Posts Tagged ‘Apple iPhone’

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.


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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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.


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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Fourteen years ago we celebrated our honeymoon with a trip to San Francisco and Monterey, California.  This week we returned to San Francisco with our three children as part of our Year Long Adventure, with California being the 41st state we have traveled to in the last 9 months.  As we drove across the Bay Bridge, we discussed all the ways our lives have changed in those 14 years.  Other than the obvious three kids in the van, the thing that struck Dad the most was the change in our personal technology.

We were inexperienced and nervous travelers when we landed at San Francisco airport in 1997.  It was overwhelming to drive our rental car into a strange city with only a paper map to guide us to our hotel.  Our itinerary had been decided far in advance of our arrival, and once in San Francisco, we relied on brochures or taxi drivers to find our way around.  Mom owned the only cell phone, and we cannot remember today if we even brought it with us.  We had a desktop computer at home (Dad really did not know how to use it), but the thought of bringing a laptop on vacation was not something we could have fathomed.

Fast forward 14 years, and it is amazing how travel and personal technology have changed.  Our family  has traveled over 20,000 miles to 41 states in the last 9 months.  Mom and Dad each use our laptops most nights using the wireless internet provided free at the hotel.  We upload photos taken only hours before to a remote server and compose and publish this blog of our adventure.  Dad has been able to perform the basic tasks of his job remotely from hotels and/or our car using basic everyday technology, making the Year Long Adventure possible.

The main thing that has changed our travel the most is the advancement of cellular phones and in our case, the iPhone.  We rely on iPhone Maps to plan our routes (and to create Plan B when necessary) and guide us while we are on the road.  With the iPhone, we have no anxiety about getting to any of our destinations, no matter how remote they may be.  Our phones help us to find hotels, read hotel and attraction reviews, scout possible activities on the fly, take pictures and video, and keep us (especially our youngest) entertained.

One of the best examples of technology improving our travel occurred on Leg 3 when we were driving through Florida.  Mom was mapping when she realized that we would be driving right through St. Augustine.  From her trip research, Mom knew this was a city worth visiting, but she had not realized that we would be so close.  She used her phone to see what there was to do, found an Eco-Boat trip, read the reviews of the trip, and called to reserve a trip for the family all while we were still 20 minutes outside the city limits.  We then used the mapping feature to get us to our destination right on time.  We could have never pulled something like that off so quickly 14 years ago. (Read more about this adventure in St. Augustine here)

Remembering that feeling of driving into San Francisco just 14 years ago, Dad said that if you would have told him that day about the future of technology, it would have been more unbelievable than telling him that he would be back 14 years later with three kids age 11, 9, and 5.  Mom said she would have been blown away by both of these propositions.

The real question is: What will be possible in 2025?

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Ready to see the giant sequoias

As we drove from through the California valley past orchards of orange, lemon, and nut trees to the foothills and Sequoia National Park, we noticed a few stores along the way that had signs out front offering snow chains for rent.  Since it was the middle of May, Dad assumed that these signs were leftover from the winter.  Imagine our surprise when the ranger at the park gate said we had a bit of a problem.  Because it was currently snowing at the top and the winding roads on the mountainside were covered in ice and close to impassable, snow chains would be mandatory after a certain point on the main park road.  Unfortunately, the giant sequoia trees that we had come to see were located far past this point.  We continued on to the Visitor Center to rethink our plan, as the thought of driving on icy mountain roads with limited barriers was not very appealing.  Thanks to our iPhones and a strong wireless connection, we were able to hatch a new plan that would allow us to see giant trees the following day.

While still at Sequoia NP, we decided to take advantage of a couple of the hikes at the lower elevations where the roads were still passable.

We hiked the Hospital Rock Trail down to the Kaweah River.  The trail led to a location that was so amazing, it was hard to believe.  Giant boulders, roaring rapids, and incredible mountain views (video here).  Allison found a piece of a rare mineral, malachite, that she identified with her Rocks & Minerals book.

Andrew and Audrey found a giant red salamander as we were coming back up the trail.  While this hike was not something that we had planned on doing originally, we felt blessed to see this beautiful place.

Gorgeous scene just outside Sequoia National Park

The kids were VERY disappointed that we were unable to see the Sequoias, especially the “General Sherman”, the world’s largest living tree.  Instead of heading east as previously planned, the next morning we headed west in search of alternative giant trees.  We were only four hours away from Muir Woods National Monument, so off we went.  Having visited Muir Woods before, Mom and Dad knew that it would satisfy the kids’ thirst for giant tree viewing.  As an added bonus, we could spend the night in San Francisco, one of Mom and Dad’s favorite places.

The giant redwoods at Muir Woods are incredible.  Some of the trees are over 1000 years old and soar upward to heights of over 250 feet tall. Walking through this majestic forest is a peaceful, spiritual experience.

Looking up

In addition to the standard Junior Ranger program, Muir Woods NM offers a “Quest” for kids to help enhance their experience in the park.  Using the guidebook, you follow the trails through the woods and uncover clues to the location of a treasure chest and the combination to unlock it.  We found all the clues and located the treasure.

