5 Destinations Where Black Lives Matter

With a super-charged topic like race relations coloring the perception of many American cities, I suggest exploring five destinations where black lives not only matter, they fuel fascinating cultural institutions too few travelers know about. Here are some highlights of African American culture in Boston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Memphis and Washington DC to enrich your next vacation.

 

Thanks to a long and illustrious history, Boston’s appreciation of African American culture goes way back to pre-Revolutionary times. Start your tour on Beacon Hill at the Museum of African American History and the African Meeting House (1806), America’s oldest black church. Explore the 1.6-mile-long Black Heritage Trail, which includes more than 20 pre-Civil War homes, churches, businesses and schools (don’t miss the exhibits at the restored Abiel Smith School) owned by free blacks and abolitionists in this very posh neighborhood – before the 1% moved in.

Use the Museum’s “Black Heritage Trivia Kit” or join one of the fascinating, free 90-minute tours led by National Park Rangers. The Boston Massacre site outside the State House is where, on March 5, 1770, the free black, Crispus Attucks — credited by some as sparking the American Revolution — was the first to die in opposition to British injustice. Re-enactments of the Massacre that killed five colonists take place outside the State House on the Freedom Trail during March. Plan a weekend at the beach to tour the African American History Museum campus on Nantucket, comprised of a nine-stop Black Heritage Trail that features a ca. 1774 home owned by the freed slave, Seneca Boston.

 

From by-the-hour electric car rentals to extensive bike paths, Indianapolis is a socially conscious city. Even the Childrens Museum, founded in 1925, empowers all ages to question and act upon social injustice. “The Power of Children,” a permanent exhibit showcasing three kids who fought the challenges of the Holocaust, racism, and living with HIV/Aids is a thoughtful space for adults to engage children on these complex issues.

The busy Madame Walker Theatre Center is at the site of the cosmetics and hair-care empire founded by Madame CJ Walker, daughter of Louisiana slaves who relocated in 1910 to Indianapolis. Take a tour of the facility to see the stage where megastars like Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Gladys Knight performed, and learn more about one of the country’s first female entrepreneurs and an active philanthropist for African-American causes.

The most immersive program is “Follow the North Star,” in which participants play runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. It’s held only in April and November at the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, a hands-on living history museum about 10 miles north of Indy. Costumed re-enactors teach you how to evade greedy slave hunters and find sympathetic locals in what is, by all accounts, an intensely affecting living history experience. 

 

The lives and legacy of African Americans stored at the Black Archives of Mid-America are woven into the rich cultural fabric of Kansas City, one of the nation’s largest railway hubs and a Midwest melting pot. Ease into city life with a slab of barbecue ribs and burnt ends at Arthur Bryant’s, a formica and fluorescent style place feeding the hungry, presidents, and celebrities since 1940 as the scion of the “low and slow” method of grilling.

Around the corner at 18th and Vine is the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, where guides bring the story of segregation (Negro teams played for white audiences) to life. Kids love the replica baseball field inside with life-size statues of the greatest players. The adjacent American Jazz Museum is packed with memorabilia and listening booths so visitors can hear Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Charlie Parker, among others, before stepping into the Blue Room, a family-friendly jazz club attached to the museum.

Don’t miss the World War I Museum, the nation’s most complete collection of that era, with some mementoes from the 371st Infantry Regiment, part of the Colored Infantry that served in the war. Don’t believe that KC is committed to multi-culturalism? Check out the Heartland Tourism Ambassador Program funded by visitor taxes to provide career development opportunities to locals who champion the city.

 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis. The site of his death, the Lorraine Motel, now houses the comprehensive National Civil Rights Museum, whose collection includes a segregated bus, a lunch counter and other painful symbols of the Civil Rights movement. This must-see museum was upgraded in 2014 to include dozens of new films and interactive displays, making it even more engaging for young visitors.

