Mama + 2 Muchachos

Simple advice for parenting babies and other little ones

Tag: road trip with kids

Pictured Rocks with the Family

Munising, Michigan

View of the cliffs from the inside of the boat.

First, I am aware that many of my friends and family already visited Pictured Rocks this summer, so I apologize for not having shared a very important money saving secret to anyone who may have paid full price for the Pictured Rocks Cruise.  If only I could write really fast, had all the time in the world, and could talk to all of you before you head out on vacation . . . .

One other point — if you do plan to head to Pictured Rocks from the Lower Peninsula on Labor Day Weekend 2017, the Mackinac Bridge is closed on Labor Day from 6:30 a.m. to noon.

If you didn’t already know, Pictured Rocks is a National Lakeshore (part of the National Parks).  It is an area on Lake Superior that spans about 35 miles and includes beautiful and unusual rock formations, cliffs and water falls.  With small children, the only way I could conceive to see all of it is to go on the Pictured Rocks Cruise.  Once again, this is a great opportunity because children under 6 only pay $1 to go on the 2-hour long cruise.

One muchacho views the Pictured Rocks through the window during the cruise.

They allow you to take food on board, so you can pack a lunch and eat it while you enjoy the view with your family.  Having the food also helps keep the kids content during the ride.  There is a concession stand on board that we did not visit, but good to know if you need some more food.  You are somehow allowed to walk to this concession stand, but expected to be seated the whole cruise.  I guess that just means ‘no standing up for extended periods of time.’ 

So here’s the big money saver I suggest subscribing to that will probably be offered next year as well, maybe starting in April or May:

If this link becomes old and stops working, I suggest googling and/or “Northern Michigan’s Marketplace.”  It comes from WJML, a radio station based in Traverse City and Petoskey.  Somehow, my husband and I both signed up for their newsletter and we are so glad we did.  In May and June it was offering a voucher for $29 that was valid for a $45 Pictured Rocks Cruise.  We both bought one — saving a lot of money.

The link I provided above does not provide a Pictured Rocks voucher because they are probably all sold out for the year, but it does have several other really good deals like a discounted Mackinac Island Carriage Tour, an Apostle Island Cruise, Beaver Island, and Alpena Shipwreck Tour discounts. 

After your purchase, WJML sends you the voucher by email that you will have to print out and take to the Pictured Rocks Cruises ticket counter. 

However, you need to do a little more leg work before you just present the voucher at the ticket counter — this is where listening to fellow travelers helps.  As our sons played with a couple of little girls from Wisconsin in the Newberry School playground, their dad was telling my husband that they went to the Pictured Rocks Cruise that same day.  He suggested calling before to schedule our departure because many of the cruises sell out hours before.  People also start lining up for the best spots well before the cruise takes off.  The Wisconsin traveler told us you want to start the cruise sitting on the right side of the boat to get the best view of the rock formations.  He also said it was great to sit outside, though it did get a little cold. 

So the night before the cruise, my husband called Pictured Rock Cruises, explained that we had the vouchers, and reserved our spot and the kids spots ($2 total) for the cruise time we wanted.  The representative gave my husband two confirmation numbers — one for our vouchers and one for the kids’ tickets.  I had to wait in line with people purchasing tickets, but upon presenting the confirmation numbers, they indeed had our tickets ready. 

Meanwhile, my husband and the kids got in the really long line. Unfortunately we were not able to sit outside, but we did get a space on the right side of the boat, which really was good advice.  We had a great view of all the rock formations, could see the crew and could hear the narration of the captain.  Sitting inside may have kept the wind out of the kids’ faces too.  Who knows. . . they may have wanted to come inside. 

My kids really enjoyed listening to the captain’s narration as well.  They discovered rock formations that looked like battle ships and even identified the beach they wanted to visit after the cruise was over. 

