A journey of
a thousand miles
begins with a single step
This time last year, we made our way to Asheville to celebrate my growing family, but we also used it as a reason to explore a part of NC state we had yet to know! So we loaded up the car and got ready for a quick long weekend - one that we've discussed many a time to recreate. And as a part of any roadtrip, we geared up with all the essentials we need to travel the long road ahead!
For starters, this is a great trip from any part of country as the terrain is beautiful to see. But we were coming from the state of Florida, full on in summer mode and flat lands galore, so to be welcomed to crisp mountain air only a short (8 hour) drive away was amazing!
But what all did this place have in store for us? Honestly, something for everyone!
Love the great outdoors? That's what it's known for - I mean, the changing colors made us fall in love (pun totally intended).
Do you travel for food & drink? They've got a great culinary scene - with plenty of wineries & breweries for the picking!
Looking for arts & culture? The city of Asheville is an eclectic city, packed with original art & music and unique design!
Want to get wrapped up in experiences? We found a little bit of everything to make this trip perfectly ours.
Ready for more - read on to find our suggestions for what there is to do and see in this charming city nestled in the hills of western North Carolina!
What To Do?
Explore the Blue Ridge Parkway - Right in North Carolina, you will find some of the most stunning drives in the country wrapped through peaks and valleys. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a slice of the Appalachian Mountains but it feels like you're so much further away from the south. The Parkway itself starts a little ways down in Cherokee, NC, wrapped by the Great Smoky Mountains and winds all the way up to Afton, Virginia - right outside of Shenandoah National Park! And from there you don't have to stop - you can continue on to Skyline Drive to go even further north!
We opted to wake up early and hit the road so we could catch the sun rising over the peaks. Sunrise somehow always ends up being a trip activity of ours, whether we intend it to or not, and thankfully because we have caught some spectacular showcase of colors! We drove about 20 minutes from our the entrance to Craggy Gardens to watch the sky light up as we greeted a new day. It is about 12 miles from the Folk Art Center, and the Blue Ridgeway Parkway Visitor Center, which welcomes you from Asheville onto the parkway. The visitor center provides you with a ranger to meet, more information to gather, and for our kids, an opportunity to get one more Junior Ranger badge to add to their travels.
After sunrise, we drove the Blue Ridge Parkway for another hour, just taking in the scenery, and stopping off where we could to take a hike or two. Though the conditions of our morning didn't make it all that possible, as we had lots of clouds, dew and adverse conditions that made us worry about getting too far into hikes with little ones. But it is on our short list to come back to finish our trails and continue onward to Virginia - and so on!
Eat and Drink through Asheville - Food, breweries and wine galore!
Who doesn't love going somewhere and finding something great to eat! It's even better when there are more choices than you can handle!
Burntshirt Vineyard is in Hendersonville, a short drive south of Asheville but with some great mountain vibes. Situated on a quiet country road, the tasting room faces the vineyards and the grounds are as charming as you'd expect. You can dive into a wine tasting experience, order by the bottle or glass, and enjoy food right on site!
We were told about two well-known establishments to eat at while there - and we made sure we tried both! We hopped over to Biscuit Head for breakfast one morning at their West Asheville location (there are also locations by the Biltmore and Hendersonville, and a location in Greenville as well). It's known for what its name says - biscuits! From biscuit sandwiches to biscuit donuts - but if you prefer the regular variety, the jam is also where it's at! This breakfast was phenomenal - only complimented by the Maple Bacon Latte (it IS as delicious as it sounds)!
Our other eat was to Tupelo Honey where we chose a brunch time stop as well. They're in quite a few states, but none near us in FL, so we knew we needed to stop. Plus, this was able to take us into downtown Asheville where we had yet to explore and enjoy the experience surrounding it. The cafe was eclectic and definitely reflected the vibe of the city, adding to the charm of this whole area. We opted to try the Southern Shakshuka with a fully loaded Bloody Mary on the side. And if this sounds great to you, you're in luck - they serve brunch all day!
Last but not least, BREWERIES! This is what they're all about and much of the appeal of visiting. Everything from local favorites to brands you make recognize at home, you can find it here. We went out our first night to experience the South Slope district and visit a few breweries true to the Asheville scene - Green Man Brewery and Catawba Brewing. But they are only two of the many that call this city home! A little further out is New Belgium Brewing, best known for its Fat Tire brand. Visiting was a great change of pace as it was outside city limits and had grounds to run around (especially with little ones along). But if you're looking to relax with an opportunity to let the kids frolick, we hear that Sierra Nevada in Mills River (just outside of Asheville) is one of the best at providing a family friendly experience and atmosphere with amazing views.
Apple picking is in season - It wouldn't be fall without pumpkins, apples, cider and doing all the great things that come with it! We made sure that our plans included apple picking, a rarity for these Floridians, and the weather couldn't have made it more perfect. It was brisk and overcast, creating the perfect mix of that fall feel.
We enjoyed our time at Stepp's Hillcrest Orchard, where they offered U-Pick apples by the basket -only fill up what you plan to take! We ended up picking a whole basketful and taking home more apples than we could eat. Needless to say, there were a lot of apple delicacies made back home - in combination with the goodies we purchased. on site their Farm Market.
See Asheville - We had a jam packed weekend so didn't get to do EVERYTHING we wanted to - more breweries, more arts, more mountain hikes ... visit the Biltmore! And that's all on in addition to time relaxing and just taking in the wilderness!
But we did find time to squeeze in time in Downtown Asheville and get a feel for the city that so many call home. We explored during a quiet weekday morning where we got a good sense of what all it has in store - a mix of old world charm meets modern expression - and we can only imagine the energy this city exudes with street musicians, culinary tours, the arts and so much more!
There's so much more here than we were given the time to see, so we leave you with this - plan wisely and make sure you spend enough time there to truly explore Asheville!
Where to stay?
The appeal of this destination is staying in a cabin, lighting a fire, and enjoying the surrounding wilderness. What a dream! If it's yours, BOOK AHEAD! There is no time like the present to plan a few months (to a year) out as it does book up FAST!
We opted to stay at a hotel - only because we were limited in how much time we'd be here, and more time would be spent out rather than in. So we needed to stay in a place central to the Asheville and surrounding area, since we had a lot of commuting to do. We chose the Holiday Inn East Asheville, right off Tunnel Road. And if you have an itinerary packed with things to do, this hotel is a great stay! The Holiday Inn has really updated their brand and we are pleased with all they have to offer, especially when traveling with kids and looking for conveniences. This hotel is near the highway to take you into the city or the roads to lead you to the Blue Ridge - so even if Asheville is just a stop for you on a bigger journey, this place is the perfect gateway for a comfortable stay.
If you're looking for a destination that can provide you a true appreciation for the beauty of nature, as well as get you a chance to dine and drink new flavors, and allow you to appreciate art of all kind - well, then Asheville is calling!
So when are you going to go?
Anyone watch National Lampoon's Vacation and then want to do a big American road trip like the Griswolds - antics and all?
I always did! And when COVID-19 came along and interrupted our original summer plans, we scrambled to find a Plan B. We devised a last minute option, pulled out of the hat in an attempt to salvage the spring break we didn't have and the summer vacation we were still uncertain of.
Our itinerary eventually took us 6,000 plus miles, across 17 states, and visiting many new sites we hadn't seen together as a family. Our goal was to hit a handful of National Parks, but also to take our time to get there, and getting to see states we didn't always have a reason to go to. We knew the time spent in each place would be limited, but our visits were meant to be an appetizer, not the main course. And we decided if we fell in love with any place, we could always come back at a later time for more.
So here are some of the questions I've received about what we did, why and how. Just know that these decisions are very much based on us and our travel style, and could & should be customized to you.
Car or RV?
We opted for a car - our personal car for that matter - to do this trip. A RV would give us lodging and transportation in one, but we faced a few obstacles with that.
1. This trip was so last minute, we didn't know if we'd be able to find a RV to rent, a spot in RV parks to camp in, and where even start looking.
2. As you can see, we're not RV versed; we've never even driven one, so we decided taking one cross country for the first time may not be the smartest idea.
So we opted to take our car, which has always been in healthy condition and with low mileage. We took it in for a routine oil change and check-up before traveling and now that we're back, we'll take it in again to see if any maintenance is needed (we know that at the very least it will need an oil change). Best of all, we have a trusted auto shop doing it all - if you need a recommendation.
My dad manages a shop here in Orlando (Universal Service Center), and I highly recommend him for anyone looking in the area - whether you're a local needing a place or a visitor wanting to get a quick tune-up before heading home. Best of all, he's right in the tourist corridor (behind Universal Orlando), so he's fairly accessible to anyone.
In either case, you will be spending on gas - but what a better time! Many states were under $2/gallon, so filling up was cheap. We also tried to save on gas prices in other ways:
Hotel or Rental?
Now that the RV is out, we'd need a place to stay. We prefer hotels over rentals to begin with because there's an element of surprise that's eliminated when booking a hotel.
You have a preferred brand? You know what to expect.
You're a loyal guest? You can and likely will get upgraded.
You have an issue with your room? You can ask to be moved, which you can't do in a rental - you're stuck with what you've booked.
We also had two asks during this time that we knew we could depend on hotels for - cleanliness standards being upheld and flexibility with our booking. Corporations have a lot on the line right now with making sure they're meeting regulations and ensuring guests feel safe, so we knew that brand standards would be even more dependable than an independent operator. And let me tell you, they were! Every place we stayed at did a great job of making sure that we, and all other guests, were comfortable while still operating a service-based business. I applaud them all for their efforts to adapt and improve standards during this time.
Below is a listing of the chains that we booked with and information from their own websites on how they are reassuring guests about their new protocols.
We also wanted the most flexibility in changing plans - in case we ran into an issue of wanting/needing to change our route. And many of the top chains are offering generous cancellation policies right now. See again the chains we stayed at and their current booking policies (but always check rates and policies at booking as they're subject to change).
When booking a hotel, though location was always key, our second factor was if breakfast was included. We try to book places where breakfast is included in the rate, because its soooo much easier in the morning with always hungry kids. And though each chain is handling their meal service in a different manner right now, all that offer breakfast in their rate still had it available with modifications (how it was offered varied between brand and location).
We also made sure that a few hotels we booked had self-service laundry available for our use. We packed light - one week but were on the road for two, and knew we'd have to cycle through cloths possibly a few times (especially with hikes and kids). Let me tell you, this made all the difference traveling and was a huge convenience! If you're considering this, I recommend bringing your own laundry detergent and maybe a few dryer sheets - it will save you on purchasing it from the hotel. Just make sure you buy powder vs liquid as all the machines we used utilized that.
We packed lots of snacks! Everyone got a box of their snack of choice and had little snack packs rationed for the day.
If breakfast wasn't available at our hotel, it was the easiest go to meal at a grocery store, with breakfast bars, Pop Tarts, cereal and LOTS of fruit stocked up on.
The number one thing have on hand is water. We grabbed (at least) a gallon at each stop to have with us on the road, in case of emergency or for prepping for our hikes. We also brought reusable water bottles for all and refilled as we went - you'll encounter higher altitudes and drier conditions where being hydrated is essential. Since we were caring for our own things, we also brought a small bottle of dish soap and a sponge, so we were able to clean our bottles daily to ensure we were staying clean.
While eating on the go, we also had fun with it, especially if the plan was to eat out of the car. So where we weren't eating from grocery store stops, we utilized this list of the best fast food in every state (or neighboring state, in some cases) and tried to eat like the locals did! And we found some really great spots we'll recommend as we go along!
Other Must Haves
So here's the fun part, our full itinerary! We'll tell you where we went, what we did, and any additional notes below to help plan!
Note, all our suggestions are based off what we did and what we intended to do. We didn't get to do it all, because our eyes were bigger than our stomachs, but we also loved every bit of our trip! Flexibility is key so customize your schedule as you see fit for you and yours! Just make sure that you do the non-negotiables so you're not disappointed. I'll also mention alternate plans we had in mind so you can make a schedule for yourself.
Like we mentioned before, we prefer hotels over rentals. We also don't have a preferred brand, and booked based off reviews/recommendations. But things could change, so always call ahead and double check - and make alternate plans as needed.
We ate off recommendations and limited how many sit down meals we had. Though we did eat out every so often because it is good for your sanity to be around others and help the service industry serve (they were so appreciative of us being there every single time). We also found that many places offered an order ahead option online, so as we were approaching our destination or getting hungry, we'd create an order for pick up.
We had a rain plan for every stop, just in case - some of them were not necessary because we were willing to get dirty. Most of our rain plans involved what we could do for free. We're Orlando Science Center members, and so we made a list of the reciprocal locations available via the ASTC Travel Passport Program (labeled here as ASTC) so we could utilize our perks. If you have the same available, look into it - usually available with a zoo, children' museum, or other annual pass program. Once again, call ahead to see how they are handling their particular program and honoring reciprocal visitors - we didn't use ours, but many places were requiring timed reservations so we would need to speak to the facility itself to arrange.
Day 1 Orlando, FL to Atlanta, GA (6 hours and 15 minutes)
We made this stop to visit some close friends, so our plans aren't your typical greater Atlanta plans - but they were a perfect kick-off for us! We went peach picking at Gregg Farms, because while in Georgia - and their peach ice cream was also the best thing I've ever tasted (for someone who only likes chocolate).
We had initially discussed going (and staying) out at Stone Mountain, so we could social distance hike. That would be our top recommendation for the area if wanting to stay outdoors.
If you're going to set your eyes on Stone Mountain, the Atlanta Evergreen Marriott Conference Resort is right on property and super convenient.
What's more Georgia than Chick-Fil-A? We were told about Truett's Luau of the Tik-Tok fame - what's greater than Hawaii meets CFA? If you prefer another option, check out Dwarf House instead - the original Chick-Fil-A! We did a few years back and loved that we got to see where it all started - and with a few new menu options too!
Fernbank Science Center (ASTC Passport), Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola
Day 2 Atlanta, GA to Nashville, TN (4 hours and 45 minutes)
We got a late start out of Georgia to Tennessee because we were having a hard time (and lots of tears) leaving friends behind. But once we got on the road we set our eyes on making a quick stop in Chattanooga, to either eat or do a quick bit of sightseeing. We ended up doing a little bit of both. We ordered lunch on the road as we neared and got the fried catfish at Uncle Larry's which was fantastic! After touring the town by car, because we ran into a little rain, we decided to stop and see the famous Chattanooga Choo Choo!
If we had more time (or better weather) in Chattanooga though, we had included the option of going to check out Ruby Falls/Rock City/Lookout Mountain!
We then headed onward to Franklin, TN about 30 minutes south of Nashville. Here we changed to Central Time & gained a whole hour in our day! Friends in the area told us to check out Arrington Vineyards & so that's what we intended to do. The weather cleared up as we arrived so we had a chance to be outdoors and allow the kids to run around a lot of pent up energy. And what a great place it was! We spent the afternoon outside, at a beautiful vineyard, enjoying fantastic wine.
