A trek back in time with Roaring Camp Railroad

Driving on Highway 17 from the Bay Area to Santa Cruz makes me feel like I’m in a real-life Disney Soarin’ experience – I just have to roll down the windows and it smells exactly like the trees when you are Soarin’.

Steam in the Redwoods

Steam in the Redwoods from Roaring Camp Railroad.

The roads twists and turns led us to Roaring Camp Railroad, a throwback attraction that is custom built for families, kids and those who like the easy way to see the sites.

The area is a just like a campground, full of wooden buildings and an old steam train that’s no longer in use. They had a spot for old-fashioned photos, a general store (complete with candy of course), a café and a large area for barbecues and picnics.

Boarding the train is similar to boarding a wagon ride. The carts are wide open with a bench on either side. We didn’t know ahead of time but the ride is furbaby friendly, too – a couple of the families had their dogs with them.

Santa at Roaring Camp

Santa at Roaring Camp.

Setting off, the train chugged around the curve and into the woods that surround the camp. Soon enough, we were dwarfed by trees that stretched to the sky and beyond. As we wound up Bear Mountain, we were told of some of the history of the area, about the trees and the tracks.

The kids entertained themselves by trying to find the tallest and widest trees and spent some time trying to find wildlife in the vistas.

A few parts of the journey were slow and the kids grew slightly restless when the train had to stop on switchbacks and recouple to make it up the steep inclines. However, all was rewarded when we arrived at our destination to find the big man himself, Santa Claus, waiti

The bridge to Roaring Camp Railroad

The bridge to Roaring Camp Railroad.

ng for us with hot cider. (At other points during the year, you can see other famous characters, including the Easter Bunny.) We stretched our legs, took some photos, walked through the line of decorated trees and then headed back to camp.

The grand finale came when we neared camp and the train had to let off its steam, creating an eerie mist through the trees.

Tips:

  • If you go, bring a jacket and maybe even a blanket for your legs when riding the train. The temperature in the trees is vastly different than nearby Santa Cruz or San Jose.
  • Have fun . When we went before the holidays, we brought our santa hats and had a ton of compliments.
  • Relax. It’s not a high stakes thrill ride or an amusement park, but it does get you in touch with nature and a view of our majestic country.
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Ferry day trip to Sausalito

Burrito, neato, mosquito –- My kids had fun trying to think of words that rhyme with Sausalito as we took the ferry from San Francisco to get a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge and explore the town.

The Golden Gate Bridge from the ferry to Sausalito

The Golden Gate Bridge from the ferry to Sausalito

We had to drop my husband off at the airport on the way to San Francisco, so I told the kids we’d make the noon ferry and eat in Sausalito or if we missed the ferry, we’d eat in the city and wait for the next one. We found a place to park, speed-walked a couple of blocks, bought our tickets and made it to the ferry with just a couple of minutes to spare!

Although it was December, the ferry ride wasn’t too cold and it was a pretty clear day. We had fabulous views of the Bay Bridge, Golden Gate, Alcatraz and Angel Island. The ride was about 20 minutes and we were deposited into the tourist heart of Sausalito.

Alcatraz

Alcatraz

The first order of business was to find lunch, and we ended up at Venice Gourmet, getting small pizzas for my mom and I and the kids. I’m glad my mom shared the garlic pizza with me so I didn’t feel self-conscious about talking to her the rest of the day.

After lunch, we needed a walk so we walked along the waterfront. A little boy pointed out to me “look at the crabs!” I looked closer and realized that the rocks with literally crawling with crabs of all sizes. We strolled along and watched the crabs retreat whenever we tried to get a closer look.

Crabs in Sausalito

Crabs in Sausalito

Being good tourists, we explored some of the stores. Of course, the toy store was the kids’ favorite and we bought them a couple of bouncy balls to keep them occupied. We also did some damage in the candy store, finding the old-fashioned types plus the newer popular candies, as well as many, many flavors of saltwater taffy.

We decided to venture to another part of town marked on the map and ended up in the more residential shopping area that had a few restaurants and other stores so we walked back to the main area.

The town was full of other shoppers as well as tons of bicyclists. A popular trip is to bike over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and then take the ferry back to the city, or bike back for the more hardcore adventurers.

