Tuesday, July 11, 2017

5 Summer Family Adventure Ideas in Minneapolis

Minneapolis is well known for Mall of America, Children's Museum, and Amusement Park Valley Fair.  All of those are great ideas, but they aren't cheap.  If you prefer having some adventures in the great outdoors, here's our top choices for families visiting the Twin Cities. Most of these are off the beaten path, but are well worth the drive.

1. Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. See my blog post about the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Here you can hike, see exhibits, and make some great memories as well as take photos. Adults pay $15-18 per visit, or less if you can find a Groupon.  Kids under age 16 are free.  There's a nice cafe with sandwiches and sweets.  You can grab breakfast there on the weekends. Parking is free. Admission is free if you belong to a botanical garden elsewhere. Just remember to bring your membership card and a photo ID. You could easily spend half a day here. 3675 Arboretum Drive, Chaska MN 55318  (952)443-1400
One of the seasonal tree house inspired displays

2. Big Stone Mini Golf. This place is a combination sculpture garden, golf course, farm, and nature preserve.  Adults will love it as much as the kids. You can roast marshmallows at stonehenge while a big black pig lays in the shade, pet horses, feed goats, see sculptures, and of course play golf too. The course is very creative- even a water maze! They also have snacks like frozen ice treats for afterwards. The landscaping is pretty with lots of perennials which attract hummingbirds and butterflies. We ended up staying more than 2 hours and went near dusk to avoid the heat, though there is shade.  Parking is free. The website is a bit clumsy, so it's maybe better to call for hours and admission.  It was $8.50 per person when we went. 7110 County Road 110, Minnetrista, MN 55364 (952)472-9292
How cool is this? A boat with stained glass windows!

You can get up close and personal with farm animals

3.  Minnehaha Falls Regional Park. This is a large park in the city center which boasts a beautiful 53 foot waterfall, limestone bluffs, and hiking trails.  You can rent multi-person surrey bikes and single person choppers. ($13-35 per hour) at Wheel Fun Rentals. We tried both.  The older kids preferred the choppers as some of the seats on the surrey have no pedals.  It was a hot day when we went, and the covered top was a welcome addition on the surrey bikes.  I might mention that these multi-person contraptions take some real pedal power. It's more work than an ordinary bike, but half the fun is in the team work.  It should be fairly easy to follow the park paths, but I have to confess we passed the park limits and ended up on a course nearly half-way to Fort Snelling. Don't let this happen to you.

Be sure to plan time at the playground and do the hike down to the waterfall.  There is a wading pool, some lovely gardens and historic buildings.  We found a vendor for popsicles, away from the waterfall. Lines were quite long at the Sea Salt Eatery, which is supposed to be a nice lunch stop.  Bathroom lines were also long.  Parking is metered in some places. This was nearly an all day outing for us.
4801 S Minnehaha Park Dr, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55417 (612) 729-2660
Towards the beginning of our ride

After nearly 3 hours and 7 miles because we'd left the trail and the park
Playground has some great photo ops too

You can hike to the base of the falls

4.  Nicollet Commons Park Splash Pad. We've been to splash pads in other places, but this one is very unique.  Even though you're in the middle of a city center, you feel like you're in nature because of the creek that runs through it. The stones get a bit slippery. Bring your own snacks and you can enjoy a picnic in the amphitheater setting. You can find on street parking. This is free. 12550 Nicollet Ave, Burnsville, MN   (952)895-4500

5. Lake Nokomis Watersports. There are plenty of watersports opportunities in the area, but this is my pick because it has shade and is less crowded than the other lakes where there are rentals.  If you have a variety of levels of experience in your group, you can choose a pedal boat or canoe. Maybe try a stand-up paddleboard.  Wheel Fun Rentals rents everything I mentioned. If you're going to visit multiple parks or use rentals several times during the summer, you might be better off to purchase their discount card or look at Groupon for savings.  It's a rare occasion when I pay full price. Bring bathing suits for swimming. Also great hiking and biking here. 5022 W Nokomis Pkwy
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55417 (612) 729-1127

(Wheel Fun Rentals photo)

Monday, July 10, 2017

Minnesota Arboretum- Free Fun for Kids

Human sized bird feeder
Every time we go to Minneapolis, we try to find new, off the beaten path, fun ways to explore with our nieces and nephew. Because a group of 6 kids can be a bit unwieldy, I like to focus on the great outdoors.  We go. We see. They come home tired (and I do too). It can also cost quite a bit of money, so I love when we find something that's cheap. Even better when it's free.

