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!

Remembering . . .

I had the occasion to be in New Orleans recently (I'm often there on business.), and I made time before leaving the city to re-visit the National WWII Museum. It had been a while since I'd toured it, and it's been considerably expanded and rearranged since then. It's a wonderful, interactive look at what led to the second World War, as well as the horrors of combat and how the conflict was finally (and brutally) ended. If you've never been, I highly recommend it.

The large entry foyer holds large displays of planes and vehicles. You can
often find a WWII veteran in this space to talk with you about their experiences.

So many of the exhibits are immersive. 

The personal effects of many soldiers are on display. I found the letters home to
be quite heartbreaking. Most soldiers were just boys, really.

As I was walking to the attraction from the nearby Loews Hotel, I stopped in a new (to me) breakfast spot, Bittersweet Confections, and found it completely delightful! Small and cozy if you're eating in, but perfectly delicious to takeaway as well. They serve a full breakfast, including delicious quiche. I ate in and bought a few things to have later. Yum!

Boo-tiful costuming

For Halloween last year, Clay wanted to be the Grim Reaper. That gave me a chance to talk hubs into coordinating costumes I'd been wanting to try out for a long time - a Day of the Dead couple! I'd been pinning cool photos of Day of the Dead treatments to Pinterest for a few years. We assembled our costumes from a couple of different places - Party City, online retailers, pieces we already had, and our local craft store. I think hey turned out great!

We're in the midst of reading the Harry Potter books right now, and Clay is telling me he wants to dress up like Harry for Halloween this year. We'll see how many times he changes his mind between now and then, but I think I'd make an AWESOME Professor McGonagall. ;-)

Sunny San Diego! (cont.)

The beach in La Jolla
Day five of our trip was all about La Jolla. After a quick breakfast, we were in the car and off to check it out.

After parking, we walked the promenade and explored the beach a bit before showing up at La Jolla Sea Cave Kayaks for our tour. They provided us with helmets and life vests, then we all trooped back down to the beach for a short kayaking lesson. Then, we were off! We paddled all along the caves. Our guide, Sam, stopped to point out interesting houses, marine plant and animal life, etc. The water was a little rough, so we didn't actually go into the caves, but we got close enough to small the sea lions! (Lawdhavemercy!) We paddled back and, starved, ferreted out George's Ocean Terrace for lunch.

Sea kayaking!
It's hard to think of a more picturesque spot. You are on the top of the building, facing the ocean. Blue stretches out around you. Clay and hubs both had burgers, while I chose the clam spaghetti. Everything was delicious! Prices are spendy here, but what you're really paying for is the excellent view. Service is impeccable.

After lunch, we walked the promenade a bit more. Since we didn't get to paddle into any caves, we decided to take the walk down to Sunny Jim's Cave, the only cave accessible via land. You pay a small fee, then take a short, easy walk down to the inside of the cave. Though we hadn't really planned this ahead of time, this activity ended up being one of my favorite of the trip! I loved standing inside the cave and watching the waves come rushing in!

Jellyfish at Birch Aquarium
After Sunny Jim's and a bit of relaxing on the promenade, we asked Google Maps to point us toward the Birch Aquarium. This place was fascinating. Clay loved the jellyfish (lit dramatically from above so they glow in the water), as well as the tropical seas exhibits. The seahorses were also a big hit. But perhaps the spot we had the most fun was at the tide pool plaza, where you can put your hand into the water and touch some of the sea creatures. We also really enjoyed the education classrooms and exhibit court, where you can learn about currents and energy through hands on activities.

On the way back home, we saw Mission Bay Park from the road and couldn't resist making a stop. Tons of playgrounds, a calm bay to play in and swaying palm trees. We dipped our feet in the water, had a lie-down on the soft grass, and watched as the sun began to set.

