New Orleans!

The Planning

I have been to 44 of 50 states and the only state I haven’t been to east of the Mississippi is Louisiana. I have wanted to go to New Orleans for so long but the opportunity never presented itself. This year the school district decided to give a full 4 day weekend for Memorial Day sand New Orleans was definitely on the short list for a trip we could do quickly.

For the flights I booked one ticket using some delta gift cards I had bought for my Amex Platinum airline reimbursement, my Delta companion pass benefit (with the delta platinum Amex card), and some Delta sky miles. For the hotel, after searching lots of reviews I chose the Drury Inn because it had a pool, seemed family friendly, had suites, and offered free breakfast and a managers reception (more complimentary food and drinks). I booked this hotel using Chase Ultimate Reward points.

The Trip

Our flights out of Syracuse left at 6pm, so we got the kids out of school right at dismissal on Wednesday and drove straight to the airport to make use of our Priority Pass restaurant credit. Priority Pass contracts with some airport restaurants so that you get a certain amount of $ credited per person to your bill (usually $28). This is particularly useful when you are at an airport with no lounges (like our home airport), or if you are in a terminal with no lounge nearby. They add restaurants frequently so always make sure to check your PP app to see what lounges and restaurants are available where you are.

Unfortunately, the only place with the credit at our little home airport is Johnny Rockets. Fortunately they recently added a bar. So we were able to order $112 worth of food and drinks for free (before you think this is a ridiculous amount for Johnny Rockets, remember this is an airport restaurant so the prices are incredibly marked up). We came pretty close to the $112 mark but didn’t quite reach it.

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After we felt thoroughly disgusting from all that grease, we went to our gate and boarded our flight to Atlanta. At ATL we had a two and a half hour layover so we headed over to the PP lounge, The Club. With it being a holiday weekend, the place was pretty busy but we were able to get in. We were still pretty full from Johnny Rockets but the kids ate some snacks and my husband and I ordered some drinks.

We didn’t leave ATL for New Orleans until 11pm, so when we landed we were exhausted. We took a Lyft straight to our hotel and checked into our suite. It was pretty nice with a sofa bed for the kids and a separate bedroom with a king size bed.

The next morning we slept in a little and then headed downstairs for the free hot breakfast. This was one of the reasons I booked this hotel. They had a huge hot buffet with sausage, biscuits, and gravy, eggs, and waffles, as well as pastries and fruit. After eating we walked over to the French Quarter. It was about 10:30am and already so hot. We found our free walking tour guide and then did an hour and a half walking tour through the French Quarter and St. Louis cemetery. I’m a big fan of the film Easy Rider, so as I walked around the cemetery the song, “Kyrie Eliason” kept going through my head as I remembered that iconic scene with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda having an bad trip with two prostitutes (to be honest that song was in my head throughout the trip!) I also learned from the tour guide that you have not been allowed to film in that cemetery since that film was released, specifically because of that scene, which they filmed without permission from the church.

 

 

After our tour we headed over to a great little restaurant, Napoleon House, which is known for their Pimm’s cup cocktails and Muffaletta sandwiches (said to be the best in the city).

 

 

We were so hot and tired by this point that we headed back to the hotel to take a dip in the pool and rest in the a/c. At around 5:30 we headed back to the breakfast area as they offer a nightly happy hour where you each get 3 (weak) cocktails and can eat from the buffet. They had hot dogs, baked potatoes, chicken fingers, nachos, soup, chili and other snacks. It wasn’t anything to write home about but definitely great for the kids to fill up while the grownups enjoyed their cocktails.

A friend of mine happened to be in NO for work that night, so she met us at the hotel and we walked down Bourbon street with the kids. It was still pretty early but my oldest said it was too loud and “everyone’s drunk,” so my husband took the kids back to the hotel to go to bed and my friend and I went over to Frenchmen Street for dinner. We went to this great jazz club/restaurant called Snug Harbor and had a delicious meal. The band that night was actually a teenage ensemble and they were amazing! We listened to them for a bit and then walked around some of the artisan markets on Frenchmen before heading home.

 

 

The next morning after breakfast we walked down to Cafe du Monde to try their famous beignets and chickory coffee that I have been hearing about for years. There was of course a line but it actually moved really fast and before you knew it we were popping those hot delicious sugar pillows into our mouths. So incredibly good!

 

 

After that we walked over to 1850 House and took a tour of one of the apartments in the historic Pontalba building that is set up to look as it would in the mid-19th century. Following this we walked around a bit more and visited the antique weapons store and then the Historic Preservation Museum. This museum is free, stretched over two buildings, and really well done! I highly recommend a visit if you are in NOLA. The first building took your through the history of the city. The staff was so nice and helpful and got some scavenger hunt type worksheets for the kids, which my 8 year old loved. In the 2nd building across the street they had an exhibit on the French quarter, an educational exhibit with things to touch and smell for the kids, and a modern art exhibit.

 

 

After this we were getting hungry so we decided to head over to the Treme neighborhood to check out the famous, Willie Maes Scotch House for fried chicken. Our one mistake was actually walking there from the French Quarter. It’s only a 1.5 mile walk but in that heat and humidity it was brutal. Plus when we got there we had to wait in line for about an hour (they do have some shade and free water bottles in coolers while you wait). We didn’t eat until about 3pm, but it was so worth the wait. It was definitely the best fried chicken I’ve ever had, plus lots of great southern sides such as Mac and cheese and fried okra.

 

When we were done we took a Lyft back to the hotel and the driver had an adorable puppy with him that we got to snuggle with in the backseat as the driver gave us more suggestions for things to do in the city.

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When we got back to the hotel we rested and then had our cocktails and snacks again. After that we decided to take the street car through the garden district over to an ice cream place that our Lyft driver recommended. It was fun to see the old southern mansions from the open windows of the old-time trolley.

 

The ice cream place, Creole Creamery, did not disappoint. They had a ton of great flavors such as “A chocwork orange,” lavender honey, and Thai basil coconut. After our ice cream “dinner” we walked over to Magazine Street which has some shops and restaurants but my youngest started whining so we took a Lyft back and put the kids to bed.

Later my husband and I went out to walk around the French Quarter and get some drinks. It was fun except Bourbon street was honestly pretty loud and gross (we literally had to step over puke, and that was only at 9:30pm!). We decided to finish the night with a sazerac from the famous bar of the same name in the Roosevelt hotel. It was sublime.

 

The next day we headed over to the aquarium after breakfast. It was very nice with some great exhibits but it was rather small so we finished the whole thing in about an hour. Afterwards we took the riverfront cable car down near the French Market. We tried to have lunch at the famous jambalaya place, Coops, but the kids weren’t allowed in (over 21 only). So we walked through the French Quarter to the oyster place, Felix’s. My older son tried his first raw oysters, and he was not a fan!

 

We had bought the Audobon Experience pass which gets you into the aquarium, the insectarium, and the zoo, with one imax movie pass as well. So after lunch we walked over to the insectarium and spent about an hour there.

 

Following this we headed over to the Steamboat Natchez, the tourist-y steamboat that will take you up the Mississippi a little bit. I had bought tickets ahead of time using Chase ultimate rewards points. Another perk of using these points is you can us them to book activities such as this, and even museum tickets. I’m glad we didn’t pay anything for the tickets because to be honest, the boat was pretty hot and crowded. It was cool to see the engine room and the paddle wheel, and to get up river for a bit.

 

We were so hot when the trip was over, luckily we docked right next to the aquarium and so we were able to duck into the imax theater to use our movie passes to see a film called “Hurricane on the Bayou,” about Katrina and how the destruction of the wetlands and the construction of levees actually contributed to the level of devastation.

That night after the kids went to bed my husband and I walked around the warehouse district which was near our hotel. We checked out the popular restaurant Cochon, but we couldn’t get in (and reservations were full for the rest of our trip). Luckily they have a sister bar next store called Cochon Butcher, which had some delicious small plates and cocktails.

