Sunday, June 19, 2016

Happy Father's Day!!

This is my sweet Daddy. He was born to a large family in Lebanon. After graduating high school, he legged it around Europe for a few years wearing a suit that was a little too small for him, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. 

Legend has it that he originally thought he'd be a doctor, but he couldn't stand the sight of blood. Instead, he applied and was accepted into the civil engineering program at Mississippi State University. His older brothers stayed home in Lebanon, worked, and sent him the money he needed to fund his education. When he got to MSU, he excelled in his engineering and math classes, but he was failing English. (He spoke Arabic and French fluently, he had a gift for people, and he was a handsome, dark-complected young man. Frankly, you can't have everything.) So, a young Mississippi girl became his English tutor. Her name was Margaret. They fell in love.

Daddy had fun at college. Starkville was dry, so Daddy volunteered to go for booze runs for his friends. If he was ever pulled over, he pretended he was a foreigner who spoke no English and had no idea about U.S. law. They usually let him go with a warning (and his libations), so Dad became very popular on campus. 

When Dad graduated, he asked Margaret to marry him and return to Lebanon with him. She refused. He returned home. But he got to missing her. In the end, he agreed to come to the United States if she'd marry him. He did, and she did. Then, he took a job at the Mississippi Department of Transportation, where he'd spend his career.

During the next 45 years, he helped my sweet Pawpaw, a carpenter, build the pretty two-story house in Clinton, Mississippi, where we'd all live; put a big garden in the back yard (still known as the "Saad Farm"); and raised three girls who are now all productive, tax-paying citizens. He eventually applied for and earned U.S. citizenship. 

He designed bridges and roads. He became a favorite when MDOT needed a civil engineer to testify for eminent domain proceedings, because he had a unique way of explaining things, and juries responded well to him.

When he retired from MDOT, decades later, there wasn't room for all the cars of the people who wanted to visit with him. The vehicles filled the lot and parked on the sides of nearby roads. When my sweet Daddy made a speech about the relationships he'd built at MDOT and what a wonderful country America is, more than one good ol' boy in the crowd wiped tears from his eyes. 

Now, he spends his time hanging out with his grandsons, traveling, and occasionally consulting. I asked him once, and he says he dreams in English now, not Arabic. People still love him, and he still exhibits a sense of adventure and curiosity about the world that I admire. He rarely talks about himself, he's always ready to laugh, and (if I do say so myself) he's still pretty damn good looking. 

Happy Father's Day to Daddy, the first person who showed me how a man should love me. I'm proud to be your girl!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Oh, Canada! (cont.)

The view from the top of the Grouse Mountain SkyRide!

On our last day in Canada, we woke up early and walked from the apartment to 999 Canada Place to catch the FREE shuttle to Grouse Mountain! I'd bought our Alpine Experience tickets ahead of time online, so we loaded up on the bus and took off for our mountaintop experience!

Grizzlies at Grouse Mountain
Just as we did with the Capilano Bridge Shuttle, we drove over beautiful Lions Gate Bridge and up to the mountain. (A note - If you want to do Grouse Mountain in the morning and Capilano Suspension Bridge in the afternoon, you can take the Grouse Mountain shuttle to the mountain, and then it will drop you off at Capilano on the way back to Vancouver. Be advised, though, that they DON'T pick UP passengers at Capilano.)

Clay LOVED the corny lumberjack show!
When we got off the shuttle, we were at the boarding station for the SkyRide, the aerial tram which takes you on an 8-minute ride up the mountain. This was fun!! Views are amazing, and the tram swings a bit as it passes each tower supporting the cables it rides on. (Clay loved this. If we could have swung more dramatically, he'd have loved it even more!) Once we got off the tram, we explored the chalet and took in the views from there. Then, we watched a free, short film about the evolution of birds in the Theatre in the Sky. (Their ancestors are dinosaurs!) After that, we checked out the bees in The Hive, where you can lift coverings to view hundreds of the tiny creatures buzzing about their business through plexiglass. We observed park workers putting in a new bee garden directly adjacent to the hive.

After that, it was off to visit with the resident grizzlies! We walked along a paved path, through tall carved wooden statues, to find them. They were obligingly active, eating fresh grass, swimming in their pond, and coming right up to the fence! Then, we noticed that one of the park rangers was giving an owl talk. He brought out a lovely barn owl with a white face and dark brown eyes. He spent about half an hour discussing owls, answering our questions, and showing off the beautiful bird. It was a chilly day, and by the time he finished, we were getting cold. Hot chocolate from a nearby stand was just the ticket! We each got some (with loads of marshmallows) and explored the Pollinators' Garden while we sipped, talking about plants and bees.

The Lumberjack Show was about to start, so we settled ourselves in front row seats and got ready for some fun! The show was hokey, but the performers were adorable, and their lumberjack skills were real. They threw axes at targets, climbed poles, carved wood into simple statues, and showed off their log rolling skills. Clay LOVED this show (the cornier, the better), giggling like a small blond fiend throughout. I was glad we were right up front so he could take in all the action at close range.

Closing in on lunchtime, we strolled back to the chalet and got a table with a gorgeous view at Altitudes Bistro, where Clay had chicken tenders, hubs had a giant plate of nachos, and I had an Asian shrimp bowl. The service was quick and friendly, the food was delicious, and the atmosphere couldn't be beat! Once we finished, we caught the tram back to the station, then rode the free shuttle back to Canada Place. A short walk back to the apartment, and we met up with my sweet in-laws.
Science World has so much to see and do!