Completely pooped by this time, we decided to head back to the apartment. On the way, our stomachs started growling. We saw an In-N-Out Burger joint. None of us had ever had an In-N-Out burger, so we figured we'd try some. OMG! They were so good! Bellies full and heads drowsing, it was off to bed for some rest.

We'd been looking forward to day five of our trip for a long time. I have an 8-year-old little boy, and he loves Legos. He has tons of them. We went to see the Lego movie. We sang the "Everything Is Awesome" song ad nauseum.

LegoLand - where everything really IS awesome!
So, you can imagine the fever-pitch-level of excitement with which we approached LegoLand. We arrived before it opened, showed our tickets, and went in as far as they'll let you before the park is technically open. Then, we counted down the time, and we were off!

On the way to the two big roller coasters, we stopped to sign my son up for one of the very latest slots for MindStorms, where the kids get to program a Lego robot to perform tasks. (We'd heard these fill up fast.) Once we'd done that, it was off to the coasters!

After that, we had the time of our lives riding rides, looking at all the cool Lego creations, playing in the intricate playground (We loved the Hideaway.), and eating apple fries (OMG). We LOVED Mindstorms (I was really glad I'd reserved ahead.), and we finished out the day at Pirate Shores. Throughout the day, we traded the mini figures we'd bought earlier in the week at Geppetto's for new ones, mixing and matching until Clay got some he really liked.

Modigliani's Blue-Eyed Boy
If you have a young child, this park is made for them. There was nothing that my son was too short or too light to ride. He was the perfect age to enjoy every facet of the park. We left, exhausted and sopping wet from the water rides, when they kicked us out. Needless to say, we slept like rocks that evening.

On our last full day in San Diego, I slipped away from Clay and hubs for the morning to visit the San Diego Museum of Art. The museum is sizable, but perfectly do-able in a long morning. Permanent collections are impressive, and I also loved a temporary exhibit featuring haunting, narrative photos by Gregory Crewdson. I enjoyed a quiet morning before stopping back by the apartment to pick up Clay and hubs for our sand castle building adventure in Del Mar.

We'd booked a lesson in advance with San Diego Sand Castles, and this activity ended up being one of my favorites throughout the trip! We arrived at Del Mar beach at around 1:30 p.m. Our sweet teacher showed us how to build up the base of the castle using rubber mats, clamps, sand, and buckets of sea water. Once we got that done, we had to wait a bit, so we walked down to the snack shop for hot dogs.

The builder at work . . .
When we got back, it was time to unmold the basic structure of the castle and start detail work and features. This was so much fun! We had special tools to use, and we created cobblestones, roof tiles, stairways, doors and windows, a moat, and trees! Clay directed most of our efforts, and our castle turned out AMAZING!! I can't recommend this activity highly enough. So, so fun!

When we finished, we spent another hour or so enjoying the gorgeous beach before our growling stomachs told us it was time for dinner.

We'd heard good things about Whisknladle, so off we went. This place was delicious! Since we were still a bit beachy, we sat on the open side of the restaurant and nibbled delicious friend chicken and other treats! Then, it was off to the apartment to pack.

The next morning, we flew back home, already missing the place. I loved, loved, LOVED San Diego and would go back in a heartbeat! What a fabulous town!!
Our masterpiece!!

Sunny San Diego! (cont.)

The San Diego Zoo!
Day 3 of our trip dawned pleasant and cloudy. We decided it was time to try exploring the neighborhood around our apartment, and that was how we found Hob Nob Hill for breakfast. This place became a favorite of ours, and we returned to it a couple more times during our vacation.

Open for business since 1944, entering the eatery feels like stepping back in time. Elaborate chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and the wait staff are efficient, cheerful and know everything possible about the menu. Prices are alarmingly reasonable, especially considering the quantity and quality of food you get. Over the course of our vacation, we tried many menu items, but I think our favorite for breakfast ended up being the quiche of the day, served with a side of fruit. Fluffy, with a buttery crust, without fail. Someone here knows what they're doing.

