Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Viva Las Vegas . . . with kids in tow???

I don't gamble, drink, or smoke . . . and neither do my children. So why would my husband and I choose to take our four sons to Las Vegas for Spring break? Actually, there are a lot of fun family activities (most off the strip) in this mild-climate desert destination.

Here are our family picks for Las Vegas:

1) Hoover Dam Tour


Location: 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas (on the Nevada-Arizona border)
Cost: $11 (ages 17-61); $9 (ages 4-16); parking in the garage is $7 p/vehicle
(Note: A more extensive tour of the Dam is available for ages 8+ is $30 p/person.)

Construction on this national landmark began in 1931, and for the next 4 years over 20,000 men worked around the clock to complete this structure. The dam reaches 726.4 feet tall and can store 9.2 trillion gallons of water, supplying water to 20 million people in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, and other southwest cities. Besides beautiful Lake Mead (the largest man made lake in the U.S.), another benefit of the dam is the electricity it produces. And if you book a power plant tour, you will see 8 turbines up close (9 more are located in the Arizona wing), which produce electricity for California, Nevada, and Arizona.

2) Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay


Cost: $16.95 (adults); $10.95 (ages 4-12)

The aquarium may be compact in size, but the aquatic displays are anything but small-time! See a komodo dragon, a tank of piranhas, a columnar display of jelly fish, and an underwater shipwreck full of sharks. Pet a sting ray. And listen to amazing facts on the handheld audio wand (included in admission). My sons came out of the aquarium with all kinds of amazing trivia: It takes 21 pounds of force to break the suction of a 3-pound octopus. And, no, piranhas don't attack humans (but we won't be testing that theory)!

3) Bellagio


Features: Dale Chihuly glass ceiling, the conservatory, Cafe Bellagio, and the Fountains of Bellagio

The Bellagio definitely is classy. Our sons admired the Chihuly hand-blown glass flowers that graced the lobby ceiling on their way to the conservatory, which was decorated with thousands of fresh flowers and a waterfall. (The display changes seasonally.)

The Cafe Bellagio provided a restful view of the pool area and extra large omelets (at not-too-small prices). The fountain show at the entrance of this enormous hotel is choreographed to various musical pieces and sends up sprays of water higher than Caesar's Palace next door. The night-time shows occur every 15 minutes and incorporate spectacular lighting with the water and music.

Note: The Bellagio also houses the Gallery of Fine Art, which showcases traveling collections of art. I recently enjoyed a modern American exhibit that featured works from Georgia O'Keefe. Admission of $15 (adults) includes a headset. The collections are small enough for children to get a taste of fine art without getting bored. Free admission for children under 12.

4) Shelby Museum & Factory Tour

http://www.shelbyautos.com/ (Click on Factory Tours at the bottom of the page)

Location: 6755 Speedway Blvd. 702-942-7325

Carroll Shelby--race-car driver turned innovative car manufacturer. In 1962, Shelby designed the COBRA, which immediately rivaled Europe's fastest race cars. Today, Mustang lovers can purchase their Ford-manufactured vehicle, then arrange for exclusive Shelby add-ons to be custom-fit by hand in this Las Vegas factory located near the Las Vegas Speedway.

You can attend the free tour (offered Monday-Friday at 10:30 a.m.) and see cars that are currently being retrofitted with custom parts in the factory, then receive an informative tour of the showroom, which houses 5 decades of Shelby automobiles, including the original 1962 Cobra. According to our tour guide, Mr. Shelby was once offered 20 million dollars for this well-worn history-maker, and he declined!

5) Iceskating at the Las Vegas Ice Center


Location: 9295 W. Flamingo 702-320-7777
Cost: $9 (adults); $8 (ages 5-18); $7 (under 5).

Ice skating . . . in the desert? Don't forget to pack long pants and mittens for this off-the-beaten-Strip activity. Public skate hours are offered throughout the week at various times in two-hour blocks. (We went on a weekday from 12:30-2:30 p.m.) Admission fee includes skate rental.

6) Lunch buffet at French Market Buffet (Orleans Casino)


Lunch buffet cost: $9.99 (ages 8+); $6.99 (ages 4-7); under 4 is free
Location: 4500 W. Tropicana Ave. (just west of the Strip)

Our family of six couldn't decide what to eat for lunch. One wanted pizza, another wanted enchiladas, and yet another wanted fish. The French Market Buffet was our solution. Variety. Freshness. Value. We tried everything from whole-grain pasta to crawdads (well, we picked one off the buffet line, but didn't actually eat it). We sampled Italian, Mexican, Asian, and American fare and still had room for a variety of desserts (including cream puffs and bread pudding). When we left, everyone was full and happy!

