Archive for November, 2010

On our last morning in NYC, we reloaded the van and drove out of Brooklyn toward Philadelphia.  As we drove through, we were amazed at the size of Brooklyn.  It has a population of over 2.5 million, which would make it one of the five biggest cities in the United States if it was not part of New York City.

As the van headed south on the New Jersey Turnpike (we never knew how many toll roads there were in the Northeast), we began making our Philly plans.  We had an idea for a hotel, but no reservations.

Upon arriving in Philadelphia, we drove downtown to the Independence Visitor Center.

The National Park Service has done a great job organizing this Visitor Center, and they even provide information advising tourists on how best to utilize the amount of time they have in Philly.  Our late afternoon arrival limited us to seeing one only site that day, so we decided to start with the Liberty Bell.  As luck would have it, we were able to walk right into the museum and view the exhibits and the Liberty Bell.  The two other days that we visited the downtown area, there was a line to see the Liberty Bell that stretched out of the building at least 100 yards.  Victory for us!

After a quick photo with the Bell, we retrieved the van and headed towards King of Prussia, PA.  Research told us that staying outside of Philly proper could save us about 40% on the costs of hotels, so we made the drive 25 miles outside the city.  Second thoughts began when we hit standstill rush hour traffic.  More doubts arose when we finally pulled into the parking lot our intended hotel – The Best Western in King of Prussia.  The hotel is currently being renovated and the website pictures are clearly of work yet to be completed.  Dad ran in to quickly survey the lay of the land, and Plan B went into effect.  The new plan was to find dinner, and then make a final decision on accommodations.  The restaurant next door to the hotel was quickly shot down, so we headed across the street to the King of Prussia Mall, the second largest mall in the United States behind the Mall of the Americas in Minnesota.  It was here that the Clays discovered the greatness of The Cheesecake Factory.  We had never been to The Cheesecake Factory, and quickly realized that we had been missing something in our lives.

The iPhone Hotel Search begin at the table via Hotels.com.  On this leg of the YLA, we have had better results when searching for hotels when using the guest ratings as the main criteria.  We discovered that there was a hotel 7 miles outside of Philly (on the other side) with a good rate and perfect 5.0 reviews.  Reservations were made, and we made the journey back through Philadelphia to the place we had been searching for the entire trip, “Hotel Nirvana”.  We checked in to our King Suite at the Wingate by Wyndham in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, but after inspecting the room, realized that we must have been put in the Presidential Suite.  The suite was two full connecting rooms with a king bed in each, and was probably close to 600 SF.  After three weeks of continuous family togetherness, it was wonderful to be able to spread out a little.  Mom declared that she was so happy, she might never leave.

The parent's side of the suite

The kids' side of the suite

Sitting area on kids' side


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So when we last left you, our plan was to be at Battery Park at 8:15 AM – a feat which would require us to leave our Brooklyn apartment sometime around 7:00 AM.  We somehow managed to get everyone dressed and out the door by 7:30 (better than expected), and headed off to the subway station.  This was going to be our first morning rush hour train experience.  Our thought was that there might be a few people joining us on the ride (especially since we were heading to the Financial District), and we were not disappointed.  The train was full at the last stop in Brooklyn before the tunnel goes under the East River into Manhattan (Yes – The train actually travels under the East River). It was hard to believe how many people were in our car (think sardines in a can), and even harder to fathom that most of these people do this every day.  Each rider was physically touching (wedged up against) at least two or more of his fellow riders, and still more people kept getting on!  Claustrophobics would not enjoy this ride.  It was a LONG 20 minutes, but we survived.

We made it! On the ferry to Liberty Island.

We arrived at the ticket counter by 8:20, and were able to procure the coveted Monument Passes allowing us access into the museum at the bottom of The Statue of Liberty.  We boarded the first ferry of the morning after passing through airport-type security.  Liberty Island is far away enough from Manhattan that the Statue actually appears small from the departure point.

View from the ferry

View from the water

Zoom lenses are amazing

Once the ferry had docked, we were awed by the size and scope of Lady Liberty.  We disembarked and found the Visitor Center, so that the kids could pick up their NPS Junior Ranger Books.  The majority of National Parks have Junior Ranger Programs, and our kids have really enjoyed them.  The books have activities that teach kids about the history and nature of the parks, and help add a little structure to your park visit.  Once the books have been completed, a Ranger checks their work, asks them a few questions, and swears the child in as a “Junior Ranger”.  The best part – kids get a certificate and a badge to wear which is stamped with the name of the park.

Taking the Junior Ranger oath

After storing our belongings in a locker (only cameras are allowed) and passing through a second security screening, we entered the pedestal building.  The museum inside the Statue of Liberty was really interesting, but the highlight was getting to step out on the balcony at the top of the pedestal and seeing the views of New Jersey, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island.

The original torch, replaced during the 1984 restoration.

A cast of Lady Liberty's face - actual size!

Posing with a cast of the statue's foot.

Views from the observation deck at the top of the pedestal.

Back on the ground looking up.