After a filling breakfast, it was off to the San Diego Zoo! We'd been looking forward to this particular attraction for months. I don't know exactly what to tell you about it, other than it's just as awesome as everyone says it is. We got there right as the zoo opened. When we entered, we bore right towards the koala exhibit, then took a left through the Outback and Urban Jungle areas. Then, we headed north to see the pandas! (They were so cute!) We watched two snow leopards almost get into a fight in the Northern Frontier, then headed west toward the Lost Forest.

When we got hungry for lunch, we stopped at Treetops Cafe, which offers lovely views while you eat. Fortified, we were up and at 'em again, visiting tigers, chimps, gorillas, and orangutans. We ended up back at the Northern Frontier with polar bears. We took the Skyfari to see the zoo from above, and finished up at the elephant care center with a zoo guide.

The zoo is vast, and it's easily a whole day. There were parts of it, like Discovery Outpost, that we didn't even get to. Just pace yourself, and take breaks when you need to. We were very grateful that the sky was cloudy. That kept our visit cool and comfortable. (And remember, kids are FREE during October!!)

Once we were thoroughly worn out, we headed back to the apartment to rest. At dinner time, Little Italy was again a handy option. This time, we tried Davanti Enoteca. Some of my friends had been to this place on their trips to San Diego, and they recommended it. Delicious! We particularly loved the focaccia di recco, which was slathered with a white cow's milk cheese and drizzled liberally with honey. After such a busy day, we slept very soundly that night!

Cabrillo National Monument, with the Old Point Loma
Lighthouse in the background
The next day, we went back to Hob Nob Hill for a quick breakfast, then headed for Cabrillo National Monument. What a gorgeous place! We spent the morning touring the visitors' center, then admiring the monument and dressing up like conquistadors for goofy photos. Then, we walked up to Old Point Loma Lighthouse to learn about California's seafaring history. Views are amazing up here, and we loved how the lighthouse is staged to look as though it might have during use. (I don't think it's possible to take a bad photo at this place.) We puttered over to the tide pools for a look, but since the tide wouldn't recede until the park was almost closed, we decided to keep moving.

Two fierce conquistadors!
Getting hungry by this time, we set our sights on Point Loma Seafoods, which we'd heard good things about. We got orders of fish and chips with tall glasses of lemonade. Delicious and inexpensive! We saw tons of servicemen and woman at the restaurant, too, all enjoying fresh seafood and a beautiful afternoon.

Headed back into the city, we stopped by Old Town with its State Historic Park to have a look. We peered into the old jail, schoolhouse, a beautiful old manor, a house-turned-restaurant, the old union building (where the newspaper was printed), a REALLY cool old cigar shop (such neat things inside!), the visitors' center and a fun little Wells Fargo exhibit. (Clay was unamused when I started signing the Wells Fargo Wagon song from Music Man. There's absolutely no accounting for taste, I suppose.)

We had already decided to eat nearby, at Fiesta de Reyes, but we weren't hungry yet. What to do? We settled on touring the historic Whaley House, said to be one of the most haunted houses in America. The Whaley House Museum was the first two-story brick house in San Diego. The lower floors contained the county courthouse and Whaley's general store, along with a dining room and kitchen, study, and parlor. Upstairs, you can find San Diego's very first commercial theatre (Tiny, with a raked stage!) and bedrooms. We looked hard for ghosts, but we didn't find any!

By this time, we were getting hungry, so it was off to Fiesta de Reyes for dinner. It's touristy but beautiful. We sat outside under twinkling lights as the brightly costumed waitstaff moved around the space. I had a gorgeous shrimp salad and a margarita, and Clay said his cheese quesadillas really hit the spot!

More adventures to come . . .

Sunny San Diego!

Fish tacos at the Prado! 
I'd heard for years that San Diego was one of the top family vacation destinations in the United States. And now I know why. With amazing weather, tons of beaches and outdoor activities, a world-class zoo and theme parks, I can't imagine ever running out of stuff for the smaller set to do! PLUS, October is Kids Free in San Diego Month, which means that tons of A-list attractions all over town don't charge admission for the shorties.

