Family Road Trip, Florida and the Carolinas, Aug 2019, part 2

All of us in front of the Hogwart’s Express, inside the train, Really at the Leaky Cauldron

It was the next day and we were headed for Harry Potter World! First, we went to some ticket place to get discounted tickets, and we hit a grocery store to bring lunch. We ended up getting 4-day passes for the cost of a little over 2 days. They were paper tickets and we had to bring them to the park, and show them multiple times each day. We were going to both parks, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, because each has part of Harry Potter World, connected by the Hogwarts Express Train (well played, Universal Studios). We did a good job of keeping track of the tickets, though I did worry a little. Parking also was not fun, there was a fee of course, and a fairly long walk from our parking spot to the entrance, and then to HPW. Overall, though, we were in good spirits and ready to be entertained.

Suessland and Gringott’s

I have to say, I do not like crowds, I do not like heat, and we really did well on both counts. The week we chose was one of the less busy times for the park. It is hurricane season and the beginning of the school year, so many people do not plan their theme park vacation during the last week of August. We waited not at all for many rides, actually letting people in front of us in some cases, as we looked at the elaborate scenes in line for the HPW rides, and later for the Mummy ride. It did rain every day, and was a little intense one afternoon, but this didn’t affect our experience. We weathered the worse storm in the indoors Mummy rollercoaster, which we rode as many times as we wanted with no waiting. The movie is a little dated, but it’s an awesome roller coaster! I also personally loved Spiderman, also indoors, more rollercoaster and 3-D effects, and no line. There are lots of indoor options during rain.

We were there from open to close that first day, and I’m a little embarrassed to say how much I enjoyed myself. I really prefer actual life experiences to artificial amusement park ones but the rides were just so entertaining. It turns out I really like the simulated projections, especially the 3-D ones. I preferred them to the roller coasters, which I also went on because why not. The Simpsons ride was especially awesome because it was a cool simulation ride and incorporated a cynical take on amusement parks that matches my own cynicism, yet here we were at an amusement park! So meta and breaking the 4th wall, etc. The kids really liked the Hulk roller coaster, I think that was their favorite. We all liked the Harry Potter rides and shops, we also caught a couple of live shows in HPW which were excellent. We ate at the Leaky Cauldron and also at the Three Broomsticks, something I would normally never do because of budget worries, but this was a bit of a splurge vacation, the food was good and we really enjoyed ourselves. The scenery is great throughout.

Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, Stan Shunpike and the night bus, Diagon Alley

We pretty much repeated this on day 2 and 3, going back to our favorite rides, trying to go to the best Universal rides outside of HPW though they hadn’t been on our radar before arriving, enjoying the short lines and lack of crowds in general. At night we saw the light show on the HPW castle and also watched part of the Universal Studios fireworks and light display over the lake. We had one late morning and went thrifting while the kids swam in the pool and otherwise lounged at the rental apartment, but the thrift shop was mostly a disappointment.

The third day we packed ourselves out of the apartment and after our last day at the park (we never used our 4th day passes, 3 days seemed enough) headed for a farmstay I had arranged. It was time for part 3 of the trip.

Final thoughts and tips:

1) Don’t be afraid to go during “hurricane season”. Orlando is not near the ocean, so it might rain every day but likely won’t have serious flooding. The low crowd volume/short lines are worth it!

2) Universal has many awesome rides outside of HPW that should not be missed, easy to find lists of these. A surprise favorite for us was the Poseidon Adventure. Shrek we thought was overrated. E.T. was excellent for younger kids, esp if they saw the movie.

3) It’s ok not to buy the $100 HPW wands. Watch other people use them to see the cool effects that happen in the shop windows and displays. Spend instead on butterbeer, English pub food and excellent desserts in the restaurants.

4) Go at night to see the light shows. Spend a morning at your accommodations to enjoy the pool or just to relax in between time at the parks.

5) See the live shows, especially the short but excellent HPW shows. We also saw Sinbad (ok), the Hollywood make up/special effects show (pretty good), the Blues Brothers (I’m a fan), a Stomp type street show (great), and a random Marilyn Monroe street performance (cute).

