Omaha Combines the Best of Big City Culture With Small Town Friendliness

While Omaha may not top a typical list of vacation hot spots, the Midwestern city has much to offer visitors, most notably a friendly face just about any time you turn around. The largest city in Nebraska, Omaha has a population of about 466,000 in an area of about 141 square miles. Located on the Missouri River, the city has a number of cultural and historic buildings interspersed with open space and an abundance of public art.

a bronze stature of a girl in a tutu
Degas’ “Little Dancer” displayed in Omaha’s Joslyn Museum

Sculptures can be seen along city streets and throughout parks, quietly indicating that Omaha is very artist-friendly. The Joslyn Art Museum has displays both indoors and out and like other world-class museums, has both permanent and visiting exhibits. The Art Deco building dates back to 1931 and houses artwork from around the world including Degas’ “Little Dancer” as well as works by Monet, Renoir, Rodin and Rembrandt. The museum’s “Art Works” provides 1,500 square feet of interactive space for young art aficionados to experience and learn about art.

The downtown Old Market is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a popular area for shopping and dining. The area is home to over 45 restaurants and drinking establishments as well as many unique shops and galleries.

a brick storefront with large display windows - a sign says "Ernest Buffett" above the double doors
A replica of the original Buffett store sits in the basement of the Durham

Just down the street is the Durham Museum, located in the old train station. Dedicated to preserving the history of the area, this museum tells the story of Omaha’s immigrant origins and provides a walk back in time with its life-sized replicas of everything from a rawhide tepee to the original Buffett Grocery Store (the place a young Warren Buffett once worked). The rail history is not forgotten, with a section dedicated to trains, including the opportunity to walk through rail cars and experience changing times and fashions.

Omaha also has some presidential history. President Gerald Ford was born in the city and a small portion of a block with gardens and sculpture mark the location. Betty Ford is also honored here, with a garden in her name.

A visit to Omaha wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the Henry Dooly Zoo and Aquarium. Considered one of the best zoos in the world, animal habitats have been created with such thought and authenticity that visitors may forget they are in the middle of the US rather than the animals’ natural habitats. While you wouldn’t think an aquarium would be in a landlocked state, here too, animal exhibits mimic native habitats. The penguin exhibit in particular is a place where visitors pause and watch these birds swim and play.

 

The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge takes visitors from Omaha to Council Bluffs, IA

Omaha is also home to the Lewis & Clark Historic Trail Headquarters, near the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, a 3000-foot pedestrian bridge that spans the Missouri River, the first ever to connect two states. (Council Bluffs, Iowa sits on the other side of the bridge.) There, displays provide information about the explorers discovery and an outdoor garden provides a relaxing walk through native plants identified with small signs as well as hints of what wildlife calls this place home.

An Exploration of Ancient Athens in the Modern Day

 

A stone church sits in the entryway to a modern building
A skyscraper was built around this small church

With sections untouched for centuries, Athens, Greece is a blend of ancient and new. Modern skyscrapers sit across the squares from centuries-old churches. This is not terribly uncommon in old cities, but in some cases here, the new is built literally around the old. While the city once boasted the latest innovations, today the infrastructure is really old. The sewers can’t handle paper of any sort (trashcans are next to every toilet), something that many Americans will find discomfiting, and streets are very narrow (we invented a game, “Street or Sidewalk” — to try to guess the purpose of the stone paths we saw). But none of the negatives took away from the appeal of the city, which provides many reasons for travelers to visit.

Built on a mountain, everything in Athens is uphill. I say this not to be facetious or to complain, but to warn those who have trouble walking on uneven surfaces that the hills in Athens are everywhere (and many paths are uneven stones), making it nearly impossible to not have an uphill climb somewhere on your journey. While I hear Athens has a good public transportation system, we only made use of the bus to and from the airport, choosing to walk everywhere else. The city is sprawling, but pleasant to explore on foot.

Don’t Believe Everything You Read

Leading up to our Greece trip I did some research to help determine what our “must sees” would be and how much time we could expect to spend at various places. I repeatedly saw the recommendation to spend no more than three days in Athens, that this would be sufficient to see everything. Many articles reassured me that we wouldn’t want any more time than that. While this may be true for some people, after five days in the city, there was still so much we hadn’t experienced.

The other falsehood I saw stated repeatedly was that the city is dirty. This led me to expect trash on the streets or smog in the air like many major American cities. Instead I stepped around residents sweeping and even scrubbing the sidewalk outside their homes. While it’s true that there were some odiferous areas and graffiti is common, the city was far from what I would refer to as dirty.

 

Language Is Not an Issue

While Americans are frequently told to not worry about language barriers while traveling to major cities, since “Everyone speaks English,” this is mostly true in Athens. It is possible to spend a week in the city and hear virtually no Greek spoken. However, that is not the attitude I generally take. I enjoy learning and strive to make attempts when traveling to communicate in the host tongue. (I also consider this a sign of respect.)

