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By this Author: zzlangerhans

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Arrival and Reykjanes peninisula


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2021 has been a wild year so far for our family in many ways. After not traveling at all in 2020 due to COVID we've overloaded our plate this year with spring break in Belize and not one but two huge summer trips. For the first we were able to thread the needle with a month-long road trip in the American Southwest that ended just before the delta wave of COVID crashed into the United States. We were exhausted on our return and had to decide quickly if we were going to cram another trip into the tail end of summer vacation. It seemed fateful that Iceland, one of our most desirable targets, had recently relaxed their entry restrictions and we would now be able to enter the country without any quarantine as long as we were fully vaccinated with negative pre-departure tests. Our small children had no requirements at all. Our only other choice was Alaska and we were ready for a dose of a different culture that only another country could provide. Painful as it was to abandon the comforts of home so soon, I nevertheless got hold of a Lonely Planet for Iceland and went to work. I quickly realized that it's not easy to book accommodations in Iceland three weeks in advance. I was able to find a place at every stop I wanted but at one remote location I had no choice except to put down a non-refundable payment of over $700 for one night. The other accommodations were generally quite expensive as well, partly because there's almost no Airbnb/Vrbo presence in Iceland outside of the capital. Whether that is because of the sparse population or government restrictions I don't know. The cost of our two week 4WD SUV rental was over $5000 as well and that was with a local Icelandic outfit called Lotus. The international brands were considerably more expensive. This two week trip was going to cost us more than our month in the Southwest, even excluding the airfare difference.

The choice of Iceland wasn't based purely on word-of-mouth and impulse. I'd been there alone on a brief visit almost twenty years previously. I'd only seen Reykjavik and the island of Vestmannaeyjar. I'd especially loved the island and clearly remembered standing atop a mountain there looking down at the only village and the surrounding islets, vowing to myself I would one day return when I had someone with whom to share this indescribably view. I now had four of those people in my life and I eagerly anticipated returning to that island. I was also excited about finally driving the legendary Ring Road and seeing all the natural wonders that are near it, as well as the myriad opportunities for family adventure that Iceland provides. I created a two week itinerary that covered the entire Ring Road with enough time to experience all of Iceland's more accessible adventures. The only regions excluded were the Westfjords, which would have required another two or three days, and the Highlands which seemed too risky and strenuous for the kids. Realizing how difficult it had been just to arrange accommodations, I had taken the extra step of making restaurant reservations for almost every night of the trip as well. Being forced to scrounge for dinner at a gas station convenience store would have been a lousy way to end an exciting day of travel.

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Our trip to Iceland was almost over before it began. We packed two days in advance and carefully reviewed our checklist. I even remembered the binoculars I had forgotten to take to the Southwest. We arrived at the Delta check-in desk with our passports and COVID tests in hand and the agent asked us about our vaccination records. I had kept mine in my wallet ever since it was first issued, but I saw a stunned look come over Mei Ling's face. This was the first time we'd needed vaccination in order to travel and she'd never thought to take the card out of her folder in the filing cabinet. We had a little more than an hour to departure, nowhere near enough time to take an Uber back to the house. The only person at the house was Mei Ling's mom, who didn't know how to drive or even text us a picture of the card. Mei Ling started frantically calling her friends and found someone on the third call who was available. Meanwhile the gate agent was on the phone and confirmed we needed the actual card to get us through screening in Iceland, not just a photo. I simply could not conceive how someone could drive to our house, find the card in the filing cabinet, and bring it to the airport in time for our flight. Taking the flight to Iceland without proof of vaccination was not an option. We were almost certain to get quarantined in a grim hotel for the first five days of our fourteen day trip which would have been worse than just staying home. Meanwhile, Mei Ling was unable to contact her mother because she was napping in Spenser's room and had left her phone on the other side of the house. Mei Ling's friend arrived about ten minutes later to a locked house with no one answering the bell. Here our luck finally started to turn. Spenser's bedroom is at the front of our single-story house and I was able to direct our helper to the window facing the front yard. Mei Ling's mom must have had the shock of her life to be awoken by banging on the window. When she came to the front door she finally picked up her phone and Mei Ling explained to her what was going on. Then I had to guide Mei Ling's friend to my office, to the correct filing cabinet, and then to the actual folder. The next moment of despair came when she emptied Mei Ling's medical folder onto my desk and the vaccination card wasn't there, followed shortly afterwards by a return to exhilaration when she found it in the adjacent folder. We now had forty minutes until departure and our check-in agent had very patiently waited for us for about twenty minutes. The card had been retrieved but our home was twenty-five minutes from the airport under the best of conditions. We decided that I would take the kids through security while Mei Ling waited for her friend at check-in. The agent weighed and tagged our bags and stored them behind the counter pending the arrival of the vaccination card. I'd been through so many cycles of despondency and elation in the last half hour that I was almost numb. Even though we were in a much better position than when we first realized Mei Ling hadn't brought her card, I still couldn't see how we would make our flight. I'd put so much work into organizing every step of our trip and now our itinerary would have to be cut short if there was even space for us on a flight in the coming days. We shuffled along on the way to the TSA desk and then after what seemed an impossibly brief period of time Mei Ling ran over with vaccination card in hand. It couldn't have been more than twenty minutes since her friend had been in our house. I still have no idea how she managed to get to the airport so quickly but somehow the universe just seems to flex in all the right ways when Mei Ling needs help. Amazingly our flight was departing from the very first gate after we got through security. We arrived just as people were starting to line up to board without even suffering the indignity of a mad rush through the airport. I planted myself in my seat in a state of complete shock, my head spinning as I contemplated the emotional roller coaster we had experienced over the last hour. It was time to put the trauma out of mind because we were now embarking on the first leg of our trip to Iceland and it seemed that we had skirted disaster. Just to keep our karma in good shape Mei Ling Zelle'd two hundred bucks to the check-in agent who had let us occupy his station for half an hour while we frantically dealt with our self-inflicted wound. The funniest part was that this wasn't even the first time we had come so close to missing an entire vacation. Four years ago we forgot to renew Cleo's passport and Mei Ling conducted a Jedi-like act of persuasion on the supervisor at check-in that got us on the plane.

