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Archive for July, 2011

We are wrapping up Leg 5 of our Year Long Adventure, and we have spent around 120 nights in hotels over the past 12 months.  On Leg 1 of our trip we made reservations for each night of the trip before we left home. Now on Leg 5, we are true Road Warriors and usually we do not have reservations until the night before.  Sometimes we find ourselves not knowing which hotel or even which city we are spending the night.  This is the situation we found ourselves as we sat in the parking lot of the Miller Brewery at 4:30 on a Tuesday afternoon.

We had just completed the Miller Brewery Tour and we were scheduled to be in Chicago the next day.  It was 97 degrees outside, so we cranked the a/c in the van and started researching hotels with our iPhones.  One thing we have learned in our travels is that there are a lot of hotels in the Midwest that have indoor water parks.  A quick Google Search of “hotels in Wisconsin or Illinois with water parks” brought us a number of choices.  There is a Great Wolf Lodge in Wisconsin Dells which was a little over two hours away.  A two hour drive is nothing to us these days, but we had been to the Great Wolf Lodge in Grapevine, Texas, a few years ago and we were not overly impressed.  Another option that came up was Key Lime Cove in Gurnee, Illinois, only 60 minutes away.  After reading some Trip Advisor reviews and making the call, we were set to go to Key Lime Cove.

BEST DECISION EVER!!!

As we approached the hotel from the freeway, we could see 4 giant colorful water slides on the outside of the building. (Cue kids’ excitement)  We checked in quickly, dumped our bags in the room, suited up, and then headed down to the water park.

Key Lime Cove has 3 tube slides, 2 body slides, a lazy river, a wave pool, and a huge kid’s play area that features more slides and splash zones.  Since it is completely indoors, no sunscreen was needed. (Cue kids’ excitement again)

The "Tornado Vortex"

The girls riding on the "Tornado Vortex" in a double tube

"Scuba School" was fun for adults & kids alike

Lazy River

Wave pool

The one thing that we could not find at Key Lime Cove was LINES.  On our aforementioned trip to the Great Wolf Lodge, we once stood in line for over an hour to do one tube ride.  At Key Lime Cove our longest wait for a ride was probably around 7 minutes, with the average wait around 2 minutes.

Father and son bonding on a tube slide

The staff at Key Lime Cove were great, especially the life guards.  Everyone seemed truly happy to be working there.  The room was very comfortable and had a laid-back Caribbean theme.  The resort also offered many other amenities (on site restaurants, spa, arcade, kid’s club activities), but we did not have time to take advantage of them.  One of the coolest features was that the hotel wristbands have an RFID chip, allowing it to be used as your room key and charge drinks, etc. to your room while in the waterpark.  No worrying about keeping up with cash or the room key!

Multipurpose wristband

We had so much fun at the waterpark that we chose to stay a second night and make the hour long drive to and from Chicago for our prescheduled boat tour.   Even Mom rode all of the rides, and then proclaimed that Walt Disney was a liar.  She thinks Key Lime Cove in Gurnee, Illinois, is the “happiest place on earth”.  If only they had one in Texas!

We love this place!

Don’t miss any of the final moments of the YLA!  See real time updates by liking Year Long Adventure on Facebook.

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Leg 5 of our Year Long Adventure brought us to the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to tour the Miller Brewery.  Being big fans of both factory tours and Miller Lite, this is something we were looking forward to doing.

Welcome to Miller Valley

We started at the Miller Visitor Center and were pleasantly surprised to learn that not only was the tour free, but we were also going to receive free samples at the end of the tour. The tour starts with a short film that tells the story of how Frederik Miller emigrated from Germany to Milwaukee in 1855 and started his brewery.  He bought the Plank Road Brewery and made his first batch of beer with special yeast that he had brought with him from Europe.

The tour is a guided walking tour that covers 4 blocks, taking visitors to various stops around the Miller Complex.  Our guide was energetic and fun, and we learned a lot.  Unlike many of the other factory tours we have taken, visitors are allowed to take photos and/or video at any stage of the tour.

The first stop was the Packaging Center where the beer is put into cans and bottles.  The machines can fill 1400 bottles or 2000 cans per minute.  Long glass windows allow you to look down at the machinery in motion – very cool.

Cans rushing by

We are always amazed at the engineering involved in the factory process, and the Miller brewery did not disappoint.  You can see a short video of the machinery in motion here.

The next stop is the Distribution Center that is the size of 5 football fields and holds nearly 500,000 cases of beer.  Here we learned a little about the merger of Miller and Coors, and also about all the different brands bottled by the two companies.

