Travel to Moscow? Sure, Why Not?

With the Cold War lasting as long as it did, I am sure that many world travelers, no matter where their travels took them, never thought they may be planning a trip to Moscow someday. Things change and sure enough, more and more people are planning to do just that . . . adding the very beautiful capital city of the Russian Federation to the list of world cities they have seen.

There are many things to list in a travel article when it comes to things to see and do in Moscow. The first thing that probably comes to mind when anyone thinks of that city, though, is the Kremlin, so I will start there. In addition to the gorgeous bit of architecture that it offers, the Kremlin is actually a self sufficient city within its own perimeter.

What will you see in the Kremlin? First of all, keep in mind that the part called “the Senate” is actually where the country’s president lives, so be prepared to see heavy security all around this area. There are cathedrals and churches within the Kremlin, museums, and many other structures that have fascinating stories connected to them. You will see government buildings and you will see the State Kremlin Palace, a few other palaces, and many other things.

You can find out what the buildings and stories about them are while you are there, but it is always beneficial to know a little bit about the history before arriving. I often go to places I don’t know anything about and although I think I listen and read everything available while I am there, I always realize later that a person simply can’t retain everything that is heard while on vacation. Part of the time a guide will be talking, as one example, the visitor will be looking around to see the sights in the area.

While you are in the area where the Kremlin is located, you will surely want to spend more time looking around Red Square. You will see the incredible St. Basil’s Cathedral from the mid 16th century and you really won’t want to travel to Moscow without at least locating Lenin’s mausoleum.

You will not be seeing most of those types of buildings on part of “the square.” The reason is because it is taken up by a huge department store called GUM. Whether or not you can pronounce its name of Gosudarstvenny Universalny Magazin, it will certainly excite the shopper in you. Prepare to be sporting sore feet after shopping at these 150 shops and eateries. You will be able to find souvenirs here but also designer items and many other things that make shopping here so much fun.

If you still aren’t totally “shopped out” after spending some time at GUM, there is another shopping center that is three stories in size and also located near the Red Square area. This mall is called Okhotny Ryad and the most unique feature of it is that it is an underground shopping center. You will find shopping and dining here but also movie theaters, an internet cafe, a rec center, and even a bowling option.

If you want to experience some culture full of rich history while you are in the city, arrange to see a ballet, opera, or other show at the Bolshoi Theatre. Another alternative is to spend some time at one of the numerous museums around Moscow. Whether your interest is in art or history of the country, there will be a museum specializing in the topic.

To spend some time in nature no matter what time of year you are visiting, stop by the two mile long Gorky Park. You will be able to walk along the Moscow River and get a bite to eat. You may even want to ride a roller coaster found in the park.

A few other fun and interesting Moscow activities:

— Moscow Zoo
— Sandunovsky Banya (public bath and sauna where users clean with steam and beat themselves with veniki birch sticks to produce an increase in circulation. If you are traveling as a couple, be advised that male and female sections are separate).
— One of a variety of Russian circuses. You don’t have to be traveling with children to enjoy a fun evening at a circus.
— Victory Park for walking, boating, concerts, etc.

Keep Busy While Visiting Winnipeg

If you have a business or pleasure trip to Canada in your future and it happens to be in or near Winnipeg, there will be plenty of things to do. You will not have to worry about feeling bored in this capital of the Manitoba province. The city is home to more than half a million people.

If you enjoy animals in general or zoos in particular, stop by the Assiniboine Zoo. Found in the park of the same name, the zoo is open year round. Be sure to have your camera at the ready because there are around two thousand animals here that always seem to be ready to pose for picture taking. If your hotel is near the park, you can reach it by foot if you travel the foot bridge on Portage Avenue. Otherwise try to approach from either Corydon Avenue or Roblin Boulevard.

If you don’t want to spend time with the wildlife of the zoo, there are other things to see in the park including a sculpture garden. There is a conservatory and an area for shows of music or movies as well as an opportunity to return to your childhood for a few minutes and grab a ride on the miniature railroad.

If you have an interest in human or natural history you will enjoy the Manitoba Museum. The museum is found on Rupert Avenue and houses many exhibits on a great number of topics from history of all kinds to science and hands on exhibits. If you are traveling with children or enjoy things like robots and space travel yourself, be sure not to pass by the Science Gallery while you are visiting the museum.