Most languages don’t intimidate me, but having no experience with the Greek alphabet, I felt woefully unprepared and completely unable to even try to sound out words on signs or menus. This was compounded by the fact that most people in the city spoke English. I’m embarrassed to admit that though I learned some of the basics (hello, thank you), I often forgot to use them. Though my constant use of English made me uncomfortable, the Greeks are kind – unlike other European centers, one does not get the sense of being judged for a lack of worldliness for not speaking the language.

The Acropolis can be seen from every point in the city

A Focus on Ancient Athens

We arrived in Athens on a Saturday evening. The next morning was one of our must sees: the changing of the guard ceremony. While crowded, this impressive display was worthwhile. We spent the remainder of the day casually exploring Syntagma and Monastiraki and sampling delicious Greek food.

The modern Panathenaic Stadium stands in stark contrast to the ruins nearby

Already several days into our trip (we arrived in Athens on day 4), we spent the following day relaxing and exploring the area close to “home, which was just behind the Panathenaic, or Olympic, stadium. (In fact we could see into the stadium from our balcony). We walked through the stadium and surrounding park, enjoying the shade afforded by the trees and the spray of sprinklers in the sweltering heat.

A marble base supports a red balloon presumably held down by a black steel chain
One of many sites I wish I knew more about

By this point, I regretted not signing up for an Athens tour. (This would have been a good first day activity.) I had found several free walking tours online, but we didn’t plan in advance and upon arrival, chose to simply head out and “wing it.” It would have been advantageous to know more about what we were seeing. While many sites had placards to identify what was in front of us, I was left curious about the neighborhoods and architecture as well as the history of some public art.

On day 3, we purchased the Acropolis combo ticket that includes admission to seven archaeological sites within 5 days (we managed to visit all but one).  One thing you should know before visiting these sites: Greeks are serious about their antiquities.  The staff watches carefully to make sure visitors do not touch or climb on the pillars or foundations that remain. If you want to sit, seek out a bench. What appears to be a boulder next to the path may be an antiquity.

A collection of stone columns to the right with a dap where more should be with a single column at the far left
Temple of Zeus in Athens
A narrow path with a white wall on one side and hedges on the other. A house with a blue door is off to the right
Anafiotika’s narrow paths have pops of color

We started with the Temple of Zeus, closest to our rented apartment) then went on to explore the Roman Agora and Hadrian’s Library, passing through Anafiotika’s narrow paths on the way.

Tower of the Winds at the Roman Agora

 

 

Very old, marble, iconic temple on the top of the Acropolis
The Parthenon

The Acropolis

Since the Ancient Agora closed early that day, (it’s important to note that hours of operation are sometimes arbitrary in Greece) after a brief lunch, we made the hike up to the Acropolis. The complex can be seen from every point in modern-day Athens and from the top you can see the city sprawl in every direction. While the natural fortress dates back to 6800 BC, it is impossible to not be in awe of the Athenians who built the oversized ornate temples to their gods sometime around 400 to 450 BC. Tired and thirsty, we concluded our day in true touristy fashion – watching the sun set and drinking fancy, NYC-priced cocktails from the rooftop bar A Is for Athens.

Greek Church flying the Greek flag on top of a stony hill
Lycabettus Hill is the highest point in Athens

We got a late start on exploring the next day, arriving at the Ancient Agora shortly before closing time. Since we had so little time there, an employee kindly marked our tickets to allow us admission the following day. With time to spare, we decided to check out the view from Lycabettus Hill and set off in search of the funicular. Having missed the nondescript building that houses the railcar (we walked right past it), we found ourselves at the top and spent some time taking in the sights and resting a bit before taking the funicular back down. (This was still a considerable distance up the “hill,” but the walk down took less than half the time we took to walk up.)

 

Our final day in Athens, we spent the morning at the Ancient Agora, then walked through the Kerameikos, an ancient cemetery with paved and dirt paths guiding visitors past tombs dating to the Early Bronze Age (2700 to 2000 BC). The cemetery seems to have been in use through the early Christian period (up to the 6th century AD). A small museum on site houses statuary, pottery and vases excavated from the site.

We left Athens for Santorini, which though opposite of many recommendations, was exactly the relaxing weekend we needed after so much walking. (One day I recorded nearly 32,000 steps!) With so much more of Greece to explore, I’m not sure we’d spend much time in Athens, but there is certainly more to see.

 

No Flight Required for This Visit to See Christmas in Poland

 

Most trips are taken with a particular purpose and destination in mind, but sometimes, an opportunity arises to go off itinerary and you discover a gem (though places that prove to be less interesting can also provide good stories). On a recent trip to New Haven, we came across a brochure entitled “Christmas in Poland.” A temporary exhibit at the Knight of Columbus Museum, it seemed interesting enough, plus it was free!

Arriving at the museum, we discovered a construction vehicle out front. After circling a couple times in search of a parking spot, we ended up in an hourly public lot with a self-serve kiosk. We thought an hour would be sufficient, most free museums are small and don’t take long to walk through. Then we got inside and heard about all the exhibits. It was then that we also learned there is free parking under the building (note: read the brochure carefully), which of course we would have seen if it weren’t blocked.

The museum’s permanent displays detail the history of the Knights of Columbus, which has origins in New Haven, CT. Founded by Michael J McGivney in 1882, it is the largest Catholic lay organization in the world. The exhibit includes several sculptures and other artwork related to both the Knights and the Catholic Church as well as bits of American history, such as steel girders from the World Trade Center.