Start a Memphis musical tour at the W.C. Handy Memphis Museum, home of the celebrated African American composer known as “father of The Blues.” Head past the clubs on Beale Street to see a century of music history at the Rock ‘N’ Soul Museum, and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, named for the Stax studio where the masters of soul recorded their hits. Every beat brings you a little closer to rock ‘n’ roll, the sound popularized by the famous shaking hips of Elvis Presley, whose home at Graceland is one of the city’s top attractions.

 

Last in the alphabet only, is Washington DC, the first major city run by an African American mayor (Walter Washington in 1967) and one run today by arguably the most powerful African-American man in the country, President Obama. Sites that celebrate the contributions of African Americans to this country abound. The $120 million Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial with a 30-foot-tall statue of the Civil Rights leader is the first D.C. memorial dedicated to a person of color. Cultural Tourism DC’s “Civil War to Civil Rights” walking map begins at the luxurious Willard-Intercontinental Hotel, where Lincoln stayed prior to his inauguration, and Dr. King wrote his “I Have a Dream” speech – only one of many stops.

Spend an afternoon at the African American Civil War Museum to learn about how the war shaped the lives of free blacks who served in the Union Army. Pause for a hot dog at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a favorite of the president’s and site of many civil rights protests, then stop by the museum home of the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass. View the original Emancipation Proclamation at the National Archives.

Catch a show at the Howard Theatre, built in 1910 along DC’s “Black Broadway” to showcase vaudeville stars, musicians and the Howard University Players.  Newly renovated, the theatre reopened in 2012 after 32 years of neglect, attracting The Roots, Taj Mahal, Mos Def, Chuck Berry, Esperanza Spalding and others to its famous stage.

Spend a day in the countryside at Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s home, to explore the lives of his 316 slaves and their role at his estate. When the first President died in 1799, his will proclaimed that all his slaves should be freed after his wife Martha’s death.

It was a first for the Founding Fathers, and one of the first signs that black lives mattered to the new nation.

Warm Up, Chill Out In Agra

For most families, a first trip to India usually includes the Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and an architectural marvel in Agra that divides the world into two kinds of people said President Bill Clinton, “Those who have seen the Taj Mahal and those who have not.”

The Taj Mahal, built over a period of 22 years by 20, 000 workers, was commissioned in 1632 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child. A glimmering white marble mausoleum reaching 240 feet into the hazy clouds, intricately carved and inlaid with semi-precious gems and stones like carnelian, jade, onyx and lapis lazuli, it is a remarkable monument to love.

There’s more to Agra than just the Taj. If you base yourselves at one of the many fine hotels in this bustling small city, you can spend a few days seeing this corner of Uttar Pradesh (U.P. to the locals), getting to know the life of north India, and slipping slowly into the meditative pace you will need for the rest of your adventurous journey.

 

Lesser-known than the Taj Mahal – and a must-see cultural attraction in its own right – the daily Agra Vegetable Market is an interactive thrill.

The city of 4.5 million is a distribution hub for produce grown throughout the country for domestic consumption. The main market, open 6am to 9am daily, is along VIP Road (the locals’ name for Fatehabad Road, because it’s lined with the five-star hotels that VIPs occupy.)

In Agra itself, the primary winter crops are mustard for cooking oil and potatoes. There’s also the very popular guava, served raw in India and sprinkled with masala to bring out the flavor.  Fields of tomato, chilis, onions and green peppers can also be seen. During monsoon (June through August) when the rain comes — which it hasn’t the past few years due to climate change — the crop rotates to rice.

Nidhi Kapur of Global Sojourns, a luxury travel specialist based in New Delhi, had insisted on booking a guide for our family  -– an excellent suggestion. When Sanjay arrived with his piercing green eyes and dapper tweed jacket, we needed convincing that he was a tourist guide and not a local celebrity. We began Sanjay’s walking tour at 8:30 a.m.

