The husband and I aren’t exactly flush with vacation time right now after both starting new jobs in the last year. And actually, I’m not really accruing that quickly since I started at the bottom of the federal scale. A big vacation was out of the question this summer and so was our planned 15th anniversary vow renewal Vegas trip [first I typed vowel renewal and giggled to myself for a few minutes]. Instead, we loaded up the kids (and dog!) for a long weekend at a rented house in Sea Ranch, California.
All we wanted out of this trip was quiet, relaxation, and waves . . . and it delivered in abundance!
Sea Ranch is this picturesque planned community about 100 miles north of San Francisco. It is this fantastic little architectural marvel – all of the homes are abstract with large windows and definite 70s flair. Wikipedia tells me that this is called Third Bay Tradition that was “characterized by turning the horizontal form of the California ranch house into a vertical form.” I don’t know anything about architecture, so I’ll just show you these nice creative commons photographs to explain.
The architecture was actually what first attracted me to the location when I was searching around for a nice beach location to visit. It is right up my alley. Sea Ranch is absolutely the place I would buy a vacation home, if I was the kind of person who could afford a vacation home. I was happy to see that the house we rented had a copy of the original plans framed in the dining room. The archivist in me was happy to learn a little bit about the family who built the place in the 70s.
The second thing that attracted me to Sea Ranch was the view. Here is an unfiltered image of what we woke up to every morning. I took this from the deck – that entire side of the house was large picture windows to capitalize on the unobstructed view.
And every evening we were able to enjoy unbelievable sunsets.
We stocked the refrigerator and spent most of our time lounging in the living room. The little man got a bit bored by day three, but the rest of us had one of our best vacations. Reading, surfing the interwebs, and playing card games filled the time we managed to stay in an upright position. Bonus: a family of wild turkeys visited the house each day.
We weren’t total hermits during the trip – we did make it down to the beach one day. Absolutely beautiful and so peaceful.
Instead of driving back down Highway 1 on the way home (because frankly I wasn’t up for driving it again), we rerouted through redwoods and along the Russian River. We stopped at Russian River Vineyards for lunch (+ oh so much wine) and enjoyed a couple of hours on the patio. Marv (the tiny dog) was a huge hit and I especially loved the guitar player rocking out slow jazz versions of 90s alternative favorites. I didn’t know I needed a slow jazz version of Smells Like Teen Spirit, but my world if definitely a better place now that I know it exists.
This was going-home day, but we did have a couple of more things we wanted to do on the way out of town. I don’t have much to say about this day, but wanted to share some photographs. Overall, it was a great day and a nice trip back. Shorter too!
Stop #1: Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis. Wow! Gorgeous and probably the prettiest cathedral I’ve seen in the United States.
Stop #2: Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. I love frozen – especially a concrete with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. This custard was good and I’m glad we made the stop and respect Ted Drewes for setting a high standard, but it wasn’t any different than what we can get ten minutes from our house at Shake’s Frozen Custard. Just keep that in mind – yummy, but don’t expect a life-changing experience if you are already a enjoy-er of the frozen custard.
We took advantage of nothing being open in the morning to sleep in. First stop of the day – brunch at Layla, “St. Louis’ only Gourmet Burger & Shawarma Joint.” The regular menu online looked delicious and the brunch menu looked okay, but not as delicious (we forgot about it being Sunday and didn’t look at the brunch menu beforehand). From our seats, we could see the line waiting to get into Sweetie Pie’s. No thank you; there should be no lines at brunch.
I ordered the Havanah Sunrise Stacker (menu description: shaved ham, smoked pulled pork, melted swiss, chartreuse pickles, dijon aioli and two eggs any style on grilled sourdough). The husband ordered the Pork Belly Skillet (menu description: smoked cured diced pork belly, peppers, onions, and sweet potato home fries. topped with two eggs any style and a roasted garlic aioli). The daughter settled on a traditional burger. She was the winner of the day – that burger was spectacular. The husband and I found our meals to be lackluster. I’ll give my stacker the benefit of the doubt because I like my eggs scrambled and therefore deprived it of the drippy goodness that might have tied everything together. The husband’s pork belly was disastrously overcooked.
Next stop: Budweiser!