After a little rest, we decided to enjoy one last adventure! My in-laws had a special treat in store for us; they took us to La Casa Gelato! At this bright pink building, they serve up 238 flavors of ice cream, gelato and sorbet, on site at any time. We giggled at flavors like wasabi, olive oil, and red bean. (You KNOW I tried the roasted garlic one. Not bad!) In the end, Clay got vanilla with chocolate chip, and I had the amaretto cherry with chocolate flakes (AMAZING). They also make their cones on site, and they are delicious! A fun stop!

After that, we had about one hour until TelUs Science World closed. We figured we'd explore all we could, so in we went. They had a REALLY cool interactive exhibit on spies and spy skills, and we spent all of our time there. You start with a case file and a notebook you can use to record clues. We tried our hands at code-breaking, phone-tapping, and safe-cracking. We also monitored some satellite transmissions, did some detective work at the scene of a crime, and peered through windows at the bad guys. In the end, we solved the mystery!! This place was FUN, and I wished we'd been able to spend more time there. BUT they closed at 5 p.m., so we had to go.
Tracking down the bad guys in the interactive spy exhibit . . .

To end our final day in the city, we ate dinner at Pacifico Pizzeria, where I had a delightful seafood pasta with a nice glass of white wine. The food here was really good, and the place was PACKED!

After dinner, it was apartment-pack-bed! We caught a cab to the airport early the next morning, and flew all the way back to New Orleans. Tired from traveling, we enjoyed a surprisingly delicious dinner at Don Jose's, a Mexican place close to the airport, and then a restful night at the Radisson Hotel New Orleans Airport. Then, it was HOME! (I dearly love traveling. But I also LOVE coming back home! My own bed! My own sweet pillows! My little garden! Even grocery shopping and cooking feels like a novelty for a while!)

We loved Vancouver, and I'd recommend a trip there to anyone. A beautiful city, fairly compact (walkable), tons of activities (particularly outdoors), and great food! We can't wait until our next visit!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Oh, Canada! (cont.)

View of Lions Gate Bridge from Prospect Point
The next morning, after coffee and pastries at the apartment, my in-laws took pity on me and drove us back to Stanley Park. There was so much we didn't see the day before! They knew I was itching to get out, so they drove me up to Prospect Point for amazing views! We got an up-close look at Lions Gate Bridge, took in the sweeping bay, and counted ships on the water. We stayed here for a while, taking in the air and doing a little shopping in the gift shop at Prospect Point. (Hubs got a T-shirt that I absolutely covet! Soooo soft!!) We also stopped by the hollow tree for photos, as we'd heard it was a Vancouver tradition. Clay thought it was a HOOT!

Wares for sale at Granville Island public Market
Then, we got back in the car and headed for Granville Island. I'd heard this place was worth a stop, both for the delicious food and the Kids Market. (Clay had gotten some shopping money from my dad, and it was burning a hole in his pocket! The Kids Market, a two-story building full of toy shops, was just the place to pick up some souvenirs.) We drove over, parked, and found the big public market. It's a large food market that reminded me a lot of Chelsea Market in New York City - towers of cherries, artfully displayed; gorgeous cases of cheese; meats and seafood; plus arts and crafts! We spent an hour or so browsing before our rumbling stomachs told us it was time for lunch.

We all got something different: pizzas, Asian food, hot dogs, and more. It was delicious! On our way out, we gave Clay about 45 minutes at the Kids Market to play and choose a few goodies.

Museum of Anthropology
Then came our last stop of the day - Vancouver's Museum of Anthropology. I'd heard wonderful things about this museum, which is located on the University of British Columbia campus, but honestly, no words I can write here will truly do it justice. Suffice it to say - this collection is vast and amazing. So many beautiful examples of First Nations art, and then a stirring space called the Multiversity Gallery which made my jaw hit the floor. Think big glass cases everywhere with beautiful artifacts from all of the world in them. Then, you notice the cases are sitting on cabinet-like pieces of furniture with big, full drawers in them. Then, you realize these huge drawers OPEN, and there are tons more artifacts under glass, stacked under each giant display case. Mind-boggling. We spent a couple of hours here, but we could have easily whiled away half the day.

After dropping us off back at the apartment, my in-laws returned to White Rock, and our little band of three was on it sown for dinner. We were only a couple of blocks away from Guu Original, on
The Bradshaws conquer Capilano Suspension Bridge!
Thurlow Street, and it had some really good online reviews, so off we went. We joined the LINE of people waiting for the restaurant to open at 5:30 p.m. When the door opened, we were seated, and then it was time to sample several of the many small plates. I love tapas-style dining! We tried the fried eggplant (not battered - think soft with crunchy garlic chips on top), the fried chicken with garlic mayo (OMG. I would have eaten this all myself if I hadn't had to share!!), the kabocha croquette (a boiled egg wrapped in pumpkin puree, then breaded and fried; the waiter recommended this, and I reeeeeally hesitated, but we tried it. GOOD!), some prawns, and an evening salmon special.

This place is small, but the staff is young and energetic (and loud!), and the food is delicious! Prices are also very reasonable. Recommended! Then, it was off to bed. We had another busy day planned in the morning.