We stayed on foot for this trip but loved the vibe of the town as we explored. We’d definitely come back again to try other restaurants and just enjoy the lakeshore.

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Day trip to Monterey Bay Aquarium and 17 Mile Drive

What should we do on a rainy day with relatives in town? The forecast was rain in the morning and clearing up for the afternoon but with a house full of people, we had to find something to do. The nearby mall wasn’t an option because it was too busy that close to the holidays.

Jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

We hadn’t yet made the trek to Monterey so we decided to check out the aquarium we have been hearing so much about.

Apparently, quite a few other people had the same idea but during our visit, we never felt rushed or crowded. Parking was a little difficult to find due to the rain but we managed to find a spot a few blocks away.

We had fun watching the sea otters play and eat their breakfast. The sea otter enclosure is part inside, part outside so it’s more of a natural habitat for them. The aquarium had a large jellyfish exhibit so we were able to see all kinds of jellyfish – even very tiny ones in a tube that one of the employees had in his hand as we walked in.

turtle

Turtle at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

The kids liked the hands-on portion, although the stingrays were huddled in the farthest corner in their enclosure, where none of the visitors could touch them. The starfish and crabs were on display and my kids thought it was a pretty neat experience.

Around lunchtime when hunger struck, we decided to see if the rain had stopped and ventured out to Cannery Row in Monterey. There are plenty of restaurants and shops, so we spent some time wandering around after lunch. As we looked over the bay, we watched some sea otters playing in the shallow water – no admission needed!

Not quite ready to end our day but being done with window shopping and standing, we decided to check out nearby 17-Mile Drive, which winds through the golf courses of Pebble Beach. There’s an entry fee of $10 per vehicle, but you receive a map and guide of the area with admission.

The area is really quite beautiful – from crashing waves, rocky beaches to sand dunes, forests and golf course greens – it has something for everyone and keeps your eyes on the scenery to find out what’s coming next.

The kids of course liked the beach that was filled with barking seals and tons of birds – a wildlife beach resort at its best.

The drive was the perfect way to end a day of sightseeing and trying to capture the elusive sunset photo on a deserted stretch of beach.

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A fun diversion and family afternoon at the San Francisco Zoo

I’ve only been to a handful of zoos to make my comparison – Detroit, Toledo, Binder Park (Kalamazoo), Madison and San Diego – but the San Francisco Zoo is a well-laid-out, compact zoo that packs a lot of punch.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Land's End

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Land’s End

I remember from my youth that walking around the Detroit Zoo could make your feet hurt and have you on the brink of exhaustion. But after a few hours in San Francisco, we were able to see everything we wanted to see have lunch and even have time for the kids to spend at the playscape area.

And speaking of lunch, I was expecting your typical hot dog, hamburger or nuggets selection but was pleased to find sushi, made-to-order salads and even a decent clam chowder at the zoo.

As for the animals, the baby ones are always fun to see, and the baby giraffe and gorilla were no exceptions. The gorilla, Kabibe, stole my daughter’s heart and even though she bought a stuffed zebra at the park, she named it Kabibe after the baby gorilla.

We had grandparents with us who wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge, and it was an easy, short drive to Land’s End, where we stretched our legs, used the facilities and walked around a short path to a spectacular view of the bridge. It was a perfect viewing area and saved us time and headaches by avoided city and bridge traffic.

Baby giraffe at the San Francisco Zoo

Baby giraffe at the San Francisco Zoo

Parking was a little difficult to find at the zoo. The side road had a sign that all parking was full, and all of the spaces up and down the street were taken. I remembered seeing an entrance on Great Highway, so we drove back around there and it still had dozens of open spaces

Fun at the San Francisco Zoo

Fun at the San Francisco Zoo

We didn’t try it out on this trip, but you can buy a “key” at the zoo, which gives you information on each animal near the exhibit when you put your key in the slot. It looked perfect for younger kids to keep them engaged and also teach them at the same time.

We’ll definitely come back to this family-friendly attraction, and it’s a great place to bring out-of-town visitors, too.

*Post script: After I wrote this and a month or so after our visit, we found out in the news that Kabibe had been inadvertently killed during a zoo accident. My daughter and I are deeply saddened to hear this.

