October 23, 2016

From the Road: Virginia to Texas (Week One)

It’s hard to believe that we’ve already been on the road for one week and have driven more than 1,600 miles. As I type this, we’re in San Antonio after having spent a couple of days in Galveston. The kids are starting to enjoy checking out a new city every couple of days. I wish they’d put their iPads down a bit more, but I do enjoy the quiet on the road. I can’t have it all. Anyway, here’s what we’ve been up to.

Day 1: Pigeon Forge, TN

We got on the road just before 9 am despite protests from my middle-school daughter. She also thought that not packing her suitcase would enable her to stay home and forego our big trip. She was wrong.

A few hours into the drive, we stopped at a rest stop with cute, shaded picnic tables. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, then tossed around the football in a big grassy area. My plan was to stop every few hours on our drive days to get some recreation, but I’ve yet to take the football out of the car again.

rest stop

We arrived in Pigeon Forge after 5 pm. I thought we’d never get there, but the kids were excited when we pulled in to the Music Road Resort and saw the water slide and lazy river at the outdoor pool.

This was our first time in Pigeon Forge and I couldn’t believe all there was to do along Parkway. Mini golf courses, go-kart tracks, variety shows. You could spend weeks here and still not do it all. We opted for The Island in Pigeon Forge to ride the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel and the kiddie rides.

the island-kiddie rides

Insider’s Tip: If your kids like to take home prizes, go to Arcade City at The Island. I got $20 play cards for each of the kids and between Pac-Man Ticket Mania and Good Spin, the kids racked up loads of tickets and we came back to the hotel room with way too many prizes.

Day 2: Pigeon Forge, TN

I love free hotel breakfasts and the homemade cinnamon rolls at the Music Road Resort were a real treat. After we ate, we hopped in the minivan for the 20-minute drive to the Sugarlands Visitor Center at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You literally drive down Parkway (the main drag in Pigeon Forge), past all of the mini golf courses and amusement rides, and you’ll end up in the national park.

Once we arrived, we watched the short movie on the history of the park before getting our national parks passport stamped (finally…our first stamp). Make sure to buy the sticker for the park too (it’s $2.50 in the gift shop). Then we headed off to Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome for some scenic views.

parks passport

I’ll be honest, my kids were not as excited as I was. I wish they’d be more eager to explore national parks, but what can you do. Once we got to Newfound Gap (about 30 minutes from the visitor center), we checked out the views and I got my 10 y.o. to pose with the Tennessee-North Carolina State Line. She was literally the only one even remotely amenable to the idea. Sigh…

Next, we drove a few more miles up to Clingmans Dome, which is the highest point in the park and in all of Tennessee. The views are fantastic, but be prepared for a half-mile walk uphill (and trust me, it feels like way more than half-mile). At various points, I had to carry my 6 y.o. and 8 y.o. A workout, for sure.

clingmans dome

Insider’s Tip: Don’t pass over a trip up to Newfound Gap or Clingmans Dome at Great Smoky Mountains National Park due to the heat of summer. When it was in the 90s in Pigeon Forge, it was in the low-70s, even high-60s in the mountains.

Day 3: Chattanooga, TN

It took us nearly three hours to get to Chattanooga and our first stop was Rock City. While not one of my kids wanted to go in, the afternoon started to turn around when an older gentleman gave us half of his order of chocolate pecan fudge at the Fudge Shoppe. Nice.

I was eager to get to Lover’s Leap to see seven states from the lookout point. The views did not disappoint even if my kids continued to be crabby and uninterested at various points. Little ones may also enjoy the gnomes that are all around the rock gardens.

rock city2

Next, we headed to nearby Ruby Falls, which turned out to be a miss for us. The Ruby Falls attraction boasts a beautiful 145-foot underground waterfall. It’s amazing, but you need to take a one-hour guided tour to get there and my oldest and youngest children were at each other the entire time. Ugh…

We stayed at The Chattanoogan and thankfully, I had my own connecting room. It was heaven. Before bedtime, we ate dinner at the on-site Broad Street Grille (order the shrimp and grits) and splashed in the indoor pool which turns neon blue in the evening.

neon pool

Insider’s Tip: If you have just one day in Chattanooga, like we did, hit Rock City, then try the Incline Railway and the Tennessee Aquarium. We ran out of time to do the latter two, which are supposed to be very good for kids.

Day 4: New Orleans, LA

It was a long drive to New Orleans, so we made a stop at Golden Flake in Birmingham for a tour of the potato chip factory. It was great to get out and stretch, but even better, there were lots of free samples of potato chips, corn chips and tortilla chips.

golden flake factory tour

We didn’t arrive in New Orleans until around 6 pm, so we checked in to the Sheraton New Orleans, enjoyed the amazing views of the city from our 36th floor room, and headed out to McDonald’s for dinner. I know, I know, we were in one of the most fantastic foodie cities and we ate at McDonald’s.