6) Make sure you see the Gringott’s dragon breathe fire!


Family road trip, Florida and the Carolinas, August 2018, part 1

Coming back from going around the world a little under two years ago, we were done with traveling for a while and had to settle into life, work, kids routines, and all of that. We parents were faced with finding income, health insurance, a car, education for the kids, furniture, groceries…it was a lot. All we really had was the house, a somewhat neglected Victorian built around 1896, and plenty of bills. So we got to work, and little by little became sedentary and financially stable again. If I sound a little wistful, it is because I am, but even I have to admit that we are extremely lucky to have good health, marketable skills, and a functional house in a great neighborhood in a pretty awesome city. There were bumps, but looking back, things went remarkably well.

As we set up our lives again, we sometimes talked about our next family trip. We aimed for summer 2018 and we chose* to go to Harry Potter World. Time went by, as it tends to do, and soon we were looking at the 2018 summer schedule for each of the six of us and looking at dates and other logistics. We narrowed our focus to August, and finally to the last week of August into Labor Day. It looked like HPW was contained in two parks at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. The cost for six people to do this was rather astronomical, but we decided to go for 2-3 days and do other things as we drove down to Orlando and back. The week we chose coincided with Cleverly’s first week of school – of high school– but we prioritized family togetherness**after a summer of diverse schedules and not seeing each other much. I was heading back to-gulp- Orlando.

I don’t have much pride in this, but if there are two things my country of birth does right, they are highways and theme parks. We were about to take advantage of these on this trip, starting with the former. We left before sunrise on a Saturday morning and headed down mighty I-95. We were aiming for a small town about an hour from Charleston, South Carolina called Holly Hill. The photos of the rental house looked so lovely and inviting, we were going a little out of our way to get there. But first, Fayetteville, North Carolina for lunch.

It was about to get flooded about 2 weeks later, but that day it was nice to walk around the main street and eat at the cute Blue Moon Cafe. People were brunching outdoors, we met an adorable puppy and we enjoyed being out of the car for a spell. See how I got a bit Southern there? We were now in the South. We had gone through Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia to get there.

After about 9 hours of driving, mostly on the interstate, we arrived in Holly Hill. We were so delighted with this rental, it is hard to describe it properly. We only had one night, but happily we arrived in the afternoon so we could have some time to enjoy the place. What a house! Large, gracious porch, modern, well-stocked kitchen, historic yet air-conditioned, it is probably the nicest place we have ever stayed. There were chickens, a hammock, and a hot tub in the big back yard. Really got right to work making popcorn.

There was a Harry Potter themed “cupboard under the staircase”, a piano, board games, a screened porch, and bookshelves full of interesting books. We had four large bedrooms with the most comfortable pillows, three bathrooms, and so many cozy spots to lounge and read.

The house had been a doctor’s office when built back in the early 1900’s and there were memorabilia and historic touches throughout. What a beautiful beginning to this trip. We walked a couple of blocks to the Piggly Wiggly and made a nice dinner. We slept wonderfully, listening to crickets in the otherwise quiet night. We relaxed and had a leisurely breakfast the next morning and left, reluctantly, as late as we could.

We decided to stop in Charleston for a couple of hours because it wasn’t far out of our way. We drove to the waterfront and went to the Ft. Sumpter National Monument. There was a small museum, and one can go on boat tours out to the fort. It was hot, the views from the museum were nice, and it was interesting to read about the history. We walked around the plaza, which includes an aquarium and a dock area.

Then we drove around the city’s historic neighborhood a little south and west of the waterfront. It began to rain, so we looked out the windows at the gorgeous homes, colorful with ornate ironwork, gardens, and balconies. We took one picture in front of the gate to a beautiful garden as a warm rain fell.

And then we got out of there! Universal Studios awaited us, also I didn’t like being near the coast during hurricane season as the rain and wind intensified. Next stop, Orlando! We continued South and stopped in Savannah, Georgia on the way, again in the historic main street. It is a beautiful town with many parks. We ate at the Kayak Kafe and walked around a little.

