Dean & Nancy Hoch

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Can you imagine a family of 38 members gathering for a family reunion cruise – all courtesy of Grandpa and Grandma? For our family it wasn’t something to imagine; it was a reality, and it turned out to be a blast! Rather than leaving money in a will, we decided to enjoy some of our nest egg along with our family, and a great decision it turned out to be.

When we first told our neighbor about our tentative plans, she said incredulously, “Thirty-eight family members – and they all get along?” She really was amazed, but we knew our crew of five sons and their wives and kids, as well, or we would not have proposed the idea in the first place.

When we started out raising those five rambunctious boys, we could never have imagined what the years would bring. However, as they were growing, we often told the boys that somewhere in the world five wonderful girls were also growing up and that one day they would all be married and raising kids of their own.

That, of course, was beyond anything they could envision at the time, but it all came about just as we had said. Little did we dream, however, that those five sons and their beautiful wives would reward us with 22 equally beautiful grandchildren — and so far, three darling, little great-grandchildren.

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Okay, we’re prejudiced and admit it, but truly it’s amazing for us to live to see the start of not just one, but two whole new generations.

When the boys started to marry and have their own little ones, neither of us liked to shop much at all, so, for the many oncoming birthdays, we made it a policy to give the grandkids a dollar for each year of their ages, stopping when they turned 18. With their 18th birthday card, we jokingly told them that if we continued sending them money, we’d eventually run out of cash. By that age, they understood.

At Christmas time, we gave them each $10 toward a book of their choice. Then the rest of the money went toward our specially planned yearly reunions.

For more than twenty years, we planned all kinds of weekend reunions. Instead of Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, we undertook our family “Moveable Reunions.” Living in Southeast Idaho, we held various summer gatherings in the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Lava Hot Springs, Heise Mountain River Ranch, water parks in Boise, Bear Lake and amusement parks in Northern Utah, and other locales. What fun they all turned out to be – mostly weekend events — and what grand memories were created for everyone.

When we first queried the clan about our tentative plans for the cruise, our oldest son and his wife from Seattle, immediately said, “Count us in.” Another family from our area of Idaho said basically the same, as did the three other families living 150 miles away. Months of careful planning followed.

Ferris Bland, an experienced and friendly employee of Vacations-to-Go handled a huge amount of the details for our Carnival cruise. He was outstanding, ever responsive to each of our queries, and, because of him, everything went off without a hitch.

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The cruise we chose, of course, was something we saved for and considered “the really biggie reunion” for our family — a three-nighter calendared during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, sailing out of Long Beach, California. The only shore excursion was a day in Ensenada, Mexico, or “Enchilada,” as Grandpa called it. An option would have been four nights, including a day on Catalina Island, but this didn’t work out in our time frame.

As travel writers, the two of us had been on a number of cruises, and years earlier we had taken our five sons and their wives only, on a similar cruise that they all remembered fondly. Most of the rest of the family had never sailed, so this was definitely an exciting adventure for them.

Excitement built as the time for our departure drew near, and, in spite of rain and snow and heavy traffic, we all converged in our individual vehicles on our Southern California destination — each coming from the various directions and everyone arriving safely for our overnighter in hotels near the pier.

We neglected to mention that, since gas for the trip was a consideration, we also provided a travel stipend of $300 per vehicle, as well as some colorful HOCH FAMILY REUNION – 2014 CALIFORNIA CRUISIN’ T-shirts for everyone, even the babies – both “gifts” each family greatly appreciated.

As we all arrived at the dock on the afternoon of our sailing, we marveled at the huge ship, and we all excitedly went about finding our cabins and getting settled in. The crew welcomed us warmly, and the first meal on board met with everyone’s approval, as did all the subsequent meals — both the formal, sit-down dinners, the ever-open pizza bar, and other food stations in many places on the ship.

Our group was comprised of all ages, the youngest being two tiny great-grandsons, both in the 1-2 year age range, as well as twin grandsons, age nine, who loved best of all the “endless ice cream machine” on one of the decks. We had several older teen boys who spent a lot of time in the work-out room, and all the girls and the adults especially enjoyed the formal dinners, dancing, shopping on shore in Mexico, and every other interest and activity you can imagine in between. What fun we all had!

Our ship, the Imagination, held some 2,000 guests, and was well appointed. We could have wished for more family-oriented evening programs, and the two of us did spend a half hour talking with the cruise director about this concern. He said he greatly appreciated our input and that the cruise line was definitely considering moving in that direction. We hope they do.

Did you know, by the way, it’s been said that media specialists figure that one comment represents the opinions of roughly 100,000 people? So it does pay to speak up. Even if it’s only a fraction of that number, it obviously pays to let concerns be known.

Now, if you are contemplating a family cruise, we recommend, of course, to plan well ahead. The rewards will no doubt be, as they were in our case, well worth the effort – such as many hugs, thank you notes and positive follow-up comments, often months after the event telling us what a great time everyone had and how much our efforts were appreciated. Surely the memories created were worth it all.

As we were disembarking, one of the twin grandsons took Grandpa by the hand and expectantly asked, “Grandpa, when will we get to go on another cruise?” And Grandpa replied, “Tell you what, son, you go and ask your daddy the same question, and see what he says. Also, tell him that when it happens, maybe you’ll invite Grandma and Grandpa to go along on that one?”

He seemed okay with that answer; we’re not sure about his dad.

It’s a bit redundant to ask that, if time and means were to permit, would we do all the planning and put up all the funds for this bonding experience with our big family again? The answer is: You bet!

 

Yes! It’s true. You can forget all the problems that so many travelers experience when visiting Paris. Instead, discover as we did the magic of Quebec City (population 750,000) and Montreal (over 1.8 million), located, of course, in Canada’s gigantic province of Quebec at a fraction of the cost.

Having visited both of these parts of the world, we can honestly say that a trip to Quebec rises to the top with just about any comparisons you might care to make.

We are combining these two Canadian cities because of their relatively close proximity to each other – just 150 miles — and the fact that once you’re in this part of Canada, you might as well experience what both have to offer. Collectively, they exude a real and rich French flavor. Small wonder since there’s so much French history, and French, of course, is the predominant language – in fact, 93 percent of the people speak it. This fact may put some travelers off. However, this should not be the case, because most of the people of the region also speak excellent English, so there is virtually no language barrier, except perhaps for a few street signs and restaurant menus.

And, if a problem does arise, all it takes is asking any of the helpful people on the streets. Quebecers (yes, that’s what they call themselves) are very helpful and very welcoming to Americans and people of all nationalities. We were surprised to note that when we obviously looked a little puzzled at a street crossing, or while peering at a map, someone was sure to pop up and ask if we needed help.

In our six-day trip there we visited both cities, joining them with a delightful three-hour, scenic train ride on the country’s outstanding Via Canada Rail System – in our case traveling from Quebec City to Montreal. This was an exhilarating trip that we thoroughly enjoyed; we loved seeing much of the countryside of Quebec, including the rich farmland and the small villages along the way – a real treat and akin to meandering by rail through the European countryside.

