Nomad by Trade

A travel blog for the kid at heart.

Tag: North America (Page 1 of 2)

Alberta Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park

Hiking Alberta Falls

The Alberta Falls trail is fairly easy and offers a rewarding view of a cool little waterfall. The trail to the falls is about 1.6 miles, and hikers can continue past the waterfall for a few miles to view some scenic lakes and ponds. We decided to turn back after reaching Alberta Falls because we wanted to explore some other areas on our last day, and it made for a perfect morning warm-up hike.

Alberta Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park

The destination

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Mackinac Island from Fort Mackinac

Summer on Mackinac Island

It just so worked out that my birthday fell on a Saturday last summer, and as soon as I realized this, I decided to take a weekend trip somewhere. I picked Mackinac Island, one of my favorite places in my home state. I went there regularly with my family when I was growing up, but I had somehow managed to go eight whole years without visiting, and I was super excited to see it again. Summer on Mackinac Island is perfect and there’s something for all ages and interests.

Mackinac is a little island in Lake Huron between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. No cars (except emergency vehicles) are allowed on the island, and it gives it a charming, old-fashioned atmosphere. Fun fact: it was the US’ second National Park, after Yellowstone, though it is no longer part of the National Park system. Bikes and horses are the preferred methods of transportation during the summer, so we borrowed my parents’ SUV and bike rack to haul our gear Up North (yes, that’s a proper noun in these parts) and hit the road for the weekend.

Hotels on the island and in the closest cities (Mackinaw City in the Lower Peninsula and St. Ignace in the Upper) are crazy expensive for summer weekends. The Holiday Inn Express in St. Ignace (I’ve found that the hotels on the UP side are slightly cheaper) was going for almost $500/night when I was trying to make reservations six months in advance. Instead, I opted to stay at Straits State Park, a gorgeous campground right at the base of the Mackinac Bridge and we took a ferry over first thing in the morning.

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First Timer’s Guide to the Garden of the Gods

I’d somehow never heard of Garden of the Gods until I started planning a trip to Colorado Springs. As soon as I saw pictures of it, I knew I’d have to visit. It’s an incredible naturally formed area full of red rock formations that will dazzle you. I loved wandering through the enormous boulders and spires and marveling at the power of nature. Bring your camera and some hiking boots and be prepared to explore some awe-inspiring scenery. Best of all? It’s free!

What to Do

Perkins Central Gardens Trail

Kissing Camels formation in Garden of the Gods Colorado Springs

So cute!

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Niagara Falls State Park

After spending the weekend on the Canadian Side of Niagara Falls, I decided to pay a visit to Niagara Falls State Park, on the New York side. Not only does it offer the closest overlooks of the falls, but it’s the oldest state park in the country. Even better: it’s open 24/7, so you can experience the majesty of the falls any time of day.
American Falls lit up at night viewed from Niagara Falls State Park in New York

I went back at night a few weeks later to see the lights.

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An Ode to Wishes

The Magic Kingdom’s nighttime fireworks spectacular, Wishes, will soon be performing its final show. It has been inspiring guests to trust their heats and make wishes since it debuted in 2003. As a former Cast Member who spent several months working at the park, I’m particularly attached to Wishes and was devastated to hear of its upcoming finale. Wishes’ replacement, Happily Ever After, is slated to have its opening performance on May 12th. The clips of the new show that have been released look very good, but before we welcome that new show, it’s time to look back at what has made Wishes so magical for so many years.

From the iconic flares that kick the show off to the castle-framing fans of light to that evil face that I was always determined to see right-side up to the spectacular beauty of the finale, Wishes was not to be missed. No fireworks show will ever capture my heart quite the way Wishes did.

Wishes fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World - Orlando, Florida

Who would think something as simple as a flare would be such a dramatic part of the show?

Being an intern at Disney World meant working the closing shift, and while that had the downside of ending late at night most of the time, it also included the perk of daily Wishes viewing and/or listening. Within a few weeks, those of us who worked at night had seen and heard the show so many times that we could tell how far into the performance it was based on just the sound of the firework bursts. The soundtrack wasn’t played in the ride station, and even though it’s open air, you couldn’t see the fireworks in the station, but we quickly learned to judge how far along the show was by the sound of the explosions echoing through the park. The light, airy bursts from the love section, the crackling sizzle that accompanied the villains portion, and the thundering booms leading up to the finale were as distinct as the music that accompanied them. This wasn’t just fun – it was a valuable skill on nights when the park remained open after Wishes, because the end of the show would signal an upcoming rush of people wanting to board.

Wishes fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World - Orlando, Florida

That silhouette still makes me smile.

If there weren’t many guests around to load and unload, we’d have our own sing-alongs providing an off-key, but spirited soundtrack to the invisible fireworks. And, let’s face it, sometimes the presence of guests didn’t even deter us from performing – hey, they call us Cast Members at Disney because we we’re all part of the show, right?

