Pitstops for Kids - Getting there should be half the fun!
Family travel editor of Pit Stops for Kids are dedicated travelers (and parents) who are passionate about exploring the world with kids. Stop by to read destination reviews,travel tips, road trip itineraries, and outdoor adventure inspiration.
The following is a guest post by Sue Rodman, managing editor of 365 Atlanta Family.
Why rush to get to your destination when there is so much to see and do along the way? For those who like to enjoy the journey, we’ve put together a Georgia road trip that will take you on winding mountain roads, zipping along the highways, and cruising toward the sunshine coast. Yes, Georgia does have a coast, and we promise you’re going to love it.
North Georgia Route 76
Our journey begins in the North Georgia Mountains along the east-west Route 76, which is easy to get to from the north-south I-75 or I-85. This winding trail takes you through the friendly mountain towns of Ellijay, Blue Ridge, Blairsville, Hiawassee and Clayton. Here are some places you’ll want to get out and stretch your legs along this mountain highway.
Ellijay, Ga. This is the apple capital of the state. In fall, pull over at Red Barn Apple House for a peck and some apple cider. Note, Georgia’s apple season begins in late August and runs through the beginning of October.
Blue Ridge, Ga. About 15 minutes off Route 76 down Rock Creek Road is the Fall Branch Falls. This is a great family-friendly hike, and even young kids can make it to the lower falls section. The seclusion here is a nice break from the road.
Blairsville, Ga. Along Route 76 (also called Young Harris Hwy or Route 515) is a quick stop at Sleepy Hollow Enterprises. Explore the whimsical “fairy houses” made by this former Disney Imagineer, and then tour the store. The colorful creations will delight your soul.
Hiawassee, Ga. Along Route 76 in Hiawassee is the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds. The Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds is open for year round camping along Lake Chatuge, but what it’s best known for are the big events it hosts every year, including the Georgia Mountain Fair, the Superstar Concert Series in the Anderson Music Hall, the Georgia Mountain Fall Festival and Georgia’s State Fiddler’s Convention. If you aren’t visiting during any of these events, check the website, they offer lots of smaller events too.
Clayton, Ga. As you make the turn to get on Route 23 toward I-85, take a break at the Clayton Pharmacy. Tucked inside this pharmacy is an old-fashioned soda shop with milkshakes, hot dogs, and more. I also read their egg salad sandwiches are awesome for packing on a hike.
Atlanta Georgia I-75/I-85
Whether you take I-75 or I-85 south, they’ll merge together for a bit between Midtown and Downtown Atlanta. If you hit things during rush hour (could be anytime, depending on what’s going on in the city that day), grab a bite from the car hops at the Varsity. You’ll see the sign from the highway on the North Avenue exit. And if you want to spend more time in the city, choose from these 140+ Things to do in Atlanta.
In Atlanta you have two choices, stay on the highway or continue to follow the road less traveled and head east on I-20 toward Augusta where you’ll take Route 25 to Savannah. Along this route you’ll pass the antebellum towns of Social Circle, Madison and Rutledge. Stretch your legs with some shopping at Rutledge Hardware. My favorite things, like a 1940’s ledger, peanut warmer and letter from the 1800’s aren’t for sale, but you can get any number of other essentials. Do yourself a favor and go next door for a piece of buttermilk pie from Yesterdays before hitting the road again.
Middle Georgia I-16
If you’d rather take the shortest route possible to the beach, stay on I-75, but plan to make a pit stop in Macon to learn a bit about the city’s musical roots on a Rock Candy Walking Tour. Macon was once home to Little Richard, James Brown, and Otis Redding — and let’s not forget the Allman Brothers Band! — so there is plenty to see and learn from these local tour guides.
In Macon, you’ll veer off I-75 onto I-16 toward Savannah where you’ll pick up I-95 South. It’s worth a slight detour to Savannah to walk among the live oaks dripping with Spanish moss in the city’s many squares. If you only have a little time, combine a ghost tour with a history lesson and a meal at the Pirates House. Some say it’s a bit touristy, but we love the stories of drunken locals carried off to sea, and they have delicious fried chicken, plus pirate hats for the kids.
Georgia Coast Route 17
From Savannah you can take Route 17 for a back road path through the towns of Richmond Hill, Milton and Darien, or go straight down I-95 to the coast. Follow the signs to St. Simons or Jekyll Islands. On St. Simons look for tree spirits on a very unusual scavenger hunt. These spirits are carved into the live oaks around the island. Be sure to look for the lovely full-sized mermaid!
For a more structured outing, we love the Tidelands Nature Center on Jekyll Island. It’s a bit less flashy than it’s better known cousin the Georgia Sea Turtle Center (which is also excellent). Be sure to check out the special programs like guided kayak tours and dock studies.
The moment I heard Door County, Wisconsin described as ‘the Cape Cod of the Midwest’, this family-friendly destination made perfect sense to me. Despite the fact that Lake Michigan served as the ‘ocean’ in this comparison, the description was spot-on. Door County, the narrow ‘thumb’-shaped peninsula of Wisconsin, is comprised of scenic shoreline, quaint villages, and rolling farmland. It’s Cape Cod with a Midwestern style that delights.
Door County is the perfect weekend or week-long escape for families with kids within a day’s drive. What you get: plenty of shoreline, ample boating and fishing opportunities, camping, biking and hiking, and dining galore. This is a vacation destination just waiting for you to make it your own, whether you’re looking for art and culture, R&R, or outdoor recreation.
What to do in Door County with kids:
In addition to the 53 public beaches along its 300 miles of shoreline and cherry picking in July or August (check out the tart cherry selection at Orchard Country Winery and Market), Door County offers a multitude of turn-key outdoor offerings. What do I mean by ‘turn-key’? Nothing is at ‘expert’ level, unless you count the fishing, which is indeed impressive. Instead, families have the opportunity to do a little of everything.
Take a trolley tour with Door County Trolley:
Door County Trolley www.doorcountytrolley.com should be your first stop. They offer a multitude of trolley tours of the area, but their narrated scenic tour started it all, and gives you a great overview of the area. It’s $18.95 for adults and $13.95 for kids, and or guide and driver was highly entertaining and fun. You’ll get an overview of the history of Door County and see the main views and highlights, which will help you know what you want to go back and see during the rest of your stay.