 

The Agra Market takes place in a scrub desert lot next to a highway where brightly painted trucks with “Please Horn” written on their tailgates rumble and roll by. Produce is arranged by type: mounds of onions in a row of 20 vendors sitting cross-legged on the ground; then 20 dried beans and lentil stalls with burlap bags out front; and another 20 vendors whose blue tarps are spread, exhibition-style, with potatoes.

Each vendor is seated on a tarp or under one, on a plot they own and would one day leave to their children and children’s children. Transient middlemen would crouch down between them over piles of blood red carrots, glittering bunches of coriander, and gnarled ginger root.

As we walk, the dudewalla are loading metal tins of fresh milk, both cow and buffalo, onto bikes to deliver it to shops and restaurants. Young boys are playing at the edges of the sellers’ tarps. Old men are shooing cows away so that restaurant buyers can decide what farm-to-table item will be on tonight’s menu.

 

VIP Road is busy and chai and and snack vendors are there to take advantage. Pausing to watch them, we ogle handfuls of wheat dough being patted flat, then slid into a wok of boiling oil. One at a time, the puri turn gold, fill with air, develop blisters and are flipped over to inflate some more.

Just when we’re about to shriek “Stop, enough!,” they until they are shuttled onto pages of the Hindustan Times. Happy customers are served a puri to sop up a woven-leaf bowlful of chole bhature, a chana masala or spicy chick pea breakfast curry.

 

Plan at least two to three days in Agra, to see the Taj Mahal in the morning before the many tour buses arrive and again at dusk, from the peaceful Mehtab Bagh gardens across the Jamuna River. Take your time. Indians love to do clicks, selfies, and selfwes of their large travel parties. With selfie sticks telescoped out to great lengths, we saw school groups pose in Bollywood dance routines, multigenerational groups positioned to “hold” the Taj Mahal in hand, and many other permutations that gave visitors the best viewing angles… and kept us waiting, totally amused, for them to pass.

The Red Fort of Agra, built near the Taj Mahal by Akbar, Emperor Shah Jahan’s grandfather, and the last place of residence for the bereaved emperor after losing Mumtal, is another monumental tribute to Mughal style.

We were enchanted by the “Baby Taj” as Sanjay called it. The Itimad Ud Daulah is a beautifully ornate, very approachable, marble shrine to the man who had been chief minister to Jahangir, son of Akbar, and whose daughter married the Mughal ruler. When her father died (a generation before Shah Jahan’s reign), she commissioned the first all-marble structure in India and its mix of Islamic and Indian styles became very influential.

In other parts of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, families will see many Mughal monuments crafted from the region’s famous red sandstone but the mark of Emperor Shah Jahan was his affection for white marble, brought from 400 kms away to be used in every shrine he commissioned.

 

When in India, seeing the old towns and market sections is a must in cities where cell towers and traffic crowd out the rickshaws and cows. The Rawatpara Spice Market is a fascinating part of Old Agra, a cacophonous jumble of exposed electrical lines, ramshackle shops, Hindu temples, mosques and bicycle rickshaws competing with mopeds and cows for respect.

Sanjay led us around to Mankameshwar Mandir, one of four original temples dedicated to Lord Shiva located in the four corners of Agra City, thought to be an ancient center of Shiva worship. (The Taj Mahal is said by some to be a Shiva temple.) As the city grew around it, the temple today is roofed and walled in by a nondescript sheet metal and concrete structure that deprives passersby of any view.

It was a travel moment that only a knowledgeable insider could provide: Sanjay explained we must remove all leather before entering. He told us to buy a ghee candle as an offering so we could request three wishes -– which would be granted — so of course we did. We spent 15 minutes with the temple’s Sadhu as he chanted, put red dots on each forehead, tied marigold colored threads around our wrists, and blessed us.

