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Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

On our last day in Philadelphia, we were blessed with mild weather and small crowds.  We began in downtown Philadelphia for our 11:00 tour of Independence Hall.  Independence Hall is the Old State House of Pennsylvania, the site where the First and Second Continental Congresses met to sign both the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution.

Tickets to tour this building are available for free on a first-come first serve basis, but we highly recommend reserving them online (for a small convenience fee) if you are planning on visiting. The tickets seemed to go pretty quickly each day we were there because there are only a limited number of spaces to take the tour.

A Park Ranger leads the very informative, guided tour through the Hall, which is divided into two main rooms.  The room where both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed is arranged the way it looked in the late 1700s, and still contains the chair that George Washington sat in during the Constitutional Conventions.  Even the items on each desk are consistent with the period.  Once again we were filled with amazement  to be standing in a building filled with such historical significance.

At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin observed the symbol of a half-sun on George Washington’s chair and remarked, “I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”

The second room  in the Hall served as a the main courtroom in Philadelphia.  We learned that the US Court System is based on the British legal system of the time.  The defendant was made to stand during his entire trial in a “cage” of iron bars in the center of the room.  This is where the phrase “to stand trial” originates.

After this tour we headed a few blocks South to visit St. Mary’s Catholic Church. This church is the oldest Catholic Church in Philadelphia, and George Washington once attended a service here in 1789 to celebrate the two year anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.  We had been in the church for a few minutes enjoying the beauty of the sanctuary when we realized that a midday Mass was starting.  The priest celebrating this Mass was blind, and it was very humbling and inspiring to see how he flawlessly performed all of his duties without the ability of sight.

St. Mary's Catholic Church

After Mass and a quick lunch back at the Bourse, we made one last trip to the Independence Visitor Center.  The kids turned in their completed Junior Ranger books and received their badges.  The Park Ranger spent about 15 minutes talking with them about what they had seen and learned, and he gave them all the Philadelphia historical site trading cards still needed to complete the set.

While Mom hit the gift shop, Dad and the kids played football on the grassy lawn outside the Visitor Center.

We then said goodbye to Philadelphia and drove onward to our nation’s capital.  We drove through the states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia all in about three hours.  Being able to drive through 5 states in such a short time period is a little strange for people coming from a state the size of Texas.

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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 awoke on our second morning in Boston to heavy rain, but were fortunate that the rain stopped right before we walked out of the hotel.  Our morning started with a tour of Fenway Park.  Seeing the ballpark and getting to sit up in the Green Monster Seats made us want to come back for a game.

The Green Monster


The coveted Green Monster seats

We took the train into Downtown with at least 200 of our closest friends in the same subway car.  Andrew fell down at the first three stops because he refused to hold on to the pole or let us hold onto him.  Despite the crowds, Allison still wants to ride the train everyday for the rest of her life.  Too bad she lives in Dallas.

Squeezing in on the subway

We had lunch in the North End neighborhood of Boston, home to over 250 Italian restaurants.  Overwhelmed by so many choices, we picked the first one that was empty and had televisions playing SportsCenter.   La Famiglia Spagnuolo turned out to have great food as well, and  we enjoyed witnessing the colorful interaction among the family that owns the restaurant.  Authentic pizza, ravioli, and spaghetti with meatballs gave us energy to continue our walking tour of historic Boston.

We then headed down to the famous Mike’s Pastry to get some treats for later.  (Thanks to Grant for the recommendation.) While we were choosing from the incredible selection, a man came into the store in 18th Century Dress (powdered wig and all), and proposed down on one knee to one of the employees of the store – certainly an event that you do not see every day.  She said yes, and service was temporarily halted while the entire store celebrated.  Very cool!  More pics here.

We then followed the Freedom Trail to the Old North Church, the famous site where two lanterns were hung to warn that the British were “coming by sea”.  In addition to the main sanctuary, we were able to tour the bell tower and the crypt in the basement where approximately 800 people were entombed between the 17th and 19th Centuries.  Our tour guide was enthusiastic and very informative, and it was really cool to see bells dating back to the time of Paul Revere and see the complicated process it takes to ring them.

Descending down the narrow stairs from the bell tower to the crypt


Next, we went to a nearby cemetery where some of the tombstones dated back to the mid-1600s.  The long and important history of this city is hard to fathom.