That is a LOT of beer

Next, the tour takes you across the street to the Brew House.  It is here where the beer is actually made.  It was around 110 degrees in the room.

The tour then heads to the historic caves where Frederik Miller would store his beer to keep it cool.  He would have ice brought in from frozen lakes in the winter to line the walls of the cave, making it the ideal natural refrigerator.

Historic caves

The final stop on the tour is the Beer Garden where each guest over the age of 21 is given the opportunity to sample 3 different beers from the Miller Family.  They also provide lemonade and cokes for kids or anyone who did not want beer.

Happy Anniversary!

It was our anniversary, so we toasted to 14 years of wedded bliss with the free beer and pretzels before we escaped to the air conditioned gift shop.

Our whole family really enjoyed the tour, and we would definitely recommend it if you find yourself in Milwaukee.

It is hard to believe, but our Year Long Adventure is quickly nearing the end.  For up-to-the minute updates, you can follow us on Facebook by liking Year Long Adventure.

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The Year Long Adventure has provided our family with many new opportunities.  One of the things we have really enjoyed is taking factory tours and learning how things are made.  On Leg 2, we toured Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream in Vermont and Herr’s Snack Foods in Pennsylvania (You can relive these adventures here and here).  Leg 5 led us to St. Joe, Indiana, and a tour of the Sechler’s Pickle Factory.  Our 9-year old daughter is a big fan of pickles, and our research told us that this was the only factory tour of a pickle plant in the United States.

Ralph Sechler started working in the pickle business in 1914, and by 1921, he and his wife were making and selling pickles out of their home in St. Joe.  Today Sechler’s makes over 40 varieties of pickles, relishes, and specialty items.  The company offers free tours of their factory, and they show guests their process for making and packaging their products.

Sechler's original home

Sechler's current factory complex

The tour was very interesting, and one of the things that amazed us was the amount of sugar needed to make sweet pickles and relish.  It was fun to watch the complex machinery needed to turn a cucumber into a pickle ready for shipment to stores.  Unfortunately, no pictures or video were allowed inside the factory, so you’ll have to trust us or schedule a visit to Indiana.

After our walk through the factory, we were able to dive into Sechler’s tasting table and sample some of their delicious products.  We ended our tour by taking a family picture with a giant pickle.  Good times.

Yes, we got to keep the hats.

St. Joe, Indiana, is also the home of the annual St. Joe Pickle Festival.  This annual celebration, held every year in August, includes events like the decorated Pickle People contest, Pickle Derby, and the Pickle Pepper Poker Walk.  Who knew pickles could be so much fun?

Don’t miss a moment of the YLA!  “Like” us on Facebook at Year Long Adventure.

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We were in Michigan, heading South en route to Indiana on Leg 5 of our Year Long Adventure when a unique opportunity presented itself.  While cruising down I-69, Dad saw a sign on the side of the road advertising a farm at the next exit where you could pick your own produce.  The turn signal went on, and we were off for a new experience.

Excited to pick some berries!

We followed the signs and found ourselves at Harvey’s Farm.  On this farm, established in 1984, Ron and Rose Harvey grow produce that you can pick from May to November.  We were there in July which put us right in the middle of raspberry and blueberry season.  We met Rose in the garage where she explained the process and outfitted us with the necessary buckets.

Quite excited, we walked toward the raspberry bushes in search of the elusive red berry.  We made our way up and down the rows of bushes picking berries.

With no experience, we found it difficult to keep each raspberry intact, and many came apart during the picking process.  It took a while to discover a method which resulted in the least number of squished or mangled berries.

We began with a lofty goal of filling two pint buckets, but we quickly decided that one pint would be enough for us.  The blueberries were calling, and we were getting hot.

We made our way back to the garage, picked up the blueberry bucket, and trekked to the other side of the farm to the blueberry patch.  There we found that blueberries are much easier to pick.

Picking berries in 90 degree heat is really hard work, and we developed new respect for people who work in the fields and provide us with produce.  With our bucket overflowing, we made our way back to the garage.  Ron weighed and bagged our berries, and we were surprised to find that we were leaving with a pint of raspberries and 4.75 pounds of blueberries for less than $10.

