Some Philadelphia Tidbits

For a short get-away trip, I’m considering taking my daughter to Philadelphia during the summer. She’s never been there, and it seems like a great place to learn about our nation’s history. Philly holds a place in my heart because, many years ago, as a new manager for Bell Telephone, my initial training was in Center City. I spent 4 months living in a hotel around 20th and Market, which I believe is gone now, and a few more intermittent months at the Holiday Inn at 36th street. However, my real memories of Philly came from that first stay, due to the fact I had a daily walk down to company headquarters, around 13th street. I must admit that returning after all these years is a way to revisit that time of my life, as well as to see how much has changed.

Let me add that, for a young person who had never been away from home on their own before, Philadelphia was a good place to stay as a single traveler. The area that I was easily able to cover by foot extended about 25 blocks, over 4-5 parallel streets-although this was only a small portion of Center City. But, my walks took me through City Hall, past tourist attractions such as the Clothespin sculpture, over to the Gallery Mall, and up and down avenues filled with shops, restaurants and delicatessens. The historical area, waterfront and museum were short subway rides away; there were many other attractions in the nearby area that, unfortunately, I never had the chance to visit. But one thing I did do was take the Amtrak train to New York on weekends. I caught it right at Penn Station on 30th street, and in about 60 minutes, I exited Penn Station in the heart of Manhattan. I think at the time it cost less than $25, but now for an adult and child it’s $64.50.

Surprisingly, it’s only $3 more to travel all the way from our hometown of Pittsburgh
to Philly on Amtrak, which is at least 7 hours non-stop. (But, we may just opt to to fly from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, which is fairly inexpensive at $64 per person one way and takes just 1 hour.)

Also intriguing is that it costs the same to travel by train from Philly to Washington DC, which is about 4 hours. In fact, travel from Pgh. to Phila. is routed through DC, but the shortest trip that isn’t non-stop adds only 2 hours onto the duration of travel, yet that layover doesn’t offer time to see much of D.C. More investigation revealed that there is one train that has a layover of about 8 hours, which would be adequate for a short bus tour and more than a few photo opportunities, but leaving home before 5 AM and arriving in a Philly hotel around 12:30 AM is too long of a day for anyone. (Those who are considering travel from Philly to New York should know that there is a site called Megabus.com that offers the trip for $1 per person, although it takes 2 hours. How they can offer such a fare seems peculiar, but feel welcome to check it out and let the rest of us know about your experience.)

I also found that the Blue line of the Philadelphia subway, which runs from the Amtrak train station to 2nd street, is along the path of many hotels, so a cab may not even be needed. By the same token, the SeptraR1 bus may be taken from the Philadelphia airport into the middle of the historical district (and near many hotels) for $9 per person. Needless to say, there are numerous options of getting into Philadelphia.

Once a traveler does arrive, it’s clear that there is plenty to do and see. The Independence Visitor Center site offers a large array of entertaining historical venues, such as a night with Ben Franklin, interactive performances, ghost walks, tours, and museum passes, and they all sound like fun for both children and adults. http://independencevisitorcenter.tix.com/ActSelection.asp?OrganizationNumber=881

With so many choices Philadelphia appears to be an ideal location for a short-or even longer-visit if you happen to find yourself in the northeast. You may just also find that Amtak is a great alternative to both flying and driving, depending on your time schedule.

Virginia Beach Delights

If you live in the mid-Atlantic region of North America and have wanted to visit an Atlantic Ocean beach other than on the New Jersey or Maryland shore, you might want to check out Virginia Beach. Travelers not only arrive from Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and the Carolinas (as well as Virginia), they also come from as far away as New York and Canada. Virginia Beach is located on the south eastern tip of the state, and the average travel time for most visitors is about 6-8 hours by car. If arriving by plane, Norfolk Airport is approximately 45 minutes away from the resort area.

A few aspects of Virginia Beach differentiate it from many beaches. First is its user-friendliness. With the majority of its tourist spots along a 32 block stretch, a visitor can park their car and never have need to move it during their entire vacation; everything is right there. Deli’s, drug stores, churches, shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues are in walking distance or accessible by one of the trolleys or buses that run the length of Atlantic Ave., the main street. Individual or two person bikes, adult tricycles for two riders, and different sized surreys can all be rented, along with rollerblades and scooters as other methods to get around. (Virginia Beach, unlike many beaches, provides a concrete “boardwalk” in between the sand and the ocean front hotel lawns. This wide expanse is divided into a walkers’ path and a lane for all other means of transportation, so folks who are leisurely strolling don’t have to worry about those trying to get from 2nd street to 30th street in record time.)