Wishes fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World - Orlando, Florida

It’s even pretty when viewed from across the Seven Seas Lagoon!

By the end of our time working there, Wishes was so ingrained in my heart that it would bring a tear to my eye during the finale. That’s also when my favorite firework of all time explodes – the biggest, loudest shimmery gold one you can imagine. Wishes was an almost nightly ritual for several months, and I spent my last evening as a Cast Member standing on Main Street singing along. Just like certain songs can transport you back to a place and time that you remember fondly, this 12.5-minute long combination of lights, music, fireworks, and a flying fairy will always make me think of some of my happiest days.

Wishes fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World - Orlando, Florida

This one! This is my favorite firework of all time.

I tried to make it back to Orlando to watch it one last time, but the whole full-time job thing made that impractical. I’ll have to console myself with listening to the soundtrack over and over again. As luck would have it, I’ve taken enough pictures over the years that I could probably reconstruct it if I arranged them all together. These are some of my favorites.

Wishes fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World - Orlando, Florida

What would you wish for?

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“When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are.”

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“If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme.”

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This is perfection.

Wishes fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World - Orlando, Florida

The genie has some wishes to grant!

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Uh oh, be careful what you wish for.

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Always let your conscience be your guide.

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Good news: the Blue Fairy is here to save the day.

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The Hercules music used in this section is perfect.

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“Wishes! Dream a dream. Wishes! Set it free.”

Wishes fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World - Orlando, Florida

“Wishes! Trust your heart. Just believe!”

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And the grand finale.

I know Wishes isn’t the height of all entertainment, but it will always be near and dear to my heart. I have so many amazing memories associated with this show, and it’s the only way I want to end my evening at Disney World.

Check out this incredible video by OnlyHDVideos:

Do you have any fond memories of Disney shows or attractions?

Planning to go visit Disney World solo? Here are some tips to make the most of your trip.

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The Wishes firework spectacular is ending its 13-year run at the Magic Kingdom. Look back on some great memories and photographs with a former Cast Member.Pin - Wishes2The Wishes firework spectacular is ending its 13-year run at the Magic Kingdom. Look back on some great memories and photographs with a former Cast Member.

The Evening Tourist – The Pez Factory

I love crazy evening adventures. Especially ridiculous ones that are a little cheesy. They’re exactly the kind of thing needed to break up the monotony of hotel living and keep you sane on the road. And also I’m pretty much just an overgrown child.

 

While on a business trip to southern Connecticut, I discovered that we were only a few minutes down the road from the Pez factory in Orange, CT. Not only does the factory have a visitor center and museum, but it was also open until 6 pm, giving us exactly one hour between when we would finish working and when it would close. (Hours vary seasonally, and winter closings are a bit earlier.)
Giant Pez candies at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, CT

I’d like to take these giant candies home, please.

I had convinced a co-worker to go with me, so at exactly 5:00 we shut our laptops down and headed to the car. It was a quick ride down the interstate and we found the factory easily. As part of your admission, you also get a store credit (it’s a great way to encourage you to spend even more money in the shop, and sadly worked quite well on both of us).

 

We also got bingo cards that had a bunch of specific Pez dispensers on it and to mark off each square, you had to locate that dispenser and write the year it was manufactured. You only needed to get a bingo to earn a free Pez dispenser, but we were determined to fill out our entire cards. Thanks to some excellent teamwork, we were able to find all but two of them. The ladies behind the counter spun the Wheel of Pez (A very catchy name I made up myself) and I earned a polar bear one that I regifted to my sister when I got home.
Giant Pez dispenser at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, CT

That’s one tall Pez dispenser.

You’re greeted at the door by an enormous Pez dispenser that opens and closes with a motor. It would’ve been a lot easier to pose with it if I wasn’t so darn short.

 

The museum isn’t huge, but it was a fun way to kill a couple hours if you’re in the area. There is some history about the candy and dispensers along the wall. I had no idea that Pez started out as peppermints from Vienna. It does explain the name though, as pfefferminz is the German word for peppermint.

 

The main display is cases upon cases of old Pez dispensers. Looking at the oldest ones was interesting because some of them were pretty creepy.
Vintage Tinkerbell Pez dispensers at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, CT

Tink is looking a little scary there.

I was also pretty jealous of a set of Canada-exclusive NHL ones that I would’ve loved to have had a chance to buy.
Zamboni Pez dispensers at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, CT

I would totally shell out for a Red Wings one.

I quite liked these Pez dispenser guns and totally would’ve purchased one if they’d had them in the store.
Vintage Pez dispenser guns at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, Connecticut

 

This display showing how different colors are molded together to make the figures on top was interesting too.
Anna from Frozen Pez dispenser at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, Connecticut

 

You could peek into the factory through some windows at the back, but there wasn’t much to see. The area closest to the viewing spot had a couple workers mixing different shaped dispensers together for individual wrapping, followed by grouping into a variety pack.