 

a small room with two doors. Sandbags are piled ot the ceiling, supporting the dirt and split log walls
A recreation WWI bunker

A temporary exhibit dedicated to World War I has been extended to April 14, 2019.

trench binoculars, two long cylindars attached to a camera-like body, encased in leather
Trench binoculars with a leather case
black boots between a red dotted line and a dirt wall
The red dotted line indicates the depth of a typical trench, about two feet

The exhibit includes artifacts and documents
from the war and traces the contribution of the Knights to the war effort, both at home and on the battlefield. More than 1,600 of the 116,000 Americans (including both the first and last American military officers) who died in this conflict were members of the fraternal organization.

 

 

We took our time through these exhibits (moving the car to the garage after the first hour) before moving on to the reason we came – to explore Christmas in Poland. This is the 14th year the museum is showcasing the Christmas traditions of a world region.

We learned that in Poland, festivities begin December 24 with Christmas Eve dinner, called wigilia (no meat aside from fish is served at this meal; this would sadden many of our relatives) and continue until February 2, with the feast of Candlemas. People sing kolêdy, or carols and create nativity scenes called szopki. A number of examples of szopka are on display, both from their collection and on loan from museums around the world.

In addition, there are two dozen Christmas trees decorated by local elementary schools with the theme, Christmas in Poland. Visitors are invited to vote for their favorite to determine the “People’s Choice Award.” Dozens of handmade ornaments adorn each tree. Some also created szopka for under the tree and included information explaining the reason for some of the decorations. (For example, a spider ornament is included to commemorate the spider said to weave a blanket for the baby Jesus.)

Overall, it was an enjoyable way to spend a couple hours. The museum staff was friendly and informative and the exhibits were both entertaining and educational. Perhaps we’ll take a trip again next year to discover other Christmas traditions around the world.

A Pilgrimage to the Glass Shrine in the Field Off I-80

Keeping an open mind and a flexible schedule while traveling can result in interesting finds. Traveling along Route 80 in Nebraska, one can see a glass church not far from the highway. After leaving the highway at exit 432, the pilgrimage began (the GPS was not very helpful in navigating detours due to roadwork) to see this beautiful structure up close and learn about its history.  A Catholic church, it is open to people of all faiths to recharge and reflect or simply soak in the natural beauty and calming atmosphere.

The Holy Family Shrine in Gretna, Nebraska serves as a refuge for travelers to rest and embrace the quiet and solitude of the natural surroundings. Sitting on 23 acres overlooking the Platte Valley, the entrance to the church is through the underground Visitor’s Center which has been built into the hill. A metal sculpture that represents Christ’s shroud immediately attracts attention. Water falls from the sculpture into a pool that then makes its way out of the building, across the stone path to and through the church.

Water flows to the church

The church itself is constructed mostly of Western Red Cedar and glass and sits upon a limestone slab. The simple yet complex design took a three-person carpenter crew over two and a half years to build. Inside, the stream of water continues along the aisles and to the altar where an image of the Holy Family is etched in a 16 by 8 foot single pane of glass. Visible outside, beyond the altar, is a 40-foot tall crucifix constructed of stainless steel tubing and plate, with an 8-foot tall bronze figure of Christ.

 

The church’s beauty is in its simplicity. Though the design is by necessity complex, the effect is simple and airy. The arched roof soars to 45 feet at its peak and the glass walls bring the outdoors inside.

The story of the church’s origin is one of divine inspiration. Strangers, each with a similar vision, came together in 1997 to plan and build the church. Undeterred by a windstorm that destroyed their first attempt in 2000, the team persevered and the shrine opened to the public in 2002. Signs in the Visitor Center explain the inspiration for building the church as well as the symbolism in design choices. The building also has meeting space, a gift shop and restrooms. Native plants surround both buildings and a path allows visitors to follow the Stations of the Cross through a field down the hill.

A path leads visitors to the Stations of the Cross

People generally think of highways as simply a way to get from Point A to Point B. Rest stops are typically generic and utilitarian with little thought to aesthetics. In many cases they are not “restful” at all. In a world that often moves too fast, this is one stop that serves to remind us to slow down and reflect. Though it is not an  easy-on-easy-off stop, the restorative benefits are well worth the trip.

Note: The church is open to visitors from 10-5 Monday to Saturday and 12-5 on Sunday.

 

Last Minute Sunset Cruise a Highlight of Santorini Visit

Everyone says if you visit Santorini you have to go on a sunset cruise and since I love both sunsets and boats, it was of the first activities on my list. However, when it came time to plan out our weekend, this proved to be a challenge. While reasonable prices had appeared months before, a month out, there were no trips available that weekend that were within our budget. So we decided to wait and see if our luck was better when we arrived or perhaps forgo the adventure this trip.

The Akrotiri Lighthouse

We got lucky. After arriving by plane and collecting our rental car, it was too early to check in to our Airbnb, so we decided to explore the island a bit. Seeing a sign for the port, we headed down a windy (think multiple switchbacks) road that ended in a parking lot at a small port. One of the storefronts advertised catamaran and yacht cruises, so we went in to inquire. We were offered a fair price that fell within our budget and signed up for a sunset cruise the following day.

