Sunday, June 22, 2008

Epilogue - 2008 Vacation

2200 miles, 2 countries, 11 states, what a journey it was.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Grand Return of J's Road Sign Mania

The wait is over! Back by popular demand, here are the road signs. Enjoy!
Circles and Ovals
Delaware on top. New Jersey on bottom. New Jersey adds a nice black background to their circle sign.

Squares and Rectangles

Clearly, the most popular shape of state route sign on the trip. From the top, they go Maryland, Maine, Massachusetts (2 times including the first one which is in the long "Big Dig' tunnel), and Rhode Island. Connecticut is also a square (rectangle for 3 digit routes) but we were in Connecticut after the camera broke.

Creative State Route Signs
On top is New York state with a fun shape that I really don't know how to describe. It's abstract like Wisconsin. Also, notice how wide the numbers are on the New York sign. On bottom is New Hampshire. Clearly, this is the best of the bunch with the silhouette of the "Old Man of the Mountain" that I discussed in a previous post. Perhaps now NH should change their sign to a pile of rocks to show what the Old Man looks like now.


Vermont gets its own category because they couldn't seem to decide what their sign should be. Some signs had an oval, some signs had a circle, and a few had the unique white and green sign that said Vermont on it.

We finish the road sign mania with the Canadian province of Quebec. The first sign contains both the blue autoroute (like a US interstate) sign and the green provincial (like a state route) road sign. The second sign is a close up of the blue autoroute sign. I photographed the third sign because the sign was blue for no apparent reason. The fourth sign is a classic. And the fifth sign shows how fast you can drive in Quebec.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Day 8 - Connecticut to Atlantic City

This is the last day of the vacation and we have closed it out in style. After our Griswold moment yesterday with Dinosaur State Park closing as we arrived, we decided to try again getting there minutes before the park was to open. We were the first ones in the parking lot just like the Griswolds at Walley World. I had to quote from National Lampoon’s Vacation “First ones here. First ones here. First ones here!” There was no dinosaur today to tell us that the park was closed. The park was open and it was more like a museum with various nature trails. We could now understand why it closed before sundown. All of the dinosaur tracks were inside an exhibit center. Construction crews found the tracks while they were preparing to build an office building in 1968. Once the tracks were found, construction stopped and the Connecticut government quickly got the wheels in motion to turn this into a state park. An exhibit center was built over top of the tracks to preserve them so we could enjoy them today. The kids had a blast there. B loved watching this 2 minute movie showing the dinosaur timeline in Connecticut. She didn’t care about the timeline. She was fascinated by this one cartoon dinosaur that walked during the movie. She watched it repeatedly. Z’s favorite part was looking at the tracks and pressing 3 buttons that would light up the tracks made by 3 different dinosaurs. It was well worth making the second trip there to see how happy the kids were. They really enjoyed playing with their toy dinosaurs on the trip down to Atlantic City. It was a 5 hour trip (4 of which seemed to take place driving through New York City). Traffic was so bad on I-95 that we bailed onto I-278 where we could see all 5 NYC boroughs and cross the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

We arrived at our hotel in Atlantic City, the Tropicana, around 4 PM. It’s a fun hotel with shopping, dining, and a casino all inside. We went to The Palm (also in our hotel) for dinner to celebrate our last night of vacation. It’s always a little bit scary taking the kids to a fancy restaurant because we never know when they will erupt. But the kids handled it well. They did much better than the table behind us where a lady felt it necessary to speak loudly while taking 2 different phone calls.

After dinner, we put the kids to bed and H went down to the casino with H’s mom. They came back an hour later and H smiled as she counted out her winnings to me. I was very impressed. She won $63.55 which was much better than my $8 haul in Montreal. I said that there was no need for me to go down now but H said that we should go down while H’s mom watched the kids. We went down and H pointed out the Wheel of Fortune game where she won. We put another $30 into the game and won nothing. We then walked around the casino just to see all of the games available. I saw one other Wheel of Fortune game and decided to try my luck one more time. I set a $10 limit and lost it all. It was disappointing to blow most of H’s winnings but she took it well. All in all, we won about $3.

