Karl Childs

Day 1: We’re off!

Our family of six has left home for our final vacation before our oldest graduates and heads off on his own. Tomorrow, we will embark on a seven night Carnival cruise through the southern Caribbean. We’re especially excited for this particular cruise because, instead of just the standard five stops, this week-long cruise ports at six different islands. As enjoyable as a cruise ship can be, the real fun for us comes from exploring islands and getting a bit more “cultured”.

So on day one, we’re visiting the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. We flew into San Juan a night early, to be sure we wouldn’t miss the ship. The cruise port and the international airport are only 15 kilometers apart, so we split the difference and stayed in Isla Verde, almost exactly halfway between the two. From the airport, we jumped in a taxi which comfortably fit all of us, and headed to a condominium we had rented through vrbo.com. The trip was quick (6 kilometers), the conversation fleeting (the driver knew little English, and I know less Spanish), and the fare reasonable (being regulated and standard across the city.)

Since it was still early afternoon, we ventured out on a walk, looking for a place to eat lunch. Isla Verde is close to the water, so the area attracts both tourists and seasonal residents alike and so in turn hosts many restaurants, hotels, stores, and a vibrant nightlife. After enjoying just a few blocks of leg stretching and sunshine, we stumbled upon a treasure. Gorda’s Baja Taco, located right on Avenida Isla Verde, beckoned us with its brightly colored storefront and invitation to try its fish tacos. Ivan, the restaurant’s sole proprietor (and cook, and cleaner, and accountant), told me he had eaten at a similar establishment while visiting Arizona and fell in love with it. So he came back home to his native Puerto Rico and opened up Gorda’s, with the same flavors and dishes he experienced, but with his own Puerto Rican flair.

According to my oldest daughter McKell, it was “like a food truck in a building!” ‘Cause we love food trucks. Even her sister Kaylee proclaimed, “I don’t even like tacos, but I love these!” After looking through the menu of burritos, quesadillas, nachos and tacos, we took up the invitation to try the fish tacos and ordered those and a few other kinds.

“This is the best taco I have ever had!” When my wife compliments the food that profoundly, it means something. Truthfully, the tacos really were good. My favorite was the chicken, which meant it had to be absolutely delicious, as good as the fish taco was, as promised. After lunch, we found the nearby beach and dipped our toes in the water for a few minutes, and then hailed a taxi and spent the rest of the afternoon in Viejo San Juan, the historic center and oldest settlement of the island. We spent some time enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of the old city, but it’s always the old architecture and history that calls to me.

So I dragged the family (who were thankfully willing to go) to Castillo de San Cristobal, the largest fort built by the Spanish to guard the old settlement of San Juan. About a third of it has been torn down to make room for the growing city, but it still looms over the coastline. We didn’t pay the six dollars to wander its quarters and tunnels, since the old walls and guerites, or sentry boxes, that looked out into the ocean were free and open to the public. The stone walls and towers offered a fun place to climb, but I have to admit, since they tower high above the shoreline, and there are many spots with no barriers, I got nervous watching my kids peek over the edges. But I did it too. It’s hard to resist! But we had to be careful.
Day 2

We’re on the island of St. Thomas. The ship has been fun, and we like all the eating, but we were excited to disembark in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas’s capital. We had signed up for a scheduled excursion with Castaway Girl for a half-day catamaran and snorkeling adventure, so we immediately found the tour guide and made our way to the boat, harbored just a short distance from the cruise ship.

Our catamaran, despite its size that could easily fit fifty, was fast. Simply under the power of the wind, we were still faster than many of the other boats leaving the harbor. The smooth ride over the water was thrilling, the brisk wind cool, and the sight of the St. Thomas coast speeding by constantly reminded me I wasn’t in Utah anymore! The captain sailed us over to Buck Island, a small uninhabited piece of land just off the coast. Buck Island claims the second-oldest lighthouse in the Caribbean, but the real draw was the potential of seeing turtles in its small bay and the pieces of shipwreck lying under the water just off its protected beach. We stopped a few meters from the island, dropped anchor, and proceeded to jump off the catamaran’s deck, which sat about 6 feet above the water. Even though there is a ladder we could have climbed, the jump was much more fun.
We followed the snorkeling guide to a spot where we could see the turtles, fish, and other wildlife in the ocean. The water was clear enough to see the bottom and get a good view of the vegetation and rock formations. My family loves to experience new things, so when the tour guide dived down, brought up a Brittle Sea Star, and asked, “Who wants to put this in your mouth?”, McKell was the first one to yell out, “I do!” This turned out to be one of the greatest pictures of the vacation. The starfish crawled out of her mouth on the first attempt, but she got it to stay for the picture on the second try. The starfish wasn’t harmed, and the guide eventually put it back on the ocean floor, but what a great experience I’m not sure we would have had anywhere else. This journey just keeps getting better.

Day 3

It’s our day at sea. We enjoy the all-inclusive food and drinks, the professional shows, the games and fun on board, and not having to unpack more than once this whole trip. Enough said.

