Category - Travel

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» Charleston: 3-Day Family Vacation
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» Atlanta: Three-Day Family Vacation
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» Daddy + Daughter Trip in the Mazda6 (Houston, TX)
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» REVIEW: 2015 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport (Houston, TX)
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REVIEW: Lumberjack Feud (Pigeon Forge, TN)
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REVIEW: Chimney Rock (NC)
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Chicago: Part 2 (Attractions)
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Chicago: Part 1 (Lodging, Transportation, Food)
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REVIEW: Bledsoe State Park (TN)
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REVIEW: Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry (Charleston, SC)

» Charleston: 3-Day Family Vacation

We were so eager to get our Summer started that we skipped the last week of school and headed straight down to Charleston. Our kids are in 1st and 2nd grade so we felt great about skipping the movie marathons and parties that make up the last four days of school. Things will change as they get older so we’ll take the chance to play hooky now!

Charleston is an 8.5 hour drive from the Nashville area. It seems that all ocean-front destinations are no less than an 8-hour drive so we’ve accepted the distance and loaded up on movies and snacks for the kids on many occasions. Additionally, Charleston is so much more than a beach destination. The Holy City is full of history, amazing food and even a little adventure.

Day 1, Afternoon

Francis Marion Hotel

We chose to stay at the elegant Francis Marion Hotel. The location, on King and directly across from the Spoleto Festival, absolutely cannot be beat. The Waterfront and Battery, Rainbow Row, the South Carolina Aquarium and street after street of delicious eateries are walkable from the doors of the Francis Marion.

We love the Francis Marion because they have chosen to preserve the era in which the hotel was built. The grand lobby boasts chandeliers and soaring ceilings. When you walk into the Francis Marion you walk back in time. The Ballrooms are just as grand and perfect for the many weddings that take place there each year.

The guest rooms also reflect the era in which the Francis Marion was built. Blue and Gold furnishings and paint colors make the rooms feel rich and inviting. It just feels like Charleston. And that is exactly what you want to feel when visiting a city full of history and southern charm. A stay at the Francis Marion completes the Charleston experience.

Despite the fancy environment, the hotel is super family friendly. In addition, the staff was helpful and patient when asking about local attractions.

Tip for Families: Be sure to ask for the kids pack when you check in! All junior guests receive a draw string backpack with a few treasures (ours included some Charleston Chew Candy!) inside.

You can see special offers here. Currently, The Francis Marion has a great Family Adventure Package worth checking out that includes many of the places covered in this post.

Day 1, Evening

Wild Blue Ropes

We are always looking for adventure while on vacation. Especially adventures that will empower our kids to overcome their fears and get some exercise while they’re at it. Wild Blue Ropes definitely met and exceeded our expectations. Wild features 70+ challenges that put you a soaring 35 feet in the air.

And they don’t exclude anyone. While we were there climbing with our kids and nieces (ages 4-9) we noticed that kids of all abilities were celebrated and encouraged on the course. Our daughter, who is blind, rocked the course and was met with high-fives when she landed on the ground. We watched a boy diagnosed with CP gather his courage and exceed everyone’s expectations. We’ve also heard many testimonies of how beneficial the course is for children diagnosed with sensory processing disorder or autism. What makes this possible is not just the tenacity of our children, but the encouragement of an amazing set of owners and staff.

They truly celebrate all abilities and encourage kids and adults to push and exceed their limits. And don’t start thinking this course is for kids… it’s a challenge for even the most fit adults. There is something for everyone at Wild Blue Ropes.

If you’re in the Charleston or Folly Beach area Wild Blue Ropes is a must for a warm Summer evening adventure.

Boxcar Betty’s

This place is a must if you love fried chicken! Boxcar Betty’s received recognition for Best of Charleston’s best fried chicken for the second year in a row.

Day 2, Morning

Swamp Fox Restaurant and Bar

We started our day with the breakfast buffet at Swamp Fox Restaurant, located inside The Francis Marion Hotel. The buffet was plentiful and included some fun extras like fruit smoothies.  We did not eat dinner at Swamp Fox but we definitely stole a glance as we departed the Francis Marion that evening. Delicious Southern fare was gracing every table.

The Swamp Fox Restaurant and Bar, named for Revolutionary War hero, General Francis Marion, features classic Southern cuisine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Executive Chef Simon Andrews and Restaurant Chef Phil Gaulin create regional specialties that emphasize farm to table practices using locally grown fruits and vegetables with respect to the traditional beloved flavors and techniques of the Old South.

After breakfast we took advantage of the King Street location, one of The Francis Marion’s biggest perks, and hit the unique shops that line every inch of King Street. From the Savannah Bee Company to King Street Cookies you’ll find an expertly curated shopping experience brimming with Southern charm.

  • Glazed on King St.

Day 2, Afternoon

South Carolina Aquarium

This is our second visit to the South Carolina Aquarium. We love that there is something new to see each time we visit. The highlight of this visit was the new Shark Shallows exhibit. The kids loved reaching into the tank to “pet” the sharks. Yes, you read that right… you get to pet the sharks.

This aquarium is one of our favorites because it’s not overwhelming. The sections are nicely divided and there are areas designated for imaginative play. Overall, it’s one of the more interactive aquariums we’ve visited. And the view of the Charleston harbor cannot be beat. In true Charleston fashion there are great balcony areas to relax and take in the coastal scenes.

Tip for Families: Let your kids bring recyclable items to trade for cool shells at the Trading Post.

Day 2, Evening

Downtown – Progressive Dinner

This is the one night Calvin and I got a date night in. We made reservations at Coast Bar and Grill and planned to eat a big seafood dinner. However, when we arrived we realized they had happy hour pricing for oysters, peel and eat shrimp and a few other items. At that point we decided we would rather eat a little at many places than a lot at just one. We enjoyed perfect oysters and shrimp in a beautiful setting at Coast and promptly took a short walk to CO (Banh Mi & Noodles Bar) to enjoy something completely different. Noodles.