We began our journey searching for giant sequoias and ended up finding even taller redwoods.  A great benefit of traveling without concrete plans is the ability to change directions on the fly.  We joked with the ranger at the gate at Sequoia that “there are no problems, only opportunities”.  Muir Woods was our opportunity.

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While driving north along I-95 heading from Orlando to Savannah, Georgia, Mom made a very interesting discovery on the map.  We were going to drive by St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest city in the United States.  St. Augustine was founded in 1565 by Spain.

She had read many positive things about St. Augustine while researching this leg of the adventure, but mistakenly thought that it was located in South Florida near Miami.  St. Augustine had not made the list since we had not planned on driving that far south.  A quick browse of the internet on the iPhone (seriously, how did we travel before smart phones) and we found many interesting things to see including making a last-minute reservation with St. Augustine Eco Tours to take a dolphin cruise.

We had a 12:30 reservation for our boat trip, and were able to park and walk up to the marina about 12:29.  We were met at the dock by Captain Adam and headed out onto the Matanzas River.

The Matanzas River is part of the inter-coastal waterway that feeds into the Atlantic Ocean.  It is saltwater, and thus is full of all sort of interesting marine life.  The main goal of our trip was to see dolphins and we were not disappointed, seeing our first one about 30 seconds into the trip.

Captain Adam informed us that there are usually around 100 dolphins in the river during the Winter months and around 300 in the Summer.  We are not sure how the dolphins tell the difference since it was the last week in February and it was 80 degrees.  Later in the trip we got to float alongside a pair of dolphin swimming up river.  The kids and the parents thought this was pretty cool.

Captain Adam took us up into a canal in search of jellyfish, but unfortunately none were to be found on this day.  We then headed farther up river to see the bald eagles that have made their nest in a tree here for the last 17 years.  We were able to get a long distance shot of one of the parents, but the two chicks were not visible due to the fact that it was a very windy day.  The nest was about eight feet across in the top of a tree around 125 feet tall.  Quite impressive!

The boat also came equipped with a hydrophone (a microphone that allows you to hear under water).  We were unable to hear the echolocation of the dolphins we followed, but we were able to hear the sound of pistol shrimp on the bottom snapping their claws together.

We also got to view egrets, herons, pelicans, and seagulls. The trip was great and lasted around 90 minutes.  We would have enjoyed the boat ride even if we had not seen any of the wildlife.

After the trip, we headed next door to have lunch at the Santa Maria Restaurant.  The food was great, but the thing everyone enjoyed the most was feeding the seagulls.  Old bread is provided to feed to the birds through trapdoors they have installed on the window ledges.  The gulls obviously dine here often and know the drill.

After lunch, we walked through the old narrow streets of the town to see some really cool old houses and Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine Catholic Church built in 1565.

Next up was the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument.  This is the oldest fort in the United States and was set up by the Spanish.  It has defended against pirates and seen action during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and many other skirmishes.

The kids enjoyed going to the top of the building to see where the canons were fired.  The National Park Service does daily canon firings, but we were too late to see one.

On our way out of the park, we ran into Ranger Fritz, who graciously gave the kids a 15 minute private history of the fort which we greatly appreciated.  The kids did not have enough time to complete the Junior Ranger books, but we can mail the finished books back and the Rangers will mail us the badges.

Once the park closed we headed onto our original destination of Savannah, thankful for the unexpected stop in St. Augustine.  It has been one of our favorite places so far on any of the trips.

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Leg 3 of our Year Long Adventure has us touring the Southeast U.S. in hopes of avoiding snow and ice.  As usual, we took MUCH longer than we intended to load the van on Tuesday morning, resulting in our estimated departure time of 10 A.M. looking a lot more like 3 P.M..  As we pulled out of the driveway, we felt like we must have forgotten something big because there was so much more room in the van than on the first two trips.  The truth is that we have become a mean, lean, packing-machine.  If only we were faster…

We drove from Richardson through Louisiana to Vicksburg, Mississippi.  (We are touring Louisiana on our way home).  Nothing like a seven hour drive to get the family back into the traveling groove.  We checked into our room at the La Quinta in Vicksburg, and we were quite pleased with the accommodations.

Early the next morning, the adventure began with a visit to Vicksburg National Military Park.

We used our National Park Pass for free admission (a must if you plan on going to a lot of the National Parks), and headed into the Visitor Center to do some learning.  The adults of the group needed some of this education since neither one of us could answer with 100% conviction which side won the Battle at Vicksburg.  (Please don’t tell Mom’s AP History teacher!)

After viewing the standard NPS Visitor Center movie and obtaining our Jr. Ranger booklets, we headed out on the Audio Driving Tour of the park.  Each of the states that had troops fight in the battle have placed a monument in the park, and some of them are quite impressive.

This area of Mississippi is surprisingly hilly, making this site high above the Mississippi River very desirable to both sides.

