we boarded our gondola the boys became even more agitated. My mind flashed back to a memory of my grandfather holding me out over an observation deck on the Statue of Liberty when I was a little guy.  Suddenly, I felt shaky too.

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When we reached the top and Wesley decided to toddle over to the full-length glass windows, my stomach filled up with butterflies!

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But he was more than fine, and the views of the South Carolina coast were gorgeous.  My butterflies quickly disappeared. A sense of childlike joy and wonder took their place.

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After our first rotation the boys also lost their nervous looks and realized that they were doing something really cool. Something that they could tell their classmates and teacher about back in New Jersey!  They even posed for a picture together for only the second or third time in their lives.

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The SkyWheel promises its customers three rotations and an 8-10 minute ride.  However, because of the light crowds due to the aforementioned rainy day, we were given several extra rotations and our “flight” (as they call it) lasted for almost 20 minutes.  We had a blast and I was glad that we decided to head out despite the weather that kept so many people home.  As we walked further north up the boardwalk and looked back at the SkyWalk all memories of our anxiety were gone.  We felt like intrepid explorers, conquering heroes, and fearless RV adventurers.

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The moral of this story?  When it comes to planning family fun–Mommy is always right!

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The nitty-gritty: Riders ages 12 and up cost 13 dollars.  Children ages 3-11 cost 9 dollars.  Baby Wes and anyone else under 2 is free.  If the weather was warm and sunny, we could have walked there right from our campsite at the Myrtle Beach KOA.  But we recommend going on a cloudy day, missing the lines, and hopefully, getting a longer ride!

 

20 Apr

Finding the Sweet Spot: Something for Everyone at Brookgreen Gardens

One of our greatest goals as a traveling family is to find activities that everyone can enjoy. It is so easy for parents to get sucked into the world of the child, where every vacation is filled with arcades and amusement parks and large, furry characters. Then there is the flip side of that coin…the classic stories about children getting dragged from historical battlefields to prissy museums, rolling their eyes and burying themselves in some electronic device.

As parents, we believe our preferences and tastes matter. We don’t want to surrender the next decade of our lives to our little Napoleons. Jeremy and I like hiking, swimming, kayaking, and great food. We want to enjoy all of these things, but we also want our boys to be excited about our travels and to know that we respect their love of bounce pillows, playgrounds, pools and camp store ice cream. It is a constant dance of negotiation, and we think it is worth it to maintain harmony and joy on the road.

That is why we LOVE LOVE LOVE when we find places that please the adults and children at the same time. Brookgreen Gardens, in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina offers beautiful landscapes and art for the adults while providing crafts, play, and whimsy for the kids.

Whoever is running this place gets it. When we arrived, the lovely volunteer at the welcome center gave us scavenger hunt booklets for the boys and promised a ‘surprise’ upon completion. This meant that Max and Theo were as motivated to look at the sculptures as we were. They received a ruler and pencil at the end, and were as pleased as punch.

 

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The Discovery Room was small and cheerful, with diverse activities for all kinds of learners. We created a collage fox mask, dug for artifacts in sand, and looked at the turtles and snakes. The highlight for Max and Theo was this gorgeous set of tree trunk blocks. They could have played with them for hours, but we wanted to explore the rest of the gardens.

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The boys’ eyes lit up when we came across the Enchanted Forest Playground. No standard playground equipment here…just pirate ships, castles, trains, and a Dr. Seuss house with rope swing.

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I was impressed by the children’s sensory trail, where interactive stations encouraged kids to act out animal movements, describe the feel of bark, or listen to the sounds of the forest. I would love to see this idea in more state and national parks. It seems like a relatively low cost/ high reward way to engage young children in hiking.

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The zoo is really more of a preserve, featuring native plants and animals in comfortable, beautiful habitats. We got closer to waterfowl than I have ever been and enjoyed watching the otters play in the mud of their large swamp. The eagles, owls, and hawks are all rescue animals, so this is the perfect kind of ‘zoo’ for us.