Day 4

We’re in Barbados. I had read the island is known for its luscious pink and white sand beaches. That reputation is well deserved. This island easily had the best beach on our trip. We had looked at a few maps and done some research, and thought we could just walk off the ship and over to a beach. It would have been a 25 minute walk, which didn’t seem too far away. We spurned all the taxi drivers offering us rides, until we finally gave in just outside the port entrance. A driver offered to take us to a much better beach for only $3 a person, rather than the double and triple amounts that others were charging. We climbed in his van and rode off through Bridgetown, ending up at a beach in Carlisle Bay you wouldn’t realize was there from the street unless you knew where to go. We rented a beach lounge chair and umbrella from the local vendors, but I ended up not using it much. The beach was a gorgeous white, cool to the touch, and the softest sand I have ever stepped in. Even throughout the day, with the sun beating down on the beach, the sand stayed cool. I didn’t want to stop standing in it! Just running my toes through the soft sand is an experience I still haven’t forgotten. No other beach, even the ones with nicer boardwalks and stores, could stand up to this one. Ah, that sand!
Day 5

Another island, another beach, another glorious day in the sun. We are here on the absolutely gorgeous St. Lucia. Out of the all the islands, this one is the most beautiful. There is so much green covering rolling hills and high mountains. Based on what we thought was good research, we walked out of the ship, by the small stores, and past the drivers asking for $40 or more a person to take us to one of the many beaches on the island. We finally stopped and asked one to take us to the much closer Choc Beach. At only $5 a person, we thought it was a great deal.

Once again, just as in Barbados, listening to the experience and guidance of the locals turned out to be our best choice. The taxi driver, willing to take us wherever we wanted to go, strongly expressed how unappealing Choc Beach is. No security, no services. Frankly, it was the no security that sold me, wanting to watch out for my family, but it wasn’t until he drove us past the beach, a small stretch of dark sand and broken trees with no one on it, that we decided to take his advice. Of course, the fact that he only raised his fare by $10 for our entire family helped sway us, so off we scuttled to Reduit Beach in Rodney Bay, a beautiful area built up for tourism and with a good view of Pigeon Island and its small ruin. The beach was nice and renting another chair and umbrella made it comfortable, but unfortunately the constant hawking of wares by the locals got to be a bit annoying. Every one of them was kind and gracious, but when you can’t rest for 5 minutes without being offered aloe vera straight from the plant, bowls and hats made of banana leaves, an assortment of jewelry and shells and scarves, or what admittedly looked like a very tasty assortment of chickpeas, potato, and meats wrapped in flatbread, it was difficult to relax. We still enjoyed our time and purchased a couple items (the banana leaf bowl still sits on our counter at home), rented a kayak for a ride out in the bay, and took a stroll down the beach, before our time was up and we were heading back to the ship.

Day 6

St. Kitts was our day off from the beaches and water. The ship docked right at the capital city of Basseterre, so we spent our day wandering the town. It is small, only about four blocks square, but has well-restored buildings and local flair that drew us in. We headed first for St. George’s Anglican Church and were rewarded with a wide open and welcoming structure. We climbed the restored bell tower, up some very steep stairs. Above the large cast iron bell, the hatch was open to the roof, so we promptly climbed up and out. I am sure it isn’t the safest place on the island because of its height and has no barriers to stop us from tumbling over the side, but it was refreshing to be in the cool wind and take a panoramic view of the city, the harbor, and the surrounding island.
After the steep descent, we wandered the church grounds and cemetery, and then made our way a couple blocks further to the Basseterre Co-Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. This Catholic church seemed much newer, and still provided a calm, peaceful visit, but it didn’t quite hold the history and feel as the other church. However, it gave us an opportunity to see the everyday life of St. Kitts a little bit closer. Situated directly behind the church is a school. The students were out for lunch, and we said hello to some, who were dressed very nicely in matching school uniforms and rushing off to buy local fare from either the street vendors or the grocery store, or just spending time in the neighboring Independence Square, a one-block park that historically was the site of the slave market.

We followed the students, Trina and I laughing at our kids (and my) reaction to the large fish heads being sold on the street, and found ourselves in front of the grocery store. We were a bit tired and thirsty from our walk, so we jumped at the chance to buy some “local cuisine” in the shape of juice boxes. We chose the most unique we could find, sampling currant berry juice and peanut butter drinks. It wasn’t the cuisine we’d been eating on the cruise ship, but it was just as refreshing. Day 7 It’s our final port, St. Maarten (for the Dutch side) or St. Martin (for the French side). We wanted to get to Maho Beach on the Dutch side of the island, the place made infamous by so many youtube videos and travel shows we’d seen, showing off how close to the beach the planes have to land on the short 7500 foot runway.

We found our way to the beach by way of a bus. It takes a little longer than a taxi, but at $2 a person, it was much less expensive. The taxis and busses look the same, but we figured out which one to take by looking at the license plates, which prominently say either Bus or Taxi on them. We made it to Maho Beach after a 20-30 minute ride, and promptly put down our bags and set up our towels. Even with all the warning signs of possible jet blasts, we didn’t think too much of finding a spot right in the path of the landing planes, since we wanted to get the best pictures and videos possible. Planes frequently came in to land, some small, some larger, and we enjoyed every one, feeling so close to each plane it seemed like we could reach up and touch it. None gave us any trouble, although the noise of the larger ones required us to cover our ears. Once in a while, a smaller departing plane would back itself up close to the fence bordering the beach before taking off, but they didn’t cause much alarm. A couple who had arrived earlier in the day said they experienced one “that was interesting”, but gave no reason to move from the beach.

And then it happened. We were so excited to see the largest plane yet back up closer to the fence than any other we’d seen. We jumped up, with our phones and cameras at the ready, standing on the beach close to the fence, excited to see what this one was going to do. Then it revved up its engines.