And now onto the final installment of what did we learn today.

1. The average age of people staying and playing at the Tropicana is about 67 years old.

2. Apparently I look some someone who frequents the Tropicana. I’ve had 2 different people at 2 different times ask me where the bus to pick up the old people tour groups are.

3. The Starbucks inside the Tropicana sold venti frappucinos for $6.05. That is an outrage.

4. Sounds travels through the walls of the hotel rooms in the Tropicana like at the apartment complex where Peter lived in the movie "Office Space." These ladies were so loud in the rooms all around us. I heard their voices at 2 AM. Of course, turnabout is fair play as our kids were quite loud and active early the next morning.

Day 7 - Rhode Island to Connecticut

This was a day that started off with so much promise. We took a trolley tour of Newport, RI in the morning which included a stop at the Vanderbilt family mansion, The Breakers. Newport is a beautiful town right on the water. There are huge mansions all along the coastline and thanks to our bus tour guide, we now know every last detail about every house. He was thorough and he knew his facts, I will give him that. He was also incredibly boring and he kept stopping the trolley so we wouldn’t slow down cars and trucks and bicycles and possibly even cats and dogs. Also on the trolley, H was taking great pictures until all of the sudden our digital camera gave us the dreaded error “lens error, restart camera.” The last time this happened, H plugged the camera’s USB cable into the computer and the lens magically shut. Because the computer was in the car, we had to wait until we left Newport to fix the camera. More on that later.

As mentioned above, the trolley tour included a stop at the Vanderbilt family mansion, The Breakers. Outside the mansion standing in line waiting to get in, Z had the best comment. There was a sign outside the mansion that said “Please wait here for next tour.” Z said that we needed one of those signs for outside of our house. We all agreed that would add a nice touch to our home. Once we were inside the mansion, it was truly remarkable. In fact in one room, our guide told us that the entire room was built in France and then shipped to America. That seems a bit extreme. Also there was both a morning room and a breakfast room. Apparently the Vanderbilts didn’t think mornings and breakfast went together. At the end of the tour, our guide told H and J that Z and B were “the best behaved kids ever on the tour.” That made us very proud. It was also stunning considering the kids were acting crazy in the hotel before we left in the morning. We also learned that Anderson Cooper is Gloria Vanderbilt's son... who knew?

After the tour and lunch, we departed for Connecticut. H tried the computer trick to fix the camera and guess what, it didn’t work this time. That was very disappointing, very aggravating, and in J’s case, infuriating. We tried different things to try and get the lens unstuck but nothing was working. Digital cameras stink.

Once in Connecticut, H and J thought that we should fit in Dinosaur State Park south of Hartford before we checked into the hotel which was a little bit east of Hartford. It was only 3:30 PM when we made that decision and we figured that we could get there by 4 for sure. Plus parks stay open in summer usually until sundown. We had plenty of time. Well, the route to get there included some one-lane roads and naturally we got stuck behind a slow truck. It took a little bit longer than we would have liked but we got to Dinosaur state park at 4:20 PM. What is so special about this park is that there are actual dinosaur track fossils for everyone to see. The kids were so excited. One small problem though. The park closed at 4:30 PM. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! First the camera and now this. The day was slowly turning into a disaster.

After an ice cream dinner (our new once-a-vacation tradition) at Friendly’s for H, Z, and B (J and H’s mom chose regular food) and putting the kids to bed, H and J went to a local Best Buy to try and get some answers on why our camera is a piece of junk. Nothing quite like going to the Manchester, CT Best Buy on vacation. That should be on everyone’s itinerary. The Geek Squad there said that they sent out all of their cameras to be fixed. That wasn’t going to work so H bought the last remaining disposable camera to finish off our vacation pictures.