We probably ended up walking around 5 miles that day, but the kids were great and only turned grumpy near the end of the walk.  Luckily they spotted a cab that Dad was able to hail with his big city whistling skills.  Allison is already planning our next trip to Boston because there is so much more to see.

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Massachusetts was our 25th state to visit during this adventure, but Boston is only the second major metropolitan area (Seattle being the first).  Spending our time in the West, Midwest, and New England has provided us a lot of nature, while 3 days in Boston allowed us to get “URBAN”.

The beautiful Boston skyline

On our way to Boston, we stopped at historical Lexington and Concord, and learned the truth behind the legend of Paul Revere’s ride.  The Minute Man National Park is set on several acres of gorgeous New England countryside, and you can walk along the actual route where many key initial events of the American Revolution occurred.

We walked across the Old North Bridge, and stood in the exact spot where Colonists first fired on British troops 235 years ago.  An interesting fact we learned was that Revere was stopped prior to Concord by British troops, and it was actually a different rider that warned the Colonists there that the British were coming.  The multi-media presentation at the Visitor Center about that fateful night is not to be missed!  We then headed into Boston in search of our hotel in the dark (and rush hour traffic)– thank God for the iPhone Maps feature.

The next morning we were blessed with incredibly mild weather.  Mom had been expecting to bundle up in coats for walking outside in Boston, but we were able to wear shorts both days!  After walking the 10 minutes from our hotel to the station, we rode into downtown on the Train, known to locals as the “T”.  The kids were very excited to be on a real subway.  Once in downtown Boston, we toured the all of the highlights of the city by taking one of the Trolley Tours.

"Driving" the trolley

Our driver/guide had the quintessential “Boston Accent”, and he entertained and amazed us with the rich history of the 375 year-old city.  Interesting fact – there are over 90 Dunkin’ Donuts stores in the city of Boston (and they make an excellent breakfast wrap).

That night, we met one of Mom’s friends from 3rd grade and her family for dinner at the legendary Durgin Park in the Market at Faneuil Hall, and had a great time and some yummy “Yankee” food.

The kids enjoyed our three taxi rides that day, and proudly hailed their first taxi going down a street – great training for New York City later in the trip.

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On Friday we visited the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.  This place is what many children think heaven will be.  Their website correctly touts it as “an exciting, hands-on, welcoming place to play, learn, and dream; a place to pretend, wonder, and explore; a place to discover the past and imagine the future; and a place to rekindle memories and make new ones.”

Giant marble run across ceiling

We were there for more than 5 hours, and our kids (ages 4, 8, and 11) would have stayed much longer.  At first we worried that the museum would be too “young” for our older kids, but we were wrong!  There were activities and exhibits appropriate for all ages.  Some areas involved exploring different scientific principles (a giant marble run on the ceiling), while other areas (like a post office and pirate ship) facilitated pretending and role play.  They really enjoyed all of the hands-on activities, and we did not get to experience everything in the time that we were there.  Mom and Dad had fun too and were wishing a place like this existed when we were kids!

A favorite area was the Hall of Superheroes.  Through the magic of trick photography, the kids were able to see themselves scaling a building like Spiderman.  The girls  had a great time experimenting with different poses to achieve the best effect.

Hall of Superheroes trick photography. This...

... becomes this! Spiderman, look out!

You should definitely make plans to attend if you ever find yourself in Rochester with kids.  Check our Facebook page for more pictures of the whole family having fun at this amazing museum.

Two days later we found ourselves in Waterbury, Vermont, and Mom was psyched because we would be going to a place that she sees in HER dreams.  We took the Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory Tour at their headquarters.  Even the pouring rain did not dampen our enthusiasm.  The tour starts with a humorous short film explaining the history and philosophy of Ben & Jerry’s, and then takes you on a catwalk above the processing plant to show you the process for making ice cream.  All of the machines have very technical names like “chunk adder” and “swirl maker”.  The best part of the tour was the Flavoroom where each of the guests was given a free sample of the new 2010 flavor “Milk & Cookies”.

Interesting fact – Ben & Jerry got into the ice cream business after taking a $5 Correspondence Course on “How to Make Ice Cream” back in the 1970s.  That was $5 well spent.  The only thing that would have made the morning better for Mom would have been if were given free samples of Chunky Monkey. Luckily we were able to buy her a scoop in the Scoop Shop on site.