And finally on to Nashville, TN, where we spent the night! We made sure to walk the city, to check out Broadway and drive by the Grand Ole Opry, but were mainly here as a place to sleep near the highway. There wasn't a lot in terms of kid-friendly things to do, but we also arrived by dinner time, having done all the fun stuff we wanted to do (with with friends was perfect), so we grabbed food and settled in to our hotel.
If you're hungry for something local, make sure to stop by Hattie B's for Nashville Hot Chicken - and use the order online to pick-up instead of waiting in line! The lines are going to be long - there are several locations and both that we drove past had lines out the door.
Hyatt Place Downtown with breakfast included (operating close to normal)! The hotel is central in Nashville, only a few blocks from Broadway and just off the river. We loved that we were somewhere we could walk downtown without being caught in the middle of it all.
Adventure Science Center (ASTC), Grand Ole Opry
Day 3 Nashville, TN to St. Louis, MO (4 hours and 30 minutes)
The drive between the two cities will actually take you through two other states - Kentucky and Illinois. So just for the fun of it, we ate on the road and did as the locals did with KFC (which admittedly the kids & I had never had)!
Our first National Park visit was also on the list for arrival - The Gateway Arch! It's fairly easy to get to when coming into St. Louis, as you'll pass right next to it, but it wasn't open to visit while we were there. We still got the iconic picture under the arch as we entered the gateway to the west - and if you're looking to do the National Park Junior Ranger program, you can still complete the program online by downloading and mailing in so your kids can get their badge for seeing this location.
We had also listed the options of visiting the St. Louis Zoo, St. Louis Union Station, Forest Park, Citygarden, or grab a drink in one of many breweries, and if we were spending more time in the city, we would! For us though, this was a chance to catch up with friends we hadn't seen in years, so our time there was time well spent. But had we been on our own, all of the above was recommended and was well-intended on our list.
Be sure to stick around to see fireflys at night - we had them in Atlanta, Nashville and here - but the kids actually got to catch some with friends while in STL. It was the best thing ever for Florida kids who don't get that back home!
Hyatt Regency The Arch which is located right under the arch! And it was fairly accessible to many of the sites we planned to do.
St. Louis Science Center (ASTC)
Day 4 St. Louis, MO to Omaha, NE (6 hours)
As we left St. Louis, the drive took us through Kansas City - so we made sure to see a few of the Walt Disney Landmarks on the Missouri side, being the Disney fans that we are! We were also there in time for lunch, so were told to check out Joe's BBQ in Kansas City.
The restaurant itself is in Kansas City, KS, so you can add another state to the list when you cross the state line that runs through the city. Joe's was another order ahead and drive up to pick up place - we split The Hogamaniac so we could try a little bit of everything and it was as good as it was said to be!
We then drove on to Omaha, a stop we intended to break up the long drive across South Dakota to Badlands and Mount Rushmore. We chose Omaha because we had friends in the city we hoped we could visit with, but we also considered staying in Sioux Falls, SD - if you want a different stop.
The Omaha Zoo is one of the best in the country and we were told to visit when we came - but they were requiring timed entries and we didn't have all the time we wanted to see it, so had to skip it. So instead we walked the city to get to know it and crossed the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, that allows you to walk into Iowa from Nebraska. The very casual experience - getting to walk a suspension bridge over the Missouri River & into another state- was all the rage to the kids!
There's also another National Park available at the site, Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, so we intended to get a Junior Ranger badge here. Unfortunately it also remains closed, but luckily the with the NPS offering the option to complete the workbooks online and mail in to receive a badge, we saved ourselves from tears.
We were told to visit Old Market and in particular eat at Spaghetti Works with kids. We also happened to be there on Monday, when kids eat free, so it was an added parenting win for us.
Holiday Inn Express Downtown – Old Market had breakfast included and a place to do laundry. The hotel is a little way off of Old Market, but we didn’t mind the walk which put us near museums and a quieter part of town. This hotel also tried to operate normally, providing us gloves and requiring masks for our full breakfast buffet, and allowing the gym to stay open but with wipes to clean down machines.
Day 5 Omaha, NE to Badlands, SD (6 hours and 30 minutes)
The drive over was a lot of green and farm and all you'd expect from being in the Midwest- until you actually get to Badlands. But in a small ray of hope, you'll gain a whole hour heading west here as you cross over into Mountain Time Zone.
Badlands National Park is an easy drive through with a few pull offs to hike - we spent about two hours between driving through and exploring on foot. But if you want to just enjoy the drive, it is enough to appreciate this location and its ever changing beauty. You'll come in from the Northeast Entry and drive the Badland Loops Road through the park.
The Ben Refiel Visitor Center is a short drive from the entry, and though it's doors are shut, Rangers are posted outside under tents to answer questions and provide Junior Ranger Activity Books and Badges. They'll give parents the book & the badge and "deputize" us, so we can later swear in the kids to being rangers, once completing their activities. The experience is a little lost for those who haven't done this before, but for us a huge time savings - we didn't have to worry about driving back to the Ranger to earn the badge, so it was much appreciated to not have to on this trip!
We got out at Big Badlands Overlook, Fossil Exhibit Trail, Panorama Point, and Burns Basin Overlook to enjoy a few walks and wildlife up close (listen for the rattlesnakes). The animals are abundant and you want to take them all in. If you want to see more, near the end, take Sagecreek Rim Drive. You'll take a dirt road that will lead you to prairies, where you'll find prairie dogs, big horn sheep and bison all near the side of the road. This was a huge hit for all to be so close to everything!
From there, you're only a hour and half drive to Mount Rushmore. The Mount Rushmore Memorial is currently open until 10p during summer, with the Evening Lighting Ceremony at 9p. After we checked out into our hotel, we headed over to be able to see it before it got dark and for the ceremony itself. The Memorial does cost $10 to park and it is not included in the NPS pass. So if you do want to make the most of your visit here, come earlier in the day to spend more time here - though a ton of time is not needed. And make sure to get your kids a Junior Ranger Badge here too - so far this was the 4th of the trip!
You'll also want to make sure to see Crazy Horse Memorial while you're in the Keystone area - we stopped by the morning we were leaving and got to see the artifacts and hear the story about this monument. It's a separate entry cost but your contribution goes a long way to keep the foundation alive. We didn't know much about it before going, but we are so glad we got to stop and visit. The story behind it is moving and the mission is inspirational; you'll have to see it for yourself to truly appreciate the full scope. The memorial itself is an ongoing project that will continue to finish for generations to come - so you will always see a different view of this massive rock sculpture between visits as it works towards completion.
If you have a full day to spend in the area, you can easily spend it between both Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse and be truly inspired by the legacy of these monuments.
Holiday Inn Express Mount Rushmore in Key Stone, South Dakota was only 10 minutes from Mount Rushmore with breakfast included. The hotel is located in beautiful Keystone which is only a short drive from Mount Rushmore. It can be a bit of a tourist trap, but as far as cute mountain towns go, it’s worth seeing. The hotel also offered a full breakfast buffet and opened seating outside to limit the number of people in their dining space.
Burger Time is a North Dakota staple, but we found one in South Dakota along our pathetic and decided to try it out!
Play in the rain!
Day 6 & 7 Keystone, SD to Jackson, Wyoming (8 hours and 30 minutes)
You have a long drive through Wyoming to get to your next park, and this is how we started planning our double days. Anywhere that we would take a 7+ hour to get to, we ultimately decided to do two overnights in. We could've done longer, but it would also have changed the number of parks we saw and the route we took back home. And since we were set on seeing certain parks, this is the plan we all agreed on.
Grand Teton National Park is right outside Jackson, and you can drive through part of the park to get to Jackson itself. The park is open 24/7 and is only a few minutes from Jackson, a charming little city every bit worth seeing.
We looked up a list of family hikes in Grand Teton, knowing we wanted to do something, but not get too adventurous (we didn’t have bear spray on us, of course). And with little ones, hikes can't get to go too far or we'd end up leaving one of them behind. So we enjoyed being outdoors here, taking in mountain views we don't get back home, and seeing this incredible place formed from an earthquake. We walked over to Jenny Lake and hiked the String Lake Trail at sunset, which couldn't have been more perfect to round out the day.
The Junior Ranger program was also available here, so they were given a book and a badge to complete as they explored!
Once you're in Grand Teton, you can drive straight through an hour & 15 minutes north to reach Yellowstone National Park. We reserved this for the next day, so we could spend as much of the day as possible exploring. We packed lunch, got on the road early, and made it to the park a little after 9am. We had mapped out the drive round-trip through the park, which would take about 4 hours with no stops to complete. But once we arrived we were given current maps indicating that some roads were closed including the one that would make the round trip drive possible - Tower-Roosevelt to Chittenden Road (the closest parts of the park to Montana).
We instead decided to take shorter route with stops along the way - the first one was to see Old Faithful. The NPS website will make geyser eruption predictions and you can also check at the entrance to the park on arrival. Once you're in the park, cell service is EXTREMELY limited, so if you're trying to find updates, you'll need a hot spot to connect.
Old Faithful has seating set up around it to watch the eruption - it becomes a people magnet and for those of us that don't enjoy crowds, unappealing. We watched the eruption from behind in a grassy area under the shade, acting us unFloridian as they come. But there was no one gathered near us and made for better views. We then decided on a hike around Upper Geyser Basin to see the other geysers and pools. It does get a little crowded in spots, but its easy to avoid people as long as you keep on moving. We also got to see a second eruption of Old Faith from our hike, from a distance on our way back down Upper Geyser Basin Trail, and it was actually more impressive than being up close.
We continued north towards Madison then back easy to Norris Canyon Road to see Lower and Upper Falls. Lamar Valley, a great area to see wildlife is tucked away in the far northeast corner near the road closures, so we knew we'd be giving up that since we didn't want to drive back the way we came. But the path we took, east to Norris Canyon Road and then south to Grand Loop Road, took us right by Hayden Valley, another great area to see wildlife. And wildlife did we see! Wildlife jams are a thing here, so don't be surprised to get caught in traffic to find a bear, moose, coyote or bison (of many other animals) on the side of the road. Our kids didn't know better missing out on Lamar Valley, and since we didn't want to add extra time to our drive, we were happy with all we got to see with this modified route. We finished with exploring the West Thumb region, near Yellowstone Lake, before calling it a (long) day in the park.
If you're looking to spend more time in the park though, we recommend checking out this site for a few family hikes. The park is open 24/7 and over the summer, sunset is after 9p. Do come prepared though, since there aren't many market places or gas stations in the park, so top off when you get a chance and make sure to have enough water and snacks. Also come in layers - the nights in late June/early July easily got in the 40s, but then warmed up as we neared the sun. So we definitely needed to be able to peel off and layer up depending on where we were! The park itself also warns hikers to carry bear spray with them and has it available for purchase in various spots - with the amount of wildlife near common grounds we saw, I'd definitely get some if venturing off the beaten path, especially alone or with little ones, since the wildlife seemed a little fearless of the visitors.
This is one stop where you can't get your ranger book or badge as the visitor centers are closed and the rangers are manning the park!
Hampton Inn Jackson Hole was a little way out of town square, but near a grocery store and gas station. It also came with breakfast included. The gym was open and they were doing to-go bags of breakfast with lots of food. If you don’t enjoy the selection, there’s a grocery store right next door with a Starbucks inside.
We enjoyed staying outside of the park, especially trying to divide ourselves between both. But if you’re intent on exploring Yellowstone, there is lodging available in the park and worth checking staying north, east or west of the park! Jackson is as close as you can get to Grand Teton, so you’re in a good spot to visit this park solely - or if you’re like me, and getting lost in the woods is not really your thing!
Taco John's is Wyoming's top fast food chain - a local Taco Bell with a really great potato olés!
We decided to eat out one night in Jackson, so we could see this little town too. Masks were required in Jackson, so it made us feel better about being out and about. We decided on Jackson Drug, an original soda fountain right across from a city square that the kids burned some energy running around in. I can't vouch for it, but the Elk Burger was recommended; and save room to split a dessert too - you can't come to a soda fountain without getting one!
Play in the rain!
Day 8 & 9 Jackson, WY to Moab, UT (8 hrs)
This was another long drive south, so it would once again be a 2-night stay. Personally, these were the parks I was most looking forward to seeing. The rock formation and desert climates call to me, so I was thrilled with the time we'd get time to explore here.
Moab, Utah is situated right in the middle of two National Parks - Arches and Canyonlands, so can believe that the views from the city are extraordinary. We arrived after an extremely long drive, and since the temperature went from winter to dead of summer, we knew we owed the kids some pool time. With a pool, splash pad, and hot tub at the hotel, the kids were quickly able to adapt and wear out any bit of energy they had left in the desert sun.
The city of Moab is requiring masks be worn by all, outside of exercising or outdoor activities, and our hotel did a great job of minimizing exposure of guests to each other.
The next morning we got up early and decided that we would drive out further (30 minutes to the entrance) to see Canyonlands National Park. Since Arches was easily accessible, right next to our hotel, we felt another drive out made the most sense first thing in the day. We contemplated getting up early to see the sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, since the park is open 24/7, but sleep at this point became more important than a 5am wake up. No regrets though because we all but made up for with the sunset we got at the end of the day.
We found another listing of family hikes to take, and also consulted with rangers at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center which was open. It's also a great restroom stop and last chance to pick up a gallon of water if you forget before you go exploring this park. And don't forget your ranger book and badge - at this point you're at 7 parks if you follow the trip we did!
We also opted to just stick to Islands in the Sky. The drive to The Needles was further out, and though we would have loved to have see it all, a taste was all we needed. We first drove over and hiked to Mesa Arch, which has as an extraordinary view as you'd imagine it to be. We then head over to hike Whale Rock, which was said to be an easy hike for kids, where they had a little bit more room to roam. Finally, we took the drive to Grand View Point Overlook, which was a nice mini preview of what they'd see at the Grand Canyon in the days to come. And the hike was such a wonderful walk, making you feel so small compared to everything else.
To see Arches National you have to either go early or come back late. Not just to dodge the mid-day heat, but because the park will get at capacity by lunch. We didn't find any issues with that, because after a full morning of exploring, we took a break at the hotel pool, with plans to go for an evening hike and picnic dinner.
Coming back into the park after 5 also means there's not an entry fee and the crowds are all but gone. The only thing is visitor centers and stores are closed, so come prepared - and ready to download the ranger book for mailing in. We found a few family hikes to take that would allow us to see the park but also allow us all a pace that meant fun!