To defend our claim about forgetting Paris, we’ve chosen several personal and pointed comparisons showing Montreal and Quebec City as the contest winners – such as:

DISTANCE: No need to take that much longer flight to Paris when Quebec is closer and almost certainly less expensive for us Yanks, i.e. Chicago to Paris is 4,200 miles, Chicago to Quebec City is only 900 miles.

FRIENDLINESS OF THE PEOPLE: Sad to say, in all our overseas travels, Paris was overall the least friendly; conversely Quebec City and Montreal are at the top of the list as most friendly. In fact, 99 percent of the visitors to Quebec City say they are happy or very happy with their warm welcome. We assume the same is true for Montreal; it was for us!

COURTESY & GOOD MANNERS: Unlike our stay in Paris, we found Quebecers, as noted, to be kind, helpful and courteous at every turn. We were often addressed as “Sir” and “Madame.” Only once in some of the many narrow streets we crossed, and the long city walks we enjoyed, did we hear a small toot from the horn of a passenger car to let us know we had wandered into a driver’s path. We also found young people to be especially helpful – even giving us their seats on the subway, if you can imagine– not so in Paris. In fact, as first-time users of the huge subway system there, we asked directions of a subway official and were sent opposite of where we wanted to go. So, after a couple of hours, we had to find our way back ourselves to the original station and then head off to our original destination. Not fun! And not a good experience for newcomers to the city.

SUBWAYS, by the way in Montreal, are much cleaner and fresher smelling than those in their ancient European counterpart.

CUISINE: Ah, it’s doubtful you’ll find finer anywhere in the world — including Paris. One of the local restaurants has the clever slogan: “It’s to dine for.” We are happy to recommend some that we can unequivocally say provide outstanding dining delights you will not soon forget. Three are very French and one very Italian — L’Echaude, St. Hubert’s and Savini’s in Quebec City are superb — and in Montreal you just can’t find any finer than Restaurant Apollo and also Jardin Nelson’s. Mmmm! Mmmm! Fabulous taste and outstanding service in each. Also, the many sidewalk cafes are just like you would hope to enjoy in “Gay Paree.” So, Bon appetite — right here in North America!

SMOKING: We saw few people smoking in the cities we visited in Quebec versus the prevalence in Paris.

SAFETY & CRIME: We don’t have statistics, but from all we’ve heard, you’re a heck of a lot better off in Quebec than you are in Paris, where we were warned of pickpockets galore and also sometimes families of gypsies going about robbing people. Whereas, in Quebec we found we could walk the streets nearly anywhere after dark and not feel the least concern – a big plus in any trip and a special treat when keeping late hours.

RIVER CRUISES: Again, you can forget the Seine. Instead, try cruising the mighty St. Lawrence River – a whole different experience. We enjoyed both a ferry boat ride in Montreal – this from colorful, Old Montreal to the Jean-Drapeau Park — and also a much longer, larger boat ride we boarded in Quebec City. These rides were on The Croisieres AML Lines — website: crosieresaml.com. This is an excellent cruise excursion company with 18 boats that serve a half million people annually. We thoroughly enjoyed both rides and the ever-changing views of the shoreline.

CITIES OF ROMANCE: Perhaps Quebec City and Montreal could be called “the twin cities of lovers.” We noticed so many couples of all ages holding hands as they strolled the streets and byways, looking very much in love. Maybe we’ve forgotten, but we don’t remember that being the case in Paris.

TO SUM UP: We could go on and on, but, let it be said that the European flair of Quebec City (old-world in architecture and spirit) and Montreal (more modern and cosmopolitan) provide a great combination that eliminates going to Paris for the same kind of travel adventure.
Now, for just a few specifics that made our trip to these two Canadian cities so captivating for us:

#1 For a long time, we had hoped to be able to see Quebec City’s fabulous Festival of the Military Bands which is held every August – truly a fabulous, must-see event. These crack outfits come from various parts of the world to showcase their remarkable talents, and the highlight of the week is the stirring Military Tattoo (teh-TOO) which is held indoors at the Colisee Pepsi. The Tattoo is an evening performance of the various bands, including a totally unforgettable Scottish regiment compete with pipes and drums, marching before an enthralled audience of thousands. Standing ovation, after standing ovation occurred as these fantastic groups “strutted their incomparable stuff.”

Both concerts we attended featured bands from Germany and Chili, as well as other groups, and we can’t say enough about how thrilling they were. Be sure to check out the website: www.fimmq.com

A Military Tattoo, by the way, is also held every August in Edinburgh, Scotland. To see that one, we had to plan a year ahead for tickets, and, again, you can have much the same experience without having to cross the Atlantic and the additional costs involved.
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#2 The Cirque du Soleil, which originated in the 80’s near Quebec City, and are held around the world, is a circus like none other anywhere. The one we saw was held outdoors at night and was stupendous — truly another of those wonderful, not-to-be-missed events. It’s been described as an eclectic mix of circus arts and street entertainment, as well as being the largest theatrical producer in the world — and the unchallenged world leader in circus arts. It and the military bands make an absolutely phenomenal duo for exciting, non-pareil entertainment. The circus’s website is: circdusoleil.com, and, for those interested — English pronunciation & translation are: sirk-due-soLAY – Circus of the Sun).

#3 if time permits, arrange for a half-day touring Old Quebec and another half-day in the countryside seeing Montmorency Falls, taller than Niagara, and the farming country of the island in the St. Lawrence River – the Ile d’Orleans. We also drove through miles of maple forests where the signature maple syrup of Canada derives. Our friendly, knowledgeable, and accommodating guide was Ms. Michelle Demers who was arranged through the Quebec City Tourism department. Website is quebecregion.com. We stopped, by the way, for a gastronomical experience that’s apparently to die for by the locals. It’s call poutine and is made by topping French fries — what other kind of fries in Quebec but French — with brown gravy and cheese curds. Now, how’s that for something to write home about – or maybe not to write home about — depending on how discriminating you are about the new kinds of food you eat? We quickly learned to like it, but we had to wonder: How do the French folks of Quebec stay so thin?
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#3 Again, you don’t have to go to Paris to see what we all know as the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral. This is because Montreal’s Notre Dame Basilica is an amazing jewel in and of itself. The imposing church features dynamic organ concerts that seem to rattle the entire structure on the more strident chords, as well as a stunning sound and light show celebrating the founding of Montreal and the building of the immense structure that is well worth seeing. For more information, see the website: Therewaslight.ca. We, by the way, were taken on a tour of Montreal, as well as the basilica, by an outstanding tour guide, Martin Robitaille, arranged for by Tourisme Montreal.
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#4 Museums are everywhere in both cities — the history of the entire area being so remarkably rich.

#5 As for hotels, we greatly enjoyed our stay at the Chateau Laurier in Quebec City with its excellent restaurant serving all three meals and a brunch. It’s sometimes reviewed as “a very nice place to stay at a fair price.” This attractive property is close to the Plains of Abraham and other battlefields, as well as within walking distance of Old Quebec, the Citadel of Quebec, and many outstanding sites.