As another friend’s wife — a mama + 3 muchachos noted on Facebook a few weeks before we took our trip — a two hour boat ride can be a little difficult for the small ones.  Kids naturally get restless and want to move around, but they can’t on this cruise.  Especially when we were heading back and there was no narration.  I played clapping games with mine, we still had snacks, and once my husband could get some cell phone reception, he let them watch a few minutes of NetFlix on his phone. 

Another muchacho checks the water temperature at Miners Beach.

As I mentioned, my kids picked a beach, Miners Beach, where they wanted to go after the cruise.  On vacation, we always have a beach bag ready, so that’s what we did — follow the signs, or GPS, and there were bathrooms where we could change.

Miners Beach is famous for a video Kid Rock filmed on it.  We also discovered a lot of opportunities for kayaking around Pictured Rocks at the beach — something we could probably do when the kids are older and can no longer take a $1 cruise.  The kids had a great time on Miners Beach — the water was cold and refreshing with beautiful cliffs in the distance.  We had a wonderful time collecting the smooth colorful rocks created my Lake Superior.  We’re still looking at them now! 

So click on WJML — enjoy a Labor Day Weekend or plan for next year!  Pictured Rocks is definitely a place you want to visit with your kids. 

My oldest son looks at his favorite rocks from Miners Beach.

Playing in Newberry, Michigan

Quality Inn, Oswald’s Bear Ranch, Seder’s Pizza, and the School Playground

Usually before or after we travel to Mackinac Island each summer, we also like to visit Traverse City, Michigan.  It’s a beautiful place, but this year the hotel rooms were completely out of our budget.  So we decided to look elsewhere.  Although I would love to go back to Traverse City at some point, I am so glad we broadened our Michigan horizons and went on a new adventure in Newberry, in Michigan’s wonderful Upper Peninsula.

This adventure started on a night when my husband fell asleep with PBS on the TV.  He had been watching Under the Radar Michigan . . . and then I continued watching it as the host traveled to Newberry to visit Oswald’s Bear Ranch.  My oldest son loves bears, so it really caught my attention as visitors could observe many rescued bears in this beautiful habitat that Mr. Oswald had created for them.  As I explained to my dad who is a cattle farmer, “It’s just like you having cows, except he has bears.” 

So we looked at the map, decided on plenty of things to do in the area, and made a hotel reservation at the Quality Inn in Newberry after reading a few reviews.  The hotel also fulfilled my vacation hotel wish list — has a refrigerator in the room for leftovers and milk  and has laundry facilities for after going to the beach.

Close enough to Newberry are the Tahquamenon Falls and Pictured Rocks, two natural wonders that I wanted to see along with my boys. 

So after getting off the boat from Mackinac Island, we crossed the Mackinac Bridge that connects our two peninsulas and is another cool thing to do any way. 

The Quality Inn was a good place to stay with the family, clean with a free hot breakfast.  It doesn’t have a pool though, and by talking to other travelers along the way, it seemed like a pool in the area hotels may be a hard thing to come by.  It had a huge hot tub, which I imagine caters to many snowmobilers in the winter.  In any case, I got the room with a refrigerator that I requested.  The mini-fridge was big enough to fit all our stuff and keep our ice packs semi-frozen. 

As soon as we checked in, we were off to Oswald’s Bear Ranch.  For $20 a car, you can observe the bears in 4 different habitats.  So load your car full of people and be sure to go around 4 pm because around that time, they feed the bears. 

Loving the bears.

I can’t speak of any other time, but when we were there, most of the bears were up near the fences, easy to see.  Some were even up in the trees.  We got to see them play, get in the water, climb trees, and eat.  You can purchase a bag of apples and feed them yourself by throwing the apples over the fences.  (There are 2 chain link fences separating humans from bears.)  We preferred to save our money and watch everyone else feed the bears. 

When the owners feed the bears, they go in with an ATV, give them a whole bunch of food that looks like leftovers from area restaurants, and they even pet them and tell you their names.  They seemed like such gentle creatures, and for my bear lover, this was his very favorite part of the trip.

At the bear ranch there is also a gift shop with many affordable souvenirs for your little ones. 

Little items from the gift shop.

