Cityscapes: New York

IMG 0465 EFFECTS 300x300 Cityscapes: New YorkI write about our trips around New York City fairly often. Recently more often on Facebook but I am committed to being more diligent here. Here are some of the things that I highly recommend. Some we have done this year, others are from years past but all are worth your time.

Take a walking tour. We did a chocolate tasting tour of SOHO that I bought through Groupon, but there are many options — cupcakes, TV/film locations, gangsters (30s style), general epicurean, Central Park. Google “walking tours nyc,” but definitely check out Groupon, Amazon Deals and Living Social for options before you pay full price.

Get up high. I prefer Top of the Rock for its magnificent views of Central Park but the Empire State Building is nice too, and has the better view of Lower Manhattan. You cannot go wrong with either.

Get out on the water. You will find that is a common theme for me. I love the Circle Line tour that does the full circle of Manhattan. Doug took the Staten Island Ferry with his cousin this summer, and both reported it was a cheap and cheerful way to see the Statue of Liberty fairly close up. This fall, we are going to do the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island trip now that it’s open again. No way am I willing to brave the summer crowds for that.

A couple of things to do NOW in New York.

At the American Museum of Natural History, the Pterosaurs exhibit. Through January 4 2015. It amazes me how much scientists are able to extrapolate from the small number of actual fossils they have of these creatures. I think most of us glom onto the pterodactyl as the “flying dinosaur” but there were actually numerous variations in behavior, size and diet spanning millions of years.

Doug at Avengers 300x225 Cityscapes: New YorkAt Discovery Times Square — AVENGERS S.T.A.T.I.O.N.  Hands on exhibit that celebrates the Avengers characters, including costumes from the films and the opportunity to test yourself against Captain America and “fly” like Iron Man. Takes about an hour to go through first thing on a weekday. Probably way longer on a weekend. Pricey but for nerdy geeky Avengers fans like us, a must do!

Cityscapes: Chicago

Summer 2013 including Chicago 260 200x300 Cityscapes: ChicagoLast summer, Doug came with me to BlogHer and we spent a few days afterward seeing the sights of Chicago. I had the best intentions to write a recap of the trip way back then but life intervened.

This year I am determined to keep the Roadtrip rolling with reports from our stay- and va- cation trips. In my next few posts, I round up some recommendations for things to do in Chicago, New York, San Jose and Philadelphia.

Starting with Chicago.

Get out on the water. The river and the lake. From the river, you are able to see the amazing architectural heritage of Chicago, and the lake…. Well Lake Michigan just needs to be experienced.

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We took the Chicago Architecture Foundation tour on the recommendation of some friends, and it did not disappoint. Buy your tickets in advance; on weekends, the river tours do sell out. No time for a full-on boat tour? Take a water taxi. Shoreline and Chicago Water Taxi both stop at multiple points along the river, so you can get a little river flavor and to where you need to be at the same time.

For your lake experience, it all depends on your tastes. Lots of choices leaving from Navy Pier – dinner cruises, speedboats, tall ships. We chose the Tall Ship Windy I like schooners and part of the schtick of the Windy was a pirate story which I thought Doug would enjoy.

Other important stops on a Chicago tour, especially with a teen boy — The Field Museum and the Willis Tower.

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At Navy Pier, don’t miss the free Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows.

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We also wanted to check out the Shedd Aquarium but the lines were super super long by the time we got there so my best advice is to make it your first stop of the day right at opening if a visit with the fishes is tops on your list.

New York Staycation – It’s all happening at the zoo

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Lemurs, Bronx Zoo, July 2014

Living in the tri-state area, we are lucky to be close to many world class tourist attractions. Recently, Doug and I spent the day at one of my favorites, the Bronx Zoo.

Along with the American Museum of Natural History, the Bronx Zoo is one of my earliest “tourist” memories. When I was in first through third grade, my father was stationed at West Point and I distinctly recall a visit to the zoo with one of his academic advisees and his (the cadet’s) girlfriend. I couldn’t tell you how old I was, and don’t remember much of the visit, but obviously we had a good time since a faint memory of it still rambles around in my brain.