I haven’t ever stood in front of a sandblaster, but now I know exactly how it would feel. The propulsion from the jet engines was so strong, and lasted for so long before the plane actually took off, that I couldn’t think of anything but finding a way to block myself from the torture. I couldn’t even come to enough presence of mind to think of walking sideways out of the blast zone. There I stood, trying to wrap a towel around me to block the barrage of tiny bullets in the form of blowing sand. People were running and screaming, and I suddenly realized towels and bags and hat and glasses were flying by us into the ocean. We all jumped into the water to save what we could, all while sand kept blasting into our skin, our ears, our hair. Finally, it ended. The few seconds it lasted seemed to have gone on for minutes, but I was finally able to lift my eyes and look around. I don’t think anyone, at least anyone dumb enough to sit in a blast zone, realized what it was going to be like. Least of all me and my dear family. We were covered in sand, but with only the loss of my sunglasses, we fared well. It was an experience I would never, ever recommend, but it was one we will remember the rest of our lives. Day 8

Then it was all over. Cruising is a fantastic way to visit so many different locations on one trip, while enjoying the ease of prepared meals and the same room every night. It’s been one of our kids favorite vacations so far, but I think and hope we’ll create many more memories for them. But we’d all do it again tomorrow if we could.

My wife and I had a few days to take off, so we planned a quick excursion to the Long Beach area. Deciding not to make the trip too exclusive, we invited our kids along. It was early July, they were out of school for the summer, and we figured spending a few warm days closer to the ocean could help kick their summer doldrums.

When you think of California, what comes to mind? For a seasoned traveler, thoughts range from fine dining in Napa Valley to a scenic drive and adventurous hiking along the Pacific Coast Highway. But for a family of six off on a quick getaway, the big three stand out: ocean, theme parks, and tourist attractions.

So that’s what we did: Seal Beach, Universal Studios, and the Queen Mary ocean liner. In California, even staying on the road often traveled is pretty awesome.

Seal Beach (http://www.sealbeachca.gov/) is a coastal town in Orange County of about 24,000 people and boasts the second longest wooden pier in California. We loved that pier. While walking its length and looking out into the Pacific Ocean is rewarding, the real reason I liked the pier was to watch and listen to the waves slam against the pylons and concrete base, crashing and flowing around the structure. We set up our spot on the beach and ventured out into the ocean, getting more comfortable with the waves and the water, all the while being distracted by breakers seeking new ways to curl around the legs of the pier.

Those were the same breakers we tried to body surf on. Horribly at first, but with the help of a local beach-goer, I started to get the sense of exactly when to start swimming and just when to push my body against the crest of the wave. I wouldn’t call myself good, but I think I was getting the hang of it.

Directly across from the Seal Beach Pier lies the shopping district of Main Street. Within the space of just three short blocks, there are 49 gift shops, 6 art galleries, 4 antique stores and 24 restaurants. It’s a lot of California packed into a little bitty space. After swimming for a few hours and relaxing on the soft sand of the beach, hunger finally drove us away from the water and into this small collection of Seal Beach memories.

For lunch, we found our options of everything from seafood to sandwiches, BBQ to burritos. What finally pulled us in was a small pizzeria. With room barely large enough for the few dining tables, the smell emanating from the kitchen and the constant stream of customers convinced us this was a place proven to attract even the locals.

We were not disappointed.

A Slice of New York Pizza (http://www.thebestsliceofnewyork.com/Seal_Beach.php) serves a true New York style pizza, with a wide variety of choices sold by the pie or by the slice. You can also sink your teeth into your own calzone or stromboli, but we chose the ubiquitous Margherita pie and our girls favorite, the traditional cheese pizza. I don’t think you could go wrong with any of the selections, but after a day of swimming and sunning, these pies were the most delicious slices of heaven we could have found. Even the girls didn’t hesitate to reach for their share of the Margherita pizza.
We ate our fill and ventured back out onto the street to wait for our shuttle back to the hotel. With time to spare, we wandered into many of the unique gift stores. Amid the eclectic collections of wares, some gawky, some typical, and some funny but useless, we found beautiful creations made of shells and glass items pulled from the water. Buying these souvenirs made for a good finish to our first day of fun and sun.

The next day, we headed off to Universal Studios Hollywood (http://www.universalstudioshollywood.com/). It was a bit of a drive from our hotel in Long Beach, about an hour each way, but to keep it interesting, our shuttle driver provided a self-proclaimed “tour of the stars” through downtown Hollywood. She told us that driving through the city actually made the trip shorter, rather than being caught on the infamously crowded freeways of Southern California. And who doesn’t like to see Justin Timberlake’s house or the Grauman’s Chinese Theater forecourt of famous footprints from the window of a moving SUV?

Even though we couldn’t take the time to experience the real Hollywood, the pseudo-tour did make the drive more enjoyable. Being an entertainment industry die-hard, our oldest son Brandon couldn’t get enough. He was so excited to see the buildings of the famous Laugh Factory, the Kodak Theatre, and Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, the names of which he’d heard about and grown to love through his high school drama classes.