Iceland is a relatively easy journey from Miami but it requires a connection through NYC or Boston. Red eyes are a good option for us because Mei Ling and the kids sleep pretty well on planes, allowing us to start fresh in the morning rather than arriving exhausted. The flip side of that is that I can rarely sleep at all on a plane and I do most of the driving. I've discovered from experience that my long years of working overnight combined with the adrenalin of kicking off a road trip are enough to keep me active and alert through that first day as long as we don't try to push ourselves too late. Mei Ling and I wore N95's under our cloth masks on the way to NYC and then relaxed our precautions a little on the second leg, figuring virtually everyone on that flight had both been vaccinated and recently tested negative (with the exception of the kids). At the baggage carousel we had to endure one final episode of suspense as our bags failed to appear after almost every other passenger had moved onward. Had the gate agent remembered to load our checked bags onto the carousel or had he left them at the desk? Mei Ling had been so consumed with the vaccination card that she hadn't paid attention. Then our bags popped out together at the top of the ramp and we could finally breathe again.

Although Iceland's international airport is often referred to as being in Reykjavik, it is actually located near Keflavik at the end of the boot-like Reykjanes peninsula forty-five minutes drive from the capital. We picked up our rental, a Kia Sportage 4WD SUV, from Lotus Car Rentals without incident. There was a GPS that came with the car but we were able to use Google Maps for the entire trip without any difficulty. Google Maps is always the best choice because GPS is very difficult to use without a street address, and canyons and waterfalls rarely come with street addresses. Years ago we encountered lots of problems using Google Maps in Europe but the app has come a long way since then and in Iceland it was almost infallible. We stopped at the first gas station we came to for a snack and a Siminn prepaid SIM card. For a little over twenty bucks I got 5GB of data and 50 minutes of call time which proved to be more than adequate over our two week stay. It was a major price improvement over the $140 it would have cost me to roam my iPhone, and I had the best network for rural areas. I don't know what coverage would have been like with roaming but with Siminn I only lost service when we were out on a glacier. There were no activation annoyances either. I switched the SIM cards and my phone was immediately up and running.

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The Reykjanes peninsula gets ignored by most travelers who are rushing to either Reykjavik or the Ring Road, but sometimes the least visited places turn out to be the most interesting for us. As soon as we left the airport area we found ourselves in a completely unfamiliar landscape. The ground was uneven and rocky with patchy areas of long grass. It was clear we were driving over land that was in various stages of evolution after volcanic eruptions. On our way to our first planned stop we saw cars pulling into a small parking lot by the side of the highway. On instinct I followed them even though our scheduled visit to the Blue Lagoon didn't leave us much time. A path led to a shallow chasm traversed by a metal footbridge, and I immediately recognized we were at the Bridge Between Continents. This is one of several locations in Iceland where one can observe the meeting of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The bridge spans the two plates and a popular activity is to toss a football across the chasm from one continent to another.
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At the heel of the Reykjanes boot are the cliffs of Valahnúkamöl. This area contains some of the peninsula's most dramatic scenery. A side road from the highway took us first past the hill topped by the Reykjanes lighthouse, which was surrounded by flocks of circling and swooping Arctic terns. We drove slowly to avoid the birds which flew low around the car and even paced on the road in front of us. Other drivers clearly hadn't afforded them the same courtesy as there were several squashed birds on the asphalt.

Next to the parking area was an incongruous statue of a solitary great auk, a flightless species that once frequented the area but was hunted to extinction. Close to the shore was the tiny islet of Eldey, a bizarre-appearing rock that looked like it had been cleaved obliquely with a giant sword. The slanted facet facing us was patterned with long white stripes of guano. The cliffs were jagged and daunting, tantalizingly hilly and climbable from the landward side but then ending in abrupt precipices. I couldn't deny the kids their first opportunity for a real scramble but it was quite unnerving trying to keep between all three of them and the seaward side of the cliffs.
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One popular attraction that almost everyone visits on the peninsula is the Blue Lagoon, a man-made spa filled with cloudy, sky-blue water that is ideal for Instagram posturing. Although the water enjoys a reputation for being beneficial to the skin, most patrons would probably be horrified to discover that it is actually the discharged water from a geothermal power plant that has been directed into a hollowed out lava field. The water acquires its unearthly and photogenic color from dissolved silica and blue algae. After the lagoon started becoming popular among locals the site was expanded and upgraded to make it more amenable for visitors and it has now become one of the crucial boxes to check for international visitors. The admission prices vary by demand but typically range from $60-76 for the most basic package which only provides a towel and one free drink. Children under 14 are free, which was nice for us. We had booked well in advance to get a lower price and to be sure to get the time slot we needed. I hadn't planned on eating at the Lava Restaurant at the lagoon since it had a reputation for being overpriced and uneven on quality, but when we arrived we were starving and the restaurant was almost empty. We ordered the Icelandic standards of cod and grilled lamb and were quite pleased with the food. Afterwards we spent about an hour in the pleasantly warm water wading around and getting our free silica masks, which were a lot easier to put on than to wash off.
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Our next stop was the geothermal area Seltún, positioned conveniently right by the road and traversed by a well-maintained boardwalk. Although we would see more impressive hot springs and mudpots later in our journey, this was the first time the kids had seen anything like it. They were even more amazed that the earth could produce a sulfurous stench more intense than the most noxious flatulence any of them had ever emitted. There are opportunities for more extensive hikes in Seltún but we opted for the simple walk along the boardwalk and then took a dirt footpath back to the car. Across the road was a pond that was bright blue with algae and an abandoned farm with graffitied silos.
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Just a few minutes drive north is Kleifarvatn, the largest lake on the peninsula. The water was an amazingly deep shade of blue that contrasted with the surrounding black sand beach. As we approached an enormous flock of white birds rose from the beach in synchrony, swirled in the air, and departed.
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By now we had checked off all our planned sights on the peninsula and we were ready to drive inland to our Airbnb in Selfoss. I saw that Google Maps was directing us all the way to Reykjavik to pick up the Ring Road when there seemed to be a perfectly acceptable shortcut via Highway 417. We decided to take the shorter route but after just ten minutes or so we found that the highway was completely closed in both directions. Before we turned back we noticed a car pulling out of a small parking area next to the barricade. We pulled into the now-empty area and saw a sign indicating we were near the Leiðarendi Lava Cave. We followed a gravel path from the parking area into the lava field by the highway. We had already seen a few of these lava fields from the road but it was totally different to walk through the middle of one. The lumpy basalt was covered in patches of thick spongy moss as far as the eye could see. The dark grey rock that was still exposed was a patchwork of lichen in white and tan. In the background were steep hills with the characteristic striped pattern caused by flows of black volcanic sand over the green carpet of grass at the base.
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Most lava tubes form when the outside of a lava flow cools and solidifies while the hot lava underneath continues to pass through. If the flow is fast enough the deep magma will pass through and leave an empty space behind. Iceland has many lava tubes, some of which are vast and highly popular as tourist attractions. Leiðarendi isn't one of the most famous but it seems to be fairly well-known. We arrived at the opening of the tube and I clambered down into the small entrance chamber. I couldn't see to the back and my cautious nature inhibited me from trying to proceed any further. I didn't even have a flashlight, let alone a helmet or any familiarity with the cave so it was probably a wise decision not to push onward. We made our way back through the lava field and charted out our new route to Selfoss.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 23:15 Archived in Iceland Tagged iceland family_travel reykjanes tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Flagstaff