In the intervening, many, years, I have become something of a zoo aficionado. If a city or town I am visiting has a zoo, I try to squeeze in a visit. Small or large, it doesn’t matter. Some people like to walk around a golf course hitting a little white ball. I like to walk around the zoo enjoying animals and learning about the conservation and preservation efforts of the zoo.

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Butterfly Garden Bronx Zoo July 2014

On this trip, we hit most of the exhibits including the seasonal Butterfly Garden and the Asian Monorail, both of which are well worth the additional cost. The best value is to buy the Total Experience ticket, available online, but all the attractions are available a la carte with a general admission ticket purchased at the zoo.

If you only have time for one special exhibit, though, it has to be the Congo Gorilla Forest. It is just about the best view of these magnificent animals most of us will ever get.

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Mama and Baby Bronx Zoo Gorilla Habitat July 2014

Set well in from the main traffic flow of the zoo, the exhibit works so well because it brings you into the gorilla habitat — as though we are in the cage and the gorillas are watching us. Which may not be far from the truth in the end.

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Gorilla Bronx Zoo July 2014

On this visit, we also were lucky enough to witness a lovely moment between a momma and baby sea lion.

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Momma and Baby

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Nose to Nose

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Saying Hi?

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Or maybe

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it’s lunchtime!

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The Bronx Zoo is open 10-5 weekdays, 10-5:30 weekends (April 5-November 5). The Zoo is open year round but the hours are a bit shorter in the winter and early spring. If you get an early start you can cover most of the main attractions in a single day, assuming you don’t linger forever.  You can easily extract the full value of the Total Experience ticket. We are members, so we are a little more relaxed about things since we know we will go back 2-3 times over the year.

Food options are decent if a bit pricey, but you can bring your own boxed lunch so no one should go hungry. If you are in the market for souvenirs, the best selection is at the main Bronx Zoo Store in the Dancing Crane Plaza. Unlike most theme parks and yes, zoos, not all exits have a gift shop. We found ourselves wending our way back to the main store to get something Doug really wanted before we left because we had forgotten there was no shop at the Bronx River Gate where we parked. Learn from our mistake!

New York City Day Trip: American Museum of Natural History

350px American Museum of Natural History New York City New York City Day Trip: American Museum of Natural History

Frontview of American Museum of Natural History (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once of our favorite day trips in New York is the American Museum of Natural History, and yesterday was the perfect day for it. The showers and sprinkles throughout the day didn’t bother us in the least.

On yesterday’s itinerary:

  • the new exhibit honoring Theodore Roosevelt. I knew about his role in establishing our national parks, and that he was a staunch conservationist, but had not been aware that he was originally planning to become a natural scientist, and switched to law in college. Other interesting nuggets from the exhibit: Roosevelt’s father was one of the founders of the Museum and there has always been a Roosevelt on the board, to this day.
  • the special exhibit, The Power of Poison, running through August
  • Dark Universe, the new Hayden Planetarium space show narrated by Neil DeGrasse Tyson

We skipped the Butterfly Conservatory this time but we’ve done it in past and it’s a nice breathe of Spring (ends late May) and saved the new exhibit on Pterosaurs (through January 2015) for another time.

Instead, we spent a bit of time in the Hall of North American Mammals on the recommendation of a delightful volunteer who had kindly guided us from Poisons to the Hayden Planetarium theater because we were tight on time and she thought the turns might be a tad confusing. She told us that the Mammals exhibit was recently refurbished — down to the bison getting a blow out – so we thought we’d check it out. We also wandered a bit in the Hall of Asian Peoples.

We wrapped up our day with a jaunt over to the Nintendo Store in Rockefeller Center so Doug could pick out a new game for his birthday, grabbing a pick-me-up at Bouchon on the way, and finished up with dinner at Cafe Un Deux Trois on West 44th.

Here’s a short video from our day. It’s pretty sucktastic, as my iPhone photos weren’t oriented properly for the video format:

Here are some of the photos straight from the phone:

 TIP: Give yourself 90 minutes for the Poisons exhibit. We only had a an hour, so had to skip the live presentation.