On the latest trip, we took them to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska. They often have kid friendly displays, which could be a reason they made the USA Today List for #1 Botanical Garden. We went there a few years ago when they had enormous Lego creations.  This summer they have tree houses and kaleidoscopes. The entrance fee was halved when I purchased a Groupon which covered both me and my husband for $15 for a weekday visit. If you are a member of your local botanic garden, entrance is free under the reciprocal program. Kids under age 16 are always free.

Though you can walk the arboretum, it's much easier to use a car. Three Mile Drive winds through the 1200 acres, which include all types of trees, flowers, hiking trails, and exhibits. With parking lots scattered along the route, you can get out and explore in smaller pieces. This alone makes it kid friendly. Even though it's only three miles, plan on at least an hour to get through the whole route with stops.  We were there for three hours and still didn't see everything, though we could have spent  an hour just at the outdoor hedge maze- a permanent attraction.
What kid wouldn't enjoy getting lost in this?
The main buildings contain the usual information desk, cafe, bathrooms, fountains, and additional exhibits. It's worth it to stop here first and pick up the latest brochures because they include maps. Just outside the buildings are some beautiful gardens where kids can chase chipmunks, squirrels, and butterflies. There are lots of photo ops in these gardens, so bring a camera.

The Kaleidoscope exhibit runs through September 25, and is the brainchild of Door County metal artist Robert Anderson.  Round planters of annual flowers can be spun and viewed through kaleidoscopes. There are 15 in all, with most of them located around the visitor center. They are very similar, so it's not necessary to see all of them. It's a great concept and the kids enjoyed spinning the pots. The artist placed the kaleidoscopes at various levels for the convenience of adult and kid users. I had never seen anything like it but enjoyed it thoroughly.

The summer exhibit of treehouse inspired displays includes many structures you can touch or climb inside.  We never saw any "Keep Off" signs, which was a great relief when traveling with a brood of kids. Visitors are encouraged to interact with exhibits. These will be on view through October 1. Some can be seen from the street, but the majority are tucked away into areas you'll need to walk to. Look for the signs, and use the map or you'll likely miss a few. Each one is so unique that it is worthwhile to view every one of them.

 The signage includes the artist and more details about each installation.  I'm glad they had numbers because we would have missed a few without some help.

Definitely my favorite- this upside down treehouse had details inside you can only see when you are directly underneath it.
If birds drank tea
 Inside the bird house, the decor is everything a bird might enjoy seeing in their home. The containers held bird seed. The kids enjoyed climbing inside. 

Wall decorations inside the birdhouse

There are plenty of permanent exhibits, like the maze or the statue garden, interspersed along the Three mile route.  Depending on your energy level and weather, you could spend an entire day here, bringing a picnic lunch, doing some hiking, and uniting with nature.  It would be a day well spent.  Though we took the kids out for ice cream and a movie, this was definitely the preferred outing.  We will be back on future trips to see what's new. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Springfield- Land of Lincoln

I grew up in Illinois and enjoyed the few occasions we went to Springfield to see the Lincoln home and tomb. When my older kids were younger, I made the effort to bring them to New Salem, hoping they'd enjoy the log cabins and people dressed as early pioneers. Now it was Omar's turn. We only had the weekend, so we had to choose carefully to see the best places.  There are three that I think are the most family friendly.

The first place, where we spent half a day, was New Salem.  It's a town that has been rebuilt using the original foundations. While in his twenties, the future U.S. President made his living in this frontier village as a boatman, soldier in the Black Hawk War, general store owner, postmaster, surveyor, and rail splitter, and was first elected to the Illinois General Assembly. It includes these buildings as well as a school house. There is no set admission, but donations are encouraged.

