Our southern friends from Connecticut invited us to go camping at Hammonasset Beach State Park with them. They go every year as a big party, with family and friends.
I only recently found out that this is a thing; our neighbors/friends from across the street go up to a campsite in New Hampshire every year to meet with other friends, some of whom they only know from camping.
This was our first time going camping as a family, ever. I’ve gone deep-woods camping by myself. (No facilities, no roads, no people, no nothing — I’ve never smelled worse than three nights of that.) Meghan had been camping at Pennsic and Gulf Wars during college. (She has stories that amaze.) Beta has been overnight camping (in cabins) as part of Girl Scouts. We’ve all been “camping” in the backyard. This trip was a first for being away from home and trucking everything we would need.
We arrived mid-afternoon and immediately set to pitching our tent, figuring that there could be nothing worse than setting up a tent in the dark when you’re exhausted. Though the tent was new and this was our first time, it went up pretty quickly and cleanly.
Our friends provided dinner: our traditional Friday night get-together victuals, spaghetti with meat sauce and garlic bread, only on a Monday. Being experienced campers with a lot more room to pack stuff, they graciously offered to provide dinner for the two nights we were there. After dinner there were s’mores around a communal campfire, where we got to meet the rest of the party — more Gaileys and some family friends.
There were kids of all ages, including a few that were right around Alpha and Beta’s ages. They played boffer swords until dark, then convinced a couple of us adults to play manhunt.
We didn’t tuck into bed until about 10 pm. As the kids washed up some of us gathered around to chat and stargaze, and we were able to point out some satellites going by. The other adults hadn’t known that you could see them so easily. Schwing!
Sleep, for a variety of reasons, was somewhat elusive the first night, except for Alpha who can sleep through pretty much anything.
We started the day with pancakes, eggs, and bacon. The Gaileys possess a propane-fired flattop grill which made cooking a breeze.
Sam wanted to get the two Hobie Cats they brought along into the water. We got to the beach and set to rigging them, then took ourselves and the kids out for some sails.
We were at the beach for about four hours, and as a group we only got slightly burned — I had planned ahead and coaxed the girls into going to the beach with me for a week leading up to the trip. Meghan got a bit burned across the shoulders, and oddly enough Mu (the junior Gailey) got sunburned on the tops of his feet.
After packing the boats back onto their trailer, we headed back to camp (with a detour into town to get aloe) in order to make dinner. Second night was a communal pot luck, with hot dogs, hamburgers, and a bunch of sides. We got to know the other campers in the party and found that we have a lot in common.
The rain, which had been holding off all day, finally came in the form of a few brief showers and a rumble of thunder. I checked the weather radar back home and, wouldn’t you know it, heavy storms were moving through our town. (I love thunderstorms but seem to have a repelling effect on them. Even the strongest storms peter out as they reach our area.)
We took the opportunity to coax the girls into bed a bit earlier, though sleep was still hard to find the second night. Besides possibly being over-tired, the temperature dropped to nearly 50° F so everyone (except me) was cold despite blankets.
We all got up early to a beautiful morning. Meghan and Joanne took a walk back out to the beach to look for some bald eagles we had noticed the day before.
Checkout is 12 pm, and we planned to swing through Noank on the way home to see the folks, so we packed up the campsite right after breakfast (more bacon, eggs, and pancakes, plus sausages) and hung out with the Gaileys until it was time to go.
We bid adieu and headed out right at noon, spent a few hours having lunch and visiting with Mom and Dad Jones, plus Katie Jones and Eta (my niece). We made it home just in time to get Butter out of doggie daycare.
Friday-Sunday: The Planning
The Friday before February vacation, Meghan and I meet up for lunch and she drops a bombshell: “what if we take the girls to Disney next week?”
Last minute scheduling aside, this presents some very large hurdles: cost, PTO requests and balances, and arranging transportation. We kind of, sort of had the money but I had earmarked it for other things. I don’t get a lot of time off in my new job, and I’m husbanding what I do get for something we’re planning towards the end of the year — and we’re normally expected to schedule PTO in advance. Last minute plane tickets tend to be expensive, crappy flights.
Meghan wanted to do this, I was on the fence, so we compromised and decided to go. Meghan is vivacious, I’m the responsible one. A decent life lies somewhere in between, and I’ve learned over time to let go a little while still reigning her in enough that we don’t meet financial doom. It did mean that I would be working on this vacation. I’m fortunate to have a job that only needs a laptop and an internet connection, and an accommodating boss.
The most important decision we made was to keep it a secret from the kids. We had to make all the arrangements, prepare for the trip, and talk about it all weekend without letting them catch on — no small feat. Oh, and we had already planned to see some friends in Connecticut on Saturday.
