Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Holidays Should be Memorable...but Not Always Enjoyable

Me and my brother Cowboy Greg during one memorable Christmas
This is the time of year when it's fun to compare who's going where and doing what for Christmas.  There seems to be so much stress around the whole Christmas event, that people are losing sight of what really is important.  It doesn't really matter what you bring to the pot luck.  It can be anything you like.  Don't lament about the people who are coming who are eating healthier this year.  We grew up on TV dinners, twinkles, and dishes made of canned goods with so much sodium that it's a surprise we didn't all have heart attacks at age 12.  It's all good.  You're joining family this year to make memories, not necessarily to have fun or to enjoy yourself.  It's not about you. It's about spending time with people you don't often see, and who may even drive you crazy.  This is the good stuff in life you'll remember for years to come.  You need to make those stories that can be passed down through the generations.  These are the times you'll remember when you're in the nursing home.

What do I remember most from my childhood?  We always got a new set of pajamas and a few toys.  It wasn't anything huge.  There were six kids in our family, and we felt lucky to have any packages to open.  Somehow my parents always pulled it off.  My oldest brother is 13 years older than me.  We bought him a new flashlight...every year...because what else do you get for someone you don't really play with anymore.  And my sister is 10 years older.  I think I bought her a new hair bow...every year...because she had such pretty hair and I liked brushing it.  The best Christmas gift ever?  Well, that's an easy one.  I got a puppy from my aunt & uncle and they had actually wrapped it in a box for me to open!  That dog went through a lot during the years and he was so loved by both me and my brother Greg.  Before the Christmas puppy, there was a Christmas where my brother Eric got a racing track.  He had a mutt named Pete.  The dog went NUTS about the racetrack.  He'd watch the cars race in a circle until we thought he'd fall over from being dizzy.

The most fun at Christmastime?  It was always great when we had snow and could get together with cousins for dinner.  We'd all eat and then it was play time in the snow.  The older kids were always mean and threw snowballs at us.  Sometimes we'd go caroling in whatever neighborhood we were in. I loved it when we got change or treats for singing, though that wasn't the point.  The adults let us do our own thing and together we made memories.  Now that most of the adults in our family are gone, we cling to those holiday memories.

If you're going to a Christmas party because you think it's going to be fun, I hope you're right, but chances are pretty good that there will be awkward moments when you have to get along with people you seldom see.  Funny though, how much of those awkward moments will stay with you for life.  I can remember the smell of my aunt's perfume.  How about my uncle who would always drink too much and then dance with everyone...even the other men.  It was hilarious, but I am pretty sure there were some people who thought it was a bit uncomfortable. We had a Christmas dinner when I was stationed in Florida, where we invited neighbors to dine with us, and when I went to the kitchen to get the ham, all I saw was a floor full of cloves and a large labrador licking his lips.  SAMMY!!!!  We still had plenty to eat, but no meat.  Do you think anyone will ever forget that dinner?  No, we still laugh about it today.

Christmas has become kind of strange since I married a Muslim.  Of course, my husband doesn't celebrate the holiday.  I no longer put up a tree.  My older kids spend Christmas with their dad and he is a Christmas fanatic, so it's all good.  It's tougher now that our little guy Omar is 8.  He embraces everything Santa, and still tells any Santa who will listen that he wants a pony.  Yeah, good luck with that one, Omar. This year my husband decided we should go to Mexico to try something different.  I'm game to try it.  It's a family thing.  When you make time for family, you remember those times.
So go out and make some memories with your family and other loved ones.  Be bold.  Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 13, 2013

December Weekend at Salt Lake City, UT

The Grand America Hotel decorates their windows for Christmas. 
My husband had a meeting in Salt Lake so Omar and I tagged along to see what wonderful holiday magic we could find in the city.  Salt Lake has the feel of a small city compared to Milwaukee.  The down side is the traffic.  The central downtown is small with way too many traffic lights.  We had a rental car and it was frigid, so we tried to drive around town.  In nicer weather, it would have been easier walking.
We had a room at the Grand America Hotel, which is known for luxury.  The rooms and hotel are indeed luxurious, but that also means you miss the coffee makers, clothesline, and do it yourself kinds of services that come with a cheaper hotel.  Since we hadn't made previous reservations, we couldn't partake of the Tea with Santa event, even though we saw the Santa and Mrs. Claus as we checked in.  That was a disappointment, but the concierge said it books up almost immediately every year.  Something to think about if you plan to go there during December.  There were free chocolate chip cookies in the lobby that almost made up for that loss.  There was also a harpist playing Christmas carols that anyone was welcome to enjoy.  The hotel looked incredibly festive.
The lobby floor is amazing- much more than a hotel.  There's a toy store, decorated windows for the holidays, gelato and pastry store, life size gingerbread house made of edible goods (I wanted to bite this in a bad way), and a spa with access to a higher floor swimming pool that has views of the courtyard and mountains.  Ahhhh..... what fun to explore!
Can you believe every piece is edible?

