Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Poconos, Day 1

We rented a house for two nights in the Poconos with Sal's family from Massachusetts.

We planned to arrive in the early evening, so on the way we stopped at the Army Heritage Museum in Carlisle. This was the the second time Sal and I were there, but the first time we were able to explore the indoor museum.

The kids really liked this place, but I was surprised by how interested Seth was. He got to see a helicopter, stand by a tank, sit in a jeep, and touch some of the exhibits inside.

It's well worth a stop, and plan to spend at least a couple hours. You won't see everything in that short amount of time, but you can hit the highlights and walk around the grounds.

The house we rented in the Poconos was in a housing plan, but so rural that our GPS choked. I don't even know how we eventually ended up finding it, one wrong turn after another. The rain didn't help either. We arrived later than expected, and it seemed like dinner was the first order of business.

We drove a half hour to the Pocono Brewing Company for dinner. Kim and I split a Bianca pizza which was amazing. With fresh mozzarella, basil, and oil, it was filling but not heavy. The kids each had pasta and I saw their meals come to the table, and when I looked back down the table at them, all of them had clean plates.

After dinner we went back to the house and pretty much just crashed. The house was 3200 sq ft and five bedrooms, so plenty big enough for the 11 of us. We put our kids in one bedroom, Konrad and Kobe in another, and then each set of adults had their own room. Sal's and mine was downstairs, which was nice too.



Sunday, June 25, 2017

Day 6, Pittsburgh Bound

We were scheduled to fly out of Phoenix at noon, getting us home at 6:55pm Eastern Time. We returned our rental car, hustled to get through security, and made it to our gate with some time to spare only to find out our flight had been delayed by two hours. We were told there were mechanical issues with the plane coming in from Burbank that would take us on to Pittsburgh. We found out later they had given our plane to another gate for travel elsewhere. Ultimately, we were given $100 per person in travel vouchers.

We decided to eat lunch to kill time.

After lunch we arrived back at the gate only to learn we were delayed two more times. Now we weren't going to be arriving home until 1am. The only saving grace was that we were on Mountain Time which meant 1am would only feel like 11pm. Late, but definitely do-able.

In the meantime, passengers were starting to get a frustrated. The first delay was annoying, but didn't throw off the schedule too much. However, not boarding until 7pm Mountain Time, was going to really affect travel plans on the other side. We were just flying home and had parked at the airport so for us it was just a minor inconvenience. However, others were going to miss connecting flights, had family members picking them up in Pittsburgh, and all sorts of other issues.

Southwest sent a representative out to talk to us. We were give more travel vouchers, another $100 per person, and when I called home to tell my parents what was happening, my dad told me to ask for meal vouchers for dinner. Southwest more than covered our dinner with a total of $70, even after I told the kids to order whatever they wanted including a drink and dessert.

I had considered scrapping our Sunday travel plans and booking a Monday flight, which Southwest was willing to do. However, the only flight to Pittsburgh on Monday would have included a layover in Tampa and we still wouldn't have gotten home until 10:30pm. Certainly not ideal.

Anyway, at 7pm we finally boarded and were on our way. At this point, my nerves were shot. The kids had been good in the airport, but everyone has their limits. Then, we hit storms over Texas and the plane was rocking and rolling. Probably not the worst turbulence ever since no one flew out of their seats or got sick, but it was the worst I could remember experiencing.

The pilot flew high trying to get us above the storms, but that also meant further to descend and coming into Pittsburgh we were dropping straight down at times. Seth slept through much of the craziness, and the girls didn't seem at all bothered by it.

Despite all of this, I spent the flight across the country planning next summer's vacation. We hadn't planned on going anywhere since this trip was quite expensive, but with $200 per person in travel vouchers, I knew we'd be able to fly round trip somewhere for free. Furthermore, I planned to call Southwest for additional compensation later in the week.

When we finally landed in Pittsburgh, it was a chilly 54 degrees. We were freezing waiting outside for the shuttle from Globe Parking to arrive. We made it home by 2am and everyone collapsed into bed.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Day 5, Phoenix

I loved the triple digit heat, but I also needed to be mindful that we were traveling with a two year old, who isn't the best about staying hydrated. He can't understand that he must drink even if he's not particularly thirsty, so I knew we needed to take it easy.