In Montreal, our stay was at the city’s world famous “Grand Dame Hotel,” the serene and elegant Fairmont–The Queen Elizabeth. Both this property and also the Chateau Laurier in Quebec City offer exceptional service; both are warm and welcoming. The Queen E., interestingly, was constructed over 50 years ago and sits atop the Via Rail Central station, if you can imagine — an engineering feat to say the least. There’s even an organic, rooftop garden where harvested plants of all kinds are used by the hotel’s chefs. Imagine that!

Along with a huge number of stars and celebrities, British monarch, Queen Elizabeth, II, has stayed at this property several times, and it was fun to learn that John Lennon and Yoko Ono chose the Fairmont Q.E. for a week-long “Bed-in for Peace.” Thousands have elected to stay in the popular suite the iconic couple occupied.
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All the above considered, if you want an old-world experience on a budget – and right here on the North American continent, you’ll be hard pressed to enjoy anything as much as you are certain to enjoy in the sister cities of Quebec City and Montreal. Voila – (vuala is an incorrect spelling sometimes used but the same meaning) “Here it is!” or we could say, “HERE THEY ARE!”
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By the way, wintertime events, we are told, are spectacular, as well, so you might need to make two trips to enjoy both seasons – maybe even four trips and do all four seasons!

It’s interesting to note that Quebecers consider themselves so different from the rest of the population of Canada that in 1995, a vote by the people narrowly failed to make the province a separate country altogether. Though we can understand the French-influenced populations wishing for independence, we rather hope that doesn’t happen. We personally would like to seek Quebec Province remain the shining jewel of the nation.

So, just where in the world is Snohomish County? And how is the word pronounced? Most importantly, in what way is this remarkable place changing the world?

Location: First-off, this huge Washington State county has its southeastern border located just minutes northeast of Seattle, and it extends east from Puget Sound to the Cascade Mountains – making it a terrific jumping off point for exploring a huge part of the Pacific Northwest. Pronunciation isn’t all that hard: Snow-HOE-mish.

And regarding changing the world?: Well, Snohomish, among other claims to fame, is the home of the city of Everett which, in turn, is a key player in the transformation of the changing airline flight industry that’s affecting the entire world. Everett is home to the colossus that is Boeing – a company that has already changed — and will continue to radically change our world.

In this city’s immense plant, the two newest airliners…the huge Boeing 747-8 passenger and cargo planes and the new light-weight, fuel-efficient Boeing 787 Dreamliners are being produced – the latter to the tune of rolling out seven of these majestic behemoths every four weeks – and they’re selling like Ivar’s clam chowder.

With orders in place for 900 more on the ramp, world-wide air travel will never again be the same. Imagine windows on these babies twice the size of those on conventional airplanes — and the ability to travel virtually jet-lag free all over the globe. For example, there is the adjustment of the interior lighting that simulates conditions at your destination, i.e., dawn, day, dusk and night.

If you go for a visit, be sure to take an informative tour to see how these new airliners are being mass produced inside the largest building volume-wise in the world. It’s an amazing place to tour, simply because of its sheer size and what is produced within its gigantic walls — the only tour available of a commercial jet assembly plant in North America.

We suggest you take the combined Boeing Tour and Future of Flight Aviation Center which are made possible through the joint efforts of the Snohomish County Public Facilities District and the Snohomish County Airport/Paine Field where the Boeing plant is located, as well as the Boeing Company, and the Future of Flight Foundation.

Snohomish County is also home to several other fabulous – but smaller — flight centers for those who love to pursue the history and ongoing fantasy of flight. For the past 100 years, the ongoing passion and innovation can be seen in various venues located just minutes from the Boeing plant.

We especially enjoyed the fabulous FLYING HERITAGE COLLECTION, the rare and private collection of Paul G. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. Located just around the corner from the Boeing plant, this collection is extremely well-designed and features combat aircraft and tanks from 1935-1945, used by the U.S., Britain, Germany, Russia and Japan. The collection is “Home of the Flying Warbirds,” as well as informative videos and huge prints of photos taken during this historic era.

We also toured two other fascinating venues near the Snohomish County Airport. One is the pristinely maintained HISTORIC FLIGHT collection — vintage planes from 1927 to 1957 all beautifully restored to their original condition and flight-worthy.
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Yet another is the MUSEUM OF FLIGHT RESTORATION CENTER. Here you walk through the huge work center where volunteers often labor for years to breathe life back into historically significant aircraft so they can go on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. One plane has been in the restoration process for 19 years!
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Airplanes aside, Snohomish County joins other Native American centers across the country in changing the way all Americans view the culture that existed in our nation before Europeans came on the scene –people searching for their own life-changing destinies.

One of the finest of these centers is located in North Snohomish County’s largest city, Marysville. It’s the Hibulb Cultural center of the Tulalip Tribes. For those not familiar, Hibulb (pronounced HEE- bulb) is the Tulalip name for “place of white doves.” And that’s another tongue twister pronounced Two-LAY-lip.

This thought-provoking cultural center is less than two years old and is a not-to-be-missed venue. It features 23,000 square feet of exhibition galleries with interactive displays and a 2,500 square-foot longhouse exhibit. Especially impressive are the military photos of tribal members who served our country, and there’s also a well-appointed gift shop.

Our well-informed and enthusiastic guide pointed point out the carvings and displays of totems, canoes, woven baskets and more. From her, we learned much of the history, cultural values, and spiritual beliefs of these gentle people. For more information, check out hibulbulbculturalcenter.org
5482e0800Snohomish, this unique and easily accessible county can change lives in so many more ways. From seaside diversions to the stunning mountains, Snohomish is rich in countless mind-bending delights for those seeking adventure, as well as rest and relaxation.

There’s superb year-round camping, kayaking, hiking, scaling of mountainous walls, bald eagle river float trips, whale watching, class IV river rafting, winter snow shoeing, and nature-based tours a specialty. Most of the activities are to be found short distances from first-class conference hotels, oodles of shopping, downtown city life, and more.

The city of Snohomish, meanwhile, located in the colorful Snohomish River Valley has more than three hundred antique dealers and is known as the Antique Capital of the Northwest. Added delights in this community are the Victorian boutiques and houses, and some great restaurants.

Can you see how this amazing Northwest County can — and is — changing the lives of so many in so many ways? So, why not make a trip to see what all it has to offer?

By the way, the base for our visit was the beautiful and welcoming Hilton Garden Inn – a wonderfully accessible property for all the flight venues we’ve described. It’s located just a few hundred yards from the Boeing runway where the big fellows are tested daily. We were fortunate to be on the fourth floor with a superb view of the west end of the huge Boeing complex replete with dozens of aircraft on the tarmac – especially colorful at night with the brilliant blue and white lights.