Pez dispensers being packaged at the Pez factory in Orange, CT

 

My favorite part might’ve been the Pez dispenser head photo op. You can basically pose for a picture with your face on top of a Pez dispenser stick so it looks like you’re about to eject some little candy tablets. There were a variety of hats you could use as props, but I went with just plain, old me.
Pez dispenser photo op at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, Connecticut

I guess I’m famous now that my head is on a Pez dispenser.

Nearby, there was an opportunity to make your own Pez dispenser. There were a bunch of different shaped bases that kids (or fun adults) could color to make their own designs. These cost money, but weren’t any more expensive than the other items in the store. I didn’t make one for myself because I’m pretty lacking in the creativity and drawing department, but in hindsight, I kind of wish I had given it a shot.
Detroit Tigers Pez dispensers displayed at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, CT

After the obligatory pass through the Pez store (We had to spend the free credits that came with our tickets, after all), we headed out, with five whole minutes to spare before closing time. Not bad for an after-work adventure.

The Pez Visitor Center in Orange, Connecticut offers fun for families and adults.The Pez Visitor Center in Orange, Connecticut offers fun for families and adults.

A Weekend in Niagara Falls

While I was working in the Buffalo area, I had to stay out there for a weekend. Since it’s so close to Niagara Falls, and Niagara Falls is only a few hours from home, I invited my boyfriend to join me on a semi-work-funded mini-vacation. Niagara Falls is the perfect weekend destination. There’s just the right amount of scenery, attractions, and nightlife to keep you entertained in any season.

Wandering Buffalo

He had to drive in from Detroit after working a full day, so I had Friday evening to kill on my own. I decided to head to downtown Buffalo to find some dinner, but quickly realized that that wasn’t in the cards because the Sabres had a home game that night. I wandered around a little looking for somewhere to pull over so I could look up some other areas on my phone and ended up stumbling across an outdoor hockey rink with a bar and restaurant attached. That was good enough for me, so I grabbed a seat at the bar and watched some kids play through the glass. It was such a cool location right along the river and as a life-long hockey addict, I loved hearing the sounds of pucks and skates echoing while I had my dinner.

Outdoor hockey rink in Buffalo, New York

When I was done eating, I decided that it was time to head up to Niagara Falls to check into the hotel. I had booked the Holiday Inn on the Canadian side because it’s super cheap (at least during the winter), only a couple blocks from the falls, and I generally have good experiences at IHG properties. I had looked and looked to try to find a reasonably priced room with a view of the falls, but I ended up choosing price over such niceties and was generally pleased. I also appreciated the free parking right on site.

Waterfall Fireworks

I was planning to wait to go see the falls until the next morning with my boyfriend, but the hotel clerk mentioned that there were fireworks displays on Friday nights and I wasn’t going to pass up a chance to see fireworks over a waterfall. I walked down to the overlook and tried to find a spot that would allow me to see the fireworks over the Canadian falls. This would’ve required a lot more walking than I was prepared to do at that point because the location the fireworks were being shot off from was further down by the American falls.

Fireworks display at Niagara Falls

The fireworks show was nothing mind-blowing, but it was kind of neat. It’s definitely a unique setting for a display like that. It wasn’t very crowded on a Friday night in December, but I would imagine it could be pretty crowded in more popular tourist seasons. The fireworks don’t go up very high, so getting there early to grab a spot by the railing would be a good idea if it looks like it’s going to be crowded.

Of course, the lights on the falls provide a spectacular enough view that there’s really no need to dress them up any further, but fireworks are always appreciated by this blogger.

The Main Attraction

If you’re visiting Niagara Falls, you’re obviously going to spend some time enjoying the view of Mother Nature’s handiwork. When we got up the next morning, we grabbed breakfast across the street from the hotel at the Fallsview Casino. We ate at the Famous Diner, a little restaurant with thoroughly cute décor and delicious food.

American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls in Niagara Falls, New York

The American side. The Canadians definitely won the waterfall game.

After that, we started our walk along the overlooks at the falls. We stopped to take pictures from every imaginable angle, of course. My boyfriend had never been there before, and it had been years since I visited, so we took our time enjoying the view. You get the best wide-angle view from a little ways down the walkway, but don’t miss the chance to look straight down at the brink of the falls. The thunderous roar and sight of the water rushing over the edge really gives you a feel for the power of the river as it tumbles downward.

Brink of Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Ontario

Clifton Hill

I had discovered a coupon for a thing called a Beaver Tail in one of the guidebooks at the hotel, and as a lover of all things sugary, I absolutely had to have one. We walked down to Clifton Hill, what I would classify as the cheesy tourist area of Niagara Falls, and hunted down the delicious fried pastries covered in an assortment of sugary toppings. It’s both very good and infuriating that there isn’t an easily accessible location where I can get these little bites of heaven on a regular basis.