The Red Beach

At the appointed time, a driver for Spiridakos Sailing Cruises arrived to pick us up (included in the price) and we headed to Marina Vlihada, on the south end of the island. There we were met by the crew and after removing our shoes and tossing them in a laundry hamper, invited aboard “Happy Day.” In all, there were 15 passengers: our group of three, two men from Sri Lanka, a family from Brighton, England and a group from China (some of whom had studied in the U.S) and a crew of three: Captain Isidoro, Vagelis and Eleonora who were all friendly, engaging and professional. As the catamaran got underway, we chatted and got to know each other. When the boat hit open water, we were invited to move up to the bow area of the boat and offered beer, wine and soft drinks.

Traveling along the coast, our crew pointed out the red beach, warning us to be careful if we decided to venture there as there have been recent instances of rocks falling on the trail. There was a brief stop for a swim, (snorkels provided) then we cruised past the “white beach, which though not really a beach at all, is strikingly beautiful. The journey was relaxing and since this side of the island is cliffs, the approach from the water is the only way to get to see the unique geology hidden beneath.

The hot springs near the volcano

Our cruise then took us around the lower tip of the island, past the lighthouse and then on to the Nea Kaeni volcano and hot springs where once again, anyone who wished to jumped off the boat for a swim. The water was reportedly “refreshing” which was enough to convince me I had made the right decision to stay onboard and take more photos. The hot springs were said to be warm, but according to one passenger, not as warm as the water coming from the hose the captain used to wash them off (keeping the yellow sulfur in the water rather than on their suits and in the boat). The tranquil scenery (including the Church of St, Nicolas at the water’s edge) held my interest while some of the others spent time in the water.

The Church of St. Nicolas

While this activity was going on, the crew was preparing dinner, both in the galley of the boat and on a grill set up on the rail. Dinner was served at two tables, inside and out, and was a delicious collection of fresh food: grilled chicken filleted fried fish, grilled jumbo shrimp, spaghetti with tomato sauce, a Greek salad (tomatoes, cucumber, feta) and bread with tzatziki or a yummy feta spread. As we finished eating, the tables were cleared and leftovers and scraps were dumped into a large basin. When the cleanup was complete, the captain announced it was time to feed the seagulls and tossed the contents of the basin overboard and we enjoyed the show as seagulls made repeated dives to collect our leftovers.

With happy full bellies and constant beverage refills, we began our journey back to the marina, still chatting with our new “friends.” The sun was setting behind us and though I took several looks back (and took a few pictures), the more compelling view was in front of us: the full moon high above the cliffs.

 

We got back to the marina, collected our shoes and were herded to the waiting “party bus” to take us back to our respective hotels. This ride was much noisier than the subdued one there – we had gotten to know each other a bit and some were still experiencing the effects of free flowing beverages. Being the first to be dropped off, we received an exuberant farewell from our fellow passengers. “Everyone” was right – this was a highlight of our trip.

 

Note: no compensation was provided for mention of any company here. The opinions are solely those of the writer.

A Refreshing Visit With The God of the Sea

I recently had the good fortune to travel to Greece for a long-overdue vacation with my husband. After a long flight, we didn’t want to drive too far, so we decided to start our trip to Greece at Cape Sounion and the Temple of Poseidon. After a too-long detour on the highway (and paying more in tolls that we should have) we arrived at the Aegean Beach Hotel. The room was small by American standards (but typical for a European hotel) and simply furnished. The bathroom was modern and the terrific water pressure on the rainfall showerhead was a welcome surprise.

A four story hotel on the beach with a mountain behind
The Aegean Beach Hotel from the Temple of Poseidon

All rooms at the Aegean have a sea view and the balcony was a terrific place to view the sunset. As we were arriving, a couple kayakers were pulling in their boats, making me wish we had more time to stay.

After settling in, we went in search of dinner. Though the hotel has a restaurant, we had plans to eat breakfast there the next day and decided instead to try the restaurant on the road in, a fish tavern. Though it was a bit chilly, we opted to eat outdoors (when would we have another chance to eat seated next to the Aegean Sea?). With our limited knowledge of the Greek language (read almost none), we decided to count on the recommendation of our waiter and were not disappointed. Our introduction to Greek cuisine and portions left us full and happy. We started with a Greek salad, followed by possibly the most delicious mussels I have ever tasted (we couldn’t determine whether it was because they were a roadside restaurant with tables and closed umbrellas across the road and by the seafresh or if there was a secret ingredient in the sauce our waiter neglected to mention – I asked what was in it). After asking our preferences, our waiter recommended a grilled fish (which we were relieved to learn was priced by weight, not portion) which he brought to us whole, then removed (almost all of) the bones so we wouldn’t have to.  We joked about the cats lurking about, hoping for us to drop a piece of fish. (Our waiter told us they get the bones, later.) Over his protests that it might be too much food, we decided to add calamari. When we had (mostly) finished our meal, baklava appeared for dessert, “on the house,” which is a pleasant surprise in much of Greece. Of course we found room, it would have been rude not to.