  • CO
  • Coast Bar and Grill
  • King St. Cookies

We took advantage of happy hour pricing once again and ordered three things to share. We had big plans to hit at least one more restaurant but were too full and had to settle for milk and cookies at King Street Cookie Company.

Day 3, Morning

Folly Beach

You can’t visit Charleston without hitting the beach. So we did just that! Our preferred Charleston beach is Folly Beach due to the laid-back local flavor. Make sure to visit Taco Boy for lunch and rent a couple of bikes to cruise around the Island.

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And When you’ve done all of that, hit the pier with an ice cream cone and watch the locals fish. You might even spy the big catch of the day!

Day 3, Afternoon

The Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry

We visited this spot for the first time last year and the kids are still at an age where they all enjoy it. The museum was also very aware and accommodating of children with special needs. You can read the full review here.

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Summary

Charleston is like coming home. You can wear flip flops to a fancy restaurant and sip cold drinks on rooftops that don’t extend higher than the church steeples. Vacation is really vacation in this humid, slow-paced, Southern city by the ocean.

Disclaimer: The folks at Francis Marion Hotel, South Carolina Aquarium, and Wild Blue Ropes kindly accommodated us for this review. As always, the opinions are my own.

» Atlanta: Three-Day Family Vacation

With the spring school semester coming to a close, many of you are already thinking about Summer vacation. During Spring Break, we wanted to get away but didn’t want to drive too far. Atlanta is within the four-hour window; the furthest we were willing to go. The kids were pretty cranky in the car but the fun activities and attractions snapped them out of their bad moods pretty quickly! Atlanta has a lot to offer so consider this a quick snap-shot of our trip in a city filled with family adventures.

Day One Afternoon:

World of Coke

I remember visiting the World of Coke during my high school years. I had fun then, but they have definitely upped their game in the last several years! As we entered the building we were ushered into a large holding area with a large bar full of staff opening and handing out aluminum bottled Cokes, Diet Cokes and Coke Zero. Once everyone was situated with a cold drink we went into the next part of the museum where a lively host gave us a run-down of Coke history. From that point we entered a large theater. As we filed in the host mentioned that there were monitors for the visually impaired! This was awesome for Lola, who is severely visually impaired (blind) but enjoys following along with light and color when she can get close to a screen. This monitor was adjustable and she was able to pull it all the way up to her nose. This may seem small, but for a kiddo who can’t access the big movie theater screen it was huge. I’m so thrilled that they made an effort to be inclusive (they even have braille guide maps at the entrance). Once the movie presentation was over we were released into the big, wide world of Coke. We took pictures with the Polar Bear, watched a 4-D movie, explored Coke Art and of course… drank every Coke product from every country. Once we had our fill of Coke culture we exited and received a commemorative glass Coke as a souvenir. Entry to World of Coke is fairly inexpensive so I highly recommend a visit with your family the next time you head to Atlanta. Make sure you download the Explorer Mobile App (we have iPhones and downloaded via the App Store) to enhance your visit, too!

Ikea

The kids love to pretend to live in the different rooms in Ikea. Hours of entertainment while mom and dad get to look for fun items for the home. The cheap dinner is an added bonus, we went on Tuesday night when kids eat free!

Day One Evening:

Loews Atlanta – Midtown

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We opted to have a taste of the bustling Atlanta city life and treat ourselves by staying Midtown at the Loews Atlanta hotel. Location is a huge advantage with this hotel, walking distance to restaurants and 1.8 miles from the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coke. I was a bit nervous about mixing a luxury hotel with four small children but the friendly staff and mango lemonade in the lobby eased my fears right away. While I checked in the kids sipped their drinks and got more information from the concierge about the scavenger hunt the hotel provides for curious kids (a must!). They were also spellbound by the modern/chic decor and soaring ceilings in the lobby. When we finally made it up to our room we were pleasantly surprised by how spacious the bathroom and guest rooms were. The floor to ceiling windows and Atlanta city views were the icing on the cake. After the kids had settled in and enjoyed a movie on the large flat screen (and on the bathroom tv) I escaped downstairs to grab a charcuterie plate from Saltwood for Calvin and I to share before turning in for the night.

We often find that hotels, even luxury hotels, are lacking when it comes to food service. Not LOEWS! Saltwood is one of the highlights of staying at the hotel, cleanly decorated and located conveniently on the lobby level it does not disappoint. Named for its emphasis on salted, cured meats and classically rustic presentation on wood blocks, this casual eatery features a charcuterie station that serves as the restaurant’s centerpiece. Diners can pull up bar stools to sample house-made and locally sourced items and sip on handcrafted cocktails and local brews while watching the restaurant’s charcuterie chef hand-carve meats and assemble charcuterie plates. We can definitely see ourselves spending a weekend at LOEWS Atlanta again in the very near future, with or without the kids! (FYI for families, unfortunately there is no pool at this location).

Day Two Afternoon:

After a lazy morning in our room, the kids went on their hotel scavenger hunt adventure with Calvin that sent them up and down the 26 floors of the hotel and a couple blocks around the hotel property. Once completed, they returned their sheet to the concierge and were rewarded with prizes from the treasure box.

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We wanted to eat lunch close to the zoo (our next destination) and stumbled upon BBQ joint Tom, Dick & Hank. This place had a great, clean atmosphere and the barbecue was great! Give them a visit, especially if you’re going to the zoo.

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Zoo Atlanta

The Zoo in Atlanta boasts a few animal exhibits that our zoo in Nashville does not have. The kids were most excited about the Panda exhibit. Seriously, who doesn’t love watching Pandas roll around with a ball? The zoo is easy to walk through and a great way to spend about 4 hours on a warm afternoon. There are plenty of interactive areas as well including a petting zoo and a playground. The kids also enjoyed feeding the birds in the bird exhibit and getting up close with the lizards and snakes in the expansive reptile house.