Plan to spend enough time at the museum because there is also a huge planetarium on the premises. You will be able to see the sky at night with thousands of stars sparkling for your entertainment, and all within the confines of the planetarium.

Sometime during your stay in Winnipeg, remember to check if there are any festivals going on while you are there. In fact, it is often called the “City of Festivals.” The festivals are held all throughout the year at various locations but one popular place for some of them is the Forks National Historic Site found in the center of Winnipeg. This park has some lovely walking paths if you want to get some exercise in and the site is full of history. Research about Fort Rouge and a visit to the historic site will be even more interesting for you.

If you want to get a bit more adventuresome than a zoo, museum, or park, consider Adventure Junkie Tours. The tour company with the fun name (there are many adventure junkies!) offers many kinds of tours and you will have to know which one would be most interesting to you. The decision will include whether you want an air, land, or water tour. What is the difference?

Air Tour: Hang gliding, hot air ballooning, sky diving
Water Tour: Sailing, scuba diving, kayaking, or canoeing
Land Tour: Polar bear trip, dog sledding, mountain biking, back packing

Personally I’m not fond of heights or flying, so the air adventures wouldn’t be at the top of my choice list, but I think the dog sledding, polar bear trip, and sailing sound great. Well, as long as the tour company would keep me far enough from the bears to look but not touch, that is!

If you want a more romantic or at least more calming sail than a kayak or canoe, try a paddlewheel boat. Paddlewheel River Rouge Tours offers this kind of tour and you can see the city from the river. If you don’t want an afternoon tour, try a dinner cruise or dance cruise instead of a traditional sightseeing tour.

If you still need another activity try a vintage rail ride on the Prairie Dog Central Railway. An old steam engine or a diesel locomotive will be in the lead and the railroad trip will take you about two and a half hours. You will be stopping at markets for some quick shopping and the sights you see will include farmland and prairie regions.

Last but certainly not least is that you may enjoy a drive to the Bison Prairie outside of Winnipeg. There are wetlands, woodlands, a huge aquarium, and grasslands here at the Fort Whyte Center, too.

Your Visit to Philadelphia

If you’re planning a visit to Philadelphia, you may not realize how much there is to do in this great city. Dubbed “The City of Brotherly Love”, Philly is home to some great cultural spots and fantastic eateries. Here are some tips to help you plan your visit to Philadelphia:

Places to Stay: Philadelphia has many luxury hotel accommodations, including The Hotel Windsor, the Sheraton Rittenhouse Square Hotel and the ever-so-luxurious Four Seasons Hotel. For less pricy accommodations, check out Philly’s Holiday Inn Express or The Comfort Inn in downtown Philly.

Places to Eat: There are tons of upscale places to eat in Philadelphia, including the world renowned Le Bec-Fin, Zanzibar Blue or the award winning Striped Bass. Looking for some delicious ethnic dining? Alma de Cuba’s authentic Cuban dishes are out of this world. Warmdaddy’s, a fave haven for such celebs as Alicia Keys, is known for its delicious southern cuisine, served alongside some great blues music. When dining along Penn’s Landing, Philly’s waterfront district, be sure to check out Dave and Busters, a popular entertainment complex that features great bistro style food, the famous Charthouse Restaurant or the trendy Moshulu restaurant. Philly’s South Street features lots of cool dining spots, including Copacabana and Marrakesh. And if you want to sample one of Philadelphia’s world famous cheesesteaks, there are plenty of places to get this local delicacy (my personal favorite is Pat’s King of Steaks at 9th and Passyunk Avenue).

Historical Places to See: In center city, make sure to visit Independence Hall, the historic building where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed. The Betsy Ross House on Arch Street is another popular visitor spot as is the historic Liberty Bell Center, where a certain bell is on display.

Museums: The Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of the largest museums in the United States, chock full of European art as well as the art of Philly native Thomas Eakins. If you have kids in tow, check out The Please Touch Museum, which is a kid-friendly museum that showcases children’s storybook illustrations, cool inventions and a kid-size grocery store. In the Old City district of Philly, look for even more trendy museums and galleries.