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I might not have devoted two nights of our itinerary to Flagstaff if I'd realized what a small town it was, and that would have been regrettable. Flagstaff turned out to be a fascinating and entertaining city with awesome places to visit outside the metropolitan area as well. Downtown Flagstaff was the beneficiary of a major restoration and preservation project in the 1990's that has given the area an enduring atmosphere of history and character. It's a bustling neighborhood filled with restaurants and cafes, small boutiques, and stately brick buildings that look like they date back to the inception of the city in the late 19th century. The streets were enlivened by numerous colorful murals that adorned the walls of some of the more utilitarian buildings.
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We were fortunate to have arrived on Wednesday afternoon because that turned out to to the day for the weekly Downtown Community Market, an impressively sized farmer's market and street fair. There were hundreds of people there and plenty of space for them to spread out in so that it didn't feel crowded. That was an especially good thing since face masks were pretty much non-existent in Arizona. The vibe at the market was as if COVID had never happened, although cases had only really begun to decline a couple of months earlier. I had the feeling that masks were probably never much of a thing at all here. I couldn't really complain because I'd pretty much stopped wearing mine as well by then, although we still had the kids put them on when we were indoors or in crowds. Being able to forget about COVID was another nice thing about Flagstaff and fortunately none of us caught it. We browsed the different food and craft stalls, watched some public swing dance lessons, and got sewing lessons in Heritage Square.
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After two nights in motels we were thankfully back to Airbnb. Can't beat two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen for less money than two rooms at a motel. The other cool thing about Airbnbs is that they give the feel of living in a city instead of just passing through. Our place in Flagstaff was a cozy two bedroom unit attached to the back of a larger home in a quiet residential neighborhood on the west side of town.
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After settling in we went to our early dinner reservation at Brix, one of the more upscale restaurants in Flagstaff. We ate in a beautiful courtyard with stately trees but the execution was underwhelming and the food couldn't live up to the setting. Perhaps we just didn't order the right things. We sat at a round table with one support in the middle and every time one of the kids leaned on the table it would start to topple over. After a couple of close calls I kept one hand on the edge on the table and ate with the other hand for the rest of the meal.
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Flagstaff is also the home of the famed Lowell Observatory which had reopened to visitors on a limited basis after shutting its doors for COVID. With everything we had planned I hadn't wanted to commit to visiting the observatory but as it turned out we had the evening open after finishing dinner. Regretfully the receptionist told me they were already booked for the whole week, so that's clearly not an activity to remain undecided about until the last minute. Instead we returned to the downtown area for another look and were greeted by the sight of the historic Weatherford Hotel brightly illuminated for the evening.
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The following day we had a full slate of activities in the rural areas outside of Flagstaff. We fueled up for the long day at Tourist Home All Day Cafe, an oddly named but atmospheric restaurant with creative breakfast fare served up in a shady courtyard. The artfully decrepit wall next to us reminded me of the ruin bars in Budapest. Here in the Southside neighborhood the vibe was funky and bohemian compared to the stately antiquity of Downtown. Ethnic restaurants and brewpubs lined the neighborhood's main commercial drag of South San Francisco Street.
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Our first destination was Sunset Crater Volcano, about half an hour northwest of town. While the popular name of Sunset Crater evokes images of a huge hole in the ground, the crater is actually within an extinct volcano that is off limits to climbing. The only way to actually see the crater is to hike to the summit of a taller mountain nearby. The real attraction at Sunset Crater is the Bonito Lava Flow which was formed from the last eruption of the Sunset Volcano 900 years ago. We walked the short trail through the field of broken lava and black sand marveling at the amazing landscape that had been created by the extreme forces beneath the earth's surface.
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Another trail took us closer to the volcano itself, where we could see that one side of the volcano was covered with sparse vegetation while the other had only black sand. There were some different lava formations we hadn't seen on the first trail and the twisted, split remnants of trees that looked as though they had been struck by lightning. It was rapidly growing hotter and there was no shelter on the trail so we kept a steady pace along the loop until we were back to the coolness of our vehicle.
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Instead of returning to the highway we continued down the one lane state road to our next destination. We were rewarded with stunning vistas of bright green scrub set against a background of arid brown soil dusted with a fine coat of lava sand. Eventually we reached the beginning of the Wupatki National Monument, an area that contains the ruins of several ancient Native American pueblos. We followed the signage to the Wukoki ruin, where a mercifully short trail led from the parking area to a low sandstone outcrop atop which were the remains of the brick pueblo. It was a fascinating spot because of both the intricate masonry of the building as well as the pristine severity of the surroundings. It was hard to believe that at one time people called this inhospitable and seemingly barren area their home.
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Slightly further down the state road were the ruins of the Wupatki Pueblo. By now the kids were sleeping so Mei Ling and I went out in shifts for a quick scan. This was a much larger complex than Wukoki and had a remarkable background of hills that were an exquisite blend of luminescent green foliage and black lava sand.
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Just to the east of Flagstaff is Walnut Canyon National Monument, a 350 foot deep trench whose walls contain the remnants of cliff dwellings that were inhabited by the Sinagua tribe until they were abandoned 800 years ago. There are two ways to see the canyon. We opted for the easy, paved Rim Trail with expansive if distant views of the Kaibab limestone canyon walls. The more strenuous Island Trail dives into the canyon and meanders past the cliff dwellings, but it has some unprotected dropoffs and eventually requires a 185 foot climb back to the rim. The kids were already a little tired from the earlier activities so we decided we'd done enough for the day.
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We got back to Flagstaff early enough to check out a few art galleries downtown that we'd missed the previous day. We had a decent dinner at a Thai restaurant on the main drag and finally retired for the night quite pleased with our experience in the city. Downtown Flagstaff and especially Wupatki had more than justified the decision to spend two nights in Flagstaff. In the morning we had an early departure for the Friday morning farmer's market in Sedona.