Beaver tails on Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls

This was eight kinds of delicious.

If you’re looking for family fun, this is the place you want to be. Every corner had attractions ranging from fun houses to wax museums to Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Even on a chilly day in the off-season, it was bustling with people.

Exploring outside of town

We opted out of the cheesy tourist attractions (sadly, the Maid of the Mist boats were not running since it was winter) and instead hopped into the car to drive up to the whirlpool where the river takes a sharp turn to the right. It’s so pretty up there and we got a good view from the cable car platforms that were closed for the season. We decided to keep going up to Niagara-on-the-Lake and stopped at a few other scenic overlooks along the way.

Whirlpool at Niagara Falls

Niagara-on-the-Lake was a cute little town, but it was swarmed with crowds of people that day. There appeared to be some sort of festival going on, but we couldn’t figure out what it was. We ended up finally finding a place to park at a little lakeside park, so we walked down to Lake Ontario and climbed around some of the boulders on the shore.

Dinner with a view at the Skylon Tower

We had dinner reservations at the rotating restaurant at the Skylon Tower for their early prix fixe meal. This also entitled us to a free trip to the top of the tower. Don’t make the mistake we did – go early for your reservation. We showed up with enough time to ride to the top before our time slot, but we ended up seated in the interior of the restaurant behind a tall group of people (seriously good genes in that family) so we couldn’t see anything out the windows.

American Falls in Niagara Falls, New York lit up at night

Since that was kind of the point of eating there, I asked if there was anywhere to move. All of the window tables were full, but we were offered a pager to wait for one to clear. We decided to do that and headed up to the observation deck to kill some time before we could eat. When our buzzer rang, we went back down and were seated at a perfect table, but discovered that we were no longer allowed to order off of the prix fixe menu. It made dinner a LOT more expensive, and I wished that the staff had told us that waiting for a table would mean that we’d have to take the late dinner menu.

The food was delicious though, and even my boyfriend who hadn’t been feeling great all day downed his entire dinner. You really can’t beat the view from up there, and my boyfriend was excited to have his first meal in a rotating restaurant. I’d never been up in the tower on my previous visits, and getting an aerial view of the falls was amazing. They’re especially beautiful at night, and spending that much time up in the tower gave us a chance to see the lights rotate through the different color patterns.

We had also gotten free tickets to the Skylon Tower from the hotel, so we decided to use those the next morning to check out the view during the day. I wouldn’t have paid to go up again, but since they were free there wasn’t much sense in letting them go to waste. Daylight definitely brings a different perspective to the falls. Whereas the lights at night give them a soft, dreamy feel, seeing the roaring water tumbling down into the gorge during the day gives a much more impressive insight into the raw power of mother nature.

Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Canada from the Skylon Tower

Ice wine

This part of Ontario is actually quite famous for its wine. The Canadian climate also provides for a unique type of treat: ice wine. This super sweet local specialty is made by allowing grapes to freeze on the vine and then very quickly harvesting them while they’re still frozen. I don’t know a lot about the wine-making process (outside of that one episode of I Love Lucy), but the freezing process somehow makes the wine extra sugary, which, as noted above, is exactly my kind of thing.

We took the ice wine home and drank it a couple weeks later and it was incredible. I’m not a wine fan at all, but this was so sweet it was more like drinking juice. It’s hard (and expensive) to find elsewhere, but if you find yourself in the Ontario wine region at any point, definitely make a point to try it.

Have you visited Niagara Falls? What’s your favorite thing to do there? Let me know in the comments.

Read about another winter weekend adventure in Canada, and my visit to the other side of the Falls:

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Niagara Falls is the perfect weekend destination. There's just the right amount of scenery, attractions, and nightlife to keep you entertained in any season.

Niagara Falls is the perfect weekend destination. There's just the right amount of scenery, attractions, and nightlife to keep you entertained in any season. Niagara Falls is the perfect weekend destination. There's just the right amount of scenery, attractions, and nightlife to keep you entertained in any season. Niagara Falls is the perfect weekend destination. There's just the right amount of scenery, attractions, and nightlife to keep you entertained in any season.

Highlights of a couples weekend in Niagara Falls, including the best sights, dining, the Skylon Tower, and ice wine.Pin - Niagara2Pin - Niagara3Pin - Niagara4

Six Reasons to Visit Michigan This Spring

Spring in Michigan is a wonderful time when the gray of winter melts away and blue skies, green grass, and colorful flowers return to the state. As temperatures reach the 50s, you’ll see residents – like me! – sporting shorts and flip flops and flocking to local parks to enjoy the outdoors. There’s a lot going on as the state comes back to life. Here are six reasons to visit Michigan this spring.