A stone temple lit up on the top of a mountain
Poseidon is lit up at night

We walked back to the hotel, admiring the view of the temple lit up at night. The bed was comfortable and the sound of water lapping the beach from the open door was soothing, making sleep come easily. The morning greeted us with gulls calling and dogs barking in the distance. Breakfast was an extensive buffet, including hot choices as well as yogurt and spoon sweets, breads and cakes, meats and cheeses. A Nescafe machine produced coffee that was surprisingly good (unlike experiences with Nescafe here).

the Aeagean Sea with sailboats, and varying shades of blue water, with small islands in the distance
A nice view to wake up to

We set off to visit Poseidon, via a trail from the hotel parking lot (which allowed us to leave our car there, rather than struggling to find a spot around the buses). The walk was an interesting one – the terrain changed from grass to rocks to lava rock and we encountered a bit of looped barbed wire adjacent to the Temple property along the fork of the trail we chose to take.

a white stone embedded in the earth next to a cliff on the edge of the sea
The wind kept me from getting a closer look

When we arrived, we saw a notice that there was a film crew making a movie and that entrance gave permission to be filed. (So if you happen to see a Chinese movie filmed at the Temple of Poseidon, look for me in the background.) The temple itself is awe-inspiring and there are other things to see. In addition to the temple, there are ruins from the settlement steps leading upward with ruins of foundations on either sideof Sounion which was an important port as early as 510 BC. The day we visited, there was a strong wind, making me wonder how many people Poseidon caused to be tossed into the sea from where I stood. While there were some interesting ruins near the edge, the wind kept me from getting too close to investigate closer.

a small island in the sea, a larger one sits behind it

Nearby is the Temple or Sanctuary of Athena. Unfortunately, this has not been as well preserved as Poseidon’s. All that remains is the foundation of a temple, which was built in the middle of the 5th century BC.

 

a foot at the water's edge

 

Saying goodbye to the cape, we decided to stop for lunch in Lavrio, a small town we drove through on our way there. After a short walk through town, we randomly chose a place with outdoor seating and decided to share a plate rather than ordering too much. We decided on a grilled meat platter for two. The meal started with a dish of tzatziki (the best I’ve had before or since) and toast. Our meal shortly followed which was a mounded plate with a variety of meats, and pita. As we quickly discovered, lurking cats (and sometimes dogs) are frequent sights at outdoor restaurants. Here we wondered how often one particular cat caught a new patron unawares while sleeping on one of the chairs. We failed to finish this time and took the

Sign over a door in Greek naming the restaurant
Home of the best tzatziki found this trip

leftovers with us to snack on later. Again we were brought dessert, (gratis) which was just as tasty as the rest of the meal. I asked the waiter what it was, commenting that it was delicious and from his reaction, I wondered if it was his own concoction. It was deceptively easy: biscuits with layers of yogurt and apricot. I’m not sure I’ll be able to duplicate that either. After lunch we were back on the road, headed north, to continue our adventure.

Note: No compensation was provided by any business or organization mentioned here. The opinions are solely those of the author.

 

Blue Ridge, Georgia Has Something For Every Generation

Blue RIdge Lake seen from a distance, surrounded by trees, with mountains in the background
The view from our deck

With family living far apart, we have tried in recent years to find someplace in the middle to spend some quality time. Rather than staying in hotels, we choose to rent a house, both to save money and to facilitate bonding moments. With three separate households and pets, finding the right place takes coordination, but is not as difficult as it may sound. We found Blue Ridge, Georgia to be a good choice.

While not quite in the middle, it was a manageable distance from South Florida and Philadelphia (except for our choice of dates – Thanksgiving week). The area has much to offer at any time of year and vacation rentals were abundant.

The home we chose was on the side of a mountain, not far from Blue Ridge Lake. The road to the house was steep and narrowed the higher up the mountain we traveled. Though the locals zoomed up and down the road, we stayed put for most of our trip, venturing out only a couple times to see more of the area. What we found was a charming town and plenty of outdoor activities to entice us to visit again in warmer weather.

A bench in front of  a Christmas tree. A couple sits on the bench, a younger woman standa beside them
Christmas in downtown Blue Ridge

The town of Blue Ridge is nestled in the mountains of North Georgia, near the Chattahoochee Forest and not far from Springer Mountain, the southern end of the Appalachian Trail. Originally a railroad town, the town was founded in 1886 and soon became known for its pure mineral waters. once known as the “Switzerland of the South.” Today visitors can ride the train or watch as it departs the station daily at 11:00 am in season. Those who choose the two-hour (26 mile) train ride along the Toccoa River on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway have three options: an authentic indoor car, an open rail car or Premier Class. The train makes a two hour layover in nearby McCaysville, before returning to Blue Ridge.

Home to the Blue Ridge Mountain Arts Association’s Arts Center as well as a number of art galleries, antique and specialty shops and a self-guided historic walking tour, there are plenty of things to see and do. There are also many restaurants to choose from as well as three craft breweries. It hosts family-friendly events such as Light Up Blue Ridge, the annual Christmas festival the day after Thanksgiving. The full festival schedule also celebrates other holidays in style and highlights the area’s arts, music, food and heritage.