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Great times at California’s Great America

When we lived in Michigan, I never took our kids to Cedar Point. My son is afraid of heights and my daughter was too short to go on the rides that she wanted to try.

But just after a few weeks in San Jose, we found ourselves at California’s Great America with one of my son’s friends.

I asked my son “What will you do if he wants you to go on the big coasters?” and my son said, “I’ll close my eyes.” And that’s just what he did.

Linus and Sally at Great America

Linus and Sally at Great America

The boys are old enough that we let them explore the park an hour or so at a time and then meet back up with us to check in. Meanwhile, my daughter had both of her parents to herself to explore all of the rides. She’s a swing girl, and she loved the swings there. After watching the Tiki Twirl she decided to try it. Her and I screamed the whole time and she deemed it her favorite ride of the day.

Aerial view from Great America

Aerial view from Great America

We also had a fantastic aerial view of the park, Levi’s Stadium and Santa Clara on the Star Tower

After exploring the park, getting our fill of cotton candy and having lunch, we decided to head to the water park. My daughter is a big fan of wave pools so that’s where we landed for the rest of the afternoon. It also was a great place to dry our clothes in the sun, which were soaked after a few turns on the Loggers Run.

As babies, the nursery for my kids was decorated with baby Snoopy, so my daughter was thrilled to find the Peanuts merchandise at the park. We came home with a big stuffed Snoopy as well as photos with the characters that we found in the park.

The boys found their way to the arcade and won a line-skipping pass for one of the rides.

Snoopy at Great America

Snoopy at Great America

Because we were there on an early fall weekend just after school started, the crowds were low, parking was easy and the lines for rides weren’t too bad.

We may have been spoiled by the off-season day but we decided that it would be one of our go-to places next summer for waterpark and letting-off-steam fun.

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Never bored at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

There’s a certain allure of roller coasters, a fair atmosphere and an ocean backdrop. OK, it may not be for everyone but when you hail from the Midwest, it’s certainly a novelty.

Waves in Santa Cruz

Jumping waves in Santa Cruz

After moving to San Jose, our first day trip was to Santa Cruz. I was able to get discount tickets ahead of time through Costco and we were on our way.

I’ve been told that the drive can be a bear during popular hours on weekends when everyone wants to head to the ocean, so we planned our day when the kids had a day off of school. The traffic was smooth sailing and there were very few cars in the parking lot when we arrived just before the boardwalk opened.

The draw of the ocean temporarily outweighed the thrill of the rides so we headed to the water first. Even though the water was cold, my kids jumped wave after wave after wave. After they tired out a bit, we checked out the arcade and used the tokens that came with our Boardwalk admission.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Then it was on to the rides. There are still a couple of them that my kids are weary of, but there are many more that they love or wanted to try. The gondola across the boardwalk was a great way to see what was available before we decided where to start.

Ferris Wheel Selfie

Ferris Wheel Selfie

My daughter says that her favorite was WipeOut where it looked like a regular circular fair ride underground. However, when it gets going, the lights go out, flashing lights come on and off and the room erupts with glee-filled screams.

My son enjoyed the log ride the most, and especially enjoyed hiding behind me on the way down so I would get wet and he wouldn’t.

On our way home, I was told that it was a must-do to get Marianne’s ice cream. It is heavenly ice cream and I’m glad to have found that it’s available near my house, too.

We had a great day at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and we capped it off by checking out the ocean one more time, where some dolphins came by and wished us good evening.

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Star Wars weekend at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Yes, girls like Star Wars, but bringing two little girls who don’t have a passion for all things Tattoine to Disney’s Hollywood Studios didn’t seem like the best idea. But here we were so we made an adventure of it.

Chewbacca signs an autograph

Chewbacca signs an autograph

I had planned our Disney dining ahead of time and was dismayed to find out that our reservation was changed just a few weeks before arrival from one meal credit to two, due to a new Star Wars-themed dining event. But we were determined to have our passes to Fantasmic so we kept the reservation.

I’m sure that if you are a dedicated Star Wars fan, you’d see more of the themed weekend. However, as visitors wandering around the park, we only saw a few things that gave us a clue that it was a different kind of weekend.