Posted by zzlangerhans 16:31 Archived in USA Tagged arizona family_travel flagstaff travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Route 66 and the Grand Canyon


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Once we had crossed into Arizona Mei Ling and I were feeling exhilarated. Las Vegas had been fun but now our road trip had started and we knew we would be seeing dozens of new places over the next month. The sheer expanse of the journey ahead of us was electrifying. We weren't daunted by the fact that the landscape we were now driving through was some of the most barren I could remember since the Dead Sea seven years previously. The scrub had its own strange beauty and in the distance we could see the blue of a river snaking between a low range of rocky, black mountains.
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We didn't see any signs of life until we came upon our first town more than an hour later. Kingman, Arizona seems like a generic hot and dusty Southwestern town these days but a century ago it was a bustling stop on the east-west railroad. We had lunch at a downscale but atmospheric diner in Kingman before embarking on our exploration of Route 66, which occupies a mythic position in the canon of Americana. The road was one of the primary means by which tourists and migrants reached California from the Midwest before the interstate highway system was developed and air travel replaced long-distance driving. The steady stream of travelers engendered a new form of roadside culture along the route, from motels to filling stations to souvenir shops. John Steinbeck christened the highway "The Mother Road" in his novel The Grapes of Wrath and the name has stuck. Most of the historic segments of Route 66 have been overlaid by interstates, with US 40 being the culprit in Arizona and New Mexico. However one long segment of the road between Kingman and Seligman has been preserved, largely through the efforts of local chambers of commerce. Most drivers choose the wider and faster interstate but for those of us in the area to see what is there and not just traverse it, the Mother Road still lives.