And a final touch to the day was that H and J got stuck in a traffic jam because Connecticut highway workers closed both lanes of the I-384 ramp that we were using to get back to the hotel.

Now onto the nightly feature of what did we learn today.

1. According to our Newport trolley tour guide, one of the socialites that lived in one of the many mansions threw a dinner party for 16 guests, 8 male and 8 female and they were all dogs.

2. The Panera Bread in Newport where we ate lunch was the most popular spot in town. As we were eating, the line was about 20 deep and going out the door.

3. We believe that the Mapquest directions showing how to get from Newport to Hartford had us going in circles. We were on 3 different roads (RI 102, I-95, and RI 138) driving in 3 different directions (north, south, and west respectively). On each road, we were welcomed into the town of Exeter.

4. Cuffy’s of Newport has a great selection of quality Newport T-shirts, hats, and polos but the staff is lacking. For example, there were 2 registers at the front of the store. The one register had a customer so I took my T-shirt to the other register. The clown at the register told me “She’ll take you right over there.” Superior customer service, no doubt.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Day 6 - Maine to Rhode Island

The weather continues to be a bit fresh outside (that was the quote from the British Airways pilot when H and J arrived in London in 2001). It was in the high 50's in Maine and off-and-on rain showers. Fortunately, the showers were off when we started our day with a walk along Wells Beach in Maine. All of us decided to test the water with our feet and it was really cold. H, B, & H's mom walked down the beach looking for seashells. J and Z stayed in one spot for because Z kept throwing the rocks he found on the sand back into the ocean. B found a few seashells but she put them down at some point on the walk back to the car so we ended up only taking back 2 seashells.

After the beach, we went to Kennebunkport which was a very cute, little town. Kennebunkport is not to be confused with Kennebunk, which was a very lame little town.

Then we started the drive down to Rhode Island. The beauty of New England is that you can travel 3 hours and pass through 4 states. The trip down to Rhode Island took us right through the Big Dig in Boston where Interstate 93 is underground with exits underground for about 5 miles. It was fascinating. I took pictures but oh yes, we are still having camera issues.

We arrived in the Middletown/Newport, RI area around 6 PM and just chilled for the rest of the night. This was the day that I, for one, really hit the wall.

Now onto the nightly feature of what did we learn today.

1. Don't be afraid of restaurants with weird names. We ate lunch at the Wells House of Pizza and Roast Beef (pizza and roast beef go together like all Canadian food and gravy) and it was some of the best pizza we had ever eaten.

2. Dunkin Donuts coffee is much, much stronger than Starbucks Coffee. The coffee kind of overpowered the caramel flavor in H's drink and the coconut flavor in my drink.

3. The Wendy's clerk in Middletown, Rhode Island where we are staying did not know the difference between a lobster and a crab. Z showed her his Maine lobster (remember the saga with that yesterday) and she said, "What a cute crab." Z quickly corrected her.

4. The beaches in Maine were much smaller than say Virginia Beach or the Outer Banks. There was very little sand and in some spots, just rocks.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Day 5 - New Hampshire to Maine

Today's weather was quite different from yesterday's. Yesterday it was 85 degrees F in Littleton and in our travels today in New Hampshire and Maine, the temperature never got out of the fifties. It was gray all day with occasional light rain but the weather didn't wipe out our day.

We started the day driving about 30 minutes to Lancaster, NH to visit H's uncle. He gave the grand tour of his town which was very enjoyable. Then we started the journey towards our next destination, the beaches of Southern Maine. On the way down, we stopped at the site of the Old Man of the Mountain collapse. There used to be a rock formation that looked like the profile of an old man. Unfortunately, it collapsed and now it's just another hillside.