This sign says how many days it took and who baked it

Inside the toy store are interactive picture frames of monsters

And what a cool piano that plays music while you step...and candy dispensers too.  Pure Magic!
 We enjoyed the pool more than once, but then we had to actually leave the hotel to see some of the kid friendly highlights.  We had breakfast at the Park Cafe, which is across from Liberty Park.  The park was completely frosted in fresh snow and looked beautiful!  We went to Tracy Aviary, which is just across the street from the cafe.  Even though it was cold and snowy, the aviary was open.  I was very surprised to see tropical birds in outdoor cages there.  We didn't stay long as the birds didn't look happy to be there, and with the cold, neither were we.  In nicer weather it is probably much better.
A pair of owls were keeping eyes on me

The tropical birds were huddled together to stay warm, I suppose

Are those really pelicans?!!!
From the aviary, we headed to the spectacular Natural History Museum of Utah.  It's situated on a hill that overlooks the city and has mountain views from its huge windows and patios.  Inside there is truly something for everyone.  I lost count of the number of dinosaur skeletons.  There are fossils, interactive displays, native American garb and gadgets of all types, and a great cafe/gift shop too.  We were there for 3 hours and only briefly saw everything.  There are 5 floors that interconnect with ramps.  It has a canyon feel to the architecture and the building itself is quite a piece of artwork.  It is a relatively new location for the museum.  This should be a premier destination for anyone interested in dinosaurs, for sure.

One of the finest fossil shells with rock crystals inside

Omar loved digging in the fossil pit

I had never seen a skeleton of such a large bear-like creature

rock art from generations long gone
We had hoped to see the holiday lights at Temple Square because I'd heard they were the highlight for anyone visiting Utah at Christmas.  Unfortunately, there was a concert that night and due to traffic, we were unable to see them.  We probably should have planned that better.  I had to suffice with this flickr page of photos, which was the next best thing to being there.  The zoo also had a light show.  There were simply too many options for such a short trip.  We hope to come back again, although it may not be in snowy weather.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Family Vacation to Arches National Park

We hiked to this huge arch in Arches National Park in spite of frigid temps.
It's always a challenge finding the best vacation place for a family.  My husband likes the outdoors and museums.  My son likes the swimming pools.  I'm looking for some unique experiences with good photography opportunities.  We've started doing more vacations within the USA because there is simply so much here to see that we still have not done yet.

I stumbled on Frommer's "100 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up".  I've seen a few of these lists, and have read a few books on the topic, but this reference is free, so it's worth a look if you're making vacation plans with families.  The lists are always a bit different from each other.  This one color codes the type of attraction.  I wrote last year about a few books that I would give as gifts to families, which included travel ideas and shared experiences.

My husband had a meeting scheduled in Salt Lake City in December, so we discussed whether it would be a good time to make it a long weekend and do some sightseeing.  I've had Arches National Park on my possible vacation destination list for about a year, so we looked at how that might work out.  It's still a 4 hour trip by car from Salt Lake, but the reviews said it could be interesting in low season because the rock structures are still there and the night time star viewing should be amazing.

We ended up going to Utah for 5 nights.  We flew into Salt Lake City at night and drove the next morning to Moab, UT.  It was a pretty drive in spite of the cold.  I might mention that even though the temperatures were in single digits, it was much more bearable in Utah than if we had the same temps here in Wisconsin.  It must be the dry air that does it.  We did notice the dryness affecting lips and hands though.  It's like as soon as you step off the plane, your face shrivels up and you have chapped lips immediately!  The drive was indeed 4 hours, but Price is a good stopping place about half way.  We ended up eating lunch there and visited the Prehistoric Museum for about an hour.  They have more dinosaur skeletons than the Chicago Museum, since the area is rich in dinosaur excavations. The displays cover archaeology and paleontology, so I think anyone could find something of interest there.  Omar (at age 8) especially loved the area where you could dig for bones.  If you go in nicer weather, there's a quarry nearby where many dinosaurs were found, and you can check it out for yourself.  It's called the Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry.
One of the dinosaur skeletons at the Prehistoric Museum at Price

