In Search of Warm Weather

By Christina VanGinkel

As I sit at my desk writing this morning, the temperature on my outside thermometer reads a balmy twenty degrees. Some of you are thinking that is not all that cold, while others are thinking how anyone could stay where it is so cold. What everyone would agree on is that sometimes, people just need a change, weather wise that is. In my humble opinion, taking a vacation normally has nothing to do with needing a change of scenery, but everything to do with having to warm up, at least for those vacations taken in the dead of winter by those living in any northerly climate.

I lived most of my life in the states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and a short time in Minnesota. I also lived in Florida for about one year. I know from that one year in Florida that there is warm weather in January, but I can guarantee you that there is not warm weather in the other three states I mentioned, not unless you consider the mercury rising to above freezing, just above freezing that is, to be warm.

With the millions of people who reside in these states alone, there is enough cause for the travel industry to enter a busy period each winter. Just think of all the people who greet most winter days in the same way, by shoveling snow, turning the heat up high, or piling on the blankets come bedtime, and the vacation industry should be in good shape for eons to come, at least during the months of January and February. When the hustle of the holidays have passed, and that mercury I was discussing heads as far south as it can in its holders, many of us are in serious need of some natural warmth, so what choices do we even have to consider that might warm up our toes that currently feel as if they might never thaw? Check the extended weather forecasts, then pack your bags and take a long weekend in a state such as Florida, book a hotel room on the beach and just soak up some of that sun. While the Floridians might think that overnight temperatures in their state are not all that warm, when the sun comes up and heats things to about seventy, for those of us in need of some sun, seventy degrees sounds like heaven!

If you are in need of even more warmth than what a state like Florida has to offer at this time of the year, then book a flight to sunny Acapulco where the temperatures this week should be in the high seventies. For more warmth yet, how about heading to Maui, where the expected high temperature today is a very toasty eighty one degrees, or Oahu, where Monday they are expecting the temperature to crawl up to eight two. Kauai is also listed as having temperatures in the eighties in the next couple of days, so choose any one of them for some body warming sun therapy. At this time of the year, when my local expected temperature is suppose to possibly go up as high as thirty degrees, a choice of temperatures ranging from the low seventies to the mid eighties could be hard to choose from. I would probably have to let my pocketbook choose for me and just see which getaway I could arrange the fastest without draining my pocketbook dry. Deals are available for many of these places, so check out the expected temperature of wherever your heart desires to go, and then pack those winter woolies away for a few days and drag out your shorts and tanks and go soak up some sun.

A vacation in the winter to a sunny locale is often just what the doctor ordered, really! Sunlight deprivation is a common cause of depression, so a winter vacation that consists of crawling out of bed each morning and crawling into a lounge chair on a sunny beach, may be the ideal fix for a sun hungry body and mind. Add a few fresh fruit drinks to nourish that body, and you will have a complete agenda in place for feeling better. You can always consider it as an extension of your New Year’s resolution to live this New Year healthier than those years that have passed. Warm weather, where are you?

Fun Things to Do in Jacksonville, Florida

One of my favorite places on the planet is St. Augustine, Florida. It is located on the state’s east coast and on the Atlantic Ocean. Many times when I travel there, it becomes a top priority to avoid large cities and I have taken the bypass around Jacksonville many times because of the size of city. I have done some research on Jacksonville recently, however, and I have decided that the next trip to the Sunshine State just might find me enjoying the countless things to do and places to see in the city.

An added bonus would definitely be exploring the marvelous restaurants of Jacksonville. It is among the country’s 15 largest cities. In 1990 it was ranked 15th in size according to population; it was 14th in population size in the year 2000; and by 2004 was ranked 13th in size.

One of my most vivid memories of Jacksonville was seeing the city from a bridge on the bypass. The moon was appearing extra large that day (it was still daylight!) and I remember thinking that it wasn’t “moon over Miami” but it was just as memorable.

If you enjoy being near water, Jacksonville is situated between the banks of the St. Johns River and the Atlantic Ocean. There are an abundance of water sports from which to choose but there are also many beaches if you would rather take in the glorious Florida sunshine instead of doing water sports.