I have to mention here that as we continued south on I-95, this stretch had many, many felled trees along the highway. We had been appreciating the shade and scenery provided by the tall trees on other parts of this highway, why cut them here? Was it some type of infestation? Road widening? No, friends, I am sad to report, this part of I-95 has been having its trees mowed down due to what I can only call idiotic drivers. It is known as the “coffin corridor” due to many accidents that have happened here in which drivers leave the highway and hit the trees. As one article put it “While the first goal is to keep drivers on the roadway, “but when they do get off the road, we want to give them space to recover” before striking any trees, Wickenhoefer said. The state plans to clear all trees in any median less than 160 feet wide.” So the answer is to cut down trees??? I think if people are swerving off the road, trees may not be the biggest issue here. Especially after taking a train trip recently and pondering how much better the US train system could be, I remain stunned by the fact that this is where transportation money is being spent. Cutting trees down, because drivers swerve off the road and hit them. Unbelievable.

After a few hours, we were in the outskirts of the theme park city and headed to our rental apartment. We made it there, settled in for the night, and rested for the theme park excursion the next day.

* Not my first choice, but I had to admit I knew we could drive there, and I was pretty sure we would all like it there, as opposed to, say, South America where I have been setting my sights.

**also, 1) the school district was starting a week earlier than usual – did they consult us? No! 2) TBH we don’t take school that seriously, we are homeschoolers at heart and at 9th grade, it’s only her 2nd year of school. The other 3 kids school activities were not affected. 3) She didn’t miss much- it ended up being a heat wave and they had half days that week citywide because so many schools do not have a/c!

New Orleans by train October 2019, part 4

Just a few hours of sleep then it was back to the train. Leaving in the early morning sun, we saw things we hadn’t seen on the way in. Lake Pontchartrain was amazing- apparently we were next to the longest bridge in the world! It’s for cars so we weren’t on it, we were on a shorter, parallel train bridge. The car bridge we saw is about 24 miles long and crosses the lake at the widest point, doesn’t make much sense to me but there it was. Not too much later, I saw what had to be prehistoric mounds and I was delighted to read about the 2nd largest moundbuilders site in the US, outside Tuscaloosa AL. Apparently there is a larger one outside of St. Louis, MO, but this one was right outside my window! I had just finished reading 1491 by Charles Mann,so when I spotted the unnatural looking grassy lumps out the window, I was able to recognize and appreciate them. A woman we met while dining on the train said that Amtrak used to publish guides to such things one sees out the window on various routes.

I wish I would have had one of those guides! I’m sure we passed many notable sights during the 1200+ miles each way of the trip. I found a way to download the Amtrak Crescent Route Guide from the Green Education Foundation, I couldn’t figure it out from their website but when I googled the guide, there was a link from that group to download it. I couldn’t link it here but anyone who wants to should be able to find that link. I wish I had done it before the trip, but anyway, you can! I couldn’t find anything about the moundbuilders, a glaring oversight of you ask me, but the guide is a great idea.

I found something else on the internet. About a year ago, a New York Times hipster wrote about the same train, the Crescent, and his trip on the whole route from NYC to NOLA. He was unimpressed by some things and enjoyed others, it was an interesting read.

We again enjoyed eating with strangers, talking about our lives and travel and whatever was out the window. I can’t think of another setting where this would be the case- sitting at a table for four with people you don’t know. A little like a wedding dinner, but you likely don’t know anyone in common as you would at a wedding. Our dining companions were, without exception, older than us, married heterosexual middle/upper middle class and very pleasant. Many, as one might expect, had complaints and/or fears regarding airplanes. All but one couple were white. We avoided politics and any controversial topics, feeling many were more conservative than we are. We felt lucky to be a little late as we neared Philadelphia. It allowed us to have a fifth meal on the trip and we met a nice couple from Prescott, Arizona as we watched Wilmington, Delaware glide by. When we saw Septa vehicles, Philly’s local public transportation, we knew we had to pack up quickly, which we did, and went back to life off the train. One last photo- this is the switching of engines in D.C. South of there they use a diesel engine, north of there an electric engine is used. Strangely, it looked like the nose of the engine faced the rest of the train at the front, so it appeared to go in reverse, pulling the train cars the whole trip!