Sporting Events: The Citizens Bank Park is Philly’s newest ballpark (and home of the Philadelphia Phillies). If you want to see the Philadelphia Eagles in action check out Lincoln Financial Field. If hockey or basketball is your thing, stop by The Wachovia Center to see the Flyers or Allen Iversen and the Philadelphia 76ers in action. Philly is home to some great sports teams and Philly fans are extremely passionate about their teams!
Stuff for Kids: In addition to the highly recommended Please Touch Museum, Philly has plenty of other kid-friendly attractions, including the world famous Philadelphia Zoo. Philly’s zoo is home to over 1600 exotic animals and there is also a special Children’s Petting zoo that features pony rides. Also, in nearby Langhorne, PA there is a child’s dream come true– Sesame Place, which is an amusement park that features all of the characters from the beloved PBS television series. Sesame Place is a must-stop if you visit Philadelphia with young children.

Penn’s Landing and Boathouse Row: Philadelphia’s waterfront has lots to do and see. Throughout the year, Penn’s Landing hosts the Festival Pier Concert Series and there are seasonal cruises on the boat The Spirit of Philadelphia. Boathouse Row is a scenic strip along Kelly Drive, and it’s quite a sight at night when all of the boathouses are lit up. Kelly Drive is also a popular place for joggers and bicyclists, so you can get your exercise in while you’re visiting Philly (no excuses)!

Shopping: Philly’s own South Street features hip boutiques where you can pick up one of a kind trendy finds. In nearby King of Prussia (about 30 minutes west of Philly) check out the King of Prussia Mall, which is the second largest mall in the country. The King of Prussia Mall features every upscale store you can think of, as well as popular anchor stores like Bloomingdales, Neiman Marcus and Macy’s.

And, if you plan to visit Philly in the near future, keep your eyes peeled for sightings of Sylvester Stallone and the film crew of the movie “Rocky 6” — they are currently filming in Philadelphia and have been spotted all over the place by locals lately.

Hitting the Slopes in Nagano, Japan

When the winter months come along, there’s nothing more enjoyable than dusting off your skis, pulling out all your gear, and hitting the slopes after a recent snowfall has dusted the mountain, leaving some great powder behind. But one thing that I know about skiers is that they like to change things up a bit by traveling around and skiing in a lot of different places. Each mountain range offers different conditions and scenery, so finding variety is pretty easy. Once you’ve had your fill of Aspen, Vail, and Banff, you might want to venture out of the country for your next trip.

Japan might not come immediately to mind as a skiing destination, but don’t forget that the 1998 Winter Games were held there. Since skiing and snowboarding are major Olympic events, you can bet that there is some prime powder in that area. Specifically, I am talking about the fabulous resorts in Nagano prefecture, the site of the Olympics.

There are a couple of different ways that you can organize your trip to Nagano. First, you can choose to sign up as part of a tour group. This is a simple matter of contacting your travel agent and telling her your needs or looking up various Japan tour groups on the Internet and booking a package directly.

You’ll find that Japanese tour groups are quite inclusive, which can either be a good or a bad thing depending on what kind of traveler you are. On the one hand, you won’t have to worry about making any further arrangements once you arrive. That’s because your transportation, hotel, meals, and additional sightseeing will be included in the tour package (specific details will depend on which package you actually choose, of course).  On the other hand, you won’t have very much free time to slip off to do some exploring on your own. If you like structured, relatively hassle-free vacations, then you’d do well to purchase a tour package. If you prefer to call all the shots on your vacations, then read on.

Traveling in Japan is a bit different than traveling in other foreign countries. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone speaks English everywhere you go, and not all signs are written in English as well as Japanese. This can cause you to experience a few rough spots, but shouldn’t have a detrimental effect on your vacation as a whole.

Nagano is centrally located on Japan’s main island, and getting there from Tokyo’s Narita Airport is relatively easy. If you are planning on driving in Japan, you’ll of course need an international driver’s license.  You should also be aware that people drive on the left in Japan. This can be a bit disorienting at first, but you’ll soon get used to it.

When renting a car, it’s important to let the clerks know that you will be driving to a ski resort in the mountains. Japan has some very strict laws regarding driving in snowy or icy conditions, and you must have either snow tires or tire chains when conditions warrant these accessories. If you don’t have these things, not only will you be at risk for an accident, you’ll also be subject to a ticket and/or heavy fines.