Once we ate, we grabbed our swimsuits and headed to the 8th floor rooftop pool at the Sheraton. It was small, but it was warm and it was fun to look up at the buildings. Plus, a good swim generally seems to take the crab out of the crabbiest of kids.

sheraton new orleans-rooftop pool

Insider’s Tip: Do seek out fun attractions or tours to break up a long drive. The Golden Flake tour was perfect, but it’s worth noting that tours are only available at certain times. There are no self-guided tours of the factory.

Day 5: New Orleans, LA

It was a must to go to Café du Monde in the French Quarter for powder sugar-covered beignets and café au lait. It’s cash-only and the line is frequently out the door. We must have arrived during a lull since we were able to sit right down at a table. We walked a half-mile to Café du Monde and you would have thought my kids had walked miles through the jungle. The drama…

cafe du monde-beignets

After Café du Monde, we thankfully were able to pick up a free shuttle to Mardi Gras World. Sure, it’s touristy, but I loved taking the tour and learning how the props and floats are made for Mardi Gras. Even better, everyone got a free piece of king cake (my oldest got in line twice…shhh…).

Next stop, the Insectarium. This was across the street from our hotel, so it couldn’t have been more convenient to make a stop. I was eager to check out the Bug Buffet to try out Crispy Cajun Crickets and Southwest Waxworms. Interesting, for sure.

bug buffet sign

In the evening, we were able to visit with my brother and sister-in-law, as well as their new baby. It was nice to be able to entertain a baby for a little while since my kids were more interested in watching Netflix anyway (a treat for them since we don’t have Netflix at home).

Insider’s Tip: While you can get beignets across New Orleans, Café du Monde really is a must-go. As I noted, be sure to bring cash. It’s cheap, just $13 for the five of us, but again, it’s cash-only.

Day 6: Beaumont & Galveston, TX

With a long drive ahead of us to Galveston, I again planned for a stop to break up the drive and that stop was in Beaumont where I snapped a pic of the world’s largest working fire hydrant and then took the kids to Gator Country. It rained mid-way through our visit, but the kids still got to wade with four baby alligators, even picking them up and putting them back in the pool. Yikes.

beaumont fire hydrant

My son was literally up past his waist in the alligator pool, so after a quick change in the car, we were off to Galveston. You need to go around Houston to get there, at least when coming from the east, and my gosh there is some kind of traffic. No one ever talks about Houston as such a bad city for traffic.

Eventually we made it to our FlipKey condo on the west end of Galveston Island after a quick stop at Walmart for frozen pizzas, TV dinners and lunch supplies. Again, I got my own bed (winning…) and we were off to the beach. A few minutes after we arrived, some guys in their early-20s told me their friend pulled a shark out of the water. Naturally, my son was waist deep in the ocean at this point.

galveston beach

We moved up the beach and had a good time despite the possible shark sighting. As we were leaving, mosquitos then brought two of my kids to tears (definitely not winning). It was like all of a sudden these huge moquitos came out of nowhere and they were a force.

Insider’s Tip: Bug spray. Bug spray. Bug spray. We got attacked by mosquitos again as we were getting into the minivan to leave Galveston. Bug spray.

Day 7: Galveston, TX  

The beach was clearly not in our future for this day, so we drove to Moody Gardens. It was about 30 minutes from our condo and well worth the drive. It’s a whole edutainment complex with an aquarium, a rainforest, various 4-D movies and a waterpark. You can easily spend the whole day there.

We started out at the Rainforest Pyramid at Moody Gardens, which had all kinds of great exhibits on the various rainforests around the world. Then we popped in for a short 4-D Rio movie, which was essentially a re-cap of the full-length movie in just 15 minutes.

rainforest pyramid-moody gardens

Next, the Aquarium Pyramid. Not as great as a full-fledged aquarium, but still a nice way to spend 30 minutes. We then moved on to check out SpongeBob SubPants, a 4-D interactive adventure in the Discovery Pyramid. Even better, two of my kids were picked as volunteers to interact with Patrick Star.

After being edutained, we headed outside to the Palm Beach waterpark for a wave pool, water slides and a lazy river. The water was the perfect temperature and I really could have spent all day on the lazy river, with or without my kids.

palm beach waterpark-moody gardens

Insider’s Tip: At Moody Gardens, opt for the day pass. Sure, it’s more expensive, but there’s so much to do there that it’s worth it over spending the money to visit just one attraction inside Moody Gardens.

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