Upon returning to the van, we realized we had a problem – two large bags of fresh berries and no cooler.  Unfortunately, a few days earlier, our cooler had become a bio-hazard (don’t forget to buy ice if you are storing anything other than drinks) and developed a strong odor that almost killed our oldest daughter when she opened it.  Needless to say, we currently did not have a safe place to keep our berries fresh.  Regardless, our family had a true family road trip experience, and we enjoyed the very delicious berries at room temperature for the next few days.  Plan on pulling off the road the next time you are in the neighborhood.

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We awoke on Friday morning in Minnesota to temperatures around 60 and a light rain – two things we would not be seeing for a the rest of the trip and well into our return to Texas.  It was hard to leave such a beautiful and tranquil location, but the Year Long Adventure must always move forward.  We left Little Sands Lake and started heading east toward Lake Superior.  In Akeley, Minnesota, we had a close encounter with Paul Bunyan.

Posing with Paul Bunyan

Our stop for the night was Ashland, Wisconsin, along the banks of Lake Superior.  Reservations had been made at the AmercInn there because of the promise of really cool waterslides at the pool.  We arrived in the late afternoon, checked in, performed the nightly luggage haul, and set out to check out the hotel amenities.  The kids got the chance to play a game of checkers on a giant checker board before we went down to dip our toes into a Great Lake.

Exploring the edge of Lake Superior

We then headed to quaint downtown Ashland to get a bite to eat at Deep Water Grille & South Shore Brewery, where a good meal was brought down by a bad waitress.  As we drove around, we Texans could not help but wonder what this place looks like in February.  We headed back to our hotel and spent the evening watersliding before heading off to bed.

Ashland was just a brief stopover before our intended destination of Munising, Michigan.  We drove for over five hours across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and still found ourselves along the shore of Lake Superior.  Now that is a GREAT LAKE.  In Munising, we learned that residents of the Upper Peninsula (the U.P.) refer to themselves as “Yoopers”.

Yooperland, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan

The  AmericInn in Munising did not have a giant checkerboard, but the hotel did boast a set of giant Adirondack chairs as well as a waterslide.  Can you guess how we spent our evening?

This chair was too big!

Wheeee!!!

The next morning we arrived at the Shipwreck Tour Company for the 10:30 am Shipwreck Tour on Lake Superior and boarded the ship Miss Munising in search of downed vessels.  The ship is outfitted with glass sections in the bottom of the ship to allow visitors to get great views of these wrecks resting only a few feet below the surface.  Our tour took us to see three different shipwrecks during the two hours on the lake.

Getting ready to board "MIss Munising"

Upon departure, the passengers were split into two groups that took turns on the lower level so that everyone would have a good view.   The boat would slowly glide back and forth over the wreck site, while our guide described what we were seeing and told the story of how each ship sank, as well as other interesting facts about life in the area at the time and in the present day.  Lake Superior was and still is a major transportation route for goods, a fact that was unknown to us.

Peering down at a shipwreck through the glass bottom.

View through the glass bottom

The water was so clear that we were even able to see the ships from the upper deck of the tour ship.  The first ship we visited sank in a storm back in the late 1800s, and the second ship wrecked around 1920 when it ran into shallow ground.   One of the ships sank with a full cargo hold of iron ore so valuable that a salvage company spent many months recovering it a few years later.

View of a wreck from the top deck through the amazingly clear water of Lake Superior

We found the tour very interesting and would highly recommend it.  The boat and crew were both great, and the views cruising around Lake Superior were pretty “superior”.

An eagle by her nest on the shore of Lake Superior

Outside snacks and drinks are permitted and photos are encouraged.  Don’t forget your sunscreen AND a light jacket – we needed both at various times during our tour.

After the tour, we experienced a local delicacy for lunch at Muldoon’s Pasties.  Pasties (PASS-TEES) are a cross between a calzone and a pot pie, a pastry crust filled with a meat and veggie mixture with gravy on the side for dipping.

Beef Pasty from Muldoon's

The YLA gives pasties mixed reviews, but they are definitely quite filling.  We were fortified for our long drive across the Mackinac Bridge and deep into the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.

Crossing the really long Mackinac Bridge, Lake Huron on one side and Lake Michigan on the other

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Leg 5 of our Year Long Adventure brought us to the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” where we got to experience both the metropolitan side and the rural side of Minnesota.

Our first stop in Minnesota was in the town of Bloomington, a suburb of St. Paul.  Bloomington is the home of the Mall of America which claims to be the largest mall in the United States.  We stayed at the Best Western in Bloomington that was literally in walking distance of the Mall.  Our room opened out to the courtyard and was steps away from their indoor pool and splashpark.  This turned out to be one of the nicest amenities on the trip so far.  The kids could play together in the splashpark while Mom & Dad got to sit on the climate controlled patio and watch.