Once you get to whichever resort you’ve chosen to stay at, things are pretty much just like you would find back home. You can rent skis, boots, and even outwear (snow pants, heavy jackets). You can also buy these things from small stores on site; however, if you do that, you should be prepared to pay higher prices than you would at a regular store.

After you have your equipment straightened out, you can buy a lift ticket or use the rope tow to get to the top and then cruise on down at your own pace. Most resorts have several different slopes for different skill levels, from beginners on up to advanced skiers. There are even sled hills for the kids, so there wouldn’t be any problem turning your trip into a family vacation.

The next time you want to hit the slopes in a new locale, why not consider Nagano, Japan? You’ll find top-notch skiing, beautiful views, and delectable cuisine waiting for you!

Visiting Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills

By Rebecca VanGinkel

Mt. Rushmore is located in the Black Hills in beautiful southwestern South Dakota. The start of the carving of the faces of United States Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt was started in the year 1927, by an American sculptor named Gutzon (John) Borglum. Not only did John Borglum design the carving, he also supervised the construction of it until he died in 1941. Borglum himself viewed these four presidents as the most important United States leaders of all time. This was a tribute from him to the men that he respected most.

The four faces of the famous presidents are carved into granite on the side of Mt. Rushmore. The carvings are about five hundred feet above ground and each face is about sixty feet tall. It is recorded that almost one million dollars was used in the carving of the faces. The many construction workers used different drills and dynamite to blow away and carve out the pictures. It took many years of hard work and grueling labor to finish. They could only work on the carvings when the weather permitted, and that is one of the reasons it took so long to finish.

John Borglum worked tirelessly on his large and famous project from 1927 until he died in 1941. When he did die, he had finished the faces of George Washington, who was completed first, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. The face of Theodore Roosevelt was unfinished at the time of his death. Borglum’s son, Lincoln, took over the project in 1941. Lincoln and his workers finished the face of Roosevelt later in the year.

If you are lucky enough and get the chance to visit Mt. Rushmore, do not pass it up. My husband and I took our young son there last summer and it is a trip we will never forget. It was the most beautiful thing we had ever seen. As you walk up to the carving, you get to walk through an open tunnel of towers, where all the flags of every state in the U.S are blowing in the wind. It is very patriotic. You will also get to see a statue of John Borglum himself. Another great attraction at Mt. Rushmore is the stone wall that names every person that worked on the carving. Also, there is a large, open auditorium located beneath the carvings. We were told that in the summer they have shows and exhibits located there.

Located near the open tunnel is a great gift shop. You can buy anything from postcards to t-shirts with pictures of Mt. Rushmore on them. You can find a gift for just about any family member there.

We also were surprised to find that you can take a nature hike right up underneath the faces of the presidents. They definitely look a lot bigger up close. Or, instead of walking right under the carving, you can walk inside a huge boulder that is split in half, and peer through the trees to see it. It is definitely a breathtaking experience. Our trip to Mt. Rushmore was definitely a great learning experience, and we would love to go back someday soon.

When we were in South Dakota visiting Mt. Rushmore, we also got to venture into the Black Hills. The Black Hills are located not only in South Dakota, but also in Northeastern Wyoming. We actually learned a lot about the history of the Black Hills.

We were very surprised to learn that the Black Hills are home to one of the largest herds of bison left in the United States. We were told that there are not even close to as many bison today as there were one hundred years ago. We also learned that the Black Hills were first home to the Sioux Native Americans. In the hills, the Sioux lived happily. The hills provided them with everything they needed to live. The food, water, and shelter were plentiful. They were forced out of their home in 1847, soon after large amounts of gold were discovered there. They were forced out of their beloved home, and onto reservations that they resented. When this happened, the Sioux lost all trust and respect for the people they called white men.

In 1980, one hundred and six years after the Sioux were forced out of the Black Hills, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the tribe should be paid over one hundred and twenty two million dollars in return for the land that was seized from them. Although some wanted to accept the money, most Sioux didn’t. They feel they should be able to have the Black Hills back, and once again be the rightful owners.

When visiting the Black Hills, we learned a lot about our nation’s history. We had a lot of fun on our trip, and saw many beautiful things. We would love to go back someday. We would recommend visiting the Black Hills and Mt Rushmore to anyone who wanted to have a lot of fun and learn a lot about the U.S. History.