A large lake with a small building and tall trees on the far side. They are reflected in the water
The lake at Mercier Orchards

Just outside of town, Mercier Orchards is much more than a farm stand. The sprawling store includes local produce, its own bakery and wine tasting room and a wide range of gift options. A large lake on the property provides a nice backdrop for photos (we chose this spot for our large family group photo) or simply a casual walk. There are other wineries and farm stores nearby as well. The North Georgia Farm Trail provides information on area farms and their offerings whether it be pick-your-own, seeing friendly farm animals, wandering a corn maze, staying the night or sampling food or drinks fresh from the farm.

a street sign pointing out the intersection of Duck Town and Blue RIdgeIn nearby McCaysville, you can stand in both Georgia and Tennessee at the same time – the state line is clearly marked by the Blue Line that travels directly through a busy intersection (though some argue that the line is not accurate). Copperhill, Tennessee was, as the name indicates, once a thriving copper mining town. In 1843, the metal was discovered in Ducktown and the area grew rapidly. At the Ducktown Basin Museum, visitors can learn more about the history and see the former Burra Burra mine site. McCaysville also has its own self-guided walking tour.

The Ocoee Whitewater Center, originally constructed for the 1996 Olympic Canoe and Kayak Slalom competitions, is now operated by the National Forest Service as a multi-use recreation and education area. In addition to the paddling playground, the OWC offers more than 20 miles of hiking/bicycling trails as well as picnicking, a visitor’s center, environmental education programs and the requisite gift shop. Local outfitters also offer whitewater rafting trips on the Ocoee, which boasts 14 rapids rated Class III-IV in the Middle Section. With a drop of 260 feet in five miles, there is little flat water, so Tennessee regulations state that participants must be 12 or older. For a calmer river experience, families with smaller children can opt for kayak, float and tubing trips on the Toccoa River. (The Toccoa becomes the Ocoee as it flows into Tennessee.)

a lake surrounded by trees, some of which have started to turn red
Blue Ridge Lake

Blue Ridge Lake also offers water activities, with kayak, stand-up paddle board or pontoon boat rentals, fishing, swimming and camping at Morganton Point. Other points of interest are the Chattahoochee National Fish Hatchery, where visitors learn about raiding trout, and gem mining at Aska Mining Company, Cohutta Cove Mini Golf or the Lillly Pad Village.

Other things to do in the area include horseback riding, zip lining and adventure courses as well as hiking to one of several area waterfalls, the Swinging Bridge (the longest suspension bridge east of the Mississippi) or even part of the Appalachian or Benton MacKaye Trails.

At Elk Neck You Can Explore Cliffs and Beaches in the Same Day

A dirt trail drops off to the left with trees and water to the left
One of the many trails in the park

We discovered Elk Neck State Park in central Maryland over a decade ago when looking for a new place to take camping trips with our family. We have since been back and it is one of my favorite camping spots. Just 75 miles from Philadelphia, it offers multiple terrains and outdoor activities.

a white lighthouse and an adjacent white building
Turkey Point Light Station is on the National Register of Historic Places

 

The park is on a peninsula between the Elk River and the Chesapeake Bay. Encompassing over 2188 acres, its landscape includes beaches, wooded areas, marshes and cliffs, and a big draw for me, a lighthouse. Our first visit, we made the easy hike to the Turkey Point Lighthouse where we could walk around the grounds.

On a return visit, the lighthouse had been restored and we were able to go inside and climb to the top.

 

Given the location of the lighthouse (atop a 100 foot cliff) it is only 35 feet tall, so this doesn’t take very long. The 3rd tallest on the Chesapeake Bay (at 129 feet above the water), Turkey Point has the distinction of having more female lighthouse keepers than any other lighthouse on the Bay.

The park has seven trails, with distances from one to three miles, ranging  from easy to difficult. Bikes are permitted on most of these and most are pet-friendly, as is most of the park. One of these (and one of our favorites), the Beaver Marsh Loop, has to be timed just right to complete the loop.

A shoreline with trees, a sandy beach and a section of boulders. A dog and people are on the beach.
This section of the Beaver Marsh Loop is sometimes under water

Part of the trail goes along the shore, which is underwater at high tide. The Elk Neck also has day use areas and a boat launch and offers youth programs, such as the Junior Ranger Program as well as seasonal programming.

Campsite fees vary and reservations are recommended, especially for holiday weekends. There is a per vehicle day use fee for the park, as well as a boat launch fee, with discounted rates for Maryland residents.

At Fort Delaware, History Comes Alive

IMG_2399Fort Delaware, originally built to protect the cities of Wilmington and Philadelphia, is a Union fortress that once held Confederate prisoners of war. The fort, which dates to 1859, sits on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River and is only accessible by ferry via Forts Ferry Crossing which runs from Delaware City, DE. Tickets available on the day of visit at the park ticket office (first-come, first-served).