 

On the morning of our last day we took a Lyft to the zoo. I was worried it was going to be too hot to walk around but they did a really nice job designing it so that most of the paths were in the shade and they had several indoor (air conditioned) spaces throughout. We walked around for about 2.5 hours and then were pooped and took a Lyft back to the hotel.

 

Next we walked down towards the National World War II museum which was about a 15 minute walk from our hotel. We hadn’t eaten lunch yet so we stopped at this great place called Auction House Market which was like a high end food court. It had a bar in the center and then various food stations around the perimeter serving various things such as empanadas, dosa, Thai street food, etc. It was a great choice for us because everyone could get what they want and we could eat quickly.

 

The WWII museum was pretty epic. It was fairly crowded since it was Memorial Day weekend, so that was the only downside, but despite the crowds it was still an incredible place. They did such an amazing job walking you through the details of the various battles such as D-day and Midway island. They interspersed text with film and artifacts, as well as recorded oral histories from veterans. We also got to see a little write-up of my grandfather’s unit in Burma, “Merrill’s Marauders.”

 

I cannot recommend this museum enough. If you do get to go, you should allot plenty of time to see it all, at least half a day and if you spent a full day there you would still probably be fine.

Following this we had the kids eat dinner at the hotel’s happy hour and when we got them settled in bed my husband and I went out to dinner at Muriel’s in Jackson Square for our anniversary. The meal was ok but then afterwards we got to meet up with friends from my travel hacking group for a drink in the French Quarter. We had a great time chatting travel and points with them and then headed home to bed.

 

For our last morning we walked back down to the French Quarter. We had wanted to check out the pharmacy museum but it was closed so we went to the voodoo museum instead. We walked around a bit more so my older son could pick out a souvenir, which he found at the flea market.

It was getting so hot that we decided to just head to the airport a little early and hang out in the air conditioned lounge. Since my husband and I both have the Amex Platinum and we were flying on Delta, we were able to go into the Delta sky club. We technically had to pay $29 for each kid, but the clerk only charged us for one! They had a great spread, including muffaletta sliders, pasta salad, chicken salad, jambalaya, hummus, cheese, crudité, and treats, so it was worth it to us to pay the $29 to have free food and drink and a nice air conditioned place to rest before our flight.

The verdict

I loved New Orleans, but man was it hot! And this was only late May! I would love to go back when the weather is cooler. I liked our hotel for the free meals for the kids and the location. The French Quarter was fun but crowded. Their free history museum was great. The highlight of the trip was definitely the World War II museum. If we went back without kids I would make sure to do more historical activities, go to some jazz shows, and spend more time at the WWII museum. I’d also skip the steamboat. There is definitely stuff for kids to do there but they also limit what you can do. The food, of course, was amazing. Overall a fun trip in a city that definitely deserves more time to visit.

San Diego!

I know I complain about the weather a lot in Syracuse, but according to my very scientific internet research, we actually only get, on average, 63 sunny days, and 98 partially sunny days per year. We have 161 total days per year without any sun. If you are not from this part of the country, picture your gloomiest, cloudiest, greyest day. That’s our “normal” weather.

The many benefits of living in Upstate NY outweigh this one crappy downside (I’ll write a post this summer just about all the amazing things I love about Syracuse and the surrounding area), but in order to compensate for the downside I have only come across a few things that help me from spiraling into total despair during the long winter: Vitamin D supplements, lots of outdoor time (no matter what the weather), hot yoga, and traveling! It’s essential for my mental health to travel to sunny places throughout the long winter (October through April).

Florida is an obvious choice from the east coast but that can get old. So this year for April break I thought about taking myself and the kids to sunny Southern California. I also had some Alaska Airlines miles and an Alaska Airlines companion pass to use, and they fly primarily to the west coast. Out of all the potential West Coast destinations to travel to in April, San Diego promised the most sun and warm weather. I had been to California before but never San Diego, and it had been on my bucket list for years. Unfortunately, my husband could not join us because of his teaching schedule (but he is actually going to go to San Diego with friends for a conference in a few months).

The trip

The kids and I had a 7 am flight out of Newark on Saturday morning. We got in the car right after school and drove down to NJ. Unfortunately the drive was very rainy and so took longer than expected. We got to the airport Hampton Inn around 9pm and went right to sleep. In the morning we took an Uber to the airport since there were at least 40 people waiting for the shuttle which would only fit maybe 12 (but at least this was covered due to my Amex platinum Uber credit). The airport was insanely busy due to it being spring break, however we got on our flight on time and took off to San Francisco. At SFO we only had about 45 minutes to quickly eat something and get on our next flight to San Diego. That was a quick flight and pretty soon we were in sunny San Diego getting our rental car. We drove over to our quirky Airbnb and checked in. The space was a former art gallery and decorated very artsy. It was also bright and sunny and had plenty of space and amenities for us to feel comfortable.

 

We decided to walk around the neighborhood we were in, North Park, and we stopped at Target to get some supplies and then Hammond’s ice cream which was awesome. North Park is one of those neighborhoods that became  gentrified and “hipsterized” recently. In fact it shows up on the “Where is Williamsburg” app (google it – it’s pretty funny) as ground zero for San Diego.  The good thing about this is there were a lot of great little restaurants for us to try, right outside our door. We had dinner at a taco restaurant, Lucha Libre, which was decorated with luchador and Ron Burgundy memorabilia.

The next day we were up early due to the time change so we got in the rental car and drove out to Coronado Island. The beach there was beautiful and the kids ran around and we took pictures. We got to see and walk around the famous Hotel del Coronado. After that we drove down to Imperial Beach which my friend who grew up in SD had recommended and walked out to the end of the pier for some fish and chips at the Tin Fish. It was so beautiful to see the ocean and the houses lining the shore.

Next we drove over to the Barrio Logan neighborhood and Chicano Park. My friend also told me about this and a great little coffee shop (Por Vida), where we got some awesome iced coffee and then walked over to the park, which is under the Coronado bridge. There is a community garden and the pillars holding up the bridge are all painted in these amazing murals inspired by Mexican-American culture and history. We took some pictures of the murals and then headed home to rest for a bit.

Later that day we drove over to Old Town San Diego. This is part historical site, part tourist-trap but overall pretty fun to walk around. There are lots of Mexican themed shops and restaurants and a historic section with old-timey shops and exhibits. Since we went later in the day we were only able to visit a few places before they closed; the Sheriff’s museum and the historic Whaley House. The kids had a blast playing around in the Sherriff’s museum where they could go in an old cruiser, a helicopter, a jail cell, and more. The Whaley House was one of the first houses in San Diego and my son had heard it is one of the most haunted houses in the country. We didn’t see any ghosts but it was fun to tour the house and hear a bit more about the history. After that we walked around a bit more and had some Mexican food for dinner. Later I was able to meet a friend of mine from college who recently relocated to the area.

The next day we had a delicious breakfast at a very cool place called Breakfast Republic near our Airbnb, and then we hit the zoo! The San Diego zoo is truly the most incredible zoo I have ever been to. It is like the “Disney World” of zoos. The exhibits are just so well constructed with great attention to detail. Plus they have over 5,000 animals! The kids and I looked at the zoo map that morning and decided we would try to conquer the entire thing. And we did! We made it through every single exhibit and had minimal meltdowns along the way. We did have to wait in line over an hour for lunch though, so I would recommend brining in your own food. We got there around 9:30am and left around 5, so we were pretty exhausted that evening. We went to a little sushi restaurant in our neighborhood and crashed.

The following morning we headed over to Balboa Park, which was very close to our Airbnb. This is a beautiful park that houses many of San Diego’s museums. We started by walking around the park a bit since we arrived at 9:30 and the museums don’t open until 10. Our first stop was the Museum of Man, since they had an exhibit on cannibalism and my older son had just read a book on the Donner Party. They had some other cool exhibits but many were under construction and they also had some school field trips visiting so we left after about an hour and headed over to the automotive museum, which my car-obsessed son had been waiting for. This one was a real treat to see some classic cars and motorcycles from all decades in mint condition. My son was so happy to just look around and read about the cars.