We agree that normally staying at a hotel so near an airport runway may not be at all that appealing; however, in this venue, we didn’t find the occasional muffled noise to be a problem at all. In fact, it was exciting.

It just doesn’t get much better than an afternoon discovering the amazing things that are being done to save orphaned sea lions in Southern California — then also go on to discover the wonders of just a few of the many tide pools in and round lovely Laguna Beach just south of Los Angeles.

That’s what the two of us had the fun of doing, along with our nine-year-old granddaughter, Alison, and what a day we had devoting ourselves to environmental and wildlife/marine life.

Our host was Cheri Ikerd, owner and operator of OC Wildlife & Beach Tours (the OC stands for Orange County). This sprightly, athletic-looking young lady picked us up at our hotel in her van and took us on one of her unforgettable half-day tours.

First stop was the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, inland from Laguna Beach and a place that for more than 40 years has devoted itself primarily to rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing hundreds of orphaned, sick or injured marine animals.

Here we learned the difference between California Sea Lions, Northern Elephant Seals, and Pacific Harbor seals– all friendly mammals that are cared for here. Over 70 volunteers help the small paid staff with this remarkable and much-needed effort.

Another mission of the Center is to increase public awareness of the marine environment through education and research – and we must say, by all appearances, these devoted people are doing a magnificent job as they pursue this vitally important work.

2013 has been the center’s busiest year in its 42-year history. Over 300 California sea lions have been rescued with more coming every day. Normally, 150-200 are treated in an entire year’s time.
Cheri, of course, chose just the right spot for our walk along the Laguna Beach shoreline, and here we were able to see just a small fraction of the Pacific Ocean’s endless tide pools — now highly protected by the State. We reveled in the wonders of the beach’s ever-changing panorama – meanwhile getting a good dose of Vitamin D.
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We learned much about the colorful sea life that can only be seen in the tiny pools left on the sandy beach when the tide is out, including sea stars (not starfish, we learned, since they are not really fish at all), sea anemones, sea urchins, tiny crabs, and so much more, all in colorful array. It takes a knowledgeable guide to point out all the wonders, and it then becomes a highly fun and educational experience that kids and adults, as well, can enjoy.

We were especially fascinated with the many varieties of sea anemones. The open ones look like a flower, and we could see the stinging nettles that allow them to paralyze fish so they can eat. These sea creatures have no hearts or brains and can live over 100 years. Maybe they know something we don’t?
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At a third stop, we viewed many kinds of birds, including cormorants and brown pelicans all perched on huge rock outcroppings along the shoreline. This is where sea lions and dolphins hang out, as well.
In this picturesque area, Cheri pointed out two immense palm trees that stand side-by-side overlooking the ocean. Locals call the trees Lucy and Desi, in honor of the “I Love Lucy” show and because the world-renowned comedians loved the spot. It’s also where their movie The Long, Long Trailer was filmed.

Small wonder that many other movie stars of past years chose to live in this spectacular area, as well.
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Cheri offers several half-day tours that include transportation, an educational guide, beverage and snack. Custom tours are available on request, and the towns visited along this dramatic part of Highway 1 on the Pacific seashore depend upon the tour you choose.

We chose the Wildlife & Beach Tour (Eco-tour) on what is referred to as the California Riviera Gold Coast. This tour is for all ages and involves light walking and the ability to climb the stairs from the highway down to the beach — and back up again, of course.

Several other morning or afternoon tour choices are available. These include the Beach Coastal & Shopping Tour, the Orange County Tour — including San Juan Capistrano, and the Laguna Canyon Artists Private Studies & Wine Tasting Tour. Only problem is which one to choose – perhaps stay on and take them all?

Are you ready for a “heavenly” trip to the sunny climes of Southern California? If yes, we can heartily recommend making your base at Irvine, a city quite unlike any other we’ve visited.

Why do we call Irvine divine? Because of all that this remarkable place has to offer. “You’ll be amazed at how much there is to see and do,” as the city’s visitors guide says — and “all within 25 miles and 25 minutes” – often much less. Here’s a listing of just a few of the possibilities:

 

· Beloved by millions, Disneyland Park and Knott’s Berry Farm– both are minutes away from each other. Check out disneyland.com – and knott.com
· Discovery Science Center – discoverycube.org
· Bowers Museum & Kidseum celebrating world art and culture – bowers.org
· Baseball’s Angel Stadium of Anaheim – angels.com
· Orange County Museum of Art – ocma.net
· Newport Sports Museum – newportsportsmuseum.org
· Crystal Cove State Park – crystalcovestatepark.com
· Laguna Beach – lagunabeachinfo.com
· Balboa Island — balboa-island.net
Does this list make Irvine an intriguing place to visit? It did us, and we’d like to share a detailed rundown of the fabulous time we enjoyed there — along with a nine-year-old granddaughter, Alison, who was thrilled (and extremely well behaved) our entire trip.

 

First of all, most of us might ask: Just where is Irvine — a city named for James Irvine, grandson of a prominent cattle ranching family? Obviously, when most of us think of Southern Cal, it’s the fabled suburbs of Los Angeles: Hollywood, Santa Monica, Redondo Beach, Glendale, Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach, and San Juan Capistrano, but if you haven’t discovered Irvine, you’re missing a delightful “hip hub” that opens doors to all the adventures mentioned above, and more — Irvine itself being a great destination. Just check out a map of the area, and you will see all those wonderful open spaces for hiking, biking, horseback riding – as well as the city’s close proximity to the ocean.
Our week-long adventure there started with a flight from Salt Lake City, nearest major airport from our home in Southeastern Idaho. With a change of planes in Oakland, our transit time took most of our first day. We landed at the newer John Wayne Airport in Orange County and were greeted with SUNSHINE – so great after a long, cold winter.

 

With our granddaughter in tow, you can bet we first had to see the two renowned and marvelous theme parks, and she loved them both.
Day One was spent at Knott’s Berry Farm, a pioneer in the amusement park industry. We hadn’t been there in years, but the Old West flavor remains, combined with a lot of up-to-date changes and first-class thrill rides. Just one of these extra exciting rides that Alison and Grandma decided to experience was the Supreme Scream – and scream everyone did – except Alison. Likely it just took her breath away.
This amazing new, non-roller coaster ride is one of the tallest thrill rides of its kind in the world. It takes four people at a time, seated in a row, straight up 30 stories into the air where the view is spectacular. Within seconds the riders are propelled to the ground in just three, negative-gravity seconds at speeds topping 60 mph. Chilling? Thrilling? You bet!
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Meanwhile, there’s oodles of gentler rides and other things to do at Knott’s, with highlights including the Peanuts characters roaming the park, and seen in Lucy’s Really Big Show situated in Camp Snoopy, as well as rides such as Lucy’s Tugboat, the Butterfield Stagecoach, Calico Railroad, bumper cars, and much more.

Knott’s is fun indeed – just look at the faces of the kids!