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Day Two Evening:

Stone Mountain Marriott Evergreen

The Stone Mountain Marriott is the place to go if you have kids. It’s located conveniently within the park, so you do not incur extra parking fees etc. It’s so nice to relax at the hotel after a long day at Stone Mountain and skip the drive to a hotel outside the park. What makes this hotel great for kids? The pools. There are two pools, one large outdoor pool and one smaller indoor pool. The weather was a bit cool but the outdoor pool was heated so we were able to swim and enjoy the beautiful views. The outdoor area is filled with seating and fire pits so we grabbed some food to go from the lower level restaurant and fed the kids while they ran in and out of the pool. There are even giant chess and checkers sets on the patio.

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The guest rooms are a reasonable size but the beds are full and not queen, an important detail to consider when booking rooms. We requested floor two, which had a balcony with lake views and quick access to the pool. Bonus tip: Papa Johns delivers to the hotel with no additional fees. A great way to fit in a cheap and poolside friendly meal.

Day Three:

Stone Mountain Theme Park

Stone Mountain definitely exceeded our expectations. We love to be active with our kids and this fit the bill perfectly! The adventure pass option is the best value (you can even add an optional meal if you want). This allowed our kids unlimited access to ropes courses, rock climbing, 4-D shows, train rides, mini-golf. We were excited about the newest experience, The Jump, but unfortunately it wasn’t open yet. It also allowed us to take the sky-lift to the top of the mountain. (Tip: booking online saves $5 on Adventure passes.) You can hike, of course, but we were unsure how the youngest would do. Once on top of Stone Mountain we experienced breath-taking views and took lots of fun photos. I was really in the mood to hike so I challenged the kids to hike down the mountain with the promise of the delicious ice cream found at Stone Mountain. They excitedly agreed and we found the hike down to be enjoyable for the whole family. It did rain while we were there but we found plenty of indoor activities to entertain the family during a short rain storm. Once night falls Stone Mountain puts on a laser show projected onto the mountain that is unparalleled.

Disclaimer: The folks at Zoo Atlanta, World of Coke, Stone Mountain, and Loews Atlanta kindly accommodated us for this review. As always, the opinions are my own.

» Daddy + Daughter Trip in the Mazda6 (Houston, TX)

Special thanks to Mazda USA for allowing us to test drive the 2016 Mazda6 i Grand Touring. As always, these opinions are my own.

(this post is from Calvin who visited Houston last week)

This was my first trip back to Houston in 2016, and it was Charlotte’s turn to come with me. One-on-one moments with my children are always memorable but cruising around in the Mazda6 made our trip even more special. With a short four days in Houston, we were determined to eat (of course!) and check out some of the city’s free offerings. Here are three places we visited followed by some of our favorite things about the car.

1. Children’s Museum of Houston

If you’re visiting Houston and happen to be there on a Thursday night, the Children’s Museum is a great place to be. The best part, it’s free! It’s a big-city museum, so you’ll easily last two-three hours in this place.

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2. Sam Houston Boat Tour

I’m not sure how long the Port of Houston Authority’s free tour has been going on, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. Experience an unforgettable waterborne voyage through one of the busiest ports in the world. For locals, it’s not something you’d want to do often but I think everyone should at least go once. You end up sailing for about an hour and half with lots of room to roam around and see some really fun parts of the city.

3. Lee’s Fried Chicken and Donuts/Petite Sweets
601 Heights Blvd, Houston, TX 77007

A must for any visit to Houston. You can read my updated post from my last trip to Houston but in summary, these two places have only gotten better. Some notable additions since my last visit include the Double Donut Fried Chicken Sandwich (two fried chicken tenders between two glazed donuts) and the Pulled Chicken Chopped Kale Salad. Yum!


After Lee’s, everyone should take a quick trip to Petite Sweets to grab some dessert to enjoy in the shop, or take it to go. The newest addition is Suzie’s pies and cookies by the slice, without losing any of the other tasty treats (macaroons!) from the restaurant’s offerings.

2016 Mazda6 i Grand Touring

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This was my first time getting behind the wheel of a Mazda and I had a blast driving the Mazda6. The sport mode was useful in the crazy Houston streets and Charlotte was loving the ability to request the Kidzbop station on XM radio.

Things we loved:

Style – The photos say it all. The exterior and design is great and will definitely turn heads. The white leather seats in the interior and bright LED lights give a nice, clean look. Charlotte was especially enamored with the Soul Red paint.

GT Technology Package – This optional package is worth it in the long run. The features include: adaptive cruise control, forward-collision and lane-departure warning, automatic high-beam control, active grille shutters, and i-Eloop, which stores energy during braking to improve fuel economy.

Safety – I saw a sticker on the car we drove that said “2016 Top Safety Pick+” so I decided to look it up and found this article. In addition, I love the blind spot monitoring with simple light-up icons on the mirrors and a beeping sound that’s noticeable but not annoying.

Conclusion

I’ve never owned a Mazda and have always felt their cars were mediocre. After driving the Mazda6 for a week, my perceptions have changed greatly. The interior was comfortable and the entertainment dash controls were at an easy, reachable distance. I’m still hoping to try a car with Apple’s CarPlay so I’m hopeful that more cars, including this one will add this function. The next time I’m market for a vehicle, I’d definitely consider a Mazda.

» REVIEW: 2015 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport (Houston, TX)

Special thanks to Mitsubishi Cars for allowing us to test drive the 2015 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport. As always, these opinions are my own.