Our first stop after Kingman was just a photo op. Outside a shuttered souvenir store near the miniscule hamlet of Antares is Giganticus Headicus, a fourteen foot sculpture that resembles a truncated green moai. The head was created by a local sculptor in 2004 and is an apt symbol of the quirkiness of Route 66.
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Just five minutes further down the road we arrived at Hackberry General Store. When the store was built in 1934 it was the only option for residents of the small town of Hackberry short of driving to Kingman until it closed in the 1970's. When the abandoned store was reopened in 1992 the new owner carefully maintained the mid 20th century aesthetic which has been preserved through several owners since. To some extent entering the store feels like passing through a time warp into the 1950's, but there's no question that the expensive T-shirts and souvenir knick knacks that keep the store operating are straight from 2020's assembly lines.
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Route 66 and Interstate 40 meet again in the town of Seligman, the ultimate destination for all travelers obsessed with the history of the Mother Road. It was too late at this point to check out any of the famous Route 66 stores in town so we headed straight for our motel. By the time we'd settled and I was able to turn my attention to dinner, I found that the only real restaurant in town had stopped seating for the evening. They did agree to cook me up some food for pick-up, so we ended up eating in the parking lot of the motel using plastic furniture that the manager had generously provided. Eating in such humble conditions by the red neon light of the motel sign seemed like the perfect way to honor the generations of travelers that had wandered this glorious American road before us.
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We had breakfast at Westside Lilo's, the same restaurant I'd picked up dinner from the night before. Like everywhere in Seligman it was full of kitsch and character, from the animal trophies on the walls to the skeleton with a permanent seat at the bar. More importantly, the pancakes and omelets were delicious and filling.
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Seligman has the most famous souvenir stores on Route 66 but we didn't see much different than what had been on display in Hackberry. We did pick up a nice cowboy hat for Mei Ling that didn't seem unreasonably priced. The kids' endless begging for junk that they didn't really want got old quickly so after about an hour of browsing we decided it was time to get back on the road.
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Having departed Seligman earlier than expected we had a lot of free time before we needed to head to the Grand Canyon. I reviewed my trip planner and realized we were quite close to one of the activities I'd relegated to the Flagstaff stop. Bearizona is a wildlife park mainly focused on bears although there are sections for wolves, bison, and other animals. It's one of those places where you drive through and see the animals from the car. We'd had a really good experience with a park like this near San Antonio many years earlier but Bearizona was a disappointment. There were bears surely enough but they were mostly sleeping or listlessly wandering through their enclosures, which I'm sure is very appropriate behavior for bears. We caught some glimpses of deer and elk and even wolves but nothing that particularly justified the experience. In Texas we'd been provided food for the herbivores and the animals had been roaming the road and sticking their heads into the windows. Obviously that wouldn't work for bears and wolves but the lack of interest from the animals made for a rather boring drive. After the driving route ended there was a "walk-through" section that turned out to be a regular zoo. Once again I was bemused by how a seemingly pedestrian wildlife park garnered such scintillating reviews on TripAdvisor.
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The only other thing I could find to do in the area was ... a deer farm. I was a little hesitant to pile on another wildlife activity but my kids aren't old enough to be cynical and they generally trust me to find fun activities for them even if I've already swung and missed a couple of times. Fortunately the Grand Canyon Deer Farm turned out to be a lot better for us than Bearizona. The big difference here was that we got to get close to the animals and feed them which for kids makes all the difference in the world. The deer were pretty pushy and had a way of knocking the cups out of the kids' hands but they weren't as frighteningly aggressive as the ones we'd fed in Nara, Japan a couple of years before. Besides the deer there were farm animals, a camel, and a zonkey (zebra donkey hybrid). Luckily I had time to read the warning sign about the camel having a tendency to pluck hats off of heads so when he came trotting towards us I knew to step well back from his enclosure.
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Our lunch in Williams was bad enough that I forgot about my plan to bring take-out to the Grand Canyon. My search for restaurants worth eating at had turned only one: the restaurant at the El Tovar Hotel. Reservations there were snapped up immediately when they became available a month in advance. There was fast food for the kids but the actual sit-down restaurants seemed to be universally awful. I had been proud of myself for coming up with a solution in advance and now here we were on our way with nothing but snacks. The landscape was surprisingly flat and plain considering that we were headed to the most acclaimed natural sight on the continent. I had decided that it would be worth seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time via helicopter, even though it was an expensive trip for the five of us. I wanted our experience to be more special than just looking over the edge of a railing and saying "Yeah, that's a huge canyon". I figured at least the older two would be pretty excited for their first helicopter ride but once we arrived at the airport they were pretty blasé. We watched a safety video and got kitted out with flotation devices which were mandatory since our flight path crossed the Colorado River. Although there have been a number of helicopter crashes at the Grand Canyon I was more worried about Mei Ling or one of the boys getting motion sickness than anything else.
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Almost as soon as we took off we were floating over the densely packed ponderosa pines of the Kaibab National Forest. I was so preoccupied with hunting for wildlife amid the trees that it came as a shock when we flew over the edge of the canyon. As I looked back at the lip it struck me how much it looked like someone had cut a layer cake rather clumsily. The colored strata were sharply defined but the wall of the canyon had been scalloped and gouged by millennia of erosion by wind and water. As we flew out further it became clear how incomprehensibly vast the canyon was in width, with the area between the rims filled with its own terrain of nameless red and gray mountains, each bearing innumerable scars of time. At the very center of it all snaked the innocuous Colorado River which had done so much of the sculpting of this intricate landscape over the centuries.
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I needn't have worried about motion sickness. Mei Ling was fine and both boys had nodded off by the time we gently landed back at the airport. We drove on to our room at the Yavapai Lodge, which was the only accommodation still available at the canyon when I had gotten around to making reservations two months earlier. It was a fairly bare bones and unappealing motel with non-functional wifi. Once we were settled we decided we might as well drive to the rim although my research indicated that we would be completely unable to find parking in the early evening. As it turned out my premonition was false and we found the parking lot at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center to have plenty of space. There were plenty of people at Mather Point, the closest and most popular outlook, but it wasn't crowded by a long shot. We'd been spoiled by the views from the helicopter but it was good to be able to focus on the amazing colors and topography of the jagged rock formations that extended from the inner walls of the canyon. I realize now that it's quite challenging to get good photographs of the canyon from the rim with an iPhone, as any brighter objects in the foreground cause the camera software to wash out and blur the more interesting structures in the back. Fortunately I took enough photos to have a couple worth saving just by pure luck.
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We didn't have any intention of hiking into the canyon but we walked for a while along the paved rim trial, stopping at each viewpoint for a slightly different perspective on the canyon. The setting sun was continually changing the appearance of the rocks as clouds passed in front of us. My skin crawled as I saw people walking out on narrow promontories from the rim just inches away from unimaginable plunges. My rational side knew that there have been relatively few deaths from falling at the Grand Canyon over the years but at the same time I could never tolerate being just one misstep away from a sudden and grisly end to my existence.
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We never went out to dinner in the end and subsisted on our snacks without getting too hungry. In the morning we had a decent breakfast at a Mexican restaurant in the little commercial town of Tusayan and then headed back for one more look at the canyon rim. This time we chose Yavapai Point, about a mile to the west of where we had been the previous evening. The light and the perspective were a little different, but it was clear we had seen everything we were going to see from the South Rim.
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We drove a little further west to Grand Canyon Village which has the Hopi House, a pueblo-like gallery of mostly Native American artwork and crafts. The architect was Mary Colter, who designed many of the iconic century-old buildings of the Grand Canyon. There were two floors filled with pottery, rugs, jewelry and paintings of very high quality. Of course we still had the reservations ahead of us which is where we were planning to make any purchases of Native American art.
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Across the road from Hopi House is the El Tovar Hotel, considered to be one of the top national park lodges in the country. The hotel has an antiquated yet timeless look, constructed of pine wood painted dark brown to blend with its surroundings. We hadn't even been able to book a dinner reservation let alone a room but we took a short tour of the interior and marveled at the obvious sturdiness of the early 20th century wooden construction. By now we felt that we'd truly extracted everything we could from this visit to the Grand Canyon. Perhaps some day in the future we'll return and find our way to the base of the canyon by foot, mule, or helicopter but that will have to wait several more years at least.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 18:28 Archived in USA Tagged grand_canyon route_66 family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Henderson and Hoover Dam


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In our first two days in Las Vegas we'd done a pretty good job knocking out the essentials on my list. Now we had to decide which of the optional activities were best to complete. I had already reserved a time slot at the Lion Habitat Ranch in Henderson, a large suburb at the southeast corner of Las Vegas that is the second largest city in Nevada in its own right. The ranch was located in a rather desolate commercial area on the western side of town. I was a little dubious about the authenticity of a lion sanctuary in Las Vegas but stellar reviews and countless mentions on Vegas top ten lists convinced me that it would be a good experience for the kids.