TIP: For your best value, choose the lunch buffet.

7) The Roller Coaster at New York, New York

Cost: $14 for one ride; $25 for an all-day Scream Pass

(Note: Must be 54" to ride.)

Cheap thrill? Well, actually not cheap. But our 14-year-old claims this 3-minute, 144-foot-dropping, 67-mile-an-hour thrill ride was worth the $14 ticket price. And he felt satisfied that he experienced fast-paced Vegas at a teen-appropriate venue.

Not-so-stellar Vegas experiences:
Ironically, our most disappointing activities revolved around chocolate.

1) M&M's World

Location: on the strip, next to MGM Hotel & Casino

Unless you are a true fan of RED and YELLOW or are dying to own an M&M toothbrush, baseball cap, or alarm clock, you may not be impressed with this crowded 4-story mega-store. Our consolation was the free 3-D adventure movie and a not-so-cheap bag of personally selected melt-in-your-mouth candies.

2) Ethel M Chocolate Factory

Location: 15 minutes from the Strip

We happened to be driving by this area on our way back from the Hoover Dam, so we decided to stop. Our "tour" was a 3-minute glance through the glass at the chocolate operations. Unfortunately for us, there was very little action during our visit. A few workers were taking raspberry-filled chocolates out of their molds. The "free samples" of chocolate were the size of a nickel--but not as thick. We bought a few candy bars for $2.50 each, which seemed reasonable compared to the high-priced boxed chocolates. Yes, the chocolate bars tasted great--if you like VERY sweet milk chocolate.

Since we are from Arizona, we were not enticed to visit the Cactus Garden on the property. But, as a consolation, the workers were friendly and we did learn how Ethel M candy got its name.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Review: My Kind of Town - New York

The first organized baseball game was played in 1855 on what Hoboken field?
What five boroughs make up New York City?
What are the three bridges in New York City that make up the acronym, BMW?

Where can you find answers to this interesting trivia? You could try google. Or, you could ask your knowledgeable tour guide.

My Kind of Town New York is a boutique car tour company that provides customized tours by drivers who are actually licensed tour guides. You can ask to see any site, from the Brooklyn Bridge, to the Dakota apartment building where John Lennon was shot, to department store Christmas window displays along 5th Avenue. And you can ask all the questions you want . . . in the comfort of a Mercedes SUV. Cost for this comfortable, informative, one-of-a-kind tour experience can be as little as the cost per person for a Broadway show. Tours can accommodate up to six guests for as little as four hours or for as long as one day.

On December 6, 2008, my parents, my sister, and I enjoyed an eclectic tour, which included a few sites in Hoboken, New Jersey (such as the Elysian baseball field, where the first organized baseball game was played in 1855), to the still-unfinished St. John the Divine cathedral in Harlem (construction began in 1892), to an amazing nighttime cityscape from the vantage point of Brooklyn Heights.

Our tour guide, Jamie, claimed our view from Brooklyn would be the most stunning. He would know, as he is a native of Brooklyn Heights. A "Pizza Bagel" he calls himself, referring to his mixed Italian Catholic-Jewish upbringing. All tour guides in this eight-year-old company are New York natives--and New York experts. The tour company's owner, James Smythe, founded My Kind of Tour New York to share his love for and knowledge of New York with visitors.

Complete with historical commentary, Jamie showed us the Helmsley building, the Wolworth building, and the holiday lights around Columbus Circle. We drove over the Manhattan Bridge (and got views of the Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges--AKA BMW) and experienced a bathroom pit stop at an authentic Brooklyn pub.

The highlight of our tour would be the Christmas lights in Dyker Heights, a traditionally Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn. Some may claim the inflatable Santa-covered lawns and fully decorated facades are a bit garish or gaudy. We Westerners claim they are charming and a prime example of New York spirit. "If you're lonely here [in New York City], it's your fault," explains Jamie. "People really come together here. You just can't duplicate it anywhere else."

You also can't duplicate our tour. Even during our four-hour experience, we made itinerary changes. Our initial focus was Christmas lights, but we gradually veered toward more historic and authentic sites. And with the authentic sites came candid conversation as Jaime shared with us where he was on the morning of September 11th and what he did for the next six months to survive the chaos and destruction.

We left that night with a better respect, understanding, and appreciation for New York city, for its residents, and especially for Jamie. I especially felt like New York City was a bit more mine.

Visit the website for My Kind of Town New York to learn more about the unique tours you can experience on your next trip to New York City.