New Orleans by train October 2019, part 3

After biking, we walked around the French Quarter. We went to a big, old book store called Beckham’s bookshop for some reading material for the trip home. It was two floors of books with a third floor that has records. It has large windows (below) looking out onto Decatur Street. There were two older men who had been running the place for 50 years. There was a cat of course. I just wanted to curl up and wait for some bad weather so I could read for a while in that book store coziness!

We got some pralines at a candy store and then gumbo, hushpuppies, and shrimp and grits for lunch. We went back to Jackson Square, now full of artists and buskers and tourists, and to the waterfront, where we saw the giant steamboat the Nachez.

We returned to the hostel to leave our bags and rest a moment, then went to find a falafel place with pinball machines we had heard about. We went back on the 47 streetcar, transferred to a different streetcar, then we were back in one of the areas we had biked through that morning. We found the falafel/pinball place- it’s all that plus a bar! On the way, we passed a burlesque place and a slavic soul food bar with a mobile taco truck/performance space parked outside. This was along St. Claude street around the 2200 block. It was tough to choose where to spend our limited time, but the original plan was pinball so that’s where we went. Then we walked a few blocks to Frenchmen Street which was recommended to us as a more desirable alternative to Burboun Street by several people we met. It was great! There was an open-air art and craft fair, then we scoped the scene for a few blocks and decided to sit at a bar called Vaso, have a drink and watch a band. They had a great singer with a Janet Joplin voice. Next, we took a chance on stand up comedy at the Dragon’s Den, kind of expecting the worst but still curious. We were charmed by the narrow brick tunnel we entered as we followed arrows with the word “comedy” written in chalk on the ground. We went upstairs to a dark bar with a small stage and watched five comics do short routines and they were so good! Two were women, some were from NYC and some local, one was on comedy central, we were impressed. And we laughed and drank cocktails. Then we went back to the bars on Frenchmen. I really wanted to hear jazz and/or blues with horns. We went back to Vaso, then another bar I forget, and stayed for a few songs at each, each band had horns which I loved, trumpet and trombone. The sidewalks were getting more crowded and as we walked outside, we heard a band playing on the corner. It was all horns and drums, so lively! A guy on the balcony joined in on his trombone, wow!

I wasn’t at all hungry but realizing that it was our last chance, I convinced Mr. Marvelous to split a delicious last NOLA meal- jambalaya with greens and corn bread and peach cobbler with ice cream for dessert. Thank you Praline Connection! It was a down-to-earth place with great homemade soul food and it was open until midnight. We had a perfect window seat so we could see the scene outside with revelers drinking from open containers, cars trying to get through the crowd, a strange bike-on-a-bike contraption that pulled a giant glowing cube that suspended 4 swings from which people were swinging, party buses rolling by, and a guy setting up a colorful wooden kiosk where he was selling handmade books. We ate, enjoyed the view out the window, then joined the crowd as we walked through it to the streetcar stop. Sitting on the shiny wooden seats looking out at downtown with its theater marquees and streetlights and shops was nice as we rolled back to the hostel. It has been a long day and we did everything we hoped for, with the exception of finding a thrift store. They all closed at 7 which was about the time we remembered we had wanted to do that. Oh well, next time!

New Orleans by train October 2019 part 2

Our experience in the Big Easy got off to a rocky start. Amtrak has budget challenges due to limited federal support and often runs late, so we shouldn’t have been surprised that out arrival time was closer to 10:30 than the expected 7:30pm. I grumbled a bit because we had less than 36 hours in NOLA and I was raring to check things out.

Our lodgings were awesome, no problem there, we took a cab to mid- city and the funky India House hostel. We loved the colorful, backpacker- friendly, sprawling place with a quirky Victorian mansion as its entrance. Past an extraordinarily fluffy cat, communal living and dining rooms and a kitchen, out the back door was a yard with a pool, bar area, and paths to clapboard buildings typical of local architecture. We stayed in a simple yellow room in one of these, with its own shower and bathroom and two bunk beds. We had it to ourselves. We kind of wished the kids were with us and we had more time, it was the sort of place we would have loved while traveling. As it was, we wouldn’t spend much waking time there at all.