For the grown ups: they also have a Murder and Mayhem tour, which highlights all the places of past crime on the peninsula, and a wine, spirits and brews tour, which includes wine tastings at multiple stops.
Hiking and biking:
Head to the biggest and brightest of Door County’s five state parks, Peninsula State Park. Grab a hiking and biking map at the entrance, or, if you know you’ll want to bike, rent at the entrance to the park at Edge of the Park. You can ride the perimeter of the park on paved road (noting that there will be traffic in summer), or, if you have older kids eager to try their hand at some single track, take some of the interior trails (see the map for designated biking trails).
If you’re hiking, a good option is the two-mile Sentinel Trail in Peninsula State Park. There are a number of other trails at your disposal too, which are fairly short in length but can be done in tandem or looped for a longer mileage. There are also 12 preserves in Door County with hiking trails; it’s a very progressive county when it comes to land conservation. You won’t find the development that you encounter at destinations like the Wisconsin Dells, for instance.
We hiked for about an hour at The Ridges Sanctuary in Baileys Harbor, a not-for-profit land sanctuary that aims to educate on land conservation efforts as much as it provides an opportunity for hiking. Start that the new and impressive visitor’s center at 8166 Highway 57, and opt for either a guided tour (multiple per day in the summer season) or a self-guided hike through the forests and swales (bodies of water). Either way, it’s $5 for adults and free for kids (up to age 18). The guided tour will be led by an enthusiastic member of the sanctuary, and I know that I personally learned a lot about the local ecology. That said, both the guided and self-led tour option includes a visit to the range lights (like lighthouses) with an interior tour. Combine as many of the mile or so loops as you’d like to create the hike for you. The first 1/3 mile from the visitor center to the ranger lights that mark the official start to the sanctuary is boardwalk, accessible for all.
Go cheese tasting:
Head to Wisconsin Cheese Masters and Door Artisan Cheese Company for samples of the best, then buy a few offerings to add to a picnic to enjoy on the lake or bay.
In Door County without the kids? Ask for the premium wine tasting flight at Harbor Ridge Winery, located adjacent to Wisconsin Cheese Masters. This boutique winery also offers a more basic tasting, but you’ll want to upgrade (on our visit, it was only a difference of a couple bucks). The difference: the premium tasting included cabs, pinot noirs and cab blancs made on-site from grapes curated from Walla Walla Washington and California. The more basic tasting included more sweet wines and fruit wines made from orchard fruits on-site. It depends on taste, but if you prefer a drier (grape) wine, you’ll want the premium.
Kayak the bay, lake or inland lakes:
Door County Kayak Tours is a locally-owned and operated kayaking company that’s always expanding to new outdoor pursuits. They offer several routes for kayaking around the Green Bay or lake side of the peninsula and are always flexible. When bad weather kept us from the lake, we re-routed (rather than needing to cancel) and enjoyed an exceptional paddle through the Mud Lake State Natural Area instead. A new perspective is had at water-level, and other tours operated by Gravity Trails offer views of shipwrecks in the lake, watery caves, and more.
Door County has an entire lighthouse trail of eleven lighthouses. The trolley company will show you around on their lighthouse tour, should you be so inclined, and several boat operations will show you lighthouses from the water, but you can also pick and choose favorites to see by car and on foot (or tractor…stay tuned for that story). It’s easy to see Eagle Buff lighthouse, since it’s located in Peninsula State Park, but Cana Island Lighthouse is a fan favorite because of its unique watery approach. Located in Baileys Harbor, Cana Island is indeed on its own tiny island. To get there, park at the parking area and cross the shallow causeway either by foot (wading in knee-deep water a matter of yards) or take the free tractor transportation (pulling a wagon you can ride in). Yes, it’s as fun and unique as it sounds. At the light, climb the steep steps (must be 36 inches) to the top for amazing views.
Where to eat in Door County with kids:
Breakfast at White Gull Inn: Don’t miss this stop. Operating in Fish Creek since the 1800s, White Gull Inn is a mainstay. Someone in your party must try the cherry stuffed French Toast (winner of Good Morning America’s Best Breakfast award), but everything else is equally wonderful. They also do a fish boil at this location, and though we tried a fish boil elsewhere, I’m told the White Gull Inn’s is comparable, with one exception (more on that in a minute).
Wilson’s Restaurant in Ephraim: Wilson’s has been in operation for the last 114 years, and its going strong. Located right on the water, you can expect long lines and waits here in summer, but in the shoulder season, it’s easy to get a table. They’re known for their ice cream and homemade root beer, but their burgers are amazing, too. Come for the food, but stay for the ambiance, which is still stuck in the 1950s. Alternative pick: if you just want ice cream, head to Door County Ice Cream Factory in the town general store (dating back to 1912).
The Cookery:If you want an inventive and interesting (and somewhat surprising menu), come to The Cookery in Fish Creek. Yes, they have traditional whitefish chowder (they’re known for it) and Door County cherry salad (everyone seems to have this in the Door), but they also have vegetarian grain bowls and very flavorful salads amid their comfort food offerings. Like most businesses in the Door, The Cookery is family owned and operated.
Fish boil: A tradition of Door County dating back to the early logging and fishing era, a traditional fish boil is a good way to feed a crowd. They’re still offered at locations such as White Gull Inn (see above) or at The Old Post Office, where we experienced one. What happens: guests first circle around a wood-burning campfire upon which a huge cauldron of water is boiling. Potatoes and onions are added (White Gull Inn does not add onions, a significant difference), and then whitefish. After the whitefish is added, kerosene is added, creating a huge ball of fire and smoke that impresses the audience and serves to burn/boil off the oily top layer of the water. The fish, potatoes, onions, and usually cole slaw is served buffet-style, and the whitefish lacks that ‘fishy’ taste you’d expect, since the fish oils are burnt off in the final burning of the oil. Cool, right? It’s a fun affair that’s as much about the experience as it is about the meal.
Without the kids? Head to happy hour! In addition to the premium flight at Harbor Ridge Winery, the Liberty Taproom in Egg Harbor and Island Orchard Cider in Ellison Bay are good picks. Pair any of these options with gallery hopping from Plum Bottom Gallery to Edgewood Orchard Galleries and Turtle Ridge Gallery and you have yourselves a perfect kid-free afternoon and evening.