We started at Balanced Rock which was a quick loop with some extraordinary views. We also had time to hike the Delicate Arch Viewpoint Trail, Pine Tree Arch and Tunnel Arch (where we stumbled upon a deer a few yards away), Broken Arch Trail, and all our favorite, Sand Dune Arch Trail. Sand Dune gave us a chance to take off our shoes, walk on powder red sand, and let the kids build castles, while we soaked in the energy from these rocks.
We also took the whole driving tour of the park and set a pace that got us to sunset before we left. My one ask was to see the sunset here, while my husband wanted to star gaze - so we found Panorama Point where we got the best view of the park and the setting sky. Before we left to take our star gazing drive, we were surprised to see the full moon illuminating the La Sal Mountains as it rose behind it. It was such a surprise to catch this special view - we knew that we now wouldn't be able to see stars, but ended up with the best show we could ask for!
Hyatt Place Moab with breakfast included and a place to do laundry. The rooms were a very generous size and the hotel was immaculately kept. It is the closest hotel to the road leading to the parks, so if you don’t mind staying on the outskirts of Moab (which is easy to get into anyways), this is the perfect spot! They still offered breakfast to-go - where you asked the kitchen staff for items they’d load up in a bag. The gym was also still open and asked to limit the number of guests in at a time.
In-N-Out Burger is one of our absolute favorite places in the west, so you can bet finding a location on our drive meant a stop! It seemed to be the same for the city of Provo, as there was a quite a wait in the drive-thru to get a late lunch. But we got our Protein-Style Burgers and Animal-Style fries and lived happily ever after.
Does it rain here?
Day 10 & 11 Moab, UT to Sedona, AZ (7 hours and 45 minutes)
One thing to note is that entering the state of Arizona, they're on Mountain Standard Time, which right now mimics Pacific Time. So we (by surprise) gained another hour which we weren’t expecting - now at a 3 hour difference from back home.
We wanted to drive south to Grand Canyon via Monument Valley but all Native American lands are closed currently, so we couldn't access it. Also expect when driving a vast majority of this drive to not have many to any places to stop. This area was literally shutdown - not even a person in sight.
We had intended to come in through Highway 64 at Desert View (eastern side) of the Grand Canyon, drive the rim to the west and exit via the South Rim outside the city of Tusayan. But times being as they are, they didn't have the highway or Eastern entrance open, which gave us a longer drive to and through Flagstaff to get into Southern Rim to enter (and exit) the park.
But not to be taken for granted, we got to see on this drive, the range that made the exterior part of the Grand Canyon. We had once before visited the south rim of Grand Canyon coming in from Las Vegas - and entering is a surreal experience. You drive through a forest - Kaibab Forest - and green is not much of what we expected from a canyon!
The Grand Canyon had one Visitor Center Store near Mather Point open where you could get your ranger book and badge. They required masks when visiting in and outside the area to reduce exposure and limit contact that the employees had with guests. We knew that this region of the canyon was not one we would do a lot of exploring in, because the hikes are more treacherous, so we opted to walk the trail at Mather Point and then head over to Grandview Point for a little hike (before deciding we rather not).
We have full intentions of coming back to Grand Canyon when they're a little older, so the short visit here was worth it just for their reactions alone. We have our sights set on taking them to the Western Rim later, which would give us all an opportunity to view the Canyon in a different light. Plus with a lot more stuff to do there, a trip for older kids is definitely on the docket!
We planned to stay in Sedona, two hours south of Grand Canyon, as we heard so much about what a wonderful desert retreat this is. We also knew there were family hikes we could do with kids in the area, while also relaxing before we started the long days of driving back east. We visited the Chapel of the Holy Cross, enjoyed the pool at our resort, and then spent the evening with a picnic dinner and enjoying the Bell Rock Trailhead. Your America the Beautiful Pass is also available for use last state parks, where you would otherwise need a day pass to park and access.
Hilton Bell Rock was the perfect retreat! The resort was very through in explaining Hilton’s CleanStay initiative and ensuring we understood all measures they’re taking to stay safe. The have a restaurant on-site still operating with mainly outdoor seating being used. They also keep their pool open in shifts, so they have an opportunity to clean and sterilize throughout the day. The pool never got busy and didn’t change any of the enjoyment or experience for us with the limited times.
Eegee's and try the frozen drinks!
Does it rain here?
Day 12 Sedona, AZ to El Paso, TX (8 hours)
White Sands is only an hour outside of El Paso, so we chose to stay here with hopes of visiting our next National Park. Before we even left on our trip, the park was still shutdown, but we still opted for this route - a sacrifice we knew could come. When started our road trip, White Sands had opened back up, so were excited about our plans coming back to life! When we arrived to the New Mexico border though, clear highways signs mandated a quarantine of all visitors for 14 days, so we drove straight through the state to Texas.
This was one of the longest drives of the trip with the shortest turn around when getting back on the road - and driving back east we lost a whole hour thanks to those time zones that at once point worked in our favor. So we arrived in enough time to grab dinner and settle in. We had found information on visit El Paso with kids, but decided that we were all spent -and another day of long driving called for a nice relaxing evening at the rooftop pool.
Plus, just taking in that you’re a few miles from Mexico, was an experience all its own. The culture here embraces their proximity to Mexico, and we saw several Mexican license plates mixed in with local ones as we played the license plate game on our trip (42 of 50 states, 3 provinces in Canada, 1 Mexico). It was definitely a city we appreciated getting to pass through and really makes you question all those borders we want to make exist. Being here, you see people just live all one and the same, only an imaginary line distinguishing the two nations. The people are so infused in both cultures, you already feel like you’re in a different place, but also one that feels so familiar.
We ordered from the restaurant attached to the hotel, Mamacita's, which was also highly regarded in the city! With a twist on every Mexican dish, we enjoyed the Bacon Wrapped Shrimp with Jalapeno Jam dip.
Relax for the next long drive back home
Day 13 El Paso, TX to San Antonio, TX (7 hours and 45 minutes)
Texas is big, y'all. Like really big.
And this stretch of the drive on I-10 is nothing but long and boring. Actually, the most interesting part was driving through a Border Patrol Checkpoint as we glided parallel to the Rio Grande (you know, the dividing line to Mexico). We didn't know this would be a requirement for the drive until we put it on our GPS. But because of the proximity to Mexico - in some spots you're only a few miles off - there is a checkpoint in either direction of the highway near El Paso that you quickly (but timidly) pass through.
We knew we would need to break from staring at nothing but desert, so we opted to stop in San Antonio for the night. We did lose another hour here too, so it made sense to take a break.
We arrived knowing we wouldn't be able to see The Alamo because it was closed thanks to Corona, but we were able to walk by it and tell the kids the history and significance of it still standing. We also decided to take a boat tour after walking the River Walk. Much of the River Walk is open and Texas is requiring that masks be worn out in public, so we felt very safe being outdoors in limited crowds and showing our kids this charming spot.
Go Rio Cruises is operating their narrated boat tours on limited capacities - 10 people per boat and spaced out per group. Boats are running every 30 minutes and being sanitized thoroughly between each shuttle. We had done the same tour years ago when we came, and were accustomed to overcrowded tourist attractions and playing footsies with strangers. So to now be able to sail in comfort and also do so feeling safe, was a very welcome change.
Hilton Palacio Del Rio with laundry available. The hotel is right on the River Walk and once again emphasized the Hilton CleanStay standards. The customer service in this spot was also superb - probably some of the best of all trip!
Iron Cactus was right on the River Walk where we got to eat outside with the birds and ducks. The Crab Stuffed Jalapeños were THE best (and so was the jalapeño margarita)!
DoSeum & Witte Museum (ASTC)
Day 14 San Antonio to Galveston (3 and 45 minutes)
My husband spent part of his younger years in Texas and one place he remembers going to is Galveston to play on the beach with his family. It was his one ask in the trip, so we worked it out to see a blast from his past. This gave us a chance to see a part of who he was, while also enjoying a short stop on our way back.
The Strand Historic District has shopping and food that you can walk only a few blocks from the cruise piers (when they are operational). Pleasure Pier was further down from our hotel, an amusement park over the Gulf. But for us, this was a stop to enjoy the beach of the Gulf! And we did so until the sunset.
Double Tree by Hilton was right across from the beach and was a perfect location to social distance! There was a pool with a bar on-site and limited dining ( to-go food to purchase), but plenty of restaurants within walking distance.
Miller's Seawall Grill had the best seafood platter made for sharing - gumbo, fish, shrimp, crab, and oysters!
Houston Space Center is only a short drive from Galveston and an ASTC location or pay a visit to the pyramids of Moody Gardens.
Day 15 Galveston, TX to New Orleans, Louisiana (5 hours and 45 minutes)
We came to New Orleans just this past fall and fell in love with the city. We enjoyed that our first time was adults only, and remarked how much the kids would love the new meets the old charm of this city. And even saved some things to do with them - like take a ride down the Mississippi on a steam boat.
Little did we know we'd be back so soon and with the chance to come here to see the city tamed down to a pint-sized version. Since our route was going to take us in through the panhandle we decided to stop and see NOLA in rare form - kid-friendly.
Unlike back in November, the street cars were running on Canal Street and we took one down to French Market to start showing them the city on foot. We took them riverside and showed them around the French Quarter. We decided to ride the Steamboat Natchez at its evening sailing, so grabbed a quick bite of traditional food to eat before boarding.
The crew on the Natchez enforced masks and had temperature checks before guests boarded. They spaced out seating, and made sure rules were being followed. A band played as we sailed the river, and the members that did not have instruments requiring mouthpieces wore masks. And the boat was not crowded, a welcome change from what I'm sure the typical summer months would bring.
Intercontinental was where we had stayed on our visit in November. We decided to come back because we liked its location - far enough from the action, but close enough to points of interest. And to be completely honest, I do an extensive search of Tripadvisor before any of my stays to ensure that "haunted" does not show up at hotel of choice (yes, I'm that person - but I can guarantee you are getting a through search from me). This one was one of the very, very few that came back all good!
Cafe du Monde for the beignets
The Original French Market for the shrimp boil
Acme for the oysters
... and we have even more recommendations from our couples' trip out here!
Louisiana Children’s Museum (ASTC)
Day 16 New Orleans, Louisiana to Orlando (9 hours)
This drive could have been worse, but we took a quick pit-stop in Panama City Beach to see their cousin. It's been a long 4 months since they had, as I'm sure its been for many, so it was nice to just give him a big hug.
They took us to Sharky's to enjoy beach views, time in the sand, and lunch before hitting the road again back to Orlando. The smoked tuna was shared by all as the best thing on the menu!
Once you're back in your home state, the time just seems to fly by, and this was the easiest of all the long drives we did - though the longest day of driving. We got home late at night and exhausted enough that the time change settled in pretty quickly.
How'd It Go?
It was a lot of driving, but it was so completely worth it!
We didn't have to alter many of our plans, only make a few concessions when we couldn't get into National Parks or down certain roads because of closures. Yet we went in expecting that and weren't (too) disappointed with some slight deviations.
It helped very much having a plan of what you wanted to do, so we always had a goal in mind. But it helped even more to have flexible plans that we could adjust if needed!
If you're planning on doing a similar trip, we recommend giving yourself the same type of grace we did - always not just now. It is work to make it work out.
Overall, go in with a good attitude and a solid plan B, and we promise it'll be smoother than expected. And most of all, enjoy the ride!
Are you looking to fill your summer with time behind the wheel & deciding where to go as you get there?
That's some of the spontaneity we love about road trips! We've compiled a few idea on some ways to hit the road and make some lifelong memories. Let's start here!
Head up North and explore Washington to Boston with American History sprinkled in! How you get there is up to you - fly and rent a car, or drive to Washington (or vice versa, depending where you're coming from) to start exploring. For us, we're heading south to north, so we'll start there.
First Stop: Washington, D.C
You're going to be soaking up so much history here. I mean, how can't you? It's our nation's capitol! There's so much to do and so much to cover - and best of all, most of it is free!
Tour the National Mall, home to the Washington Monument on one end and the Lincoln Memorial on the other. While you're doing a walking tour of monuments, you have the following in no particular order to visit as well! You'll find the World War II Memorial, Vietnam Veterans and Korean War Veterans Memorial on either side of the Mall, along with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Adjacent to one side of the mall is the Tidal Basin where you'll find the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. And that's just some of the few walk-up monuments with 24 hour access to see! All with the exception of entering the Washington Monument which operates seasonal and requires a ticket to enter for views from above).
If you're looking to see some of the most famous buildings in the US, the request can be made with your member of Congress (or Embassy in Washington if you are visiting from abroad) to guarantee a a spot. To access the White House, the Capitol and the Library of Congress, you'll need to reach out at least 3 months in advance but no later than 3 weeks prior to your requested dates. Once the request is in, they'll contact you back via email with the time allotted to you, along with information regarding how and when to meet for your tour. The White House will require extra information to process your request, but the experience is worth the wait!
If you're looking to visit museums, good news - most are free! We recommend devoting your time to the Smithsonian, which offers a barge of museums to explore, most open daily from 10a - 5p. If you're looking to change the pace a little, especially with younger kids, head to the National Zoo - open daily from 8a-5p (with extended summer hours) and a great visit in the city!
While you there, also explore the neighborhoods that make this city so charming - from Dupont Circle to Georgetown. Each has their on style and a variety of venues to cater to your needs, each worth the visit!
We recommend at 2 - 3 days to see DC, especially if you're looking to tour some buildings with detail. You can combine a day out and about with a reserved visit, but trying to do two in one day may not always work logistically - so try to space it out if you can!
Where to Stay? Washington Hilton
Stop 2: Baltimore, MD
After leaving your days in DC, drive northeast about an hour and you'll reach Baltimore, Maryland. Beyond amazing seafood, this city has much to offer by way of history!
Take a tour of the Baltimore Historical Sights - whether it be a guided on or on your own. If you plan to go about it on your own, play a visit to Baltimore Visit Center at the lnner Harbor to access a self-guide walking tour of the city. It will lead you to stops such as historic ships in the harbor, B&O Railroad Museum, the original Washington Monument (before DC and with view of Baltimore!), the Star-Spangled Banner which inspired the song of the same name, or the birthplace of our National Anthem - Fort McHenry.
We recommend at least 1-2 days to see Baltimore - add a day if you choose to move a little slower to sightsee or if you decide to venture out to visit Annapolis while you're there!
Stay: Hyatt Regency Inner Harbor
Must Eats? Obviously Maryland crabs! We enjoyed stops in Little Italy (Aldo's was wonderful for a romantic dinner for two) and Fells Point for the undeniable charm of each neighborhood.
Stop 3: Philadelphia, PA
As you continue to head northeast, you'll make it to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - about an hour and 45 minutes outside of Baltimore. The City of Brotherly (& Sisterly) Love is special in its new world meets old world and the history that fills its streets.