I also knew that we'd all be ready for some down time after our long week of driving and sightseeing. The kids are troopers and great travelers, but to make a family vacation truly successful and limit stress, just doing something for the sake of fun is important too.

I planned a day at the water park to close out our vacation. 

Big Surf water park was a few minutes from our hotel and family friendly. It's also a reasonable size for a day long outing. There were some slides, a wave pool, and some swimming pools with adequate, shaded seating. I didn't do a ton of research into choosing this particular park, but it was great.

My parents took us to a water park in Ocala, FL on one of the few trips we made down south when I was a kid, and that day still stands out to me all those years later. My dad loved water parks and it was just so much fun.

Sal was a little apprehensive, I think, about going to a water park because he doesn't swim, but he was worried for nothing. The slides drop you, or rather, slide, you out into shallow pools, and the kids were mainly interested in the wave pool anyway. Seth was required to wear a life vest because of his age/size so that eased his worries as well. We spent a small fortune, $144 to be exact, for the afternoon, and rented a locker for $10, but I think we all came away feeling it was money well spent.

We had eaten a big breakfast so we snacked for lunch, and then had dinner following Mass at St. Mark's at Ruby Tuesdays. I'm kind of disappointed we didn't try local fare for our meals, but I didn't want anyone's tummy getting upset because of new/unfamiliar foods/flavors - something else that's important on family vacations.

We chose St. Mark's because of it's proximity to our hotel and its Saturday Mass time. It was 5:30, the latest of any of the church's I had considered. When we walked in promptly at 5:30, it was clear this was a small neighborhood parish with the same 5 families attending this Mass every week. The priest was already reading the gospel!

I placed a $20 in the basket, more than I've ever put in a basket at a church we're just visiting because I knew they'd know exactly who the $5 bill had come from.

The parishioners were extremely welcoming and friendly, and the priest looked down on us from the altar just before he concluded Mass and asked where we were from. Afterwards, outside, he told us he had begun early and so it wasn't our fault for coming in late. That made me feel better. It was a quirky experience, but memorable, in a good way. I also picked up a bulletin for my mom because she loves to throw little digs in about skipping Mass on vacation. Ha.

Following a yummy dinner, we returned to our hotel and bemoaned the fact that our vacation was over and that we'd be heading home the next day.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Day 4, Sedona and Phoenix

Prior to booking our Elvis vow renewal, I had contacted a photographer in the Sedona area to take family pictures as a souvenir of this trip. I knew the pictures we had with Elvis would be sufficient, but I couldn't back out on the photographer so we went ahead with the session.

I explained to our photographer, Michelle, that I wanted photos that were obviously taken in the Southwest with cactus and desert landscaping. It was also important to have the beautiful red rocks of Sedona in our photos too.

(Update July 5: As of today, I've only seen one picture from our session, but we have cactus and red rocks so I'm happy.)

Our session lasted just under an hour which I think was good enough for everyone involved. It was HOT and we still wanted to visit the Chapel of the Holy Cross before heading south to Phoenix.

After photos, we returned to our hotel, packed up our things, and almost forgot to check out. As we were starting out of town, Sarah says from the back seat, "hey, did we check out?" Sal and I just looked at each other like rookies.

A few minutes later we were all set and on our way back out of town. A couple miles down the road Sal looked over and said, "Is this the way to the chapel?" Whoops. I had us going to Phoenix. We turned back around and 15 minutes later came upon the amazing chapel, but not before first stopping at the post office to mail my vow renewal dress back to Pittsburgh. I didn't want to keep stuffing it in a suitcase and mailing it home seemed like a good idea. We also mailed post cards to grandma and pop-pop.

The Chapel of the Holy Cross is beautiful. It's also up a very steep hill, which in 112 degree heat was quite exhausting, but we did it, sweating profusely the entire way. We enjoyed the chapel, the views, and the gift shop, where Sal picked up a book about the chapel's creator and vision.

Finally we were on the road heading south.

Along the way we stopped in Camp Verde at Montezuma's Castle. This stop was important to me because I remember in elementary social studies classes learning about cliff dwellings and Indian ruins, and while I thought I had pretty good idea in my mind of what they would look like, I had always wanted to see some for myself. Montezuma's Castle was amazing, and thanks to Sarah's "Every Kid in a Park" pass, was free to visit. The girls seemed equally impressed, and I love that they can take this experience back to school with them in the fall.