I was disappointed right away to see that the lions were kept in concrete-floored enclosures with chain link fences. They looked bored and lethargic, possibly due to the hundred degree heat. As with every other day thus far in Vegas, this was going to be the hottest yet with a projected high of 106. We were as uncomfortable as the lions despite the misters placed along the pathway. I was grateful I'd decided not to shell out a hundred bucks for the chance to feed a lion when I realized it was just a matter of pushing a large pellet through the fence.
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Things looked up a little bit when we got to Ozzie, a young but tall giraffe with his own shed-like enclosure. There was more shade here and one of the employees gave a talk about giraffes while Ozzie painted T-shirts (awkwardly) with a brush held in his mouth. The giraffe wrangler asked if anyone had a joke about giraffes and it dawned on me that I had read one just a day earlier on my phone when the kids were begging me to tell them new jokes. So there I was suddenly in the spotlight telling a long and slightly inappropriate joke to an audience of kids. A man and a giraffe walked into a bar and started drinking. After a while the giraffe drops onto the floor and the man starts walking away. The bartender yells "You can't leave that lyin' there!" and the man replies "That's a giraffe, not a lion" and walks on out the door. In the version I read the giraffe dropped dead but I thought it would be better to leave that part out. There were a few confused chuckles and then the kids got to feed lettuce leaves to Ozzie. Cleo went twice because Spenser was afraid of the giraffe. Afterwards we had popsicles at the gift shop and made our escape. I was somewhat surprised that the ranch had such good reviews considering how sanctimonious people tend to be about zoos and any other entertainment involving animals. I'm hardly obsessed with animal rights but I found the place quite depressing and uninteresting.
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I found the Ethel M Chocolate Factory while researching if there was anything else to do in Henderson after the Lion Habitat. We've had some good experiences with chocolate making in Nicaragua and Belize. Ethel M has the atmosphere of a small, independent business but it is actually owned by the giant Mars candy corporation. Forrest Mars, the founder of the company, established the factory in honor of his mother after he retired and it was later bought by the corporation. There wasn't much going on in the factory when we arrived, probably because it was Sunday, but the showroom had an impressive collection of expensive boutique chocolates. Outside the factory is a surprisingly large and attractive cactus garden.
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After lunch in a nearby Jewish deli we had to decide what we were going to do on the sweltering afternoon. 104 degrees seemed almost too hot even for a water park but we were so close to Cowabunga Bay that we decided it was our best bet. This was the second water park we'd been to in the United States after Kalahari in Wisconsin five years previously, and it was a far inferior product. The entrance fee was astronomical, of course, yet we didn't get to experience much for our money. The young kids area had very little seating and not much in the way of shade either. Almost all the rides had a height requirement that excluded our kids, and the one attempt we did make for a ride we were qualified for failed when the line barely moved over half an hour. I could see that they were using just one raft so one group would have to reach the end of the ride and the raft would have to be returned to the top of the tower before the next group could go. It seemed they were cutting corners everywhere possible except on the price of admission. We finally found our way to the wave pool, which the kids really enjoyed except for the inexplicable twenty minute intervals when the waves stopped coming.
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Not far from Cowabunga but on the Las Vegas side of the border between the municipalities is Mystic Falls Park, a large atrium within the Sam's Town hotel and casino. Most visitors to the city don't get there unless they're staying at the hotel but since we were doing so much exploration by car it was inevitable that we would be driving in that area before the end of our stay in Las Vegas. We were fortunate in that the afternoon water and light shows had recently resumed after pausing for COVID. The indoor park was a very pleasant environment but even more impressive were the interior walls of the hotel facing the atrium. They had been given facades to resemble an array of tall Victorian townhouses such as one might have seen in a major American city around the beginning of the 20th century. The water show itself was a little bit of a let down but I was glad we'd visited just for the opportunity to see the creative design of the park and the hotel.
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We had dinner at a highly-rated Vietnamese fusion bistro in southwest Las Vegas called Black Sheep. The dishes were fairly creative and enjoyable but the restaurant couldn't match up with what Mizumi had given us the previous evening. Even though we hadn't had a single extraordinary experience that day we still felt like we'd spent our last full day in Las Vegas productively. Back at the Airbnb we collapsed into bed feeling that we'd accomplished the goals we had set for exploring the city.

We had strong motivation for getting out of town early Monday morning. We still had to see Hoover Dam and we needed to be completely out of the Las Vegas Valley long before the temperature got close to its projected high of 108. That plan took a hit as soon as I'd lugged our heavy suitcases down four flights of stairs and packed them into the back of the SUV. Somehow the suitcases seemed to have grown an inch in the Airbnb and I couldn't get the trunk door to catch when I slammed it down. After a few vigorous attempts I realized there was something else going on besides the suitcases. The little bar which keeps the door in place when it's closed was in the closed position even though the trunk door was open, preventing the door from engaging with the latch. I tried to pry it out with several implements unsuccessfully. I even looked to see if there was a trunk release inside the car and couldn't find one. It was starting to look like I would have to unload all the suitcases and carry them back up the four flights to the Airbnb and then drive the car with an open trunk to the nearest Enterprise location for them to either fix the latch or give us a new car. Fortunately Mei Ling had the idea to tie the two parts of the latch together with a string which appeared secure enough for us to drive a limited distance without too much fear of losing the luggage.

We decided to deal with breakfast before the car where I made yet another mistake. I picked our breakfast restaurant Jardin based on ratings without realizing that it was also inside the Wynn. That meant we had to go through the whole time-consuming rigamarole of parking in the garage and then wandering through the endless halls of the hotel before we could even sit down. The restaurant was pretty, of course, but service was slow and we ended up paying double the normal prices for very average food.
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By now we were well behind schedule. We found a nearby Enterprise and the guy at the desk came out to look at the latch. He got a pen in there and it almost immediately released, which infuriated me because I'd tried the exact same thing with no luck. However, as soon as I tried to open and close it once more the latch had stuck again. Suddenly Mei Ling realized we'd never tried pressing the latch release on the trunk itself and lo and behold it worked perfectly. The Enterprise guy had probably pressed it himself accidentally while poking at the latch. We were now able to open and close the trunk repeatedly without any problem, and it seemed that if we encountered the same problem again we could just press the latch release and fix it. We decided the best course of action was just to proceed with the car we had rather than waste the morning trying to get a new car. It turned out to be the right decision because the problem with the trunk latch never returned. I felt incredibly stupid for not thinking of something so obvious as pressing the trunk release, even to the extent of hunting for some non-existent secondary trunk release inside the car. Thank God it was Mei Ling who thought of the solution and not the Enterprise guy or I think I'd still be shriveling in embarrassment.