 

Agra has a wide range of hotels. At the top stands the super luxurious Oberoi Amervilas, ranked #3 on Travel + Leisure World Best Awards in Asia. All rooms overlook the Taj Mahal, it has a celebrated spa, gourmet restaurants, cascading multi-level pools and baking classes for kids. Rooms range upwards of US$600 per night depending on season.

On the other end of the scale are more simple, convenient hotels like Clarks Shiraz, a popular contemporary hotel with high TripAdvisor ratings from US$70 per night. 

With so much sold out over the Christmas holiday week, we were booked into the ITC Mughal, Agra. This Sheraton was built more than 30 years ago in the Mughal style, with several inner courtyards and pools, gurgling fountains, green lawns and red brick room blocks set around the 35 acres of manicured grounds.  

A rollaway bed was tucked into one of the 233 rooms for us, rooms appointed with banks of pillows, Indian artwork, marble counter tops and garden views. The Kayla Kalp Spa, very well known in India, had won awards from Conde Nast Traveler and others. We wanted to try its wide range of Ayurveda massage and treatments so the whole family was pampered: my husband tolerated a two-handed Abhyanga Massage designed to awaken inner wisdom; I loved the Hot Herbal Poultice rejuvenating massage soothed by fragrant, warm oils; and our son relished his facial and restorative oil massage.

Our breakfast buffet included both north and south Indian dishes, a Chinese rice porridge station, baked beans and toast, and other international cuisines; comfortable rooms start at US$125 per night.

Agra is easily reached by the Express Train from New Delhi, which arrives in less than three hours. Make sure to allow enough time there to wallow in the magic.

 

 

Year-Round Fun in Panama City

Known for its sugary white sandy beaches and turquoise waters, Panama City has rapidly grown from a quiet beachside military town to spring break partyland and finally a family-friendly destination.  You probably already knew Panama City could keep the kids entertained with activities from go-karting to boogie boarding. But there are also has plenty of indoor options for rain days like Ripley’s Believe Or Not, as well as holiday festivities. Panama City has also been working hard to turn Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years into family-friendly days with live entertainment, kid-friendly events, games and, during New Year’s; a beach ball drop.

In addition to all of the organized fun, there’s still the gorgeous, white sandy beaches. Despite the trending attractions like Gulf World Marine Park and Pier Park, this theme park style city is considered one of “America’s Most Beautiful Beaches” by Conde Nast Traveler. Why such accolades for the beach? It’s beautiful. According to the CVB website, “Panama City Beach’s legendary pure white sand resulted from quartz crystals washing down from the Appalachian Mountains centuries ago. Along their journey, the crystals were bleached, ground, smoothed and polished until the surf of the Gulf of Mexico deposited these millions of grains of sand on the shoreline.”

Planning your trip to Panama City around the weather is a wise move, but shouldn’t keep you from visiting even during cold months. Each season has its pros and cons with plenty of alternatives for fun beyond the beach. Here’s what’s going on that you won’t want to miss.

The heat soars from June until September in Panama City with temperatures hitting 90 degrees. The low is usually around 75 degrees; all beachfront properties are equipped with central air conditioning and most have their own pools.The beaches blister with heat and get crowded during summer, but summer also offers the best opportunity for watersports like paragliding.

In the winter, temperatures start dropping to the 70s in November, with December through February seeing highs of 65 and lows of 44. We found this to hold true during our trip over New Year’s Eve, with temperatures ranging in the low 60s and mid 50s. The Gulf of Mexico was chilly, but still warm enough for quick dips when it wasn’t windy and raining. If your kids are determined to dive in or go boogie boarding during Fall and winter, bring a wetsuit during colder months to combat outdoor chill. The mid 60-degree weather didn’t slow our daughter down, but the rain and wind kept us indoors having fun on chilly days.

Spring brings some of the most temperate weather, but also sees an influx of spring breakers ready to have some fun. Personally, I would skip going to Panama City in the spring with your family to avoid the “lively” college kids who drive in from local colleges and as far as Nashville and Atlanta. I much prefer the quieter months when families can spread out and enjoy a quieter vacation full of beachside fun.