(By the way: The five boroughs of New York are Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Tips: Seeking Travel Mom Balance

I'm a mom. I'm a mom who likes to travel. So I guess that makes me a Travel Mom. But, I'm always a mom first, traveler second. How can you take that much-needed kid-free getaway and feel confident that your children are secure and happy in your absence?

Follow these 5 Cs of Travel to achieve
Travel Mom Balance.
  1. Consult Calendar. For me, it's easiest to travel when my children are in school. Then, Grandma or Dad (or whoever is watching my children) can have the day free. However, to minimize scheduling delimmas, check the calendar to make sure you won't be traveling during standardized testing, sports playoffs, the science fair, or a band concert.
  2. Communicate. With a bit of advance preparation, you can communicate with your children in creative ways. You can pre-write daily notes that remind children of their schedule and update them on your itinerary. Children look forward to opening a new note each day. You could also send an email update each day to describe your activities. If you're traveling with your laptop, upload photos you have taken and post them on your blog or email a few to your children. Call home at a specific time each day to check in. (Take note of time-zone differences.)
  3. Cram. Most of my kid-free trips are weekend getaways. These short jaunts are less disrupting to our family's schedule and are easier to coordinate. Plan ahead to make the most of your time away. Before you leave, research the "must see" attractions, then choose 3 to 5 places you plan to visit. Buy tickets or make dining reservations ahead of time to ensure availability and to prevent waiting in long lines. If you're flying, book a nonstop flight to minimize travel time.
  4. Stay, calm, cool, and collected. It's normal to worry while you're away. Most likely, your children will be fine without you. If you seem nervous before you leave, your children may feed off your energy and become nervous, too! Before your depature date, hold a planning meeting so your kids can be a part of your trip. Also, discuss their schedule ahead of time so things will run smoothly once you leave. Consider buying them a small gift (such as a DVD or storybook) to enjoy while you're away. Or let them plan a special activity (a movie or dinner out) with their care giver so they don't feel left out of the travel excitement.
  5. Company. Sometimes, you may want to rethink your trip plans. Is the destination suited for families and children? Consider making the trip a family trip. Take advante of "kids stay free" or "kids eat free" offers to stretch your travel budget. Sometimes witnessing the excitement of your children and seeing a destination through their eyes is as invigorating and as rejuvenating as an adult-only getaway. Sometimes a change of scenery, rather than a "sans children" trip, is what you really need. (And may be what your kids need, too.) But notice, I did say sometimes!

Product Review: Powerstep insoles

Let's face it: A mom sacrifices a lot for her children. Her time. Her money. Her patience. Her plantar facsia. After four pregnancies, my feet have changed a bit. My arches are not as pronounced as before. My foot changes and my constant "on the go" behavior have taken a toll on my feet.

My podiatrist recommended Powerstep orthodic supports. These insoles can be purchased over-the-counter and provide, according to my doctor, the best support next to custom-made orthodics. They are priced around $30. These insoles cushion the heel and provide amazing shock-absorbtion.
I wear the full-length model in my athletic shoes. A slimtech version (for more fasionable shoes) is also available. Powersteps support my feet and minimize pain . . . especially when traveling!

Check out this product at http://www.powersteps.com/

Other foot advice:
1) Wear comfortable, well-fitting shoes. Although often easier said than done, you can find comfortable walking shoes and dress shoes. Here are some suggestions. Visit the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine's website for more information: http://www.aapsm.org/

Walking Shoes:
Brooks Addiction Walker
New Balance 926 or 844
Saucony Grid Motion
Running Shoes:
Adidas Adistar Control
Asics Gel Kayano
Brooks Adrenaline or Addiction
Dress Shoes - brands:
Aravon, Beautifeel, Dansko, Finn Comfort, Rockport, Selby

(list was provided compiled through independent testing by Prolab Orthotics)

2) Stretch your plantar fascia by putting your toes against the wall, keeping your heel on the floor, and hold for 30 seconds. Repeat 5 times. (Place your hands on the wall for support.)

3) Try ibuprofen for pain and inflammation.
4) Use an ice pack for 10-15 minutes. Or, you can roll your foot over a frozen water bottle.
5) Like me, contact your podiatrist if the pain continues.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

My Most Recent Travel Value - NYC at Christmas

My mom has always wanted to go to New York City, especially at Christmastime to see the Rockettes. So, my sister and I took our parents to NYC this past December. Along with the Rockettes, we booked a private car tour to see the city at night, viewed Macy's decorated windows, enjoyed the Rockefeller tree, and visited the Impressionism wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

New York is not exactly the cheapest of cities to visit. So how did we manage a weekend getaway full of VALUE? Here are some tips to help you achieve a Christmas memory as valuable (and irreplaceable) our ours!