 New York City Day Trip: American Museum of Natural History

Or maybe this year it’s a Staycation

Unless they’ve been saving for the trip of a lifetime this summer, many families are opting for staycations this year. They may also be cutting back on expensive summer camps, leaving more time for idle hands to get into trouble (or on your last nerve).

Here are some ideas for how to enjoy the summer, and your kids, without dipping into what’s left of your retirement savings.

If your work situation permits, don’t take all your vacation days in a single week. Instead, spread them out over the whole summer. This gives the kids something to look forward to, not to mention something you can use to motivate good behavior.

Consider taking some days off  in the middle of the week rather than bracketing a weekend. Popular attractions like amusement and water parks tend to be less crowded mid-week so you’ll get more for your admission dollars.

Check to see if the local swim/tennis/country club has a summer family membership. The chi chi swanky ones may not, but smaller health clubs rely on the extra income to pay for the outdoor pool and required lifeguard staff.  Even if you work full-time at an office, there are a few hours every night plus weekends, giving every day a little vacation feel.

Coordinate with the parents of your children’s friends to take a groups of kids someplace one day in exchange for them taking the kids another. This is harder to organize if you have more than a couple kids, as the group can get somewhat large, but if you work out of a home office, those extra days of peace are well worth the one or two harried days with a gaggle of kids at the science museum or aquarium.

Looking for ideas on where to go? Consider going back to the places the kids went on field trips during the school year. They’ll generally be within an one hour drive, and guaranteed, your kids did not see everything in the couple hours they had at the attraction unless it is very small. They’ll also enjoy showing you around a place they’ve already seen, plus getting to stop in the gift shop. Give them a budget in advance ($3-5). If they earn an allowance, tell them you’ll supplement with a few dollars but they are spending their own money. Otherwise you’ll be spending the end of a lovely day arguing about crummy souvenirs.

We’re spoiled, living in eastern Massachusetts.  Old Sturbridge Village, Plimoth Plantation, Fruitlands, Strawbery Banke, Concord and Lexington, Boston, Salem and the North Shore, Falmouth and the Upper Cape are all located within a 90 minute drive. Not to mention hiking and swimming, lakes, ponds, mountains and ocean.

But every region has its charms, history, activities. If you’ve already hit all the obvious ones in your area , dig around a bit. There’s bound to be something you haven’t discovered yet.

For example, recently I was a speaker at a local chamber event held at the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts. Yes, you read that right. Museum of Russian Icons. Over the years and many trips to Russia, local businessman Gordon Lankton had acquired a large number of Russian icons. He considered donating them to established museums, but they would only exhibit a few at a time. So, he founded the Museum of Russian Icons. The collection includes about 340 Russian icons, the largest collection of its kind in North America and  one of the largest private collections outside of Russia. They offer kids’ activities of the scavenger hunt variety, so good for older kids,  but I would not recommend it for very young children. Local folks might want to combine it with a visit to the Davis Farmland Corn Maze in August/September.

Discounts & reciprocal admissions. If you are a member of AAA or other travel clubs, check for discounts at attractions (and hotels too). We saved money on our Gatorland tickets this spring due to our AAA membership. We’ve also saved money at places like the LaBrea Tarpits in LA and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh due to our memberships in home museums like the Museum of Science and Museum of Fine Arts. It never hurts to ask what discounts are available.

Overnights. Sometimes the place you want to go is just a little bit out of comfortable driving range. Do an overnight, but don’t skimp on the hotel. At a minimum, make sure it has a pool. Many attractions will have a two-day ticket that isn’t that much more expensive than the one-day admission. Drive down in the morning, spend a few hours at the attraction and then adjourn to the hotel pool. In the morning, you can swim and then sightsee, or just go right to the attraction. Drive home in the afternoon; you’ll be home for dinner.

Bottom line? It’s about spending time together as a family doing things you all enjoy. Your kids will remember a long weekend that everyone enjoyed with as much — perhaps more — joy than a forced march through Disney. Some of my best travel memories are of short trips taken with my mom and brother when I was a kid. Perhaps not the most luxurious (lawn furniture in the motel room) but good times.

That’s what we want to duplicate for our kids. Regardless of the economy. The good news? You can. You just have to be clever and flexible about your plans. Whether you take a vacation or staycation, there are lots of options for those who look.