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Here is the most important bit of information: there is more to do here than you could ever do in one day with young children. The entry price is good for 7 days, so if you are visiting on vacation it would be smart to go towards the beginning of your stay and then return later in the week. We were there for hours and we still didn’t get to go in the butterfly house or take a ride on the pontoon boat excursion. We also missed the Meet the Animals demonstration.

But we are not worried…there will be future visits.

The nitty-gritty: We paid $14 for each adult ticket and $7 each for Max and Theo. Wes was, blessedly, free. There are $2 off coupons available at the ranger station at Huntington Beach State Park, or you can get $1 off for purchasing tickets online. The butterfly exhibit and the boat excursion are extra, but reasonably priced. There is a cafe, but we brought a picnic lunch and had a lovely time eating on the grass, in the sun. A shuttle is available between the welcome center and the zoo, if your crew can’t make it even one more step. It accommodates strollers, another reason why we heart Brookgreen Gardens.

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01 Apr

Hate Creepy Crawlers? Get Some Bug Therapy at Insectropolis

A couple of months ago, a reader sent us a link to an article about the increasing presence of nature phobias in our culture. It seems that the more people live and work in urban areas, the less comfortable they are with the great outdoors. Makes sense, right?

About a week later, I was on a class trip to Insectropolis, a bug museum (yes, you read that correctly) in Lakewood, New Jersey. I have been there at least eight times before, but this time our tour guide said something that struck me. She told the kids that when she started working there, even she was afraid to touch the scorpions. I realized that it doesn’t really matter how interested you are in something. If it is unfamiliar, it is probably going to be uncomfortable.

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With how much time our children spend in school and playing sports and hanging out in rather sanitized parks, it turns out we probably need to make a focused and concerted effort if we want them to be comfortable exploring nature. A place like Insectropolis is a cheery and fun place to do that sort of very important work.

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Whoever designed the museum has a wonderful sense of humor. Each room has a theme (metamorphosis, body parts, methods of communication, camouflage techniques) that is explained through tongue in cheek designs:

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I particularly like the room that has all of the ‘villain’ bugs, like mosquitos and flies, in jail. I thought Theo might be put in the jail for some completely inappropriate climbing, but we managed to flee the crime scene.

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Of course there is the termite tunnel. If you ever have a bit of money to burn, just install a long tube in your house and cover it in carpet. Who needs toys? Every child who enters Insectropolis spends a ridiculous amount of time climbing through this thing. Just give up and go with it.

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The touch demonstration is great. Every employee I have ever met at Insectropolis has been marvelous at communicating and interacting with children. They teach the kids about hissing cockroaches, scorpions, millipedes, and tarantulas and then bring the critters around for everyone to touch. You can see the wheels spinning–should I touch it? Maybe? Yes? A little…nevermind!

Not all of the kids touched the tarantula. Theo did, but Max shot to the opposite end of the bench. It doesn’t matter, though. It’s the opportunity and exposure that counts. I really do hate spiders. My whole body seizes up when I spot one in my house.  I’m pretty sure that I did not touch Rosie the Tarantula on my first visit to Insectropolis, or probably even my second or third. But now I’ll give her a little pet without even blinking. I’ve been desensitized.

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Now it’s time to work on the boys. Jeremy included.

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14 Jan

Grounds for Sculpture: Why Haven’t You Been There?

 

 

 

Let’s get the important part out of the way first. You need to go to the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ. Immediately. And then you should go back many, many times like we are planning on doing with our new, sweet membership.

I had thought quite a few times over the past two years about visiting the grounds with our rowdy crew, but something about it made me nervous. Maybe the pictures on the website looked a bit too peaceful, like there was a respectful hush cast over the place that we would immediately destroy upon arrival. I know that I have brought my boys into a glass factory and all, but sculptures out in the open with no barriers or cranky guards to scare them straight seemed like a recipe for family discord.