They also sell snacks and have small tables to sit an enjoy these snacks.  There was also a fire pit and several wood carvings of animals outside that my smallest son enjoyed playing with. 

After the bear ranch, we decided to have dinner at Seder’s Pizza, a small wood fired brick oven pizzeria on the main street of Newberry.  My husband had read good reviews about it, so even though it was Friday at 4:45 pm (an early dinner for us), we decided to get some pizza.  And it was a good thing because as we were eating, the place totally filled up and there was no other place to sit.

Our recommendation is to order a large pizza (or more if your family is bigger) with your favorite toppings — it was delicious and provided us with leftovers to eat the next day so we didn’t have to go out for dinner.    My husband had also read about Seder’s Pizza’s famous “Stinky Sticks” so we decided to order some and see what the hype was about.  My youngest is very sensitive to smells, so if your kid is like mine, don’t order the Stinky Sticks.  Just stick with regular garlic bread sticks.  The dough is tasty, but they were covered, perhaps “slathered” was what the menu stated in garlic butter and freshly grated Romano cheese (the stickiness factor).  So if that sounds good to you and you have no sensitive smellers — go for it. 

After dinner, kids usually need to blow off some steam, use those calories they just ingested . . . so we asked our waitress about area playgrounds.  She pointed us to the school which was just up the street.  It had a great playground where our kids played with two little girls from Wisconsin for about an hour.  This is where we learned that the pool in the Wisconsin family’s hotel was broken + the dad gave us some great advice for the Pictured Rocks Cruise the next day. 

But that is for another post.

Grand Hotel Celebrate Michigan Package – Mackinac Island, Michigan

As you may already know, one of my favorite places on earth . . . so when a deal this good comes your way, you should try it at least once before your kids turn 12.  Why?  Because if your children are 9 or under, the Grand Hotel only charges each child the baggage handling fee of $8.50 per person, while the adults pay $130 per person to stay at one of the most beautiful hotels in America and be treated like royalty.  This includes a 5-course meal (children’s menu available) and a buffet breakfast + free admission to some of the attractions on the island.  There are the added hotel taxes that make this a little pricier than $130 + $8.50, but it is still a great value and so much fun.

Our kids check out the fancy Grand Hotel taxi from the porch last September.

Grand Hotel is also a non-tipping hotel.  It even has a sign stating this behind the front desk as you check in.  They will hand you real keys (not key cards) to your room, and every room is decorated differently.

After checking in, the best thing to do is get ready for dinner.  After 6:30 p.m., it is expected that every person inside the hotel dress up:  skirts, dresses, and pantsuits for the ladies.  Ties for the gentlemen.  At age 5, they ask your young gentleman to wear a tie.  We accomplished this last year by buying a suit, tie, dress shirt and dress shoes for my oldest at a resale store.  It all came to about $30 and he was able to wear these clothes again for his school’s Christmas program. 

This experience is great for introducing formal dining to your little ones.  We come from a household where we sit down to eat dinner together each night, but our house is missing the formal dinnerware set-up, the jazz band, and the first class service.  Nor am I a world class chef.   So besides sitting down to eat as a family, this is very different from home, and very special.   The waiters, seeing young children, graciously move a lot of the silverware and fine china out of the way to avoid breaks and present the young ones with a children’s menu.

Being in this formal environment does not make your children act like angels however.  The first time we stayed at the Grand, our hostess, who we met on the boat on the way over, set us right in front of the band to help entertain the children.  I still had to make a trip back to the room to make a diaper change. 

On the second trip, my mom had to whip out her phone to entertain the 4 grandkids as they waited to eat.  But the servers complete the 5 courses quite quickly.  But take time to savor it . . . . especially my favorite Pecan Ball at the end.  As a side note, you can also get a mini (almost non-calorie) Pecan Ball at the ice cream parlor for $2.50 even if you are not staying at the hotel.   After dinner, you can take a stroll across the porch in the dark or hit the game room for some air hockey. 

Some points to consider before making your reservations are the time of year and your ferry trip.