We had the most fun of the day here and ended up staying for several hours. It was busy – we had to wait an hour and a half for our free tour – but the gift shop was big and the beer was on tap. The tour was approximately forty-five minutes and was wheelchair accessible. A lot of that time spent leading the group from building to building, so I think it was a good length to keep people interested. They had several other tour options too (some free, some not).
At one point our tour guide said my favorite line of the day “After this step you have a beer, but not the king of beers.” I’m not a Bud drinker – or a beer drinker, really – but I thought that was really funny and effective. Adult visitors get a sample of beer in the middle of the tour (just Bud or Bud Light) and then a token for a full-sized free one at the end (anything they have on tap). FYI: Sodas are free at the bar, but it gets very backed up when a tour lets out.
Let’s be honest though, I was just there to see the Clydesdales.
It was late in the day when we left Budweiser and we didn’t have time to go anywhere else before Sunday-night closing time. We ended up driving to St. Charles to see their historic Main Street. The city was founded in 1769, was the site of the first state capitol, and was the starting point for Lewis and Clark. The Main Street is adorable. I may have squealed a bit. We didn’t actually get out and walk around, so I’ll just show you some taken by other people.
We were slow to get up on Saturday morning, but once we finally rolled out of bed and made ourselves presentable the first stop was the St. Louis Science Center. My family is a sucker for a good science center and this one delivered.
Overall it was your standard science center – a mix of new shiny exhibits and older well-loved exhibits. It also had animatronic dinosaurs and a crap-load of stuff to touch. My daughter’s favorite part was the area dedicated to different kind of structures. She actually did the activities at all of the little centers. The little man’s favorite part was the fossil/dinosaur section. Lots and lots of things to touch.
We ended up staying long enough to eat lunch at the science center (pretty good for museum food, if you are curious). Next stop: Gooey Louie for delicious gooey butter cakes. The owner at Gooey Louie was a little odd (talking about the cakes being homemade and not from a Chinese assembly line, etc. It was borderline racist.), but the cakes were delicious. Are delicious, I mean; we brought it home with us and are still eating. You do not need a big piece to satisfy that sweet tooth.
We headed back to the hotel to save the cakes from melting in the family truckster and took the opportunity for a little rest. Nothing wrong with all four family members piling on top of a king-sized bed to close their eyes, talk, and snuggle.
With our second wind approaching, we got back in the truckster bound for the St. Louis Galleria for shopping. Why this mall? Eh, it seemed like the most well-rounded to spend a few hours in. And we did spend a few hours; we walked out the door ten minutes before the entire place closed.
Of course, that stay also included dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. This kind of breaks on of our vacation rules: Local food only! On one hand, it is a national chain and really isn’t anything special. On the other hand, we don’t actually have a Cheesecake Factory anywhere in our home state and well. . . cheesecake. Here, let me throw in a visual aid:
One final stop before bed (Walgreens for blister band aids and green tea) and – once again – we fell into bed, satisfied and exhausted.
First stop was the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park. This great place boasts free admission and free parking – super! I’m going to talk about the exhibits that we saw here in the order I most enjoyed them:
1) A Walk in 1875 St. Louis
Whoa. This was an awesome exhibit. It was based around an 1875 pictorial map of St. Louis (don’t know what that is? Click here.) with every other wall covered in humorous, interesting, and visually-striking factoids. Nothing will stop a kid in their tracks and make them read an exhibit panel like colorful facts about the disgusting waste disposal of our ancestors. You really could have spent a couple of hours in here reading everything.
2) State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda
This one was from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I particularly enjoyed that it steered the exhibit towards a discussion about how we can be provoked by propaganda – especially when put out by something as successful as the Nazi machine. I’d love to see an exhibit focusing on more modern propaganda to really make people think about what they see and hear every day. I’m also not ashamed to admit that the little man found the videos of Hitler speaking absolutely hilarious; he loves it when anyone throws their arms around and yells.
3) The 1904 World’s Fair: Looking Back at Looking Forward
Great artifacts in this one, but it didn’t really hold our attention as much as the first two. It did open up a fun conversation where I explained the concept of a world’s fair to the daughter. You probably don’t want to visit a museum with this historian.
4) Seeking St. Louis
This exhibit was on the second floor and was clearly an older, more permanent exhibit. The content wasn’t as appealing for my family, but I really appreciate the amount of touchable things at little-kid-level. The little man can’t get anything out of a text panel, but he can – and will! –touch anything you put in front of him. I am a big fan of cultural intuitions doing anything they can to get the little ones (and those challenged in some way, like the little man) involved.