If you have an interest in history, try the Fort Caroline National Memorial near the city. The fort reproduction is maintained and operated by the National Park Service. The site represents the place where the second French colony on the east coast was established in 1564. In September of 1565, Pedro Menendez de Aviles came to Fort Caroline to take over the fort for Spain, and many French soldiers were killed at this spot.

Whether or not you are traveling with children, you may enjoy a trip to the Jacksonville Zoological Gardens. It has been in operation for over 90 years and it covers seventy acres of land. Some of the most loved parts of the zoo include the giraffes and riding the train. You will be seeing many reptiles, mammals, birds, amphibians, and invertebrates. The zoo is open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily.

If you will be spending any significant amount of time at all in Jacksonville, be sure to spend some of it at the Jacksonville Landing. This is almost like a boardwalk setting with incredible food choices, nightlife, and some of the best shopping in the city. There are dozens of shops, and the “Landing” is found beside the St. Johns River. You may be there at a time when a live concert or festival is taking place for an added bonus.

As long as you are in that dockside area, you may want to try the floating casino cruise. You may want to get dinner before boarding or take advantage of the breakfast or dinner buffet on the ship. A cocktail bar is also offered on the cruise. This gentle journey around the St. Johns River offers all the gaming options that you would find in a major land casino including over 200 slots.

If you are not a gambler, there are other cruises available in Jacksonville that you may want to check out. This is also where the Busch Brewery is located and if you are 21 or over, you can stop by for a tour and free tasting. If you are visiting Jacksonville during the season for sports, there are some Jacksonville teams to catch if they are having a home game.

If you enjoy the performing arts, there are many venues in Jacksonville. There are also numerous art museums, science and history museums, and other types of museums; theaters; and additional places for the performing arts. Some of the theaters offer dinner shows, so be sure to call around for the current show before you decide at which place you want to spend your evening.

You will find many things on your own to do, but a few other ideas are a visit to the American Lighthouse and Maritime Museum followed by seeing the Mayport Lighthouse; the Naval Station Mayport; and the Pablo Historical Park. As a side note, if you are interested in golfing, the well known World Golf Village is located between Jacksonville and St. Augustine.

Things to See While in West Virginia

I can’t hear the words “West Virginia” without thinking of the song by the late and great John Denver that calls the state “almost heaven.” I have seen the beauty of West Virginia first hand from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Shenandoah River as the song mentions.

There are various mountain ranges in the state which makes hiking one of the major attractions and there are also many bodies of water if water sports are more your type of enjoyment. Other sports include excellent skiing and white water rafting, canoeing, and much more to do in “The Mountain State.”

Other nicknames for West Virginia include “Switzerland of America” also because of the great number of mountain ranges (although other states have been called this as well), and “The Panhandle State” because of the physical dimensions of the borders. Personally I always thought that on a map, it looked like a tulip.

You will need to do your homework if you will be visiting West Virginia and match up the available activities with things you will enjoy. For starters, here are a few possible things to add to your agenda.

1. Hiking the trails and other mountain adventures on one of the many mountain ranges in the state. Begin with the Allegheny Mountains if you are having trouble with a starting point. But that doesn’t mean you should overlook the others. If you don’t have a camera along with you, I suspect you will be buying one there soon enough.

2. Visit some of the places of historical interest in the state. West Virginia just became a state during the Civil War era when it was formerly a part of Virginia. If the Civil War isn’t your topic of interest, this was also an area where pioneer stories are plentiful. One historical site from the Civil War era is Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Spend some time where the Shenandoah River meets the Potomac and where a famous attack on slavery happened with John Brown at the helm. Check out John Brown’s fort and the museum in this area. Visit Virginius Island.

3. Spend some time in the state’s capital city of Charleston. You will be able to find museums, fabulous eateries, and many activities to keep you and your family (if you are not traveling alone) very busy while spending some time in the capital. If you enjoy museum hopping, don’t forget to check out the planetarium at the Avampato Discovery Museum. It is found in the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences.