Star Wars weekend at Disney

Star Wars weekend at Disney

Besides the themed dining event, which included Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy dressed up as Star Wars characters, we were able to get in line and have our photo taken with Chewbacca.

Of course, we rode on Star Tours but that’s always a part of the Studios experience. We also had our first experience with Disney’s magic bands and the new fast pass system. It was certainly easy to have our park tickets, dining reservations, fast passes, photo passes and charge cards all on our wrist without needing to carry around any extra items.

Star Wars cookies

Star Wars cookies

The highlight of our visit and the best way to cap off a day at this particular park is definitely Fantasmic. The music, build-up and excitement of the show get me every time, and we always leave the park re-energized and happy.

So if you have any hesitation about coming to Star Wars weekend as a casual movie fan, it’s completely doable and accessible as a “regular” visit to the park on any other day.

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Mixing veterans and newbies at Disney World

We have something of a routine when it comes to a visit to Disney World. It involves at least two days at the Magic Kingdom, one day at each of the other parks and depending on the length of the trip, a second day at another park or a hotel (non-park) day.

ARtAnimation2We’ve seen the parades and fireworks many times, so now we head to the rides and attractions while the hoards of people stop to watch the entertainment. We know to stay at the park if it rains because the crowds are much better when it’s done. If there’s extra magic hours at night, it’s a good bet you’ll have shorter lines.

So when my sister-in-law asked my daughter and I to go to Disney World with her and her daughter, I went into planning mode. They had never been before, and my daughter and I have been several times. I cautioned my daughter early on that we might have to alter our usual routine if her cousin really wanted to see our experience something – it was, after all, a trip for her cousin’s birthday.

Disney's Art of Animation Mermaid pool

Disney’s Art of Animation Mermaid pool

But Disney being Disney, us veterans had our new experiences, as well. We stayed at the Art of Animation in the Little Mermaid area. If you have trouble walking, I don’t recommend it. We were in the building furthest from the check-in and dining area and it was a good hike.

We stayed at the Art of Animation during Memorial Day weekend, and my biggest complaint would have to be with the dining area. Half of it was roped off under construction, making the other half pretty crowded. Near the end of our visit, we arrived one morning to find that everything had been switched overnight – the closed area was open and the other area was now roped off, causing even more chaos and confusion.

Enchanted Tales with Belle

Enchanted Tales with Belle

The refillable mugs with electronic sensors are a good idea in theory, except when you are traveling with an independent child who wants to do it herself. When she pushes the button and stops because she slipped, you have to wait two full minutes before she can attempt to fill her mug again.

But those were the only downsides of the trip. The highlight was the new Fantasyland area, where we enjoyed the new rides and attractions. We were thrilled to find the Enchanted Tales with Belle open during late-night extra magic hours. We had a small group of people and my daughter and her cousin were both able to participate. We also had a surprise – the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was not officially open but they started testing it so we ran to the line. My daughter deemed it her favorite new ride.

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train

We included the dining plan and the photo plan on this trip so our new visitors would be able to make the most of their first visit. We had a ball playing with the various poses and loved the ease of having reservations for Cinderella’s castle.

Maybe because they are the same age and gender, but we really didn’t run into many instances where our group wanted to do separate things. Just a couple of times when the newbies wanted to go on a bigger coaster that my daughter wasn’t sure of, we just wandered nearby to another ride and met up again shortly after.

 

It’s always a good time to go to Disney World, but we had the most fun being able to show and share “our” world with those who have never experienced it before.

 

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Yes, we know the way (we’ve moved!)

To our new home in San Jose. It’s been a whirlwind summer as we made the decision for me to take a job offer across the country and to move our family. It’s amazing what a big move can do for your hoarding skills. We sold and donated so many things while cleaning out and downsizing our house.

Moving from a colonial with a basement to a ranch with a boxed-in backyard is quite a change, not to mention the sticker shock in Silicon Valley. On the plus side, our kids are adjusting quickly and making friends.

New home palm trees

Welcome to the land of palm trees

I’m also embracing the lifestyle and opportunities here. While Californians complain about the public transit, I’m just thrilled to have public transit at all. I always joke that coming from the Motor City, it was almost a law that you should have more than one vehicle and have a strong aversion to driving with someone else in the car. I’ve been biking to and from the train station and taking the train to work. It’s my first experience commuting without a car and although I’m sure I’ll complain about it at some point, I’m really liking it so far.