Since our Airbnb was so close we headed back home for lunch, and afterwards returned to do the Science Center and Natural History Museum, both of which we got into for free with our local Science Center membership (they have reciprocal admission). The science center did not “wow” us, as it had some of the same exhibits that we have seen at many other ones, but we loved the Natural History museum. We especially liked the exhibit called “Unshelved” where they are displaying items that they usually keep in storage.

Once we were museum-ed out, we drove downtown and walked around the gaslamp quarter, and then went over the Petco park to see a Padres game! We first had a snack of some Carne Asada fries at Lolita’s, next to the ballpark) since one of my friends had recommended that. The stadium was really nice and we had pretty good seats. The boys were super excited and we stayed until the 8th inning ended, once it was clear that the Padres were going to lose.

On our fifth day, we went to a gourmet donut shop for breakfast and “fueled up” for a trip out to La Jolla. First we drove to Torrey Pines State Reserve, which is a gorgeous natural reserve on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. We took a hike out to one of the bluffs and took pictures of all the breathtaking views and cool desert plants and flowers. My older son and I wanted to hike down to the beach but my younger son had had enough. so we left to get some lunch.

The boys had been wanting to try “In and Out Burger” since they had heard about it as being a California “must.” I have never been there myself and was always curious, so we actually drove about 20 minutes south to get to the closest one. The burgers and fries were pretty good, although I learned later I should have ordered “animal style” (secret menu) where they fry the onions in mustard. Next time!

After this we drove back up to La Jolla cove to see the seals and sea lions. This was absolutely one of the highlights of the trip (if somewhat stinky!). They were so cool just lounging around on the rocks near the beach and we even saw a young sea lion walk around (poor guy had a fish hook stuck in his mouth). We stayed there for a while watching them and then we headed up the coast to the Birch Aquarium. This is a small but lovely aquarium with a gorgeous outside patio with a touch tank overlooking the ocean.

After the aquarium we drove up the coast a little more to the town of Solana Beach where we were meeting some of my travel hacking internet friends for a meet-up! It was so much fun to meet them and their kids over pizza and beer. We had a blast.

The next day was our last and we were determined to hit everything that was still on our list. We woke up super early and went back to the fancy donut place for Montreal-style (wood fired) bagels, and then drove inland about 45 minutes to the Safari Park, which is a whole different place also run by the San Diego Zoo. This one is equally well done but has a tram going through an open area for some of the animals to roam, and other exhibits that are a bit more open. It actually got pretty hot mid-day since we were further from the ocean, so we decided to leave and head back to San Diego. We wanted to check out the USS Midway so we went and toured that famous Aircraft Carrier.

Then we drove over to Point Loma to see Cabrillo National Monument. The views of the bay and city were incredible and it was cool to see the historic lighthouse.

After that we met up with a few of our travel friends in the hippie/surfer town of Ocean Beach, where they live, and had dinner at an awesome burger place called Hodad’s. Finally we walked over to the famous “Sunset Cliffs” area to watch the sun go down as our final activity in SD. It was very beautiful (there were actually two couples taking wedding photos) and we felt satisfied that we had wrung so many fun activities out of our trip.

The next morning we woke up super early to make our 6:30am flight. Fortunately they had a nice lounge at the San Diego airport for us to eat breakfast, and we had a direct flight back to Newark. We were so pleased with our flights on Alaska. Everything took off early or on time and the flight attendants were great. I would definitely fly them again. And we were supper happy with our trip! We got to see many fun sites, saw thousands of animals, met up with friends old and new, ate great food, and soaked in that amazing Southern California sunshine. Mission accomplished!!!

 

Wild Wild Southwest, Week 3: Mesa Verde – Monument Valley – Antelope Canyon – Grand Canyon – Sedona

Mesa Verde

The drive from Telluride to Mesa Verde is short (under 2 hours) and beautiful, through the San Juan mountains. We stopped in the nearby town of Cortez to re-stock our food, then headed into the park to set up camp. After lunch we went to the visitor’s center and then made the hour long drive through the park to Mesa Top Loop, a loop road at the top of Chapin Mesa that has stops along the way of some of the ancient ruins. It shows how the people who lived there went from nomadic to farmers with pit houses, to using more elaborate masonry, and eventually how they moved into the cliffs and built huge apartment complex type dwellings. They have a pretty well appointed museum and then at 6:45 we met up with a ranger for a twilight tour of the largest cliff dwelling, Cliff Palace. It was incredible to get up close to the dwelling and see this city built into an alcove of the cliff. You could even look up into one of the towers and see some art that was still painted on the wall. We were truly awestruck.

I highly recommend doing at least one tour of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. It’s a great park with a twist in that you learn a bit more about human history and anthropology rather than just nature. It also has a nice campground and beautiful views along the scenic drives up the mesas.

Monument Valley

The next morning we ate breakfast and packed up the camp and drove over to the Four Corners Monument. The kids were very excited to have one limb in each state. It was pretty hot so we didn’t stay long. Driving through the Navajo reservation, we stopped for lunch at a historic little restaurant for some authentic Mexican and Navajo food (fry bread!). Then we drove up to Monument Valley. It was hot and crowded but fun to do the 17 mile car tour around the monuments. The kids felt like we were really off-roading.

Antelope Canyon

We then headed to Page, Arizona, checked into our Hampton Inn and ate dinner at an awesome sushi restaurant. The town of Page is not necessarily quaint or cool, but we thought it had really good food! The next morning we checked in to our Antelope Canyon tour. This little slot Canyon on the Navajo reservation has become very popular since photos of it became screensavers for Microsoft and Apple. You can only go through the canyon with a Navajo guide. As we waited at our tour company we couldn’t believe how many people were there – they run tours every hour and there were at least 120 people for our 10am time slot! They ran it very efficiently however, as they broke the group down into smaller groups, each with their own guide. They take you out to the canyon in pickup trucks and our guide had fun making the drive extra bumpy. They then take you through the canyon and the guides show you the best shots to take with your camera phone. It was pretty packed in the canyon but most of your pictures are looking up. It was fun to experiment with pictures. The canyon itself was amazing, I just wish they hadn’t packed so many people in. It would have been nicer to go at your own pace. It reminded me of some cave tours I’ve been on, except busier. We were lucky that at the end we caught a sunbeam coming through the top and our guide helped us snap a few pics of it.

Afterwards we headed to the iconic Horseshoe Bend, which was also so crowded!!! There were so many tourists, mostly foreign, at both places. It got me wondering if Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend are listed as top spots on tour guides of the American West for international travelers. I’ve never seen so many foreign tourists at one US site. It was also ridiculously hot. After a great lunch at a burger place, we headed back to the hotel for a swim and I went to wal-mart for a last re-stock of supplies.

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In the evening, we went over to the Glen Canyon Damn and visitor’s center and watched the sunset over Lake Powell. We had made a reservation for a dinner-theater type place I read about on yelp called “Into the Grand.” It was in a warehouse and you were greeted by the owner, Hoss, who seemed to be a cross between Rodney Dangerfield and “the Dude” from The Big Lebowski. His parents were one of the first river rafting tour companies through the canyon and so the place was somewhat of an homage to that. The warehouse had paintings of the Colorado River from the floor of the Grand Canyon and old rafting boats. There was an acoustic guitar player on stage while we ate our food (Mexican and Navajo and very delicious). After about an hour, Hoss introduced some of the Navajo dancers. Several were adolescents who compete internationally. There was even an adorable two-year old who took to the stage. They all put on a fantastic show, and the finale, a Native American hoop dance infused with hip-hop music, was amazing.

Grand Canyon

The next morning we woke up very early for the 2 hour drive down to the Grand Canyon. Our campground was first come, first serve and we wanted to make sure we got a good site. We made it there around 9:30am and got a nice site at the Desert View Campground near the Desert View Watchtower on the east end of the park. We toured the watchtower a bit and the kids and my husband got their first view of the canyon. My youngest had really been looking forward to it but he said he was underwhelmed.