We made it to Moab an hour before sunset, so we picked up some snacks at a local grocery store, and then drove directly to our hotel, Red Cliffs Lodge.  We had read good things about the location.  It's situated on the Colorado river on scenic highway 128 which runs between Moab and Colorado.  It was an amazingly beautiful drive with a frosting of snow on the red rocks.  This is low season, so all the activities they advertise are not available, including the restaurant.  If you go in warmer weather, you can enjoy horseback riding, rafting, hiking, swimming, and winery tours.  Omar was seriously disappointed that the hot tub and pool were outdoors and were frozen over.  The view from our room was pretty amazing.  You not only get a nice view of sunset reflected on the rocks, but the sunrise comes from behind Fisher Towers, which are visible too.  We played in the snow for awhile and waited for the stars to come out.  We had been told this was one of the best places for seeing the milky way and night sky because you have no light pollution.  You can see photos at the Night Sky link on the Red Cliffs website.  What we saw that night was nothing short of magnificent- even better than the photos on their link.  There were only 6 rooms occupied at the Lodge that night, and one of them was a photographer trying to get some shots of the sky.  I know this because Omar kept shining his flashlight in her face as we tried to enjoy the sky ourselves.  Without a flashlight, you can barely see to get from your room to your car just a few feet away.
Backyard at Red Cliffs Lodge on the Colorado River
There was some new snow the next morning.  We headed into Moab to try the best breakfast in town at Eklecticafe.  Be sure to look for it if you're in town.  Great espresso drinks, quiche, pancakes, and more.  Not a huge place but the service makes up for that.  In warmer weather, you can eat outdoors. We also picked up some water bottles there, as there are warnings everywhere not to travel in the parks without it.   Then it was off to Arches National Park.  If you have a child with a disability like Omar, you can get a free pass to the national parks, so it was free for us to get in.  Arches Park is open 24 hours a day, so you can see it under all conditions and there are even star tours in the area.  A guide will take you out with a telescope and show you the best of the night sky.  There's also a photography tour.  If you have the funds and want a total exploration, there are opportunities of all kinds.  Because of the extreme cold, we decided to do our own tour and I consulted these photography tips to be sure I was happy with what we saw and photographed.  Some great tips there.  Unfortunately Delicate Arch and several others in that region of the park were closed due to icy road conditions.  We had to settle for a hike in another part of the park, but it was good enough.  Easy hiking in the snow with a few slippery spots.  There were icicles hanging on the cave portions.  The sunshine seemed to be endless!  You need sunglasses for this kind of snow.
The red formations are huge!  See tiny Omar next to this one.

He found this cave with icicles and wanted to lick each and every one.

There are more than 2000 arches but we saw maybe 10.  These are some of the larger ones.

By afternoon we had seen most of the road that runs through it and headed back into town for lunch.  Omar only eats pasta and pizza, so it was easy to determine lunch should be at Pasta Jay's.  We wanted to experience the sunset and see more of the scenic highway so we went out to Fisher Towers, near our lodge.  It's easy to take the wrong street since they all look like dirt paths covered in snow.  We ended up out in a field with free range cattle, and they looked a bit surprised, before we found the correct road.  The towers are a state park and it's free to see them.  There are 2 hikes there, and we opted for the shorter Photography Hike.  It takes you a way up the towers and you get a nice view of everything around.  The cool thing about sunset is that the rocks continue to change colors as the sun sets.  The shadows play with the shapes, and it's so fun to watch that you might miss the actual sun setting on the other side of the canyon.
you can see the shadows on the lower parts of the towers

Bright orange and red hues

The sun sets in the wild west
Our last night at the lodge, we stopped in at the Movie Museum that is in the basement of the Lodge.  This property was the site for many westerns, including those starring John Wayne.  Some of the later movies included Back to the Future, Thelma & Louise, and City Slickers.  If you remember the Marlboro Man commercials, they were also filmed here.  Even the bathrooms at the lodge have movie photos on the walls.  You're bound to see something familiar.
My husband, Abdulhamid, with John Wayne

Lots of photos from the many years of movies

Sadly, our wild west adventure ended abruptly due to a snowstorm that was predicting 20 inches of snow in the mountains.  We had to leave very early the next day and make our way SLOWLY back to Salt Lake in blowing snow in nearly whiteout conditions. If we'd had another day, we probably would have seen Canyonlands National Park too.  We'll have to make that another time...in warmer weather!