I so loved TreeTops Adventure.
We awoke, enjoyed another quick breakfast at the apartment, and headed for the first Capilano Suspension Bridge shuttle of the day. The attraction offers two free shuttles - a red line and a blue line - both with many stops convenient to downtown Vancouver. It was cloudy, but not rainy, and we wanted to get there and enjoy the attraction before the predicted rain in the afternoon. (Plus, many, many years of travel have taught me that if you're going to a major tourist attraction, GO EARLY. Be there when they open the door. Be the first people there. That way, you avoid the lines and crowds. But the time all the other tourists show up, you'll probably be close to leaving.)

We got there early, showed our pre-purchased tickets at the turnstiles, and headed straight for the bridge. What a rush! It sways a good bit, but it feels very stable, and views from the center are amazing - a deep ravine, with rushing water at the base. After enjoying our fill of the bridge, we headed for TreeTops Adventure, a magical set of small suspension bridges connecting platforms situated up in the trees, high above the forest floor. The kindly park attendant gave Clay a scavenger hunt to complete, and we enjoyed looking for the related clipboards and learning about the rainforest. Particularly because it was nearly deserted when we traversed it, I found TreeTops Adventure to be magical. Clay mentioned that he felt like an Ewok!

After that, we continued exploring the far side of the park, taking the Nature's Edge trail, exclaiming
CliffWalk at Capilano Suspension Bridge
over the 400-800 year old Douglas fir, and just enjoying a day in the woods. By this time, this side of the park was beginning to fill up. We crossed back over the bridge to try the CliffWalk. This open-air path is built into the side of the ravine. It's 700 feet long, and it's mostly transparent, maximizing views. (Think Willis Tower, but above a forest. And as a long path.) Beautiful.

With lunch time approaching, we headed for Loggers' Grill. It's an outdoor cafe. You order at the counter, pick up your food, and eat outside. I had a delicious salmon sandwich, hubs got the maple bacon burger and Clay had a fancy hot dog. The food was delicious, if a bit overpriced (park prices). As we ate, the band started up nearby, so we had a serenade! Upon finishing our meal, it had started to sprinkle a bit. We decided we'd take the opportunity to enjoy all of the exhibits on the way out, which we did before catching the free shuttle back to downtown. We so enjoyed this attraction1 It's touristy, but if you get there early (We went on a week day. I think that helped, too.), you really can commune with nature here.

Jellyfish at the Vancouver Aquarium
After a short rest back at the apartment, we caught a cab to the Vancouver Aquarium. We had a little over two hours to explore! Our first stop? The beluga whales! They were so beautiful and graceful in the water. You can see them from the top of the tank, and you can also go into a roomy underwater viewing area. Just gorgeous. Then, we made time for the sea otters, the fur seals (very playful - they reminded me of the river otters in our local zoo. Plus, they'd named them after some of the Harry Potter characters!), and the penguins. After that, we discovered lots of jellyfish (one of Clay's favorites), tropical fish, the Amazon area (gorgeous scarlet ibis in there), a SUPER COOL bat cave, and a very busy sea turtle. We finished up with a couple of very vocal sea lions who cracked us up! Such performers!

For dinner, we tried Stepho's, a great little Greek place a few blocks from the apartment. Hubs had
Calamari at Stepho's. First we see the fish,
and then we EAT THEM.
the roasted lamb, I chose the fried calamari dinner, and Clay ordered lasagna. WOW. First of all, the service is amazing. Secondly, the food is delicious! Portions are HUGE. Each of our dinners could have easily fed two people. And lastly, prices were insanely reasonable. This was a great stop.

We positively rolled back to the apartment and snuggled into our pillows!

More to come . . .

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Oh, Canada! (cont.)

White Rock pier
On our first morning in White Rock, we decided to stop by Tim Hortons for breakfast. (We'd had dinner at White Spot the night before. My in-laws wanted to take us to some ubiquitous Canadian places to start with!) After filling up on coffee and pastries, we were off for adventure!

We started with a visit to the White Rock promenade, pier and beach. We dropped the boys off at the long pier for some fishing, then my mother-in-law and I walked the promenade. It's a gorgeous stroll, and we had particularly fine weather to enjoy it - lovely sun, wind, with temps in the low 70s. We saw the large White Rock on the beach that is the city's namesake, took in the sweeping ocean views and just felt lucky to be alive. Tide was out, so we made our way out to the shore, where we found tons of scuttling crabs; really big, beautiful shells; and hosts of sea birds. It was an amazing morning!

We relaxed for the rest of that first full day, getting a delicious meal at Charlie Don't Surf. (I had the crab cakes, while hubs had a fish taco.) We met some friends of our in-laws, sat on the shady, breezy back patio, ate strawberries grown by my father-in-law, and strolled Crescent Beach licking our ice cream cones! It was a lovely way to start our trip!

Looking for shells at low tide . . .

The next morning, we arose early to catch the ferry to Vancouver Island. We'd made reservations, so we lined up first thing to take the car on board. While we waited, we visited the shopping and dining area to grab some sweet cherries for munching. (There are lots of shopping and dining options here.) Once aboard the ferry, we got seats and breakfasts, later taking our coffees out to the decks, where you can see lovely coastal views. Clay and I walked all around the ship, feeling like we were on top of the world on the upper decks, marveling at the clean breeze at the front of the vessel, and pointing out houses both tiny and palatial on the wooded coasts we passed. I loved, loved, loved the ferry ride. It takes about 1.5 hours, but there's so much to see from the decks that the time flies by. And if you're hungry, there are a couple of food options on board.