(this post is from Calvin who visited Houston last week)

These days, I try to plan a trip to Houston two to three times a year. It’s hard to believe but it’s now been 10 years since I’ve lived in Houston, the place where I was born and raised. Right before the trip, Erica informed me that we were asked to put the 2015 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport (GT 2.4) through the paces for a week in Houston. I was excited but I’ll admit that I didn’t have high hopes for the vehicle. You see one of my first high school cars was a gold Mitsubishi Galant sedan, which wasn’t exactly cool at the time.

So I jumped on a plane with Liam, landed in Houston, got our luggage, and there was the Outlander Sport waiting for us. Forget all the reservations I had earlier—the look of the vehicle, Rockford Fosgate audio system, full-length moon roof, and AWC (All-wheel control) won me over quickly.

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So I’ll give you more details about the car but first order of business, food. If you ask a Houston native what there is to do in Houston,their first response will be… grab something to eat! Well with any trip, I absolutely have to get Chinese and Vietnamese comfort food in Chinatown. But I always try to visit a few places I’ve never been, remember, it’s been ten years since I’ve lived here. The good folks at F.E.E.D. TX allowed me to check out their newest restaurant, Lee’s Fried Chicken and Donuts, along with their established confectionery spot Petite Sweets.

1. Lee’s Fried Chicken and Donuts
601 Heights Blvd, Houston, TX 77007

All photos: Justin Wong, Goodbye Normal

Why did I want to go to this place? The name says it all! The modern look and atmosphere of this chicken joint is great. Unless you live in the Heights, you would never known it was a former Church’s Chicken. The chicken portions are huge at this place! In addition, I found out that Lee’s uses all-natural, antibiotic/hormone-free, vegetarian-fed chicken. The taste is amazing and I wasn’t surprised when the F.E.E.D. staff informed me that the chicken goes through a three-day prep and cooking process. You can get traditional fried chicken at lunch or pick up some tenders as early as 10 A.M. Last week was also the first week their drive-thru was operating.

We were left with a ton of leftovers and at first I was hesitant to share it with my friends. Not because I didn’t want to share but because I didn’t want their first experience to lack the “fresh out of the kitchen” quality. Well I ultimately decided to share and everyone absolutely loved it! My one request of the restaurant is to have a sweet and savory combo that includes chicken and donuts, like the name.

My Favorites:

Traditional Fried Chicken: Lee’s has tenders and sandwiches but if given the choice, I’m a traditional chicken kinda guy. The tenders were just as amazing (and big!). Make sure to get a side of creamed corn and sour cream mashed potatoes with gravy!

Sauces: Don’t mistake this for Chick-fil-a sauce. All of these are made in-house and really bring the chicken to the next level. My favorites were the spicy mayo and bacon jam.

Donuts: Ummm yes. OK if I had to choose just one, I’d have to say blueberry cake with blueberry icing.

 

All photos: Justin Wong, Goodbye Normal

2. Petite Sweets
2700 W. Alabama, Houston, TX 77098

I felt guilty stepping into this place without Erica because she is a macaroon fanatic. The staff and environment was just as welcoming as Lee’s. The pictures speak for themselves. The taste of these macaroons and other lovely sweets are just as good as my friend Justin’s pictures. And if you’re wondering, no, he’s not a professional photographer. For my friends and family in Houston, I learned that Petite Sweets is really known for their custom orders. I know some of you out there are already planning the next party as you’re reading this, give Petite Sweets a call!

2015 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport (GT 2.4)

I’ve realized that over time, I’ve lost the aggression and shameless, sporadic lane changing it takes to drive in the big city. So after driving in town for a week, I thought I’d share a few thoughts that crossed my mind when driving:

  • There are so many lanes! But wait, there are so many more cars, too.
  • Remember that defensive driving class? Don’t let your guard down in the parking lot.
  • The speed limit is 70. Why is this guy going 40 and everyone around us is going 85? (this happened multiple times)

So after a full week bobbing and weaving through Houston traffic, here are my conclusions about this machine.

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Photo: Justin Wong, Goodbye Normal

Performance

Besides the constant braking and accelerating needed to overcome the Houston streets, The Outlander Sport’s handling and response was very good. In fact, I try not to drive like a maniac with kids in the back seat because, you know, car sickness. For the record, Liam never once said his stomach hurt. So kids, this whole time it’s been the car, not me. Lastly, the fuel efficiency (reported 25 city, 32 highway) I would say is accurate even with all the starting and stopping I had to do.

The Look

The pictures speak for themselves. This is a great looking car! I was not embarrassed at all driving this thing around town. I even got compliments from all the friends and family I was able to see. Also remember that we’re talking about the Sport here but I still do like the other models. Mitsubishi has come a long way in the looks department.

The Feel

There is a lot of leg room in the front. The compromise is that the back seats don’t have a lot of leg room. The leather seats were very comfortable and the A/C is great. According to my dad, Mitsubishi makes one of the best A/C systems for cars (I believe that most, if not all, Mercedes Benz vehicles use Mitsubishi’s system). The touch-screen dash is close so you’re not extending too far to operate the GPS system or change the audio settings.

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Conclusion

We will always have at least one van in our family but when we’re due to replace the Saturn Vue we currently have, I definitely won’t rule out the Outlander Sport. Here are some of my favorite features:

  • 168-hp, 2.4-liter MIVEC engine
  • Super-wide High Intensity Discharge (HID) headlights with fog lights and LED running lights
  • 7-inch touchscreen audio display with Digital HD Radio® and rearview camera
  • FAST-key passive entry system with panic feature and One-touch Start/Stop engine switch
  • Leather seats with heated driver & front passenger seats
  • Automatic air conditioning climate control
  • Rain-sensing windshield wipers

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Also, thanks to F.E.E.D. TX Restaurant Group for allowing us to review your restaurants. As always, these opinions are my own.