You'll want to dive in to an Old City Walking Tour but if you decided to go about it on your own, there's plenty to see. Visit Independence Hall - free with a timed reservation entry; Liberty Bell, The President's House, various history museums, and squares (some of which host a variety of event depending on the time of year)! Or you can recreate the movie itself, and join the Rocky Run to visit some unknown sites if you're looking or something extra to do!
We recommend 1-2 days to see Philadelphia - add a day if you choose to drive the path a little slower and visit some wineries (Brandywine Valley is in proximity of your drive) or if you decide to venture out and visit Valley Forge.
Where to Stay? The Westin was situated in a perfect spot! Accessible for sightseeing, but also in the middle of many great options for eats - and near beautiful City Hall & LOVE Park!
Must Eats? Philly cheesesteak at Steve's Prince of Steak or stop by Reading Terminal Market, specifically Dutch Eating Place for one of the best breakfasts - it is a limited seating and first come, first serve!
Stop 4: New York, NY
Leave Philly and drive for an hour & 40 minutes and you'll reach the Big Apple. And what isn't there to do in New York? If you're truly trying to stick to the theme of the trip, then visiting the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are staples on your list. Make sure to book your ticket on the ferry over via Statue Cruises, which may even get you access to the Pedestal or Crown (if you're little one is tall enough - has to be 48" to climb to the top)! Your ticket also includes a ferry ride over to Ellis Island, where you can experience the arrival of our nation's population of immigrants and embark on the journey they did on arrival.
You can even add modern history like visiting the USS Intrepid Air, Sea & Space Museum to charm any kid that would like to view planes and ships up-close!
We recommend at minimum 2 days to see New York, since it will take you at least a day to visit Lady Liberty and Ellis Island. But if you're looking to add more time in the Big Apple, you could block the city into sections and do at least 5 days to get a good grasp of all it has to offer - and with enough time to explore at a leisurely pace.
Start with a New York City Bus Tour to get a lay of the land and decide where you want to spend more time. Then focus on Central Park and the Upper Sides; the Theater District and Midtown, and then head Downtown to visit other landmarks like the 9/11 Memorial. You can fill what you want to see in-between or use the last full day to visit one of the other boroughs - whether cross the Brooklyn Bridge over or head to the Bronx to see the zoo! Check out our recommendations on what to do in New York City with kids!
Where to Stay? Hyatt Place Midtown South was perfectly situated near Macy's, several subway stops, and best of all, breakfast was included! It made for an easy start to exploring and for navigating the city!
Final Stop: Boston, MA
Your last visit involves a little more of a drive - but its so worth it with all that you can see in-between. Four hours from NYC and you've reached Boston - home of lots history and really good seafood!
Start your visit there by making plans to walk the Freedom Trail - the walk itself will take you through some historical landmarks that paint the story of the American Revolution. The trail is about 2.5 miles long and can take as much time as you need to get through it - if you don't want a guided tour, you can do it on your own. It's easy to follow - just download a guide and follow the brick laid path! The trail starts at Boston Common and ends at the USS Constitution and Bunker Hill (or vice versa if you decide to take it the other way), and passes the landmarks of Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market - both not to be missed! You can also make sure to visit the spot of the Boston Tea Party, while indulging in these lessons and watching history come to life!
If you want to make the most of your time there, there's plenty of other ways to see the city. Take a Boston Duck Tour - to navigate you through the lay of the land and learn about the city itself - and then to float on water to get to see it from a new angle. Visit the Green Monster at Fenway Park - even if you're not able to catch a game there, you can tour the timeless stadium. Visit Boston Public Garden, ride a Swan Boat, or even stop to say hello the bronze ducklings. Visit a brewery or even the original Cheers! Maybe you're hoping to spot some sea lift outside the New England Aquarium - then try whale watching for a few hours!
If you're coming with little ones and still need to keep them entertained - whether from all the trekking around the city or on a rainy day, check out the Boston Children's Museum! We can attest to it being a hit with ours!
We recommend 3 days to see Boston ... 4-5 days if you're adding on any day trips outside the city to truly explore!
Where to Stay? The Westin Waterfront was by Boston Harborwalk - a little removed but also accessible with magnificent waterfront views and the leisurely walks to get into the city.
There was also a rental car facility right in the hotel, so it made it easy to get a car (especially for those that may be starting in Boston and working their way down on the road trip). You can enjoy the city without a need to rent a car until you're ready to venture out!
Must Eats? Legal Sea Foods! And Mike's Pastry in Little Italy.
Visit Edaville with kids - Thomasland located within the park was a hit! It's only an hour and a half from Boston, by way of Plymouth - and close enough for you to access Cape Cod afterwards (for some really amazing views and seafood)!
We went at an age when our eldest was about all things train - to see his favorite engine come to life was amazing. He was beside himself in excitement - and the attractions where delightful enough for that age.
A historical road trip is definitely one to add to your list of trips to take, especially in the thick of appreciating what they're learning about and getting to see first-hand. And it should go without being mentioned, that many of this places are part of the National Park Service's Junior Ranger program, so you can keep your kids (or yourself) engaged with activities as you tour - all to become a sworn in ranger for the trip!
If you plan to do something similar, we recommend a total of 13 days to at least get a highlight of each city & upon reaching your first destination - and of course giving you travel time on each end to get back!
Washington D.C. - 2.5 days
Baltimore - 1.5 day (with partial driving day)
Philadelphia - 2.5 days (with partial driving day)
New York - 3.5 days (with partial driving day)
Boston - 3 days (with time to go to the coast to explore)
The city that never sleeps. It is hands down one of our favorite places in the world - the bright lights, the hustle & bustle, the energy from the city and its people. You get caught up in it from the moment you set foot in the concrete jungle.
Yet our kids had a chance to experience it outside a layover visit and when our eldest was just an infant. We were all teeming to go, and with dear family friends getting married, we had the perfect reason to. So we decided we were going to send off summer break with a few days in the city!
But how do you design a kid-friendly trip to the Big Apple and what all is there you can really do with kids?
Here’s a glimpse of must-sees while in NYC along with a rough design of your trip!
Battery Park, Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island
This is a day long activity if you want to enjoy it right! And for us, it was how we started day one of our city tour.
We pre-purchased tickets via the official vendor, Statue Cruises, prior to arrival to guarantee an entry time and save time from waiting in line. Checking out tickets before hand can also allow you to get the coveted Pedestal or Crown tickets, as both are limited in quantities. Pedestal tickets are the same price as the regular tickets (which get you ferry access to the islands), so it is worth trying to get your hands on these. Pedestal tickets are the the only way you'll be able to get into the Statue of Liberty, with a whole museum to check out at her base. Crown tickets are even harder to come by; they do cost a little more and allow only those 48" & taller up to climb the statue all the way up to her crown. But if you do manage to get these tickets, it is so worth it - even just to say you made it to the top!
While you're on Liberty Island, make it a point to get your kids their Junior Ranger badges. Not familiar with the program? Certain National Parks around the US offer booklets and activities for kids to complete while visiting the parks. Once complete, find a ranger, review your activities and receive an official badge after a swearing in ceremony. It has definitely been a hit for the kids during our trips and a fun FREE activity to find while we're visiting national parks around the US!
If possible, before you even visit, read some books about the Statue of Liberty. "Her Right Foot" by David Eggers was our favorite and taught the kids so much about what they were looking at. They were eager to find her right foot and talk about what it symbolized once looking at her in person.
Hop the ferry over to Ellis Island next, to learn about an icon in immigration to America. This was the thoroughfare for immigrants arriving by boat and the first place that they set foot on before making their way to their new home. Kids have another opportunity to earn a Junior Ranger badge here, which makes touring the facility that much more intriguing, even for adults! We learned so much more through the activities they were doing as we were looking at this relic with different lens. We also made it a point to visit The American Immigrant Wall of Honor on the island before we left, where years ago we had families' names engraved to celebrate their immigration to the states. It was the best moment of the day, having my kids find their grandfather and great grandfather's names and explaining to them the sacrifices that were made to move here.
Once you finish both islands, it's time to make it back to Battery Park. A good portion of your day may be spent waiting in lines, boarding ferries, and getting to the next spot. That's where a day for this activity allows you to explore without feeling rushed. Once back at Castle Clinton, the ticket booth location for the Statue of Liberty, locate a ranger for one last badge. The fort does not appear to house much, but once learning about the history you come to appreciate it even more. It sits on its own manmade island, was once an aquarium, and for pop culture fans, it was the location of the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind's first US performance (yes, of The Greatest Showman kind)!
Your visit has to end with a ride on the Seaglass Carousel - truly a work of art and as beautiful to ride as it is to look at. So reward yourself after a day of exploring by kicking back your feet, relaxing on and enjoying the show on this marvelous attraction!
Take in a Baseball Game!
We’re partial to the Mets but you can’t go wrong either way! If you're spending summer in the city, a baseball game is a MUST!
It was a big moment for us, since it was our first time at Citifield; last time I saw a home ballgame was when it was still Shea Stadium (while the new stadium was under construction). For the kids, it was the first time watching the Mets play outside of Spring Training. And my youngest even got to wear a family heirloom; a toddler size 1986 World Series Champions shirt that's 8 times as old as she is.
Central Park also needs to be reserved for a day all its own. You can do as little or as much as you want to, but for us, we wanted to let the kids immersive themselves so made Day 2 all about this urban forest.
We started at the Central Park Zoo, which in its own right, deserves a visit just so your kids can say they went to the one Alex and his friends in Madagascar called home. The zoo, though small, is adorable and can fill just enough time without taking away from your day. Undecided? Do what we did and buy tickets on your phone right on the spot - it will also get you a discount code to save AND reduce paper use.
Once you're done visiting the wild animals of New York, its time to explore the park itself. We read "A Green Place to be: The Creation of Central Park" by Ashley Benham Yazdani before our visit to learn about how the park came to life. It introduced the different architecture of the park and allowed even the most seasoned visitor (me) to look at the park in new appreciation.
We explored the statues and landmarks with a different set of lens now that we knew their unique stories. We stopped at Strawberry Fields and ironically had "Hey Jude" playing in the background as our kids learned about this famous memorial. We visited the preserved Belvedere Castle and climbed with the kids to the top.
If you come early enough and have time, within Shakespeare Garden is an wonderful playhouse for kids. The Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre puts on puppet shows for young and old alike in the mornings, and though we didn't get to see it, we were told it was absolutely fantastic!
The weather decided to turn on us, but we had plans to rent a boat and spend some time on the water. And we were all anxiously looking forward to the activity - but said we'd add it to our list for next time! You can rent a boat from the Loeb Boathouse for $15/hr + $4 per every additional 15 minutes for up to 4 people.
Over the summer, Wollman Rink turns into Victorian Gardens, an amusement park in the city. It was a nice change of pace for the kids to get to play in the city, with that skyscraper backdrop behind them. But now our new goal is to come back and allow them to properly ice skate on this iconic rink with the same beautiful view behind them!
You can picnic in the park, ride a horse & carriage, enjoy a summer concert or movie or simply just be. Central Park is definitely worth the immersed day if you're willing to see it like a little first timer.
If you're lucky enough, you may even get a summer concert here! We were able to get tickets to Good Morning America's taping of their summer concert series right in Central Park - so we woke up to Keith Urban playing for all of America! What a moment, even for the kids to experience their first televised concert!
Frozen Hot Chocolate before Dinner!
We couldn't take a trip to New York and not stop for the famous Frozen Hot Chocolate. Serendipity 3, an iconic restaurant made famous by the movie of the same name, is truly what its name lives up to - a fortunate accident. You're only so lucky if you get to drop by to experience this restaurant's eclectic vibe only complemented by its massive food choices.
And yes, you have to have the Frozen Hot Chocolate before dinner. It is just that good - and big enough to share, if you want to!
Watch Frozen on Broadway!
What better to complement Frozen Hot Chocolate than going to see Frozen itself! If you have a chance to dabble in local theater back home with your kids, a trip to NYC is time to upgrade to the big time. There are plenty of family friendly options on and off Broadway, including long running The Lion King, Aladdin, Wicked and whatever else is introduced into rotation in the theater district.
Frozen was the latest release and the only our kids hadn't seen, so we made big plans to see it. And we all absolutely fell in love with Broadway's take on this beautiful story about self and love!
Fifteen Seconds of Fame
Those morning shows you catch glimpse of after your local news are taped right here, so why not try to get your 15 seconds of fame? The Today Show is our personal favorite, staged right under 30 Rock, and its outdoor atmosphere inviting. Tapings are free and early, so make sure you're ready to rise and shine. If you need coffee or sweets to help with that, stop by Bouchon Bakery next door for morning wake up treats (we especially enjoyed the macarons)!
If you're more of a GMA fan, head over to Times Square to catch a glimpse of them at work.
Grand Central Station
Visit this beauty and not just to pass through - we started one of our mornings by heading over to take it all in!
Prior to our visit, we read all about this landmark in "When Jackie Saved Grand Central: Jacqueline Kennedy's Fight for and American Icon" by Natasha Wing. The station is beautiful, from its intricate architecture to the details in its paintings. The book gave us a preview to the story of its legacy and how it was almost lost and the fight to save and preserve it. We enjoyed our visit a little more by reading all about it, and even made sure to look for the dedication wall placed in the foyer for Jackie O.
Beyond its history, the station sees so much foot traffic and is home to some great eateries and places to shop. If you're here, make sure to make a stop to the restaurant level and visit Magnolia Bakery for a treat - its definitely one of those New York places that is NOT to be missed! Grab the blondie - it was arguably the best!
Want the ultimate moment for a kid? FAO Schwartz is back in Rockefeller Center and its just as magical as its flagship store once was. Come for opening and be welcomed in by toys and toymakers alike. Head up to the top floor to play on the iconic "Big" floor piano. Or simply just take in the magic of this magical toy store.
Walk The High Line
The High Line is a walkway above the city built on old railways and a different way to take in New York. The kids will enjoy finding the eclectic uses of art and the relaxed vibe up here - along with the views!
We suggest starting at the The Standard, specifically at the Biergarten. This open air venue sells tickets at the ticket booth for beer and food; purchase what you'll like in exchange for item of choice once inside. There are fusbol and ping pong tables set around the venue, along with the community tables. It makes for a great time for the whole family, without getting too rowdy. And for us, it was a nice place to duck into as we avoided the rain!
Once you make your way up to walk down The High Line, feel free to get off and on to check out neighborhoods as you'd like. You'll run into Chelsea Market which is marketplace of shops, eats, and events! Finish at Hudson Yards, where you can climb The Vessel - a centerpiece made for exploring!
Climb a Skyscraper
There are plenty to choose from, including the iconic Empire State Building, grand view of Central Park from Rockefeller Center, and a national treasure for all it represents, One World Trade.
We've visited all and really there is not a right or wrong, but suggest doing one a trip! It'll make every visit back extra special if you get a skyline view from a different landmark each time!