Gorgeous views from the ferry to Vancouver Island

When we arrived on Vancouver Island, we drove our car off the ferry and made the 30-minute drive to Victoria, the lovely little city from which we'd take our whale watching tour. I'd pre-booked five seats with Eagle Wing Tours, which takes guests out on both covered and uncovered boats for 3.5-hour whale watching tours off the coast. We'd leave from Fisherman's Wharf, a quaint and colorful dock featuring restaurants, shopping, and quirky houseboats. Since we were early for our tour, we had fish and chips for lunch at Barb's Place (soooo gooooood), located on the wharf, and then explored a bit. They had some cute souvenir shops, and resident seals paddled up to the dock in hopes of a snack. Also, as it was World Oceans Day, they'd set up touch pools on the docks where you could get up close and personal with starfish, sea cucumbers, and other creatures. Fun!

Fish and chips at Barb's!
After a little browsing and munching, it was time for our tour! We got an orientation from our guide, and then we were off in a small, open boat that seats about 11 passengers. What a thrill! We got out on the open water and started going really fast!! Eagle Wing Tours provided extra sunscreen, as well as hats, jackets, and pants, so you could bundle up in case you got cold out on the water. The wind, views, and speed were terrific!! Clay got to sit right up front with the captain. Before long, we were spotting the area's resident pod of killer whales. Beautiful! Some of them got REALLY CLOSE to the boat! We took tons of pics, then sped off to spy on some local peregrine falcons. After that, we checked out a transient pod of killer whales. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable about the whales and the wildlife in the areas we visited. Impressive.

We got up close and personal with the whales!

I really cannot recommend this experience enough. It's expensive, but Eagle Wing Tours took such great care of us, and got us so close to these beautiful animals, that it was worth every penny we paid. Just an unbelievable day on the water. The boat ride itself is wonderful.

Afterward, we grabbed some gelato at Fisherman's Wharf and played a bit in the nearby playground. Then, it was back to the ferry, where we grabbed some dinner. When we docked, my in-laws dropped us off at the apartment we'd rented in Vancouver for the remainder of our stay, where we tumbled, gratefully, into bed. Our apartment, a nice little two-bedroom, one bath unit, was located incredibly centrally in downtown Vancouver. We were in the West End, about two blocks off Robson Street. This location made the city very convenient for walking, dining options were close, and we had a grocery store within half a block. Plus, the coin laundry in the basement let us pack light. We had a full kitchen and a little balcony, too!

The next morning, Clay and I awoke hungry and tracked down breakfast at Cafe Crepe, where he ordered a strawberry crepe. I got the West Coast crepe, a concoction of salmon, cheese, and spinach. HEAVEN. We got a ham and cheese crepe to go for hubs, which he scarfed down when we returned to the apartment.

View of Vancouver from Stanley Park sea wall

As the morning was absolutely glorious, we headed for Stanley Park! At the entrance, we bore east and walked the sea wall, taking in views of the city, staring down the barrel of the Nine O'Clock Gun, marveling at the totem poles and poking around the lighthouse at Brockton Point. I can't say enough about how gorgeous the park is. First, it's massive. There are tons of trails. There are some really lovely points of interest, too - statues, tea houses, etc. You can rent bikes at the park entrance, and bike on dedicated trails. It's just lovely. Somewhere around this time, I made a bad mama decision. I took us off the path, and Clay fell. That put a damper on our fun for the morning, and we decided to head back to the apartment for a rest. (Sad face.)

The totem poles are GORGEOUS!
When the afternoon rolled around, we met up with my sweet in-laws for lunch at Steamworks Brew Pub. I had mussels and fries, while hubs and little man had pizzas. They brew their own beer here as well. We were seated in the lower part of the restaurant, near the big brewing tanks. We even saw one of the pressure valves pop off during our meal and watched one of the employees hurry to set everything to rights again. A great stop! Then, it was off to the Gastown Steam Clock. One of only a few in the world, the clock was refurbished during the past couple of years. When you stand next to it, it's hot from the steam! We learned about how it worked, then pointed our footsteps toward the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, in Chinatown.

A word - we were walking from one tourist spot to another, but we traversed (on foot) through a couple of rough blocks here. If you're planing on visiting the steam clock and then the garden, you might want to catch a cab. It's not far at all (maybe a little more than half a mile?), but it can get dicey (with a child and grandparents) between these two attractions.

Gastown steam clock
We arrived at the garden, where we did a self-tour, learning all about the meaning of the pathways,
plantings, and arrangement. Though the footprint of the garden is small, there are tons of little rooms (indoor and outdoor) to explore! I loved the silk embroidery screen on display (so delicate and detailed, it looked almost as though it glowed when the sun hit it), as well as the Hall of One Hundred Rivers. We spotted turtles out by the koi pond, and Clay found a courage amulet he just had to have in the gift shop.

As we walked back from the garden, we stopped for frozen yogurt at On Yogurt, which serves frozen yogurt using an "ice fried" technique. The yogurt is liquid, and they freeze it on an extremely cold surface as they mix in your chosen toppings. Then, the ice cream is served in a cup in four neat rolls. I tried the mango, while Clay had the strawberry. Really unique. According to the proprietors, this is a common technique in Thailand.
Inside the Chinese garden

That night, hubs and I walked the half block to our neighborhood grocery and picked up all kinds of yummies for dinner - roast chicken, Greek salad, roasted veggies, rolls, and dessert. We also grabbed some breakfast items - pastries, fruit (cherries and strawberries), milk, coffee. We ate together in the apartment kitchen that night, and my in-laws stayed the night in the second bedroom. This ensured we were ready to rock and roll the next morning!