IMG_2362The park offers a number of activities, from exploring the fort to birding (it is the summer home to nine species of herons) to hiking, (the Prison Camp Trail, is an easy 0.8 mile loop over grass and packed earth) to Living History events. IMG_2331IMG_2335Visitors are free to walk throughout and around the fort and see numerous artifacts as well as reproductions of items that would have been present in the fort which appears as if it were stopped in time over 150 years ago.

IMG_2368The daily schedule of events  has  costumed re-enactors explaining life in 1864 with enough to see and do to easily keep you busy for much of a day. Visitors are welcome to ask questions and IMG_2370sometimes even to help with tasks.

 

 

 

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Soldiers preparing the cannon to fire

 

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The order is given to fire (those with sensitive ears might want to cover them).

Visitors learn how everyday tasks such as cooking and laundry were accomplished and witness soldiers preparing to defend the fort as they complete the steps involved in loading and firing a cannon. In the barracks, a soldier welcomes visitors to talk about conditions in the barracks (and maybe share a secret about the ghosts that linger there). Out on the lawn, recruits are schooled in practicing drill as enlisted soldiers.

 

 

 

Included in the ferry fee is the option to travel to Fort Mott, which is on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. The fort was built up in the late 1800s in preparation for the Spanish American War, as part of a three-fort defense system, along with Fort Delaware and Fort DuPont in Delaware City. This 124 acre state park also offers picnicking, an easy walking trail and special educational events.

There are no food vendors on the island, but packaged snacks are available in the gift shops. Picnic tables and grills are available if you choose to bring food with you.

 

This was previously published as Step Back in Time to Historic Fort Delaware

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Niagara Falls Attractions Guarantee You’ll Get Wet

 

 

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Niagara Falls, one of the natural wonders of the world is on many bucket lists and for good reason. It has been a tourist attraction since the early 19th century and for generations was a popular honeymoon destination. Formed during the last Ice Age, the falls are on the New York/Ontario border and combined have the highest flow rate in the world.

Niagara Falls and a number of people walking and standing along the walkway next to it
View from inside the Table Rock Welcome Center

While the falls themselves are truly awesome, without the towns that have grown on either side, there wouldn’t be all that much to do. Of course there is hiking, but that only interests a subset of the population. The cities of Niagara Falls, both in New York and Ontario, have capitalized on the natural feature with a number of related activities and both offer a package deal that provides a discount over purchasing each attraction separately.

We spent a few days visiting Niagara Falls, Ontario in mid-May, before the tourist season truly began. While the area has much more to offer than the falls, the activities surrounding the falls are the main focus of a trip to this town and can be completed in a single day, though it is more enjoyable to spread them over two, or maybe even three days. These attractions are run by the Niagara Parks Commission, a self-financed agency of the Ontario Ministry of Tourism.

a portion of a barge in rushing water
What remains of the barge that has been stuck at the top of Niagara Falls since August 6, 1918

Since I was traveling with my adult children and the hotels all seem to charge extra per adult over two, we found it more economical to rent a house for our vacation. (There are a few websites that list rentals; many homes are listed on them all.) This also gave us the added advantage of more square feet per person as well as a full kitchen so we wouldn’t have to eat every meal out. We arrived on a Monday evening, settled in, and went out to the grocery store to pick up something for dinner and breakfast the next morning. However,we quickly realized that, it being a holiday, the stores were already closed. Starting to get hangry, we decided to eat at the closest restaurant, Doc Magilligan’s Restaurant and Irish Pub and were pleased with the choice. Adjacent to the Best Western, it has a charming interior and an intimate, cozy feel that was surprising given its size. The menu promised “authentic Irish fare” and none in our party of five were disappointed with their meal. We planned to return, but other fabulous meals awaited us elsewhere.

We started Tuesday at the Visitor’s Center where we picked up our Adventure Passes (conveniently attached to lanyards) that we had purchased online and selected our days and times for each activity. We had chosen the Classic package, which included a boat ride to the falls, a self-guided tour of caves dug under the falls, a 4D retelling of the history of the falls, a White Water Walk and two-day bus passes. After inquiring into how long each took, we decided to start with Niagara’s Fury, the 4D experience and the Journey Behind the Falls that morning and scheduled the boat ride for after lunch. We decided to postpone the White Water Walk to the next day.

an arched tunnel of light with water dripping inside
The tunnels at Journey Behind the Falls lead right behind the falls themselves

While Niagara’s Fury was informational, the brief film is really designed for a younger audience and none of us would have missed anything by skipping it. We got ample warning that we would get wet, as the 4D portion involves water; the blue rain ponchos we were given upon admittance were useful. The Journey Behind the Falls was a rather ordinary walk through cement arched tunnels with archways open to the falls at the end of two of them, allowing you to see and feel spray from the falls. Though I had read positive

a side view of a waterfall
The platform at Journey Behind the Falls allows you to get right next to the falls

reviews of this attraction, honestly I was not very impressed. Then we went down a longer tunnel that led to a two-story platform right next to the falls. Here is quickly became apparent why we needed those yellow ponchos. I was in awe. (Note: For those who are concerned about plastic waste, there are bins to collect and recycle these ponchos as you exit each attraction, unless of course you choose to keep them.)