No matter, we next drove into the park a bit to find the semi-secret Shoshone Point, which I had learned about on a Podcast and in a couple of my National Parks books. The trail is unmarked, but not too difficult to find. We made a picnic lunch and hiked about a mile down a flat trail through the forest. Eventually we came to an area with picnic tables, a pavilion, and even a bathroom area. The view of the canyon from this spot was amazing, and even better, there were only a handful of people (unlike every other overlook at the South Rim which was over-run)! I am so glad I did some research to find this place, because otherwise we would have never known about it. It really goes to show that doing a little bit of research on a location before you go can make a huge difference in finding some of the hidden gems.

Afterwards we went over to the visitor center and watched the film about the canyon. Next we made our way to the Village, where all of the hotels are. It was so crowded! We got some ice cream and checked out the Bright Angel lodge and hiked only about 0.2 miles on the Bright Angel trail to the first tunnel. It was super hot so there was no way we were going to hike down and up more than that. After we checked out the Kolb brothers studio (2 brothers who did daredevil photography at the turn of the century in the Canyon), we started walking west on the rim trail. This got us a little bit away from the crowds and we were able to get to some of the other lookout points. We made it to Maricopa point and then hopped on the shuttle bus to go west to some other lookouts, like Hopi point, Powell point, and the Abyss. The shuttle bus system was great but again, so crowded. There was no place to sit and we were packed in like sardines. We took the bus back to the village and drove all the way back to the campground (about 25 miles), stopping at a few points along the way to catch the sunset.

The next morning we left camp early to go to a fossil walk led by a ranger. My husband LOVES fossils and fossil hunting and we had a great time as she showed us an area off the rim trail with TONS of fossils. After this we went to the supermarket to re-supply. Yes, Grand Canyon NP is so big they have their own supermarket, in addition to hotels, restaurants, and a postal service. To be honest it was a bit off-putting after going to some of the less-visited national parks. And talk about crowds, we then went to the visitor center because we wanted to rent bikes (we had looked into it the day before), but there were absolutely no parking spots in any of their four parking lots! It was like being at the mall the week before Christmas where you are stalking people who you think are leaving to get their spot. We ended up parking illegally and then went to the bike rental place to learn they were sold out! At this point we had enough of the crowds and decided to head east where it is a little less busy. We stopped at some of the lookout points along the road heading east, and then just went back to our campsite to chill. Of course, right around the time we started cooking burgers over the fire pit we had a rain shower, but we were able to cover them with foil and eat quickly during a break in the rain.

When the rain stopped we walked over to the desert view lookout and waited for the sunset talk by a local Native American. The gentleman was the grandson of one of the painters of the interior of the desert view watchtower. He played the flute, sang a Navajo song, and then talked to us about the local Native American people and some of the atrocities they have been through, such as getting sent to boarding schools hundreds of miles away, and having their land decimated by uranium mines. Apparently there are still 500 open and abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo reservation, because the companies would declare bankruptcy so they didn’t have to clean them up.

Following Ed’s talk we watched an amazing sunset over the canyon and headed back to camp for the night. The kids worked on their junior ranger books and were very excited about completing all of the activities. They have these at all of the parks but the kids were somewhat disinterested before. Isaac did do one at Capitol Reef. It is a really nice part of the National Park system. After they do some activities in the book and go to a ranger program, they can be sworn in as “junior rangers” and they get a little badge.The next morning we broke down camp and headed back to the visitor center (much less crowded at 8:30am) so the kids could be sworn in. We took a look at the famous Mather Point and the started driving 2.5 hours south to Sedona.

I’m glad we went to the Grand Canyon so that my husband and kids could see it, and we had some incredible moments there, such as the hike to Shoshone point and the sunset talk by the Navajo gentleman. But overall it was just so crowded it turned me off a bit. North rim next time?

Sedona

The drive to Sedona along 89A south goes through Oak Creek Canyon and is very beautiful! You start to see the red rocks with green foliage as you make your way down the windy road through the canyon. As we got to Slide Rock state park it started to get crazy busy! It was a Sunday and there were so many people parking along the side of the road to go to the state park and national forest. Apparently there is a nice swimming spot in the state park and I guess when it’s a hot Sunday in the middle of the desert the place gets full fast!

We got to our resort in Sedona around noon but the room wasn’t ready so we walked into town for lunch. Sedona is definitely interesting. It’s pretty touristy and of course has a bunch of crystal and new age type shops along with a “Wild West” theme. It was just really hot for walking around so we were glad to be able to check into our hotel and use the pool.

We stayed at the Kimpton Amara Resort, booked using Ultimate Reward points. I also learned online that Kimpton does a little promo over the summer that if you say the “password” you get something for free. I learned the password (out of office) from one of the travel blogs I follow and we got a free movie rental. We used that for the kids to rent Peter Rabbit and got them room service while we headed over to have dinner on the patio at the resort. It is really nice for the kids to be old enough to do this. We wouldn’t have left the resort but we were close enough to check on them and also my son could text us if they needed something.

The next morning we ate breakfast in town and headed out for a hike. A few people had recommended Devil’s Bridge, so that’s where we went. It was about 10am but already super hot in the desert. The trail follows a Jeep/ATV road for about a mile, and then another mile up the side of the rock formation to the natural bridge. It was pretty amazing. There is kind of an optical illusion so that the stone bridge looks very thin from the the side as people are walking across it but then when you face the bridge head on it is actually pretty wide. We took turns going on it and even though I knew I was an illusion, I have to admit when the kids were on the bridge my heart almost stopped. Scary!

We walked the two miles back and were soooo hot we couldn’t wait to get back to the resort pool. We scored a cabana and had lunch poolside! So nice to relax in luxury after all the camping! I made an appointment for a massage at the spa that afternoon, which was my reward for planning the whole trip. It was heaven. My body and feet were so sore after 3 weeks of hiking and camping.

We then hung out at the resort for a bit as they were supposed to have s’mores outside and someone to talk about the stars. But for some reason they only put a few, ready made s’mores in the lobby. We ate those and headed into town for some pizza. When we came back the person to do the star talk wasn’t there (maybe they cancelled due to threat of rain), so we watched TV in the room and went to bed.

The next day was our last day but our flight didn’t leave Phoenix until 11:15pm! We decided to enjoy swimming at the pool for the morning. We checked out around noon and went to see the Chapel of the Holy Cross, this really cool 1960’s style Catholic chapel built right into the red rocks. After a last meal in Sedona (expensive!) we made our way to Phoenix and stopped at Montezuma’s Castle National Monument to see another cliff dwelling.

We arrived in Phoenix around 4pm and wanted to visit the botanical gardens, we even walked up to the entrance, but it was 114 degrees out and would have cost us $75! We just couldn’t stomach being in the heat that long so we decided to bag it. Our flight wasn’t until 11:15pm but there really wasn’t anywhere else to go. All the museums closed at 5 and it was too hot to do anything outside. We went to a taco restaurant and then to Tempe near ASU for some ice cream. Eventually we decided just to bite the bullet and head to the airport because at least it would be air conditioned. After dropping off the rental car and checking the luggage we got comfortable in the terminal and just hung out in the a/c for 3 hours.

All in all, it was a trip to remember! The parks were incredible, the scenery was indescribable, and we made lots of fun memories. We can’t wait to see more national parks and I hope we have inspired you to as well!