Because we had just been in a train for over 30 hours, I really just wanted to walk. We were steps from the adorable trolley, but it was after 11 pm and I feared getting stranded downtown during infrequent service at a late hour. Besides, we were in New Orleans! We should be able to walk to any number of bars and restaurants, right? Unfortunately for us, the neighborhood did not have much to offer aside from a large hospital complex and several persistent pan handlers. We found two bars that looked good, however both had just closed. We followed an online map to two other bars, both of which seemed to involve serious drinking and struck me as a little scary. One, I learned from a Spanish conversation with a patron outside, had Mexican karaoke that night. Looking back, it probably was the best choice for the evening, but it was our first stop and I wasn’t feeling it. I was looking for Jazz and jambalaya, not so much a Latino bar similar to those mear my neighborhood in Philly. The other involved a bouncer who patted us down and, when we decided against entering further, directed us away from the potential domestic violence scene outside and advised us to be careful. It was our last stop. We decided to be happy with getting home safely and called it a night.

The next morning dawned sunny and cool, beautiful weather we appreciated all the more since we were there during hurricane season. We didn’t have any plans, just some things we wanted to do. For me it was biking, architecture, and eating, my usual favorites when traveling. Or, you know, all the time. Anyway, we looked into the city bike share but the app wouldn’t accept the credit card, blah blah blah. I’ve never figured out bike shares, despite their ubiquity and my being a big fan. Also, with such limited time, we could not employ our usual inefficient wandering. I was interested in having a guide to show us around and explain things. We signed up for a 3.5 hour “beyond the french quarter” tour.

But first a word about the historic NOLA trolleys- ok, “streetcars”: awesome! Ok, many more words! They run on grassy divides lined with attractive lampposts and separate from cars. Inside are wooden seats, the backs of which slide so passengers face forward after the streetcars change direction at the end of the line. The streetcars don’t turn around, rather they reverse direction. There is a driver seat at each end. We each bought a 24 hour pass for only $3!! A trip is just $1.25 one way- half the price of Septa in Philly. The Canal Street #47 line we rode took us to the French Quarter from the hostel. It had been replaced by buses in the 1960’s but reestablished as streetcars on 2004. This also happened on 2 other lines! A fourth line, the St. Charles, started in 1835 and is the longest running streetcar line in the world. They are planning to expand, too. Way to go, NOLA! I often see trolley tracks in Philadelphia of long-abandoned trolley lines and I wish Philly could reinstate them. So I was happy to see New Orleans doing just that.

The bike tour. We rode about 12 miles at a leisurely pace on cruiser bikes with larger tires than I am used to. It was so comfortable! We had about a dozen people on our tour, including guides. We saw a bunch of things, starting with the waterfront, then Jackson Square park (below) heading roughly north and west from there.

We biked through the Treme and Faubourg Marigny neighborhoods and along the Esplanade lined with shady trees. The shotgun homes and mansions were a joy to see, some were colorful with gorgeous wooden details and gardens. We also saw congo square at Louis Armstrong park, St. Louis cemetery #3, and the large and lovely City Park.

I surprised myself by taking zero photos of the houses, I was just so pleased to take it all in from the squishy bike seat while letting the guides worry about traffic and the route. I’m used to biking alone in Philly and trying to get somewhere, so relaxing and enjoying the ride full of new sights was wonderful. That was the first part of our day.

New Orleans by train, October 2018

The 30th Street Station in Philadelphia is a beautiful place to start a journey. Built over 6 years and opened in 1933, it is a grand hall with marble seats, gorgeous ceiling and columns, and a bronze statue at the East end called “Angel of the Resurrection” that commemorates railroad employees who died in WWI. Mr. Fantastic and I were going by train to New Orleans.