I think we "did" Las Vegas quite responsibly, keeping the kids away from its seedy underbelly, but we did end up in a casino anywhere. We just didn't see any other restaurant in the Camp Verde area so we chose a buffet. Sarah over-ate the mashed potatoes and ended up getting sick once we checked into our hotel in Phoenix, but she was fine immediately after so no harm no foul.

I'm finding that I'm a hotel snob and as a family of five, I do enjoy being able to spread out in a hotel room. Marriot's Residence Inn's go one step further and offer two bedroom suites, and those are my first choice no matter where we travel. It would have been nice to have a second bed in the second bedroom, but this hotel worked out really well. The location was good and our needs were met.

We barely had time to drop our bags, wait for Sarah to get sick and make a miraculous recovery, which she did, before we had to head out to a Diamondback's game.

I've been to lots of baseball games in others cities by now, but this was by far my favorite. We had awesome seats, thanks to my awesome husband, and had the best experience. We met Baxter, the D-back's mascot, the ball girls who loved talking to the kids, and other fans sitting around us were great. I did wait nearly 30 minutes, or maybe 45, for a stinking mediocre hotdog, but whatever. I don't know how a ballpark runs out of hotdogs on a Friday night, but again, whatever.

Phoenix was easily 117 degrees so the game was played with a closed roof and we certainly enjoyed the air-conditioned comfort. Maybe it's because it is just so hot outside, but it doesn't seem like to me that the Southwest tries to freeze out their patrons at indoor establishments. Here in Pennsylvania, you need a jacket or sweater to sit at a restaurant or be inside for any length of time. Out there, I was comfortable in a tank top and shorts.

We stayed til the end, the D-backs lost, and returned to the hotel for a good night of sleep. Tomorrow all we have planned is fun. No more driving, no more sightseeing, just good old-fashioned family fun!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Day 3, Grand Canyon, Williams, and Sedona

We arrived later at the Grand Canyon yesterday that I had planned so we had lots to see this morning.

The girls and I walked the few steps from our room to the rim to watch the sunrise. It was peaceful, quiet, and pretty. After 30 minutes or so we returned to our room and went back to sleep. We slept in later than I would have liked, but that's traveling with kids. We got up and headed over to the Bright Angel Lodge for breakfast. Breakfast took way too long - this seems to be a recurring theme. However, we finished in time to meet up with Rick and Linda again before they headed out.

After some souvenir shopping, we found the bus stops in front of our lodge and tried to figure out a game plan. Ultimately we ended up on the wrong bus and were stuck on it for an hour. It didn't really take us anywhere interesting or good so, while I hate to say it, it was kind of waste.

It would be wonderful if the National Park System borrowed a trick or two from Disney as far as transporting thousands of people goes.

Anyway, when we were finally dropped off again at our lodge we decided to visit the Desert View Watch Tower. It's at the eastern edge of Grand Canyon National Park so it took a good 30 minutes to get there from Grand Canyon Village (where the lodging and main visitor's center are located).

The views were amazing and it was fun to climb the tower. It was incredibly hot, even for the Grand Canyon, and by the time we stopped for lunch in their cafe, Seth was over-heated and a bit shaky. We got him some milk, he doesn't drink water in such large amounts, and some food. I think it was probably more a blood sugar issue than a hydration issues. His diapers were soaking wet our entire trip. That seemed to perk him up and we got back in the car and started the trek south to Williams.

Along the way we saw a male elk on the other side of the road. It was grazing and was quite impressive. At the entrance to the park we stopped for a picture with the Grand Canyon sign. Normal people take a picture upon arrival, we tend to take one leaving (this also happened at Mammoth Caves).

My overall feeling about the Grand Canyon is that it is a perfect stopping point, it is not a destination in and of itself. I was glad we had only booked on night there.

We had pre-purchased tickets to Bearizona in Williams. It came highly recommended from a friend of mine who lives in Phoenix and it was a great stopping point between the Grand Canyon and Sedona, where we would spend the night.

The kids really got into Bearizona. We saw mountain goats, wolves, bears, and bison in the drive-through section. We parked and walked around the zoo-type area where we saw foxes, beavers, birds, and farm animals. The sheep and goats were in the petting zoo, and Seth thought that was great fun. He also enjoyed walking over the little bridge connecting the restrooms and vendor area to the rest of the park. We had arrived about 1.5 hours before closing and there weren't too many other visitors at that time. It was nice.