Where to stay:
On the water. With a kitchen. That’s really the only criteria in my book, with kids. Why? Being lakefront (or bayfront…Door County has Green Bay on one side and Lake Michigan on the other) is the main draw for kids. And most Door County lodging is in a rural setting, apart from downtown areas, so you’ll want to grocery shop before arriving, and make most meals in-house, to avoid a lot of driving.
There are many options that fit this bill, from older and a bit dated, and most are within 15 minutes of one another in the various towns dotting Door County. I stayed at Sand Bay Beach Resort in Sturgeon Bay for under $200/night in summer, which was an economic choice that provided spacious rooms with kitchenettes (no stove or oven) and communal BBQs on the water, plus an indoor pool and hot tub. However, it is dated and about 15-20 minutes’ drive from the main villages of Egg Harbor and Sister Bay you’ll likely frequent. I also toured the Bay Shore Inn, which offers more upscale amenities.
Pin it for later:
Disclosure: I experienced Door County at the invitation of the tourism board, for the purpose of review. All opinions remain my own.
What to expect when you visit the Caribbean for the first time
When life and work have brought you down and all hope seems lost, it is perhaps time for a vacation, one that not only rests your mood but rejuvenates you till you can attack your daily troubles with renewed energy. And what better way to do this than spend a week exploring the land of pirates and salsa and reefs that shimmer to the rhythm of the reggae? After all, there is no party like a Caribbean party.
So, just in case you are all set to pack your bags and book jamaican beachfront villas, we are here to help, because planning a trip to anywhere might not be the most fun part but it is definitely the most important one. But just in case you are lost during this process, here’s a list of things you should probably know before you answer the call of the Caribbean:
What to expect: the Caribbean with kids
A palette of contrasting hues:
Colors. Colors that meet, explode and contrast. Emerald forests and turquoise waters. Shimmering white beaches. If you want subtle, Caribbean is not the place for you. It is where you search for a hint of ruby orchids in a forest of sheer green. It is where the heart wants to swim with the fish that dart and twist under the azure waters. And, for the adventurers, Caribbean opens the door to its untouched children, St Lucia and Dominica’s mount Piton.
The Caribbean is a mosaic of islands that each move to their own rhythm. It is a pastel paradise of beaches and palm trees, spread gloriously over 7000 exquisite islands. And it answers the age-old question: where is all the rum gone? Probably to the Caribbean.
The islands are a many-hued tapestry. St Vincent lies trapped in time in all its colonial glory while its near and dear neighbor Barbados bustles with food, trinkets and tourists. Saint Eustatius glorifies its Dutch connections which St Kitts revels in its Britishness. And the revolution of Cuba quiets on the way to Caymans, the banking capital.
Where to go in the Caribbean with kids
Take a detour to the Dunn
And you will not regret it. on your way to the fantastic beaches that the Caribbean has to offer, one must explore the River Falls & Park of Dunn. This here is probably one of the most famous tourist attractions of Jamaica and with good reason.
One can choose to climb the limestone tiers that loom at 180 metres and then stare breathlessly at the sight that unfolds in front of their eyes. The waters of the falls crashes down but not before cascading into glorious ponds at places. Whether you are a regular traveller or an adventure enthusiast, this I an experience the you probably cannot afford to miss out on.
Go hiking along the Waitukubuli trail
If it is a challenge that you are seeking on your visit to the Caribbean, it will not leave you thirsting for adrenaline. The meandering trail of Waitukubuli in Dominica is over hundred miles of adventure. it takes you through some of Dominica’s most breath-taking landscapes, including, but not limited to, the National Park of Morne Trois Pitons, which is a world heritage site itself.
Acquaint yourself with the stingrays at Cayman islands
In Cayman islands lies Stingray city, an array of shallower sandbars that host families of stingrays amongst its midst. Here you can stop by and feed the stingrays and swim with them, maybe even finally forgive them for Steve Irwin’s death. The stingrays are comfortable being fed by tourists so you can make a family event out of it and acquaint your kids with these glorious yet shy creatures. But if it is adventure you are looking for, you can also choose to go for possibly the best diving experience in the Caribbean and simply sit with them on the shimmering ocean floor.
Explore the Pitons
For all the fantastic adventures that must have awaited you on the trails of the aforementioned places, if you are still craving for an adrenaline rush, there is no better way to quench it than going on the daring hike up Gros Piton. The Pitons of St Lucia may be one of Caribbean’s most iconic places but the view that awaits you atop the seven hundred and eighty six metre climb up the Gros Piton, the only sanctioned hiking trail by the government, rivals its beauty with its picturesque tapestry of many hued St Lucia that it offers up to you. Once you check this off your bucket list, there is really no going back. The Caribbean will have nestled right into your heart and made its place there forever.
For anyone who has not visited the Caribbean before, the experience might come as something of a shock but at a delightful one at that. We would only ask that you do your research and make a list of things you want to do and places you want to visit when you are here. But even if you check everything off of your bucket list, the Caribbean will still have surprises in store the next time you visit, from flavours that make your tongue dance to music that the islands groove to and shimmering turquoise waters that lap at your toes. Because no matter how far you go, once you fall in love with the Caribbean, there really is no going back.
The Lake of the Ozarks is a well-known Midwest destination for summer fun and recreation. With 84 square miles of water, 1100 miles of shoreline, and a host of on-land attractions, the Lake has something for everyone. Here’s a taste of what to do with kids at Lake of the Ozarks:
The Bagnell Dam Strip:
This classic taste of the Lake offers fun, touristy attractions like old-time photos, a haunted hotel, and the Dog Patch Arcade, an open-air arcade with an old-school nostalgia.
LeMans Family Fun Park, on Bagnell Dam Boulevard, offers single and double go-karts, a miniature go-kart track for the little ones, bumper boats (a great way to cool down on a hot day), and miniature golf with a view of the lake. They also have two other locations around the Lake area. If the weather’s bad, try Miner Mike’s, an indoor fun-plex with arcade, Ferris wheel, roller coaster, and more, open year-round.
Boats and personal watercraft are available for rental all over the lake area. Fishing, tubing, skiing, and swimming in the quieter coves of the lake are perennial favorites.