Lunch! It was utterly forgettable, so I’ll skip it.
Next stop was the Grand Hall of Union Station. We pulled into the (pay) parking lot and headed into what was supposed to be a little shopping mall. Well. . . I think it was probably really, really neat when it first opened, but now it is just another monument to one of those failed 80s-90s revitalization movements. The second floor featured a nice array of boarded-up storefronts. Of course, if you are in the market for sequin purses, tacky souvenirs, or vapor supplies this is the spot for you!
We walked to the end of the Midway, found no elevator access on that end, and found all of the doors into the station proper blocked with signs saying the entrances were for hotel guests only or key carded (the hotel is not a failed experiment like the rest of the place). Hmm. So, we walked back down the Midway, up the elevator, and back down the Midway again, only to be confronted with the same signs.
Wanting to be good, rule-following people, we headed out the side door and to the front of the building. Grumbling all the way. The front door had the same sign. Screw the hotel; we went in.
Totally worth it! Gorgeous. We enjoyed the Grand Hall lobby for a while and indulged in some Starbucks. Confession: I absolutely love sitting in large hotel lobbies while people watching and sipping on something delicious. Mix in the Grand Hall atmosphere and I was in heaven.
Last attraction of the day was the City Museum. I don’t even know if I can explain this place – it is part playground, part art installation, part museum, part amusement park. My husband described it best when we compared it to the movie Little Monsters. You know, the one from the 90s* with Fred Savage and Howie Mandell? Well, the City Museum – especially the darker inside bits – looks a whole lot like the monster land that you could get to by going under your bed.
This place was geared to very active children and wasn’t 100% accessible (impossible to be so considering what it is), so it didn’t have a ton for the little man to do (although he had a great time in the toddler area with squishy blocks). This was all about the daughter. And the dad. But mostly the daughter. This place was really amazing. I highly recommend it just for the unique factor alone.
Dinner was deep dish pizza at Pi Pizza, our best meal of the trip. Afterwards all four of us collapsed into bed by 9:30pm.
Oh boy did we ever need a vacation. We didn’t really have the time or funds necessary for the vacation, but it was a must-do for the sanity of the family. Since we are pretty good at a budget-trip when necessary, the four of us loaded up in the new van [hereafter referred to as the family truckster] and set out for St. Louis.
Why St. Louis?
1) It is a place we haven’t really visited. The husband and I did a quick overnight with my sister once for a concert, but we only did the generic downtown stuff (i.e. the Arch). So basically the city was unexplored.
2) It is close. The road trip is only six hours. I’m not ready to try and fly with the little man, so a nice comfortable road trip was really the only option. Six hours is totally doable.
3) It is a city and the tacky family is a city-visiting family. Outdoors is nice – for a night – but I’ll take good eating and high-quality museums over nature any day of the week.
After dropping the dogs off for boarding, we pointed the family truckster north and immediately noticed our gps trying to reroute us. I assumed – wrongly, it turns out – that it was being a stickler about picking the shortest route over the easiest route and ignored it. A couple of hours later when the navigator (me) went to sleep and we needed the gps however, it took us on a country detour through every business district imaginable. Turns out we still had the thing set to avoid highways from our trip to Austin (when we wanted to explore the city more). I should point out that we weren’t on the interstate here; setting the thing to avoid highways meant avoiding the biggest state highways in the area too. It added 1 ½ or 2 hours to our trip. Luckily we all found it funny. It helped that we weren’t hungry, tired, or cranky since the drive really wasn’t that long to begin with.
The longer drive only left time for eating dinner and doing a little neighborhood exploration when we finally arrived. We stayed in an extended-stay suite hotel in The Grove* neighborhood and it turned out to be a great pick. Quiet, easy to navigate, visually interesting. I highly recommended an extended-stay for families traveling with wheelchairs. Even with a simple studio suite (king bed and pull-out sofa), we had plenty of room and no one had to fight with the chair for space.
Let me stick in an aside here to talk about St. Louis roads. We are not friends. The city doesn’t seem to be set up on any reasonable pattern. The sheer numbers of signs I passed that said “Street Not Thru” was astounding, as was the number of large planters severing what used to be normal streets. Don’t even get me started on the X-shaped intersections with multiple additional streets bisecting the X. I’m a good navigator and I like to explore cities based on a general feel for how the roads run. Impossible.