We had to come up with a bunch of cover stories. Beta needed new shorts, and we can’t buy them without her trying them on. We had to get the dog to boarding before Monday without arousing suspicion, since we needed to be at the airport before 6 am. We needed to get the kids showered and in bed a little early, even though Monday’s a vacation day.
The final cover story: why we’re getting up before 5 am, which we had to provide the night before so the kids wouldn’t worry when we woke them, but something that wouldn’t make them too excited to sleep.
Monday: Getting There
4:30 am: Mom and Dad rise and shine!
4:50 am: kids roll out of bed and stumble downstairs
5:00 am: in the car
5:20 am: arrive at the airport long-term parking garage
5:30 am: shuttle drops us off at the airport
5:31 am: Alpha asks “why are we at the airport?”
5:33 am: security line, and we can’t keep the secret anymore
6:20 am: take off!
Our flight to Orlando had a long layover and transfer in Detroit. Both legs were packed solid. There was a class trip going to Disney that got on the plane in Detroit.
During the layover I got some real work done, while Meghan and the girls got some lunch and amused themselves.
3:45 pm: land in Orlando
4:15 pm: arrange some ground transportation
Orlando airport is huge. It has monorails to move passengers between terminals and the main building, but each terminal is pretty big in it’s own right. They’re also building another terminal right now.
We discovered that our on-property hotel of choice, The Swan, is not owned and operated by Disney and does not come with the typical benefits like a free bus ride between the airport and the hotel.
We secured a taxi driven by a guy named Victor, who hails from NYC. Our ride was very entertaining, as he got more comfortable his vernacular got very… colorful¹ but his stories and running commentary were among the best from a taxi that I’ve ever had.
4:45 pm: check into The Swan
5:00 pm: take a shuttle to Disney Springs to get dinner
Disney Springs, formerly known as Downtown Disney, is basically a mall with shops and restaurants dotted throughout. There aren’t any rides, so it doesn’t require a park pass. After looking around a bit and engaging in strong negotiations over who wanted what, we picked The Landing because it offered food that everyone would like while dining on a dock over the water.
To be honest, Disney Springs isn’t quite as much fun as it used to be. The stores aren’t unique anymore — they’re the same as any mall. The Landing was also a little disappointing, with fine-dining prices but takeout-quality food. We refused to let it get us down, though, and watched a beautiful sunset from our table.
7:00 pm: head back to the room
7:30 pm: Beta goes swimming in the hotel pool
8:30 pm: bedtime for everyone
Tuesday: Animal Kingdom
Morning dawned clear, bright, and warm. After a buffest breakfast at the hotel we went our separate ways: Meghan, Alpha, and Beta to Animal Kingdom and I back to our room to work for the day.
At lunch I went exploring to see what was around the hotel and found a beach, playground, and much larger pool complex with a water slide, two hot tubs, and a waterfall/grotto.
About the same time I was wrapping up work, everyone else came back to rest up a bit. Beta wanted to swim a bit, Alpha did not, so Beta, Meghan, and I suited up and walked down to the pool. Alpha stayed behind to charge her introvert batteries.
We played at the big pool for over an hour, until we started getting hungry. We decided to go back to the Animal Kingdom to get dinner, try a few more rides, and watch the light show.
After a light dinner at one of the short-order restaurants we headed over to “the Himalayas” to try out a ride that Alpha wanted to see called Expedition Everest. It’s a roller-coaster that is partially inside the “mountain” (so it’s pitch black, like Space Mountain) and rolls backwards for part of the ride. Very intense, very fun, especially after dark.
The girls also convinced me to take two cruises on the Kali River Rapids. I managed to stay merely damp after the first pass, but I was completely soaked after the second.
We went back to the hotel after that. The light show was wrapping up and we wanted to beat the crowds back to the shuttles. It was also pretty late, after 9 pm, when we finally got upstairs.
This was a rainy day. This was also a tricky day, activity-wise, because Meghan was only able to take half the day off and had to work during the afternoon. We had breakfast at the hotel again, and I headed upstairs while the rest of the family went over to Epcot for a little while.
Everyone was back in the room at noon, as the drizzle started outside. I knocked off work a little early (hooray for getting my crap done!) and took Beta over to the hotel’s game room while Alpha recharged her introvert batteries again.
About 2pm we decided that we wanted to go (back) to Epcot – me, Alpha, and Beta. Meghan was still working but had arranged reservations at the Garden Grill at 4:45. It’s Meghan’s favorite restaurant in Disney.