We made it to Universal Studios safely, picked up our Front of the Line passes (which I highly recommend during the summer months when the park is more crowded), and headed off to our first attraction: the House of Horrors. Not realizing that the park hosted a year-long haunted house, I thought it strange to suddenly be in a dark, frightening world of monsters and mayhem. How cool it became though, I quickly learned, to walk with Frankenstein and the Wolfman and see the classical creatures from the scary movies of the past. It turned out to be a great start to immersing ourselves in the movie worlds of Universal. And Brandon may have enjoyed it the most, with the two teenage girls from the group behind us hanging on him and hiding their faces in his arms as they encountered each new surprise. His was the largest grin coming out of the attraction.

Our day at Universal Studios had something for everyone. My girls were so excited to see Scooby Doo, the Minions, Vin Diesel, and so many other characters from the movies and to have their pictures taken with them.
The boys thought it was great to see the sets and scenery from blockbuster hits such as War of the Worlds and Jaws, while my wife and I got a kick out of the Whoville set.
And we all enjoyed the thrill of “riding the movies. “

While theme parks such as Universal may have fewer rollercoasters than other non-themed amusement parks, the overall experience of being immersed into a movie during the ride more than makes up for the number. Whether it’s the surge of speed in complete darkness on the Revenge of the Mummy ride or the quick getaway from a 3D Decepticon on the Transformers ride, you feel as if you are actually part of the imagined world. That is what I enjoy the most. From the moment you first enter the line, to when you step into whatever vehicle will take you on a new adventure, and through the entire attraction, Universal envelops you in their fantasy worlds. You become part of the story. Even when dropping 84 feet to escape the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. Splash.

Our final day was a little more relaxed. We took the chance to sleep in, and then leaving the kids to enjoy the hotel pool, my wife and I took off on our own adventure to the Queen Mary (http://www.queenmary.com/index.php).

Part hotel, part museum, this giant ocean liner is now a historical landmark. I would guess residents of Southern California know all about the Queen Mary – but we didn’t. I had no idea of the history and stories that this grand ship contained.
We started our tour not on the ship, but by going through its neighboring Scorpion submarine. This relic of the Cold War is unchanged from the time of its service in the Russian military. Although I enjoyed seeing it from the inside, climbing through its cramped quarters and even narrower walkways made me realize I never want to spend real time in a submarine. I became more appreciative of those who serve and the lifestyle they must live, which is the ultimate purpose of these floating museums. So the first steps we took on our half-day tour were a success.
Coming out of the tight submarine made the Queen Mary look even larger. We climbed several flights of stairs and started exploring the halls and rooms near the front of the ship, learning the original purpose of each public room and beginning to relive the life of pre-WWII passengers.

After a short self-guided tour, it was time to meet up with our guide for the Ghosts & Legends tour. “Do you believe in ghosts?” the tour description asks. I’m not sure I was convinced the ship is really haunted, but we really enjoyed going down deep into the innards of the Queen Mary, entering the original boiler room and seeing the old and creepy First-Class swimming pool. The lighting (or absence of light) and effects made for a jumpy and entertaining tour. However, the best part was watching the other patrons; we got quite the kick watching a sweet grandmother who I think was more nervous than her toddler granddaughter.

The final tour we took presented to us the story of how the Queen Mary served in WWII. This grand ocean liner played a critical role in the victory of the Allied Forces. Painted stark gray and nicknamed the “Grey Ghost”, the ship carried an almost unbelievable amount of troops. Again, I was impressed and struck by the sacrifice and efforts of so many who fought for and believed in a better future, of which my family and I get to enjoy. At the beginning of the day, I pictured myself climbing on a big ship and just having fun being on something so large. After our educational experience, my perspective changed and I viewed the magnificent ship as something so much more.

Which helped make our California trip a success. We created yet another great memory for our family. We played, we swam, we surfed. And we grew. Closer as a family, deeper in appreciation for all that we have, and more in love with southern California.
“California dreamin’.” And what a dream it is.

King County in the state of Washington is home to the coastal Puget Sound and its well-known cities of Seattle, Redmond, Bellevue, and Mercer Island. In April 2012, through a public policy poll, Seattle was named America’s most popular city. A year later, in February 2013, Seattle was ranked the #2 most literate city in the USA by a Central Connecticut State University study.