Visit a Museum
New York is full of museums, which make for the best any time activity!
... and that doesn't even finish that list nor start the selection of children's museum to see!
Finally, don't forget your reciprocal benefits from any museum memberships from back home. For us, the ASTC Travel Passport Program allowed us free entry to the Intrepid, which was an amazing and unique experience. Not only did we get to wander an aircraft carrier, looking at all types of vessels but we also had the opportunity to tour a submarine. The Growler was a Cold War era sub and even had one of the original crew volunteering on board. To meet someone that served and that could give us firsthand account was indispensable.
Want some really good Italian food? Visit Little Italy! It makes you feel like you are in Italia with the hosts enticing you to enter and the language floating through the air. This is just one of those iconic neighborhoods you have to pop over and visit!
While you're there, go to Caffe Palmero - home of the best cannolis this side of the Atlantic!
Visit another zoo! This ended up being serendipitous for our eldest - who was wanting to see the zoo but we couldn't squeeze it in during our three short days! When our flight got cancelled and only rescheduled for two days later, we had the time to fulfill his wishes.
The ZOO (of TV legacy) is truly an experience - and got us to another borough to visit. An upgrade from the Central Park Zoo in sheer size and attractions, it was a delight to see our kids immerse themselves in this beautiful zoo. They even had education stations to participate in activities and earn stickers all while learning about animals and what they can do to better help this world.
We were immediately sold on a Wildlife Conservation Society membership during our visit, which covered the difference in the price of our Central Park tickets and this visit. It also gave us a year's worth of visits to WCS affiliated zoos and aquariums in the greater NYC area. So if we just happen to be back, we're covered; if not, we've donated to a great cause! And saved while doing it.
Walk across this architectural mastepiece for some stunning views of Manhattan Island! Do it at sunset for a glimpse of the heavens showing off!
Looking for the shoreline near Manhattan? Head further into Brooklyn to iconic Coney Island! Spend a perfect summer day on the boardwalk and riding the famous rides, like the Cyclone. Nothing else feels more like summertime!
Well, except a hot dog eating contest - which happens here every 4th of July!
Also, make use of that WCS membership and visit the New York Aquarium included in your purchase! Easily another two in one day here!
Take in the city!
Each section of this great city is so distinct to itself and its what makes this place so special!
When and how long to go?
There’s never a wrong time for New York! But how long you go is completely up to you!
You can make a long weekend of it and focus on only one thing - like we did a few years back and hit up Broadway shows. You can come for a few days and take in all the highlights! Or if you decide to stay longer, fill up your schedule with so many things to do.
How to get there?
Flying into NYC is relatively inexpensive from around the US, but it is always worth playing around with your dates and arrival airports to see what's available!
We prefer flying into LaGuardia (LGA) because flights tend to run a little more frequently and cheaper. But this last trip we flew out of JFK and had a wonderful experience - right down to getting there! We were able to take the subway and then connect over to the AirTrain to get to JFK smoothly. A cab ride can run over $75 - whereas taking public transit cost us about $20 (and our 4 year old was free the whole way) and in about the same amount of time.
You can take public transit from LaGuardia too, but it takes a little more maneuvering and connecting to buses. Knowing the ease of connection at JFK, we may consider flying in there more often than not!
How to get around?
Subway, foot, or taxi are really the only way to go. There is no point in having a car in the city, as you'll just be frustrated at the lack of parking or the sky high prices when you do find it. So unless you plan to head out of NYC for the trip, save renting a car until it is needed.
The subway is cheap and easy to use - $2.75 each one way trip or you can purchase multi-day cards for a discounted price. If you have the opportunity, spend as much time above ground as possible too. Take in the city and sights, it's how you truly appreciate New York. And if you're in a hurry, you can always hail a taxi - they're everywhere and in my opinion still more convenient than any Uber or Lyft in the city!
Where to stay?
We prefer Midtown because of the accessibility to public transportation and the central location. Our last stay brought us to Hyatt Place Midtown-South off West 36th Street. We were two blocks from Hearld Square (home of Macy's), a handful of blocks from Times Square, and had a subway on every corner.
We stayed in a generous size King Room with sofa bed, which was more than enough space for sleeping & changing aka the only times we were in our room. And as a World of Hyatt member, we got free breakfast every morning. They were in the middle of renovations in their main breakfast room, so we got to enjoy our first meal of the day right under the Empire State Building. Pretty incredible for the price we paid to stay here!
When our trip got extended, we stayed at the Hotel Beacon in the Upper West Side. We were a few block away from Central Park and near a subway line that had a Trader Joe's, Duane Reade and some other shopping near by. We had a two-bedroom suite with a full kitchen, lodging that reminded me of my first dated apartment. Had we spent more time using the amenities this spot would've been great with the accessibility to the marketplaces we had! Instead we enjoyed dining at nearby Levain Bakery & Zucker's Bagels for breakfast and delighting in Gray's Papaya for hot dog & fruit juice for lunch.
If you haven't done NYC with kids, its definitely worth the consideration. This melting pot of people, culture, and history is such a wonderful experience for them and exposing them to so much in one little trip!
During our trip to Hawaii, we chose to island hop between two because of the accessibility and cost. Flights were cheap to fly one way between and we were able to get a return out from Maui to the mainland at the same price it would have cost to fly home from arrival point of Honolulu.
So with that, we decided to spend a handful of our days visiting the third most populated Hawaiian island and home to some of the most beautiful sights. We only spent 4 of our 10 days here and though it felt like the right amount of time for us, we highly recommend a few more to fully take in all Maui has to offer.
Planning a trip to Hawaii and don't know where to start? Here's our suggested itinerary for a perfect week in paradise - based off things we did, and how we would have planned it for things we didn't get to do!
Day 1 - Day at the Beach & Luau
Follow our lead and do what we did on arrival! It's tested and true!
After a day of traveling, it's best to readjust and use a day for some R&R. We also loved it because it gives us a chance to use the amenities of the resort we're staying at.
Your first day in Maui would be best spent relaxing poolside, visiting its beach, using hotel amenities and the like. Save up all that energy for the rest of your trip. This is what you came for, isn't it?!
That down time will also help you gear up for a luau, which we hands down say is a must do. Old Lahaina Luau came HIGHLY recommended but is also high in demand. We lucked out and got seats at it! How? We got waitlisted for two months and then once in Hawaii got a call about an opening, so we took it! It couldn't have worked out better. Just in case, we booked a back up choice (fully refundable) and advise you do the same too! Bur start looking early!
Old Lahaina Luau was amazing - from arrival where you are greeted by ukulele being played and fresh flowers being handed out. Once you're checked in and in your respective line, you’re led in and presented to a host who will give everyone in your party fresh flower leis and Mai Tai for the adults (and juice for kids). You are led to your table where you are provided an explanation of the evening, pointed in the direction of activities (and the bar), and then given time to settle in. We went straight for the entertainment and learned how to hula, taught about Hawaiian instruments & their significance, and then played yard games where tattoos were won! Drinks were served unlimited and while we sipped and waited for the show, we were also given the chance to see the pig being dug from the ground.
At that point we were ushered to our seats and introduced to our server. We were booked a traditional table, which if in good shape to be seated on the floor, we say take! You're at the closest spot to the stage for prime view and also given a unique way to enjoy the meal. Our table was on the end of the half circle as well, which gave the kids a chance to run around nearby. The buffet was explained to us, once again all-you-can-eat and we were one of the first allowed to be served, as we had "prime seats". A live band and dancers entertained while we ate as part of the pre-show entertainment, but you already felt immersed in it all. The show started soon after the sun set and we watched with dessert and coffee, served at the table.
And the show itself? It was absolutely fantastic! It went through the story of Hawaii in dance and introduced to us the different cultures and stories that make up its history. Our kids loved it too, completely engaged in all of it, and participating when they could (in their own form of dance). The whole experience was about 3 hours long but felt like it could have gone on all night - it was fixating and didn't feel overdone at any point. If you have an opportunity to do a luau, do it, but if you had one to do, we would hands down choose Old Lahaina Luau all over again!
Day 2 - South Maui
Take your second day on the island to sleep in again, especially after the feast you just had at your luau. Use today to explore South Maui, lined with resorts followed by million dollar homes.
The true show down here though is getting to the furthest point to see the lava fields. What an experience to drive through the rough roads and see molten rock lining either side. The end of the drive will bring you to Hoapili Trail. Park a little farther from the ocean as the tides will surprise, but jump out of the car, take a hike and explore! The waves here are massive & impressive and everything you thought Hawaii would be! It is sure to not disappoint.
On the way back up, make a stop at Makena Beach. The waters are great for snorkeling on top of being picturesque. Grab a picnic lunch from a local food truck and spend the rest of the day at the beach.
If you're feeling like one more stop of local flair before leaving the area, visit Maui Brewing Company for some delicious (try anything garnished with pienapple)!
Day 3 - Haleakala & Central Maui
If Haleakala isn't on your list of things to do, then look it up and put it on there. The dormant volcano is home to the most beautiful spot on earth for a sunrise. But you have to work to get there.
First of all, you NEED a ticket to get to the mountain that early in the morning; you can reserve your car pass for a $1 fee on the National Parks website up to 2 months in advance. If you checked and they are sold out, check again 2 days before at 4pm HST as they will release more tickets. After that, do not show up as you will not get in without a reservation.
Next, pack appropriately. Yes, you're going to Hawaii so bathing suits and shorts galore, but that will not help you at Haleakala. You're 10,000 feet up at Maui's highest point and it gets really cold here. It was about 40 degrees Fahrenheit when we were there, but it was said to get in negative temperatures too with random weather conditions. So come prepared! We had flown into Seattle so had pants and sweaters from our stop there, but also packed lined rain jacket (that came in good use in Washington State as well). If you're still fearing cold, nothing some towels and a comforter from your hotel room can't help! And pack ahead, because once you're up here, you really don't have another option to layer.
Finally, you have to get up early. Like really early. For us, it was 2:30am to leave our hotel in Lahaina by 3am and be at the base of Haleakala by about 4am. There you will pay an entrance fee of $25 per car and have to show your reservation; keep your receipt though as it will get you into Haleakala State Park again (and you will go again). We got to the top around 5:15am and with just enough time to spare before the sunrise. The drive was incredible with every star in the sky showing off and then the painted sky starting to light against the dark night. We recommend skipping the crowd literally crowding around the guard rails near the ranger station and make the short hike up to the peak, about a quarter of a mile. Yes, its a little strain this early, and this cold, and with this much less oxygen. But with the small group gathered up there in comparison, its so worth it! This is absolutely one of those moments you won't ever forget.
While you're up here too, make it a point to get your kids their Junior Ranger badges. Not familiar with the program? Certain National Parks around the US offer booklets and activities for kids to complete while visiting the parks. Once complete, find a ranger, review your activities and receive an official badge after a swearing in ceremony. It has definitely been a hit for the kids during our trips and a fun activity to find while we're visiting the parks around our nation!
Once you finish you're visit and make your way down, make a stop at Alii Kula Lavender Farm. Check out the incredible views of Maui's coast you get from this quaint location and check out the gardens and aromatic surroundings. You'll also be lucky to see hang gliders landing nearby. This stop was definitely a welcomed detour to stretch our leg before making the rest of the trek down.
Once you're back at ground level, make your way around Central Maui. Your goal is to get to Iao Valley State Park to see Iao Needle. This historic spot is where King Kamehameha defeated Maui's army to bring the Hawaiian islands together. Up for more hiking while you're in the area? Take the Waihee Ridge Trail for mountain views and lots of green.
After the big morning you've had, it should definitely be rewarded with some relaxation. The island of Maui definitely has a slower vibe than Honolulu did, so take full advantage of your time here and take this time to relax before your next big day ahead!
Day 4 - Road to Hana
This is why you took another afternoon off. Because today is another big day of exploring through one of the most magnificent highways you'll ever get to drive. But be warned, Hana is not for the faint of stomach or heart!
You should once again start early to make sure you hit all the stops (or as many as you care to see). We made it the city of Paia at 630 to start our journey to Hana. Our arrival time was met with no traffic, albeit a little too early as some of our stops were closed. So we decided to skirt through with the final destination of the Pools at 'O'heo (Seven Sacred Pools) as our goal.
Along the way you'll have several stops you can make, so its recommended to download an audio guide to help map your trip. We instead chose to read up on recommendations and use the Roadtrippers app to map out stops. Some of the highlights include:
A little further in and you’re finally at the Pools of ‘O’heo. Here you're going to want to show your receipt from Haleakala again, because since its the same state park, your entry yesterday paid for your visit today too (total of 3 consecutive days). Park, take a look around and get ready to make your way toward 'O'heo Gulch for some of the most incredible views you'll get all trip. The hike is 4-miles round trip and though it sounds tedious, it is worth it. You will get a walk through a bamboo forest like nothing you've seen before and you will end up at a breathtakingly massive waterfall. Just pack lots of water and make sure your hike gets you enough time to get back, as you want to leave Hana before sunset (it took us about 2 hours of our trip just to stop here).
You're going to make your way back through Hana the same way you came in, unless you feel adventurous and want to leave south. Most car rentals companies do not make concessions for you driving there though, as the roads are unpaved and conditions can be treacherous (so heed this warning before you go). For us, we wanted to take the ride back a little slower and take the sights. And Hana definitely had a different light to it with the sun setting on the opposite side of the mountain. It made the drive back so serene and special since we had a different appreciation for it after seeing it all.
Day 5 - Paia & Haleakala Sunset
If you didn't get the chance to check out the town of Paia, make your way back today. This "North Shore" town has the same vibe as that in Oahu and is definitely worth a laid back visit. Spend the day checking out the local's beaches or shopping through downtown. After you've worked up an appetite, stop at Paia Fish Market for lunch (the fish tacos were great) and then top off with shave ice dessert at Ululani's Shave Ice. Make your shave ice a Snow Cap (mixed with sweetened condensed milk) and with Li Hing Mui. The combination was amazing!
Once you finish and if you're up for one more adventure head back up Haleakala. Since you have more daylight hours on your hands, spend the day exploring and finding hikes through this national park. Your goal though is to make it to the summit for the sunset. If you missed out on getting sunrise tickets or you just want more, we've heard that sunset is just as beautiful (with the moon rising in the east). For us though, had we had the time we would've definitely gone back to see this spectacle, especially since we had the park admission and would've loved the once-in-a-lifetime experience ... again!
Day 6 - Western Maui Beaches
Hit the beach!
What a perfect way to top your stay than to spend more time visiting all that Maui is known for, especially after all the exploring you've done.
Start with breakfast at Aloha Mixed Plate - the outdoor restaurant is only made more beautiful by the accents of Molokai and Lanai in the distance. The drinks are picture perfect (accented in fresh flowers) and the food is equally delish. Try the Loco Moco for a traditional Hawaiian dish!