Marche du Nain Rouge in Detroit, Michigan

Photo by Stephen Pham

Marche du Nain Rouge

The Nain Rouge, French for “red dwarf,” is a legendary creature that has been described in local Detroit lore for centuries. Reported sightings typically precede disasters like the 19th century fire that destroyed much of the city, the surrender during the War of 1812 that handed the city over to the British temporarily, and the 1967 riot.

Marche du Nain Rouge in Detroit, Michigan

Photo by Kate Sassak

In recent years on a weekend day in late March, residents have banded together to banish the Nain Rouge from the city to prevent disasters from striking in the upcoming year. Participants often dress in costumes  – some in a Mardi Gras style – so that if the Nain Rouge returns the following year, he won’t be able to recognize them to take revenge. There is a lively parade down Cass Avenue in the Midtown area, followed by a ceremonial burning of the dwarf in effigy. And who knows? Maybe it’s working. Since the first Marche du Nain Rouge in 2010, the city has seen steady improvements, new businesses, and a rebounding population. It’s fun. It’s quirky. It’s unlike anything else. Read about this year’s event schedule here.

Detroit Tigers game at Comerica Park

Tigers Opening Day

There’s something magical about the start of a new baseball season. Combined with the gradually warming weather and lengthening days, Opening Day in early April brings a sense of reawakening to the city after a long, cold winter. The Tigers haven’t won the World Series since 1984, but that doesn’t stop their faithful fans from throwing a party before the first game of the season. Many co-workers and classmates will be suspiciously absent from offices and schools as playing hooky to attend the game is a time-honored tradition for many.

Bars around Comerica Park pull out all of the stops with live music, parties, and outdoor barbeques. Don’t have a ticket to the game? Don’t let that stop you from joining in the fun. Grand Circus Park hosts a block party sponsored by the local sports radio station which features a projection of the game on a large screen for those fans unable to make it into the stadium. More info about the block party here.

Tulips in Holland, Michigan

Photo by Ken Westveld

Tulip Time

Holland, a small town on the western side of the state, is famous for its Dutch heritage. For two weekends each May, the city comes to life for the Tulip Time festival celebrating its Dutch heritage and famous tulips. Events and attractions are scattered throughout the city and visitors can experience everything from parades and Dutch folk dances to concerts carnival rides. Food is plentiful and sure to satisfy all diners. You can even tour a working Dutch windmill. Amidst all of the fun, don’t forget to take time to enjoy the magnificent tulip gardens the festival is named for. More information about the festival can be found here.

Flower Day at Eastern Market in Detroit, Michigan

Photo courtesy of the Eastern Market Corporation

Eastern Market Flower Day

If you haven’t had enough flowers at Tulip Time, make sure to attend Flower Day at Eastern Market, a large public market area in Detroit. The area is fantastic year round, but it especially shines on Flower Day. Each year on the Sunday after Mother’s Day growers of flowers pack the market area with beautiful flowers for shoppers to peruse. This annual tradition, dating back to the 1960s, allows buyers to browse through a large selection and interact with the growers for tips to keep them blooming. Food trucks and live music will also be featured during the event. More info here.

View from Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island, Michigan

Mackinac Island Lilac Festival

Mackinac Island is a small island located between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas in Lake Huron. It’s a spectacular tourist destination that allows visitors to step back in time to an age without motorized vehicles and enjoy the scenery on bikes or in horse drawn carriages. For ten days in early June, the island celebrates the beautiful lilac trees that bloom during the spring.

Festival highlights include a 10k run/walk as well as a kids’ race, concerts, a parade, wine tastings, and a dog and pony show. Enjoy a carriage tour or explore the island’s natural beauty on your own. Don’t forget to pick up some of the island’s famous fudge while you’re there. Learn more about the Lilac Festival here.

Fountain at the Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak, Michigan

Springtime at the Detroit Zoo

The Detroit Zoo, located in the suburb of Royal Oak, offers great animal encounters year-round. It really shines during the spring, as I’ve found that the animal are most active during this time of year. While many of the animals prefer to rest during the hot summer days, cooler spring weather offers the perfect opportunity to see them actively exploring their habitats.

The zoo offers several events and lectures throughout the spring as well. There is an Earth Day celebration called GreenFest, which features crafts, zookeeper talks, and a community art project. The zoo also offers guests discounted admission if they bring a cell phone to recycle that day. Adults will also enjoy the Zoo Brew event in May, which gives guests over the age of 21 access to the zoo until twilight hours, as well as live music and samples of beer from Michigan craft breweries.

What are your favorite things about springtime in Michigan? Did I miss something that should be on the list? Let me know in the comments.

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6 Reasons to visit Michigan this spring

6 Reasons to visit Michigan this spring

Six reasons to visit Michigan in Spring

A Weekend Escape to Ottawa, Ontario

Being from the Detroit area, I’m a huge Red Wings fan (see my post about the necessity of visiting their old arena before it closes here). My boyfriend got a crazy idea to take a weekend roadtrip to Ottawa to see a Wings game that happened to fall on a Saturday night. I say “crazy idea” because it’s an eight-hour drive each way and plane tickets there were cost-prohibitive.