I was really lucky to discover our last stop in Las Vegas, or actually Henderson. I only came across Shan-Gri-La Prehistoric Park because I was scanning through Google Maps and came across the icon. Shang-Gri-La is the house of a retired teacher who has decided to fill his small front yard with enormous plastic and metal dinosaur replicas. If that was all there was to it I think it wouldn't have made much impression on my kids. The beauty part was that after we toured the dinosaurs he took them back to the garage where they got to choose plastic eggs from a rack on the wall based on a roll of the dice. There were some complicated rules but they all got to pick a bunch of eggs and keep the little presents they found inside. They were totally thrilled by the experience and kept asking me if we could go back for days after we'd left the city. Cleo still says it was her favorite place in Las Vegas. Shan-Gri-La really shows the impact one dedicated person can have on their community with a little motivation and creativity. I can't imagine how much money he must have spent on his dinosaurs and I made sure to leave a substantial donation in the box before we left.
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I'd made a concerning number of mistakes during our first stop but fortunately they had only resulted in minor inconveniences. We had still had a great time in Las Vegas and learned a lot about the city. Destiny prevented me from committing my final error, a raft tour through Black Canyon at the base of Hoover Dam. As it turned out we were extremely lucky that the company had decided to cancel the tour for all of 2021 as it would have been unbearable to be out on the raft unprotected from the sun amid the brutal heat of mid-day. As it was I was quite concerned about walking with the kids outdoors as the temperature spiked to 108. I had taken several precautions as this would be our first time traveling in extreme heat. Aside from our wide-brimmed hats I had a large spray bottle full of water that I carried in my backpack and regularly misted the kids while we were outdoors. We kept a small cooler bag in the trunk full of water including a couple of bottles that I had frozen the previous night. The frozen bottles kept the other ones cool and were a welcome source of cold water once they had melted by the afternoon. Whenever we left the car I carried a backpack with about twice as much water as I thought we were likely to use.

The forgotten municipality of the Las Vegas Valley is Boulder City, which began as a home for thousands of the workers who built the Hoover Dam in the 1930's. It's a small, pleasant town within minutes of the dam and Lake Mead. Given the heat we didn't have much appetite for exploring the town. However, we did stop at Hemenway Park to see the wild bighorn sheep that come down from the mountains to graze. I was not really expecting them to be there but sure enough as soon as we parked we could see about a dozen of the beautiful animals relaxing in the shade under a large tree. It was funny to encounter them so easily as many people who don't know about the park go on hikes around the dam in the hopes of seeing them. On the way out of Boulder City we had some beautiful views of Lake Mead from the highway.
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The best view of the Hoover Dam isn't from the dam itself but from the Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, the world's highest concrete arch bridge. The uphill climb to the bridge was a significant endeavor in the heat but we were sure to keep ourselves well-hydrated inside and out. Even though there was a solid railing on the concrete walkway of the bridge it was hard to lean over to take pictures of the dam. Even if there was no way I could fall over the railing, I felt like my hands were going to go numb and nervelessly release my phone into the Colorado River below us.
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After walking the bridge we drove onward a little further to the garage for the Hoover Dam. The tours of the dam were closed because of COVID but I'm not sure if it would have been worth our time to see the internal works anyway. From the top of the dam we had a new perspective on the vast wall of concrete that held the enormous volume of Lake mead in check. We could also admire the futuristic span of the Tillman Bridge as it traversed the canyon high above the Colorado River.
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The state line between Nevada and Arizona cuts through the middle of the dam and there are clocktowers on either side showing the time in each state. On this particular day they were the same because although Nevada is in the Pacific time zone and Arizona is in the Mountain zone, Arizona does not observe daylight savings time. On the way back to the garage Cleo started complaining a lot more about the heat and kept demanding to be sprayed with water. I didn't take her seriously because we hadn't really been out in the sun for long and it was an abrupt change in attitude, but once we got back to the car I could tell she really wasn't feeling well. An anti-nausea tablet and some air conditioning back in the car sorted her out but it was a reminder that I needed to take the heat and the sun very seriously on this trip. A short while later we were crossing the Tillman Bridge in our vehicle and wouldn't see Nevada again until the last day of our trip.

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:23 Archived in USA Tagged las_vegas family_travel henderson tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: The Other Las Vegas


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The Las Vegas Strip occupies such an outsized position in the American consciousness that it's easy to forget it is a tiny segment of a large metropolis of over two million people, a number that has tripled in the last quarter century. A sizable percentage of tourists never even leave the Strip when they visit the city. Even though we were fascinated by the visual spectacle and energy of the Strip, we are avid explorers of American cities and we were sure to give Las Vegas sufficient time to make sure we took in all the highlights.
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Because of my shoddy planning we only had time to see a couple of things away from the Strip on our first full day in Las Vegas. We had lunch at Lamaii, a pretty good restaurant in a large conglomeration of East Asian restaurants and businesses that extends for about two miles along Spring Mountain Road to the west of the Strip. It's an impressive concentration of Asian enterprises but I don't really agree with its informal name of Las Vegas Chinatown. Aside from the fact that there are easily as many Korean and Southeast Asian signs as there are Chinese, I didn't get any sense of the area having any Chinese character from a residential or cultural standpoint comparable to the Chinatowns in NYC, Boston, or San Francisco. I'd call it more of an East Asian commercial district, similar to what they have on a smaller scale in Denver, Houston, or Atlanta. I was still envious of what they had compared to Miami, a city where authentic Asian restaurants of any kind are very few and far between.