 

REVIEW: Lumberjack Feud (Pigeon Forge, TN)

Disclaimer: The folks at Lumberjack Feud kindly allowed our family admission for this review. As always, the opinions are my own.

Today is the first day of Fall Break so I thought it would be timely of us to share our experience at Lumberjack Feud. First of all, we love Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge because it’s a short 3 hour drive from the Nashville area, perfect for a true weekend getaway. There are so many attractions that you have the ability to choose to do something different every time. It has slowly become a tradition for our family to go for Elliott’s birthday in September. So in lieu of a “big gift” we decided to go again. The secret reason behind our September visits is actually the pricing. September is considered the off season, the Fall decor is out but it’s still warm and you miss the Fall crowds.  Many cabins and resorts offer lower pricing or specials during this time period.

Before the weekend, we surprised Elliott with the big news that Gatlinburg was in our future. We stayed at the Grand Getaway Cabin (2,000 square foot, 4-bedroom cabin, about one mile from Dollywood) for the very first time and loved it! The layout was fantastic for big families, four bedrooms and FOUR bathrooms. My favorite feature about the cabin was the full length table for ten. That’s actually fairly difficult to find in cabin offerings. Now on to Lumberjack Feud!

Pre-Show:

The Lumberjack Feud experience begins the moment you pull into the parking lot. The huge red barn picturing feuding lumberjacks set the tone and got my kids super excited for the event. The energy continues as the friendly staff ushers you in, taking pictures and greeting you in character. The kids were greeted upon sitting down and immediately invited to join the lumberjacks on stage for some clogging.

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Dinner:

Once the show was underway the lumberjack cooks began serving food in true lumberjack fashion. The soup is in a mug, no spoons. My young ones thought this was a very fun touch. The meal  includes a massive piece of chicken, a biscuit, potatoes, corn and an apple turnover. A huge starchy meal for our taste… but I’m sure Lumberjacks love it. The service was quick and drinks were refilled regularly. We noticed that there is also a concession stand. This is a nice option for those who buy show-only tickets.

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Main Show:

The main show was action-packed with an entertaining host, real lumberjack competitions, feuding families, smokey mountain history and audience participation. The Timer-dogs were especially endearing as they competed in water sports and retrieved items for their trainers. We loved knowing that several of the Timber-dogs were rescue dogs.

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Conclusion:

This is a great show for families with young and school-age children. My four sat, riveted, through the entire event. The meal is huge, so perhaps a plus for many people. We were pleased to see that there was a gluten free option as well.

Considerations for Individuals with Disabilities or Special Needs:

The show is LOUD. Fortunately they give adequate warning when chainsaws will be used. This gives kids who are sensitive to loud sounds the chance to use headphones or cover their ears. Our daughter, who is blind, received so much auditory input that she enjoyed the show just as much as the sighted children. We often find, with shows and events, that things are highly visual and she misses a lot of what’s going on. With Lumberjack they described everything that went on. The host was constantly talking, explaining the events and fun music tied in all the moments when the talking ceased. We definitely give this a thumbs up for visually impaired children and adults.  We also noticed that they offered great floor seating for those utilizing mobility devices.

REVIEW: Chimney Rock (NC)

  • Hickory Nut Falls
  • Chimney Rock State Park
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  • Chimney Rock State Park
  • Chimney Rock State Park
  • Hickory Nut Falls
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  • Hickory Nut Falls
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Disclaimer: The folks at Chimney Rock State Park kindly allowed our family admission for this review. As always, the opinions are my own.

Fall is officially here, which means camping season! We already have a two-night camping trip planned with our small group and can’t wait to sleep under the stars again.

Last July, we tent camped in Chimney Rock, NC (near Ashville), which was about five and half hours from our home. Check out our experience and plan a trip there yourself, it’s one of our favorites!

Hickory Nut Falls Campground:

This was our first time camping right on the water and the kids had a blast being able to stand in different parts of the Rocky Broad River. Our family (Nana, Papa, cousins, everyone!) occupied the end on sites 78, 77, and 76. It was nice not having other people outside of our family on one end. It gave us a lots of extra space where our kids could explore without bothering others. Additionally, that end of the camp site is reserved for tent camping so you don’t need to worry about any pop up or RV campers (with 42″ televisions) rolling up next to you. The edge of the river has a few pockets of standing water but the closer you get to the middle, the deeper and faster the water rushes. Make sure to bring your own water tubes and water shoes. We didn’t equip ourselves with tubes so we ended up buying a few at a nearby store with inflated prices. The water is pretty loud which might bother you, but we found it soothing, especially at bed time. Make sure you reserve your spot early, the lots can go quickly! We reserved 3 months prior to our stay.

Chimney Rock State Park:

On Saturday, we visited the state park to hike Chimney Rock. There’s an elevator that takes you to the top of the Chimney but unfortunately, was broken during our visit.  With kids, it would’ve been nice to ride up to the top, then walk down but that was not the case for us. However, I’m glad to report that we made it without any injuries and few meltdowns. For the average adult, it takes about 25 minutes, covering 491 steps, to reach the Chimney. The Chimney itself is 315 feet at an elevation of 2,280 feet. Once we made it down, we visited a bat cave but sad to report that there were none to be seen at the time. Then we made another long, but easier hike to the 404-foot waterfall to cool down. By the end of that, we were all exhausted so we made one last stop to a kids area where one of the rangers showed off some snakes and other wildlife that the kids could touch and see up close. The state park charges per person (currently $13 for adults, $6 for children) however I do wish they would charge one flat fee per vehicle. For our family alone, the $50 admission would make the visit questionable. There was a ton more stuff to do but our young family just couldn’t handle it, especially on such a hot day.