My Trip to the Okefenokee Swamp

By Rebecca VanGinkel

The Okefenokee Swamp is a very large subtropical swamp that is located in Southeast Georgia, and also in Northeast Florida. My husband, son, and I got a chance to visit it two summers ago, when my husband was working in northern Georgia. We just looked at the map for a place to go for the weekend, and the Okefenokee Swamp immediately caught my husband’s attention. So, we packed up the car and drove south for the weekend.

Our trip didn’t start out to well. When we first arrived at the swamp, there were no cabins open to rent. We were very upset, the cabins were beautiful! The whole place was completely full! We ended up driving back to town to look for a hotel to spend the night. We found one right away, but they were also full. We went across the street to the only gas station in town to ask if they knew any place close that we could stay. An elderly man informed us that he knew a woman who would rent out her trailer for the night. He said it had TV, air conditioning, and anything else you needed! Since it was our only option, we started our short drive over to her place.

When we arrived, a very old woman met us outside in her nightgown. She welcomed us and told us to follow her. There was a very nice camper in her yard, and that was where we expected we were going to stay. Were we ever wrong! She led us to an old trailer house that looked like it was one of the first ever built. It was set on the side of a pond, which she told us to stay away from, since every once in awhile an alligator would take up home in it. We went inside and pulled a mattress into the center of the living room, and went to sleep.

The next morning we got up very early, packed up, and went on our way. We stopped at a roadside cafe, and had a wonderful breakfast. It was a buffet of breakfast foods from down south. We had biscuits and gravy, eggs, collard greens, and grits. It was delicious. Then, we were off to the swamp.

When we arrived, we went into the gift shop and information center, to see what activities we wanted to do. We knew right away that we wanted to rent a boat and drive around the swamp. We were so excited. It was very inexpensive and we didn’t even have to have a guide. We paid for our boat, grabbed our life jackets, and we were on our way to the greatest adventure of our life.

While my husband was driving our little boat, I was reading a brochure on the swamp. I was amazed to find out that the swamp was forty five miles long, and twenty five miles wide. That means it covers six hundred sixty square miles of land! The Okefenokee Swamp water drains into the Gulf of Mexico through to Suwannee River, and into the Atlantic Ocean through the Saint Mary’s River. The swamp contains more than twenty different islands and inhabits many fresh water lakes. The floor of the swamp is made of peat, which is partially decomposed plant matter. In some places, the peat is more than fifteen feet deep.

The Okefenokee Swamp is also home to many different plants and animals, many of which we seen on out boat ride. There are the most beautiful cypress trees, millions of water lilies, brush vines, and Spanish moss. Also living in the swamp, among all the beautiful plants and trees, are deer, raccoons, opossums, and more than fifty different kinds of fish, and many kinds of birds. Our favorite part of the boat ride was getting to see all the alligators! Neither me, nor my husband or son, had ever seen a live alligator out in the wild!

At one point, we saw two guys in a boat fishing. We stopped to watch them fish for awhile, to see if they were going to catch anything. All of a sudden, an alligator came out of the water, very sneakily, and inched its way towards the man’s fishing bait. As soon as the guy seen what was happening, he started reeling in his line, but the alligator was faster than him, and ripped the bait right from the line!

Besides that alligator, we saw four other alligators swimming lazily in the water, and we even seen one baby alligator swimming around. Whenever we would get close to one, they would make a huge splash in the water, and we wouldn’t see them again. They are very good at hiding. Besides alligators, we saw many different kinds of spiders too. We got out in the middle of the swamp to use a bathroom, and there was a spider on the rafters that was about three inches wide. I was so scared that I got back into our boat without using the bathroom. Another interesting thing that we saw was an old abandoned shack that was set up in the middle of the swamp. It was built with really high underneath of it, to keep it from flooding. We asked the man at the information center about it, and he told us that a man had actually lived there more than twenty years back. Maybe he was pulling our leg, but it seemed like a reasonable explanation to us.

We finished our day with a snack from the gift shop, and drove to the closest big city we could find, and stayed in a nice hotel. We have talked about going back to the Okefenokee Swamp often, and we most likely will. The only thing we will do differently this time is to make reservations to stay in one of the cabins. I would recommend you do the same if you plan on visiting, unless you want your trip to start out like mine did! It is a very rugged, beautiful place, where I’m sure anyone would enjoy visiting.