As luck would have it, Toronto falls almost exactly halfway between Detroit and Ottawa, so we hit the road Friday night after work and drove about four hours to a hotel in the Toronto suburbs. Both of us have low-mileage leases on our cars, so I used Enterprise points to rent a car for the weekend. I also used IHG points for the two nights in hotels, so thanks to my endless work travels, we ended up with a pretty cheap getaway.

Parliament Hill

I had planned on getting to Ottawa around noon, but we sort of slept in a little longer than planned and didn’t actually get there until around two. Whoops. We wanted to see as much as we could in the few short hours before the hockey game, so we headed straight to Parliament Hill.

Parking was a challenge, but we ended up with a space not too far away that was free but required climbing through mid-calf deep snow to get in and out of the car. I was ok with it.

Parliament building in Ottawa, Canada

The Parliament building

The Parliament Hill buildings were gorgeous. I loved the Gothic revival architecture style. They looked especially gorgeous with snow covering the ground in front of them.

When we were done taking pictures, we went into the visitor center across the street to see if we could grab a couple of the free tickets to tour inside the building. All they had left was one ticket to the French language tour that was departing in about 45 minutes, but the lady at the desk was nice enough to overbook the group by one so we could both go.

Unfortunately, neither one of us speaks French. I thought we might be able to pick up on a little since there are plenty of cognates between the two languages, but I was sorely mistaken. Having English speakers thrown in on the tour must be fairly common though because right at the start, our tour guide announced that if anyone who didn’t speak French had questions in English about something, she’d be happy to answer them one-on-one after she got through her main dialogue.

If the French language tour is your only option, it’s still worth going even if you can’t understand the guide. I made mental notes about things I was curious about and either asked the guide individually, found the answers in brochures, or googled them later. I would’ve been disappointed if we had missed out on touring the building because we skipped the French tour.

Despite the language barrier, I loved the tour. I have a weird thing about visiting capital cities and seeing seats of government, and this was no different. The architecture was gorgeous inside.

House of Commons in Ottawa, Canada

The House of Commons

We got to see both houses of Parliament. We could only peek through the windows at the House of Commons, but got to enter into a small viewing gallery in the Senate.

The government chambers were neat, but the most spectacular part for me was the Library of Parliament. I have a thing for gorgeous libraries and this one did not disappoint. The huge round room was ringed with tiers of books on beautifully carved shelves and decorated with coats of arms for the seven provinces that existed when it was built. I wanted to go full-on Belle and find a ladder to swing along the shelves on, but we couldn’t actually touch any of the books. I would’ve happily sat in a corner and just admired the beauty all day if I was allowed to.

Library of Parliament in Ottawa, Canada

I loved walking through the corridors in the Centre Block. It felt vaguely like Hogwarts in some of the areas.

After we finished our guided tour, we visited the Memorial Chapel. The details in it were astounding. The level of care and dedication that went into designing it with brass shell plating and stones brought from battlefields where Canadians had lost their lives was incredible. The names of all Canadians who have died in the service of their country are listed in books whose pages are turned daily so that every name is shown at least once a year.

Our final stop was the top of the Peace Tower. A quick but cramped elevator ride took us to the top for a great panoramic view of snow-covered Ottawa and Gatineau, Quebec across the river.

View of the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, Ontario

Looking out over the Rideau Canal

I also loved the golden ceiling, which no photograph could ever do justice to. I joked that I was determined to replicate it in my condo, but that was quickly shot down by my boyfriend who’s still a little annoyed by the excessively complicated, Pinterest-inspired paintjob he got dragged into helping with when I bought the place.

Rideau Canal

Before we headed out into the suburbs to go to the hockey game, we walked over to the Rideau Canal. We had missed the Winterlude Festival by one week, which was a huge disappointment, but we wanted to at least walk out onto the frozen canal. Unfortunately, there was some sort of filming going on, so we weren’t allowed to go near the ice.

Rideau Canal in Ottawa, Canada

We walked back toward the Chateau Laurier and looked down on the canal from there. There was a bridge that I’m still not 100% sure I was supposed to climb out on, but there were tons of footprints in the snow leading up to it and going across, so I went for it. It was a little wobbly and slippery, but there were guardrails and I didn’t feel unsafe. My boyfriend chose not to join me though.

Hockey time!

That concluded our Ottawa adventures and we hopped back in the car and headed out to our hotel in Nepean, the city where my hockey idol Steve Yzerman grew up. The location was coincidental and chosen only for proximity to the Canadian Tire Centre, but I was pretty excited about it.