Shopping, etc:

Right outside of the campground, there are plenty of shops that were really inexpensive. Lots of cute little mountain souvenir shops. Somehow we ended up with four harmonicas, bad idea for the drive home. We couldn’t refuse the Chimney Rock Gem Mine with kiddos, but I also scored some Salt Rock Lamps from their gift shop. There are a couple of lunch and dinner spots but we were very disciplined and stuck to eating at the campground with all the food we brought. We did treat ourselves to the Hershey’s Ice Cream Shoppe on our final night. They have a crazy amount of flavors, I think the sign claimed something like 85 flavors of Hershey’s Ice Cream.

Conclusion:

Chimney Rock is definitely a great midway camping spot between my family in Charleston, SC and our current location. The access to the water with kids is great however you definitely need to stay on guard if you have little ones like ours. Tubing is a must so make sure you plan ahead and bring some with you! Bottom line, waking up and hiking into the middle of the river with a cup of coffee is worth it every time.  We did a lot of rock sitting, skipping rocks and watching for wildlife. Can’t wait to go back.

Chicago: Part 2 (Attractions)

Oh Chicago… it seems everyone loves you! I’ve had countless conversations since our visit and everyone shares how much they enjoy their trips to the Windy City. I’m sure that has something to do with the vast amount of entertainment choices the city has to offer. We weren’t able to do it all but here are a few attractions/activities that we enjoyed on our visit:

Blue Man Group: Dare to Live in Full Color –  I was somewhat skeptical about Blue Man Group. Silly fun isn’t my favorite. I don’t enjoy comedians or gimmicky things. I also had this idea that they just played drums and splattered paint on things. Well folks, there is a reason this show has been going strong for nearly 25 years. It has strong theatrical influence, it’s interesting, it’s hilarious, it’s heart warming, it’s FUN… it’s very different from anything I’ve ever seen. Three blue men take you on a quirky little journey through music, discovery and connection. Audience participation is huge as the show takes over the entire theater… not just the stage. I’ll never forget moving it to some bizarre song about shaking my “can” while playing toss up with ginormous glowing beach balls in a black-lit, neon glowing auditorium with hundreds of other adults-turned-children. If that’s sounds ridiculous to you, you probably just need to get over it and secure some tickets to see the show. You won’t be sorry.

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Current Deals: Upon purchasing a ticket for Blue Man Group, guests can receive a free ticket to visit Chicago’s Willis Tower Skydeck (where they can step out onto one of the building’s “Ledge” glass boxes) or 360 Chicago (for unparalleled views of Michigan Avenue and Lake Michigan.) College students who are studying in Chicago or home for the summer can enjoy the thrills of Blue Man Group for a discounted price. Upon presenting a valid college ID, they can get a discounted ticket for $35. Student tickets are available two hours prior to show time, based on availability.

Special Needs Accomodation: In 2015, Blue Man Group is supporting Austism Speaks. They will donate a minimum of $25,000 and are doing specific autism-friendly shows this year. Even if you can’t make one of their specific shows, individuals with autism are still encouraged to attend the show at any time. Noise cancelling headphones available. Parents of children with autism need to know if the children crave the heavy sensory input or prefer to avoid it.

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iFLY: Ever Dream of Flying?
Let’s just say I spent a lot of time being skeptical on this trip. But isn’t that why we travel? To challenge ourselves, discover new things… iFly was one of these new things. There were people of all ages packed into the Chicago iFLY building. Some watching others fly, some suiting up to prepare for their skydiving experience. We watched a short video with our group, listened to the instructor and learned some hand signals we would need during the flight. Then it was time to put on our goggles and earplugs and head into the chamber. The instructor remains in the chamber with new flyers, like us, and gives instructions and tips with hand signals.

It really was an amazing sensation, totally weightless and flying. And you can’t help but smile like a crazy person because if you don’t you’ll just drool all over yourself. Flying with a group is also a lot of fun, even as strangers we were excited to watch our new friends figure out how to fly and stay balanced in the chamber. There were also some locals who obviously visited on a consistent basis to work on new maneuvers. In the end, our trainer did a demonstration for everyone to enjoy.

The location in Chicago was a little far out for us but there’s outdoor shopping and an outlet mall nearby so anyone could maximize their trip that way. Also, there are plans for an iFLY location in Lincoln Park which would be very convenient. I’m sure this would be even more entertaining with a group of people you actually know. We are looking forward to visiting iFLY with our kids in tow next time!

Special Needs Accommodation: We are always asking questions and watching for companies that go the extra mile to accommodate children and adults with special needs or disabilities. We were happy to hear, from the iFLY representative, that they have a program for children who are autistic. Alex, with emotion in her voice, told me some amazing stories about what flying does for these awesome kids on a sensory level. She also explained how they accommodate for other guests who have additional needs. Very exciting to hear, great job iFLY!

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Brookefield Zoo –  There are two zoos in Chicago. Lincoln Park and Brookefield. Lincoln is free and Brookfield is not. However, Brookefield does offer a wider range of attractions. Dolphins, polar bears and the butterfly garden are just a few of the additional attractions at Brookefield. We made time to watch the Dolphin show at Brookefield and we felt it was really well done and educational. There was a baby dolphin being adorable and playing with his trainer… so of course we couldn’t help but love the whole experience.

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Brookefield is simply bigger and more like a theme-park experience zoo. BUT… it is very far away from everything else you might want to do in Chicago.

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So plan ahead, if you want to take your family there, and make time to spend the whole day there enjoying what the zoo has to offer. It’s also a better deal to book your tickets online. You are allowed to choose 3 extra attractions while saving about $5 per person.