 

Day Two of our trip was full-steam ahead to DISNEYLAND, opened in 1955 by Walt Disney, and unarguably the most famous park of its kind in the world – now along with its newer companion park, Disney California Adventure. Here the three of us spent the “fullest” 16-hours imaginable. With a Park Hopper Pass, we started lining up at 7 a.m. to enter Disney California Adventure, going first on the new and immensely popular Radiator Springs Cars Land ride. Here Grandpa especially loved re-living his old drag racing days on this innovative attraction, among the other thrills of the ride.

 

“Soarin’ Over California,” is not-to-be missed. Here you travel over much of the great Golden State in an amazing IMAX-style, simulated flight.

 

Our Park Hopper Pass allowed us to hop from that park over to Disneyland in just a few hundred yards away. Our favorites in this original park were the ever popular Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan, “ít’s a small world,” the train ride, the monorail, and thrilling Splash Mountain, all culminating with the evening finale, Fantasmic! This incredible, stunning show on the lake features Mickey Mouse in a battle of good vs. evil and is followed by an amazing fireworks display. What a way to end our delightful day!

In one day, of course, we barely scratched the surface of all these sister parks have to offer. A special treat for Alison, however, was having breakfast with Minnie Mouse and some of the other Disney characters. She had her photo taken with several of them.
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Before you go, be sure to check out Disney’s relatively new FASTPASS to many attractions. With it, you insert your park ticket into the proper kiosk; get a FASTPASS ticket to that particular ride with a return time shown. Then go play in the park instead of waiting in line. Come back at the return time and walk right past the often very long lines of people waiting to ride that particular attraction. It’s a great concept – and it works.

The Disneyland Hotel, by the way, is a great property with its three lovely outdoor pools and its welcoming rooms. In our room, with its two queen beds, the touch of a switch provided a relaxing tune from one of the Disney musicals and, at the same time, lighted up a beautifully carved wooden mural on the wall behind the beds complete with tiny pinpoints of light. These are cut into the mural’s background and depict the fireworks exploding above Fantasyland’s castle. It’s a lovely way to fall asleep after a full day.

A plus for staying at the Disneyland property is the “Extra Magic Hour” pass which currently allows guests to enjoy an early entry — depending on the day of the week and prior to the times for the general public.

A book could be written about Disneyland. Suffice it to say that it’s no wonder millions of people from around the world come to this magical jewel — many folks opting to spend two, three and even five days where something new is always being added.

Day Three was a major change of pace — devoted to environmental and wildlife concerns. Our host was Cheri Ikerd, owner and operator of OC Wildlife & Beach Tours (the OC stands for Orange County). She picked us up at our hotel for one of her wonderful afternoon tours and took us first to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, a place devoted primarily to rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing hundreds of threatened baby seals and sea lions. Over 70 volunteers help the staff with this remarkable and much-needed effort, saving so many of these orphaned creatures.

Then, in the Laguna Beach area, Cheri took us to see just a small fraction of the Pacific Ocean’s endless tide pools that are now highly protected by the State. We reveled in the wonders of the beach’s ever-changing panorama – meanwhile getting a good dose of Vitamin D, as well. We learned much about the colorful sea life that can only be seen in the tiny pools left on the beach when the tide is out, including sea stars (not starfish, since they are not really fish at all), sea anemones, sea urchins, tiny crabs, and so much more, all in a colorful array. This is an unforgettable and highly educational experience that kids and adults as well, enjoy. Website is www.ocwildlifebeachtour.com.
Our week was speeding by much too fast as DAY FOUR presented itself. However, the pace slowed as we thoroughly enjoyed stepping back in time at the lovely, relaxing Irvine Regional Park with its signature California oak trees and its many massive Coast Live Oak trees, some 400 years old. This 450-acre — and very inexpensive and uncrowded park — opened in 1897 and was California’s first regional park, located about 20 minutes from our hotel in Irvine.

If you happen to go at Easter time, as we did, this park’s Eggstravangza is loads of fun, and it’s amazingly well-organized for the hundreds of excited children that attend – and very inexpensive.

The ten-minute, train ride around the park’s peaceful lake is especially relaxing, and a paddle boat ride among the ducks was a great treat for all three of us. The park also features hiking, biking, equestrian trails, and pony rides, as well as the Orange County zoo showcasing animals and plants native to the Southwestern United States.

In addition to the reasonably priced paddleboat rentals, which we thoroughly enjoyed, there are several kinds of bike rentals and old-fashioned “horseless carriage” rentals. Really, what more could anyone ask for in a casual, uncrowded and old-fashioned day at the park?
Check it out at www.IrvineParkRailroad.com
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The rest of Day Five was spent at Irvine’s amazing Spectrum Center, a shopping, dining, and fun center like no other – with free, multi-level parking. The center’s striking Moorish and Spanish architecture was inspired by the ancient Alhambra Palace-Citadel built in the 13th Century in Spain. Spectrum’s 108-foot Ferris wheel was shipped from Spain, and its vintage carousel and a 21-screen theater (including IMAX) are all part of the offerings.

Meanwhile, for those adults and kids who like endless choices of video games set in a huge arcade, then Dave and Buster’s 55,000 square-foot entertainment complex is the place to go. It features six party rooms, as well as an executive board room. Meanwhile, we were surprised with the quality of the delicious lunch we ate there in the larger of two dining areas — our meal highlighted with edamame as our appetizer and ending with three of us sharing one of the gastronomical desserts – all a perfect respite from all the other activities provided.
Popeye Vasquez is the public relations manager at Dave and Buster’s, and his name seems to fit the fun aspect of this particular venue.

Serious shoppers, meanwhile, need look no further than the more 100 shops and venues ready to serve them. This same kind of mall/resort atmosphere is evident at Irvine’s Fashion Island – a part shopping, part coastal resort. Fashion Island draws more than 13 million visitors a year to its inviting courtyards, its many open-air shops and its stunning ocean views.

Our final day of adventure was purposely planned to help us wind and prepare us for re-entry into our busy lives. We chose spring break and Easter vacation for our trip, so we attended church services on our final day, then drove to the coast once again to take a three-car ferry ride from Newport Beach to Balboa Island, famous for its Balboa ice cream bars and a the quaint little community that begs more exploration than our time allowed. Newport Beach, too, is a lovely seaside community to enjoy.

For an additional and memorable treat, we enjoyed an exceptionally tasty buffet/holiday brunch at Irvine’s upscale 6ix Park Grill located at the Hyatt. The restaurant features great ambience and the fun of patrons serving themselves in the working kitchen – something quite different. The choices of California Coastal cuisine, including local seafood, prime cuts of beef and ham, and a plethora of salads, soups, and more made for a highlight of our final day.

Because of its wonderfully convenient location, Irvine, as noted, is a fabulous jumping off point for the above sights and sounds and more. All-in-all we would encourage you to consider this upbeat city as your own hub of Southern California adventure seeking. All’s that’s written about this larger than life part of the world is real, and Irvine provides all you’ll need for a delightful vacation spot.

We must be sure to add that we spent several nights of our stay at the inviting Embassy Suites Hotel located just a mile from the John Wayne Airport. How convenient is that?