4. No matter where you will be staying in the state, try to catch part of Route 60. It actually runs nearly 200 miles in length and if you have a camera or at least a memory that will never forget majestic views, it will be worth your time. You will see panoramic views and river gorges as well as many other beautiful sights. This stretch of road is called the “Midland Trail National Scenic Byway.” If you want to do more in this area than just driving through it, you will be able to find activities such as biking, hiking, river rafting, and even climbing.

5. Did you know that there is a castle in the United States? Or that there is a castle in the United States *and* reported to be haunted? It is found in West Virginia and its name is Berkeley Castle. The structure was built in 1885 and was actually purchased by a ghost chasing society.

6. While you are in the Berkeley area perhaps trying to catch a glimpse of the castle, you may want to stop by the Berkely Springs State Park to take advantage of the mineral springs or plan an afternoon at one of the spas in the area. There are many unique treatments that you can choose there, so be sure to do enough research before your trip so you can select the best spa match for your needs.

7. Check out the fabulous skiing. If you don’t already participate in the sport, this may be a great place for you to learn.

8. See the Grand Creek Mound Historical Site. As the name suggests, this is an ancient burial ground for the Native American “mound builders.” The mound is nearly 70 feet in height.

Those are just a few of the things you will find to do if you are vacationing in West Virginia. Research the available activities that match with your family’s interests and it will be a memorable trip.

Budget Travel Tips

By Christina VanGinkel

Not every vacation has to cost a fortune. There are times in our life when we need to get away, to refresh our minds and bodies, and the cash to back up that refreshment is just not at hand. That is when any budget stretcher you can think of should come into play to help you get away. If you cannot think of any budget stretchers on your own, then read on for some great ways to take that vacation even when your checkbook is telling you to stay at home.

Not planning ahead on air travel can sometimes be in your favor. Empty seats cost as much to fly as ones filled with a passenger, so rock bottom discounts for last minute flights can be had.

Even airlines run specials. Not all advertise them thoroughly though, so be sure to ask if they are running any specials, discounts, or deals which you might qualify for. If you are a senior, be sure to mention this, as oftentimes, that fact alone will net you a cheaper rate.

Check the map before booking a flight, and consider flying into a smaller airport nearby. At the least, compare rates, and you might just be shocked at how much this small trick can save you. Be sure to compare the times of day that you are willing to fly also, as it is common for rates to differ depending on the time of day they originate.

The same way that flying into a smaller airport will often save you budget wise, so will staying at a hotel outside of the venue you want to visit. Always take a few minutes to compare rates of various hotels nearby to your destination (this can be done conveniently and quickly online), and do not hesitate to ask if they can give you a better rate than being advertised. For a variety of reasons, such as you will be staying there for several days, or it is already late in the day of your arrival and they have plenty of rooms available, it is the off season, or whatever, ask for a better rate. More times than not, they will offer you something. As before, if you are a senior, be sure to mention this when booking a room, as this may assure you of an added discount.

Ask what amenities each hotel offers too, to help you base your decision on where to stay. If two hotels have the same rate, are in the same locale, but one offers a full continental breakfast, and the other does not, go with the one serving the breakfast to save you on paying out of pocket for that meal each morning.

Be sure to compare other means of travel too. If a train service is available to your destination, check out the rates in comparison to a flight. If you are really looking to save money, and time spent traveling is not of a concern, check out bus fares too. I do not personally recommend bus travel though if your time to take a vacation is very limited, or if you are traveling with very small children that may become bored quickly by the long trip and the confinement. At least on an airplane, the trip is relatively quick, and a train will allow for moving around, and even eating a meal or sleeping quarters.

If you are a solo traveler, consider asking someone to go along and split the costs of things like hotel and cab fares. Be sure that whomever you ask is someone that you can agree to an agenda with though. If you both head into the vacation with very different ideals about the vacation (such as whether you are actually going to vacation together, sightseeing together, going for meals together, etc., or are just splitting the costs of items and each going your own way day to day), it may be more of a stress maker than a stress breaker.