Wild Wild Southwest, Week 2: Dinosaur – Arches – Canyonlands – Telluride

Dinosaur National Monument

After we left Capitol Reef we set off to take a 4 hour drive north to Vernal, Utah, near Dinosaur National Monument. Within the first 30 minutes I made a mistake with the GPS and missed a turn, which probably added 30-40 minutes to the trip. No biggie, we had all day to make the drive. We were just hoping to get to the hotel in Vernal with enough time to enjoy the pool and maybe go to a nice restaurant. About halfway there, we started to head up route 191 which goes north from Helper to Duchesne through the mountains. About 5 miles before the exit for 191 on Route 6, we saw a digital highway sign that maybe said route 191 was closed at mile 283, but every other letter was blacked out, so it was almost impossible to read. We took the climbing mountain road about 20 miles up only to see construction crews and wait 15 minutes in a line up of cars and then were told the road would be closed for at least another 5 hours! At this point we had no cell service to check alternate routes, and had to consult the (gasp!) paper atlas! The only thing I could see to do was go back down to route 6 and take that all the way up to Provo, and kind of go around the mountains instead of through them. There was one very faint grey line that looked like a National forest road that maybe would have taken us through the mountains, but I was worried about getting turned around again, especially if there was a fire (it turns out there was).

utah map

So we ended up taking a very long route to Vernal, and our 4 hour drive became 8! But this is what happens in the West, especially around mountains. There just aren’t a lot of roads to choose from. We were pretty exhausted from driving when we got to Vernal and were thrilled to check into our Springhill Suites, which I got with 15,000 Marriott points for two nights! The suite was large and very comfortable. We headed into town and had a delicious Mexican dinner with two large margaritas for the grown-ups. The kids were excited to take a dip in the pool and I was very excited that there was a laundry room at the hotel!!! After 4 days of camping including still rain soaked (and now very stinky) clothes from our incident at Zion, I was thrilled to be able to do some laundry (when do you ever have that sentiment at home??).

The next morning we ate our complimentary hot breakfast at the hotel and drove a few blocks down to a car service station (we were having an issue with the oil that needed to be a addressed) which was only a few blocks away from where we were to get on the bus for our white water rafting adventure. It was nice to have something so convenient (dropping the car off to be serviced and walking to our next destination) after all the inconvenience of the day before! It was about a 45 minute bus ride to the put-in, and along the way the guides stopped at a site with some pretty amazing petroglyphs for us to look at.

We were all a little nervous and excited about the trip. The kids had never gone whitewater rafting before, and my husband and I hadn’t been for about 12 years. Also the last time we went my husband fell in, which was a bit traumatic for him. All of our fears fell away as we got onto the raft and started to head into the canyon on the beautiful river. The water level was low and slow so there were mostly class II rapids, with a couple class IIIs. We ended up having an amazing time. The guides were great, and the river was awesome. We did a full day trip with lunch and we got to go swimming and my oldest got to jump off a rock! The kids were so happy they got to do this and can’t wait to go again, except they want bigger rapids of course.

After we got back to town we picked up the Audi and the issue was all fixed, yay! We headed across the street to the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum, which had some impressive little exhibits on the archeology and fossils from the area. We then headed across the street to a local brew pub (FYI I’ve never gotten carded so much as in Utah. They are very strict about alcohol!) and then a quick run to TJ Maxx for a couple things and back to bed.

The next morning we packed up and headed over to Dinosaur National Monument and took the shuttle up to the dinosaur bone quarry. This was super cool as they left a lot of bones exposed but still stuck in the rock and they built a building around it. You could actually touch some of the bones!!! Then you could do a short hike back to the visitor center and stop at a couple rock formations that still have dinosaur bones and other fossils in them! We saw part of a dinosaur femur and a spine in the rocks!

Arches National Park

Next we headed to Moab, Utah and had a pleasant drive, even making an unplanned stop in Highline State Park, CO for a picnic lunch and a dip in a really nice lake. Moab was way more built up than I remember. Our hotel, Expedition Lodge, was cool. It was once a 50’s style roadside motel that they updated but they kept the theming sort of vintage 50’s style. They also had a pool and a water slide that the kids loved, as well as complimentary breakfast and a game room with ping pong and free arcade games. We spend that afternoon and evening hanging out in Moab, getting a bite to eat and some awesome cryogenic ice cream!

Arches National Park is super close to Moab (like a 5 minutes drive). In order to beat the heat and the crowds we got up at 6am, ate breakfast, and were in the park by 7. We were able to hike Park Avenue, a mile long hike through a wash that has impressive rock structures (no arches yet) in either side. Then we went to the far end of the park to hike to Landscape Arch and were able to see a couple more on the hike back. We were able to see Sand Dune arch and balancing rock on the drive back to town. Arches is also like visiting another planet. I kept feeling like Luke Skywalker was going to cruise by on his hovercraft any minute.

We had lunch at some awesome food trucks in town and the kids did more swimming in the pool while I went to the store to stock up on supplies. Then we went over to the town park to listen to a free bluegrass concert! Afterwards we headed back the park for some sunset hikes in the Windows section. The light was incredible and I got some great shots as the sun went down.

Canyonlands National Park

The next day we packed up the car again and drove 30 miles into Canyonlands National Park to try to score a campsite at the first come, first serve place. We got there around 9:30 am and picked a sweet spot. The campground was right by a gorgeous overview of the canyons. Since they don’t have water (you have to bring your own), this campground is not super popular which makes it nice and quiet.

After we set up camp and relaxed a bit, we decided to pack a picnic lunch and hike some more. We picked White Rim trail, which was a great choice. At this section of Canyonlands, called (Island in the Sky), you are on top of a Mesa so you can drive or hike out to all of these lookout points to see the canyons below. After hiking about a mile along the rim, we came to the peninsular edge, where we could see 270 degree views. It was one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen. It was also getting hot, but we found this awesome cave formation that provided shade and looked out at the view, so we had lunch there. Did I mention we only saw 4 other hikers on the trail and had this whole amazing viewpoint section to ourselves??? Canyonlands is the largest and least visited of Utah’s national parks, and that allows for some great privacy.

After this we went to the visitors center and it was starting to become the hottest part of the day so we decided to go for a drive into town to get gas and more cryo-ice cream. We then headed back into the park and did the hike out to Mesa Arch (a little busier as this is a short and popular hike). We then made dinner at camp and we’re going to do a sunset hike at another viewpoint but as soon as we got there the rain and wind started! After what happened at Zion we didn’t want to get stuck in a bad thunderstorm on the trail so we went back to camp. Good thing we did because one of the tents had almost blown away! (It was staked!) The only thing that stopped it from blowing over into the canyon was the other tent! We went into our tents while it stormed, and fortunately it was nowhere near as bad as Zion and only lasted about an hour. My husband and I tried to stay up to see the stars but it was so cloudy we didn’t see much. Luckily, at around 3:30am I woke up to pee and the clouds had cleared. I saw one of the clearest night skies I’ve ever seen. I could see the Milky Way, Mars, and thousands of stars. I woke up my husband and we star gazed for a little bit before going back to bed.

The next morning after breakfast we packed up our camp and went for a hike to Upheaval Dome, a part of the park where a meteor hit 200 million years ago and left a cool hole and rock formation. We also got some views of the other side of the canyon. We said goodbye to Canyonlands and started our drive to Telluride, Colorado!

Canyonlands is definitely worth the trip, especially if you are already in Moab at Arches. The views of the Canyons from Island in the Sky are so breathtaking, and as I said it is the least visited of the “Big Five” parks so you are more likely to have some solitude. Just bring plenty of water! There are no services there and the only water is at the visitor center.

Telluride

We arrived in Telluride, CO around 4pm and got into our Airbnb condo. It was right in town and the balcony faced the mountain and San Rafael river, which has a walking path that was very popular for people and dogs. After taking some much needed showers we walked around downtown and ate dinner at an awesome brew pub. The short ribs I ordered were divine. Following this we walked over to the free gondola, which takes you from Telluride up to Mountain Village (the ski resort area). We had fun just riding that through a few stops and picked up a few groceries in Mtn Village.

The next day my youngest and I took a little walk on the river path and we decided to have breakfast in town. As you can imagine, the restaurants in Telluride are awesome but expensive. After that we walked through town the the popular Bear Creek trail, and started our upwards descent. It’s about 2 miles of a steady incline up to an incredible waterfall, with views of the mountains as you go up. It’s a really popular trail since the trailhead is right downtown, so there were lots of people. We got back to the condo about 1pm, ate lunch and relaxed. Later that afternoon we hung out in the pool and hot tub at the condo, and then walked around downtown again and took another gondola ride up the mountain.