Anyway, we headed to The Kitchen Sink for dinner. It was highly rated and recommended on several sites. I called first to make sure they had a back entrance that was wheelchair accessible (the front had stairs) and we were on our way. Hmmm . . . well, service was bad. Wait, let me qualify that. Our server was wonderful when she was able to make it to us, but they were clearly understaffed. The two(!) servers were running around like crazy and just couldn’t keep up. A table next to us left after no one came to take their order for ten minutes or so. I don’t fault them for this – it was clearly an unusual situation.
But let’s talk about the food. It was good. Nothing amazing – certainly not “unique” like many of the reviews and the restaurant’s own website described. I don’t live in what you would consider a foodie town, but can get something like this in any local restaurant. The daughter had a waffle, the husband had the 4 Horseman (small helpings of sausage/beans/rice, jambalaya, etouffee, and gumbo), and I had the Doc Holiday (a coffee-rubbed ribeye sandwich with mushrooms and cheese). Again, it was good. Nothing to write home about. Maybe they were having an off night. Maybe we ordered the wrong things. Maybe I was just annoyed by the dish on their menu called the “Special Ed.” Maybe their American food with a Cajun twist just wasn’t twisty enough for a family from below the Mason-Dixon Line.
*”The Grove is a growing vibrant business and entertainment district along Manchester between Kingshighway and Vandeventer in St. Louis City. In the Grove you can find a diversity of independently owned restaurants, nightlife, retail, and services. It is also home to the premier nightlife in the area, and is a thriving center for the LGBT, artist, and cycling communities in the St. Louis area.”
I’ll start out by saying that this post is not sponsored by the Great Wolf Lodge.* We have been four times and friends/family/coworkers/etc. always ask about it. I have mostly good things to say – the place is super fun – but I always add one big caveat . . . it is expensive. If you don’t plan ahead, this place will drain every spare cent from your bank account. Be prepared to amputate a limb on the way in.**
It doesn’t have to be that way though. If you pay attention to my tried-and-true tips, you can keep your costs at a minimum and still have a great time.
I’m writing this from my experience staying at the Great Wolf Lodge in Grapevine, Texas. The rooms and amenities are pretty much identical, but there are some differences and extra activities vary so check your location for specific information.
1) Book smart.
A quick look online*** shows rooms at Great Wolf Grapevine currently ranging $200-$400 weekday and $400-$500 weekend. Last minute spring break is not a good time to plan an impromptu trip to this kind of resort. Instead, book early and look for special deals (the website nearly always has some sort of promotion going on if you are booking more than one night). Great Wolf pops up on Groupon all of the time. These deals don’t always save you that much on the nightly rate (we used one this time and saved about 20%), but they include things like food and activity credits. Also, it is very important to remember that your nightly rate includes waterpark passes. For a family of four, I would say that probably works out to about $100 of your rate (I didn’t do any real calculations here, just thought about tickets I’ve purchased to similar things). This brings us to number 2.
2) Use the waterpark.
You have access to the waterpark from the time you check in through the day you check out (you can and are encouraged to continue to access the waterpark after standard checkout time). Do not book a room at Great Wolf unless you plan to spend at least 75% of your time at the waterpark. Just the waterpark, not activities that cost extra. Personally, we usually spend at least 85% of our time on-site to get our money’s worth. This is not the kind of place to stay if you plan to spend a couple of hours swimming and the rest of the time out-and-about doing traditional vacation stuff. If that is what you are interested in, find a hotel with an awesome pool and do Great Wolf some other time. Seriously.
3) Plan your food.
Okay, now we are getting in to the more important money saving tips. Great Wolf has a number of snack bars and restaurants on-site of various prices and cuisine. Think about what you want to eat and plan accordingly. For example, they have a tasty (and fully-stocked) buffet at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You probably don’t need to visit the buffet at each meal, especially if you are going to be swimming all day long. Maybe hit it up for morning fuel and do a cheaper snack bar option for lunch. Or pick up a $15 pizza for dinner (also on-site). You have a refrigerator and microwave in your hotel room – use this! Bring your own breakfast items, snacks, and drinks. You can’t always take these things into the activities, but since you room is only a short walk away they are always available. And while a lot of the food is priced like traditional restaurants, the more snacky items and drinks have your typical resort mark-up. This is what you want to supplement with your own supplies. I grabbed two bananas and apples on the way out of the breakfast buffet for mid-morning snacks. Worked perfectly and it was healthy! Mom win!