Tropic Island Cruise takes guests on a 1 1/2-hour cocktail cruise in a 75-foot boat, highlighting some impressive multi-million dollar lakeshore homes. This is a great a date if you’re staying at a resort that offers child care (like Tan-Tar-A or the Lodge of the Four Seasons), but if you bring the kids along they might just get to steer the boat.
Ha Ha Tonka State Park was developed to feature the ruins of a castle built on the bluff overlooking the Lake. With hiking trails, a large spring, and a boardwalk stairway connecting the blufftop with the Lake, this is a highlight of the Lake area—and free to the public. And Lake of the Ozarks State Park offers beaches, mountain biking, a water trail, camping and cabins (even yurts!), and cave tours.
What would a vacation be without great food? From fine dining to down home Ozark cooking, the Lake has it all. Check out Tonka Hills Restaurant for casual, family-friendly atmosphere, with breakfast all day, a salad bar, and a fabulous fried grouper sandwich. If you’re on the lake, pull in around the 8-mile mark and grab a bite at Alhonna Resort’s Bobber’s Cafe. For a quick dessert, stop at the outdoor service window at Randy’s Frozen Custard, on Osage Beach Parkway, for a concrete or a cone. (Bonus: they have an air-conditioned room around the corner reserved for their customers, with an air hockey table.)
Osage Beach Outlets features more than a hundred brand name stores, from shoes to apparel to cutlery, and is open year-round. And who can resist the classic Ozarkland, whose exterior tells you everything you can find within its walls?
On summer weekends, the Lake area fills up with visitors from surrounding metro areas, so if you can come during the week you’ll find the water and the roads less crowded. There are transitional seasons in the later spring and early fall in which some attractions are open weekends only, and many places close down in the winter, but during the Christmas season the Lake area offers several light displays worth driving through.
We all know San Diego and Carlsbad are great for kids, but if you’re overlooking Oceanside, you’re missing the opportunity for a prime vacation that includes beachfront, a funky town, and easy access to the best of San Diego county. They say Oceanfront is ‘rising’ for a reason. Here’s what not to miss with kids or without:
Surf lessons: Oceanside has a long surfing history (be sure to stop in at the small surf museum downtown). Whitlock Surf Experience has surf lessons for all abilities, or if you already know how to surf, you can hire a surf guide to show you local favorite spots! Tip: be sure to check out the small but thorough surf museum a few blocks inland, too.
Scooters: Ride Oside offers fat tire electric scooter bikes, the way to see Oceanside for parents and older kids and teens. You can rent them on your own or opt for a guided tour. They’re located just up from the beach at 306 N. Cleveland Street.
Helicopter rides: Waverider Helicopter Tours is a two-person operation out at the Oceanside airport, just three miles from the pier. Their prices are per ride, not per person, making them a really good value for up to three passengers at a time. We tried out their 10-minute scenic tour of the Pacific, but there are a range of options that work well for both families and date night. If you have more than three people, no worries: for the shorter flights, everyone just takes turns. For date night, they offer tours that stop in wine country or at sunset or night.
Pier and harbor fun:
Beach time: California has public beaches galore, and in Oceanside, the Strand stretches multiple blocks, with beach access. Children’s playgrounds dot this pedestrian and car promenade, and there are public lifeguard stands all throughout. Head out on the pier for a meal at Ruby’s, and rent beach gear, bikes, and surreys right below the pier area (where you’ll also find shave ice and other snacks).
Kayaking and Stand-Up Paddleboarding: boards and kayaks can be rented at the harbor (about one mile from the pier). You can either use them in the calm water right at the harbor or go outside the wall to enjoy some swells, too.
Where to stay: Springhill Suites Marriott
Located one block from the beach, this Marriott hotel is far from cookie-cutter. It features a fun, modern design with a 2nd floor outdoor deck space for lounging, a rooftop pool and hot tub, a nicely appointed fitness room, WiFi, and complimentary breakfast. The rooms are spacious with balconies and bathtubs, and while only valet parking is available, several city lots are within a block or two.
Note: there is construction currently in the works in front of the hotel (which will eventually result in another hotel going up on the beach), so right now, there is some construction noise. The Marriott is very nicely sound-proofed, however; once I closed my balcony door, I could hardly hear the construction, and of course, it’s absent at night. There are ear plugs and white noise machine in the rooms for you, however.
Forget fast food chains or cookie cutter restaurants. Oceanside is brimming with inventive cuisine from earnest, hardworking chefs and restaurant owners, all with a story to tell. You won’t go hungry, whether you’re in town with your family for some beach time or on a grown-up getaway or solo adventure. Here’s where to eat in Oceanside:
Elena’s Cafe French Crepes: this hole in the wall on Pier View Way is run by a husband and wife team and serves delicious French-style crepes and local art.
Banana Dang: Smoothies and coffee like no other! Stop in for bananas in blended form in a dozen or more ways!
Petite Madeline: This celebrated local hot spot for breakfast and lunch is not to be missed!
Lunch with kids:
Ruby’s: Yes, it’s a chain, but the best Ruby’s Diners are on California’s piers. This one at the end of Oceanside Pier is fun for kids and has views for days.
Bagby Beer: Plenty of outdoor space for kids and pets to run around and play while adults enjoy the brews right on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Dinner for everyone:
Exhale: casual yet sleek and minimalist, this simple take on wood-fired cuisine takes tortillas, guac, empanadas, and Mexican corn to whole other levels.
Flying Pig: Off the main drag, Flying Pig is actually the food joint that started it all…in terms of a foodie revolution in Oceanside. Stop in to enjoy the eclectic decor and fun menus (spoiler: they repurpose old record covers) and stay for the authentic BBQ.
Master’s Kitchen and Cocktail: Located across the PCH from the newly revamped boutique hotel The Fin, Master’s repurposed a car dealership garage to create an inviting space with inventive salads and sliders, small plates and burgers. The cocktails steal the show, however. Try the Go West if you’re a bourbon fan.
Tip: Thursday is farmer’s market day in Oceanside, right on Pier View Way. It’s a traditional market from 9 am until 1 pm, but then in the evening from 5 pm until 9 pm, it becomes the ‘sunset market’, with street food galore (with an entire row of desserts alone). If you’re in town on Thursday, plan on the farmer’s market being your dinner choice! Stalls not to miss: Flamin Salmon plank-roasted salmon, Viva Paella, Thai rice burgers from Thai Burger, and Wicked Maine lobster.