When I'd been there before, we saw many more actors/volunteers, however it was a hot day and we only met the "school teacher," who was male and full of great stories about how it would have been back in the 1830s when Lincoln lived there. He had a small fire going in the huge fireplace and said it provided a draft which cooled off the cabin and took away the humidity.  Who would have known? He explained that Illinois was really the "wild west" of the day, yet it was a hub for gathering and early trade.

With a small museum and a film about Lincoln playing in the theatre all day, you can easily spend 45 minutes in the visitor center.  We even bought tickets for the evening outdoor performance behind this building, where we saw a great kids' production of Aladdin Jr. They provided bug spray because the mosquitoes were out in force. There was also a concession selling snacks and drinks. It turned out to be a fun evening.

The Lincoln Museum is really fun for families, with lots of interactive exhibits and wax figures.  Smaller kids can dress up in costumes and play with toys. Others will enjoy the movies and information on well designed displays.  Omar got a bit upset at seeing the slave market wax figures, as well as Lincolns doting on their bed ridden son just before his death, but otherwise, everything is tame by comparison. They offered a military discount, which I always like. Though there is no flash photography, you can take photos.  We ended up buying a t-shirt and Lincoln hat in the gift shop. I thought everything was pretty reasonably priced.

It was funny that we later ran into a Lincoln look-alike at Cozy Dog Diner and Omar wore his hat with Abe. Turned out to be a perfect photo op.  The chamber is doing a promotion this summer where you can look for Lincoln at local businesses, and I was told more information will be up on the Visit Springfield Facebook page. Be sure to check out the participating places doing the History Comes Alive Program too, which runs through August 13.

Our last stop was the Lincoln tomb where most of the family is buried, except for Robert who is buried at Arlington Cemetery. From the parking lot and from a distance you can see the monument, but the tomb is inside the monument, using the front door. When we visited, there were several tour groups so a narrator was giving a talk about Lincoln and his entombment, but I'm not sure if someone is there every day.

You walk through a corridor with bronze statues depicting different times in Lincoln's life.  It's very nicely done, with nothing scary. Outside was a bust of Lincoln with a stepstool in front. It's thought to be good luck to rub his nose.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

A Road Trip on Route 66

Summer is the season for road trips, and we have several planned.  The inspiration for these came from a National Parks website for shared heritage travel. I like the variety of themed itineraries on this site, and plan to come back for more tips. If you're someone who enjoys learning something on a vacation, this is for you.

This weekend we did the Illinois Route 66 trip, though we deviated a bit from the itinerary to include more places because we used the state brochure for the route also. Much of our drive was actually on I-55, with detours to the towns listed. In some cases we drove on the old route 66, which has now become frontage road or a town road. That's when it was great to put on our road trip playlist and drive with the windows down. Here's just a sample of what's on our list: Beach Boys, Michael Jackson, Bee Gees, John Denver, and of course "Route 66" by Chuck Berry.  Road Trippers also has some highlights as well as the Roadside America app.  It seems like every website picks just a few sites, but once you arrive in town, you'll no doubt find other historic places or photo ops.

We stopped at Dwight for a meal and ate at the Old Route 66 Family Restaurant, where Linda was our waitress.  She found a unique Chicago Route 66 T-shirt for Omar. Food was great and the place is loaded with things to look at while you wait. Just a block away is the visitor center/gas station. We arrived after closing time, but we could still look through the windows at the old equipment and car.

At Atlanta, we loved the murals, enormous Paul Bunyon holding a hot dog, and old mill.  The highlight would have been The Route 66 Arcade Museum, but it was closed.  They will be open for the summer, so check the hours and bring your coins. I would have enjoyed playing some pinball with Omar.

Pontiac has a great route 66 museum which includes a variety of photos from the entire route on the upper floor.  Once you've looked at these, you may feel inspired to keep driving west. The town has murals all over, as well as cute mini trucks painted in different themes, so it's a great place to stretch your legs.