We hopped back into the car and started the hour long drive to Sedona. For the first half there wasn't a whole lot of scenery, but as we started to get closer to Sedona, mountains rose up and the vistas started to rival the Pacific Coast Highway in California. By the time we got to Sedona we were in awe.

We found our hotel, the Sedona Real Inn and Suites, and then picked a random restaurant from a list on the GPS. The hotel was nice. We had booked a one-bedroom suite. It had two queen size beds, a small sitting area, fireplace, and small enclosed balcony out the back door. I would definitely stay there again.

The restaurant we chose was Mesa Grill. It was getting late and this restaurant was less than 2 miles from Sedona Real. What a treat. The sun was setting as we drove up a hillside and we had amazing views of the Sedona area. It was a pleasant surprise to find ourselves above Sedona at this little airport. The food was amazing.

We asked to be seated on their patio, and Seth discovered guacamole, Sal had ribs, Sarah and Emmy ordered off the kids' menu, and I had a kale and apple salad that was just delicious. I also had the most amazing amaretto sour of my life. We enjoyed the atmosphere, the views, the food. . .it was an overall wonderful experience.

We got back to the hotel late and crashed.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Day 2, Vow Renewal and Grand Canyon

Our vow renewal with Elvis was not until 10am, so we had time for breakfast and a quick picture with the iconic "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign. I missed seeing the sign the first time I visited Las Vegas so this was a fun stop.

We went back to our room and got ready for the renewal. I had worn the dress I bought for our wedding, which I had altered into tea length for this occasion. About a month before our wedding, I had decided that I wanted to wear a more traditional gown so this gown was just hanging in the closet.

When Sal "checked us in" to Las Vegas yesterday, Dennis and Kathy McGrath replied that they were also in Vegas so Sal invited them to our renewal. They beat us to The Little Neon Chapel, and it was so nice they were able to be there. Dennis was one of our ushers at our official wedding in 2013.

Upon arrival, I chose a silk, pink rose bouquet with crystal bling from a case. Seth promptly stole it from me so we made him the "flower boy." He took his role very seriously. I walked down a very short aisle to where Sal AND Elvis were waiting. It was a short ceremony, but the vows were still heart felt. 

Following our ceremony, we changed and started the four hour drive to the Grand Canyon. The one road to the Grand Canyon leads you right through Henderson and Boulder City, near the Hoover Dam. Sal stopped at the visitor center and got our National Parks Passport stamped. We drove through some very desolate, remote, but heavily traveled country in Arizona. At this point, we made contact with our friends Rick and Linda Hicks who were meeting us in Tusayan for dinner. They had driven from Ohio to Oklahoma to visit her son, and then were going on to Las Vegas before heading home.

We met up at Big E's Steakhouse where I chose jumbo cheese stuff ravioli. They were amazing.

Rick and Linda were staying in Tusayan, but we had a room at the Thunderbird Lodge right at the Grand Canyon. We had an obstructed view of the Grand Canyon, but it was still impressive.
Note: Tusayan is about 10 minutes from the Grand Canyon so it's absolutely a wonderful location for a Grand Canyon  vacation. If you do want to stay in the park though, the Thunderbird Lodge was far less utilitarian than I had expected. It was quite nice, but not fancy.

We headed to the Canyon rim and its as impressive, as you would expect, and truly "Grand." 

Then, it was time to make our way to the Star Party. We did not plan our trip around this event, but I'm so glad it happened while we were there. I've never had much interest in space, but Sarah loves it. We were able to see Jupiter with the naked eye...it looks like Venus does in our sky as it's the brightest "star" you see when you look up. As it got darker, Saturn became visible and the Milky Way as a whole. We saw Saturn's rings too, which was amazing. Truly impressive.

Since we had forgotten our flashlights wrapped in red cellophane back in our room, once it became very dark we had to worry about losing Seth who was still running around like a crazy man. For everyone's safety and for sleep, we decided to return to our room.

Amateur astronomers set up telescopes in the parking lot of the main visitor's lodge and you just walk from scope to scope to see whatever it is they are focused on. These astronomer's were so good with kids and Sarah and Emmy ate it up. Every stop was a like a little science lesson. Well worth it and well done.

We had a very long, wonderful day.