Also unlike many beach resorts, all businesses are on the other, far side of the oceanfront hotels, on Atlantic Ave. This means that, except for the amusement park across from the pier at 15th street, the boardwalk is free of commercialism, signs and neon. There are a few hotels with outdoor cafes playing music, but, for the most part, the only sounds are surf, wind, voices and laughter for 2 miles of boardwalk. Many visitors like to switch between walking up and down the boardwalk at night, or sitting on its benches, people-watching, and strolling Atlantic Ave. The latter equally draws families, young singles, and baby boomers-plus the weekend surge of Norfolk sailors and occasional hot-rodding teens.

Another reason Va. Beach is so popular is that it truly does offer something for everyone. With a range of accommodations covering modest motels 3 blocks from the beach, to luxury resorts boasting gourmet restaurants, one never need experience a sense of personal discomfort. There are as many high end options when it comes to shopping and dining as there are discount coupons for budget activities, pizza shops and fast food.

Another fun part about visiting Va. Beach during the summer tourist season is that the tourist bureau offers various forms of free entertainment along a stretch of Atlantic Ave. There are magicians, musicians, and singers, as well as larger acts which put nightly shows in the pavilion park at 24th street. Fireworks are also shot off the pier at least once a week-even a 3 night visit won’t allow a visitor to take in all of the performances.

Virginia Beach also has a historical coast guard station, the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse (it can be climbed right to the top), the Edgar Cayce Center, the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center (allow 4-5 hours to visit). Guests to this wonderful area can also enjoy short cruises focused on sightseeing, dolphin/whale watching, dining or deep sea fishing. For the adventurous types, parasailing and jet skiing beckon, while kids can enjoy miniature golf or game arcades. Plus, there are many family type activities, like walking tours of haunted places, murder mystery theaters and pirate adventures…all usually within walking distance or a short trolley ride from their lodgings.

Should a visitor decide to take a day trip, they can head to Norfolk, Williamsburg, or Bush Gardens for other exciting opportunities. But it’s the variety, attitude and pristine environment of Va. Beach that will make visiting a yearly tradition. Any guest can easily see why Va. Beach was recently named as the American city with the least stress-free living!

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Gaining Confidence with the New York Subway System

A friend is visiting New York next month, and I met with her regarding my favorite vacation city. Just like many who’ve never been to New York, she was surprised at its size. With just a 2 night visit, my friend’s time is limited, but she wanted no suggestions on using the subway. She’d rather eliminate a few stops from her plans via slower-moving cabs, than deal with a train system she considers intimidating.

Last night, two other pals indicated only one would be taking the subway when in New York. If these statistics hold true, 2 out of 3 people who visit Manhattan shy away from an authentic New York experience. It made me wonder if people are more afraid of taking the wrong train or of stories about subway dirt, smells, pickpockets, and vagrants.

Since the environmental issue is no longer as prevalent in today’s New York as years ago, and many folks are helpful, I’d like to put a visitor’s fears to rest. I’m by no means an expert, and my experience is limited to areas south of 80th street and north of Battery Park-but that is the main stomping grounds for tourists. My last visit was about 3 months ago, at which time my 13 year old daughter and I used the subway 3-4 times daily and covered a good deal of territory. If I had any fears, I would not have gone near a station, but years of New York trips have made me confident the subways are as safe as the streets, especially during daylight hours. (I personally have not ridden them past 11 PM., but not due to fearing for my safety.)

One of the best things a visitor can do to gain confidence regarding the New York subway is to study a subway map once their itinerary is somewhat firm. (It may change once the traveler locates stations and routes, and finds that logistics lend themselves to a slightly different agenda.) Anyway, the N.Y. subway map can be found in library books, bookstores, and on line at http://www.nycsubway.org/maps/route.html, or http://www.mta.nyc.ny.us/nyct/maps/submap. At first, the many colored lines are daunting, but the colors make it easier than if the map was in black and white. Most colored lines run north and south, and all have a unique identification by one letter or number. Placing a finger at one destination, and then finding the other, shows just how far apart they are, and what subway line can get a person from point A to point B. It also clearly states where the stops are along the way. Using a subway map in conjunction with a more detailed street map reflects the closest subway stops to every major tourist site, museum, famous structure, or designation of area (for example, Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, Soho, etc.)