I’m learning that like a car, your bike also takes care and maintenance. I have new tires, lights, a rack and still need to get some fenders on the rare chance of rain. I also have callouses on my hands from gripping the handlebars.

I’ve also started my travel list of things to see and do in San Francisco and northern California. Also, it’s not a bad thing to be within driving distance of Disneyland! I also have an entire new home base from which to plan trips, so I’ve been playing with the flight comparisons to figure out where the deals are.

Of course, we had to take the grandparents to see the Golden Gate Bridge and made a stop at the San Francisco Zoo. We also made a trip to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and California’s Great America. But we’ve barely scratched the surface.

It’s hard to leave family and friends behind but it’s really not hard to leave the Polar Vortex behind. Seeing dead, brown grass in the midst of a drought will take some getting used to, but I’ll take that trade over ice and snow.

See you on the West Coast!

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A short sightseeing trip to Paris from London

While we were planning our 10-day trip to London, I kept reading TripAdvisor message boards and other blogs to determine if we should head to Paris for a day or two. Some say it’s not worth it for that short of time because you can’t do it justice and others say it’s easy enough to go back and forth between the two countries.

Because I didn’t know if or when I would ever have the chance to go to Paris again, we decided to go for it. The Eurostar ticket was the same price whether we came back the same day or the next day, so we opted for an overnight stay, giving us about 36 hours in the city of lights.

Pont des Arts

Pont des Arts or love lock bridge in Paris

Most of the recommendations I read said to stay in the lower number aridonnsements but they were also more expensive. We ended up near the Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart) at the Hotel Avenir not far from where the Eurostar stops. During the day, it had the hustle and bustle of Paris but in the evening, we never had a problem getting into a local restaurant and enjoyed the slow pace when compared to the sightseeing adventures of the day.

Apologies to the French who may have heard by 9-year-old yelling from the balcony “Bonjour, bon apetit” – her only French vocabulary. (Can you image someone yelling from a hotel in the U.S. “Hello, eat well!”)

Eiffel Tower

Playing catch at the Eiffel Tower.

After learning the London Underground, we decided we could tackle the Paris metro. I had pre-booked a behind-the-scenes tour of Eiffel Tower in order to avoid the long lines and it was well worth it. When we arrived, we saw lines everywhere. Our tour took us a few yards away from the tower, down into the basement where we learned about the inner workings. We then took the short group line to the elevator to the second floor. With one child afraid of heights, we decided not to venture to the top floor, and the second floor views were spectacular enough. As part of our tour, we were able to go up on top of the second-floor restaurant for our own private views. The tour guide let my daughter unlock the gate (you just opened the Eiffel Tower!)

Arc du Triomphe

Arc du Triomphe

After the tower, we took the metro stop near the Arc du Triomphe and walked down the Champs Elysee, which boasted crowds similar to Disney World.

Paris Catacombs

Touring the Paris Catacombs

The next day, I was determined to see the catacombs, so we took the Metro there and waited in line more than two hours. It was worth it to see such a stunning display of history and learn about the past and how it came into existence. My husband and I took turns in line while the other would throw a tennis ball with the kids (always pack a ball for diversion!) and maybe a visit or two to the nearby pastry shop (pain chocolat became my son’s new favorite). After, we went back to the Seine and walked by Notre Dame, down to the Pont des Arts bridge (and added our lock of course) and then played in the gardens of the Louvre.

Crepes in Paris

Crepes in Paris

I debated a trip into the Louvre but with our short time frame, we decided that we wouldn’t be able to do it justice, and after our short trip to the science museum in London, we figured the kids didn’t yet have the appreciation for what was inside. The other site that we missed was the Sacre Coeur although we were very close to it. Alas, maybe another trip to Paris is in my future …

Overall, it was worth our time and travels to see another country, get a brief taste (that means lots of crepes in my daughter’s world) of Paris and break up our days in London. The Eurostar was very efficient and easy to get to and from. I’d love to take it again to the other countries that it visits.

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