Shuttles, of course, are provided, the beds are luxurious, the pool and whirlpool inviting, and a full, cooked-to-order breakfast each morning can’t be beat. Offerings include tasty omelets, French toast, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and more. Mmm! There’s also a manager’s reception each evening featuring veggie trays, nachos, and drinks.

One of the guests we spoke with said that he visits Southern California often and has stayed at some less-than-great hotels – many of which are not kept up to date. Not so with this premier Irvine property, located smack in the central business district with its many corporate offices. The hotel, meanwhile, recently underwent a 3.5 million dollar renovation completed in 2012.

“None of Irvine’s Embassy Suites has ever disappointed me,” he said, “so that’s why I decided on this one on Main Street to bring my family this time.” An impressive endorsement with which we can definitely concur.

Our experience was extra special because we had the need to check in early, and our room was not quite ready, so the management insisted we stay in the Presidential Suite. You can bet that was an adventure in itself. The 180-degree view from the three huge windows was a delight in itself, and with two bedrooms, two baths, three flat screen TVs, and more, we felt pampered indeed.
We also checked out several of the regular rooms while we were there, and they, too, certainly leave nothing to be desired. We would stay in one of them anytime. It’s a lovely property.
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One thing we missed during our visit — cancelled due to a slight change in wind and weather — was a ride on Orange County Great Park’s tethered, helium-filled orange (what else?) balloon that soars up to 400 feet above the surrounding landscape. It holds 25-30 passengers, and serves as a public observation deck for the $70 million development plan to expand the park’s current 60 acres to more than 200 currently underway.

The metropolitan park itself is located in the heart of the Irvine area, and it also features a visitor’s center, tournament-quality soccer fields, the Palm Courts Arts Complex, a kiddie cave at Kids Rock playground, a carousel and more. You can be sure this park is on our bucket list for our next trip to Irvine.

 

IMPORTANT: It goes without saying that it’s best to plan, if possible, the least busy time you can arrange, if you plan to visit Disneyland, and don’t forget a GPS for ease in getting around “Divine Irvine” and environs.

What better way to spend at least a day than at a veritable Western version of the “Smithsonian” museum located on the wind-swept prairie of South Dakota? If you take us up on this idea, you’ll be among 100,000 or so other visitors that show up here each season – and the season in South Dakota is mainly June through October.

We drove into the otherwise nondescript, little town of Murdo located between the two major cities of the State – Sioux Falls and Rapid City – and we never dreamed what awaited us just a block off Interstate 90. We saw some signs advertising a Pioneer Car Show and Prairie Town, but what we found was much more than the signs seem to suggest. We promise that, if you go, you will be transported back in time as far as the 1880s — and then vaulted forward through the entire 1900’s and into the modern era.
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Just a couple of hours southwest of DeSmet, South Dakota (of Laura Ingles Wilder fame if that site might tickle your fancy), here’s just a little of what you’ll see in the surprising little town of Murdo, population 679:
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Forty-two buildings in the Pioneer Auto Show are filled with an amazing, almost mind-boggling display of over 250 vintage cars — including classic cars, muscle cars, antique cars, dozens of motorcycles, 60 tractors and even an 1890 big, old, black, horse-drawn hearse. All are close enough to touch. There’s even a special display featuring a mannequin of Elvis Presley riding his pride and joy, an impressive turquoise and black Harley-Davidson. His shirt even matches the colors of the bike. All comprise the largest private collection of these kinds of vehicles in America.

You can also stroll through a “prairie town” authentically dating back more than a hundred years, with a jail, homesteader’s cabin, barber shop, blacksmith shop, and a one-room schoolhouse looking as it did so many years ago — complete with open books, slates, and chalk on the desks, as well as a pot-bellied stove, tin lunch pails, and those beautiful, old penmanship charts on the upper walls.
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Old Time School Room

Note: Many of the relics are of the vintage of Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. One big room of the 42 is designated as National Rockhound and Lapidary Hall of Fame. Here lighted display cases are filled with everything collectors will enjoy viewing.

There are hundreds of toy cars on display, plus old typewriters and Edison phonographs, dust-covered dental chairs, dental drills and even old metal tooth molds. And there’s an old time service station to boot.
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Current owner, Dave Geisler, is justifiably proud of his huge collection. He recently returned from the massive Pebble Beach Car Show with a trophy for one of his restored classic cars. His father, A.J. Geisler, launched the whole venture back in 1954, and the 50th anniversary was celebrated eight years ago. Then in August of 2011, the TV show, American Pickers, filmed a segment for national viewing.

This entire venue is also a kid-friendly place that provides an education as an added feature. Dave has pre-recorded stories in many of the buildings explaining the various displays. All a visitor has to do is press a button, and Dave talks away. Meanwhile, kids can also have fun gathering stickers for a well-planned treasure hunt.

In addition to all the above displays, Dave’s museum features a large, well-designed, Hallmark gift shop and a restaurant featuring ‘50’s décor. Tasty buffalo burgers are on the menu.
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Another delightful and totally unexpected surprise that awaited us in Murdo was staying at the pristine LandMARK Country Inn. Note: the MARK part of the name is emphasized because of the congenial innkeeper’s name, Mark Sanderson, and the “land” for the surrounding endless miles and miles of prairie.

This one-of-a-kind motel sits on 30 expansive acres just a block from the main street of town. As one approaches the property on the sloping hillside, evergreen trees and waving American flags on the hillside are all part of the welcoming atmosphere.
“Luxury Accommodations at an Affordable Price” is part of the advertising for this luxurious inn, and prices start at amazingly low rates.

There are suites with sunken tubs, hot tubs or whirlpools, as well as free in-room movies, music, and HBO, as well as themed rooms beautifully decorated with attention to every detail. Everything on site is impeccably clean. There’s also an inviting new indoor heated pool set at 90 degrees. The blue water is so clear it shimmers like polished crystal. There’s poolside TV, and swimming’s allowed until midnight. Rounding out the amenities are a continental breakfast, a small video arcade, antiques in display cases for sale, a playground and volleyball equipment.

In today’s world of innovation, we hear of buildings being made out of hay bales, foam, pumice and more, but we’ll bet you never heard of a building made out of corn cobs – and not just a building but a palace! Well, okay, the building itself isn’t really made of corn cobs, but since way back in 1892 as many as 275,000 ears of corn are used each and every year, beginning in September, to decorate two sides of the World’s Only Corn Palace. Old murals of corn, sorghum and milo are replaced annually, giving way to creative new murals of original design – and all to celebrate the harvest.
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If the entire building had been made of corn cobs and stalks, old Mr. S.D. Winterwind might have easily huffed, and puffed and long ago blown the palace right off the Main Street of Mitchell – South Dakota, population 15,000. That’s where the Corn Palace, a major folk art icon, is located. When you go there to see this creative landmark for yourself, you’ll find it located just off Interstate 90, an hour west of Sioux Falls, the easternmost city in the state.