The Union desperately wanted to capture Vicksburg to gain control of the river, but found it virtually impossible to invade.  In the end, it was keeping new supplies out of the city that won the battle.  After 47 days of brutal fighting and incredible numbers of casualties, the Siege of Vicksburg ended when Confederate General Pemberton surrendered the city to Union General Grant on July 4th, 1863.  The 5,000 Confederate soldiers who died are buried in a city cemetery in the city of Vicksburg, while 17,000 Union soldiers are buried here in the park.  Graves of unidentified soldiers, 13,000 in all, are marked with smaller concrete posts instead of headstones.  It is quite sobering to see the cemetery stretching out in front of you.

One of the coolest things in the park is the U.S.S. Cairo Museum.  The Cairo was a Union ironclad gunship that was sunk in the Yazoo River by the Confederacy.  One hundred years after the sinking, the ship was raised and restored.  The restored ship is in the park, and you can actually walk onto the deck.

The entire driving tour took about two hours including stops, and is totally worth it if you find yourself in the greater Vicksburg Area.  (You can read about another great Civil War site we visited here.)

Our next stop after lunch was to head to downtown for lunch and then head to the Biedenharn Candy Store which houses a Coca-Cola Museum.  It was at this location in 1894 where Coca-Cola was bottled for the first time.  It was only sold in soda fountains before this.

The museum mainly shows Coca-Cola memorabilia from over the years, but it was pretty entertaining to show the kids some of the items that reminded us of our youth.  They were interested to hear about returning empty bottles to the store and getting the deposit money back.  We thought it was cool to get that quarter back in the late 1970’s for returning a 32 oz. bottle, but they had those same bottles on sale at the museum as collectibles for $20 each.  If only we had known at the time.

After leaving Vicksburg, we headed on eastward toward our destination of Tuscaloosa, Alabama (home of The University of Alabama – “Roll Tide”).  On our way in, we used the iPhone to search for good Bar-B-Q places.  We found that there were quite a few, and decided to visit Mike & Ed’s Bar-B-Q.

It was REALLY good.  Mom liked it so much that as we were driving to the hotel later she said, “Man, that was so good, I don’t even know what to do”.  Take that as a strong recommendation.

Feel free to check out our Facebook page for more timely reports on where we just ate or see pictures from State Welcome Centers…

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We are currently between trips of our “Year Long Adventure” spending our time at home in the Dallas area before heading out to the Southeast on Leg 3.  Last weekend we were blessed with “Spring like” temperatures in the high 70s.  (It is 15 degrees outside as I write this post four days later, showing you how quickly the weather can change here in North Texas.)  We decided to take advantage of the great weather and go out on a family adventure of Geocaching.

Geocaching.com describes Geocaching as a high-tech treasure hunting game played throughout the world by adventure seekers equipped with GPS devices. The basic idea is to locate containers called geocaches which have been hidden outdoors and then share your experiences online. Geocaching is enjoyed by people from all age groups, with a strong sense of community and support for the environment.

Our family had tried this with some success twice before by using the Geocaching App on the iPhone, so our kids were very excited to go hunt for caches.  We drove to a park near our home and turned on the app to locate the three closest caches to our location.  The closest one was with .10 miles of where we parked.  It is amazing how many geocaches are out just waiting to be found.  The online clues lead us to a light pole to find our first cache of the day.

Most caches consist of a waterproof container of varying sizes.  Inside you will typically find a log in which to sign your name and the date you found the cache.  It is fun to see when the cache was last found and how many people have been there before you.  This first cache was the size of a film canister, so it wasn’t large enough to have a pen.  Luckily, we were near the car and could get one, but this reminded us to keep a pen with us as we continued our hunt.  Larger caches will sometimes contain trinkets that you can take as long as you leave something similar in return.  Some caches will contain a rubber ink stamp to record the find in a log of your own.  Really serious geocachers will hide “travel bugs” in their cache.  These items have a GPS tracker attached which will track the item as it is moved from cache to cache across the country or even the world.  Each travel bug has a unique number stamped on it which allows its journey to be followed online.

We changed parks to head to one with better walking trails in search of our next cache.  This cache was .27 miles away from our new parking spot, but much harder to find.  Unfortunately, the curving walking trails did not always take us in the direction we were trying to go.  We followed the GPS and compass directions for about 20 minutes before we were finally headed in the right direction.   Once we were within 50 feet of the cache, we left the cement path and headed into the woods.  This large cache was located in the base of a tree in a hollow spot.

The guest log inside showed that the cache had been placed in this location a little over a year ago and found 25 times since.  After celebrating our find and carefully placing the container back in its hiding place, we were ready to call it a day.   Because we were unfamiliar with the layout of this particular park, our wandering path to the cache left us not knowing where the van was.  Luckily, iPhone Maps pointed us in the right direction.

We did attempt one final cache on the way back, but we were unsuccessful this time.  The GPS said we were within 10 feet of where the cache was supposed to be located, but we were unable to find it.  We accepted this small defeat in favor of finding some lunch.

Two tired Geocachers

Our kids really enjoyed the hunt and using the GPS and compass to find their way.  They did not even realize that they were having family bonding and exercise to boot.  We had such a good time that we plan to geocache through the Southeast and maybe even hide a cache of our own.

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