During summer months, set up the family alongside 27 miles of famous, pristine shoreline and let the vacation begin. My 7-month-old was more interested in eating fistfuls of beach than really playing in it, but dipping his toes into the water kept him fascinated while we tried to release the sandy bounty from his hand. Toddlers, babies and grown-ups alike need plenty of sunblock and shading gear like umbrellas and hats. Fortunately there’s a beach supply store every few blocks along the strip, including the Alvin’s Island chain. Just look for the giant shark mouth doubling as a front door to make your way into a megaplex of beach fun.

For an educational outdoor adventure, the hiking and biking trail at Camp Helen State Park brings families together with beautiful views of the Powell Lake and the “Old Florida” terrain. The path spans 2,000 feet and is constructed from environmentally sensitive materials, giving way to benches and covered shelter for breaks. Because the park is surrounded on three sides by water, it encompasses five different habitats, and many trails are marked by educational signs to provide guidance along the way.

It’s still possible to get outdoors and have some fun even on a blustery, rainy day. At Gulf World Marine Park, professional divers flip and twirl in mid-air, finishing with an 80-foot high-dive while a magician amazes audiences with his interactive magic show. The park’s Trainer for a Day program lets guests study dolphin behavior before stepping on stage to perform during the Dolphin Show.

Kids 7-years-old and up can continue to interact with animals at ZooWorld as a part of the Keeper for a Day program. Home to more than 250 animals and set in a seven-acre lush tropical landscape, ZooWorld promotes wildlife preservation through hands-on activities and personalized animal encounters. Children will enjoy the “Going Wild!” show where they can discover unique animal facts and pose for pictures with rare mammals, reptiles and exotic birds. Your kids may be too young to become trainers, but they will definitely love bottle feeding a tiger.

When your kids hit beach fatigue, take active children to Shipwreck Island Waterpark for a wonderland to splash, run and have fun in.  Little kids have their own spot at Tadpole Hole full of slides, tubes and swings. Older visitors prefer the White Knuckle River, a 660-foot family tube ride, the Great Ship Wreck and the Zoom Flume. Save time waiting in line by purchasing advance tickets with the waterpark’s online ticketing service.

My daughter was impressed by the spread at Coconut Creek Family Fun Park, home of two unique miniature golf courses with oversized animals. A life-sized elephant sprays mist and a giraffe looms over families of golfers. There’s also a human Gran Maze spanning the length of a football field and modeled after South Pacific islands. Kids will journey through Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa and Bali before completing their journey.

Whether you need a break from sun during summer or chilly afternoons in the winter, visit Ripley’s Moving Theater to watch a 4-D movie and stop by the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium. The theater features motion, special effects and action-packed images where kids can feel like they’re stepping into a movie themselves. Next, let the kids loose in the Marvelous Mirror Maze for a spirited game of laser tag. The Odditorium lives up to its name with over 400 exhibits like authentic shrunken heads, a real vampire killing kit and hands-on activities.

Just across the street lies the interactive WonderWorks. You’ll know you’ve arrived — it’s the only upside down house on the block. This four-story attraction features over 100 exhibits and challenges available to kids of all ages. Designated wonder zones include Natural Disasters, Physical Challenges, Light and Sound, Space Discovery, Imagination Lab and a Far Out Art Gallery. Despite the invitation for all ages, I personally wouldn’t recommend it for kids 5-and under. Our daughter was too small for most of the activities she really wanted to do and it was organized chaos on New Year’s Day.

Families looking to escape all the Thanksgiving meal and shopping drama can head to Panama City and eat at one of the many restaurants ranging from fine dining to hole in the wall fun. There are more options to choose from than you’ll have time for, but no one should leave without a visit to one of the city’s seafood restaurants. Sharky’s Beach Front Restaurant and Tiki Bar blends just the right amount of fun, foodie inspired dishes and aesthetic value. Weather permitting, ask for a table outside for a view of the water. After trying a variety of dishes from local seafood to steaks, let the kids loose on the Pirate Ship Playground.