1) Go early in the month.
We visited the first weekend of December. All the decorations were up, but the crowds weren't unmanageable. Plus, we were able to save about 20% on our Rockettes tickets because it wasn't "prime season," yet.

2) Book your hotel early to ensure availability and lower rates.
I booked our hotel in May! And I found a hotel in a somewhat unusual location: New Jersey. We stayed at the Courtyard Jersey City, just across the water from Manhattan. The rates were at $200 p/night. Our room was large (not just by NY standards, but by any standards) with 2 beds, plus a sleeper sofa. The hotel was quiet, the staff was friendly and helpful, and the hotel was next door to the Pavonia PATH station. We easily grabbed a train into Manhattan, which took about 20 minutes to get to 33rd street (Macy's Department Store). Other Courtyard properties in Manhattan were as high as $500 p/night! We got the same service and amenities for minimal travel time. (Tip: If you don't want to pay for the hotel breakfast, grab a tastey toasted bagel sandwich across the street at Cosi's.)

3) Bundle up and walk (or take the subway).
We spent a lot of time walking--and we were able to stumble upon unexpected treasures: decorated store windows, open-air holiday markets, and food stands. We loved being part of the "pedestrian energy" that is so New York. We also saved a lot of money on cab fare by using the Subway. The subway is safe, affordable, and quicker than a cab. Buy a reloadable Metrocard to ensure the lowest fare.

4) Find cheaper ways to see the Must Sees.
You can get amazing views of the Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island Ferry. And it's free. On the way to Staten Island, stay on the right side to get great photos of Liberty Island and Ellis Island. When you arrive at Staten Island, disembark, then re-embark for your journey back to Manhattan. Stay on the left of the ferry to get great views of Brooklyn Bridge.

Admission to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) is usually $20. But visit on Friday night (4:00-8:00 p.m.), and admission is free. My favorite picks: Van Gogh's Starry Night, Picasso's Les Demoiselles D'Avignon, and Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans.

If you are visiting on Sunday, attend mass at St. Patrick's cathedral. (There are several services.) Enjoy the acoustics, the architectural, and a spiritual experience . . . for free.

5) Take advantage of lunch specials and prix-fixe menus.
We ate at a top-notch restaurant near Rockefeller Center at lunch time. We may have had smaller portions, but we enjoyed the ambiance and paid a lot less. We also dined at Becco's, a bustling Italian restaurant on 46th street. We enjoyed salad and 3-pastas (all we could eat) for one price (under $25). When we ate a hearty lunch, we were satisfied with a simple (i.e., less expensive) dinner.

6) Don't be afraid to Splurge--it's about value, not the actual dollar amount.
We surprised our parents with a private car tour with "My Kind of Town New York" tours. The cost of our 4-hour customized tour was about the price of us attending a Broadway show. The tour was unique, educational, and inspiring. It was not just a tour, it was an authentic New York experience led by a knowledgeable Brooklyn native. (See my upcoming review on "My Kind of Town NY" for more details.)

7) Do something unique . . . make it your own!
I researched ahead of time (yes, research and preparation are key to finding value) to find a unique Christmas experience. I learned online about Dyker Heights (an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn). We asked our driver, Jamie, to take us there. The Christmas lights and oversized inflatables were a bit garish, but the effect was also grand and glorious! Our mother will gloat about this amazing light display for years to come. Now, that's value at its best.

(Now for a bit of self promotion: There are foodies. There are TV junkies. There are Manhattan-files. I am a bit of the latter two, especially when the Travel Channel runs a special on NYC. As a travel specialist, I can offer a unique perspective of NYC since I have traveled there numerous times. If you are interested in visiting, link to my Palace Court Travel website and send me an email.)

Travel Economics 101

A relaxing vacation can provide an escape from the stresses of our present economical situation. But is this temporary relaxation worth the financial investment?

According to Bob Wan, "Mr. Vacation Economist," money spent on a vacation CAN add to economic recovery! Mr. Wan encourages us to seek out travel experiences that provide value, meaning that we get a good return for our money.

Examples of TRAVEL VALUE:

  • educational experiences
  • cherished memories
  • strengthened relationships with family

"Money spent on travel has a high velocity as it changes hands many times; a traveler instantly stimulates the economy of everywhere he or she visits" (as quoted in travelgirl, Dec.-Jan. 09).