4) Don’t attach your kid’s band to your credit card.
One of the really nice things about Great Wolf is the wristband you get at check in. These are your “tickets” to the waterpark, but can also be your room key and credit card. We usually do room key/credit card for the adults, room key for the daughter, and just the regular band for the little man. This means you don’t have to take anything down to the waterpark except yourself; everything you need is on your wrist.
Now, you might think it will save you a lot of time by putting some money on your kid’s band, but I disagree. Let’s think about this scenario: You give little Johnny $20 for souvenirs and snacks. He immediately buys a $12 giant icee. It comes in a cup that gets free refills, so he argues that it will be a good deal (but are you really going to let him drink a bucket of soda with every meal?). Then he buys ice cream and a bag of chips. We know how kids are, so this all happens in the first two hours. Suddenly it is lunchtime and you head to the buffet. Little Johnny isn’t hungry though, so he just picks at his food. Then 2pm rolls around. Little Johnny is starving, but doesn’t have any money left and you have to pay out-of-pocket. See? Just don’t do it. Stay in charge or you could blow all of that money-saving planning.
5) Don’t do the extra activities unless you are staying for more than two nights.
Let’s be honest here – the other activities in the hotel, especially various Quest games, is simply a way to get the kids out of your hair for a little bit and burn off the sugar they have been consuming. With the questing game, you have to purchase a wand (reusable, but who is really going to remember to bring that back next time?) and pay for the game. Do you really need to pay for a couple of hours of silence if you are only staying for a short time? If you are staying longer however, buy that game, push the kids out of the hotel room, and put your feet up. You deserve that!
Just staying for a night or two? Explore some of the more cost-effective options. At Grapevine, the ropes course is a great option if your kid needs more than the waterpark. For $10 they can visit it as many times as they want and – bonus! – get to burn off energy while they climb.
*Email me, Great Wolf Lodge! I’ll gladly try and report back on all of your services. ☺
**Because it costs an arm and a leg . . . get it?
***Last week when I wrote this.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel a fair bit, although not so much since we added the little man to the family. Had you asked me about my favorite place to visit before I got married, I probably would have said London (where I’ve been exactly once) or maybe New York City (where I’ve also been exactly once). Since then I have expanded my horizons and have two stand-out favorite vacation spots from the past ten years.
My all-time favorite city. I love everything about Chicago and feel happy there from the moment I get off the train to the moment we leave. One of my favorite things to do is Chicago is people watch – especially under the trees near the Water Tower where you can get a mix of tourists and locals. My other favorite things to do include the Field Museum (of course!), the Museum of Science and Industry (of course!), and the Art Institute. The first time we went to the Lincoln Park Zoo, the animals in the big cat area where roaring. Even though I’ve been to a ton of zoos, I realized then that I had never heard anything like it. And let’s not forget the shopping! So much shopping, And eating. So much eating. Great food, great shopping, great people, great culture. Love it all! Plus, you never run out of stuff to do. Ever single time you go to Chicago, there is something new to experience.
2) Kansas City
When I first visited Kansas City, I really didn’t know much about the city and had no clue how much I would enjoy it. We picked it because it was within a day’s driving distance and was somewhere neither of us had ever been. My favorite places in Kansas City include the World War I Museum and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. First of all, how can you not love someplace with giant shuttlecock statues on its front yard? And the WWI Museum is probably one of the best I’ve ever been to, as far as engaging an audience is concerned. Let’s not for the Harry Truman Presidential Library; it is nearby in Independence. I’m a sucker for a presidential library. One of the things I like about Kansas City is the abundance of family activities – there is a nice balance of stuff to keep kids and adults happy.
Other places I enjoy visiting: Memphis, TN; New Orleans, LA; Santa Fe, NM; Washington DC; St. Louis, MO; Dallas, TX; San Antonio, TX; Richmond, VA
Places I haven’t been to, but would like to visit: Portland, OR; Cleveland, OH; Asheville, NC; Seattle, WA; San Francisco, CA; Alaska; Boston, MA
Places I want to spend more time in: Atlanta, GA; Denver, CO; Austin, TX