If you are traveling by car, watch the speed limits, as this will really save you on gasoline usage, not to mention avoiding a costly speeding ticket.

Lastly, consider why you want to take the vacation in the first place. If it is really to just get away from it all, and the destination is not as important as the time doing nothing, then consider checking out a vacation spot close to home that will provide you with the needed relaxation minus the hassles of travel.

Great Places to Take Kids in the Philadelphia Area

If you are planning a trip to the Philadelphia area in the near future, you may not know about all of the wonderful kid-friendly stops along the way. Philadelphia is best known for its historical sites such as the Liberty Bell and the National Constitution Center, but there is a whole lot more to entertain your little ones. Here are some great stops to make next time you’re in the Philly area:

Philadelphia Zoo (234900 W. Girard Avenue, Philadelphia). Home of the nations oldest zoo, the Philadelphia Zoo is a great place to visit. Your children will love seeing the zoo’s 1600 animals– and there are some special stops just for kids. The smaller-scale Children’s Zoo features a petting zoo and pony rides. And don’t forget to stop at the Channel 6 Zoo balloon, to get a birds eye view of the entire zoo. There is also the Amoroso’s PZ Express, which features train rides– and your kids can even opt for a ride on a camel! If you’re craving a Philly favorite, make sure to stop by the Tastykake shop for some cupcakes and other treats. Before your visit, make sure to call ahead or check the Philadelphia Zoo website for details about featured attractions– some attractions (like the pony and camel rides) are only open from April through October.
Don’t miss: The Children’s Zoo, especially if you have preschool aged children.

Sesame Place (100 Sesame Place, Langhorne PA). If your kids are fans of the classic PBS children’s series, “Sesame Street”, then they will love Sesame Place! Sesame Place is an amusement park created especially for kids. Located just north of Philly in nearby Langhorne, Sesame Place features shows and appearances by Sesame Streets characters– from Ernie and Bert to Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. There are tons of toddler-friendly rides, as well as rides for older kids. Some favorites include the The Big Slipper and The Sky Splash (for older kids) and Little Birds Rapids (for younger kids). A large portion of the park is devoted to water attractions, so be sure to plan to visit on a warm, sunny day and wear bathing suits and pack plenty of sunscreen. Another tip? Check ahead for show times if you want to catch a show– the shows get crowded and you’ll want to be there ahead of time if possible. There are also daily parades, which will give you the chance to see many of the characters at one time or you can get there early to dine at a buffet breakfast with Big Bird and some of the other characters (an extra charge applies for the breakfast). Sesame Place features a replica of the famous Sesame Street– great for photo ops. Your family will have a blast at this awesome park! Because it is an outdoor water park, Sesame Place is only open from May through October, although there are some openings during the holidays for souvenir shopping and breakfast with some of the characters.
Don’t miss: Rock Around the Block Parade

Please Touch Museum (201 N. 21st Street, Philadelphia). Most museums are boring for kids, but not this one! The Please Touch Museum was created just for kids- -and it features attractions like Alice in Wonderland and life-size replicas of children’s author Maurice Sendak (“Where the Wild Things Are”) classic book illustrations. There are tons of gadgets for your kids to play with (kids are allowed to touch everything), and they can pretend to drive a real Septa bus or play in a pretend petting zoo (Barnyard Babies). Step into a Maurice Sendak storybook or into Alice’s wonderland, and don’t forget to stop in the pretend grocery store, where everything is scaled down to kids’ size! Your kids can “shop” for groceries (using kids size grocery carts), then scan them at the registers.
Don’t miss: The Sendak Exhibit

Franklin Institute (222 N. 20tyh Street, Philadelphia). The Franklin Institute is an educational place– but its so much fun you’re kids won’t even realize it! Featuring attractions like Sir Isaac’s Loft, Electricity and Electronics and The Train Factory, your kids can explore and learn to their hearts content. The Franklin Institute is one of Philadelphia’s most popular places for kids– try visiting in the summer to avoid crowded school field trip groups.
Don’t miss: The Franklin Air Show, especially if your kids like planes.