Springfield is a place you could spend several days. We visited a few of the presidential sites, but made time for a corn dog at Cozy Dog Drive-in. Imagine our surprise when Abe Lincoln came through the door and ordered lunch.  I wasn't sure what to order, but the locals standing in line suggested the cheeseburger and cozy dog, so that's what I tried.  Both were very tasty.

Now that we've done this small portion, I'd love to see more.  The route has a bike map for anyone with loads of stamina, though I think we'll stick with the automobile.  We had a couple friends who did this on a tandem two years ago and blogged about it. How about you?  Have you done Route 66 in any state?  

Saturday, June 3, 2017

A Powerful Breakfast for Fasting Muslims...and Everyone Else

I've been with my husband for almost 13 years of Ramadan.  The hardest part for him has always been eating enough at breakfast to get through 17 hours of fasting.  I searched blogs and recipe books, written by Muslims, but the best solution comes from a combination of sources unrelated to Muslims. I found advice from weightlifters and people with successful weight loss. What a bonus if it keeps weight off and gives energy.

It all boils down to protein and fiber. And the best part is that it can be made ahead. It's a steel cut oatmeal mix. This is accompanied by a vegetable juice, made in a juicer.

Power Oatmeal

4 cups steel cut oats
1/2 cup chia seeds
1/2 cup hemp seeds
1/2 cup ground flax seed
1/4 cup couscous
1 Tbsp. cinnamon
1/4 cup coconut sugar

Mix all ingredients and store in an airtight container. When you're ready to cook it up, mix 1 cup power oatmeal with 3 cups water or milk (you can use almond milk or coconut milk) in a saucepan and bring to a boil.  Then turn burner to low and cook uncovered for 25 minutes, adding more liquid if it becomes too thick. Be sure to stir this as it cooks. At this point, you can eat it or put it in the refrigerator for the next day.  I find this enough for 4 servings.

Top with greek yogurt, nuts, and mixed berries.

Power Juice

2 stalks celery
1 cucumber
2 carrots
handful of spinach
1 beet
2 apples
1 tbsp. chunk fresh ginger

This makes 2 large glasses of juice.

If you still feel hungry, a hard boiled egg added to this combination might help.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Cooking for Ramadan

We're not even a week into Ramadan, and I'm already tired of cooking the same old thing.  My husband likes to eat a large variety of foods, so everyday cooking goes out the window during this month.  Some days I feel like a short order chef, though I try to smile and just carry on.  Many people feel sorry for the people fasting all day.  I mean, who would purposely choose to eat breakfast at 3 am, then wait to eat dinner at nearly 8:30 pm?  A lot of Muslims living in the midwestern US, that's who. Depending on where you live, the fast can be longer or shorter because it goes from before sunrise to sunset.  He eats it, but I cook it. So I thought I'd share some of the recipes I'm using this week for dinner, which is called iftar.

He starts with water, strong coffee and dates- they have to be American grown California Medjool because I like to support local growers, and many of the dates grown in the Israel/West Bank region, have been suspect to using children in the processing. You can read about it here. Last year there was an effort to boycott dates of "unknown origin."

Then it's crepes, though called different things in different countries. There are many recipes, but this one is very close to the one my mom always made. Sometimes I add a teaspoon of vanilla, or change out some of the all purpose flour to include some wheat flour and wheat germ. He likes to eat them smothered in honey.

Next it's a cup of soup.  Lentil is his favorite because it's high in protein. This recipe is good on its own, but I often add a Tbsp. of curry, just because he likes it a bit spicier. And I usually clean out the vegetable drawer with whatever we have because I can hide vegetables in this he won't normally eat (like broccoli) because it goes in the Vitamix. Shhh...don't tell him.