We got on the Crescent, an Amtrak train that, contrary to the above sign, now goes between New York and New Orleans. We were excited because we had never been on a sleeper car in the USA. We were curious as to how it would compare with Russia, Hungary, Mongolia, India and other trains abroad. We chose a “roomette” rather than spring the extra $600 for the highest class. There are options in the coach class that invlude meals, in fact Seat 61 is a fan of Amtrak roomy seats and great deals. We, however, really wanted beds for the 29-hour journey.

Above: me on the seat, which converts with the facing seat to make the lower bed. I’m looking out the window. To my left and below are the sink and toilet.

Our room lacked a shower, though we had access to one down the hall. We did have a sink and toilet in a corner, squeezed against the lower bunk, which itself became two seats with a table. Part of the fun in train rides is manipulating the gadgets in one’s area. We found our fold-up sink that triggers a red “sink down” light when in the functional position. We agreed to leave the room or look away if one of us had to use the toilet- it was cheek to jowel with the bottom bunk, uncomfortably close but part of the adventure of course! The room was about 6’×4’×8′, maybe the size of a small walk-in closet. It felt small compared to what we experienced in other countries, where we were in open cars with bunks, but it was completely ours and we came to enjoy it and admire the clever use of limited space. I found the beds and pillows to be comfortable, but I passed on the seatbelt contraption designed to hold me in the top bunk, photo below. We had some wonderful views out of our windows during the 29-hour ride.

There is something luxurious about train travel, though everything was kind of functional and basic, there is still a romance about rolling past cities and countryside, and a leisurely pace that invites relaxation. We ate meals in the restaurant car where we sat with other passengers at tables for four (selfie of us in restaurant car below). I was a little disappointed that much of the plates were plastic, but we did have cloth napkins and real silverware. The food was good, the conversations were pleasant, and everything was kind of slow paced and comfortable. No one had anywhere they had to be, and pauses in the chit chat were nicely filled with staring out the constantly changing view. The whole time, the train ambles along with gentle bumps and sways.

We stopped at Washington DC for about an hour, a delay from the 30-minute stop that was scheduled to switch engines from electric, required in the northeast, to diesel. We saw beautiful Union Station, below, and the fountain across from it.

We stopped briefly in Atlanta and stretched our legs, but most other stops were not long enough to get off the train. I liked the names: Kannapolis, Gastonia, Tuscaloosa, Picayune. The second day we stopped in Birmingham, AL and I took this shot of our train (blue) and a freighter passing by.

And so we went along, having meals with amiable fellow passengers, lounging, reading, looking out the window, taking trainside walks at a few stops. It was a novelty for me to take a real shower with hot water on a moving train. In other countries, my washing experience was a towel bath. We continued through Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi into Louisiana. The sun set, we gained an hour, and eventually we pulled into the New Orleans train station.

Atsion Lake, NJ, April 2018

This is just a lovely place, very close to Philly but so rural. Our friends had a birthday party for their daughter and we all camped out by the lake. The campsites were spaced nicely, the bathrooms were decent, and there are cabins to rent as well.

And we went kayaking! You could put in right from our campsite. The dogs in the group loved jumping in, too. It was a little cold for me, but some of the younger kids went in to this beautiful lake.

We went walking around the quiet grounds, still closed up from the winter off-season. The beach was easily reached, but the water was fenced off from the sand. I can report that this beach gets crowded on summer weekends – we were unable to enter once a few summers ago because they were already at the visitor limit. Almost no one was there this time.

Atsion Lake is part of Wharton State Forest, an area over 120,000 acres that includes rivers, hiking trails, and an historic area called Batsto Village. It is located in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, itself 1.1 million acres and an unique ecosystem defined by sandy soil, stunted pine trees, and reddish color of the rivers caused by the local flora. The Pine Barrens earns its name from the low nutrients in the soil, however it is home to hundreds of plants and animal species, including 300 bird species and dozens of endangered flora and fauna. There are eagles, black bears, forests of dwarf pines, and even a native orchid. I have visited the historic village and canoed on the Batsto River myself, and it is impressively rural, particularly when considering it is on the famously urban east coast, in New Jersey of all places! It really is a wonderful resource for city dwellers, not to mention migrating birds. It was lovely to discover a new place to be in this area as we celebrated a young teen with her friends.