There was a Thai restaurant right by our condo that we had wanted to try for dinner. Even though it was a Monday the wait was over an hour! At least we could go back to the condo and my husband and I could have some wine while we waited. We finally were seated around 8:30 and unfortunately the food didn’t come until 9:30 because they were slammed. But it was super delicious.

The next morning I had my last coffee on the balcony watching the gondolas go up the mountain, and we packed up and left.

I loved Telluride! It was so nice to get out of the desert and into the crisp mountain air. The town itself is gorgeous; they have done an incredible job re-habbing the old houses to retain their original character (of course at price tags starting in the millions). The food was excellent and the people were really nice, if a little yuppie-mountain-hipster. And everyone has dogs everywhere!!! You can even bring your dogs on the gondola. I could have easily spent a week or two there. We met some people just spending the whole summer there, getting away from hotter places. Lucky!

Wild Wild Southwest, Week 1: Vegas – Zion – Bryce – Capitol Reef

Vegas baby!

We flew out of Syracuse on Delta at 6:45 am, after checking all four bags with camping gear with no problems. The flight was great and arrived at Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) early, where we had a 3 hr layover. We headed over to the Escape Lounge, which we could get into with our Amex platinum cards. This place is awesome! It was practically empty, clean, and had lots of seating. It also had a great spread of food, including these delicious little egg dishes in mini cast iron skillets. We ate breakfast here and then on our way out we went to the PGA golf store/restaurant, where our priority pass card got us a $15 credit per person to buy whatever we wanted at French Market, a bakery next door. We were full but we bought $60 worth of chips, nuts, and other snacks to bring with us, all for free! Score!

The 2nd flight was also great and we landed in Vegas ahead of schedule, around 12:30pm. We headed over to the Centurion Lounge for a quick lunch and welcome cocktail before we picked up our luggage. We could also get in here with our Amex platinum cards. So breakfast, lunch, and snacks all free with our lounge benefits from credit cards!

 

Once we picked up our luggage we got an Uber (using our $15 Uber credit from Amex platinum) to our hotel, Delano. The room, a suite, was great with a view of the strip. I paid cash for this room but was able to get several benefits by using my Amex platinum. When I booked it Amex was running a deal to get an extra 6,000 membership rewards for booking an MGM property. Delano is also part of their “Fine Hotels and Resorts” program, and if you have the Amex platinum you get early check in and late check out, $60 breakfast credit, WiFi credit, and $100 food and beverage credit. So I paid $350 but if you subtract the food credits it came out to $190.

We headed over to the pool complex at Mandalay Bay, since the two hotels are connected. It was so hot!!! But the pools were pretty cool. They have a giant wave pool, a lazy river, and a pool just for Delano guests. After a little swim we went back to the room and got ready for dinner.

 

On our way to dinner we walked through the casinos to stay out of the heat, and the kids got a kick out of seeing how they were connected but each had their own theme: Luxor, Excalibur, New York New York, etc. We decided to go to the Wicked Spoon buffet at the Cosmopolitan. I had been there before but thought the kids would be amazed at the huge selection of food. (Another little perk, we were seated more quickly through the VIP line, just for having Marriott gold status). We definitely ate our fill and then left to go see the fountains at Bellagio. Unfortunately, right as we were leaving, my 7 year old said he felt sick and I knew from the look on his face he was about to throw up. We ran back into the restaurant and were not even 5 feet from the bathroom before he started puking. He ran into the bathroom and at least got the rest in the toilet. I felt terrible for the mess but by the time we left the bathroom they had it cordoned off and were taking care of it (I did apologize). He wasn’t sick, but he has a sensitive stomach and so it’s not unusual for him to throw up sometimes when traveling. Plus he ate his weight in pizza and treats at the buffet. We tried to watch the fountains at Bellagio after that but he felt really sick so we walked all the way back to the hotel. We all felt bad for him but we also didn’t want to take an Uber back in case he threw up again. He started to perk up by the time we got to Luxor and then we made it back to the room without incident. By that point everyone had had enough of the heat and the excesses of Vegas.

The next morning we took a Lyft over to an enterprise rental car in the suburbs. I booked the car by going to autoslash.com, which found me the best deal on Priceline. I had requested a standard SUV and when we got there they said they had a Mazda CX-7. They said they also had an Audi Quattro 7 and offered it to us for a $50 a week upgrade. When I hesitated because of the price the guy said he would give it to us for $25 a week. We checked out the car and it looked awesome, so we took it! The guy said the car usually goes for $120 a day. With my deal through Priceline plus the upgrade we got it for $43 a day! Score!

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Sweet ride!

We headed over to Target and bought some supplies, then back to Delano to get our bags, and finally we hit to road to Zion!

Zion National Park

When we arrived at Zion it was about 2pm and very hot. Our campsite at Watchman campground was in the new, tent-only loop and was pretty cool. We set up camp and then headed over to Zion Outfitters to ask about renting equipment to hike the Narrows the next morning. The Narrows is Zion’s iconic hike through the canyon, and for part of the hike you are wading through water so they recommend wearing neoprene socks and shoes. We rented them for the next morning and then went over to the pub next door for some cold drinks and snacks. After that we cooked some burgers, and then the sky started looking ominous and the wind started blowing. Hard. Like so hard the tents were barely staying upright. We heard thunder and lightning and then the rains came. It was a massive, intense thunderstorm. For part of it we sat in the car but it was too hot and we knew we couldn’t wait there all night. Plus we were worried about the tents blowing away and wanted to weigh them down with our bodies. We ran to the tents and my husband stayed in one and the kids and I went to another. That’s when my youngest started puking. Again. In a tent, during a thunderstorm. Awesome. The kids and I ran out of that tent, leaving a puke soaked air mattress, and into the other tent with my husband, where he kept puking into a target bag. After that he felt better. (I think he may have been dehydrated and not used to the heat).

 

For several hours we sat in the tent through what was the worst thunderstorm I can remember. There was almost constant thunder, lightening, and pouring rain. Luckily, our little Coleman tent held up pretty well and we stayed dry. Eventually we all fell asleep (four people on two twin size air mattresses) and the storm stopped. Of course, someone’s car alarm went off twice in the middle of the night, waking us up. Needless to say we got very little sleep. When I woke up at 5am it was still dark, and I worked on cleaning the puke off the air mattress. We ate some granola bars and then put our neoprene socks and shoes on, ready to hike the Narrows early before it got crazy crowded. Unfortunately we learned that because of the storm there were massive floods and mud slides all over the park, and most of the hikes up Zion canyon were closed, including the Narrows. Apparently it was one of the worst storms they’ve had in a while and they got one quarter of their annual rainfall just in that one night! Here is a story on their Facebook page about it and a screenshot of the news.

screen shot 2019-01-19 at 9.37.36 am

Instead we hiked Watchman trail, which was beautiful with great views. After that we hopped on the shuttle bus and made stops at the human history museum for a ranger talk, and then to the Zion lodge where we ate lunch. After that we rested at camp and spent some time wading in the river, then we went back to the museum for another ranger talk and to see the film about Zion. When the film was over and we went outside to catch the shuttle, we were met once again with torrential downpours!!! Ugh!!! We thought this was the desert!!!

 

We ran from the shuttle over to our campsite to secure everything and then as the rain settled down we decided to go out to dinner in town rather than cook hot dogs in the rain. We found a great little place with awesome Tex mex food. That night we slept very well. The next morning as we packed up our site we learned the Narrows was still closed but the shuttles were taking people a bit farther up the canyon. We decided to hit some of the short hikes off the shuttle stops such as Weeping Rock, Emerald Pools, and Court of the Patriarchs. After a picnic lunch we drove about 2 hours through more rain to our Bed and Breakfast at Bryce National Park.