We stopped to eat dinner at a seafood restaurant in Kittery, Maine where the day took a great turn for one child and became a bitter disappointment for the other child. Dinner was uneventful. It was as we were leaving that the excitement began. Z spotted a claw machine, you know, the one with all of the prizes that no one ever gets. The restaurant hostess asked Z and B if they wanted to try the claw. They were giddy and said that they wanted to play. She gave each of them tokens to use for the claw. I tried to win a prize for Z first. No surprise, I was unsuccessful. Then I tried for B. H was desperately hoping I would fail for her as well to ensure family harmony. My competitve juices kicked in and low and behold, I caught a stingray. That was the first time that I ever won on the claw. B was thrilled. Z was despondent. To quote Charles Dickens, "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." And on Father's Day as well. I tried 3 more times to win Z something and I failed all 3 times. I felt so bad for him and B didn't make it any better by taunting him the remaining 20 minutes of the drive to our hotel giving a play-by-play of how I got the stingray for her. There is a happy ending to the story as Z found a stuffed animal Maine lobster at our hotel which he is sleeping with now.

Now onto the nightly feature of what did we learn today.

1. Interstate 93 in New Hampshire becomes a one-lane road through the Franconia Notch state park with a speed limit of 45 MPH. Very unusual.

2. Z has overcome his fear of hand dryers in public bathrooms and now says that he will only use them and not use paper towels anymore.

3. June in Maine is really cold. At least we got to use those jackets and sweatshirts that we didn't use the day before on Mt. Washington.

4. I may be the best mini-golfer that the Wells Beach, Maine Mini Golf course has ever seen. I was "en fuego." Par on this course was 42 and I shot a remarkable 34 (8 under par) with 4 holes-in-one. I asked the guy running the course what the record was and he said that he thought it was like 2 or 3 under par. They should put my picture on the wall there.

Day 4 - New Hampshire

Today was another excellent day. We started it off by taking a cog railway up to the top of Mt. Washington, the highest point in New Hampshire. Mt. Washington is 6288 feet above sea level and it is said to have the worst weather in the world. For instance the average June temperature at the summit is 44.4 degrees F with average wind speed of 28 mph. We came prepared for the cold with jackets and sweatshirts. Instead, we may have experienced the best weather day ever on the top of the mountain. It was clear and warm and the views were spectacular. The website said that the high was 61 degrees but we really thought it was warmer.

We lucked out with the weather and we also lucked out with the type of train that we rode up and down the mountain. We ended up on a biodiesel engine train as opposed to the normal steam and coal engine that belched black smoke all over the place including on the train passengers. Being on a green train certainly beat the alternative of emphysema.

After the train ride, we met H's uncle (H's mom's brother) for an afternoon buying quality maple products in nearby Vermont and then walking around the quaint little town of Littleton. The kids were thrilled with both stops because they got candy. First, maple pops in Vermont and than a candy store in downtown Littleton which had an entire wall filled with jars of candy. There should have been a dentist right next door to the candy store.

We finished the evening by going to the hotel game room where each of us played an arcade game. B chose Pac-Man and quickly lost interest. Z played a racing game where he laughed hysterically as he ran the car into walls, buildings and other cars. I chose Ms. Pac-Man and H chose a pinball game where she had a very impressive score of roughly 30 million. Why is it that pinball game scores are so much higher than regular arcade game scores?

Now onto the nightly feature of what did we learn today.

1. Apparently H's mom looks like a motorcycle enthusiast. There is a bike week in New Hampshire this week so there have been a number of bikers in our hotel. At breakfast today, someone asked H's mom if she was here for bike week.

2. Mt. Washington is the only mountain in eastern North America which has a treeline. That is trees don't grow above a certain height. After that it was mostly rocks.

3. The summit of Mt. Washington is a great conversation spot. Our train guide told us that we could climb to the summit while on the peak observation level. There was a little rock formation that you could climb to reach the highest point of the mountain. It was kind of like a beginner's course in rock climbing. I wanted to say that I climbed to the summit. It was a challenging little climb and I was about there when I had to wait for a group of 4 people to stop chatting about the weather. Eventually, one Einstein said "Oh, I think other people want to get to the top too." Brilliant.