Sharky’s also offers a traditional “Turkey at the Tiki” package with a buffet featuring traditional favorites like green bean casserole and turkey breasts along with crab legs, fried scallops and grilled mahi. The best part may be kids 4 and under eat free; perfect for picky eaters who will just push food around their plate until they can go play.

There’s more to do in Panama City during Thanksgiving than just eat. The beachside town started organizing family-friendly Christmas concerts, a tree lighting, and fireworks kicking off the Friday after Thanksgiving. If you’re organizing a Christmas family reunion, or just want to cozy up with your own little clan, Panama City delivers on beachfront condos, homes and hotels.

Whether it’s the 4th of July or New Year’s Eve, the open-air Pier Park is the place to find year-round entertainment options, events, shopping and dining. During our visit over New Year’s Eve, we headed to Miracle Strip at Pier Park featuring new and renovated rides from the original Miracle Strip Amusement Park. Much to the dismay of locals and tourists, it closed after 40 years of family fun but its spirit was revived at this new Miracle Strip. Rides include a retro carousel and Ferris Wheel, a modern Balloon Race and Red Baron rides, batting cages and ziplines.

For New Year’s Eve, Pier Park features live music, kid’s games and food before a beach ball drop at 8 p.m. Despite the rain, droves of families turned out and crowded around in anticipation of the big ball drop. My 4-year-old thought this was the most amazing thing she had ever witnessed (especially impressive since it was her 4th New Year’s Eve and she is an old pro by now). Afterwards, the kids were satisfied and ready to head back to their homes, condos and hotels to curl up. For us, it was a rented movie from our condo’s DVD kiosk and homemade popcorn. By the time our little ones were in bed, we had time to unwind before watching the New Year’s Eve fireworks from our beachfront balcony.

What makes the holidays in Panama City especially easy and magical is the wide variety of beachfront rentals. Our family stayed at the Tidewater Beach Condominium and scored a waterside condo. Ours was a spacious one-bedroom, but also had a a little nook with bunk beds and an additional private bathroom. Aside from our refusal to let her 7-month-old brother sleep up top, our daughter was delighted by her own special sleeping spot. There was also an additional pull-out couch which could sleep more family members. We had no trouble finding a spot for our travel crib in the living room, right off the kitchen stocked with pots, pans, cups and more.

The only amenity we would have needed was the beachfront balcony with two sliding doors and a patio set to sip coffee and have breakfast outdoors. Downstairs, the Waves Restaurant served up traditional breakfast right off the griddle for a satisfying start to the morning. An indoor pool and game room kept our daughter busy during the chillier parts of our stay. Despite explaining the odds of winning at those rigged claw machine games, she managed to win not one, not two, but three stuffed animals at the same time. (Apologies to the poor soul who probably spent $100 trying to win before she waltzed in.) There was also a quaint little library area with books, puzzles and a DVD machine to pick a range of movies including family-friendly titles. Our daughter loved picking out her “records” and putting them in the DVD machine upstairs for a movie at New Year’s Eve.

Families can drive down and take advantage of lodging specials, kids-eat-free deals and lots of space to lounge around in at some of the beach’s more than 300 condo communities. Here are few suggestions for fun-in-the-sun accommodations:

Tidewater Beach Resort resides on one of the area’s largest beaches with 570 luxury, gulf-front units overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Two lagoon pools, an indoor heated pool, fitness center with Roman spa, movie and media center and onsite restaurant keep guests relaxed.

Pinnacle Port Vacation Rentals welcomes young travelers with crafts on the pool deck. Spanning 26 acres, Pinnacle Port guests can use canoes or kayaks by day and take advantage of free Wi-Fi and DVD rentals at night.