Orfila Wine Tasting Room: this hip and modern wine tasting room has a fantastic chef to pair the wines with tapas, flatbreads, and other shared plates. Start your date night here!
Dija Mara: This fresh take on cuisine from Indonesia is surprising, inventive, and fresh. Try the ceviche with coconut and radishes and the fried rice.
How did I know about all these places? Carla and Linda’s Walking Food Tours! A must for anyone who’s going to be eating their way through Oceanside, Linda and Carla are a wealth of knowledge on the Oceanside food scene. They know the restaurants and their stories, the chefs and the wait staff, and are beloved everywhere they go. Head to http://shoesandchews.com/ to book a your tour; no matter which one you do, you’ll be treated to four stops of sit-down shared plates.
You’ll meet the chefs and serving teams and enjoy the warm company of Linda and Carla. For the $59 tour fee, I sampled four restaurants I would not have likely discovered on my own, and learned about countless more. And I easily came home with to-go boxes to feed two people lunch the next day. The value is incredible. Alcohol and other drinks (aside from water) are not included, but can be purchased at each restaurant. I highly recommend getting the lay of the land with this tour on your first day in Oceanside. Young kids are half price, and as long as they’re old enough to behave in restaurants and are willing to try to be adventurous eaters, they’ll have a great time going from restaurant to restaurant.
Santa Barbara is a land of mission-style terra cotta architecture, sunshine, ocean views, and AVAs. And while it’s gotten plenty of attention as a grown-up getaway, it’s a prime destination for families with kids too. Here’s what not to miss (and what to sneak in should you and your partner get some adult-time):
Santa Barbara history:
Start with the Santa Barbara trolley tour (www.sbtrolley.com), which will give you and your kids a 90-minute overview of all there is to do in Santa Barbara. Grab the trolley at 1 Garden Street down by Stearns Wharf, at the visitor’s center (where you can buy tickets). You can hop-on, hop-off the trolley at any of the attractions, or just stay on for the entire tour, which will give you a good indication of what to return back to. Note that your trolley ticket gets you steep discounts at area attractions, too.
The trolley tour will take you to see the historic courthouse, the Santa Barbara Mission and the Maritime Museum, as well as give a glimpse into how the other half lives with a drive through posh Montecino. You’ll also have the Santa Barbara Museum of Art pointed out, and the Museum of Natural History.
Santa Barbara wharf and Stearns Pier:
Head to the waterfront for family fun. You’ll find Wheel Fun down here, enabling you to rent a surrey bike to cruise around as a crew, and the Museum of Natural History SeaLife, with touch tanks and educational exhibits depicting ocean life. Rent a kayak or SUP at Paddle Sports Center and tool around the harbor for an hour to see sea lions and seals. There are many places to eat here, including candy shops, ice cream shops, and seafood eateries with fresh catches.
Paddle Sports Center
Santa Barbara downtown and hillside:
Head inland a few miles over Highway 101 to enjoy the foothills of Santa Barbara as well as the downtown sector of State Street. Along historic State Street, you’ll find quaint one-of-a-kind shops and eateries, and just uphill, families can access the Old Santa Barbara Mission, the Museum of National History, and the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden, which features miles of dirt trails showcasing native Californian plants and wilderness.
We suggest starting at the latter, which opens at 9 am daily, then heading to the mission for a docent-led tour. End at the museum of natural history if your kids have any steam left.
If you can slip away for some grown-up fun:
Head straight to the Funk Zone, which is just a few blocks from the wharf (let Grandma and Grandpa entertain the kids for awhile). In the Funk Zone, parents will find about six square blocks of wine tasting rooms and art galleries, plus a fun boutique or two and delicious dining. I suggest walking along Anacapa Street to hit up popular wine tasting rooms such as Kunin, funky winery rooms like Municipal Winemakers, and the OG of them all, Oreana Winery. Pali and Lafond wine tasting rooms are adjacent, as is Santa Barbara Winery’s tasting venue, which is also where they produce their white varietals.
Where to eat:
Dine without the kids at The Lark, Lucky Penny, or Tyger Tyger, all within easy walking distance or with the kids along the wharf or at Santa Barbara’s authentic Hawaiian shave ice booth, ParadICE. If you find yourself on State Street downtown during dinner, stop with the kids at hip yet accessible Benchmark, which can make the children darn fine homemade barbecue sauce as well as the adults a mean martini. Santa Barbara Public Market is also a winner with multiple dining venues to choose from. The good news is, more and more of these multi-purpose spaces are popping up, with eateries and bars included.
Where to stay:
I settled in nicely at the Best Western Plus Encina Inn, located within minutes of State Street and the mission with lots of extras that added value. The Live Oak Cafe is located directly across the street, offering room service, and you get an outdoor pool, hot tub, fitness area (limited) and free parking and WiFi. It can be worth upgrading to a poolside king suite to enjoy a fully-stocked kitchen and easy access to the pool area.
This Best Western Plus property could use a refresh…the room decor of my pool suite was in desperate need of an update…but all the perks you might want are there, with the exception of free breakfast. Luckily, affordable Daily Grind coffee is only a few blocks away.
Where do you stay in Santa Barbara? What are your favorite activities?
Disclosure: I was hosted by Visit Santa Barbara and Visit California, for the purpose of review. All opinions remain my own.
Yosemite National Park is one of the crown jewels of the national park system, and for good reason. Its stunning geological features, wildlife, and rich history make it ideal for an outdoors family vacation. This park has so much to offer, the following Yosemite National Park travel tips and touring advice are meant to supplement further research. Start with the official Yosemite National Park site to plan your trip! For touring advice and tips primarily for Yosemite’s Valley Floor region, read on!
Yosemite is open and active year round! While the vast majority of visitors arrive in the summer (of course), more is open during the off-season than many families realize. During fall and spring, some hikes and roads may be closed, but the majority are still at your disposal. Ditto for visitors centers and museums (just check seasonal hours). Winter is a wonderful time to stay on the valley floor without the crowds; families can easily rent snowshoes or Nordic skis to explore the area. If you must go in summer, don’t worry: the park is still very accessible with crowds. Plan to base your car in one location (ideally your lodging within the park) and take the free inter-park shuttle everywhere you need to go. We tried this out during a busy week in July (the peak of the busy season) and never waited more than five minutes for a shuttle bus. Busses run between campgrounds, lodges, visitors centers and hiking trailheads.