Mena, Arkansa

By Rebecca VanGinkel

This past summer, my husband, my son, and I got a chance to visit Mena, Arkansas. When we found out that we would be traveling to Mena for my husbands’ job, we looked it up on the internet, but didn’t find anything very interesting. We were going to be arriving in the beginning of June, so we knew that we had a lot of warm weather to look forward too, but maybe not much else. When we did arrive, we were surprised to find it a very nice town with lots of friendly people and a few fun things to do.

When we arrived, we checked into the Harvey House Inn, located on Highway Seventy-one North. The Harvey House Inn is owned by a family who lives around the area of Mena, and is run by the owners’ family. They offer regular hotel rooms, or efficiency apartments, which we decided to stay in. Not only were they very reasonably priced, they also offered a weekly and monthly rate, which is a better deal if you’re staying for more than four days at a time, or more than a few weeks at a time. The rooms were very clean, and came furnished with a large bed, a love seat, a recliner chair, stove, refrigerator, coffee maker, and microwave. They also came fully stocked with all dishes and utensils. Each apartment also had a small grill outside, which anyone was allowed to use.

Besides being clean and well furnished, there was a large field behind our apartment where our son could run around and play. The owner of the hotel also allowed pets in the rooms, which many hotels do not do. Also, there was a small creek in front of the apartments, covered by a small bridge, where my son loved to play on hot days. Within walking distance from the hotel were Wal-Mart, a mini mall, the Laundromat, a gas station, and a couple of great restaurants.

We found many things to do for fun in Mena also. They have a great little movie theater, a bowling alley, and lots of lakes where you can fish and swim. Once, we were fishing at a local lake, my husband and I seen an alligator swimming in a small pond right off the lake! We told a woman who lived around the lake, so she called the local game and fish conservation, and they came and set a live trap for him. They said alligators are not supposed to be that far north, and could hurt children who swim in the lake. When they caught him, they brought him to a new home further south.

We also visited Queen Wilhelmina State Park in Mena. We had a great time there and actually visited twice. While driving up to the park our second time, we saw a small black bear run across the road right in front of us! It was very exciting. The road going up the mountain is very twisty and windy. The park is located right at the very top. They have many different things to do at the park, like hiking, camping, and dining. They have a great restaurant, with a beautiful view. They also have a small pizza and snack shop in the gift shop. Inside the gift shop, they have brochures explaining what there is to do inside the park, and they have lots of trinkets and knick knacks to take home as great gifts.

Right in front of the gift shop is a small train which you can ride around the park. You ride around the outskirts of the park, and get to see the hiking trails, the big train caboose they have sitting in the front lawn, the camping area, part of the zoo, and lots of beautiful scenery. In the camping area, they have hook ups for electricity, which is a great amenity. There are spots to park campers, or you can pitch a tent. There is also a small putt-putt golf course located near the gift shop. While we were hiking along one of the trails, we saw a rabbit and a snake. The trails range from easy hiking to hard hiking. All of the trails are wooded, and you get to see a lot of plants and trees that are native to that part of Arkansas.

The large train caboose they have on the front lawn is open to the public. You can climb up inside the driver area, and take pictures, or you can sit on the outside to take pictures. There is also a small zoo located on top of the mountain. All of the animals in the zoo have been hurt and are rehabilitating. They are also all native to Arkansas. While we were there, we got to pet a baby fox, and a baby raccoon. We got to see a lot of deer, bear, snakes, owls, and lots of other animals.

When you are leaving Queen Wilhelmina State Park, and driving down the mountain, you can drive up to an old fire tower. In front of the old tower, there is a plaque telling you what it was used for. A family lived inside the tower, and there job was to watch for fires, as far as they could see. If they spotted one, they had to relay the message to fire fighters below the mountain. Their job kept lots of people alive, and saved the forest below more than once.

Our trip to Mena, Arkansas and Queen Wilhelmina State Park was very fun and exciting. If you ever get a chance to visit, take it. You will learn a lot about Arkansas, and all that is native to it. The people are very friendly and welcoming. You will thoroughly enjoy yourself!

Be A Local Tourist

Having lived in several places in the United States, I have become aware at how often we do not visit those sites in our own backyards. We have lived in our current location for about eight months, and I have visited only two or three historic or landmark sites. It is not because I am not interested in visiting any other sites. I have simply found that because they are there everyday, I do not consider them exciting.