More to come . . .

Oh, Canada!

The paddlewheel of the Steamboat Natchez!
A couple of years ago, my sweet in-laws moved to Canada to plant a church. Since then, they've traveled home a couple of times for visits, but we had yet to visit them. That changed last week! Read on for our Canada adventure!

My in-laws live in White Rock, a suburb about an hour outside of Vancouver in British Columbia. When we went to book flights from Jackson, Miss., they were mostly red-eyes. Since we were bringing little man with us (because if we'd showed up in Canada without him, I think my in-laws would have promptly sent us back stateside to fetch him), that didn't seem like much of an option. So, we decided to add a night our two to each side of the trip (coming and going) and fly out of New Orleans on a saner schedule.

We left Jackson and headed down, checking into the Omni Royal. It's a lovely hotel in a fabulous location. (Be warned, though - parking in the French Quarter is a bit of a sticker shock. Estimate in the $30-$40 range per night. And that's on top of your routine hotel charge and taxes.)

That first night, I had plans for our little tribe. We were taking a dinner cruise on the Steamboat Natchez. It has been YEARS since I'd been on a steamboat on the Mississippi River, having taken the Creole Queen to the Audubon Zoo as a child. It was so much fun!! We got there early and had our very filling and yummy dinner in the dining area. Then, we were free to enjoy the ship! We checked out the big, beautiful paddle wheel in the back, then explored the engine room to learn how the boat was powered. After that, we drank in the breeze on the front of the ship, later retiring to the top deck for live music as the sun set and the lights of New Orleans came on. Also on our cruise was a choir from Georgia. When the band took a break, they serenaded us with "What a Wonderful World." Magical!
Parade history at Mardi Gras World

Then, it was off to bed! The pillows were soft, and the blackout curtains were effective.

We awoke late the next morning and ambled to Stanley, in Jackson Square, for an indulgent brunch. I had a biscuit benedict, and it was delicious! Afterward, we made our way down the Riverfront to Mardi Gras World. (Note - This walk is a bit of a hoof, but it was such a gorgeous day! At the very end, you'll wonder if you've gone astray, as the RiverWalk peters out and you are in an industrial area. Don't fear. You're only a block or two away at that point.) At Mardi Gras World, you can view parade floats and float pieces, see and try on costumes, and learn all about this extravagant NOLA tradition. We checked in and explored the gift shop before our tour, then began our tour with a short film, a costume photo session and tastes of King cake. Then, it was off to see how floats are made and check out floats from years past.

This place was so cool! TONS of photo ops, amazing history of the city, and an eye-popping collection of floats! We really loved this attraction. I can't believe, considering all the years I've been traveling to New Orleans, that I'd never been there! Definitely recommended. And if your dogs are barking after walking there and around the attraction, not to worry. They offer a free shuttle back to the French Quarter.

Clay and I, continuing our goofy photo
tradition at Mardi Gras World
After Mardi Gras World, we took a break at the hotel pool, which is located on the top of the hotel, with an observatory where you can get a lovely view of the French Quarter. (I also may have slipped out for a quick Pimm's Cup at the Napoleon House, which was only a block from our hotel). Then, it was off to dinner at Brennan's. YUM! We sampled oysters (because you have to eat oysters in New Orleans), fish, veal and more, washed down with specialty cocktails. Delightful!

The next morning, we were off! For the most part, our flights were uneventful and on time. However, there was one snag, which is worth mentioning here. At LAX, which was our one stop, we had no idea that the terminal we were flying into, and terminal 2, where we were boarding our flight to Vancouver, DO NOT CONNECT. What that means - we had to go through airport security A SECOND TIME in LAX. Not cool, LAX. Not. Cool. We luckily had a long layover, so we made it, but it was very close. I will not be flying international through this airport again, if i can help it.

At any rate, we arrived in Vancouver, no worse for the wear, and our sweet in-laws picked us up from the airport. It was so nice to see their smiling faces! Then, it was off to White Rock, the suburb outside of Vancouver that they call home. The first night, we just rested and a caught up with one another. Our adventures officially began the next day!

More to come . . .

Monday, May 30, 2016

Glad tidings

This weekend, I've boon looking back over our custom Christmas cards (all the years we've done one, anyway). It's a fun, slightly sad way of watching our family grow! See below, in chronological order. (We've missed a year or two, and I can't seem to locate the card we did for 2010. Other than that, this is a pretty complete account!)

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Family-friendly Vegas (cont.)

On the way to Red Rock Canyon!
On our third day in Vegas, we breakfasted at La Creperie at the Paris Las Vegas. (I got a HUGE berry crepe with tons of whipped cream and a coffee. It was more like dessert, but I wasn't complaining!)

Then, we picked up our rental car (There's a Hertz rental desk at the Paris, for the most convenient option.) and navigated our way to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. It's about a 30 minute drive from the Strip, but you'll feel like you're in a different world!