What to do on the valley floor:
Obviously, there’s too much to do in Yosemite to put into one post! The Tuolumne Meadows and Wawona regions are well-worth visits; however, if your family is new to the park, and you have at least three days, devote one morning to a Valley Floor Tour. This tour–conducted on motor coach in the off-season and open-air tram in the summer–offers a wonderful overview of the valley. If possible, ask for tour guide Bill: his knowledge is unparalleled, and he’s entertaining throughout! I loved that Bill described his tour as a ‘portal’ tour: he considered every major subject he addressed as merely a ‘portal’ to learning more (then gave the resources needed for those who wanted to dig deeper). Our Valley Floor Tour covered Yosemite Falls, Bridle Veil Falls, Tunnel View, Swinging Bridge, and Sentinel Rock, Cathedral rocks, and El Capitan. The bus stopped frequently, with plenty of photo ops. Because tours don’t stop for hiking, swimming, and the like, this is a good opportunity to note the areas you’d like to come back to on your own.
Yosemite Falls: One of the easiest hikes to access from the valley floor, Yosemite Falls offers a very short hike to the lower falls, or a much more strenuous hike (3.8 miles one way) to Upper Yosemite Falls. Plan to spend the better part of the day if you tackle the latter! End your hike with a treat at the Food Court of Yosemite Lodge at the Falls.
Mist Trail: If you only do one hike in Yosemite, this should be it. But bear in mind that it will get very crowded in summer. Go early in the morning, or just before evening to beat the crowds (and heat). Enjoy the mist off Nevada and Vernal Falls as you make the short but very steep climb. If you’re up for more, this is the access point to hiking all the way to Half Dome to climb the backside using the cable system.
Note: permits are required for the Half Dome climb. You don’t need to be a rock climber, but you do have to be comfortable with heights and tall enough to hold the cables. If you’re not up for it, but do want a long hike, continue past the falls to Little Yosemite Camp, where you can watch the cable climbers.
Glacier Point to Valley Floor: This is another hike for the hearty! Use the free shuttle system so you only have to go one-way! Because you are directly across from Yosemite falls, you get a great perspective since you start above the falls, and see it at every height as you descend to the valley floor. If the kids are up for it, bribe them with a promise of ice cream at Yosemite Village and keep trekking across the valley floor.
A trip to the Yosemite Village Visitor Center and museum is absolutely worth your time. Kids (and adults) learn about geography and wildlife in the center, then can tour an outdoor Miwok village at the attached museum. We also loved the baskets on display, and during the summer months, Native American artisans are on-hand to show you their techniques. The village center also has stores, restaurants, and the like.
For winter activities and snow play, start at Yosemite lodging, such as Yosemite Lodge or Camp Curry. Both locations will have sleds to purchase and snowshoes to rent. Camp Curry has an ice-skating rink (tickets can be bought at either lodge). Guided nordic skiing tours to Glacier Point depart regularly in winter. In fall, be sure to ask about the Swinging Bridge Ladybuy Hatch. This amazing event takes place annually on the Swinging Bridge in the valley, when hundreds of thousands of ladybugs hatch. An amazing sight, and one guests can only see in autumn.
Park programs and nature walks are available year-round at Yosemite! Definitely sign up for one of the park’s watercolor classes, Junior Ranger programs, or, my current favorite: the Night Prowl. Led by a naturalist, the Night Prowl takes visitors on wooded trails by moonlight, which chances to see or hear nocturnal animals. Even if you don’t see animals, guides do a great job of relaying interesting information and conducting fun group exercises to help you adjust to the dark and understand your surroundings. This program is ideal for school-aged kids, and is a deal at only $5.50 per person.
Tip: Did you know park rangers are not the only naturalists leading guided tours and programs in Yosemite National Park? The park’s chief concessionaire also employs naturalists to lead excursions, often filling the gap left by budget cuts. These services are available to book from park lodging!
Where to stay in Yosemite National Park is as varied as individual family itineraries! For easiest access to the shuttle buses and to be within walking distance to the most sights, I’d opt for Yosemite Lodge or Camp Curry (be sure to reserve both well ahead of time). For families who may wish to divide their attention between Valley Floor activities and backcountry, Tenaya Lodge or Wawona are ideal. Read a full review of Tenaya Lodge.
What a gem of a lodging option for Yosemite National Park! Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite is located just outside the park boundaries at the South Entrance, within very easy distance from Mariposa Grove and Wawona (just a few miles). Because the lodge is situated outside park boundaries, it can offer more guest rooms and sits on a large property. What this means for families: it’s far easier to get a reservation at Tenaya Lodge than at Yosemite Valley Floor locations, and offers more on-site recreation than you’d think!
Tenaya Lodge is a large property, but very compact. It has been recently renovated, with a wide variety of room categories, all of which include mini fridges, coffee service, and wifi. My spa suite included a tub I could swim in, plus a nice balcony. Even better for most families, Tenaya offers cottage rooms that can be connected to accommodate bigger families and family reunions, and brand new in 2019, Explorer Cabins at Tenaya Lodge, offering a “cabineering” experience.
The 50 stand-alone, two-bedroom Explorer Cabins are situated apart from the main lodge, giving families a sense of nature and serenity while still enjoying the perks of a full-service resort. You get a living room, kitchen, private deck, and sleeping for six. The ‘family’ units feature bunk beds (with a full on the bottom) and the others have a queen in one room, a king in the other. Family cabins also have bathtubs. The cabins also allow access to the Explorer Clubhouse, an 1,800-square-foot communal retreat with picturesque views. You can check in here, get grab-and-go breakfast, and enjoy evening wine and charcuterie receptions. Communal fire pit areas are sprinkled throughout the cabin clusters…a nice touch.
In the main lodge, all Tenaya rooms got a face lift several years ago. The main lobby is breathtaking and cozy at the same time, and families will feel the upscale ambiance but also appreciate how casual and kid-friendly the property is.