Borrowing from some promotional literature on the building, this is truly an “a-maizing” and fun creation, except, of course, in years of drought, but even then, new murals replace old ones as farmers look to better times. The annual theme for the murals is done by a committee of eight, and a local artist from the university provides the drawings, which are then created out of ears of corn in various colors, as well as rye and sour dock (a weed) on huge panels of tar paper.

Each time we travel through as travel writers and see the Corn Palace, we are ever more impressed with this annual labor of love in honor of the “Corn God.” So are about a half million visitors annually. People come from everywhere to this wind-swept prairieland city. In one weekend, the visitor log showed visitors from all 50 states and 35 foreign countries, the Palace being especially popular with Japanese.
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August, by the way, marks the culmination of the annual summer doings with the Corn Palace Festival. All of Main Street is cordoned off, and as many as 70 vendors participate with big-name entertainment, agricultural exhibits, carnival rides for the kids and more. In addition, there are 300 event days per year at the Corn Palace, Mitchell being the focal point of the area for a 60 mile radius. The Palace is the site of many sports events as well as stage shows, trade shows and other activities.
Most visitors, of course, find the Corn Palace pretty “corny,” and so it most certainly is in a fun way! With its fairytale-like onion-shaped domes and Moorish, mosque-like appearance, it’s an unparalleled Midwest icon that the whole family will enjoy visiting and long remember.
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If you go: The World’s only Corn Palace is open to the public Memorial Day through Labor Day — 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Other hours in the spring and fall are April and May, September and October daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Meanwhile, the palace is open the months of November through March — Monday thru Saturday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission has been free since 1892, and tours also free.

Also, well worth seeing in Mitchell are the Dakota Discovery Museum, the George McGovern Legacy Museum, the Carnegie Resource Center, and a live archeological dig in progress at Mitchell’s Prehistoric Indian Village. Mitchell, by the way, is a thriving community with unemployment as low as three percent. Most of the jobs are in the manufacturing field, along with construction.

You’ve heard of “BIG D.” Dallas, Texas, of course. Now there’s a new descriptive vowel on the travel scene. It’s “BIG O,” and it stands for OKLAHOMA CITY, the gem of the great state of Oklahoma. Wanna learn more about this fun and fabulous city?
Here’s a little exercise designed to introduce you to the many attractions and adventures that await you in a visit to the gem of the great state of Oklahoma. All you need to do, as you read through this article is find and underline or circle all the phonetic long “O’s – as in “OH” and OklahOma. You can easily score how well you did at the end of the piece. The idea, of course, is to explore just a few of the many wonderful things Oklahoma City has to offer.

 
Ready to start hunting? Let’s go. . . .
Note: We’ll start you off by underlining the first few O’s

First of all – and importantly: Visitors learn of the strength, and hope and serenity of this remarkable city — and its resilient people – all portrayed in the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. Here in this haunting place is chronicled a sobering reminder of the 168 victims, 19 of which were children, who lost their lives in the tragic April 19, 1995, bombing by Timothy McVeigh of the downtown Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

 

Another not-to-be-missed museum and gallery of stunning sculptures, paintings and displays is the phenomenal National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. Included are the Rodeo Hall of Fame, the Hall of Great Westerners, a Children’s Cowboy Corral, and so much more.There’s a larger-than-life, bronze statue of former president, Ronald Reagan, in cowboy garb. It’s said his daughter, Maureen, before her untimely death, used to gently hold the big, outstretched hand and gaze up for long periods of time into the weathered face.

 
You can see there are five long O’s in the above two paragraph.
Let’s see where we can find some more. . . .

Located in the heart of the state, Oklahoma City also boasts the remarkable Gaylord-Pickens Oklahoma Heritage Museum. Here kids and adults can explore the great state of Oklahoma through the lives some of its famous citizens – such as Will Rogers, country music star Reba McEntire, aviation innovator Wiley Post, BMX biker Mat Hoffman and others – some of whom helped shape our world. Hi-tech, interactive exhibits and video-driven displays bring much of Oklahoma’s history alive.

 
You should now have eleven more O’s. And you’re on your own now on, so keep tallying.
While in town, don’t miss the OKC MOA (Oklahoma City Museum of Art) that welcomes over 100,000 visitors a year. This stunning museum features a permanent collection of European and American art, as well as the Noble Theater showing foreign and classic films and a café offering tasty French-fusion cuisine.
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If music is your forte, be sure to see the American Banjo Museum in the downtown area. Here are showcased the largest collection in the world of those great, old twanging instruments. In this national treasure are housed over 300 banjos, along with a replica of a 1960’s Shakey’s Pizza Parlor where live performances are held on Saturday afternoons.

 
Mmmm. Now we add in ten, and go on to find a few more.
Meanwhile, ghosts of the past time warp to the future in the Oklahoma History Center, an 18-acre, 215,000 square foot facility housing much of Oklahoma’s unique history. Meanwhile, don’t let this city’s relaxing, low-key atmosphere fool you. It’s loaded with some amazingly high energy – from the bright lights and music of Bricktown (once a warehouse district, now a newly-renovated area of superb restaurants and hotels, with its charming Riverwalk and fun Bricktown Canal boat rides — called water taxis). It’s fun sailing by the huge, bronze sculptures depicting the Oklahoma Land Run.
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There’s also the National Stockyards in Stockyard City. Here are found many authentic Western shops and live craft making, as well as the world’s largest cattle market where 10,000 head of livestock are auctioned each week. Now that’s a lot of beef!

 

Stockyard City also features a summer Wines of the West Festival, a fall STOCKtoberfest, a Cowboy Christmas Parade and more.

 
And now we can finish up.
Oklahoma also boasts 18 colleges and universities. The big OSU, OU and OCCC are just three of them. Believe it or not, we’ve only touched on just some of all that Oklahoma City has to offer. There’s the Paseo Arts District, the Oklahoma City Philharmonic Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Ballet, the Rodeo Opry, the huge Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, the Chesapeake and Devon Boathouses, offering rowing, kayaking and fitness programs, as well as every kind of professional and non-professional sports imaginable.

 

Oklahoma City is the largest city in the state with over a half million residents. It was basically settled in a day – and at the blast of a shotgun, no less. This phenomenon occurred April 22, 1889, when 10,000 homesteaders in their horse-drawn wagons dashed for their individual claim to acreage in the amazing, historic land run. It’s appropriate that the city is now the Horse Show Capital of the World with many year-round events.
Native American history, meanwhile, is critically important to mention and includes the Kiowa, Chickasaw and Osage tribes of the Plains, along with 36 other nations. Because of the many Indian dialects, more languages are spoken in Oklahoma than in all of Europe combined.
Oh, Wow! We add another 28.Total so far: 61. Almost done.

 

We could go on and on exploring all the many “Oh’s” (and Aah’s) that are part of this phenomenal city. Remembering the words of Rogers and Hammerstein’s timeless musical: “Yo, eye, yippee, oh, aye, kye a”, we know that “You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma” – and your fair namesake, Oklahoma City, is doin’ great, as well. It’s fun to note that back in 1953, after the huge success of the musical on Broadway — and the subsequent movie smash — the state took the show’s title song as it’s state song.