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Being more laid back and less tied to a specific plan has led us to some neat experiences we would not have had otherwise. As we mentioned in a previous post, we completely changed what we had planned to do in Vermont after picking up some brochures at a “Welcome to Vermont” Visitor Center. Because of these new activities, we spent the night in a different city than we expected.  A ripple effect ran through future days, and we have ended up in places we didn’t even know existed.  Most of the time this is very positive. Sunday night we found ourselves in the quaint college town of Durham, New Hampshire.  Other than a bit of a problem locating a place to eat (those poor college kids must be starving), we really enjoyed our short stay.

The next morning we continued on to Maine, where we had planned to spend the previous night.  On the way to Portland, we turned off of the highway in Kennebunk, and decided to explore the little coastal towns in the area. Driving through towns established in the late 1600s, one couldn’t help but be overcome by the aura of history all around. Three hundred year-old graveyards and beautiful old homes against a backdrop of fall color made for an amazing drive.

The legendary New England fall foliage

At Porpoise Cove in Kennebunkport, we explored the pier and the rocky coastline and saw lobster fisherman at work.  As they put their hands into the cold Atlantic Ocean water, Allison said, “We have now truly been all the way from Sea to Shining Sea.”

We have now put our hands in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans!

Idyllic view of a New England coastal town

We ate fresh seafood at the Cape Pier Chowder House, a hole-in-the-wall seafood shack right on the water. The view out the window was so beautiful, it almost didn’t seem real.

Crab roll

After lunch, we explored the rocky coastline for a little while longer.  It was hard to tear ourselves away, but there were more adventures to be had.  Mornings don’t get much better than this, and it was completely unplanned.

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There are certain things in the United States that everyone should get the chance to experience, and we were fortunate today to enjoy one of these experiences.  We traveled today to Niagara Falls.

Niagara Falls was one of the first places that came up when we were making our “we will have to go there for sure” lists.  Everyone was excited to see the Falls and how they compared to what we had seen on television and in movies.  Outside Cleveland, we were greeted with temperatures in the 40s while we were loading the van, and we had seen on the forecast that showers were a possibility.  We enjoyed the drive through Ohio, Western Pennsylvania, and New York where the leaves were beginning to turn  colors.

When we arrived at the New York State Park that hosts Niagara Falls it was still in the high 40s and very cloudy.  We hoped that the extra cool temperatures would keep the crowds away.  After a quick visit to the Visitor Center, we headed down to purchase our ticket for the famous “Maid of the Mist” boat tour of the falls.

Maid of the Mist boat tour

As we were walking to see the falls, we were hoping that we were not about to have a “Mount Rushmore Moment”.  We were a little disappointed when we visited Mount Rushmore because the monument is a lot smaller than when we had seen it on television or in movies.  Niagara Falls did not disappoint.

First view of NIagara Falls

We took the elevator around 200 feet down from the observation to the base of the falls and the point where the tour boats launch.  We were fitted with our fancy blue “Maid of the Mist” Ponchos.  Luckily the rain held off until right after we were sporting the ponchos.

Stylin' in the official blue ponchos

The boat took us on a 20 minute tour of both American Falls and also Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side of the river.

Nearing the Falls

Horseshoe Falls is the more powerful and impressive fall, and the boat drove very close to the bottom of the fall.  The mist created by the falls is more like a driving rain, and way to powerful for a cheap, plastic poncho.  We came away from the voyage pretty wet.  The sound was incredible, and our expectations were exceeded.  Check out the video here.

The only two suggestions we would make for those making this trip would be to avoid going on days with temperatures in the 40s, and to make sure that you have easily accessible dry clothes and shoes to change into after the trip.  Luckily our traveling van is stocked with four suitcases and we have become travel-hardened, so changing clothes in a State Park parking lot is no big deal.

Feel free to check out our more frequent updates on our Facebook Page.

Allison’s thoughts:

After driving from Cleveland, Ohio, crossing Pennsylvania, and entering New York, we arrived at Niagara Falls. It was 42 degrees outside! Niagara Falls is really a city, and there are two falls, America Falls and Horseshoe Falls. I could see Canada across the Niagara River! Then we went on the Maid of the Mist boat tour. We all got blue ponchos, which worked, IF they covered you! The boat stopped in front of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, which blasted us with water, especially both times we were on top of the the boat! When we finished enjoying the waterfalls, Audrey, Dad, and I went up the stairs to get really close to America Falls, and consequently got soaked!

Getting a closer look at the Falls

Then we visited the Visitor’s Center to warm up, changed clothes, and left.

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