Lentil Peanut Soup

Today I got out a recipe for Lentil Peanut Soup. I received this from Astrid, a woman I met while living in Denmark.  She was from Rhodesia. I wrote that on the recipe. It doesn't even exist under that name anymore. Now it's Zimbabwe.  She and her husband were white, and had come to Denmark because her husband found work at a garage doing bodywork. I always liked eating at their house because she used a variety of recipes, some African, but others were from her Danish/Dutch heritage.  If you want to try this, here's the recipe:

1 cup red lentils, sorted and rinsed
1 cup pearl barley, rinsed
2 carrots, peeled, cut in half lengthwise and sliced
2 stalks celery, washed and sliced
1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons cumin
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
salt and pepper to taste
1 can diced or crushed tomatoes 
5 cups broth (I use bone broth made from chicken carcass)
1 bay leaf

1 Tbsp. grated ginger
1-2 Tbsp. peanut butter

Saute the veggies in ghee or olive oil until onion is translucent.  Add lentils, barley, spices, tomatoes and broth.  Stir and cook until everything is cooked through.  I use a pressure cooker, but it can be cooked stove top for about an hour.  Add ginger and peanut butter. Then blend in Vitamix if you want to hide the veggies too.  It's pretty tasty, though the peanut butter overpowers any veggie taste. 

After the soup, we're on to the main course, which has been beef tips in gravy, with peas, and rice.  I make enough to last three days. Sometimes just before bed, he'll have a yogurt to top it off.

Want more recipes?  Here is the article from 2012 the local Milwaukee newspaper did.  The recipes listed are staples for us during Ramadan. The sambusa can also be made using tortillas and baked or fried.  Sometimes I freeze them and just take out a few every day.  Here's a Kenyan/American recipe with tips on how to do that. You don't have to be Muslim or wait for Ramadan to eat these recipes.  Let me know if you try them.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Morocco for Ramadan

Omar and I take a camel ride on the nearly deserted beach at Sidi Kaouiki
It's Ramadan again, and I'm recalling the summer we spent in Morocco last year during the Muslim's holiest month.  We rented a minivan and drove about 1000 miles during the month, starting in Marrakesh and ending in Fez. It was hot. It was also the experience of a lifetime as we saw the diversity of what the country had to offer.  I didn't know at the time that I would write a book about it, but the stories and memories of the people we'd met stayed with me, so I put it on paper.  The book is available now on Amazon and Kindle.

Before we went, people thought we were a bit crazy to drive in an African country. I think being a bit naive on my part, it was a plus.  Between cities, there wasn't much traffic, but we encountered speed traps and check points every day in every city. I saw some crazy things.  I also grew from the experience. That's the best part of getting out of one's comfort zone.  Personal growth happens.  It widens a person's perspective about people and places.  It's such a good thing. I really believe if everyone had to travel to places where they didn't speak the language or follow the same customs, the world would be a much more understanding place.

I tried to capture the places on my camera. It's a photo rich country.  Just look at the blue city alleys of Chefchaouen in the upper left photo, and then the blue boats of El Jadida on the right. There are similar boats all along the coast. Each city has different colors.

Ramadan is a time for Muslims to fast. They eat an early morning breakfast before sunrise.  Then they don't eat or drink until after sunset.  It's a very long day, and Abdul nearly always took a nap to make the time go a bit faster. We ate nearly the same meal every night to break the fast, though Omar and I weren't fasting. My husband Abdul was. We enjoyed eating with Moroccans on several occasions. The highlight was dinner at the top of a mountain near Tetouan where we ate with a Moroccan family who owned an ecolodge.

Most tourists see only the famous tourist spots like the enormous mosque at Casablanca and the ancient tannery of Fez.  We managed to see those places too. But it was the little things we enjoyed along the way I write about in my book.  Omar chased cats.  I drove in the dark with no wiper fluid and nearly hit a cow in a sandstorm in the middle of the city. Omar fed monkeys and gave them water from bottles. I struggled to be understood using really poor French, but we got by. We saw the King praying at the mosque. We watched boys play soccer at a natural spring where they would lay out carpets under their feet to wash them. Lifeguards at the pool read the Koran to pass the day. Meals at McDonalds couldn't be eaten in public. There were hundreds of little differences.  If you're thinking about visiting Morocco, or just want a window into the lives of Moroccans during Ramadan, I hope you'll read my book. 
Fez tannery

We saw the King at the Mosque in Casablanca.
Feral cats were everywhere. They keep the rodent population down.

My son Omar, Me, and husband Abdulhamid in Marrakesh