The rain remained light and drizzley while the girls and I toured the World Showcase in Epcot. We stopped in a few of the “countries” along the way, from France (where the ferry dropped us off) and counter-clockwise around through China, which is almost exactly opposite.
While we poked around a shop in China the rain picked up, then picked up some more, so we stayed inside and waited for it to slow up — the clock was ticking and we had a date with Meghan in an hour. I refused to pay $9 per poncho.
A little after 4 pm the rain appeared to lighten up so we made a break for it. We got out of China and were in front of Norway, the next country over, when the skies opened up into a torrential downpour. We were soaked to the bone in seconds, before we could even dart under an overhang. So much for being dry at dinner.
We squished our way up to The Land in time for our reservation inside, a couple of minutes late but sooner than Meghan. The rain not only stopped after soaking us, but the sun popped out before we arrived at the restaurant.
After dinner we took the slow ride that goes around the restaurant, and headed out to enjoy the rest of Epcot. We went over to the ride in Mission: Space (not to be confused with Spaceship Earth, a.k.a. the golf ball) which is a pretty cool G-force type ride.
The rain continued to come and go so we wound up buying a couple of ponchos and an umbrella for the walk home. This was a fortunate decision on Meghan’s part because the rain came back in earnest while we walked back to the ferry.
Thursday: Boardwalk, DVC, and Heading Home
Our last day, but a late flight (9 pm) so we had time to have some more fun. I arranged with my boss to put off work until late in the day, since there were no meetings scheduled. Meghan had to work in the morning and doesn’t have flexible scheduling.
We were a little disappointed with the Swan overall² so we decamped for the Boardwalk, just next door (and a Disney resort) with shops and things to do. I took the girls out to play and walk around while Meghan sat in the lobby with our bags. We discovered that Epcot is just a short walk away.
After making a circuit around the “harbor” it was lunch time. Alpha wanted to read but Beta and I were still a bit restless. We headed down the walking path towards Hollywood Studios. Not to go into the park, just to see where the path goes and look for alligators. (We didn’t see any.)
Even after all that we had a few hours before we needed to get to the airport so I wandered into the DVC office to gather some information. Meghan and I have talked about buying back into the vacation club for about a year, as changing fortunes have allowed us to travel and vacation more frequently and the DVC can actually be viewed as a money-saving way to travel. As the agent brought our information back up we discovered that Meghan had been making inquiries while she was at Epcot the day before. There was an open house at another resort where we could get all of the information, so game on: I judged that we were both ready to plunge back in, and got us a ride to the open house.
This was late in the day, getting close to the time we should really start heading to the airport, so we had to hew to a tight schedule with the sales guys. We arranged it perfectly, though, and got back to our starting point in time to meet Victor (remember Victor the taxi driver? we liked him so much we called him back for our pick-up³) at our pre-arranged pick-up time.
Our flight out was pretty uneventful. We took off on-time at 8:45 pm and landed at 11:30 pm, a bit of turbulence in between. The kids stayed awake, I worked for a bit, Meghan napped (a first for her on a plane!). We rolled back into our driveway at half-past midnight.
1: We don’t worry much about letting our kids hear profanity. We have taught them some simple lessons: profanity is what you say when you don’t have the vocabulary to express yourself; profanity doesn’t make you cool, and certain people will judge you poorly when you use it; profanity is just words. Moreover, making a big deal about “bad words” just increases the taboo-ness of them, which makes them more desirable. Return
2: Our time at the Swan ranged from merely average to disappointing. The room was of average quality, but we’ve stayed in downtown Manhattan for the less per night with more included as part of the nightly fee. Some of the disappointment was due to poor expectations: we thought that it was a Disney resort with same benefits like ground transportation from the airport included; some disappointment was because they nickel-and-dimed us to death (e.g. a $25-per-night “resort fee” to cover the complimentary internet access and pool, which we only got partially refunded). Return
3: Victor’s cell phone is 321-945-1003, call a few hours ahead to arrange a ride with him (dispatch will only send the next available). His voicemail box was full but he responded promptly to our texts. He seemed to genuinely appreciate having a guaranteed fare. There are cheaper methods to get in and out of the airport if you’re by yourself, but none quite so hilarious. Return
Date: Evening of December 31, 2016
Location: Boston, MA
Event: New Year’s Eve
We rang in the New Year in traditional style: a night out in Boston. This year we had the very good fortune to be joined by Baba (Meghan’s mother, the girls’ grandmother).
Most years we take a train into the city to avoid issues with ‘amateur night’ drivers, but not this year. Being a Saturday, the commuter rail only runs a limited schedule; there are extra trains but not until later in the evening.