4. Old men wearing train conductor hats look silly. (H's note: I thought they were adorable.)

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Day 3 - Montreal to New Hampshire

Day 3 was an excellent day. We started the day with breakfast at Tim Horton's. Yes, we are gluttons for punishment. The guy behind the counter spoke English and processed our order well. I ordered a breakfast sandwich with bacon and no cheese. He keyed it in that way and naturally the lady who prepared the sandwich gave it to me with cheese on it. Mon dieu!

We decided to visit the Parc Olympique to close out the Montreal portion of our trip. Two of the attractions there are the Biodome de Montreal and the Olympic Tower. The Biodome was an indoor nature museum featuring habitats from different parts of the Americas. There was the tropical rain forest, the Laurentian (Quebec mountain range) forest, the St. Lawrence marine ecosystem, and the piece de resistance, the polar world. Z and B loved the polar world because it had a ton of penguins in it. The highlight for me was when we gave our tickets to the attendant to enter the Biodome. As she was reviewing our tickets, she proceeded to explain to me in rapid French, the rules of the Biodome. At the end of her statement, she looked at me waiting for a response. I had success earlier in the trip ordering Metro tickets (deux billets, s'il vous plait) but there was no way in the world that I could figure out what she was saying. I meekly said "Parlez vous anglais?" which is "Do you speak English?" and she told me that there was no flash photography inside. So many French words to say that there was no flash photography.

After the Biodome, we went across the parc to the Olympic tower which is a funiculaire (cable car) that ran up the side of Olympic Stadium to an observation deck that gave us breathtaking views of the city. I love looking at cities from high above. It was truly fascinating that Montreal could have such a neat exhibit on top of such a dump of a stadium. Perhaps, Richmond should try to put a cable car ride up the Diamond so people could see breathtaking views of our fine city.

Then, we drove across eastern Quebec down through Vermont to our next stop, Littleton in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was a beautiful 3 hour drive. I am happy to report that our room in the Hampton Inn here in Littleton has a nice TV. It feels like HD compared to the Montreal hotel piece of garbage.

Now onto to the what did we learn today portion of the blog.

1. Arctic penguins and Antarctic penguins are totally different. The Antarctic penguins were much bigger.

2. Best response to my "Parlez vous anglais?" was the girl at Dunkin Donuts who replied "Oui" which is yes in French. She also said "see you soon" after she gave us our donuts. A nice comment for sure, but it probably will never happen.

3. If you are in Quebec and you order fries "avec poutine" like I did at a Burger King east of Montreal as we were driving to New Hampshire, not only does it come with gravy but also with mozzarella cheese.

4. We drove past a point in Northern Vermont that said that it was the midpoint between the North Pole and the equator. That was fascinating.

5. Oddest purchase of the trip thus far - H went to a scrapbooking store in Montreal and the first thing she saw was scrapbooking paper of a city map. Which city you ask? Richmond, Virginia, of course.

One final note. I know that everyone is on pins and needles waiting for my road sign mania. Believe me, this year's crop of signs thus far is tremendous and I will be ecstatic to share them with everyone if we can ever figure out how to get these pictures off of the camera and onto the computer. Please be patient. It will be worth the wait.

Day 2 - Montreal

We haven't figured out the technical difficulties yet with the pictures so think of this post as listening to the radio. Sometimes listening to the radio is better than watching TV.

Speaking of TV's, our Montreal hotel room had 2 TV's and they both were terrible. The picture was incredibly fuzzy on the one TV and that was the good TV. The other TV was fuzzy as well but had the added bonus of turning itself off while we were trying to watch it. Sacre bleu!

Because that diatribe is out of the way, on with the highlights of the day. We went on a 3 hour bus tour of Montreal in the morning. There is no better way to see Montreal than letting someone else do the driving. I believe Montreal is French for "land of double parking on the streets." The kids handled the tour very well for about 2 1/2 hours. Then they battled it out to see who could scream the loudest. I think it was a tie.

Later, H and H's mom went to the Casino de Montreal to lose more money.