Our little crew went out for a week last fall, and we had a blast!! Here's the skinny:

Model railroad heaven!
We've learned that when we're planning to stay anywhere for a while, we'd rather have an apartment than a hotel room. You get more space, more options for private bedrooms, a full kitchen, and a washer dryer. This trip was no exception. We found Rental with a View online via, and we fell in love with a centrally located upstairs apartment. It was really close to the airport, and I initially worried about noise, but the apartment was incredibly well-insulated and had really thick windows. When you went to bed, you couldn't hear anything. (Plus, from the little balcony, we could watch the planes land up close! My son LOVED this feature, as you can imagine.)

On our first day, we flew in, picked up our rental car, and headed straight for Balboa Park. The park is HUGE and amazing! There are tons of things to see inside, including several museums, a visitors center, dining options and more. Famished, we started with lunch at the Prado Terrace. We were seated outside, with a lovely view of the park. We feasted on fish tacos and mojitos and congratulated ourselves on our good fortune. It was a lovely way to begin our trip!

Inside the botanical building
Afterwards, we stopped by the visitors center and then headed on to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. This place was so fun! There were tons of trains running through tons of distinct little worlds - small towns, mountains, bridges through canyons, and the whole place just seems to go on and on and on! We loved peering in and seeing all of the painstaking details in each environment. Near the end, there was a big, themed room that I think they must decorate for every holiday. We loved this space, as it showed a real sense of fun! Plus, some of the train operators were there, and you could talk to them about their creations and learn about model railroads.

After the railroad museum, we checked out the botanical building and surrounding gardens. Lovely! The historical building, with its lily pond lagoon, was built 100 years ago, and it's still gorgeous! Inside, we marveled at huge palms, ferns, orchids and other tropical plants.

Our dogs barking, we decided to dip our toes into the Bea Evanson Fountain. There are some shady spots to cool off near the fountain, so after getting our legs a little wet, we relaxed in the shade with a lemonade and enjoyed the afternoon a bit.

The Japanese Friendship Garden
Then, it was on to the Japanese Friendship Garden. This attraction packs a lot of beauty into a compact space, primarily through the use of vertical design. You start the tour at a beautiful little tea house featuring exhibits on the history of the garden, then move past a bright koi pond. After that, it's through a tall Japanese gate and down, down into the garden proper. The garden is really a wide crevice, planted on both sides and accessible via sturdy paths, with a winding brook at the bottom. Views are gorgeous. Plantings are everywhere, and they are very well cared for. Little bridges and wide stepping stones provide passage across the water. At the far end, a serene building that can be rented out for special occasions offers wonderful views through the garden.

Beat from our day in the sun, we rested back at the apartment for a bit before venturing out to rustle up some food. We chose Cucina Urbana for our first dinner in the city, and I couldn't have been more pleased! We entered and were seated in the sunken dining room, then ate pasta, pizza and small plates to our hearts' delight, washed down with red wine. They have a kids' menu, and our 8-year-old was welcomed with open arms! (He loved being able to build his own pizza. The ice cream sundae afterwards didn't hurt, either.)

Then, it was off to bed to rest up for another day of adventuring. I had BIG plans for our first full day in San Diego!

The Hotel del Coronado
In the morning, we loaded into the car and headed for Coronado Island. I'd made us reservations for breakfast at the Hotel del Coronado's Sheerwater Restaurant, and I was stoked!! The buffet-style breakfast is pricey but amazing, and the location can't be beat - right on the beach. We loaded up our plates, scored a table on the back patio and pretended we were part of the 1 percent for a while. The food is varied and abundant; you can choose from almost any breakfast food you can think of. Servers keep the hot coffee coming, and the views of the water are lovely!! (A note - If you do this, plan extra time for parking. Parking in a lot at the hotel is $30. Give yourself time to park further away and walk in unless you're a hotel guest.)