We started at the on-site visitors center, where we learned all about the Mojave Desert and the plants and animals that call it home. Then, we picked up a map and had a discussion with one of the friendly rangers about which trails might be best for us. Armed with this information, we set off in the car along the 13-mile scenic loop around the park, pulling over at key trails for short hikes to slot canyons (at Sandstone Quarry), petroglyphs and water falls (near the Willow Springs picnic area).

This was a FUN day! It was great to get out of the city for a bit and see the desert. We admired panoramic views and overlooks, had a really fun time hiking a children's trail out and back (about a mile of fairly easy going, with a waterfall at the end), and just enjoying nature.

Exploring slot canyons at Red Rock
By the time we left, we were very hungry. We stopped at Marche Bacchus, a French bistro and wine shop, on the way back for a big, late lunch. It was soooo good!! I got a crab Benedict with a Casesar salad, and hubs had the lobster croissant. They were both amazing, and the pinot gris didn't hurt, either. (I almost stole the croissant. It was crazy good.) Clay happily munched gourmet chicken fingers. Feeling sated, we headed back to the hotel for a rest before our evening adventures.

We had tickets to The Beatles: Love at the Mirage, and I was stoked! Due to our late (large) lunch, we opted for snacks at the theatre instead of a big dinner, buying drinks and a large popcorn before settling into our seats. The show has been re-worked within the past year, upping the multimedia elements, and we couldn't have been more pleased with the production. Incredibly visual, incredibly emotional. I laughed and cried at times, and I wasn't even sure why. It's just a marvel of light and color and sound. It's hard to describe its impact. Even Clay was transfixed, and he has little idea who the Beatles are. A rich, sensory experience.

The next morning, we took our time getting up. We had a big, lovely brunch at Hexx Kitchen and Bar. I chose the veggie omelet. Delicious, but huge!! Then, hubs wanted to laze around some more, so Clay and I decided to do some sightseeing on the Strip. We hung a left facing the Bellagio and started walking. We poked through New York, rode a tram or two, and ended up at the Luxor. Clay wanted to ride the sideways elevators, so I obliged. Then, curious, we decided to pop into the Bodies exhibit. (We had a coupon, after all.)
The sun setting on Vegas, from the High Roller

It was completely fascinating. I was mesmerized. First of all, it's larger that I thought it would be. There are quite a few rooms, and it can take a couple of hours to do it all justice. The exhibit is organized in layers, and you start with the skeleton. Real human bones help tell the story of how our skeletons support our body, grow, and heal.

After that, you move into rooms that detail the human body's muscular structure. You learn (and see) how muscles work together to help our bodies perform complex tasks like throwing a ball. Then, it's on to the circulatory system. We identified (and saw) the four chambers of the human heart and marveled at the delicate, lacy circulatory structure that carries blood and oxygen throughout the body. (These exhibits were truly beautiful.) Then, we had the opportunity to compare healthy organs with sick ones. (Think diseased vs. healthy lungs, a normal human brain vs. one afflicted with Alzheimer's, etc.) This part of the exhibit went a LONG way toward convincing us to take good care of our organs and our bodies.

Note: There's a room here that focuses on fetal development, but I thought that a bit much for an 8-year-old, so we routed around that room. We ended up at the final full body in the exhibit - the one that has various prosthesis. My mother has had two knee replacements and a hip replacement. In this part of the exhibit, I was able to show my son exactly what grandma's knees look like under her skin. Just incredibly eye-opening and interesting. Fascinating, and so educational. I've never seen anything like it, and I will never forget it. Highly, highly recommended.

We had the High Roller pod completely to ourselves!
We met up with hubs that evening for dinner at Giada, namesake restaurant of celebrity chef Giada De Laurentiis. This was a bit of a splurge for us, but the food was so good that it was hard to care. Clay had a pizzette, and hubs and I got a mix of small plates and pastas. Oh, I was in heaven! I love Italian food, and small plates are one of my favorite things to eat. I love the variety and adventure of it! We probably spent $100+ for dinner for all three of us (including drinks for hubs and I), but it was completely worth it. I'd go back again anytime.

After dinner, I had one last surprise for my little crew - tickets for the High Roller. This giant Ferris wheel hadn't even been built the last time I was in Vegas, so I was eager to give it a try. We boarded just before sunset. Because crowds were light (and, I imagine, because we were riding in the non-alcoholic pod), we had the pod all to ourselves! Over the next half hour, we watched the sun sink as all the lights of Vegas came on. We danced to the music they piped into the pod, took in the sweeping views, and just generally thanked God we were alive and able to experience such a thing. I can see myself doing this every time I'm in Vegas. A breathtaking ride.

Then, it was back to the hotel room to pack up hubs and Clay for the return trip home. My conference started in the morning, so I was spoken for during the daytime from then on. I did, however, meet up with a colleague at the Wynn for a delicious dinner at Sinatra. The dining room is beautifully appointed, and both the food and the company were delightful!

If you love Old Broadway, you'll love this show!
Before I left town, I also caught a rousing, old-Broadway performance of ShowStoppers. If you love Broadway, you'll love this show! A core group of 5 really strong singers anchors the production, complemented by an energetic (and pretty large) cast of singer/dancers and a live orchestra. These talented performers present some of Broadway's biggest "showstopper" numbers from all of your favorite musicals. My particular favorites included "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" from Guys and Dolls (tons of bright costumes and a really strong lead singer in Randal Keith), "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" from Hello, Dolly! (such cute staging!), "Razzle Dazzle" from Chicago (a song so perfect for Vegas that I cheered!), and "One" from A Chorus Line (and a beautiful chorus line, at that). The theatre is fairly small, so I can't imagine that there are many bad seats int he whole house. Rachel Tyler, one of the lead singers, has such an amazing belt voice and emotional presence that she carries all of her numbers with ease.