That evening, we went to Tim Horton's for cappucino glace (French for iced cappucino) and after that to Underground Montreal for shopping and dinner. H and J love Tim Horton's from our Niagara Falls experience. The Tim Horton's Montreal experience was a tad bit different. I have tried the little bit of French I know and the results were mixed. Buying Metro tickets was successful. Ordering cappucino glace, not so much. H tried to order and the girl behind the counter gave us a strange look and pointed to another employee to help us. The other employee was nice and eventually we had to order in English. We ordered 2 iced cappucinos totalling 7.65$. I gave the girl 10$ and she gave me 7.65$ in change. Being the honest guy that I am, I gave her back all the money except the change I was owed (2.35$). She thanked me and then forgot to make me my drink.

The Underground Montreal experience was much better. The shopping went well and the dining was c'est magnifique. H and J sampled some of the finest Quebecois fare. H had a crepe and J had a hot chicken sandwich and fries with gravy. I have not had a hot chicken sandwich since our honeymoon in Quebec. Then, I had no idea that a hot chicken sandwich was pulled chicken pieces on bread covered in gravy and peas. I was skeptical then but I enjoyed it and I was ecstatic to eat it again. In other news, Z had Subway and B and H's mom had Quizno's. How cosmopolitan.

Now onto the nightly feature of "what did we learn today."

1. Some folks are still bitter that the Expos left Montreal for DC. I overheard an employee at Champs Sports in the Underground Montreal express great disappointment that the Expos left.

2. The Global Network in Canada is nothing but a hodgepodge of the best in American TV. Thursday night we watched Last Comic Standing (NBC) and saw commercials for Wipeout (ABC) and House (FOX).

3. Montreal is an island. Who knew? The tour bus driver kept referring to Montreal as an island. After consulting a map, I agree.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Day 2 & 3 - Montreal and NH

I would like to apologize as we are having technical difficulties with the picture portion of the blog. H spent over an hour tonight troubleshooting trying to get the pictures downloaded but to no avail. We may need a new computer or we are hoping that maybe there are connection issues with this hotel.

Regardless, we are having a great time. Montreal was lots of fun and driving through the Quebec countryside into the Green Mountains of Vermont and the White Mountains of New Hampshire was beautiful. It's very late now and we are tired so good night.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Day 1 - Richmond to Montreal

(this year's posts written by J)

We are back to blog about another exciting vacation. This year's trip takes us to Montreal and all of the New England states. Z & B will add a number of new states and a new Canadian province this time. Also, we are delighted to have H's mom join us for the travels this year. Now that the introduction is out of the way, let's take a look at day 1, shall we?

The title of the post is correct. We drove from Richmond to Montreal in one day. Pretty impressive, eh? 700 plus miles (2300 kilometres is the rough conversion) of driving excitement for J & H. We left at 3:30 AM and arrived in Montreal at 5 PM. A long day for sure, but everyone handled it well. B snapped as we were on the outskirts of Montreal but hey, we would have expected it on the outskirts of say Fredericksburg.

After checking in, we walked down to Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal) to eat dinner and sightsee. It was beautiful down there. Then we put the kids to bed and H's mom stayed in the room with them while J and H went to the Casino de Montreal. J won 8$ (the Quebecois put the dollar sign after the number so when in Montreal, do as the Montrealers do) so it was a big night.

This year, J would like to recap each night with a feature called "What did we learn today" so here is Day 1's report.

1. Delaware is still a lame state. That state is eternally under construction. It was the only state where we encountered any significant traffic congestion.

2. The closest Metro (that's what Montreal calls the subway) stop to our hotel involves walking through the Red Light district. Good thing we didn't have the kids with us at that point. Imagine the horror, "Daddy, what does that word mean?"

3. The Metro system changed it's name from STCUM (pronounce it with a silent T for fun) to STM.

4. Overnight paving seems like a good idea as long as it is not on the street right below your hotel room window. Nothing like construction trucks backing up all night beeping.