The first time we did the Celebrate Michigan Package, it was October 30.  At that point, Grand Hotel is the only hotel left open on the island.  There are no crowds, it is cooler, and many businesses are closed.  However, without the crowds, it’s not necessary to have everything open.  We found everything we needed and created wonderful family memories.  Our kids love just running around the grounds of the hotel, eating at the ice cream parlor, and watching the horses. 

The photo at the top of my blog was taken at the fountain at the Grand Hotel as my boys threw pennies in.

In late October, if you like shopping, everything is at a deep discount as well since many of the stores are looking to get rid of their goods until the island reopens in May.  Be sure to visit the Grand Hotel Outlet store, which is behind the Gate House Restaurant (turn right on Mahoney Avenue) as you walk up the hill to the Grand Hotel from downtown.

Last September I was able to purchase the same comforter we had in our room at the Grand.  It was especially memorable because the 4 kids (my boys, my niece and my nephew) kept hiding under it all night while we were getting ready for dinner and even after dinner. 

In September, you don’t get the deep shopping discounts.  There are still crowds, but the weather is warmer.  I think it might have hit 80º the last time we visited in September.  The kids loved the weather as they played at the playground behind the art museum once we headed downtown.

When taking the ferry, the Grand Hotel recommends Shepler’s, but I like Starline.  I am also pretty sure

Ready to get on the ferry.

Starline was the only ferry operating in mid-September and late October.  Buy your tickets online because it costs less even though that is not stated anywhere.  This year, they also started to offer family packages online which make it even more affordable. 

Once you get off the boat, Grand Hotel will get your luggage up to the hotel for you in time to get ready for dinner if you get there early enough.  If not, take your formal clothes with you.  They also have their own fancy horse-drawn taxi you can take.  I have never done this, since my children and family like walking up to the hotel.  It is up a steep hill, but the kids love running up there.  They do run sometimes and I try to remind them not to run into people.  But they are so excited and this is all part of making memories as a family. 

Since last posting this, the dates for Celebrate Michigan have sold out. When I hear of the spring dates, I will post them.

To celebrate my mom’s 70th birthday on the Friday we wanted last year, my husband and I worked on calling and it took over 100 redials to get through.  But it was well worth the trouble.  My mom will never forget celebrating her 70th with her grandchildren at the Grand Hotel.

So once again, make reservations.  Make memories.  And if you can’t do it this year, save up for next year.  Plan to have lots of fun with your family. 

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Mackinac Island, Michigan

Sunset Condos Accommodates a Big Family

Every year — this is one place we love to go with the whole family in the summer.  It is peaceful and safe for the kids since there are no cars on the island aside from the ambulance and fire truck. 

Everyone may not agree with this if they’ve only been to the downtown part of the island, which in the afternoon is crowded with tourists, bikes, and horse drawn carriages.  If you get there early enough in the morning or get to stay late at night, the island calms down and really is one of my favorite places in the world. 

View in the early morning from the Grand Hotel. Not crowded yet.

One of the ways you can get to stay later is to spend the night on the island.  This option is pretty pricey, especially when you are trying to accommodate 10 people since we like to bring my parents and my sisters’ family along with us.  In the past, we had a great time at the Lilac Tree Suites — you can fit a lot of people in a suite . . . but I was still feeling rushed with check out at 11.  And as I said, with it being pricey, we could really only splurge for one night. 

Same goes for the majestic Grand Hotel.  We have been fortunate enough to do two Celebrate Michigan Packages (which I will post about later) in this historic hotel .  .  . but two nights there would be way out of our budget. 

Los dos muchachos from the porch of the Grand Hotel.

This year I wanted to enjoy myself more by taking time to enjoy some of the hiking trails on the interior of the island, so I searched for condos and came across these:  Sunset Condos.  For almost the price of one night at the Lilac Tree, we could now fit everyone into a two bedroom condo for TWO nights.  And I think everyone agreed when we were checking out, after years of Mackinac Island vacations, this was the best time we had ever had. 