Recreation at Tenaya:
Tenaya has a full outdoor pool and hot tub complex open during the summer months, and a very large indoor pool and hot tub for the off-season. (This is in addition to the cottage-area indoor pool.) Kids will be happily surprised by a large arcade adjacent to the indoor pool, which features pool tables and other non-pay-to-play options, and parents will love the Ascent Spa. I enjoyed one of the best Swedish massages of my life here.
For all other on-site activities, your first stop should be the concierge office on the lobby level. Here, you can reserve mountain bikes (there are forest service roads and a paved bike path to explore), purchase archery sessions, and secure day passes to the kids’ ropes course. (More on all of this below.) You can also book a guided tour of Yosemite National Park, with half-day and full day options. You’ll be transported in a converted Sprinter van designed for an open-air experience (think van convertible!). In summer, reserve at least one night to enjoy the Old West Summerdale Barbecue, where kids can shoot arrows at the adjacent archery range while adults make new friends at an outdoor BBQ pit.
So yes, Tenaya offers archery (for everyone over age 5) on-site, as well as a multitude of hiking and biking trails. These trails can be accessed directly from the lobby. The adventure ropes course is for kids ages 5-12, which has a fee of $25 (half off for a second child) and grants you access all day long.
In the winter months, snowshoe rentals are available for use, sledding is ample, and the Tenaya Lodge ice skating rink (covered, no less) sits at the back of the property. We loved the huge fire pit adjacent.
An array of kids’ programming is available at Tenaya. While we prefer to stay together as a family during the day, I do recommend taking advantage of this service for a nice dinner out or a spa treatment. Kids’ programming varies by season, but rest assured: upon check-in, you’ll receive a full calendar of available activities and events. Most are included in your rate.
In addition to kids-only activities, Tenaya Lodge offers complimenary guided hikes led by naturalists. This is a program that runs concessionaire-wide throughout Yosemite National Park: lodge naturalists often supplement programs offered by park rangers. We had a great day hike led by a naturalist at Tenaya, ideal for kids of any age (parents come along, too). We even hunted for ants to sample…so glad we came up empty-handed! At night, we took a flashlight tour with guide and long-time Yosemite resident Mike, during which he kept us all entertained with stories of climbing, backpacking, and bear encounters. If your family is new to the outdoors or the California version of it, be sure to sign up for a nature tour.
Hiking and outdoor play at Wawona Visitor Center is only 10-15 minutes away by car, and Badger Pass Ski Area is about 40 minutes. While in the Wawona area, be on alert for ticks during the summer months.
Of course, you’ll want to spend at least a day or more in Yosemite, exploring the valley floor. By car, it takes about an hour to reach the valley floor (due to windy roads and traffic). The concierge center at Tenaya Lodge can assist you with all programs, tickets, and tours you might want in Yosemite (a real time saver). They can also arrange for permits, horseback riding, and mountain biking.
Dining at Tenaya:
You’ll want to budget for some nice meals at Tenaya Lodge! In addition to room service, casual but upscale dining is available at Jackalope’s Bar and Grill for both lunch and dinner (the atmosphere here is very lively and warm). For a nice dinner out (with or without the kids), make a reservation at Embers. The interior of this small and intimate restaurant is plush and cozy, and the food is the best I’ve found in the region. You’ll want to linger over table-side caesar salad and leave time for dessert.
For more casual fare, opt for the poolide dining venue in summer, or the pizzeria located by the cottages, but be advised: this hot spot fires pizza in their own pizza oven and offers local IPA drafts. In short, you’ll find great fare at Tenaya, but you’ll need to budget for it.
Rates can start as low as $150 (estimate) depending on the season, and as stated, it’s not impossible to get last-minute reservations at Tenaya. In short, for the number of amenities and services on site, Tenaya Lodge is a great deal for families. Oh, and valet parking is always free.
From Fresno, follow signs to Yosemite National Park, taking Highway 41. Tenaya Lodge is located just shy of the park boundary at the South Entrance.
As I disclose whenever applicable, my stay at Tenaya Lodge was complimentary, for the purpose of review. How better to get the scoop on best Yosemite lodging to recommend to families?
Before our stay for the purpose of a Disney’s Grand Floridian review, I admit to harboring high expectations. I imagine this is typical; after all, the Grand Floridian is Walt Disney World’s flagship resort. The moment we stepped off the Disney Magical Express bus into the generously appointed porte-cochère and were greeted by no fewer than three cast members, however, I knew we were in for a memorable stay.
Excellent service can (and should) be expected at all Disney resorts, of course, from deluxe to value, but for the room rate at the Grand Floridian, it’s natural to look for that little something extra. I’m happy to say we found it during our three day stay…again and again throughout the property. First off, there’s the attention to detail to the property itself. High quality storytelling and immersion is the Disney standard, but it’s on overdrive at the Grand Floridian. Every aspect of the buildings and grounds echo back to the golden era of the Florida beach holiday, from the immaculate white buildings to the meandering walkways and the water views in many directions.
The lobby is visually stunning; the moment we walked in, we simply had to look up. The eye just goes north, up story after story to elegant chandeliers and inside balconies. The entire main building is light and airy, filled with furniture to match the Victorian charm of the architecture. There’s a grand staircase leading to the second floor shops and Monorail station (more on that in a moment) and countless verandahs and benches where guests can settle in and take in the passing activity.
We were given a third-floor room in Building 5, Sago Cay. With a Seven Seas Lagoon view looking directly to Space Mountain in the Magic Kingdom, we loved this location. We were only one building away from the quick-service food offerings at Gasparilla Grill, and were steps from the marina, where guests have a perfect view of Wishes (fireworks show). We were located on the far side of Sago Cay, toward the maintenance area and the convention center, so we did notice some noise in the mornings, and we did not have a view of the Magic Kingdom castle. If this is important to you, a room on the water-side of Sago Cay would likely fit the bill. Each building in the Grand Floridian has its own smaller lobby, complete with comfortable seating, and each is small enough that there’s never a long shag to the room.
Our room included two queen beds, plus a couch/day bed that could be used by a small child. The room was larger than most by Disney resort standards, and included a balcony with table and chairs. There is room service available at the Grand Floridian, and cuisinart coffee makers in every room. There are also hair dryers, of course, complimentary wifi, and robes. What we did not have: a mini fridge.