The next morning we walked over to the Mall of America.  The mall is definitely big, but it did not overwhelm us since we come from the Dallas area, aka “The Land of 10,000 Malls”.  The Lego store was impressive, but the best part for our kids was the amusement park in the center of the mall, Nickelodeon Universe.  In air conditioned comfort, we rode roller coasters, log chute rides, giant swings, bumper cars, and even a ferris wheel.  We could definitely see how this place could be popular in February in Minnesota when it was -7 and there was 3 feet of snow outside.

Andrew wasn't too sure about the log ride

Wheeeee!!!!

Mini-coaster

After doing the city thing, we headed to the wilds of Minnesota to experience lake life.  We have good friends from Texas that have a lake house on Little Sand Lake and spend the month of July at their cabin.  They were gracious enough to allow us to descend on them for a couple of days, and we had a wonderful time.

Their cabin and guest cabin are in a beautiful setting right at the end of a peninsula covered in large pine trees.

We got to eat delicious meals cooked over a campfire, make s’mores, play croquet, take a boat ride to lunch at the lakeside restaurant Zorbaz, go tubing on the lake, and just hang out in the beautiful surroundings.

Crazy kids enjoying a cookout!

Zorbaz!

Tubing

S'mores

The best part was the weather.  The highs were in the 70s and at night it got down into the 50s.  The cabins do not have heat or a/c, so we slept with the windows open, and it was wonderful.  The loons on the lake lulled us to sleep with their unique sound.  We had such a great time that we started looking for Realtors… until we remembered it was 1200 miles from where we live.  But we were tempted – it would be worth the drive.

We were also treated to the best strawberry pie that any of us had ever eaten (Thank you, Grandma Sumers!), and we all got to practice our Minnesota accents.  Did we enjoy our trip to Minnesota?  YOU BETCHA!

Thank you, Julie!

Our Year Long Adventure is quickly nearing the end. (sniff, sniff).  For up-to-the minute updates, you can follow us on Facebook by liking Year Long Adventure.

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Part of the fun on this adventure is not knowing where you will end up at the end of the day.  We awoke in Joplin, MO, with the intention of heading North and making our stop for the evening in Des Moines, Iowa.  Dad spent a lot of the morning looking at possible hotels in Des Moines via TripAdvisor and hotels.com, but just could not bring himself to make a commitment to a specific hotel.

Welcome to Iowa!

Our plan was to stop in Des Moines because although it was a full six hours from Joplin, it was only two hours from one of our first planned stops the next day in Gladbrook, Iowa.  It was only 3:00 when we crossed into Iowa and stopped at the Iowa Welcome Center and Rest Stop.  While looking at the giant wall map of Iowa, we determined that we should keep moving on past Des Moines.  It has become a joke among the family that we cannot check into a hotel if there is still daylight outside, and we definitely cannot stop the day’s driving before 4:30 in the afternoon.  A quick search via the iPhone assured us that Marshalltown (the next pretty big dot on the map) had hotels, restaurants, and a Catholic church, so all of our needs were met.  The consensus was to head on to Marshalltown, another 52 miles past Des Moines.

Just a little longer, kids

Upon arrival, we checked into the AmericInn in Marshalltown, and then set off in search of food.  After driving through the newer areas of town, we found ourselves in the old downtown area.  We located the church we planned on attending in the morning directly across one of the more ornate County Courthouses that you will ever find.

The Courthouse

The #1 rated Restaurant on TripAdvisor, Zeno’s Pizza, has been a local favorite since the 1950s.  As we were turning around to park for Zeno’s, we passed the Orpheum Theater.  This restored theater originally opened in 1949 and has been showing classic movies for about a year.  That night’s feature was the 1959 Disney classic, The Shaggy Dog starring Fred MacMurray.

Zeno's

The Orpheum

The movie was set to start at 7:00 and we walked into Zeno’s at 6:26.  It was going to take some fortuitous timing, but since this is the YLA, we knew that it was going to work out.  We ate some really great pizza, paid our bill, and ran out the door on the way to the theater at 6:57.  Tickets were $3, drinks $1.25, candy $1, and homemade M&M cookies were $.50/each.  We all enjoyed the full nostalgic experience, complete with uniformed ushers and ticket takers.

It turned out to be a great night of unplanned family fun, and just another example that sometimes making reservations is not necessary.  We are supposed to end up in Bloomington, MN, next, but we might hold off on making those reservations just yet.

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