The Seahaven Beach Resorts rental community offers three different lodging options:  Origin at Seahaven (a condominium), Seahaven Beach and The Reef Hotels. It’s well located near Pier Park, has a daily kids club on site, and shows outdoor movies by the pool. Their summer specials include “Kids Eat and Ride Free,” which allows children 12 and under eat for free with a paid adult at nearby Sharky’s Beachfront Restaurant and Tiki Bar. In addition, children 12 and under enjoy free wave runners and parasailing with each paid adult.

Blowin-N-The Wind Management boasts five different properties with accommodations ranging from multi-bedroom condominiums to three-bedroom cottages and more. Each property is said to include family-friendly amenities, such as boat docking areas, tennis and basketball courts, fitness centers, swimming pools, a putting green and more.

By The Sea Resorts welcomes guests to the Legacy, BeachBreak or Beachcomber Resorts, where there are Gulf-front suites and garden view rooms. Family specials often include pizza parties and free kids meals at the Barefoot Beach Club or nearby Calypso Beach Cafe.

The Sandpiper Beacon presents many family amenities and activities for its guests. Kids will love their indoor lazy river pool and slides, the outdoor and indoor pools and waterslides, six-hole minigolf course and Gulf-front playground. Accommodations range from condos with kitchens to hotel rooms and cottages. There’s tropical Polynesian entertainment throughout the summer; the sound of the drum beat while the conch shell is blowing begins the journey of song and dance with hula dancers and the exciting Samoan Fire Knife Dance. Note that in spring, you may find the college crowd a bit too loud for your family.

For more information, check out the official Web site of the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau for more information and lodging ideas.

 

Skip Las Vegas and Bring the Kids to See Camels in Virginia City

Time travel to Virginia City, a Nevada town that offers families the chance to experience what life was like in a 19th-century mining “boomtown” — and see how fast camels can run. Located just a 45-minute drive from the Reno-Tahoe area, you’ll step back in time as you visit historic buildings and old-fashioned saloons.

Kids of all ages should enjoy taking a mine tour and riding a real steam train.

Virginia City is entertaining anytime of year, but its biggest annual event is the International Camel and Ostrich Races. Tens of thousands of spectators gather to watch novice jockeys race on camels and ostriches. The races span three days, and will take place from Friday, September 9 through Sunday, September 11, 2016.

The festivities begin at noon each day, with spectators allowed to grab a seat as early as 10am. Not only will camels and ostriches be racing, the occasional zebra might decide to join the fun. Saturday begins with a photo-worthy camel parade.

The 57th annual edition will be the second year in a spanking new venue. The Virginia City Arena and Fairgrounds boasts more parking options, better visibility with a circular arena (versus the horseshoe previously used) and improved handicap and stroller access.

Ticket prices are fair. For 2015, general admission was $15 for Friday and Sunday and $18 on Saturday. VIP admission was $40 for Friday and Sunday and $50 on Saturday. Additionally, In Arena tickets were available for $25 for Friday and Sunday and $30 for Saturday. Toddlers and small children who sit on an adult’s lap are free.
 

Stay longer than a weekend. Virginia City has more to see and do than you might expect, as you can tell from our roundup of Virginia City family attractions. FTF writer Allison Tibaldi stayed at the Goldhill Hotel, built in 1861, and enjoyed it and its long history. Gold Hill has tiny rooms in the historic section priced from just $45, ranging up to free-standing cabins sleeping six to eight from $145 and up. You’ll have to book ahead anywhere during the Camel Races weekend.

And if camels are what you’ve come for, tickets for the event can be purchased online at VCCamelRaces.com.

For more information on Virginia City, go to Visit Virginia City NV.