 

Thunderstorms aside, I had mixed feelings about Zion. The scenery was truly awe-inspiring. However when they say Zion is crowded, they weren’t kidding! It is so jam-packed with people, it had me feeling a bit claustrophobic to be honest. I did think their shuttle system was very well run. I would love to go back when it is less crowded sometime. Maybe I’ll finally get to hike the narrows.

Bryce Canyon National Park

When I was looking to book a campsite at Bryce, I read on the National park’s website that they would be doing lots of construction at the campgrounds this summer and therefore sites would be limited and first come, first serve. Not wanting to mess with that, I booked a bed and breakfast near the park through hotels.com. After all the storms at Zion I am glad I did, as there were still more storms in the area the days we were at Bryce and frankly we were desperate for a shower and a bed by that point. The BnB was very nice with a large room with a king size bed for us and a futon for the kids. There was a private bathroom and we all enjoyed showers and baths very much! The first night we went to dinner in town at an awesome little BBQ place.

 

The next day after breakfast at our BnB we headed into the park. I’ll never forget the look of awe on my husband’s face as he peered into the big bowl of hoodoos (drippy looking rock spires) for the first time. We knew there was a chance if thunderstorms around 1:30 so we did the Queens Garden and Navajo Loop trails into the canyon first thing. It was so amazing to be walking a amongst the hoodoos, although the trail was way busier than I remembered. There was a constant stream of people to walk around. It did start thunderstorming around 1 so we took a break to eat lunch, go to the visitor center, and rest at the BnB.

 

Later that afternoon we went back to the park to do a couple more short hikes and drive the whole 18 miles of the park highway out to Rainbow and Yovimpa points. I took a million pictures but none of them can do it justice. The landscape and rock formations are so other-worldly. It’s something you have to see in person. We did the Bristlecone trail at this end of the park which offers some incredible vistas.

We headed back to town around 7:30 and ate dinner at a great little pizza place and then crashed at our BnB. Overall, Bryce was just as amazing as I remembered it. It seemed like there were more tourists than there were 20 and 30 years ago, when I was here before, but It was definitely less crowded than Zion, which was very nice.

Capitol Reef National Park

I don’t even know what to say about Capitol Reef…it has rendered me speechless. To get there, we drove on scenic route 12 from Bryce through the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. This drive was incredible. The scenery continuously changed and went from sweeping vistas to an other-worldly rock-scape, to an Aspen forest, and finally to the bright red rocks and huge formations rising out of the earth as you enter Capitol Reef National Park. We had AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” playing on the stereo as we drove in, and it was oddly fitting with the huge bright red rock formations looming all around us.

Very quickly the landscape started to become greener as we drove into the Fruita historic district, where the campground sits. The Fremont River flows between the massive rocks and created a fertile valley for indigenous people and later some Mormon pioneers in the 19th century. The Mormons planted several orchards and the trees still produce copious amounts of fruit today. Our campsite was pretty close to the orchards and after we set up camp and ate lunch we were able to pick some apricots! We then headed over to Gifford House, a historic building from the old village that is now a museum, gift shop, and pie shop!!! We bought some ice cream to eat now and some pie for later. Then we headed over to the visitor center, the historic schoolhouse, the Petroglyph wall, and went on a hike to the Hickman bridge, a massive arch. The hike was great and the boys had fun finding little caves to sit in, We ate dinner at the campsite and the kids started to make friends with some of the other kids at the campground. For the rest of our time there they would find each other and have “apricot wars” in the orchard with the fruit that had dropped to the ground.

After dinner at the campsite we went to a fabulous ranger program on astronomy – they have a nice modern amphitheater right in the campground, and then we stayed up pretty late to star-gaze (Capitol Reef is designated as an international dark sky park). The stars were incredible and we could just make out the Milky Way.

The next morning we did the Cohab Canyon trail which takes you through a desert canyon with some cool slot canyons on the sides and has a couple climbs to viewpoints of Capitol Dome and Fruita. It was an awesome hike but got hot pretty quickly, so when we were done we escaped to the air conditioning of the car and went to town for lunch, more supplies, and to check email.

We were still pretty spent by the time we got back so we went to a ranger talk on the Petroglyphs and the Fremont Indians, and then did the 10 mile scenic drive which ends in a drive through Capitol Gorge, a dirt road that goes through a canyon and used to be the only way through the whole area. It was both exhilarating and kind of scary to be bumping along in the car so close to the canyon walls. That night we hiked a little of the Fremont river trail and went to another ranger talk. The next day we packed up our camp and left to drive to Vernal, Utah near Dinosaur National Monument.

I can’t say enough good things about Capitol Reef. It was so much less crowded than Zion and Bryce which made our stay much more enjoyable. At the other parks the trails felt as crowded as walking down Broadway in NYC! Crazy! At CR, there were other people hiking but you would run into them maybe every 15-20 minutes, and the rest of the time you could have a little solitude. The landscape was just out of this world. It really seemed like an alien planet at times. The park also had lots of different things to offer, from the amazing vistas, the desert and canyon trails, the rock formations, the night sky, the ancient petroglyphs, and the historic pioneer town. We went the three ranger talks and all were awesome. I could have easily spent a week just exploring this park and was sad to leave. But, onwards we went!

Florida!

Apparently this has been the longest winter in 40 years in Syracuse. By April 19th, it was still snowing. Thank goodness I booked a trip to south Florida for the kids’ April break!

The planning

I had a feeling we would be wanting to get somewhere warm in April, so I started looking at flights to Ft. Lauderdale so we could visit my uncle. I was able to find 3 round trip tickets on Delta for $360 each. Kind of high but they must have been jacked up because our area had spring break that week. I used my AMEX membership rewards to book using the 50% points back feature (I think this was the last trip I was able to use this before it went to 35% back), so it ended up being 54,000 MR points total for the flights.

For the room, I started looking for hotels in the Deerfield Beach/Boca Raton area on the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel site, and lucked into the Hyatt Place downtown Boca Raton for 9,000 points a night! That’s really cheap and I think it was because it was a new hotel and they were running a sale to get people to book. We got a room with a king size bed and pull out sofa and free hot breakfast for 4 nights for 36,000 total ultimate rewards points.

I then looked at car rentals and was able to find one for only 9,000 ultimate rewards for the four days.

Now here’s where it started to get really interesting. A few months before the trip I received a call from Delta that they had overbooked our Saturday morning flight, and they asked us to change to a flight that was about 40 minutes later and connected in the 7the gate of Hell, AKA LaGuardia airport. I vowed I would never set foot in that airport again, however I called them back and asked if they had any other flights available, including the night before. They were more than happy to switch us to a 5:40pm flight on Friday connecting through Detroit. So we could just head to the airport after the kids got out of school and gain and extra half day in Florida! They also offered us $300 in travel vouchers or 30,000 skymiles each in compensation! I took the skymiles because I knew I could use those for flights that were worth more than $300, especially if I combined them with the “pukemiles” we earned in October and March (see my last post). So we banked 90,000 skymiles total and got more time in Florida. Winning!

The only caveat was I had to book a hotel for Friday night. When I looked at the Hyatt the points price per night had gone up significantly, so I looked at some other options. I ended up settling on a Hampton Inn for 13,000 Ultimate rewards a night.

The trip

The flights were great, and we even got mysteriously upgraded to Delta comfort (more legroom and free adult beverages, yay!) on the first leg. I have no idea how or why but I’m not gonna look a gift horse in the mouth.

We got to the hotel at around midnight and crashed. The next morning we were scheduled to take an airboat ride at 11am, so we hung out at the Hampton Inn to eat their free breakfast and go for a swim. Unfortunately the pool was gross and full of bugs, AND they had no hot water in the whole hotel! I really wanted a shower after all that travel but not enough to take a cold one. I complained to the front desk and Hilton Hhonors online, and was given 35,000 Hilton Hhonors points for my inconvenience.

After that we met up with my uncle and got to take our first airboat ride through the Everglades. It was so much fun and we spotted about 15 alligators!