Nakalele Blowhole should be your first stop after, take the hike to the blowhole though the journey will be more impressive than the destination. The famed heart shaped rock is also found here, so have fun looking for it on your hike down. And take in the beauty of this location.
Next up, spend time visiting some of west Maui's beaches - each gorgeous in their own right! Our favorites were:
While in Napili, make a stop for lunch at the famed restaurant The Gazebo. Limited in seating with a breakfast line hours long, this is a great lunch stop right before it closes at two in the afternoon. Order the fried rice, but only half portion to split. The size was generous enough to serve 2!
Visit Whaler's Village or Lahaina Center for shopping once you've finished your day on the west coast.
However you plan it, Maui is a place to find more of a mix of laidback fun! There was less of a rush to get things done and more to see the middle of the action. Hawaii is definitely a world all it’s own!
We started dreaming up this trip 10 years ago when we were newlyweds and couldn't quite make it to the Aloha State. It came true just a few months ago when we stumbled on some flights deals that were reasonably priced to work with our school break. We quickly jumped on the opportunity and made the decision to visit two islands on this trip, since we wanted a taste of adventure - so we started with Oahu!
Home to Honolulu and famed Waikiki Beach, a trip to Hawaii isn't complete without visiting the most populated island. There's so much to do, it's hard even to say where to start! But you do need a least a whole week to see it all. And we say this after having tried to visit in 6 short days.
Planning a trip to Hawaii and need a road map? Here's our suggested itinerary for a perfect week in paradise - based off things we did, and how we would have planned it for things we didn't get to do!
Day 1 - Day at the Beach
This is what you came for, isn't it? Time for R&R and adventure. What's more perfect that using your arrival day to get some rest & relaxation. It'll also give you a mix of fun on the beach and a chance for you to slowly adjust to the new time zone (without wearing yourself out all in one shot)!
This is also perfect if you decide to book one of those once in a lifetime resorts, like Disney's Aulani or Hilton Hawaiian Village. We detailed our time at both and how we felt it was worth staying put on property for Aulani to take in all the amenities (and get your money's worth). So if you have a day to spare in your itinerary and you want to option to visit a resort that is otherwise too costly, a one night stay is the perfect way to get the best of both worlds!
Day 2 - North Shore
Visit famed North Shore to hit up a few spots for their renowned attraction - the beaches. Though be warned, if you're scouting out colossal waves (even to just look), you're not going to find them over the summer. The waters are calm here seasonally, so you'd be better off visiting over the winter to see surfers hanging ten on some legendary surf.
If you're looking for more than just a spectator sport, and you come when the tide is calm, get up-close and personal with their wildlife! Shark's Cove is a great beach off Highway 83 with tide pools and plenty of reason to snorkel to see schools of reef fish. Laniakea Beach is home to sea turtles, where you can get near (10 feet to be exact) and see these giant beauties in their home. And then head a little further north to Turtle Bay, where you can find accessible parking, great beach access and perfect conditions to do some more snorkeling! This beach is also perfect for little ones to enjoy while the big ones explore.
And a visit to the North Shore isn't complete without a reason to eat! Skip a restaurant though and stop at the food truck park - we had Garlic Shrimp at the famed Giovanni's Shrimp Truck and it was as good as they said it would be! Just be prepared to dine with jungle fowl, as they eagerly await any scraps that fall from picnic tables (or even join you at the table). We opted to eat in the car.
Next head over to Haleiwa and visit the strip of shops and restaurants in this little town. If you're craving something sweet, finish off lunch with dessert at Matsumoto Shave Ice in North Shore Marketplace - claimed to be the best on the island and certainly with a reasonable price to match!
If you want to shop a little while you're up here, stop by Kahuku Farms for farm tours and local treats!
Day 3 - Windward Side
If you're up for it, get up early enough to go chase a sunrise on the eastern shore. We weren't able to, but from the day time views, we can promise it won't disappoint.
We did spend our time here driving through the sacred Valley of the Temples to get to the Byodo-In Temple. A beautiful Buddhist temple, it was the furthest point through the valley, situated at the base of a mountain. It was peaceful and serene, and a little way to introduce the Eastern culture that influences these islands to the kids.
Afterwards, make time for some hikes - there's several here worth noting. Lanikai Pillbox Hike is a little more strenuous and made for the adventurous, but gives you gorgeous views of Lanikai Beach and the surrounding areas. If you want to keep it a little tamer, the paved Makapu'u Point Lighthouse Trail will take you to some fabulous views in an easier hike. Celebrate either hike with a dip in nearby Waimanalo Beach afterwards!
If hiking is not your thing but you're looking for adventure, visit Kualoa Ranch for a few different experiences - you can take an ATV tour through this reserve, trail through on horseback or get aerial view of it while you zipline through. If neither of the above is your speed, you can tour this movie set by bus - and see where the Jurassic Park movies came to life!
If you want to take in more culture while you're on the east coast of the island, make plans to spend a day at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Here you can learn about all the island nations that make up the cultural background of Hawaiians. It is recommended to spend a day touring, as each island has a different village full of activities to participate in. And if you're in it for the long haul, they even offer a luau in the evening (with booking) - for a chance to experience all you have learned through dance!
Day 4 - Pearl Harbor & Diamond Head
Next up, spend a day visiting two icons in Honolulu - Diamond Head & Pearl Harbor.
Wake up early to make the hike up Diamond Head - you'll get a chance to beat the crowds and the heat. The hike up is easy but long, about a mile from base to top, but you get some fantastic views of Honolulu and mountains of Oahu. Before or after your hike, treat yourself to a pineapple smoothie at the starting point - courtesy of Dole Plantation. Served in a pineapple, it tastes as good as it looks and is definitely works the price after the work you put in!
Afterwards, make your way to Pearl Harbor to pay tribute to the lives lost on that infamous day. Reservations are needed to get in, so visit the National Park Services site before you travel to book a time slot! If you rather not make plans and wait, day of tickets can be available, but they're handed out in time increments and based on availability. It is free to visit the USS Arizona Memorial, but there is a small reservation fee made to secure your ticket online before visiting.
Both of these activities shouldn't take up a day, so while you're in the area, stop by Aloha Stadium for their Swap and Meet. Here you can find a place to buy deeply discounted souvenirs and from local artisans. It is not open daily though, so make plans to come on a Wednesday, Saturday or Sunday until 3pm!
... and if you still have time to spare, then revisit an area to finish up anything you didn’t get to do!
Day 5 - Dole Plantation & Waimea Valley
Visit these two gems heading back up towards the North Shore - except devote your day to just seeing these two. You can choose how you want to plan out your day, but you'll have to face crowds either way.
The Dole Plantation opens up daily at 930 and gives you a chance to visit home to their famed pineapples. Take a tour of the farm via train, tour the gardens on a walk, or try out the pineapple shaped maze - all individually priced for admission. Once you've worked up an appetite, visit the grill for a bite to eat before heading out to the rest of your day.
A little further north and you've reached Waimea Valley, a sanctuary of beautiful botanical gardens and exotic animals, accented by Waimea Fall. Your admission here allows you to walk through this peaceful site and take in Hawaiian flora segmented by locale; you'll likely run into the peacocks or wild birds that call this home while you're touring. Once you've reached the end, about a half a mile walk, you're at Waimea Falls. You're welcome and encouraged to take a dip, but not get too close because of its intensity. We skipped as we had days of rain which caused the falls to be even rougher, but it was a site to see!
If you're looking for more to fill your day here, make a stop at Green World Coffee Farm on your way back, visit Wahiawā Botantical Garden or reclaim any part of the island you need a little more time!
Day 6 - Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay
You want the spot to snorkel while also focusing on conservation? Visit Hanauma Bay!
The drive to this spot is absolutely gorgeous, accented by mountains and the treacherous hike of Koko Crater Railway Trail. This is not for the faint of heart, so one look at the railway lining the side of the mountain will give you a chance to decide if this hike is for you! You can also stop to see the Halona Blowhole while you're headed to the bay, a beautiful site to see nature's creation.
Hanauma Bay should be enjoyed should as a half-full day activity. If you can, arrive earlyas parking is hard to find. Also be prepared to either walk a little to the bay or patiently wait until the lot has an opening (as we lucked out and found). Once at the entrance, you pay a nominal fee to see this conservatory operational for years to come. You're assigned an entrance time to view a brief presentation about the bay - how to stay safe while using it and how to keep its inhabitants protected. There is a downward hike to the shore, so if you don't want to walk you can wait and pay for the shuttle - but the walk itself if minimal and easy.
The bay encourages you to use safe sunscreen to not damage the water with toxins while swimming, but you are welcome to otherwise go out and enjoy. You can rent equipment at the base if you did not bring your own snorkel gear, AND snorkel gear is a must while here! The abundance and beauty of fish you will see is absolutely amazing! Make a day of it here as you won't get a experience like this again!
And after you've worked up an appetite and are ready for dinner, head over to Kono's, voted best of Oahu (and to which we agree)! Have the Pork Plate Lunch with an order of P.O.G to drink - the combo was perfectly Hawaiian!
Day 7 - Honolulu & Waikiki Beach
Save the best for last! This is why you came, right? If you're not already staying on Waikiki then here's an opportunity to visit it in a little more depth.
Get up early and start your day with the Malasadas from Leonard's Bakery. If there's a line, wait in it - we promise its worth every bit of your time to have these warm deliciously fresh sugarcoated donut goodness. Spend the rest of the morning exploring downtown Waikiki and walking streets lined with shops. Visit the International Marketplace or Royal Hawaiian Center to pick up a souvenir or two, and if its around lunch, definitely stop to grab a burger from Mahaloha (we highly recommend the Loco Moco or Banzai BBQ).
Finish off your lunch with a walk down the historic trail to read up on Waikiki and get a prime view of the hotel landscape as it changes by the water. Once you're done, make your way back to famed Waikiki Beach to enjoy all its known for. If you have a chance, head to the lagoon at Hilton Hawaiian Village and enjoy a chance to relax in this manmade haven. The beaches and lagoon are all public access so feel free to utilize any of these while you're on vacation!
Looking for eats in and around Honolulu? Here's more of what we enjoyed!
... and there's so much more! Our short 6 days there did not allow us to experience it all, but we got a good portion of this done! We were also itching to see another Hawaiian island, so ventured over to Maui for a few days.
If we had a few extra days, this is how we would have written up our itinerary, and maybe added a few more days in to explore a few more treasures this island had to offer - and hope it can help to plan you trip out there too!
We had the amazing opportunity of getting to stay at these two gems in Hawaiian family fun! Both resorts are highly revered by families with little and big ones alike because of its diversity in venues, array of amenities for all ages, and the convenience that each of these mega resorts provide to cater to all.
So how did they stack up against each other and which one is better for you and yours?
Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa
Disney's Oahu based property, is everything you expect from a Disney hotel - and not just one in Hawaii. Aulani is located in Ko Olina, just west of the airport and heading into a drier, more industrial part of the island. But the resort area of Ko Olina is also home to a variety of high end properties for vacation goers looking to escape the traffic of Waikiki. And driving up to it, Aulani is everything you'd expect from Disney magic.
On arrival, you're greeted with infused waters and fresh flower leis for women, kukui nut for men and kids receive Menehune necklaces, which are the famed characters of Hawaiian folklore that "lurk" around property. While you're on property, you're welcomed "home" as Aulani does sit as part of the Disney Vacation Club portfolio - and they even have designated showrooms to showcase with anyone interested in learning more about becoming a member. For us regular guests, being welcomed home was definitely just a nice touch to make us feel even more welcome here!
The resort is very accessible with two towers connected by the main entry building, where you can find shops and the flagship restaurant offering character dining. Walking through the lobby, you can head outside to the lanai and get a full glorious view of the resort. And you'll see that once you're here, you're here - restaurants line both sides of of the property, the pools are centrally situated with the beach in the horizon, and the parking garage and main roads out of sight, so you really have no reason to head back to your car!
We booked an entry level room - garden pool view and were granted a low floor request we made. This was perfect because we ended up being situated right by the lazy river. And with a separate patio entrance that led out to the pool area, we enjoyed our easy accessibility to the fun at this resort, especially since we were going to be spending ALL of our time here!
When we booked our trip to Hawaii, we knew we'd want to stay a few days at Aulani on our pursuit of visiting as many Disney properties worldwide! The per night cost became a matter of how much time we spent here, because we didn't want to lose any time away, but rather enjoy what we paid for. Disney's price is steep in comparison to other properties in Hawaii, especially if you plan to spend most of your time exploring the island. But when you compare the cost of Aulani to other Disney resorts, you'll see that their Hawaiian sister hotel is priced no higher than staying at some of the premier Disney properties all over the world.
So what does the price include, outside of room?
The price does not include:
Other things to note:
Hilton Hawaiian Village
Location, location, location!
I think the one thing that could sell this place alone is location. Not only is it centrally located in Honolulu but it also is quite honestly the only resort on Waikiki with prime beach access. This is where you want to stay if you want to be in the hustle and bustle of the city of Honolulu, but not on busy Waikiki itself. The resort is closer to the marina, but from the beach you have postcard views of Diamond Head in the distance.
On arrival, you drive through the Rainbow Bazaar, a small through street with a marketplace of shops and restaurants on either side. You pull up to the open air lobby building where you can leave the car on idle while you get yourself checked in. They aren't greeting you with the leis like Disney did on arrival, but the guest service was just as superb. Once checked in, you're given a full map of the property, which is lined by 8 towers, 5 pools, and various shops and restaurants (even beyond the Bazaar). Like Aluani, parking is not include - you have the option of valet for $52/daily or self park at $45/daily. If you opt to self park, the garage is back at the entrance to the Bazaar and once you're situated, you do have in/out privileges.
The resort feels and is massive! And is only matched with the number of people you see everywhere. It's definitely a different vibe than the "quieter" Aulani as there is a lot of movement here - but it only makes you want to get in on the action. The lobby really is the central point to the resort, but there isn't a spot that grants you an overall view of the resort. Each tower is like a world in itself, each with its own pool, bar, restaurant - but best of all, you have full access to the whole village while you're here! Beyond the Rainbow Tower, you will find the strip of beach that is designed for Hilton guests - though the chairs do come at an extra cost to rent for the day. Also good to note, all beaches are public and aren't just limited to hotel guests (same goes for Aulani). Next to the beach is the manmade lagoon for someone wanting the feel of the ocean but with the calmness of a pool - this is also home to water activities like paddle boarding and paddle boat rentals.
We booked a room without a particular request here, but they upgraded us to a high floor and view of the water. This was a nice change of pace since there really isn't a ground floor room option, and with the sheer magnitude of this resort, I'm not sure I'd want to be so close to the noise. Our room was generous in size, larger than Disney's with room to spare - but the bathroom could have used more square footage to make it easier for a family to utilize!