You probably have this attitude, too, but you can change it. You can begin to visit your own local area as a tourist. It is best, of course, to pretend that you are a tourist. Do not speak to the other tourists as if you have lived here for 20 years. Remember that you are visiting places for the first time. Forget about what your friends and neighbors have said about their visit. See for yourself.

You can begin your local travel plans by checking out your local chamber of commerce. Most of them have websites, but you have the added benefit of being nearby. Stop in and pick up brochures of the local attractions you think may be interesting. Read the brochures, visit the places online, and then map out your plans. Do it as if you are planning an actual trip. You will be in the spirit of travel and will approach the weekend (or day) with more fervor.

Note the times and cost of everything you want to do. Then you will be able to plan where you want to go and when. Although you can start early, come home for lunch, and head back out, consider making a day of it. Leave your home early. If nothing opens before 10 (which is likely), then start with a walking tour. Most even moderately-sized towns have walking tours of historic districts. Go back and read the placards. Enjoy the morning air.

Once you start your visits, you should be curious. Ask as many questions as you want or need. Spend time checking everything out. Do not tell yourself that you can come back later for the special movie presentation at the museum. See it today! Have a good time being a tourist in your own town.

For lunch, you should go to a local restaurant. Although you certainly know the local flavor, you should think about a place that represents your town. If there is a diner that has been around for 75 years, then you may want to stop by. You could try the restaurant that serves only local cuisine. Avoid fast food or chain restaurants. Remember that you are trying to keep yourself in the spirit of being a tourist in your own town.

Spend the rest of the afternoon visiting another location or two. Walk downtown to visit local shops, perhaps get a head-start on gift shopping. If there is something you have always wanted to know about, now is the time to check it out. Once you are done for the day, you have the luxury of going home to your very own bed instead of checking into a hotel. You will be able to sit back and relax after a wonderful day of visiting your own local tourist attractions.

Do not forget to buy souvenirs and take photos. While you probably do not want to buy expensive souvenirs, at least pick up a few postcards. Your children will enjoy using them to make a scrapbook of the day or to send to Grandma. You can take pictures and create a little album so that you will have a record of the visits.

These little hometown tourism trips should be part of your family ritual. Instead of just vegging out every Saturday, take a few to visit local places. It will keep everyone entertained, and it will be inexpensive. For less than $50, you can take the whole family to a couple of museums and to see some outdoor (FREE!) exhibits and monuments. Take advantage of what is around you. Learning about your local area is a wonderful way to feel more a part of the community. Plus, your children will get a kick out of doing something fun, and you will know that it also was educational.

By Julia Mercer

Basic Travel Tips to Make Vacation Less Stressful

Traveling is absolutely one of my favorite things to do. Every time I go on a trip, no matter whether it is a short or a longer excursion, I seem to come away with some tidbit of information that will be helpful in the future.

One of the most important things I have learned is that doing your homework ahead of time by researching your intended destination is imperative. It not only saves a lot of stress and time, but it can end up saving you some money as well.

So what will you need to research exactly? You will want to know the route you will use for one thing. This is a lot easier when you will be using a major highway or interstate. The best guide I have found that has a lot of great information is a guide for Interstate 95. The highway runs from Maine all the way to and through Florida, so having a guide is a definite asset.

The I95 guide lists all the exits in every state it passes through. If you take a little time to familiarize yourself with the guide, you will be able to chart your progress up or down the I95 corridor. The thing that I have found important about that is that I always know when the next rest stop will be coming up and at which exit it will be found. For a trip of any length more than a couple of hours, seasoned travelers know how important it is to know when those breaks are coming up!

In addition to knowing where the rest stops are located, guides such as the one for I95 also tell you which gas stations and restaurants are found at which exits. I have used this information every time I have gone to Florida and it is totally invaluable. All I need to do is choose a new restaurant and do a little poking around online to find their menu and web page. I also look for recommendations from other travelers for those restaurants. I have found some excellent meals by doing this.

Traveling guides will also tell you which hotels and motels you will find at each exit on the interstate. When you are doing your research, it is especially helpful if you have an idea about which part of the interstate you will be when it is nearly time to call it a night. Check to see which exits have your favorite chain of hotel. If you will be trying out a new hotel or motel, look for online reviews from other travelers. I have saved myself pretty much probable heartache and more than one horrid hotel night by taking the time to do this.