I so enjoyed my most recent trip to Vegas. Though I agree that Sin City is geared toward adults, we found so many fun, family-friendly things to do that I wouldn't hesitate to bring my son here again!

Family-friendly Vegas

Getting ready to fly!
In mid-March, I was scheduled to be in Las Vegas for a professional conference. I decided to take a couple of days off and arrive early, with hubs and little man, to enjoy the city a bit. (It had, after all, been about five years since my first visit.) I was worried, though. Would Sin City have enough family-friendly activities to keep us occupied for a few days? The answer was an unequivocal YES.

We flew in that morning and checked into the Paris Las Vegas hotel and casino. This is the same property hubs and I stayed in during our last visit, and the reason we chose it still holds true - it's located smack dab in the center of the Strip, right across from the Bellagio. It's very convenient to make your way around the Strip from here. Plus, from a price standpoint, it's very reasonable. (And incidentally, I like the French aesthetic and their on-property restaurants. So there's that.)

The wall of made men at The Mob Museum

Once we got settled, we headed over to Vegas Indoor Skydiving for a bit of adventure! Clay and I were going to try indoor skydiving for the first time. (Hubs, unfortunately, wasn't eligible to fly, due to an old shoulder injury. Sad face.) We arrived, signed waivers, and then watched a short training video. Then, we suited up and headed into the wind tunnel room.

Once they turned the big fan on, Clay was the FIRST flyer to volunteer! He jumped into the air stream with absolutely no fear, and the instructor helped him spin like a top in the wind! So fun! Then, it was my turn. The wind is really strong, so strong it almost snatches the breath from you. But you feel wonderfully weightless. We each got two flights before our session was over. It was a lot of fun, and I recommend it!! (As an added bonus, Clay and I felt a total love-fest for each other before, during and after doing it. Maybe all of the endorphins??!!)

The fake electric chair vibrates when you throw the switch!

After skydiving, we freshened up at the hotel and caught a cab to the Excalibur. We had tickets for the Tournament of Kings dinner show. We got there early, so we played video games in the arcade until it was almost time for the show to start. (They had Pac-Man! The Bradshaws go old school!) When you purchase your ticket, you have an assigned seat. So even though you'll see a long line forming to get in pre-show, you don't have to worry. You can wait until 5 or 10 minutes before the show begins to enter. (This is good to know if you're bringing children. They can play video games in the attached arcade until shortly before the performance, instead of squirming in their seat.)

Then, we filed into our seats. We were on the front row of Russia, and the view was amazing from there. (Note that if you're on the front row, you'll have more interaction with the performers, in addition to an occasional flying dirt clod from a passing horse. Consider yourself warned!)

The Neon Museum
Once seated, your server will take your drink order and serve your tomato bisque. Then, the show starts! Merlin is the MC, and you'll be introduced to all of the Knights of the Round Table. The show is action-packed and fun, with music, dancing, riding, jousting, hand-to-hand combat, and some fun pyrotechnic effects. Costumes are amazing. During the show, your server will return with chicken, potatoes, and broccoli. You'll finish up with an apple pastry. (The food is good, but it won't be the best you'll have in Vegas. What makes the evening great is the show! Very interactive, and plenty to see.) Recommended for families!

After the show, it was off to bed. The next morning, we had a quick breakfast (pastries and fruit) at Cafe Belle Madeline at the Paris. Then, we caught a cab to The Mob Museum.

The Mob Museum is located in a historic building, a former city post office and court house. (The court house still remains intact, and it's one of the rooms where many of the mobsters you'll learn about were actually tried. There's a really good film about their trials that you view in that space.) It's bigger, with more to see, than I initially realized going in. We got there shortly after 9 a.m. and didn't leave until after noon.

We really enjoyed the exhibits on the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, early Vegas, the electric chair from Sing Sing, and the videos on how you can spot a casino cheat. The whole museum is really well thought-out, and many of the exhibits are interactive. Lots of video, multimedia and other visuals.

The museum is not recommended for those 10 and under. As my son is eight, we took a chance. There was one room we skipped - a room detailing (in sometimes graphic ways) how many of these mobsters met their end. A helpful placard on the entrance to that room offers a warning, and we were able to route ourselves around it. Other than that, this was a great destination, even for the smaller set!

The Bellagio fountains - the purest thing in Vegas
After such busy morning, we were starving! We opted for lunch at S+O, because we wanted real food. Hubs had the french dip, my son got spaghetti, and I had salmon with mashed potatoes and veggies. The food was GREAT, service was speedy, and the price point was reasonable.

Fortified, we were off to our next attraction - The Neon Museum. (If you purchase tickets to both The Neon Museum and The Mob Museum together, you can save a few dollars. Also, be aware that you must book guided tours of The Neon Museum in advance.)

The tour takes place outdoors, and we were lucky to have a beautiful day. Our tour guide was fun and very knowledgeable about the pieces in the museum and the history of Las Vegas. He pointed out iconic signs, explained how they came to be at the museum, and showed us some of the pieces the museum has painstakingly restored. We took tons of amazing photos, marveled at the artistry of the signs, and learned a ton! I highly recommend this place. It gives you a unique flavor of the history of Las Vegas.