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Chicago Cubs Calvin loves baseball, so of course we headed to Wrigley field (bricks and ivy!) to root for the home team. There’s not much to report here, Wrigley is just one of those parks that you must check off your list. Unfortunately we got caught in a rain delay and ended up leaving before the game is over (even worse, they had a walk-off run in the 9th inning). Calvin purchased our tickets on StubHub so here’s your money saving tip of the day: Our Kroger gives 2-4x gas points on all gift card purchases. We purchased a Stubhub giftcard from Kroger and racked up some points! Saving on gas purchases in the Summer is always a good thing with all the extra driving we do. Also, unless you’re going to a popular game, you can usually get tickets at the cheapest price about a day or day and a half before the game. Here’s your funny story from the game: I was waiting in line for a pretzel and a friendly, grandfatherly PURE Chicago kinda guy struck up a conversation. He asked where I was from… Tennessee…. with the biggest smile he exclaimed “well you’re the only 10- I- see. Here’s a drink on me, welcome to Chicago!” and offered to buy me a beer from the cart. He was completely adorable, just happy to be watching the Cubs on a Saturday night.

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Sight Seeing – We made sure to hit all the major tourist areas. Navy Pier, Magnificent Mile and of course Millennium Park (the Bean). Navy Pier is currently under construction and is always very jam-packed with people. This combination made the whole experience mildly annoying. However we still enjoyed the lake views and a Chicago style hot-dog. I would hate going there with kids, it’s a glorified version of a tourist trap with pricey junk food and souvenir stores. Sorry Navy Pier. Now… Magnificent Mile? I loved it. Great shopping, great restaurants and fun street performers all in one area. That pretty much sums it up! Millennium Park was also a favorite. A beautiful park with great art, surrounded by the gorgeous Chicago architecture… definitely a hit. And we did the fun touristy thing and took a picture in the the reflection of the giant silver bean. Hint: Watching people taking their picture in the bean is way more entertaining than actually doing it yourself.

So yes, dear Chicago, we love you. Thank you for treating us to a great weekend. If you missed part 1 (lodging, transportation, food), you can catch up here.

Disclaimer: Blue Man Group, iFLY Chicago, and Brookefield Zoo kindly provided us admission for this feature. As always, the opinions are my own.

Chicago: Part 1 (Lodging, Transportation, Food)

Our nine-year wedding anniversary rolled around last week. Calvin had casually mentioned just doing a joint thing, nice restaurant, no gifts etc. I should have known he had something in the works. And that something was a four-day adventure to Chicagoland.

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Calvin and I love a bargain, so it’s fitting that this Chicago review is full of budget friendly tips and deals. Leaving room for things like a quick trip to ZARA for some Summer essentials. Here is a run down of all the deals and all the fun.

Lodging: Hotels in Chicago, especially in Spring and early Summer, are outrageous. We utilized AirBnB to get a great deal on a studio apartment. The apartment had more room than a hotel room, a full kitchen, a record player(!) and it was close to an L station. (More on the “L” in a bit.) Our host even had fresh towels and toiletries in a basket waiting for us. We also enjoyed living like “city people” rather than staying in just another hotel. Adds to the authentic adventure feel.

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Transportation: Last November, we signed up for a Southwest Visa credit card to take advantage of the 50,000 miles sign-up offer. This can be equivalent to about 3-4 round trip flights if used correctly. For this trip, we went ahead and used points (you still have to pay the taxes) . Right now if you sign up for a Southwest credit card you can still get 50,000 points if you spend $2,000 in the first 3 months of opening your account. We use our credit card like cash for our regular purchases (gas, groceries etc) and pay it off monthly. The rewards are valuable if you can discipline your spending to use it correctly. We did not rent a car in Chicago. The “L” which is a cool train transit line took us everywhere we needed to go. We took it from the airport to the apt and then all over the city. We purchased a 3 day-pass for $20 each. So for $40 each we had all the transportation we needed to navigate Chicago easily. The Google Maps app took out all the intimidation of public transportation. It gives  step-by-step instructions for the L and bus system as well as ETAs for the train stops.

      FYI: Southwest currently has (as low as) $116 one-way tickets to Chicago! Ends tomorrow 6/18/2015

Food: We really didn’t have to over-think the food situation. There are great restaurants in all the little neighborhoods that make up Chicago, you can easily find a great hot dog, pizza, or Italian beef sandwich. Definitely check Groupon ahead of time and download their app for local food deals. On the night we saw the Blue Man Group, we purchased a Groupon for Four Belly (asian street food) ahead of time since it was down the street from the theater. Our biggest money saver was a new program called Spring Rewards (Nashville folks – The link is for free $10 to Sky Blue Cafe for signing up). Through Spring Rewards, we saved about $80 on food. Many of our meals ended up being $3-$8 after tip!

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I personally love Spring Rewards because I didn’t have to hand the waiter a coupon or voucher, show my phone etc. We pre-loaded the deals into our account and the money was credited back to us from Spring Rewards. For example, we had a $15 (receive $15 back when you spend $15 or more) Spring Reward for a sushi restaurant. We went in, ordered a couple of rolls for an early dinner and spent $15.35. We tipped the waiter accordingly and we received the email moments later that a $15 refund was on the way. We used Spring Rewards to get lunches at little to no cost and also used this method to eat dinner by “restaurant hopping” having smaller meals at 2-3 restaurants. It was a fun challenge and a way to try several places.

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Our one splurge was at The Purple Pig which is located on the Magnificent Mile. It was apparently voted as one of the top 10 restaurants in America by Bon Appetit. And yes. It was amazing. Definitely put it on your splurge list for Chicago. We ordered small plate items and shared and still got out just under $40.

General: I have definitely fallen in love with Chicago. I know some may disagree, but I saw a lot of warmth in the people there. I saw people give up seats on the L for women with babies, I saw people chat and communicate with strangers who looked very different from them. I watched blind adults navigate the public transit system. So much diversity and respect for others. I think maybe I’m just in love with public transportation… but still, I saw some great stuff on there. Another thing I love about Chicago is that it’s not ragingly expensive. No $20 hamburgers! Everything seemed to cost about what we would see in Nashville. We even ate deep dish pizza at the famed Pequod’s pizza for $4.99. I would call Chicago, the no fuss city. Just come as you are, enjoy the city, enjoy some art, enjoy some food. Can’t wait to go back.