Another thing to “map out” is where the visitor centers are found in the towns or cities to which you are traveling. When I have gone into centers such as that, I am always glad I did. Not only are there often free newspapers, but very often local restaurants put discount coupons at the visitor centers. Sometimes hotels will place discount coupons at visitor centers, too, but most likely you will have already planned for your lodging by that time.

One of the best travel tips that anyone can and should follow is a contradiction of terms. You will be on vacation and you will be a tourist but it is important to not *look* like a tourist when you are out and about in strange locations. This could come in many forms, but pulling out wads of money or obvious travelers checks when other people in the area can see is a clear-cut no no.

Along the same line of thinking, unless you are at a place where you will be taking pictures, do not walk around with a camera around your neck. That reminds me of another great travel tip. When you leave the car to go into a restaurant for a meal, be sure to have things such as cameras, laptops, cd players and so on well covered and out of sight. It might be hard to accept that someone would break into a car in broad daylight especially, but that’s what thousands of tourists who are robbed in that very way may have thought before it happened to them.

Tips for Reserving the Room You Want

By Christina VanGinkel

Reserving a hotel room is something that hundreds of thousand, even millions of people do each day, yet securing a hotel room that is exactly what you want is not always as easy as it seems. However, there are things you can do to make sure that the room you pay for is the room you want.

Be specific when reserving a room, as to what exactly it is that you want and expect. Do not be vague, and never allow the desk clerk to assign you whatever room they happen to feel like. There will be times when what you are requesting may not be available, such as when you suddenly find yourself stranded on a long layover, and the rooms that are available, are on a very limited basis. Nevertheless, if you are making your reservations well in advance, you should be able to be very specific about what you want your room to be, such as a room or suite, and whether the room is one that allows smoking, or a non-smoking room, but what size bed, even what floor of the hotel the room is located. You can even request things such as a room not facing a parking lot, or a poolside room, etc. When making very specific reservations such as these, be sure to get the specifics in writing, otherwise when you show up, and you are provided keys to a room that do not even come close to what you paid for, you will not have any valid recourses to fall back on. If you want items such as a small fridge, microwaves, or other extras not in every room, also make sure you are clear about these too. Do not make assumptions about things like high-speed Internet access. If you are in need of a service, ask upfront if they have it, and what the limitations may be.

Taking responsibility yourself, as to the hotel’s location, and overall condition, is the only way to assure you of things like an ocean view, that poolside room you really wanted, or a room that is not facing a busy parking lot. When a guest makes a reservation, and tells the clerk what it is they expect, as long as the conditions are available, and you agree to the rate that particular room is listed at, there is no reason you have to settle for something less. I cannot tell you how many times I have stood at a hotel counter and overheard another guest try to tell the desk clerk that the room they were provided, was not what they had reserved. If they do not have any proof of what they were expecting, they often do not have a lot of recourse, save for an extremely nice clerk. While that can and does happen, I would certainly not want to hold my breath waiting for it to happen to me.

Never make a reservation or check into a hotel room because of having stayed in another hotel from the same chain. If you have frequently stayed at a certain hotel chain, and always received exceptional service, this will of course bode well for future visits at similar named hotels, but still take the time to check out each hotel on an individual basis. Even some of the most prominent chains, with the best reputations, may have a hotel or two that are not ideally located, or are older than the majority of the chain’s holdings, and they may not offer the same exacting standards that you have come to expect from their hotels. Simply taking the time to investigate each hotel on an individual basis can save you a lot of grief in the end.

I made this particular mistake several years ago when traveling with my husband and two of our three children. We made reservations for three nights, in three different hotels, all owned by the same chain. We never asked any particulars, as we had stayed in similar hotels before. Unbeknownst to us until our arrival, the second night of our stay was in a hotel that was actually under a remodel. Hallways were lined with furniture from rooms being torn apart, hammering started quite early, and the staff was all quite frazzled, most likely from other guests, we included, making complaints. When we realized the morning of our departure that the construction workers had jimmied a door open the night before so they could make an early entry to our part of the hotel to start work, I nearly lost it! This was a serious safety issue and I was traveling with my children. Nothing was ever resolved with that particular hotel, but I have learned to ask numerous questions each time I am making a reservation, even for a single night.