We spend the rest of the day chillin at my uncle’s pool and we finally checked into the Hyatt, which was very nice and brand new, right in downtown Boca Raton. That night we went to bed early and were woken up out of a dead sleep by the fire alarm: “emergency!! Please evacuate the hotel. Do not use the elevators!” I figured it was a false alarm but still scary, especially since we were on the 9th floor.

The following day we spent some time at the hotel pool and met up with my uncle to visit Green Caye nature reserve in Delray. This was a really cool park with lots of boardwalks over the wetlands to walk and view nature. They also had a nature center with some aquarium tanks but it was closed. We had a fun walk, despite some downpours. The rain cleared up when we left so we decided to visit Sugar Sand Park in Boca. This place was the best park for kids I’ve ever been to! They had a huge playground area with a huge, multi-level play structure, water misters, and a bunch of other unique playground equipment. They also had a carousel and an indoor science center, which was as nice any science center I’ve ever been to (just smaller), all for FREE (they do accept donations)! The kids had a great time playing and after that we went for dinner at a taco place in Deerfield beach called El Jefe Luchador.

The following day we met my uncle at another amazing park (also donation only), called Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton. This place also had nature trails as well as an indoor nature canter, a turtle rescue center, and aquarium tanks. We were able to see a lot of it before they shut down the outside parts due to an impending thunderstorm. Eventually we left and the kids and I went to a fabulous restaurant for lunch, Fran’s Chicken Haven, for some legit, fresh fried chicken. This was one of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had and definitely a must-eat if you are in Boca.

We tried to go to the beach after that but there were warnings for a rip tide, sea lice, and jellyfish, so we decided to stay at the pool. For dinner we met my uncle at The Funky Biscuit in Boca, which has live music almost every night and great food and drinks (try the biscuits)! The music was great but the kids started to get tired so we went home about 45 minutes into the performance.

The Funky Biscuit

On our last day the kids and I enjoyed more pool time in the sun, and then I dropped them off at my uncle’s house while I had lunch with friends in downtown Delray Beach, which was a cute little area with lots of shops and restaurants. For dinner we met my uncle at a restaurant called Junior’s, which has New York deli style food. It was so good. We had matzoh ball soup, latkes, roast beef and brisket sandwiches, and for dessert we tried their famous cheesecake.

The next day we got up at 3am to make our 5:40 flight and headed home! All in all a super fun trip with lots of amazing parks, great food, and sun!!! And even better is we spent very little money, given that all of our outings (except for the airboat ride) were free, we had free breakfast every day and ate at relatively inexpensive restaurants, and finally ended up with 94,000 skymiles and 35,000 Hilton Honors points.

Washington DC and Richmond, VA

At last count, in our school district, the kids only attend school for 16 days in November (they have 5 full and 2 half days off). We decided to take advantage and visit my Dad, aka, “Grampy,” in Richmond for a few days. Unfortunately, flights from Syracuse to Richmond are expensive and non-direct. Flights to DCA (Reagan National), however, are cheap, direct, and only 2 hours away from my Dad. So I booked flights for a Friday through Tues, where we could get on the plane at 1:20 on Friday because they had a half day, and fly back on Tues when they had a day off, so overall for a 5 day trip they only missed one day of school.

I had booked a Hampton Inn for that first night in DC. I really like staying at Hampton Inns when it’s a quick overnight stay. Yes, they are the Applebee’s of hotels, but at least you know what you are getting. They had a shuttle from the airport and to the metro (saving $ on ubers or cabs), they have a full hot breakfast, the rooms are usually clean and comfortable, and they have a pool. When the kids and I landed we called for the shuttle and got to our room around 4pm. The kids wanted to go swimming immediately but since it was a weekday the pool didn’t open until 6pm. We were bummed, but we decided to instead walk the 2 blocks to the metro and take it over to the Washington Monument and the National Mall. Even though I have been to DC over 30 times, I had never been to the Lincoln Memorial and I really wanted to go there and see it lit up at night. We had a little snafu with the metro (I was a little tired from traveling and thinking you could use it the same way as the NYC subway – where you can use the same card with multiple people. Doesn’t work that way on the metro, but the workers were super nice about it and found me amusing), but then we ended up on the Mall near the African American History Museum (definitely on my list of museums I want to go to but you need to buy tickets in advance and go earlier in the day). The kids loved running around the Monument and laying up against it with their feet up.

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By this point we were all starving, having forgotten to eat lunch (oops!). I knew there wasn’t much in the way of restaurants near the mall, but my iphone informed me a Shake Shack was nearby, so we headed there. After fueling up with burgers, cheese fries, purple cows, and wine. we headed back toward the mall. The kids liked just sitting and playing on the grass, and we lucked out that it was an unusually warm evening for November. We walked down the mall to the WWII memorial, and the kids had fun reading all the states names. We finally made it to the Lincoln Memorial, and there was a unity gathering in front. It seemed likevarious local clergy who were speaking on peace and unity, and we enjoyed listening to them. The Lincoln Memorial was truly breathtaking to see up close and lit up, as was the spot commemorating MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. My oldest definitely grasped the significance. After that we were very tired from walking so we caught an Uber back to the hotel in Crystal City, just over the river (free with my Amex platinum $15 a month Uber allowance), and the kids got to take a dip in the pool finally before we snuggled in to watch a movie and pass out.

The next morning, after we ate our free hot breakfast, we headed back on the metro (this time with the right number of metro cards). The kids really wanted to see the White House, so we headed over there to take their picture in front of it. To get a tour you need to book it months in advance, which I did not do, but they do have a really nice visitor’s center run by the NPS a few blocks away, which we enjoyed. It was s gorgeous sunny fall day, so we walked through the mall in the other direction this time to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, where we were going to meet up with my Dad who was driving up from Richmond to get us. I hadn’t been to this museum since I was a kid, and it was awesome to go back. They have great exhibits, and of course, being part of the Smithsonian, it’s free! I especially liked the exhibit about passenger airlines throughout the 20th century, and seeing how the cabins and even the uniforms have changed over time.


We stayed for a few hours and then made our way back to Richmond. The next day we went to the Science Museum of Virginia, which seems to be undergoing some updates but had lots of fun, hands on activities for the kids. They especially liked the part that had a little track where they could “race” an alligator, an olympic swimmer, a rat, and others. They also loved playing air hockey against a robot arm. Back at my Dad’s house they tried their luck at some fishing. The following day we visited the Richmond zoo, which had a huge amount of animals and some you could feed, including giraffes. In the late afternoon, we took a pontoon boat ride on the lake and then some more fishing.

The next day we headed back. My Dad booked us Amtrak tickets from Richmond to Alexandria since it would take the same as driving and he wouldn’t have to fight the DC traffic. The train was on time and empty, which was great because we could all stretch out. We stopped in Alexandria at about 1:30pm but our flight wasn’t until 6. If it had been sunny I would have tried to rent a locker or something to store our luggage at the train station so we could walk around Old Town Alexandria, but it was cold and pouring rain, so that didn’t seem very fun. Instead we took and Uber over to the airport. Washington National (DCA) is a small airport, and as such, it doesn’t have many options for lounges. There are no Priority Pass Lounges, just Delta sky club and the American Airlines Admirals Club. I saw online that I could buy a day pass for the Admiral’s Club for $59 and the kids would get in free, and I was sold. So we spent several hours there. Looking back , this was absolutely the right call, especially since our flight ended up getting delayed by an hour so we were there for 5 hours! The lounge allowed us to have comfy chairs, wifi, power outlets, and drinks and snacks that we noshed on all day. If we had had to have sat in the regular airport that long, I probably would have spent more than that on food alone and we would have been miserable. They had chili, hummus and chips, veggies, cookies, brownies, trail mix, and fruit.  Plus complimentary sodas, wine, and beer, and then in the afternoon, made-to-order quacamole and chips.

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Thank goodness for lounges!

Around 7 we went next door to the dreaded Gate 35x (it’s where all the small commuter jets leave from and can be a bit of a cluster-you-know-what), waited another 30 mins past the scheduled delay, and finally boarded the hour flight to Syracuse. Overall another fun, successful trip!