It’s also more economical to rent a condo because you don’t have to eat at a restaurant for every meal.  This requires a bit of planning . . . my mom and I each planned a family meal.  That covered two dinners.  Mine, salsa chicken, comes from my recipes page on Pinterest that I tripled and tweaked to account for everyone.  But it also required that I buy and pack all the ingredients in the cooler to be ready to make it.  My mom also packed ingredients to make hamburgers for everyone, along with a trip to the local Mackinac Island grocery for sides likes chips and a few fruits and vegetables. 

The condo provides coffee for the morning and we also packed some breakfast pastries like muffins, pecan rolls, pre-made pancakes, and granola bars for a quick breakfast. 

We all agreed this was much easier than eating out too, especially with kids.  The condo has a fully equipped kitchen . . . just thankful for my mom who remembered to bring things like butter . . . . I forgot cooking spray to saute the chicken.  Like I said . . . lots of planning, but well worth it. 

But as we were taking the horse drawn taxi ride up to the condos and it was taking about 45 minutes, I could see some worry in the faces of my family.  My oldest stated, “Are we going to the rain forest?,” as we traveled further and further into the interior. 

Heading into “the rain forest.” My youngest checks out the horses during the taxi ride to the West Bluff.

What were we going to do on this cloudy day with downtown so far away?

Well, the kids loved exploring the trails around the West Bluff.  We were able to discover Sunset Rock.  The Woods Restaurant and Bob’s Bar are nearby, so my dad and brother-in-law went to see if they could buy some beer there.  As there was no take-out, in grand Mackinac Island fashion, one of the waitresses and the bartender at the restaurant let Dad and Tom borrow their bikes to visit a convenience store in the interior. 

This is one of the reasons I love the island . . . gracious people, bikes that aren’t locked up. 

Kids who’ve never met previously cheer each other on and wait in line to bowl. Photo courtesy of Mary Drown.

While at the bar, Tom also discovered they had a small bowling alley, with small balls and pins that need to be set up by hand.  At first, I thought he was talking about a video game, but it was real bowling . . . so after dinner, the kids had a great time doing this.  It was amazing as we watched all the kids, other tourists we didn’t know, get in line to play, cheer each other on, and help set up the pins and return the balls.  The adults were having as much fun watching and coaching the kids. 

My nephew shows his bowling skills in Bob’s Bar. Photo courtesy of Ann Kenyon.

Since I don’t drink much, my husband also discovered for me that the bar serves my favorite island dessert, a small Grand Hotel Pecan Ball.  So I felt like I was patronizing the restaurant as my family used the bowling alley. 

The next day, my husband, two boys, and I took the 30 minute hike to downtown and discovered we were faster than the horse drawn carriage everyone else took.  We spent the day shopping, playing at some of the many playgrounds, biking around the island, eating ice cream, fudge, and lunch at our usual spot, the Ice House outdoor dining at Island House Hotel (where dogs are welcome).  We enjoyed each other’s company and even convinced my sister, her husband, and daughter to make the trek back up to the condos with us.  Taking the walk provides plenty of family time, finding snails, waving at the waiters as they bike up the to woods, and the peaceful time I crave.

Peaceful time.

One other point is pets.  In between the time I made the reservations and the actual vacation, my sister bought a dog that was too small to board since she didn’t yet have all her vaccinations.  Sunset Condos allows pets for a $75 fee.  This saved us, and Aspen the dog had a great time too. 

Now stop reading and make your reservations for Mackinac Island, but save some vacancy for me!

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Pack the Cooler for a Road Trip

This post may contain affiliate links.

Ready to hit the road with the kids for summer vacation?   First, here’s the PDF version of my Cooler Packing List.

First you need a good cooler.  The one I linked here is great because it is soft sided, has several pockets, plus two bigger openings.   I have an older version and  like it especially because I can fit a gallon of milk in the large opening . . .  and Luis drinks a lot of milk.

 But that large opening fits so much more!  

Here’s the essentials I add to keep my kids eating on the road: Continue reading

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