It seemed like a perfectly logical place to take my daughter McKell on an educational leave for her 15th birthday. Not only would we enjoy one of America’s favorite locations, but we could learn all about the area. We could find out how Seattle was settled in 1851 by the Denny Party, who worked their way north from Portland, Oregon. Or how Seattle is a derivative of the Indian name Sealth, who was a chief of the local Suquamish tribe when that Denny Party arrived. Or that Bellevue was dominated in the first half of the 20th century by farms known for their strawberries and blueberries.
But truth be told, we weren’t really here for education (don’t tell McKell’s teachers.) We were here to have fun! As a dad who sees his daughter getting older much too quickly, it was a chance to spend some quality time together, to grow closer to one another as we saw the sights and experienced what the region had to offer.
And what we found it had to offer was example after example of good, hard-working people, living in and building communities just doing what they love.
We started our trip in beautiful Bellevue, and I sincerely mean beautiful. The name Bellevue itself is derivative French for “beautiful view”. While living in the desert state of Utah has a beauty of its own, seeing the lush, wooded Puget Sound region of western Washington, gently nestled between two mountain ranges, brings a mystique to mind of misty woods and damp overgrowth filled with vampires and werewolves (think Twilight movies). We enjoyed driving on roads where you couldn’t see more than a hundred yards off to the side because of the trees, as if we were following a giant trail stamped out of the wild by a running Paul Bunyan chasing his big blue ox.
Since we were enjoying the nature and feel of the area, we ventured to our first stop at the 53-acre Bellevue Botanical Garden. We had an appointment with Nancy, the Garden’s manager, but I fear we were late. We got to the Garden on time, but as we were walking up the groomed paths and through the meticulous Japanese garden, we kept stopping with wide eyes and expressions of “wow, look at that!” on our faces. Colorful bushes, blooming flowers, a tinkling brook gently flowing over strategically placed stone steps. I was surprised at how much we were enjoying it, even before we met Nancy and got the inside scoop about the Garden.
After just a few minutes, it was soon apparent that this job and this garden was Nancy’s labor of love. Her excitement and passion of this place was clear as she told us of the different types of plants and flowers, ecologies and history. She told us of the community love and work that goes into growing and maintaining the gardens, how the neighbors were the ones who watch out for the preservation and security of the place. By maintaining and displaying plant collections, all natural to the northwest Pacific, the Garden’s mission, in part, is to demonstrate and educate visitors on local flora and fauna. So Nancy was visibly thrilled when the brand new signs with QR codes and NFC communication worked perfectly, as McKell placed a smart phone against the sign and up popped a Web page discussing the fuchsias we were looking at. Our visit was only a couple of hours, but it was a very memorable and pleasant way to spend a morning. Even for fifteen year olds.
Another of our favorite experiences in Bellevue was at Stone Gardens, sister to the original climbing gym in Seattle, developed by Keith Magnuson, owner and CEO. Keith met us at the front door and promptly took us on a tour of his labor of love, a climbing facility providing a fun, safe place to practice your climbing and belaying, or to increase your skill at top out bouldering, or to simply experience climbing for the first time. Difficulty levels across the 21,000 square feet of climbing and bouldering walls ranged from beginners to highly advanced, including walls that could be hydraulically leaned outwards up to 15 degrees.
After getting into our climbing gear and shoes provided by the gym, Brad, the assistant manager, took time out of his busy schedule to guide us, belay us, and frankly, make sure we didn’t kill ourselves. He explained to us how the multiple colored holds on each wall served a purpose other than just a pretty design. Each color marked a route up the 40 foot walls, ranked according to difficulty level. The 5.6 and 5.7, and even the 5.8, didn’t offer too much of a challenge. McKell would scoot up the walls like a squirrel up a tree, and not to be outdone, I would follow, although not quite so fast or elegant, but still making it to the top. So McKell bumped it up a notch to 5.9. That was my limit, but McKell did it well. Ah, youth.
Across Lake Washington from Bellevue, on the floating bridge that is State Road 520, lies Seattle. Our first experience in the city was at Pike Place Market, a home grown farmer’s market turned permanent. Farmer markets are often entertaining, vibrant, and of course delicious, but considered rural and small. However, Pike Place Market is the “soul of Seattle”, featuring all local produce, plants, food, crafts, and wares. The only national store allowed is Starbucks, simply because of the company’s origins being from Seattle.
We experienced the market by taking a food tour offered by Savor Seattle, the company featuring the tour guides hoisting the pink umbrellas as a beacon for their group. While I am not one that typically likes to go on guided tours, preferring to find my own way around towns and countryside, when you place the word “food” in front of it, the “tour” suddenly becomes much more appealing. Even starting at the gum wall on lower Post Alley, where both sides of the alley are covered in old chewed gum, didn’t dampen my appetite or anticipation of trying the local treats at the market.
We encountered the famous fish throw at Pike Place Fish, sampled Frank’s Quality Produce (where neither McKell nor I can remember having had better, sweeter, juicier peaches), beat the long lines at Pike Place Chowder, and tried samples from many other places. For us, the tour created a personal touch, a more intimate connection, with each shop. In just a couple of hours, we found many more labors of love as we rooted for, worried with, and joined in the celebration of the passion, work, and sacrifice that went into each place.
Right after our food tour, since we now didn’t need to eat lunch, we left the market and walked up 5th Avenue to Pine Street, where we hopped on board the Seattle monorail. After all, who doesn’t love to ride a monorail. For $2.25 a person each way, it was an easy and fun way to get to the Seattle Center, where the Space Needle and other attractions are located.
Because, of course, we had to visit that paramount icon of Seattle, the Space Needle. We were lucky enough to have a CityPass, which allowed us two trips up the Needle within 24 hours. If you have the time to spend in Seattle, purchase a CityPASS. You’ll save almost half off all the entrance fees if you can get to all the venues it offers, and skip to the front of the line in many cases. If the attractions appeal to you, it’s well worth the cost.
One of the CityPASS attractions that appealed to McKell and I was the EMP Museum, conveniently located right next to the Space Needle. EMP is a non-profit museum committed to exploring significant moments, events, and individuals from contemporary popular culture. For example, they honor the Seattle native Jimi Hendrix’s legacy with artifacts such as costumes, instruments, photographs and more. They displayed artwork and movie memorabilia in the Fantasy: World of Myth and Magic exhibit, and offered the chance to yank the tail of a dragon, eliciting an “oh daddy” eyeroll from McKell at the enjoyment it gave me. Even the building is cool, designed by the famous architect Frank O. Gehry.
McKell’s favorite was the sound area. We spent quality time in different sound booths, learning how to play and then jamming out on electric guitars, drums, and keyboards. Although completely with no talent, I got to show McKell how to rock out on the drums. I’m sure I’m not being asked soon to join any band, but it was fun pretending.
One of my own personal loves is food, evidenced by my eagerness to go on the food tour. We wanted to eat well on our daddy daughter trip, so we spent a bit of time looking for good restaurants. Our favorite, arrived at by a bit of luck and finding its high Zagat rating online, was Izumi, a Japanese restaurant and sushi bar. We sat at the bar, so only experienced the sushi, but it was wonderful. I have to give a shout out to Chef Shito, who refused to make anything as trendy or chintzy as a rainbow roll, but would make any roll or sushi to order. So I asked him to build me a unique roll all made up to be just like the trendy, chintzy rainbow roll, which I love dearly. Chef Shito was entertaining, talkative and talented, and next to the good food, he is a great reason to stop by, say hello, and enjoy your own made-to-order maki sushi roll.
McKell and I loved our trip. We ate together, played together, and experienced some sights that are beyond the everyday. I know McKell learned something about Washington and King County, so it did turn out to be an educational trip for her. But I hope, as her father, the time spent together will be the most cherished memory and learning she has. After all, she is my own labor of love.