Coronado Beach is magical!
After breakfast, we hit the water, and it was such an iconic California experience. The sky was picture-perfect blue, the waves crashing. The sand on Coronado Island has little flecks of gold in it, so it sparkles up at you. Clay had the time of his life playing in the waves, and I had the time of my life watching him and taking it all in. We made friends with others on the beach, chatting and marveling at our good luck to be in such a perfect place on a perfect day. An amazing morning.

When we started feeling like some lunch, we washed off in the beach showers and headed for Puesto, in Seaport Village. We loaded up on taco trios (because we like to try different things) and aqua frescas. So good! We sat outside and enjoyed live music in the courtyard as we ate. When we were finished, we noticed a nearby Geppetto's toy store. We ambled over to pick up some Lego mini figures for later in our trip, then got a gelato to share as we poked through the old jail at Seaport Village.

Not much personal space on the USS Midway!
Then, it was off to the USS Midway, one of the must-sees of our trip. This vast aircraft carrier offers all kinds of educational nooks and crannies: sailors'  bunks, officers' quarters, the brig, the huge hangar deck, the boiler room, the ready room and the incredible flight deck, which is home to a variety of planes. This place is crazy-cool. We tried on bunks for size, marveled at the ship's huge anchors, tried our hand at some of the wheels and dials, and chatted with the veterans placed strategically throughout the ship to learn more about their stories. We easily stayed here 3 hours. In hotter months, you'll want to dress for the weather and pack or buy some bottled water, as it can get warm and stuffy inside. We loved this place!

Afterwards, we went to the apartment to rest and relax for a while before popping back out to Bencotto in Little Italy for dinner. After a full day of running around San Diego, I didn't even feel guilty carb-loading on tortelli di zucca - a rich concoction of pumpkin ravioli, sage cream sauce and bacon crumbles. (OMG. I could eat this every day.)

Stay tuned for more . . .

Maybe the secret to happiness ISN'T at the beach. But shouldn't we at least check?

During the past several years, I've fallen back in love with the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Yes, Alabama's Orange Beach is still lovely, and Florida is gorgeous. But there's something appealing about the convenient, sleepy beaches of Biloxi and Ocean Springs.

Last summer, Clay, hubs and I went down for a long weekend. We checked into a condo at Ocean Club Villas in Biloxi (which we scored for a great price on FlipKey). We had two lovely bedrooms, two baths, a full kitchen, sitting room, balcony and washer/dryer. We also had access to the pool, which we used several times during our weekend!

After unpacking and settling in, we met up with my sister-in-law and her family for dinner at McElroy's, a local favorite. You can get delicious seafood here, as well as stick-to-your-ribs breakfasts, and all with a view!

In the morning, we headed to Ocean Springs for a MS Gulf Coast tradition - breakfast at Tat-O-Nut. A sweet little shop in the downtown area sells a variety of confections made with potato flour, and they are delicious! We always have fun picking out our favorites and trying new varieties! On the weekends, a line can definitely form here. I recommend visiting early for shorter wait times and the best selection.

After breakfast, we headed for the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, which I hadn't been to in ages. It's so lovely! The murals in the community room are striking, as is the "secret room," where Anderson covered the walls with fantastical creatures. They also have Anderson's boat and bicycle on display, as well as furniture he made and many, many lovely paintings. We racked up in the gift shop, buying our own art supplies and some gorgeous jewelry for friends. Admission to the museum was only $10 per adult, and Clay was free!

We spent the rest of the day noshing and lazing at the pool. We had dinner at the White Cap restaurant in Gulfport on the beachside patio. The seafood is delicious there, but service can be slow on busy weekends.