A noticeable omission: as we covered, the Grand Floridian sports luxury hotel room rates, but there were a few omissions from their service that we’d never see in other luxury properties. Firstly, we were not asked if we’d like a bellman to assist us with our luggage. Did we need one? No, but the service should be offered to all guests. Secondly, doors were not held open, and at times, landscaping and maintenance work presided over guest areas during day time hours. Again, did we mind? No, not particularly, but we’re easy to please. It’s worth noting as this is a departure from top level luxury service elsewhere.
Grand Floridian pools, activities, and recreation:
The Grand Floridian boasts two large pools, the Courtyard Pool and the Beach Pool, plus a water play area with climbing areas and slides. There is also a beach area (for sand play only; no swimming), but at the time of our visit in 2013, the beach was closed due to the construction of the Grand Floridian Villas. The Courtyard pool includes beach-entry (gradual), with wading depth for most of the pool. There’s also a hot tub and poolside snacks and drinks. At the Beach Pool, kids will find a quite ambitious water slide (for resort hotels), plus a full bar and quick service dining venue. There are also cabanas for rent.
If you’re feeling very adventurous, the marina offers a variety of personalized watercraft rentals, and the generously staffed concierge staff can assist you with any other dining reservations, golf tee times, or spa treatments. (The Grand Floridian is currently the only Disney resort with an on-site spa, though at the time of this writing, another is under construction at Sarasoga Springs Resort.) Side note (because it seems to be but an afterthought for Disney, too): a small video game arcade is located at the back of Gasparilla’s.
In addition to the character dining experiences available at the Grand Floridian’s 1900 Park Faire, the Grand Floridian hosts an afternoon tea for children with Alice in Wonderland and a Pirate Adventure from the Marina. These activities are open to any WDW guest, but are highly convenient to Grand Floridian guests. There is also a full brass band that plays live in the evenings, and poolside games and entertainment in the afternoons. On select nights, outdoor Disney movie events are held on the Courtyard lawn.
Theme park transportation:
One of the best aspects of a Grand Floridian stay is the ease of Disney transportation options to and from the parks. Transportation to and from the Magic Kingdom is so convenient, in fact, that you never feel as though you’ve left the ‘magic’ at all. To the park, you simply take the Monorail from the second story of the main building directly to the park, a five-minute commute. Back to the Grand Floridian, you take the boat: the dock is located directly across from the theme park exit, and boats come every 15-20 minutes. The boat ride takes no more than 10 minutes, and is fun for kids and relaxing for parents. During our stay at the Grand Floridian, we also took the Monorail easily to dining options at the Contemporary and the Polynesian. We also took it to Epcot, but this does require a transfer, adding to the commute. Still, it was quicker than bus service, and more fun. For bus service to Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, water parks, and Downtown Disney, the Grand Floridian is the final resort stop (of three), making it a direct commute. (However, on the return, you can expect to stop at the Contemporary and Polynesian before arriving at the Grand Floridian.)
Dining at Grand Floridian:
The Grand Floridian is home to some of Walt Disney World’s finest dining, including Victoria and Albert’s, Citricos, and and Narcoossee’s. Did we eat at any of the above? No, though had we time for a parents’ night out, babysitting is available at the Grand Floridian. Instead, we focused on the quick service venues, which were less crowded than their counterparts in moderate and value Disney resorts. We loved the poolside service, and the Grand Floridian Cafe, which offers relaxing table-service meals in a kid-friendly environment. (Breakfast is especially great here.) The aforementioned character dining experiences at 1900 Park Fare will appeal most to little princesses and those hoping to see Alice’s gang at the Wonderland Tea Party or Mary Poppins at the Supercalifragilistic Breakfast. At night, 1900 Park Fare turns into Cinderella’s Happily Ever After Dinner.
Throughout our stay, we felt relaxed, happy, and well-immersed in the famous Disney magic. Is is possible to feel this way at less expensive Disney on-site resorts? Yes…if you don’t think so, you’re doing it wrong. However, with the constant views of the lagoon and passing Monorail, the glimpses of the castle as you round a bend, and the cheerful greetings at every turn, you’d have a hard time not feeling the love.
At the time of our visit (mid-April), room rates began at approximately $600 per night. During ‘value’ season, you can find them for less. Like at all Disney resorts, room rates include Disney transportation (including Magical Express transport from the airport), extra and early magic hours, and the option of the Disney Dining Plan add-on.
Is it worth it?
I hear this question more often than any other when it comes to Disney–or any–luxury resorts. Of course, whether a particular resort is ‘worth it’ to you will depend on your personal tastes, budget, and expectations. That said, having reviewed many luxury and not-so-luxury resorts for kids, here are our opinions on circumstances in which the Grand Floridian may be worth the splurge:
1. If you have small children or babies, and plan to spend the majority of your time at Magic Kingdom. The beauty of the Monorail system (to Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and three deluxe resorts) is that babies and toddlers do not have to be taken out of strollers. No need to fold it up as you would on the bus: simply roll it in and out, letting sleeping children sleep. This in itself, but especially combined with the very fast commute to the Magic Kingdom, makes the Grand Floridian a prime resort for the younger set.
2. If you have kids of any age and ease of Disney transportation is a high priority to you. There’s nothing more tiring at the end of a long theme park day than trudging along winding paths to your bus stop or room, or enduring long bus commutes. You’ll experience considerable less of this at Grand Floridian. As mentioned above, it’s the last bus stop en route to parks, and the option of the Monorail and boat are highly convenient. Also of note: the property is not nearly as spread out as some Disney resorts in the moderate and value categories. What does this mean? You won’t be walking half a mile to your room from the bus stop. We were a one minute walk to and from the bus stop at Grand Floridian, in Building 5.
3. If you plan to spend significant time in your resort (as opposed to spending every waking moment in the parks).
Let’s face it: if you pay for the ambiance and comfort of the Grand Floridian, you want to spend some time enjoying it. If you’re the type of family who likes to spend all day (and into the night) at the theme parks, your vacation dollars might be better spent elsewhere. However, if you want a slower-paced Disney experience, you would do well to stay at the Grand Floridian and take afternoons off pool-side or get late starts after leisurely breakfasts by the marina.
As I disclose whenever applicable, I stayed at the Grand Floridian as a guest of Disney for the purpose of review.