Okay, I admit it. I’m a business traveler. And when I travel on business, I can get so involved in work, in getting things done, in just reading and replying to email, that I don’t always take the time to lift my head up, look around, and really see the place where I am. And I’ll admit it – that’s a huge mistake.

While business travel doesn’t often take me to the typical entertainment or best vacation destinations in the world, it does take me to some wonderful places, where there are still delightful people to meet, interesting attractions to see, and great local foods to eat.

Take Frankfurt, Germany, for instance. Most vacationers head to the sights of Hamburg or Berlin, or seek history at Zwickau or Dresden, or travel further south to Munich or into beautiful Austria. Frankfurt is known as the financial district of Germany, and so usually isn’t on the top of the list for sightseeing. But there is still so much beauty, history, and wonderful people in Frankfurt, it’s worth the stay.

I started my own Frankfurt visit by meeting up with my local tour guide, Dagmar (okay, she’s really my coworker). Although not necessary, having a local who can speak the language, understand the customs, and recommend places to go is a huge help in really getting to know a country and city.

To get a sense of authentic German food, Dagmar started us on our visit by taking us to Haus Wertheym, one of the few remaining original timber-framed buildings that survived the Second World War, situated just off the river Main in central Frankfurt. Since other structures have been rebuilt to showcase Germany’s pre-war architecture, this structure built in 1600 doesn’t stand out much as different until you enter the restaurant on the first floor. Inside, I was struck by the amount of stained glass windows, carved boards with past and modern quotes hanging from the ceiling, and beautiful figures and images carved into the wooden walls, doors, and posts.

As a suburban American, I’m used to sitting in a restaurant at my own table. At Haus Wertheym, in addition to the smaller individual booths, there were longer tables where diners from multiple parties are seated, which is a common European practice. I like the sense of closeness and fellowship it provides, and the opportunity to talk with friendly strangers who instantly become fellow participants in your journey.

Dagmar advised me to try a local specialty, the “Grüne Sosse”, or green sauce. I couldn’t have been happier with her suggestion. This herb-based sauce tasted so clean and wholesome, poured over boiled potatoes and the Wiener Schnitzel I ordered. I enjoyed the local dish so much I ordered it twice more during my trip.
After dinner and an apple cider called “Äppelwoi” in the local language, we walked outside the restaurant into the brisk December evening. A left turns and a few steps later, we entered the Römerberg. The Römerberg is a town square lined by historical timber-lined buildings, all restored to their original form and appearance as if the war in 1944 had never happened to this beautiful city. Here in the square, among the other stately and resonant buildings, is the Römer, a majestic house that has served as the town and city hall since 1405. I read that there are 52 oil paintings of past emperors who ruled the Empire until 1806 placed in the Emperor’s Hall on the first floor of the building.

Truth be told, I didn’t get a chance to go inside and see them though. All my attention was drawn by what was happening outside, in the Römerberg plaza and up and down neighboring streets. Since this was Germany in December, and the Germans really know how to celebrate Christmas, there was a bustling and vibrant Christmas market, filled with stalls offering food, drink, and Christmas gifts and decorations aplenty. And it was also the main reason Dagmar had brought us to this part of the city. While there are Christmas markets in many other German cities, the Frankfurt market is arguably the most important, due to its size and number of visitors. This Christmas market has history dating back to 1393. However, the Christmas tree tradition didn’t arrive until the beginning of the 19th century. Two hundred years later in 2012, the Christmas tree tradition was alive and well, taking its place in the picture-worthy form of a statuesque 25 foot (at least) tall tree standing in front of the Römer, brilliantly lit and decorated.

The crowds at the Frankfurt Christmas market

On this first and subsequent visit to the market (it was worth going more than once), I sampled and saw much of the local fare. I ate and drank items such as sausages in buns, roasted chestnuts, and mulled wine, replacing mine with the child’s non-alcoholic version called “Kinder Glühwein”, which tasted like a perfectly brewed wassail. There was gingerbread to eat, street performers to hear, and nutcrackers to buy. But my favorite was the chocolate, which was everywhere.