 

 

 

 

I am so grateful that we decided to throw caution to the wind and visit this past weekend. There was absolutely nothing precious about the Grounds for Sculpture. The whole place was child-friendly without being childish. From the guard at the gate who gave us a friendly run down of the daily events, to Patricia in the Visitors’ Center who helped us pick out the right membership for our family, there was a welcoming, down to earth beauty that infused the grounds.

 

 

 

 

We spent hours there even though it was January and at times the wind seemed to pass through our warm layers.

 

 

 

There were other visitors, but it seemed we had the whole place to ourselves.

 

 

 

I had never considered before how perfect large-scale sculptures are as an introductory form of art for young children. The three dimensional and large scale nature of the pieces forced my mini tornadoes to stop and take note. At times they would stop in their tracks and just stare at a piece and I could only wonder what was passing through their minds and hearts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All of the works of art are labeled with green or red tags depending on whether visitors may touch them or not. This was an easy system for our boys to embrace, and in no time they were running up to a sculpture, looking for the tag, and then announcing to us if they had permission to ‘experience’ the art.

 

 

 

 

We had a warm, delicious lunch at the Peacock Cafe (Wes approved heartily of the chicken pot pie), and then we watched the ice sculpting that was taking place at various places around the grounds.

 

 

 

 

 

A bit of hopscotch around the water elements, and we were ready to head home.

 

 

I know we will be going back throughout the winter. I will be watching the weather religiously looking for those 50 degree days, now designated for the Grounds of Sculpture. Even better, I know that it will be stunning in the spring, summer, and fall as well.

We love to travel, but we love our home at the Jersey Shore as well. It is always exciting when you find a new favorite spot in your own backyard.

 

 

 

Now go.

 

 

05 Jan

Monster Jam vs. Lively Little Campers (Spoiler Alert: We Lost)

I have a confession. I was one of those 28 year olds who swore I would never get sucked in to all that kid junk. You know the type–the non-parent who swears they will always be far too cool to play Raffi on loop in the car or stand with their head through the cut out hole of a wooden penguin at the zoo, acting all, yeah, haha, I really look like a penguin.

I’m pretty sure I assumed (pre-children) that parents brought their kids to places like Storybook Land because they felt they had to. They were doing their due diligence, punching the clock, setting aside a healthy appreciation of irony, and grinning and bearing it.

Then I had kids. I actually remember the first ‘kid thing’ that we did as a family. My boys were only 7 months old and we took them on a train ride with Santa. Like they cared about Santa. They could have gotten  motion sick, for all I know. But guess what? Jeremy and I had a blast.

I understand now what my 28 year old self simply could not comprehend. When moms are dancing at a Fresh Beat Band concert and dads are racing their kids through a corn maze at the county fair, most of them are actually having fun. If you do these things right, if you actually connect with the wonder that your children are experiencing, you get a second chance at childhood. If you let them, your kids will teach you how to find the magic in life again.

This holiday season was a parade of kid-crazy activities. We saw Disney’s Pirates and Princesses, went to Sesame Place for A Very Furry Christmas, saw our local Christmas Tree Lighting, endlessly moved an elf around our house, visited the Popcorn Park Zoo, and watched the seals get their teeth brushed at the aquarium. I didn’t have to pretend to enjoy any of it because I felt like the luckiest mom in the world. Christmas with 4 year olds is a gift from heaven.

I was riding high on all of these amazing family experiences when I was offered free tickets to Monster Jam yesterday. That is definitely something 28 year old me NEVER pictured in her future. But, heck yeah, we are going to Monster Jam!


I got the earplugs and the bought the ridiculous noise-cancelling earphones for Wes. No matter, it was pretty much the loudest, smelliest experience of my life. Theo shuddered with every roar of the engines. Max curled down into his coat. We only made it to the intermission.

 

My husband made fun of me the whole walk back to the car. We came home and recovered by having a snowball fight in the backyard.

You know what? Later when I jokingly asked the boys what their favorite part of the day was, they both said the Monster Trucks. It wasn’t really my thing. It wasn’t really their thing. But we did it together and somehow it ended up seeming fun.

That’s kid stuff for you.