The next morning, we started with breakfast on the beach: pastries from Le Bakery in Biloxi. I have had many, many pastries in many, many of the great cities of the world, and I'd put these right up there with any of them. I particularly love the almond paste confection, topped with sliced almonds. Hubs and Clay gravitate toward the chocolate varieties! You are going to want to go ahead and buy a whole box of pastries. You will eat them the whole weekend. And, if you're like me, you may also pick up a second box on your way out of town, when you leave. Just sayin'.

After breakfast, we headed to catch the Ship Island ferry. A quick education - Mississippi's beaches don't feature the big, rolling waves of the beaches in Florida. That's because our coast is dotted with barrier islands. Those islands break large waves. They also tend to hold sediment closer to our shores, making the water on our beaches less vivid blue/green than other beaches. BUT, if you want the Florida experience without leaving Mississippi, you can catch a ferry out to the barrier islands and beach to your heart's content!

I hadn't been to Ship Island since college, and I was eager to show Clay! We packed our towels, some bottled water, a little cash and plenty of sunscreen. The ferry takes about an hour. You can sit inside or outside, and there are bathrooms and a snack bar available on the ship. When the ship docks, you follow a boardwalk across the narrow island to the beach! (Don't pack too much. Whatever you're toting gets heavier the further you go!)

We rented an umbrella on a gorgeous stretch of sand and spent the afternoon swimming, sunning, people-watching and snacking. Clay was completely jazzed that he was out swimming in the ocean with me! The weather was gorgeous. When we got hungry for lunch, we went by the island's beach food joint for burgers and hot dogs. That afternoon, we caught the return ferry. (You can take one in the early afternoon, with another offered in the late afternoon.)

After a rest back at the condo, we headed for The Reef. This multi-level Biloxi eatery features back decks with gorgeous views, a roof top bar and delicious fish and seafood. We started with drinks in the bar, keeping an eye on the kids as they played on the beach below. When our table was ready, we rounded up our assorted, damp small people and tucked in. The fish here is soooo good! We topped it off with dessert and happy birthdays (We were celebrating some family birthdays.), then straggled back to the condo, spent, for a good night's sleep!

In the morning, we had a quick breakfast and headed for the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum in Biloxi. What a gem! We learned so much about sailing and the fishing industry here and saw tons of cool boats and gadgets! Many of the boats are beautifully restored antiques. Some of them are small, personal crafts, just right to spark the imagination of a small boy. Clay loved the idea of setting off alone in one of these little boats for his own adventure! They also have a lighthouse lamp in the foyer, a really cool shrimp peeler on the second floor and amazing depictions of the history of the MS Gulf Coast. We loved this place!

For lunch, we played it safe. Jackson-area restaurateur Jeff Good opened Sal and Mookie's, a branch of his popular pizza and ice cream joint, on the Gulf! We stopped in there for pizza and ice cream sundaes! Then, it was back to the condo for more swimming and lazing around before the evening's activities.

That night, we had dinner reservations and tickets to a show! We started at Stalla, a beautiful Italian restaurant in the Beau Rivage hotel and casino. I've been here on several occasions, and I always enjoy it. Service is quick and friendly, and the food's always good. We filled our bellies with pasta (I'll admit to having a glass of wine AND splitting a dessert.), and we were on our way to the show!

There are frequently shows playing in and around the MS Gulf Coast that are appropriate for families. On this occasion, we were going to see Yaye, a Cirque-style show with music, acrobatics and amazing costumes! We enjoyed it (and the audience interaction) very much! If you're after more adults fare, there are all sorts of concerts that play, either at the coliseum or at one of the many casinos. And then, there are tons of bars featuring live music. Plenty to do.

On the way back to Jackson the next day, we couldn't resist stopping in at Crescent City Grill for lunch! It's part of a clutch of restaurants in Hattiesburg owned/operated by Robert St. John, a well-known local chef. (I think I've eaten in all of them, and I can't remember EVER having a bad meal in any of them.)

Then, it was home to unpack and remember the waves and sand fondly. Until next time!