Alongside the stalls featuring chocolate-covered bananas, chilies, pretzels and wafers, the treat that caught my eye the most was the solid chocolate in the form of machine parts, cameras, hand tools, and other shapes. They looked almost real; wrenches and bolts that had been left out in the rain and become worn and rusted over years of neglect. I’m not keen on neglect, but I would take one of those “neglected” tools any time.

Chocolate paradise

If you visit the market, remember to bring plenty of cash, since few places in the city and fewer in the marketplace take credit cards. And bring your appetite. As soon as you think you’ve sampled enough, you’ll come to another stall with another treat you hadn’t seen yet, and you’ll have to try it.

After thoroughly enjoying the Christmas market, we began to get a bit cold being out in the snow and winter weather. On a main avenue just outside the market, we found a nice modern café named Weidenhof, where we could relax and warm up. A nice cup of hot chocolate (of course) with cream, and I was as toasty as ever. While Weidenhof is more modern than traditional, it still acts a gathering place for locals and tourists spending time shopping or visiting the center of the city. It also gave me a chance to sit back and people watch. Old friends, new acquaintances, families and couples, all would greet each other with a smile and a hug, glad to be with loved ones during Christmas and out of the cold. Germany really is wonderful at Christmas time.

After such a successful and enjoyable first night, I made it a point to see as much as I could. While the downtown Messe conference center, where I spent my next three days, is interesting by itself, wrapping its several buildings around the Festhalle concert hall, I couldn’t wait to get out and visit more of Frankfurt. Some of my favorite places to visit any time I travel are the beautiful architectures and peaceful settings of local churches and places of worship. There are no fewer than eight churches, old and historic and regal buildings, in the heart of the city of Frankfurt. So I made a point of visiting at least one of them when I had the chance.

Just off of Töngesgasse lies the Liebfrauenkirche, a beautiful and historic Catholic church. The Liebfrauen has a comfortable grotto and cloister grounds, and as you step inside, presents you with a quiet, solemn chapel, resplendent with stained glass windows, Gothic panels, and Baroque figures. I stood, pondered, enjoying the difference in sound after being in the market, but I couldn’t stay too long. I had other places to see.

The Liebfrauenkirche


Inside the Liebfrauenkirche chapel

I wanted to take the opportunity to get out of the city, so I jumped on an S-bahn and traveled out to Friedrichsdorf, where there is an LDS temple with its more modern architecture and inviting grounds of grass and winter landscaping.

The smaller town of Friedrichsdorf is about 45 minutes outside of Frankfurt by train, so it gave me a chance to see some of the German countryside as well. After spending three days within the city, it felt great to see some farmlands, meadows and the modest train stations in the country villages we passed through.

The further away from the city I traveled, the fewer people there were who spoke English; however, I could still feel their warmth and genuine concern as we struggled to understand each other while they gave directions and help. I needed the help, since I ended up wandering around Friedrichsdorf for several minutes before I gave up and asked for directions to the temple. Which I would recommend anyway; take a stroll, view the sights of the villages with no destination in mind, and visit the small shops and cozy main streets of a German country town. I felt at peace and comfortable in Friedrichsdorf, even though I was thousands of miles from home.
And home is always nice to get back to after a business trip. Seeing my own family again and recounting the wonderful sights and experiences is a joy, and Frankfurt didn’t disappoint. On any business trip, necessary work can take up a lot of the time during a short visit, but remember, there is always ample opportunity to see something and meet someone new. It’s my version of “slow down and smell the roses.” It’s good advice. I suggest you take it next time you find yourself typing madly away at an email in your hotel room after working all day. Pause, breathe, and then get out there. Wonderful things can happen.

Do you have a bucket list? Ever since we first heard the term, my wife and I started building ours. We have the typical goals, like skydiving, taking a cruise with the kids, and paragliding. But right at the top of the list was visiting New York City.

We dreamed of Broadway plays, ascending the long elevator ride to the top of the Empire State Building, or just chilling in Central Park. But throughout our many trips and adventures, we never found the opportunity to get there, except for a quick meal and short layover stuck in the JFK airport.

Until this year. On a summer vacation trip in July, we found ourselves back in JFK airport, but this time with a long overnight layover. So being the spontaneous travelers we are, we jumped at the chance to get into the city. And we discovered it is possible to see New York and experience a bit of its culture, even in a few hours. And do it for less than the cost of a single hotel night. Here’s how we did it:

We knew we didn’t want to schlep (New York-ian for carry) our bags while we were sightseeing, so we checked our bags into the luggage storage in the Arrivals area of terminal 4 (storage is also available in terminals 1 and 8.) Depending on the size of the bag, it costs anywhere from $4-$16 a bag – we checked four for a total of $20. The attendant was pleasant, and took our picture to go along with the bags. It’s a security precaution, to ensure your bags are given back only to you upon your return. I was a little nervous, since we left some electronics in our bags, but everything was completely secure and fine when we retrieved them later.
We jumped on the JFK AirTrain, which can either shuttle you around the airport to different terminals, or take you out of the airport where you can transfer to other trains or subways on route to the city. The AirTrain is free around the airport, and costs just $5 to exit. We took a short 10 minute ride to the Jamaica Station, which is one of the stations where you can buy a transfer ticket to either the New York subway or railroad system.