Parking at the arena was a horrific mess. I’m sure repeat visitors have the routine down, but the signage was terrible and we spent almost 40 minutes sitting in traffic, passing by full lots expecting to find other places to park only to discover that there was nowhere to make a left turn or a U-turn beyond that, getting back on the highway to circle around the arena and try again. We barely made it for puckdrop, but once we were in our seats, all of the frustration was forgotten.

Red Wings playing at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, Canada

Well the parking frustration disappeared only to be replaced by the frustration of two people who grew up in the Wings’ era of excellence and are still struggling to come to terms with their current mediocrity. They ended up going to overtime (yay, a point!), but lost in the shootout (I still hate shootouts).

We grabbed poutine from Smoke’s Poutinerie, a Canadian chain that I believe is opening its first Midwestern locations in the metro-Detroit area soon (!). We each ordered our own, but easily could’ve shared an order. Even my 6’4” boyfriend who usually eats twice as much as I do barely made a dent in his. I got the bacon cheeseburger flavor and it was delicious.

Bacon cheeseburger poutine from Smoke's Poutinerie

Bacon cheeseburger style

After the game, we headed back to the hotel and crashed so we could get up early the next morning. The 8-hour drive wasn’t fun, but we broke it up with a couple roadside stops and dinner in the Toronto suburbs. And I won a free drink from Tim Horton’s Roll Up the Rim promo! All in all, a great weekend.

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From Parliament to a Senators hockey game, here are the highlights of a winter weekend in Ottawa, Ontario.

A weekend escape to Ottawa, Canada

One Evening in San Francisco

I was recently sent to the Sacramento area for work, and as I had to fly in Sunday to be at the office first thing Monday, I hopped an early flight that landed around 12:30. It was almost two hours to San Francisco, but I’d never been there before and had always wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge so I went for it even though I wasn’t feeling great when I got off the plane.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

I began my visit in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the large park north of the bridge. I could easily have spent two days there because there’s so much to do. I had an hour.

I started out winding up the scenic road with overlooks offering great views of the bridge, but forced myself to keep going deeper into the Marin Headlands. I wanted to stop at the visitor center there to grab a National Parks passport stamp and some maps.

After considering my options for such a quick visit, I decided to see a couple things nearby and then head back to the bridge overlooks so I could enjoy that view before it got dark. There is an old Nike missile launch site in the park and I tried to visit that, but discovered that it’s only open for tours for a few hours on Saturdays.

South Rodeo Beach in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Instead I continued on to the Rodeo Beach parking lot. There were two trails available, and I picked the shorter one that took me to South Rodeo Beach. It was only a couple minutes of reasonably easy walking and opened up to some great views of the Pacific Ocean crashing against rocks along the shore. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I’ve seen dozens of pictures of sunsets behind the rocks off of the northern part of Rodeo Beach online, and I sort of regret not venturing further up. Unfortunately, it started raining that point, and I had to hustle back to the rental car to avoid getting soaked. The hike seemed a lot easier when I was casually walking downhill than it did when I was half-jogging back up.

Rodeo Beach in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area
I continued up the road to the Point Bonita Lighthouse parking area, but I decided to just snap some pictures of the bridge from the overlook there instead of making the walk out to see it. My queendom for more daylight.

Though there were some other tempting places on the map of the park, I decided it was time to head back to see the Golden Gate Bridge up close. I stopped at a couple of the overlooks with parking areas along the way and took some pictures. The two that were closest to the bridge looked like they’d had parking or at least a pull-off area at one point, but those were blocked off with barricades and accessible only to pedestrians walking on the sidewalk. (Recurring theme here) I wished I’d had time to park and really explore the area.

I parked in the lot at the north base of the bridge and found a stairway that led to a path underneath it, and without having any idea where it led, I followed along, listening to the cars rumbling above me as I passed under the lanes of traffic.

After climbing up the stairs on the other side, I emerged into a much busier viewing area that had a better angle to see it from. It was cool to see the bridge straight-on from the end with traffic flowing in both directions. I also got my first view of Alcatraz. I had considered doing a sunset cruise to see “The Rock,” but time would’ve been tight and I would’ve had to pre-purchase my ticket because that departure was almost sold out, so I decided to pass on it for this trip. There was also an entire family posing for a picture while standing on top of the rock wall keeping people away from a pretty significant drop, which reminded me of the old proverb, “The family that tempts natural selection together stays together.” Or is that not a thing?

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

After that, I crossed back under the bridge and hopped in my car for the drive into San Francisco. As you approach from the north, there are electronic signs regarding the cashless toll. Several of them said that the Fast Track pass is required, which concerned me a little as I didn’t have an account. I had checked with a park ranger when I stopped in the visitor center to find out if that meant that I actually had to open an account or if it would just be billed to my license plate if I didn’t have one. I was concerned that I’d get a ticket later on in addition to the toll and rental car company’s service fees if I didn’t have the Fast Track, but she assured me that it worked just like other cashless tolls that I’ve been to in other areas. She also cautioned me to NOT STOP at all because tourists occasionally get rear-ended when they try to stop at the old toll booth that still spans the southbound lanes.