For this leg of the trip in Hawaii, we wanted to book a place that we could come back to and enjoy but also not feel burdened leaving for the price, as we wanted to see the rest of the island! The price point here made that comfortable to do. We considered other options but all lacked the proximity to the beach we wanted - so we fell for the idea that this was a great resort for the family to relax at after a busy day out. And it really is - there's so much to do & was a great place to wind down at after full days! And on top of that, its in Honolulu - so if your list of things to do include checking off spots on Waikiki, you're right here! Leave the car behind and go for a walk to discover what the city has to offer - that's what we did!
So what does the price include, outside of room?
The price does not include:
Other things to note:
Which One’s for You?
We wanted to start our vacation on a lighter more relaxing note to catch up with the time change, so we enjoyed all we could out of Aulani. But we definitely would not have stayed here if we were leaving to go sightseeing - unless we were DVC members or got an unbelievable price per night. We enjoyed two nights to settle in and get some R&R before our adventure started. It is also not conveniently located to much on the island beyond the North Shore. You may avoid the traffic of Honolulu (which was not that bad), but you would be driving a little farther because of where it is situated. Stay here if you plan to stay PUT here. And if you're even toying with the idea of staying here, do it for at least a few days of your trip. It's definitely a place to visit and you won't regret it - we loved our times to unwind with Disney magic before we visited the beauty of Hawaii!
Hilton Hawaiian Village felt like great place to leave and come back go to. It was a great resort, but I could not imagine spending all my days here just because of the sheer magnitude of the resort. It was a nice place to retreat to after days of fun because we were still able to take in all the amenities without feeling like we missed out, because it did lack some of the magic Disney has. And the price made it even easier to leave - since it was at half the cost of what we paid at Disney. If you want a prime place on Waikiki beach, with ground level pools and a village all its own, this is the place for you! It was a nice way to get wrapped into what Honolulu had to offer and not feel like we were missing out on any magic - because we made what we wanted out of our days when we returned!
Either way you can’t go wrong! But it’s all a matter of what you want from your time in paradise!
Still undecided? Check out our Highlights on Instagram for more information about our time at either resort!
We just got back from Hawaii, and what a trip it was!
But getting there from the east coast is a journey in itself - AND not always cheap or easy!
So we decided to make the most of the long haul and planned a trip out there that wouldn't feel like just travel - but an adventure all its own!
When we were booking our flights to Hawaii, we used the Google Flights matrix to find a price and time combination we were comfortable with. The one stipulation we had was that we wanted to book with Delta for the SkyMiles perks, like free luggage & upgrades, priority access, and the miles we'd inevitably earn. There wasn't much of a price difference between Delta and the carriers, so opted to choose loyalty over anything else. The only thing was, the only flight/price combo we liked was telling us to "Book with a Travel Agent". And knowing that an agent wasn't just going to find that deal for me (some work with air consolidators and this wasn't the case here), I decided to do little research myself.
Save with a Multi-City Ticket
If you're unable to find the ticket price you're looking for, jump over to the airline site and do a multi-city search to see what options you pull up. We ended up going over to Delta's booking system and kept finding the same round trip ticket Google Flights was showing for $200 more each! So we decided to book a multi-city flight instead, only meaning that we told Delta where our layover would be rather than having the system do it for us (and marking it up along the way).
The tickets I found had us flying from Orlando to Seattle with an 8-hour layover and then flying Seattle into Honolulu later that same day (arriving 8pm Hawaiian Standard Time). So instead of searching roundtrip form Orlando > Honolulu and then Maui > Orlando, I chose "Multi-City" and entered the same information for all legs of the trip and searched. And you know what? It gave me the same exact flight but with the prices Google Flights told me I needed an agent to book! Try this trick when booking on your own, to even customize the flights you want.
Except I wasn't comfortable with an 8-hour layover. I mean, it was long enough to leave the airport and do something but it wasn't long enough to do a lot. So I did one last search to see if there was a better option of flying out of Seattle the following day. I stumbled on a morning flight that let us leave Seattle for Honolulu at 8am, rather than try to pack it all in by 5pm that same day. The ticket price was exactly the same, but let us fly out after a day of fun and a full night of rest. So instead of having a tiring almost 24 hour travel day to Honolulu, we took a day for ourselves in Seattle!
And let me tell you, it was the best thing we could've ever done! We took a portion of what we saved and used it to pay for a hotel night in Seattle instead of a plane ticket. Did we feel like we lost time in Honolulu? Not at all! Because now instead of arriving at 8pm HST (which is 2am EST mind you) and losing that time exhausted, waiting to rent a car, getting to a hotel only to go to sleep, we "saved" by staying in Seattle! Not to mention, a hotel in Seattle is SIGNFICANTLY cheaper than a hotel in Hawaii.
Make the Most of your Time!
Anything over a 6-hour layover is technically considered a stopover, which is the time that an airline won't transfer your luggage to the next flight in your segment. This worked just fine for us as we needed our bags to get ready for the next day.
But if you don't have the option of having a place to stay, most airlines offer to hold your baggage for a small fee until you return. That way you can leave the airport to explore and make it back in time to take your next flight. Utilize that long layover to leave and explore and burn off any energy so you will actually sleep on an overnight! Since that wasn't the case for us, as we'd be gaining 6 hours after arriving at our final destination, we booked a hotel for a good night of sleep and made plans for a full day of exploring!
And if you had to hang out at the Sea-Tac Airport for a few hours, it couldn't be a better place to stay! It was fairly easy to get through (though busy, so make sure you have plenty of time for security) and had great dining and shopping options. Added bonus for the littlest ones - a play area all their own!
Where to Stay?
We chose to stay by the airport only because proximity to catch our 8am flight the next morning mattered more than prime location in the city. We booked at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Seattle Sea-Tac Airport which offered free shuttle service to & from the airport AND free breakfast - both essentials on our list since we'd have an early wake-up call! We landed in the Sea-Tac Airport, grabbed our luggage, phoned the hotel and within 15 minutes were picked up by the shuttle and dropped off at the hotel.
The hotel was undergoing some work while we were there, but the front desk agent was extremely apologetic about it and even friendlier on top of that. Our room was (obviously) not ready at our 9am arrival, so they offered to hold our luggage until we returned. We had arrived before breakfast so they invited us to enjoy after check-in and before we went out exploring for the day. We used this time to plan our time there while the kids stocked up on snacks for the road!
When we arrived back later that night, the front desk agent quickly got us checked in and upgraded to a suite. Our keys were ready, our bags set aside for taking (no bell service, but carts available) and an extremely friendly agent to ensure we were set for the night. We appreciated all the extra attention and the generous upgrade offer even though we wouldn't get to use the space as it should have been - but it was a nice perk of booking through a travel planner!
The Holiday Inn Express & Suites Seattle Sea-Tac Airport is also only about a 10 minute walk from the Link Light Rail station that will take you straight into the heart of Seattle for less than $3/adult & $1.50/child (6-12) and after only 30 minutes. You board near the airport hotels at the Angle Lake Station which overlooks a beautiful Angle Lake surrounded by woods. The ride is very smooth and uneventful, and we hopped off at the Downtown Tunnels Station which put us right near the Monorail that would get us to Seattle Center.
The Seattle Center Monorail was originally constructed for the World's Fair and now still serves as a connector between the city and its more known region of Seattle Center (home to the Space Needle). And it makes for a fun ride for kids to get through the city itself in its open-air window filled cars! Worth the $2.50/adult & $1.50/child (5-12) ticket to ride this icon in the city.
Our first stop off the monorail was to the Space Needle, since that was top on the list of things to do in our less than 24 hours in Seattle. Little did we know that the Seattle Center is also home to a host of other great attractions too, including a massive playground that greets visitors on arrival.
The Seattle Center is a gathering place of entertainment, food and events in the heart of the city. This hub is not only home to the Space Needle, but also the Chihuly Garden & Glass, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center, Seattle Center Armory, Museum of Pop Culture, Pacific Science Center, and Seattle Children's Museum to name a few. Had we had more time to spare, we would have definitely used our reciprocal benefit with the Orlando Science Center at the Pacific Science Center since it allowed all of us in for free!
We let them run their hearts (and full stomachs out) as we planned out our day with the next stop down towards the harbor to check out Olympic Structure Park. The walk is a less than a mile from Seattle Center and takes you through some of the most charming neighborhoods. Olympic Structure is a free, open to the public park created by the Seattle Museum of Art and a gorgeous way to use green space right by the water. Taking in the view from here was enough to make you want to venture to the outskirts of the city and see what there is in the beyond.
We returned to take a trip up the Space Needle to get a full view of the city from above. We booked mobile tickets while the kids played, and since they were stamped with a return time, we were able to make other plans in-between. When our time came up, we simply approached the line for a quick security check and then took the spiral up to the elevators. The wait included a visual history of the Space Needle's construction and stories from its inception. Once you've loaded up the elevator, you're taken straight to the top for some breathtaking views! We unfortunately didn't have the clearest day so couldn't fully make out Mount Rainer from up high, but did get to appreciate this city in its full glory!
Once we finished our hours of playing in and around the Seattle Center, we hopped back on the monorail to its original stop and took a small walk to see Pike Place. It was on our list of things to do, but be warned, its overrun by people and traffic so made our time less than enjoyable. But we're happy enough to say we've been there, done that - and even attempted to get a drink in the original Starbucks! But no Starbucks is worth a line of that length - so we just opted for a Starbucks in Seattle instead (it counts, right?!).
We instead walked over in the direction of Pier 53, home of the Seattle Great Wheel to have a full seafood dinner at Ivar's Acres of Calms on Pier 54. The service at this beautiful restaurant on the water was fantastic, only to be topped by how great the food was! We enjoyed our last few hours in Seattle with with a dinner of chowder, scallops and freshly caught King Salmon before preparing to head back for a full night of sleep!
We would’ve loved to explore Seattle a little more but appreciate that we even got a little taste of it! Now we’re itching to go back - to see more of the actual PNW region that Seattle calls home! We’ve started imaging plans to include to hiking to Mt. Rainer, visiting waterfalls and wineries and whale watching off the shore!
Now it's only a matter of when - and what else can we pack into to visiting this incredible place!
Is a Pacific Coast Highway Trip on your bucket list?
It was on ours and so we decided to pack our bags, book a plane ticket, and make our way from SoCal to the Bay Area and explore in between. We didn't nearly cover the vastness of this beautiful stretch of coastal road, but we chose stops that worked for us with certain goals in mind. And we loved every bit of what we saw, and what we wish we had more time to see.
What did our week+ in California look like winding the up the open highway? Read on!
Some prefer to start further south in San Diego but started our trip in LA for reasons all our own!
1. Flight - we flew Delta and wanted a direct flight. Plus, with our Companion Certificate and Skymiles, we only ended up paying about $400 total for the 4 of us to go to west.
2. Location - we wanted to start south and watch the hills turn into cliffs and dramatically change course. Some may argue a trip from north to south would be better since you ride along the coast (rather than the inner most lane), but for us that didn't make a difference on the drive.
3. Disneyland - we wanted to start the trip with a treat for the kids! Capitalize on all the energy they had and use it for something they would truly marvel over.
What to do in LA? What is there not to do?!
After you pick up your rental, head towards Hollywood. You want a picture with the iconic sign and there are some many good spots to get it from, including the Griffith Observatory, which also includes panoramic views all around. If you're heading down to Hollywood Blvd to check out the sights there, head to shopping complex Hollywood and Highland for great views! While you're there, the iconic Hollywood Walk of Fame and Mann's Chinese Theater (where these days you can watch new movie releases at) are within sight.
Hungry? Visit Pink's Hot Dogs for this staple in Hollywood since the 1930s. The giant loaded hot dogs of all varieties were delicious and worth the wait at this counter service restaurant with outdoor seating. Just be warned, parking may be hard to find!
Then make it a point to cruise around greater LA County - from driving down Sunset Strip to admiring all the luxury of Beverly Hills to hitting up the pier in Santa Monica for some fun or even just checking out another city along the shoreline. There's so much to do in LA, you can easily spend a few days here!
This was *the* destination for us on arrival - to spend a few days at Disneyland California! The parks are nestled in the middle of Anaheim and really a world all their own. We highly recommend spending at least two days here, as there's enough to do without feeling rushed.
The resort itself has 3 Disney hotels (Disneyland Hotel, Grand Californian, and Pacific Pier), 2 theme parks (Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure) and the entertainment complex of Downtown Disney. Each park deserves a day all their own to fully immerse and explore AND because there's just that much to do! Promise. They have more attractions per park than the sister parks in Orlando!
There’s so much to cover here we have an article all their own for the parks! Read all about our time at Disneyland and why it quickly became our favorite Disney parks - this alone may be the reason you want to come out here!
Make your way past Malibu and the stunning beach communities of So Cal as you head north up PCH. You'll venture into the beautiful city of Santa Barbara nestled along the coasts and the hills, and upon our arrival, covered in smog. It was such a beautiful piece of real estate as we traveled the highway as, we slowly witnessed the change from relatively flat southern Cali.
We also stumbled up on the mission trail here, where we made a bit of an adventure within one. El Camino Real is a collection of 21 missions from San Diego to Sonoma, each spread out about 30 miles from each other. The Spanish missions, from a time when Spain held strong in California, are the oldest piece of history in the state and a captivating game to play while you're on your road trip. Look for the bell markers to signify the trail of missions as you travel el camino.
We only had time to explore the mission in Santa Barbara durinfbour short stop here, but wish we had spent even more time in this stunning city on the sea.
Does the name sound familiar, 90s babies? Well it should if you're a Clueless fan. It the namesake for the "Pismo Beach Relief" that the movie was fundraising for. And for us it was such a welcome surprise! Just when we thought we left everything So Cal had to offer, here's this little beach town that just exudes everything you want from California.
We spent just enough time here to park and play in the sand, bit could easily have spent hours more. From the beautiful shoreline to the relaxed surfer vibes, this is definitely the place you want to go to when trying to escape the hustle of the big cities and the bustle of Hollywood. It was the quintessential beach town on the California coast and a welcome stop for us to stretch as we made our way to our next stop!
Here's another name sake for you! Finding Dory, anyone?
With the name dropped so often in the movie, once we saw signs that we were approaching, we made sure to make a stop to just say we've been! Morro Bay was a seaside village lined with shiplap buildings and the sea painted with an iconic rock. We stopped to check it out just because our curiosity got the best of us, and we're glad we did!
We drove to the inlet that approached the famous rock and were greeted by a sea of otters sunbathing in the bay! What a fun surprise to encounter and certainly a place that made us want to stick around long enough to see what this town had to offer.