(Picture: Jamaica Station, heading to Penn Station on the Long Island Railroad)
With a few options of different routes and no knowledge of New York geography, we were a bit confused. Fortunately, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has very eager and willing attendants there to help. We were asked where we wanted to go, and with a blur of her hands, an attendant named Mary had the right ticket brought up on the ticket vending machine, and was telling us to “just pay here”. With blind trust, and an encouraging smile from Mary, we inserted our money and got our tickets.

We opted to take the Long Island Railroad, which is a faster and much more comfortable ride than the subway. It costs a bit more at $8.25 (in addition to the $5 MetroCard), but we shelled out the money and were repaid with two very comfortable seats on a smooth ride to Manhattan. We relaxed for the twenty minute ride, and got off at Penn Station, right at Madison Square Garden and about eight blocks shy of Times Square. We decided this was all part of our adventure, not having seen any of New York before, so instead of transferring to a subway or bus to get to Times Square, we exited the station and starting walking north on 7th Avenue (also known as Fashion Avenue).
As we walked each block, we got more and more excited as we saw street names we had only read or heard of in the movies – 36th Street, 42nd Street, Broadway. The Empire State building loomed in the background, and after a few shots with our camera and 15 minutes, we arrived at Times Square.
Even though it was getting close to 10pm, the energy and excitement on the street made it seem so much earlier. Times Square, I imagine, is always alive and bustling. Street vendors, living statues, the appeal of downtown shopping, taking turns with other travelers to take our picture – it all added to the energy and vitality you feel in Times Square. Times Square is the only neighborhood where the zoning ordinances require building owners to display illuminated signs – and the business owners meet that code with exuberance. The competing Coca-Cola, Chevrolet clock, and Dunk Tank signs, among so many others, only helped in making us feel wide awake and a part of the action.

The Dunk Tank was especially fun. It displayed a live video feed of the crowd, and allowed you to tweet your choice of whether to dunk the man or the woman. After a few minutes, the live feed changes to a video of the crowd’s choice being dunked and then swimming around for a bit, interacting with the crowd, before switching back to the live feed.
Even the policemen on horseback felt more like part of the attraction than like official peacekeepers, although they can spring into action if needed, their numbers having been increased in the mid-90’s by Mayor Giuliani for the safety of the pedestrians.
We even caught a glimpse of the Naked Cowboy, a Times Square regular who poses for pictures with the tourists and can often be seen on the Today Show in the crowd (don’t worry, he’s not quite completely naked.)
I’ve always loved street vendor food, and midtown Manhattan didn’t disappoint. I wanted to try it all, but settled for three different items from three different vendors. All totaled, the teriyaki chicken strips, chicken and lamb gyro, and bottle of water only cost $15! For two of us! I would have spent $5 more, but the sample taste of the chicken curry was a bit too spicy for my tastebuds.
We enjoyed Times Square for a while, marveling at the signs, being entertained by the street performers, and dropping into stores such as Toys-R-Us, Disney, and Aeropostale. On weekdays, most large stores close by 11pm, so if you want to do any shopping, be sure to get there early enough. We eventually wandered off the main square, and after meandering a couple blocks east, we stumbled upon Bryant Park.

I’ve never been to Central Park, but I began to get a sense of how important the Big Apple considers its parks. Bryant Park covered an entire city block and is made up of a large grass area, sidewalks and walkways, chairs and tables, and permanent ping-pong tables along its perimeter. The night we were there, several hundred people had gathered for a movie in the park, projected on a huge 40 foot high screen. The park was filled with easy-going, relaxing locals, taking the time to enjoy the cool evening weather and watch Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront”. Others were playing table tennis, or sitting at tables eating, or slowly walking hand-in-hand. We tried it out – we sat at a table close to where we could see the jumbo screen, finished our gyros, and then walked slowly, leisurely, out of the park holding hands, completely satisfied with our quick trip into the city.

I began to get a sense of why so many people say they love living in New York. It’s instantly comfortable, yet exciting. It’s alive, and yet relaxing. And despite some perceptions, the people we met were all very friendly and helpful.
Eventually, regretfully, we had to head back to the airport. The security lines close around midnight, so we wanted to at least get back into the terminal before they shut down for the night.

Since we rode the train to Times Square, we thought we would try the subway on the return trip, getting on at the station at the intersection of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. It’s a little cheaper, at only $2.25 per person, and then the $5 MetroCard again to transfer back to the AirTrain. The subway gives you a bit more insight into the New York experience, riding and interacting with more locals than were on the train, including students, young workers, families heading home from an evening with friends or shopping, and even a sleeping homeless man who looked tired but harmless. But I have to admit, I would splurge on the train ride – the subway is louder, slower with more stops (it’s about a 40 minute ride to the airport), and has harder seats. But we still enjoyed it – even when we realized we got on a train going the wrong direction!
One note of caution – if you have to change directions, make sure you get off at a station that has access to both sides of the platform. We got off after one stop, and realized we couldn’t get to the train going in the opposite direction without leaving the station (which would cost another $2.25 to enter.) So we got back on, rode two more stops until we could get to a station large enough to get to the right train. All part of the experience, right?

All told, for a fun evening of sight-seeing, dinner, and a bit of New York culture, we spent $77 for the two of us, including luggage storage. That is easily under $50 for one person! If you’re ever on a long enough layover at a New York airport, and want to get a bit more travel for your buck, visiting Times Square is a great way to do it. And if you have the time and are there early enough, you could even squeeze in a visit to the Empire State Building or Central Park.
Next on our bucket list…sky diving! (Oh boy…)