Monday, July 7, 2014

Best of the USA

Posted by the whole crew

Our route, corner to corner from the Atlantic to the Pacific

Based on extensive media research, we here at moving mountains have come to the conclusion that people like lists.  Top 10 celebrity nose jobs, favourite bar-b-cue ribs recipes, greatest kitten videos.  Lists rule the internet.  So, after travelling corner to corner and back again, in honour of the 4th of July, we sat down and put together a list of random things we liked  (and a few things we didn’t like so much) about our great neighbour to the south.

To start with, for posterity, here is a list of all 27 states we have travelled through on this trip: Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., Maryland, Delaware, New York, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Washington State.

Best City

We’ve seen a lot of major cities on our trip.  Some (like New York, New Orleans, and Las Vegas) were pretty much what we expected, without too many big surprises.  They were victims of their prominent public images.  Still, it was fun to see all the famous sites in person.

Christopher, helping out with the refurbishment going on at the Washington Monument
Our favourite city overall was Washington, D.C.  While it gets a lot of bad press for both politics and crime, the downtown area where we stayed was clean and welcoming.  The history displayed in the  monuments and the Smithsonian museums could have kept us busy for a lot more time than we had.  Generally speaking, as a family, we don’t tend to have as much fun in cities as we do in smaller towns and rural places.  But D.C. is a city that would be worth going back to and exploring some more.

Taking a bike tour of the D.C. Monuments was a great way to get an appreciation for the city, and some American history.

Best Museum

This was a tricky one for us.  The museums at the Smithsonian are incredible, and impressive.  And Christopher loved the Kennedy Space center in Florida.

But the overall winner was the World War II museum in New Orleans.  This was an unexpected surprise, and is really well done.  If you ever go, shell out the extra bucks to see the Tom Hanks movie.  The submarine adventure is also pretty good, but if you want to save a few dollars you could do without it.

The World War II museum was really well done.  They even had some exhibits showing the Canadian contribution at D-day.

Best Restaurant

Finding good places to feed a family when you are living out of hotels is a real challenge.  Fast food is   ubiquitous, and cheap, but it is hard to find a place where you can feel that what you are giving your kids is nutritious in any way.  More formal, sit-down restaurants tend to get pretty expensive when you tally up meals for five.  And we found the portions in the U.S. were usually too huge to contemplate (we often tried to beat both these problems by sharing meals, but then we could never know for sure if we would have enough).

Despite the “huge meal syndrome”, the Olive Garden gets an honourable mention in this category.  A few times, when we were really starving, the all you can eat salad and bread helped to quell a real-life hunger games from breaking out.  One of the proudest moments of our trip was navigating from New York’s Central Park directly to the subway station adjacent to the Olive Garden in Times Square, without poking our heads above ground once.  Pretty good for a family from a town of 3,000 people.

The clear winner for best restaurant, though, goes to The Whole Enchilada, in Ft. Lauderdale.  This place perfectly hits the middle ground for food which is relatively inexpensive and prepared quickly, but is still fresh and healthy.  The help-yourself salsa bar has 6 different types of home made salsa which you can add at will to your burrito or chips.  The mango salsa was a particular favourite.

The whole enchilada, winner of our favourite restaurant award.  The cheque and trophy are in the mail.
Having said all that, the family vote for our favourite meal goes to the Hot Pot and Sushi restaurant where we had Sara’s birthday dinner, in Portland.  This was one of those pleasant surprises that are the best part of travelling. 

Our guilty secret is this.  Sometimes, in an effort to get a cheap, but decent meal, we have resorted to eating at the nearest Ikea, where we know we won’t break the bank (heck, some of them feed kids free on Tuesday), but will still get an actual meal involving vegetables and everything.  So, on the night of Sara’s birthday, we found ourselves in Portland, not too far from Ikea.  We were headed there for dinner (I know, big birthday celebration, right?) when we spotted the Hot Pot and Sushi restaurant nearby.