 

 

My Family's Aegean Odyssey, A Cruise To Antiquity

“This is cool,” said our son quietly, as he glanced around, dropping the magazines he’d borrowed from the library of the MV Aegean Odyssey. We were sailing along the coast of Montenegro, eyeing the medieval fortress of Kotor from a chaise lounge by the pool.

It was Day 6 of our two-week family cruise vacation with a company that expertly plans such things: the two-year-old cruise line Voyages to Antiquity. Headquartered in London with Athens and Ft. Lauderdale offices, Voyages to Antiquity sails one 390-passenger ship, the MV Aegean Odyssey, with history and culture-minded guests — mostly grandparents — on board.

 

We all know that cruises are great for family vacations because they minimize the packing, unpacking and general stress of traveling. They can also be wallet-friendly like an all-inclusive resort, with all meals and many onboard activities included in the rates.

Voyages to Antiquity exceeded our expectations with spacious cabins, bathrooms you can turn around in; closets designed to hold two weeks’ worth of casual shipwear; and a friendly crew always at hand to serve, bring, help out or otherwise accommodate passengers of any age. There is plentiful food: non-stop snacks on the Lido deck, a substantial afternoon High Tea, cocktail hours, and elegant dinners accompanied by complimentary wine, beer and soft drinks.

Best yet for value, the shore excursions and lectures are included in the cruise price, as are staff gratuities and bottled water. On some Voyages to Antiquity itineraries, the pre- and post-cruise add-ons include free hotel, and airfare specials are available on some sailing dates.

There are single and double-bedded cabins (two beds together make a king), priced by size, view and deck. Extended families will appreciate that there are dedicated single cabins at only a 25% supplement to the double cabin passenger rate — a real plus when traveling with adult kids or grandparents who need their own single room.

 

Of course, any vacation that prides itself on being a “voyage to antiquity” isn’t going to appeal to every traveler. For a family with teens age 16 and older, or adult children, however, this engaging cruise experience is as much about education as context. Excellent on-board lecturers, expert local guides, cuisine, movies and fascinating shore excursions are among the many opportunities to experience a destination and its place in history.

You might call Voyages to Antiquity a retro cruise vacation — there’s a Bridge Club but no casino or disco; the satellite WiFi doesn’t always work; the cozy library is stocked with maps, historical epics, poetry and novels; and the cabin TV’s are programmed with movies and documentaries themed to each destination. So while not exactly an unplugged getaway, this cruise put technology to more enriching uses than our family usually does at home.

 

Our 12-day itinerary sailed south through the Adriatic and Ionian Seas and into the Aegean from Venice, Italy. We called at four ports in Croatia; Corfu, Crete, Santorini and three other historic ports in Greece, then sailed to Istanbul, Turkey. Every sailing between April and October focuses on different Mediterranean cultures and historical periods, and beginning in 2013, the company will start sailing to Southeast Asia to study the cultures of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

Onboard lectures by noted scholars, a signature Voyages to Antiquity feature, precede each port of call. While our son (on leave from college) shuddered at the thought of enduring another professor’s lecture, he was impressed with the elaborate powerpoints presented by Matthew Nicholls of the University of Reading and Joyce Salisbury of the University of Wisconsin, both of whom accompanied our trip. After one fun talk about Venice by a local scholar, he turned to me — obviously surprised — and said, “You know, this was actually incredibly interesting.”

The lecturers joined guests on the shore excursions and at meals, happy to talk about their studies. Since many of the senior clientele sailing with us sounded like retired professors themselves, the Q&A following presentations on how the Romans built their temples, or what gladiators represented, was often as interesting as the talk itself.

The lectures gave us a baseline for what we’d experience on shore. After disembarking, each color-coded sightseeing group wore earphones tuned to the frequency of their own guide. The wonderful QuietVox radio system, similar to museum audioguides, allowed us to move quietly through small towns, or pause longer in a chapel or a cafe (great for our son), hear the narrative, and never get lost.

This video should give you a sense of what life aboard the Aegean Odyssey and on shore is like.