Another Las Vegas feature I was excited to experience was Omega Mart, a metaphysical interactive art experience in the form of a surrealist supermarket. Omega Mart is part of a larger complex called Area 15 which is housed in an enormous warehouse right by Interstate 15 in central Las Vegas. Outside of Area 15 is an array of interesting, futuristic sculptures of intimidating size that hint at the weird environment one is about to experience inside.
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The interior of the warehouse is illuminated only by blacklights and various light-emitting displays. It was fairly crowded and noisy in the late afternoon with a pumping electronic music soundtrack. It was set up somewhat like a mall with virtual reality attractions, boutiques, and restaurants on two levels.
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One side of the warehouse was devoted to Omega Mart. At almost $50 per ticket we had made a substantial investment in this novel form of entertainment that I understood very little about. It seemed that underlying the exhibit was some form of mystery we might be able to solve, but no one seemed able or willing to describe what that mystery was let alone how to discover the answer. The entry of Omega Mart was superficially similar to a small supermarket but on close examination the products were clearly not real. The market stocked everything from Organic Moth Milk to Butter-Scented Air Freshener. It was a very entertaining parody of American consumerism and we probably could have spent an hour just in the market amusing ourselves with the creative packaging.
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There are several ways to escape from the market into the huge complex of rooms behind and above, but my favorite was the secret tunnel through the refrigerated cabinet. We found ourselves in a maze of small rooms and large open spaces, each with a completely different creative design. Connecting the different spaces were secret tunnels and slides that were ideal for kids our age to explore. Most of my attention was spent on keeping up with them and making sure they didn't get lost. Interspersed in the rooms were some video displays and texts with repeated themes that hinted at the underlying mystery, but it quickly became clear my kids weren't about to start focusing on some obscure conundrum with such a cornucopia of sensory stimulation around them. In the end we had to beg the kids to leave after almost three hours and even after watching several YouTube videos I still have no clue of what the mystery was about. I think it's a better plan with young kids to focus on exploring every room and secret passage and ignore the metaphysical challenge, at least on the first visit.
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After emerging into the bright light and heat of the Las Vegas afternoon we drove to Downtown Container Park, a small arts and shopping district constructed mainly from shipping containers. The entrance to the park is watched over by a giant metal sculpture of a praying mantis. Inside is an eclectic mixture of galleries, boutiques, and cafes surrounding an enormous multilevel play structure and a performance stage. There wasn't a show going on while we were there and the area in front of the stage was filled with kids building with oversize Legos. It was so much fun for the kids we let them play there until it was time to go back to the Strip to watch the volcano eruption at the Mirage. I was still guilty about the distance I'd made them walk that morning.
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Mr. Mamas, the breakfast place we chose for our second morning, was a lot busier than the one we'd eaten at the previous day. In fact it was jam-packed with full tables as if the COVID epidemic didn't exist. Infection was still my biggest concern about the trip and I'd hoped that we would be able to eat mostly outdoors and keep our masks on otherwise, but there wasn't any outdoor dining here. We had to choose whether to take the last open table or eat elsewhere, and that's when we realized we were going to have to take our chances if we were going to go through with this road trip. The breakfast was totally ordinary despite the line that was forming outside. We ate and got out of there so quickly that I didn't realize they'd charged us for service and included a tip line on the check until after we'd gotten back on the road.

The high temperature of the day was expected to be 102 so there was no question that any outdoor activities needed to be completed in the morning. Las Vegas is bordered on the west by a large area of natural beauty called Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Within the area is a twelve mile scenic loop drive that comes off of Highway 159 a short distance from the city. Considering the temperature and our lack of hiking experience this was an ideal way for us to begin our exploration of the Southwest's natural attractions. Aside from the magnificent views of the multicolored landscape from the road, there were several stops where we could get out and take short walks into the rocky areas and admire the formations more closely. There were plenty of longer trails and some precarious climbs to be made but we knew there would be plenty of opportunities in the coming month to have more intimate encounters with the terrain.
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From the canyon we took Interstate 15 southwest from the city. We made a brief stop at the Silverton Casino to see the mermaid show which had recently resumed after pausing for COVID. That turned out to be a flop with the kids who found it boring and unconvincing, although Mei Ling and I thought it was kind of cool. Cleo was especially critical of the scuba regulator the mermaid was using to breathe, although I'm not sure how exactly she expected the mermaid to go without one. We also had an absolutely awful lunch at a Chinese noodle restaurant inside the casino.
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We got back on I15 and continued until we reached Seven Magic Mountains. The seven towers of brightly-painted limestone boulders by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone are apparently intended to evoke comparison to the naturally-occurring rock formations of the Southwest that appear to be balancing. The towers were erected in 2015 and are scheduled to be dismantled at the end of 2021 after a three-year extension granted in 2018. Rondinone's explanation of his abstract work is typically obscure, but there's no question that the Dayglo colors and dimensions of the towers make for an arresting contrast against the flatness and monotony of the surrounding desert.
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We were now starting to experience the full brunt of the Las Vegas heat so it was time for an indoor activity. We headed back into the center of the city to visit the Discovery Childrens Museum. Children's museums are always on my list when we visit a major city because they are a reliable way to keep kids entertained in a constructive way and I'm often able to teach them stuff while we're inside. Discovery wasn't one of the largest or best we've been to in the United States but given the amount of time we had it more than served its purpose. There was a very fun water feature and also a spiral staircase in the center with multiple little slides and interactive exhibits that the kids loved. As with Omega Mart, we eventually had to tear the kids out of there and Spenser was asking if we were going back to the children's museum for several days afterward.
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With just an hour left to kill before our dinner reservation we headed to The Arts Factory, a warehouse complex of galleries in a commercial district north of the center. I didn't see any other visitors in the quiet building although there were several artists working in their studios. We had a few interesting discussions with the artists that Cleo and Ian got involved in which I thought made the visit worthwhile.
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Dinner at Mizumi was our single biggest extravagance on the Strip, where we had otherwise mostly focused on the free experiences. I had chosen our expensive Vegas restaurant carefully and as soon as we entered I felt like we had made the right decision. The interior of the restaurant was painted a deep shade of red and the decor was elegant and modern. Large picture windows displayed the impressive waterfall in the Wynn atrium outside. I'd describe the cuisine as "creative Japanese" and the food was excellent from appetizer to dessert.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 23:33 Archived in USA Tagged las_vegas family_travel family_travel_blog omega_mart area_15 Comments (0)

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