I later found out that I could pay my toll online within 48 hours and avoid the rental car fees. After my first cashless toll experience (I hate toll roads with a passion) on a business trip, I was surprised by a $30 bill from the rental car company three months later that covered about $7 in tolls and $23 in fees. I was thrilled to be able to avoid this on the Golden Gate. The system they use there is fantastic for rental cars because you enter your plate number and the dates and times you’ll have the car there and any crossings that occur during that time are billed to your credit card. It’s great because you can be very specific with the times you enter to avoid paying another customer’s toll if the car you’re driving happens to get rented out again the same day, and you don’t have to worry about the rental company charging you a bunch of fees later on.

I thought it was neat to drive across the bridge, but it’s not worth renting a car or paying the tolls ($7.50 for people who don’t have an account, but you can save a dollar if you register beforehand) if you don’t have any other reason to cross. Still, it’s cool to say that you drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. As an admittedly biased Michigan native, I actually found the drive less spectacular than the Mackinac Bridge (ours is longer, just saying), and even though the Golden Gate is taller, the gratings in the Mighty Mac definitely make it a more intimidating drive.

Golden Gate Bridge
The visitor center on the south side of the bridge has a much bigger parking area, a large gift shop, and even some cafes. I discovered that it’s apparently the vantage point of most of the iconic bridge pictures that I’ve seen online before. Unfortunately, my visit was hampered by pretty steady rain while I was walking around the area so I didn’t stay as long as I had planned. The gross weather did give me a chance to see a little bit of the famous San Francisco fog though.

Golden Gate Bridge

The cables are actually made up of thousands of tiny ones.

There was a neat exhibit showing how the bridge towers were engineered to provide the least amount of tension when holding the roadway up. By pulling on the chains for the three miniature bridges, you could feel that the mid-range one took the least amount of strength to hold it up. The two options with tall and short towers required much more effort to support the bridge.

Golden Gate Bridge

I was pretty soaked at this point, so I tore myself away from the view to go find dinner.

Fisherman’s Wharf

After picking up a gorgeous puzzle (addict here) in the gift shop, I headed off in search of Fisherman’s Wharf for a much-needed dinner. The drive didn’t take too long, and on this rainy, miserable Superbowl Sunday, finding parking in the area was fairly easy, though decidedly not cheap at $6/hour for a meter. Luckily they take credit cards because I don’t think I’ve ever had $6 worth of quarters in my possession at any point in my life.

Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, California
I had no idea where I wanted to eat, so I grabbed an umbrella and wandered around for a while. I was almost roped in by a food truck selling custom made ice cream sandwiches, but decided that I wanted somewhere warm, indoors, and serving actual food since even though it was only around 5 local time, my stomach was still on an Eastern time zone eating schedule and my weird travel day hadn’t given me much opportunity to eat anything but junk so far.

During my wanderings, I was excited to catch a glimpse of some of the famous street cars. I was strongly tempted to hop on one for a ride, but I didn’t actually have anywhere to go, and I wasn’t sure how the fares worked.

Streetcar in San Francisco, California

I eventually found my way to a place called Tugboat Sally’s and ordered some fish and chips and beignets. They had a fairly small menu, but it was exactly what I was looking for. It was fast and cheap, and had a fun, quirky interior. They appeared to have some sort of outdoor seating (by the water?) because an employee was hauling in and stacking chairs while I ate, but I didn’t venture around outside. I should’ve, but I was exhausted by that point and really just wanted to get started on my 1.5 hour drive to the hotel I was staying at.

Fish and Chips at Tugboat Sally's in San Francisco, California
I wandered through some of the cheesy tourist stores for a little while because I was determined to use up most of the expensive parking I’d paid for and then hit the road. There’s so much to do in this area, from museums to Pier 39 that you could easily spend a whole day down there, but sadly a lot of the cool stuff was closed by the time I made it over.

I made one more regrettable choice along the way – I didn’t stop on Treasure Island on the way across the Bay Bridge. I saw the signs for it, but had no idea what it entailed, or what kind of area it was, so I passed right by. I did some googling later on, and was pretty disappointed in myself. It had mostly stopped raining by that point, so I suspect that I missed some good views, but I’m going to have to visit the city for real someday, so I’ll just add that to the list of things I missed.

There’s only so much you can do in three hours, but I felt like I got a pretty good taste of the city. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I left my heart in San Francisco, but I’ve wanted to see it for as long as I can remember and was thrilled to have even a rushed visit. Because the San Francisco airport is so far outside of the city (Google Maps clocks the trip to Fisherman’s Wharf at 30+ minutes by car or an hour on public transit), you might not be able to do a visit like this on a layover, but if you had an overnight stopover, it’s pretty doable.

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How to see the best of San Francisco in one evening

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