The main problem is going “crosstown”, or across 5th Ave. Any street with an “east” before it would be on the right side of 5th Ave. when looking at a map and those with a “west” would be on the left side of 5th Ave. (Fifth Ave. is found on a map at the far right lower corner of Central Park.) However, between 14th and 42nd, streets, no lines cross 5th Ave. This makes subway travel a bit more complicated, so first time riders may prefer cabs over trying to find appropriate transfer points.

A creative traveler, or one that has some familiarity with the city, can also take advantage of transfers to or from a bus at no extra cost; it’s still only $2 a person for as long as one wishes to go in one direction. (Bus routes are also online.) In all of the midtown and downtown stations I passed through, machines doled out individual tickets as well as discount passes: With every $10 worth of tickets, a rider gets 2 free. These can be used by anyone, so $20 can provide 3 back and forth trips, or 6 rides, for 2 folks. There are also passes for unlimited riding during 1, 7, or 30 days.

New York subways are fast, efficient, clean, and comfortable-with obvious police presence-so a visitor just may find it a rather fun way to enjoy their New York adventure.

Disney World Decisions

If you are considering a Disneyworld vacation, be prepared to spend a good bit of time researching and comparing options. Some packages of hotel and air are excellent, but may not suit your needs. There may be time restraints, or offerings that you won’t be using, or options that you want but aren’t included. Furthermore, packages, being based on a per person occupancy, may be more expensive than a couple traveling with a older child, since room rates are usually one price for either 2 or 3 people. It all depends on how long you will be staying, what your preferences are, just how many days you’ll be visiting the parks, and whether you’ll want to “hop” between the parks throughout the day.

Start by pricing out an independent trip, beginning with the major airlines directly, and then comparing flight prices to discounters. (They may be no significant difference.) From the east coast, expect to pay at least $200. Research may even uncover non-stop flights that will get you there in about 2 hours, since several airlines service Orlando.

As far as lodging, there are two options: staying at a Disney resort, and not staying at one. If you’ve never been to Disneyworld, and you only have 3-5 days, it’s best to keep it simple and focus on the theme parks instead of trying to do water parks and other attractions where you’ll need a rental car. One park may easily use up an entire day, and Disney has 4, plus resort attractions and Disney Village. If this is how you’ll spend your vacation, there is no reason to spend extra money for a rental car to sit in a hotel garage. There is plenty of airport transportation to and from Disney resorts on free shuttle buses. The question for most families is whether it’s worth the higher price to stay at a resort, when countless chain hotels and motels line roads around Disney World. Again, it depends on your individual situation, especially if you’ll be traveling with younger children.

Disney resort accommodations are great for an early start to the day. With restaurants and coffee shops in every hotel, and buses, boats and monorails to parks, it’s possible to get a family to Epcot by 9 AM-or even before, on days when a park is open earlier. This may be more difficult if you’re staying off-premises, since you’ll have to find a place to eat, then drive to the park and spend 30 minutes parking, catching the parking tram, walking to the entrance, and waiting in line to get in. (If you don’t already have your tickets, you’ll need to wait in another line as well.)

On the other hand, a family may spend $50 a night in an inexpensive motel instead of $120 a night at a budget-level Disney resort. After adding the cost of parking and the rental car, then subtracting the less expensive dining outside of Disney World, it may come out even. The deciding factor may be how fussy the kids are. It’s a hassle driving to and from the park on a daily basis with excited kids, and it is nice to be able to go back to the room for a couple of hours in the middle of a day to let little ones lay down for a short nap or a take a swim. The resorts also offer extras such as baggage handling (from your departing airport right to your room), shorter lines for rides, and other guest courtesies.

The last step is to then check out the park ticket prices and decide how, and when, your group wants to visit the parks. (Disney’s website has all the details, and after getting ticket prices, you can check with discounters, which may save a few dollars per ticket.) To ensure your estimates aren’t low, be sure to add at least another $30 per day, per adult for park food, and a little less per child-depending on age. (Since portions are often large, 2 young kids can usually share meals.)

Finally, compare your total airfare, room and ticket costs with Disney packages to find the best option for the vacation you want.