We reserved parking right next to the Commons (Parking Panda to the rescue!) but planned to start the night at Quincy Market. I dropped the rest of the family off there and ran downtown to park the car. I made the short walk back to meet with everyone again in about fifteen minutes.
We shopped a bit before getting an excellent early dinner at The Black Rose. We’ve been there several times; despite it’s location right next to Quincy Market it doesn’t have the air of a tourist trap. It does have excellent Guinness on tap, though!
Let me back up a few days before I present the next photo: both girls have had braces on their teeth for a long while, until this past week. Beta will be getting a second round when she gets a little older, but for now they both have brilliant smiles.
Dinner was followed by a little more window-shopping, a brief stop for Blink, the Greenway Carousel, and dessert in the market.
We walked from Quincy Market to Boston Common, about a mile. We stopped for hot chocolate and hot apple cider across the street at The Thinking Cup Cafe. Both were very good.
Finally, at 7 pm: fireworks.
After the fireworks, our decision to park across the street paid off. We picked up the car and made it out of the city before the rest of the traffic.
Baba slept over our house to avoid amateur night traffic, rain – the threat of rain made good shortly after we got home – and for a promise of waffles in the morning. Meghan and her mom stayed up to watch a show, Hinterland, but everyone was asleep well before midnight.
Baba took the whole clan to Fenway to see the Red Sox play the Chicago White Sox. It was an afternoon game so that the kids could come, too.
Baba generously bought us stadium food as well – no small sum for hot dogs, pretzels, pizza, and Del’s Lemonade.
The Sox stunk until the bottom of the 5th inning, at which point they came back from 4-0 lead by the White Sox to win 7-8.
Delta fell asleep by the 8th inning, which is surprising given the amount of noise every time the Sox got a run. Kappa, who’s about a year and a half, stayed awake and in mostly good spirits through the entire game. Beta was well behaved, and Alpha genuinely enjoyed herself.
We left as the 10th inning was starting so that we could avoid some of the crowds with the kids and headed down the street to get dinner at Wahlburgers.
Meghan and I like to keep our kids exposed to the cultural world, giving them a cosmopolitan worldview. I chose a job near Boston in part to allow frequent trips into the city. But one city isn’t enough to give them a breadth of experience.
We took an overnight trip to New York City during February school vacation. Discovery Times Square is currently exhibiting The Vikings, which is of particular interest to Meghan and Alpha. (That isn’t to say there isn’t interest from me and Beta, they’re just that much more keen.) Meghan found a great deal on motel rooms (the girls are old enough now that we need two) right by Times Square at Four Points by Sheraton. The view wasn’t anything to write home about but the location can’t be beat: two blocks from Times Square. The rooms were clean and neat, and the staff were bend-over-backwards friendly. I would totally stay there again.
We drove down early Wednesday morning, dropping Butter off at Marty’s and picking up Meghan’s mom (aka Baba) on the way. Baba loves going to NYC, she knows the lay of the land better than we do, and she’s a bit more adventurous than I am when the kids are around, so we invited her along. She offered to share the kids’s room to keep costs down — and that provided peace of mind overnight, too.
We rolled into town around noon and got situated in the hotel with time to spare before our exhibit reservations. We walked from the hotel and poked around Times Square for a few minutes.
There were a pair of people in costume, one dressed as Woody from Toy Story and the other as Olaf from Frozen, soliciting tips. They made their own costumes and don’t work for anyone but themselves, so Meghan got photos with each and tipped them a few bucks.
I continue to be amazed how many people are continually in New York City. The crush of people feel like there’s an event going on somewhere, but it’s really just an every day occurrence. Dozens of people at every crosswalk, hundreds of people on every sidewalk, all the time. Boston has nothing on NYC.
We made our way through the crowds to the exhibit and spent about an hour and a half learning about Vikings. As an aside: the exhibit is self-paced and just about the right length. They had a number of artifacts grouped into several themes about everyday life, instead of constructing a sequential historical narrative.
We waited to get lunch until after the exhibit so we were somewhat famished. A few storefronts down from Discovery is a pizza and Italian restaurant called John’s of Times Square, located in a former church. The adults had excellent pizza and the girls had excellent pasta. It might have been a case of hunger making the best sauce, but probably not.
After lunch we shopped around Times Square a bit. Alpha bought a New York-emblazoned sweat shirt and Beta got a pin for her hat. Baba noticed that Phantom of the Opera was playing right in front of us, so she bought three tickets for 8 o’clock that night. Beta wasn’t interested and I was wiped from driving all day; we chose to stay in.
We wandered back to the hotel to rest up. I had to step out in search of a pharmacy: we had a snafu when we left the house and forgot to pack our bathroom stuff.