San Simeon is best known for Hearst Castle, and though we would've loved to spend a day there, with two little ones our plans led us elsewhere. Seashore - to be exact - to watch the elephant seals. This detour on our trip was a treat, because what a neat experience it was to encounter these giants literally feet from us. Sparring and barking in their own environment, doing just what nature taught them to do. The kids delighted in getting to see animals in the wild and we loved the chance to get to teach something up close and personal.
For this roadtrip in 2017 though, this was as far north as we were able to go on PCH. The road was shut down in Big Sur due to mudslides, so we were forced to diverge inland ... which ended up being a fortunate accident.
Paso Robles was our serendipity on this trip!
We would never have planned a stop here on our way up, as its not on the PCH. But since we had to diverge because of Mother Nature, we got to explore such a beautiful part of the state! This central California wine country is filled with beautiful rolling hills and fields of wineries in between hills. We even spotted a black bear as we drove these rural areas, making his way around home.
We made a stop on arrival at Four Lanterns, a family-friendly winery offering outdoor seating, live music and space to roam. Once we finished our visit and by the time dinner rolled around, we head to downtown Paso. A quaint town made up of a main city block and with some chic restaurants and an adorable Central Park. We had a wonderful dinner at Artisan, a contemporary concept with fresh meals and delightful drinks. A welcome reward after a day of driving!
Our drive was a shorter one, but to a very anticipated destination! MONTEREY!
Yes, home of Big Little Lies, where we had just dived into in 2017, so we anticipate seeing what this stunning location had to offer. It was a beautiful coastal city, with a downtown to match its charm, and lined with mountain and boats.
The attraction here, beyond the show that mapped it, is Monterey Bay Aquarium - where we spent an afternoon discovering with the kids. Just the fact that at times you're staring at the sea while looking at exhibits is a fascinating concept all its own! The experience was only topped by the visitors we had at the dinner that evening - seals and otters splashing under our prime view table at Domenicos on the Wharf!
The only thing we missed doing in our short stop here is going whale-watching - we would have loved the chance to see these beasts in their natural home!
It wasn’t initially on our itinerary but we made another trip back and hit up this beautiful beach village. Adorably lined with pristine local shops and eats, Carmel was a wonderful find on our second trip out west!
For wine lovers, this is also a smaller wine region. Though the vineyards are few and most require reservations to tour, the town has plenty of wineries to taste what they grow!
We NEEDED to see Big Sur, so before we continued north, we quickly headed back south to see how far we could go before being turned away. And we did not once regret this decision. This drive is absolutely beautiful - more than words can even paint to life. We made it as far as Pfeffier State Park as we drove the winding coast to see the beauty of it all. Only to be turned around and do it all again! We certainly didn't mind.
On arrival back, we made sure to take the 17 Mile Drive which would inevitably take us to world famous Pebble Beach. We completed this trip with a visit to the chilly shore, but feeling every bit much accomplished that we were able to see this gorgeous piece of California real estate on our trip!
We heard so much about Santa Cruz from others that we wanted to check out this beach town and see what it was about!
For starters, the homes lining the cliffs with prime view of the ocean were stunning. All were quintessential California homes as we would imagine them. But we also used this stop to let the kids have some of their kind of fun again. We spent the evening playing on the Boardwalk as a way to wind down the trip.
Carnival food, rides, games and even local beer is exactly what we needed after so much exploring. And as an added bonus, we had the perfect sunset to top off our stay. We would definitely recommend this as a stop for kids of any age!
On the skirts of Silicon Valley, this city felt like a perfect blend of SoCal meets the Bay. This stop was intentional on this trip, to visit a very dear friend and meet he mr baby boy. And she welcomed us to her home to spend the 4th of July by the pool, grilling out, and living like locals!
The day ended with us heading downtown for official celebrations, including fireworks and eating hot dogs from street carts. It was the cherry on top for a way to spend this holiday!
This wouldn’t have been a stop we picked out on our own, but we’re so glad we were introduced to Filoli. The beautiful garden situated in city limits, this places is absolutely worth a detour to see.
The drive there is tree lined upon rolling hills. On arrival, you’re greeted at a majestic house beckoned by acres of beautiful topiaries. Breathtaking is the least of word I could use to describe it! An afternoon spent exploring these wonders is enough but you could easily get lost here for a whole day!
Half Moon Bay
Imagine a picturesque coast washed away by the sea, where the only thing more impressive is the crashing waves offshore. That’s Half Moon Bay. We stopped here to check out the views, and get a little bit of that California sun & sand. We finished the day with lunch and drinks at the Ritz Carlton where we sat at fire pits to take in the breathtaking views
Our final official stop on this trip didn’t come without a little mishap - reminder to always check your safe before leaving your room! We made it all the way to San Fran to get an early morning cable car ride (without the lines) when we realized our mistake.
So we came back later (on a family reunion) and finished this stop. We hopped on cable car at Hyde & ___ and rode it into central San Fran! Goal accomplished. We visited the Painted Ladies, Drive down Lombardi Street, watched the sea lions bark at Pier 39, walked Fisherman’s Wharf and ate at Boudin Bakery - all the iconic SF things to do!
If you want a quick overview of the city, hop on a double decker! It’s the easiest way to get a lay of the land and figure out the areas you want to explore more! We recommend a stop in the Japanese Tea Garden for some serenity in the city! If you want something a little different to explore (and you’re a fan like us), the Walt Disney Museum at the Presidio is the perfect place to learn about his legacy and see his dreams come to life. Bonus, you get some scenic views of the Golden Gate Bridge!
But make sure your finish your trip with a visit to Baker’s Beach for the most spectacular view of the Golden Gate! If you come at sunset, you can watch the day fade to night while your backdrop is painted all sorts of lovely colors.
Need dinner plans? Cliff House is at land’s end, where San Francisco begins as they proclaim! The spot is perfect for a seafood feast and great views. Sweet tooth? You can’t forget Ghiradelli’s - because what’s a visit without a stop!
If you’re headed across the Golden Gate to Sausalito, you can’t skip one of the best things on this side of the bay. Take time to explore Muir Woods and the glory of these fantastic creations of God. The forest will leave you speechless, and if you time out coming at the right time of day, you’ll have a special experience.
We arrived after the park office closed but before the park did, which granted us free entry and plenty of spots to park on site. The best part of this though was the stillness that overtakes the park when it’s not run over by crowds. It truly makes you feel at one with nature and in deep respect for it. On your way down, take in the views of the ocean meets the mountains, it’s another moment that can stop you in your tracks.
And if you’ve worked up an appetite from all that exploring, make sure to make a final stop at In-N-Out if you haven’t yet! There’s something special about this place with the simplicity in its food, burgers and fries with a sauce all their own that you’ll be dreaming of for years to come! Take it up a notch and get your order Animal Style for a truly unforgettable experience. Best off all, there’s always an In-N-Out en route to satisfy your craving!
If you have time, add in Napa and Sonoma to your plans! This region is so different from everything else there is out there and worth a post all it’s own about the places to check out - with or without kids!
Summer is here, and that means this season brings on all the road trips!
Whether you already have one planned or you're counting on making plans on the whim, the dog days of summer are the perfect time to do it.
Road trips can be as short and easy or as long and thought out as you want them to be. But most of all, they need to fun!
So what makes it work? We just had a few of our friends come back from their own adventures so we teamed up with them for extra advice on what made for smooth sailing, as close to perfect as possible!
1. Have a plan. Or at the very least know what you intend of this trip. It doesn't mean you have to have every minute scheduled, but knowing things like when you want to arrive, help to decide when you want to hit the road. And with that, plan accordingly to help make the drive as smooth as possible. The map may say you'll get there at one time ... but traffic, pit stops, and a barrage of other diversions say another.
Knowing when you're planning to leave can also help as you prepare for the trip. Getting the car ready is half the battle when leaving - the other is getting the little ones well-rested for an ungodly hours wake-up call. If you know you're going to hit the road for an early morning drive, have the car loaded the night before. It'll save you the trouble of waking up the lightest sleeper (and forgetting something while you meander half asleep). If you're planning to leave during the day, run out your little ones so they nap on the road. And if your plans involve a meal time departure, make sure you have food thought out - either pack a meal to-go OR make a special stop to start the trip. Nothing can ruin a road trip like hangry people - of all ages and sizes!
When talking about her drive up the east coast, Kristin H. also made the great suggestion of planning drives around traffic patterns. Ideally avoid rush hours in major cities so you're not wasting any precious time, energy or gas! Make it a point to stop during those hours so that everyone can stretch rather than sit in extra long traffic lanes.
2. Bring ALL the snacks! An essential part of road trip success is food - it can make even the hangriest person human again. Just like we mentioned when planning for a trip with little ones, you will be saved with having this one crucial item. Kids especially are never going have an appetitie when its convenient and a pit stop for food may not always be in the optimal location. While packing, make a few intentional grocery store trips and pick up a mix of snacks that can get you through a car trip.
And make it a point to find stuff on sale to stock up on We love Publix and their weekly Buy One, Get One sales and always grab extra to stash when we find unbeatable prices. Wholesale stores can also make all the difference when it comes to this - especially if you're going to be gone for an extended time. Head over to Costco, BJ, Sam's Club or the like and see what you can grab in bulk with savings at your fingertips. Best of all, make a special trip out of it with the kids once you grabbed all the essentials and let them pick out one special treat for the road!
What do you pack? For us, our non-negotiables are:
We load a cooler in the trunk and easily inventory what we have. We try to bring very little of anything that needs to be refrigerated and load up along the way. We also bring a little bit of each snack to the front of the car in a collapsible cooler bag so we can have easy access when anyone gets the munchies. The smaller cooler is also great to transport food in and out of hotels when you don't need or want to bring the whole cooler in.
A collapsible cooler is also worth investing in for a road trip you're flying into! We've done trips where we're eating out of the grocery bags we shopped with, but to have a cooler makes a huge difference in keeping the mess down! We love our SOMMAR cooler bag from IKEA from a few seasons back - the size is great and the price even better. It's currently out of stock, so if you ever come across it, snatch it!
3. Essentials to pack? Just like planning for a trip, we have our list of items that make the trip a little easier. We keep a running spreadsheet that we clean up and edit every time we learn something new and try to allow ourselves an easier system when packing.
Beyond the usual stuff that you'll bring, here are some of our tried and true suggestions that help make trips a little easier.
4. Activities & Entertainment. Once you made a trip for food, make sure to make a special shopping trip for activities too! Or in my case, two trips - one where I'll get some things I know can easily distract and one where the kids pick out something shiny and new.
The Dollar Store and Target are heaven-sent for these trips, as they both have the greatest variety of delights and greatest bang for your buck! Having a small box of crayons and coloring packs for each child is the #1 item to have on the road or for going out to eat. That way, they each have their own special loot that can (hopefully) eliminate fighting.
Books are always a hit with us, so we make a trip to the library to get a few to have. It will continue to spark their love of reading when the book has a theme to match your special trip, so try to look for some specific to what you're doing! Want to try something else fun? Check for a Little Free Library in your neighborhood before you go - "the leave a book, get a book" concept fuels a global community of readers to share what they love. So if you "check" one out from a local box, if you find another while you're on the road and you're done with said book, return it for a new book, from a new city/state! Want to make it personal? Leave a little handmade bookmark for the next reader in the book your return - write down where the book has been on to encourage the next to do the same. I'm sure any bookworm would delight in knowing that they're spreading their love of reading all over (and finding it too)!
Games, whether the store bought kind or self-generated, are the greatest ways to keep everyone in the car happy too! Kristin H. says she loves playing eye spy or how many "cows, flags, trucks, etc" counting games. License plate and find the sign games are also fun, and engage their curiosity to ask more as you talk. Open the dialogue to teach them about where you are and learn something new together! For when you stop, pack a good age appropriate, family-friendly game for nights in. Make sure they are tried & true so you know it was worth taking! Monopoly is our family favorite - easy to play at any age because just the newness of pulling stacks of cards and wads of money keeps our youngest entertained. Trivia games or Uno are also fun to pair off for some fun parent/child team competition. I promise whatever you decide to do will make for an unforgettable evening!
It's also not beneath us to let the kids watch some movies or play some games on the iPad. It's a nice treat during road trips and definitely a welcoming resource, particularly near nap times. Just let the rocking of the car, a good show (or movie) and a tired kid combination allow for a little shut eye. All of you will need some quiet time so if you're willing to allow even a little screen time, it's a break - for all of you!
Lastly, we always like to make sure to have a notebook/pen on hand for journaling/doodling about our trip, and stamps ready to send out postcards from our destinations. Sending postcards to friends has easily beomce our greatest delight on our trips - from picking out something special for that person, getting to practice writing to them, and then hearing about when they received. And knowing we'll get our own in return - it's the sweetest gift that keeps on giving!
5. The drive itself. Try to break the drive into smaller segments to make sure that no one is going to go stir crazy. This particularly helps with any road trip longer than 4 hours. Make it a point to find something at the 5-6 hour mark to stop at, whether it means stopping for a meal, to do some quick sightseeing, or a break for an overnight. This is the whole point of the road trip! Its not only cheaper to drive but it so much more fun to have a journey full of exploring!
Need some guided suggestions? Download the app Roadtrippers to find random things along your route to make the drive even more fun! Others plus in local attractions that can easily make a detour worth it. Social media forums are also a great place to ask questions and pull fun ideas from what to see, things to do or places to eat while you're on the go! And if all else fails, rely on your friends! Nothing beats a suggestion from a friend you trust - they will have your best intentions in mind!
What else should you count on? Not making any plans too close to your tentative arrival. Don't hard schedule something time sensitive as anything can come up. Don't make the trip a race against the clock - this means anything that can't be flexed should not be done on arrival. You could run into too many factors you can't control so allow yourself time to relax, unwind, and then if you have must-do plans, save them for the next day!
6. Pack Patience. Patience is a virtue and it really can be tested on the road. Don't get frustrated in the midst of planning, because something will always pop up. Just control what you can and roll with the punches. Don't let yourself get unhinged if something doesn't go to "plan" - make the best of what came up and turn to plan B. Sometimes its better than A!
Our trip up the Pacific Coast Highway had a unfortunate encounter as we were planning it the weeks leading up. Mudslides shut the most gorgeous part of the highway off forcing us to move our trip inland to head north. As much of a fork in our plans this was, we did our best to research and came up with an alternative. And you know what, it ended up being better than we imagined! We were able to see a part of California that is beautiful in its own right (and does not receive enough credit) AND we still get to visit the monumental parts of the highway that were unaffected. And we know we can pick up from where we left off AND have a few other places to see in a little more detail!
Remember, its the journey not (always) the destination when you're planning to hit the open road. Make the best and enjoy every moment - the smallest ones will sometimes turn into the brightest memories without knowing you're actually making them!
Feel a little more ready for your trip? We sure hope you do! We know we didn't possibly cover everything that could to make these trips work. So if you have any suggestions you want to pass on, we'd love to hear - comment below!
Otherwise, happy and safe travels!