Part 2 of our Chicago review is coming later this week! We will be sharing about the activities, attractions and sites we enjoyed while in Chicago.

REVIEW: Bledsoe State Park (TN)

On Thursday I attended the last of a series of ceremonies marking the end of school. I ended up with one best smiler, one super reader and one fun friend. Say what you will about unnecessary pomp and circumstance but my kids’ teachers nailed it with their awards. We had a great year of school with tons of progress, growth and achievement. IEP meetings for Lola were smoother this year and there were less hurdles all around. We are better at advocating and anticipating her needs. The year went by so quickly compared to the year before. In fact, it went a little too quickly. Next year we will have a 2nd grader, two 1st graders and a mother’s day out preschooler. Liam is almost four, and while he loves being the baby of the family, he seems less and less my littlest everyday. I feel like I’m approaching the stage where I blink, and instead of awards for super reading my kids will be accepting diplomas.

Entering into the “big kid” stage definitely has it’s advantages. They pour milk, clean rooms and even lay out their outfits for the week. Life feels much less chaotic than the “Four, 5 years old and younger” category we lived in for awhile. Those new advantages were definitely tested this weekend when we headed out for our first of many family camping trips.

I was super excited to get the kids and head out so we checked out of school a little early and hit the road. We made reservations at Bledsoe State Park because it’s conveniently located just 30 minutes away. I’m an ambitious mommy so I told Calvin to just meet us there after work and planned to set up the site with the help of my four small ones. This actually went pretty well minus the excited youngest who wanted to run off and explore every 4 seconds. Bledsoe is a great little state park. They have excellent hiking trails, some that run along the water, and nice wooded campsites. The bathrooms are also clean and heated which was very nice on cold mornings. The Goodbye boys didn’t frequent the bathrooms often, as they were more interested in the bathroom freedoms the woods provide.

The days were spent hiking, relaxing, preparing camp meals, riding bikes and playing games. Man did the kids ride their bikes. Liam even conquered two wheels. And that’s the thing about family trips and memories. I love that we can look back and say “remember when Liam rode a 2-wheel for the first time?” And we will, because it was a big event taking place in the simplest of times. This may be the reason I’m obsessed with becoming a camping family. I grew up camping and I loved backpacking in college. Some of my clearest family memories come from campfire circles or hiking trails. And as I watch the kids grow and gain independence, the moments where my almost 8-year-old holds my hand for a moment while we walk toward the water will become increasingly rare. Camping also builds character. It creates a need to work together. Gathering wood, setting up camp, cleaning up after meals and making sure nothing is left to draw animals. We were also lucky enough to hit early tick season in Tennessee. (insert emoji that displays a completely stressed out mom face) I cannot handle ticks. Read WebMD, they are tiny killers on the loose. I picked them off the kids and dog regularly. I’m still checking necks, ears and crevices because they were THAT BAD. Another memory right??

We have a few more camping trips planned this Summer. Hopefully there will be less ticks. Hopefully. We are all genuinely looking forward to more challenging hikes, longer stays and more adventure. And for those of you who have yet to take the plunge I’ll continue to blog about camping gear and what made life a little easier in the great outdoors. And for those of you who have non-camping significant others… just buy them some cool hiking shorts, it will change their whole outlook. It worked for me!

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REVIEW: Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry (Charleston, SC)

Disclaimer: The folks at the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry very kindly provided our family admission for this review. As always, the opinions are my own.

Keeping with tradition, the Goodbye kids and I hit the road over Spring Break and trekked down to Charleston, SC. How we love the Lowcountry! We had the opportunity to check out a new adventure on this trip, The Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry. The Museum has 9 very hands-on exhibits: The Art Room, Medieval Castle, Garden, Water Room, Pirate Room, The Market, Raceways, Infant/Toddler play space, and an outdoor area and Fire truck.

My kids, who range from 3- 7 1/2 years old, chose the Water Room, Raceways and the Medieval Castle room as their favorite activities. Raceways (ramps and golfballs!) and the Water Room are both very sensory experiences with water to touch, sounds to make and active play. And we loved seeing the poster for Water Missions International featured in the Water Room.

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The Pirate Room and Medieval Castle allowed the kids to really get into imaginary play. I thought we would never leave the castle!

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The Market gave the kids a chance to live out their desire to scan, bag and shop at the grocery store. ALL BY THEMSELVES. They were delighted to discover that the scanner actually worked, along with the cash register and payment system.

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The Outdoor area and Art room were interactive and fun as well.
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The Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry was a great experience overall. The kids were able to explore Lowcountry history and culture while participating in lots of sensory and imaginative experiences. If you are in the Charleston area, or visiting with kiddos this should definitely make your list of things to do. We can’t wait to visit and play again!

Parents of children with special needs, disabilities or sensory issues:
The best areas for Lola were the raceways, water room and the market. The Art Room workers brought her mounds of play dough and cookie cutters which was great. She enjoyed de-stressing a little and just taking a break from all of the movement. The museum is very accommodating, even providing a sensory friendly time twice each month.

Lola had some trouble with the medieval room. Lots of steps and low ceilings, places where ducking or crawling are necessary but I think with a little more lighting or color to identify the steps (I have already e-mailed this suggestion to the kind staff at the museum), she and others could navigate a little better. The Children’s Museum is open before hours from 10:00am -12:00pm the second and fourth Sundays of every month for children with special needs and their families to visit the Museum for FREE. Children are able to explore and play in the Museum without the crowds and over-stimulation. How about that! If you’re interested, registration is required, click here for more information.

 

All Content © Erica Ho, Goodbye Normal