After lunch we boarded the ferry for the ride to Ellis Island.  Twelve million immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island in the years from 1892-1954.  The museum here is very well done, and really made us think of the enormity of the voyage that these people took to start their new lives in America.  A second Junior Ranger program was completed here before taking the ferry to Manhattan.  If you plan on undertaking this trip to both parks and their museums then you really need to block out the entire day.  There is so much information presented that we could not see it all, and we did not step of the boat back in Manhattan until after 4:30 in the afternoon.  Thank goodness we had taken the first ferry of the day, or we might have had to camp overnight on the island.  Somehow I don’t think the Park Service would be on board with that idea.

The grand hall where so many immigrants waited to begin their "American Dream".

Once back in Manhattan, we made the 10 minute walk to Ground Zero.  There is a lot of construction being done on a new memorial, so we were unable to visit the actual site.  It is quite powerful to observe the gap in the skyline with sunlight shining through where the Towers once stood.

This sculpture once stood near the World Trade Center and was damaged in the attack. It now stands in Battery Park as a reminder of September 11, 2001, and a symbol of hope.

After having one of the most disappointing dinner of our trip (should have made it 3 in a row at Chevy’s), we took our final subway trip back to Brooklyn.  We are proud to say that the Clays survived and even flourished in our first and definitely not our last trip to New York City.

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Bundled up and ready for the day

The plan for Day 2 in the Big Apple was to head down to Battery Park via subway and purchase tickets to ride the ferry over to Ellis and Liberty Islands for tours and to see the Statue of Liberty. Plans do not always work out.  It was very crowded when we purchased our tickets, but we headed out to find the line for the ferry assuming this was normal.  Once we found the front of the line, we looked as far as the eye could see, yet we could NOT see the END of the line.

The elusive Lady Liberty

A quick talk to a NPS Ranger gave us some great knowledge.  First, the current wait for the ferry was around 1.5 hours.  Second, Monument Passes that allow visitors into the Pedestal Museum of the Statue of Liberty are free, but are handed out starting at 8:30 every morning and were already gone for the day.  Finally, if you want to go up to the Crown of Lady Liberty then you should have purchased your tickets six months in advance.  Armed with this new information, it was time to reconsider.  We decided there was no way we could wait in line for that long with three kids, but luckily the ferry  tickets we had purchased were good for the next two days.  Plans were made to return in the morning around 8:15 to secure Monument Passes and to try to catch the first ferry of the day.  Bold plans for this group.

We took the train back to Brooklyn to try to find a restaurant that had been recommended by our friend Jen.  Grimaldi’s Pizzeria is an authentic Italian pizza place that is located under the Brooklyn Bridge, and apparently quite famous as well.  We were frustrated when we found a line on the sidewalk to get into the place, but decided to get in line since the dining options in the area were limited.  The guy at the door granting the lucky ones entry and the staff inside reminded us of the “Soup Nazi” from the Seinfeld episode or the doorman at a very exclusive club.  There were many rules in place, it was extremely crowded, and the waitstaff was very no-nonsense.  We were a little on edge and afraid that if we messed up, we would be told “No Pizza for You”!  One tip – do NOT try to take any photographs inside the restaurant.  You will be told forcibly, “No camera!” The pizza was good, and we really enjoyed the “experience” of the place.

A very crowded Grimaldi's

Unauthorized shot of a Grimaldi's pizza being made.

The final picture. We are lucky they did not smash the camera.

After lunch, the Urban Clays hit the subway again for a ride to Central Park.  It is really amazing to see such a massive open space surrounded by all of the buildings of the City.  We stopped at one of the many playgrounds in the park to allow the kids the chance to run around.  While avoiding overzealous carriage tour salesmen, we strolled through the gorgeous landscape and found our way to the Central Park Zoo.  We found the zoo to be overpriced and underwhelming in comparison to other zoos that we have attended, but the kids did enjoy the Polar Bears and Snow Monkeys.

We climbed to the top of a huge rock in Central Park.

We left the park and headed back downtown via the famous 5th Avenue.  We were able to see many of the high dollar stores that included Saks 5th Avenue, and the line to get into Abercrombie & Fitch looked like people waiting to get into a nightclub.  Among all of the stores is the magnificent St Patrick’s Cathedral.  The setting inside was surreal as hundreds of people were touring the sanctuary even once the All Saints Day Mass started.  The architecture and size of the Cathedral were simply amazing.

One of many the side chapels that line the Cathedral

Everyone was running on empty, so we headed back down to Times Square to eat at our new favorite restaurant, Chevy’s, for the second day in a row.  It really is THAT GOOD.  We then boarded our favorite subway and headed back to Brooklyn in time to catch the final game of the 2010 World Series.  Congratulations to the Texas Rangers on a great season.