View from the top of the Eiffel Tower
We returned to the Strip in time to watch the Bellagio fountains play to a Michael Jackson song. (Clay LOVES Michael Jackson.) We walked around the Bellagio to see the indoor gardens, then headed back to the Paris for dinner at Yong Kang Street, where we sampled dumplings, fried rice, and other dim sum. We still had a ~little~ energy left, so we bought tickets to the Eiffel Tower Experience. From way up there, we watched the twinkling lights of Vegas and saw the Bellagio fountains make their spectacular patterns from above.

Then, to bed!!

More to come . . .

A day at the races!

A beautiful day at the races!
In March, hubs, little man and I visited Stace (my sweet sister-in-law) and her family on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I missed her face, and she had a free hotel room to put us up in. How could I refuse?

We went down on a Friday night. On Saturday morning, Stace and her husband had big plans for us. We were going to the racetrack in New Orleans to bet on horses! I'd never been to a racetrack before, so why not? Plus, it was family day at the track. They were also racing dachshunds, and there were inflatables for the kids to jump in. 

The horses run so gracefully.
First of all, it was an absolutely beautiful day. Sunny, but not too hot, not a cloud in the sky. And the horses were absolutely gorgeous. We went to the paddock, where they walk the houses out and around for you to look at before betting. They are magnificent animals - muscled, coats shining, with glossy manes and tails. 

We started betting on horses, and I learned something. I stink at betting on horses. Not only did my picks not win, they consistently came in dead last!! Perhaps I could market myself to the gambling community as someone who can instantly improve your odds by showing you which horses NOT to bet on! 

Jewel's still got it, folks!
We had a fun day, though, snacking on yummy bread pudding, enjoying the fine air and watching these graceful animals run.

That night, we had a quick dinner at the hotel/casino, then Stace and I went to a Jewel concert! Jewel was HUGE to me while I was in college. I knew all her songs. I had all of her CDs. And folks? She is still out there killing it. Her voice is still amazing. She is a wonderful performer live - no auto-tuning or pyrotechnics. Just her, her guitar, and her voice. I was really impressed. (And the college me was seriously having a moment. No lie.)

Birthdays and BFFs

Sunrise from the beach cottage
In honor of my most recent birthday, a group of friends and I went down to Gulf Shores, Alabama, for a long weekend. There were four of us, and we found a lovely beachfront cottage online with four spacious bedrooms, three baths, a full kitchen and a GORGEOUS back deck (right on the water, a prime spot for sunsets). One rental agreement later, we were set.

We drove down, checked in, and decided to rustle up some dinner. We noticed online that Bill's by the Beach was close. None of us had ever been, so we drove over to check it out. Smart move, ladies!  This turned out to be a good choice! We ordered a few drinks (and the bacon and crab cheesecake - OMG), then entrees. We were there on a Thursday night in the off season, so the place wasn't crowded. We were able to relax and enjoy a leisurely meal. Then, we went back to the beach cottage and talked until late in the night, as girlfriends tend to do on trips like this.

(Incidentally, I have known these ladies for more than 13 years. It amazes me how long we've been friends. We still meet once a month for dinner. In many, many ways, the bedrock of my happiness is built on the relationships I have with friends like these. Treasure.)

Zip lining was so much FUN!!
The next morning, it was off to the Gulf Adventure Center for some zip lining! I'd passed this place several times during previous trips to Gulf Shores, but I'd never gone in. They have a great zip lining course. It's more than one mile of line, strung between six or seven towers. After signing waivers, you get suited up in your gear. Then the instructors take you through a short training course on the ground. After that, you're up! You zip over land, over water, and you can really pick up some speed! It's so much FUN!!

There's a lot of step-climbing involved, so bring your quads! Also, the course operators take photos of you while you're zip lining, and you can purchase them afterwards. I loved this! The moment my son is heavy enough to do it, I'm taking him down there!! The Gulf Adventure Center offers other activities, too, like kayaking and paddle boarding. It's located at the edge of Gulf State Park, and I bet bird watching is amazing out there, too. The views from the zip lining towers were beautiful.

Dessert at Voyagers
The next day, we started with a long walk on the beach. All told, I think we went 3 or 4 miles, but we were so busy gabbing and laughing that we hardly noticed. We relaxed back at the cottage for the afternoon, snacking our way through lunch, before venturing out for dinner at Voyagers, where we topped off our seafood entrees with a remarkable dessert souffle. I'd never been to Voyagers before this trip, and it was a great experience. Our waitress was a HOOT, and the food was fabulous!

We still had a bit of life left in us after dinner, so we stopped by the FloraBama for some music (and some lottery tickets - the jackpot was humongous). If you've never been to the FloraBama, it looks like a complete dive from the street. (Aaaand maybe from inside, too . . . ) It's a Gulf Shores institution, though, a beachfront bar/restaurant where many a woman has peeled off her bra to hang it from one of the clotheslines suspended from the ceiling. (Not me, though. Lord, I DO have SOME dignity.) They had a couple of good bands playing, so we danced
We danced to live music at the FloraBama
for a while and tried to remember what 30 felt like. ;-)

After getting our ya-yas out, we tumbled gratefully into bed. The next morning, we breakfasted and then headed home.

The older I get, the more grateful I am for those friends who know all of my faults and love me anyway. I couldn't have come up with a better way to celebrate another trip around the sun!