Our motel offers complimentary dinner stuffs on Wednesday nights. We were just coming off of lunch, not particularly hungry, but the food was delicious. Free wine and beer, too!
We finished dinner and Beta and I headed up to our room to watch some TV and get ready for bed. Meghan, Baba, and Alpha headed out to their show, and didn’t get back until after I was asleep — sometime after 10:30 pm. They said they had a great time though!
We started the next day with an excellent breakfast buffet at the motel. We seem to have a knack for choosing motels with great breakfasts; it really makes dollars stretch further if your breakfast is hearty when you’re traveling.
We decided that we could fit in one more museum visit before leaving town. The American Museum of Natural History was on our way home and is always worth a visit. We also considered the USS Intrepid but decided to save it for another visit so we can give it the amount of time it deserves.
We got in early and encountered almost no waiting to get into the parking garage and admissions line. We had three destinations in mind: the dinosaurs, the blue whale, and the gift shop. We got to see all three, in that order. The life-size blue whale model is stupendously large – and that’s after seeing the full-size apatosaurus for comparison.
We made our way out of the city around 1 pm. We didn’t want to get home too late, and the drive can take upwards of six hours with stops and detours to Willimantic and Hampton. The ride home was uneventful, traffic was mostly light and Waze didn’t let us down. Butter the dog was very happy to see us when we picked her up, and I was extremely happy to sleep in my own bed.
It doesn’t get much funnier than an appalled 10-year-old accusing her parents of being in the shower together.
Beta and I seem to be the more adventuresome side of the family. Today we went hiking in the Middlesex Fells Reservation because we’d never been.
For our first look-around, I chose to start near the off-leash area at the Sheepfold, thinking we might be able to let Butter off her leash for a bit. Sadly, the area is not fenced in at all, and she won’t come on command when there are any distractions. (Butter will come when called at home, she’s not totally devoid of training, but the possibilities of squirrels and other dogs and dead things to roll around in are just too much for her to resist.)
From the Sheepfold parking area, there’s a straight shot up to the Bear Hill observation tower (about a mile) so we headed up. The view from the top is impressive.
Beta brought along a book to identify animal tracks, and we found some animal tracks that were neither human nor dog — we think they were bobcat.
Unbeknownst to me Beta did NOT bring socks, however, and her waterproof boots quickly gave her a blister. We discovered this at the tower, so we turned around and headed home a bit earlier than I had planned. She promised me that she would bring socks next time, and she was so miserable by the end of the hike that I kind of believe her this time. I think she enjoyed the hike otherwise, though.
Another year, another amazing fireworks show on Boston Common!
The weather has been abnormally warm this year. Christmas day was in the 60’s, and NYE was in the upper 40’s during the day. The fireworks, held at 7 pm, were not uncomfortably cool.
Being a tradition, we like to make an evening of it. We took the train in, arriving at North Station and walking around the city. Even though we have a train station in town, the parking sucks and the fares are higher so we head down the road to Anderson RTC in Woburn. The MBTA makes outbound trips free on NYE after 8 pm, so it’s even cheaper to take the train (and just as convenient).
On the greenway in front of Quincy Market there is a carousel. December 31 is the last day of the season, so the kids like to get in one last ride. This year we arrived after dark so all the lights were on.
After the carousel, we headed across the street to Quincy Market. The Christmas tree was still lit and the holiday show, Blink!, was still running. It’s just a small light show and music that plays a few times an hour, but it’s a nice touch.
We got dinner at the kiosks in Quincy Market. It was nothing to write home about except this year there was a teenage guy playing rock hits on his guitar in the central seating area that Alpha was quite taken with. Meghan gave her some money to throw in his guitar case. It was all very cute.
We got some dessert and hot chocolate on our way out, and ate it on the way. The kids got cannoli, which weren’t quite as good as what’s available in the North End but seemed to be pretty good regardless. Meghan and I shared a slice of German Chocolate cake.
With the weather being so nice a lot of people turned out this year, and the hill overlooking the baseball diamond was downright crowded.
A funny thing about these fireworks: they always seem to have more than one climax. We always have to wait for a few moments to make sure they’re really done this time, before heading out. We caught a train from North Station before 8:30, had the girls in bed before 10. No, we didn’t stay up until midnight either.
It’s that time of year again: Beta’s fifth grade class concert.
The concert was pretty good overall, but the real highlight was a kid in the band who was responsible for banging a cowbell (more cowbell!). He was way in the back with the rest of the percussionists, and half in the shadow, but he was the most enthusiastic member — and his timing was spot-on.