Times Square

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We spent the weekend in Mystic, Connecticut, (Home of Mystic Pizza), and then headed to New York City.  This was the first trip to The Big Apple for everyone (except for Mom, who had been there over 20 years ago).  We felt confident that we were ready for big city life after our successful trial run through Boston.  We had arranged to rent an apartment in Brooklyn due to the high costs of Manhattan Hotels and the desire for more room than the standard hotel room offers.  Thanks again to iPhone Maps for helping us navigate through Queens and into the heart of Brooklyn.  Our apartment was in a row house, one of four units in the building.  With two bedrooms, a living area, and kitchen, it was the perfect fit for our family and our mountain of luggage.

We awoke on Halloween morning excited to head into Manhattan.  Our apartment was a four block walk to the L Train Station, which was our planned mode of transportation to and from Manhattan.  The MTA Subway System is so complete and easy to use that we didn’t take a taxi during the three days we were in the city.  We were subterranean travelers all the way.

A quick transfer to another train and a stairway to the street led us into the heart of Times Square.  We had purchased tickets to take the kids to see “Mary Poppins” on Broadway, and our first order of business was to find lunch before the 3:00 show.  We did what everyone does when they go to NYC – we headed to a Mexican Food Restaurant.  Our choice was a place called Chevy’s, and we were quite pleased.  Please make sure that you are sitting down while reading this statement, because Mom proclaimed that it was “better than Chuy’s”.

We spent the remaining hour of spare time before the show walking to Rockefeller Center and seeing where people line up to watch the Today Show.  We knew there was no chance in ____ that we were going to ever make it down there in time to see Matt & Meredith during the actual filming of the show, so this would have to do.

"Zombies" walking down the street "Thriller-style"

On our way back to the New Amsterdam Theater, we stopped to watch some street performers doing dance routines and backflips over volunteers.  It was a scene straight out of a television show.

“Mary Poppins” was loved by all, but especially by our 4 year-old Andrew.  After each song he would turn to us and ask us if the show was over because he did not want it to stop.  Because this was a special performance, a rare backstage tour was available.  Dad provided everyone with a special treat by making the “donation” that allowed us to go on the tour, which included getting to meet and greet the four leads of the musical.  Man, that Dad is awesome.

Posing with "Bert", the chimney sweep

Meeting "Mary Poppins", "Jane", and "Michael". The two kids are dressed in their Hallowen costumes.

Up close view of the main set

In the wings backstage

We made our way to the train station and took the two trains necessary to get back to our neighborhood in Brooklyn.  Since it was Halloween night, we got to see quite a few “interesting characters” on the subway.  It was the perfect way to wrap up our first day in New York City.

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We left Boston and its rich history in search of a place in America with a really long history.  We found ourselves in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the Pilgrims on the Mayflower landed in 1620.  Plimoth Plantation (and by the way, that IS how the Pilgrims spelled it) is a living museum that shows visitors what live was like in the Village of Plimoth in 1627 after the Pilgrims had been in America for seven years.  The villagers all interact with the guests as if it is 1627.  They will answer your questions and describe life at the time without getting out of character.

The Pilgrim village consists of around 15 buildings (houses, a meeting house, a barn, and a blacksmith workshop).  Chickens roam through the grounds and the villagers go about their daily activities, sometimes even asking for assistance from the visitors.  Since it is reflection of the villagers’ daily lives, the chores change depending on the season.  We saw women mix mud with their feet then use it to fill spaces between the boards of their home.  They asked the kids to go find stones of a certain size “out on the path” to help fill the gaps.  Women were tending their gardens, cooking porridge over a fire, and removing seeds from vegetables to plant the next season.  Men were fetching water from the well and building a new house from freshly split logs.  Our favorite experience was watching two men make nails.  They were using the bellows to fan the fire and heat the iron.  We watched as they cut and hammered the red hot metal into nails.  Fascinating!  We also attended a “service” at the Meeting House in which the preacher explained what the villagers believed and the role religion played in their daily lives.

Down the path from the Pilgrim village is the Wampanoag Village that shows how the native people lived at the time.  The villagers at the museum are actually part of the modern day Wampanoag Tribe. They do not speak in character from 1627 (probably would be a language issue), but do show visitors how their ancestors lived and dressed at the time.  We saw a dugout canoe being made from a very large log and went inside a family home covered in tree bark.  Examples of toys and games played by children in 1627 were available and we were able to try them out.

Our children learned that if they were growing up in 1627 they would prefer to be in the Wampanoag Village.  The children there played games all day while the children in the Pilgrim Village were expected to do chores for long hours.  We parents learned that these museums are best viewed on a day other than Field Trip Day.  Our journey back to 1627 was shared with about 1200 nine year olds.

Moored three miles away from Plimoth Plantation is a full size replica of the Mayflower.  We were able to go aboard and tour the ship in a lull between school groups.  The stories always mention how crowded it was with 108 Pilgrims and the crew.  Standing on the ship, it is hard to believe that many people could even fit inside.  It would have been a miserable journey, followed by years of extremely hard work trying to survive while building a life in a harsh wilderness. After a day in Plymouth, Massachusetts, we have a much greater understanding of what the early colonists experienced, and a deeper appreciation for all their sacrifices.

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