 
So, how did you do finding all the O’s? Let’s add up the score.
If your number closely matches ours – given a few O’s that might be in question:

74-51 – You have a keen eye for words and letters, especially finding the phonetic long “O’s” of OKC.
50-13 – Not a bad score at all in this range.
1-12 – You need to brush up on your ability to spot the wonderful “O’s” relating to this great American city.

“Hi, Brett, how would you like to head to sunny Arizona with us for a few days?” “Where in Arizona?” our 13-year-old grandson replied. “Phoenix area,” we answered. “What’s to do there?” was his next question. “Not sure,” we replied, “but we bet we can find some fun things to discover, not the least of which might be some sunshine!”

The above phone conversation occurred on a gloomy day in Southeast Idaho where the weather had been gray and cold for weeks on end. As the grandparents on this venture, we just wanted to escape to some warmth and bright skies and experience some fun in the sun with our grandson.

Rather than contacting the Phoenix Visitors Bureau for some ideas of kid-oriented things to do, we decided to venture out to some of the big city’s satellite communities – namely Apache Junction, Chandler, Mesa, and Tempe which collectively bill their communities as SUNNY ARIZONA — and which we like to call “The Big Four.” We wanted to see what offerings might be available, and were we surprised at the plethora of possibilities from which to choose – and all just a short drive from Sky Harbor Airport and downtown Phoenix. There is So Much More to Phoenix than Phoenix!

Chandler, our first stop, is a beehive of history, innovation, high tech companies and much more. It’s Arizona’s fourth largest city and growing fast. Dinner first night there was at the Old Spaghetti Factory located in Chandler’s huge Fashion Center which we found to be a hit for kids and adults alike — and a great way for us to start off our adventure.

A morning at Apache Junction’s Goldfield Ghost Town was a great diversion filled with Arizona’s colorful mining history. The site
includes off-road Apache Trail Jeep Tours, horseback trail rides at the OK Corral Stables, and guided hikes in the rugged desert terrain of Lost Dutchman State Park — plus a great lunch at The Mining Camp, a family style “all you can eat” restaurant. Plates heaped with barbeque ribs, oven baked ham, chicken with stuffing and gravy – even some yummy cactus jelly along with the rolls. Kids love everything about this place. So do their parents and grandparents, including the live country band. goldfieldghosttown.com
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Brett had the pleasure of meeting up with a young man his age from Georgia named Will who was traveling with a very young looking great-grandmother. The boys hit it off immediately and were able to enjoy several venues together. Both being bright kids (just ask the grandparents), they asked to extend their allotted time at Arizona’s Museum of Natural History in Mesa, where attractions include historical exhibits, a three-story Dinosaur Mountain, gold panning fun, as well as the newest installation – a Paleo Dig Pit, and also the sobering territorial jail cells with their three-to-a-cell, iron bunk beds. Prisoners were given no blankets or pillows and, of course, no heating or air conditioning. Hard to even imagine. azmnh.org

The boys also had a blast at jumpstreet, an indoor trampoline parking into – and then climbing out of — a huge foam pit filled with big, square, blocks of foam. For a break from the bounding and bouncing, there’s a popular mechanical bull ride to further test balancing skills. Watching Brett ride, we wondered if he might even want to pursue the sport as a living. Just kidding. This can be pretty rough stuff. All things considered, Chandler’s jumpstreet is a blast where participants are invited to literally “bounce off the walls.” gotjump.com
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If fascinating farm happenings are your thing, include, as we did, the Superstition Farms Dairy Tour with its “farm to fork” experiences of daily family life in a huge “agri-tourist” environment. Set within Mesa’s city limits, this farm provides an informative half-hour talk followed by another half-hour or so narrated wagon tour that meanders among hundreds of contented cows. Terms and information common to farmers and ranchers provide an education to those of us less familiar. To top off the tour, there’s an excellent up close and personal petting zoo and some tasty “udder delights” homemade ice cream. superstitionfarmtours.com

The other more upscale “farm experience” is Mesa’s Agritopia, once a lovely 1960’s homestead, now featuring the popular Joe’s Farm Grill with its extensive menu utilizing quality ingredients, many of which are grown in the beautiful surrounding community and commercial gardens. The grill serves up everything from date shakes to a dazzling array of salads, burgers, pizza and colorful, prize-winning cupcake specialties. Come early; the lines can be long. joesfarmgrill.com
Mesa, by the way, is Arizona’s third largest city and is dubbed the nation’s largest suburb.

Meanwhile, Arizona’s Sea Life Aquarium, located in Tempe’s popular Arizona Mills mall, features 36 display tanks with more than 5,000 sea creatures. Kids love reaching underwater to hold star fish, as well as seeing the sea horse display and walking through an ocean tunnel that provides a 360-degree viewing experience of underwater life. This is a top-notch aquarium. sealifeus.com
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Tempe, of course, is home to Arizona State University, one of the nation’s largest, and this lively, eclectic city is drawing more
tourists every year.

If you fly, a great way to top off your trip is a visit to the Phoenix Zoo (PhxZoo), named by Child magazine as one of the top five zoos in the nation for kids. Safari trains, a monkey village, cruising bikes, paddle boats on the lake, and the fun of feeding giraffes are just part of the many delights of this outstanding zoo. This is also a great place to end a trip because of its close proximity to the Sky Harbor Airport. phoenixzoo.org

By the way, some of the other exceptional food choices on our trip included: Monti’s La Casa Vieja in Tempe, serving pasta and steaks for nearly sixty years in an historic building built in 1871. We also enjoyed some excellent south-of-the-border fare at Serrano’s Mexican Food, as well as a great breakfast at BLD’s (a delightful place for Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner, what else?) in Chandler — and later in the day dessert at Paletas Betty, a popular frozen treat on a stick that originated in Michoacan, Mexico

We stayed at the conveniently located Hampton Inn & Suites at the Chandler Fashion Center, just 20 minutes from the airport. The property’s popular On-the-House hot breakfast buffet is a hallmark of the Hampton. Phoenixchandlerfashioncentersuites.hamptoninn.com

Brett’s assessment of this hotel: “The outdoor heated pool is great!”Brett’s father, on a business trip, had been able to join us for the first morning of our activities, so at the end of our stay, when we asked what Brett what he liked best about our trip, we weren’t surprised when he said, “Well. . . I think the horseback ride my dad and I both got to go at Goldfield was probably right up at the top of my list of favorite things.”

“And, if you had to choose just one super activity?” we asked. “Had to be jumpstreet,” he enthusiastically replied. Probing a little further, we asked: “And on a scale of one to ten, ten being the most enjoyable trip you’ve ever taken with us?” “I’d have to give SUNNY ARIZONA a BIG Number Ten,” said Brett. And, from our grandparents’ perspective, we’d have to agree.