American Falls at Niagara
Our view from The Secret Garden

From there, we walked along the falls, which was a much longer walk than we had anticipated. The bus passes were good for 48 hours from first use and we had thought we wait until later to extend their usefulness to our last day there. A bit of advice: take the bus to the boat dock. For lunch we stopped at The Secret Garden Restaurant, where we sat outside and enjoyed a water view. (We could see American Falls from our table.)

ferry boat in front of falls surrounded by mist
The Maid of the Mist Cruise leaves from the New York side

After lunch, we took the short walk to the Hornblower Cruise and donned our red ponchos. While the boat does offer a covered area, we stayed on the upper level, embracing the water and breeze. As we entered the horseshoe area of the falls, I had to wonder who on earth thought it would be a good idea to steer a boat directly into a waterfall and what would happen if the boat’s engine were to die. My doom and gloom thoughts aside, it was an exhilarating experience being so close to such a powerful force of nature.

Niagara Falls illuminated purple
A section of Horseshoe Falls at night
American Falls at Niagara illuminated blue
American and Bridal Veil Falls at night

Tired and wanting to freshen up, we walked to the nearest bus stop and headed back to our house, where we made dinner (after a stop at the now-open grocery store) then headed back to view the falls at night. We got off the bus at the Table Rock Welcome Center and canada150walked to the falls, stopping briefly at the Canada150 sign which was lit up. The falls too were bathed in light that changed in color every minute or so.

rushing water from a rocky shore, a bridge spans the river in the background
The Niagara River from the White Water Walk
rushing water with cliffs across the river
The American side of the Niagara River

 

The next day we headed back into town for our 12:30 pm White Water Walk. The bus dropped us off at the entrance and for the first time during our visit, we had to wait. We soon discovered we were waiting for the elevator which took us down to river level. We walked out to the Niagara River onto a platform where the water raged on the other side of the railing. A short walk down a boardwalk along the river’s edge provided more views of the swirling rapids. Placards attached to the railing provided information about the river such as: The water’s speed along the walk is about 48 km/h or 30 mph, which are Class 6 whitewater rapids, generally considered unnavigable. Watching the water go past, I wouldn’t be one to test that. Leaving there, we missed the bus heading back to town and caught the next one heading the other way for a short ride to the end of the line. Since I had wanted to stop at the Floral Clock to try to recreate a picture of my grandmother several decades earlier, we jumped at the driver’s offer to wait for those who wanted to see the clock and take pictures before heading back. (Next time, I will take my time and get good pictures.)

Back in town and hungry, we chose Mama Mia’s Italian Eatery, a small but pleasant place with almost too many delicious sounding options to choose from. Amply nourished, we headed over to the Clifton Hill attractions. 

T-Rex statue at mini-golf
Our welcome to Dinosaur Golf

We had purchased Clifton Hill Fun Passes in advance (online purchases get you a bonus ride on the Skywheel) which grant admission to 5 attractions plus five tokens for the arcade. Given the choice of Wizards’ or Dinosaur Gold, we made the decision to go prehistoric and mostly enjoyed our 18 holes of miniature golf (the group behind us could have used mastadon and long neck dinosaur statues at mini golfsome lessons in mini-golf etiquette). We then took an eight-minute ride on the 175-foot  high Sky Wheel (we decided to save the second right for later that night). The Skywheel had signs indicating it was climate controlled, but our enclosed gondola was sauna-like, which we didn’t mention to the attendant, though perhaps we should have. After that, we went on the Ghost Blasters Dark Ride and Wild West Coaster in the arcade. (These too were designed for a younger audience, so neither was completely appreciated by our group) before heading to the Movieland Wax Museum which had a few statues worth seeing.

A friend had recommended Kelsey’s Restaurant at the top of Clifton Hill where we welcomed the opportunity to sit down and cool off with a cocktail before selecting from the many appetizing choices. Again we were pleased with our meal.

birds resting on a rock in the water
A surprising number of birds fly and rest close to the falls

Though I’m not sure I would repeat a visit to Niagara’s Fury, the Adventure Pass package provides a $25+ discount over paying individually, which is more than the cost of this one activity, plus a number of coupons for other sites, shops and restaurants. An Adventure Pass Nature option is also available, which includes the cruise and bus passes as well as a trip on the Whirlpool Aero Car and visits to a Butterfly Conservatory and Floral Showhouse gardens. The next level, the Plus option gets you all of these plus the Falls Incline access and admission to four Niagara Park Heritage sites. On the American side, the Niagara Falls USA Discovery Pass offers a similar package that includes a boat ride, cavern tour, one day of unlimited trolley rides and other attractions on the New York side.

While the falls can be visited year round, certain attractions are closed during the winter months. The city has many other attractions, including two casinos, an indoor waterpark, many museums, the 520-foot tall Skylon Tower which has an observation deck and restaurants and various sporting activities. There are an almost endless number of hotel options; some offer packages that include tickets to local attractions. The WEGO bus system is efficient and affordable and can take you almost anywhere you might want to go, though if you miss one bus you will have to wait 20 minutes or more until the next one. Three days are enough to take in the highlights of Niagara Falls, though you could certainly extend your trip to see more of the surrounding area, including Niagara on the Lake and Niagara Falls State Park in New York.