Watching the sushi train, at Hot Pot and Sushi in Portland.
On the west coast, we are used to having cheap, high quality sushi.  In the rest of the States, sushi still seems to be a pretty high end specialty food, so we haven’t eaten much recently.  Since we are all fans, we decided to forego Ikea, and indulge in sushi instead.  It turns out that it was one of those sushi restaurants where you all sit next to this little conveyor belt, and just pick out the plates that interest you.  At the end of the meal, they count the plates, and that is how they charge you.  The kids loved the conveyor belt idea, and it was great fun to watch the dinner options go by, and just grab what looked interesting.  30 plates later, we were as full as could be.  Sara says it was her favourite birthday dinner ever.

Best birthday dinner ever!

Best Hotel

Our favourite hotel chain was the Marriott Residence Inn, since we could generally get an extra bedroom and a kitchenette for a reasonable price.  For a single overnight on a road trip, they provide a pretty comfortable stay for a family.  But they are fairly standard, with nothing too exciting about them, so when we are talking about the best hotel overall, none of the Residence Inns make the list.

The runner up award for the single best hotel we stayed at goes to the Hilton Vacation Club hotel in Orlando, Florida.  Because we hit it in off-season (October), we got a huge, fancy, two bedroom suite with a full kitchen and living room for less than the cost of a lot of the basic hotel rooms we stayed in during the summer.  The massive pool, where they projected a movie in the evening helped to launch this place into our top two.  In a way, it was almost a shame that our hotel in Orlando was so great, since most of our time there was spent at Universal and Disneyworld, so we didn’t really get a chance to enjoy it.

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Taking time out from our awesome hotel to enjoy Hogwarts at Universal Studio.

The winner in this category actually suffered a bit from our off season timing.  We arrived at the Glacier Canyon Lodge in the Wisconsin Dells exactly 5 minutes before they shut down most of the fun stuff for the winter.  From the registration desk, we watched out the window as the last go-karts of the year made their way around the track.  As we carried our luggage into our room, we could see them turn off the fountains at the outdoor water park for the last time that summer.

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Still lots of fun at the indoor portion of the water park at in the Wisonsin Dells.
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Ropes course at the Glacier Canyon Lodge.

Even without those things, though, the indoor water slides, arcades, and rope course made this place a legendary family stop.  The kids are still talking about the Hurricane, and the giant bucket of water that dumped on their heads.  And being there in the fall meant no people, and no line ups.  Add in a good sized room for a reasonable off-season price, and this place gets the award for our best hotel stay of the trip.

Best National Park

The rocks and views at Zion were incredible.
The vote here was split between Zion and Carlsbad Caverns.  In then end, though the Caverns get the nod, due to their unique environment.  And the fact that it wasn’t 40 degrees C out while we were enjoying them.  Where else can you spend the day hiking underground, looking at incredibly huge caves and crazy formations.  Definitely a must see if you are in New Mexico.

Descending into the depths at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.

Best Public Restroom

This is a pretty critical category when you are travelling with kids.  Without a doubt, Ceasar’s Palace, Las Vegas is the winner.

The losers in this category are too numerous to mention.  Suffice it to say, our bladder control has improved significantly along the highways of America.

Ummm, Mom, all this water.... can we go find a bathroom?

Best Pastry

We’d like to sound all classy, and say the Beignets in New Orleans were the winners here.  These light and flaky deep fried pastries covered in powdered sugar were definitely a highlight of our trip to the Big Easy.


However, the real winner here was the Cinnabon Cinnabites that we had at a Taco Bell in Biloxi, Mississippi.  These were like warm, crunchy sugar donut Timbits with a sweet creamy custard filling.  Mmmmmm!

Mmmmm, Cinnabon.

Best Town Name

Bunkie, Louisiana.  Made us think of the McJ’s place at Gambier.

This one is a test to see if Shakey has read this far. 

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